Examining the NFL at the midway point: NFC
With Week 9 in the books, the NFL is just past the midpoint of the regular season. While there’s no convenient All-Star break for us to reflect on the season’s first half, we’re going to take a stab at it anyway. Andy drew the AFC so I’ll be breaking down the first half in the NFC where the Nos. 1 and 2 picks from 2016 are starting to demonstrate why the Rams and Eagles made those selections. Let’s dive into the division breakdown first.
East: Philadelphia currently sits atop not only the NFC East, but the entire NFL with an 8-1 record heading into the bye week. Second year signal caller Carson Wentz leads the league in touchdown passes with 23, is fourth in passing yards (2,262) and has thrown only five interceptions to this point. The Eagles are averaging 31.4 points per game and nearly 400 yards per game. They were third in the league in rushing yards per game, then went out and traded for Jay Ajayi who had 77 yards on eight carries with a touchdown in his Philadelphia debut. The best thing the Eagles have going for them is their 3-0 division record. They have yet to play the Cowboys, but have already defeated Washington twice and the Giants once. They will face Dallas for the first time after the bye.
The Cowboys are sitting at 5-3, but are on a three-game winning streak and certainly remain in striking distance of Philadelphia. Dak Prescott is picking up where he left off last season, as is reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year Ezekiel Elliott. The biggest question facing the Cowboys right now is Elliot’s status, which could be settled this week. If he is able to avoid serving a suspension this season, Dallas has all the tools to push for a division title. If Elliott is forced to sit, especially this late in the season, the Cowboys might not be able to recover.
My prediction, the Eagles are able to hold off the Cowboys (though they split the two meetings) and emerge as East champions.
North: Only three games separate first from fourth in the North. Minnesota currently holds a slim lead over Green Bay, though both teams are facing questions at quarterback. Aaron Rodgers’ absence has certainly been felt in Green Bay as third year man Brett Hundley has struggled to provide even average play for the Packers since taking over Oct. 15. The quarterback play in Minnesota has been erratic at best so far. Sam Bradford started the season with a masterful performance against New Orleans, but Bradford was injured during practice the following week, tried to come back against Chicago and was pulled late in the first half of that game. Case Keenum has done enough to keep the Vikings in the top spot, but has struggled against the better defenses he’s faced thus far.
Teddy Bridgewater was activated off the PUP list and could tilt the scales decidedly in Minnesota’s favor if he’s able to return to form this season.
If Hundley can get things figured out, Green Bay certainly has the weapons to challenge for the division.
My prediction, Minnesota’s defense carries the Vikings to a division title as Hundley doesn’t have the same fourth quarter magic Rodgers does.
South: The suddenly defensive-minded New Orleans Saints have won six straight, largely on the strength of their defense. Since giving up a combined 65 points in the first two weeks, the Saints have only allowed one opponent to score more than 20. Drew Brees has the offense clicking again, but the Saints are heading into a tough stretch where they face solid defensive teams in Buffalo, the LA Rams, Carolina and the NY Jets. If New Orleans can win five of its last eight games, that should be enough to garner a division crown.
Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers are nipping at the Saints’ heels though. Currently just a half game back and coming off a big win over division rival Atlanta, Carolina is poised to take advantage of any New Orleans misstep. Much of Carolina’s success the rest of the way will be in the ability to find any semblance of a running game outside of Newton. First round pick Christian McCaffrey has been a bigger threat as a receiver than a runner (54 receptions for 406 yards and two scores, 64 carries for 183 yards and one touchdown), and that will almost certainly have to change if the Panthers want to win the South.
My prediction, New Orleans does enough to hold on to the division lead, including a win over the Panthers in early December, and becomes the team no one wants to play in the postseason.
West: Apparently someone found a time machine and brought “The Greatest Show on Turf” into Los Angeles this season. The Rams offense is clicking, they’ve been held under 20 points just once so far this season, and the defense is swarming opponents. At 6-2, Los Angeles sits a game in front of Seattle, but the Seahawks do have a head-to-head win in their favor. The Rams also have a difficult second half schedule, facing fellow division leaders Minnesota, New Orleans, Philadelphia and Tennessee in the final seven weeks, plus a trip to Seattle. The Seahawks, meanwhile, get Arizona (twice), Atlanta and San Francisco in that same span. Jared Goff has been the story for Los Angeles to this point, but the key to winning may be in the continued resurgence of running back Todd Gurley. If Gurley can continue to run well, the Rams should be able to ride him to victory. If he stumbles, Los Angeles could come crashing with him.
Seattle has lost three games by a combined 17 points this season, and the Legion of Boom doesn’t seem to have the same fear factor about it as did the squad that went to two straight Super Bowls. Russell Wilson is playing at a high level again, but much like Carolina, the Seahawks are searching for a running game outside their franchise quarterback.
My prediction, Seattle takes advantage of the easier second half schedule and ends up winning the division on the last day of the season.
Wild card: Los Angeles and Dallas are simply too good not to find themselves in the postseason this year.
NFC Champ: As long as Wentz continues to protect the football, it’s hard to see any NFC team knocking off the Eagles this season, especially if they get home field advantage throughout the conference playoffs.
Super Bowl: After so many close calls in the early 2000s, we finally get the “Keystone Bowl” as Pittsburgh and Philadelphia square off at the Super Bowl in a battle for Pennsylvania supremacy. I’d give the Steelers a slight advantage due to the experience factor, but the game likely comes down to which defense can limit the big plays.
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League MVP: Wentz is on pace for 40 touchdown passes and over 4,000 yards this season. If the Eagles take one of the top two seeds in the NFC, this should be a no-brainer.
Coach: Even if the Rams stumble a bit down the stretch, it’s hard to argue anyone is more deserving of this honor than Sean McVay.
Offensive Player of the Year: Wentz is likely a good bet for this award as well, though Gurley and Elliott (assuming no suspension) are going to be in the mix as well.
Defensive Player of the Year: Seattle’s Bobby Wagner is on pace for a career high 108 tackles and already has a handful of passes defensed, an interception and been in on a pair of sacks. Unless another player goes on a tear in the sack or interception category, my money’s on Wagner.
Offensive Rookie of the Year: With Houston QB Deshaun Watson now out for the season, this certainly appears to be Kansas City running back Kareem Hunt’s award to lose. Hunt has been slowed the last few weeks, but still sits atop the leaderboard for rushing yards. Even if he finishes in the top five, that should be enough.
Defensive Rookie of the Year: A little under the radar, but I think New Castle native Malik Hooker has a good shot to come away as the winner here. He’s already had three interceptions and over 20 tackles on the season, and Indianapolis figures to spend considerable time on the field defensively.