Ryan L. Fox
Well it’s officially the ‘halfway’ point of the NFL. After 8 grueling weeks of contest, fans and media alike are starting to see a clearer and clearer picture of who will be contending for the Lombardi trophy come February. But with every contender out there, there are also the pretender. The team that always looks sexy in September but then come late November/December, the clock strikes midnight and they turn into a pumpkin.
So who are the contenders that you should keep your eye on and who are the pretenders that you should avoid?
New England Patriots
Yes, they are missing key contributors on both sides of the ball (WR Julian Edelman on offense and LB Dont’a Hightower on dfense). Yes, they seem more vulnerable compared to year’s past. But they are the New England Patriots and they always find a way to win. If that doesn’t convince you, there that little nugget that the Pats are 116-38 during the Belichick coaching era after a bye weekend, which the Patriots are currently on.
This is painful to say but the Eagles are far and away the best team in the NFC right now. Though they lost LT Jason Peters for the rest of the year with a torn ACL & MCL, they were able to acquire RB Jay Ajayi in a trade with the Miami Dolphins to go with an impressive offense attack. After 8 games this season, 2nd year QB Carson Wentz is justifying why the Eagles traded up to the 2nd pick overall to select him during the 2016 NFL Draft. Not to mention that they are definitely taking advantage of a down year in the NFC East, especially with the fact the Cowboys are going to be without Ezekiel Elliot for the next 6 games.
The rich keep getting richer. Already boosting a formidable defense, The Seahawks went out and acquired LT Duane Brown from the Houston Texans before the NFL trade deadline. That significantly boosts an offense that already was 10th in scoring (25.0 ppg) and 7th overall in yards (370.3 ypg). It would also help more with the running game as well as allow QB Russell Wilson to stay on his feet and to stay healthy.
All-Pro QB who has won multiple Super Bowls? Check. Got the top RB and WR in the game right now? Check and check. Got the 2nd scoring defense (16.4 ppg) and 4th best overall defense (286.6 ypg)? Check? Playing in a division with the Cincinnati Bengals and the Cleveland Browns? Check and oh boy, definitely mark a W in that one.
It’s a little tricky how to judge the Buffalo Bills. In the past, they always started off strong but ultimately fade off come late November. Also playing in the same division as the Patriots also hurts their chances. That being said, the Bills are tied for second in points allowed (16.4) with the Steelers, are getting good QB play from Tyrod Taylor (8 TD: 2 INT), and are undefeated at home (4-0). Plus the acquisition of WR Kelvin Benjamin from the Panthers helps bolster the Bills receiving corp and will force defenses to spread out instead of putting 8 in the box to stop RB LeSean McCoy.
Although the balance of offensive attack is a little off-kilter (28th in passing vs. 1st in rushing offense), they’re still the 8th highest scoring team in the NFL (26.1 ppg). Not too mention their defense has vastly improved since last year, 1st in points allowed per game (15.7), 6th in overall defense (300.3 ypg), 1st against the pass (161.8 ypg), and 1st in sacks (33.0). Also with the acquisition of DT Marcell Dareus from the Buffalo Bills during the NFL trade deadline, you can bet the Jaguars will be in the playoffs for the first time since 2007.
It’s easy to say that the Texans found their franchise QB in rookie Deshaun Waston and they are the highest scoring team in the league (30.7 ppg). But that being said, they ended up trading away their best lineman (LT Duane Brown) during the trade deadline after not being able to sign him to a long term contract. Plus they’re highly touted defense is without DE J.J. Watt and OLB Whitney Merciless and been giving up 26.9 ppg, the 4th worst in the NFL. Combined with the recent turmoil in the locker room, it's easy to see that this team will fade down the stretch
Green Bay Packers
It’s easy to say that Green Bay is going to experience a drop off with the loss of QB Aaron Rodgers. But before he went down with a season-ending broken collarbone injury, the Packers offense has looked very inept (22nd in total yards with 310 ypg) with no strong running game. Plus their defense is statistical in the bottom half of the league (21st in points allowed with 23.0 ppg & 23rd in yards allowed with 348.9 ypg). With the Vikings pulling away and the Lions right on their heels, more likely Lambeau Field is going to look empty come January.
For a team that kept saying that they were over the Super Bowl LI collapse, you can tell it was still plaguing them in the back of their minds. After starting the season 3-0, they lost 3 of their last 4 games. This included losing at home to the Bills, giving up 20 second half points to the Dolphins, and then getting humiliated 23-7 by the Patriots. Just last week, they barely pulled a come-from-behind victory over the offensively inept Jets. The Falcons can say there is no Super Bowl hangover but actions speak louder than words. With their play as of late, it's almost as if they are screaming that Super Bowl loss has been bothering them all year.
After fighting in the courts for nearly 2 months, the Ezekiel Elliot suspension is going through. This unfortunate for the Cowboys as some of the next opponents include a game at home against Kansas City in Week 9, at Atlanta in Week 10, and at home against Philadelphia in Week 11 (two divisional leaders and a team desperate to keep their playoff hopes alive). This puts more pressure on QB Dak Prescott as teams will be keying off on him rather than having to worry about Elliot carrying the ball.
You don’t know which Titans team is going to show up on Sunday. Will it the Titans team scored 30+ against the Seahawks, Jaguars, and Colts? Or will it be the team that got blown out 57-14 by the Texans in Week 4 or couldn’t score a touchdown against the Cleveland Browns in Week 7. Not to mention that they are 13th in scoring offense (22.6) while 26th in scoring defense (24.7 ppg) and will be facing teams that can score points quick in the next few weeks (Bengals, Ravens, Steelers).
You would thing that being a Top 5 defense would help save a season. In scoring defense, yards allowed, versus the run, versus the pass, the Panthers are either Top 3 or Top 5 in those categories. However it’s the offense that will do them in. QB Cam Newton’s numbers are down (10 TD:11 INT with QB rating of 79.1), there’s no running back that can consistently run the ball (RB Jonathan Stewart has a 3.0 ypc average and RB Christian McCaffery has a 2.4 ypc average), and they have nobody reliable for Cam to throw the ball too with TE Greg Olson still on injured reserve and WR Kelvin Benjamin getting traded away earlier this week. If the Panthers keep relying on their defense to win games, sooner or later they’ll get worn down and the Panthers will be knocked out.
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