Sitting at the halfway point in the 2015-16 NFL season, a lot has happened in these few short months. Some coach’s seats are beginning to warm; others are lost in an irreversible blaze. There has been no shortage of QB controversy, devastating injuries, and a little history getting to where we currently stand. Some history was made on Nov. 2 when Carolina’s own Panthers survived Monday Night Football to stay undefeated at 7-0, one of four 7-0 teams (Broncos, Bengals, Patriots). That marks the first time in NFL history that there have been four 7-0 teams left standing. Denver remained undefeated in a heavyweight matchup with then undefeated Green Bay when a stout #1 ranked defense held the best QB in football, Aaron Rodgers, to his lowest yardage total of his career when attempting twenty passes. Denver has not been looked at as the strongest of the undefeated teams left, but it is hard to ignore that type of win, especially in primetime on Sunday Night Football. Cincinnati has done a good job in shedding their “shrivel in big games” mantra, beating up on some good teams this year and showing some unexpected grit when having to play close games. QB Andy Dalton has also started to show what he is really made of, but the only thing that will appease their tortured fan base is a playoff win after so many failed attempts. The Patriots are the best team in football, and it is not hard to see why; they are simply on a mission after Deflategate. Tom Brady is playing like he is thirty again, and an offense of no names minus TE Rob Gronkowski and WR Julian Edelman has slaughtered the league on route to Tom Brady’s second ever 7-0 start.
Divisions are shaking out with much parody as expected; the reigning NFC Champions, the Seahawks, stumbled out of the gate but have shown willpower in recent weeks to get back to 4-4, trailing the NFC West leading Cardinals by two games. Arizona QB Carson Palmer ranked as the most efficient man at his position for most of the season, leading his team to a 6-2 record, albeit playing against some weaker competition early on. The Rams have played the role they have for years again this season, upsetting the powerhouse and faltering to the bottom-dwellers. Still very alive at 4-3 in the playoff race, the NFC West can once again prove to be the league;s strongest division. The Nick Foles-Sam Bradford swap this past offseason has not worked in their favor, but things are not looking brighter in Philadelphia either. The 49ers were a few yards from a Superbowl Championship a couple years ago led by QB Colin Kaepernick, but now they are shells of their formers, and at 2-6, are vying for a number one pick in next year’s draft rather than a playoff spot. The terrible offseason was too much for this staff to overcome, and change is imminent in San Francisco.
Following QB controversy east to Indianapolis, Andrew Luck, once heralded as an MVP candidate before the year, has put up ugly numbers from the start. It has been released he has been playing through fractured ribs, which would explain his erratic play, but it is something else seeing a player of Luck’s caliber looking so lost on the field. Picked potentially as the best in the NFL before the season, the Colt’s offense as a whole has been extremely underwhelming. The blame going to an ignored offensive line that never really had a shot, but it also fell hard on OC Pep Hamilton when he was relieved of his duties in early November. Yet the Colts remain on top of the AFC South with the Texans, both merely at a 3-5 record. Houston has limped to a 3-5 record, and their wins have come against teams with three, two, and a single win(s). The bottom two of those teams are the AFC South’s own perennial basement holders the Titans and Jaguars, both wavering with young QB’s at the helm. Tennessee’s woes cost their coach, Ken Whisenhunt, his job even though Whisenhunt did not do himself any favors going 3-20 while in charge in Nashville. Both of the Jaguar’s wins came in tight finishes against the AFC East’s bottom two, the Bills and Dolphins.
The Dolphins have come into recent years with plenty of talent on the field and have come out with ugly records just about every time, which is why Joe Philbin has joined Whisenhunt on the unemployed list. New coach Dan Campbell has come in and Miami has played some hardnosed football and beat up on inferior competition. Yet even that couldn’t stop the Pats. Rex Ryan has done what he does where ever he goes: talk smack and not back it up. His Bills started the year strong but have fallen short in two trap games at home to the Giants and in London to the Jaguars. Ryan’s former squad, the Jets, have not looked back since the coach’s departure, starting the year 4-1 and playing Ryan’s brand of football on defense. While new HC Todd Bowles has stumbled in the two games since, playing the powerhouse Pats and the surprise team in Oakland, New York’s ‘little brother’ looks like it can make a run to the playoffs.
Speaking of that surprise team in Oakland, who knew QB Derrick Carr would have the same, if not better, numbers than Aaron Rodgers at this point in the season? Well, it has happened, and a successful rookie campaign from Alabama’s Amari Cooper and a revitalized Charles Woodson, who as the oldest defender in the game leads the NFL in INTs, has vaulted the Raiders into unfamiliar territory: playoff contention. Sitting squarely in second place in the AFC West to Denver, Oakland looks like a strong contender, especially with the disappointing Chiefs and Bolts trailing them in the division. Phillip Rivers has played at an outstanding level, but his teammates have not backed him up yet this year. Once RB Jamaal Charles went down in KC, so did the Chiefs, with their most notable win at Heinz Field against a Ben Roethlisberger-less Steelers team.
Those same Steelers just got Big Ben back though, and at 4-4 are not dead in the playoff race yet. They’ll have to do so through the rest of the year without premiere RB and fantasy stud Le’Veon Bell, who severely tore his MCL. Big Ben is used to chasing the Bengals at this point, who have sat at the top of the AFC North for the better part of two years. The Browns are still the Browns, and not much has changed in Cleveland, albeit a brief appearance from Johnny “Football”. On the other hand, the Ravens have been mind-numbingly bad this year and their years of competitive football have stopped at a halt. Big personnel change is expected this offseason.
Speaking of disappointing, the Lions are back to being the worst team in the sport after a few years of competitive football. Matthew Stafford has plummeted in the QB rankings, and HC Jim Caldwell will almost certainly be on the outside looking in come next season. Jay Cutler is still bad, and so are the Bears, who have continued the strip down of their team. The loss of RB Matt Forte will not do anything to help Chicago’s season either, only increasing their draft position. Now to some good news: the Vikings are good again… and maybe for real this time! QB Teddy Bridgewater continues to outplay his draft position, and RB Adrian Peterson has played good ball coming back from his suspension. WR rookie sensation Stefon Diggs has lit up the north, and a good-enough defense can get them to the playoffs and potentially win the division sitting only a game back of Aaron Rodgers and the Packers. Rodgers has continued dazzling and a big time NFC matchup against the league’s best in Carolina will really show what these teams are made of.
While the Panthers have flourished to start the season, the Falcons are not too far off their pace. They started the year off 5-0 before losing two of three games to the bottom two teams in their division, the Saints and Buccaneers. RB Devonta Freeman, QB Matt Ryan, and WR Julio Jones form one of the most deadly trios in the league, but Atlanta must start beating some good competition if they truly expect to contend come playoff time. Drew Brees has brought the Saints back from an ugly start to contention. At 4-4, the team’s putrid defense will decide if New Orleans can get back to the postseason. Rookie Jameis Winston has looked reliable at the start of his career, but the Buccaneers remain a couple years from good football. The pieces are there though in Winston, RB Doug Martin, and WR Mike Evans to form a trio of their own in the NFC South. Another trap game looms in TB against the unpredictable Giants next week.
Those Giants sit at the top of the pack in a weak NFC East. QB Eli Manning is on pace for career marks, but a league-worst passing defense can hold them back from the team’s first potential playoff appearance since 2011. HC Tom Coughlin’s two Super Bowl rings will always mean the most to Giant’s fans, but his tenure in New York may be coming to a close. The inept Redskins are somehow residing in second. QB Kirk Cousins and a middling defense has got this team to 3-4 and in position to claim a bad East, but the division’s two best teams may be sitting in the basement. Chip Kelly’s “high-powered offense” has been simply mediocre. A good but questionable defense normally is not enough to contend, but then again, this is the NFC East. Last year’s division winners, the Dallas Cowboys, sit in the cellar without QB Tony Romo in charge and WR Dez Bryant relegated to the trainer’s room for most of the season to this point. At a lowly 2-5, hope is not lost in Dallas; with a softer schedule and the return of Romo nearing, every team is alive in the east.
While things look one way in the NFL today, the same won’t be tomorrow, and the unknown is imminent throughout s grueling sixteen game season, and we are barely halfway there.
*Stats up to date November 7, 2015
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