I don’t even know where to start.
This has certainly been one of the weirdest NFL seasons in recent memory. There have been massive political controversies. The Ezekiel Elliott situation seemingly won’t end. On the field, the Jaguars, Bills, and Rams all have winning records. Alex Smith is an MVP candidate; the same Alex Smith that has thrown 20 TDs in just two seasons of his career so far. Jimmy Garoppolo got traded to San Francisco for a high draft pick, and more trades are to come.
And, of course, the injuries. It wouldn’t be an NFL season without crucial, backbreaking, fantasy-team-crushing injuries. Aaron Rodgers broke his collarbone, and he may have broken the Packers’ season in the process. David Johnson and Odell Beckham Jr. won’t play until next year. J.J. Watt is out for the year (again). Joe Thomas, Eric Berry, Julian Edelman… the list goes on.
And now, in the blink of an eye, the regular season is half over. And depending on the team you root for, you may be either shocked to discover it’s gone by so quickly, or wondering whether you can handle two more months of this whole thing.
So as any delusional NFL fan would, I’ll look over this chaotic season and try to predict the division winners the rest of the way, with the benefit of having eight weeks of football under our belts. Easy.
The most notoriously chaotic division in the league has a pretty clear frontrunner in the 7-1 Eagles right now, but I think the picture will be a bit muddier as the end of the season nears. The 4-3 Cowboys are capable of doing serious damage even if Elliott’s suspension gets upheld. If the 3-4 Redskins figure things out on defense, they could be sneaky good. The Giants, however, have looked completely lost: the Beckham-less offense is 30th in points scored, and the defense has regressed.
Carson Wentz is looking like a legit MVP candidate right now for the Eagles, and he’s got the talent and receiving corps to keep it up. He’s being supplemented by the 5th best run game by yardage and a defense that has been the best in the league at stopping the run. This team could have some legs. Again, I think the Cowboys will be able to maintain their well-rounded offense even if Zeke is forced to miss up to six games; their offensive line has returned three first teamall-pros from last year, and that can help any running back pile up yardage. By the time it’s all said and done, the Cowboys and the Eagles will be fighting for playoff spots, and I think they’ll both get one; but the Eagles will come away with the division
title due to the lead they’ve built to this point.
Prediction: Eagles win division (12-4), Cowboys get wild card (10-6)
This is the division that perfectly highlights the fact that some injuries matter less than others. The Vikings are 5-2 with Case Keenum as their main QB this year; Keenum would be the third stringer if all Viking QBs were healthy. Meanwhile, the Packers just fell to 3-7-1 without Aaron Rodgers since he became the starting QB in 2008 (they’re 94-46 with him). The Bears have shown they can win games while barely needing a QB on the field, but they probably aren’t much of a threat to win a lot the rest of the way with that formula. And the Lions’ lack of a running game and effective defense have hurt them considerably.
Though the 6-2 Vikes appear to have a firm grasp on the division with only the Rodgers-less Packers as a stablemate above .500, there are some wildcards at play here. The Lions have talent on both sides of the ball and their schedule the rest of the way seems workable: the Packers next week, then the Browns, then the Bears, and later the Ravens, the Bucs, and the Bears again. They could make a run. The Vikings also started last year 5-0 only to finish 8-8. The biggest wild card, however, is Rodgers. There’s a chance he returns from his injury late, and if the Packers limp their way to being within striking distance by week 16, Rodgers could be activated and give the Packers a legitimate chance to win their last two games…against the Vikings and the Lions.
Still, injuries are unpredictable. I think this division will be a three-horse race by the end, in which case I’d give the edge to the Packers if Rodgers returns. But there’s no guarantee that happens. So…
Prediction: Vikings win division (10-6), Lions get wild card (9-7)
Surprise! The Saints are ranked 12th in points allowed and 20th in yards allowed on defense. Those numbers aren’t particularly impressive until you find out that they were in the bottom 5 in the NFL in both of those categories in 4 of the previous 5 years (making the playoffs in the one year they weren’t). Because they’ve finally managed to field even an average defense, they find themselves at 5-2 and atop the division. Elsewhere, the Panthers are 5-3, but their offensive struggles through the air and on the ground lead to sustainability questions. The Falcons have been stunningly mediocre after last season’s excellence, likely attributing their offensive mediocrity to general disdain toward new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian. The Buccaneers have dropped four straight games, and at 2-5, they look like non-factors.
If the Saints can simply remain somewhat competent on defense, they should cruise to the playoffs, given their bevy of offensive talent captained by Drew Brees. I don’t think the Panthers pose too much of a threat at the moment… but who knows? Maybe Cam Newton rediscovers his form. Maybe Matt Ryan does too, and this division gets interesting. But I doubt either will happen soon enough.
Prediction: Saints win division (10-6)
Once again, the Seahawks appear poised to contend for, if not win, the NFC West title. Though their 5-2 record is identical to the Rams’, I would certainly favor their odds over their stablemates in LA given their track record. Russell Wilson has done much with little on offense, and the defense has been routinely good, if not as great as it usually is. Speaking of the Rams, Jared Goff has assuaged “bust” fears; that, along with Todd Gurley’s resurgence and new head coach Sean McVay’s influence, has completely turned around this offense. They’re heading in the right direction. The Cardinals look to labor their way to the finish line without Carson Palmer and David Johnson…. This team could be ugly to watch. And then there’s the 0-8 San Francisco 49ers, who just traded for QB Jimmy Garoppolo. The offensive supporting cast is shaky, and the defense hasn’t significantly improved, as their pair of first round rookies Solomon Thomas and Reuben Foster have missed time due to injuries. He could struggle to help them win much more down the road, and he may even bolt from town after the season ends.
Again, I think the Seahawks will take this one. The Rams have beaten teams with a combined 13-24 record and the Seahawks have a pedigree of success with a proven head coach. This shouldn’t be a tough division for them to win.
Prediction: Seahawks win division (11-5)
Ho-hum, the Patriots are in first place. Didn’t see that coming. On a serious note, their defense has been much maligned early on, but in their last 4 games, they’ve given up less than 13 points per game. As Bill Belichick is one of the best defensive coaches of all time, this is hardly surprising. And Tom Brady is Tom Brady. I should also put a disclaimer here, as I always do, that I am not a Patriots fan (or a fan of any team in this division), so my assessment is relatively objective. Anyway, the Bills have shocked the world with their 5-2 start, but the only team they’ve beaten that has an above .500 record is the hopelessly mediocre Falcons. They’re not looking too legit, but their defense is, and their schedule the rest of the way is rather light, sans playing the Patriots twice. The Dolphins are somehow 4-3 despite being dead last in points scored on offense and having a -60 point differential. They shouldn’t pose a threat. And the Jets have, well, surprised everyone by winning 3 games so far, if that tells you anything. Don’t be surprised if they give Hackenberg the ball late just to see how bad of a quarterback he is.
No one expected the division to be as close as it is right now, but by the end of the year people will be looking back and wondering how it ever could have been this way. This division is the Patriots’ to lose, and they routinely dominate the second half of the season: according to Football Outsiders and their DVOA metric, the Pats have improved their play in the second half of the season in 12 of Belichick’s 17 campaigns. Impressive.
Prediction: Patriots win division (13-3), Bills get wild card (9-7)
The Steelers are the first place team in an AFC North division that has performed significantly worse than a lot of people expected. They’ve lost in humiliating fashion to the Jaguars and the Bears, but they have generally looked sharp. Ben Roethlisberger hasn’t been as bad as his numbers indicate, though he certainly isn’t the same player he used to be. The Ravens have suffered from terrible quarterback play from Joe Flacco, but their defense has stretches of being the best in the league, so they could overcome it, as well as the plethora of injuries they’ve suffered. The Bengals are talented, and they’ve looked better since firing their offensive coordinator after week 2; but they still have so much ground to make up, and they likely won’t. The Browns have somehow played worse than everyone expected them to, and everyone expected them to be bad. Yikes.
The Steelers should win this division. However, two of the “Killer B’s,” Ben Roethlisberger and Le’Veon Bell, have checkered injury pasts; an injury to either would be disastrous. This division is closer than it looks, but the Steelers ought to win it.
Prediction: Steelers win division (11-5)
The Titans were a hot pick to win the AFC south, given their bevy of young talent on offense. They do indeed find themselves in first place right now, but in a tie with the surprising Jaguars at 4-3, and with a poor point differential (-15). They’ve been underwhelming, but if QB Marcus Mariota turns around his struggling season and stays healthy (a big if), they could be dangerous. The Jags are surprisingly 4-3, and boast an incredibly talented defense, supplemented with a powerful run game led by rookie Leonard Fournette. However, having Blake Bortles as your QB is never a good thing. The Texans look like a threatening team despite their 3-4 record with Deshaun Watson having one of the best rookie QB campaigns ever to this point, but the defense has taken a huge step back. They’ll need to stop depending on out-shooting the other opponent to win games. The Andrew Luck-less Colts are abysmal and will likely continue to be that way so long as he’s out, with a general lack of talent on both sides of the ball.
This division is looking like a crapshoot, just as it was last year. I could see any of these teams, minus the Colts, coming away with it. And do you know what? I think the Jaguars will shock the world and make the playoffs if they keep following the formula they’ve been using so far.
Prediction: Jaguars win division (10-6), Texans get wild card (9-7)
The division many pegged as being the best in the NFL based on overall quality of teams has just one team over .500 at this point. That team, the Chiefs, has come out of nowhere to create one of the league’s best offenses. RB Kareem Hunt has had a historic rookie campaign. Travis Kelce is a monster. Alex Smith has yet to throw an interception! It looks like the best way to turn your QB into an MVP is to draft Patrick Mahomes in the first round. The Broncos’ defense has taken a slight step back, but it remains good overall. Trevor Siemian has looked awful so far, though, and very well may keep them out of the playoffs again. The Chargers have had an odd season, losing several close games on their way to a 3-5 record, but they rank 22nd in total DVOA. Things just haven’t come together for them, despite their talented roster. The Raiders, surprisingly, find themselves in last place, after an excellent season in 2016. Their defense is so bad: they have yet to force an interception, and they’re in the bottom 10 of run defenses. Like the Chargers, things just haven’t clicked for them this year.
I think the Chiefs will run away with this division, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see one of their stablemates end up with a wild card spot. These teams are very talented and are one spark away from being capable of doing a lot of damage.
Prediction: Chiefs win division (12-4)