The Kansas City Chiefs could repeat as Super Bowl champions. The Pittsburgh Steelers could stop them in a loaded AFC. In the NFC, there are several very good teams, but is there a great one?
As we pass the midpoint of the NFL regular season, it’s that moment when fans love to assess their team and what it all means. With the playoffs expanding this year from 12 to 14 teams, the calculation has changed. Used to be if your team went 5-3 or better the first half, you are solidly in the playoff hunt. But that seventh playoff slot in each conference gives more teams a realistic shot.
Consider that there are only seven teams in the NFC that currently hold a winning record. However, one of the teams with a losing record, the 3-4-1 Philadelphia Eagles, are leading the NFC East, whose champion makes the playoffs regardless of record. As of today, the 5-4 Chicago Bears would be the first NFC team out.
Who would make it in the NFC? Packers, Saints, Seahawks, Rams, Cardinals, Eagles and Buccaneers.
In the AFC it would be: Steelers, Chiefs, Bills, Titans, Ravens and four 5-3 teams battling for the final two spots: Raiders, Dolphins, Colts and Browns. If I had to pick, I’d take the Raiders and Dolphins from that foursome.
It will be interesting to see how that lineup shakes out a few months from now. On to the rankings!
- Kansas City Chiefs (8-1) – Patrick Mahomes has 25 touchdowns and only one interception and even when opponents keep him off the field, it doesn’t work. KC had the ball for only 22 minutes against the ball-control Carolina Panthers, whose smart strategy limited Mahomes to a mere 372 yards passing and four touchdowns. Mahomes reached 101 career TD passes in only his 40th game, passing legend Dan Marino as the fastest to hit the century mark.
- Pittsburgh Steelers (8-0) – To go undefeated a team needs to survive at least one huge stinker, which is the only way to describe barely beating the pitiful Dallas Cowboys. The Steelers were saved again by Ben Roethlisberger’s heroics, but if there’s a concern going forward it is Big Ben playing on two creaky knees. Can Pittsburgh go 16-0? Maybe. This is a team that will be favored in the rest of its regular-season games. I say someone trips them up. Can they make a run at surpassing the 1972 Miami Dolphins’ perfect season? So hard to pull off, especially given that if and when the Steelers and Chiefs meet, the Chiefs are the better team.
- Green Bay Packers (6-2) – Quietly rolling along – not that what’s left of the 49ers could challenge Aaron Rodgers. Rodgers to Davante Adams is becoming the league’s most prolific combo and the Pack is slowing getting healthy on offense. Their defensive issues haven’t gone away, but Rodgers is doing a great job running methodical drives that keep his team’s weaker unit off the field. That early regular-season win over New Orleans might be big if there’s a tiebreaker for the NFC’s top seed.
- New Orleans Saints (6-2) – Interesting strategy by the Saints, who rested Drew Brees for two practices last week. The 41-year-old quarterback certainly looked fresh in demolishing Tom Brady and the Buccaneers, and it was quite obvious Brees came into this game tired of hearing about his arm being tired. Brees hit so many different receivers that even rookie tight end Adam Trautman caught a TD pass. With receivers Michael Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders back, and an improving defense that played its best game against Brady, the Saints suddenly look as formidable as we expected them to be.
- Baltimore Ravens (6-2) – The 24-10 win over Indianapolis was fairly remarkable given the Ravens lost Marlon Humprheys to a positive COVID-19 test and six other players to quarantine under the league’s close contact rules. The Ravens defense is as nasty as ever, throttling the Colts with just 55 yards of offense in the first two quarters. The next three weeks will show us whether the Ravens have any chance to catch the Steelers – at the Patriots and home against Tennessee before their rematch with Pittsburgh in a Thursday night game. They’ll need three to win all three to maintain a shot at the division crown.
- Buffalo Bills (7-2) – So who thought Josh Allen would outshine Seattle’s Russell Wilson in a shootout? Sunday’s 44-34 Bills win over the Seahawks was an important moment for the Bills. They belong. Playing a Seattle team that could very well make the NFC Championship Game, Allen threw only seven incompletions in 38 pass attempts for 415 yards and three touchdowns. It doesn’t let up for Buffalo with a trip west this week to meet the vastly improved Arizona Cardinals.
- Seattle Seahawks (6-2) – Wilson is an MVP but the defense is MIA. The Seahawks are trying to cover up for a weak secondary with constant blitzes, but opposing quarterbacks are still carving them up. This doesn’t look like the team that should win the NFC West, but with the Niners beat up and the Rams a weekly guessing game, who will take it from them? Could it really be … Arizona?
- Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-3) – The Bucs had a bad night against the Saints and often that means nothing in the big picture. And it’s true that as Antonio Brown continues to meld with the Tampa offense, Brady and crew will put points on the board. But you can’t dismiss two losses to the Saints and the formula New Orleans used: Pressure Brady relentlessly and run a quick-pass offense to negate Tampa’s love of blitzing. Sean Payton badly outcoached Tampa’s Bruce Arians in this game and Tampa had better figure out how to keep Brady clean or everyone will learn from the Saints.
- Miami Dolphins (5-3) – They break into the top 10 of the rankings this week and if Tua Tagovailoa is able to build on how he played last week, the Dolphins are headed for the playoffs. Winners of five of six and 2-0 with Tua starting, the rookie showed the extra dimension he brings to the game. That was a quality road win the Fins picked up in Arizona. Don’t look now, but with the next three games at home against the Chargers followed by at Denver and at the NY Jets, Miami has emerged as the strongest challenger to Buffalo for the AFC East crown.
- Tennessee Titans (6-2) – After seeing their defense exploited by the Steelers (no shame) and the Bengals (great shame), the Titans tightened things up against the Bears. Then again, if you stop the Bears offense, isn’t that similar to stopping Guam’s military? The Titans are in first place in the AFC South, yet remain a question mark.
- Los Angeles Rams (5-3) – Feasting on the subpar NFC East for four wins made us all think great things about the Rams, but this team has not been able to seize control in the NFC West even with the 49ers all beaten up. The Rams’ bye week is a good chance for them to refocus and shoot their shot – they host division leader Seattle on Sunday and then travel to Tampa Bay. We’ll know in a few weeks whether LA is a true contender.
- Arizona Cardinals (5-3) – Definitely one of the pleasant surprises this season, the Cardinals got a little cutesy with the play-calling against Miami and it cost them in a 34-31 loss. Note to coach Kliff Kingsbury: Kyler Murray is really good, put the ball in his hands. The Cards’ phenom quarterback rushed for 106 yards against Miami and most likely would’ve picked up a yard on fourth-and-one with less than two minutes to play. Arizona went for a long field goal instead and missed it. Could haunt them in the tough NFC West.
- Las Vegas Raiders (5-3) – Jon Gruden has his charges believing they are a playoff team and they’ve walked the walk. The Saints and Chiefs have three losses between them – two are to the Raiders. Vegas pulled it out last week against the LA Chargers, who are very accomplished at playing not-quite-winning football every week. Two division matchups coming up for the Raiders – the Broncos this week and the rematch with the Chiefs to follow. Neither will be easy, especially going for the season sweep over the defending Super Bowl champs.
- Indianapolis Colts (5-3) – A tough team that got out-toughed in the second half against the Ravens. Indy has a very solid defense, but no NFL defense can hold up forever if the offense struggles. Baltimore harassed Philip Rivers into plenty of mistakes and showed us that this Colts team is going as far as its veteran quarterback takes it. Thing is, the AFC South is up for grabs and a win this week against the Titans puts the Colts back in a first-place tie.
- Cleveland Browns (5-3) – Is there a team with a winning record that is more unpredictable than the Browns? Stat of the week: Cleveland has either scored 30 or more points or seven or less points in every game this season. They’re 0-3 in the latter. That’s the kind of inconsistency that makes you wonder if the Browns are any good or only good against poor defenses. With the Steelers and Ravens in the same division, Cleveland better get wins while it can the next three weeks against the Texans, Eagles and Jaguars. Could see the Browns winning all three, could see them losing two of three. That’s Cleveland.
- Chicago Bears (5-4) – Water seeks its own level and after an early 5-1 surge, the Bears have receded to that place reserved for NFL teams that can’t score. Chicago makes every opposing defense look good. Don’t be fooled by the 24-17 final in the loss to the Titans. The Bears had only three points when it mattered and picked up a few touchdowns in garbage time. Do you know any quarterbacks out there looking for an NFL job? Asking for a friend.
- Atlanta Falcons (3-6) – After digging itself a huge hole to start the season, Atlanta has won three of four since firing coach Dan Quinn. This team was a playoff pick in the preseason because of Matt Ryan, who has done his part in the revival. Six losses, however, reduces the margin of error to almost none – it probably will take a 10-6 record or better to claim a wildcard berth in the NFC. So win seven in a row, Atlanta, and you might make it.
- Minnesota Vikings (3-5) – Another team better than its record, thanks to having the best pure running back in the league in Dalvin Cook, who is tearing through every defense and will get MVP votes. Cook has taken the pressure off quarterback Kirk Cousins, which is good because Cousins can’t handle it. Next three games: at Chicago and home against the Cowboys and Panthers. The Vikes are not out of it if they win all three.
- Los Angeles Chargers (2-6) – The team with the promising quarterback that finds a way to lose games it should win. LA had the Raiders on the ropes, just like they did the Chiefs, Bucs and Saints – all losses. For now Chargers fans will have to look to the future with rookie QB Justin Herbert. This team is going to jump up and win a game against a playoff contender. Could it be this week against the Dolphins?
- San Francisco 49ers (4-5) – Less than a year after a memorable whipping of the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game, the depleted 49ers were not close to the same team in getting hammered by the Pack last week. There’s just not much to say about the Niners. From Super Bowl to sad. Their best players are injured and are not coming back soon enough to rescue the 2020 season.
- Philadelphia Eagles (3-4-1) – We’ve reached the NFC East section of the rankings and this is the current first-place team. Philly remains the best bet to make the playoffs out of this weak bunch, and in some ways it’s surprising the Eagles have three wins with Carson Wentz being entirely mediocre. He is a league leader – in turnovers, interceptions and sacks. Unbelievably, he is still the best starting quarterback in the division, unless you’d rather have Alex Smith, Daniel Jones or Garrett Gilbert. OK, I’ll take a flyer on Gilbert.
- New England Patriots (3-5) – It looked grim when the Patriots trailed the Jets by 10 in the fourth quarter, a sure sign the season is on the brink. But New England pulled it out – led by the best game Cam Newton has played in more than a month. Still, it took a 51-yard field goal by Nick Folk to win at the buzzer, and that was the Jets. Call me unconvinced.
- Denver Broncos (3-5) – Another one of those teams where you never know what you’re going to get. Granted, that loss in Atlanta may look bad, but the Falcons are playing better and Matt Ryan is still a top-flight quarterback like Drew Lock wants to be. The Broncos lost their 17th player to injured reserve last week when tight end Albert Okwuegbunam tore his ACL. Going 4-4 in their final eight games would be progress.
- Cincinnati Bengals (2-5-1) – The Bengals were off last week, hopefully resting their offensive line for this week’s matchup with the undefeated Pittsburgh Steelers. Joe Burrow is showing he definitely was worthy of being the No. 1 overall pick – he just broke the record for most completed passes by a quarterback in his first eight games, passing Andrew Luck, Kyler Murray and Patrick Mahomes. That’s fast company and another sign Burrow is the favorite for Offensive Rookie of the Year.
- Carolina Panthers (3-6) – The Panthers badly needed running back Christian McCaffrey back after dropping three in a row. He came back, Carolina nearly pulled off a stunner against the Chiefs, and McCaffrey got hurt again. This team has bright spots across the roster, but nothing stands out and good quarterbacks feast on its secondary. In an NFC South that features Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Matt Ryan, that’s trouble.
- Houston Texans (2-6) – This year’s award for best quarterback on a horrible team goes to DeShaun Watson, an elite talent laboring in Houston. Watson helped his team pull out a thrilling win against the Jacksonville Jaguars, or as thrilling as it could be between two teams who came into the game with a combined two wins. Houston is out of the playoff race so the rest of this year is about figuring out who will be a Texan in 2021. Imagine if Watson was playing for the Bears – they’d make the playoffs.
- New York Giants (2-7) – Has there ever been a team this low in the rankings that could pull to within one game of the division lead with a win this Sunday? That is the case with the Giants, who face the Eagles in an NFC East slowdown, I mean showdown. Daniel Jones improved to 4-0 against Washington with a 23-20 win last week. Too bad he is 1-16 against all other opponents. Jones vs Carson Wentz – whoever makes the fewest turnovers should win the game.
- Washington Football Team (2-6) – Washington began the season with Dwayne Haskins at quarterback. He played his way right off the active roster. Kyle Allen took over and played better, only to suffer a serious ankle injury that will require surgery. That brought back Alex Smith, once a pretty good NFL QB until he suffered a gruesome leg injury and missed almost two years. Is Haskins so bad that Washington will stick with Smith in a season that is not going anywhere? If so, that means the WFT is basically starting over at quarterback because Smith is not the answer.
- Detroit Lions (3-5) – Every year the Lions do a couple of things: They show flashes that makes us think they’ve improved and then they play themselves slowly but steadily down the rankings. Matt Patricia is supposed to be a defensive coach. Well, rule one is stop the run and Detroit gave up 275 yards on the ground last week, 206 to Dalvin Cook. Detroit hasn’t won a division game in almost two years. The fired coach alert is officially on.
- Dallas Cowboys (2-7) – It would’ve been the upset of the year if Dallas had knocked off the Steelers and to be fair Garrett Gilbert was reasonably effective at quarterback. But remember, it’s the Cowboys defense that has sent them spiraling to seven losses, so we shouldn’t be surprised that Ben Roethlisberger had little trouble leading his team on a game-winning drive. The Cowboys expect to get Andy Dalton back at QB this week. That’ll help, but they’ve got to stop someone too.
- Jacksonville Jaguars (1-7) – I do not know how the Jaguars beat the Colts in the season opener, but we’ll chalk that up to Philip Rivers playing his first game as Indy’s starting quarterback. Speaking of starting quarterbacks, wouldn’t the Jags love to have one? With Gardner Minshew hurt and Jake Luton filling in, I’d say the job is officially open. Next year you can look for either Trevor Lawrence of Clemson or Justin Fields of Ohio State to be under center in Jacksonville. My advice to those two is enjoy college while you can.
- New York Jets (0-9) – The Jets nearly put the No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 draft in jeopardy with an accidental victory over the Patriots. New York even built a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter. Things looked grim. But they recovered with another signature Jets loss, secured as they watched New England convert a game-winning field goal. All is well.
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