NFL Midseason Report Card

By Brian Brownfield-

We are through 8 weeks of the 2015 NFL season; this means teams and players have defined their season. There is always a hint of uncertainty when the season begins as to which teams will dominate, which teams will surprise, and which teams will flop. The midpoint usually gives fans a pretty good indication about who is here to stay and who is beginning to fade. This season is no surprise, with a few perennially good teams dominating as expected. As a fun fact, this is the first time in league history that four teams are 7-0. But what about the rest of the league? Who are some of the best individual performers you didn’t know about? Let’s travel through the league and breakdown all the important teams and playoff races.

AFC Landscape

Every year, the New England Patriots, Cincinnati Bengals, Indianapolis Colts, and Denver Broncos tend to dominate the American Football Conference (AFC). A quick glance at the standings shows that all four teams are currently leading their divisions. The Patriots, Bengals, and Broncos stand at 7-0, giving themselves considerable cushion in their own division. Not many people are surprised at the Patriots level of play, especially coming off a Super Bowl championship, but quarterback Tom Brady is playing historically good. Through six games, Brady is averaging 344.3 yards per game (best in the league) and has a mind-boggling 20 touchdowns to just 1 interception. He and the Patriots are putting Deflategate to rest.

The Bengals are playing great football as well, led by quarterback Andy Dalton. He is fourth in the NFL in quarterback rating at 107.6, and has thrown 15 touchdowns to just 4 interceptions. It is important to note that the Bengals lost their first playoff game each of the past four years, so this could be a sign of them bucking that trend. Then there are the Denver Broncos, led by aging quarterback Peyton Manning. Although he is a sure-fire Hall of Famer, he is having one of the worst seasons among any quarterback. He has just 7 touchdowns, 11 interceptions, and the worst quarterback rating in the league at 75.1. Despite this, the Broncos are undefeated. How? They have the best defense in the league. The Broncos defense has allowed the fewest points per game (16), the fewest yards per game (261.1), the second most turnovers (17), the most sacks (29), and the most defensive touchdowns (4). For the first time in his decorated career, Peyton Manning is not having to do it all for his team to win.

With three undefeated teams, the rest of the AFC is wide open. The Colts were early season favorites to contend for the Super Bowl, but they have flopped this season at 3-5. However, they still lead the AFC South, with all three of their wins coming against their even weaker division foes. The New York Jets have turned things around this season, currently standing at 4-3. Their defense is one of the best in the league, and their offense has improved thanks to quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and wide receiver Brandon Marshall. The Steelers are one of three teams not in first place to be at .500 or better, sitting at 4-4. Their record even more impressive because they have achieved it without quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for 4 weeks due to a knee sprain. Neither of these teams are pulling ahead in the Wild Card race, which will make this an interesting second half of the season.

Who have been the most surprising players in the AFC so far? You don’t have to look very far to identify San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers as one of the best. Through eight games, he has already amassed 2,753 yards, a 344.1 yards per game average. To put that in perspective, he and Tom Brady are both on pace to throw for over 5,500 yards, which has only been done once in NFL history (done by Peyton Manning in 2014). Rivers is also second in the league with 18 touchdowns. Unfortunately, his hot play does not have the Chargers storming ahead; they are 2-6 and in last place in the AFC West. Another standout is the aforementioned Brandon Marshall who has been on a tear for the Jets this season, giving the team a much needed receiving threat. Marshall has 50 receptions for 586 yards with 4 touchdowns, all ranking in the top ten in the league. This paragraph would be incomplete if I didn’t mention Jacksonville Jaguars’ quarterback Blake Bortles. Raise your hand if you thought Bortles would be one of the top quarterbacks in the league this season. There shouldn’t be a single hand raised. While the Jaguars may still be 2-5, Bortles has thrown for 1,812 yards, and is tied for fifth with 15 touchdowns. Yes, you read that correctly, 15 touchdowns for Bortles. I wish I could explain it, but I’ll just let those numbers simmer.

NFC Landscape

The rule of thumb when trying to predict the National Football Conference (NFC) is the following: make your prediction before the season and then forget about that prediction as soon as the season starts. With the exception of the Green Bay Packers, and in recent years the Seattle Seahawks, the rest of the conference is usually wide open. A few surprise contenders typically find their way into the playoff picture, and this year is no exception. The Packers are blowing past the league as usual at 6-1, but the Carolina Panthers remain the only undefeated team in the conference at 7-0. The Atlanta Falcons have been one of the strongest teams just behind the Packers and Panthers, sitting at 6-2. Every other race is up for grabs, with the Arizona Cardinals leading the NFC West at 6-2, and the New York Giants leading the NFC East at 4-4.

It is a bit of a surprise that two of the division winners from last year currently are not above .500, especially considering both teams won 12 games a season ago. The Seattle Seahawks are back-to-back NFC Champions, but this year they sit at a meager 4-4. Their defense is the biggest disappointment, which still looks stout on paper. Statistically, it is the third best in league in terms of yards allowed per game, but in their four losses, the defense has blown late leads. The Dallas Cowboys are also in tight contests late in games, but their problem is injuries. Quarterback Tony Romo, wide receiver Dez Bryant, and running backs Joseph Randle and Lance Dunbar have all gone down due to injury, with Randle being the only one not missing significant time. The Cowboys won their first two games, but have since dropped their past 5 as their depth is getting tested.

The disappointing start for the previous two teams mentioned has opened the door for others to sneak into the playoff races. The Minnesota Vikings are one of those teams. Aided by the return of star running back Adrian Peterson, the Vikings are 5-2. In his return from being suspended for all but one game last year, Peterson is third in the league in rushing yards and has 3 touchdowns.  A playoff team a season ago, the Arizona Cardinals have gotten off to a hot start on both sides of the ball, which puts them in first place in the NFC West. Quarterback Carson Palmer is off to a torrid start with the fourth most passing yards (2,386), and tied for the most touchdowns (20). A large part of his success can be attributed to the reincarnation of wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who has seen a rebirth in his career. He has the fifth most receiving yards amongst wide receivers with 706, and is tied for the most touchdowns with 7.

While Fitzgerald is one of the most surprising players in the NFC this season, nobody is better than Atlanta Falcons running back Devonta Freeman. Initially beginning the season splitting carries with rookie Tevin Coleman, Freeman has since become the most dominant back in football. He leads the NFL with 709 rushing yards, but he also has 353 receiving yards which gives him an NFL best 1,062 total yards from scrimmage. While Freeman may be good at getting downfield, he is even better at finding the end zone. He has already scored a league-best 10 touchdowns. This is the kind of production the Philadelphia Eagles thought they were getting when they signed DeMarco Murray to a large free agent contract. However, Murray has had a rough time getting things going for his new team, with just 307 yards in 7 games. As hard as it is to believe, he has amassed 80 yards in each of his past two games. This is a sign of good things to come down the stretch.

Bay Area Battle

There is always a lot of uncertainty about how the Oakland Raiders and the San Francisco 49ers will do during the season. This season has shown a lot of promise for one side, and a lot frustration and disappointment on the other side. The surprise comes from the Oakland Raiders who are 4-3 and in second place in the AFC West. Meanwhile, the San Francisco 49ers are 2-6 and in last place in the NFC West, which is a huge disappointment for their fans.

The Raiders entered the season with hopes that quarterback Derek Carr would continue to develop into the franchise quarterback they need. Maybe he isn’t lighting up the stat sheet each week, but he quietly has posted a stellar 105.7 passer rating to go along with 15 touchdowns and only 3 interceptions. Carr found a friend in highly-touted rookie wide receiver Amari Cooper, who already accounts for 565 yards and 3 touchdowns. Running back Latavius Murray also added 534 yards on the ground and 3 scores, making the Raiders offense more stable than fans are used to. While the defense is still in the bottom 10 in the league, the offense has given Oakland the ability to compete and not get blown out like in years past. A solid finish could land the Raiders a playoff spot.

Then there are the San Francisco 49ers. Very few people expected great things out of a team that lost its head coach, running back, top receiver, two offensive linemen, two linebackers, and a few members of its secondary. The losses are felt on all levels, as the team ranks near the bottom in every statistical category as a team. Colin Kaepernick has been disappointing as quarterback, with just 6 touchdowns and 5 interceptions. His erratic play led to several stalled drives and an offense that has scored the fewest points in the league. As a matter of fact, his play has been so poor that the team announced his benching in favor of backup Blaine Gabbert. The defense isn’t much better, giving up the fifth most yards per game and tenth most points per game. Add it all up and it has been a dreadful start for the 49ers, which could lead to a great draft pick in next year’s draft.

Final Predictions

AFC Division Winners: Patriots, Bengals, Texans, Broncos

AFC Wild Card: Steelers, Raiders

NFC Division Winners: Eagles, Packers, Panthers, Cardinals

NFC Wild Card: Falcons, Vikings

Super Bowl: Broncos vs. Cardinals