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2021 NFL Midseason: First-Half Surprises, Second-Half Stories, Super Bowl Predictions

Halfway through the regular season, here's our staff's look back at some things we didn't see coming, what we'll have our eyes on the next few months and our updated picks to meet in L.A. in February.

With nine weeks in the books, we have reached the midpoint of the 2021 NFL season. Things are going exactly as we expected, right? Well, maybe not quite.

We had our writers offer up their biggest first-half surprises and their most intriguing second-half story lines, and gave everyone a mulligan to make a new Super Bowl prediction.

You can check out our midseason power rankings poll, look back at our preseason predictions and stay tuned for more midseason stories this week.

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Biggest first-half surprises

49ers keep sinking

Just 21 months ago, the 49ers looked like they had the best roster in the NFL and the best young coaching mind. They are 9–15 since then. Kyle Shanahan's team just got blown out at home by a Cardinals team quarterbacked by Colt McCoy. I was never quite sold on Jimmy Garoppolo (and neither, it seems, was Shanahan), but he is hardly the only problem there. The Garoppolo–Trey Lance dynamic is not the problem, either. The problem is that, no matter who takes snaps, the 49ers look like a thoroughly ordinary team. They have won three road games, but they all came against bad teams: the Lions, Eagles and Bears. The 49ers are 3–5 with a likely loss to the Rams on the docket next. There are some soft spots on the remaining schedule, but it looks more and more like Shanahan cannot scheme his way out of this.

And then what? Shanahan will probably have his fourth losing season in five years on the job. The Niners have no first-round pick in either of the next two drafts because of the Lance trade. What a strange dynamic this is: The 49ers found a brilliant head coach, let him choose his quarterback and general manager, and can plausibly believe they made the right decisions, but the record is what it is. The 49ers should (and presumably will) stay the course and count on Shanahan to coax magic out of Lance. But we are a long way from that two-score lead in the second half of Super Bowl LIV. –Michael Rosenberg

Rise of the Bengals

I was surprised at how dead-on some smart people were about Zac Taylor and the Bengals. I have to admit, I thought this team was going to win five games in 2021, and I absolutely abhorred the decision to draft Ja’Marr Chase over Penei Sewell. I’m taking the opportunity to wave the dunce flag now. The unassuming Taylor has the Bengals playing tough, and while they still retract into their bumbling selves from time to time, this is a different team than we’ve seen over the past few years. Joe Burrow is having a better season from an efficiency standpoint than Patrick Mahomes (and, really, almost all other quarterbacks). Chase may not only be the offensive rookie of the year but was, for a short time, in line for offensive player of the year. The system has developed existing talent and roughly two-thirds of the offensive line is playing above average football. Along those same lines, defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo, after being a third or fourth choice for Taylor, has come into his own and is steadily logging a top-15 performance week in and week out with a defense that is elite in spots but middling elsewhere. –Conor Orr

Resilient Raiders

I’ll admit, I didn’t see the resilience of the Raiders coming. Las Vegas cleaned out its business side over the summer, firing team president Marc Badain and a slew of his top lieutenants. The team had the Jon Gruden email situation dropped in its lap in October. And in November, there was true tragedy to reckon with—with leading receiver Henry Ruggs III driving his Corvette 156 miles per hour into another motorist, killing her and her dog.

Now, to be sure, the Raiders themselves aren’t victims in any of these cases, and no one needs to feel sorry for them. But the fact is that a group of players and coaches who weren’t culpable for any of those events had to work through them. And the results, to this point, have Rich Bisaccia’s crew tied for first in arguably the toughest division in football.

Again, there have been much bigger topics to discuss involving the Raiders than the on-field product the last three months. But in a lot of cases, you’ll see the on-field product suffer as a result of circumstances like that. With these Raiders, you could argue the opposite has happened. –Albert Breer

Floundering Dolphins

The Dolphins have the same 2–7 record they had at this point of the 2019 season, which was their teardown year. Last year’s 10–6 mark inspired confidence that their roster overhaul was not only headed in the right direction, but perhaps even ahead of schedule. Instead, Miami has been one of the NFL’s biggest disappointments. Its win against the Patriots in the opener was followed by seven straight losses, a skid stopped only by last weekend’s game against the one-win Texans.

Tua Tagovailoa, the QB who was intended to be the centerpiece of the rebuild, has played only five games this season, missing time first with broken ribs and then a finger injury. Tagovailoa’s development hasn’t been helped by Brian Flores’s so-far fruitless search for the right offensive coordinator or the organization’s not-so-secretive pursuit of Deshaun Watson, which Tagovailoa and Flores were forced to answer for because of the silence from owner Stephen Ross. Now that the trade deadline has passed, Tagovailoa will have the chance to start the remainder of the season, if healthy, but what seemed like a clear path forward for the organization just one year ago has become very muddied. –Jenny Vrentas

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Chiefs not looking like themselves

It’s boring at this point, because we’ve talked it to death for a month now, but the biggest surprise to me is still whatever is going on with the Chiefs’ offense, which has topped 20 points just once in the last five games. We could have been mentally prepared for this, having seen them score just nine points in the Super Bowl last year, but I thought they had mostly fixed things by overhauling the offensive line in the offseason. All right, all right, it still takes some time for the new group to jell, especially with multiple rookies in there. Still, it’s just been strange to see how the team looks off. I assumed Patrick Mahomes would just be the best QB in the league forever. This has been a blip.

I know plenty of smart people have dug into their issues. They have seven more games for us to see whether the turnover numbers are fluky or emblematic of something larger. And I know it’s hard to say the world is ending when the team is still 5–4 (though currently on the wrong side of the playoff bubble). But it’s just been strange to see the deep balls that used to be easy 50-plus-yard touchdowns fall incomplete or the scrambles that used to result in magic end with everyone shaking their heads. –Mitch Goldich

Urban unprepared

This is less “first half of the season” and more “first 11 months of the calendar year,” but I remain dumfounded at how ill-prepared Urban Meyer was for the transition to the NFL. I was *this close* to picking the Jaguars as the seventh seed in the AFC during our preseason predictions—Trevor Lawrence is every bit the can't-miss quarterback he's been billed as. But whether it was the Chris Doyle debacle, the convoluted quarterback competition or just the overall sense that this is being run the same way a college program would be, I'm simply shocked at how unprepared Jacksonville was to start the year.

The good news is that Meyer surely learned some lessons the hard way over the past few months, and in the second half of the season the schedule softens to the point where the coach—and the franchise as a whole—can save some face. –Gary Gramling

Intriguing second-half story lines

The QB carousel starts spinning

Where Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers are in January. The former returns to the field this Sunday to face the latter’s team, looking to lead the 3–5 Seahawks back into contention. The latter may or may not be there—depending on whether he can clear COVID-19 protocols by Saturday, the first day that he’s eligible to return. And the result of the game, and the rest of the season, for those two will almost certainly work to shape the 2022 offseason.

I’d say it’s a near certainty that Deshaun Watson will be traded between February and April. We also have a pretty decent feel for the 2022 draft class at the position now, and it sure looks like it’s going to be a tough year to take a quarterback high in April, with no one really having emerged, at this point, as a sure-thing first-rounder. So whether Watson and Rodgers are out there on the trade market will loom large over the plans of a number of teams.

And how can you figure out whether they’ll be available? The best thing to do, at this point, is to see how the rest of this season plays out—and whether those guys will consider their current teams, the teams that drafted them, as the best places for them going forward. A lot of the story on that is yet to be written, which should make the Packers and Seahawks fun to follow from here on out. –Albert Breer

Baker’s future in Cleveland

What’s next for Baker Mayfield and the Browns? Mayfield went into this season, his fourth in the NFL, without a contract extension like the one awarded last summer to draft-class peer Josh Allen. It seemed to set up the kind of prove-it season that would bring out the best in a player like Mayfield, who entered the league as the No. 1 pick ready to take on the challenge of turning around a hapless Browns franchise.

A week ago, it seemed like that may not be in the cards, with the Browns at 4–4, Mayfield playing through a painful injury to his non-throwing shoulder and Odell Beckham Jr. trying to publicly force a trade through surrogates. But we saw the best version of Mayfield and the Browns in last week’s 41–16 rout of the resurgent Bengals, when he passed for 218 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions, without Beckham. Despite what Mayfield referred to as “the bulls---” that was going on last week, the team handled it decisively and came to a resolution that may end up being good for all parties involved. But the biggest question for the team still remains, and that’s how the Browns will handle a potential extension for Mayfield, whose rookie contract runs through 2022. What happens in the second half of this season will go a long way toward answering that question. –Jenny Vrentas

Saints’ QB situation

Sean Payton is certainly zigging when everyone thought he would zag. After almost irrational love for multi-purpose weapon Taysom Hill, a stint in which Hill won three of four starts as a traditional quarterback in 2020, and a short but lucrative contract for the QB, Payton not only went with Jameis Winston as his starter this summer, but has now elevated Trevor Siemian to QB1 with Winston out for the season. Considering the Saints’ thin group of receivers, a game-manager wouldn't seem to maximize what is arguably football's best roster from spots two through 53, whereas New Orleans could build an 11-man rushing attack around Hill’s skill set. It doesn't matter what I think though, which is good for the Saints since Sean Payton will forget more about football today than I will ever know. –Gary Gramling

Titans without King Henry

While I wrote about the Bengals above, I think the Titans are right there with them among the biggest surprises thus far. They constantly seem to be running on fumes, but always manage to play up to the moment. If I were a Titans owner, I’d pat myself on the back for hiring Mike Vrabel and remind myself, when he turns in a less-than-desirable performance, that the Titans are almost never out of a game.

I wrote about this at greater length after Derrick Henry went down (before they beat the Rams without him), but how this team performs in his absence is the ultimate chance to test the theory of running back value that we have all debated for years now. –Conor Orr

Aaron Rodgers’s last dance

It’s hard to go with anything other than the Packers here. There was already so much attention on this team, given the stories about Aaron Rodgers’s future in Green Bay and the season-opening blowout loss to the Saints, and it will only be ratcheted up after the last two weeks.

Rodgers is a phenomenal talent who has played very well in the past when he has perceived slights against him, and now he probably feels pressure to somehow answer legitimate off-field questions by thrashing opponents on the field.

People will be judging him every week, from his reactions on the sidelines to his demeanor in his press conferences. Will he be feisty and combative? Will he shut down and give short, monotone, football-only responses? It’s going to be scrutinized 24/7.

There is practically zero margin for error at the top of the NFC playoff picture, where five very good teams are competing for one first-round bye. A single loss could be all that separates a team from resting up on wild-card weekend to hosting the Rams that week and then traveling to Tampa the next. Rodgers has already likely cost his team a game by missing the Week 9 tilt with the Chiefs, and now we don’t know if he’ll be back to face the Seahawks. It’ll be interesting to see what he and his teammates say about the impact on their season, and how they respond. –Mitch Goldich

A major change in Seattle?

Pete Carroll's job status. He is 70 years old, he has won one playoff game since 2016, and his franchise quarterback has publicly pined for dramatic changes. Hmmmm.

Carroll will be a Seahawks legend whenever he leaves, but nothing lasts forever. If you had to list the top 10 coaches in the league right now, would you even consider him? Coaching changes are not just about whether a coach is good at his job. Carroll was and still is. Changes are about whether a team thinks it would be better off with somebody else. That is a big and frankly fair question for Seattle general manager John Schneider. Sometimes a team is better off hearing a different voice and new ideas.

If the Seahawks decided it was time for a fresh coaching staff, there would be precedents. Look at Mike McCarthy's record in Green Bay. Look at what happened to Andy Reid in Philadelphia or Tom Coughlin in New York. Doug Pederson won a Super Bowl, made two more playoff appearances, then had one bad year and got fired. The NFL is a league of change. Carroll and the Seahawks have been an admirable exception.

I'm not predicting Carroll's ouster or even advocating for it. But I am very curious to see where the Seahawks go from here. –Michael Rosenberg

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Super Bowl LVI predictions

Albert Breer: Packers 38, Bills 35. MVP: Aaron Rodgers

I’ll stick with my preseason prediction. Buffalo needs more balance on offense and better play from its line, but has as much upside right now as any team going into the second half of the season. And to me, the way the Packers hung in there in Kansas City was indicative of how good that team is. Even with subpar quarterback play, they were right there to the end, which shows you how good they can be with Rodgers.

Jenny Vrentas: Rams 27, Ravens 24. MVP: Matthew Stafford

The Rams’ Sunday night loss to the Titans was not enough to knock me off my preseason Super Bowl pick. There are a handful of real contenders in the NFC, and the Rams are among them, which is one of the reasons they made a deadline move for Von Miller. But I am going to revise my AFC champion to the Ravens. It’s truly a wide-open field in the AFC, with 12 teams within one game of .500 or better. I like how the Ravens have continued to disprove doubts and show new dimensions this year, including their ability to come back from double-digit deficits, as we saw again in this past weekend’s win vs. Minnesota. This would be an incredibly fun matchup with two excellent head coaches and quarterbacks. I’ll give the edge to the Rams, because I think their best is still to come this season.

Conor Orr: Rams 31, Browns 25. MVP: Cooper Kupp

Cleveland soars over the second half after clicking defensively and removing cultural anchor Odell Beckham. Baker Mayfield’s shoulder, while obviously not recovered from the rigors of the season, is good enough to run the beautiful offense as designed, and Kareem Hunt is well-rested for the stretch run. However, the Rams, bolstered by their trade-deadline performance, become almost unstoppable defensively and swarm the quarterback throughout a less-than-competitive NFC playoff tournament. Cooper Kupp catches both of Matt Stafford’s touchdown passes in a decisive win that is more of a blowout than the score indicates.

Michael Rosenberg: Rams 31, Ravens 27. MVP: Matthew Stafford

In the preseason, I had the Chiefs beating the Rams in the Super Bowl, but even if Patrick Mahomes starts playing like himself again, Kansas City is still a terribly flawed team. I have more confidence in the Rams and Ravens than any other teams playing right now, starting with the head coach-quarterback combinations. (I would put the Packers third on that list, presuming Aaron Rodgers returns soon and is the shot in the arm that they need, whether they want it or not.) Stafford vs. Lamar Jackson would give us a week of overcooked Shut Up the Critics story lines, but it would also give us a hell of a game.

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Mitch Goldich: Buccaneers 36, Ravens 32. MVP: Tom Brady

I was the only person on our site who had the Bucs in the Super Bowl back in September, and it feels strange to still be in such a small group now. But I trust their offense to score against anyone, and I think their defense can make enough plays to keep winning games that matter. I will ditch the Chiefs, who I have picked at every opportunity for four straight years now, in favor of the Ravens. Lamar Jackson just keeps getting a little closer every year, as his critics keep moving the goal posts. One more big step has him in the big game, though falling short.

Gary Gramling: Buccaneers 20, Browns 10. MVP: Vita Vea

The Browns showed their true colors Sunday in Cin City, pairing a dominant defense that is absolutely capable of taking the ball away with an efficient offense that can sprinkle in big plays even without Odell Beckham Jr. The Bucs, meanwhile, will have to find some answers at cornerback, but when Tom Brady has his full complement of weapons it's clear that this offense is going to be able to outscore people in January. In February, Vita Vea will swallow the world for a second straight Super Bowl and everyone will decide to give him a trophy for it.

More NFL Coverage:

MMQB: Lamar Jackson Is Proving He Can Come From Behind
Jordan Love’s Starting Debut Was a Lose-Lose Day for the Packers
Week 9 Takeaways: The Real Browns Stand Up
The Problem Is Aaron Rodgers Thinks He Has All the Answers

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