Since Week 9 has concluded with the Monday Night game between the Chicago Bears and Pittsburgh Steelers the NFL season has reached its halfway point. The last nine weeks have been extremely entertaining with a lot of drama and talking points emerging pertaining to NFL teams. In that stretch, multiple teams who started off the season looking like contenders are teetering on the status of being a possible playoff contender. There have also been other teams who had a rough start to the season but have fought to keep themselves in the playoff conversation.
Numerous headlines from earlier this year have been confirmed and are considered old news. While others have been disproven throughout the season so far and appear to make that early performance or stretch of games by a team or player feel like an outlier. Here are some of the NFL Headlines from the first half of the 2021-22 season.
New England isn’t back…yet
A major NFL Headline over the last two weeks has been that the New England Patriots are on the cusp of returning to the top of the AFC. New England has won their last three games and four of their last six games. The two losses during that stretch came in close games against two teams considered to be at the top of the NFC the Dallas Cowboys and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
As it currently stands the New England Patriots would make the playoffs if it started today. That being said there are a couple of reasons why people should be hesitant to consider the Patriots a legitimate Super Bowl contender. Their wins this season haven’t been overly impressive when each one is broken down.
In Week 2 New England defeated the New York Jets in Zach Wilson‘s second career start. It has become clear this season that Wilson may have not been ready to play at the pace of an NFL game and that has made him very mistake-prone.
Then in Week 5, New England edged out a win against a Houston Texans team led by third-round pick Davis Mills who has arguably been the worst rookie quarterback to start a game this season.
Two weeks later in Week 7, New England defeated the New York Jets for the second time this season. This time around the New York Jets were without Zach Wilson for most of the game and inexperienced backup Mike White was forced into action.
The next week the Patriots picked up their first win this season against a notable opponent. New England defeated Justin Herbert and the Los Angeles Chargers. To some, this seemed like a shocking victory. However many forget that a perceived worse New England Patriots team blew out Justin Herbert and a similar Los Angeles Chargers team last year 45-0. Bill Belichick gave Justin Herbert his worst start as a pro last season. It would have been shocking for the young quarterback to beat the future Hall of Fame coach only a year later.
Finally, the Patriots defeated the Carolina Panthers this past week. This might have been more impressive earlier in the season. However, Carolina has lost four of their last five games. Their best offensive weapon Christian McCaffrey was in the lineup but was not completely healthy and only played 49% of the snaps. On top of that New England has an extensive history of creating havoc for Panthers quarterback Sam Darnold during his days in New York. Belichick is going to have Darnold’s number no matter what team he is playing for.
This argument is as simple as stating that the teams New England has defeated this season only have a combined 12-22 record (.353). After breaking that down it is fair to say that New England still is lacking an impressive victory that proves they are contenders and are better than they were a season ago. That being said they have some games down the stretch against the Cleveland Browns, Tennessee Titans, and Buffalo Bills that would put them into the contender category with a victory against at least two of those teams. New England has the opportunity to prove that they are legitimately in the AFC race. But before that point, it is time to slow it down and evaluate the quality of the teams they played before crowning them as contenders.
Kansas City needs to go back to the drawing board
As the season continues it feels that people continue to jump on the bandwagon to criticize the two-time reigning AFC Champion Kansas City Chiefs. It was been one of the major NFL Headlines for weeks. They do not look like the juggernaut that dominated the league the past two seasons. But at 5-4, Kansas City is not out of the playoff hunt. Their schedule doesn’t exactly get any easier down the stretch. So if the Chiefs want to return to the playoffs this season they need to make some major changes in order to keep pace and have a shot at the playoffs.
At this point of the season, there is little Kansas City could do to majorly impact their defense to prevent it from playing as poorly as it has the past couple of weeks. At the trade deadline, they acquired former Pro Bowl pass rusher Melvin Ingram in hopes that his addition would allow Chris Jones to return back to defensive tackle and create more pressure from the pass rush.
The offense can make some changes that would help this team win enough games to land in the playoffs. The best option for Kansas City would be to sign Odell Beckham Jr. If Kansas City added a Pro Bowl-caliber pass-catcher like Beckham Jr. it would divert some attention away from Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce. It would give Patrick Mahomes another pass catcher that can create space both in the middle of the field and as a vertical threat.
But if Kansas City doesn’t land Bekcham Jr. then there is a major change they need to do to their offense to have more successful drives that result in more scores. Kansas City needs to commit to slowing down their offense and making more plays at the line of scrimmage. Opposing defenses have been playing a lot of two high safety which limited Mahomes and the offense’s ability to make big plays down the field. When defenses typically play like that it opens up running plays, check-downs, and screens.
Kansas City has the personnel and coaching staff to scheme up some plays and make the adjustments necessary. Patrick Mahomes will have to make the largest adjustment and learn to be comfortable with slowly moving the ball down the field chipping away with short gains. They could still create chunk plays without airing the ball downfield. Andy Reid and Eric Bieniemy can come up with some screen plays for either of their top wide receivers Tyreek Hill and Mecole Hardman. They both have the skillset to turn a screen at the line of scrimmage into a huge chunk play especially if the safeties are playing deep.
The Chiefs also need to commit to running the ball on early downs and throughout the game to give them a more balanced offense. Clyde Edwards-Helaire (when healthy) hasn’t lived up to expectations. But the Chiefs cannot abandon running the ball as they have in the past because Edwards-Helaire doesn’t run great between the tackles.
Kansas City revamped their offensive line with players who are great run-blockers. They should commit to running the ball behind their massive offensive line until the defense respects their rushing attack. That will move the safeties closer to the line of scrimmage and also create opportunities to make big plays with play-action passes. If Edwards-Helaire isn’t capable of opening this rushing attack then the Chiefs need to turn to Darrel Williams or Derrick Gore to pound the ball between the tackles.
The Chiefs aren’t expected to play in their third straight Super Bowl. Many don’t even consider them a playoff team. But if they want to once again expose defenses with their explosive and creatives passing plays they need to make the necessary changes to open up those opportunities.
Even with all the adversity, the Raiders will still likely make the playoffs
It has been a brutal month for the Las Vegas Raiders. For negative reasons, the Raiders have dominated the NFL headlines. On October 8th Jon Gruden’s emails leaked. Then three days later Gruden resigns and interim head coach Rich Bisaccia takes over as head coach for the rest of the season. Then November 2nd, 2020 first-round pick Henry Ruggs is charged with two felonies and is cut from the team. A few days later a video surfaced of Las Vegas’ second 2020 first-round pick Damon Arnette involving threats and a gun. Two days later the Raiders cut Arnette.
There have been teams that have dealt with a multitude of injuries all season. But no team has dealt with as much adversity as the Las Vegas Raiders this season. Despite all of that Las Vegas is 5-3 and in the thick of the AFC playoff hunt. They aren’t just in the playoff hunt, there is a strong belief that Las Vegas will win the AFC West despite all that is going on with them.
Las Vegas plays a lot of teams still in the thick of the playoff hunt down the stretch so it won’t be easy. It is a benefit to them that any of the four teams in the AFC West could win the division at this point. The Raiders have the pieces necessary to make a playoff run down the stretch.
They have a quarterback in Derek Carr who has solidified his status as one of the best in the league. Carr is a veteran who will give the Raiders 300+ passing yards and 2+ touchdowns any given Sunday. Las Vegas has an All-Pro talent at tight end in Darren Waller, and up and coming young receiver Bryan Edwards, and they replaced Ruggs with veteran DeSean Jackson who should fill that deep threat role nicely. On top of that, they have an extremely talented duo of running backs in Josh Jacobs and Kenyan Drake to balance the offense.
What makes this year’s Raiders special is what they’ve been able to do on defense. For the first time since they traded Khalil Mack, the Raiders defense has not been abysmal. The additions they’ve made this offseason like Yannick Ngakoue, Denzel Perryman, and Casey Hayward, along with rookies Trevon Moehrig and Nate Hobbs, have majorly impacted this defense. Third-year player Maxx Crosby appears to be on his way to his first Pro Bowl appearance. Having a defense that keeps this team out of shootouts has been the difference between this season and years past.
There is a lot of uncertainty around this team past this year. However, right now the Raiders appear to have the foundation to get them through the rest of the season and potentially into the playoffs.
A good AFC North Team will miss the playoffs
The AFC North has been by far the most entertaining division in the league so far. Going into the regular season this division felt like Cleveland’s to lose. The Browns added a lot more talent to a playoff roster from the year before. Pittsburgh had lost multiple starters across their roster especially along their offensive line. Plus it appeared 39-year-old Ben Roethlisberger would hold back this offense from their true potential. The Super Bowl aspersions Baltimore had at the beginning of the season appeared to be crushed by multiple season-ending injuries to multiple starters. Also, no one knew what to expect in Joe Burrow‘s second year in the league and how the Bengals would do this season.
Halfway through the season all four teams have a valid case to win the division or claim a wild card spot. Despite all the injuries Baltimore has reinvented itself into a pass-first team as Lamar Jackson keeps pulling them to victories. The Ravens are currently the favorite to win the AFC North. Cleveland has lacked consistency and has dealt with a multitude of injuries. However, a more balanced offense without Odell Beckham Jr. could carry Cleveland to their second playoff birth since 2002. The young Cincinnati Bengals team has grown up quickly posting big-time wins early this season. If Cincinnati doesn’t continue their two-game slump they could make the playoffs. Inexplicably Pittsburgh is currently two games over .500 and in the thick of the playoff hunt. Despite the limiting factors the Steelers keep finding ways to win.
That all being said unfortunately at least one or two of these teams will miss the playoffs. There are too many teams in the AFC playoff race overall that have a legitimate shot of winning their division or grabbing a wild card spot. Whoever doesn’t win the division will have to compete with the Buffalo Bills, Kansas City Chiefs, New England Patriots, Los Angeles Chargers, Las Vegas Raiders, and Indianapolis Colts for one of the three wild card spots. It seems unlikely that more than two teams from this division make it to the playoffs.
The Matthew Stafford/Jared Goff trade really showed each quarterback’s true colors
The biggest trade of the offseason appears to be when the Detriot Lions traded Jared Goff for Matthew Stafford, a 2022 first-round pick, and a 2023 first-round pick. The Rams made this deal to give themselves an upgrade at quarterback that would carry them over the top. While the Lions made this deal to acquire the assets to begin a full rebuild. So far this season has gone as many expected for each team coming into the year. Los Angeles is atop the NFC and a Super Bowl favorite. While Detriot is at the bottom of the league and locking in the first overall selection.
For most of the season, Stafford has looked like an MVP favorite. It seems that Stafford’s performance in a given week is all over NFL headlines. His skillset has unlocked elements of this offense that Goff’s could not. Los Angeles’ offense can now stretch the field better than it ever has and Stafford has also turned Cooper Kupp into an All-Pro caliber receiver. He has had some dull moments where he has not looked amazing. But those few moments are what separates Stafford from the elite quarterbacks in the league. So far this looks like a smart investment for Los Angeles that could pay out well at the end of the season.
Detroit hoped that they could bank on Jared Goff’s experience and that a change of scenery could bring out what made him the first overall pick in 2016. At times Goff has shown the ability to run Dan Campbell‘s offense. However, the lack of playmakers on the outside has limited Goff. A quarterback like Goff needs to be surrounded with talent in order to play at a high level. Detriot does have a couple of young playmakers on their roster including T.J. Hockenson, D’Andre Swift, and Amon-Ra St. Brown. Despite the lack of top-end talent across this offense, Goff’s shortcomings are his own fault. He was even called out by his head coach Dan Campbell following a loss to the Cincinnati Bengals.
This trade has given everybody perspective on who Matthew Stafford and Jared Goff are as quarterbacks. Stafford has shown that better offensive playcalling could bring him to a near MVP level. While Jared Goff showed that without Sean McVay’s offense and the weapons he had around him he cannot live up to the expectations he had after being drafted first overall. In games where Goff is without Sean McVay, he is 0-15. Goff lost his first seven starts under Jeff Fisher with the Rams. He is currently 0-8 in Detriot under Dan Campbell.
San Francisco and Seattle are now the little brothers of the NFC West
Coming into the season many thought the NFC West could easily have three teams make the playoffs. Los Angeles upgraded their quarterback situation by swapping Jared Goff for Matthew Stafford. The last time San Francisco was healthy they were NFC Champions. Russell Wilson gives Seattle a chance at the playoffs every year. Finally, Arizona, the little brother of the division, has Kyler Murray entering his third season and has added multiple former Pro Bowl players to their roster that almost made the playoffs last year.
Halfway through the season, it appears that this division is going to come down to Arizona or Los Angeles. After the 8-1 start the Cardinals have had this year it appears that they have officially taken over the 49ers and the Seahawks as a contender in this division. This belief has been growing the past few weeks around NFL headlines.
San Francisco has dealt with its fair share of injuries this season. But they just haven’t played anything like the team that was in the Super Bowl two seasons ago. The offense hasn’t been as explosive and the defense is nowhere near the unit that dominated throughout that season.
Seattle is about to conclude a three-game stretch where they were without Russell Wilson for the first time since he was drafted in 2011. The team went 1-2 during that stretch and was exposed for who they are without Wilson in the lineup. This team is not anything near the threat that it is on a given week without Wilson in the lineup. Defenses stack the box because they know Seattle is more likely to run the ball without Wilson. Also, Seattle’s defense looks even worse because it is now a complete liability without Wilson putting up points on the other end. Head coach Pete Carroll even acknowledged that a lot of the team’s and his success is because of Wilson. Carroll said that he wouldn’t be there as long as he has without Wilson.
It’s clear that both the 49ers and Seahawks are going to need to retool their roster to be playoff teams and contenders again. They now have to try to keep up with both the Los Angeles Rams and Arizona Cardinals. Arizona has built and developed a young core of players that will be the foundation of this team for a long time and should lead to multiple playoff berths over the next few seasons.
Miami should have pulled the trigger on a Deshaun Watson trade
In the two weeks leading up to the November 2nd trade deadline, NFL headlines were all discussing Deshaun Watson trade speculation. This saga between the Texans and Watson has gone on for too long and has lost the exciting feeling about a potential Watson deal. But that may also be because of why this deal has not happened yet which is because of the allegations Watson is facing off the field. There has been one constant throughout all of the drama around this situation. It is very clear that the Miami Dolphins are interested in acquiring Deshaun Watson.
Miami acquiring Watson wouldn’t be as huge of a deal if they didn’t draft quarterback fifth overall in 2020 in Tua Tagovailoa. The more rumors that speculate around Watson and Miami the less discrete the Dolphins appear about not liking Tagovailoa long-term. It was significant that his teammates didn’t vote him captain coming into the season. Also, reports came out that Miami and Houston had an agreed-upon deal in place if Watson decided to settle on his accusations in order to clear him of his legal troubles. During the midst of this Tagovailoa said during a press conference “I don’t not feel wanted” when asked about how all of this made him feel.
The emotional roller coaster that has sent Tagovailoa’s confidence through the mud and the lies he has been told by the organization that they want him to be the team’s long-term starter has absolutely destroyed the relationship between Tagovailoa and the Dolphins coaches and executives. He is being a good soldier right now and trying to ignore what happened and finish the season. But it may be in Tagovailoa’s best interest to demand a trade out of Miami whether they are able to land Watson or not. A team like New Orleans, Washington, Atlanta, or Pittsburgh could look for cheap long-term answers at quarterback following this season and Tagovailoa fits the bill for what they need.
Miami should have dealt for Watson because even if he is suspended for the final eight games this season like many think he would be they have Tagovailoa on the roster to finish the season. Then they could just move Tagovailoa in the offseason and have Watson in the building for next year. Following this season, where it appears this year is a loss, there is no certainty the Dolphins will land Watson. During the offseason teams like New Orleans, Carolina, Pittsburgh, Denver, Washington and Philadelphia could make a run at trying to acquire Watson. As it currently stands Watson will only waive his no-trade clause for Miami. But after the rough season, the Dolphins are having he could be interested in joining a better roster that is a quarterback away from becoming a Super Bowl contender.
The worst-case scenario for Miami is that they don’t acquire Watson and they are forced to move Tagovailoa. This would mean Miami would likely be forced to sign a veteran bridge quarterback and draft a quarterback with the first-round pick they acquired from the San Francisco 49ers last offseason because their first-round pick currently belongs to the Philadelphia Eagles. Miami could have ended the drama, eliminated the possibility of this blowing up in their face, and gotten the star quarterback they have been longing for if they would have just taken the slight risk of acquiring Watson before his legal situation off the field was settled.
Great Coaching overcomes adversity
This year more than ever multiple of the league’s well-regarded coaches have pushed their teams to exceed the expectations of their coming into the season. NFL headlines have not discussed some of the jobs some of the league’s best coaches have done this season. If these coaches didn’t have the respect they deserve around the league, they could very well gain that respect by the end of the season. That would definitely be the case if these coaches could get these teams to the playoffs.
The Pittsburgh Steelers had all the tools for a major regression this season. Their 39-year-old quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who appears to already be done, was returning for another season. Pittsburgh also lost many vital starters from the season before including four starters across the offensive line.
Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin has never had a losing season as the head coach in Pittsburgh. Even if Pittsburgh had a brutal season no one would have likely lost their jobs. But instead, this team has fought to 5-3 and are very much involved in the playoff race halfway through the season. That is a testament to Mike Tolmin’s coaching. He has found a way to win ugly but pull-out victories with the limitations of this roster.
New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton was faced with the challenge of keeping the team in the playoff picture without future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees who retired after last season. Payton named former first overall pick Jameis Winston the starting quarterback over swiss army knife player Taysom Hill. Winston did not look great as the team’s starter. He played far too conservative and did not bring the skillset many thought he would have based on his play in Tampa Bay. Now Winston is out for the season with a torn ACL and Trevor Siemian has started the past two games for the Saints.
Despite not getting great offensive production like the Saints have been accustomed to in the past they have a 5-3 record and are in the thick of the NFC playoff race. Their tough defense has won them games against Super Bowl contenders Tampa Bay and Green Bay. This year is proof that confirms that Sean Payton is one of the best coaches in the league and that defensive coordinator Dennis Allen is due for another opportunity to be an NFL head coach.
When the conversation for the league’s top head coaches comes up former coach of the year John Harbaugh doesn’t come up in the conversation. This may be because people tend to think about the last few years of the Joe Flacco era where the team was not very good and Harbaugh was on the hot seat. But to this point, Harbaugh has earned his due to be considered one of the league’s best head coaches. This season he has Baltimore leading the division at 6-2 despite losing starting running back J.K. Dobbins, backup running back Gus Edwards, starting middle linebacker L.J. Fort, Pro Bowl cornerback Marcus Peters, All-Pro left tackle Ronnie Stanley and more players to season-ending injuries.
It is even more impressive the way Baltimore has won games. They have won three games this season after being down double digits near the end of the third quarter. Also, the entire offensive philosophy of this team has changed. Baltimore, who has led the team in all rushing stats over the last two years, has become a pass-first team. Lamar Jackson is involved in the MVP conversation because of how he has grown as a passer. Jackson is making better decisions with the ball and is getting more production out of his playmakers.
These three coaches Mike Tomlin, Sean Payton, and John Harbaugh are showing why they are three of the longest-tenured coaches in the league this season. All three are future Hall of Famers and are elevating their teams to play better than many would think their roster is capable of playing at.