By the end of Monday night, every NFL team will be at least halfway through its regular season.
But while the first eight games of play can at times reveal a team’s course, the opening stretch is not always indicative of exactly where each outfit will land. Last season, for example, the New England Patriots looked bound for the AFC’s top seed after opening 8-0, but Bill Belichick and Co. dropped four of the their final eight contests before making their earliest playoff exit in a decade. The eventual Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs, meanwhile, opened just 5-3 but won seven of eight games to set themselves up for their title run.
In 2020, several teams have gotten off to promising starts or have been bogged down by sluggish showings, but there’s still time to turn things around.
With that in mind, we asked NFL reporters and columnists from USA TODAY Sports: Pick one team that will rise and one team that will fall in the last two months of the NFL season.
Miami rising. Tua Time has arrived, but the Dolphins’ resurgence is truly a team thing. That much was reflected during the upset victory against the Rams in Tua Tagovailoa’s first NFL start last weekend, when touchdowns came from the defense and special teams, too. Miami (4-3) heads into Sunday’s game at Arizona with a three-game winning streak that has pushed it over .500 for the first time since Brian Flores took over as coach. And there’s no reason to expect the flow to stop. Can the Dolphins win the NFC East? It’s possible. The Patriots are stumbling and the Bills have had some lapses as the current front-runner. Maybe the division comes down at a Week 17 encounter at Buffalo. One thing for sure: Flores has built a team that win or lose, will fight, scratch and claw.
Chicago falling. The Bears (5-3), taking a two-game losing streak into Tennessee, seem like they’re doing it with mirrors. I mean, take away the improbable comeback victories at Detroit and Atlanta, then what do you have? Sure, you are what your record says you are. Yet there’s also the fact that Chicago is -5 in net scoring. Winning ugly, as quarterback Nick Foles reminded us, is still winning. But I’m not convinced that winning ugly will get it done in two games against the Packers that will likely determine the NFC North crown, and a pair of games against the Vikings won’t be easy, either. There are some things that I can’t help but like about the Bears: The defense is still a load. Scrappy running back David Montgomery makes yards happen. Rookie receiver Darnell Mooney is an emerging star. And the early-season switch to Foles from Mitchell Trubisky provided a steadying force. Yet they are still just getting by. Sometimes.
Does Team COVID-19 count? The virus definitely seems to be rising in the second half of the NFL season, while the number of available players and open facilities is falling. Otherwise, I expect the Vikings’ stock to rise. Their 1-5 season start began with a 43-34 loss to the Packers followed by a series of turnover-laden contests. Last week, they rewrote the script with a 28-22 win at Green Bay in which they protected the ball, powered Dalvin Cook for four scores and held off Green Bay just enough. If their young defense can continue its growth and their offensive identity continue to skew Cook, Mike Zimmer’s squad has potential for the potentially-expanding wild card spot.
Tennessee, meanwhile, has a tough schedule ahead including games at Baltimore, Indianapolis and Green Bay. Can they effectively stop Lamar Jackson or Aaron Rodgers? Houston will seek revenge after an OT loss. The Titans will struggle to rely on generating takeaways to mask a defense that allows 396.9 yards per game (seventh-worst) and has trouble generating pressure (one sack per game, tied for second-worst). Derrick Henry will entertain us all, but it may not be enough. Tennessee will be glad Houston and Jacksonville aren’t competitive as the Titans duke it out with the Colts for the AFC South title.
I see the Philadelphia Eagles rising. They definitely have disappointed with their 3-4-1 start, but a lot of that had to do with injuries. They’re finally starting to see improvement in this regard, and as the roster around Carson Wentz gets healthier, the quarterback’s play will begin to trend upward as well. The NFC East is a mess, and things play out favorably for the Eagles, who have won two straight. With the Giants and Browns on tap next, Philly has a good shot at extending that streak to four games. The Eagles do have tough tests against the Seahawks, Packers and Saints ahead, but they really have a shot at finishing with an 8-7-1 record to win their division and make the playoffs.
My faller is the San Francisco 49ers, and it’s unfortunate because this team returned a strong roster and aimed to avoid the Super Bowl hangover but hasn’t managed to avoid the injury bug. Kyle Shanahan had this group playing well despite all of the holes on the roster, and the hope was the 49ers could tread water until the reinforcements arrived. But now that Jimmy Garoppolo and George Kittle have joined that extensive list of injured players, the 49ers hopes of making a second-half charge seems highly unlikely.