Ben Roethlisberger described Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert as a "special talent" after his display in a stunning 41-37 win against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Herbert capped off an impressive performance by throwing a 53-yard touchdown pass to Mike Williams with just over two minutes remaining as the Chargers avoided a dramatic collapse after holding off Roethlisberger's rallying Steelers 41-37.

The 23-year-old became the first player in NFL history with 380-plus passing yards and 90-plus rushing yards in a game.

He finished 30-of-41 passing for 382 yards and three TDs, while he rushed for another 90 yards – the most by a Chargers quarterback in a game.

Speaking to reporters after the game, Roethlisberger said: "They're a really good football team. It starts with their quarterback. 

"He's a great young football player. Ran all over the place today, made throws. What a special talent, he's the next generation."

Chargers head coach Brandon Staley was equally effusive in his praise of his quarterback following the tight win in Los Angeles.

"He was fantastic in the game today. He was the best player on the field. He's got real instincts at the game," Staley said.

"He threw the football at a really high-level tonight, kept himself protected, stayed turnover free… it was just real quarterbacking today and I'm really really proud of him."

The Chargers were ahead 27-10 entering the final quarter before the Steelers fought back to sensationally take a 37-34 lead with just over three minutes remaining, before Herbert's throw found Williams for the winning touchdown.

"It turned into a wild ride, but we were ready for it," Staley said about his team's performance. 

"We played nine games before today where we've been preparing for a fourth quarter like that, and when the fourth quarter happened the way it did, our guys stayed connected. 

"We played our best at the end, we finished the game on our terms, and I can't say enough about our players and coaches because that's as good a win as we've had."

Justin Herbert came up big at the death and Austin Ekeler dazzled as the Los Angeles Chargers avoided a stunning collapse after holding off Ben Roethlisberger's rallying Pittsburgh Steelers 41-37.

Herbert threw a 53-yard touchdown pass to Mike Williams with just over two minutes remaining as the Chargers outlasted the Steelers in a wild shoot-out on Sunday.

The Chargers led 27-10 entering the final quarter before Roethlisberger and the Steelers fought back to sensationally take a 37-34 lead behind Chris Boswell's 45-yard field goal with 3:24 remaining.

But the Chargers (6-4) avoided a mammoth collapse as Herbert found Williams four plays later to sink the Steelers (5-4-1), while Ekeler finished with a career-high four touchdowns.

Herbert became the first player in NFL history with 380-plus passing yards and 90-plus rushing yards in a game, per Stats Perform. The Chargers quarterback finished 30-of-41 passing for 382 yards and three TDs, while he rushed for another 90 yards – the most by a Chargers quarterback in a game.

With his third TD pass, Herbert improved to 53 touchdowns in his first 25 career starts, surpassing Tony Romo for fourth most in a player's opening 25 starts in the Super Bowl era – only Patrick Mahomes (68), Dan Marino (65) and Kurt Warner (59) had more.

As for Ekeler, who scored in every quarter, became the first player with multiple rushing touchdowns and multiple receiving TDs in a single game since Maurice Jones-Drew in 2011.

Steelers veteran Roethlisberger finished with three touchdowns on 28-of-44 passing for 273 yards.

The NFL is a passing league. If a team has a quarterback who can elevate those around him and an offensive line that can protect him, chances are they will be well-positioned to contend for the playoffs.

Though the elite quarterbacks in the league can fit the ball into tight windows on a consistent basis, the odds of success on that side of the ball are much higher when those signal-callers are paired with receivers who can defeat man coverage and get into open space.

Excelling at finding the soft spot in zone coverage is also important, while the top play-callers in the NFL frequently engineer space for their receivers.

Yet receivers who can win one-on-one are a tremendous help to quarterbacks, especially those who can defeat the blitz regularly with their ability to efficiently read the field and find the open man.

While determining the 'best' receiver in the NFL is a subjective process that can hinge on an affinity for certain styles of play, success in beating defenders in coverage can be quantified.

Stats Perform has done so with its open percentage metric, which tracks how often a receiver gets open when they're matched up against man coverage and have enough time to run a route. Plays that break down before a matchup with a defender can take place or scramble drills where a receiver uncovers after running his initial route are discounted.

So who are the best and worst in that regard? Here we look at the top performers, some surprise names uncovering more often than perhaps expected and those who rarely separate from defenders.

THE ELITE

A year in which Cooper Kupp leads the NFL with 1,141 receiving yards has seen him established as arguably the premier route runner in the NFL.

That is reflected by his open percentage of 57.75, which is the highest of any player with more than 10 coverage matchups.

Getting open on 41 of his 71 matchups, Kupp has consistently excelled at creating separation. His burn percentage, which measures how often a receiver wins his matchup with a defender when he's targeted, of 65.2 is above the average of 60.3 for wideouts (min. 10 targets), while he is fourth in the NFL in burn yards per route (4.2).

Joining Kupp near the top of the tree is Justin Jefferson of the Minnesota Vikings. Proving his record-breaking rookie year was no fluke, Jefferson has faced 108 coverage matchups and got open on 55 of them, good for an open percentage of 50.93. 

Eleventh among receivers with a burn percentage of 73.4 and averaging 3.3 burn yards per route, there has been no sign of a sophomore slump from Jefferson, whose combination of separation ability and prowess at the catch point has turned him into one of the most dependable and dynamic receivers in the league.

Keenan Allen (53.16) is Kupp's closest challenger, the Los Angeles Chargers veteran underlining his status as one of the NFL's most underappreciated receivers by getting open at a rate that may only heighten frustrations around his team's underperforming offense.

Kansas City Chiefs star Tyreek Hill (47.78) boasts an elite open percentage that belies his underwhelming big play rate of 28.0 per cent, with Stefon Diggs' (47.62) success at getting open dispelling the notion of a drop-off from last year's receiving leader. Davante Adams (45.65) is unsurprisingly also among the league's best, yet he is accompanied by some eyebrow-raising names.

SURPRISE STUDS

It has been tough to watch an uninspired Pittsburgh Steelers offense this season and think anyone is getting open.

Almost every passing play the Steelers run seems to end in a contested catch, yet a wideout who thrives in those situations is also winning the vast majority of his coverage matchups.

Indeed, second-year wideout Chase Claypool ranks behind only Kupp and Allen in open percentage, uncovering from a defender on 35 of his 68 matchups (51.47). 

However, a burn yards per route rate of 2.5, just above the average of 2.3, and his struggles in the burn yards per target metric (10.30) indicate that, while Claypool is separating from coverage, he is not putting significant distance between himself and defenders. He will likely need to continue relying on his superiority at the catch point.

As with the Steelers, you won't find too many people who draw a sense of excitement watching a Teddy Bridgewater-led Denver Broncos offense.

There is no doubting the talent on Denver's attack. With Jerry Jeudy hurt and Noah Fant so far failing to take the second-year leap many expected, Courtland Sutton has shone brightest and is on course for a 1,000-yard season, though Tim Patrick's impact has been comparable.

Save for Kendall Hinton (47.83 on 23 matchups), it is the relatively unheralded Patrick who has proven Denver's best at separating, his open percentage of 44.44 from 90 matchups level with Dallas Cowboys star Amari Cooper.

A below-average burn yards per route of 2.0 speaks to a paucity of substantial separation, but Patrick is using the distance he is able to put between himself and defenders to create explosive plays, his big-play rate of 36.7 per cent comfortably above the average of 29.2.

Again leading tight ends in receiving yards (747), most would expect Travis Kelce of the Chiefs to top the list at that position for open percentage. Instead, it is a former AFC West standout in ex-Charger Hunter Henry.

Scoring seven touchdowns in as many games prior to being kept out of the endzone in Thursday's win over the Atlanta Falcons, Henry possesses an open percentage of 48.15. However, he has not been double-teamed this season.

Darren Waller has a double-team percentage of 17.2 and has still managed to get open 46.75 per cent of the time. The attention the Las Vegas Raiders star draws and his ability to succeed despite it illustrate his position as one of the league's biggest matchup nightmares and arguably the gold standard at tight end.

NO ROOM FOR MANOEUVRE

The Packers' offense has stuttered by its own high standards in recent weeks, with their underwhelming numbers not just a product of Jordan Love's struggles against the Chiefs.

Since Week 6, the Packers are averaging 213.2 net passing yards per game – 20th in the NFL. For the season, they are 16th in yards per pass play (6.46).

That mediocrity can, in part, be attributed to a lack of receiving depth beyond Adams, and Marquez Valdes-Scantling's issues getting open encapsulate that problem.

Valdes-Scantling is supposed to be the Packers' deep threat who can stretch defenses with his ability to separate vertically.

Open on only five of his 38 coverage matchups – a percentage of 13.16 – Valdes-Scantling is not fulfilling his role. The Packers will likely need to be more explosive in the playoffs if they are to go all the way, meaning Valdes-Scantling must up his game.

Bryan Edwards is in a similar situation in Las Vegas. Scarcely utilised last season, Edwards has seen a bump in targets in 2021, the Raiders often going to him downfield. 

Edwards' average depth of target is 17.2 yards, but he has found deep separation hard to come by, uncovering on 17 of his 111 matchups (15.32 per cent). Yet with a gaudy burn yards per target average of 15.01 and a big-play rate of 50.7 per cent that is third among receivers (min. 10 targets), Edwards is a player who takes full advantage of the little separation he gets when Derek Carr looks his way.

Edwards' former South Carolina team-mate San Francisco 49ers star Deebo Samuel is performing at the highest level of his young career. Samuel is second behind Kupp with 979 receiving yards and already has seven total touchdowns this season.

However, Samuel ranks near the bottom of the league in open percentage (15.07), with the difference between that number and his overall production a reflection of how he is used by San Francisco.

His average depth of target is 8.6 yards, below the NFL average for receivers of 11.0, speaking to the Niners' reliance on him on screens and short passes that are an extension of the run game.

Third in burn yards per route and leading all wide receivers with an average of 9.6 yards after catch per reception, Samuel takes advantage of those short targets with his speed, elusiveness and power, while he can win at the catch point downfield even without separation. The 49ers often get Samuel in space in the backfield but, for one of the league's most unique players, separation is not always a requirement.

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has been activated off the team's reserve/COVID-19 list.

Roethlisberger missed last week's clash with the Detroit Lions, which finished 16-16 after overtime, but the Steelers' director of communications Burt Lauten confirmed on Saturday that the 39-year-old will be back for Sunday's meeting with the Los Angeles Chargers.

The Steelers are 5-3-1 and second in the AFC North, though Roethlisberger's absence was felt against the Lions.

Mason Rudolph started in his place, but missed a glut of opportunities to deliver touchdown passes, including a late throw into the dirt that should have put Ray-Ray McCloud into the endzone.

Rudolph threw for, 242 yards, one touchdown, one interception and registered a completion percentage of 60.

While Rudolph told ESPN on Thursday that he was preparing to start against the Chargers, it appears he will be back on the bench, with Roethlisberger able to return to action.

Roethlisberger, a two-time Super Bowl champion, has thrown for 1,986 yards and 10 touchdowns so far this season across eight games.

The Los Angeles Chargers could be without both Joey Bosa and Jerry Tillery for their clash with the Pittsburgh Steelers after both were placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list.

Edge rusher Bosa is once again leading the way for the Chargers with 5.5 sacks so far this season, while defensive tackle Tillery has 2.5 sacks and three tackles for loss in 2021.

They would each be significant losses for a Chargers team looking to right the ship after three losses in their past four games and for a defense that ranks 19th in the NFL with 5.59 yards per play allowed.

However, the Chargers pair are not the only players who could miss Sunday's primetime matchup due to being in coronavirus protocol.

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was absent for their 16-16 tie with the Detroit Lions after he was placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list, on which he was joined by safety Minkah Fitzpatrick after he tested positive for coronavirus.

Discussing the quarterback position on Tuesday, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said: "We're going to build our plan around getting Mason [Rudolph, backup QB] ready to play.

"We're going to highlight his talents and skills relative to the opponents that we're intending to play. We're going to build that plan, work that plan. We've got a young offensive unit, and we'll let that lead us throughout the week.

"If we get to a point in the week where Ben has an opportunity to get to a moving train, that's exactly what he'll do. He'll be capable of executing the game plan."

The Chargers (5-4) are a game behind the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC West, while the Steelers (5-3-1) trail the 6-3 Baltimore Ravens in the AFC North.

Pittsburgh have won four of their past six meetings with the Chargers.

The Green Bay Packers' first look at life without Aaron Rodgers was not a pleasant one, as their offence sputtered with backup quarterback Jordan Love at the helm and the Kansas City Chiefs held on for a 13-7 victory. 

The Packers (7-2) had averaged 27 points during the seven-game winning streak that ended on Sunday after reigning MVP Rodgers missed the game following a positive coronavirus test during the week. 

The visitors did not get on the scoreboard until Love hit Allen Lazard for a 20-yard touchdown pass with five minutes remaining for his first career NFL TD.

That gave Green Bay some hope after their previous drive had ended with L'Jarius Sneed picking off a Love pass on Kansas City's five-yard line, but the Packers ran out of time. 

While the Chiefs (5-4) were not about to complain about the victory that got them back over .500, their season-long concerns about their offence continued as Patrick Mahomes had another unimpressive game. 

Former league MVP Mahomes completed 20 of 37 passes for just 166 yards but avoided throwing an interception for the first time since the season opener. His 54.1 completion percentage was his worst in a regular-season game since completing 51.2 per cent in a loss to the Las Vegas Raiders in Week 5 last season. 

 

Cardinals cruise past 49ers without Murray

The other red-hot team playing without their star quarterback fared better, as the Arizona Cardinals rolled to a 31-17 defeat of the San Francisco 49ers despite Kyler Murray's absence through an ankle injury. 

Veteran Colt McCoy stepped in for the Cardinals and completed 22 of 26 passes for 249 yards, while James Conner rushed for 93 yards and a pair of scores as Arizona improved to 8-1. 

Three turnovers proved critical for San Francisco (3-5) as the 49ers lost two fumbles in the first half and had trouble sustaining drives throughout the game, with only 23:13 of possession compared to 36:47 for Arizona. 

Jimmy Garoppolo completed 28 of 40 passes for 326 yards with two touchdowns and an interception for San Francisco. 

In Philadelphia, Dustin Hopkins' 29-yard field goal with two seconds to play gave the Los Angeles Chargers (5-3) a 27-24 victory over the Eagles (3-6). 

Adrian Phillips enjoyed the sweet taste of victory on Sunday, as he took the chance to "stick it" to his former team in the New England Patriots' win at the Los Angeles Chargers.

The Patriots moved to 4-4 on the season with a 27-24 triumph at SoFi Stadium, with ex-Chargers safety Phillips making a decisive impact.

Phillips intercepted two Justin Herbert passes, his second pick returned for a touchdown that effectively served as the telling blow by putting the Patriots 27-17 to the good late in the fourth quarter.

"Everybody always wants to kind of stick to their former team, and this is a great organisation that we played against today," said Phillips.

"Just to be able to go out there and play against them and end up having the game that I had, it was sweet. I loved it.

"Great teams win the close games. And we need to keep stringing these along."

Herbert's pick-six came on an apparent mix-up between himself and tight end Jared Cook, with last year's Offensive Rookie of the Year taking the blame after the Chargers dropped their second successive game to fall to 4-3.

"Just a miscommunication [between him and Cook]. I've got to be smarter about that," said Herbert, who will hope to help the Chargers avoid a third straight defeat against the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 9.

"I've got to move on to the next read. But that's one of those plays you'll have to watch and get better from and as tough as it is, you're gonna have to get better from it.

"That is one of the good things about film tomorrow. It is going to sting for a while, but it is on to the next week and we have got another tough competitor next Sunday, so we are going to watch film and get better from it."

 

SoFi Stadium will play host to Super Bowl LVI in February and, as the NFL season enters its eighth week, both teams that call it home have a chance of competing on the grandest stage in North American sport for the chance to lift the Lombardi Trophy.

However, it would be fair to still have doubts around the Chargers after they slumped to a 34-6 defeat to the Baltimore Ravens in Week 6.

The Chargers have had a bye week to stew and try to wash off the stink of a performance they will be all too eager to forget; however, getting back on track may not be straightforward.

Indeed, the Chargers on Sunday host a 3-4 New England Patriots team who have lost three of their games by one score.

The Patriots rank 11th in Stats Perform's efficiency versus expected (EVE) metric, which looks at down, distance, yards from goal, quarter, time remaining, and score difference and uses those six factors to train a model to predict yardage output for any game situation. From there, the projected yards are compared to the actual yards gained or prevented in those situations.

That is eight spots higher than the Chargers, indicating that the Patriots have performed at a more efficient level than Los Angeles this season and should provide a stern test of their Super Bowl credentials.

It is easy to pin this game as a battle between last year's Offensive Rookie of the Year Justin Herbert and arguably the best first-year quarterback from this year's crop, Mac Jones.

But to do so ignores the several other factors that may decide this intriguing AFC clash.

Harris to make hay on the ground

In part reflective of the Patriots having played an extra game and having claimed two blowout wins over the New York Jets, who entered the week 31st in EVE, the difference between the Chargers and New England in offensive yards per play is negligible.

The Chargers are 16th in yards per play with 5.71 while the Patriots are 18th with 5.70.

Success for the Patriots on offense has often come as a result of the play of running back Damien Harris.

Harris is averaging 4.6 yards per carry and is coming off back-to-back 100-yard games, rushing for three touchdowns across their overtime defeat to the Dallas Cowboys and a second win over the Jets.

Among running backs with at least 25 carries, Harris is 10th with an average of 2.26 yards after contact per attempt, running behind an offensive line that, per Stats Perform data, is 27th in run block win percentage. 

In other words, he is overcoming disappointing blocking and performing very efficiently, and this week he gets to face defense that is 29th in the NFL in run disruption rank. 

The Chargers are giving up 5.45 yards per rush, the most in the NFL, and if the Patriots are to keep up with an explosive Los Angeles offense, Harris will likely play a key role.

The Patriots' secondary struggles

Having conceded to being undone by the Ravens' defense and their use of disguise two weeks ago, Herbert faces another vaunted defensive schemer in Patriots head coach Bill Belichick.

New England's defense entered Week 8 ranked eighth in yards allowed under expectation; however, their depleted secondary is vulnerable.

The Patriots are 15th in pass yards allowed under expectation and have given up 77 passes of 10 yards or more, the seventh most in the league.

Herbert's passer rating on throws of 21 or more air yards of 114.8 is eighth among quarterbacks with at least 10 attempts of such distance.

And, with Mike Williams having already racked up eight receptions of 20 yards or more, the Chargers have a receiver who can consistently deliver the explosive plays that can tilt the contest firmly in the Chargers' favour.

Should he do so against the Patriots, Jones may find it difficult to put up the points stay in the game versus a Chargers defense featuring a name with which Belichick is extremely familiar.

Can Jones make right reads?

"It makes me feel old," Belichick replied when asked about Asante Samuel Jr, the son of the cornerback by the same name who played five seasons with the Patriots, winning the Super Bowl in 2003 and 2004 in a career that saw him twice lead the league in interceptions.

Belichick and the Patriots will surely be wary of Samuel, who has inherited his father's ball-hawking tendencies and already has two interceptions to his name since being taken in the second round of this year's draft by the Chargers.

Samuel is giving up a big play on only 21.1 per cent of his targets, comfortably the right side of the league average of 26 and has allowed a receiver to get open on just 13 of his 56 coverage matchups so far.

His efforts are a big part of why a Chargers defense that has struggled against the run came into the week sixth in pass yards allowed under expectation.

However, Belichick also had great praise for Chargers head coach Brandon Staley and his defensive system, which relies heavily on defenders matching the routes of their receivers but from a zone coverage look.

"Coach Staley does a really good job of keeping you off balance, and, again, we're going to have to make some good post-snap decisions on a lot of things, whether it's movement, rotations, how the coverage plays out," said Belichick. 

"They do a good job of matching routes. What looks like zone or what looks like some space closes very quickly in the passing game, and, again, they're very well-coached. They do a good job of, as the pattern develops, they just pounce on it. It really plays like man-to-man, but it's not man-to-man, but it turns out to be man-to-man. Those are challenging for the receivers and the quarterback because the match zones are tough."

That means Jones, who has done an excellent job of reading the field and getting the ball out quickly and is delivering a well-thrown ball on 82.8 per cent of his passes – tied second among quarterbacks with at least 50 attempts entering Week 8 – will have a lot to decipher on Sunday.

It may be billed as Herbert versus Jones, but in reality, this clash is Harris against a struggling Chargers run defense, Herbert vs. Belichick and Jones and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels vs. Staley. Those subplots should make for a fascinating matchup that will be critical in the AFC playoff race.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers head into Week 8 with a 6-1 record, though their form will be tested against the New Orleans Saints.

Tom Brady threw for four touchdowns and 211 yards in the Bucs' 38-3 thrashing of the Chicago Bears last week, though Tampa Bay's recent record against the Saints is poor.

The Los Angeles Rams are also 6-1, and are looking to extend their strong start when they take on the Houston Texans, who are out to avoid a franchise first.

Joe Burrow and Ja'Marr Chase, meanwhile, have been linking up to superb effect for the Cincinnati Bengals, who are at the New York Jets on Sunday. 

 

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-1) @ New Orleans Saints (4-2)

Tampa Bay may have picked up from where they left off last season, but their recent run against New Orleans has not been at all profitable.

New Orleans have won five straight games against NFC South rivals Tampa Bay, which is the longest active losing streak for the Buccaneers against any single opponent.

However, the Bucs did set franchise records for points in a first quarter with 21, and points in a first half with 35, in their 38-3 win over the Bears. The 21 first-quarter and 35 first-half points are also the most scored by any NFL team this season.

Mike Evans caught three touchdowns against the Bears with all of them coming in the first half. He joined Marvin Harrison, Marvin Jones Jr, Jerry Rice, and Sterling Sharpe as the only players since the merger to have multiple games with three first-half touchdown catches.

The Saints beat the Seattle Seahawks in their last outing, and had 35 passing attempts in that win. Both teams have combined to win 76.9 per cent of their games this season, the highest combined winning percentage that the teams have ever had when facing each other.

Los Angeles Rams (6-1) @ Houston Texans (1-6)

This will be only the fifth all-time meeting between the Texans and the Rams, and just the second game since the latter moved back to Los Angeles.

The Rams have outscored the Texans by an aggregate of 71-20 over the last two meetings, and, at 6-1, Los Angeles are enjoying their equal second-best start to a season this century, behind the 7-0 run in 2018.

They are also looking to win each of their first four road games of a season for the fourth time since 2000, having also done this in 2001, 2017 and 2018.

Matthew Stafford has thrown for 2,172 yards this season, the most by any Rams player in the team's first seven games of the season since Kurt Warner threw for 2,445 yards in the first seven games of 2000.

Houston, meanwhile, have lost six straight, with each of the last two losses coming by over 25 points. The Texans have not lost three straight games by at least 25 points in franchise history – the only team to do so in a single season in the last 25 years were the Miami Dolphins in 2019.

Cincinnati Bengals (5-2) @ New York Jets (1-5)

The Bengals have won each of the last three meetings between these teams, matching their longest-ever win streak over the Jets (1973-81). Cincinnati's 23-22 win in New York in 2016 snapped a nine-game losing streak when visiting the Jets.

Cincinnati only managed four wins in 2020, but they surpassed that figure with a brilliant 41-17 victory in Baltimore last week, with quarterback Burrow and wide receiver Chase turning in stellar performances.

Burrow passed for a career-high 416 yards and tied a previous career high with three touchdown passes. It was his seventh consecutive game with multiple TD passes, tying a franchise record set twice before by Carson Palmer (2004-05 and 2010).

Chase, meanwhile, had 201 receiving yards, the most all-time by a Bengals rookie and the most by any rookie since Mike Evans had 209 in 2014. Chase's 754 receiving yards in 2021 ranks are the most by any player through seven career games in NFL history.

The Jets' 54-13 loss to the Patriots last week was their largest defeat since a 45-3 loss in Week 13 of the 2010 season, which also happened in New England. The 54 points are the fourth-most that New York have allowed in a single game and the most since 1980.

Elsewhere...

The Detroit Lions are still winless, going 0-7 so far, but could snap the losing streak against the Philadelphia Eagles. The Lions have won three straight against Philadelphia, with each of the last two games being decided by three points or fewer. 

Strugglers the Miami Dolphins travel to Buffalo. With two receiving yards on Sunday, Stefon Diggs will reach 2,000 as a Bill in just his 23rd game with the team. That would be tied for the second fewest games needed by any player with any single team in the Super Bowl era (Odell Beckham Jr. – 21 with the Giants, Vincent Jackson – 23 with Tampa Bay, Brandon Marshall – 23 with Chicago).

Fresh from their win over the Jets, the Patriots will aim to maintain the momentum against the Los Angeles Chargers, against whom they have five straight wins and are 16-3 in the last 19 meetings.

An AFC North clash sees the Browns (4-3) host the 3-3 Steelers. Pittsburgh have not won in Cleveland since 2017, as the teams tied in 2018 before the Browns won in 2019 and 2020.

With the NFL approaching the midway point of its season, time is running out to stack fantasy wins and make a run at the postseason.

Whether you're right in the mix or on the outside looking in, now is the moment to go on a run and ensure you will be playing in the championship bracket.

The best way to do that is to identify the players with the opportunity to produce a performance that can serve as the backbone of a matchup-winning effort.

Here Stats Perform looks at four offensive players and a defense who are well-positioned to do just that in Week 8.

 

Quarterback: Jalen Hurts, Philadelphia Eagles @ Detroit Lions

Hurts is developing a reputation as the king of garbage time stats and, though fantasy owners may not have the benefit of him playing from behind in garbage time this week, he does have an extremely favorable matchup to exploit.

Through his abilities as a dual-threat quarterback, Hurts has accounted for 2,077 yards of offense and 15 touchdowns so far this season.

He is averaging 245.1 passing yards per game and 51.5 yards on the ground. Going against a Detroit defense ranked 30th in yards per play, Hurts is a strong candidate to deliver gaudy fantasy numbers.

Running Back: Aaron Jones, Green Bay Packers @ Arizona Cardinals

On the surface, Jones' matchup with a Cardinals defense ranked eighth in opponent yards per play allowed is a tough one.

However, only the Los Angeles Chargers are allowing more yards per rush than the Cardinals (4.97), and Jones should see a heavy workload on the ground and through the air.

Indeed, with Davante Adams a doubt after being placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list and Allen Lazard out for the same reason, Jones - who is second on the Packers behind Adams with 26 receptions - could see a bump in targets from Aaron Rodgers.

Always a must-start as Green Bay's lead back, Jones' performance on Thursday could be a decisive one for fantasy owners, especially those who play in points per reception leagues.

Wide Receiver: Mike Williams, Los Angeles Chargers vs. New England Patriots

The Chargers will be out to get back on track as they return from a bye week following their Week 6 shellacking at the hands of the Baltimore Ravens.

And they will be hopeful of hitting on several explosive plays against a Patriots defense that has given up its fair share.

The Patriots have conceded 77 passes of 10 yards or more, the seventh-most in the NFL.

That should be music to the ears of Williams, who has eight receptions of 20 yards or more, four games with at least seven receptions and a touchdown and two 100-yard performances. Expect this big-play threat to exploit a vulnerable New England secondary to a significant extent.

Tight End: Kyle Pitts, Atlanta Falcons vs. Carolina Panthers

The Falcons are surging, and much of that is down to the play of rookie tight end Pitts, who is living up to the reputation that saw him picked fourth overall in this year's draft by Atlanta.

Pitts has at least eight targets in each of his last three games and goes into Week 8 on the back of successive 100-yard performances.

Having clearly earned the trust of quarterback Matt Ryan, Pitts is receiving the target share and delivering the production to make him a must-start regardless of a tough matchup against a Panthers defense allowing the third-fewest yards per play in the NFL.

Defense: San Francisco 49ers @ Chicago Bears

The 49ers are firmly in must-win mode having dropped to 2-4, and the foundation for a winning effort in Chicago appears more likely to be laid by the defense.

San Francisco forced a pair of turnovers in the Week 7 loss to the Colts and the Niners' chances of adding to their takeaway tally seem strong with Chicago's rookie quarterback Justin Fields having thrown at least one interception in four of his seven appearances.

Fields committed five turnovers in Chicago's blowout loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last time out and a 49ers' front led by one of the NFL's premier pass rushers in Nick Bosa should be confident of forcing him into more.

Lamar Jackson did not appear to give much significance to the chapter he wrote in the NFL record books on Sunday, as the Baltimore Ravens surged to 5-1.

Jackson and the Ravens claimed their fifth straight win with a dominant 34-6 victory over the Los Angeles Chargers at M&T Bank Stadium.

It was a victory earned more on the legs of Baltimore's running backs and the solidity of the Ravens' defense than Jackson's dual-threat skill set.

But it saw the 2019 MVP break Dan Marino's record for the most wins by a quarterback before the age of 25, claiming his 35th.

Speaking about the record after the game, Jackson said: "It's pretty cool. I don't know what to say after that. It's cool."

Asked if such records matter to him, he replied: "We're on the road to something else. If it happens, it happens. But we want something else.

"It's a lot of season left. We just want to keep winning. A game at a time. That's all."

Head coach John Harbaugh, however, did attach some meaning to a record focused entirely on the numbers in the win column.

"That's the biggest one [winning]," Harbaugh said. "Have people heard of that one? I know they said they haven't heard about all these records – they have heard of about that one.

"I promise you that's what Lamar's most proud of, and that's the one we're the most proud of, absolutely."

The Chargers dropped to 4-2 having been held to just 208 net yards of offense.

Los Angeles had managed at least 350 in each of their previous five outings, with quarterback Justin Herbert conceding Baltimore's defense confused the Chargers with different looks.

"Yeah, it was a lot of looks that we didn't see on film and stuff they constructed for us," Herbert said.

"They did a great job at disguising their looks; bringing pressure from one way and hiding from another. 

"It was looks they hadn't shown all season and stuff that you know we have to be better at to adjust to during the game. But, you know, they played a great game."

The challenge of stopping Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens has proven beyond plenty of defensive teams during his still relatively young NFL career, and one of the finest defensive minds in the league was not up to the task in Week 6.

Jackson's meeting with fellow quarterback Justin Herbert was pegged as a battle between MVP candidates as the Ravens hosted the Los Angeles Chargers, and it is the Ravens star who has the stronger case after their dominant 34-6 win in a clash of 4-1 teams.

Brandon Staley was appointed as Chargers head coach on the back of his excellent performance in his one year as defensive coordinator of the Los Angeles Rams.

His Rams defense allowed the fewest yards per play in the NFL last season, however, the Chargers have struggled mightily against the run in 2021, making them an enticing matchup for the league's premier dual-threat quarterback in Jackson.

As it happened Jackson was able to lighten the burden on his shoulders in terms of running the ball, Latavius Murray and Le'Veon Bell each going in for rushing scores to put the Ravens 14-0 to the good in the second quarter.

Reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year Justin Herbert responded late in the half with a one-yard touchdown throw to Jared Cook after a Jackson interception, though the Chargers still trailed 17-6 at the half.

But a 12-play, 52-yard drive ended with Jackson hitting Mark Andrews for a nine-yard touchdown in the third quarter, and there was never a hint of a Chargers comeback thereafter.

Jackson's stat line, 19 of 27 passing for 167 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions with 51 yards on eight rushes, was pedestrian by his standards, but it was enough to give the Ravens the best record in the AFC as he claimed his 35th win, breaking Dan Marino's record for the most by a quarterback before his 25th birthday.

Chiefs remain unconvincing

Plenty wondered whether it was time to panic for the Kansas City Chiefs following their Week 5 loss to the Buffalo Bills in primetime last Sunday, which dropped them to 2-3.

Concerns about the two-time defending AFC champions were furthered after a first-half performance against the Washington Football Team that saw them trail 13-10 at the half.

Patrick Mahomes threw two interceptions, one off the hands of Tyreek Hill and another with an inexplicable decision to toss the ball up for grabs after fumbling the snap.

However, a touchdown pass to Hill and Darrel Williams' second rushing score of the game put Kansas City in command before Mahomes found Demarcus Robinson in the endzone to secure a 31-13 win that moves them within striking distance of the Chargers in the AFC West.

Five in a row for Packers

The Packers are far from the finished product at this stage of the season, but it is now five wins in a row for Green Bay after their 24-14 victory over NFC North rivals the Chicago Bears.

Aaron Rodgers averaged 8.5 yards per pass play and threw for two touchdowns, with the Packers quarterback reminding the Bears' fans at Soldier Field of his hold over the division after running for a score that effectively put the game to bed.

The Los Angeles Rams are also 5-1 after Matthew Stafford threw four touchdown passes in a 38-11 rout of the New York Giants.

Offensive linemen do not win NFL awards.

For as much as their performance is pivotal to the success of an NFL team, the cold hard truth is the narratives that decide the MVP, Offensive Player of the Year and Offensive Rookie of the Year awards are not built around those who spend their time in the trenches.

But if there is going to be an end to the wait for the first offensive lineman to win Rookie of the Year, then it may come from Rashawn Slater of the Los Angeles Chargers.

Slater is enjoying a stellar beginning to his NFL career, the 13th overall pick vindicating his draft status and locking down the left tackle spot to allow quarterback Justin Herbert to enjoy an MVP calibre start as the Chargers have gone 4-1 through five games.

With the class of rookie quarterbacks enduring plenty of first-year struggles and few of the highly drafted skill position players delivering results worthy of such significant recognition, Slater should have a better chance of at least receiving some Offensive Rookie of the Year votes.

And ahead of a blockbuster clash between the Chargers and the Baltimore Ravens, Stats Perform assesses whether Slater can take home the prize.

Slater's stellar performance

Though he had difficulties protecting Herbert from Cleveland Browns star Myles Garrett in Week 5, giving up a sack on a stunt involving Garrett and Malik McDowell and another following a spin move from the 2017 first overall pick, Slater has otherwise done a superb job keeping his quarterback clean.

His pressure rate allowed of 5.3 per cent ranks fourth among left tackles with a minimum of 100 pass protection snaps. Digging deeper into his numbers, Slater has lost only 13 of his 110 pass protection matchups, a win rate of 88.18 per cent.

Slater's stunt-adjusted win rate of 87.29 per cent is 13th among tackles with at least 50 matchups and is superior to that of Penei Sewell (76.27), the seventh overall pick of the Detroit Lions.

With his athleticism translating superbly to the highest level, Slater has been similarly effective in the run game, with a double-team adjusted win rate of 85.25 per cent from his 37 matchups.

Rarely would such sound offensive line play even put a rookie in the conversation for an individual award; however, 2021 could prove a unique case.

A lacklustre QB class?

Much was made of the strength of the 2021 quarterback class, yet that has not been reflected in the play of the five signal-callers to be taken in the first round so far.

Truly standout performances from rookie quarterbacks have been thin on the ground to this point, and the fact 15th overall pick Mac Jones leads the group in passing yards (1,243) and percentage of accurate, well-thrown balls (83.2) speaks to the mediocrity of their displays.

Jones has been accurate while struggling to push the ball downfield, with his air yards per attempt average of 7.51 the lowest among rookie quarterbacks.

First overall pick Trevor Lawrence's six touchdowns lead all rookies, yet his well-thrown percentage is a disappointing 75.2 per cent and his pickable pass percentage of 4.85 is well above the league average of 3.16.

The only two rookies to have excelled at avoiding turnover-worthy throws are Justin Fields (1.43 per cent) and Trey Lance (2.13 per cent). However, Fields has yet to put together a game to suggest he could win the award while Lance's one start so far was an uneven performance in which his positive flashes were negated by the poor execution of his offensive team-mates.

With the quarterbacks failing to build a convincing case, the favourite for Offensive Rookie of the Year must be Cincinnati Bengals receiver Ja'Marr Chase.

Chase's 456 receiving yards are seventh in the NFL and he already has five touchdowns to his name. The fifth overall pick is producing a big play on 38.9 per cent of targets, comfortably the best rate among rookie receivers with at least 10 targets.

Such numbers would seem to make him the clear frontrunner, but with the Bengals now 3-2 and facing a more difficult schedule than they have contended with through five weeks, his stock could soon take a dent and open the door for Slater, whose case would be strengthened by a strong performance against a potential Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate.

Oweh a significant challenge

The Chargers' ability to move the ball against the Ravens on Sunday may be contingent on how well Slater performs against another first-rounder in Baltimore pass rusher Odafe Oweh.

Oweh already has three sacks to his name and his 14 pressures were second only to Miami Dolphins' rookie Jaelan Phillips among first-year edge rushers heading into Week 6.

Boasting only 12 wins from 54 pass rush matchups, the more granular numbers are not as impressive for Oweh.

But his production to this point in terms of sacks suggests Oweh is a player who is quick to take advantage of opportunities that come his way.

A freakish athlete with elite short-area and long speed, Oweh only started playing football in high school, meaning there is likely plenty more growth to come from a defender who has already developed rapidly in his short time with the Ravens.

Slater, therefore, cannot afford to take the challenge of facing Oweh lightly despite the matchup numbers indicating he should have a clear advantage over his fellow rookie.

Coverage of the sport is such that more focus is given to the plays where the pass rusher beats his man and gets to the quarterback than to the plethora of snaps where the offensive lineman stops a defender from making an impact.

As a result, Slater's Rookie of the Year argument perhaps rests on him completely stopping Oweh from producing any splash plays.

Even if he does so, the prospect of him claiming the honour will be an unlikely one, but a performance that sees him shut down Oweh, help the Chargers to 5-1 and assist Herbert in further building his MVP case will at least be worthy of a wider conversation about recognition for arguably the premier offensive rookie of the class in the opening month of the season.

The Green Bay Packers head into Week 6 on the back of a remarkable overtime victory over the Cincinnati Bengals last time out.

Mason Crosby was the hero with a match-winning field goal, though his successful punt came on the back of three misses, not to mention the Bengals' Evan McPherson twice clipping the post with efforts in both regulation time and overtime.

The win took the Packers to 4-1 for the season, and next up are old rivals the Chicago Bears on Sunday. 

Meanwhile, the Baltimore Ravens (also 4-1) will look to build on their Lamar Jackson-inspired comeback against the Indianapolis Colts on Monday by beating the similarly in-form Los Angeles Chargers, and the Arizona Cardinals will look to continue their perfect start to the season as they travel to Cleveland.

 

Green Bay Packers @ Chicago Bears

One of the fiercest rivalries in the NFL rears its head in Week 6, with Green Bay travelling to Chicago. The foes share 22 championship titles between them, and this divisional contest in the NFC North is sure to serve up a treat.

The Packers are 21-5 in regular-season games against the Bears since 2008, when Aaron Rodgers became Green Bay's starting quarterback - indeed, Rodgers has started 25 of those meetings and is 11-2 in the 13 games he has started against Chicago since 2014, throwing 33 touchdown passes and no interceptions in 11 wins. There are three other matchups in which one team has beaten the other 21 times since 2008: Baltimore over the Cleveland Browns (22-4) and the New England Patriots over the New York Jets (22-5) and the Buffalo Bills (21-5).

This is the Packers' first road game against a division rival this season. Green Bay won all three of their away games against NFC North rivals in each of the past two campaigns.

Chicago are 3-2 for the season, though they have a league-low 728 passing yards. The Saints, with 904, are the only other team below 1000. If the Bears are to get anything from this game, they may well rely on the defensive prowess of Khalil Mack, who led the team with seven tackles in Week 5's 20-6 win over the Las Vegas Raiders.

Rodgers will be looking to pick out Davante Adams, meanwhile. He caught 11 passes for 206 yards in the win in Cincinnati. It was the third time since 1997 that a Packers player had 200 or more receiving yards in one game. 

Los Angeles Chargers @ Baltimore Ravens

This will be the first meeting between the Chargers and Ravens since the 2018 Wild Card round – Los Angeles claiming a 23-17 win on that occasion.

The Ravens are 3-1 in the regular season at home against the Chargers, though the last three games have been decided by seven points total. Baltimore go into the game on the back of a brilliant comeback win over the Colts. They trailed by 19 points with less than one minute remaining in the third quarter but came back to win 31-25 in overtime - their largest second-half comeback victory in franchise history.

Quarterback Jackson threw for 335 of his 442 passing yards in the second half and overtime, while completing 90.6 per cent of his passes (29/32). Over the last 30 seasons, there have been 635 quarterbacks to attempt at least 30 passes in the second half/OT of a game – he is the only one with a completion percentage over 90 per cent.

Los Angeles QB Justin Herbert, meanwhile, accounted for five touchdowns (four passing, one rushing) along with 427 total yards in just his 20th career start in the Chargers' 47-42 win in Cleveland. For any quarterback in his first 20 career starts, Herbert ranks first in completions (535), second in pass yards (5912) and third in total touchdowns (50).

Arizona Cardinals @ Cleveland Browns

The Cardinals' dream start to the season continued with a 17-10 triumph over the San Francisco 49ers. Arizona is the only unbeaten team in the NFL. This is the fifth time the Cardinals, an original NFL franchise, have won their first five games but first time since moving from St. Louis in 1988.

Arizona have won their last four games against the Browns, dating back to 2007. Before this streak, they had never won more than two consecutive games versus Cleveland. The Browns lead the all-time series, 33 wins to 15, with three ties.

The Browns, however, have won their last six games against NFC teams, including wins against the Bears and Vikings this season. Cleveland’s last loss against an NFC opponent was to the Cardinals in Arizona in 2019 (38-24).

Cleveland's Nick Chubb has 4080 yards rushing in his 49-game NFL career, and will likely become the third active player who had at least 4000 rushing yards through his first 50 games in the NFL, joining Ezekiel Elliott (4881) and Le'Veon Bell (4225).

Elsewhere...

The Patriots have endured a difficult start for the season, going 2-3 through the opening five games. The 4-1 Cowboys are next up, though New England have history on their side, having won six straight games against Dallas, a run dating back to 1998.

London calls for the Miami Dolphins and Jacksonville Jaguars, as the Florida rivals go head-to-head at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. The Jaguars' 37-19 loss at home to the Tennessee Titans last week extended their losing streak to 20 games. It is just the second 20-game losing streak in NFL history (the Tampa Bay Buccaneers lost 26 straight between 1976 and 1977).

It has been a difficult week for the Raiders, whose coach Jon Gruden resigned due to the emergence of offensive emails. Las Vegas take on the Denver Broncos, who they have more wins against than any other opponent in their history.

Cincinnati will look to bounce back from their defeat to the Packers when they take on Detroit. They have won six consecutive games against the Lions, going back to 1998, and a win on Sunday would see the Bengals equal a team record for the most successive victories against a single opponent, matching seven-game streaks against the Houston Oilers (1981- 1984) and the Browns (2014-2017).

Austin Ekeler insists the Los Angeles Chargers cannot get caught up in the hype after their wild Week 5 win over the Cleveland Browns.

The Chargers improved to 4-1 on the season with a thrilling 47-42 victory at SoFi Stadium, scoring 26 points in the fourth quarter.

Running back Ekeler was central to their triumph, finding the endzone three times, including on the Chargers' final score, a three-yard run with just over 90 seconds left in the contest that saw him pushed into the endzone by Browns defenders trying to preserve time for the Cleveland offense to come back.

But the Browns' attack could not do so, meaning the Chargers now lead the AFC West following a stellar performance from quarterback Justin Herbert, who threw for 398 yards and four touchdowns.

The Chargers were also three for three on fourth down attempts as an aggressive approach from head coach Brandon Staley was rewarded, though another fourth down caused controversy as they were able to keep a drive alive thanks to a contentious pass interference penalty against Cleveland.

Herbert now has 11 games of at least 300 yards passing in his career, the most by a player in his first two seasons in the league in NFL history.

And, for Ekeler, the Chargers' offense has an unstoppable feel to it.

"Oh, my goodness. Oh man, I'm still taking in that win and what just happened," Ekeler told Peter King for his Football Morning in America column. 

"It was incredible. Wow. On the touchdown pass in the fourth quarter, it was a screen, a play I fumbled on earlier in the game. That made me sick to my stomach. I'm still sick about it. But that's the great thing about football – you can make up for plays like that.

"Man, it feels like when we get on the field, we're gonna go score. If we have to, guess what? We're going for it on fourth down. That's just the way we roll right now.

"J-Herb's been smart with the ball, finding us, and we've been getting open and giving him an option to throw to. It's that feeling like we're in a zone. We're scoring every time we get the ball.

"Crazy play at the end. I'm not trying to score. Right? I'm trying to waste time. Which, I mean, if I was smarter in that situation I would've just immediately gone down. I was like, 'Oh let me try to waste more time'. And I tried to get cute, kill some time, got greedy, and they came and grabbed me, picked me up, took me in the endzone. Weirdest play ever. Has anybody ever been sad to score a touchdown?

"There's not many situations where you're sad that you scored a touchdown, but that one was like, man, wow, I dropped the ball in that situation by not just going down.

"So now, big win. But we can't get caught up in hype. One of my old running back coaches used to tell me, 'You can smell the cologne but don't taste it. Don't taste it.'

"What does that mean? There's gonna be a lot of people talking about you. You can say thank you, but make sure you know every single week you gotta show up to work. This is the NFL.

"Wow. Today was incredible. I got a feeling you're gonna see this all year."

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