The 2015 NFL season is (about) halfway in the books. Some teams are playing well, others are not.
Group A: The apparent Super Bowl Contenders
I’ll take these 6 against the field, whatever the odds.
#1) New England Patriots (7-0)
They’re bringing a ton of pressure up the middle and having athletic, sound-tackling linebackers allows them to cover up gaps in the running and short passing games. The primary corner trio in New England is playing well enough considering the remarkable play they’ve been getting out of both safeties (Patrick Chung, really?). They actually rank 11th in Defensive DVOA (adjusts for opponent, valued over league average). If they can continue to be close to a top-10 defense, they’re going to be very tough to beat as long as the key skills guys (Gronkowski, Edelman, Lewis) stay healthy.
Undrafted rookie David Andrews has stepped in at the center spot and done a fine job. It’s pretty insane how the Patriots always find ways to dominate with a makeshift offensive line, but hey, that’s what good coaching does.
#2) Denver Broncos (7-0)
Far and away the best defense in the NFL right now. They’re elite at every level. The trio of DeMarcus Ware, Von Miller, and rookie Shaq Barrett lead the league in adjusted sack rate. Talib and Harris Jr. are as good of a corner duo as you’re going to find, and there’s not a LB in the NFL playing better than Brandon Marshall right now other than maybe Luke Kuechly.
Whipping Green Bay was a statement win given how Denver did it. Not only did they make Aaron Rodgers look like Colin Kaepernick, but they moved the ball efficiently both through the air on the ground against a good defense. Manning threw for 340 yards on just 29 attempts. Kubiak seems to be figuring out to how gameplan around some of their offensive issues (Manning’s arm, tackle play).
#3) Cincinnati Bengals (7-0)
The NFL’s deepest roster has stayed healthy and got a boost from the return of all-world linebacker Vontaze Burfict, a boost that instantly made the defense noticeably better in an important, division-winning(?) W in Pittsburgh. The Bengals showed they could win a game even when the offense struggles (though you have to think Roethlisberger playing on essentially one leg had some impact).
Looking ahead at Cincy’s remaining schedule, there are really only four tough games on paper (at Arizona, vs St. Louis, vs Pittsburgh, at Denver). There’s no reason to think they won’t be right in the thick of the battle for home field advantage in the AFC.
#4) Carolina Panthers (7-0)
They’re 7-0 and have been the best defense in the NFC, don’t they have to try and find a receiver somehow and make a run for it this year? (technically, they rank behind Philly and Arizona in DVOA, but those two are trending downwards). Tom Brady looks like the clear-cut MVP right now, but Cam Newton really does belong in the discussion. They have the best rushing offense in the NFL, in large part thanks to a line that has surprised everybody (only New Orleans has a higher success rate on power runs).
There are stars all over the defense. Kuechly, obviously. But CB Josh Norman and interior defender Kawann Short looks like two of the very best in the league. Charles Tillman has held up in coverage as well. It’s tough to see this team winning multiple playoff games without finding something from their passing attack, but right now, they’re the NFC’s best.
#5) Green Bay Packers (6-1)
The Packers have been pedestrian offensively over the last month. They simply haven’t been able to win matchups on the outside with Jordy Nelson injured. Cobb has struggled to get open against top CB’s, and James Jones has come back down to earth. Perhaps the return of Davante Adams will help. Something needs to happen, Aaron Rodgers can only dance around in the pocket for so long.
Defensively, they’ve looked very good up until last week. They get to the QB, and despite Ha Ha Clinton-Dix continuing to make baffling whiffs, the secondary has played well. If the Packers just win the games they’re supposed to, they’re going to get a first round bye. That’s big, because I’m not sure the skill position talent is there for them to beat a Carolina or Arizona on the road in the playoffs.
#6) Arizona Cardinals (6-2)
A loss to the Steelers sans Big Ben a few weeks back really made this team look vulnerable, but they’ve responded with two straight wins. The secondary is outstanding, and Carson Palmer is playing as well as anyone not named Tom Brady. In a league that requires you to pass the ball and defend the pass at a high level in order to be competitive, Arizona looks like a well-built roster.
Chris Johnson has found second life as a between-the-tackles rusher. They’re talking contract extension. Nobody saw this coming, but it’s a huge development for them that’s helped them balance out the offense. They have a very tough remaining schedule, but will make the playoffs if the manage to break even. Winning two of three remaining games against Seattle/St. Louis will let them play a home game too.
Group B: We’re here too!
Large group of teams, all hoping to bust into the playoffs and hope a few things bounce their way. Too early to be talking about next year.
#7) Minnesota Vikings (5-2)
The wins haven’t been pretty, but they’re sitting just one game back in the division and get Green Bay twice still. Credit head coach Mike Zimmer for having this team prepared and focused, seeing as there isn’t anything this year they’ve done particularly well. Despite some great individual talent on defense, the unit has been wildly inconsistent.
Bridgewater has had an up-and-down sophomore season, but he hasn’t gotten much help out of line or pass catchers (until the emergence of Diggs over the last few weeks). This still feels like Adrian Peterson’s team, and it’s a little surprising to see him running the ball only 20 times a game given Bridgewater’s been throwing it 30.
#8) Pittsburgh Steelers (4-4)
Losing the best running back in the NFL always hurts, but if DeAngelo Williams can give you even 70% of what Bell did, the Steelers will be fine offensively once Roethlisberger gets his legs under him. Losing at home to the Bengals last week was bad, as it basically eliminated them in the division race, but managing to go 2-2 without Roethlisberger kept this team right in the thick of the playoff race.
They have two winnable home games coming up against Cleveland and Oakland. If they can go into the bye 6-4, they can feel reasonably comfortable heading into a difficult stretch run that includes trips to Seattle and Cincinnati.
#9) Atlanta Falcons (6-2)
I’m not saying the Falcons start was lucky, but they were on the right side of some late game coaching gaffes. The defense looks average, and Matt Ryan has played rather poorly. It really does feel like this team is just riding Julio Jones and Devonta Freeman.
Luckily for Atlanta, their fast start means they’re still in the driver’s seat for a wild card spot, and if they can win one of two against Carolina, they could reasonably win 11 games (which will surely get them in). They’re coming off a home loss to Tampa, and the narrative surrounding this team will completely flip if they lose in San Fran this week.
#10) Seattle Seahawks (4-4)
Despite Seattle’s struggles on both sides of the ball, everyone seems to be assuming they’re going to find a way to sneak in. They very well might, but it’s not a lock, and they don’t have the makeup of a team that can put together a playoff run. The line is just awful. It’s finally time for us to admit that they got took in the Jimmy Graham trade. Their defense has been good (12th in DVOA), but not good enough to make up for an offense that struggles to consistently move the ball through the air.
Two of Seattle’s losses came in games they blew late against undefeated teams (Carolina, Cincinnati). At least they’ve proven they can play with anybody. Their two L’s back in terms of both the division and wild card, but they get to play Arizona twice and Minnesota once. If they can win two of those three, they probably sneak in.
#11) Oakland Raiders (4-3)
They have one of the league’s most potent passing attacks. Derek Carr looks very good, Crabtree looks rejuvenated, and Amari Cooper is as good as advertised. They’re even finding big plays out of their running game. They need to find some pass rush outside of Khalil Mack, however.
Beating the Jets last week gave Oakland their first win of the year over an above .500 team, but when you consider that two of their three losses came against Cincy and Denver, their 4-3 record looks pretty good. This week’s matchup in Pittsburgh is about as important as a week 9 game can be in terms of playoff picture. If they win, they’ll have the head-to-head advantage over the AFC’s other top two wild card contenders.
#12) St. Louis Rams (4-3)
Dominant front seven play, perhaps the best RB in the NFL, and a better-than-expected Nick Foles. The Rams have looked good. But I have doubts as to how good a team that ranks just 30th in passing efficiency can be. Tavon Austin and Jared Cook are nice role players, but they can’t be your top two targets.
They’ve already beaten both Arizona and Seattle, and could have another potentially huge win next week against the Vikings. A very important game for them. That two-touchdown loss to Washington week 2 was inexplicable and potentially devastating.
#13) New York Jets (4-3)
Strange how Ryan Fitzpatrick is all of a sudden one of the most indispensable players in the league, right? This is probably the NFL’s best defense outside of Denver, and they have plenty of talent at the skill positions. This is a playoff team on paper. But we haven’t really seen them beat anybody good yet.
With four upcoming games that they should win (vs Jags, vs Bills, at Texans, vs Dolphins), the Jets have a real chance to be 7-4 or 8-3 heading into a stretch run that doesn’t look all that difficult outside of the New England game.
#14) Dallas Cowboys (2-5)
Yes, they’ve lost five straight. But they’re in the thick of the division race with a very manageable remaining schedule and Romo should be back soon. I still think they make the playoffs. This defense is legit. Greg Hardy is the NFL’s most unpopular person and for good reason, but there aren’t many better 4-3 ends in the game. His impact hasn’t shown up in the win column yet, but he’s been great.
Romo or no Romo, this team essentially has to beat Philly at home on Sunday night. The loser of that game is probably cooked.
#15) Indianapolis Colts (3-5)
They’re bad. Even the vaunted passing attack can’t crack the top 20 in the league. A beat-up Luck continues to make baffling decisions, and the WR’s aren’t getting open consistently. This isn’t a team that’s gotten unlucky; this is a team that’s gotten outplayed in all five of their losses.
But they’re going to win the horrid AFC South and host a playoff game, even if they finish just 7-9. The immediate schedule doesn’t get any easier with games against Denver and Atlanta, but they can probably bank on winning three of their final four (at Jags, vs Texans, at Dolphins, vs Titans). They might make the playoffs without having a “good” win all year.
Group C: NFL Purgatory
I don’t see any scenario where these teams win a playoff game, but based on the standings and whatnot, it’s too early for them to look ahead to the draft.
#16) New York Giants (4-4)
No pass rush to speak of, a beat up secondary, unreliable running game. The Eli Manning-Odell Beckham Jr. connection can only take you so far. They’ve developed a nice line though that protects Eli well and does a decent job blocking at the second level, but it does allow too much initial penetration in the run game.
Prince Amukamara will reportedly be back this week, which, along with the possible return of JPP, could save the Giants season. They really need to beat the Bucs this week because they’re not beating New England the following Sunday.
#17) New Orleans Saints (4-4)
The defense is horrible, but the passing attack has found life the last couple weeks and, at 4-4, they’re very much in the wild card hunt after an awful start to the season. Their next three games are also very winnable (vs Titans, at Redskins, at Texans). Brees should continue to cook.
But someone other than Cameron Jordan needs to show life defensively or it won’t matter how many yards Brees throws for.
#18) Philadelphia Eagles (3-4)
If you’re an Eagles fans, don’t you almost wish this team was 2-5 or 1-6 so you could have an excuse for blowing up the organization and moving on? They’re not going anywhere despite having one of the NFL’s top defenses. Their receivers don’t win downfield, and Sam Bradford has been as bad as any QB this season save for Kaepernick. Chip Kelly might be outthinking himself.
With that being said, if Philly can go into Dallas after the bye and win, they’ll arguably become NFC East favorites. I don’t think a QB change this week is out of the question. Be sure to ice up, Sanchize.
#19) Buffalo Bills (3-4)
The defense is struggling despite generally good corner play and a ton of talent up front. Tyrod Taylor coming back should help the offense, but this isn’t a team built for shootouts (as evidenced by all three of their wins coming when they hold opponents to 14 or less).
The Bills can establish themselves as the 2nd best team in the AFC East, whatever that means, if they can beat Miami and New York the next two weeks. But I don’t think they will. Given that the following game is in New England, we could quickly be looking at a 3-7 team that fires its coach.
#20) Kansas City Chiefs (3-5)
At 3-5, with a good defense, and an easy remaining schedule, the Chiefs should be considered a wild card player even without Jamaal Charles. They still get to play San Diego and Oakland twice. All the complaints about Alex Smith’s unwillingness to look downfield and Andy Reid’s unwillingness to actually give the ball to his good players are legitimate, but this team is still clearly better than the bottom-feeders in the AFC.
They’ll have a bye to rest up before a West Coast road trip to Denver and San Diego. Those two games will tell us everything about KC’s playoff chances.
#21) Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-4)
How about Jameis and the Bucs? They’ve quietly put up some very impressive offensive numbers over the last three, winning two of them. I doubt they really have much of a wild card chance, but wouldn’t a 7-9 season for this team be a success?
Their pass defense, however, is arguably the worst in the league. Part of that is coverage, part of that is lack of a rush when they don’t blitz. Eli Manning might throw for 400 on them this week.
#22) Miami Dolphins (3-4)
After a coaching change and two exciting wins (against bad teams), Miami appeared to be on the upswing. But then they had to go into New England on a short week. Their season is pretty close to over (a loss this week in Buffalo would seal it), but there are reasons to watch this team down the stretch.
Which Tannehill is the real Tannehill? Is a defense with this much expensive talent really just average? Is Dan Campbell a long-term answer at coach? Hey, maybe Miami hangs 40 on Rex Ryan and looks like a potential wild card contender at 4-4. Crazier things have happened.
Group D: The Squids
These teams are done. It’s time to start thinking about next year, and it’s barely November!
#23) Washington Redskins (3-4)
Mathematically, they’re right in the NFC East race at 3-4. But don’t kid yourself after a thrilling win over the Bucs two weeks ago; this is a very bad team. The run defense that looked so good early on has crumbled, and they’re too mistake-prone offensively to win many shootouts. Cousins’ longest pass TD is just 7 yards.
They still have to visit both New England and Carolina. Even with a couple more division wins, I can’t see these guys finishing better than 6-10.
#24) Chicago Bears (2-5)
Credit the Bears for fighting. Jay Cutler has played well, and the undermanned defense is doing everything it can. But a heartbreaking home loss last week to a division rival, in a game that Chicago controlled, essentially ended any chance they had at putting a run together.
On a positive note, it’s nice to see a healthy Alshon Jefferey dominating again, and Matt Forte continues to produce.
#25) Baltimore Ravens (2-6)
The Terrell Suggs injury decimated this pass rush and their corners haven’t played well enough to make up for it. Add that to the fact that an under-preforming Joe Flacco doesn’t have any plus players to throw to, and you have a 2-6 football team. At this point, Baltimore’s season is about seeing what some of the kids can do.
I’m not sure why they were such a hot Super Bowl pick before the year began. Ozzie Newsome did absolutely nothing via the draft or free agency to replace multiple key players who left for various reasons. They need a homerun draft or they’re really not going to be much better next year. This is the weakest Ravens roster in a long time. At least all their losses have been close?
#26) San Diego Chargers (2-6)
Keenan Allen being out for multiple weeks was the last thing San Diego needed. The only thing they do well is get first downs via the pass, and Allen was a huge part of that. The line has been bad, but hyped rookie Melvin Gordon has been worse. He runs hesitantly. Maybe he looked good in college because he was running behind an NFL line against bad Big-10 defenses?
At 2-6, the Chargers will likely need to sweep both Kansas City and Denver to have a shot at the playoffs. That isn’t happening.
#27) Houston Texans (3-5)
How the hell does this team have 3 wins? Oh yeah, they play in the AFC South. They’re hyped front seven hasn’t been good for much, as they rank just 27th in adjusted sack rate. Obviously, there’s little to like offensively outside DeAndre Hopkins, especially with the Foster injury.
Is Bill O’Brien on the hot seat? He should be for convincing fans that this team could compete with the top dogs in the AFC with Hoyer/Mallet at QB.
#28) Cleveland Browns (2-6)
Cleveland has done an admirable job staying in games but they appear poised for yet another rebuild. Their next four games are all within the division, where the Browns generally stay competitive. But this is a Browns team that’s slightly below average in every single facet of the game. They’re not scaring anyone or playing spoiler.
#29) Jacksonville Jaguars (2-5)
There have been some positives (The “Allen’s” at WR, Telvin Smith), but more negatives (everything else). They’re still at least a year of roster-building away from doing what the Raiders currently are. They simply blow too many coverages and commit too many boneheaded turnovers to be taken seriously.
#30) San Francisco 49ers (2-6)
Smart move by San Fran benching Kaep so they can cut him loose this Spring with no cap penalty (they would’ve owed him a ton in guarantees had he gotten hurt). They’re horrible, and they’re going to need much more than one draft to get better.
#31) Detroit Lions (1-7)
Matthew Stafford is a horrible QB and Jim Caldwell is horrible head coach. That is all.
#32 Tennessee Titans (1-6)
They just fired their coach, nowhere to go but up? I’m not sure. The offense lacks usable talent and it’s completely unrealistic to expect Mariota to regularly play like he did in week 1.