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NFL midseason superlatives: Who’s the best couple, who’s the worst, and who’s getting canceled?
SportsPulse: Everyone does midseason awards and grades. So we decided to do superlatives. Jarrett Bell and Mike Jones pick who’s been the best and worst couples as well other superlatives for the first half of the NFL season.
The first half of the NFL’s 2020 season is in the books, and as Week 10 kicks off, the league and its fans should buckle up for what figures to be a wild home stretch.
The regular-season action so far has been nothing short of compelling, both on and off the field. However, uncertainty continues to loom large on both fronts.
Here’s a look at 10 burning questions that will dominate the second half of the NFL season.
1. Can the league continue to fend off a major COVID-19 disruption?
No question weighs more heavily in the NFL world. The numbers are on the rise. In the last week, the league had 56 people (15 players, 41 staff members) test positive for coronavirus. Yet so far, the NFL has managed to make adjustments. Protocols have become more stringent. Schedule-makers have displayed masterful creativity. Midway through the season, not a single previously scheduled game remains unplayed. But, the flexibility that came in the form of bye weeks soon will vanish. Can all 32 teams really get their 16 games in during the original 17-week time frame? Or will the league have to dispatch an 18th week for the regular season, or enact the expanded playoff field? Will Super Bowl LV indeed take place on Feb. 7?
2. Do the champs have a legit challenger?
It feels as though the Kansas City Chiefs remain the team to beat. But who else will distinguish themselves as elite? The Pittsburgh Steelers remain a perfect 8-0 but have exhibited some wobble. The Buffalo Bills, Tennessee Titans, Baltimore Ravens, Seattle Seahawks, Green Bay Packers, New Orleans Saints and Tampa Bay Buccaneers all show signs of promise, but each possesses a fatal flaw or two. All have some areas to shore up over the next eight weeks if they expect to have a realistic shot at dethroning Kansas City.
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3. Who forces their way into the postseason, and who falters?
If the playoffs started today, the Las Vegas Raiders and Miami Dolphins would round out the AFC’s 14-team field while the Arizona Cardinals and Los Angeles Rams nab the last NFC spots. The Cleveland Browns are close by in the AFC picture as the Indianapolis Colts just took over first place in the AFC South. In the NFC, the Chicago Bears and San Francisco 49ers are lurking.
There’s bound to be a shake-up in this playoff race. Indianapolis boasts the top defense in the league and seemingly has enough of a complementary offensive punch to contend down the stretch. Cleveland, however, could struggle without Odell Beckham Jr. It’s hard to believe in the Bears given their mediocre quarterback situation, but they do boast one of the league’s stingiest defenses. Injuries seemingly will derail San Francisco, potentially opening the door for another challenge
4. Can Tua Tagovailoa thrive?
The Dolphins’ rookie quarterback has become one of the most intriguing figures of the season. Brian Flores made the gutsiest call of his coaching tenure by benching well-respected Ryan Fitzpatrick and going to the No. 5 overall pick with Miami still in contention. Tagovailoa has helped Miami to two straight games while avoiding turnovers. He made great strides in his second start (248 passing yards and two touchdowns in a 34-31 shootout win against the Cardinals), and the Dolphins improved to 5-3. If he continues to ascend, Miami’s chances of ending a four-year playoff drought skyrockets.
5. Will a losing record win the NFC East?
Currently leading this dumpster fire division with a 3-4-1 record, Philadelphia is in line to not only reach the playoffs but host a postseason game. Washington (2-6), Dallas (2-7) and New York (2-7) remain in contention, but none of them seem primed to turn things around. But what about the Eagles? They do have experience with adversity, and they’re beginning to receive some relief from the injury bug. But even if they do manage to avoid finishing with a losing record, it might not be by much.
6. Who plays spoiler?
Two bets: the Minnesota Vikings and Atlanta Falcons. Both of these teams appear primed for rebounds. After an 0-5 start resulted in Dan Quinn’s dismissal, Atlanta has won three of the last four. Following a 1-5 start, Minnesota has won two straight.
The keys to success?
Raheem Morris took over in Atlanta and has shortened practices but has made them much more physically and mentally demanding. He’s preaching a simple message: “Nothing else matters. Just win.” The Falcons are buying in.
Mike Zimmer had seen enough Kirk Cousins interceptions and reduced the quarterback’s role to game manager while turning Dalvin Cook into the workhorse that he’s built to be.
Neither Atlanta (3-6) nor Minnesota (3-5) are out of the playoff hunt, and a 16-team field could help them. But whether they pull off dramatic comebacks or not, they both could make the road harder for other postseason hopefuls.
7. Will Antonio Brown fit in?
Probably the second-most intriguing individual of the season’s second half: The talented yet troubled Brown. The Buccaneers deemed the wide receiver worth the risk and believe he can increase their chances of winning a Super Bowl. But Brown’s debut was forgettable (three catches, 31 yards in a 38-3 blowout by the Saints). Chemistry with Tom Brady and Tampa’s already talented collection of pass catchers will take some time, but it’s always possible that Brown could wind up disrupting the flow of a work-in-progress offense. Or, given his track record, it’s fair to wonder if Brown can avoid becoming an off-field distraction who derails this contender.
8. Can Cam Newton and Bill Belichick lead New England back to respectability?
Things haven’t played out for New England the way anyone inside or outside of the organization expected. Newton has struggled, few play-makers have emerged, and the plug-and-play defense has had its ups and downs. Newton did display better decision-making Monday night in a win over the New York Jets. He was almost too conservative at times, but most importantly, he didn’t turn the ball over and he directed the game-winning drives. Buffalo and Miami are ahead in the AFC East, but it will be interesting to see if Bill Belichick can coax a winning record out of this squad or if he’s headed toward his first losing season in 20 years.
9. Can Russell Wilson finally win MVP?
The Seahawks quarterback is definitely off to an impressive start and could challenge Peyton Manning’s single-season touchdown pass record (55). But can Wilson maintain this pace, lead Seattle to the best record in the NFC and earn MVP honors for the first time in his career? He could need some help from his defense to do so. With that unit on pace to surrender a league-record 7,292 yards, the pressure seemingly is mounting for Wilson to compensate. He has forced things and paid the price in each of his team’s losses. If Seattle has a few more close losses down the stretch, Wilson again may miss out on the top individual honor.
He has plenty of competition. Let’s not forget Patrick Mahomes’ ongoing wizardry, and don’t discount Cook’s chances, especially if Minnesota turns things around. And the man who handed Wilson his first loss, Kyler Murray, just might have the best case of all for MVP honors.
10. Who gets fired next, and will diversity finally matter?
Two coaches — Quinn in Atlanta and Bill O’Brien of the Houston Texans — already have gotten the axe. More are sure to come. The Detroit Lions’ Matt Patricia? The Jets’ Adam Gase? The Jacksonville Jaguars’ Doug Marrone? And who will replace them?
A year after seeing the head coaching ranks grow even whiter, the NFL in 2020 implemented new initiatives to encourage more diversity on staffs and in front offices. But, as history has shown, diversity-themed rules only do so much. NFL owners have to want to improve diversity at the leadership positions of their own franchises. They can’t blame racist hiring practices on a weak minority pipeline. There are loads of highly qualified, well-respected candidates of color for head coach, coordinator and general manager openings.
A year after no Black men received head coaching jobs while some less-qualified white men did, the NFL and coaches of color will again watch to see if diversity finally has begun to matter.
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