5 Clarifying ColdHardFootballFacts from Week 9: Dolphins Trump a Murray Masterpiece

Cameron Smith

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With the ColdHardFootballFacts Quality Stats now fully back in flow, here are the five biggest takeaways from a surprising Sunday NFL slate, including a surprising rout in Florida, the Bills staking a claim to be elite and the Steelers' historic start were front and center after another heated Sunday of NFL action:

5) Is this Steelers team the best of all time? That seems like an enormous claim to make, yet the Steelers find themselves 8-0 for the first time in franchise history. On the way, they've knocked down the Browns, Titans and Ravens in consecutive ... and five other also-rans. Given the uncertainty that was forced on by a COVID-19 postponement the eight wins are no small matter. Still, there remain some viable questions about Pittsburgh's long-range trajectory. The Steelers have an exceptional defense, but Ben Roethlisberger ranks exactly middle of the road in Real Quarterback Rating and outside the top-10 in Offensive Passer Rating. That opens up the opportunity for opposing defenses that are particularly stout against the pass to limit Pittsburgh's offensive effectiveness and scrape out a win. None of that is to say that will happen, but it makes future matchups against the Ravens, at the Bills and at the Browns particularly fascinating before we reach the playoffs.

4) Scizophrenic Brady underscores Tampa's risk and reward. Tom Brady had underwhelming games during his nearly-two decade New England career, but he rarely — if ever — played as poorly and caustically as he did Sunday night. Brady finished Tampa's 38-3 loss a shade above . 500 with three interceptions and zero touchdowns. It was a remarkable contrast to his prior three weeks, when he sparked notable wins against the Packers, Raiders and Giants. The emerging formula is essentially the same one that developed in Brady's later seasons in Foxborough: get pressure to Brady, force him into light-speed decisions and be ready for mistakes in the secondary. On Sunday, that led to Brady's three interceptions, two of which came when his wide receivers cut off their routes prematurely. Is that all chemistry? Not entirely. One of those situations against the Saints came on an intended pass for Rob Gronkowski. Rather, the issue is more one of offensive system. For years, the Patriots offense relied on Brady's innate conservatism, betting that by leaning into his willingness to throw a ball away, they would also set themselves up for success on later plays. Bruce Arians' system in Tampa goes the other way, doubling down on long balls and big picture plays, all at the expense of stability. It's feast or famine, and after three weeks of Brady leading a feast, Sunday was a much more illuminating offensive famine for the Buccaneers.

3) Somehow, Josh Allen outplayed Russell Wilson. This was not a headline we were anticipating writing, yet here we are. On Sunday — the second Sunday in the Year of our Lord 2020, A.D., MVP favorite Russell Wilson was outdueled by the third year passer of the Bills. Yes, Buffalo did plenty other things to pave their way to a win. Still, Allen was remarkably efficient, finishing 31-for-38 and racking up three touchdowns. For his part, Wilson was 28-for-45 with two touchdowns, but also two interceptions. Wilson also lost a pair of fumbles, both of which were recovered by the Bills. For their part, the Bills had no turnovers. This wasn't the way this game was supposed to go, and it has serious implications for both teams. The NFC West is suddenly back in play, the AFC East officially looks close to closing up shop behind Buffalo and neither appears in line for a first round bye. Does that mean Buffalo and Seattle are both out of the race for the top seed in their respective conferences? Essentially, yes. Which team adapts to that reality will go a long way to determining whether either can mount  a legitimate postseason run come  January.

2) Dolphins' new winning culture outshines Kyler Murray masterpiece. Make no mistake: Kyler Murray is changing the way dual-threat quarterbacks attack. The second-year Cardinals passer was unstoppable Sunday against Miami, accounting for all four of his team's touchdowns with three through the air and one on his legs. He's a perpetual headache, an increasingly efficient passer who has the blazing speed of an elite wide receiver or defensive back and isn't afraid to use it. On Sunday, Murray did everything possible to ensure the Cardinals took advantage of Seattle's upset loss to the Bills. He couldn't do it. Instead, it was Dolphins rookie Tua Tagovailoa who stole most of the thunder thanks to two touchdown passes and a cool and collected 20-for-28 performance in his second career start. Tagovailoa added 35 yards on the ground, a far fry for Murray's monster 106-yard day on the ground, but still a meaningful and successful contribution. In fact, it was Tagovailoa who essentially iced the game late in the fourth when Dolphins coach Brian Flores called a designed quarterback sneak on a third-and-1. The Alabama man earned the first down, Miami earned the win and, with it, an NFL playoff seed, for now.

1) Chargers keep losing, but Herbert's future is blazing bright. If success in the NFL is all about quarterback talent, now would be an excellent time to buy low on all the Chargers futures. Justin Herbert is the reason why. A rookie quarterback out of Oregon, Herbert has been a revelation since being forced into action just hours before Week 3. So far, Herbert has thrown for 1,820 yards, 15 touchdowns and just five interceptions in just six games. Those stats are solid for Tom Brady, let alone a rookie. It's hard to find a rookie with comparable statistics. Troy Aikman and John Elway had just as few wins as Herbert, but also featured a 1-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Joe Montana wasn't a starter until his third season. Perhaps the best statistical comparison is Baker Mayfield, who had a similar touchdown to interception ratio after entering during the season for ... you guessed it ... Tyrod Taylor. The Chargers will surely be hoping for more consistency from Herbert than the Browns have had with Mayfield, but like Mayfield's rookie year in Cleveland, Herbert is providing plenty of optimism amidst a season with dismal results on the scoreline; you'd be hard pressed to find a 2-6 team more optimistic about the future.