We’re roughly halfway through an NFL season unlike any we’ve seen before amid the coronavirus pandemic. Every team has now played at least eight games, so it is time to take stock of the first half and look at what lies ahead as the playoffs near.
How do we describe the first half? What are the biggest questions remaining to be answered? What will each team’s record be at season’s end? NFL Nation answers the questions for all 32 teams.
First half in two words: New Bills. After three seasons of coach Sean McDermott’s teams flourishing on defense and floundering on offense, the Bills boast an explosive offense capable of moving the ball at will. And they’ve had to, because Buffalo’s defense has taken a drastic step back from its 2018 and 2019 form — although there have been signs of life over recent weeks.
Biggest question left to answer: Can this team consistently click on all cylinders? The Bills have yet to turn in a game in which all sides of the ball play at a high level, despite showing the ability to do so. At its best, Buffalo is a contender in the AFC — it’s just a question of whether (or how often) we will see this team play complementary football for four quarters.
Which is the toughest game left? Week 14 against Pittsburgh. The Steelers look like the best team in the NFL, and as of Week 9 are the last remaining unbeaten team. Their defense — specifically the pass rush — will test Buffalo’s offensive line, which is currently hobbling its way through the season. But a victory for the Bills could have a big impact on playoff seeding in the AFC.
Final record prediction: 12-4. Sticking with my preseason prediction, the Bills are talented enough to win enough games to seal a playoff spot and rest their starters in Week 17 for the second consecutive season. — Marcel Louis-Jacques
First half in two words: Trust Flores. The Dolphins are good again, and at least a year earlier than many predicted after their dramatic rebuild. Coach Brian Flores has guided this team from an 0-7 start in 2019 to 10-7 over its past 17 games. An October quarterback change from veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick to rookie Tua Tagovailoa looked curious on the surface, but like almost everything Flores has touched with the Dolphins, it has worked out. With a top-five scoring defense and an exciting young QB, there’s more optimism around the Dolphins now than there has been in more than a decade.
Biggest question left to answer: Can Miami make the playoffs without a reliable running game? The Dolphins have the NFL’s 28th-ranked rushing attack (97.1 yards per game), which is a combination of poor run blocking by a young offensive line and ineffective rushing by a committee of players. The hope is lead back Myles Gaskin’s return from a knee injury later this month coupled with more reps for the offensive line will result in improvement. But it’s unrealistic to expect the Dolphins will go from bad to good here in the second half of the season, so the concern then shifts to whether Miami’s strengths on defense, special teams and passing offense can compensate.
Which is the toughest game left? Week 14 vs. the Kansas City Chiefs. The defending champions are still one of the NFL’s most feared teams, and Super Bowl MVP Patrick Mahomes will test the Dolphins’ much-improved defense, which has had some struggles against mobile and elite QBs. On the other side of the ball, Tagovailoa will go head to head with Kansas City’s sixth-ranked scoring defense. It’s a heck of a challenge for a rookie, but it will be great for the Dolphins and their fans to just be in the thick of these meaningful challenges.
Final record prediction: 10-6. With a 50% chance of making the playoffs, per ESPN’s Football Power Index, a top-five scoring defense and an ascending young QB in Tagovailoa, the playoffs are a realistic goal. — Cameron Wolfe
First half in two words: Stunning decline. Things were looking good at 2-1 — which easily could have been 3-0 if QB Cam Newton wasn’t stopped at the 1-yard line in Seattle — and then COVID-19 hit Newton and sacked the entire team in the process. The Patriots haven’t really looked the same since.
Biggest question left to answer: Which Newton will show up? Is it the quarterback who lifted the offense on his back the first two weeks of the season? Or the quarterback who has looked unsure of himself for extended stretches ever since that impressive opening burst? When Newton has found his rhythm, the Patriots have looked capable on offense, despite not having a solid arsenal of pass-catchers at wide receiver and tight end.
Who is playing for his job in 2021? Newton. The Patriots have a huge question to answer at quarterback in the future, and after two games, many observers were wondering how much it might cost to sign Newton to an extension. Now, the conversation has shifted to whether it might be time to get a closer look at Jarrett Stidham. Things change fast, which is a reminder that Newton still has a chance to turn things around. Leading a rally in Week 9 to beat the Jets was a good start.
Final record prediction: 8-8. That probably won’t be good enough for a playoff spot, whereas 9-7 might give the Patriots a chance — but with home games against Baltimore, Arizona and Buffalo on the schedule, and road games against Miami and both Los Angeles teams, the odds of making a second-half charge are longer. — Mike Reiss
First half in two words: Unmitigated embarrassment. The Jets are 0-9 for the first time in franchise history. Worse, they have been competitive in only three games. The offense, which is coach Adam Gase’s baby, has been an epic failure, scoring only 10 touchdowns in nine games. When a team struggles to reach the red zone, let alone the end zone, it magnifies the problems everywhere else. The roster needs an overhaul. Again.
Biggest question left to answer: It’s all about quarterback Sam Darnold. Can he play well enough to make general manager Joe Douglas ignore the temptation of drafting Trevor Lawrence or Justin Fields with a top pick in April? It will be a huge challenge for Darnold, who hasn’t been able to rise above poor coaching and a substandard supporting cast. Instead of helping him succeed, the Jets have undermined him with a poor infrastructure. What a shame. If the Jets land the first pick, they probably will trade him and restart the clock with another rookie QB contract. Darnold can help himself — and his trade value — by getting his right shoulder healthy and doing his best to galvanize an offense that lacks playmakers. Good luck with that.
Who is playing for his job in 2021? In a season of disappointments, tight end Chris Herndon is the biggest. Not only is he a non-factor in the passing game, but it seems as though something bad happens every time he touches the ball — two lost fumbles and two dropped passes. Gase was so high on Herndon that he called him a “unicorn.” He missed 15 games in 2019 because of suspension and injuries, and he hasn’t recovered. Herndon, 24, still has a year left on his rookie contract. You hate to give up on a player with talent, but he has to show something over the final seven games to justify a roster spot in 2021.
Final record prediction: 1-15. The Jets will stumble into a win somewhere, costing themselves the No. 1 pick — which would be the Jetsiest thing ever. — Rich Cimini
First half in two words: Notch below. The Ravens have the same 6-2 record as last season, but it doesn’t feel the same. Baltimore hasn’t shown signs of going on a magical run like 2019. Quarterback Lamar Jackson isn’t close to his MVP form. The Ravens have proved they’re better than the likes of the Colts and the Browns. But Baltimore is a tier below the NFL’s elite, stumbling mightily in losses to the defending Super Bowl champion Chiefs and undefeated Steelers. The Ravens’ defense is championship-caliber, holding teams to a league-low 17.8 points per game. The offense remains a work in progress, and it doesn’t help that All-Pro left tackle Ronnie Stanley (ankle) is out for the season. Ultimately, the success of Baltimore’s season won’t be judged by the regular season. It’s how the Ravens fare in the playoffs after abrupt one-and-done exits in each of Jackson’s first two seasons.
Biggest question left to answer: Can Jackson take the next step as a passer? The Ravens won’t be able to make a serious championship run unless Jackson can make defenses pay for stacking the box. He has regressed this season in throwing the ball, ranking 26th in completion rate (62.9%), 27th in passing yards (1,513) and 22nd in yards per attempt (7.1). In the two biggest games of the season, Jackson failed to show up as a passer. He passed for a career-worst 97 yards against the Chiefs and threw two interceptions (including his first career pick-six) against the Steelers. Jackson has to make better decisions and more accurate throws when it matters the most.
Which is the toughest game left? Week 12, Thanksgiving night (Nov. 26) at Pittsburgh. This is a must-win game for the Ravens for them to have any hope of winning a third straight AFC North title and securing a home game in the postseason. Baltimore is currently two games behind Pittsburgh and has already lost to its biggest rival at home earlier this month. Given how soft the remaining schedule is, this represents the Ravens’ last shot in the regular season to prove they belong among the AFC’s best. Plus, this means a lot for bragging rights alone. Baltimore has been swept by Pittsburgh only once in the past 11 seasons.
Final record prediction: 12-4. The Ravens have the easiest remaining strength of schedule in the league, according to ESPN Analytics research. Baltimore has an 8.7% chance to win out. — Jamison Hensley
Joe Fortenbaugh and Tyler Fulghum break down who the favorite for NFL MVP is after Russell Wilson and the Seahawks have struggled in recent weeks.
First half in two words: Growing pains. The first half of the season showed how much of a rebuild the Bengals will need in order to push for a playoff spot. The defense still needs considerable improvement and must find its edge rusher of the future. Cincinnati has also struggled to win close games, something that has plagued it under second-year coach Zac Taylor. But the optimism surrounding rookie quarterback Joe Burrow and a dominant Week 8 win over Tennessee shows the Bengals are capable of turning the corner at the end of this season and finishing the rebuilding process before the 2021 season.
Biggest question left to answer: Can this defense be good enough to win consistently? At various points this season, the defense has been the cure for ailing quarterbacks. Philip Rivers had the best quarter of his career (which is saying something) as he helped the Colts erase a 21-point deficit in a comeback victory. One week later, Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield did not throw a single incompletion in the final three quarters amid whispers that he might not be Cleveland’s long-term quarterback solution. The Bengals must get a true assessment of their defense. If the unit struggles throughout the rest of the season, Cincinnati will need to fix the problems if it wants to be competitive again.
Who is playing for his job in 2021? Defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo. His unit has rallied, with the aforementioned Week 8 performance over the Titans a much-needed respite for him. But the Bengals must continue to play well and show the players have conviction in Anarumo’s scheme. So far during his tenure, that hasn’t always been the case. It’s worth noting Anarumo inherited a roster filled with aging stars and a team that had to go into free agency in 2020 to plug holes caused by years of draft neglect. And some of those signings, such as D.J. Reader and Trae Waynes, have spent more time on injured reserve than on the field.
Final record prediction: 6-9-1. The Bengals are projected to be favored in two more games this season, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index — Week 12 against the Giants and Week 14 against the Cowboys. They need to hit six wins in order to keep their rebuild on track, and Cincinnati has the opponents on the schedule to make that happen. — Ben Baby
First half in two words: On track. The Browns haven’t been to the playoffs in 18 years, the longest drought in the NFL. But at 5-3, they have a better than 50% shot, according to the FPI. And with one of the league’s easiest remaining schedules, they have a prime opportunity to finally snap that streak.
Biggest question left to answer: Is Baker Mayfield the answer at quarterback? This is the most important question long term to a franchise amazingly still looking to permanently replace Bernie Kosar three decades later. Mayfield has delivered several remarkable moments, including breaking a Browns record with 21 consecutive completions and three fourth-quarter go-ahead touchdown passes in the Oct. 25 victory at Cincinnati. But he’s also had flops, most notably in dismal performances at Baltimore and Pittsburgh. Without question, Mayfield has improved following his disappointing 2019 season. But the next several weeks should help reveal whether he’s actually the long-term answer.
Which is the toughest game left? Cleveland could all but lock up a playoff spot by upsetting Baltimore (Dec. 14) or Pittsburgh (Jan. 3) at home. Given that the Steelers look almost unbeatable at this point, that is probably Cleveland’s toughest remaining game. But defeating the Ravens on Monday Night Football could be the biggest, giving the Browns a realistic chance for a marquee victory and to show on a national stage they are in fact playoff-caliber and ascending.
Final record prediction: 10-6. The Browns have likely wins ahead of them against the Jaguars, Giants and Jets; winning just two more games — the Texans and Eagles at home? — would give them 10. — Jake Trotter
First half in two words: Still undefeated. The Steelers have a perfect record, but they’re doing it in imperfect fashion. Of their eight wins, five have been decided by only one score — including each of the past three games. But what matters most is that the Steelers have figured out ways to win and have made the big plays in the big moments. The Steelers have shown plenty of weaknesses in the first eight games, such as an inconsistent run game and run defense. But they’ve shown strengths, too, like an ability to fight through adversity. They’ll have to do plenty more of that to put together a second half to match the first.
Biggest question left to answer: Can the Steelers keep it up? The past three games came down to the final possession, but Pittsburgh still managed to eke out wins against two of the top teams in the NFL and a pesky underdog in the kind of head-scratching game the Steelers historically lose. To maintain a clean sheet, though, the Steelers need to show they can put together four quarters of complementary football, something they haven’t done all season. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is playing well, although he and the offense have been fighting through slow starts, and the usually stout defense has been affected by injuries in its run-stopping unit. Can this team stop winning ugly and play like its record?
Which is the toughest game left? The next one. Yes, it’s coachspeak, but it’s true. Though undefeated, the Steelers haven’t played well enough to look ahead at the rest of their schedule to predict tough matchups down the road. Their perfect start was almost ended by a 2-7 Cowboys team on its fourth starting quarterback. The Steelers hold a lead in their division and the AFC, but with games left against divisional opponents such as the Baltimore Ravens and another against the surging Buffalo Bills, Pittsburgh needs to win every single game to maintain its standing with Baltimore and the Kansas City Chiefs in close pursuit.
Final record prediction: 13-3. Without a second-half bye week, the Steelers won’t finish the season with a perfect mark, but they’ll still win the division. — Brooke Pryor
First half in two words: Slow start. Not only did the Texans struggle to start the season — they have two wins — but they’ve also been unable to get off to productive starts to begin games. In eight games, the Texans have three opening-drive first downs and have scored only once. While Houston has had issues on both sides of the ball, the offense hasn’t been able to put the team in a good position initially.
Biggest question left to answer: Is there any young talent the Texans can build around aside from quarterback Deshaun Watson and offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil, especially on defense? Perhaps Houston’s biggest problem is that despite being tied for the fourth-worst record in the NFL, the Texans can’t depend on a high first- or second-round draft pick in 2021 because they traded those away to the Miami Dolphins last season. On both sides of the ball, there is a lack of young, talented players still on their rookie deals. The rest of this season should be a platform for young players to show they can play a role in the team’s long-term plans.
Who is playing for his job in 2021? David Johnson. The veteran running back was acquired in the now-infamous trade that sent wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins to the Arizona Cardinals this offseason, with Houston taking on Johnson’s whole contract, worth more than $11 million. Johnson has not played up to the trade or the contract this season — he has 408 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 103 attempts — and unless he turns that around in a major way, it seems unlikely the Texans will want to pay his $9 million salary in 2021. If Houston cuts Johnson this offseason, it could save $6.9 million.
Final record prediction: 4-12. The schedule is certainly easier than the first half was, with games against the Chiefs, Ravens, Steelers and Packers already out of the way, so finishing with a 4-12 record would mean that Houston goes 2-6 the rest of the way. — Sarah Barshop
First half in two words: Dominant defense. The buzz surrounding the Colts heading into the season was about the addition of veteran Philip Rivers as the team’s starting quarterback. It turns out that another offseason addition perhaps has made a bigger difference. The Colts traded the No. 13 pick in the draft for defensive lineman DeForest Buckner, and he has teamed up with All-Pro linebacker Darius Leonard to help turn the unit from being a weak link for so many years to being the strength of the roster. The Colts spent time as the No. 1-ranked defensive unit in the NFL and currently sit at or near the top of the rankings of many statistical categories, including yards allowed and interceptions.
Biggest question left to answer: Do the Colts have enough on offense? The defense is one of the best in the NFL, but the Colts lack playmakers on offense. The defense has Leonard, Buckner, safety Julian Blackmon and cornerback Xavier Rhodes, who have all made significant plays this season, and that’s naming only a few. The same can’t be said on the offensive side of the ball. You don’t know which Rivers is going to show up on a game-to-game basis. Wide receiver T.Y. Hilton is off to the slowest start of his nine-year NFL career. Rookie running back Jonathan Taylor has lacked consistency, and the offensive line hasn’t dominated up front the same way it did 2018 and 2019. The defense can take the Colts only so far; the offense has to do its part by finding a way to put points on the board.
Which is the toughest game left? It isn’t a case of just one game for the Colts. It’s four. They have two games against AFC South foe Tennessee, including one Thursday, and a home game against Green Bay, which is sandwiched between the two games against the Titans. The Colts, who currently trail the Titans by a game for first place in the AFC South, will likely have to split against Tennessee to have a chance to win the division. The Colts also go on the road to play Pittsburgh in Week 16. The Colts are 6-19 all time against the Steelers.
Final record prediction: 10-6. The Chiefs, Ravens and Steelers appear to be the top teams in the AFC, but with two games remaining against the Texans and one against the Jaguars, the schedule favors Indianapolis to finish with a winning record and get to the playoffs for the second time in four years under general manager Chris Ballard. — Mike Wells
First half in two words: Total buzzkill. After an upset of Indianapolis to start the season, then a three-point loss to Tennessee in Nashville, where they’ve struggled to keep games close in recent seasons, there was optimism that the Jaguars would be competitive and better than many thought. Things quickly fell apart after that. Jacksonville became the first team in NFL history to lose three consecutive games to winless teams (excluding season openers) and tied an NFL record by giving up 30 points in six consecutive games in a single season. As has been the case for much of the past decade, the Jaguars were essentially out of the playoff race before most of us bought Halloween candy.
Biggest question left to answer: Do the Jaguars have something in Jake Luton? The sixth-rounder threw for 304 yards in his first NFL game Sunday, the most ever by a Jaguars rookie quarterback in his first start. Luton started because Gardner Minshew is out with a thumb injury and there’s no timetable on his return. Minshew was given the 2020 season to prove he can be the long-term starter, but he’s still having the same issues he did as a rookie (comfort in the pocket, arm strength, throwing receivers open and working the middle of the field). Luton had some good and bad moments against Houston, but he has a big arm, likes to throw downfield, and showed some moxie with a two-minute touchdown drive at the end of the game. The Jaguars need to see more.
Who is playing for his job in 2021? Player-wise, it’s definitely Minshew — though there’s no guarantee he’ll even get back on the field when he gets healthy. Coach Doug Marrone said he’d have to see how Luton is playing before he makes that decision. Marrone and general manager Dave Caldwell are in trouble, too. The team has lost 27 of its past 36 games (16 by double digits), including the past seven in a row, and both are more than likely going to be fired after the season — short of an unlikely 7-1 finish to get the Jaguars to .500.
Final record prediction: 2-14. The Jaguars have the toughest remaining strength of schedule, but they can steal a game against Minnesota (3-5) or Chicago (5-4) because the young players on the roster — at this point, anyway — respect Marrone and haven’t quit on him. — Mike DiRocco
First half in two words: Defensive struggles. The Titans have not gotten the expected return on the $21 million they invested in their pass rush before the season. Vic Beasley signed a one-year, $9.5 million deal and is no longer on the roster. Jadeveon Clowney (one-year, $12 million deal) brought a lot of hype to Nashville but is nursing a knee injury. Neither player has a sack this season, although Clowney has somewhat affected opposing quarterbacks. With the exception of Malcolm Butler, Tennessee’s secondary has not played well, which has had a big impact on the team’s low defensive rankings in third-down conversion percentage allowed (32nd, 61.8%) and red zone touchdown scoring percentage (30th, 80.7%).
Biggest question left to answer: Can the defense get better down the stretch? The Titans’ high-scoring offense masked some of the defensive shortcomings early on, but losses to the Steelers and Bengals placed a spotlight on their third-down defense. But Tennessee showed improvement against Chicago, allowing only two third-down conversions on 15 attempts. The Titans also got three sacks in that game after registering only seven sacks in their previous seven. The solid showing against the Bears could ignite a much-needed rise down the stretch for the Titans’ defense.
Which is the toughest game left? Week 16 at Green Bay. Former Titans offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur has Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay offense rolling to the tune of 31.6 points per game. Rodgers’ ability to pick teams apart with the quick passing game from the pocket in addition to extending plays is extremely hard to stop. Davante Adams is playing as well as any wide receiver in the league this season. The Packers’ defense is stout as well, with Preston Smith and Za’Darius Smith bringing heat off the edge.
Final record prediction: 12-4. The Titans play five consecutive games that could have an impact on the AFC playoff seeding, but Tennessee’s dominant rushing attack led by Derrick Henry, along with what coach Mike Vrabel hopes to be an improved defense, should give the Titans what they need to win on the road late in the season. — Turron Davenport
First half in two words: Slow start. Again. After going 0-4 to begin the 2019 season, the Broncos started 2020 0-3 behind a pile of injuries, bouts with COVID-19 and almost a weekly stumble out of the gate. Denver has trailed by at least 10 points in five of its past seven games, including Sunday’s loss at Atlanta. Yes, injuries have overwhelmed the roster, and yes, the Broncos are one of the youngest teams in the league, but veterans who remain in the locker room, as well as the coaching staff, must help remedy that. The Broncos won’t regain their balance until they aren’t staring at double-digit deficits at halftime.
Biggest question left to answer: Is Drew Lock THE guy or not? Impatience is not a virtue, especially when it comes to a young quarterback. Lock is caught in a constant swirl of impatience from a Broncos-mad region seeking its next franchise QB. Lock is pressing and is currently 28th or worse in most of the major statistical categories among the league’s starters, including last in completion percentage. The Broncos could give him some help from the run game. Lock will have to overcome injuries on the offensive line, and offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur will have to help Lock find some more composure on first and second downs.
Who is playing for his job in 2021? It’s hard to believe the Broncos would construct an entire offseason plan for Lock — as they did this year — and then give him just one full season behind center to show what he can do. But Lock is probably playing to keep Denver from using a premium draft pick on another quarterback. Lock has flashed his potential, especially in late-game situations, but the job is more about managing what happens long before those run-around, down-14-points situations are created in the first place. Lock must master things like first-and-10 plays, short and intermediate throws that move the chains as well as simply ditching the ball from time to time when a play can’t be saved.
Final record prediction: 7-9. The remaining schedule does no favors for a wobbly team with a wobbly offense, as the Dolphins, Saints, Chiefs and Bills are still among those left on the docket. — Jeff Legwold
Stephen A. Smith claims Patrick Mahomes should be the leading candidate for MVP this season, but won’t classify him as the best QB ever.
First half in two words: On track. While the first half of their season hasn’t been perfect, the 8-1 Chiefs could be on a path toward a second consecutive Super Bowl championship. They lead the NFL in points differential, a sign of their strength. Quarterback Patrick Mahomes, with 25 touchdown passes and one interception, is playing as well as, if not better than, ever. The Chiefs have also found ways to win without getting big performances from Mahomes — rushing for 245 yards in a win over the Bills and scoring touchdowns on defense and special teams in a victory over the Broncos. The Chiefs have the look of a tough out in the playoffs.
Biggest question left to answer: The Chiefs are sixth in scoring defense and tied for fourth in the league with 14 forced turnovers. But they haven’t established a defensive identity, and some of their numbers are troubling. Kansas City is in the middle of the league in sacks per attempt despite having a large percentage of its salary cap invested in pass-rushers Chris Jones and Frank Clark. It is 28th in red zone efficiency. The Chiefs rank 22nd in forcing three-and-outs. These numbers need to improve if the Chiefs are to avoid problems ahead.
What is the toughest game left? While games against the Buccaneers, Dolphins and Saints could prove more difficult to win, the Week 11 game against the Raiders in Las Vegas is unquestionably the biggest. A victory doesn’t figure to come easily for the Chiefs based on how the Raiders handled them during a 40-32 Las Vegas victory in Week 5. The Chiefs that day couldn’t get much pressure on quarterback Derek Carr or contain the Raiders’ speed at wide receiver. Meanwhile, Las Vegas pressured Mahomes relentlessly without resorting to the blitz. That’s a lot for the Chiefs to fix if they’re to beat the Raiders the second time around. A win would effectively lock up a fifth straight AFC West championship for the Chiefs, while a loss would signal a tight race to the finish.
Final record prediction: 13-3. The final seven games look to be more of a minefield for the Chiefs than the first nine — with several playoff contenders among the seven remaining opponents — but a closing record of 5-2 looks reasonable for a team with as many ways to win a game as the Chiefs have. — Adam Teicher
First half in two words: Almost there. Halfway to a 10-6 mark (after going 7-9 last season) and sitting as the No. 6 seed in the AFC playoff chase (the Raiders have gone to the postseason only once since 2002), confidence is high for Las Vegas. Especially with big wins against Kansas City (it is the Super Bowl champion Chiefs’ lone loss in a calendar year) and New Orleans (the Saints suddenly look like NFC favorites) and a 4-1 road record. Much of the Raiders’ “adversity” has been self-inflicted, though, courtesy of nearly $1.2 million in fines for breaching COVID-19 protocols. Injuries could have dimmed Las Vegas but the Raiders have answered.
Biggest question left to answer: The question now, then, is this: Can they close? Last season, the Raiders were 6-4 and looking at a friendly closing stretch. Instead, they dropped five of their final six games. Now, with the experience of that collapse fresh, Las Vegas again has a favorable second-half schedule, with its three road games against teams (Falcons, Jets and Broncos) that have won a combined six games. The Raiders were also without running back Josh Jacobs for three of their last four games last season after he suffered a fractured shoulder. Now, Jacobs’ workload is being closely monitored and Devontae Booker has proved to be a more-than-capable change-of-pace back. The much-maligned defense also needs to bend more, break less.
Which is the toughest game left? Home against the Chiefs in Week 11. You don’t think Kansas City will be looking for a little payback on a Sunday night with the country watching after the Raiders stunned the Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium in Week 5? Las Vegas is a veritable walking wounded heading into this weekend’s home game against the Broncos, and Kansas City will be coming to Sin City off its bye week, giving Chiefs coach Andy Reid an extra week to scheme against the Raiders. The Raiders’ defense had a statement game at Arrowhead, and if it can do it again to complete the sweep, Las Vegas can set its sights on a division title rather than chasing a wild-card spot.
Final record prediction: 10-6. As much as the schedule lets up in the second half of the season, nothing is a given — especially with the Raiders’ offensive line and secondary constant works in progress. But Las Vegas has shown a steely resolve in winning five games thus far and should be able to cobble together five more over the next two months. — Paul Gutierrez
First half in two words: Dismal and brutal. They’ve had to deal with injuries at almost every position, no more so than quarterback. Rookie Justin Herbert has handled the situation with poise and class, but he needs help from the defense, which has been decimated. Defensive end Joey Bosa being out with a concussion hasn’t helped.
Biggest question left to answer: Can they finish a game? With six losses considered a “punch to the gut” by a combined 24 points — including four in which they’ve lost leads of 11, 17, 17 and 21 points — Chargers coach Anthony Lynn doesn’t know how many more he can take. The fans don’t, either.
Who is playing for his job in 2021? Running back Kalen Ballage. The big third-year player hasn’t been able to stick in stints with the Miami Dolphins and New York Jets, but he had a nice debut with the Chargers in Week 9 after being called up from the practice squad, rushing for 69 yards and a touchdown. But his history makes it hard to have complete confidence.
Final record prediction: 6-10. The close losses and blown leads are proof Los Angeles hasn’t acquired the killer instinct, but maybe next season things will turn around for the Chargers, who are 3-15 in one-score games over the past two years. — Shelley Smith
First half in two words: Unimaginably bad. Blame the coronavirus pandemic. Blame the lack of offseason program, no minicamp, shortened training camp and no preseason games. Blame injuries to quarterback Dak Prescott and offensive linemen Tyron Smith and La’el Collins. But there is no way the Cowboys, or anybody, thought things would be this bad. As well as Prescott was playing, the Cowboys were 2-3 in his five starts, and the two wins required some luck. The defense has been historically bad. The offense without Prescott has been bad, too, with just two touchdown drives. Reasons and excuses live on the same block, and the Cowboys have plenty of reasons and excuses as to why they are looking at a likely top-five pick in the 2021 NFL draft.
Biggest question left to answer: Who are the defensive pieces to keep around in 2021? The offense will get Prescott, provided he is either given the franchise tag again or signed to a long-term deal, Smith, Collins and tight end Blake Jarwin (knee) back next season, so there is hope it can be a top unit next season. But the Cowboys’ defense has holes everywhere. DeMarcus Lawrence is playing better, but the defensive end needs more sacks. Linebacker Jaylon Smith‘s future with the team is in question because of his lack of performance and contract. Free-agents-to-be in the secondary, such as Xavier Woods, Jourdan Lewis and Chidobe Awuzie (who missed time with a hamstring injury), have not impressed. The Cowboys want to keep defensive end Aldon Smith, but he has to show he can play a full season after such a long layoff.
Who is playing for his job in 2021? Coach Mike McCarthy is likely to get a grace period because of how strange this season has been. Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan will not. His unit is on pace to allow the most points in a season in franchise history, if not the most ever in an NFL season. The saving grace might be the remaining division games against offensively challenged teams such as the New York Giants, Philadelphia Eagles and Washington Football Team. Nolan brought a scheme to the Cowboys that was supposed to adapt to the personnel, but it has not done much of anything right, including stopping the run or creating turnovers. Unless there is a massive turnaround, the entire defensive staff could be in trouble.
Final record prediction: 4-12. The Cowboys have one game left against a team with a winning record (Baltimore, 6-2), but there’s hardly a guaranteed victory remaining on the schedule. — Todd Archer
First half in two words: Still rebuilding. The Giants have two wins in nine games, both against Washington. It’s clear their roster — especially without running back Saquon Barkley — still isn’t anywhere near good enough. But this season is more about coach Joe Judge getting everything in order and establishing his culture than winning games. So far, the returns on that end seem to be promising. The Giants are playing hard and are showing improvement, especially on the defensive side. Judge seems to have this team moving in the right direction heading into the final eight weeks of the season.
Biggest question left to answer: Is Daniel Jones a franchise quarterback? There is no way around it. Jones has not made the progress anybody would have hoped for after a promising rookie season. Many of the same problems that plagued him last season — pocket presence, fumbles, turnovers — are still there. He just played his first clean game of the season without a turnover against Washington, and even in that contest he fumbled twice. One went out of bounds, the other he recovered. Jones has flashed potential at times every week, but eight touchdown passes to 13 turnovers says it all about his 2020 season so far.
Who is playing for his job in 2021? The Giants didn’t trade Evan Engram at the deadline despite inquiries about his availability. They view the talented tight end as one of their best weapons. But this season has been a struggle for Engram, who is tied for the NFL lead with six dropped passes and didn’t reach the end zone until Week 9 against Washington. It just hasn’t clicked in the new offense under Jason Garrett. That makes the final seven games key for Engram’s future. The Giants, who have a fifth-year option on Engram for next year, can always move him or move on from him this offseason.
Final record prediction: 5-11. The Giants have played hard and have some winnable games (Eagles, Bengals, Browns, Cowboys) remaining — they might even win a surprise game along the way when Jones finally puts it together for a big afternoon — but this team isn’t good enough to really make a run in the NFC East. — Jordan Raanan
First half in two words: Injuries galore. Four-fifths of the starting offensive line was wiped out for a spell. Starting wide receivers DeSean Jackson and Jalen Reagor missed nine combined games. Tight ends Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert went down. Running back Miles Sanders missed the past two games. It goes on and on. Quarterback Carson Wentz was once again working with practice-squad call-ups. There have been bright spots along the way, like the emergence of wide receiver Travis Fulgham, but the roster flux has also factored into the team’s ugly play at times.
Biggest question left to answer: Can Wentz stabilize? He was wildly erratic over the first half of 2020 and is on pace for the worst season of his pro career. Entering the team’s Week 9 bye, Wentz led the league in turnovers (16), interceptions (12) and sacks (32), was 32nd in completion percentage (58.4) and 30th in yards per attempt (6.2). He authored a handful of big-time moments and already has a career-best three fourth-quarter comebacks, but the Eagles need more consistent quarterback play. The rest of this season will largely be about evaluating whether Wentz is capable of giving it to them.
What is the toughest game left? Week 13 at the Green Bay Packers. Any late-season trip to Lambeau Field is hard, and it doesn’t help when the Packers (6-2) are playing like one of the better teams in football. The trek to Wisconsin is sandwiched between home games against the Seattle Seahawks and New Orleans Saints. The Seahawks game is on Monday Night Football, meaning the Eagles will play at the Packers on a short week following a revenge game against Seattle (Eagles’ 2019 wild-card playoff loss).
Final record prediction: 7-8-1. The Eagles will win the remainder of their divisional games plus one more outside the NFC East to get to seven wins and punch their ticket for the playoffs. — Tim McManus
First half in two words: Long process. Washington knew it would take time to build what coach Ron Rivera, and this fan base, want: a winner. Sure enough, the projections of a big rebuild were accurate. Washington has a decent base of young talent, starting at defensive end with Chase Young and Montez Sweat. But the list of needs is long, from quarterback to linebackers to more offensive-line help and additional weapons in the pass game. Ignore the talk of the NFC East race and understand what this season remains about: building a foundation. That’s about establishing core players and also creating overall good habits and standards.
Biggest question left to answer: Do they have a quarterback of the future on the roster? The answer is likely “no,” because Kyle Allen, now injured, is viewed as a quality backup; Alex Smith is 36 and coming off a terrible injury and Dwayne Haskins was benched in part because of his failure to prepare for games at a high level. Haskins is the only one of this group who has the combination of age and skill level to elevate to this role, but the coaches soured on him. He can change their minds by preparing better and then, when given a chance, playing well. Otherwise, the search will resume in the offseason.
Who is playing for his job in 2021? Smith. He’s in this spot by default because of benchings and injuries, but if the quarterback wants to be on a roster next season — with Washington or elsewhere — he has eight games to show he can still play effectively coming off his leg injury. It’s hard to imagine him factoring into the future here as a starter unless he really shows a ton. Smith also will have to decide whether he wants to keep playing; he has already overcome a lot just to be in this position. But if he does want to continue, even as a backup, this is his chance.
Final record prediction: 4-12. Even if the team becomes more competitive, it has several young players starting and big questions at quarterback, and the final five games will be difficult. Five wins isn’t out of the question, but that will require a few breaks. — John Keim
First half in two words: Gut-wrenching. Watching the Bears is an unpleasant activity. The offense is just so bad. The Bears won five of six to open the season but have since cratered because the offense lacks consistency, cohesiveness and discipline. The Bears also cannot score points (garbage time aside), which is another pretty large problem. The Bears no longer win ugly, they play ugly.
Can the offense improve? The Bears historically struggle on offense, but Matt Nagy is an offensive-minded coach, meaning it should not be this bad. The 2020 Bears resemble the John Fox Bears — an era when fans stayed away from Soldier Field in droves. That’s not an issue this season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but eventually the Bears would like to welcome fans back to home games. Nobody, and I mean, nobody, wants to pay money to watch the Bears play offense the way they have been. Something has to change — and drastically.
Who is playing for his job in 2021? Nick Foles. Foles is the only Chicago quarterback under contract in 2021 — Mitchell Trubisky is expected to sign somewhere else next spring and Tyler Bray is a career third-stringer — but he still needs to convince people that he’s the right man for the job. Foles has played well in spurts, but the overall body of work has been underwhelming. Foles is hardly the only issue on offense. The Bears are a complete mess, with acute offensive line and playcalling problems. Still, the quarterback is always under the most pressure to perform. Foles must raise his level of play over the final seven games if he wants to be assured of the No. 1 job when training camp opens next summer.
Final record prediction: 8-8. The Bears have no business making the playoffs with that offense. — Jeff Dickerson
First half in two words: Not. Good. The Lions have been rough defensively — allowing 148.1 yards per game rushing, 4.8 yards per carry and 24.9 first downs per game, No. 31 in the league. The Lions are in the bottom 10 in the league in almost every major defensive category except passing yards per game and are allowing 30 points per game — on pace for the most points per game allowed since Detroit allowed 32.31 in its 0-16 season in 2008. Teams are scoring on Detroit 71.9% of the time they reach the red zone, too. It has just been a defensive mess for the Lions all season long.
Biggest question left to answer: At this point, most of the questions for the Lions seem to be focused more on what the long-term future of the club will be. While the Lions can theoretically still make a run, nothing the franchise has shown under coach Matt Patricia has indicated they will. So the biggest question for the team the rest of this season is what is going to happen after it: Will owner Sheila Ford Hamp keep Patricia and/or general manager Bob Quinn, or will the franchise be in for a rebuild? If it’s a rebuild, what does that mean for quarterback Matthew Stafford? Detroit has shown, other than a win at Arizona, that it can’t hang with good teams on its schedule. With a rough December slate (Chicago, Green Bay, Tennessee and Tampa Bay) there might not be many wins left on the schedule this season.
Who is playing for his job in 2021? A lot of them, but that’s largely because Patricia is coaching for his job and Quinn is making decisions to try to keep his job. If Quinn and Patricia end up being dismissed, a lot of current Lions players could find their jobs in jeopardy in 2021. Until there is clarity with Quinn and Patricia, nothing else can really be predicted.
Final record prediction: 6-10. Detroit wins two of its next three and steals one in December, but the combination of a porous defense and inconsistent offense continue to hurt the Lions each week. — Michael Rothstein
Brett Favre has no doubt that Aaron Rodgers will do everything he can do in order to help the Packers win another Super Bowl.
First half in two words: MVP Aaron. To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of Aaron Rodgers‘ demise were greatly exaggerated. After a so-so 2019 season — by standards projected on Rodgers — the two-time NFL MVP has thrown himself right back into the MVP race, and he might be leading it. With 24 touchdowns and two interceptions, Rodgers has the second-most touchdown passes in NFL history through eight games by a quarterback with two or fewer interceptions. He’s on pace to break his career high for touchdown passes in a season (45 in 15 games in 2011, his first MVP season), and he seems wholly in sync with coach Matt LaFleur as a playcaller. This despite not having a consistent No. 2 wide receiver behind Davante Adams.
Biggest question left to answer: Is Adams enough? His claim that he’s the best receiver in the NFL is not without merit, but what happens if someone shuts down Adams? It hasn’t happened yet, and GM Brian Gutekunst must have confidence that it won’t because he didn’t go far enough to add a receiver (the Texans’ Will Fuller was one of the targets) before the trade deadline. Allen Lazard is expected back from core muscle surgery any day now, and perhaps he will pick up where he left off with his eight-catch, 146-yard game when he got hurt in Week 3. And maybe Marquez Valdes-Scantling will finally find the consistency to match his speed. But those are both questions at this point.
What is the toughest game left? While the Packers still have games against the top two teams in the AFC South — at the Indianapolis Colts (5-3) in Week 11 and home against the Tennessee Titans (6-2) in Week 16 — their fate could come down to the regular-season finale at the Chicago Bears. Yes, the Bears have fallen off because of their punchless offense, but they have the defense to give Rodgers & Co. fits. Speedy linebackers and a powerful front seven appears to be the recipe to slow down this offense, and that plays into the Bears’ strengths. The Packers still have Chicago twice, first at home in Week 12, but it feels like there will be plenty at stake in terms of playoff seeding come Jan. 3 at Soldier Field.
Final record prediction: 12-4. This is a one-game improvement from the preseason prognostication. There’s always a surprising loss (like home against Minnesota in Week 8) and an unexpected road win (like at San Francisco in Week 9) from when the schedule first came out, and there certainly could be more surprises coming in the second half. But there’s little reason to think the Packers won’t continue on their current pace unless the injuries hit even harder than they already have. — Rob Demovsky
First half in two words: Reality check. No one expected Minnesota to start the season 1-5, especially not the Vikings. A team that had banked on its offensive continuity being able to carry the weight of a defense going through a period of transition was met with the reality that winning the way it used to under coach Mike Zimmer was probably not possible in 2020. The Vikings suffered two one-point losses in the first five weeks of the season and an embarrassing defeat to the Falcons. That sent Minnesota into its Week 7 bye to determine whether it would concede to a rebuild or try to get back into contention in the second half.
Biggest question left to answer: The Vikings didn’t make any moves at the trade deadline, which signified their belief that they can remain competitive and fight to get into the playoff picture. We’ll determine whether Minnesota is back by how it closes out this three-game stretch of NFC North opponents with a Week 10 showdown against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field on Monday night. The Vikings need to beat teams like Chicago and Detroit to help their standing in the division and grab victories over the likes of Dallas, Jacksonville and Carolina to improve their record for a shot at the final playoff seed.
Who is playing for his job in 2021? Zimmer isn’t on the hot seat yet after getting a three-year contract extension in July, but both he and general manager Rick Spielman will need a winning 2021 to prove they have the right people in positions of leadership. If Minnesota stumbles the rest of the way and ends up in a position to draft a quarterback, it’s likely Kirk Cousins is on borrowed time. It’s unrealistic to think the Vikings would cut him after 2020 if he falters down the stretch and endure a $41 million dead cap hit, but bringing a new QB into the fold to learn from Cousins for a year and potentially take over the following season could signal a change at the position down the road.
Final record prediction: 7-9. The Vikings have a favorable schedule the rest of the way, but it’s unrealistic to think they’re going to beat every bad team that comes their way. The Vikings don’t control their playoff destiny and will need to rely on the 49ers, Rams, Bears and even Falcons faltering down the stretch to guarantee their spot in the postseason. — Courtney Cronin
First half in two words: Reset button. The Dan Quinn and Thomas Dimitroff era came to a close after the Falcons started the season 0-5, which led to their firings in October. The Falcons hit the reset button and have played a more inspired brand of football over the past four weeks. The defense is allowing 23 points per contest over the past four games after giving up an average of 32 PPG in the first five weeks of the season. Quarterback Matt Ryan has also surged in completing 70% of his passes in each of the past four games.
Biggest question left to answer: Can this team keep winning with Raheem Morris as the head coach? Morris took over and led Atlanta to a 3-1 record in his first four games as the interim head coach after the team started 0-5. With the exception of frustrated outside linebacker Takk McKinley, who was released, the players seem to have taken to Morris and the temporary staff. If Atlanta continues to show signs of promise over the remaining games, team owner Arthur Blank might be inclined to give Morris his second shot at being a head coach.
Who is playing for his job in 2021? Running back Todd Gurley. The former Ram came to the Falcons on a one-year, $5.5 million contract. He isn’t the same player who was named the 2017 Offensive Player of the Year. But Gurley still has a nose for the end zone and has nine touchdowns in nine games this season. Whoever takes over at GM will have a pick in the top half of the draft and could decide to select a running back at the top of one of the middle to later rounds. Pairing a rookie back with Gurley on a one- or two-year deal might be the way to go for Atlanta.
Final record prediction: 6-10. Two games each against NFC South heavyweights in the New Orleans Saints and Tampa Bay Buccaneers is already a tough assignment that is further complicated by clashes with the Las Vegas Raiders and Kansas City Chiefs. — Turron Davenport
First half in two words: Fool’s gold. Expectations under first-year NFL coach Matt Rhule were a rebuilding season. Then came three straight victories even after running back Christian McCaffrey suffered a high ankle sprain in Week 2 that sidelined him for six games, and all of a sudden there was talk of making the playoffs. The Panthers are better than a typical rebuilding team, as they will put a scare into decent opponents. But after four consecutive losses, this is not a playoff team.
Biggest question left to answer: Learning how to finish games. Five of Carolina’s six losses have been by eight points or fewer, and three by four points or fewer. Had a play or two gone the other way in a few of those, the Panthers easily could have been 6-3 instead of 3-6. Finishing drives would be a key. The Panthers are ranked 26th in the NFL in red zone scoring, with only 54% of their drives ending in touchdowns heading into Sunday’s 33-31 loss to Kansas City. McCaffrey’s injury was a factor. With McCaffrey, they have scored touchdowns 8 of 9 times inside the 20. Without him they are 10-of-21.
Who is playing for his job in 2021? Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. This is going out on a limb because Bridgewater has played well in the first half of the season and he’s a big reason the Panthers have been somewhat of a surprise with three wins. His inability to get the team over the hump to finish a few of the close losses is why Carolina also has been somewhat disappointing. While Bridgewater is consistent, the Panthers could be in a position to draft a dynamic player at that position, as they did in 2011 with Cam Newton.
Final record prediction: 5-11. It’s hard to see this team winning more than two games the rest of the way because of injuries to a defense that already was young and inexperienced. — David Newton
Joe Fortenbaugh and Tyler Fulghum discuss which team is the favorite to win the NFC after Week 9.
First half in two words: Turbo boosted. The Saints were showing gradual improvement after a lackluster 1-2 start, coming from behind to win four straight games. Then they exploded with a huge statement win at Tampa Bay in Week 9, dominating Tom Brady and the Buccaneers 38-3 in one of the most impressive performances in the entire Sean Payton-Drew Brees era. Getting wide receivers Michael Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders back healthy made a huge difference, since this offense is so hard to defend when fully intact. Alvin Kamara has been an Offensive Player of the Year candidate. And Brees has continued to be one of the most efficient QBs in NFL history, despite scrutiny over his downfield arm strength. If the defense can stay consistent, the Saints will be among the NFC’s elite contenders.
Biggest question left to answer: It’s hard to doubt this defense after what it just did to Brady and the Bucs. And it has quietly been the NFL’s best defense against the run over the past three years. But we need to find out if the Saints can maintain the type of dominance we saw Sunday night after an up-and-down start to the season. The Saints’ biggest problem has been the deep ball (they allowed seven passes of 48-plus yards over the previous five games). They also still have the NFL’s worst red zone defense. But they shut down Tampa Bay on four straight plays from the 1-yard line. And the DE trio of Cameron Jordan, Marcus Davenport and Trey Hendrickson is improving by the week.
Which is the toughest game left? Kansas City in Week 15. This is an easy answer, considering that every other team remaining on the Saints’ schedule has a losing record. (The Saints can’t take their foot off the gas, since teams like Minnesota, Philadelphia and Atlanta are showing improvement — but they should be favored against all of them.) The Chiefs, meanwhile, look like a Super Bowl-caliber squad once again. And their dynamic passing offense will really put New Orleans’ secondary and pass rush to the test as we find out if the Saints are Super Bowl-caliber as well.
Final record prediction: 12-4. If the Saints went 6-2 in the first half of the season without Thomas for six games, they should surely be able to do the same in the second half now that they’re playing better and facing a weaker schedule. — Mike Triplett
First half in two words: “Tompa Bay.” The Bucs have gone all-in on Tom Brady and making a Super Bowl push in a short two-year window. They’ve surrounded him with a fantasy supporting cast, trading for Rob Gronkowski and signing LeSean McCoy, Leonard Fournette and Antonio Brown, to go along with Pro Bowlers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin. But can they handle the incessant attention that comes from being Brady’s team? It has put a weekly target on their backs — there’s no sneaking up on anyone, as they might have preferred in the past. In three prime-time games this season, they’ve underperformed in all areas, with the latest being a 38-3 annihilation on “Sunday Night Football.”
Biggest question left to answer: Are the Bucs legitimate contenders or are they pretenders? Can they overcome being swept by divisional foe New Orleans, which looked far more like the No. 1 seed in their two contests? The Bucs looked like Super Bowl contenders in their 38-10 trouncing of the Green Bay Packers in Week 6 — their first signature win under Brady — but were in complete disarray in 20-19 loss to the Bears in Week 5. They also squeaked past the New York Giants with a two-point win. We are at the point in the season where the good teams start to separate themselves, and these Bucs have seldom put four complete quarters together.
Which is the toughest game left? The Bucs’ toughest game remaining is facing the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs (8-1) at home in Week 12. But it might not be their most important one. Their Monday Night Football game against the 5-3 Rams in Week 11 might be, because if they can’t win the NFC South (they could still theoretically win the division despite being swept by the Saints, and it has happened on nine occasions since 2006), they need to fight for playoff seeding.
Final record prediction: 11-5. The Bucs’ final seven opponents are a combined 28-26 (they play the Falcons twice, so we are counting them twice), with only two of those teams — the Rams and Chiefs — posting winning records. — Jenna Laine
First half in two words: Consistently inconsistent. There are moments, even large majorities of games, when the Cardinals look like the best team in football, when their offense is flying, eating yards, scoring points and quarterback Kyler Murray looks like the MVP and the defense is a swarming attack of sacks and tackles. Then there are times when both sides of the football look like they wouldn’t beat the Jets — even though the Cardinals have already beaten them once. Arizona has already lost to three teams it should’ve beaten (the Lions, Panthers and Dolphins) and beaten a team it shouldn’t have (the Seahawks). If it could put together consistent stretches of football, this Cardinals team could be the toughest to deal with since the 2015 edition. But the Cardinals need to put total games together on the regular, and that’s been an issue so far.
Biggest question left to answer: Can the Cardinals close out their playoff push? There’s no easy answer. Sitting at 5-3 and in the sixth playoff position out of seven, with a tendency to lose games it shouldn’t, there are no guarantees Arizona will be playing beyond Week 17. The Cardinals still have games against the Bills, Seahawks and two against the Rams. And you never know what’s going to happen against teams like the Patriots or Eagles.
Which is the toughest game left? The Seahawks, without question. That game could end up being the win that saves the Cardinals’ season if the division comes down to a tiebreaker. Arizona saw how tough games against Seattle are in Week 7 when the game went to overtime. Historically, Arizona has played well at Seattle and the Week 11 game will be on a Thursday night in front of a national TV audience. But this is 2020, so who knows what will happen?
Final record prediction: 10-6. The Cardinals are halfway there and the rest of their schedule has turned out to be a bit easier than expected with games against the Patriots, Giants, Eagles and Niners, who have combined for just 11 wins. Then again, the Cards also face the Bills and Seahawks, and the Rams twice. — Josh Weinfuss
First half in two words: Cautiously optimistic. The Rams remain in search of consistency but have shown at times that they can be outstanding, if not dominant. The defense under first-year coordinator Brandon Staley ranks among the best in the league and is allowing an average of 19 points per game, as Aaron Donald makes a case for a third NFL Defensive Player of the Year award. The challenge through the first half has been establishing consistency on offense. Behind fifth-year quarterback Jared Goff, the offense returned to its play-action success early, but stumbled in recent losses to the 49ers and Dolphins.
Biggest question left to answer: Can the offense produce at a consistently high level? The Rams entered a Week 9 bye with a sour taste in their mouths after Brian Flores and the Dolphins effectively shut down Goff and the Rams’ offense. Flores’ scheme pressured Goff into several errant passes — if he was able to get the ball off at all. Going forward, the Rams must find a way to solve the “zero” pressures the Dolphins presented, knowing it’s likely future opponents will use that game as a blueprint to slow Sean McVay’s scheme. Can Goff return to the level of play he demonstrated through the first five games of the season?
Which is the toughest game left? Week 10 vs. Seattle. The Rams have the fourth-most-difficult remaining strength of schedule, according to ESPN Analytics research. So take your pick on which game is most difficult, as they still must play five division games plus must travel to Tampa Bay to play Tom Brady and the Buccaneers. But for now, their toughest remaining game is the next one, when they face the division-leading Seahawks. The Seahawks are coming off a 44-34 loss to the Bills that dropped them to 6-2, while the Rams — coming off a bye — must rebound from an embarrassing 28-17 Week 8 loss to the Dolphins.
Final record prediction: 10-6. Watch for the Rams to split their series against the Seahawks and Cardinals, who have improved in Kliff Kingsbury’s second season and are in the thick of the division race. The Rams have the chance to potentially reach 11 wins if they can take advantage of the Buccaneers’ prime-time woes on Monday Night Football in Week 11. — Lindsey Thiry
Dan Orlovsky says the Seahawks should be concerned after a Week 9 loss to the Bills.
First half in two words: Injury ravaged. Yes, plenty of teams have been hit hard by injury, but none to the devastating extent of the 49ers. Nine games into their season, the Niners have $80.8 million worth of cap space on injured reserve, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. NFL teams are loathe to use injuries as an excuse for performance, but what’s happened with San Francisco has been so overwhelming that there’s just no other way to define its season so far.
Biggest question left to answer: Who will be the quarterback in 2021 and beyond? Jimmy Garoppolo is set to count about $27 million against the cap in each of the next two seasons, and if he doesn’t play again this season (he’s on injured reserve with a high ankle sprain), he will have missed 23 games in three full seasons with the Niners. Beyond that, there are still questions about whether Garoppolo can elevate his game to take coach Kyle Shanahan’s offense to the next level even when healthy. Of course, for the Niners to decide to go in a different direction at quarterback, they must first be sure they can get somebody better. Garoppolo, despite his struggles, is still 26-9 as a starter, including the postseason. How the 49ers finish the season will go a long way in determining the options available to them.
Who is playing for his job in 2021? Whoever is playing quarterback. Garoppolo could miss the rest of the season with a second high ankle sprain, though there’s hope that he could return late if the Niners are still in the mix. In the meantime, Nick Mullens and C.J. Beathard are the two remaining signal-callers, and both have something to prove. Mullens is a restricted free agent and Beathard is unrestricted after the season. The Niners are going to have many questions about this position going into the offseason, and it would benefit them to get some sort of clarity on where any or all of Garoppolo, Mullens and Beathard fit for 2021.
Final record prediction: 6-10. Finding many more wins for the 49ers as currently constructed is a difficult exercise given that five of their seven remaining games are against teams with winning records and playoff aspirations. At some point, the Niners will get some key players back from injury, but probably not enough to push them back into playoff contention. — Nick Wagoner
First half in two words: All Russell. Russell Wilson has carried the Seahawks to a 6-2 record while their defense has lagged far behind. They’ve allowed at least 23 points in every game and 44 in their loss to the Bills last weekend. The Seahawks have the NFL’s fourth-highest dropback rate at 68.2%, an illustration of how much more they’ve leaned on Wilson. That was partly by design but it’s also been out of necessity, with their defensive struggles forcing them to throw the ball to keep up. Wilson might be losing his grip on the early-season MVP lead after his four turnovers against Buffalo, but he has still thrown an NFL-best 28 touchdown passes through eight games.
Biggest question left to answer: Can Pete Carroll fix his broken defense? The Seahawks have struggled on the back end, where Jamal Adams and Quinton Dunbar were supposed to solidify one of the league’s best secondaries. And they’ve struggled to get pressure up front, forcing them into blitzing as much over the past two weeks as they ever have under Carroll. It worked well against Jimmy Garoppolo and the 49ers but left them vulnerable against Buffalo when they didn’t get to Josh Allen. It’s also not as simple as expecting reinforcements to save the day, because the Seahawks just allowed their most points in any game under Carroll last weekend despite Adams returning from his four-game absence and Carlos Dunlap making his Seattle debut.
Which is the toughest game left? Week 11 against Arizona. That Thursday night game will go a long way in determining the NFC West champion. The Seahawks have a one-game lead over the Cardinals and Rams, but Arizona handed Seattle its first loss of the season in Week 7. Another victory would give the Cardinals the tiebreaker if those two teams finished tied in the standings. The Seahawks didn’t get so much as an official QB hit on Kyler Murray in the previous game while blitzing sparingly. Their defense will have Adams and Dunlap for the rematch.
Final record prediction: 12-4. The Seahawks can go 6-2 over the second half of the season with the help of a remaining schedule that includes games against the Eagles, Jets, Giants and Washington Football Team, who are a combined 7-26-1. — Brady Henderson