We’re almost to the midway point of the 2020 NFL season for many teams. Let’s take a broad look of what we understand as November beckons.
– We know that… the Buccaneers, Packers and Seahawks are in the NFC’s elite class.
With due respect to the New Orleans Saints, it’s the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Green Bay Packers and Seattle Seahawks in the top tier. Tampa Bay has the most complete roster, but Seattle has the best quarterback (more on that below) and Green Bay has a Hall of Fame quarterback with a quality defense.
– We know that… five playoff teams are all but set in the AFC.
The AFC is the stronger conference. This year, the Kansas City Chiefs, Pittsburgh Steelers, Baltimore Ravens, Tennessee Titans and Buffalo Bills are going to the playoffs. That group has the four division winners as well, with the hard-luck loser of the Baltimore-Pittsburgh race being a terrifying No. 5 seed.
– We know that… the NFC East is the league’s worst division, and setting up for controversy.
The NFC East winner might have six wins by season’s end. Seven if they’re lucky. All this means we’ll go through the paces of whether a 7-9 team (or worse) should qualify for the playoffs in any capacity. The short answer? No, but this is the format we’re dealing with.
– We know that… Russell Wilson is the NFL MVP through Week 7.
It’s impossible to make a decent argument against Wilson, even after a three-pick night. The 31-year-old has famously never been given a single MVP vote, and now he might get them all in 2020 with more than 1,800 passing yards and 22 touchdown passes in six weeks. The season isn’t half over yet, but Wilson is the best player in football thus far, and by a wide margin.
– We know that… the Steelers and Ravens will have the most important divisional battle.
There will be other divisional fights, but the one between Baltimore and Pittsburgh will have the biggest impact on who wins the Super Bowl. The winner is very likely to be either the No. 1 or 2 seed in the AFC playoffs. The loser will be on the road throughout the postseason, and without any shot of a bye week.
– We know that… the Jets have a very real chance to finish 0-16.
After losing to Buffalo, the New York Jets are 0-7. This week, Gang Green takes a trip to Arrowhead Stadium as overwhelming underdogs (more below). Looking at the rest of the schedule, New York’s most-winnable games are the Miami Dolphins, Cleveland Browns and Las Vegas Raiders at home. Not looking great.
– We know that… Matt Rhule and Joe Brady make a nice tandem in Carolina.
The Carolina Panthers are 3-4 and likely going to miss the playoffs, but that’s not what 2020 is about for them. Matt Rhule and offensive coordinator Joe Brady are in their first seasons with the team, and the offense, despite Teddy Bridgewater’s limits and Christian McCaffrey’s injury, has been impressive.
– We know that… the Browns should make the playoffs for the first time since 2002.
At 5-2, the Browns are in tremendous position to reach the postseason. Cleveland’s defense, Odell Beckham’s knee and the erratic play of quarterback Baker Mayfield is problematic, but nine wins likely clinches a playoff berth. With the New York Giants, Houston Texans, Philadelphia Eagles, Jacksonville Jaguars and Jets on the slate, getting there seems certain.
– We know that… the AFC West is over.
Kansas City is 6-1 after crushing the Denver Broncos, 43-16, on Sunday at Mile High. The Chiefs are 2.5 games clear of the Raiders and 3.5 games ahead of both the Broncos and Los Angeles Chargers. Of the eight divisions, seven remain in question. The AFC West does not.
– We know that… the Bears will infuriate America.
No team is more confounding than the Chicago Bears. Nick Foles and the offense score at a glacial pace, but the defense is a borderline top-five unit with stars on all three levels. At 5-1 and with a soft schedule ahead, the Bears are a likely playoff team, even without scoring many points in an offensively-charged league.
Top 10 moves playoff contenders should consider
1. Anthony Harris, S to Cleveland Browns (via Minnesota Vikings)
2. J.J. Watt, DE to Buffalo Bills (via Houston Texans)
3. Quinnen Williams, DT to Arizona Cardinals (via New York Jets)
4. Riley Reiff, OT to Tennessee Titans (via Minnesota Vikings)
5. A.J. Green, WR to Baltimore Ravens (via Cincinnati Bengals)
6. Ryan Fitzpatrick, QB to Chicago Bears (via Miami Dolphins)
7. Avery Williamson, LB to Kansas City Chiefs (via New York Jets)
8. Ryan Kerrigan, EDGE to New Orleans Saints (via Washington Football Team)
9. Keanu Neal, S to Miami Dolphins (via Atlanta Falcons)
10. Marvin Jones, WR to Green Bay Packers (via Detroit Lions)
“We speak all the time about playing for one another, protecting one another. It definitely was not the response you would expect.”
The Cowboys are an unmitigated disaster. Mike McCarthy is likely to last for at least a second season, but games like Sunday’s certainly make one wonder if a quick hook is in the offing.
The Baltimore/Indianapolis Colts are the only franchise to have four quarterbacks named NFL MVP in Johnny Unitas (1959, ’64, ’67), Earl Morrall (1968), Bert Jones (1976) and Peyton Manning (2003, ’05, ’08, ’09).
Info learned this week
1. Buccaneers making case for best team in NFL with another blowout win
Death, taxes and Tom Brady.
Despite a different uniform, Brady may one again be on the league’s best team. After steamrolling the previously unbeaten Packers, Tampa Bay thrashed the Las Vegas Raiders, 45-20. It was a complete effort, with Brady throwing for 369 yards and four touchdowns, running for another, all while the defense allowed 76 rushing yards on 3.2 yards per attempt.
With an offense about to feature Chris Godwin, Mike Evans and Antonio Brown on the outside, along with an elite front, there’s no ceiling here. The defense is every bit as talented, especially in the front seven. The Buccaneers, right now, have to be considered the favorites — at least in the NFC — as talked about above.
If Brady can continue to distribute the ball evenly and keep his myriad weapons happy, opponents will consistently be tasked with playing against a blitz-heavy scheme cooked up by defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, who can take chances knowing more points are coming.
2. Steelers, Titans both prove mettle in best game of Week 7
Stephen Gostkowski’s 46-yard kick sailed wide right in the closing seconds, and the Pittsburgh Steelers eked out a 27-24 win over the Tennessee Titans in Nashville. The game seemed destined to become a laugher with Pittsburgh leading 27-7, only to allow the Titans back in thanks to a trio of Ben Roethlisberger interceptions and a 73-yard touchdown reception for A.J. Brown.
For Pittsburgh, there’s reason to be thrilled. The Steelers are 6-0 — the lone unbeaten in the AFC — and earned a great win against another playoff-caliber team. The defense held Derrick Henry to 75 rushing yards and sacked Ryan Tannehill twice. And, in the end, the defense forced a long field goal to preserve the win.
As for Tennessee, there’s the thud of a loss but also a silver lining. While no moral victories exist in the NFL, the Titans were punched repeatedly in the mouth. They made ample mistakes in the first half, and ended up fighting Pittsburgh to the wire. If Mike Vrabel’s club cleans up the special teams errors and can improve on third down defensively, there’s a real contender to talk about.
Pittsburgh won, and the Titans are smarting, but both teams gave plenty to feel good about.
3. Cardinals announce themselves with comeback win over Seattle
Kyler Murray and the Arizona Cardinals are here to stay.
With a wild 37-34 overtime victory over the previously perfect Seahawks, the Cardinals are both 5-2 and very much alive in the NFC West race. Murray threw for 360 yards and three scores while rushing for another 67 yards and a touchdown, but the most impressive part of Arizona’s game was resilience.
In the second quarter, Cardinals safety Budda Baker picked off Russell Wilson and returned the ball 90 yards to the Seattle 3-yard line. Arizona failed to score. In the fourth quarter, Wilson was again intercepted in the red zone. Murray was thefted on the next play. In overtime, Arizona kicker Zane Gonzalez hit a 41-yard field goal, only to see it nullified by a timeout. He missed the next attempt.
Still, the Cardinals kept coming and on a short week, beat the Seahawks. It’s the kind of win which spawned confidence in a young group, and makes believers both inside and outside the building.
4. The Patriots should be sellers at the trade deadline
After 20 years of dominance, the New England Patriots are through. Finished. Ready for demolition. On Sunday in a 33-6 loss at home to the San Francisco 49ers, Cam Newton was benched after three interceptions. The offense notched a meager 241 total yards (147 passing), stunted by a lacking quarterback and no real weapons.
New England has stars to move, and it ought to start unloading. Star guard Joe Thuney is on the franchise tag. Newton himself is on a one-year deal. Stephon Gilmore, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, is signed through 2021 at a $17 million cap hit. If Bill Belichick wants to jumpstart a rebuild, Gilmore should go.
At 2-4 and without an offense, New England isn’t contending now or in the near future. It’s time to say farewell to the Patriots we’ve known for so long.
5. For the Dolphins and their playoff hopes, it’s Tua Time
Here comes Tua Tagovailoa.
After a week off, the Dolphins are making the quarterback switch from Ryan Fitzpatrick to Tagovailoa. The No. 5 overall pick from Alabama takes over a team with playoff dreams, sitting at 3-3 after a pair of wins over the 49ers and Jets. Tagovailoa’s first opponent? The Los Angeles Rams, who have one of the league’s best pass defenses.
For Tagovailoa, there is pressure but yet a grace period. Miami wasn’t expected to make a postseason run, so if the Dolphins finish 7-9 or 8-8, so be it. However, should the youngster take South Beach fans and the NFL by storm, perhaps Miami becomes interesting down the stretch in a muddy AFC playoff picture.
So far, Justin Herbert and Joe Burrow have met and exceeded expectations. We’ll see if Tagovailoa makes it 3-for-3 for the top-10 picks.
For only the seventh time since 1978, there’s a line of 20+ points. This weekend, the Jets go to Arrowhead Stadium as 20.5-point underdogs. It’s the biggest line since 2012, when the Jacksonville Jaguars were 28-point underdogs against the Denver Broncos (Jacksonville covered).
Smart money says take the points. Kansas City is likely to have the game well in hand and may pull starters while simply pounding the ball into the line. The Jets are absolutely miserable, but the Chiefs won’t be going full-tilt for four quarters.
Eric DeCosta is a damn fine general manager.
A year after landing All-Pro corner Marcus Peters for a fifth-round pick from the Los Angeles Rams, the Baltimore Ravens’ exec traded another fifth-round choice to Jacksonville for defensive end Calais Campbell. Then, on Thursday, he acquired edge rusher Yannick Ngakoue from the rebuilding Minnesota Vikings, paying only a third and conditional fifth-round price.
It’s inarguable Baltimore is better for the latter move. Ngakoue’s presence — and his five sacks — allows the Ravens to blitz less, a key when they play Kansas City again. However, it doesn’t address their glaring need of a perimeter receiver who can win individual battles.
If Baltimore is going to reach the Super Bowl, it needs a better passing game. Lamar Jackson is wonderful, but he’s lacking weaponry on the outside. Right now, if a defense can cover tight end Mark Andrews, the passing game is virtually non-existent.
Entering the weekend, the Ravens ranked 24th in net yards per attempt, 29th in passing yards and 27th in sack percentage. The lesson? Nobody is getting open, Jackson is holding the ball, and it’s leading to negative plays.
The NFL Trade Deadline is Nov. 3. DeCosta needs to work his magic once more and find a quality weapon to diversify the offense. Baltimore’s Super Bowl dreams depend on it.
Inside the league
Zach Ertz’s injury is a major blow to the Philadelphia Eagles in multiple ways.
At 2-5 but playing in the horrific NFC East, Philadelphia is squarely in the mix to win the division and subsequently host a playoff game. Being without Ertz, who has struggled this season but remains an elite threat, is a crushing blow. This is especially true when you consider Jalen Reagor, DeSean Jackson and Alshon Jeffery are also sidelined with various ailments.
However, the loss of Ertz also hurts general manager Howie Roseman’s flexibility at the trade deadline.
After extension talks between the two sides broke down this summer, it became clear Ertz was likely playing his final season in Philadelphia.
At the time, league conversations with FanSided indicated that looking at the Eagles’ considerable cap crunch in 2021, Ertz was exceedingly likely to be traded or released after the season. Furthermore, sources said Dallas Goedert was seen as a worthy replacement of Ertz, making the move easier for Philadelphia’s front office.
Now, with Ertz likely out until late November and declining production to this point (19 catches, 139 yards, 1 TD) it seems inevitable he’ll remain on the roster through the campaign, and be tough to trade for a significant return this spring.
Few rivalries have more historical juice than the Dallas Cowboys and Washington Football Team.
Unfortunately, the rivalry has been on ice for the better part of 25 years, but it was once a must-see event. In both 1972 and ’82, the foes met in the NFC Championship Game, with Washington winning at RFK Stadium in both instances.
There were ample other classics, ranging from the Clint Longley miracle in 1974 on Thanksgiving to Roger Staubach’s final comeback, rallying from a 34-21 deficit to win the NFC East in Week 16 of the ’79 campaign.
Currently, both teams are down. Hopefully soon, the rivalry will be restored to its full luster.
It’s time for the Houston Texans to rebuild.
At 1-6 after losing to the Packers, Houston is without hope in 2020. It’s also without first and second-round picks in the 2021 Draft, leaving them without hope of a quick turnaround as well.
With Bill O’Brien out and a new regime likely coming in January, the Texans need to arm the next front office with draft capital and cap space. With the trade deadline looming, Houston should be calling around offering up receivers Will Fuller and Kenny Stills, both pending free agents.
It’s also the moment to recognize a painful reality. J.J. Watt must be dealt.
Watt, 31, is due $17.5 million next year without a cent of dead money. He’s still valuable, notching three sacks, six quarterback hits and three tackles for loss. He won’t bring back a first-rounder, but Watt is worth a Day 2 selection.
The road back is long for Houston. Having a star quarterback in Deshaun Watson at least provides a glimmer. For the Texans, it’s clear. They must trade some immediate assets and gain a better future in the process.