2015 NFL Midseason Report

The 2015 NFL season is sitting at the 50-yard line, so to speak. See how some of our predictions have changed since earlier this year. (Ken Durden/Shutterstock)

The 2015 NFL season is sitting at the 50-yard line, so to speak. See how some of our predictions have changed since earlier this year. (Ken Durden/Shutterstock)

While prop bets and futures are not technically our specialties (our handicapping consulting services focus solely on upcoming games), we do like to publish our long-term predictions for major championships every so often. Sometimes, we can be quite accurate. For instance, we predicted in August that the Kansas City Royals and New York Mets were among the top candidates for the World Series. When this turned out to be true, we predicted the Royals winning in five games after suffering a single loss in Game 3. We were right on the money. But long-term predictions are not always this accurate, which is why we would like to revisit our NFL predictions for the year in this 2015 NFL midseason report.

At the time of our last article on the NFL, there were five teams going undefeated. As of this point in the 2015 NFL midseason, this number has dwindled down to two. As for this year’s Super Bowl predictions, those have changed drastically. We will be detailing the changes to our predictions as we go along, noting what went wrong and what went right.

Our goal here isn’t to teach you about betting futures. That said, you might want to pay attention. You just might learn a thing or two.

AFC South

Jacksonville is by far the worst off in the AFC South right now, surprising precisely no one. (Dean Bertoncelj/Shutterstock)

Jacksonville is by far the worst off in the AFC South right now, surprising precisely no one. (Dean Bertoncelj/Shutterstock)

The AFC South isn’t exactly the strongest division right now, which isn’t too far from what we originally predicted. In fact, every single team in the AFC South currently has a losing record. When we wrote our Super Bowl predictions, the Jacksonville Jaguars were the NFL’s major underdogs with 250/1 odds of winning the AFC Championship and 500/1 odds of winning the 2016 Super Bowl. At this point in the 2015 NFL midseason, they have raised those odds to 75/1 and 150/1, respectively. They are currently third in the division with a 4-6 record, which might actually be a bit better than we expected.

To be fair, Jacksonville did say at the start of the season that they planned to be more aggressive. But given that their biggest highlight as of late was a 19-13 win against the Tennessee Titans in which QB Blake Bortles got manhandled into a backward fumble and WR Bryan Walters flubbed a trick play by throwing a wide incomplete to fellow WR Allen Robinson (who was left ridiculously open), it’s not outlandish to say that the AFC South is a bit off this year.

And since we’re mentioning the Titans, talk about a disappointment. We expected great things from Tennessee this year when new QB Marcus Mariota had about the best season opener a rookie quarterback has ever had. And that turned out to be about the last great thing Tennessee did this year. When we made our Super Bowl predictions, we said that the Jags would have to change just about everything about their play style to raise their odds. Apparently all it took was not playing for Tennessee.

The Titans are dead last in the AFC South with a 2-8 record. From the start of the season to this point in the 2015 NFL midseason, their odds of winning the AFC Championship have fallen from 50/1 to 250/1, and their odds of winning the Super Bowl have fallen from 95/1 to 450/1. They aren’t the worst odds in the NFL, but that’s not much of a consolation for a team that lost to the Jaguars on the same night they finally took steps to improve their running back rotation. Pushing Bishop Sankey to the bench was a wise move. It’s the first time he’s been benched in his two-year career, which is ridiculous considering how few carries he’s gotten in the past few games. Replacing him with rookie David Cobb might have been more questionable, seeing as his four carries resulted in a combined gain of (drumroll please)…negative three yards. So not only are the Titans disappointing right now, but any attempt to step up their game seems to be a literal step back for them. We’ve said before that we were a little overzealous in picking them as potential champions this year, but we had no idea just how bad it would be.

We offered to teach you a thing or two, so we should briefly mention that this was somewhat foreseeable. In our praise of Mariota early in the season, we failed to see the forest for the sake of one seemingly outstanding tree. And he’s still pretty darn good for a newbie. He’s had two games this season in which he’s thrown four touchdown passes with zero interceptions. Since 1970, only two other rookie quarterbacks have even managed to do that once. There’s a reason he was the second pick of the draft, but early draft picks are often doomed to waste their talents on an undeserving team. That’s pretty much what happened here.

Moving on, the next team to discuss in our 2015 NFL midseason report is the Houston Texans. And to be frank, we’ve got a bit of a bone to pick with them. Not because of their lackluster 5-5 season. We predicted that due to the weakness of their offense when they suffered their first loss in an opening game since 2009. We also can’t say we’re too surprised that their AFC Championship odds have dropped from 35/1 to 75/1, or that their Super Bowl odds have dropped from 75/1 to 150/1. What bugs us is that a struggling team managed to relieve the Cincinnati Bengals of their undefeated streak in a 10-6 win. It was about as far from predictable as you can get, especially when our favorite aspect of Cincinnati’s game this year was the flexibility of their offensive style.

One might think this is a sign that Houston is turning things around, but don’t be too quick to make that assumption. The 2015 NFL midseason brought an unexpected win, but Houston’s growing offensive strength might be attributed to a rise in QB Brian Hoyer’s completion percentage. He’s now undergoing concussion protocol after suffering memory loss during the Cincinnati game and, while it was replacement T.J. Yates who threw the winning touchdown pass that might be taking the Texans to the playoffs, there’s some uncertainty as to whether or not the team will thrive without him. We sincerely doubt that they will.

Tied with the Texans for first place in the AFC South are the Indianapolis Colts, with a 5-5 record and a drop in their Vegas odds from 9/2 to 25/1 for the AFC Championship and from 15/1 to 50/1 for the 2016 Super Bowl. We had predicted a more significant drop than this, so not all is lost for the Colts just yet. Of the five losses they’ve suffered by this stage of the 2015 NFL midseason, it’s worth noting that they didn’t suffer a single two-possession loss in their recent three-loss streak. And when you consider that they broke this streak with a narrow 27-24 win against the Denver Broncos (who at that point were still undefeated), it becomes clear that Indianapolis is still fighting tooth and nail to stay in the running for a set of rings this year.

We aren’t saying they’ll actually get there. In fact, we strongly doubt that they will. But they have a fighting chance, especially now that they’ve unleashed running back Frank Gore by removing his pitch count after he totaled 83 yards across 28 carries in the Colts’ win against the Broncos. Gore’s role on the team is vital, especially now that QB Andrew Luck is out with a lacerated kidney. He’s been replaced by Matt Hasselbeck who, at 40 years old, probably won’t establish a very explosive play style. He might need Gore to take as many carries as he can handle.

AFC West

Denver is leading the AFC West right now, but there are still some concerns as the season draws steadily to a close. (Dean Bertoncelj/Shutterstock)

Denver is leading the AFC West right now, but there are still some concerns as the season draws steadily to a close. (Dean Bertoncelj/Shutterstock)

The Denver Broncos may no longer be undefeated after losing their last two games, but their 8-2 record still keeps them well at the top of the AFC West as we enter the 2015 NFL midseason. Their Vegas odds haven’t dropped too greatly since the start of the season, only falling from 5/1 to 8/1 for the AFC Championship and from 14/1 to 18/1 for Super Bowl 50. The biggest news for the team right now is that QB Peyton Manning is out with multiple injuries, and there’s currently no existing timetable for his return to the field. Of course, since there have been many concerns over Manning’s arm this year, some fans might see this as a blessing in disguise. We’re not so certain, as we still think of Manning as a veteran play caller whose absence from the team will leave a pretty huge gap.

That said, the Broncs have made some changes leading up to the 2015 NFL midseason that could help them out a bit. After their season opener, we had identified some holes in their defensive coverage that we believed could cause problems later on. Now, the issue appears to be on offense, and there are questions as to whether or not replacement QB Brock Osweiler will be able to help the team make some much needed improvements to their running game. As for defense, Denver has been one of the better teams in the league for a while now. Some games have been closer than others, but we think they might actually have a real chance at taking things all the way. They will have to tighten things up, however, as Denver’s defense has had to pay out a ridiculous total of $420,334 in fines for just nine violations this season.

The one team we had originally thought might be able to take a leg up over the Broncos was the San Diego Chargers. Much like the Titans, however, they’ve let us down quite a bit. Currently 2-8, they’re the absolute worst team in the AFC West. Their original Vegas odds of 15/1 for the AFC Championship and 35/1 for the Super Bowl have dropped all the way down to 500/1 and 1250/1, cementing them as one of the worse teams in both the AFC and the NFL at large. The 2015 NFL midseason just granted them a much needed bye week, so there’s always a chance that they can turn things around as they come back to face one of their division opponents.

At the start of the season, we had thought that a strong offensive team led by QB Philip Rivers would be enough to give the Chargers an edge over the bulk of the competition. The sad thing is, we weren’t entirely wrong. Rivers has a very respectable quarterback rating of 100.7, which is a historical rarity for a 2-8 team. He’s not blaming his team for the losing record, but that just means he knows a thing or two about sportsmanship. The fact of the matter is that his excellent skills as a quarterback aren’t enough to save this team. And considering he’s already in his mid-thirties, there’s a relatively decent chance that he’ll never play for a San Diego worthy of his talents.

The Kansas City Chiefs were the most recent obstacle for the Chargers (crushing San Diego 33-3), and they’re still a big one since the two teams are going to be playing each other twice in the 2015 NFL midseason. At 5-5, Kansas City’s Vegas odds have dropped from 12/1 to 40/1 in the AFC Championship and from 28/1 to 75/1 in the 2016 Super Bowl. We didn’t exactly see them as prime candidates to receive rings in the postseason, but we thought they’d do at least a little bit better than they are.

One of our favorite things about the Chiefs at the start of the season was the unique approach that QB Alex Smith takes to his passing game. When the season started, none of 21 touchdown passes Smith had thrown since 2013 had been to a wide receiver. That streak finally ended in September when Smith threw to WR Jeremy Maclin. And while we don’t necessarily believe that superstition plays a role in sports, the Chiefs have had a run of bad luck since then. It happened in the second game of what became a five-game losing streak, and Maclin suffered a concussion just a few games later. Fortunately, this run of bad luck didn’t last too long. They’re currently on a three-game winning streak, and they’re holding onto hopes that they might make the playoffs.

Tied for second in the AFC West are the 4-6 Oakland Raiders, the first team on this list so far whose Vegas odds have actually improved since the start of the season. They originally had 125/1 odds for the AFC Championship and 250/1 odds for Super Bowl 50. These odds have been raised to 40/1 and 75/1, respectively. By all appearances, they’ve been making most of the changes they need. They’re going to have to play some more aggressive defense if they want a playoff bid, but most of what they’ve given us so far has indicated that they’re certainly capable of pulling it off.

That said, Oakland has had some personnel issues that could hurt them a bit. Just the other day, OLB Aldon Smith received a year-long suspension for substance abuse. And while nothing has come of it, OLB Ray-Ray Armstrong was recently investigated for barking at a police dog (we couldn’t make that up if we wanted to). On the plus side, FB Marcel Reece is no longer carrying the team in touches as he has backup in the form of FB Jamize Olawale, RB Latavius Murray, and WRs Michael Crabtree and Amari Cooper. These players have all been adding quite a bit to Oakland’s offense. The team could still use some polishing, but at least their personnel issues have been offset by some quality offensive firepower.

AFC North

Much like the Broncs, the Bengals need to show their stripes and hold onto their lead now that they’re no longer undefeated. (Dean Bertoncelj/Shutterstock)

Much like the Broncs, the Bengals need to show their stripes and hold onto their lead now that they’re no longer undefeated. (Dean Bertoncelj/Shutterstock)

As badly as the Titans and the Chargers are doing, the AFC North has a couple of teams with losing records just as bad. Currently taking last place in the division are the Cleveland Browns, whose 2-8 record has given them the worst Vegas odds in the NFL. At the beginning of the season, they were given 150/1 odds of winning the AFC Title and 300/1 odds of winning Super Bowl 50. Respectively, those odds have dropped to 1000/1 and 2500/1. Even their two wins are less impressive when you consider they were against the Titans and the Baltimore Ravens, two of the few teams doing as badly as Cleveland this year.

One of Cleveland’s problems is QB Johnny Manziel, who is still struggling to live up to the major expectations that were placed upon him when he was drafted. He seems to be doing a bit better, having managed a 73.3% completion rating in his most recent game. He set career records for himself in that game, passing for 372 yards with one touchdown pass and only one interception. The Browns still lost by 21 points, but it was a good game for Manziel. There is now talk of Manziel taking over for starting QB Josh McCown. And he may as well—it’s not like the Browns have much to lose at this point.

In addition to finding a better place for Manziel, Cleveland needs to start better utilizing RBs Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson. These two have the most rushing yards on the team, and yet failure to utilize them consistently is hurting the team’s rushing average. Their current average per carry is 3.3 yards, and it should be much higher with Crowell and Johnson on the team.

The Baltimore Ravens aren’t doing much better. With a current record of 3-7, their AFC Title odds have dropped from 15/1 to 800/1 and their Super Bowl odds have dropped from 30/1 to 1500/1. This is a rather significant plummet from their previous standings. Although, while it might not be a huge difference, it’s worth mentioning that they should be 4-6. Their loss against the Jacksonville Jaguars was something of a fluke, as Jacksonville LT Luke Joeckel got away with a false start on one of the messiest plays of the season. If it had been called, Baltimore would have automatically won the game. As things stand, however, the Ravens were flagged when OLB Elvis Dumervil received a facemask penalty that put the Jags in position to score the winning field goal. It was a major foul-up, but the officials responsible have not been suspended.

But as we said, it wouldn’t have made much difference. The team originally predicted by Sports Illustrated as this year’s champs have not been wildly successful leading into the 2015 NFL midseason. Coach John Harbaugh believes that they can turn things around through teamwork and perseverance, allowing them to go at least 8-8 like they did in 2013. Unfortunately, the winning streak they’d need to pull that off is a bit unlikely given the rest of their schedule. It’s pretty easy to see them losing at least two or three of their upcoming games, if not many more.

The Pittsburgh Steelers are currently third in the AFC North, and are one of only two teams in the division with a winning record (we’ll get to the Bengals in a minute). With a current record of 6-4, Pittsburgh has actually managed to somehow raise their odds of winning the AFC Championship (up from 15/1 to 7/1) or Super Bowl 50 (up from 30/1 to 12/1). We had noted at the beginning of the season that they would need to improve their defense, and they’ve mostly done that. The bulk of their losses have been by narrow margins, but they still need to ramp up their passing defense a bit if they wish to truly turn things around.

On the other hand, Pittsburgh’s run defense is the best it’s been in the past three or four years, with only an average of 93 yards allowed. A lot of fans would like to see CB Brandon Boykin off of special teams and back where he belongs, but this isn’t going to happen any time soon. At this point in the 2015 NFL midseason, it’s hard to say whether or not the Steelers have what they need to take a commanding lead in the AFC North. Frankly, we haven’t got much faith that they do.

The Cincinnati Bengals may no longer be undefeated, but they’re still the best team in the AFC North by a landslide. Their 8-2 record has greatly improved their Vegas odds. At the beginning of the season, they were at 15/1 for the AFC Championship and 30/1 for the 2016 Super Bowl. Now, their odds for the AFC are at 4/1 and their Super Bowl odds are at 15/2. This puts them second in the AFC and third in the NFL as far as Vegas is concerned. In short, they are looking pretty good in our 2015 NFL midseason report. Their 6-10 loss to the Houston Texans is the only real mark against them, highlighting some issues in their running game. They just didn’t seem to have any contributors on the ground, as RB Giovani Bernard led with 36 yards and QB Andy Dalton came in second with just 31. More yardage in this department obviously wouldn’t hurt them.

While their running game could use a bit of work, Cincinnati is also beset by potential issues in their passing game, not to mention a recent slip in average field position that has put their special teams at a disadvantage. This is complicated by the fact that some of their upcoming games are going to pit them against teams that know how to force incompletions and compromise their opponents’ field position. In other words, the Bengals are beginning to show weaknesses that their upcoming competition should be more than able to exploit. They’re going to have to focus on filling in these gaps if they are to maintain anything close to their current winning record. We still like the way they’ve been changing up their offense, but it appears at this point in the 2015 NFL midseason that the jack-of-all-trades approach may have its drawbacks.

AFC East

We had joked in a much earlier article that this would be the year the Jets won rings. No longer is anyone entertaining that possibility. (Dean Bertoncelj/Shutterstock)

We had joked in a much earlier article that this would be the year the Jets won rings. No longer is anyone entertaining that possibility. (Dean Bertoncelj/Shutterstock)

When the season started, the Miami Dolphins had 10/1 odds for the AFC Title and 22/1 odds for Super Bowl 50. At this point in the 2015 NFL midseason, their 4-6 record has dropped their AFC odds to 65/1 and their Super Bowl odds to 125/1. They are currently last place in the AFC East, which indicates that this division is actually doing a bit better than the rest of the AFC. The main problem with Miami right now is that they don’t know how to handle tight ends. And that goes two ways. While TE Jordan Cameron should be working some magic for the Dolphins, they’re currently struggling to utilize him properly. At the same time, they don’t seem to be doing too well in terms of blocking their opponents’ tight ends from delivering on their targets.

This is a pretty major hole in their game, but that’s not to say that the Dolphins are down and out. One of the whole points of this 2015 NFL midseason report is to note which teams might have a chance of turning things around, and the Dolphins are one of them. They may be last in the AFC East, but they only have to do a smidgen better if they want to make it to the playoffs. ESPN thinks they can do it, but we have to cast a shred of doubt on the issue because they still haven’t improved their run defense a whole lot since the lackluster win that opened Miami’s season.

The New York Jets are doing okay. We noted at the start of the season that they might be in for some improvements this year, and we weren’t wrong. Granted, last year’s season didn’t really give them much to improve upon. At 5-5, they’ve already done better than last year. Yet from the start of the season to this point in the 2015 NFL midseason, their Vegas odds have dropped from 25/1 to 65/1 for the AFC Championship and from 60/1 to 100/1 for the 2016 Super Bowl. You might be wondering why a team that’s improved since the start of the season has experienced a drop in odds, but their most recent loss against the Houston Texans actually indicates just how weak the team really is.

They were coming off of nine days of rest, against a team that’s doing just as badly as they are this season. True, they had to content with the defensive skills of DE J.J. Watt and the relatively decent offensive prowess of QB T.J. Yates, but they also had their own weapons in the form of QB Ryan Fitzpatrick and RT Breno Giacomini. This is the game that should have cemented New York’s bid for the playoffs, and now they’ve been cast in more doubt than ever. It just isn’t a good position for them to be in.

Tied with the Jets for second in the AFC East are the Buffalo Bills. At least, they were tied until New York’s awful game against Houston. But since the Bills’ chances of winning their next game are slim to none, we’re going to go ahead and say that they’re about to tally another loss on their current 5-4 record. At the start of the season, Buffalo was favored 15/1 for the AFC Title and 30/1 for Super Bowl 50. Now, those odds have dropped to 55/1 for the AFC Championship and 100/1 for the 2016 Super Bowl. As of now, the Bills still have a good shot at making the playoffs. But we’re not sure how much that matters, because we sincerely doubt they have a snowball’s chance at making it further than that.

There are some who believe that their 31-34 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars a few weeks ago helped motivate them to do better. In fact, CB Stephen Gilmore has said precisely that, following it up with his belief that “the sky is the limit for this team.” And some may see their recent wins against the Jets and Dolphins as proof of this. But it’s hard to see much proof in a couple of wins against division opponents who haven’t been having the best of seasons themselves. The sky may be the limit for Buffalo, but that’s a worthless metaphor. This is not a team delivering peak performance, nor do we expect them to as we move forward and look toward the playoffs.

The New England Patriots are one of the only two teams remaining undefeated at this point in the 2015 NFL midseason. Not that they needed a 9-0 record to do amazingly in the Vegas odds. When we made our initial Super Bowl predictions, the Pats were sitting pretty with 3/1 odds of winning the AFC Championship and 7/1 odds of winning the 2016 Super Bowl. As of this 2015 NFL midseason report, they are riding the top of both lists with 4/5 odds of winning the AFC Championship and 5/2 odds of winning Super Bowl 50. And while many are still upset about QB Tom Brady’s performance in light of the fact that he basically got away with cheating this year, it’s hard to deny that one of the better passers in the league has contributed a great deal to the team’s achievements this year.

Of course, TE Rob Gronkowski has contributed a great deal as well. Between Brady and the Gronk, the Pats seem to be virtually unstoppable right now. The one thing they should probably worry about is their defense. They’ve lost a bit of personnel recently, and it might be enough to end their undefeated streak. They still have the highly important CB Malcolm Butler, but LB Jamie Collins and DE Rufus Johnson are both out for an indeterminate period of time. The Pats had better hope that defense isn’t the deciding factor in their upcoming games.

NFC South

The Carolina Panthers are still undefeated, and it’s hard not to entertain the thought that they might stay that way. (Jeff Thrower/Shutterstock)

The Carolina Panthers are still undefeated, and it’s hard not to entertain the thought that they might stay that way. (Jeff Thrower/Shutterstock)

Aside from the New England Patriots, there is only one other team remaining undefeated—the Carolina Panthers. Their 10-0 record is almost the polar opposite of what we expected from them this season after watching them barely win their season opener against Jacksonville. At that point in the season, Carolina had been given 25/1 odds of winning the NFC Championship and 50/1 odds of winning Super Bowl 50. They’re doing much better as we compile our 2015 NFL midseason report, with 7/2 odds of winning the NFC Title and 17/2 odds of winning the 2016 Super Bowl. And while the loss of starting CB Charles Tillman is going to hurt their defense, we like their chances.

See, back when we were first assessing Carolina as an undefeated team, we had expressed concerns for their ability to play without MLB Luke Kuechly (who had been put out of the game with a concussion). But they managed to hold it together and fill the gaps left by Kuechly’s injury. We believe that this year’s Panthers are capable of doing the same without Tillman. Add the ability to adjust their defense as needed to their ability to balance their offense to gain big yards, and Carolina actually stands a chance of making it to the Super Bowl this year.

The Atlanta Falcons are currently 6-4, and their Vegas odds have definitely experienced a slight shift since the beginning of the season. They were originally division leaders, favored at 14/1 for the NFC Title and 30/1 for the Super Bowl. Their odds for the NFC Title are now 25/1, and their odds for the Super Bowl are now 60/1. We had thought they might stand a chance at leading their division this season, but that’s looking a lot less likely after they just suffered their third loss in a row against the Colts. Considering they’ve got two upcoming games against Carolina, they’ll probably be adding at least two more losses to their total. They might do alright, but they definitely won’t lead the division by any means.

Defense is a major issue for Atlanta right now. It had been suspected that DE Vic Beasley would bring some hardcore defense to the team, but he hasn’t been much of a pass rusher (the team is currently last in the league for sacks) and their linebackers aren’t adding much to the proceedings. The Falcons have some decent run defense going for them, but that isn’t enough to carry the team by any means.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are in the middle of the road right now with a 5-5 record that hasn’t done much for their Vegas odds. When the season first kicked off, Tampa Bay had been given 150/1 odds for the NFC Championship and 300/1 odds for Super Bowl 50. At this point in the 2015 NFL midseason, their odds have dropped slightly to 200/1 for the NFC Title and 400/1 for the 2016 Super Bowl. The big issue at the start of the season was QB Jameis Winston, whose performance in the Bucs’ season opener convinced many fans that he was a dud. He promised to deliver as the season wore on, but we had some concerns about his ability to do so.

Surprisingly enough, Winston’s actually delivered. Much like Mariota, Winston is having a historically significant rookie year. In his most recent game, he became only the third rookie QB in NFL history to complete five touchdown passes in a single game. We aren’t saying that it won’t be an uphill battle, but Tampa Bay actually has a shot at making the playoffs with Winston at the helm. We doubt their ability to make the Super Bowl, but Winston is still going to have a much better rookie year than many anticipated when the season began.

Dead last in the NFC South are the New Orleans Saints. From the start of the season to the date of our 2015 NFL midseason report, their Vegas odds have dropped from 25/1 to 150/1 for the NFC Title, and from 50/1 to 300/1 for the 2016 Super Bowl. But believe it or not, their current 4-6 record is actually better than what some would have expected from them a little over a month ago. While they lost their last two games, three of their four wins were nabbed consecutively, and all four were won across a span of five games. Now that they’ve got a bye week to spend some time re-strategizing, they just might be able to turn things around.

It doesn’t hurt that QB Drew Brees has found a new quality target in WR Willie Snead, a player no one had really pegged for greatness. And to be fair, he hasn’t really achieved greatness as of yet. The team is still struggling, and they’re going to have their work cut out for them if they plan to crash the playoffs this year. But their offense is improving a bit, and that could help. The major issue facing them now is that defensive coordinator Rob Ryan hasn’t done much to help them out. A lot of Saints fans are angry with Ryan after watching the Saints struggle defensively for the better part of the season. Ryan doesn’t like being blamed for New Orleans’ struggles, but tough for him. It’s not going to stop until the defense improves. End of story.

NFC West

We frankly thought the Niners would be doing a lot better than they are right now. (Dean Bertoncelj/Shutterstock)

We frankly thought the Niners would be doing a lot better than they are right now. (Dean Bertoncelj/Shutterstock)

The San Francisco 49ers are currently at the bottom of the NFC West with a 3-7 record. We had actually thought that they would thrive without Jim Harbaugh coaching, but we were pretty far off the mark on that one. At the time of our 2015 NFL midseason report, their Vegas odds have dropped from 25/1 to 500/1 for the NFC Title and from 45/1 to 1000/1 for the 2016 Super Bowl. In other words, Vegas pretty much thinks they’re boned.

There’s really not too much to say about San Francisco. This clearly isn’t going to be their year. Some have read into their most recent loss quite a bit, noting that San Francisco is specifically struggling with its offense. In the first half of their loss to the Seattle Seahawks, the 49ers managed a 92-yard drive. That would be a lot more impressive if they hadn’t totaled only 130 yards for the half. There is something to be said for QB Blaine Gabbert, as he did manage to turn things around somewhat in the second half of the game. But it was still an ultimately terrible display, and we don’t expect to see much better from them as they finish out the season.

Since we’ve already made brief mention of the Seattle Seahawks, we may as well make them the next focus of our 2015 NFL midseason report. They were one of the most favored teams at the top of the season, favored at 4/1 for the NFC Championship and 8/1 for the 2016 Super Bowl. Those odds have now dropped slightly to 12/1 and 22/1, respectively. But as their most recent win against the 49ers brings them to 5-5, it’s hard to say whether or not Seattle is failing their fans this year or if they are simply about to wage an uphill battle to crash the playoffs. Some nostalgic fans of the rivalry between the two teams felt that Seattle shone in this most recent game, but it’s hardly an implication that all will be smooth sailing from here on out.

The Seahawks have several personnel issues to contend with if there is to be any hope of keeping Seattle afloat this season. First, there are concerns that QB Russell Wilson is acting like too much of a celebrity. This is almost laughable, since we’ve never heard quite these words used to describe RB Marshawn Lynch. Most fans seem pretty forgiving of ego as long as the player in question is still able to deliver. But Wilson has been struggling, so this isn’t the time for ego concerns to start presenting themselves. And speaking of Lynch, he might not be delivering any time in the near future. He missed the game against San Francisco, and he might need surgery for an abdominal injury.

Losing Beast Mode at such a crucial point in the season will all but sink the Seahawks. There are those who feel that the Seahawks can still pull it together and wow fans with a major turnaround. However, given the manner in which the stars would have to align and the players would have to perform like never before, we don’t have too much confidence that any such thing will happen. We know Seattle fans feel gaffed after that asinine play call at the end of last Super Bowl, but this won’t be their year of retribution.

The St. Louis Rams were looking almost too good to be true at the start of the season, and that’s because they were. For a brief moment, they were the second-best team in the NFL with 30/1 odds of winning the NFC Championship and 50/1 odds of winning Super Bowl 50. Those odds have now dropped to 35/1 and 75/1, respectively. Their most recent loss to Baltimore brings their record down to 4-6, but that wasn’t the worst thing about it. While we didn’t expect great things, we had thought that the Rams’ offense might at least subvert some expectations this year. They were doing alright for a while, but this is their third loss in a row. They also can’t seem to break 20 points on any of their losses, and they’ve only broken 30 on one of their wins. The Rams haven’t had a winning record since 2003, and it was looking like this was the year they would turn things around. There’s still a chance, but it’s not looking good.

It doesn’t help that they’re about to play a couple of teams in a row that have barely lost at all this season. It’s basically now or never for the Rams, and what do they have to work with? Well, they’ve got a faltering defense complicated by the temporary loss of DEs Chris Long and Robert Quinn. And their offense, the part of the game we were hoping would make some changes this year, is filled to the brim with rookies led by stumbling QB Case Keenum. And while Keenum hasn’t exactly been fantastic so far, he didn’t help matters when he played Baltimore while he was noticeably concussed. Many are blaming the NFL at large for that one, but it seems like the Rams themselves would want to do right by their quarterback. The team really just doesn’t have much to be proud of this year.

Topping the NFC West are the Arizona Cardinals, who were favored as one of the better teams in the division when the season started with 15/1 odds of winning the NFC Title and 30/1 odds of winning Super Bowl 50. And as has only happened a couple of times so far, their odds actually went up. Vegas now favors them more than any other team in the NFC, with 3/1 odds on the NFC Championship and 13/2 odds on the Super Bowl. With an 8-2 record and a recent narrow win against Cincinnati, Arizona has been lighting it up this season. Their only significant loss was against Pittsburgh, with an early-season loss to the Rams that could have been turned around with a last-minute field goal.

It was actually a last-minute field goal that allowed the Cardinals to take home their win against the Bengals, but this narrow win is an exemplification of the team’s defining attributes this season. Some may have worried that the Cards might not stand a chance without WR Michael Floyd, as he’s been one of the better performers on their team in recent games. But they rallied, and they held their own, and they’ve been doing the same all season long. This wasn’t the first game in which many might have doubted their chances, but they manage to prove themselves time and time again. We really didn’t see them taking home the NFC Championship this year, let alone the Super Bowl. Now? It’s looking like a Super Bowl appearance could actually be a distinct possibility.

NFC North

Most of us thought this would be an easy year for Green Bay, running down an empty field with no one to stop them. But ever since they lost their undefeated streak, the Packers have been struggling. (Mark Herreid/Shutterstock)

Most of us thought this would be an easy year for Green Bay, running down an empty field with no one to stop them. But ever since they lost their undefeated streak, the Packers have been struggling. (Mark Herreid/Shutterstock)

The NFC North is mostly in decent shape, but that doesn’t extend to the Detroit Lions. Currently at 3-7, they really aren’t doing much worse than we thought they were. Vegas, however, has lowered their odds from 30/1 to 750/1 for the NFC Title and from 40/1 to 1500/1 for the 2016 Super Bowl. That makes them the least favored team in the NFC, and the second-least favored in the NFL at large. For the purposes of a 2015 NFL midseason report, it is kind of nice to see a team do exactly what we expected them to do. But we doubt that Detroit fans are too happy about it.

It says something about how poorly Detroit has been performing that the Detroit Free Press seemed stoked about the Lions taking home their second straight win when they beat the Raiders 18-13 this weekend. They also noted that the team hasn’t been beaten since they fired their president and general manager, but we aren’t about to attribute on-field performance to happenings in the front office. Coach Jim Caldwell said of the win that he finds it “hard to win one game in this league let alone get two back-to-back.” The implication here, albeit an unintentional one, is that the Lions aren’t up to par with the rest of the league. And we intentionally agree. They’re probably going to lose their Thanksgiving game, so don’t expect anything as ritzy as a three-win streak out of this team.

The Chicago Bears are the second-worst team in the NFC North right now, with a 4-6 record and a probable loss to come as they gear up to face Green Bay on Thanksgiving. Vegas was already giving them low odds at the start of the season, with the Bears placed at 60/1 for the NFC Title and 120/1 for the Super Bowl. Their NFC odds have raised ever so slightly to 50/1 and 115/1, respectively. This isn’t the most significant of raises, nor should it be. Keep in mind that Chicago was shut out by Seattle back in September, and they’ll probably finish the season as one of the only teams to suffer such an embarrassing loss this year.

The saddest part about Chicago’s season is that we actually have to talk in terms of their losses in order to mention what they’re doing right. For instance, their recent loss against Denver indicates some growing defensive strengths. They lost 15-17, keeping the game to less than 40 combined points. They had a bit of nice offensive style from RB Jeremy Langford, but we’d be lying if we said that we expect him to help the team turn things around this season. They were playing the game without RB Matt Forte or WRs Alshon Jeffery and Eddie Royal, and the hit to their offensive game was notable. The overall score does indicate that Chicago’s defense isn’t terrible, but we aren’t too sure how far that will take them. Our best guess? Not too far.

The Minnesota Vikings are currently 7-3, one of the better teams in their division. At the start of the season, they were favored at 20/1 for the NFC Title and 40/1 for the Super Bowl. Those odds have now been adjusted to 6/1 and 15/1, respectively. This is a pretty decent raise, but that’s largely because most people didn’t expect this kind of improvement from their team. They still have a bit of a weapon in the form of RB Adrian Peterson, who is likely going to break 1,000 rushing yards this season. He’s leading the NFL as a rusher right now, and it doesn’t look like anything’s going to slow him down in the very near future.

The problem with the Vikings is that many currently see them as a team with the overwhelming ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Most people expected them to win their recent game against Green Bay, but it just didn’t happen. In fact, they managed to break their own season record for the most flags in a game. Minnesota received flags left and right, going to OT Matt Kalil, CB Terence Newman, and OLB Anthony Barr. Before that game, the Vikings were almost never penalized this season. Not only that, but they had been flagged fewer times than any other team in the league. This isn’t an indication that the Vikings are about to be penalized a lot more, but it doesn’t bode especially well for them. They have a real shot at a playoff berth this year, but we can’t shake the feeling that they’re going to blow it for some asinine reason. We could be wrong, but we think that Minnesota is going to find a way of closing out a great season by succumbing to a completely unnecessary failure.

Leading the NFC North are the Green Bay Packers, who haven’t done too well since their undefeated streak was broken. They suffered three losses in a row before netting their most recent win against Minnesota, leading to their current 7-3 record. At the start of the season, they were the most favored team in Vegas, with 5/2 odds of winning the NFC Title and 5/1 odds of winning Super Bowl 50. While we were more than willing to believe that they’d be a stellar team this year, we can’t say we’re surprised that these particular odds turned out to be unsustainable. Nonetheless, their odds as of this 2015 NFL midseason report are still pretty decent, at 9/2 for the NFC Title and 12/1 for the 2016 Super Bowl.

To be clear, the Packers haven’t really done too much wrong. Their three losses in a row were mostly to respectable teams, although their loss to Detroit was a little surprising. The offensive combination of QB Aaron Rodgers and RB Eddie Lacy has been paying off. But, defensively, the team is missing something. Maybe we were a little quick in jumping on the bandwagon and expecting more of them this season, but we had thought that Green Bay might make it all the way to the Super Bowl. Now, we have some very major doubts.

NFC East

We’re not sure if this sign is referring to the logo controversy or Washington’s general performance this year. It really works either way. (miker/Shutterstock)

We’re not sure if this sign is referring to the logo controversy or Washington’s general performance this year. It really works either way. (miker/Shutterstock)

Sitting at the bottom of the NFC East are the Dallas Cowboys, with a 3-7 record that can be attributed at least partially to the loss of QB Tony Romo for several weeks. The many losses they’ve suffered have somewhat hurt their odds in Vegas, which have dropped from 10/1 to 15/1 for the NFC Title and from 20/1 to 30/1 for the Super Bowl as of this 2015 NFL midseason report. That isn’t as much of a drop as you might suspect, but there are some who believe they can turn things around now that Romo is no longer injured. They have a couple of difficult games left on their schedule, but it could be smooth sailing for the most part.

Granted, just because it could be easy doesn’t mean that it will. We’re sure the Cowboys are happy to be out of their seven-game losing streak, but they can’t exactly kick back and celebrate in the middle of crunch time. At this point, they can’t even deliberately focus on trying to raise their division rankings. “That’s a real distraction,” said WR Dez Bryant on the issue. “And we’ve just got to stay sticking together and each and every game, win, lose or draw, we’ve got to feel good about ourselves when the game is over and hold our heads up high after we went out there and gave it our all.” And as hokey as it sounds, Bryant has a point. Dallas is in a tough spot, and Romo doesn’t always perform too well in the clutch. Focus is key right now.

The Philadelphia Eagles were the most favored team in the division when the season started, but concerns regarding RB DeMarco Murray and their offense in general had us thinking that a few fans would probably be disappointed. Their current 4-6 record isn’t doing a whole lot to disprove us. Philly had originally been given 6/1 odds on the NFC Championship and 12/1 odds on the Super Bowl, but these have plummeted to respective odds of 40/1 and 80/1. Let’s face it, this year’s Eagles are far from invincible.

Of course, they aren’t helped much by the potential loss of QB Sam Bradford, who has cleared concussion protocol and returned to practice yet has not been confirmed to start in Philly’s upcoming game against Detroit. But Bradford is far from the only weakness in Philadelphia right now. To be fair, they’ve had a number of one-point losses that must have frustrated the team to no end, but this most recent 17-45 loss against the Bucs (that’s a four-possession game, for those of you who are interested) was the most devastating yet. Philadelphia’s offense was decent, but their defense was nothing short of terrible. Seeing as they’ve already had their bye week, they don’t really have much time to stop and rethink their strategy. They need to make some changes, and they need to make them fast.

The Washington Redskins have also got a 4-6 record. Unlike the Eagles, however, this is actually a little better than we might have expected. Their NFC Title odds have raised from 150/1 at the start of the season to 75/1 as of this point in the 2015 NFL midseason, and their Super Bowl odds have risen from 300/1 to 200/1. This isn’t a significant raise, but it’s something. Still, we don’t have much faith in them. Their defense has been pulling a lot of penalties, and their offense has been about as inconsistent as they come. Yet still, all people can focus on is the Redskins name controversy.

That’s not a joke. It came up twice in their most recent game against the Carolina Panthers, both before and after the game. Before the game, Washington tried their hand at some Twitter-based trash talk, calling Carolina “#Redskins country.” Carolina’s response? “Good luck with getting a trademark on that.” Let’s face it, Washington set themselves up for that one. Yet DE Jason Hatcher is trying to play the victim on the team’s behalf, implying that this whole trademark scandal is one of the causes of the team’s lack of success. One example he gave of this issue is the recent unnecessary roughness penalty on CB Chris Culliver. According to Hatcher, the call was undeserved, as have a number of other flags called on Washington this season. But between the possibility that Washington is the target of refs with a political correctness agenda and the possibility that they just need to tighten up a bit, which is more likely? The Redskins are simply looking for off-the-field answers for on-the-field problems, and that’s no way to reach a solution.

At the top of the NFC East are the New York Giants, whose 5-5 record demonstrates just how poorly the NFC East is doing as a division right now. There have been some issues with QB Eli Manning, but the team as a whole has been struggling since the season started. That said, their odds in Vegas have actually increased dramatically, from 40/1 to 9/1 for the NFC Championship and from 75/1 from 18/1 for the 2016 Super Bowl. In spite of their five wins, their most notable game this season has probably been their 49-52 loss to the Saints. The two teams set a record by combining for 101 points, tying for third in the highest-scoring games in NFL history and becoming one of only four games to tally more than 100 points. (Interestingly enough, the 1966 Giants share the top position on that list, having combined with the Redskins for 113 points).

The Giants certainly aren’t out of the running to make the playoffs, but they’ve got a lot of obstacles to overcome at the time of writing this 2015 NFL midseason report. Their division lead actually increased during their bye week, but that will only get them so far. As they return to the field, they need to decide whether to keep their faith with FS Landon Collins or have FS Craig Dahl take over his spot. Considering Collins has one of the lowest ratings of all safeties in the league, it really shouldn’t be much of a decision. And while Manning has been decreasing his turnover rate, the offense is still suffering from the loss of WR Victor Cruz and the so-so performance of RB Andre Williams. In short, the team has a lot of kinks that need to be worked out if they want even the slightest chance at taking the NFC Title. We really don’t think they can do it at this point without some sort of divine intervention.

Predictions

It only makes sense to finish our 2015 NFL midseason report with some updated predictions, and we’re currently giving it to either the Arizona Cardinals or the New England Patriots. (Dean Bertoncelj/Shutterstock)

It only makes sense to finish our 2015 NFL midseason report with some updated predictions, and we’re currently giving it to either the Arizona Cardinals or the New England Patriots. (Dean Bertoncelj/Shutterstock)

We’re going to conclude our 2015 NFL midseason report with a few brief predictions. We won’t be going into an insane amount of detail on these, but it only seems right to finish our reassessment of these 32 teams with a few ideas regarding where they might be headed. Not surprisingly, these predictions are quite a bit different from the ones we made at the start of the season.

Our original prediction for the AFC Championship was the Tennessee Titans, but that dream has been shot down, burned, stomped on a few times, and just generally defiled beyond all recognition. We had also had some hopes for the Denver Broncos or the Cincinnati Bengals. Neither of those dreams has been completely dashed, but each team has exhibited growing faults since losing their undefeated streaks that give us some pause.

The only other major team that we had considered was the New England Patriots, and we had only factored them out because we thought the NFL would win their appeal against Tom Brady and the Pats would suffer under replacement QB Jimmy Garoppolo. That’s no longer a concern, since the appeal won’t be heard until after Super Bowl 50. Besides, Garoppolo’s grown a lot since the whole Deflategate thing started, so New England wouldn’t be completely inept without Brady. With all major concerns regarding the Pats now made irrelevant, and with New England one of the two teams that’s managed to stay undefeated up to this point in the 2015 NFL midseason, they are our top selection as this year’s AFC Title winners.

As for the NFC Championship, we had originally given it to either Green Bay or Seattle. Since the Packers have suffered similar issues to those of the Broncs and the Bengals ever since losing their undefeated streak, and since the idea of the Seahawks winning the NFC Title is all but laughable at this point, we have to change our tune on that a bit. As of now, the likeliest candidates are probably the Carolina Panthers or the Arizona Cardinals.

Carolina is the more attractive candidate, given that they are undefeated at the time of this 2015 NFL midseason report. Both teams have shown a remarkable ability to hold it together despite the loss of valued players, so we can’t differentiate the two teams by the quality of their motivation. The funny thing is, there was a big fuss earlier this year when the NFL left Tom Brady off of a tweet including the likeliest quarterbacks to make it to the Super Bowl. Some had a problem not only with the fact that Brady was left out, but also with the fact that Arizona QB Carson Palmer was included. Now, it’s looking like a real possibility. And as much as Carolina is a strong, strong second choice for us (it’d especially be cool to see both the Pats and the Panthers go into the Super Bowl undefeated), we’re going to have to give Arizona our big nod. While it’s still a little difficult to picture the Cards at the Super Bowl, stranger things have certainly happened.

That leaves only one order of business for this 2015 NFL midseason report: Super Bowl 50. Assuming the above predictions turn out to be true, which of these teams is looking strong enough to win the whole thing? Well, as we learned with the Titans earlier this year, making a prediction based on what we want to happen can have disastrous results. So we’re going to play it safe this one and hand it to New England Patriots. The Pats have been an unstoppable force this year, and we just can’t picture them slowing down any time soon. They’ll probably take home rings this year. And Brady will probably be grinning the entire time.