3 Week 7 Storylines to Watch: The AFC East Grudge Match
Sometimes the NFL scheduling gods don't leave fans with too much to work with. Such is the case this week with a weak slate of games on tap. With Vegas projecting only one game with an over/under above 50 points, we could be in for a relatively sleepy Week 7. But even with a relatively mundane schedule of games this weekend, there are a number of storylines we need to be following on the NFL landscape.
Chief among these is the division rivalry matchup in the AFC featuring the Jets versus the Patriots. The Jets have been a nice surprise under the tutelage of new head coach Todd Bowles and are making some real noise in the AFC East with their 4-1 record. But ever the franchise with the little brother complex, the Jets have the Patriots still in their way. Do the Jets possess the talent to step up and knock the Patriots down a peg?
Let's take a look at this AFC grudge match and a couple of other key storylines you need to be following heading into Week 7.
Can the Jets Threaten the Patriots for the AFC East Title?
On the surface it may look like the Patriots are poised to run away with their 13th division title in the last 15 seasons, but quietly the New York Jets have built an incredibly formidable squad to contend with the Beasts of Boston this season.
After an eventful offseason that brought in a new head coach, new receiver help in Brandon Marshall, and a revamped secondary spearheaded by the acquisitions of Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie, it's fair to question whether or not the Jets can mount a credible challenge to the Patriots this season.
For what it's worth, our algorithms still rank the Patriots as the second best team per our power rankings, but the Jets are close, currently ranking fifth. For this weekend, Vegas isn't confident in the Jets at all, pegging the Patriots as eight point favorites at home. But the Patriots do have vulnerabilities on defense and it will be interesting to see if the Jets can exploit them.
For starters, the Pats currently rank as the 28th best team in the league against the rush. And Chris Ivory has been like a beast uncaged this season, currently ranking as the third most productive running back in the league per numberFire's signature performance-above-expectation metric, Net Expected Points (NEP). For those unfamiliar, NEP quantifies the number of expected points a player adds to a team's point total which is gauged by down-and-distance scenarios and other football variables. To learn more about NEP, check out our glossary.
Through six weeks, Ivory has a Rushing NEP of 10.45, surpassed only by Devonta Freeman and Giovani Bernard. And he's not doing this work through volume alone; he's also been the sixth-most efficient running back with over 40 carries with a 0.13 Rushing NEP per rush. If the Jets are to stand a chance offensively, Ivory must be able to keep his hot streak going.
On the other hand, it will take yeoman's work for the Jets to stop the Patriots second-ranked offense per our numbers. But if any squad can, it might just be the Jets, who currently sport the fourth-ranked passing defense and the second-ranked rush defense in the league.
The Jets have long looked up to the Patriots with scorn for their seemingly endless dominance in the division. They may have a real shot this year to change the narrative, but if so, it must begin in Week 7.
Are Devonta Freeman and DeAndre Hopkins Human?
DeAndre Hopkins has been quite the gold mine for his fantasy football owners this season, though his emergence didn’t quite come from out of left field like that of Devonta Freeman's. Still, both of these players are putting up ridiculous numbers, and their respective Week 7 matchups figure to continue bolstering their already insane fantasy bottom lines.
For Hopkins' part, he gets to square up against a reeling Miami Dolphins secondary, currently ranked 19th against the pass per our numbers. Hopkins is currently on pace to receive an otherworldly 237 targets, which, yes, would be an NFL record. He's also on pace to fall a mere 28 yards short of Calvin Johnson's 2012 single-season receiving yardage record.
With the painful Ryan Mallett experience finally over, the Texans have turned to Brian Hoyer, who, surprisingly ranks ninth in the league with a total Passing NEP of 34.52 despite not starting two of the Texans' games this season. Hopkins has compiled a ridiculous 71.44 Reception NEP so far this season, which, if extrapolated out through 16 games (190.51 Reception NEP) would set him on a course to shatter the most productive NFL season by a wide receiver since NEP data has been available going back to 2000. If Hoyer can continue playing the way he's been playing, Nuk's got a real chance to enter the history books this season.
Freeman's emergence has been quite the surprise for a number of reasons. First, with a new coaching staff in town and Freeman drafted by the old regime, Dan Quinn and Kyle Shanahan identified Tevin Coleman as their guy in the NFL draft and got him. Coleman started Week 1 and Week 2 but was sidelined due to injury. He's since returned, but Quinn and Shanahan, seemingly out of a deep-burning desire not to have their sanity questioned, have not given Coleman the starting gig back because Freeman has been putting on an absolute clinic. And a matchup against the Titans' 31st-ranked rushing defense doesn't figure to slow down Freeman this week either.
With a Rushing NEP of 24.30 more than doubling the second-most productive back in the league in Giovani Bernard, a position-best Reception NEP of 23.59, and an immaculate Rushing Success Rate of 51.89%, Freeman has been absolutely lights out and hands down the best running back in the league this season. That's really strange because he was really bad last season, posting and insanely inefficient -0.29 Rushing NEP per rush, by far the worst in the league among running backs with over 50 carries. This season he's sitting at a red hot 0.23 Rushing NEP per rush and over the last four games has found the end zone nine times.
With soft matchups on the docket, it will be interesting to see if the stats continue to pile up for Hopkins and Freeman in Week 7. More than likely, they will.
Does Philip Rivers Have a Shot at Breaking the Single-Season Passing Yards Record?
Philip Rivers, the NFL quarterback with more kids than many insects have legs, is coming off of a game where he threw for 503 yards against the ninth-ranked Packers' passing defense at Lambeau Field. This was Rivers' third straight game passing for over 350 yards, and the fourth game this season in which he’d reached that mark.
The crazy thing is, Rivers may actually have a chance to take down Peyton Manning's 2013 single-season record of 5,477 passing yards, as his current pace would put him at 5,643 yards at the end of the season. The Chargers currently possess the league's third highest pass-to-run ratio at an absurd 1.92 passing attempts for every rushing attempt, in part because Melvin Gordon has struggled mightily in toting the rock this season, posting the league's second-worst Rushing NEP per rush among running backs with at least 50 carries.
And looking ahead to his remaining schedule, the Chargers face only one team that currently ranks as a top-19 passing defense per our numbers. That team? Manning's Denver Broncos, who Rivers will square up against in Weeks 13 and 17. So Rivers literally gets eight more games against opponents in the bottom tier of passing defenses for the rest of the season.
For what it's worth, we currently project Rivers to toss for 3,247 more yards through the rest of the season, which would put him a mere 114 yards shy of tying Manning's record. But with such a soft schedule on the horizon, Rivers has a real shot at taking down his division rival's NFL single-season passing yardage record a mere two years after he broke it himself.