Katherine McCabe / Gavel Media

Assessing the NFL Landscape at the Midway Point of the Season

The 2020 NFL season has provided plenty of surprises to fans around the country. At the midway point of a highly irregular campaign, the league’s landscape looks different than many might have thought.

The Dallas Cowboys—expected to be among the best in the NFC—are floundering. Dak Prescott’s injury likely leaves them picking near the top of the draft. Green Bay, who many thought would regress, has boasted one of the NFL’s most explosive offenses. Atlanta has continued to show off its impressive ability to blow massive leads.

Amid all this, the playoff picture and a shortlist of contenders are beginning to take shape. As the season rounds the corner into the home stretch, here are some takeaways from the first eight weeks, plus their potential implications for the postseason.

The Steelers are the league’s most complete team.

After finishing outside of the playoff picture in 2019, largely due to an anemic offense and spotty quarterback play, it was hard to blame fans for not being bullish on the Steelers heading into the season. Ben Roethlisberger’s status was something of an unknown after an injury sidelined him for most of last year, but the veteran signal-caller has been a strong point in 2020.

Combine that with a strong running game, a stout offensive line, an emerging rookie wideout in Chase Claypool, and the league’s best defense, Pittsburgh looks like a legitimate Super Bowl contender at 7-0. Kansas City remains a threat, but the Steelers have what it takes to win the AFC.

The NFC is wide open, but Tampa is the emerging favorite.

The Packers, Seahawks, and Buccaneers look like the class of the NFC, but Tampa Bay has the conference’s most balanced roster. All three have fantastic offenses led by Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks. But Seattle’s pass rush has been abysmal. Green Bay has the same fatal flaws as last year: a porous run defense and a lack of secondary options in the passing game.

The Buccaneers, on the other hand, allow an NFL-low 66 rushing yards per game and have an opportunistic secondary which includes young corners Carlton Davis and Jamel Dean. Meanwhile, inside linebackers Devin White and Lavonte David are one of the league’s most dynamic pairs, giving Tampa the necessary speed to take on the rest of the NFC’s potent offenses.

The NFC East is the worst division in NFL history.

This is not an overstatement. The NFC East legitimately has a case as the league’s worst division ever. All four teams are sitting below .500 through eight weeks. They hold a combined total of two wins outside of the division, with only the Eagles boasting even three victories.

The fact that Philadelphia, Washington, Dallas, or New York will host a playoff game should force the league to take a long look at its current seeding. A rule change to allow a wild card team with a better record to host a playoff game against a division leader should at least be considered.

The NFC West, on the other hand, may be the best division in NFL history.

It’s possible for the NFC West to send all four of its teams to this season's expanded playoffs. Each team is at or above .500, with last-place San Francisco just months removed from a Super Bowl appearance. The Seahawks and Cardinals look like playoff locks, while the Rams and 49ers have both seen mixed results.

Still, fans should not be surprised to see all four of these teams finish with winning records, even if one or two drop out of the playoff picture. In fact, all will probably finish with a better record than the NFC East champion.

The Miami Dolphins are set up for long-term success, while New England’s dynasty is over.

The Miami Dolphins were the subject of plenty of criticism last offseason. They seemingly sold off every asset of value that they had, but Brian Flores and Chris Grier look to be building a winner. The defense has been fantastic, and while Tua Tagovailoa’s shaky debut may result in some regression from the team’s current 4-3 record, Miami looks like a potential playoff team.

The same can’t be said for the Patriots. After an unparalleled run of success, the NFL’s longest dynasty is officially over. A 2-1 start under new quarterback Cam Newton gave New England fans some optimism. Since then, four consecutive losses have Bill Belichick and company looking toward the future.

The Jets are the league’s worst team by a wide margin, but the eventual payoff may be worth it.

Staying in the AFC East, the New York Jets look hopeless. Adam Gase’s team is the NFL’s only winless squad, and an 0-16 finish looks likely. Simply put, there is nothing that this team does well, and a perpetual rebuild could extend well beyond this season. Sam Darnold is on thin ice as the franchise quarterback, but the prize awaiting New York will make it easy to move on.

Clemson quarterback and Heisman contender Trevor Lawrence figures to be the top pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. Many are calling him one of the best prospects in recent memory. There’s still plenty of work for general manager Joe Douglas to do to round out the roster, but the haul of picks that the team collected by trading away Jamal Adams will go a long way in doing so. Plus, first-rounder Mekhi Becton looks like a franchise left tackle. Now, if only the front office could pull the trigger on a coaching change.

Justin Herbert, not Joe Burrow, looks like this year’s best rookie quarterback.

Justin Herbert looks like the most special quarterback prospect from the 2020 NFL Draft class. This is by no means meant to disparage Burrow—the No.1 overall pick has been fantastic thus far. Herbert just looks that much better. Both the Bengals and Chargers sit at the bottom of their respective divisions, but could still be in the playoff picture due to the rookies’ strong play if not for a few monumental defensive collapses.  

Los Angeles has lost three games this season in which it led by 17 points or more. Yet, the snakebitten franchise’s repeated misfortune hasn’t prevented Herbert from breaking out. Showing off his unique arm talent, the Oregon product has racked up 15 passing touchdowns, five interceptions, and nearly 2,000 passing yards in six games. None of that matters without improvement in the win column, but the Chargers look set at quarterback for the future.

Houston and Atlanta are headed for long rebuilds.

The Texans and Falcons have both started 2020 slowly, with abysmal starts leading to changes at head coach and general manager. More likely than not, those moves are just the tip of the iceberg. Each squad seems to have reached its ceiling, and while Houston will likely look to rebuild around Deshaun Watson, Atlanta likely faces the prospect of tearing down a veteran roster.

Both teams are in undesirable positions. The Texans will waste some of Watson’s prime years rebuilding. On top of that, they have shockingly little high-end draft capital after a few ill-advised trades under former czar Bill O’Brien. Atlanta, meanwhile, will likely be looking for a new signal-caller and All-Pro wideout, with Matt Ryan and Julio Jones likely offseason trade candidates. The defense remains a mess as well, but hey, at least the Falcons still have their own first-round pick.

Derrick Henry is the NFL’s best running back.

The Tennessee Titans reached the AFC Championship in 2019 largely due to a potent run game, and Derrick Henry has carried that success well into 2020. Henry leads the NFL in rushing even though he’s already had his bye week, and he almost single-handedly won Tennessee its Week 6 matchup against Houston.

In a league where paying running backs is frowned upon, Henry’s exorbitant contract may be the exception. The former Heisman Trophy winner is the engine of the Titans’ offense, and beautifully complements quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who has become one of the league’s most efficient passers, beautifully. The fact that Henry is worth his deal even despite his small role in the passing game speaks to his ability, and a second consecutive rushing title is certainly in the cards.

The defending champion Chiefs haven’t skipped a beat in 2020.

While some billed the Baltimore Ravens as the AFC favorite heading into 2020, the fact that the Kansas City Chiefs remain the team to beat shouldn’t shock fans. Patrick Mahomes still has the talented supporting cast that helped him take home the Super Bowl MVP award last February. An emphatic win over Lamar Jackson and Baltimore in Week 3 left no doubt as to who should be the Super Bowl favorite.

Pittsburgh is a bigger threat than many predicted, but if any offensive mind can poke holes in Mike Tomlin’s defense, it’s Andy Reid. Reid. Reid’s scheme has been as creative as ever this season, and with a Week 5 loss to the Las Vegas Raiders looking more and more like an aberration, the Chiefs still have a shot at the AFC’s top seed.

Midseason Awards

Most Valuable Player: Seahawks QB Russell Wilson

Offensive Player of the Year: Titans RB Derrick Henry

Defensive Player of the Year: Browns DE Myles Garrett

Offensive Rookie of the Year: Chargers QB Justin Herbert

Defensive Rookie of the Year: Buccaneers S Antoine Winfield Jr.

Comeback Player of the Year: Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger

Coach of the Year: Steelers HC Mike Tomlin​​​​

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Joseph Birdsall