- 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...
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.