The NFL has essentially reached its midway point of the season with Week 9 approaching, as teams are starting to form their identity as a contender or pretender. What makes the league harder to figure out this year than any other year is that there are fewer Super Bowl contenders and more teams on the verge of mediocrity.
The league has 15 teams in the three-to-four-win range and just five teams with six-plus wins — three of which are in the NFC East. The New York Giants are the No. 6 seed in the conference with a 6-2 record, showcasing how good the division has been heading into November.
While the NFC East has been a surprise, the Atlanta Falcons and Seattle Seahawks are shocking division leaders. The Green Bay Packers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers have been massive disappointments, but other teams have failed to live up to expectations as well.
So how did each team fare after the midterm exam? Depends on the expectation, but performance was a huge factor in the final mark.
The Cardinals are coming off a playoff appearance, yet are one of the most dysfunctional teams in the league. Arizona sits in last place in a winnable NFC West, plagued by slow starts and an inconsistent offense. The defense is also inconsistent, giving up an insanely amount of points and yards over the last two weeks after appearing to turn things around.
Inconsistent is the word in Arizona, but getting DeAndre Hopkins back will keep the Cardinals in the race. The next three games — all against the NFC West — will define the season.
The Falcons were expected to be one of the worst teams in the league. Instead they are one of the biggest overachievers, residing in first place in a bad NFC South through eight games. Atlanta can run the ball with any team in the league and has a top-10 scoring offense as a result.
Atlanta has the worst pass defense in the league and has serious issues stopping teams on third down, but the Falcons being .500 at this point in the year was unexpected. Huge credit to Arthur Smith and this coaching staff. The Falcons could win the division.
The Ravens are a very good football team that has three losses — all after blowing double-digit leads. Lamar Jackson hasn’t played well over the last four weeks, yet the Ravens are 3-1 during that stretch. Take away the two weeks against the Dolphins and Patriots, and the Ravens are allowing just 320 yards per game — that’s a top-10 defense (that just added Roquan Smith).
Jackson will get going again and the Ravens will eventually get J.K. Dobbins back for the stretch run. They still need an upgrade at wide receiver, but maybe DeSean Jackson will be that player who can make the offense more explosive.
Even with the fourth-quarter collapses, the Ravens lead the AFC North. Baltimore will only get better.
The Bills are the Super Bowl favorite to come out of the AFC for a reason. They’re top three in scoring offense, scoring defense, yards per game and yards allowed. They have an explosive pass offense and a defense that can stop the run and the pass.
Their one weakness is at running back, yet Buffalo hasn’t had a game under 100 yards rushing this year (125-plus yards in three of the last four games). The Bills even eliminated their losing streak in one-score games, winning two straight against the Ravens and Chiefs.
Buffalo is the best team in the AFC — and living up to the high expectations.
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The head coach was fired after five games and the quarterback was benched. A poor offense is last in the NFL in average time of possession and plays per possession. Carolina has an interim coach and is using the quarterback who was No. 3 on the depth chart entering the season.
The Panthers entered the season with playoff aspirations. They’ve been playing better since Matt Rhule was fired, but this team is evaluating for 2023 and beyond.
The beginning of the Bears’ season didn’t make any sense. Justin Fields was barely throwing the ball and Chicago’s offense appeared to take a page out of the football playbook from the 1930s. Since the “Thursday Night Football” loss in Week 6 to the Commanders, Justin Fields has looked significantly better throwing the football and looks like a more composed quarterback in and out of the pocket.
This is a rebuilding team, so not much was expected. The Bears traded Roquan Smith and Robert Quinn on a defense that didn’t fit their skill sets. Their run defense is abysmal, making up for a pass defense that has over exceeded expectations.
Chicago still has one of the best rushing attacks in the game, which won’t slow down as it gets the most out of Fields and his ability to stretch the offense. This season is all about the development of Fields, so this grade can improve.
Kudos to the Bengals for rebounding from an 0-2 start to get back in the playoff picture of a crowded AFC. How long can Cincinnati last without Ja’Marr Chase is the big questions, as the Bengals were putrid minus their star receivers in Monday night’s loss to the Browns. The Bengals had a season-low 229 yards in their first game without Chase after averaging 366.1 with him in the lineup.
The Bengals have one of the worst run games in the NFL and the defense isn’t impactful enough to make up for their deficiencies. Still, they can’t be discounted to make another Super Bowl run. Chase will return at some point.
If the Browns were .500 after eight weeks without Deshaun Watson, this grade would be higher. Four straight losses certainly killed the hot start in Cleveland, especially with a defense that is supposed to be a top-10 unit — yet ranked 26th in points allowed and 12th in yards allowed. The run defense has also not been up to par.
The offense is plagued with costly turnovers, even though the Browns are sixth in points and yards per game. The run game — behind Nick Chubb’s incredible season — is excellent and will keep the Browns in the mix all season long.
The Browns have to split with the Dolphins and Bills after the bye, or the 2022 season is a wash.
Plenty of praise goes out to Dallas after eight games. The Cowboys’ season looked doomed when Dak Prescott went down with a thumb injury in a Week 1 loss to the Bucs, yet they went 4-1 in his absence behind a dominant defense that gets to the quarterback and has held its opponents to under 20 points in six of the eight games.
Cooper Rush deserves credit for playing turnover-free football for the first four games, but the offense added that extra dimension with Prescott back. The run defense is a major weakness, but don’t be fooled. The Cowboys are a Super Bowl contender and one of the best teams in the NFL.
This season could have gone south.
The Broncos having the 31st-ranked scoring offense with Russell Wilson at quarterback is unacceptable. Nathaniel Hackett looks out of his realm as a head coach, not able to maximize what Wilson can provide to an offense. Keep in mind the Broncos paid $245 million to a quarterback who commands an offense with just six touchdown passes (30th in NFL) and is 31st in points per possession.
The defense is the reason Denver has three wins, ranking in the top two in points and yards allowed. The pass defense is also the best in the NFL, the lone bright spot on a franchise that doesn’t seem to have a clue how to build an offense.
Denver hasn’t scored over 23 points in a game this year. Think about that.
The Lions were supposed to be better than this. Detroit’s defense is beyond abysmal, raking 32nd in points and yards allowed per game — not allowing fewer than 330 yards and 24 points in any game this year. The unit has given up the most rushing touchdowns and the most points per possession, while ranking toward the bottom in many significant defensive categories.
The offense has made significant strides from 2021, scoring 27-plus points in four games this year. The unit is still inconsistent from week to week and the future at quarterback is murky. Dan Campbell isn’t the greatest of game day coaches, either.
Detroit sold off T.J. Hockenson to a division rival, losing a significant strength of that roster. The Lions have a lot of work to do, even though they are competitive.
We should have seen this coming. Aaron Rodgers was trying to replace DaVante Adams with two rookies and veteran wide receivers who weren’t very good to begin with. The result is a passing game that sorely lacks a deep-ball presence and a frustrated Rodgers to boot.
The defense can’t stop the run and isn’t playing up to its talent level. Fourth down has also been a problem for Green Bay, as the Packers are last in conversion rate. Inexcusable losses haven’t helped matters.
Green Bay can still turn things around, which starts with snapping its four-game skid.
The expectations of this team weren’t good to begin with as the Texans are still going through a rebuild. Houston has a star rookie running back in Dameon Pierce and two players who appear to be game changers in Jalen Pitre and Derek Stingley Jr..
Now for the bad parts. Davis Mills doesn’t appear to be the long-term answer at quarterback and Brandin Cooks is the only reliable option at wide receiver (and he’s having a down year) as the offense is one of the worst in the league. Also would figure a Lovie Smith team would be better at stopping the run (32nd in yards allowed per game and 31st in yards per attempt).
Fair to think the Texans would be more competitive. They just haven’t been.
Benching a veteran quarterback after trading draft picks for him and taking on his salary isn’t good. Neither is firing the offensive coordinator after eight weeks. That’s life in Indianapolis, a franchise that has significantly failed to meet preseason expectations.
Jonathan Taylor anchors one of the worst rushing teams in football and the Colts offensive line has been horrible to boot. The defense has more than held its own without Shaquille Leonard for the majority of the year, but a team with an offensive coach like Frank Reich should be better.
The Colts are fortunate they are in the AFC South.
The Jaguars do have the same record after six games as last season (the Urban Meyer disaster), but this group is significantly better. Sure, Jacksonville has lost five straight, but all of those games are by one score. In fact, all six of Jacksonville’s losses are by one score.
Trevor Lawrence is still grasping Doug Pederson’s offense, but Travis Etienne is a star and the Jaguars have several pass catchers who are helping out the offense. The defense is average, which is significantly better than last year.
Wins are hard to come by in the NFL and the Jaguars are figuring that out.
The Chiefs are one of the three best teams in the NFL. Patrick Mahomes remains an elite quarterback without Tyreek Hill and Andy Reid is still one of the best play callers and play designers in the game. That wasn’t going to change as the offense keeps improving by the week (top scoring offense and second in yards per game).
Kansas City’s glaring weakness is the pass defense, yet that will improve with Trent McDuffie returning soon. Fortunately the Chiefs have the offense to counter. The Chiefs need a more consistent pass rush, too.
The Chiefs are a Super Bowl contender. But they might just have to go to Buffalo to get there.
There’s zero reason to be happy with the Raiders through eight weeks, one year after making the playoffs with an interim head coach. When the Raiders finally looked like they would turn their season around after an 0-3 start, the offense put up a goose egg against the Saints.
The Raiders have Davante Adams on an offense that has Derek Carr, Josh Jacobs, Hunter Renfrow, and Darren Waller. Only Jacobs has lived up to his end of the bargain. The defense gives up a lot of points and yards — and doesn’t get enough takeaways. It also can’t get off the field.
Las Vegas has been an incredible disappointment. Wasn’t Josh McDaniels supposed to make a playoff team better?
The Chargers deserve credit for holding the fort with all the injuries they’ve had to induce. Keenan Allen has been injured throughout the year, Mike Williams is hurt, and Josh Palmer has been out. That’s the top three wide receivers. Rashawn Slater is on injured reserve and Justin Herbert has been battling a rib injury.
Joey Bosa is on injured reserve and J.C. Jackson is out for the year. This team is 4-3 despite all the injuries to the major players on the roster.
Brandon Staley deserves credit for holding this together, even if his game-day decisions are hurting his team from taking the AFC West title. The Chargers are still only one game back.
There are so many holes on this Rams roster. Los Angeles may have buyers remorse with Allen Robinson, limiting the pass-catching group. The running back rotation changes every week as the run game is one of the worst in football, while the offensive line has been horrendous. Matthew Stafford doesn’t look like the same quarterback as last year, either.
The defense struggles to tackle and the secondary outside of Jalen Ramsey just isn’t consistent. The Rams are under .500 for a reason. They just aren’t that good at the moment, but still have a shot in the wide-open NFC West.
The Dolphins have overcome plenty of obstacles already, making the 5-3 record even more impressive. Through the tampering scandal in August and the Tua Tagovailoa concussion saga last month, credit goes to rookie coach Mike McDaniel for keeping this team one of the top squads in the AFC.
Miami hasn’t lost a game Tagovailoa started and finished all year. Tyreek Hill has been even better than advertised as he and Jaylen Waddle are the best receiving duo in football. The defense has been disappointing, but did bolster the pass rush with the acquisition of Bradley Chubb.
The Dolphins are better than their record indicates. They did hand the Bills their only loss and have also defeated the Ravens.
One of the surprises of the season, the Vikings are emerging into a Super Bowl contender in Kevin O’Connell’s first year at the helm. Minnesota is 5-0 in one-score games, even as Kirk Cousins hasn’t played at the same level as in previous years. The Vikings still have Dalvin Cook, Justin Jefferson, Adam Thielen and now T.J. Hockenson — making them a dangerous team in the NFC.
A better offensive line has certainly helped, but Minnesota needed a culture change and so far it’s paying off.
The Patriots are one of the hardest teams in the league to figure out. One week they look to be one of the worst teams in the league, but Bill Belichick seems to find a way for the Patriots to get wins against teams they shouldn’t beat. Belichick has handled the Mac Jones and Bailey Zappe controversy well — and found a star running back in Rhamondre Stevenson in the process.
New England isn’t really elite anywhere, yet is in contention for a playoff spot in the AFC. This team seems to have a shelf life, but Belichick is making the most out of what he’s got.
Another team that underwent a quarterback change, the Saints’ move from Jameis Winston to Andy Dalton has paid off. Alvin Kamara is finally heating up, even with all the injuries at wide receiver.
The defense has been disappointing (28th in points allowed per game) and doesn’t create enough turnovers to mask the mistakes of the offense. The special teams hasn’t been great, either. Despite all the miscues, the Saints are in the NFC South race because the division is bad.
The Giants having two more wins than last year with the same starting quarterback and running back makes their run even more incredible. Brian Daboll and his coaching staff have done a remarkable job with the talent they have, making the most out of a roster that lacks at wide receiver, offensive line and cornerback.
Are the Giants a Super Bowl contender? They’re not supposed to be. A 6-2 start is phenomenal for a franchise that hasn’t been to a playoff game in six years. That drought may end this year.
Despite the quarterback situation, the Jets have a good roster that is learning how to win ball games. The loss of Breece Hall is massive, and the Jets hope James Robinson and Michael Carter can soften the blow. Zach Wilson needs to be better and help the Jets in games — instead of New York winning in spite of him.
The defense is good and has a secondary full of playmakers who can find the football. Quinnen Williams might be an All-Pro this year as the leader of that unit. The Jets are a good team looking to snap the longest playoff drought in the NFL.
Philadelphia is the lone unbeaten team in the NFL, finding not only a franchise quarterback in Jalen Hurts — but an MVP candidate. A.J. Brown has lived up to the hype since he was brought into Philadelphia, the dynamic pass catcher this offense sorely lacked last year.
The Eagles have 16 takeaways and two giveaways. The offense is a top-three unit in scoring and yards per game, while the defense is top four in points and yards per game allowed. Philadelphia has led by double digits in every game and defeated its biggest threats in the NFC in Minnesota and Dallas.
The Eagles are one of the three best teams in the NFL. They’re scary good.
Hard to expect much out of the Steelers, as the T.J. Watt injury changed the trajectory of their season. The defense has the fewest sacks in the league since Watt went down in Week 1, which is affecting a secondary that can’t stop anyone.
The offense isn’t any better. Pittsburgh already went through a quarterback change from Mitchell Trubisky to Kenny Pickett and the results haven’t been better. This is a product of a stale offensive game plan and a poor offensive line.
There’s talent on the Steelers, but they still play hard and give teams a problem under Mike Tomlin. They’ll be a pain for opponents in the second half, regardless of their record.
Have to give San Francisco credit for the Christian McCaffrey trade, realizing the NFC West and a Super Bowl berth is up for grabs. Jimmy Garoppolo is inconsistent, but the 49ers are a better team in 2022 with him at quarterback. Give him McCaffrey and Deebo Samuel in Kyle Shanahan’s offense and the possibilities are endless.
The defense is going to get healthier as the season goes on, and that unit is already a top-five group. Let’s see what the 49ers do after their bye week and see if they can make a second-half run similar to last year.
The Seahawks were expected to be one of the worst teams in the NFL. With a head-scratching quarterback controversy leading into the season, Geno Smith has flipped that narrative to become a top-five signal-caller and a Comeback Player of the Year candidate. The Seahawks have a lethal running attack with Kenneth Walker (prior to that Rashaad Penny), which sets up Smith to get the ball to his talented wide receivers.
The secondary has been surprisingly good, even if the defense has flaws (particularly against the run). The Seahawks do get turnovers, which is vital for a unit that ranks in the bottom 10 in plenty of categories.
Credit to Pete Carroll for getting the most out of this team. The first-place Seahawks are a division title contender.
Another team that benefits from playing in the poor NFC South. The Buccaneers can’t run the ball, on pace to have the lowest rushing yards per game in a season since the 1946 Lions. The offense is one-dimensional as a result, even with all the talent at wide receiver.
Tom Brady’s personal issues haven’t helped, either, and Todd Bowles is showing why he’s a significantly better coordinator than head coach. The defense is sixth in points allowed per game, yet has its issues getting off the field, in the red zone and stopping the run.
Tampa Bay can still turn things around, but this season has the looks of a disaster.
The Titans looked dreadful after an 0-2 start, yet five consecutive wins seized control of a bad division. Tennessee’s defense has come on of late, allowing 13.5 points per game over the last four games. The Titans have the best run defense in football, while also bolstering a resurgence of Derrick Henry over the past four weeks.
Henry has his throne back, a tried-and-true formula that works in Tennessee. Are the Titans an AFC contender? Part of that question will be answered with the Chiefs, Bengals, Eagles and Cowboys on the schedule. The pass defense must improve in the second half.
Clearly, the Carson Wentz experience hasn’t worked in Washington. The offense is more fluid under Taylor Heinicke and the players seem to respond to him, even if the overall numbers aren’t great. Washington turned the ball over too much under Wentz, which isn’t a problem under Heinicke. Even the offensive line is better.
The defense isn’t elite and doesn’t generate enough turnovers, yet hasn’t allowed more than 21 points over the last four games. The last-place team in the NFC East is in playoff contention, which wasn’t even in consideration three weeks ago.
The Commanders aren’t good, but they aren’t bad, either.