NFL Week 7 Winners and Losers: Panthers and Vikings Are Turning Up the Heat, But Texans Get Barbecued

Bob Leverone/AP

Winners

The Vikings

Matthew Stafford is going to start calling in sick when Minnesota is on the schedule. In two starts against the Vikings this season, Stafford has been hit 21 times, including the 13-hit pummeling he received yesterday. It’s hard to imagine a more thorough beatdown than the one Minnesota’s defense doled out. At a certain point, it just seemed cruel.

The pressure came from everywhere: Everson Griffen had 1.5 sacks, the underrated Tom Johnson added another, and Anthony Barr met Griffen at the quarterback once. Harrison Smith and Chad Greenway each dragged Stafford down once, and even Eric Kendricks added two sacks. Mike Zimmer’s defense blitzed on 41.2 percent of Detroit’s dropbacks, and six of the Vikings’ seven sacks came when bringing extra pressure.

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By the end of the game, Stafford was just curling up in the fetal position, and it’s hard to blame him.

Minnesota moved to 4-2 and would sneak in as the NFC’s second wild card if the playoffs started today, but this is still a team with plenty of flaws. The Vikings came into yesterday’s game ranked 30th in passing DVOA, and Teddy Bridgewater has generally been disappointing in his second year. Right now, the offensive line is bad enough that the running game is almost entirely dependent on Adrian Peterson ripping off one absurd run after he finishes throwing a defender off himself in the backfield. There’s a lot of young talent here, though, and that’s before even mentioning the emergence of fifth-round pick Stefon Diggs, who made an incredible catch on a ball he had no business tracking down in the end zone. Even if Minnesota doesn’t steal a playoff spot this year, there’s plenty to be excited about.

Doug Martin

Before the season, Martin wouldn’t have been on anyone’s list of players who might rebound in 2015. After his promising rookie year in 2012 (1,454 yards and 11 scores), Martin failed to hit 4 yards per carry in either of the past two years. Combine that with the Bucs bringing in two new starters on the offensive line and Tampa Bay’s running game looked like it would be DOA.

Martin has had a few underwhelming outings this year — 21 carries for 78 yards against New Orleans, 14 carries for 46 yards against Houston — but the past three games have been the best stretch of his career. This is the first time Martin has had three straight games in which he’s averaged more than 5 yards per carry, and he’s done it with a sizable workload. He’s had at least 19 carries and hit the century mark each week.

In Week 1 against the Titans, it looked like Martin had a little more pop than in past years, but because that was against defense that often struggles against the run, it was tough to tell where to place the credit. Now it looks like we have our answer. Through six weeks, he has the second-highest rushing total in the league, and he’s doing it behind an offensive line that features two rookies and two players (Joe Hawley and Gosder Cherilus) cut by other teams just before the season started. It’s an impressive body of work for an offense that needs some answers.

jarvis-landry-dolphinsMike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Jarvis Landry

At first glance, Ryan Tannehill’s 18-of-19, 282-yard, four-touchdown day looks like a monster performance, but dig a little bit and that changes quickly. The Dolphins threw for 296 yards (including a 14-yarder from Matt Moore) on 20 attempts for a gaudy 14.8 yards per throw, but 248 of those yards came after the catch. Miami averaged just 2.85 air yards per attempt, the smallest Week 7 figure in the league by nearly a yard and a half.

The Miami game plan consisted of getting the ball into the hands of its playmakers and letting them go to work. That isn’t a bad idea when those guys are Lamar Miller and Jarvis Landry. Miller showed off that terrifying gear we all knew was lurking, but the highlight of the day belonged to Landry.

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Watch Andre Hal fly out of bounds as Landry throttles down along the sideline. No player on earth stops and starts the way Landry can. On seemingly every catch, at least one defender goes sailing past him. Landry doesn’t break that many tackles, but it’s only because so few players even get close enough to touch him. Through his first 22 games, Landry has proved to be among the more intriguing players in the league. He’s 5-foot-11 and ran a 4.77 in the 40-yard dash at the combine. A player with that sort of physical profile shouldn’t be a constantly dangerous weapon, but Landry’s body control, vision, and open-field talent make him one.

The Panthers

This is real, people. The Panthers are here to stay. Carolina beat up Sam Bradford and the Eagles offense yesterday, and it meant a decisive win even without Cam Newton playing his best.

It’s worth talking about just how impressive Ron Rivera’s run in Carolina has been lately. How Rivera and Sean McDermott manage to piece together a top-flight defense every year with Popsicle sticks and duct tape is beyond me. The Panthers have played half of their games without Luke Kuechly, are starting Charles Tillman and Roman Harper — combined age, 66 — in the secondary, and were so desperate for edge-rushing help with Charles Johnson out that they sent a pick to Chicago for Jared Allen. Oh, and they came into the week ranked fifth in defensive DVOA. It’s kind of amazing.

But there’s talent on that side of the ball outside of Kuechly. Thomas Davis is about as steady as it gets now that the football gods have decided to spare him, Kawann Short has turned into a problem (for offenses) as an interior pass-rusher, and Josh Norman is now a black hole for receivers. Their presence explains how the Panthers can remain great on defense even with the aforementioned injuries. How they’ve managed to put together the 11th-most efficient offense in the league with Ted Ginn and Corey Brown is an entirely different story.

It starts with the running game. Carolina was fourth in rushing DVOA before Jonathan Stewart ran all over the Eagles, who had one of the best run defenses in football. Stewart is hitting his stride after a slow start, and part of that is this offensive line playing better than most would have expected. Trai Turner, who Carolina took in the third round a year ago, is turning into a star, and Ryan Kalil is healthy and playing as well as any center in football.

The Panthers averaged 4.03 yards before contact per rush yesterday, comfortably their best mark of the season and more than enough for a guy with Stewart’s talent. Carolina’s formula is simple: It’s going to play great defense, run the ball well, and let its quarterback make the occasional spectacular throw to put it over the top. Through seven weeks, it’s worked like a charm.

Losers

Josh McCown

You have to feel for Josh McCown. He is on the road against maybe the best pass rush in the NFL, which is enough to worry about on its own. And now he has to deal with slippery floors and brick walls, too.

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McCown took eight hits on the day — seven from the Rams and one from the wall — but actually played fine, all things considered. He threw for 270 yards on 32 attempts. Cleveland’s problem is that it just couldn’t hold on to the ball. The Browns lost four fumbles, including two strip-sacks by William Hayes. It was that kind of Really? day for the Browns. Even when McCown was avoiding Rams, he was getting hit by walls, and even as Joe Thomas was keeping Robert Quinn relatively in check, Hayes was doing damage on the other side. All of that and Todd Gurley being absolutely ridiculous was more than enough for St. Louis.

Oh, and until further notice, I’ll be including the most insane thing Gurley does every week. In this case, there are two, because I honestly couldn’t pick:

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The Eagles Defense

Just like everyone predicted two years ago, the Eagles offense is the unit holding them back. Philadelphia picked off Newton three times last night, but it still wasn’t enough.

It’s undoubtedly been a frustrating year for the players on the Eagles defense. Stewart had a big day on the ground, but the Eagles were third in defensive DVOA coming into yesterday, and overall, it’s an interesting, entertaining, and — at times — dominant collection of talent. Philly’s front might be the league’s most intriguing group of players at those positions. Connor Barwin does just about everything. Fletcher Cox is just 24 years old, already a star, and about to get paid. And that’s before even getting to the complementary pieces.

You couldn’t give me enough money to block Bennie Logan for three hours. I’m convinced he’s part bear and no one is going to tell me otherwise. Look at this quote from Logan, via Ed Barkowitz of the Philadelphia Daily News, about sacking Drew Brees two weeks ago:

“I like the more physical play,” Logan said. “A quarterback is just going to sit there and go down. He’s not going to do anything. I like someone who’s going to give me a challenge, who’s going to hit me, too.”

Again, no amount of money. As Philly’s nose tackle, Logan is literally and figuratively at the center of that stingy run defense, and the way he sucks up blocks creates opportunities for players like Cox and Cedric Thornton. There’s plenty happening behind that front too. Mychal Kendricks can flat-out play and Malcolm Jenkins’s second act in Philadelphia has been a pleasant surprise. Overall, Bill Davis’s group brings a ton to the table, and they deserve better than what they got from Chip Kelly’s offense last night — and most of this season.

ej-manuel-jaguars-sackTim Ireland/AP

The Bills

The chirping in the Buffalo locker room about frustrations with Rex Ryan’s defense won’t be quieting down after this week. Even as the Bills bothered Blake Bortles for most of the day, T.J. Yeldon enjoyed the best game of his career. Buffalo was 25th in run-defense DVOA before yesterday, and that’s likely to take a tumble after Yeldon and the Jaguars’ 27th-ranked running game put up 120 yards.

EJ Manuel’s backbreaking giveaways — a fumble returned for a touchdown and a pick-six on consecutive Buffalo plays — aren’t a surprise to anyone, but for the second straight week, his play was enough to remind everyone just how much Buffalo is relying on Tyrod Taylor, a guy it picked up for nothing this offseason.

Right now, the Bills are a team that isn’t doing much well, which is something I never expected to say. On paper, this group had its share of issues. Not having an identity wasn’t one of them. Even Buffalo’s strengths weren’t strengths yesterday. Thanks to Stephon Gilmore being superhuman, Buffalo came into the game with the best DVOA in the league against no. 1 receivers. Then Allen Robinson caught six of his nine targets for 98 yards and a score. With the Dolphins bouncing back and the Jets looking like they’ll be sticking around all year, the season might be slipping away for a 3-4 Bills team.

Bill O’Brien

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That yardage discrepancy above is pretty much all anyone needs to say about whatever you would call what took place in Miami yesterday. A 41-0 halftime deficit is indicative of more than quarterback issues or a bad day. For the second time this month, the Texans were embarrassed on the road, and along with the loss to Atlanta, this is the second time in four weeks they’ve been down at least four touchdowns at halftime.

The disaster that took place on the field was compounded by issues off it. With Houston down 44-20 and less than five minutes to go, Arian Foster tore his Achilles. He’s done for the year, and at the start of next season, he’ll be a 30-year-old running back recovering from the most devastating lower-body injury an older player can have. Oh, and Ryan Mallett missed the team flight because he was reportedly stuck in traffic, according to Aaron Wilson of the Houston Chronicle.

Without Foster, and with the offensive line both banged up and struggling, Houston’s hopes on offense are almost nonexistent. That side of the ball was always going to be a question mark, with the path to success for O’Brien’s team relying more on stopping people than racking up points. But Romeo Crennel’s defense has been a no-show — 23rd in defensive DVOA before yesterday’s atrocity. The Texans are 2-4, and their wins have come against Tampa Bay (in a 19-9 rock fight) and Jacksonville (which required a Herculean effort from DeAndre Hopkins). This is turning into a lost season for Houston, and in the end, that’s going to be laid at O’Brien’s feet.

Filed Under: NFL, Matthew Stafford, Minnesota Vikings, Stefon Diggs, Miami Dolphins, Jarvis Landry, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Doug Martin, Carolina Panthers, Jonathan Stewart, Trai Turner, Cleveland Browns, Josh McCown, Todd Gurley, Philadelphia Eagles, Buffalo Bills, Houston Texans, Arian Foster, Bill O'Brien, Robert Mays

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Robert Mays is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ robertmays