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    2021 NFL midseason report — What weve learned, questions and record projections for all 32 teams – ESPN

    With nine weeks of NFL games in the books, we are officially at the midway point of the first 18-week season.

    The Arizona Cardinals (8-1) have the best record in the league and sit atop the NFC, with the Green Bay Packers, Los Angeles Rams, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Dallas Cowboys right behind them with two losses.

    Parity seems to be the theme in the AFC, where the Tennessee Titans (7-2) and Baltimore Ravens (6-2) are at the top, but nine other teams are within two games in the loss column.

    As we look ahead to the second half of the season, we asked our NFL Nation reporters to give their thoughts on what we know — and don’t know — about their teams at the midseason mark.

    Jump to:
    ARI | ATL | BAL | BUF | CAR | CHI | CIN
    CLE | DAL | DEN | DET | GB | HOU | IND
    JAX | KC | LAC | LAR | LV | MIA | MIN
    NE | NO | NYG | NYJ | PHI | PIT | SF
    SEA | TB | TEN | WSH

    AFC EAST

    What we know: The Bills were making a solid case as the best team in the AFC, but then the loss at Jacksonville happened. This remains a good football team with some areas to correct. Quarterback Josh Allen and his many weapons have not flashed like they did earlier in the season due to offensive line struggles and issues in the running game. The Bills, however, have a high ceiling and should improve when players return from injury. The defense is a step ahead of last season’s team and can give plenty of teams trouble.

    What we don’t know yet: Will the loss to the Jaguars be the exception and not a sign of bad things to come? The question going into Jacksonville was whether this team would take a step forward and go further than last season, when they lost to the Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game. The expectations are sky high, and major changes will need to be made going forward if this version of the Bills has an opportunity to be the first to go to the Super Bowl since the 1993 season.

    Final record prediction: 12-5. There will be a couple of more stumbling blocks along the way against some top opponents on the Bills’ schedule, but Buffalo will finish with one of the best records in the conference. — Alaina Getzenberg


    What we know: The Dolphins are not the playoff team most thought they would be. After winning 10 games in 2020, Miami seemed poised to take the next step and possibly challenge the Buffalo Bills for the AFC East division title. But this defense (while improved over the past two weeks) dramatically regressed from last season, quarterback Tua Tagovailoa hasn’t been healthy enough to develop, and a supposedly improved offensive line has been among the league’s worst. The Dolphins stopped a seven-game losing streak in Week 9, but at 2-7, this season is all but over.

    What we don’t know yet: What this offense looks like at full strength. receiver DeVante Parker and Tagovailoa have each missed four games, receiver William Fuller V and guard Michael Deiter have each missed six. Miami has yet to play a single snap with Parker, Fuller, Tagovailoa and Jaylen Waddle all on the field, as this new-look offense has yet to get off the ground. Tagovailoa is certainly more willing to push the ball downfield than he was as a rookie, but he hasn’t had much time nor the receivers to do so. We still don’t know what this offense’s ceiling is, but the best ability is availability, after all, so we just might be seeing it.

    Final record prediction: 5-12. Beating the Texans revitalized my faith in the Dolphins’ ability to beat bad teams, which there are enough of on their remaining schedule to squeak out a respectable finish to the season. — Marcel Louis-Jacques


    What we know: They are a mentally and physically tough team that has been in every game, and the Pats are bringing along rookie quarterback Mac Jones masterfully as he learns on the job. Their early-season struggles were a result of sloppy ball security and failure to come up with the big play in the critical situation, but that has changed over the past few weeks during a three-game winning streak that has helped turn their season around. Depth in the defensive backfield might ultimately prove to be an Achilles’ heel, but for now, they are getting the most out of what they have.

    What we don’t know yet: Is the ceiling for the Jones-led offense high enough to make a run into the playoffs? Jones has, by all accounts, performed well through the first nine games of his rookie season. There is a reason no rookie QB has ever led his team to the Super Bowl, so while Jones shows promise, he also serves up a reminder of his youth at times with mistakes. Meanwhile, on defense, the secondary is thinner than desired and is one injury away from a potentially significant drop-off.

    Final record prediction: 10-7. Two games remaining against the AFC East-leading Bills, and a home date against the surging Titans, highlight some notable hurdles ahead for the Patriots to clear. — Mike Reiss


    What we know: The Jets are who we thought they’d be: wildly inconsistent and prone to breakdowns on both sides of the ball, but also capable of producing an occasional spark that provides a glimpse into the future. They’re the youngest team in the league, and they’re playing like it. They showed promise in beating two good teams at home, the Titans and Bengals, but suffered three ugly road losses in which they were outscored 125-43. Statistically, it’s the worst defense in franchise history. You knew there would be growing pains, but not to this degree, especially with a defensive-minded head coach in Robert Saleh. The offense has perked up after a brutal start. The Jets need more of that in all areas — improvement.

    What we don’t know yet: When will rookie QB Zach Wilson be ready to make a difference? He hasn’t played up to his draft status (No. 2 overall) — only one impressive performance in six starts. In retrospect, he wasn’t ready to be a Day 1 starter. The talent is obvious, but he’s extremely raw, still learning to play within the structure of the offense. Was it a coincidence the offense came to life under injury replacement Mike White? Hardly. Wilson’s development is the key to the second half of the season. LT Mekhi Becton‘s anticipated return from knee surgery is another big storyline, along with the progress of their rookie class. They have six rookies with at least 250 snaps.

    Final record prediction: 5-12. They have four games against three of the worst teams — Dolphins (twice), Texans and Jaguars. That’ll help. — Rich Cimini

    @espn.com>

    AFC NORTH

    What we know: The Ravens are a championship contender as long as they have quarterback Lamar Jackson, who is a one-man wrecking crew. Baltimore has 14 players on injured reserve, including five starters who are out for the season, and the Ravens have the second-best record in the AFC because of Jackson’s heroics. He has led three comebacks from double-digit deficits because he is now as dangerous a passer as he is as a runner. Jackson is the second quarterback since the 1970 merger to rank in the top 10 in both passing and rushing at any point in Week 9 or later (Randall Cunningham was the other in 1990).

    What we don’t know yet: How good or bad is this defense? The Ravens can look like the worst defense in the NFL at times, when they are allowing big plays and struggle at tackling. Baltimore has given up more than 30 points in half of its games this season. Then there are times when the Ravens look like their defenses of old. Baltimore has held three teams to 17 or fewer points, including shutting down Justin Herbert and the Chargers. The challenge is only heightened going forward after Baltimore lost its second starter in the secondary to a season-ending injury; safety DeShon Elliott tore his pectoral and biceps muscles in Sunday’s overtime win over the Vikings.

    Final record prediction: 12-5. The toughest part of the schedule looms for the Ravens, who won’t face a team with a losing record over the final seven weeks of the season. — Jamison Hensley


    What we know: Both the offense and defense have had moments of brilliance through the first seven weeks. Quarterback Joe Burrow and rookie wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase have been electric at times, while the defense flummoxed the Ravens and quarterback Lamar Jackson. But the lack of an offensive rhythm and two woeful defensive outings before the off week are signs of the inconsistency the Bengals must solve.

    What we don’t know yet: Has the Bengals’ defense really turned the corner? Through the first seven weeks, Cincinnati statistically had one of the best defenses in the NFL, but it felt as if there were still some bad habits lurking beneath the surface. Indeed, over the past two games, the Bengals have resembled the porous units of old, featuring a stretch of eight true opponent drives (those not at the end of a half) that resulted in points. There will be a lot of pressure on defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo and his unit in the final nine games.

    Final record prediction: 8-9. The Bengals get back to form after their off week, but the end of the season proves to be as daunting as advertised. — Ben Baby


    What we know: That the Browns are probably better off without wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. That was on full display Sunday in a 41-16 win in Cincinnati, where, for the first time this season, the Browns resembled the team that surged into the playoffs last season. Quarterback Baker Mayfield played his sharpest game of the season, spreading the ball around, while the running game got going again behind Nick Chubb. Beckham might still be a dynamic playmaker, but he was never a fit for Mayfield or coach Kevin Stefanski’s power-running scheme.

    What we don’t know yet: Whether the Browns can build off of Sunday’s win and rekindle their 2020 formula. They certainly had it working in Cincinnati. The power running game. The opportunistic defense. The best version of Mayfield, who was as crisp and accurate as he’d been all season. Cleveland immediately took off after Beckham’s season-ending injury in Cincinnati in Week 7 of last season. But this time around, the schedule will be much tougher down the stretch, featuring a more competitive AFC North. Time will tell if Sunday’s performance was a blip or who the Browns will be moving forward.

    Final record prediction: 10-7. Cleveland’s defense is better than last season, and Cleveland’s offense behind Mayfield appears to have found itself at the right time once again. — Jake Trotter


    What we know: The Steelers will go as far as the offensive line takes them. Beginning with the loss at Green Bay, the offensive line started to jell, and that led to a better, more balanced offense. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger isn’t the same escape artist gunslinger he used to be, but the offensive line can maximize his current abilities by keeping him upright and buying him time to make his throws. The unit regressed against the Bears, allowing four sacks, but overall it’s trending in the right direction. More evidence of that: running back Najee Harris has touchdowns in three of the past four games and his first 100-yard rushing game.

    What we don’t know yet: What is this team’s identity? Midway through the season, the Steelers don’t have consistent calling cards on either side of the ball. Offensively, the team wants to be balanced, but going forward, that will largely depend on the health of Harris and the 39-year-old Roethlisberger. Defensively, this team hasn’t always been the juggernaut they appeared to be in the Week 1 win against the Buffalo Bills. Yes, T.J. Watt is still T.J. Watt, and Cameron Heyward is having a stellar season, but the turnovers and splash plays are few and far between. And in the kicking game, while Chris Boswell is nearly automatic, punter Pressley Harvin III is inconsistent and punt returner Ray-Ray McCloud had a costly fumble late in the win against the Bears.

    Final record prediction: 9-8. The Steelers turned a 1-3 start into 5-3 at the midway point, but the schedule only gets tougher, and the team’s glaring questions still loom large. — Brooke Pryor

    AFC SOUTH

    What we know: The Texans have one win and are going through a rebuild. But it’s clear at the midway point that Houston doesn’t have cornerstone talent to build around. General manager Nick Caserio reshaped the roster after he took over in January, signing the majority of players to one- or two-year deals. It looks like he’ll be doing that again this offseason, as there are few players on expiring contracts who make sense to bring back on long-term deals. The difference is Caserio will have more draft capital in 2022. Even before the Texans trade quarterback Deshaun Watson, Houston will have its own first-round pick for the first time in three years.

    What we don’t know yet: The future of the Texans’ quarterback situation. The only thing Houston seems to know for certain is quarterback Deshaun Watson will not play for the franchise again. Since the trade deadline passed with no deal, the Texans will try to trade him during the offseason. Tyrod Taylor, who looked sharp in the first six quarters he played before injuring his left hamstring in Week 2, struggled in his return Sunday, throwing three interceptions. Houston didn’t get much better quarterback play from rookie third-round pick Davis Mills in Taylor’s absence, so the questions surrounding the position continue. Even without trading Watson for first-round picks, the Texans’ own first-round pick is trending toward being in the top three. Will Houston opt to use that pick on a player they hope will be their franchise quarterback or decide whether a player currently on their roster is a better option for next season?

    Final record prediction: 2-15. After a loss to Miami to end the first half of the season, Houston’s best bet (or worst, considering draft implications) to get its second win probably comes against the New York Jets at home or in Jacksonville in Week 15. — Sarah Barshop


    What we know: The Colts would have a winning record if they had a “killer instinct.” Quarterback Carson Wentz said they lacked it after blowing a 19-point lead in the final 18 minutes against Baltimore in Week 5. Cornerback Kenny Moore II said it again after they squandered a 14-point lead in their overtime loss to Tennessee in Week 8. The Colts have yet to beat a team with a winning record this season. They can’t use youth as an excuse, either, because they have a relatively experienced roster. The Colts can’t be considered a playoff-caliber team until they start beating postseason contenders.

    What we don’t know yet: If the Colts will ever have a pass rush. They used their first two draft picks on defensive ends Kwity Paye and Dayo Odeyingbo. The two have combined for zero sacks (Odeyingbo missed the first seven games with an Achilles injury) and the Colts have 17 sacks for the season. To put that into perspective, the Colts have forced more turnovers (18) than sacks. Colts general manager Chris Ballard has been successful with some picks in the draft. However, he can’t say that when it comes to selecting pass-rushers, because they’re still looking for their next Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney on the edges.

    Final record prediction: 9-8. It’s hard to be a playoff team if you can’t beat playoff-caliber teams. — Mike Wells


    What we know: The offense has to work for everything it gets — and it’s not getting much. The Jaguars are averaging 16.5 points per game (30th) and 332.9 yards per game (23rd). They’ve also managed eight explosive plays (a rush of 20 or more yards or a reception of 30 or more yards). Trevor Lawrence is making progress, but he’s dealing with injuries on the offensive line and a group of receivers that is among the bottom third in the NFL in production. It’s obvious the Jaguars need to get Lawrence some help, but it’s not going to come until the offseason, so they’ll have to muddle their way through the second half of the season.

    What we don’t know yet: Is Urban Meyer going to work out as an NFL coach? The biggest on-field red flag was the way the team performed in the opener and after the bye week. The Jaguars looked unprepared, sloppy and confused. They also had trouble lining up or getting the correct number of players on the field — and they had 26 penalties combined in those two games and have averaged 6.5 penalties in the other six games. Those issues — with the possible exception of penalties — are related to coaching, and that falls squarely at Meyer’s feet.

    Final record prediction: 4-13. Can’t expect the defense to perform every week the way it did against the Bills, but Houston and the Jets are the two most winnable games remaining. — Mike DiRocco


    What we know: The Titans are gradually peaking on offense and defense. After starting off slowly from a turnovers perspective, Tennessee’s defense has generated 11 turnovers in their past six games. Safety Kevin Byard is responsible for five of them, and he returned a fumble for a touchdown in Week 4 and an interception for a touchdown in Week 9. Harold Landry‘s evolution into a top-level pass-rusher, as shown by his nine sacks this season, has bolstered the defense. The offense has scored at least 27 points in five consecutive games with quarterback Ryan Tannehill and wide receiver A.J. Brown catching fire. But with league-leading running back Derrick Henry having season-ending foot surgery last week, the defense will have to continue to step up for the AFC’s top team in the standings.

    What we don’t know yet: Losing Henry to a foot injury will be the biggest test Tennessee has faced. The Titans will look to a committee approach that consists of Adrian Peterson, D’Onta Foreman and Jeremy McNichols to handle the rushing duties. Although an elite rushing attack isn’t mandatory for play-action to work, having Henry in the backfield made it more deadly. It was Henry who was called upon when they needed a game-changing play. The Titans need to find out who their clutch player will be on offense.

    Final record prediction: 13-4. The Titans have completed the toughest portion of their schedule and have games primarily against teams without winning records. — Turron Davenport

    AFC WEST

    What we know: The Broncos can be part of the playoff conversation if they commit to playing offense with quarterback Teddy Bridgewater under center about half the time and keep the run game relevant. If they don’t, they could be picking in the top 10 in 2022. They’re 5-0 in games when Bridgewater has spent 50% of his time under center but 0-4 when they have leaned on personnel groupings with him in the shotgun more than 70% of the time. They do everything better, including throw the ball down the field, when Bridgewater is playing and play-action is on the table.

    What we don’t know yet: Whether they can survive a growing list of injuries. They played four rookies on defense in each of their past two wins. Between injured reserve, COVID-19 reserve and players injured during Sunday’s game, the Broncos were down 13 starters by the end of Week 9. They’ve shown some grit, but they will have to continue to have quality play from their rookie class, as well as some backups (especially on the offensive line) if they are going to keep themselves in the hunt over the next few weeks.

    Final record prediction: 9-8. They can finish better if they find the level of maturity and attention to detail they showed in Dallas, or they can finish far worse if they show the across-the-board stumbles they did in the Oct. 17 loss to the Raiders. — Jeff Legwold


    What we know: Their offensive problems run deep. They have 36 points in their past three games and are getting few of their signature big plays. Quarterback Patrick Mahomes not only hasn’t been enough to pull the Chiefs out of their slump but he has been part of the problem. Over the past five weeks, he’s been 28th in QBR, 29th in completion percentage and 31st in yards per attempt. The reason the Chiefs found a way to win three of those five games is that their defense has come to life. It will have to stay alive if the Chiefs are to make something of their season.

    What we don’t know yet: Whether they are a playoff team. It has been easy to take that for granted with the Chiefs, who have reached the postseason in six straight seasons, the last five as AFC West champions. But these Chiefs are a team we don’t know, one that suddenly is playing decent defense (16 points per game allowed over their past four) but is mired in a deep slump on offense with Mahomes struggling like at no time in his career. Even with the Chiefs being a half-game out of the division lead, the road to a sixth consecutive title will be difficult. All of their remaining opponents are currently over .500.

    Final record prediction: 9-8. The Chiefs have too many problems to realistically think they can play much better than .500 over the final eight games of a rugged finishing schedule. — Adam Teicher


    What we know: Their offense can be elite and the defense is much improved. Quarterback Derek Carr is on pace for 5,450 passing yards and 28 TDs and is usually extremely accurate, but Sunday’s off performance at the Giants is cause for concern. As is the on-again, off-again rushing attack. Defensively, Yannick Ngakoue has two sacks in three of the Raiders’ past four games and is teaming quite nicely with bookend defensive end Maxx Crosby, who has five sacks himself. Pressure and coverage working hand in hand? Yes, what with veteran cornerback Casey Hayward Jr. playing at a level not seen in these parts since Nnamdi Asomugha was shutting down half the field.

    What we don’t know yet: Was Sunday’s 23-16 loss in the Meadowlands a mere blip or a peek into the immediate future and another second-half collapse? Look, 6-4 and 6-3 starts the previous two seasons ended with records of 7-9 and 8-8. And after entering the bye week 5-2 with a very winnable game at New York up next, things looked up. But the Raiders were sluggish, especially Carr, who turned the ball over three times. Perhaps, in a football sense only, Las Vegas gets a pass, given the emotional roller-coaster it has been on the past month, with coach Jon Gruden’s resignation and former Raiders receiver Henry Ruggs III‘s tragic car crash that killed 23-year-old Tina Tintor and her dog. With the Chiefs up next, and in prime time, we’ll get a better sense.

    Final record prediction: 9-8: Same prediction as entering the season, though this would be a bit of a downturn after that surprising 5-2 start. — Paul Gutierrez


    What we know: We know they have a star in quarterback Justin Herbert. He struggled in two recent losses (18-of-35 passing for 223 yards and two interceptions against the Patriots in Week 8 and 22-of-39 for 195 yards and a pick against the Ravens in Week 6) but rose to the occasion against the Eagles on Sunday (32-of-38 for 356 yards and two touchdowns). That’s an 84.2% completion percentage, including 16-of-16 against the Eagles’ zone coverage, which is tied for the third-most completions without an incompletion against the zone since 2006. He also rushed for a TD against the Eagles. That performance showed that Herbert is the real deal.

    What we don’t know yet: Defensively, they are decimated in the secondary, with cornerbacks Asante Samuel Jr (concussion) and Michael Davis (hamstring) out and safety Alohi Gilman fighting an ankle injury. They’ve got all-everything safety Derwin James Jr., but the injuries don’t help a defense that is last in the NFL against the run (161.6 yards allowed per game). Getting tackle Justin Jones back was helpful, but the Chargers gave up 176 yards on the ground against the Eagles, the fifth game in which opponents gained at least 176 rushing yards. The Chargers will have to rely on Chris Harris Jr and Nasir Adderley, backups Tevaughn Campbell and Mark Webb Jr., and the newly signed Kiondre Thomas to plug the holes in the secondary and hope the run defense toughens up.

    Final record prediction: 13-4. They are strong enough offensively to carry them to that lofty record if the defense can hold up. — Shelley Smith

    NFC EAST

    What we know: As disheartening as the 30-16 loss to Denver appears to be, the Cowboys are a legitimate contender. This team looks as talented as any since the 1990s Super Bowl teams, including the 2007 and 2016 teams that had home-field advantage in the playoffs and the 2014 team that could score on anybody and made it to the second round of the playoffs. Quarterback Dak Prescott is playing at an MVP level. Running back Ezekiel Elliott looks like he did his first few years. Receivers Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb are difficult to contain, same with tight end Dalton Schultz. The offensive line is at the top of its game, provided left tackle Tyron Smith is healthy. The defense has performed better than anybody expected, and Micah Parsons is a candidate for Defensive Rookie of the Year.

    What we don’t know yet: Let’s just say the Broncos’ loss was a one-off. Can they finish with the best record in the conference? The Jan. 2 meeting against the Arizona Cardinals could be the deciding game if they continue to win out. Games at Kansas City and New Orleans will be difficult, but the Cowboys have shown some mettle on the road, winning three straight after taking the defending Super Bowl champion Buccaneers to the end in the opener at Raymond James Stadium. Three straight road games in December will be a test. The offense is elite; the defense will be pushed by quarterbacks Patrick Mahomes, Derek Carr and Kyler Murray, but they have mostly answered the bell this season.

    Final record prediction: 12-5. Not many would have predicted 12-5 at the start of the season, but that appears realistic at the moment. Have we mentioned the loss to the Broncos yet? — Todd Archer


    What we know: This isn’t a very good team. The offensive line remains problematic, questions about quarterback Daniel Jones persist and the defense underperformed for much of the first half of the season without any serious rush off the edges. But at least there’s with some hope that the team will be healthier and better down the stretch. The result is the Giants’ are a longshot — at best — to be a serious playoff contender. They are 3-6, which just so happens to be their best record through nine games since 2016. So maybe at least coach Joe Judge & Co. are making progress, albeit at a snail’s pace.

    What we don’t know yet: What would this team look like with all its players healthy? That remains unknown because of injury. Also unknown: Is Jones a true franchise quarterback they can build around? No team has more games lost to injuries by their Week 1 starters than the Giants. Running back Saquon Barkley and wide receivers Sterling Shepard, Kenny Golladay and Darius Slayton have all missed at least three games. Rookie wide receiver Kadarius Toney missed two. They have not played a game this season when all of them were at full strength or at the top of their game. Instead, it has been a mishmash of players around Jones.

    Final record prediction: 7-10. The Giants should be healthier and better, and the schedule in the second half of the season is much softer. — Jordan Raanan


    What we know: It’s a team in transition, led by a green coaching staff that has been slow to adapt. First-year coach Nick Sirianni has finally hit on the right offensive formula — featuring a heavy dose of the run coupled with a play-action pass game — but too much was placed on the shoulders of 23-year-old quarterback Jalen Hurts for the bulk of the first half. Defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon, meanwhile, continues to lean on a soft, zone-heavy scheme that quality quarterbacks have routinely shredded. Five quarterbacks have completed 80-plus percent of their passes against the Eagles this season. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Philadelphia allowed six QBs to hit that completion rate between 1950-2020. It has been historically bad. The Eagles can look dominant against lesser opponents — see the blowout wins over the Falcons and Lions — but their inexperience and vulnerabilities are exploited by the better teams and quarterbacks in the league.

    What we don’t know yet: Whether Hurts is the long-term answer. Sirianni offered some high praise of the second-year quarterback following Sunday’s 27-24 loss to Chargers, telling NBC that Hurts made plays in the game “that I don’t think any other quarterback in the NFL can make.” He entered this week ranked fifth in red zone passer rating (116.8) and with the seventh-most total yards (3,289) by a quarterback through his first 12 career games in NFL history. He has also been held below 200 passing yards in five of nine starts this season, tied with Justin Fields for most such starts this year, per ESPN Stats & Information. A lack of repetitive accuracy has been costly. The question is whether Hurts can develop that part of his game enough between now and the end of the season to keep management from spending its handsome draft capital on another signal-caller.

    Final record prediction: 7-10. They have one of the easiest closing schedules in the league and should be able to finish on a semipositive note. — Tim McManus


    What we know: Washington still needs a quarterback. Even if Ryan Fitzpatrick had remained healthy, this likely would still be the case. Fitzpatrick, who turns 39 this month, was always viewed as a short-term option, of course. While some fans hoped Taylor Heinicke might be that guy, NFL evaluators always viewed him as a backup. If that’s all he is, it’s still quite a leap from being out of the league a year ago — and Washington needed to find a backup, too. He can help. But Washington needs to find its guy. Since 2018 — the year after Kirk Cousins left — Washington ranks last in the NFL with a total combined QBR of 36.8; it ranks 27th this season.

    What we don’t know yet: Can the defense step up? At the end of last season, it was playing well and entered this season considered one of the best in the NFL. In hindsight, that was way too optimistic, because it has struggled most of the season. It’s not just because the unit is facing better quarterbacks than it did in 2020, either. It’s a multitude of sins, from underperforming players — veteran corner William Jackson III; second-year end Chase Young — to a struggling linebacker group to botched coverages and some questionable early personnel decisions and alignments. To feel good heading into 2022, Washington needs the defense, which has started to play better, to get right in the second half. Will it happen?

    Final record prediction: 5-12. Washington returns some key players from injury in the second half, but hasn’t yet shown it can play a complete game, and the schedule remains difficult. — John Keim

    NFC NORTH

    What we know: The Bears struggle offensively. Chicago’s offense has been stuck in neutral for the past three years with no signs of sustained improvement. The Bears just find ways to lose games, plain and simple. The team is undisciplined when it comes to penalties — Chicago was flagged 12 times in Week 9’s Monday night loss at Pittsburgh. To make matters worse, the defense is showing major cracks. Long considered the strength of the team, the unit has been reeling the past two games without star pass-rusher Khalil Mack. The Bears are just good enough to keep it semi-interesting, but they are ultimately not good enough to compete for anything.

    What we don’t know: How good quarterback Justin Fields can be. The rookie has shown glimpses of greatness. Fields’ 22-yard touchdown run vs. San Francisco was sensational, as was the go-ahead drive late in the Steelers game. In between, Fields has looked like a first-year quarterback attempting to find his way. And that’s alright. It will take time with Fields. The good news for the Bears is they have all the patience in the world. Either this current regime or the next one will be given the chance to properly develop the Ohio State product. Fields isn’t going anywhere in the immediate future.

    Final record prediction: 7-10. The offense just isn’t good enough for a trip to the playoffs. — Jeff Dickerson


    What we know: This is the fourth time the Lions have hit 0-8 since moving to Detroit in 1934, with it last happening in 2008 during the infamous 0-16 season. Although the 44-6 beatdown against the Eagles on Halloween didn’t reflect it, this team does play hard and can be competitive against tough teams, such as the Week 7 loss on the road against the Los Angeles Rams where they led 19-17 entering the fourth quarter. They also became the first team in NFL history to lose twice in a season on 50-plus-yard field goals on the final play of regulation, two games that could have gone the other way.

    What we don’t know yet: If they will win a game. Although quarterback Jared Goff & Co. say they aren’t thinking about the possibility of an 0-17 season, at this point, it can’t be ruled out. The mood in the locker room was obviously down after the loss on Halloween, which on paper, appeared to be a winnable contest but turned into their worst loss of the year. There are a bunch of holes on this team, notably on an offense coach Dan Campbell described as “very anemic” after the Eagles loss. Finding more production from receivers such as Amon-Ra St. Brown and Kalif Raymond would be a great start.

    Final record prediction: 2-15. The Lions will continue to play hard, but the schedule doesn’t get any easier and they pretty much have to play perfectly to win a game based on their talent level. — Eric Woodyard


    What we know: This team was rolling before quarterback Aaron Rodgers went on the COVID-19 list, and while coach Matt LaFleur said the Packers played with “championship-level effort and championship-level execution” on defense, this team is still all about Rodgers. As good as receiver Davante Adams is, his connection with Rodgers makes him that much better. It’s hard to argue with LaFleur’s success — he’s 33-8 in the regular season — but there still seems to be some holes, especially on special teams. To be sure, not many teams are dominant in all three phases, but the Packers have a significant weakness on special teams that doesn’t seem to be going away.

    What we don’t know yet: What impact, if any, Rodgers’ COVID-19 absence — and the fallout from his explanation about being unvaccinated — will have on the rest of the season. There has been no indication any of Rodgers’ teammates have an issue with what transpired after his positive test. But if you’re a believer in momentum, then it’s worth wondering if him missing a game — even if it’s only one game — will derail the Packers.

    Final record prediction: 13-4. The Packers have three road games left — and two of them are against struggling division foes in Detroit and Minnesota — so having five home games in the second half of the year gives them a good chance to keep rolling as long as they have Rodgers. — Rob Demovsky


    What we know: The Vikings lead the league in one-score games (seven) and one-score losses (five), a byproduct of their inability to put away teams and be consistently aggressive. What’s abundantly clear through nine weeks is this Vikings offense is a shell of the one that ranked 11th in scoring and fourth in yards a season ago. Minnesota has the talent, from Dalvin Cook to Justin Jefferson to Adam Thielen, but it has an identity crisis. Is it a run-first team? Should it be more pass heavy with two top receivers? We know the Vikings spent a ton of money to fix their defense, and while it has flashed improvement, it’s not consistently strong enough to be a top-10 unit. What’s clear about the Vikings is the trajectory they’re on is not sustainable. With franchise-altering decisions on the line this offseason, from what to do with quarterback Kirk Cousins‘ contract and whether to retain coach Mike Zimmer and general manager Rick Spielman, change might be inevitable if this team fails to make the postseason.

    What we don’t know yet: Before Week 9, the Vikings had the fewest rookie contributions of any team with one of the largest draft classes (11 players). A loss at Baltimore provided a glimpse of how big an impact these rookies can make when given the opportunity as Kene Nwangwu returned a kick 98 yards and Cam Bynum had an interception. But will those opportunities be consistent? Minnesota needs to capitalize on the speed and quickness of Nwangwu by incorporating him in the offense. It’s not likely third-string quarterback Kellen Mond plays this season, but the Vikings need to field the rest of their third-round picks (guard Wyatt Davis, defensive end Patrick Jones II and linebacker Chazz Surratt) to see if they’re capable of being a part of the plan going forward.

    Final record prediction: 8-9. The Vikings will steal a game they’re not favored in — probably San Francisco or Pittsburgh — beat Detroit and split with their remaining division opponents, but it might not be enough to earn them the No. 7 seed in the NFC playoffs. — Courtney Cronin

    NFC SOUTH

    What we know: Quarterback Matt Ryan has adjusted to coach Arthur Smith’s offense, completing 69.4% of his passes — on pace for the second-most accurate season of his career. He has continued to be the picture of consistency. Offensive surprise Cordarrelle Patterson, already with a career-high 737 all-purpose yards, might be the most improved player in the league. Cornerback A.J. Terrell continues to ascend, allowing opponents to complete fewer than 50% of passes against him. It has all made Atlanta a team that will fight and play to the end — three of its four wins have come on Younghoe Koo field goals.

    What we don’t know yet: Will the pass rush ever come? It has been a slow go throughout the first half of the season — no individual player has more than two sacks — and if the Falcons remain unable to be consistent with their pressure, it’ll limit what defensive coordinator Dean Pees is able to fully do. Atlanta has lived on a thin balance this season, and that sustainability over a 17-game schedule — when a playoff bid could be possible — is a tough line for first-year coach Smith to walk. So far, it has happened, but tougher stretches of the schedule remain.

    Final record prediction: 8-9. The Falcons continue to play stress-inducing games, leaving themselves right around .500. — Michael Rothstein


    What we know: This, as coach Matt Rhule said, is a defensive team. That unit with six first-round picks and three second-round picks is built to win now. When everyone is healthy, they can pressure the quarterback into mistakes and keep games close enough to win. As recently acquired Pro Bowl corner Stephon Gilmore gets more acclimated into the system, they will only improve. This group, as Rhule said, also needs help from the offense. The Panthers have to run the ball and control the clock to keep the defense fresh. The problem is quarterback Sam Darnold, who was diagnosed Tuesday with an incomplete fracture of his right shoulder blade, keeps making too many mistakes for the offense or defense to be successful.

    What we don’t know yet: Whether Darnold is good enough to consistently win when he returns after missing time because of the shoulder injury and running back Christian McCaffrey can stay healthy enough to be a factor. Darnold and McCaffrey together are 3-1 this season. The problem is McCaffrey (hamstring) has missed five games this season and 18 of 25 since Rhule took over. Darnold’s numbers were substantially better with McCaffrey until his three-interception performance in Week 9 against New England, but he was making poor decisions in four of the five games before the injury. That’s not a good outlook for the future this season or next. It might be time for Carolina to admit it made a mistake trading for the Jets’ former first-round pick and stick with backup P.J. Walker the rest of the year.

    Final record prediction: 7-10. Losses to Philadelphia, Minnesota and the New York Giants will come back to haunt Carolina, as the final four games against Buffalo, Tampa Bay twice and New Orleans on the road will be tough to win. — David Newton


    What we know: Well, this certainly changes by the week, doesn’t it? We know the Saints are a resilient team that has some of the best coaching/defense/run game/offensive line play in the NFL and can beat anyone when they’re on their game (see Packers, Buccaneers, Patriots). Unfortunately for them, they also had one of the league’s shakiest passing attacks even before quarterback Jameis Winston tore his ACL and we found out receiver Michael Thomas would miss the season. Their margin of error is paper-thin after all the key players they’ve lost to retirement, salary-cap cuts and injuries. But it will still be a disappointment if they miss the playoffs.

    What we don’t know yet: Believe it or not, their Week 9 loss at home to the Falcons was almost somewhat encouraging? Quarterback Trevor Siemian looked like a competent pro for the second week in a row while nearly bringing them back to victory, and fellow quarterback Taysom Hill provided a spark in limited action. But that position obviously remains a question mark for a team that lost Drew Brees to retirement and Winston to injury. And they absolutely must find more reliable pass-catchers while continuing to lean heavily on their defense and running backs Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram.

    Final record prediction: 10-7. Don’t bother looking at the schedule since they usually win as underdogs and lose as favorites — but 5-4 down the stretch seems reasonable for a team that is healthier now than it was earlier this year. — Mike Triplett


    What we know: Quarterback Tom Brady‘s comfort level with the offense has risen significantly in Year 2 with the Bucs. His 331.25 passing yards per game puts him on pace for the third-most in his 22nd season. His 3.13 touchdowns per game are second most, and the team is looking far more balanced, utilizing the ground game with running back Leonard Fournette. We’ve also seen the defense come up with some big-time performances despite being ravaged by injuries in the secondary. But they’ve also shown they can be self-destructive with penalties (11 against New Orleans for 99 yards in the 36-27 loss before the Week 9 bye). And even though they’re 6-2, home-field advantage in the postseason will be far more important with the return of fans, and the NFC has a logjam at the top, so the margin for error is slim.

    What we don’t know yet: How many key players can get healthy for this second-half stretch? Cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting and Scotty Miller began their 21-day practice window to come back from injured reserve during the bye week. Wide receiver Antonio Brown is still in a walking boot. Tight end Rob Gronkowski played five snaps against the Saints because of back spasms and Arians said he probably shouldn’t have played any. After 20 games (including postseason) last year — miraculous considering his injury history — is this more of what we can expect from Gronk, or can the coaching staff strike the right balance of usage so he can return? Cornerback Richard Sherman was active against the Saints but did not play a snap because of a hamstring injury. How much juice will he have down the stretch?

    Final record prediction: 14-3. The schedule makers were kind to Tampa Bay, with the Bucs’ next nine games featuring opponents that are a combined 28-40, and the Bucs get their toughest remaining foes — Buffalo and New Orleans — at home. — Jenna Laine

    NFC WEST

    What we know: This team is good. Like very good. It has an offense that can score 30 points and a defense that can get to the quarterback, force turnovers and keep teams out of the end zone. It’s a simple formula: Score a lot and keep the other team from scoring. But this year’s Cardinals have something this franchise hasn’t had in a while: A mix of elite talent, an MVP-caliber quarterback, veteran leadership, some luck and top-notch coaching. That’s the recipe for a team that could — and should — make a run to the Super Bowl.

    What we don’t know yet: If they can keep this up down the stretch. We saw what happened to them a year ago, when they finished 3-6 after starting 5-2, playing with an injured Kyler Murray for the second half of the season. Murray is currently nursing a sprained left ankle, making this season eerily similar to last. But the Cardinals do seem smarter about handling Murray this year, as they held him out of their Week 9 win at the 49ers. Is this team capable of stepping over adversity as the playoffs approach or will it be tripped up? Only time will tell.

    Final record prediction: 15-2. The Cardinals have a relatively easy final eight games but could slip once more, either against the Rams on Monday Night Football or against the Cowboys in Dallas. — Josh Weinfuss


    What we know: The Rams have gone all-in to win a Super Bowl at owner Stan Kroenke’s $5 billion SoFi Stadium on Feb. 13. They’ve built a roster that features a top quarterback in Matthew Stafford, three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald, All-Pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey and most recently added All-Pro outside linebacker Von Miller ahead of the trade deadline. The Rams can produce dominant performances on offense, like the one seen in a 34-24 victory over the Buccaneers in Week 3, and on defense they’ve proved to be capable of making game-changing (and game-saving) plays, such as in wins over the Colts, Seahawks and Lions.

    What we don’t know yet: The Rams have superstars, but can they put it all together as a team? Inconsistency has been the biggest issue, whether that’s a slow start on offense or the inability to have all three phases perform great in the same outing. The Rams also must prove they can play from behind. When punched early by the Cardinals and Titans, the Rams were unable to match the physicality of both teams and therefore were unable to dig themselves out of early holes in both losses. Rams coach Sean McVay has a phenomenal record (46-0) when leading at the half. But when trailing? McVay is 6-17 and must prove that he can make halftime adjustments that can enable a comeback.

    Final record prediction: 12-5. Watch for the Rams to finish second in the NFC West behind the Cardinals, one of three tough road matchups they have in the second half of the season (along with the Packers and Ravens). — Lindsey Thiry


    What we know: The 49ers aren’t legitimate contenders. Entering the season, the Niners believed they had the pieces to not only return to the postseason but push to get back to the Super Bowl. It’s why they have stuck by veteran quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo rather than handing the keys to rookie Trey Lance. They were wrong. The roster is full of players with lengthy injury histories, the reconfigured coaching staff has struggled to find its footing and the rookie class has offered little spark. Similar to 2019, this team was supposed to be built around a dominant pass rush and running game. It has neither and that team is looking more and more like an aberration.

    What we don’t know yet: When Lance will take over for Garoppolo. It’s the question that has loomed and it’s not going away any time soon, especially as this season slips further away. This has always been a matter of when and not if, but coach Kyle Shanahan doesn’t want to throw Lance in until he believes he’s ready. Shanahan has said he won’t just play Lance to get him experience. If this season continues trending in the current direction, though, the only thing to be gained will be to get Lance up and running so he can be ready next season. The Shanahan-general manager John Lynch era is going to be defined by Lance’s development. It might end up being the only way this season avoids becoming a total loss.

    Final record prediction: 7-10. This team hasn’t showed the consistency to string together enough victories to make the postseason or even to get to a winning record. — Nick Wagoner


    What we know: They’ve dug themselves quite the hole. As a result, their chances of making the playoffs feel slimmer than they have around the midpoint since they drafted quarterback Russell Wilson in 2012. The reasons they’re in this unfamiliar position are obvious: Wilson missed three-plus games and their defense started historically slow again. But things are starting to look up: Backup quarterback Geno Smith helped snap a three-game losing streak when he led the Seahawks to a feel-good win over Jacksonville, their defense is settling in and Wilson has been cleared to return for Sunday’s game against the Packers, who could be without Aaron Rodgers.

    What we don’t know yet: How good can the Seahawks be with a healthy Wilson and an improving defense? Because they haven’t had both going at the same time this year, with Wilson injuring his finger just as the defense was just starting to turn things around. The hope is that Wilson can play against the Packers. Facing reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers, if he’s cleared to play after testing positive for COVID-19 last week, will be a litmus test of how far the Seahawks’ defense has come after showing improvement against lesser quarterbacks (an aging Ben Roethlisberger, an erratic Jameis Winston in bad weather and rookie Trevor Lawrence). If Wilson returns to his usual form and they continue to trend upward on the other side of the ball, the Seahawks will give themselves a chance to sneak into the NFC’s final playoff spot.

    Final record prediction: 9-8. Wilson’s return and their improving defense will get the Seahawks to nine wins — including an upset of either the Rams or Cardinals — but that might not be enough for a playoff berth. — Brady Henderson

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