By: Cory Vest
With week nine in the NFL’s rear view mirror it is only fitting to recap this season’s first half. Through nine weeks there has been an unfortunate amount of loss. For some teams the loss has been reflected via their record, for others it has come by way of injury. A quick list of notable names who suffered a long term injury include: David Johnson, one of the best running backs in the league; Danny Woodhead, explosive running back who is in his first season with Baltimore; Greg Olson, a top tier tight end; Aaron Rodgers, one of the best quarterbacks in the league; JJ Watt, a defensive powerhouse; Allen Robinson, an athletic receiver and number one option in Jacksonville; Eric Berry, the heart and soul of the Kansas City defense; Dalvin Cook, a standout rookie running back who was looking to set records in Minnesota; Deshaun Watson, Houston’s franchise quarterback who was putting up points in his rookie season, Odell Beckham Jr., one of the best receivers in the league; Brandon Marshall, the newest edition to that should’ve been an exciting Giants’ receiving corps; and Pierre Garcon, who was the number one target on his new team, the 49ers.
Although there is a laundry list of NFL stars missing most of, if not all of, the season; exciting football has been played. The Philadelphia Eagles are the only team soaring over the Mendoza line. As the Eagles look down upon the league, 27 teams are clawing, mauling and brawling for a playoff spot.
Two teams sit winless at the bottom of the league. More than one guess to figure out those two teams should not be needed; the Browns and 49ers. The San Francisco 49ers fought tooth and nail to start the season but they haven’t managed to come out on top. The Browns continue to stink up Cleveland as they haven’t even sniffed a win this year. The dumpster fire continues to burn bright in Ohio.
The G-men have been racking up the L’s as they are an embarrassing 1-7 thus far. A team that got mentioned in some Super Bowl conversations, and my own personal pick to win it all, has fell flat on its face and appears to be in no hurry to get up. A weak running game, a stagnant and non-elusive Eli Manning and a now injury riddled receiving corps has officially left the Giants down and out. The focus of this season’s HBO’s Hard Knocks, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, have recorded just one more win than the Giants. The Bucs at 2-6 feature a questionable decision maker behind center in Jameis Winston and a porous defense. Adding DeSean Jackson to compliment Mike Evans appeared to be the deadly combination needed to light up scoreboards, thus far however the Bucs have sailed on rocky seas.
While the Bengals, Texans, Colts, Chargers and Broncos are all still technically in playoff contention, they all draw questions, concerns and worry. The Bengals stand on shaky ground every week. Cincy’s frustration was summed up by AJ Green’s childish and outright stupid display of anger against the Jaguars this past Sunday. Green was pushed by Jalen Ramsey; Green responded by putting Ramsey in a choke hold, spinning him to the ground and then punching him in the helmet. The Colts have been trying to survive without Andrew Luck, but with a lackluster defense and a 3-6 record, they seem to be barely scraping by. The Texans showed signs of life and promise with rookie Deshaun Watson at the helm but a season ending injury to the quarterback ultimately ended Houston’s season as well. The Broncos are 3-5 and experiencing quarterback woes as they pick their poison between Trevor Semien and Brock Osweiler. The Chargers sport a 3-5 record themselves yet once again sport the talent to contend but continue to find ways to lose.
A shocking 4-4 record and an apparent downgrade from last year’s performance that got them to the Super Bowl, the Atlanta Falcons are not flying very high. After starting 3-0, the Falcons have dropped 4 of their last 5. Underwhelming production from Matt Ryan and Julio Jones have led to difficult stints for the Atlanta offense. The Oakland Raiders, Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions all made the playoffs last year but are currently on a tough road to a repeat appearance. The Raiders, coming off of a promising 2016 season, have been mediocre all year and sit at 4-5. An offense that features weapons on the flanks in Michael Crabtree and Amari Cooper, a bruising back in Marshawn Lynch and a talented quarterback in Derek Carr, have yet to put it all together. The Raider defense remains middle of the pack. The Detroit Lions find themselves in a similar situation as Oakland. Although the Lions’ run game is weak, they still feature a roster that possesses playoff potential. A 4-4 record is going to require big wins down the stretch. The Green Bay Packers are fading fast without Aaron Rodgers and stand little chance of claiming a wild card spot.
Shedding the negative vibes let us shift to the positive side of things. Perhaps one of the biggest surprises of the league so far is the Los Angeles Rams offense. From worst last season to first this season, the Rams sit atop the NFC West with an impressive 6-2 record. A schedule that has leaned toward the favorable side has led to the Rams gaining confidence and steam entering the second half. It will be needed as their schedule features difficult matchups. Jared Goff has shown huge improvement under Sean McVay and Todd Gurley has returned to his rookie form. Glaring weak spots from last year have been bolstered and are visibly displaying their talents. The offensive line, led by offseason acquisition Andrew Whitworth, is giving Goff time and opening holes for Gurley. Meanwhile, the receivers have been catching balls and making plays. The Rams’ offense through the first nine weeks has already surpassed the point total of last year’s offense.
The division leaders for the rest of the NFC include the Philadelphia Eagles, Minnesota Vikings and New Orleans Saints. The impressive performance of the 8-1 Eagles has already been established. Carson Wentz is leading the league in touchdown passes; taking advantage of a very capable group of receivers. The Eagles recently traded for Jay Ajayi to bolster what could’ve been seen as a weak running game. On the opposite side of the ball, whether it be pass deflections or interceptions, the Eagles’ secondary has a nose for the disruption; while the defensive line has a nose for the quarterback.
After an 0-2 start, the Saints have reeled off six straight wins. The offense has been putting points on the board while the defense has been keeping points off of it. Rookie Alvin Kamara brings speed, flash and catching capabilities to a backfield complimented with the steady and hard charging Mark Ingram. The Vikings stormed the season with an impressive win led by a career performance by Sam Bradford. Since then, Case Keenum has been manning quarterback duties due to an injury to Bradford. Keenum had an up and coming star in rookie Delvin Cook to lean on, until he too fell victim to injury. Despite all this, the Vikings sit at 6-2. The Vikings do get Teddy Bridgewater back starting this week.
Those not mentioned yet in the NFC are all in the thick of the playoff battle. Creating curiosity and intrigue, is the fact that every team has proven to be vulnerable. The Seattle Seahawks are 5-3 and on the heels of the division leading Rams. With a non-existent running game however, a lot has been placed on the shoulders of Russell Wilson. Though his shoulders are broad and strong, Wilson will eventually need assistance. The Seahawks have lost to the Packers, Titans and Redskins. The defense has looked beatable as both the Titans, and especially the Texans, experienced very little resistance from the ‘Legion of Boom’.
The Dallas Cowboys are 5-3 as well. With hefty expectations coming into the season, the Cowboys are still trying to resemble a team worthy of high praise. Talks about Ezekiel Elliot’s suspension have swirled week in and week out with the ultimate ruling in constant limbo. Elliot has remained on the field thus far and the Cowboys have been taking care of business for the most part. The Cowboys faltered against the Broncos, Rams and Packers. The Cowboys schedule presents challenges in the second half and is going to require the ‘boys to elevate their level of play.
The final team with the best shot at the wild card spot, at the moment, are the Carolina Panthers. Christian McCaffrey has brought an explosiveness to the Carolina backfield. The Panthers did just ship away their big receiver, Kelvin Benjamin, yet they still managed to beat the Falcons. The second half is sure to bring even more excitement to the NFC.
A hop over to the AFC brings us to the New England Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers, Tennessee Titans, Jacksonville Jaguars and the Kansas City Chiefs as the division leaders; the Titans and Jags are tied atop the AFC South.
The Patriots started off rough with a loss to the Chiefs. Aside from double digit wins against the Saints and Falcons, the Patriots have snuck by the Texans, Buccaneers, Jets and Chargers. The Patriots are 6-2 with their other loss coming at the hands of the Panthers. The almighty Patriots have looked very beatable.
The Chiefs started strong with a 5-0 start, with their first two wins coming against the Patriots and Eagles. Since that start, the Chiefs are 1-3. A major key to beating KC is containing rookie standout Kareem Hunt. Alex Smith has been playing great football, making use of the talented Tyreke Hill and Travis Kelce, but the offense is centered around Hunt.
The Steelers and the three B’s of Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell are 6-2 and are beginning to run away with the AFC North. The Steelers started off with a scare from the lowly Browns, shined against the Vikings, then lost to a weaker Chicago Bears team. The Steelers then took care of the Ravens and then followed that up with a thrashing from the Jaguars. The Steelers have since strung together three wins and seem to be finding their footing. The Steelers may just sneak their way to the number one spot in the AFC.
The AFC South sees the Tennessee Titans and Jacksonville Jaguars tied for the division lead. Both teams sport a 5-3 record and have the potential to surprise. The Jaguars have one of, if not the best, defense in the league. The Titans meanwhile, have been doing just enough to keep the league’s attention.
A 5-3 record is currently what is required to earn a wild card spot in the AFC. Teams such as the Baltimore Ravens and Oakland Raiders seem to be in the best position to steal a spot from the hard charging Buffalo Bills or the runner-up of the AFC South. The Ravens and the Raiders seem to be unsure bets and have an uphill battle to finish the season. The Bills are stuck with the tough test of chasing the Patriots for the AFC East title which leaves the wild card as their best way into the playoffs. LeSean McCoy and Tyrod Taylor can make the Bills’ offense exciting at the flip of a switch and the defense has proven it can play at an elevated level.
Who moves onto the playoffs and who’s season ends after week 17 still remains largely up in the air. At the midway mark it is apparent that any team, besides possibly the Browns, can beat any other team in the league. Sit back, relax and enjoy what should be an exciting second half of the season.