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The MVP Race, Playoff Parity, and the Rest of the Midseason NFL Story Lines

Crowded divisional races, contract decisions, and COVID uncertainty: What can we expect from the second half of the season?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The midpoint of the NFL season has arrived. Though the 17-game season makes it difficult to pinpoint the exact midseason for individual teams, the 18-week season makes for a nice, clean halfway marker following Week 9, and for that, we shall be grateful. As they say in Jacksonville, take the wins where you can get them. We’ve learned a lot through these first nine weeks, so let’s take a look at those results, see what they’ve taught us about the biggest NFL stories, and assess what might be to come in the second half of the calendar.

Who will win MVP?

I won’t lie to you: The MVP race is a total mess right now, particularly after an upset-heavy slate of Week 9 games. The 10 preseason favorites for the award were as follows: Patrick Mahomes, Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Josh Allen (quarterback version), Dak Prescott, Lamar Jackson, Matthew Stafford, Russell Wilson, Justin Herbert, and Kyler Murray. Welp. Three of those quarterbacks—Allen, Prescott, and Stafford—lost in embarrassing fashion last Sunday. Three more have missed games: Wilson and Murray due to injury, and Rodgers due to COVID-19. Mahomes is having the worst season of his career, which isn’t saying much but is still probably enough to keep him out of the MVP conversation. The best non-quarterback candidate, Derrick Henry, might be out for the rest of the season.

Currently, Jackson is the best MVP candidate. The Ravens are 6-2, scoring the seventh-most points per game and running the second-ranked offense by average yards per game. The Ravens have withstood a litany of preseason injuries to their running backs and have still fielded the league’s second-best rushing attack, in large part because of the numbers problem Jackson creates for opposing defenses with the threat of his legs. Jackson is fifth in yards per pass attempt, tied for first in yards per completed pass, and first in yards per rushing attempt. He’s second in the league, trailing only Stafford, in total offense. Jackson has done this while putting together a career-best season in both passing accuracy and average target depth. His average time in the pocket and pressure rate are virtually the same as last season, and his sack percentage of 8.3 is higher than last year’s 7.2. Jackson has also led four game-winning drives for the Ravens (though kicker Justin Tucker deserves some of the credit as well).

Jackson is truly the straw that stirs the drink in Baltimore and, in the truest sense of the MVP award, he seems like a shoe-in. There’s just one problem, and it doesn’t eat nightshades.

Yes, Tom Brady still exists. He leads the league in passing yards per game and passing touchdowns, of which he has 25 to just five interceptions. The Bucs had a bye in Week 9, after losing to the Trevor Siemian–quarterbacked Saints, but that résumé blemish was buffed away somewhat by all the other quarterbacks who struggled in big spots. The Bucs’ remaining schedule includes games against the Washington Football Team, the Giants, the Falcons, the Jets, and the Panthers twice. The Ravens still have to face the Browns and Steelers twice each, plus the Vikings, Bears, Packers, Rams, and Bengals. We all know how this ends.

How is COVID-19 still impacting the NFL?

During a session at the NFL’s annual meetings on October 26, NFL chief medical officer Dr. Allen Sills told reporters that the league had a vaccination rate of 94.1 percent among players and “virtually” 100 percent among other staff. The incidence rate of positive tests is between 0.4 and 0.6 percent, and no games have been moved or postponed. The big picture of COVID-19 in the NFL is hugely positive; the league identified vaccination as a necessity, has largely achieved it, and has gotten the intended result of a smooth season.

Aaron Rodgers’s positive COVID-19 test that kept him out of Green Bay’s Week 9 game against Kansas City, though, showed that major games can still be impacted, particularly when unvaccinated players in key roles are involved. Not only did Rodgers’s absence likely impact the game’s outcome, but his violations of protocol resulted in fines for himself and Green Bay and led to a wake-up call of sorts around the league.

Players like Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins and Bills receiver Cole Beasley, who, like Rodgers, are unvaccinated, have conducted indoor press conferences unmasked during the season, the same protocol Rodgers violated. Those violations flew under the radar (even though they occurred in plain sight) in part because there was confusion over the NFL’s policies for press conferences. The NFL and NFLPA made an exception for press conferences to the mandate that unvaccinated players wear masks when not practicing, but that exception applied to only outdoor press conferences with players at socially distanced podiums. According to Sports Illustrated, teams who weren’t clear on the rule called the NFL in the wake of the Rodgers situation to get clarity on the rules; Cousins and Beasley have been masked during press conferences since. On Tuesday, infection control officers for each team also held a conference call and received updated COVID-19 protocols from the NFL. The 2021 season has mostly avoided major incidents related to the pandemic, but Rodgers’s positive test and subsequent comments on The Pat McAfee Show led to a refresh on the rules.

Which playoff races are expected to be tightest down the stretch?

Parity has ruled the 2021 season, which means hope is lingering for a large number of teams. This is particularly true in the AFC, where 12 teams have at least four wins; the only division in that conference with a comfortable leader is the South, where the 7-2 Titans are three games ahead of the second-place Colts, who are at 4-5. That puts Tennessee in the driver’s seat with a 61 percent chance at getting the top seed and first-round bye in the playoffs, according to FiveThirtyEight. In the rest of the divisions, little is settled. In the East, the 5-3 Bills are fending off the surging Patriots, currently a half-game back at 5-4. All four AFC West teams currently have five wins. The 6-2 Ravens lead the North but have a brutal stretch run and will have to fend off three other teams in the division with winning records. If the playoffs started today, the Titans, Ravens, Chargers, Bills, Raiders, Steelers, and Patriots would be in and the Chiefs, Browns, Bengals, and Broncos would narrowly miss the cut.

The NFC is more settled. The Cowboys have a three-game cushion in the NFC East, the Packers have a three-game cushion in the NFC North, and the Buccaneers are two games up on the Saints, who have lost starting quarterback Jameis Winston for the rest of the season, in the NFC South. The NFC West is the tightest division but has become a two-team race between the 8-1 Cardinals and the 7-2 Rams. That race could have massive implications for playoff seeding down the stretch, with the winner potentially securing the top seed and bye and the loser getting a wild-card spot. The Buccaneers and Packers both still have a 19 percent chance of getting the first-round bye in the NFC, though, so the West winner doesn’t have that fully locked up. The ugly ducklings of the playoffs will almost certainly be the second and third NFC wild-card teams. If the playoffs started today, the Cardinals, Packers, Buccaneers, Cowboys, Rams, Saints, and Falcons would make it, but the 4-4 Panthers, the 3-5 Vikings, the 3-5 Seahawks, the 3-5 49ers, the 3-6 Eagles, the 3-6 Giants, and 3-6 Bears are all within striking distance (which may serve as some consolation for whichever team just misses out on the top seed).

Will Baker Mayfield or Lamar Jackson get extended this year?

At this point, probably not, given that it’s fairly easy for the Browns and Ravens to wait another couple of months before handling their business with their quarterbacks. In Jackson’s case, he’s picked a great time to be in MVP contention. Jackson and his mother negotiate his contracts without the help of an agent, which can always introduce some funkiness to business dealings, but the basic question, in this case, will just be … how much? Josh Allen, another one of the first-round quarterbacks from the 2018 class, signed a six-year contract with $150 million in guaranteed money and an average annual value of $43 million per year. Lamar has waited another year, and typically those numbers go in only one direction.

With Mayfield, the question is a little more complicated. His situation is a litmus test for how much NFL teams will commit to a good quarterback who’s outside the top tier. Mayfield and the Browns talked about an extension before the season, but those talks were limited and nothing ever happened. ESPN’s Dan Graziano reported recently that the Browns are open to extending Mayfield on a long-term deal with an average annual value around $35 million or a bit more, but below the $40-plus million threshold that’s been broken by elite passers. That would be a delicate negotiation, given how consistently starting quarterback contracts have set new high-water marks. Cleveland has picked up Mayfield’s fifth-year option, which would pay him $19 million in 2022. The Browns would have the option to franchise tag him after that, so the likeliest scenario at this point may be that Cleveland continues to go year-to-year with Mayfield until he proves himself a consistent winner or they decide it’s better to move on.

How have the rookie quarterbacks fared?

The 2021 rookie quarterback class, which featured five first-round picks, has been underwhelming so far. Trevor Lawrence, considered a generational prospect, has a completion rate of 59.5 percent and has thrown eight touchdown passes to nine interceptions. In fact, three of the five first-round quarterbacks have thrown more picks than interceptions. Along with Lawrence, Zach Wilson has four touchdowns and nine picks and may lose his starting job to Mike White, and Justin Fields has four touchdowns and eight picks. In San Francisco, Trey Lance has played sparingly and made some flashy plays in quick appearances but hasn’t looked ready to start full time. (Lance has completed 52 percent of his throws with three touchdowns and one pick in four games with one start.)

It’s far too early to write these players off, but Lawrence’s and Wilson’s struggles speak to the inherent challenges of being drafted by the worst teams in the league. The Bears’ and 49ers’ experiences speak to the challenge of getting an inexperienced rookie ready to play when it’s increasingly difficult to let him sit and learn behind a veteran unless the team is thriving.

The one rookie quarterback who has had some success is Mac Jones in New England. Jones has been far from explosive, but he’s started every game and led the Patriots to a 5-4 record while completing 68 percent of his passes and throwing 10 touchdowns to seven interceptions. Jones has had the smoothest transition to the NFL in part because he’s played a fundamentally conservative style that avoids mistakes, but it’s still a surprise to see him have the easiest time handling NFL defenses after the prospect of his going no. 3 overall to San Francisco was met with horror just six months ago.

Will the NFL be forced into transparency?

The season is in full swing, but the NFL is also deep in the midst of a couple situations that have nothing to do with the on-field product. A lawsuit from the city of St. Louis over the Rams’ relocation is scheduled to go to trial in January. Last week, a Missouri appeals court denied the NFL’s bid to get the case moved out of St. Louis to be tried in a different part of the state. The case will be heard by Judge Christopher McGraugh, who has already sanctioned several NFL owners for failing to disclose financial records that a jury would require if it has to determine punitive damages in the event the case does indeed go to trial. The lawsuit was a matter of consternation at the league meetings in October, where owners discussed the cost of settling the case being too high and where, according to ESPN, some owners were “stunned” to hear that Rams owner Stan Kroenke might be waffling on his commitment to fully indemnify the league and other owners against litigation stemming from his team’s move to Los Angeles four years ago.

The league is also facing calls from Congress, specifically the House Oversight Committee, to produce documents collected during the investigation into workplace misconduct and sexual harassment within the Washington Football Team. Commissioner Roger Goodell has said that the NFL will “cooperate” with the request; the committee chairs said in a statement Friday that they “expect him to make good on that promise by producing the documents requested.” Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney also requested that the league make a public statement telling any “witnesses to the team’s hostile workplace culture” that they are “welcome to come forward.” The probe is just beginning, and will likely lead to a song and dance in which the league attempts to determine how little it can provide without inviting a public hearing.

Both of these situations are unresolved but bear watching. The NFL likes to keep as much information private as it can, but could find itself forced into an unusual amount of transparency through the courts or Congress.

Are any coaches feeling their seats get warm?

Jon Gruden resigned in scandal last month, but no coach has been fired for performance reasons yet this season. In Jacksonville, Urban Meyer’s behavior has already been called “inexcusable” by owner Shad Khan after Meyer didn’t return to Florida with the team after a loss but instead stayed behind in Ohio, where he got caught in a video sitting closely with a woman who wasn’t his wife in a bar. The Jaguars are also 2-6 and there have been reports that the front office in Jacksonville has discussed who would replace Meyer if he left or was fired. Still, in the first year of Meyer’s contract, it would be a huge admission of a hiring failure for the Khan family to move on so quickly.

The other top candidate is Matt Nagy in Chicago. The McCaskey family has little history of midseason firings, so they could prefer to wait until after the season, but Nagy has struggled consistently since the 2018 season when he won Coach of the Year. Since then, the Bears have never ranked higher than 26th in total offense, 22nd in points, 22nd in passing yards, or 18th in passing touchdowns. They are last in the league in passing touchdowns this year. Worse, Fields has looked his best when offensive coordinator Bill Lazor has been calling plays this season instead of Nagy.

What have been the biggest surprises and disappointments of the season?

The Cardinals’ 8-1 start (which has Kliff Kingsbury in the conversation for Coach of the Year) and the Ravens’ expanded downfield passing attack (in which Jackson’s average pass has traveled 10.4 yards past the line of scrimmage) are examples of teams exceeding both expectations and specific perceived limitations.

No NFL team has been more disappointing in 2021 than the Chiefs, who most people penciled in to the Super Bowl but have just barely crawled back above .500 in Week 9. They are still seventh in EPA per drive and 10th in success rate, but the offense has seemed to be going in the wrong direction and remains plagued by turnovers. The defense was gifted a start from Jordan Love instead of Rodgers last Sunday, but is among the league’s worst. The offensive line Kansas City worked hard to upgrade this offseason ranks fifth in pass block win rate, and Mahomes, Travis Kelce, and Tyreek Hill are all healthy, so it’s impossible to count the team out entirely. But it’s also evident that there were many other roster issues that went unfixed and that Mahomes’s tendency to go for the big play is manifesting in some negative ways.

The 49ers have also failed to meet relatively high expectations. They’ve struggled defensively, particularly in the red zone, and were just embarrassed by the Cardinals (missing both Murray and DeAndre Hopkins). The results make things seem worse than they are in San Francisco—their other losses are to the Packers, Seahawks, and Colts, and when Jimmy Garoppolo has been healthy their offense has still been within the top 10 by EPA. At this point, though, for a coach as well-regarded as Kyle Shanahan, the results are sort of the thing. A fourth losing season out of five as head coach would be surprising, and a disappointment.