5 Storylines for Week 8 of the NFL Season: Rusty Smith, Joey Harrington, and a Chicago Meltdown

Looking for something to watch for this weekend? How about a team on shutout watch, a rookie sixth-round quarterback, and a team on the verge of a meltdown?

The NFL season is nearly halfway over, which means the playoff picture is starting to shape up in both conferences. For teams not in the playoff hunt, though, it's probably time to look ahead to 2015 and consider how to bounce back.

And with no major records on the verge of being broken, you may find yourself looking for something to watch this weekend. If that's the case, you're in luck because here are five games to keep an eye on that may have some very interesting storylines.

Will Offense or Defense Reign in London?

This week features an NFL game that starts before noon on the east coast (and before 7 AM on the west coast) as the Falcons and Lions face off in London. If you're waking up early to watch some football, you'll be treated to a classic "battle of strengths."

The Lions have the best defense in the league so far this season, according to our opponent-adjusted Defensive Net Expected Points data. That defense will be put to the test against Matt Ryan and the ninth-ranked Atlanta offense. Which side will win out?

No one expected the Lions to be playing quite this well, especially without Calvin Johnson in the lineup, and that is largely due to the play of the defense. The Falcons, on the other hand, have continued last year's struggles on defense and have struggled to protect Ryan and help the passing game find a consistent pace and rhythm.

The Lions are tied with the Packers atop the NFC North, and a slip-up against an Atlanta team with a losing record would be a big blow to their division title hopes. A Lions win is almost certainly in the cards, as our nERD calculation favors the Lions over an average NFL team by over five points, while the Falcons would be over two-point underdogs to a middle-of-the-pack opponent.

The Bounce Back Battle

The Seattle Seahawks and Carolina Panthers were two of the league's most feared defenses a year ago but have fallen off the face of the Earth this season. When adjusting for schedule strength and on a per-play basis, the Seahawks have a bottom-6 pass defense and rank 20th overall when they don't have the ball. The Panthers rank 26th in the NFL on defense by the same math.

Both teams sit at three wins on the season and will struggle to make the playoffs without a strong second half. The Seahawks are in a particular spot of trouble, as they sit behind the Cardinals and 49ers in the NFC West. The Panthers currently lead the stumbling NFC South, but a loss to Seattle would put them on thin ice, even with a weak division to deal with.

Again, our nERD calculations prefer the non-NFC South team in this matchup, as the Panthers are just too bad on defense to trust. But if they're able to pull an upset, we may see the defending champs on the outside looking in come January.

Will the Dolphins Shut Out the Jaguars?

The Miami Dolphins have been an unheralded yet good defensive team over the past decade, but that solid play on defense hasn't turned into a shut out on many occasions. In fact, the last Miami shutout came in 2006, when Joey Harrington led the Miami offense against Tom Brady and the Patriots. The Dolphins held the Brady to 78 passing yards in a 21-0 win, a gutsy performance for a Miami team with a losing record so far that season.

This season, the Dolphins rank second in our defensive rankings and face the Jaguars, who are the worst offense in the league by a considerable margin. In fact, the gap between the Jags and the next-worst team (the Bucs) is the same as the gap between the Bucs and the 11th-ranked Patriots. Jacksonville is nearly 50 points worse than Tampa Bay on offense according to our data, which is more than enough of an advantage for a solid Miami defense to post a shutout for the first time in eight years.

Zach Mettenberger's First Start for the Titans

Speaking of shutouts, the last time the Titans started a rookie sixth-round pick against the Houston Texans for his first career start (yes, this is oddly specific), Rusty Smith threw for 138 yards and 3 interceptions on 31 attempts in a 20-0 loss to their division rivals. This weekend, the Titans will disregard history and try again, sending rookie sixth-rounder Zach Mettenberger out against Houston.

The Texans have the fifth-best defense in the league according to our metrics, bolstered by a top-two pass defending unit. J.J. Watt is almost single-handedly destroying opposing passing games and will be a nightmare for a rookie quarterback who didn't get in a full offseason of work after knee surgery. The Titans' decision to go with the rookie signals a white flag for this season, but it's unlikely that the Texans will ease up as they try to stay relevant in the AFC South.

Will the Chicago Meltdown Continue?

After last week's loss to Miami, the Bears reportedly were yelling at each other in the locker room and had a generally high level of frustration over their play. It's understandable that the team would be upset, losing their third game in four and sliding further behind the division leading Packers and Lions.

This week the Bears take on the Patriots, who rank higher than Chicago in every category we offer in our team rankings (offense, defense and nERD). Chicago's offense has been under performing so far this season, and the Patriots aren't the toughest test on defense, so this could be a chance to bounce back and get things right ahead of a bye week. But if Chicago stumbles again, they'll be 3-5 heading into the bye. That could place them three games out of first with eight to play.

The Bears are a talented football team, especially on offense, but there have been too many mistakes this season to sustain success. A win against New England is a must for a team on the verge of a locker room collapse, making this game another one to keep an eye on this weekend.