We’re now officially eight weeks into the NFL season, and we know considerably more about the league than when we tried this exercise in the preseason. The Chiefs and Rams have separated themselves in their respective conferences, rookies have begun making real impacts for their teams, and a few players have returned from injury to shock the league. So with a half-season of knowledge under our belts, here are The Ringer staff’s midseason NFL playoff and awards predictions.
Playoff Predictions and Super Bowl Winner
Robert Mays: I picked Rams to win the Super Bowl before the season, and I’m sticking with my choice. Sean McVay’s team has given no indication that it isn’t the best group in the NFL. Sure, the defense has struggled at times, but with Aaron Donald and that offense, the team as a whole is more than capable of overcoming some secondary concerns. It’s tough not to throw the Chiefs in here, but their defense still has a ton of holes. Kansas City has its own defensive game-wrecker in Dee Ford, but even after their relatively slow start, I think the Chargers have enough to give K.C. a run in the AFC.
Kevin Clark: There are four teams that are currently better than everyone else in the sport: the Rams, Chiefs, Saints, and Patriots. I’m picking the Saints and Pats for a handful of reasons. The almost ludicrous efficiency of Drew Brees and a defense that’s rounding into shape have me feeling good about New Orleans. As for the Patriots, they look like … the Patriots. It has been eight seasons since the Pats didn’t reach at least the AFC title game, and they’ve made the Super Bowl in three of the last four years. As long as they are still part of the NFL’s elite—and they are—you have to pick them. Going to the Super Bowl is sort of what they do.
Danny Kelly: These might be the chalk picks at this point, but I don’t care. The Rams offense is a juggernaut; Jared Goff’s playing incredibly efficient ball, Todd Gurley is a threat to score from anywhere on the field, and the team’s deep and versatile pass-catching corps is impossible to match up with downfield. The Chiefs, meanwhile, have the inside track to the no. 1 seed in the AFC and that coveted home-field advantage throughout the playoffs—if and when they secure that, it’s tough to see anyone going into Arrowhead and outscoring Patrick Mahomes II and the team’s multipronged offense. The defense has been playing a little better lately, too. This would be a dream Super Bowl matchup too, so I’m going to do my part to speak (or write) it into existence.
Rodger Sherman: Somehow, the Patriots beating the Chiefs on Sunday Night Football a few weeks back convinced me the Chiefs were going to win the Super Bowl.
Riley McAtee: I picked Rams over Patriots in the preseason, and after eight weeks, I see no reason to deviate from that. L.A. is the best team in football, and I’ll still take Bill Belichick in the playoffs over Andy Reid. The only one of my picks that may turn some heads is the Colts winning the AFC South. Though they’re just 3-5 and sitting last in the division right now, Indy is getting healthier by the day and that division is still wide open. With a cupcake schedule the rest of the way and a rejuvenated Andrew Luck, the Colts could sneak into the postseason.
Danny Heifetz: I am sticking with my preseason pick. The Chargers went 5-2 without their best defender, Joey Bosa, and their only losses came against the Rams and Chiefs. Their offense can go toe to toe with Kansas City, New England, and Pittsburgh, and their defense has gotten significantly better. Yet the Saints will ultimately prevail because they have the best roster in football.
Patrick Mahomes II, Chiefs
Mays: I want to put Todd Gurley’s name here so bad—just because I’m so damn tired of the conversation around this award. But I can’t do it. As long as the current NFL awards structure is in place and the modern game operates the way that it does, it’s going to take an incredibly wonky season for the MVP to be anyone other than a quarterback. That’s why I’m picking Mahomes. Even if the Rams rattle off a 15-1 season and Jared Goff continues to put up huge numbers, he and Gurley are going to split the vote. Mahomes is on pace for more than 50 touchdown passes for a team that’s cruising toward a first-round bye. He deserves it.
Clark: Mahomes’s numbers, his style of play, and his team’s success will eventually be too hard for voters to overlook. I think he runs away with this.
Kelly: The combination of Mahomes’s arm strength, accuracy, mobility, and smarts makes the Chiefs offense impossible to defend. The second-year pro has been nearly flawless in Reid’s hybrid spread/West Coast scheme, and even when the designed play breaks down he’s capable of moving around and picking up yards with his legs; there’s just no way to game plan to stop Mahomes. Oh, and though this isn’t part of the voting considerations, his $3.7 million cap hit this year makes him the most valuable player in the league from a salary cap standpoint, too.
Sherman: I told you he was good.
McAtee: As much fun as it is to speculate about guys like Gurley or Khalil Mack winning MVP, the award usually goes to the best quarterback on a great team who throws a lot of touchdowns. Mahomes has been the story of the season so far.
Aaron Rodgers, Packers
Heifetz: I appreciate the argument for Gurley (and Goff) but their production speaks more to McVay’s candidacy for coach of the year than the MVP award. Ditto to Mahomes and Reid in Kansas City. Rodgers is succeeding despite his coach, and that will become clear by the end of the season when he single-leggedly drags the Packers into the playoffs.
Offensive Player of the Year
Todd Gurley, Rams
Mays: The guy is on pace for more than 2,300 total yards and 30 touchdowns. He’s a running back setting records in an era where running backs have been banished to the kids’ table. I know the Rams offense is perfectly set up to let Gurley thrive, but as I’ve written before, I also think he’s the perfect player to make that system go. He’s special, no matter how cushy his surroundings might be.
Clark: For some reason voters have decided that this award can go to running backs while the MVP goes to quarterbacks—Gurley and DeMarco Murray have won two of the last four Offensive POY awards. Gurley will get this as a nod to his role in one of the league’s best offenses.
Kelly: Gurley’s on pace for 30 touchdowns this year, which will bring him close to the NFL’s single-season record (31). He’s ridiculous.
Patrick Mahomes, Chiefs
Sherman: This is like the seventh time I’ve been asked to do NFL awards predictions and still nobody has told me the difference between MVP and Offensive Player of the Year.
McAtee: No player has won this award in back-to-back years since another Rams running back: Marshall Faulk in 1999, 2000, and 2001. But Gurley is once again lapping the field. He leads the league in yards from scrimmage and touchdowns and should easily take this trophy home again.
Heifetz: If Gurley comes anywhere close to staying on his scoring pace, he deserves this award. Though Mahomes is certainly on his heels if he doesn’t win MVP.
Defensive Player of the Year
Aaron Donald, Rams
Mays: There’s just no arguing with the impact Donald has had so far this season. He currently has 10 sacks, which would be an incredible season number for a defensive tackle. No interior defensive linemen has ever put up 20 in a single year, and at this rate, I’m not betting against Donald pulling that off.
Clark: Donald’s sack number is only going to grow as the season progresses. He can wreck games and will be in a handful of marquee matchups down the stretch, which will allow him to impress voters.
Kelly: It’s safe to say money hasn’t changed Donald much. The newly inked $135 million defensive tackle is still the most unblockable defensive player in the NFL: Through eight weeks, he’s first in pressures (54), sacks (10), and hurries (37).
Khalil Mack, Bears
Sherman: Not many defensive players can single-handedly shift games in their team’s favor. Mack has done it like three times over the first half of the year.
J.J. Watt, Texans
McAtee: This race feels wide open to me. Donald leads the league in sacks, 14 different players are tied for second in interceptions, a rookie (Darius Leonard) has the most tackles in the league, Donald has the most tackles for a loss, and Fletcher Cox and Donald are tied for the most QB hits. So I’ll take Watt, who quietly has 8.0 sacks and four forced fumbles. Everyone loves a good comeback story.
Heifetz: Unless he gets hurt, the answer is Donald. Voting for someone other than Donald is admitting to being bored with his greatness, like when Derrick Rose won MVP over LeBron James in 2011.
Coach of the Year
Matt Nagy, Bears
Mays: If I’m picking the guy that deserves it the most (and didn’t win it last year), it’s Reid. But this award often goes to a coach whose team didn’t make the playoffs in the previous season and vastly outperforms expectations. The Bears are 4-3, but they’ve got a favorable schedule down the stretch that still includes games against the Bills, two games against a Lions team that just traded Golden Tate, and a trip to meet the 49ers. A 10-6 finish and a wild-card berth is still on the table for Chicago, and that’s possible in large part because of how Nagy has fashioned this offense.
Andy Reid, Chiefs
Clark: There may still be a big push for a coach who overachieves with an average roster—someone like Jay Gruden in Washington or Nagy. But barring 12 wins from one of those guys, I think the award goes to Reid, who has created one of the most efficient offenses in NFL history with a first-time starter.
Kelly: The Chiefs’ beautiful, unstoppable offense was designed by Reid, is run by the quarterback Reid hand-picked, and was made possible because the transition from last year’s starter, Alex Smith, to Mahomes has been more than seamless. Reid is always going to battle his playoff-failure demons, but he deserves credit for what he’s built in Kansas City.
Sherman: Is Mahomes a better quarterback than Andy Reid is a coach? I don’t know—let’s just give them both trophies.
Sean McVay, Rams
McAtee: The Rams will finish the year as the best team in football, and McVay deserves more credit than any head coach in the league. Outside of a late-season collapse from his team, I have a hard time envisioning anyone else winning this award.
McVay … and Reid?
Heifetz: McVay will win, but Reid deserves the award (or they should just share it like that MVP between Peyton Manning and Steve McNair in 2003).
Comeback Player of the Year
Andrew Luck, Colts
Mays: This an absolutely loaded category. J.J. Watt would be an excellent pick. Deshaun Watson has the Texans in first place. There are plenty of others. But I’m going with Luck. At one point, he was the future face of the league, and as recently as this spring, there were questions of whether he’d ever play again. He’s currently on pace for 4,374 yards and 46 touchdowns with a career-high 65.8 percent completion rate. I know he’s not launching rockets downfield anymore and the yards-per-attempt mark is lacking, but Luck is back, and that’s enough for me.
J.J. Watt, Texans
Clark: Watt has eight sacks for a potential playoff team, and barring injury he will run away with this award.
Kelly: Watt’s not quite back to the level of dominance we saw earlier in his career, but he’s posting top-tier stats again anyway, with four forced fumbles, 10 tackles for a loss, and 13 quarterback hits. Those numbers make him a front runner for his fourth Defensive Player of the Year award.
Sherman: He’s actually playing—and well!
McAtee: I predicted that the Colts would win the AFC South, which ties into my prediction for Luck to win Comeback Player of the Year. After a season spent on the sideline recovering from a shoulder injury, Luck has been slinging the football like no one else to begin this season. If Indianapolis can claw back into the playoff race, it’ll be because of Luck’s return to prominence.
Heifetz: The best defensive player of his generation played in 80 of 80 games to start his career and then played in 16 of the next possible 40. Now he’s back and near the league lead in sacks. As long as he stays close to that mark, the award is his.
Offensive Rookie of the Year
Saquon Barkley, Giants
Mays: He’s already one of the most thrilling players in the league, and he’s playing in one of the worst situations for a running back. This one’s easy.
Clark: Barkley already has more than 1,000 yards from scrimmage. I do not think drafting him was smart. I do not think running backs have all that much to do with building a good football team. But I do know that from a pure performance standpoint, he’s doing better than anyone in his class.
Kelly: Barkley is second among all rookies in rushing yards (519), first in rushing touchdowns (five), first in catches (58) and receiving yards (497)—which includes rookie receivers, by the way—and tied for first in all-purpose touchdowns (seven). He’s been as good as advertised.
Baker Mayfield, Browns
Sherman: We could’ve ended the race after his first game.
McAtee: I still think any of the rookie quarterbacks could come in hot and steal this award, but so far they’ve been bad (Josh Rosen), injured and bad (Josh Allen), or wildly inconsistent (Baker Mayfield and Sam Darnold). Meanwhile, Barkley is already one of the best running backs in football.
Kerryon Johnson, Lions
Heifetz: None of the rookie quarterbacks are making a strong case, and that may give Johnson the win by default. (Or maybe I’m just a Giants fan who’s trying to reverse jinx Saquon into winning.)
Defensive Rookie of the Year
Derwin James, Chargers
Mays: Denzel Ward has a great case for this as well, but he’s playing for a team that likely won’t win many games the rest of the way. I’m going with James for the sheer breadth of the impact he’s had for the Chargers. He’s made his mark in coverage, against the run, and rushing the passer. There aren’t many defensive players in football that can do everything the Chargers have asked of him—let alone rookies.
Clark: Bradley Chubb or Marcus Davenport could, in theory, steal this if they rack up enough sacks, but James will get this because he’s one of the best players on a Chargers team that could become one of the best teams in football. Pro Football Focus has him as the fifth-best safety in football. He is exactly what everyone who watched him at Florida State thought he would be. The Chargers are one of the hottest teams in the sport right now and so long as that doesn’t end, James will be a national star by December.
Kelly: I wrote the same thing before the season that I’m going to write now: This award rewards the sexy stats—whether that’s sacks or interceptions—and James gets both. The rookie safety has already racked up 3.5 sacks and one pick, plus six passes defended, four tackles for a loss, and six quarterback hits. He’s everywhere on the field.
Denzel Ward, Browns
Sherman: The Browns are going to be good, if they ever hire a good coach. (They may not ever hire a good coach.)
McAtee: With three interceptions and two fumbles recovered, Ward is tied for the league lead in individual takeaways. Chubb has a quiet seven sacks in Denver and James has been a wrecking ball for the Chargers, but Ward has helped Cleveland’s defense break expectations. He has the edge.
Heifetz: James has been one of the best blitzing defensive backs in football and would probably win this award if the season ended today. When Bosa returns and the Chargers pass rush gets going, James will likely add a few interceptions to his highlight reel to seal the deal. He’s a true difference-maker on a defense about to take it up a notch.