There is not a ton of middle ground in the NFL right now, which was safe to expect after emerging from the most unprecedented offseason in modern history. It seems the pandemic has (somewhat) rewarded established coach-quarterback relationships as we expected. Eight of the 10 best records in the league are held by coaches and quarterbacks who worked together last season, with the Tom Brady–Bruce Arians and Matt Nagy–Nick Foles pairings the two exceptions.
That said, now that everyone is in a groove, do we expect the tides to shift at all? There are always one or two good second-half teams and, thanks to the additional playoff spot in each conference this year, it would not be surprising to see a more significant trade deadline push to lift teams from middling to competitive.
So where is that middling team going to emerge from? We’ve got five options heading into this weekend, with the Panthers’ loss on Thursday to the Falcons narrowly edging them out of contention for this list …
New England Patriots (2–4)
God bless the hosts on WEEI Friday morning who asked Bill Belichick about his team being sellers at the deadline. He seemed to have fun with the response, but obviously offered no inclination as to what he’s thinking about the short-term. We’re in a bizarre position with the Patriots, where no quarterback is currently effective enough to pilot the system. Where the defense is getting blown off the ball. Where they have sunk to third place in the division. The question about selling off pieces was a legitimate one, though it might have felt strange bouncing off the walls given how unprecedented of a situation we’re in. I still have a hard time counting out New England, though, for the simple reason that they have all but one of their divisional games remaining. I also don’t think that it’s possible for Cam Newton to continue in this funk, regardless of how poorly his surrounding set of skill position players are. Newton right now is floating in the Daniel Jones/Dwayne Haskins area of Defense-adjusted Value over Average, meaning that on a play-to-play basis he is costing New England (meanwhile, a neutral “average” this year is someone like Baker Mayfield). Of their remaining opponents only two, Baltimore and the Rams, have a top-10 defense. The rest, based on DVOA are 14, 32, 18, 12, 17, 21, 14 and 32. While the Bills come into this weekend’s matchup in first place, it seems a lot of what they are struggling with offensively can be countered by .
Miami Dolphins (3–3)
I’m on the record as saying the move to Tua Tagovailoa will make this offense better and harder to contain immediately, which is saying a lot given that Ryan Fitzpatrick was flying above replacement level for a majority of this season. There has been nothing about Brian Flores’s Dolphins rebuild that has been irresponsibly microwaved, so Tagovailoa’s practice performances had to have been outrageously good for him to nab the baton at this point in the season. The Dolphins are 3–3 at the moment but have the fourth-best point differential in the conference (+47) behind only Baltimore, Kansas City and Pittsburgh. All of the things they do well on offense will theoretically get better when operating alongside a wildly accurate and situationally mobile quarterback. The running game is efficient enough but can get better. If they can survive this meaty portion of their schedule off the bye—Rams, at Cardinals, Chargers—they’ll get the Broncos, Jets and Bengals in a row.
Detroit Lions (3–3)
The Lions, a team that we expect will be somewhat active at the trade deadline, are working with a playoff mandate and have little choice but to throw everything they can at their remaining opponents. Detroit has won two straight and has a point differential close to even, reflecting some of the strange ways in which they’ve lost games late. They’re also disproportionately bad at home, which should change over the course of a longer season. Over Matthew Stafford’s last four games, he has averaged a quarterback rating over 100, completed 65% of his passes and posted a seven-to-two touchdown to interception ratio. Another interesting nugget there, via Pro Football Reference’s Advanced Passing stats: His on-target passing percentage is near 80%, but his dropped pass rate is almost 8%. That could even out over the second half of the season. Think about how much differently we’d be viewing the Lions if, say, D’Andre Swift had caught that ball in the end zone against the Bears in Week 1. At some point, the Lions are going to have to steal a game or two against top-tier opponents. Despite having one of the more favorable remaining strengths of schedule in the NFL, there are still more games that are perceived as difficult (Green Bay, Tampa Bay, Chicago, Tennessee and Indianapolis) than more obviously winnable (Houston, Minnesota twice, Washington and Carolina).
Cleveland Browns (5–2)
At 5–2 I don’t imagine the Browns will be “sneaking up” on anybody, though the perception of them has been dinged due to a pair of blowout losses to the Steelers and Ravens. It’s impossible to discount them from the playoff race at this point, though, even without Odell Beckham in the offense. The Browns have the second-easiest remaining strength of schedule in the NFL, with games against the Jets, Jaguars, Texans, Giants and Eagles remaining. But I like their chances given that Baker Mayfield is ascending right now, while some of their more important roster pieces get healthier. Within the next few weeks, Kevin Stefanski can probably return to some semblance of his best two-tight end personnel sets and go back to charging Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt at defenses on a rotating basis. This is going to be exponentially more difficult to stop in November and December, especially with relatively fresh legs on Chubb.
Los Angeles Chargers (2–4)
Justin Herbert is trending in the right direction, with a soft spot in the team’s schedule continuing over the next few weeks. He is top 10 in points above expected completion percentage, he’s one of the more appropriately aggressive quarterbacks in the NFL and he’s posted quarterback ratings of more than 110 in each of his last three games (two of those opponents were the top-ranked Buccaneers defense and the New Orleans Saints). He is being pressured on nearly 30% of his snaps but still has an on-target percentage mirroring some of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. The Chargers’ point differential is almost identical to that of the 5–2 Bills and Bears, meaning that there is an element of luck that simply has not generated to this point. I realize that luck is a dicey proposition for Chargers fans, but is there a chance they steal a few games they were unable to over the first half of the season?