Separating the NFL’s pretenders from the contenders

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    How far can Big Ben take the Steelers? (AP Photo/Fred Vuich, File)

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    Bill Belichick once said real football doesn’t start until after Thanksgiving and, in case you haven’t noticed, it’s that time of year.

    Now past the halfway mark of the season, the sample size is representative enough to start examining the performances of all 32 teams and predict who the 12 playoff teams will be.

    The perennial Super Bowl favourite New England Patriots sit as they customarily do, atop the AFC East with a 10-2 record coming out of their bye week. New England was dealt a significant blow in their third pre-season game, losing WR Julian Edelman for the season to a torn ACL.

    Because of Edelman’s injury, the offense has been made to evolve in the first half of the season, relying more on downfield threats like Chris Hogan, Brandon Cooks and Phillip Dorsett to provide a consistent vertical threat while also utilising running backs Dion Lewis, James White and Rex Burkhead in the short passing game.

    The defence has continued to make strides after an abysmal start to the season, allowing each of the first 5 QB’s they faced to throw for over 300 yards, an NFL record.

    The number one scoring defence in the NFL from the previous season allowed 32 points per game (PPG) from weeks 1-4 (ranked 31st in the NFL) but has steadied the ship since, allowing 12 PPG from weeks 5-11 and becoming the number one scoring defence in the NFL during their eight-game win streak.

    The Patriots will look to secure the number one overall seed heading into the playoffs, giving them a first-round bye and ensuring the road to the Super Bowl must go through Foxborough.

    As for the rest of their AFC East foes, the Bills were exceeding pre-season expectations with a 5-3 record after eight games under the guidance of new head coach Sean McDermott – their signature win coming against the Atlanta Falcons in week four.

    This was despite having moved on from key players such as Sammy Watkins, Robert Woods, Stephon Gilmore, Marcell Dareus and Zach Brown.

    However, they have proceeded to lose three of their last four games.

    A bright spot, however, has been LeSean McCoy who, even at the age of 29, continues to prove he is still one of the best running backs in the league. He’s accumulated 851 rushing yards and four touchdowns so far this season.

    Management will hope to secure a wildcard berth after acquiring wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin from the Panthers to help alleviate pressure on quarterbacks Tyrod Taylor, Nathan Peterman and the running game.

    The Dolphins, like the Patriots, were also dealt a significant injury prior to the season, losing quarterback Ryan Tannehill to a knee injury. The team subsequently signed former Bears quarterback Jay Cutler to a one-year $10 million deal plus incentives.

    The ‘Fins sit at 5-7 and have experienced inconsistent production from their offense and defence, although the highlight was their week eight 40-0 demolition of the Baltimore Ravens on Thursday night football.

    They made a surprising trade deadline deal, sending running back Jay Ajayi to the Philadelphia Eagles in exchange for a fourth-round draft pick. It’s an uphill climb towards a playoff berth but stranger things have happened.

    As for the Jets, we knew coming into the season they were rebuilding, however, they have managed to remain respectful with a 5-7 record as well. The team decided to let go of several key veteran players prior to the season. figuring they weren’t in a position to contend and would therefore clear cap space to aid their rebuild.

    Gone were wide receivers Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker as well as defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson and cornerback Darrelle Revis, now with the Kansas City Chiefs.

    Nobody expects the Jets to make a late-season push. However, with the possibility of a high draft pick, which would be used on a quarterback like Sam Darnold, Baker Mayfield or Josh Rosen, the future could be bright for gang green.

    The Pittsburgh Steelers are currently in first place in the AFC North and are tied with the Patriots for the best record in the AFC at 10-2.

    Finally, after multiple suspension and injuries, the four killer B’s – Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant – have been on the field at the same time.

    However, for multiple reasons including the decline of Roethlisberger, a training camp holdout by Bell and a trade request by Bryant leading to the subsequent emergence of JuJu Smith-Schuster, the Steelers offense hasn’t been the unstoppable juggernaut many had predicted.

    With the usual all-pro performances from Brown and Bell, combined with improved play on defence thanks to rookie linebacker TJ Watt, Pittsburgh has a strong chance to bring another Lombardi trophy back to the steel city.

    The Baltimore Ravens are 7-5 and currently second in the AFC North standings. Despite suffering from relatively pedestrian quarterback play from Joe Flacco, the Ravens defence has been excellent this season, reminiscent of the Ray Lewis and Ed Reed lead defences.

    This defence, however, was dealt a devastating blow this past week, losing star cornerback Jimmy Smith for the season with a torn Achilles injury. The Ravens are still in a good position to secure a wildcard berth with three of their last four games against the Browns, Colts and Bengals.

    As for those Bengals, they continue to underachieve with quarterback Andy Dalton regressing and a defence that hasn’t performed at their usual high levels.

    As for the most dysfunctional organisation in the league, the Cleveland Browns, they appear on course to have the number one overall pick for a second consecutive year with an 0-12 record.

    The highlight and lowlight of their season came in the same instance when the team was on the verge of acquiring Bengals backup quarterback AJ McCarron. The deal fell through, however, as the Browns management allegedly failed to notify the league of the transaction due to premature celebration’. Astonishing.

    Unfortunately for Browns fans, their organisation is riddled with ineptitude from the ownership level down to the front office. Please keep the people of Cleveland in your prayers, they need all the help they can get.

    The AFC West presents the tightest division race we’ve seen in recent memory with each of the top three teams sitting at 6-6.

    The Kansas City Chiefs looked as though they were going to run away with the AFC West division title jumping out to an impressive 5-0 start, including an opening night 42-27 beatdown of the defending world champion Patriots at Gillette Stadium.

    EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - DECEMBER 03: Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith (11) prior to the National Football League game between the New York Jets and the Kansas City Chiefs on December 3, 2017, at Met Life Stadium in East Rutherford, NJ.

    Alex Smith and the Chiefs got off to a good start, but… (Rich Graessle/Getty Images)

    Teammates Alex Smith and Kareem Hunt looked as though they would be the front-runners for league MVP honours, however, Hunt’s historic rookie season seems to have hit a wall despite racking up 930 rushing yards, four touchdowns and gaining 4.8 yards-per-carry (YPC).

    The defence also lost superstar safety Eric Berry to a torn Achilles injury while linebacker Justin Houston has struggled to regain his 22-sack form after ACL surgery last year.

    They have since lost six of their last seven are now facing the possibility of not only relinquishing their division crown, but possibly missing the playoffs entirely. Kansas City still has a bevy of playmakers on both sides of the ball as well as a great head coach in Andy Reid.

    The Raiders have fallen back to earth this year from their 12-4 record a year ago. This can be attributed to star quarterback Derek Carr missing some playing time with a back injury as well as the inability to run the ball effectively despite the signing Marshawn Lynch this offseason.

    Furthermore, the Raiders were the best team in the league last season at winning games decided by seven points or less. Their inability to put away opponents has come back to haunt them this season and may result in them missing the playoffs entirely.

    With the exception of their 48-17 opening day loss at the hands of the Seattle Seahawks, the Chargers have been remarkably competitive in all of their games this year. They possess one of the more dynamic pass rushing and cornerback duos in the NFL featuring Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram as well as pro bowl cornerback Casey Hayward.

    Melvin Gordon III has proven his rookie year was simply an aberration was has cemented himself as one of the elite backs in the league. Phillip Rivers had been showing signs of decline for a couple of years, however, has been excellent over the past month playing near flawless football.

    Wide receiver Keenan Allen seems to have rediscovered his pro bowl form following multiple knee surgeries, becoming the first player in NFL history to accumulate ten or more receptions, 100 or more receiving yards and one touchdown in three consecutive games.

    As for the Broncos, they have been unable to replace Peyton Manning following their Super Bowl 50 victory.

    Neither Trevor Siemian nor Paxton Lynch have been able to cement their status as the starting quarterback, which lead to the Broncos bringing Brock Osweiler back to Denver. I expect the Chargers to win this division as they appear to be the only team playing close to their best at the right time of the season.

    The AFC South has been highly competitive this year. The Jaguars and Titans sit atop of the division with identical 8-4 records. Jacksonville possesses the number one defence in the league this year, thanks to the acquisitions of Malik Jackson, Calais Campbell, Marcell Dareus and AJ Bouye, as well as the development of younger players in Jalen Ramsey, Myles Jack, Dante Fowler Jr and Telvin Smith.

    JACKSONVILLE, FL - DECEMBER 03: Jacoby Brissett #7 of the Indianapolis Colts is pressured by a group of Jacksonville Jaguars defenders in the second half of their game at EverBank Field on December 3, 2017 in Jacksonville, Florida.

    The Jacksonville Jaguars vaunted defence has made them a Super Bowl contender in the NFL. (Logan Bowles/Getty Images).

    The Titans running back duo of DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry have played an instrumental role in guiding them towards success this season and Marcus Mariota continues to demonstrate why he is their quarterback of the future.

    The Houston Texas found their quarterback of the future in DeShaun Watson who was running away with the NFL Rookie of the Year award after several dazzling displays against the likes of the Seattle Seahawks and New England Patriots.

    However, a practice mishap resulted in a season-ending ACL injury, sidelining him alongside fellow teammates JJ Watt and Whitney Mercilus. Houston currently stands third in the division with a 4-8 record and have lost their two best defensive players along with their star young quarterback. Their playoff hopes are virtually over.

    The Colts’ season has been filled with uncertainty as quarterback Andrew Luck experienced multiple setbacks in his return from offseason shoulder surgery, leading to the team trading for former Patriots quarterback Jacoby Brissett in exchange for wide receiver Phillip Dorsett.

    Luck’s throwing motion was affected by the offseason surgery, requiring him to see a specialist. Furthermore, he began to feel pain during the strengthening process of his rehab leading the Colts to put him on injured reserve for the season.

    The team also released pro bowl cornerback Vontae Davis after they were made aware he needed season-ending groin surgery.

    The offense has had its moments, however, the inexperience of Brissett has been clear as day for all to see. They stand dead last in their division and their season is all but over. Expect personnel changes this offseason specifically relating to head coach Chuck Pagano.

    The AFC seems to have two clear Super Bowl contenders in the Patriots and the Steelers, however, the NFC bolsters at least half a dozen teams that could legitimately make it to the Super Bowl.

    In the NFC South, New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis have rebuilt their team on both sides of the ball, enabling them to have a 9-3 record after winning nine of their last ten games.

    New Orleans has shifted its identity from being a pass-first team to becoming the number one rushing team in the league, led by Pro Bowl running back Mark Ingram and electrifying rookie Alvin Kamara – who has become the third rookie running back in history to accumulate over 600 yards rushing and receiving in the same campaign.

    The running game of the Saints has allowed them to take some responsibility off the plate of future hall of fame quarterback Drew Brees, who is still completing 71.5 per cent of his passes this year. Combine this with defensive playmakers such as Cameron Jordan and Marshon Lattimore and New Orleans looks poised to make a deep run in this year’s playoffs.

    The Carolina Panthers are lurking behind the Saints with an 8-4 record following Sunday’s 31-21 defeat against them. Cam Newton has experienced an up and down year, showing flashes of his 2015 MVP form and being non-existent at other times.

    The defence has been exceptional this year, which is no surprise given the incredible talent within the front seven highlighted by all pros Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis and Kawaan Short.

    However, Carolina’s offense has been lacking in explosive plays this year which can be attributed to the loss of receivers Ted Ginn Jr and Kelvin Benjamin. If Newton can play anywhere near his MVP self for the remainder of the season, there’s no reason why Carolina can’t make it back to the Super Bowl for the second time in three years.

    The Atlanta Falcons are the most recent victims of the ‘Super Bowl hangover’ with a 7-5 record. The departure of offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan has brought about a significant decline in offensive production. Atlanta averages 22.8 points per game this year after being one of the highest scoring offenses in league history last year.

    Throughout the Matt Ryan era, the Falcons’ Super Bowl aspirations have hinged on their ability to secure home field advantage throughout the playoffs. That will not happen this year, making it more than likely Atlanta could be one and done in the playoffs.

    ATLANTA, GA - DECEMBER 03: Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) rolls out to pass during an NFL football game between the Minnesota Vikings and Atlanta Falcons on December 3, 2017 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, GA. The Minnesota Vikings won the game 14-9.

    Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons look unlikely to return to the Super Bowl this season. (Todd Kirkland/Icon Sportswire)

    Finally, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have been one of the biggest disappointments this season with a 4-8 record sitting at the bottom of their division. Quarterback Jameis Winston’s breakout year continues to elude him, despite the team providing more offensive firepower with the signing of wide receiver DeSean Jackson and drafting OJ Howard alongside star Mike Evans.

    Winston must elevate his play to that of a number one overall pick if the Bucs aim to make the playoffs in the upcoming years.

    The best team in the NFC North and maybe the entire NFC this season has been the Minnesota Vikings. The Vikings have a 10-2 record and, alongside the Jaguars, have the best defence in the league with dynamic playmakers at all levels such as Everson Griffin, Anthony Barr, Harrison Smith and Xavier Rhodes.

    Quarterback Sam Bradford is once again hurt, leading to Case Keenum taking the starter role. Former first-round pick Teddy Bridgewater is now on the active roster and could be the starter should Keenum start to struggle down the stretch.

    The Vikings are now in a prime position to secure the number one seed and potentially host the Super Bowl.

    The Packers season came to an abrupt halt when quarterback Aaron Rodgers suffered a broken collarbone from an Anthony Barr tackle in week six. Backup Brett Hundley’s signature performance came in a loss to the Steelers. but he has struggled mightily to lead the offense since Rodgers went down.

    Green Bay is 6-6 and could have Rodgers back for the final few games. Should they clinch a playoff spot, the presence of Rodgers alone will make the Packers one of the more feared teams in the playoffs.

    Like the Packers, the Lions have a 6-6 record. The offense continues to struggle in their attempt to find a running game to help quarterback Matthew Stafford. They face a tough task in order to gain a wild card spot.

    Finally, the Bears continue to rebuild under their rookie quarterback Mitchell Trubisky and young running backs Tarik Cohen and Jordan Howard. The Bears are still in need of several offensive and defensive playmakers before they make their first playoff appearance since 2010.

    The biggest surprise of the NFL season is the resurgent 9-3 LA Rams, who’re being led the youngest head coach in the NFL history, Sean McVay. Second-year QB Jared Goff has flipped the switch from being a potential bust to performing at a Pro Bowl level thanks to the help of new receivers Robert Woods and Sammy Watkins.

    Free agent left tackle Andrew Whitworth has provided stability on the offensive line, enabling Todd Gurley to have an all-pro season in which he is currently second in rushing in the NFL with 939 yards – trailing only Le’Veon Bell.

    Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips has successfully utilised his plethora of defensive talent with Aaron Donald, Robert Quinn and Alec Ogletree having Pro Bowl-calibre campaigns. The Rams ability to dominate both lines of scrimmage will make them a serious threat come January.

    The Seattle Seahawks are used to making late-season playoffs runs, however, injuries to ‘Legion of Boom’ members Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor have led to the defence reshuffling and retooling – illustrated by re-signing former Seahawk Byron Maxwell.

    The defence has slipped from their perennial number one rankings across the board, however, they remain a top ten defence. Russell Wilson has been spectacular, accounting for 29 of the teams 30 offensive touchdowns, firmly cementing himself in the MVP conversation.

    Russell Wilson Seattle Seahawks NFL 2017

    Russell Wilson has been lights out for the Seattle Seahawks this year. (Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images)

    Bobby Wagner appears on track to capture his first defensive player of the year award and Seattle, at 8-4, is in a favourable position to make the playoffs.

    The Cardinals season took a turn for the worse when superstar RB David Johnson injured his wrist in a week one match-up against the Lions.

    Since then, Arizona has failed to mount a successful playoff charge resulting in a 5-7 record. This may potentially be Carson Palmer’s last year in the desert as the Cards must focus on finding their quarterback of the future.

    Finally, the 49ers new regime, led by general manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan has had a tough campaign with a 2-10 record.

    They have been unfortunate to come out on the losing end of some match-ups, most noticeably their Thursday night game against the Rams and a week five game against the Colts. The team did make the biggest splash at the trade deadline, acquiring former Patriots quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo for a 2018 second-round pick.

    Garoppolo won his first game for the team this past week, defeating the Bears at Soldier Field. With the most cap space in the league over the next few seasons as well as several high draft picks, it won’t be too long until the red and gold are back in the playoffs.

    Finally, the NFC East. Coming into the season, most pundits predicted the Philadelphia Eagles would be the last place team in this division. However, led by MVP candidate and second-year quarterback Carson Wentz, the Eagles have the joint best record in the NFL with the Patriots, Vikings and Steelers at 10-2 and sit atop of their division.

    Philadelphia has been excellent both offensively and defensively this year. Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz has one of the highest ranked defensive units thanks to the play of Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham, Derek Barnett and other talented players.

    Running backs LeGarrette Blount and mid-season acquisition Jay Ajayi have provided consistent production in the running game this year and receiving options Alshon Jeffery, Zach Ertz and Nelson Agholor complete the list of offensive weapons that many fans hope will help bring the city of brotherly love their first Super Bowl trophy.

    The Dallas Cowboys are .500 this season with a 6-6 record. Superstar running back Ezekiel Elliott is currently serving his six-game suspension in relation to domestic violence and the offense has been virtually non-existent without him, with the team failing to score over ten points in three of their last four games.

    Dak Prescott’s performance without ‘Zeke’ has been a major concern for people around the league as they believe it highlights his status as more of a ‘game manager’ compared to other young quarterbacks like his division rival Wentz. A bright spot, however, has been the emergence of DeMarcus Lawrence as one of the best pass rushers in the league, recording 13.5 sacks to this point.

    The Cowboys will likely have to win their remaining four games and hope other contenders collapse in order have any chance at making the playoffs.

    The Redskins faced a tough task coming into this season, losing two 1000-yard receivers in the same offseason in DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon. That challenge only increased when they lost star tight end Jordan Reed at the start of the season. With a 5-7 record and the possibility of losing quarterback Kirk Cousins in the offseason, the future looks bleak in the nation’s capital.

    The last, and most disappointing, of the 32 NFL teams is the New York Giants who’s season never really got started.

    Following a successful 2016 season in which the team rebuilt their defence into being one of the league’s best, the Giants signed Brandon Marshall and drafted tight end Evan Ingram from Ole’ Miss to add to superstar wide receivers Odell Beckham Jr and Sterling Shepard in the hopes of becoming a Super Bowl contender.

    SANTA CLARA, CA - NOVEMBER 12: Eli Manning #10 of the New York Giants changes the play at the line during the game against the San Francisco 49ers at Levi's Stadium on November 12, 2017 in Santa Clara, California. The 49ers defeated the Giants 31-21.

    It’s been a season to forget for Eli Manning’s Giants. (Michael Zagaris/Getty Images)

    Those hopes went up in flames when Beckham Jr suffered a fractured ankle earlier this season. Since then, it’s gone from bad to worse as there have been multiple quotes from anonymous players to the media, suspensions of star cornerbacks, the benching of two-time Super Bowl MVP Eli Manning for Geno Smith and most recently the decision to fire both head coach Ben McAdoo and general manager Jerry Reese.

    New York will most likely have a top three draft pick this year and could move on from Manning by drafting Baker Mayfield, Josh Rosen or Sam Darnold. Whichever way you slice it, it’s going to be a long offseason for the G-men.

    As it currently stands, my six AFC playoff teams would be; 1) Patriots 2) Steelers 3) Jaguars 4) Chargers 5) Ravens and 6) Titans. Over in the NFC: 1) Eagles 2) Vikings 3) Rams 4) Saints 5) Panthers and 6) Seahawks.

    Regardless of whether New England gets the number one seed, I expect them to be the AFC representative in the Super Bowl given their long track record of success against Pittsburgh both at home and in Heinz Field – winning two AFC Championship games there.

    The NFC, on the other hand, is as tight and talented as it’s ever been. I could easily see all six of the previously mentioned teams making it to the Super Bowl, however, I believe whoever gains home-field advantage will make it. That would mean, based on the current standings, the Minnesota Vikings could become the first team to ever host a super bowl.

    I don’t know about you, but the playoffs can’t arrive any quicker.

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