NFL Mid-Season Contenders and Pretenders

By Rich Manfredi - @PhillyOwl

We’re more than halfway into an NFL season that has been defined by injuries to both face-of-the-franchise studs (Aaron Rodgers, J.J. Watt, Odell Beckham Jr.) and crucial role players (Julian Edelman, Dalvin Cook). What these injuries have wrought is a year where the Lombardi Trophy is completely up for grabs.

Sixteen teams (for the mathematically challenged, that’s exactly half of the league) currently sit with records over .500, but there are only 12 playoff spots to go around. If we’ve learned anything from closing our eyes and attempting to stomach Cincinnati-Houston Wild Card escapades like a shot of Bankers Club, it’s that making the playoffs means absolutely jack in terms of Super Bowl cachet.

So, let’s sit back and figure out who the real players are… and I don’t mean as some one-and-done, “thanks for playing” Wild Card winner. I’m talking about the big men on campus - the teams that actually have a chance to raise that trophy in February. I looked at the teams with six or more wins; advanced apologies to the Jekyll & Hyde Falcons and the Zeke-less Cowboys, but if either of your 5-4 teams wins the Super Bowl, I’ll eat my car.

Philadelphia Eagles: Contender

I swear I’m not starting with the Eagles because they’re my team. I’m starting with them because my team just so happens to be the only 8-1 squad in the league (humble brag… okay, not so humble).

Just like he did with 'plain Jane' players like Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware in Kansas City, Doug Pederson has cobbled together a Frankenstein monster running-back-by-committee. There’s no bell cow to be found here, even with Jay Ajayi now in the mix. At most, look for Ajayi to get 14-16 carries out of the 26 that Eagles RBs average per game. Collectively, they are averaging 114 yards/game at 4.37 a clip, which is a damn fine weapon to have when you need to sit on a lead.

Of course, MVP candidate Carson Wentz is building those leads in the first place. An escape artist that would make Houdini salivate, Wentz has followed the Parks & Recreation blueprint by following up an extremely meh first year with a flat-out phenomenal year two. Funny how your passing game works better when you don’t have Dorial Green-Beckham and Bryce Treggs as your top wideouts.

Vicious front seven? Check. Stout run defense? Check. Franchise QB? Check. Overachieving secondary? Check. This team has all the tools of a Super Bowl winner, and they’ve shown no signs of slowing down.

New England Patriots: Contender

I’m going to break some news here and inform you that a Tom Brady/Bill Belichick team is a Super Bowl contender. Wild stuff, I know!

After a couple weeks of adorable early-season hot takes about the Patriots being done because the defense was broken, here they are, sitting at 14th in points allowed. On the other side of the ball, another shocker: Tom Brady is right there with Wentz in the MVP race. Apparently drinking from the same fountain of youth as Jason Bateman and Paul Rudd, Brady is on pace for a 4,990 yard/34 TD/4 INT line. Avocado ice cream FTW, I guess.

Truthfully, the defense could be last in every major category and this team would still be a championship contender… Having the GOAT at coach and QB will do that for you. Just get Brady to the dance, and he’ll do the rest.

Minnesota Vikings: Contender

With the obvious ones out of the way, we get into the weeds a bit with some surprisingly frisky teams. Minnesota is one of those surprises… despite the fact that we knew their defense (5th in both yards/game and points/game) would be dominant coming into 2017.

The real shock has been the offense, piloted with shocking efficiency by the Rolling Rock of quarterbacks, Case Keenum. Like Ryan Fitzpatrick or Josh McCown, Keenum is that beer you order because there are no good crafts on tap, but you don’t want to choke down a regular Bud. Keenum has a 92.6 passer rating. He showed with his 4 TD performance on Sunday that he won’t be giving up his job to Teddy Bridgewater without a fight. Worse quarterbacks than him have won rings, and Adam Thielen’s emergence as a legitimatize WR1 hasn’t hurt.

The loss of rookie phenom Dalvin Cook hasn’t been as big of a blow as expected either; Jerick McKinnon & Latavius Murray are combining for 130 scrimmage yards per game in six games sans Cook. If Keenum can play the Trent Dilfer role and just not screw anything up, the Vikings can ride their elite defense to a title.

New Orleans Saints: Contender

I never thought I’d see the day, but Drew Brees is a game manager now. That’s not a knock on him… he’s still the same elite talent he’s been for years. Instead, it’s evidence of a change in philosophy for Sean Payton’s squad. Since 2010, Brees has average 656 pass attempts in a season. This year, he is on pace for 533.

This is all thanks to Offensive Rookie of the Year favorite Alvin Kamara and his partner in crime, Mark Ingram. The dynamic duo is on pace for almost 3,000 scrimmage yards (2,940 to be exact). That is straight up bananas. The beauty of the offensive attack is that if the Saints need to throw the ball, they have a Hall of Famer and a plethora of talented pass catchers to do it with. The Rams have more big-play panache, but this is the most well balanced attack in the NFL.

The New Orleans defense has been a punch line year after year, always one of the teams you start everyone and their mother against in fantasy. They’re quietly 8th in yardage and tied for 5th in points thus far in 2017. If you would’ve told someone that in August, they would’ve laughed you out of the room.

This team has an elite QB, two excellent ballcarriers and an emerging defense with a nose for the ball. They’re the biggest threat to Philadelphia in the NFC, and they’re the second-best team in the entire NFL.

Los Angeles Rams: Contender

Addition by subtraction, thy name is Jeff Fisher. Fisher’s “middle school offense” (to quote Todd Gurley) was dead last in scoring last season, and they’re FIRST in 2017. Gee, I wonder if he was the problem?

Signing LT Andrew Whitworth to protect Jared Goff and giving him weapons like Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp (we’ve finally admitted Sammy Watkins kinda stinks, right?) has made 8-man boxes a distant memory for bell cow Gurley. It doesn’t hurt to have offensive genius Sean McVay pulling the strings either.

The Rams are built around scoring, but what makes them so dangerous is that the defense is talented as well. Aaron Donald is a game-changer, and role players like Alec Ogletree and Trumaine Johnson always make their presence felt. Much the like the offense, this unit also has a genius as the puppet master; Wade Phillips is an all-time great coordinator, and his squad is 4th in points against.

I’m no math whiz, but if the goal of football is to score more than the other team, a top-five scoring offense and top-five scoring defense seems like a solid combination.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Pretender

Put down your torches and pitchforks, and let me explain.

This team should be a contender. They should be the best team in the AFC, to be honest. Surprisingly, the defense is the unit that has generated buzz this season. Stacked with both blue chip talents like Stephon Tuitt & Ryan Shazier and up-and-comers like T.J.Watt & Artie Burns, a unit that has been perennially middling during the Mike Tomlin era is 2nd in scoring, yardage AND sacks. They’re bona fide elite.

So why, then, are they a pretender? Because the offense is the biggest disappointment of the season.

Year after year we fantasize about, “What if Pittsburgh had everybody healthy on offense? They’d be unstoppable!” Well, we’re finally seeing it, and they’ve stayed true to another Tomlin cliché of playing down to lesser opponents with unyielding consistency.

Forgive me, but a team with Antonio Brown, LeVeon Bell, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Martavis Bryant should not be 18th in scoring. This team shouldn’t be beating the WORST DEFENSE IN THE LEAGUE (the Colts) with a last-second field goal. This team shouldn’t need to sneak past the lowly Browns by the skin of their teeth on opening day, and they shouldn’t be beating the injury-prone Bell into the ground (on pace for 462 touches) so he’s cooked in January.

But they ARE doing all of these things. Which is why they’re pretenders.

Tennessee Titans: Pretender

Here’s a team that was taken to the brink by the Cleveland Browns, escaping with a 12-9 win. A team that was spanked for 57 points by the Houston Texans, lost 16-10 to the 32nd ranked offense (Miami) and squeaked out a 23-20 win against the 30th ranked offense (Baltimore).

That 6-3 record is a mirage. Marcus Mariota is a franchise QB, but he pilots one of the most vanilla offenses in the NFL. Despite his obvious talent, he’s also having a low-key bad year, with a passer rating of just 83.1.

The Titans could easily be 4-5 and no one would bat an eyelash. They can’t rush the passer (tied for second-to-last in sacks) and Mike Mularkey’s dink and dunk/run-based offensive scheme would never hold up in a shootout with the Patriots or Chiefs.

Jacksonville Jaguars: Pretender

Blake Bortles is a special brand of crappy. Anyone who saw him utterly implode in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s win over the Chargers (or any Bortles game, really) can attest to that. So naturally, like any team with a bad quarterback and a great defense should do, Doug Marrone has set out to hide Bortles in a Trojan Horse of rushing yards.

Leonard Fournette is a battering ram with legs and Chris Ivory, T.J. Yeldon and Corey Grant always play effectively when they come in to spell him. The ground game is rock solid, and they run that ball more than anyone in the league (22 more attempts than the second-highest team, Philadelphia). The Jags also own the best defense in the NFL. They are top-three is basically every major category, and have the best CB tandem with Jalen Ramsey & A.J. Bouye. When Ramsey isn’t busy going after A.J. Green’s soul, he’s been quietly overtaking Patrick Peterson as the NFL’s top shutdown corner.

Like with the aforementioned Dilfer or Keenum, all a defense/run-heavy team needs from a quarterback is to not screw everything up. Blake Bortles has a sixth sense for how to torpedo a football game… as long as he is the quarterback, this team will never challenge for a Super Bowl title. Which is shame, because if they had an Andy Dalton-type game manager, they might be able to ride that potentially historic defense all the way to the Promised Land.

Kansas City Chiefs: Contender

Every season, the Chiefs win 10-12 games, maybe a playoff game or two, but they never threaten for a ring. This is the where they have finally gotten over that hump and become a legitimate threat to New England - we all saw their beat down of the Pats on Opening Night.

The changing of the guard came about because Kansas City finally has offensive studs to move the ball with. Unfairly maligned as mediocre for his whole career, Alex Smith has shown that if you give him weapons and loosen the slack on his leash, he can average 8.3 yards per attempt and toss up an 18:1 TD:INT ratio.

Travis Kelce, Tyreek Hill and Kareem Hunt are a trio of weapons that have staying power. Andy Reid is one of the best play callers around, and he has a ton of experience in the postseason (you don’t need to remind me, an Eagles fan, that he has no rings… I know all too well). The defense is middling without X-factor Eric Berry, but elite pass rusher Justin Houston and the rest of that crew have the juice to do just enough to let Smith’s offense win a shootout or two come January.

Carolina Panthers: Pretender

On any given Sunday, Cam Newton can throw for 300 yards and rush for 100. He can also show up and complete 54% of his passes with three INTs like he did against the Eagles. Cam is one of the streakiest passers in NFL history; he caught lightning in a bottle in 2015 and has been pretty terrible since. His 52.9% completion rate in 2016 was Tebow-esque.

If the Panthers could run the ball, I might be a bit more optimistic about their chances. Unfortunately, they’re 15th in rushing yards/game and 25th in YPC. Carolina boasts a top-tier defense (tops in the NFL in yards against) but it has an injury-prone leader in Luke Kuechly and is overall greater than the sum of its parts. The team as a whole is simply too hit or miss to be considered a legitimate title contender, especially when Newton’s TD:INT ratio is 10:11.

Seattle Seahawks: Pretender

I included the Seahawks out of respect, but I think we all know their Super Bowl hopes died with Richard Sherman’s ACL. Earl Thomas is banged up, and rookie CB Shaq Griffin is a promising but very raw player at this stage. The Legion of Boom isn’t the same here in 2017.

Seattle is still a solid team, and it may find a way to sneak into the playoffs thanks to the other parts of that defense, but its truly awful running game is a killer. Russell Wilson is up to the challenge, as he is on pace to obliterate his previous high in passing attempts of 546 by at least 50 throws, but he’s also the team’s leading rusher with 290 yards. Seattle rushers are averaging a total of 64 yards/game on 3.24 YPC… Wilson simply can’t make up for that deficiency all on his own.

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