Oh sure, the Seahawks and Ravens have earned trust. The Chiefs will get Patrick Mahomes back soon, which makes that offense a huge problem for the rest of the NFL. (Though kudos to Matt Moore for a rock-solid, professionally quarterbacked game on Sunday night. Can’t say enough about the former retiree’s effort, even though it came in a loss.) And the Vikings are sitting pretty with six wins, none of which they have to give back. But the beauty of a parity-driven NFL is how often teams rally from midseason mediocrity to forge an inspiring playoff push.
So, at the midway point, eight weeks into the 2019 campaign, which teams have the potential to emerge from the fat middle and make noise this winter? And which are doomed to irrelevancy? It’s time to separate contenders from pretenders, Schein Nine style.
1) Houston Texans (5-3)
Houston is a half-game back in the AFC South, though the first-place Colts currently hold the tiebreaker, having beaten the Texans back in Week 7. The bad news: The iconic J.J. Watt tore his pec in Sunday’s win over the Raiders and is done for the year. This is sobering news, as Houston’s roster is top-heavy, with Watt being one of the great representatives of that star power. The depth is shaky. So is the coaching.
But at this point, I refuse to bet against the great Deshaun Watson. He’s a magician. He’s special. He’s the kind of quarterback who can carry a flawed team to unforeseen heights.
2) Los Angeles Rams (5-3)
I loved the Rams‘ aggressive trade for Jalen Ramsey. And since the deal, Sean McVay’s team has won two “get right” games against the lowly Falcons and Bengals to put a three-game skid in the rearview. Did the Rams get their mojo back? I think so. Still love this team, and can you imagine how different the narrative would be if “Greg the Leg” did his job at the end of the Seahawks game?
L.A. has a favorable schedule in the second half, with four of eight games against teams with losing records. The Rams have great player (did you see Cooper Kupp‘s 220-yard outing on Sunday?) and exceptional coaching. Don’t sleep on the NFC’s reigning champs.
3) Philadelphia Eagles (4-4)
Drama, failed guarantees, injuries, winning games nobody expects you to win. Philadelphia has earned, for better or worse, every single ounce of its 4-4 record. And although this .500 mark is disappointing for a team many touted as a bona fide Super Bowl threat back in August, the Eagles still sit right in the thick of the NFC East race. And Carson Wentz remains excellent, routinely making tough, clutch, huge plays with his arm, legs and brain.
On Sunday, the Eagles offered up their best performance in weeks, storming Buffalo and routing the Bills, 31-13. Maybe all of the nonsense galvanized them. Maybe Doug Pederson realized he needs to run the football (SEE: Philly’s season-best 218 ground yards). Maybe winning in a tough venue against Sean McDermott’s upstart Bills will be a springboard. I just know that, despite the team’s issues, I cannot quit the Eagles yet.
4) Jacksonville Jaguars (4-4)
I love Doug Marrone. And I love how Jacksonville has dealt with adversity and injury and the Jalen Ramsey nonsense. Gardner Minshew has something, with another stellar effort (279 yards passing, three touchdowns, zero interceptions) in Sunday’s 29-15 win over the Jets. Leonard Fournette has been terrific, boasting a career-best average of 4.9 yards per carry. Meanwhile, the Jags’ defense keeps making plays and performing admirably while dealing with injuries. Josh Allen (seven sacks, two forced fumbles) has been terrific as a rookie.
I think the Patriots, Chiefs, Ravens, Bills, Colts and Texans will make the playoffs in the AFC, but the Jaguars are in the conversation for that last slot. And they have a favorable schedule in the second half to contend.
5) Carolina Panthers (4-3)
The NFC is unreal. Just looking at the 49ers, Packers, Saints, Seahawks, Vikings, Cowboys and Rams, that’s seven teams vying for six playoff spots. And Carolina can be in that mix, too, if they keep Kyle Allen at quarterback. Don’t downgrade him because of the 51-13 beatdown at the hands of the Niners. San Francisco, particularly on the defensive side of the ball, is that amazing. But at this point, Christian McCaffrey makes a compelling case for Offensive Player of the Year. The do-it-all playmaker is an absolute nightmare to defend. While I am always concerned about Ron Rivera holding the team back, Allen has been a breath of fresh air as a leader and steady thrower.
Honestly, I think the Panthers are right on the borderline here, which is why I have them listed last among contenders. If Carolina goes back to Cam, they could definitely spiral down into the pretenders. Speaking of whom …
6) Chicago Bears (3-4)
Last week in this space, I directed (earned) criticism at both Matt Nagy and Mitch Trubisky. On Sunday, it got worse. Nagy was too cute all game in the red zone, and his overall game management was deplorable. Trailing by a point with 43 seconds left and a timeout in hand … Nagy kneels the ball to settle for a 41-yard field goal?! Does he remember his team’s kicking situation? (You know, the one he obsessed over all offseason.) Nagy’s arrogance and ignorance at the postgame press conference after the crushing 17-16 loss took this decision from bad to worse. Meanwhile, Trubisky once again looked nothing like an NFL quarterback, much less a former No. 2 overall pick. No one has any idea where the ball is going once it leaves Mitch’s hands — Mitch included.
Nagy and Trubisky are costing Chicago games and wasting a fantastically talented defense. With NFC North foes Green Bay and Minnesota way out in front of (and far more complete than) the Bears, this season is cooked. I predicted Chicago would miss the playoffs back in August. I didn’t think it would be over before Halloween. It’s on the coach and the quarterback.
7) Tennessee Titans (4-4)
Yes, Ryan Tannehill has proven to be better than Marcus Mariota. But he’s also Ryan Tannehill, a quarterback who was consistently stuck in the middle with the Miami Dolphins. And that’s where this 4-4 Titans team feels destined to end up.
Mike Vrabel’s defense is stout, ranking fourth in points allowed and ninth in total D. But the offense remains disjointed, with the receiving corps lacking defined roles across the board. This team belongs in the league’s fat middle.
8) Detroit Lions (3-3-1)
The shame of it is that the officials truly cost Detroit a victory in Green Bay, something that would’ve really reshaped the Lions‘ season. Then Detroit’s defense fell apart in the loss to Minnesota and the Lions traded team captain Quandre Diggs to Seattle — a move that did NOT go over well in the locker room.
Sure, Detroit got back to .500 by beating the hapless Giants on Sunday. But the NFC is loaded. The NFC North is beyond tough. While Matthew Stafford is enjoying a fine season, I just can’t see Detroit making a sustained run.
9) Los Angeles Chargers (3-5)
Joey Bosa just rocked the Bears‘ offensive line in Sunday’s 17-16 win, and this pass rush is great. It’s a big part of the reason why I — like many others — thought the Bolts could be a major contender back in August. But that’s just not the case with this snake-bitten franchise.
The Chargers have been plagued with injuries. Again. And prior to Sunday’s win, they had a three-week span that included mind-numbing losses to the Broncos, Steelers and that “only the Chargers” finish in Tennessee. As I have many times in recent seasons, I feel for you, Chargers fans.
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Follow Adam Schein on Twitter @AdamSchein.