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Opinion: NFL's best rivalry, pressure on Cam Newton and Tua Time will define NFL Week 8

USA TODAY SPORTS logo USA TODAY SPORTS 10/31/2020 Jarrett Bell, USA TODAY
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A quick rundown on items of interest as Week 8 rolls on in the NFL:

KEY STORY LINE: Rivalries. The billboard on display in Baltimore says it all. It features the image of Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger being pummeled into the turf by a Raven, with a not-so-subtle message: “Welcome back, Ben!” The billboard was purchased by WJZ-TV, the CBS affiliate that will telecast Sunday’s showdown when the Ravens (5-1) will try to sack the NFL’s only undefeated team (6-0). It amplifies the tone of the best rivalry in the NFL, which again plays out against the backdrop of huge stakes as it is typical that one team or the other or both is a legit Super Bowl contender. The Seahawks-49ers series that resumes on Sunday in Seattle is another current rivalry that ranks as top-shelf. Dallas-Philly? Sure, there’s some great history of bad blood. But right now, there’s also some bad football. Quality matters. And with Roethlisberger getting back into the swing of things after missing both games last year (a Ravens sweep) due to his elbow surgery, Baltimore QB Lamar Jackson will finally face Pittsburgh’s real quarterback. No, Jackson will have nothing to do with chasing Big Ben from the pocket, but he can apply his own kind of pressure by producing points that force Roethlisberger to do likewise. Regardless, it’s time to break the tie again. Since 1998, the AFC North series stands at 23-23. Now that’s a rivalry.

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has thrown for 1,446 yards and 13 touchdowns this season. © Steve Roberts, USA TODAY Sports Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has thrown for 1,446 yards and 13 touchdowns this season.

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WHO'S HOT: Tom Brady. That misfortunate ending at Chicago, when Brady lost track of the downs, is in the rear-view mirror now as TB12 just collected his first NFC Offensive Player of the Month award. Brady won many AFC awards (and Super Bowls) over two decades in New England, but this particular NFC honor is significant in that it underscores how this transition is flowing. Even better indicators: The Bucs (5-2) have scored 45 and 38 points in two games since the loss at Chicago. And since coughing up three interceptions during the first two weeks of the season, Brady has a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 15-to-1.  

PRESSURE'S ON: Cam Newton. It’s not about the wardrobe. No, Dapper Cam’s dress does not guarantee success as the Patriots head to Buffalo with a three-game losing streak and Newton sports the league’s third-worst passer rating (71.7) while looking lost in Josh McDaniels’ system. It was always going to be a tough task to follow Brady, but now that promising, run-oriented start to Newton’s season has fizzled into a picture of indecision and inaccuracy from the pocket. In two games since Newton came off the COVID-19 list, the Patriots have scored one touchdown. And it could get even worse. Top two receivers, Julian Edelman (knee) and N’Keal Harry (concussion), are out. New England is 2-4 for the first time since 2000, and a loss to the Bills (5-2) would pretty much assure that it won’t win the AFC East crown for a 12th consecutive season. If Superman is going to save the day, now would be the time.

NEXT MAN UP: Ben DiNucci. Chalk it up as another strange occurrence for 2020 as the seventh-round rookie quarterback from James Madison returns to his home state to make his first NFL start for the Cowboys at Philadelphia in a Sunday night showcase. DiNucci will get the nod with Andy Dalton officially listed as out with a concussion. A couple of interesting facts about DiNucci, who transferred to JMU after starting his college career at Pitt: While at Pine-Richland High, north of Pittsburgh, he was the first Pennsylvania prep quarterback to pass for 4,000 yards in a season. And before that, he was coached in basketball by Joe McCarthy, the late brother of the Pittsburgh-bred Cowboys coach.  

KEY MATCHUP: DK Metcalf vs. Jason Verrett. Great compliment from 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan in assessing Metcalf, the Seahawks’ emerging star of a receiver: “Wish he wasn’t in our division.” The 49ers could have had Metcalf themselves, but opted to draft Deebo Samuel instead last season (which was a strong option in its own right). Metcalf’s game has expanded since his rookie season, and evidenced by an NFL-best 21.6-yard average reception (24 catches, 519 yards), he’s a handful to handle on the deep balls that are a Russell Wilson specialty. With crafty vet Richard Sherman still out with a calf injury, Verrett draws the primary duty against Metcalf. Like pretty much any DB, Verrett (5-10, 188) will be working from a size disadvantage against the well-defined Metcalf, who towers at 6-4, 230 pounds. But size doesn’t always matter if the techniques are at a high point, so to speak. 

ROOKIE WATCH: Tua Tagovailoa. Now that Tua Time has finally arrived, the rookie quarterback – whose fractured hip a year ago cast doubt on whether he will rebound as the same dynamic playmaker that defined his time at Alabama – is set to make his first NFL start against the Rams. There are two sides to the specific conditions: Tagovailoa gets to debut at home for a scrappy team (3-3) that plays hard for second-year coach Brian Flores. On the flip side, there’s the presence of all-everything D-tackle Aaron Donald across the line of scrimmage ... and perhaps chasing Tagovailoa to no end. If Miami is going to enjoy a successful start to this new era, it begins with containing Donald, which is so much easier said (or written) than done.

STOMACH FOR AN UPSET: Raiders at Browns. Just when it appears that Jon Gruden’s team is overmatched ... stuff happens. When last seen, the Las Vegas defense was shredded by Tom Brady in a blowout loss. But look at the quality wins against the Saints and the Chiefs as the proof that you can never be too sure of what you’ll get with the Raiders (3-3). Cleveland (5-2), meanwhile, enters as a 2 1/2-point favorite and can match its victory total from all of last season. But with a shaky Browns pass defense and Derek Carr playing the most efficient football of his career, this matchup has a last-team-with-ball-wins flavor.

IF THE PLAYOFFS WERE TODAY … Seattle would be the NFC’s No. 1 seed. The Seahawks can’t bank on the thunderous crowd noise from the 12s, but the top seed will be even more valuable in an expanded playoff field this season (seven per conference), proving that just one team per conference will earn a first-round bye. With the 49ers coming to town, what a perfect reminder of just what difference playing at home in January can make. If the 49ers don’t win the 2019 season finale at Seattle with a goal-line stop that clinched the No. 1 seed, would they have advanced to the Super Bowl? 

HISTORICAL MARKER: CBS Sports has tabbed Kimani Morales as the producer and Mark Grant as director for the telecast of the Chargers-Broncos game in Denver, according to a person with knowledge of the situation. The person spoke on the condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak publicly about the broadcast team. It will be the first time that an NFL game telecast has been headed by an African-American producer and director. First. Time. Ever. In the NFL’s 101st season.

DID YOU NOTICE? When the Cowboys played at Washington last week, Everson Griffen was designated as a team captain. Coach Mike McCarthy picks the captains on a weekly basis, rewarding work during the week of preparation. Yet it’s hardly a badge of security. Two days after the Cowboys were drubbed at Washington, Griffen was traded to Detroit.

STAT'S THE FACT: Alvin Kamara, the Saints star heading into Sunday’s game at Chicago with an NFL-high 824 yards from scrimmage, needs four receptions to become just the third running back in NFL history (LaDainian Tomlinson, Matt Forte) to post 50 catches in each of his first four seasons.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Opinion: NFL's best rivalry, pressure on Cam Newton and Tua Time will define NFL Week 8

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