The National Football League is barreling towards the halfway point, which means only one thing – it is time to start looking ahead to the playoff picture. Six weeks are in the books, two weeks left until the true halfway point of the 2016-17 season.
As the old saying goes, “If the season ended today..”
1 – New England Patriots – What a surprise here, right? The New England Patriots continue to be the class of the AFC, and rightfully so. Even with the absence of quarterback Tom Brady, the Patriots were able to push themselves to a 3-1 record. Now that Brady has returned, cruise control to a first-round bye has begun. Can anyone in the AFC stop New England? Right now, I doubt it. Good thing for the other 5 potential playoff teams – there are still 10 weeks left in the season.
2 – Oakland Raiders – Oakland has blown the top off the damn thing through seven weeks of football. Their offense has been a revelation, as expected, but their defense has left much to be desired. Derek Carr has quite a wonderful rapport with receivers Michael Crabtree and Amari Cooper, which helps the offense score some points. Oakland currently sits 11th with 25.3 points per game. The one thing that may sink Oakland’s playoff hopes is their defense, as mentioned. They’ve allowed 444.8 yards per game, worst in the league. Jack Del Rio will need to lock that defense down if Oakland wants to make any noise later this season.
3 – Pittsburgh Steelers – Pittsburgh started off the season with a bang, looking like world-beaters. Now, we are waist-deep in the NFL season and the Steelers are in dire straits. At the moment, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is out indefinitely, following arthroscopic knee surgery a few days ago. Landry Jones will step in, with a bevy of weapons at his disposal, but this might be where the Steelers find themselves falling back in the playoff hunt. If Roethlisberger misses a few games, no harm and no foul. If it is any longer, Pittsburgh might end up on the outside looking in.
4 – Houston Texans – Houston is an interesting case study. Brock Osweiler has proven to not be worth the contract that he signed this offseason but hey, he just led a game-winning drive on Sunday nnight against the Indianapolis Colts. Down the road, that may prove to be huge for the Texans in their quest for the playoffs. Lamar Miller has also been a magnificent signing for the Texans offense. Defensively, Houston definitely misses J.J. Watt but they seem to be hanging around just fine. It’ll be interesting to see if the Texans can overcome Osweiler’s shortcomings to win this division.
5 – Denver Broncos – Denver is another case of regressing back to the mean here. The Broncos defense has been as advertised, Von Miller boasting 7.5 sacks already this season. Offensively, Trevor Siemian looked very comfortable in the game-manager role and then he got hurt. Siemian missed one game, but backup quarterback Paxton Lynch struggled in his first NFL start. In Siemian’s return, he continued to manage the game well but it just was not enough. Can Siemian take his offensive game to the next level, as the games grow in importance? This’ll be the biggest question mark, as Denver looks to defend their World Championship.
6 – Buffalo Bills – Buffalo currently is on pace to snap their absurd playoff-less streak. The Bills have won 4 straight games since their atrocious 0-2 start. Since firing offensive coordinator Greg Roman and Rex Ryan giving all defensive play calling duties to Dennis Thurman, both sides of the ball in Buffalo have improved substantially. Question marks surround Tyrod Taylor’s ability to take over a game offensively, but with a strong run game spearheaded by potential MVP-candidate LeSean McCoy, Taylor is able to take less risk with the ball in his hands. Defensively, the Bills will be getting Shaq Lawson and Marcell Dareus back to a unit that has allowed the 5th-least points per game.
In The Hunt: Kansas City Chiefs (3-2), Baltimore Ravens / Tennessee Titans (3-3)
1 – Minnesota Vikings – When the season began, who would’ve thought the Minnesota Vikings would be undefeated and the best team in the NFL at this point? Any hands still up? You’re lying if your hand is up. Minnesota has made the absolute best of a bad situation. The Vikings are missing their starting quarterback, starting running back, two starting tackles and yet they still continue to win. From the top down, the Vikings have been molded into a fantastic franchise. Minnesota has turned Sam Bradford into a very good quarterback, which is a large part of why they boast a 5-0 record. Minnesota’s defense takes a large amount of credit too. What a unit they have.
2 – Dallas Cowboys – Arguably one of the bigger surprises of the season, the Dallas Cowboys have lost 1 game and currently sit with the 2 seed in the NFC. Rookies Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott lead the way in Dallas, which is absolutely mind blowing. Dallas has a controversy brewing under center, as Tony Romo continues to heal and Prescott continues to impress. A decision there could certainly shift power in the NFC. Also, Dez Bryant should be returning soon. A solid Cowboys squad will only continue to improve, as they look to blast their way into the playoffs for only the 2nd time in 7 seasons.
3 – Seattle Seahawks – Seattle looks like a strong contender to make a run in the NFC, due to their strong defensive performance to this point in the season. There is no secret that their offense struggled to begin the season, but things have evened out a little. Seattle still sits 20th with 21 points per game, but if any team can turn it on down the stretch, it is the Seattle Seahawks. Russell Wilson is nursing a few nagging injuries but seems to have improved every week. If Wilson is 100% and the Seahawks defense continues to play some of the best defensive football in the NFL, there will be a lot of teams afraid to stare down the Seahawks with the playoffs approaching.
4 – Atlanta Falcons – Matt Ryan is back, completing 68.1% of his passes while boasting a very nice 15-to-1 touchdown to interception ration. Despite struggling in a few games, Devonta Freeman has began filling out nicely for Atlanta as well. On the outside, Julio Jones continues to be an absolute monster, with 656 yards on 31 receptions. Jones is well on his way to his third-consecutive 1,000 yard season. Defensively, Atlanta has kept things together despite allowing the 7th-most points per game. Atlanta should be higher, but a missed pass interference call has them in the 4th seed as the season approaches the second half.
5 – Washington Redskins – Washington started off the season with a bit of turmoil, losing their first two games but have since turned it on. A 4-game winning streak has Washington on the doorstep of the NFC East, with plans of kicking the door down. Kirk Cousins is currently averaging the 7th-most passing yards per game, with 282.5 yards per. Worries of regression have slowed, especially with the aforementioned winning streak currently in place. Washington’s defense is mediocre, at-best, but they’ve been able to make it work. Something to keep an eye on though, Washington’s defense is the 5th-most penalized unit at this point.
6 – Green Bay Packers – Something weird is brewing in Green Bay. Their defense finds itself to be relatively strong – 10th-best in yards allowed, 16th-best in points allowed. Not too shabby. The weird seems to be centrally located to the offense. Led by one of the league’s best quarterbacks, Green Bay sits 25th in yards per game with 331.8 and 17th with 22.8 points per game. Aaron Rodgers has notably struggled as well. Rodgers has amassed a career 64.9 completion percentage, but this season sits at a career-low 60.2%. In the backfield, the Packers find themselves with even more question marks. Eddie Lacy has found himself to be pretty well this season, averaging a career-high 5.1 yards per carry, but an ankle injury threatens to linger. When they’re firing on all cylinders, the Green Bay Packers can be one of the best teams in football but they’re far from that right now.
In The Hunt: Philadelphia Eagles (3-2), Los Angeles Rams / Arizona Cardinals / Detroit Lions / New York Giants (3-3)