Monday Night’s Week 9 matchup between the Ravens and Saints will mark the midway point of the 18-week NFL season, and as we cross into the back nine, it’s clear the NFL has had a changing of the guard.
Entering the 2022 NFL season, there was a lot of thought that there might be less playoff turnover than most years, which should have been a warning flag that the league was set for some upheaval, because if history tells us anything, it’s that the NFL is rarely predictable. While a few preseason favorites remain viable contenders, there have been more misses than hits in pegging the season’s best teams, particularly in the NFC, where only two of last year’s seven playoff teams have a record above .500.
We’ll get into those teams and more developments around the NFL, but before we do, be sure to get signed up for The Oracle’s picks today; analysts may have been off on preseason projections, but The Oracle continues to crush it with his weekly NCAA and NFL picks.
Packers, Rams, Cardinals Finished At Midway Point?
At present, 9 teams in the NFC have registered at least 4 wins. Three 2021 playoff teams, the Packers (3-6), Rams (3-5), and Cardinals (3-6) are not on that list.
It’s difficult to imagine how any of these teams are going to rally given how the NFL season has played out so far. Green Bay’s problems on offense started with ineffective play at wide receiver and injuries on the offensive line, but the situation has spiraled completely out of control. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers compounded all the other issues by turning in one of the worst performances of his NFL career, and he is unlikely to rebound with running back Aaron Jones joining receivers Allen Lazard, Sammy Watkins, Randall Cobb, Christian Watson, and Romeo Doubs on the injury train. Throw in the fact that left tackle David Bakhtiari was once again unable to play a full game on his surgically-repaired knee, and the -1100 odds on Green Bay to miss the NFL playoffs are looking like a bet on a sure thing.
As for the Rams, it would be nice if an injury at left tackle helped to explain the issues on the offensive line, but given that Joe Noteboom was playing as poorly as any starter in the NFL before his injury, it’s hard to argue he would make much difference if healthy. With no run game to speak of and veteran receiver Allen Robinson failing to fit in, the Rams’ offense boils down to Matthew Stafford finding Cooper Kupp, and that’s not enough. The decision to sink a combined $30 million in cap space into Robinson and Noteboom may have slammed the window shut on this team’s time as a contender; their “F the draft picks” approach might have continued to work without those missteps, but Los Angeles didn’t have the wiggle room to commit $30 million to marginal contributors. The Rams are -250 to miss the NFL Playoffs; the defense has lived up to expectations, but as bad as this offense has been and as far back as the Rams are in the standings, -250 feels like a very favorable price.
Of the three teams, Arizona’s demise was perhaps the most widely anticipated, but given the relative lack of success the Cardinals had before they signed GM Steve Kiem, head coach Kliff Kingsbury, and quarterback Kyler Murray to contract extensions before the season, their struggles might be the hardest to swallow. Nobody was asking if the Rams were crazy to extend Sean McVay, or if the Packers were handing Aaron Rodgers too much money relative to his achievements. However, many NFL analysts had those questions about all three of Arizona’s extensions, and now that DeAndre Hopkins’ return has failed to sway the tide despite the receiver’s outstanding play, it’s fair to wonder what the heck will happen if the Cardinals unravel down the stretch. Their DraftKings’s playoff odd of -2000 reflect the long path they face to a return trip; much like Green Bay, this bet is starting to feel like a sure thing.
The Bucs have also disappointed, but the NFC South still offers a path to the NFL Playoffs should they figure some things out and get hot. The Packers, Rams, and Seahawks play in divisions with the 7-1 Vikings and 6-3 Seahawks, so they don’t have that luxury, which means we’re likely to see all three teams sitting at home when the playoffs roll around.
AFC East: 4 Playoff Teams?
After nine weeks, there are nine teams in the AFC with at least 5 wins, and 4 play in the AFC East.
With Zach Wilson and the Jets handing Josh Allen’s Bills a second loss in the division, Buffalo’s AFC East title is no longer the seemingly sure thing it once was. In fact, Buffalo’s -550 odds to win the AFC East might be generous; Miami is +550 and the Jets +2000, which seem like long odds for teams with an offense like Miami’s or a defense like New York’s.
Given that the Bengals found their run game this week, it appears the AFC North and West will each have two playoff contenders (assuming Cleveland doesn’t rally when Deshaun Watson returns), and given that the AFC East teams will beat up on each other, it’s more likely that only two or three squads make the playoffs. However, the Chargers just struggled to beat a bad Falcons team, the Bengals have been wildly inconsistent, and Baltimore isn’t exactly winning games comfortably, so it’s not impossible to imagine all four AFC East squads in the mix come the season’s final weeks.
The biggest takeaway from all of this? The Chiefs have a terrific chance to secure AFC’s #1 seed despite their loss to Buffalo. Before the NFL season, Kansas City’s schedule looked daunting, but the Chargers, Rams, Bengals, Broncos, and Raiders have all fallen short of expectations. In fact, the Seahawks, who looked to be a late-season breather, now appear to be the best team that the Chiefs will play in their final nine games, and Kansas City gets them at home. It would have been a different story without the comeback against Tennessee, but with that win in hand, the Chiefs at +165 to secure the AFC’s #1 seed looks pretty good, and the associated +250 odds to win the AFC outright should also be considered. After all, in that scenario, the Chiefs get a bye in the first round, and would get a chance to avenge their 24-20 loss to Buffalo on their home turf if the two teams meet.
Justin Fields, Dual-Threat QB: Better Late Than Never
Call me crazy, but somehow, I think Matt Nagy might still have a job if he had put Justin Fields in position to break the NFL’s regular season single-game rushing record for a quarterback.
The ascension of the Ohio State product raises a whole host of questions, not least of which are what the heck the (1) 49ers, (2) Falcons, (3) Lions, (4) Panthers, and (5) Broncos were doing on Draft Night in 2021. Frankly, given where Jalen Hurts’s game was on Draft Night, and where Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson’s games are today, you could throw the Eagles, Jaguars, and Jets into that discussion.
Hurts is an interesting comparison point, as is 49ers selection Trey Lance, as both quarterbacks brought undeniable athleticism along with serious questions about whether they would ever throw the ball accurately enough to succeed in the NFL. You could layer questions about whether Hurts and Lance, or Josh Allen before them, would be able to process an NFL attack, but that would only matter if they smoothed out their accuracy issues.
For all the questions that came up about his processing, there was never a question about Justin Fields’ ability to throw the ball accurately. From the time he was tearing up 7-on-7 circuits as a high school prospect, Fields’ accuracy was evident; after all, there is no running in 7-on-7, and Fields was taking home MVPs in those events. Fields’ rushing total will get the most attention from Sunday’s performance, but the touch he put on his touchdown pass to Darnell Mooney shows off his ridiculous arm talent.
Put the two together, and you have as dangerous a quarterback as you can imagine. Given what the NFL had seen from mobile quarterbacks in recent years, it’s fair to wonder what got in the way during Fields’ evaluation to prevent so many teams from taking such a freakishly talented athlete. Given their shared baseball backgrounds, you might call Fields a bigger, faster, stronger version of Kyler Murray; both needed to adapt their games to the NFL, but Fields’ arm strength, accuracy, and running ability should have been more than enough to convince a team to take him in the Top 5.
Las Vegas Raiders: Giving Broncos Fans Something to Cheer About
Left unsaid in the discussion of Green Bay’s demise is what an awful breakup this has been for Aaron Rodgers and Davante Adams. Granted, Adams has still had some quality games, even if his season numbers are well off their usual pace, but regardless, he doesn’t sound too happy with his new team.
The unfortunate thing about Adams’ assessment that the Raiders aren’t a good team is that it’s simply not accurate. Las Vegas continues to blow these leads because there are significant holes on their roster, and pre-season bluster aside, Derek Carr is not going to the NFL Hall of Fame, nor is he going to consistently lift this team to victory.
Like the Rams, the Raiders made a significant offseason error when they signed edge rusher Chandler Jones to a big-money contract to rush opposite Maxx Crosby. Crosby has been dominant, but Jones, who only had 5.5 sacks in 2021 after the first week, when he racked up 5 against the Titans and a clearly compromised Taylor Lewan. Jones has been one of my favorite players to watch over the years, both at Syracuse and in the NFL, but his peak was from 2017-2019, when he racked up 49 sacks in 48 games, and he hasn’t been the same since suffering a season-ending biceps injury early in 2020.
Some NFL folks are fond of saying you can’t overpay a great player, but if you give an average player great money, you’re in a world of hurt. For a Las Vegas team with a lot of roster issues coming out of the Jon Gruden-era, handing Jones a three-year, 51-million dollar contract that would translate to $25.6 million in dead cap space if he is cut ahead of 2023 put the Raiders in that world of hurt.
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Steven Clinton, better known as "The Professor", is a former D-1 Quality Control Assistant (Northwestern, Toledo) who holds a B.A. in Economics and M.S. in Predictive Analytics from Northwestern University. He maintains an end-to-end NFL game projection model and is a film junkie who breaks down the tape of every NFL game.