NFL Teams Poised for a Surge in 2nd Half of 2018 Season
The NFL is unpredictable. Every year, teams are written off after poor or average starts only to surge with an impressive run during the campaign's second half.
The New England Patriots most commonly exemplify this narrative.
Any time Bill Belichick and Tom Brady stumble out of the gates, an untold number of stories question whether it's the dynasty's end. Somehow, New England finds a way every year to emerge as the AFC favorites. The 4-2 Patriots have already done so this season after a 1-2 start.
Other talented teams haven't quite hit their strides.
Half the league either holds a .500 record or is within one game of the mark. This cluttered mess is the perfect place to look for second-half surges.
Of course, teams such as the Patriots, Los Angeles Rams, Kansas City Chiefs and New Orleans Saints can continue to dominate, but they're already sitting atop the divisional standings. Those squads in need of a strong performance to make the postseason are far more interesting.
The following six franchises have the potential to move from mediocrity into the league's upper echelon with a second-half run.
The 3-3 Dallas Cowboys are figuring out some things.
Sunday's 40-7 beatdown of the Jacksonville Jaguars is the type of performance Dallas can build on—especially in light of the individual efforts.
Head coach Jason Garrett finally remembered what made Dak Prescott so successful during his 2016 rookie campaign and allowed the quarterback to use his athleticism to open up the offense. Prescott ran for 82 yards and a score.
He also discovered a No. 1 target. Cole Beasley caught nine passes for 101 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
"You saw [Jason] Witten stuff. You saw No. 1-ish. We talk about what is [a No. 1 receiver], well, of course, but we saw an emphasis on what he does, his level," owner Jerry Jones said of Beasley's performance, per ESPN.com's Todd Archer. "There's no question we all know his skill is separation, and he was able to do that."
Others are coming to play as well.
Ezekiel Elliott ranks second in the NFL with 586 rushing yards. The coaching staff sprinkled 6'6", 285-pound tight end Rico Gathers into the mix. Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles said rookie linebacker Leighton Vander Esch "can play," per the Dallas Morning News' Jon Machota. Byron Jones has been the league's best cornerback this season, according to Pro Football Focus. The defense is ranked fourth.
The coaching staff simply had to figure out how all these pieces fit.
Furthermore, Dallas faces one of the league's weakest schedules during the final 11 weeks. The New Orleans Saints are the only team on the slate that's two or more games above .500. Dallas' final three contests are against the Indianapolis Colts, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New York Giants, who are a combined 4-13.
The Houston Texans opened the season with three straight losses by seven or fewer points. Then they won three straight by seven or fewer.
"I think that just goes to show how close we were in those first three games," safety Tyrann Mathieu said, per ESPN.com's Sarah Barshop. "The last three games are pretty much the same as far as point differential."
The team's 3-3 start can be viewed through two lenses: Either Houston figured things out and is on the upswing, or it's simply riding a wave of close games but can't rise beyond that.
Obviously, there are concerns. Deshaun Watson has been hit more than any other quarterback this season, according to SB Nation's Johnny Kinsley. So, head coach Bill O'Brien must devise ways to allow his playmaker to create without the fear of being crushed.
"At times, we look like a good offense," O'Brien said, per Barshop. "Not really [Sunday], but at times we have this season. We have to figure that out."
Watson can't be a stationary target. The second-year signal-caller has a chest injury, but this shouldn't prevent the head coach from devising a game plan that includes pocket movement, run-pass options and quick half-field reads.
Otherwise, the defense is still strong at No. 9 overall, and J.J. Watt is back in form with a league-leading seven sacks.
Houston is also positioned to make a run in the weak NFC South, where no team is better than 3-3. The Tennessee Titans hold a slight edge because of a 2-0 divisional record—which includes a Week 2 win over Houston.
But the Texans play a mediocre schedule over the next two-and-a-half months. The 4-2 Miami Dolphins are their toughest remaining opponent.
Green Bay Packers
Those last-minute victories show how special Rodgers is, even though a knee injury has hampered the two-time MVP since the season opener.
As the Packers enter the bye week, the quarterback hopes to shirk his knee brace after some much-needed rest, and head coach Mike McCarthy plans to tweak the offense.
"The ability to move Aaron around freely—we called more keeps [rollout plays] last night [Monday] than we called all year," McCarthy said, per ESPN.com's Rob Demovsky. "I think that's more of the vision of how we'd like to play."
No one has ever been better at creating big plays outside the offense's structure than Rodgers. The coaching staff wants to take full advantage of that while setting him up for success by bolstering the run game.
But the Packers struggled to establish a ground attack through five contests. Aaron Jones finally got the start against the Niners and ran for 41 yards on only eight carries. Expect a featured role in the coming weeks.
Amazingly, Green's Bay's offense ranks No. 4 without a healthy Rodgers or a consistent rushing attack.
The NFC North will be a dogfight. All four teams fall between 3-2 and 2-3, with the Chicago Bears leading the way.
The division comes down to one premise: The Packers are better suited to make a late run than the Minnesota Vikings, because Green Bay has the better quarterback, a better offense and a defense performing at a higher level.
Los Angeles Chargers
The Los Angeles Chargers are the best of our inclusions at 4-2. In fact, they would be atop or tied for the No. 1 spot in five divisions. But they're in the AFC West and stuck behind the Kansas City Chiefs.
Anthony Lynn's squad is dangerous, though, and it'll only get better.
Joey Bosa's eventual return is the primary reason for that. Bosa missed the first six games because of a foot injury. However, his father, John, told SiriusXM NFL Radio's Alex Marvez his son is set to return "in a few weeks."
The Chargers' bye week comes after their current trip to London, so it's logical to assume the defensive end will be back by Week 10 or 11.
The addition of an All-Pro-caliber pass-rusher will be arguably the league's biggest roster move. Bosa can be a dominant force off the edge and makes the defense exponentially better since opposing offenses can't key on Melvin Ingram.
Defensive improvement will complement an explosive offense. Philip Rivers, in particular, is putting together an MVP-worthy campaign.
"His completion percentage is up, and, you know, that's everybody," Lynn said of his quarterback, per ESPN.com's Eric D. Williams. "That's the O-line protecting, and that's the receivers running the right routes at the right depth and catching the ball. That's the whole team, including the backs out of the backfield. But he's taking care of the football, and he's delivering the mail where it needs to go."
The next six weeks are laid out perfectly for Los Angeles to take charge of its fate with contests against the Tennessee Titans, Seattle Seahawks, Oakland Raiders, Denver Broncos and Arizona Cardinals.
How the organization and those in the locker room receive Le'Veon Bell upon his inevitable return from a holdout will have a profound effect on the Pittsburgh Steelers.
James Conner has been everything the franchise could have wanted in the short term, and he's already established himself as the offense's future lead back. But imagine an offense that features both.
The duo would form the league's best backfield.
Conner's production has been exceptional. In fact, he's ahead of Bell's pace from last season, as WPXI Pittsburgh noted. Since both are capable receivers, the Steelers could come out in two-back sets and keep defenses off balance by putting one out wide while the other remains in the backfield.
"That gives you opportunities to be multiple in your personnel groups," offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner said, per the Pittsburgh Tribune Review's Tim Benz. "Both of them do a nice job catching the ball out of the backfield. It would be exciting."
But it all depends on Bell and when he reports.
"I just think it would be wasteful time management to think about it," Fichtner added. "When it happens, it happens. We move on from there."
Bell is expected to join the team at some point, but there's no firm date. However, the impact of another difference-maker shouldn't be underestimated, especially when the offense is already ranked among the league's best (No. 6).
Plus, an underwhelming defense has played much better during the last two weeks. The Cincinnati Bengals managed only 275 yards Sunday.
The 3-2-1 Steelers are looking up at the Bengals and Baltimore Ravens in the standings, but Pittsburgh will likely be the most complete AFC North team by season's end.
Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson is a happy man.
The team built a strong foundation in the trenches after years of relying on him to shoulder the offense behind a shabbily constructed offensive front.
A lot had to change to get to this point.
First, head coach Pete Carroll fired Tom Cable after last season and hired Mike Solari. Solari first became an NFL offensive line coach in 1987. There's nothing he hasn't seen.
The personnel also required a major overhaul.
The Seahawks acquired left tackle Duane Brown at last season's trade deadline. D.J. Fluker saved his career by getting into better shape and providing the physical presence Seattle needed at right guard. The Seahawks also re-signed J.R. Sweezy, who took over at left guard after Ethan Pocic proved ineffective. Finally, Germain Ifedi, whom the organization selected with a 2016 first-round pick, found a home at right tackle.
"We feel like we have the core of a group that can really make a difference," Carroll said, per the Seattle Times' Bob Condotta. "And I felt this before and I've talked about it before in years past—when you sense that the core is there, now it's time to build around that and fortify that."
Now, the front five should be considered a strength. According to Pro Football Focus, Seattle's offensive line has been the league's most efficient pass-blocking unit over the past four weeks.
The revamped secondary, meanwhile, ranks third in pass defense.
Seattle won't catch the undefeated L.A. Rams for an NFC West title. But the 3-3 Seahawks should compete for a wild-card berth since they have the Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers, Arizona Cardinals and San Francisco 49ers (twice) still on the docket.