Last Sunday the NFL saw top teams like the Green Bay Packers and the New England Patriots stumble in their quest for a divisional crown. With losses by the league leaders, second-place squads like the Buffalo Bills and the Minnesota Vikings will look to take a leap in the standings. These wild-card contenders, in addition to an NFC West battle between the 49ers and the Seahawks, are three key things to watch for in the NFL this week.
1. Buffalo Bills continue storybook season
The Buffalo Bills had the double pleasure of winning last Sunday while seeing their division rival lose to the Baltimore Ravens. This week, the Patriots are on a bye, meaning the Bills have yet another chance to gain some ground in the standings. At 6-2 (with the Patriots at 8-1), Buffalo is already in a good spot for a wildcard playoff berth. However, it’s known the team wants a division crown.
Linebacker Lorenzo Alexander says: “I think Buffalo still has that perception nationally … of still being that same team that didn’t make the playoffs for 17 years. If we continue stacking wins, eventually that changes.”
Regardless of whether they can catch the Patriots for the AFC East lead, Bills players think it’s time people take notice of their team. Buffalo safety Micah Hyde told reporters: “If we’re being overlooked … it is what is … we’re going to try and fight and compete and win football games.”
The Bills will face a Browns team that is struggling mightily compared to their preseason expectations. The team that graced the cover of Sports Illustrated NFL preview edition with the title “The Browns are Back” has fallen to 2-6 on the year. Things are looking grim for Cleveland, and any fun to be had is diminished by the mounting losses. For example, Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield played last Sunday with a full handlebar mustache but shaved it off postgame. When asked why, a downtrodden Mayfield admitted: “I was undefeated before Sunday with the handlebar mustache so I shaved it off because I didn’t deserve it.”
Despite their struggles, the Bills still aren’t overlooking the Browns. Hyde, a seven-year vet feels for Cleveland: “The media has been killing them … they’re going to come out a hungry football team.” Hyde then laughed, telling reporters: “I’m going to tell you guys to chill out a little bit … so they don’t come out even hungrier.”
Watch: Buffalo Bills at Cleveland Browns at 1 p.m. ET on CBS.
2. Vikings and Cowboys jockey for position
Unlike the Bills, last week the Minnesota Vikings found themselves unable to make up a game on their division rivals. While the Packers fell to the Chargers, Minnesota lost a heartbreaking game to the Kansas City Chiefs on a last-second field goal. The Vikings have been looking to prove themselves as one of the league’s top teams, but losses like the one to Kansas City (with a quarterback who spent the preseason coaching, not playing, football) have cast doubts on the team. Perhaps part of that can be blamed on playing in Arrowhead Stadium, an intimidating road environment that once broke the record for crowd noise.
However, it’s those sorts of environments where quarterback Kirk Cousins most wants to pull out a win. Said Cousins: “If you’re going to be a playoff team, you have to beat tough teams in tough environments.” This week, the Vikings head to another tough place to play, the Cowboys’ infamous and affectionately named Jerry World. The road game against a division leader will have some extra intensity, said Minnesota tight end Kyle Rudolph: “Not only is it against America’s team, but it’s a team that will be right there come December in the NFC playoff picture.”
The Cowboys are atop the NFC East, but just barely: the second-place Eagles have the same number of wins but one more loss. Dallas will need to continue to keep pace with Philadelphia, otherwise they’ll slip into the wild card battle similar to the one facing the Vikings. For his part, Cowboys wide receiver Randall Cobb is taking it one game at a time: “Honestly, I didn’t know who we were playing this week until I looked at the schedule. We’ve got a lot of games left in the season … consistency will be the key for us.” Dallas is looking for its third straight win later today.
Watch: Minnesota Vikings at Dallas Cowboys at 8:20 p.m. ET on NBC.
3. Undefeated 49ers host division rival Seahawks
The 49ers are the last undefeated team standing, heading into Monday’s contest with Seattle without a loss on their resume. It’s been an unexpected turnaround, with the team’s last winning season coming in 2013. San Francisco’s trajectory has been the mirror opposite of Seattle, as the Seahawks haven’t had a losing season since back in 2011.
49ers offensive tackle Joe Staley, a 13-year veteran, thinks the matchup feels a little different this time around: “It’s good when the rivalry is there and the game means something … we haven’t held up our end of the bargain the last few years.”
From 2013 to 2017, the Seahawks won 10 straight against their NFC West opponents. So this game is not only important in the standings (with the 7-2 Seahawks a few games back of the 8-0 49ers), its personal. Players with ties to both teams, like 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman, will also add fuel to the fire.
The veteran for San Francisco once anchored the “Legion of Boom” defenses that helped Seattle win a Super Bowl. Remaining with the Seahawks is Sherman’s former teammate Russell Wilson, who is leading the league in early voting for Most Valuable Player. Sherman and his defense shutting down Wilson’s passing attack will be one of the keys for the 49ers.
Another holdover from Sherman’s days with the Seahawks is head coach Pete Carroll. For his part, Carroll wanted to talk about the leap the 49ers have made in his weekly presser.
“It’s what every coach hopes to do. (49ers head coach) Kyle (Shanahan) saw them when they were hungry and not getting it done, now they’ve turned it around … and I’m sure they’re enjoying the heck out of it,” he saidl.
Watch: Seattle Seahawks at San Francisco 49ers, Monday at 8:15 p.m. ET on ESPN.