The biggest question facing each team in the second half
- Is the Patriots' defense good enough to get them another title? When will the Rams hand the keys to Jared Goff? These are the biggest questions for all 32 teams heading into the second half of the NFL season.
If the NFL season ended today, the teams entering the postseason would be the Patriots, Raiders, Vikings, Texans, Steelers, Broncos, Cowboys, Vikings, Seahawks, Falcons, Packers, and Giants. Meanwhile, with the first pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, the Cleveland Browns would be selecting ... someone.
But that's the story of just one half. As sure as the air we breathe, this season's second half, like every one before it, will take twists and turns we can hardly predict. Will the 2–5 Panthers mimic last year's 2–5 Chiefs, running the table in the second half on the way to a surprise playoff berth? Are the Vikings, losers of two straight, this year's Atlanta? What must the Browns, 49ers, and possibly the Jags do to avoid picking first in the draft, or do they strategically aim for that slot over the next nine weeks? And what about the many more teams seeking an identity, or simply a reliable quarterback?
We examine the most burning question for all 32 teams...
Arizona Cardinals: Can the defense truly rediscover its magic?
For two recent weeks—against the Jets and Seahawks—the Cardinals truly resembled their old defensive stalwart self. They held their opponents without a touchdown and showcased personnel groups virtually impossible to defend. Then in Week 8, Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart barreled through the Cards’ defensive front on his way to 95 yards and two scores. There is no obvious rationale.
The Cardinals seemingly added to their already potent arsenal this off-season, signing outside linebacker Chandler Jones and drafting defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche in the first-round. Nkemdiche has only played intermittently but Jones has been an absolute beast with five sacks. He’s one of the best off-season moves by any team.
At 3–4, the Cardinals are hardly out of the playoff picture. But the defensive inconsistency has been baffling and this group must find a way to coalesce every week to get there.
Atlanta Falcons: How can Dan Quinn improve his reeling defense?
Even after Atlanta's Week 8 victory against the Packers, it’s hard to forget the Falcons’ fade down the stretch in 2015. So how do they prevent another epic meltdown? It’s all in the defense. Offensively, the Falcons are thriving, featuring plenty of high-powered weapons. They rank first in total offense and second in passing yards per game. But giving up 28.4 points per game and 294.3 passing yards per game (the most in the league) is unacceptable for the defense. Opponents are finding the holes in the cover-three zone defense and exploiting the Falcons’ defense underneath.
Can head coach Dan Quinn give his defense a kick in the pants?
Baltimore Ravens: Will Joe Flacco be able to bounce back?
Only two quarterbacks with at least 200 attempts have posted a lower QB rating than Ravens signal-caller Joe Flacco this season. One is a QB who claims his coaches stopped “believing in” him (Ryan Fitzpatrick), while the other’s boss was asked about benching him (Brock Osweiler). Then there’s Flacco. While his 2008 peer Matt Ryan has rejuvenated his career, Flacco went 11 quarters without throwing a touchdown pass as a 3–0 start in Baltimore quickly soured to 3–4. One could blame the knee brace Flacco is now wearing after tearing his ACL a year ago, or the practices he has missed due to an injured right shoulder. He certainly has not been helped by the other injuries around him at tackle, guard and wide receiver. Whatever the issue is, the Ravens need the cornerstone of their franchise to overcome it. With aging veterans at nearly every position, this is a team built to win now.
Buffalo Bills: Can QB Tyrod Taylor deliver when it matters most?
The Bills are 4–4 at the halfway point, which is to be expected considering some of the injury issues, especially at the skill positions. Buffalo has seen RB LeSean McCoy and its top four receivers miss time at some point. But if the Bills get healthy, they have enough talent. Moreover, offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn has done well enough that the Bills can move the ball in various ways. And, largely, the Bills have done a much better job at understanding and executing Rex Ryan’s defensive scheme this year. So they’ll make plays defensively and get off the field.
In the end, it comes down to QB Tyrod Taylor. At times he’s played like an MVP with some of the injuries around him. At other times he struggles to execute the offense. And Taylor has never been in a position where every game looms large and the playoffs are in the balance. Will he rise to the occasion?
Carolina Panthers: Can their season actually be salvaged?
The 2015 NFC champions had a less than palatable start to their season, losing five of their first six games before their Week 7 bye and sliding to the bottom of the NFC South. Some losses were close—one point to the Broncos, three points to the Saints and the Buccaneers—and others were by double-digits, but all led to the same realization: these are not the same swagger-filled Panthers that reached the Super Bowl last season. The secondary has seriously struggled in the post-Josh Norman era, giving up an average of 367 yards per game, and QB Cam Newton is taking far too many hits and lacking protection from his offensive line, something he finally complained about after a Week 8 game against Arizona.
After that big Week 8 win against the Cardinals, it looks like (maybe?!) Carolina might be on the upswing. The Panthers kicked off that game with a fumble returned for a touchdown and turned that into a dominant 30–7 lead that ended with a 30-20 win. And the second-half schedule is very winnable—for the Panthers team that played in Week 8, at least.
Chicago Bears: Is this the last stand for Jay Cutler?
Is this the last stand for Jay Cutler? It sure feels that way. Cutler’s seven-year, $126 million contract can be swept under the rug rather easily after this season. According to OvertheCap.com, releasing Cutler after the 2017 league year starts would save Chicago $14 million with just a $2 million dead-money hit. For now, though, the Bears are turning back to Cutler after Brian Hoyer broke his arm in Week 7.
The only other horse in the barn is Matt Barkley, a million miles from a developmental QB and even a subpar week-to-week option. The Bears made their bed by failing to find any intriguing QB prospects during the last few drafts. (Their 2014 attempt, David Fales, currently resides on Baltimore’s practice squad.) So provided he can stay healthy, the 33-year-old Cutler will play out his eighth Chicago season back in the starting role. Can he do anything while there to convince the front office to keep him around in 2017?
Cincinnati Bengals: Can they actually beat a winning team?
The formula for predicting 3–4–1 Cincinnati’s results over the first half of the year has been simple. The Bengals three wins have come against teams with a combined record of 5–16. Meanwhile, their four losses have come to squads who are a combined 20–7. The Bengals have been so stuck in the middle because a previously stingy defense now sits at 25th total, and the offense has not capitalized consistently enough (it is fifth in yards per game but 23rd in points per game). And Cincinnati will be tested plenty in the second half with matchups against five winning teams. Cincy will have to win at least two of those games against supposed peers if it wants any chance of avenging its poor playoff showings of late. Otherwise, Marvin Lewis is in for another hot January.
Cleveland Browns: Is this there any optimism to be found, or is this team just cursed?
Browns fans did not enter this season expecting results (they’ve been getting plenty elsewhere in 2016). But there was hope in Berea that the team would end the season with as many causes for optimism as it started the year with. Maybe Robert Griffin III would provide stability, or Josh Gordon would get himself back on the field, or first-year head coach Hue Jackson and new defensive coordinator Ray Horton would at least figure something out on that side of the ball? But no. Griffin is RGIR once again, Gordon is recently out of rehab, and the defense ranks 31st in total yards. Meanwhile, the Browns are the last winless team in the league and the second ever to have six players throw a pass over the first seven games (in a non-strike season). The previous squad? 1976’s 0–14 Buccaneers. Uh oh.
Denver Broncos: Can Trevor Siemian play from behind?
There’s no better way to break in a first-time starting quarterback than to support him with one of the league’s best scoring defenses. That’s how the Broncos went 6–2 in the first half with Trevor Siemian playing sound yet unremarkable football. But unlike last season, Denver’s D has a flaw, allowing 116.6 rushing yards per game, 21st in the league. As the Falcons and Chargers have proved, the fortunate opponents that scratch out an early lead can melt away the clock with a decent ground game, and the Broncos don’t run the type of quick-strike offense well-suited for comebacks.
With all four games against the Chiefs and Raiders left on the schedule, Siemian needs to be ready to raise his game if things start slipping out of control. Denver’s AFC West title defense—let alone its Super Bowl hopes—could depend on it.
Dallas Cowboys: How will the Dak Prescott-Tony Romo situation ultimately be resolved?
To be clear, this is no longer a question of “Will Tony Romo replace Dak Prescott once he’s healthy?” The Cowboys are 6–1, and it seems almost certain that as long as Prescott keeps winning, they’re not going to pull him for Romo. But what about when he loses?
Prescott came back down to earth in the Cowboys’ Sunday night win against the Eagles (19/39, 287 yards, 2 TDs, 1 pick), and so the question becomes, once Romo is back at full health, how short of a leash will Prescott be on? And if they put Romo back in to relieve Prescott at any point this year, will the veteran be taking over for good?
The rest of the Cowboys’ schedule isn’t too threatening—five of their remaining games are against teams currently ranked 20th or worse in pass defense—but as we saw on Sunday night, Prescott is still, you know, a rookie, and he’s going to go through some rookie struggles. What exactly that means for Romo’s opportunity to come back off the sidelines is yet to be determined.
Detroit Lions: Can the linebacking corps be salvaged?
As GM Bob Quinn said they would way back at the NFL combine in February, the Lions have leaned heavily on their nickel and dime looks this season. Part of that is just a reaction to an ongoing league-wide preference to spread the field; the other part is that they don’t really have any linebackers.
Last week’s trade of draft bust Kyle Van Noy (2014, Round 2) led Detroit to re-sign another LB, Josh Bynes, whom they waived with an injury settlement in September. He and rookie Antwione Williams with team up alongside Tahir Whitehead as the corps, until DeAndre Levy is healthy* (*should that day ever come). And without Levy, that group has issues, especially in coverage. Tight ends have a league-high seven TDs against the Lions this season. The pass defense as a whole is enough of an issue that it threatens to sink Detroit’s playoff hopes. If teams are able to continue exploiting the middle of the field, too, the defense will be in trouble.
Green Bay Packers: Have the Pack unlocked their offense?
Losing Eddie Lacy and James Starks to injuries could turn out to be a blessing in disguise for the Packers. Their absences, plus Don Jackson’s hand injury, forced the Packers to turn to Ty Montgomery as their main rushing threat in Week 7. He responded with 60 yards on nine carries, plus 10 receptions for 66 yards. Then, without Montgomery in Week 8, Green Bay almost bailed on the run entirely—Aaron Rodgers actually led the way with 60 yards; fullback Aaron Ripkowski added 34.
Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy has been criticized for his team’s vanilla passing scheme, one that has hindered Aaron Rodgers the past two seasons. While being forced by those injuries into more of a mix-and-match approach, though, the Packers have been able to create more space for their playmakers. A healthy Montgomery could be the key piece, but there suddenly is a light at the end of the tunnel regardless.
Houston Texans: Will they be able to get enough out of Brock Osweiler, offense?
Brock Osweiler hasn't looked great at all this season. He's looked good in spots, OK most of the time and, most recently in Denver, he was very, very bad. He can't complete a ball downfield and he's too often forcing it to DeAndre Hopkins. Osweiler’s 73.1 passer rating is second-worst among all quarterbacks who are on a second contract (just in front of Ryan Six-Pick-trick Fitzpatrick.) Now right tackle Derek Newton has torn both patella tendons and is done for the season. Houston is near the bottom of the league in scoring offense at 17 points per game. After J.J. Watt (back) went out for the season, it was clear Houston was going to have to rely more on its offense. It doesn't appear that the offense got the memo.
Indianapolis Colts: What will the next excuse for the team's struggles be?
Seriously, this team is full of quality players, but ever since the Deflategate AFC Championship Game it’s been excuse after excuse with the Colts. Andrew Luck was injured last year after his offensive line couldn’t protect him well enough. The defense can’t find a decent pass rush. How can Ryan Grigson build a team when he had to pay Luck all that money? Chuck Pagano’s terrible, no good, very bad special teams trick play against New England. The excuses never end. Grigson should be on the chopping block, but we all know it’ll probably be Pagano’s head that rolls. At this point expect Pagano to withstand the remainder of the regular season because the AFC South is so bad, and it’s possible it will only take eight or nine victories to win the division. But much like John Fox with the Broncos in 2014, anything short of a Super Bowl should spell the end of Pagano's tenure in Indy.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Will Allen Robinson get his groove back?
A year after Robinson went to the Pro Bowl and led the league in touchdowns with 14, he’s hardly been a factor for the Jaguars. In the Week 8 match against Oakland, Robinson sputtered to two catches on eight targets for 9 yards. He had six games with at least 100 receiving yards in 2015. He hasn’t had one of those yet this season, and he’s only cracked 70 twice.
Allen Hurns should not be leading this team in receiving yards at the halfway point, but he is thanks to Robinson’s disappearing act. The Jags defense is allowing 28 points per game, and Blake Bortles isn’t good enough to do this without Robinson. If Robinson doesn’t wake up, the Jaguars could be in line for a sixth straight draft pick in the top five.
Kansas City Chiefs: Will a perfect home record be good enough for a playoff win?
Few teams would benefit more from a home playoff game than the Chiefs, whose regular season inconsistencies have forced them to take their show on the road in January: Arrowhead Stadium has hosted just one playoff game in the last 10 seasons.
Five of Kansas City’s last nine games are theoretically favorable matchups at home, against the Jaguars, Bucs, Raiders, Titans and Broncos; all four remaining road trips are testers at Carolina, Denver, Oakland and San Diego. If the Chiefs hold serve at home and steal at least one road win, an AFC West title could be theirs for the taking. It will be hard to get to that point without more consistency from breakout players Dee Ford and Tyreek Hill and fewer, if any, no-shows like the Week 4 loss to the Steelers.
Los Angeles Rams: When will Jeff Fisher hand the keys over to Jared Goff?
What started as a hopeful 3-1 record has dissolved into 3-4, and unless Aaron Donald can play every position, the Rams’ playoff prospects suddenly feel slim. Case Keenum, who was supposed to be a game manager, is more than replaceable after throwing 7 interceptions on just 4 touchdowns over the past three weeks. The Rams are coming out of their bye week, and there is seemingly no better time than now to see what the No. 1 overall pick in the draft can do.
All logic suggests Goff should start. He (probably) can’t be more ineffective than Keenum, and getting real-time NFL reps is so crucial to development, especially at the quarterback position. Goff has been working more with the first-team, so the table has been set for a switcheroo. If he does indeed get the start, we’ll be closer to answering an even more burning question: Is Goff the future of this franchise, or in trading up to draft him did the Rams make one of the worst off-season moves of all time?
Miami Dolphins: Can the secondary take pressure off of Tannehill?
There is no question that during a two-game win streak Miami found the right mix offensively with the scheme running through RB Jay Ajayi, and making QB Ryan Tannehill a game manager who doesn’t have to operate in third-and-longs. Of course, Ajayi isn’t going to run for over 200 yards a game like he did in wins over the Steelers and Bills, but the Dolphins are much better when Tannehill is a bit player instead of the major star.
The only way the Dolphins can continue to play that way is if the defense does its part and keeps Miami from needing to play catch up. The defensive line has started to play up to its talent, but the secondary is still a big issue, especially after standout safety Reshad Jones was placed on injured reserve. Cornerbacks Byron Maxwell, Tony Lippett and Bobby McCain, along with safeties Michael Thomas and Isa Abdul-Quddus, all have to play well or the Dolphins will be back to winging it with Tannehill, and that’s not a winning formula.
Minnesota Vikings: What happens if the offensive line can’t protect Sam Bradford?
Well, we sort of saw the answer to this question on display in Philadelphia and ... it’s not good. The Eagles unraveled the Vikings off the edge in Week 7, leading a skittish Bradford into three costly turnovers. The carnage continued in Week 8 as Bradford was sacked five times by Chicago. For a Minnesota team that shows little semblance of a grind-it-out run game, unless Jerick McKinnon suddenly takes off, that volume of mistakes won’t fly. It has to win the turnover battle if it wants to stay on track.
So the play of OTs Jake Long, T.J. Clemmings and Jeremiah Sirles is cause for major concern. Bradford was sharp during his first four Vikings games, averaging 247.5 yards through the air with six total TDs. Most importantly, he didn’t turn the ball over. But injuries to Matt Kalil and Andre Smith have forced Minnesota to remake its O-line on the fly. The early returns have not been comforting.
New England Patriots: Is the defense good enough to deliver a title?
There is no question that the Patriots’ offense, even with minor flaws on the offensive line and running back, is a juggernaut now that Tom Brady is back. The combination of TEs Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett, along with receiver Julian Edelman will make them a very tough matchup for even the best defenses. And so far the defense has been good at the most important factor—keeping opponents out of the end zone (third in league at 16.5 points per game)—but has a hard time getting off the field on third downs, and the best QBs it has faced are Carson Palmer and Andy Dalton.
How will the Patriots fare on defense if they face the likes of Ben Roethlisberger, Russell Wilson, Aaron Rodgers or Derek Carr? Will they have enough pass rush and big plays after trading ends Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins? The defense will tell the tale for the 2016 Patriots.
New Orleans Saints: Is Sean Payton on the hot seat?
It’s no secret that Sean Payton has been on thin ice since the Saints’ disappointing 2014 season and many were shocked by Tom Benson’s decision to give him yet another chance in 2016. So it’s a safe assumption that if New Orleans has another subpar finish and misses the playoff yet again, Payton’s time with the Saints is probably over.
The 3–4 Saints have been winning by the skin of their teeth this season—the team has won three games by a total of nine points—and one can argue that it should be 2–5, since the Chargers practically handed a game over. New Orleans is leading the league in offensive yards per game, but its defense has given up the fifth-most yards per game.
The Saints’ well-executed Week 8 victory against the Seahawks was a shining moment for Payton—the offense scored on its final six possessions and the defense came up with a crucial stop on Seattle’s final drive. But now the question is whether they can keep the momentum going.
New York Giants: Is there anyone who can run the ball?
The Giants are coming off a bye week to start the second half of the season, and hopefully they used it to help figure out how the heck they’re going to find more success on the ground. Eli Manning currently has 270 pass attempts—fifth in the league. That’s likely because, well, he doesn’t really have anyone to hand the ball to. Some of this has been due to bad injury luck: Rashad Jennings missed a few games with a thumb injury, and in his return against the Rams in Week 7, he had just 25 yards on 13 carries. Shane Vereen is likely out for the season with a triceps injury. Orleans Darkwa, who looked like he was going to get a heavier load due to those injuries, has just 111 yards on the season.
Make no mistake about it, their offensive line needs to be addressed as well, as its run blocking has been very problematic, but it’s at least done a solid job at keeping Manning upright—the QB has only been sacked 10 times on the season. The Giants, quite simply, don’t have an extremely talented group of RBs on hand at the moment, and they don’t have a strong enough O-line to make up for that talent deficit.
Yes, Eli Manning and Odell Beckham Jr. are the anchors of that Giants offense, and they always will be, but New York needs to find some balance. An average of 70.3 rushing yards per game is not going to cut it for them in arguably the toughest division in the league.
New York Jets: Is the QB of the future currently on the roster?
The Jets, even after wins against the struggling Ravens and lowly Browns, are done for 2016. And they need to start thinking of 2017. The paramount question going into next year is whether the Jets already have their starting quarterback of the future. Ryan Fitzpatrick has shown his limitations at the end of last season and this year. Geno Smith is on injured reserve and a free agent after the season. At some point, even the Jets themselves will realize this season is lost and it will be time to find playing time for Bryce Petty and Christian Hackenberg. Both showed flashes in college that could develop into NFL starting quarterbacks.
The next phase will be to see what they can do in real NFL games. That will give the Jets enough information about whether or not they need to use a high draft pick on a QB in next year’s draft.
Oakland Raiders: Is Khalil Mack good enough to save the secondary?
As a rookie pass rusher, Khalil Mack seemed eternally a half-step away from making a game-changing hit on the quarterback. He finished 2014 with just four sacks, all of which came from mid-November on. In ’15, he hit everything that moved, his 15 sacks trailing only J.J. Watt for the league lead. This streakiness has bled into his third season—after just one sack in the first five games, he’s put up four in the past three—but the ripple effect on the Oakland defenders behind him has never been more drastic.
The Raiders’ defensive backs have underwhelmed and then some, allowing more passing yards than any other team in the league. While starting corners Sean Smith and David Amerson have shouldered most of the blame, it doesn’t help that the Raiders have just 11 sacks at midseason (tied for 27th). Mack is being counted on to be a cornerstone of the defense, and Oakland can't afford to have its superstar cool off for weeks at a time.
Philadelphia Eagles: Can the defense dominate against more explosive offenses?
Carson Wentz has been solid and accurate to start the season, but the Eagles still don’t trust him to throw deep and make game-changing plays. In Sunday night’s loss to the Cowboys, Wentz was averaging just 4.7 yards per attempt. He’s not going to be beating anyone in a shootout.
The real key to the Eagles’ success so far has been Jim Schwartz and his defense. In each of their four wins this season, the Eagles have limited their opponents to 14 points or fewer—and that includes a Steelers team in Week 3 that still had Ben Roethlisberger behind center. They’re currently ranked second in total defense behind Minnesota’s remarkable unit, third in passing defense, and eighth in rushing defense.
If the Eagles want to challenge the Cowboys in the NFC East, they need their defense to continue to come through for them and take pressure off Wentz as he works through some rookie growing pains. That challenge starts right away. In their next five games they get to see Odell Beckham Jr., Julio Jones, Russell Wilson, Aaron Rodgers and A.J. Green.
Pittsburgh Steelers: When will Ben Roethlisberger return?
There’s only one quarterback capable of going mano a mano with Tom Brady in the AFC (Sorry, Andrew Luck). The question now is whether we will get to see that heavyweight fight. Fans missed the chance in Week 7 due to a torn meniscus in Roethlisberger’s knee. The initial timetable for his return was 3–6 weeks, though in typical Big Ben fashion, he appears to be pushing the limits of his body. So will he return by Week 9 or 10, in time to contest the Patriots and whoever emerges out west for a playoff bye? Or might we not see Roethlisberger again until the final weeks of the season, at which point the Steelers very well might find themselves mired in a divisional quagmire with Baltimore and Cincinnati (who both now sit one game back)?
San Diego Chargers: Who will be left standing in December?
It’s a familiar problem, but that doesn’t make it any less upsetting for Chargers fans: The injury bug has ravaged the roster from Week 1 and doesn’t show any signs of letting up. San Diego had a whopping 19 players on injured reserve, two more than the next closest team. Keenan Allen, Manti Te’o, Danny Woodhead and Jason Verrett are all out for the year, and breakout rookie tight end Hunter Henry was far from 100% in Sunday’s loss to the Broncos.
No. 3 pick Joey Bosa's incredible start and the emergence of a solid WR core in Allen's absence have made San Diego one of the league's most surprisingly entertaining and competitive teams, but depth has undoubtedly played a role in the slew of close losses chaining the Chargers to the AFC West basement. Philip Rivers can’t haul them back into the playoff race alone (though you can be sure he will try), so expect some fingers crossed and breath held every time a starter is slow to get up from here on.
San Francisco 49ers: Will they “win” the race for the no. 1 overall pick?
Competition is fierce. The Browns are winless, while the San Francisco 49ers have only one win. Jacksonville, which doesn’t exactly look poised for a third victory any time soon, is also in the mix, and don't count out the two-win Bears. A fierce upcoming schedule could help San Francisco soon occupy the top of mock drafts. Over the next three weeks it faces the Saints, Cardinals and Patriots before the competition softens in Weeks 12-14 against the Dolphins, Bears and Jets. The Niners close the season against the Falcons, Rams and Seahawks.
On paper, the 49ers have exactly three games in which they have a small chance of winning, whereas the Browns tangle with many more middle-of-the-road teams (Ravens, Chargers, Steelers possibly without Ben Roethlisberger), and the Bears can eke out a few just by Jay Cutler lobbing it up to Alshon Jeffrey. That leaves San Francisco and a lackluster roster that has been particularly ineffective on defense since a season-ending injury to linebacker NaVorro Bowman. At this point San Fran's D is giving up over 400 yards a game, seemingly incapable of stalling any drive. Chip Kelly’s playcalling has been adequate but there is only so much you can do with the cards you were dealt. Perhaps selecting a quarterback at the top of the 2017 draft will change this franchise’s trajectory for the better.
Seattle Seahawks: Will the offense come to life before it’s too late?
The Seahawks have not won a game in three weeks, mostly due to the fact that the offense is reeling. In last Sunday’s loss to the Saints—known as one of the league’s worst defenses—Seattle scored just one touchdown. Not only did the offense stall on most other drives, save for two field goals, but also the play calling and execution was flat and uninventive. The week prior Seattle mustered just six points in a tie with Arizona.
In years past there has been a popular saying on social media from NFL fans: “Russell Wilson doing Russell Wilson things.” There are no “Russell Wilson things” as of late. None whatsoever. Seattle may still win its division by default but unless something starts clicking offensively, this team won’t be playing far into January, if it’s playing at all. The next three weeks against Buffalo, New England and Philadelphia should tell us a lot.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Does this team actually have a shot at the playoffs?
It’s been six years since the Buccaneers posted a winning season (2010) and nine since they made the playoffs (2007), but this season may be their best chance to play in January since. Sure, an overtime loss in Week 8 to the beatable Raiders doesn’t help this cause, but Tampa Bay has already notched wins against its division rivals Falcons and Panthers, and the upcoming schedule looks favorable, including games against the Bears and the Chargers.
The Buccaneers’ offense has been hot and cold; it only put up seven points against the top-ranked Cardinals and Broncos, but also hung double-digit points on every other opponent. Tampa Bay’s defense—most notably the secondary—has been spotty as well, giving up the tenth-most passing yards per game. Some consistency, mixed with a little bit of luck, will prove necessary for any sort of playoff contention for the Bucs.
Tennessee Titans: Can DeMarco Murray, running game keep up this pace?
DeMarco Murray is running like he did two seasons ago in Dallas. When he gets tired, Tennessee can hit teams in the mouth with Derrick Henry. And its offensive line, led by tackles Taylor Lewan and Jack Conklin, is one of the best to run behind in the NFL. The Titans rank third in the league in rushing yards per game but sit at just 4-4 this season. The issue for Tennessee is teams may begin to dare Marcus Mariota to throw the ball more by loading the box. Mariota has just as many picks (six) as he had through eight games last year, and teams may start to exploit those mistakes more by choking out the Titans’ run game, and that would extend Tennessee’s playoff drought to eight seasons.
Washington Redskins: Can 'Skins start avoiding late game failures?
The reigning division champs are 4–3–1 heading into their bye and yet they still find themselves in last place in the surprisingly competitive NFC East. But they could easily be 6–2, and with the exception of their Week 1 loss to the Steelers, the fact that they’re not is a direct result of their own mistakes.
In Washington’s Week 2 loss to the Cowboys, up 23–20, Kirk Cousins threw an interception in the end zone with 10 minutes remaining, and Dallas proceeded to put together a long drive to clinch the game-winning touchdown. Before that, the Redskins failed to capitalize on their good field position off a Cowboys fumble and had to settle for a field goal (another common theme this season). In their loss to the Lions, Cousins (who, despite an awful start, has been quite productive this season) led them to a touchdown with a minute remaining to take the lead, and the defense proceeded to allow Matthew Stafford and the Lions to go 75 yards in 49 seconds to win. Their tie with the Bengals included two missed field goals from Dustin Hopkins—including the game-winning attempt from 34 yards in OT—plus an inability to take advantage of the Bengals’ fumble with a minute left in overtime.
All three of those games were on the table for the taking, and they left them there. For good chunks of almost all of its games this season, Washington has played like a playoff-caliber team. Will the 'Skins be able to get out of their own way to actually get there?