The NFL season is somehow at its halfway point, and things look a little bit different than the last time we gushed over what piqued our football interest. But there are still plenty of reasons to tune in—or least look forward to the offseason. Let’s break down the story lines that have us looking forward to the back half of the season, starting with the three men who we think could be MVP.
Aaron Rodgers, 2019 MV-freakin’-P
Megan Schuster: I am not what you might call a “stat head.” I prefer the eye test nine times out of 10, and the only outliers are the instances when stats conveniently fit my narrative. Like right now! On Monday, Ryan Wood, a Packers beat writer for the Green Bay Press-Gazette, tweeted that if Aaron Rodgers keeps up his current pace throughout the full 16-game season, he’ll finish with 4,648 yards passing—more than he’s ever recorded in a season—and a 106.7 passer rating. The only years he’s recorded a rating higher than that? That’s right: 2011, 2012, and 2014, and he won two MVP awards in those three seasons.
Rodgers hasn’t really been considered an MVP front-runner yet this year, mostly because Patrick Mahomes seemed like a virtual lock entering the season, and after he got hurt, Russell Wilson took over that mantle. But the most impressive part about Rodgers’s performance so far is that he’s really had only two good games. He’s hitting his stride right at the perfect time, and if he keeps this up, there’s no one I’d want to bet against less.
Patrick Mahomes Returning to Light the League on Fire
Riley McAtee: We really aren’t talking enough about how amazing Mahomes has been this season. Sure, he hasn’t connected on as many touchdowns or thrown as many deep balls, but he has the lowest interception percentage in the league (0.4 percent) and the lowest sack percentage (3.2 percent) while throwing for the most yards per game (311.4, and that includes his injury-shortened Week 7 game). His yards per attempt is up (from 8.8 to 9.0), he leads the league in ANY/A (9.51), and he’s third in QBR (76.8). Oh, and he’s done a good chunk of this on an injured ankle.
We’ve all taken Mahomes for granted this season. You did, admit it. I certainly did. Everyone did. Without the gaudy touchdown numbers, his play hasn’t gotten as much buzz as it did last season, but he’s quietly become the most efficient passer this season. Mahomes is reportedly already close to returning from his knee injury, and when he does I have no doubt that he’ll light the league on fire once again. He’s still in the race for the MVP trophy—and upon his return, we’re all going to remember what makes him the most special player the NFL has seen in years.
The Seahawks Stealing the NFC West
Justin Sayles: Nobody would’ve guessed it at the beginning of the season, but the 49ers look like the best team in football. They’re one of two remaining unbeaten teams, they’re tops in Football Outsiders DVOA, and they have a fearsome defensive front led by Nick Bosa, the favorite for Defensive Rookie of the Year (and possibly Defensive Player of the Year, full stop). Kyle Shanahan’s team hadn’t been as fearsome on offense—and then they hung 51 on Carolina on Sunday.
But the knock on them—much like the NFL’s other unbeaten, the Patriots—has been that they haven’t played any teams worth a damn. The Kyle Allen–led Panthers were supposed to be their first real threat, but, well, nah. Enter the Seahawks and their quarterback, who is very much worth a damn. San Francisco plays Seattle twice in the back half of the season, in Week 10 on Monday Night Football and in the final week of the season. Russell Wilson’s team currently sits at 6-2, with losses to only the Ravens and the Saints. He’s played like the MVP—he leads the league in touchdowns with 17 while throwing only one pick, and he’s second in ESPN’s QBR to Dallas’s Dak Prescott. The Niners have beat up on the likes of Allen, Jared Goff, Baker Mayfield, Andy Dalton, Mason Ruldolph, and … well, you get the gist. They haven’t faced a QB like Wilson, and their dominant front may not look as dominant against someone with his playmaking ability. If the Seahawks can win these two matchups, and if the Niners regress to the mean by even a little, we could be talking about a new surprise NFC West team come January.
Matthew Stafford Having a Career Year—and the Lions Missing the Playoffs
Shaker Samman: Being a Lions fan is a test of pain tolerance. Fans of middling teams like to complain about the “treadmill of mediocrity” supposedly ensuring their endless deflation. But to know mediocrity is to understand success, and the thought that if things break the right way, dreams are achievable. That is not true for the Detroit Lions, a franchise so pitiful that it registered the first 0-16 season, has one playoff win since the ’50s, sent two of the best skill players in football history into early retirement, and then asked those men to repay portions of their contracts as restitution for finally escaping.
Through seven games, the Lions could plausibly be 7-0. Even 6-1. Instead, they’re 3-3-1, and in third place in the NFC North. Matthew Stafford, the latest quarterback cursed to wear Honolulu blue, is having one of the best seasons of his career, and it’s being wasted by a subpar defense coached by a supposed guru. This will not change during the second half of the year. As Stafford continues to place perfect passes and throw bombs to his array of receivers, the Lions will continue to falter. Forty-six hundred passing yards, 35-plus touchdowns, minimal turnovers, and at least three games out of the playoffs. At least there’s always next year.
The Browns’ Season Ending
Rob Harvilla: On Sunday, December 29, the Cincinnati Bengals will host the Cleveland Browns in a red-hot AFC North matchup with absolutely no ramifications (neither playoff nor emotional) whatsoever. Don’t watch it. Don’t watch it even if someone offers you money to watch it. What is important about that game—its sole redeeming quality—is that when it ends, the Browns’ 2019 season, mercifully, will end also. No more abject national-TV humiliations. No more harried Baker Mayfield scrambles to nowhere. (A couple of weeks ago we took the kids to a giant pumpkin patch in suburban Cleveland that had also cut a giant maze into a cornfield and branded it “Baker Maze-Field.” At the end you fall off a cliff.) No more galaxy-brain Freddie Bathrooms brain farts with the length (and volume) of Wagner symphonies. No more goddamn L’s.
Instead: silence. Instead: peace. Instead: a top-10 draft pick, one assumes, which we will (one assumes) waste on a highly touted prospect whose head will fall off somewhere around Week 4 of the 2020 season, during which the Browns, mercifully, will no longer appear on national television or inspire theme weeks on popular sports/pop-culture websites. What I want from this season is for it to be over. We’re halfway there.
The Week 15 Pooper Bowl
Rodger Sherman: On the day of the 2002 World Cup Final between Brazil and Germany, filmmakers set up a game called the Other Final—a matchup between Bhutan, the tiny Himalayan kingdom ranked 202nd in the world, and Montserrat, the volcano-ravaged Caribbean island ranked 203rd and last. Bhutan, hosting the game, won 4-0, its first win in international play. The World Cup game was just one of dozens that have taken place over the decades; the Other Final was a once-in-a-lifetime event.
This year brings us a rare opportunity for something similar. A matchup between the potentially 0-14 Dolphins and 0-14 Bengals in Week 15. Sure, both teams have a lot of losing to do—the Dolphins are 0-7 and the Bengals 0-8—but they should be able to pull it off. The Dolphins are last in the league in points scored and second-to-last in points allowed; their negative-161 point differential is the second worst of any team through eight games since the AFL-NFL merger. The Bengals are allowing 435 yards per game, which means they’re not far from setting the all-time record for most yards allowed per season (the 2012 Saints, who allowed 440 yards per game), and they just decided to bench established quarterback Andy Dalton for Ryan Finley, a rookie picked in the fourth round of the NFL draft.
This would be historic. There have been only five 0-14 teams in NFL history—two being the 2016 and 2017 Cleveland Browns—and never two in the same season. The latest in the season two teams have been winless was 1984, when the Bills and Oilers were both 0-10, but they didn’t play each other. So far as I can tell, the latest matchup between two winless teams came in a 1968 game between the 0-6 Steelers and the 0-6 Eagles. (This year’s matchup between 0-5 Miami and Washington was much closer than I expected to being a record-setter.)
Both teams have rarely played competitive games, and when they have, they’ve been experts at snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. (Shout-out to the loss-clinching two-point conversion play by the Dolphins.) We know that players don’t tank—general managers do—and that the difference between the no. 1 pick and the no. 2 pick honestly isn’t as big as many make it seem. But I still feel like both teams will do something special to be a history-making 0-16 team instead of a regular 1-15 team.
Super Bowl LIV should be great, and so will Super Bowl LV next year, and Super Bowl LVI the year after that, and Super Bowl LVII and Super Bowl LVIII and Super Bowl LIX. But I’m praying we get to see Pooper Bowl I, the first and possibly last of its kind.
The Patriots Making Another Run at 19-0
Kevin O’Connor: The Patriots’ 8-0 start is fueled by a potentially historic defense, but their opponents have been a slate of young or pathetic quarterbacks, so I get the reservations about saying this team is truly dominant. But, you know, I also get that it’s hard to actually watch every game, and New England’s defense must be seen to be believed. Growing up a Patriots fan, I’ve been spoiled by watching every game during this magical 20-year run, and this is by far their best defense since the early 2000s. This decade, the Patriots have generally struggled to get consistent pressure on the quarterback either because their secondary had too many holes or their line was too weak. Now, Bill Belichick’s defense is loaded at every position with talented, disciplined players, plus game changers. It’s notable the Patriots are blitzing on 34 percent of their snaps, just marginally more than the 31 percent they did last season, but they already have more sacks (31, which leads the NFL) than they did in all of last season (30, tied for 29th), per Pro Football Reference. Their ability to apply pressure is both a product of a secondary that puts the clamps on opposing receivers, which forces the quarterback to hold the ball for longer, and their rush simply blowing up the line and getting into the backfield. This defense is for real.
The Patriots are Super Bowl favorites; the real question is whether they can have another undefeated regular season after going 16-0 in 2007. This run is much different than that one since it’s their defense leading the charge. Their offense has been average, ranking 15th in offensive efficiency, according to Football Outsiders. But I’ve also seen enough seasons in which fans and media dug a grave for Tom Brady early in the season, only to watch him and the offense blossom late—the “On to Cincinnati” game in 2014 comes to mind. The end for Brady and the Patriots will come someday, but it’s not here yet. If New England’s offensive line can be healthy, and if Mohamed Sanu clicks with Brady, this offense will be good again, and the undefeated talk will grow louder by the week. Love or hate the Patriots, it’s remarkable this team even has a chance at going undefeated after two decades of success. As fans of sport, we’re witnesses to something special. Cherish it.
But Maybe Ryan Fitzpatrick Will Ruin Two Perfect Seasons in Week 17
Sayles: On Monday night, Ryan Fitzpatrick led the Dolphins to a 14-0 lead against the Steelers that caused multiple Steelers fans to have full-on breakdowns in Ringer slack and made most of us wonder whether the Dolphins had what it took to win a game. If you watched the rest of the game—and honestly, why would you have watched any of it to begin with—you knew that they did not, as they never scored another point and allowed Mason Rudolph to score at will in the second half. But that fast start exposed the biggest problem with their tanking plan: Fitzpatrick may be too good to not stumble into a win. And what better time than a Week 17 showdown with the Patriots.
Look, we know who the Pats are. They’re the defending champs coming off three consecutive Super Bowl trips, and their defense in 2019 looks as good as their offense did in 2007. And speaking of 2007, we know they’re capable of going undefeated—in the regular season, at least. The Pats are currently 8-0 and will be favored for all of their remaining games. The Dolphins are currently 0-7 and have no reason to win a game. These teams are scheduled to meet in the season finale. Truly an immovable object vs. a supremely stoppable force.
But after the 18-1 debacle, do the Patriots care about going undefeated? Wouldn’t they rather ensure they enter the playoffs healthy? If the Dolphins are in line for the no. 1 pick, is there a chance Bill Belichick decides he’d rather drop an ultimately meaningless game than face whichever quarterback the Dolphins would pick for the rest of his coaching career (which may not end any time soon)? And if the Pats rest most of their starters, couldn’t you see Fitzpatrick throwing for six TDs and four picks en route to a narrow win against Jared Stidham in Foxborough? All I’m saying is I wouldn’t bet on Ryan Fitzpatrick to win a game, but I also wouldn’t bet on him to lose one when it matters.
Josh Allen (Hopefully) Having More Touchdowns Than Turnovers
Andrew Gruttadaro: Last Sunday afternoon, everything was going fine. With two minutes left in the first half, the Bills were up 7-3 on the Eagles, the defense was doing what it does, and the offense had a third-and-2 from their own 28-yard-line, with a chance to either keep driving or run the clock out. Then Josh Allen swung to the right, bumped into Brandon Graham, and fumbled; the Eagles scored five plays later and never trailed again.
I’m not an NFL coach, and I have never been one—but generally I feel it’s a good strategy to have a quarterback who scores more times than he gives the ball to the other team. It’s just science, really. And so far this year, Josh Allen (a.k.a. Joshy) has only barely scored more times than he’s given the ball to the other team—he has nine touchdown passes and three rushing touchdowns and seven interceptions and three fumbles (he’s actually fumbled eight times, but the Bills have recovered five). That is a very troubling ratio! Unsustainable, some might say! It is somehow legitimate to wonder whether Josh Allen will finish the 2019 with more touchdowns than turnovers, and the Buffalo Bills season is devastatingly dependent on the outcome of that question.
The Bills are 5-2, with games remaining against the Redskins, Dolphins, Jets, and Broncos (and also the Browns and the Steelers, though the fact that I’m less confident about those games should tell you where I’m at). The AFC is a tire fire with approximately two good teams. The Bills should make the playoffs by default. But guess what: They have a quarterback who has turned the ball over more times than half the teams in the NFL. Again, I’m no expert, but that could be a problem.
Joe Flacco, Elite Mouthpiece
John Gonzalez: Maybe Joe Flacco’s arm isn’t elite, but his mouth certainly is. After the Broncos dropped to 2-6 on Sunday with a tough two-point loss to the Colts in a game that featured some timid decision-making by head coach Vic Fangio, Flacco stepped to the postgame podium and tossed some gasoline on Denver’s dumpster fire of a season.
A frustrated Joe Flacco after the loss: "We're now a 2-6 football team and we're afraid to go for it in a two minute drill... I just felt like, what do we have to lose? Why can't we be aggressive in some of these situations." pic.twitter.com/SYfqGPKqFE— Lindsay Joy (@LindsayJoyTV) October 27, 2019
Flacco was right. The Broncos have scored more than 16 points only twice this season. They are 22nd in total offense and 28th in scoring offense. They are not good, and they are most certainly not going anywhere—unless you count their rapidly approaching offseason vacation. Why not go crazy at the end of the game and get aggressive with the two-minute drill? They had nothing to lose—except another game, which happened anyway.
Flacco understands these things. He is also out for Sunday’s game against the Cleveland Browns with a neck injury, and ESPN reported that “his season could be in jeopardy if the Broncos don’t get a favorable medical report after the team’s November 10 bye.” The timing feels awfully convenient. The man speaks up—and then suddenly the team sits him down. For health. That is the official cover story. The skeptics and conspiracy theorists among us (hello, hi) know better. Keep shouting your truth, Joe. It’s all you and the Broncos have left.
Tyler Tynes: The wise prophet Orlando Scandrick once said on national television, “I don’t believe anything Howie [Roseman] says. Howie is one of the people that, if he told me it was raining outside, I’d probably get some shorts, just in case.” The Eagles are 4-4 and have taken some shellackings from a bunch of teams that aren’t generally worth shit: the Dallas Cowboys (read: not shit), the Atlanta Falcons (read: not shit), Detroit Lions (read: not shit) and the Minnesota Vikings (read: so not shit they’ve been upset for almost three years that we beat them in the NFC championship game).
The only wide receiver on the team worth a damn is Alshon Jeffery. Doug Pederson doesn’t let running backs … run. Jim Schwartz runs a Ponzi scheme on the side that profits only if our defense gives up almost 30 points a game. The Eagles might still make the playoffs, but they are overwhelmingly committed to being feckless cowards rather than putting together a good football team that can play good football. So for the foreseeable future, unless Joel Embiid plays quarterback, I’m excited for Sixers season. I don’t know what football is anymore unless Pat Mahomes, Deshaun Watson, or Lamar Jackson are on. Please call me if the Birds make the wild card. If not, see y’all in 2020.
And Finally, the Ability to Stop Rooting for the Pats’ Defensive Greatness So Our Mothers Can Love Us Again
Danny Heifetz: I’m a Giants fan. I don’t like the Patriots. In fact, my identity may have been forged around hating the Patriots. So I report with a heavy and confused heart that I love this Patriots defense and am excited for them to become the greatest defense ever. I never want them to stop getting dumb, weird turnovers, like when they sent a Giants blocker so deep into the backfield a punt was blocked off of his head, or when they knocked a Browns guard upside down and he accidentally kicked the ball out of Nick Chubb’s hands. This is legendary stuff. There is something transcendent about watching them collect 19 interceptions while allowing just two passing touchdowns in an age when picks are less frequent and passing touchdowns are more abundant than ever. Bill Belichick is picking a fight with time itself. He is winning. I’m unashamed to say I want to see how that plays out.
This week, I told my mother this while she was cutting onions. She turned to me, brandishing an 8-inch knife, and asked whether she had heard me correctly. It sounded like I was betraying our family. If I’m going to stab her in the heart, she may as well do the same to me. I’m bleeding as I write this, but I don’t care who knows: I like defense.
An earlier version of this story misstated the week the Bengals play the Dolphins. It’s Week 15, not Week 16.