With week nine in the books we are now in a position where all NFL teams have played at least eight games and so can safely say we are half-way through the season, which is frankly somewhat terrifying. I am continuing the development of what I write and when, particularly having introduced recording a podcast to my schedule so I will be moving the majority of the week’s picks to the write up of the Thursday night game in an attempt to spread my efforts more equally, but this might not help me this week as I thought I would take a look at each division’s season so far.
I am going to work round the points of a compass, but this does allow me to start with the Bengals who are one of three unbeaten teams in the NFL and look to be in a strong position to win the division, but as Marvin Lewis said, they’ve given themselves an opportunity yet it won’t mean a thing if they go 2-6 the rest of the way. If the Bengals have been the very embodiment of a balanced and healthy roster, the Steelers have done nothing but fight injuries on offence. They have barely had their lead trio of Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, and Anotio healthy at the same time, with Bell now gone for the season and Roethlisberger injured again with a sprained foot, it’s up to their young improved defence to keep them in the wildcard hunt, which they most assuredly are.
The Ravens and Browns are surprisingly far off the pace given that this is usually a very competitive division. Given how they are run it is perhaps not surprising that the Browns appear to have taken a step back from last years and are so far off the pace, but the Ravens woes are unexpected but their problems in the secondary and at wide receiver has really hampered them and it looks like they could be picking unusually high in next year’s draft.
The Packers have lost two straight games, but these were against teams that were unbeaten at the time, so whilst there is continued concern about the way their offence is functioning, and the problems on the defence in the last game, it is not time to panic yet. The Vikings almost seem to have snuck into their 6-2 record, but have done it off the back of a sure tackling defence and enough offence to get them wins. The play of rookie receiver Stefon Diggs has certainly helped in recent weeks, and whilst they have a nasty run in that includes playing the Packers twice, they at least are in position to compete to make the playoffs.
The Bears looked awful at the start of the season, but they have steadily improved and have been competitive in every game since their 0-3 start, going 3-2 in the last five games. They are out of the playoff picture, but at least are making progress as opposed to the putrid Lions who have gone 1-7 with their only win coming against the Bears in week 6. They lost talent in the offseason; the offence has regressed, whilst the defence doesn’t seem to have recovered from the losses to their defensive line. The injury to DeAndre Levy, one of the game’s best coverage linebackers, has not helped either. They have been firings galore with first the offensive coordinator and the coaches involved with the offensive line going before the London game, and the team president and general manager being fired after their horrid loss to the Chiefs. Their owner, ninety year old Martha Ford has addressed the team this week after her firing of the senior personnel and laid out her expectations for the rest of the season so it looks like there will be plenty to keep an eye on over the coming months in Detroit.
This division was meant to be up for grabs this season, but that changed when Tom Brady’s suspension was overturned and the Patriots have simply gone from strength to strength. The defensive changes have worked, whilst Brady and the offence continue to function well despite several injuries to the offensive line, although they have now lost running back Dion Lewis for the season to an ACL tear as well. They will be looking at pushing for the Super Bowl once more and right now it is hard to bet against them. The Jets and Bill are both still in the hunt for a wildcard place, but the Jets’ defence that was so strong earlier in the season has regressed against the pass in recent weeks, whilst the Bills have been up and down all season. I’m looking forward to seeing them face each other this Thursday in a game the Bills probably can’t afford to lose.
The Dolphins have had a season of turmoil that started with a win against Washington before losing three games in a row. Joe Philbin was let go after the London loss and the new inexperienced head coach Dan Campbell got immediate results with his focus on physicality and emphasising the run. Unfortunately, his two wins were against AFC South opposition and the problems with the offensive line and secondary were a concern before they lost their start defensive end Cameron Wake for the year to injury. There are structural problems with the roster that need to be addressed and the rest of the season will be about whether Campbell can put together a strong enough argument to keep this new job.
The NFC East is a division where no one has really established themselves as the favourites to win, although it does look like it is going to come down to either the Giants or the Eagles. The Giants have been fairly good on offence, but not spectacular, whilst their defence has played tough in patches but has also been horrible at times. They are ranked second in special teams, but they will need to improve if they are going to make or do anything in the playoffs. The Eagles had a tough start to the season as their high flying offence that looked so good in preseason stumbled the moment they face a team that were actually game planning for them. The offence struggled to establish the run and Sam Bradford did not look comfortable, but they have now run for over 150 yards in the last four games so things are coming round. Their defence however has been rock solid, and whilst they will miss rookie linebacker Jordan Hicks who was outstanding before he tore a pectoral muscle and is now out for the year, they have some depth to keep things going. In another division they might already be out the running, but if they can keep their recent form going then they stand every chance of winning the division.
The same cannot be said of Washington who have been more solid around the lines this season, but not enough to compete in their division. Their wins have come against a Rams team without Todd Gurley, a struggling Eagles team, and a Buccaneers team who are 3-5 themselves. They will need another couple of drafts before they will truly be able to compete and I suspect they will need to find a quarterback at some point because Cousins turns the ball over too much given what he gives them in the passing game. Meanwhile, people of a certain persuasion might put the karmic consequences of signing Greg Hardy as the reason for the Cowboys’ injury curse, but whether due to random probability or the anger of the football gods, their season has been torn apart. The defence has been fairly solid but hasn’t generated enough turnovers, whilst the offence has not coped with missing Dez Bryant and Tony Romo. A six game losing streak since Romo was hurt has left them out of the playoff hunt, and it will be tough for them to rescue much going forward.
The AFC South has the dubious distinction of being the only division in the NFL lead by a team with a losing record. This might not change either given that Andrew Luck who has been carrying injuries for stretches of the season, now has a lacerated kidney and will be gone for two to six weeks. They did win two games with their forty year old backup quarterback, but there are still flaws in their roster, even if the offence played better under the new offensive coordinator last week. Somehow the Texans may still have a shot in this division, with Ryan Mallett getting himself thrown off the team, Bill O’Brien has actually settled on a quarterback, but they have not been playing well so it’s hard to see where the improvement is going to come from. Maybe the bye will have done them some good, but I hope not for one more week as they face the Bengals on Monday.
The Jaguars and Titans are both bad teams working on getting better. The Jaguars are beating themselves with mistakes, there are good players and the offence is taking shape nicely, but so far this has resulted in lots of credible performances that have resulted in valiant losses. The Titans defence has made some progress, but the offence really suffered when rookie quarterback Marcus Mariota was injured. However, they have also fired their head coach and Mariota led his team to a win over the Saints so things may improve in coming years for the fans in Nashville.
The Panthers are the third and final unbeaten team whose excellent defence and surprising offence are slowly winning people round. They have the best running attack in the league, making good use of Cam Newton’s ability to run the ball and are surviving in the passing game despite losing their leading receiver from last year to injury. Still, Greg Olson has played virtually every snap on offence and they have made it work. The Falcons on the other hand started strongly, going 5-0 before fading away to a 6-3 record that includes losses to the Saints, Buccaneers, and the 49ers. They early improvements seemed to have stalled, and it is possible that teams have worked out what their new coach is doing, but they are in the strange position that despite their record, if they don’t halt the slide soon they may fall out of the playoffs. That said, they are two games ahead of their nearest rival for the final wildcard spot but the Eagles, Rams, and Seahawks will all be watching them with interest.
The Saints are another team that started poorly, but whilst their offence is playing much better, their defence is still bad and is giving Drew Brees too much to do for them to win consistently. They might haul themselves into the wildcard race, but they look to have serious flaws so I’m not sure that it will happen.
The Buccaneers have struggled for long stretches of this season, and the problems on defence are worrying given that is Lovie Smith’s area of expertise. However, there have been improvements in Jameis Winstons performance over recent weeks, and the rookie hasn’t thrown an interception in four games so it looks like they have a quarterback to build for the future.
The Broncos have one of the best defences in the game, which they have needed as Peyton Manning has been bad, giving the ball away too many times. He can still make the throws at times, but he is so inconsistent and it is a testament to the quality of his defence that they have won this many. They look headed to the playoffs, but they will need the running game to become a consistent factor if they want to go deep.
The Raiders have gone from promising to genuinely fun to watch thanks to the Derek Carr to Amari Cooper connection, and an offence that puts up points. Sadly there defence is falling away, but they have at least put themselves in a position to fight for a wildcard spot over the second half of the season, which is not somewhere they’ve been for a long time.
Sadly I think that the Chiefs are just that bit too far behind to also be competing, but they have looked much better on defence with the return of corner Sean Smith to play opposite the excellent rookie Marcus Peters. The offence is even working around the loss of Jamaal Charles, but whilst they have won their last two games, they’ve probably left themselves too much to do. That said, you can see them spoiling things for some other teams over the second half of the season.
The Chargers are in turmoil, with their stadium dominated by away fans, the possibility of moving to LA hanging over them, whilst on the field they have been beset by injuries. The performance of Philip Rivers has actually been excellent in trying circumstances, but there is only so much he can do, which sadly has been resulting in close losses rather than wins.
The Cardinals have had a couple of blips, but the combination of an opportunistic defence, keeping Carson Palmer healthy, and Bruce Arians’ aggressive play calling has them only one game behind where they were last season. If they can keep Palmer upright then there’s every possibility they can win this division and make a real push into the playoffs.
The Ram and Seahawks have put themselves in a position to compete, but now is the time to see if they have what it takes. The Rams defence has played strong through most of the season, but the addition of a now healthy Todd Gurley has really helped the offence. I have no idea if the addition of slot receiver Wes Welker will help them, but they are now looking like a Jeff Fisher team and have given themselves a shot at the playoffs. The Seahawks meanwhile struggled early on and whilst their defence appears to have largely come around, there are still questions on offence. The defence were rocky early with Kam Chancellor holding out for the first two games, but have improved once he returned. That said, they have given up a number of fourth quarter leads and are ranked thirty first by DVOA in pass defence against tight ends so they are not as good as in recent seasons. The offence has struggled as they have one of the worst offensive lines in football, with Russell Wilson frequently having to run for his life. A 13-12 win over the struggling Cowboys does not exactly inspire confidence, but they have Championship pedigree so it would be foolish to count them out just yet.
The 49ers season was always doomed before it started by all the players they lost or had retire in the offseason. Colin Kapernick has really struggled, and hasn’t looked good whether due to regression, the offence not being designed to take advantage of his skills, or a combination of the two. He has been benched in favour of Blaine Gabbert, who against expectations got a win against the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday, but it is going to be a long season in San Francisco and it could take a long time for them to replace the talent that they lost in the space of one summer.
That’s it, all thirty-two teams covered, but with half a season left there is plenty to play for and just because it is unlikely, it doesn’t mean that some of the middling teams can’t make the playoffs. It will be fun to look back at the end of the season and see what changed.
Last week I pulled another two games away from Dan, to give me a healthy five game lead with eight weeks left. I’m going to watch the Thursday night game and then set about writing up the game and making my picks for the rest of the week ten games.
Gee: Week 9 8-5 Overall 69-63
Dan: Week 9 6-7 Overall 64-68