NFL Midseason Report and Crazy Second-Half Predictions
With eight weeks in the books, the landscape of the NFL season is starting to shake out. A few surprises, both good and bad, have emerged, and the Suck for Luck Sweepstakes is just as gripping as the playoff races.
Following is a division-by-division breakdown of what's transpired so far, and predictions of each team's fortunes over the next nine weeks.
For the better part of a decade, the New England Patriots (5-2) were the lone bullies of the AFC East playground. No one else could catch a break while Tom Brady and company were filling their fingers with Super Bowl jewelry.
In my eyes, they've once again established their place atop the pecking order, but they don't seem quite so superhuman this time around. I'll give them a 12-4 record and the No. 1 playoff seed, but if a physical team shows up and hits them in the mouth like the Pittsburgh Steelers just did, they could very well fall.
The Buffalo Bills (5-2) have become relevant behind the mercurial rise of quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and the emergence of running back Fred Jackson and wide receiver Steve Johnson.
Their remaining schedule is very middle-of-the-road, so I'll give them an 11-5 record and the No. 5 playoff seed. This would virtually guarantee them a very winnable postseason matchup with the winner of the AFC West, and a chance to really make some noise.
Rex Ryan has really turned the New York Jets (4-3) around in his two-plus years holding the reins. Despite not having a star quarterback, Ryan has led the Jets to consecutive AFC title games.
I believe that streak has reached its end this year, as the Jets have dug themselves into too deep of a hole in this suddenly stacked division. I'll put them at 9-7.
The Miami Dolphins have put themselves in prime position to win the Suck for Luck Sweepstakes. Unlike the Indianapolis Colts, they're keeping games relatively close, losing by just over a touchdown per contest. They will likely finish with the same 2-14 record as the Colts, and receive the No. 1 draft pick based on an inferior strength of schedule.
Don't count on Andrew Luck throwing an Eli Manning-type temper tantrum and refusing to play for them when he's selected, because he knows this team isn't as putrid as many people think.
In the first of a few mind-blowing projections, I have the Cincinnati Bengals (5-2) compiling an 11-5 record and taking the AFC North, and the No. 2 seed, via a series of tiebreakers. I'm not sold on their offensive abilities, but they've played some quality defense and handled their business while their competition has been struggling against teams like the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Arizona Cardinals.
I believe another tiebreaker will come into play as the Pittsburgh Steelers (6-2) and Baltimore Ravens (5-2) will also be sporting 11-5 records. Thus, not only will there be a three-way tie for the division title, but also a three-way tie for a wild-card spot when the Bills are thrown into the mix.
I think this will come down to records within the AFC, and the Steelers will edge out the Ravens in that department (but fall short of the Bills) to take the No. 6 seed, meaning they'll have to repeat their magical 2005 run if they want to hoist the hardware this year.
Lastly, the Cleveland Browns (3-4) continue to toil in mediocrity, and I see no reason for that to change. They aren't bad enough to get a great spot in the draft, and they aren't good enough to be relevant competitors. Cleveland truly is football purgatory. I'll put them at 6-10.
This once-fearsome division is now in shambles.
The Indianapolis Colts (0-8) have found life without Peyton Manning to be an absolute nightmare, and the Tennessee Titans (4-3) found their season derailed by a knee injury to star receiver Kenny Britt and the continued ineffectiveness of running back Chris Johnson after, to no one's shock, he signed a big contract. Meanwhile, the Jacksonville Jaguars (2-6) are sporting a mean defense, but The Blaine Gabbert Project is off to an extremely rough start on the other side of the ball.
That leaves the division wide open for the Houston Texans (5-3). Despite the gimpy hamstrings of their two offensive studs, running back Arian Foster and receiver Andre Johnson, the Texans are primed and ready to run away with the AFC South title.
I've got them at 11-5, taking the three seed after Cincinnati squeaks by them in December.
The rest of the division isn't even relevant, but I've got the Titans at 8-8, the Jaguars at 6-10, and the Colts at 2-14, narrowly missing out on Andrew Luck.
Unless, of course, they choose to openly tank the rest of the season, which I'm not so sure they aren't already doing. -131 net points through eight games is more than a little suspicious, after all.
We're all accustomed to the slow starts of the San Diego Chargers (4-3) by now, but quarterback Philip Rivers has never looked this bad during those starts. It's always been due to shaky defense or laughable special teams. Rivers was the one thing Chargers fans could count on.
Not so much this year. Rivers may have been feeling the absence of tight end Antonio Gates, but that's no excuse for a 7-11 TD-INT ratio and six fumbles in seven games. Maybe playing for Norv Turner has just killed his ability to care about football. Who knows?
I predict another convoluted tiebreaker here, as the Chargers will be knotted up at 8-8 with the Oakland Raiders (4-3) and Kansas City Chiefs (4-3) at season's end. I believe the Chiefs will take the division, and the No. 4 seed, setting up an interesting 4-5 matchup with the Bills at Arrowhead.
I originally had the Raiders winning the West, but Jason Campbell's injury changed all that. Only a fool puts faith in the two-headed Kyle Boller/Carson Palmer demon.
I expect more embarrassing games from the Denver Broncos (2-6) before this year is finished. There are just too many problems on both sides of the ball, and it starts with the quarterback. Everyone wants to see Tim Tebow succeed, but he has to be able to complete a pass first.
We'll probably never know what Andy Reid's secret to bye weeks is. All we know is that the Philadelphia Eagles (3-4) have always played very strong football in the second half of the season under him, and last week's dismantling of the Cowboys seems to indicate that we're in for more of the same.
I see the Eagles taking this division with a deceptively weak 9-7 record. I certainly would not want to be matched up with this No. 4 seed in January.
The Dallas Cowboys (3-4) continue their tradition of failing to meet preseason expectations. Their defensive presence in the middle of the field is nonexistent, and their safeties will continue to get eaten alive en route to an uninspiring 8-8 record.
The New York Giants (5-2) are off to a fast start on paper, but the two losses stand out to me more than the five wins. You just can't lose to the lowly Seahawks on your own field. You can't give away games like Eli Manning did.
Up next: road games at New England, San Francisco, New Orleans, and Dallas, plus home stands against Philadelphia and Green Bay. Sounds like a recipe for 8-8 to me.
Mike Shanahan continues to make the Washington Redskins (3-4) look like a traveling circus. Shanahan is notorious for tinkering with his team every time something goes wrong, and I feel like his players have just as little faith in him as he does in them. This looks like a 6-10 team.
Welcome to the most stacked division in the NFL. It all starts at the top with the defending world champion Green Bay Packers (7-0). They are heavy favorites to retain the Lombardi Trophy, and for good reason.
They have the best quarterback in the world, several toys for him to play with, a stingy defense, and a roster that's in relatively good overall health. It's not likely that Mike McCarthy will see the need to go 16-0 even if his team is capable of it, which they are, so expect the Packers to cruise to the No. 1 seed with a 14-2 record.
Man, where did the Detroit Lions (6-2) come from? I realize we had this discussion a few years ago, after which the Lions dropped six in a row en route to finishing 7-9, but this is a different team. The Lions are legitimately good on both sides of the ball.
Health is the only thing that could keep them down. I've got them at 11-5 and the No. 5 seed.
Despite all their ongoing offensive line issues, the Chicago Bears (4-3) continue to play some pretty darn good football. The defense seems to be ageless, and do-everything running back Matt Forte has already eclipsed 1,000 yards from scrimmage in just seven games. If Jay Cutler could just stay upright, this team could be special. I'll put them at 9-7.
The Minnesota Vikings (2-6) have been victims of their own lack of discipline, and having to face significantly superior teams so often hasn't helped their case. I like what I've seen from quarterback Christian Ponder so far, so it's possible that this team is headed in the right direction. For now, though, I'm sticking them at 5-11.
For much of the first half of the season, the New Orleans Saints (5-3) looked almost unstoppable. Even with a questionable defense, Drew Brees was putting points on the board like a man possessed.
Then came an embarrassing three-week stretch that saw the Saints lose to the mediocre Tampa Bay Buccaneers, get blasted by the media for an unnecessary 62-7 hosing of the lowly Colts, and hand the equally lowly St. Louis Rams their first win of the season.
Suffice it to say no one knows what the Saints are going to do. I'll take the safe route and put them at 10-6 and the No. 3 seed.
The Atlanta Falcons (4-3) look to be on the same 10-6 track after a rough start to the season, and I have them taking the No. 6 seed. They aren't quite as strong on the lines this year, but there's still plenty of talent across the roster.
I'm not sold on Matt Ryan's big-play ability, however, and I feel they would have more success reeling him back in and confining him to a system. It wasn't broken last year, so why fix it?
I haven't been able to figure out the Buccaneers (4-3). They've alternated between disastrous and solid in pretty much every way possible. One week, the passing game is nonexistent and Josh Freeman looks lost. The next, the passing game clicks and the Bucs can't move the ball on the ground. I'm just going to throw in the towel and put them at 8-8.
Some of us had a good laugh at the expense of the Carolina Panthers (2-6) when they took Cam Newton at the top of the draft. At this stage, Newton appears to be the real deal, and simply needs some talent around him now.
This team could have a bright future if it proceeds properly from this point, but they'll have to endure some growing pains, and those pains will likely take the form of a 5-11 record this year.
This division starts and ends with the San Francisco 49ers (6-1). They're an overtime loss away from being alongside the Packers in the undefeated ranks.
This is a quality, quality team, and I don't think anyone saw them doing this well when they gazed into the preseason crystal ball. I have them cruising to the No. 2 seed with a 13-3 record, good for more wins than the rest of the division combined.
The Seattle Seahawks (2-5) only have two wins because Eli Manning had a moment of generosity and handed them a game last month.
This is not a good team, and I'm going to have to go out on a limb and say the front office was wrong when they declared that Charlie Whitehurst is a franchise quarterback. I realize they were looking for the next Matt Schaub when they traded the farm for a backup, but it just isn't working. I foresee a 5-11 record.
Speaking of quarterbacks that are inexplicably thought of as franchise material, The Kevin Kolb Project isn't going so well in Arizona (1-6). It really is a shame that an elite talent like Larry Fitzgerald is wasting away in this barren desert. I can't give them any better than a 4-12 prediction.
Last, and probably least, we come to the St. Louis Rams (1-6). Don't read too far into the Saints taking the week off against them. They're still a bad team, and it's for their own good.
Sam Bradford still has the makings of a franchise quarterback, but he needs some talent around him and a line that is actually capable of keeping him on his feet. The secondary could also use some serious shoring up. A 3-13 record should position them sufficiently well in the draft to address some of these needs.