We’re at least halfway through the NFL season for every team. Here are nine things to watch as we head into the second half and towards the playoffs.
The 2020 NFL season went from being an uncertainty to a blur. Now, with only eight weeks remaining in the campaign, the impetus shifts.
Within the league, players and coaches will tell you things change when the calendar shifts to November, especially as Thanksgiving is approached. The season goes from a marathon to a sprint, when playoff positioning and shoring up trouble spots becomes paramount.
Keeping the above in mind, here are nine things to watch as we go down the stretch.
– The races for the top seeds in each conference
In the AFC, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Kansas City Chiefs are the heavyweights. Until further notice, those are the two teams battling for the lone bye week come January. While Pittsburgh is unbeaten, the Chiefs are only a half-game back and arguably have the better roster.
Over in the NFC, it’s a four-way race. The Seattle Seahawks are there alongside the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, New Orleans Saints and Green Bay Packers.
Even without fans, this is critical for reasons beyond rest. If the Packers land home-field advantage, good luck playing in the frigid cold of Lambeau Field. For the Buccaneers, they’d never have to leave their home, right through Super Bowl LV.
– Who emerges as the hot team headed into the playoffs?
We’re not talking about the favorites, but the team nobody wants to play. There’s always one. Last year, it was the Tennessee Titans. This year? Smart money says watch out for the Las Vegas Raiders could be in the conversation.
Over their last six games, the Raiders don’t play a single playoff team from last year, and their only three road tilts in the stretch involve the Atlanta Falcons, Denver Broncos and Jets. Not hard. They could roll into the postseason with serious momentum. Have to get there, though.
– Which team finally decides to win the NFC East?
We’re all sick of the storyline, but it matters. One of these dreadful outfits will be hosting a playoff game. Looking at the rosters, the Philadelphia Eagles appear the favorite. Vegas, for the record, agrees. However, they have a brutal stretch from Weeks 12-15 with the Seahawks (home), Packers (road), Saints (home) and Arizona Cardinals (road).
Still, the rest of the division is so horrific, Philadelphia might only need six weeks. Incredibly, Carson Wentz and Co. are the favorites.
– What to make of the Baltimore Ravens?
Last year, Lamar Jackson was the MVP and Baltimore finished the regular season with an NFL-best 14-2 record. This season, the Ravens are excellent, but nothing is coming easy and Jackson isn’t the same wunderkind.
Trailing Pittsburgh in the AFC North, Baltimore gets another shot at the Steelers come Thanksgiving night. The Ravens desperately need that game, or they’re likely the No. 5 seed and facing nothing but road games come the playoffs.
The talent remains to be a top-flight contender, but can Baltimore get on a championship track?
– Who gets the No. 2 overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft?
The New York Jets are clear favorites to land the top selection in the 2021 Draft and take Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence. However, the league is buzzing about Ohio State signal-caller Justin Fields as well. So who gets him?
There’s a slew of teams in the mix both with bad records and lacking quarterbacks, led by the Jacksonville Jaguars. Of course, the NFC East is also in the mix, specifically the Washington Football Team and New York Giants. Right now, it seems those squads are going to battle it out through Week 17.
– Does COVID take center stage in a critical moment?
The coronavirus is surging across America right now, with the nation suffering record-setting numbers on a daily basis. At some juncture, the NFL will likely feel the wrath all other American businesses are.
If Week 18 needs to be added, it’ll be odd and inconvenient, but not detrimental to a team’s long-term chances. However, what happens if a star quarterback must miss a postseason game due to COVID-19? What would the league do? It seems the NFL would have little choice but to play on, forcing a team to essentially watch its season go by the wayside.
Let’s hope that situation doesn’t become reality.
– Where will the Jets get their first win?
At 0-8, the Jets are halfway home for an unwanted, historic achievement. One of their best hopes of winning is Monday night, at home against the incredibly banged-up New England Patriots.
If it loses, New York is in major trouble. The Jets don’t play another sub-.500 team until meeting New England again, and that’ll be Week 17 in Foxborough. If you think Bill Belichick is losing to an 0-15 Jets team at home, I have a bridge to sell you.
New York’s three games at MetLife are its only realistic hopes with the Miami Dolphins and Raiders visiting in Weeks 12 and 13, followed by the Cleveland Browns in Week 16.
– The MVP race is now a real conversation
For the first eight weeks of the season, Russell Wilson was clearly the MVP. Now, not so much. On Sunday, Wilson threw for 390 yards and two touchdowns in a 44-34 loss to Buffalo, but also tossed two more interceptions.
In Kansas City, Patrick Mahomes is changing hard. Over the past two weeks, Mahomes has thrown for nine touchdowns without a turnover, giving him 25 touchdowns and one interception for the year. Aaron Rodgers is also in the mix, with 24 touchdowns and two interceptions.
This will come down to who plays great when the stakes are highest.
– The AFC wild-card race will be … wild
Going into Week 10, it’s fair to assume Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Tennessee, Buffalo and Baltimore are playoff teams. After that, there’s a case for the Indianapolis Colts, Cleveland Browns, Miami Dolphins and Raiders to make a push. There’s only room for two.
Indianapolis has the most daunting schedule (more on that below), while the other three all have reasonably palatable dockets ahead. Las Vegas’ win over the Browns puts them in premium position. All sitting at 5-3, it’s a match race the rest of the way.
Top 10 receiving backs of all-time
1. Marshall Faulk, St. Louis Rams (767 catches, 6,875 yards, 36 TDs)
2. Larry Centers, Arizona Cardinals (827 catches, 6,797 yards, 28 TDs)
3. Keith Byars, Philadelphia Eagles (610 catches, 5,661 yards, 31 TDs)
4. Ronnie Harmon, San Diego Chargers (582 catches, 6,076 yards, 24 TDs)
5. Eric Metcalf, Cleveland Browns (541 catches, 5,572 yards, 31 TDs)
6. Marcus Allen, Los Angeles Raiders (587 catches, 5,411 yards, 21 TDs)
7. Roger Craig, San Francisco 49ers (566 catches, 4,911 yards, 17 TDs)
8. LaDainian Tomlinson, San Diego Chargers (624 catches, 4,722 yards, 17 TDs)
9. Tiki Barber, New York Giants (586 catches, 5,183 yards, 12 TDs)
10. Darren Sproles, Philadelphia Eagles (553 catches, 4,840 yards, 32 TDs)
"“I’m enjoying every single day and I’ve continued to progress and get better. I’m thankful for that. It’s another step. I’m incredibly bummed for Kyle… For me, I’m going full steam ahead. I’m not thinking about any other stuff. I’m going to run with this opportunity.”"
– Washington Football Team quarterback Alex Smith on his first extended action since 2018
Smith’s story is well-documented, and it took another turn today. After Allen suffered an ugly dislocated ankle to end his season, Smith was summoned from the bench and threw for 325 yards with a touchdown and three interceptions. The stats are uneven, but the comeback is nothing short of a miracle.
Mike Vrabel caught 12 passes in his career as a linebacker with the Steelers, Patriots and Chiefs. All of his receptions went for touchdowns.
Info learned this week
1. With Saints’ smashing win over Bucs, the NFC picture completely changes
38-3. Nobody saw that coming. The Saints dismantled the Buccaneers on Sunday Night Football, putting the NFC and what we thought of it prior to said affair into a blender.
With the blowout victory, New Orleans now has firm control of the NFC South. The Saints are 6-2 and hold the tiebreaker over Tampa Bay after sweeping the season series. New Orleans also has an incredibly favorable schedule, with only Week 15 against Kansas City being tough on paper.
By beating Tampa Bay, the Saints are in a good spot to fight for home-field advantage as aforementioned atop the column. Meanwhile, Tampa Bay went from being in strong position to suddenly needing help from New Orleans. Otherwise, it’s a long road trip come January.
Whenever one good team beats another by 35 points, it’s somewhat a fluke. Everything went right for one while the other had nothing break their way. Still, the Saints physically dominated a squad many thought was the toughest in the conference, sacking Tom Brady three times and harassing him constantly while rarely blitzing. Conversely, Drew Brees was in a lawn chair, hardly being touched.
New Orleans has been under-appreciated most of the season. No longer.
2. The Bills are worth believing in, while the Seahawks have a fatal flaw
Josh Allen rolled, the Bills scored 44 points, and Buffalo is now 7-2. Meanwhile, Seattle was torched thoroughly despite the additions of All-Pro safety Jamal Adams and edge rusher Carlos Dunlap. It’s a problem which isn’t going away.
Buffalo, after losing twice and then having a pair of ugly wins over New York and New England, showed its September form in a resounding win over Seattle. The defense struggled but did enough against the league’s most high-octane offense. Now, at 7-2, Buffalo is positioned to win the AFC East and perhaps battle for home-field advantage.
In Seattle, there has to be a serious concern. General manager John Schneider added to the defense at the trade deadline, knowing it was an Achilles heel. Right now, the Seahawks look like a great offensive team with a complete inability to stop any decent offense.
Come January, that unit is going to get Seattle sent home.
3. Colts had their chances, but issues showed up against Ravens
The Colts have beaten five teams with a combined record of 13-27-1. Starting on Sunday, Frank Reich’s team got the gauntlet of Baltimore, Green Bay and Tennessee twice.
So far, 0-1.
Indianapolis allowed only 52 first-half yards but a controversial (see: horrendous) call giving Marcus Peters a third-quarter interception turned the game in a Colts’ 24-10 defeat. The defense was stout enough, holding Baltimore’s attack to 266 total yards and 5-of-13 on third down. However, the offense was largely punchless without T.Y. Hilton, leaving Philip Rivers to beat an elite defense.
With the Titans handling the Bears — speaking of punchless — the Colts trail Tennessee by one game in the AFC South before their tilt in Nashville on Thursday night.
If Indy is going to be considered a real threat in the AFC, it needs to improve upon its league-worst rushing attack. The defense is very good, but it needs some help with the schedule growing tougher.
4. Pay attention to the Dolphins, who are suddenly making their move
Brian Flores is the Coach of the Year, and his Dolphins are only strengthening his case.
Miami beat the Cardinals 34-31 on Sunday, despite having to travel cross-country to face a team off its bye. Tua Tagovailoa was much better in his second start, throwing for 248 yards and two touchdowns on 8.9 yards per attempt. It all adds up to a four-game win streak and a 5-3 record halfway through the campaign.
The Dolphins have shown ability on both sides of the ball, blitzing without apology while being creative on quick-hitting throws to star receiver DeVante Parker and emerging talent Preston Williams. Miami has the schemes and talent to beat most teams, and Tagovailoa’s running ability only makes the Dolphins tougher to defend.
Miami isn’t going to the Super Bowl, but it could be a factor in January.
5. Lions’ ownership should start thinking about a major move
The Detroit Lions are 3-5 after losses to the Colts and Minnesota Vikings. Odds are, they’re finished in the playoff chase. Looking ahead, it’s tough to imagine general manager Bob Quinn and head coach Matt Patricia surviving this campaign.
New owner Sheila Ford Hamp needs to hire Quinn’s replacement with the notion of being aggressive in the upcoming draft. Detroit won’t get to the No. 1 overall pick for Lawrence, but it should do anything imaginable to land Fields if within striking distance. The same is true for North Dakota State’s Trey Lance.
The Lions have been lackluster for 60+ years. It’s time to take a big swing.
Detroit fans are some of the best in football. They understand the game. They’ll all realize trading a few first-rounders is worth it if the Lions finally land a true franchise quarterback. Ask the Chiefs and Texans if they regret sending away draft capital for Mahomes and Deshaun Watson.
With Matthew Stafford likely in his final season with Detroit, a new era is coming. It needs to be a take-charge one if things are to change.
Trust in Joe Burrow. Next weekend, the Cincinnati Bengals are getting 10.5 points at Pittsburgh. The underdogs are off a bye and outside of one clunker against the Ravens, have either won or lost by one score. Meanwhile, the vast majority of Pittsburgh’s wins — including home dates with the Houston Texans and Denver Broncos — have been close.
Take the points, trust in Burrow.
You have to feel for the San Francisco 49ers. Last season, the NFC’s top seed and eventual champion, only to fall in an agonizing Super Bowl to Mahomes and Kansas City.
Less than a year later, the Niners are ravaged by injuries and headed for a last-place NFC West finish. It’s fair to wonder whether Jimmy Garoppolo is done in San Francisco as well. His contract certainly wouldn’t preclude general manager John Lynch from searching for an upgrade.
All the bad injury luck and potential shake-up ahead makes me reflect on that beautiful Miami night in February. I was there, watching as the Niners had a 20-10 lead with 12 minutes left in Super Bowl LIV. They had the ball and to that point, hadn’t punted all night.
It seemed certain head coach Kyle Shanahan would get his redemption. Garoppolo his validation. Instead, with a title on San Francisco’s racket, it fell apart.
The NFL isn’t a league of multiple chances for most. In almost all cases, pro football is a sport of fleeting opportunity. San Francisco squandered the one presented it last year, and now has the haunting memory of 3rd and 15, a Garoppolo overthrow and a nagging nightmare of what could have been.
Inside the league
The trade deadline has passed, but teams can still add quality talent to their teams.
One such example? Veteran guard Stefen Wisniewski, who was waived by the Steelers on Saturday after dealing with a nagging pectoral injury all season. Once healthy, Wisniewski could once more prove a valuable asset for a contender.
The 31-year-old guard is a two-time Super Bowl champ, winning his second Lombardi last year with Kansas City after signing in October. He proved invaluable, being inserted into the starting lineup in December and staying in it through Super Sunday.
For years, New England was famous on finding veterans on buy-low deals who fit its schemes. Last season, Kansas City found Wisniewski, defensive tackle Mike Pennel and edge rusher Terrell Suggs, all of whom made significant impacts.
Keep an eye on the waiver wire. A few men currently on it will have a major say in who wins it all.
On Monday night, the Patriots visit the Jets. The last time New England played against New York with a losing record? Week 2, 2001. The night we were introduced to Tom Brady.
Forget the hyperbole around the Dallas Cowboys. The reality is more than enough.
Head coach Mike McCarthy won’t be fired after this season, barring a stunning change of view from owner/general manager Jerry Jones. McCarthy was hired on a five-year deal, and Jones, maverick and all, isn’t quick to fire coaches. After all, Jason Garrett lasted a decade.
Still, there clearly needs to be big change in Big D.
The Cowboys are 2-7 and while, yes, losing quarterback Dak Prescott was a finishing blow, the issues are myriad across the roster. It’s fair to believe defensive coordinator Mike Nolan will be one-and-done. As for the players, the picture is far murkier.
While it’s easy to talk about big changes, Dallas’ landscape shows an ugly picture. The Cowboys are locked into $113.5 million in contracts for receiver Amari Cooper, defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence, running back Ezekiel Elliott, offensive linemen Tyron Smith, Zack Martin and La’El Collins, and linebacker Jaylon Smith. All of these deals are virtually unmovable due to massive dead money.
This doesn’t begin to touch on quarterback Dak Prescott, who if tagged again, will receive roughly $38 million. Envelope math says Dallas would be approaching $151 million in cap commitments to eight players in a season when $175 million could be the salary threshold.
Jones and the Cowboys put themselves in this position, and there isn’t a quick way out.