Scott MacHenry
Staff Writer

The NFL season is starting to take shape. Nine weeks in, clear divisions are growing between teams.  There are Super Bowl contenders are gearing up for deep postseason runs, competitive mid-level teams racing for the final playoff seeds, and both groups are beating up on the worst teams in football.  Although the playoffs are creeping closer, trouble may be getting closer as well.

As the Coronavirus wreaks havoc on American society, the novel virus is threatening the completion of the NFL season. The league may be determined to push forward, but the rising cases are impossible to ignore.  In the first week of November, positive cases spiked to 56 players and personnel. Out of 42,978 total tests, 15 players and 41 team personnel tested positive for COVID-19. With league-wide cases on the rise and the presumed winter spike approaching, the NFL is also placing a record number of “high risk” players on the reserve/COVID list.  Teams are taking no chances when it comes to players who have been in close proximity to others who tested positive. “High risk” players placed on the reserve/COVID list must have five consecutive negative tests in order to return to the team.

Many teams have been recently affected by the virus. After Pittsburgh Steelers tight end Vance McDonald tested positive, the Steelers placed four players on the reserve/COVID list, including quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. This places Pittsburgh in a precarious position; they won’t know Roethlisberger’s official status until Saturday, one day before their next game. The Miami Dolphins were also affected for a different reason. Last week, a Miami assistant coach tested positive, causing other coaches to hit the reserve/COVID list. Thus, the Dolphins were without five assistant coaches in their last game.

The San Francisco 49ers have been hit the hardest since the Tennessee outbreak in week four. Right before San Francisco’s Thursday Night Football game versus the Green Bay Packers, the 49ers had four players test positive. Some people called for the game to be postponed, citing the 49ers’ positive cases and crippling injuries, yet the team played on. Ravaged by unfortunate circumstances, the 49ers faced the Packers without 17 regular players, and the Packers won easily.

The Thursday Night game was just another example that the NFL plans to push forward. After all, over 50 percent of teams have placed someone on the reserve/COVID list this week alone. Aside from virus complications, week nine of the NFL season saw exciting games from unexpected matchups. The Los Angeles Chargers lost again on the final play, dropping a last-second touchdown for a sixth agonizing loss. The New England Patriots took all sixty minutes to beat the winless New York Jets and the Pittsburgh Steelers barely escaped the lousy Dallas Cowboys to remain undefeated.  Here are some of the best and worst performances of week nine.

The Best

The Buffalo Bills got the big win they were looking for on Sunday, defeating the Seattle Seahawks 44-34. The Seahawks have been one of the NFL’s best teams, but they faced a number of challenges against the Bills. On the road, Seattle played early East Coast time and lined up against a team desperate for a win that legitimized their record. Bills quarterback Josh Allen exploded for a monster game, completing 31-38 and throwing for 415 yards and 3 touchdowns.  Allen and the Buffalo offense started fast, putting up three touchdowns in the first half. Although Seattle added to the scoreboard more in the second half, fourth quarter rushing touchdowns by Allen and running back Zack Moss clinched the victory. Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson once again delivered an MVP-type performance, yet he also threw two interceptions, which led to 10 Buffalo points. For Allen, who routinely faces criticism about his play, this is a performance that can change the narrative surrounding Buffalo’s offense. The Bills advanced to 7-2 and look to win the AFC East for the first time since 1995.

Before the season started, who could have guessed that a Miami Dolphins-Arizona Cardinals game would be the most exciting game of the weekend with probable playoff implications? That is exactly what this game turned out to be. The Dolphins won the contest, beating the Cardinals 34-31, but both teams played remarkably well. It was a back-and-forth game with two high-powered offenses trading touchdowns until the final minutes. A late Miami field goal was the difference. Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, in his second career game, improved over his debut, completing 20-28 and throwing for 248 yards and 2 touchdowns. Whereas Tagovailoa had little to do with Miami’s win over the Los Angeles Rams last week, he carried the Dolphins to a victory in the desert. Kyler Murray continued his electrifying season for the Cardinals, using his arm and legs to power the NFL’s highest-ranked offense. Murray completed 21-26, threw for 283 yards and 3 touchdowns, and ran for an additional score. The Dolphins and Cardinals are both 5-3 and remain in comfortable positions to compete for Wild Card seeds.

The Arizona Cardinals fell to the Miami Dolphins in a high octane game on Sunday. Photo Courtesy of WikiMedia Commons.

Finally, the Minnesota Vikings are a bad football team. They have a quarterback in the throes of a terrible season and a defense that is ranked 29th in the league. The Vikings have little hope of making the playoffs at 3-5; however, Minnesota has one bright spot. Running back Dalvin Cook is tearing up the field. Cook is in his fourth season out of Florida State and he is becoming the elite running back Minnesota believed he would be when the drafted him in the early second round. Through seven games this season, Cook has amassed 858 yards, 12 touchdowns, and 122.6 yards per game. He is on pace to blow his 2019 stats out of the water.  Cook’s best season was in 2019 when he rushed for 1,135 yards and 13 touchdowns. This past Sunday, the Vikings defeated the Detroit Lions 34-20, carried by Dalvin Cook’s career-best performance. Cook blazed past the Detroit defense, running for 206 yards on 22 carries and 2 touchdowns.  While his scorching performances may not vault the Vikings in the standings, they might help Cook claim the 2020 rushing title.

The Worst

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are perennial Super Bowl contenders, but they played an awful game against the New Orleans Saints, losing 38-3 on Sunday Night Football. It marked the worst loss in quarterback Tom Brady’s career and places Tampa Bay at a distinct disadvantage in the NFC South, having now lost both games to division rival New Orleans. The game was ugly from the start.  The Saints scored two early touchdowns in the first quarter, then added 17 points in the second quarter to take a commanding 31-0 halftime lead. New Orleans leaned on their defense in the second half, allowing only a fourth quarter field goal. Brady struggled mightily against the Saints defense, throwing zero touchdowns and three interceptions, and earning an dreadful 3.8 QBR. For comparison, Brady’s Quarterback Rating was 83.6, 89.3, and 96.6 the last three weeks.  It was an appalling performance across the board. Running back Ronald Jones III only ran for 9 yards on 3 carries and receiver Mike Evans only caught 4 passes for 64 yards. This game dropped Tampa Bay to 1-3 in primetime games this season, a curious note since Brady’s teams usually shine on the biggest stage.