Every NFL Team's Biggest Subplot for the Rest of 2017

Sean Tomlinson@@SeanGTomlinsonNFL AnalystNovember 10, 2017

Every NFL Team's Biggest Subplot for the Rest of 2017

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    The standings are always the main story in the NFL at midseason. We're busy labeling Super Bowl favorites, throwing dirt on teams that won't make the postseason and looking up and down those massive "in the hunt" lists.

    The NFL is often a mess, and in 2017 the confusing stockpile of mediocre teams in the middle means hoping, dreaming playoff life is being clung to even more.

    That pursuit dominates the NFL narrative until about mid-December when a bit of clarity emerges. Then we start talking about who will get home-field advantage, and which head coaches will be packing up boxes.

    But in the meantime, every team has a subplot lurking in the shadows.

    As always, quarterback storylines dominate the league. You don't have to look far to find critical franchise-altering questions like: Are we watching the final days of Carson Palmer's career? Would Joe Flacco be benched if he wasn't named Joe Flacco? And when will the San Francisco 49ers start Jimmy Garoppolo?

    Elsewhere, it's fair to begin wondering if the Kansas City Chiefs' championship aspirations will be destroyed by a malfunctioning defense. And on the other side of the ball, will the Los Angeles Rams ever be able to use wide receiver Sammy Watkins properly?

    Every team, even the awful ones, has a key story to watch as the second half of the season unfolds.

Arizona Cardinals: Will 2017 Mark the End of an Era?

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    We may have witnessed more than just the unofficial end of the Arizona Cardinals' 2017 season when quarterback Carson Palmer broke his left arm in Week 7.

    They're 4-5 right now, which means they have faint playoff hopes, just like almost every other team in the NFC. But the Cardinals have several teams to jump for a wild-card spot, and they'll need to do it despite weaknesses that have been exploited to the tune of a minus-68 point differential.

    So, yes, it sure feels like 2017 isn't going to end well for the Cardinals, especially with running back David Johnson expected to miss the rest of the season, as head coach Bruce Arians told Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic. Which means an era of Cardinals football could be about to end abruptly.

    Palmer will turn 38 years old in late December. He has one year left on his current contract and already entertained thoughts of retirement before deciding to come back in 2017.

    Retirement has a better chancing of winning that battle during the 2018 offseason as Palmer continues to age and break down. Larry Fitzgerald, Palmer's main target for years and a likely future Hall of Famer, could lean heavily in that direction too. Fitzgerald has still been productive in 2017, with two 130-plus-yard receiving games. He's also 34 years old, has an expiring contract and was noncommittal about his future in training camp.

    Fitzgerald and Palmer have been core pillars for the Cardinals. The possibility of losing both during one offseason could trigger a rebuild and likely some hard times for a few years. Appreciate watching them while you can.

Atlanta Falcons: Will Steve Sarkisian Make It Through the Season?

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    Steve Sarkisian inherited a sleek and loud speed boat when the Atlanta Falcons hired him to be their new offensive coordinator. He's since taken that roaring machine and traded it in for a sluggish tugboat.

    The Falcons have the same offensive foundation that propelled them to the Super Bowl in 2016. They have the same quarterback who took home the NFL's highest individual award. Now Matt Ryan's passer rating has dropped from 117.1 to 92.8.

    They have the same athletically gifted wide receiver who's also built like an oak tree. Yet Julio Jones' per-game receiving average has dropped by nearly 20 yards, and at midseason he's scored only one touchdown.

    Of course, some of the responsibility for that dwindling production falls on the players themselves. But those players are in their prime and fresh off a season when they led an offense that averaged 415.8 yards per game.

    Now under Sarkisian the Falcons are averaging 372.0 yards, which is still fine, but far removed from juggernaut status. Consequently, Atlanta is 4-4 and two games back in its division with the New Orleans Saints slipping away.

Baltimore Ravens: How Low Can Joe Flacco Sink?

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    It's a known fact that if you have even passable talent as a quarterback, you're going to get paid. The laws of supply and demand have that effect. The NFL doesn't have much of the former and plenty of the latter.

    The exception, of course, is if you're named Colin Kaepernick. Joe Flacco doesn't have that name, but he does have a shiny Super Bowl ring.

    That's part of the reason the Baltimore Ravens gave him a three-year contract extension in 2016 that included a massive $40 million signing bonus. The other reason is a fear of the unknown, as having a quarterback who is even kind of worth paying is now seen as an NFL luxury.

    That contract was laughable at the time, and to the surprise of no one, it's not getting better. Flacco is accounting for a $24.55 million cap hit in 2017, per Spotrac, and he's cratering fast at the age of 32. He's averaging just 5.3 yards per pass attempt, which is over a yard lower than where he ended 2016. For perspective, Cleveland Browns rookie quarterback DeShone Kizer has averaged 5.4 yards per attempt even throughout his struggles.

    Flacco has also logged four multiple-interception games already and thrown 10 picks overall, which puts him behind only Kizer and the Panthers' Cam Newton for most picks in the league. 

    Any other quarterback would be benched. But his name value is too strong, and the dollar figure attached to that contract is too daunting.

Buffalo Bills: Where Is the 2016 Version of LeSean McCoy?

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    If you were born in the last year the Buffalo Bills made the playoffs, you've now graduated from high school. Your birth year also lined up with a great late '90s party jam that recently led to sporadic street dancing.

    Yes, those were strange times in 1999, the last year the Bills were in the postseason. They're in position to mercifully break that long playoff drought in 2017. But if they want to hold onto their tenuous grasp on a wild-card spot, the Bills will need more from running back LeSean McCoy.

    McCoy has been solid, but a run-oriented offense needs more than that. He's recorded 788 yards from scrimmage, but as a runner he is averaging only 3.7 yards per carry. That's down dramatically from McCoy's 5.4-yards-per-carry average in 2016.

    He's shown more signs of life recently, with 91 rushing yards in Week 7 and 151 in Week 8.

Carolina Panthers: Getting the Most Out of Christian McCaffrey

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    Coming into Week 10, Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey ranked third in the NFL with his 54 catches, ahead of every pass-catcher who isn't Jarvis Landry or Antonio Brown.

    Which is quite the accomplishment for any running back, and especially a rookie still feeling his way through the league. The problem, however, is that teams don't use the eighth overall pick on a one-dimensional running back.

    McCaffrey is undersized at 5'11" and 205 pounds, which led to predraft concerns about his ability to run inside and through contact. Those red flags have become glaring now, as the 21-year-old has logged only 183 rushing yards over nine games and is plodding along at 2.9 yards per carry.

    McCaffrey is making a steady contribution as a pass-catcher. But for the Panthers to separate themselves in the crowded NFC, they'll need more from the 2015 Heisman runner-up.

Chicago Bears: Is Mitchell Trubisky a Long-Term Answer at Quarterback?

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    Mitchell Trubisky has started four NFL games at quarterback for the Chicago Bears and is still early on in what should be a steep adjustment.

    But learning is tough to do until the coaching staff thrusts you into difficult situations, and ones you're not comfortable with just yet. There are plenty of those for Trubisky after he made only 13 starts in college.

    The problem with developing a promising though inexperienced quarterback in the NFL is the coaching staff rarely stays around long enough to see the project through to its conclusion. In Chicago, head coach John Fox has to find the balance between winning enough to keep his job and making sure Trubisky matures steadily.

    Self preservation will always win that battle when employment is involved. That's why we can't make even the faintest assessment of Trubisky yet, as the Bears haven't allowed him to do much. He has yet to hit the 15-completion mark in a game and attempted a Tim Tebow-like seven passes in Week 7.

    Even with that tiny passing workload his completion percentage is woeful at 47.5. But the Bears won't know what they have until Trubisky gets to air it out more, and that's surely coming in the second half of 2017.

Cincinnati Bengals: The Andy Dalton Mess

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    Much like the Ravens with Flacco, the Cincinnati Bengals are facing a brewing crisis with a veteran quarterback who was, at worst, a passable talent not long ago.

    Sure, questions have always hovered around Andy Dalton. But as recently as 2015 he threw 25 touchdown passes with only seven interceptions. He fell from that high perch in 2016, though only slightly, and averaged 262.9 passing yards per game and 7.5 per attempt.

    Now halfway through 2017, he's already matched his interception total (eight) from 2016. And his per-game passing yardage has plummeted to 217.4. He's struggled to push the ball downfield with accuracy. However, in fairness, a weak offensive line isn't helping matters.

    Dalton turned 30 years old in late October and is far removed from his days of developing as a young quarterback. What they have now is a veteran quarterback who's maddeningly inconsistent, but one they can move on from with only a $2.4 million dead cap hit in 2018, per Spotrac.

    It's still hard to picture the Bengals without Dalton under center. But watching them with Dalton is getting even harder.

Cleveland Browns: Will Hue Jackson Make It Past Black Monday?

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    No one in Cleveland realistically expected the Browns to contend for a playoff spot in 2017. But after an offseason filled with athletically explosive high draft picks and free-agent signings that seemed to fill core needs, it felt like beaten down Browns fans were finally given permission to hope.

    Now they're staring down a sight that's become far too familiar: a winless record in November.

    The Browns are 0-8 during a season when they were hoping to take at least a baby step forward. Instead, they've now won just once since the start of the 2016 season when Hue Jackson took over as head coach.

    Of course, not all of the Browns' struggles can be placed squarely on Jackson, which is true to some degree with every head coach. Jackson has been given a flawed roster to work with.

    But he had some influence in that roster construction, including the decision to pass on Deshaun Watson during the draft and then take DeShone Kizer as the Browns' potential quarterback of the future instead. Watson shined before his season ended early because of an ACL tear, whereas Kizer has been wildly mishandled by Jackson, as he's been yanked in and out of the starting spot.

    Kizer is a mess and has thrown only three touchdown passes with 11 interceptions. But eventually a head coach has to acknowledge what he's dealing with, and act accordingly. Jackson is dealing with a young quarterback who still has potential, but is also raw, underdeveloped and just 21 years old.

    Shattering his confidence by benching him repeatedly isn't the solution for a rebuilding team that needs to find out what it has in Kizer. It's a decision that could put Jackson on the path toward finding employment elsewhere.

Dallas Cowboys: Can Dez Bryant Be a Dominant Receiver Again?

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    At some point in the 2017 season, the Dallas Cowboys will be without their star running back Ezekiel Elliott for six weeks. That still feels likely at least, though assuming anything in his ongoing court battle hasn't been safe yet.

    Losing a dynamic weapon like Elliott will always sting, but in the past the Cowboys would have been able to shrug and shift the focus to wide receiver Dez Bryant. He rose to prominence in the NFL with three straight 1,200-plus-yard seasons between 2012 and 2014, and the 29-year-old also caught 41 touchdown passes during that span.

    But increasingly it seems like that version of Bryant is in the past.

    Bryant can still be effective as a large-bodied target vacuum. He has the natural instincts to block out defenders and leap to win jump balls. But what made him special to begin with was combining that physicality with downfield speed.

    Now, he's not creating quite as much separation deep. That's showing in his production, as the Cowboys veteran has seen his per-catch average go from 15.9 yards in 2016 to 11.6 yards in 2017. Bryant has also recorded only 439 total yards, which puts him on pace for the second-lowest single-season output of his career.

    Bryant can still make an important contribution. But it'll just come in a different way, and we might already be seeing the end of his time as the engine driving an offense.

Denver Broncos: Can John Elway Fix His Quarterback Problem?

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    When assessing the 2017 Denver Broncos and their rapid fall from the league's top tier now punctuated by four straight losses, it's important to acknowledge a simple depth-chart truth. Which is that the Broncos' quarterback problem was never just about Trevor Siemian.

    Siemian was a caretaker and placeholder to begin with. He's a quarterback the Broncos hoped could continue to not fall on his face while the defense did the heavy lifting. Don't place the blame squarely on Siemian for inevitably starting to play like a seventh-round pick.

    Which is what Siemian did when he threw 10 interceptions over seven starts, hitting rock bottom with three in Week 8. That stung, of course, but the real issue is a lack of even remote competence behind Siemian, which is a product of John Elway's poor roster construction.

    The Broncos have been forced to use Brock Osweiler as their emergency glass case. Osweiler infamously flamed out with the Houston Texans in 2016 while throwing 16 interceptions. More of the same came during his first start of 2017 when he threw two picks and completed only 50 percent of his pass attempts in a loss to the Philadelphia Eagles.

    Eventually Paxton Lynch will be healthy enough to play, and during what looks to be a lost season, the Broncos will need to find out what they have in him. The answer is likely not much, as during the preseason Lynch averaged only 3.8 yards per attempt while throwing against second- and third-team scrubs.

    The Broncos are among the many teams actively choosing to make their roster worse by not signing Colin Kaepernick. Now they'll likely also be among the many teams grasping for a solution in the offseason.

Detroit Lions: Can the Lions Find Any Sort of a Rushing Attack?

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    The Detroit Lions have a legitimate shot at the playoffs in 2017. That's true even after they went through an early-season stumble and lost four out of five games. It's also true even after they were thumped 52-38 by the New Orleans Saints in Week 6.

    Teams with playoff potential usually don't give up that many points. But in a division riddled with quarterback injuries, the Lions have a shot, and plenty of time left, to catch the Minnesota Vikings. And they may need to go about making that dream a reality while coping with a nearly nonexistent rushing offense.

    The Lions' sputtering backfield was lifeless again in Week 9 when Ameer Abdullah averaged only 2.3 yards per carry. It didn't matter because the Green Bay Packers offense also didn't have a pulse without star quarterback Aaron Rodgers. But it's difficult to see the Lions playing deep into January if they can't muster any support for Matthew Stafford and field a rushing offense that goes beyond generating a dust cloud.

    Detroit is averaging a mere 79.9 rushing yards per game, which has given the Lions a one-dimensional and predictable offense. That will make it hard to take them seriously come playoff time if they manage to claw their way into the postseason tournament.

Green Bay Packers: How Much Blame Does Mike McCarthy Get for Brett Hundley?

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    It's easy to look at Brett Hundley and come to a simple conclusion: He's not an NFL-caliber quarterback, and he has no business being one ankle twist or awkward fall away from taking meaningful snaps for a team with championship aspirations.

    But assessing the situation that's developed with the Green Bay Packers since Rodgers' injury isn't quite so simple.

    Yes, Hundley has been awful while posting a passer rating of only 58.0 since taking over for Rodgers. He's handcuffed the offense with his lack of vision and little sense for the pocket, which results in him holding on to the ball for far too long. Consequently, the Packers have been forced to rework an offense around Hundley that features almost no downfield passing, with throws concentrated around the line of scrimmage.

    That offense has been difficult to watch, especially Monday night in Week 9 when the 24-year-old averaged only 3.8 yards per pass attempt. But Hundley is a quarterback with the same athletic promise, as well as the same core flaws, he had as a prospect in 2015 while coming out of UCLA. But a prospect will only shed the weaknesses in his play with quality coaching and guidance.

    So here's your timeline then: The Packers used a fifth-round pick on a prospect who needed to be developed. Packers head coach Mike McCarthy and his staff have been given two-plus seasons to work with Hundley, and his development still has not progressed past Stage 1.

Houston Texans: Will Bill O'Brien Get a Contract Extension?

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    NFL head coaches aren't given lame-duck status and allowed to enter the final year of their contracts without an extension very often. That means decision-making time is fast approaching for the Houston Texans with Bill O'Brien, who's getting toward the end of his fourth year in a five-year deal.

    It's a difficult situation to gauge because of the posturing going on behind the scenes.

    On the field, the Texans' 2017 season has been derailed due to injuries, most notably the season-ending ACL tear suffered by sparkling rookie quarterback Deshaun Watson. Prior to Watson going down, the Texans were a team on the rise, and they had finally found their franchise quarterback.

    But long before we were all dazzled by Watson's brilliance, a disconnect between O'Brien and Texans general manager Rick Smith was growing. According to John McClain of the Houston Chronicle, there was a disagreement about the trade up to get Watson. There was reportedly another one regarding when Watson should get his first start, per Matt Hammond of Sports Radio 610.

    So it seems that O'Brien sticking around is tied to his relationship with Smith. The Texans have won two straight division titles under O'Brien and advanced to the divisional round in 2017. But even that might not be enough to keep him on the Texans sideline if front office relationships are too frayed.

Indianapolis Colts: Is This the End for Chuck Pagano?

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    The head coach question doesn't come with nearly as much murkiness in Indianapolis.

    The Colts have struggled because of their own crushing quarterback injury, but they've also spiraled in a way that should spell the end of the Chuck Pagano era.

    Pagano is a defensive-minded head coach who was the Baltimore Ravens' coordinator on that side of the ball before being hired by the Colts back in 2012. So when a coach who's supposed to be a defensive expert puts together a unit that face-plants fast, consequences should be coming.

    The Colts are a defensive disaster in every sense. Overall they're allowing 393.6 yards per game, which is the league's second-worst total behind only the New England Patriots. The Colts are also giving up 279.7 passing yards per game, which is again behind only the Patriots in the basement, and they have the 16th-ranked run defense. They're also generating little pocket pressure, with only 18 sacks over nine games.

    The Colts would clearly benefit from having a healthy Andrew Luck, which isn't happening in 2017. But he plays quarterback, so he would just be on the sideline watching as his defense gets pummeled. A change is needed, along with a new direction.

Jacksonville Jaguars: How Long Can They Make Blake Bortles an Afterthought?

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    The Jacksonville Jaguars' 2017 season has been, in a word, strange.

    Seeing them with a record above .500 and in a playoff spot at midseason is already strange enough. But how they've arrived there—by winning two consecutive games only once, and yet having a 24.6 average margin of victory in their five wins—is the most bizarre development.

    The thumpings laid on opponents during their wins is a sign the Jaguars have a team that could rise fast and maybe even produce an upset come January. They would do that while powered by old-fashioned brute force from their defense and the running of Leonard Fournette. The rookie running back, who was suspended for one game by the team in Week 9, is averaging 99.3 rushing yards per game, and the Jaguars have the league's third-ranked defense.

    But can they really keep winning with an approach that minimizes the quarterback so much?

    That's both the ultimate question surrounding their season and why the 2017 Jaguars have become an experiment the NFL is watching intently.

    Historically, the answer to that question is yes for a short period of time, and then eventually everything blows up. The 2011 Broncos, for example, were able to ride solid defense and a quality rushing attack to the AFC divisional round while actually calling Tim Tebow their quarterback. Then they were steamrolled by the Patriots.

    Jacksonville quarterback Blake Bortles is averaging only 29.3 pass attempts per game (32nd). He's not being put in a position to rob his team of wins because of incomprehensible mistakes.

    The Jaguars are trying to make their quarterback an afterthought, and that's a tough act to pull off.

Kansas City Chiefs: Will the Defensive Crumbling Continue?

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    It's been a whole lot of fun watching the Kansas City Chiefs' new-look offense centered around explosiveness from wide receiver Tyreek Hill, tight end Travis Kelce and running back Kareem Hunt.

    That trio has combined to score 16 touchdowns. They've done that while powered by Hunt's absurd 125.7 yards from scrimmage per game and Kelce's 629 receiving yards, which leads all tight ends. Oh, and the fact that Hill is averaging 22.7 yards per catch over the past three games.

    But now all the Chiefs' offensive promise could fade away because of a defense that leaked a bit at first but is now gushing. The Chiefs have lost three of their last four games while giving up an average of 24.3 points during that stretch.

    Their secondary has been ripped apart, with opponents using the simple strategy of keeping the ball away from cornerback Marcus Peters. In Week 9, the Chiefs gave up four touchdowns during a loss to the Dallas Cowboys and 141 receiving yards to previously quiet wideout Terrance Williams.

    The Chiefs now have the league's 29th-ranked defense, and worse, they've given up the third-most touchdowns. The pendulum has quickly swung in the opposite direction, and Kansas City is now a team that may have to win with offense, and only offense, if it wants to play deep into January.

Los Angeles Chargers: Are We Watching the Final Days of Antonio Gates' Career?

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    The short answer to the Antonio Gates retirement question is surely yes, though he hasn't said anything official yet. During a preseason NFL Network interview, he politely dodged the question and gave the standard answer about needing to see how his body feels after the season.

    He's 37 years old and is no longer the main focus of the Los Angeles Chargers offense. That's why 30 yards is his single-game receiving high so far in 2017, and he's totaled just 144 yards.

    But he now holds the all-time record for tight end touchdowns (112) and is third in yards at his position, according to Pro Football Reference. He's fought off aging far longer than most expected, which includes 548 yards and seven touchdowns during his age-36 season.

    His contract expires at the end of 2017, so if Gates chooses to step away, he'll undoubtedly be fitted for a gold jacket five years later.

Los Angeles Rams: Sammy Watkins Earning a Larger Role

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    The Los Angeles Rams suddenly have an explosive offense that's been turned around by head coach Sean McVay, who should be the early leading candidate for Coach of the Year honors.

    The Rams are averaging a league-high 8.4 yards per pass attempt, and they're tied for second with 34 completions for 20-plus yards. Led by a strong sophomore NFL season from quarterback Jared Goff, the Rams are pushing the ball downfield with confidence.

    Now just imagine how much their offense would be feared if wide receiver Sammy Watkins was more involved.

    Watkins was traded to the Rams in mid-August, and he still hasn't really found his footing in the offense. He's recorded 331 receiving yards, and 106 of those came in one game.

    The 24-year-old has been highly effective when healthy, posting 2,029 yards and 15 touchdowns over his first two seasons. He may still need more time to form a connection with Goff and ease into the Rams offense. Once that happens, even more fireworks could follow.

Miami Dolphins: Can DeVante Parker Finally Become a Consistent Weapon?

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    The Miami Dolphins have lost four games in 2017. They were shut out in two of them and scored only six points in a third.

    Yet somehow at 4-4, they're still in playoff contention during a season when the AFC wild-card race is shaping up to be a jumbled mess filled with mediocrity.

    It might be the reaching sort of playoff contention as they sit two games back of the Buffalo Bills. But it's playoff contention nonetheless, and to get over that hump, the Dolphins need help from a wide receiver they've been waiting on for a while: DeVante Parker.

    The 2015 first-round pick has had a sluggish start to his career. He's flashed at times, but then his bright light fades away. Now, in 2017, he finally seems to be developing some consistency.

    Parker missed three games due to an ankle injury suffered in Week 5. But the 24-year-old has finished with 65-plus yards in the four full games he's played, topping out at 85 yards in the Dolphins' season opener. That growth needs to continue if the Dolphins want to keep their faint playoff hopes alive.

Minnesota Vikings: How Effective Will Teddy Bridgewater Be in a Game Situation?

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    Let's just go ahead and assume the Minnesota Vikings will start quarterback Teddy Bridgewater at some point during the 2017 regular season, and likely soon. They just put Sam Bradford on injured reserve, and although Case Keenum has been a fun story for the 6-2 Vikings, he's still a journeyman with a career passer rating of 80.8.

    Bridgewater was drafted to be the future at quarterback in Minnesota. He was activated from the physically unable to perform list Wednesday, though Keenum will likely still keep his quarterback seat warm for now.

    But what should we realistically expect once Bridgewater returns? That question is impossible to answer, which is scary for a team leading its division.

    Sure, Bridgewater has had success at the NFL level in the past, highlighted by a sharp rise in accuracy at the end of his rookie season that featured four straight games with a 70-plus completion percentage. But that came in 2014, which is an eternity ago in NFL time. Now Bridgewater will have to function at game speed for the first time since suffering a severe knee injury.

    The Vikings will move forward with the same approach, which has been to lean on an intimidating defense and a strong rushing offense. And ideally, Bridgewater will be able to keep that machine running while making the odd key throw.

New England Patriots: Can They Muster Any Sort of Pass Rush?

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    On the surface, it can feel like the New England Patriots have gone about their business as usual in 2017. They've done a lot of winning, especially lately with four straight wins.

    They've done that while fueled by a swift defensive turnaround. The Patriots had a rough start to begin the season, giving up an average of 32.0 points per game over the first four weeks. But they haven't given up 20-plus points since Week 4, dropping that average to 12.8.

    We've reached the point in the calendar when the Patriots usually take another step forward, solidifying their status as the gatekeeper of the AFC. To do that, there's one glaring area of weakness still to conquer: the pass rush.

    The Patriots aren't generating much pocket pressure and rank 23rd with only 16 sacks, two of which came from linebacker Dont'a Hightower, who's now on injured reserve. As a result, opposing quarterbacks have felt comfortable enough to post a passer rating of 101.0, which is fifth-highest in the league. It's also up dramatically from the 84.4 rating the Patriots defense finished with in 2016.

    The Patriots defense has made great strides after a sputtering start. But there's still plenty of work to be done in their pursuit of another championship during the Tom Brady era.

New Orleans Saints: Will the Run Defense Ever Turn a Corner?

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    The New Orleans Saints defense had nowhere to go but up after ranking 27th in 2016. Now they've gone way up to the point that for the first time in recent memory, the Saints are no longer being held back by their Swiss cheese secondary.

    The Saints have surged to the top of the NFC while winning six straight games. The streak has featured plenty of points scored by the Saints, with quarterback Drew Brees still sizzling while only a few months away from his 39th birthday. Brees is averaging 8.1 yards per pass attempt, and he's getting solid support from his backfield, especially running back Alvin Kamara, who's racked up 652 yards from scrimmage.

    But what's made the 2017 Saints different is that Brees hasn't had to do all the heavy lifting to win shootouts. The Saints defense has steadily improved while allowing 15.4 points per game since Week 3. That number is even inflated by the 38 points New Orleans gave up during a Week 6 win over the Detroit Lions.

    The next step for that rising defense is to improve against the run. The Saints are allowing the fourth-most yards per carry (4.7), and hacking that down will help them separate from the Panthers in the NFC South.

New York Giants: Should Eli Manning Be Benched?

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    The New York Giants have quickly arrived at the part of their season where the rest is extended garbage time. Or, more politely, it's a long audition for 2018, because 2017 doesn't matter anymore.

    Which is why a certain question needs to be asked about a two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback: Should a rapidly declining Eli Manning really be trotted out every week?

    The logical answer is, of course, a loud "nope," but there are multiple factors that make any decision regarding a longtime franchise pillar difficult.

    The first is simply the human level. Manning has meant a lot to the Giants for the past 14 seasons. His brilliance led to those two championships, and a younger generation of fans can't picture the team with anyone else taking snaps. In fact, Manning has made it difficult for anyone to imagine another quarterback under center with his consecutive starts streak that's now extended to 219 straight games.

    There's also the matter of head coach Ben McAdoo. He seems to be spiraling further into the abyss toward a Black Monday dismissal, or even one before then. But coaches naturally cling to their employment, and McAdoo will surely think he has a better chance to win a few games without a rookie at quarterback.

    But giving third-round pick Davis Webb a handful of starts in the second half of 2017 is the right move if the Giants want to salvage something meaningful from the season and maybe even accelerate the turnaround heading into 2018. They need to see what they have, or don't have, in Webb because it's become quite clear the 36-year-old Manning is getting deeper into the twilight of his career.

New York Jets: Is Josh McCown an Answer at QB Beyond 2017?

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    Nothing about the 2017 New York Jets season seems real.

    It doesn't feel like they should have been able to win two games total, let alone three straight at one point, and four overall.

    It doesn't feel like they should have any shot whatsoever at the postseason, and we definitely shouldn't be able to talk about their playoff chances with a straight face. Yet here they are, just below the .500 mark at 4-5 and 2.5 games back of the second wild-card spot.

    And it really, really doesn't feel like any of that should have been possible with 38-year-old Josh McCown as their quarterback. But he's performed somewhere between adequate and respectable, which is all you want out of a placeholder quarterback.

    McCown has thrown 13 touchdowns and seven interceptions while averaging 7.2 yards per attempt, with a passer rating of 96.1. He still makes the odd ill-timed awful decision, which is what you're going to get from a journeyman quarterback. But those mistakes have been scattered and kept to a minimum, and overall, McCown might be playing himself into another season as a seat-warmer in 2018.

    The Jets will surely be using an early draft pick on a quarterback. But they've likely played themselves out of a draft position where the most polished prospect will be available. So they'll still need a veteran bridge, and New York is now comfortable with McCown.

    So comfortable that general manager Mike Maccagnan didn't dismiss the idea recently during his midseason press conference, per Ralph Vacchiano of SNY. Offering him another one-year contract is starting to look like an offseason move that shouldn't require much thought.

Oakland Raiders: Can Derek Carr Turn His Season Around?

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    This time last year, there was legitimate MVP buzz surrounding Oakland Raiders quarterback Derek Carr. Now, he's still playing well, but just not well enough, and definitely not at the same top-tier level that pushed the Raiders to the playoffs in 2016.

    The Raiders lost four straight games during the first half of 2017, and overall their five losses have come by an average of 11.4 points. And they needed a zany finish with two untimed downs to secure a win over the Chiefs in Week 7.

    All that's happened as Carr has thrown seven interceptions, which is already more than his six throughout the entire 2016 season. His passer rating has also dropped to 91.8 from 96.7, and he's produced a few games with strong odors attached to them. The 26-year-old's season has been lowlighted by a Week 3 loss to the Washington Redskins in which he averaged only 3.8 yards per pass attempt and a Week 6 loss to the Chargers with a 5.7 per-attempt average.

    He's rebounded recently with three straight 300-plus-yard passing games. The Raiders will need that version of Carr to keep showing up if they want to string together enough second-half wins to make a run at a playoff spot and salvage their season.

Philadelphia Eagles: Can Carson Wentz Sustain His MVP-Caliber Start?

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    Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz has thrown 23 touchdown passes. No other quarterback has thrown even 20.

    He has a passer rating of 131.8 when under pressure, and 62.8 percent of his passing yards have come through the air, all according to Pro Football Focus. Beyond that, the eye test shows a 6'5", 237-pound quarterback who moves fluidly, can shake off or power through contact when pressured and is precise while on the run.

    Those are the tools of an MVP-caliber quarterback, which is why the Eagles are 8-1 with the best record in the NFL.

    It's easy to doubt whether Wentz can keep up his current high-level play. We only need to look back to his 2016 rookie season to find a point when he suddenly tumbled down a cliff. But that was a time when he didn't have nearly enough help from his supporting cast.

    The Eagles gave Wentz much more reliable receivers by adding Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith, and now running back Jay Ajayi will bolster the backfield. There's a strong safety net in place to catch Wentz if he begins to stumble even a bit. But it doesn't feel like that's happening any time soon, especially since he's already recorded four games with three-plus touchdown passes.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Will Le'Veon Bell Break Down?

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    The Pittsburgh Steelers are back to winning a lot of football games, and Le'Veon Bell is back to being amazing. Neither of those developments is surprising, but there's growing concern over how much the Steelers need to lean on their star running back.

    Bell is a dynamic talent who runs with unmatched patience and is a constant threat as a pass-catcher in the open field. None of that is new, and he's used those skills to pump out three games with 180-plus yards from scrimmage.

    He's averaging an incredible 122.4 total yards per game while powering the Steelers to three straight wins and an AFC-leading 6-2 record. But the Steelers needing to ride Bell so hard for every win is becoming a growing concern.

    In Week 10, Bell will cross the 200-carry mark in just the ninth game of the Steelers' season. He's on pace for an astronomical 388 carries, which will shatter his previous single-season career high of 290.

    Bell is averaging 28.6 touches per game and has faced a lot of wear and tear already. If he goes down, then the Steelers' season might crumble too.

San Francisco 49ers: When Will Jimmy Garoppolo Start?

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    The San Francisco 49ers are still searching for their first win with Kyle Shanahan as the head coach. Worse, they've also won just seven games since the beginning of the 2015 season. Please recall that was the first year after Jed York seemingly decided Jim Harbaugh wasn't the right fit to coach his football team.

    At 0-9, they're facing another lost season, but there's still excitement surrounding Jimmy Garoppolo and when he'll make his debut.

    The 49ers traded a second-round pick to the New England Patriots to land Garoppolo, who they hope will finally be a solution to their dark times at the quarterback position ever since Colin Kaepernick fizzled out. Garoppolo will face the pressure of trying to jump-start a rebuild.

    Which is exactly why the 49ers will have patience with him. He'll start in 2017, and likely soon, but there's little need to rush him in during a season when the team has already floundered anyway. And there's even less need to hurry him in to get pummeled behind an offensive line that's given up 14 sacks over the 49ers' last three games.

    Shanahan knows all the circumstances surrounding Garoppolo's first start. Which is why he won't cave to pressure, even from his wife.

    "I know everyone is very excited and wants to see him play,” he said during a recent press conference, via Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle. "Including myself. Including our coaches and players. Including my wife. I get that. I’m very well aware of that."

    "I am very eager and excited to see him out there," he added. "That doesn’t mean that’s the right decision. That’s what I’m trying to balance out. If I just went off impulse and feeling, I would have done that the very first day. The very first second. But I’m trying to do what’s right for Jimmy and what’s right for our team."

Seattle Seahawks: A Once-Dominant Rushing Offense Has Gone Silent

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    Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

    Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson is slippery in the pocket and can be wildly creative. He leaks free from pressure to find receivers downfield or runs for chunk gains on his own.

    But the Seahawks have reached the point where they're asking Wilson for too much when he's leading the team in rushing yards.

    His 290 yards show that Wilson's mobility hasn't gone anywhere. But it also shows that an offense once powered by the run has lost all of its punch.

    Incredibly, Chris Carson still leads all Seahawks running backs with his 208 yards on the ground, and he hasn't played since Week 4 after suffering a season-ending ankle injury. The four other running backs behind him on the depth chart have combined for a mere 368 rushing yards, averaging 2.9 yards per carry.

    There's a dark swirling hole behind Wilson in the backfield, and eventually that could cost the Seahawks another shot at a championship during the window before their defense begins to age.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Will They Ever Generate a Pass Rush?

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    The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' season has quickly gone from Hard Knocks hype to cellar-dwelling embarrassment. At 2-6 they have the third-worst record in the NFC and are already far removed from realistic playoff contention.

    There are a lot of reasons for that fall. An injury to quarterback Jameis Winston hasn't helped, but before that happened, a 30th-ranked pass defense was already in the process of flaming out.

    A lack of any pass rush whatsoever gets most of the blame for the Buccaneers' five straight losses. The Bucs are the only team that still hasn't hit the double-digit sack mark, as they have just eight. 

    The 2017 season will keep getting uglier if they can't figure out a way to generate more pressure. And Dirk Koetter's job could be in danger.

Tennessee Titans: What Does DeMarco Murray Have Left?

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    A passing of the baton was expected in the Tennessee Titans' backfield at some point in 2017. And that point needs to come soon, because DeMarco Murray might be getting old fast.

    Murray is 29 years old and has 1,515 carries on his running back odometer. That's a lot of pounding, and it includes his 392 carries for the Dallas Cowboys in 2014.

    He may finally be starting to feel the effects of those repeated body blows for seven seasons. His per-carry averages in 2017 are dwindling, especially over the Titans' last three games. He averaged 3.3 yards per carry against both the Colts and Browns, then 2.1 in Week 9 during a win over the Ravens. Overall, Murray has recorded a per-carry average below four yards in five games so far. And of his 391 rushing yards, 115 came in one game.

    He's been on the high end of a platoon with Derrick Henry. Murray has been given 95 carries, while Henry is a little behind with 83. At the least, that pecking order needs to be reversed soon if Murray's descent continues.

Washington Redskins: Is Josh Doctson Beginning to Arrive?

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    The Washington Redskins have been waiting for Josh Doctson to make a meaningful contribution.

    The 2016 first-round pick flashed briefly in two games during his rookie season before landing on injured reserve because of an Achilles issue. In 2017 he's slowly emerged, and it looks like Doctson might be ready to finally showcase his size and athleticism consistently.

    Doctson has the tools to be a regular deep threat and has shown that with his 189 yards on only 11 catches (17.2 yards per reception). He's also scored three times even with minimal targets.

    He usually makes his presence felt in spectacular fashion. His highlights in 2017 include a 52-yard catch in Week 3 and a 38-yard sprawling grab deep down the sideline in Week 9 to set up the game-winning touchdown against the Seahawks.

    Doctson has the ability to add a vertical dimension to the Redskins offense. Now he just needs to be deployed in that role and receive more targets.