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What We Know for Sure in the NFL

In a topsy-turvy season, we know very little—but there are still a handful of facts we can all agree on

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We’re eight weeks into the season now, and there are probably only three or four teams, max—we’ll say the 49ers (0-8), Browns (0-8), Giants (1-6), and Colts (2-6)—that are truly out of the postseason running. The level of parity this year is unprecedented. The amount of weirdness is without rival. Predicting what will happen from team to team and week to week has felt like an exercise in futility even more this year than it does in most years.

But there are still a handful of universal truths that we can count on. In a season in which it feels like nothing makes sense, here are a few things we know for sure.

Tom Brady isn’t slowing down.

It's the greatest guerrilla marketing scheme for sketchy health books ever devised: At age 40, Tom Brady is still playing like his 30-year-old self. The 18-year veteran and future Hall of Famer sits at or near the top of just about every important statistical leaderboard for passers. He’s thrown 309 passes (first), completing 66.7 percent of them (fifth) for 2,541 yards (first), 16 touchdowns (tied for third), and just two picks—an interception rate of 0.6 percent, second-best among qualifying quarterbacks behind only Alex Smith (who’s thrown zero interceptions). He’s third in yards per attempt (8.2), second in adjusted net yards per attempt (8.02), and second in passer rating (106.5).

Brady’s long been the model of efficiency, but despite the fear that his arm strength and velocity would fall off in his advanced age, as it did for Peyton Manning and virtually everyone else as they approached 40, the Patriots great is still slinging the ball all over the yard. He hasn’t lost much zip on his passes, either, and has been one of the most efficient and prolific deep-ball passers in the NFL this year. He’s thrown 20-plus yards downfield on 14.2 percent of his passes (sixth most, per Pro Football Focus), and he’s connected on four touchdowns and just one pick for a passer rating of 109.7 on those throws (seventh).

He’s done all this without trusted target Julian Edelman, and has integrated newcomers like receiver Brandin Cooks and running back Rex Burkhead into the offense seamlessly. Brady’s still cunning in the pre-snap phase, unflappable in the pocket, and capable of making every throw. He may have to drag the Patriots back to the playoffs (New England’s defense ranks dead last in defensive DVOA through eight weeks), but he’s shown no signs of being anything less than the MVP-caliber player he’s been for the past decade. Bill Belichick knows it, and shipped Brady’s heir apparent, Jimmy Garoppolo, off to San Francisco this week.

The next generation of superstar quarterbacks has arrived.

Brady may play until he’s collecting Social Security checks, but as a few slightly more mortal veteran signal-callers like Philip Rivers, Eli Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Carson Palmer, and Drew Brees all inch closer to retirement age, the next generation of superstar passers has stepped into the limelight. Just take a look at the two players at the top of the touchdown passes list at the season’s midway point: Carson Wentz (19 touchdowns) has morphed into a bona fide superstar as he’s led his team to a 7-1 start, and Deshaun Watson (19) was on pace to shatter the rookie touchdowns record (26) before tearing his ACL in practice Thursday. Let’s not overlook what Dak Prescott’s done in Year 2, either: With 14 touchdown passes, four picks, and a 96.6 passer rating, he’s proved that his incredible rookie campaign was no fluke. Hell, even Jared Goff, who had one of the worst rookie seasons in memory, has taken extraordinary strides and looks like the franchise quarterback the Rams envisioned he’d be.

In Gregg Rosenthal’s excellent midseason QB Index, six of his top-10 signal-callers are 28 years old or younger, and four of them—Watson, Wentz, Prescott, and Marcus Mariota—are under 25. The league is in good hands.

You’re not going to beat the Jaguars by passing.

The Jaguars have been anything but a complete team during their 4-3 start—their run defense has been bad and quarterback play almost nonexistent—but their pass defense has been beyond absurd. At the season’s halfway point, Jacksonville ranks first in passing yards allowed (161.7 per game), first in passing touchdowns allowed (four), first in yards per pass attempt allowed (5.7), and first in adjusted net yards per pass attempt allowed (just 2.8). For a little bit of context into how ridiculously low that ANY/A mark really is, consider: The only team this century to finish under that mark over a full season was the Super Bowl champion Buccaneers (2.3) in 2002. A few more useful benchmarks include Super Bowl–winning squads like the Ravens in 2000 (3.9), the Seahawks in 2013 (3.2), and the legendary 1985 Bears (3.6).

The Jags are also first in opposing quarterback passer rating (62.3), which essentially means their pass defense, on average, makes opposing signal-callers look worse than the benched-and-cut Brian Hoyer (74.1 passer rating), the now-benched Trevor Siemian (76.8), and the now-benched Mike Glennon (76.9). For reference: The lowest passer rating any defense allowed last year was 69.7 (by the Broncos). In 2015, it was 73.5 (by the Panthers, who went to the Super Bowl), in 2014, it was 74.1 (by the Browns—really), and in 2013, it was 63.4 (by the Seahawks, who won the Super Bowl). The last time a team posted an opposing passer rating under 62.3 for a full season was 2009—when the Bills (61.1) and Jets (58.8) both did it.

Jacksonville’s on pace for 75 sacks, which would be an NFL record (currently held by the 1984 Bears—72), and has already posted two games with 10 sacks. Defensive linemen Calais Campbell, Malik Jackson, and Yannick Ngakoue have dominated, and the team just added a former All-Pro in Marcell Dareus. Jacksonville’s middle defenders have been stingy against the pass too, and their outside cornerbacks, A.J. Bouye and Jalen Ramsey, are both among the league’s top shutdown defenders, ranked fourth and fifth, respectively, in passer rating allowed in coverage (41.1 and 41.4).

The millions and millions of dollars this team’s shelled out to free agents over the past few years have finally started to pay dividends—and in an increasingly pass-heavy league, opponents are going to have to find other ways to beat this squad.

The Browns aren’t turning things around.

It didn’t feel possible following the team’s 1-15 season, but the Browns are somehow, against all odds and statistical models, getting worse. The quarterback situation has devolved into chaos: The team’s waffled between rookie DeShone Kizer and Kevin Hogan, both of whom have struggled mightily. Meanwhile, Wentz (whom the Browns passed on last year) and Watson (whom the Browns passed on this year) are tied for the league lead in touchdown passes, and Jimmy Garoppolo (whom head coach Hue Jackson wanted, only to reportedly be rebuffed by the front office) just found a new home in San Francisco.

To add insult to injury, Brock Osweiler (who is getting more than $15 million from Cleveland this year to play for the Broncos) is set to start this week for Denver, and the team’s attempt to trade for Bengals backup A.J. McCarron went sideways. Now there’s talk (so far just rumors) that someone in the Browns’ front office sabotaged Jackson’s effort to bring in McCarron, and add in the report that ownership “went nuclear” on the front office after the trade snafu, and you’ve got an always-dysfunctional franchise in a whole new level of groundbreaking disarray.

The Broncos defense can’t do it all alone.

The Broncos flipped the script on How to Win a Super Bowl back in 2015, winning it all despite all-around bad quarterback play, a true rarity in a passing-centric league. That team overcame the combination of bad-and-old Peyton Manning and just-bad Brock Osweiler, instead dominating with an unrelenting pass rush and suffocating secondary while finishing with a league-best defensive DVOA of negative-25.8 percent—first against the pass and fourth against the run.

But while Denver seems to be following the same type of win-without-a-quarterback strategy again this year, the defense doesn’t look quite dominant enough to do it all themselves this time. The Broncos still rank no. 2 in defensive DVOA (negative-18.9 percent), and have had the league’s best run defense—but they rank just 13th in DVOA against the pass at the halfway mark. Trying to win the Super Bowl on defense alone is already an exercise with razor-thin margins, but with a (relatively) average pass defense that’s already given up 12 touchdowns (tied for 19th), it’s going to be damn near impossible.

Cornerback Chris Harris Jr. sounded off on the underperforming offense this week after the team lost its third straight game. “There’s high tension. We’re not winning,” he said. “We’re not taking care of the football. We’re giving the games away.” That was a clear shot at Siemian, who threw three picks in the team’s loss to the Chiefs. In the early part of the year, it didn’t look like Denver would have these problems; Touchdown Trevor pushed the Broncos out to a 2-0 start, but all that feels like a foggy, distant memory that maybe we only dreamed about. And after struggling badly the past three weeks, throwing two touchdowns and six interceptions in Denver’s three-game losing streak, Siemian is on the bench and the Broncos are turning back to Osweiler. Based on what we know about Osweiler, the Broncos could be in real trouble down the stretch, because it’s going to take a major turnaround on the offensive side of the ball for this team to contend for the Super Bowl.

Joe Flacco is not elite.

The “is Joe Flacco elite?” faux-debate was always funny or mildly interesting because it was a question of whether or not the possession of a Super Bowl ring (and/or a handful of excellent postseason performances) could push an exceedingly average NFL passer through some imaginary plane into rarefied air—to the ranks of the mystic elite status. It’s less funny now (or more funny?), because Flacco’s no longer playing like even an average NFL quarterback; he’s been just plain bad. We’ll throw in a caveat that he missed the preseason coming off an offseason back injury—but we’re now two months into the season and here’s where the Ravens’ franchise player ranks among his peers: 27th in touchdown passes (six), tied for fifth-worst in interceptions (eight), 28th in yards (1,290), 32nd (out of 33) in yards per attempt (5.4) and adjusted net yards per attempt (3.62), and 31st out of 33 qualifying quarterbacks in passer rating (72.3). He’s 32nd in DYAR (total value) and 30th in DVOA (value per play), in front of only Glennon, C.J. Beathard, and Kizer in that latter metric. That’s bad. All of that is really bad.

Since receiving his $120.6 million deal following the Ravens’ Super Bowl win in 2013, Flacco’s posted a passer rating under 100 in 53 of 66 starts, most in the league. He’s getting worse, too: Since the start of the 2015 season, a stretch of 34 regular-season games, he’s gone over 100 in passer rating just five times, 30th among all quarterbacks during that time, behind guys like Brian Hoyer (eight), Jay Cutler (eight), and Ryan Fitzpatrick (12). He’s thrown 35 picks and 40 touchdowns in that stretch. Flacco’s subpar performance puts the Ravens in a similar boat to the Broncos: The defense, while very good, can’t win it all alone—this isn’t the 2000 Super Bowl squad—so unless he suddenly makes a big jump back into “average” range, Baltimore is going to struggle to contend for the postseason.

An earlier version of this story misstated the Eagles’ record. They are 7-1, not 6-1.