If the NFL playoffs started today … well, it’s a good thing for several teams that they don’t.
While the 8-0 New England Patriots and San Francisco 49ers have already established themselves as front-runners for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, the picture is decidedly murkier throughout the league, as the AFC East is the only division in which the leader is up by more than two games. And with more than half (17) of the league’s teams boasting three to five wins, there’s plenty of room for aspiring contenders to break out—or drop off—in the second half of the season.
With that in mind, we asked NFL writers and editors from around USA TODAY Sports and the USA TODAY Network: Pick one NFL team that will rise in the second half of the season and one that will fall, and explain your selections.
Fly, Eagles, fly!
It was a struggle just for Philadelphia to get to .500 at the midway point, but I anticipate the Eagles being in the hunt for a wild-card berth, if not the NFC East title. Why? They are likely to get DeSean Jackson back this week, and that will be a huge boost for an offense that needs a playmaker.
But the biggest reason the Eagles will have a better second half is their schedule. All but three of their remaining eight games are at home, and two of those road games are against Miami and the Giants. Speaking of bad teams, only three of the Eagles’ remaining opponents – New England, Seattle and Dallas – have winning records.
If all of that doesn’t set Philadelphia up for a big second half, I don’t know what does.
Now the Cincinnati Bengals on the other hand …
It’s hard to imagine things getting any worse for an 0-8 team, but here we are. The Bengals have dumped longtime quarterback Andy Dalton – on his birthday, no less – in favor of rookie Ryan Finley. While there is something to be said for getting a head start on the future when the season is already lost, it generally does not translate to wins. (See the New York Giants. Or the Denver Broncos with Paxton Lynch.)
Besides, ineffective as Dalton was, Cincinnati can’t pin all its woes on him. Dalton isn’t the one allowing an NFL-worst 436 yards of offense per game. Or getting shredded by opposing running backs. Or being unable to lay a hand on the quarterback or pick off his receivers.
The only saving grace is that the Bengals play the New York Jets in Week 13 and the Miami Dolphins in Week 16. Given those teams are equally hapless, or even more so in the case of the Dolphins, the Bengals just might avoid an oh-fer season.
Just one? Asking for a friend. That being the case, I’m seeing Buffalo to tumble and Philly to rise. Here’s why: The Bills (5-2) would be in the tournament if the playoffs started today. Unfortunately for Buffalo, November is not January. The Bills have beaten the Jets, Giants, Bengals, Titans and Dolphins (combined 7-31, none with a winning record). The R’s (1-7) are next. How fortunate. Hey, you’ve got to beat who’s in front of you. Done. But soon they’ll face Baker and the mighty* Browns, plus Dallas, Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Belichick and boys at The Razor. This looks a lot like 9-7. Sure, Buffalo has a defense that would make my man Bruce Smith proud. But that offense would be better with Thurman Thomas, Jim Kelly and Andre Reed in their prime. Sorry, Buffalo. No playoffs this time.
Meanwhile, there’s still hope in the City of Brotherly Love. Now that Orlando Scandrick is out of the building, the sky’s the limit. Almost. I can see a winning record, and if they pay back Dallas in December, a division title is still possible, which would be the only way to claim a playoff berth. Significant development: DeSean Jackson is practicing. One man doesn’t make a team, but one may can hella-stretch a defense. One way or another, it will be Fly, Eagles, Fly. Also, just for the record: The Chargers still have a chance for another late-season rally, the Panthers are toast and Mike Tomlin’s team has a defense that gives it chance.
Riser – Browns: Nowhere to go but up, right? But seriously, the schedule should provide an opportunity for them to return to relevance. The only teams they they’ll face the rest of the way with winning records (Bills and Ravens) both have to come to Cleveland. If Baker and Mayfield and Co. can simply beat up on less-talented competition, the Browns have a realistic shot at a wild card in a mostly unimpressive AFC field.
Faller – Seahawks: I don’t think the 6-2 record accurately reflects their body of work. Seattle barely slid past Cincinnati and the Big Ben-less Steelers to start the season, couldn’t handle the Brees-less Saints at home, and the defense just got blowtorched by Matt Schaub. The Seahawks are a good team, but I think they’ll have a hard time hanging onto that wild-card spot – especially after losing C Justin Britt. They’ve also still got to face San Francisco twice, Minnesota once and make two trips to the East Coast. Throw in a trip to L.A. – the ‘Hawks have dropped four of five on the road to the Rams, going back to St. Louis – and this is shaping up as a tough second half.
The Chicago Bears’ fall has already begun. Expect it to continue after a 17-16 loss to the Chargers. The defense won’t be able to compensate for an offense collecting just 281.4 yards per game (fourth-worst in NFL) and 4.5 yards per play (third worst). Mitch Trubisky is struggling to make decisions, resulting in a passer rating worse than 26 QBs in the league. Only one of Chicago’s remaining eight opponents has a losing record (the Giants), and the offense must give its defense enough help to ward off five top-10 offenses. Those contenders—the Packers, Chiefs, Vikings among them—will be playing for division titles, postseason byes and home-field advantages. Opponents’ talent, and motivation, will precipitate the Bears’ spiral.
The Jacksonville Jaguars won’t win the AFC South, but they’ll claw their way up to an AFC wild-card berth. The question is whether the $30 million quarterback or the $685,000 one—or both—will lead that climb. Since Nick Foles broke his collar bone in Week 1, Jacksonville has discovered it has not one but two highly capable NFL quarterbacks on its roster. Gardner Minshew has thrown 13 touchdowns to 2 interceptions, also proving he can threaten with his feet. Foles’ backup-QB-turned-Super-Bowl-MVP resume speaks for itself. Add in Leonard Fournette’s resurgence, a defense hitting the quarterback more times (56) than anyone not named the Patriots (57), and the resolution of Jalen Ramsey’s dispute? The Jaguars will join the Colts and Texans to produce the AFC’s deepest division.
Riser: I think the Philadelphia Eagles are going to figure things out and make a charge in the home stretch of the season. They’re a .500 team right now, but once they get a healthy DeSean Jackson back, and sort some things out with their pass rush and secondary, they’ll regain their contender form. They will win the NFC East.
Faller: I almost went with the Buffalo Bills here, because I’m just not sold on Josh Allen. But I don’t have much confidence in that pack of teams currently on the bubble (Jaguars, Titans, Steelers, Raiders). So, I’m going to go with the Minnesota Vikings. I know they’re hot right now, but I’m just not sold yet. I don’t know if Kirk Cousins can maintain this level of play, and the Vikings have some really tough matchups ahead. Like the Eagles, I think the Rams are better than their record suggests, I could see both of those teams making a charge while the Vikings falter and ultimately fall out of the playoff picture.
The Cleveland Browns might not wind up being a playoff team like they hoped entering the season, but I certainly think they’ll surge in the second half — in large part because of their schedule. After an early-season gauntlet, they’ll get the Dolphins at home, two games against the Bengals and winnable road games against the Broncos and Cardinals, among others. I also feel like Baker Mayfield and Odell Beckham Jr. are due to rip off a few big games at some point; There’s no way Mayfield, for example, ends the season with twice as many interceptions as touchdowns, like he has now.
As for teams that will fall, I’ll go with the San Francisco 49ers for the same primary reason: The schedule. They might be undefeated now, but they haven’t played division foe Seattle, nor made road trips to Baltimore and New Orleans. And while their defense has largely masked Jimmy Garoppolo’s inefficiencies, to this point, it’s only a matter of time until those shortcomings show up in a big game. The 49ers are still a quality team, mind you, and they’ll be in the playoffs. But they’re due for some regression in the second half of the year.
Joel Erickson, Indianapolis Star
Rise: Philadelphia Eagles. It might get worse before it gets better, but there is light at the end of the tunnel for an Eagles team that has been Jekyll and Hyde this season. The finishing stretch for Philadelphia is full of the NFL’s worst teams: Miami, Washington and two games against the Giants, plus a home game against the NFC East-rival Cowboys. If the Eagles can stay within striking distance of Dallas, they can catch the Cowboys and run away into the playoffs.
Fall: Seattle Seahawks. Russell Wilson’s an MVP candidate, and the Seahawks look like they’re part of a crowded NFC elite, but the schedule is absolutely brutal after this week’s home game against the Buccaneers. Seattle has to play San Francisco twice, plus the Rams, Eagles, Vikings and Panthers. Even the Cardinals are no guaranteed walkover. If Seattle makes the playoffs, the Seahawks will be beat up from playing that gauntlet.
Bob McManaman, Arizona Republic
One NFL team that will rise in the second half: Keep an eye on the Colts. They’ve won three in a row to improve to 5-3 and have the inside track over Houston in the AFC South by virtue of already having beaten the Texans once. With J.J. Watt lost for the season, Houston lost its heart and soul on defense once again, paving the way for the Colts to control the division. Their second-half schedule isn’t a walk in the park, but it’s close with only one real tough game remaining at the Saints in Week 15. They only play two other teams with winning records – the Panthers and Texans – and both are very winnable games.
One NFL team that will fall: The NFC East is up for grabs between the Cowboys and the Eagles, but Philadelphia failed to jump in the driver’s seat because it couldn’t land any cornerback help prior to the trade deadline. With a handful of very good corners on the market, the Eagles should have pulled the trigger for its below-average pass defense, which has allowed the fourth-most touchdown passes (16) this season and the seventh-most passing yards (2,049). In what is a very winnable division, the Eagles will have only themselves to blame if they end up finishing second to the Cowboys. There isn’t going to be a wild card team coming out of the NFC East this year.