The NFL at midseason: Separating the good, bad and ugly for all 32 teams, with X factors, games to watch and more
With nine weeks of games in the books, we are officially at the midway point of the 18-week 2022 NFL season.
The Philadelphia Eagles (8-0) have the best record in the league and sit atop the NFC as Week 10 commences, with the Minnesota Vikings (7-1) not far behind and the Dallas Cowboys (6-2) and New York Giants (6-2) among those thinking big as well.
The AFC picture is more muddled, with just a game separating seven teams at the top of the conference: the Buffalo Bills (6-2), Kansas City Chiefs (6-2), Baltimore Ravens (6-3), Miami Dolphins (6-3), New York Jets (5-3), Los Angeles Chargers (5-3) and Tennessee Titans (5-3).
As we look ahead to the second half of the season, ESPN asked NFL team reporters for their thoughts on what they know — and don’t know — about their teams at the midseason mark, while also offering readers and fans an additional element to look out for as the second half commences.
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
What we know: The Bills have looked like one of the NFL’s best teams but have some issues to clean up in a competitive AFC East. Overall, the defensive line has improved from last season, but stopping the run has developed into a problem (170-plus rushing yards allowed in each of the past two games). On the other side, when quarterback Josh Allen is on and supported by a bit of a run game, this offense has shown it can be unstoppable.
What we don’t know yet: In his past six quarters, Allen has completed 47.9% of passes and thrown zero touchdowns to four interceptions. He threw a total of four interceptions prior to that stretch. Much of the Bills’ success will depend on whether Allen can make good decisions and stay on the same page with the offense. The other question surrounds the return of cornerback Tre’Davious White. With White’s return imminent, how will he perform and what will it do for the defense?
Key injury to watch: Allen is currently dealing with a right elbow injury, specifically to the ulnar collateral ligament and related nerves. The entire offense revolves around him as he has accounted for 23 of the team’s 25 offensive touchdowns either by passing or running. Allen is also the team’s leading rusher (392 yards). If he is to miss any length of time and Case Keenum fills in, the offense will change significantly. — Alaina Getzenberg
What we know: Tua Tagovailoa has lived up to all the offseason hype. The Dolphins have won every game he has finished and has been the driving force behind most of them — including back-to-back games in Week 8 and Week 9 with at least 300 passing yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. He’s the NFL’s leader in quarterback rating and has thrived pushing the ball downfield, leading the league in yards per attempt while ranking third in air yards per attempt.
What we don’t know yet: While their offense has been one of the best units in the league over the first half of the season, the Dolphins’ defense has teetered between statistically mediocre and below average. They traded for pass-rusher Bradley Chubb at the deadline but so far, we don’t know if this defense can regain its form from a season ago. Miami ranks 29th in defensive expected points added, 25th in scoring, 23rd in yards allowed per game and 27th in third-down defense.
Key injury to watch: Cornerback Byron Jones hasn’t participated in any football activity since last year’s season finale. Offseason Achilles surgery landed him on the physically unable to perform list — which he is yet to return from. Undrafted rookie Kader Kohou has been the surprise player of the year in Jones’ stead, but Jones’ return would provide a boost to a depleted Dolphins secondary. Just don’t expect it within the next two or three weeks. — Marcel Louis-Jacques
What we know: Matthew Judon is a leading contender for NFL Defensive Player of the Year, with a league-high 11.5 sacks, and is motivated to avoid the same late-season slide he had in 2021. Led by Judon’s strong play, the Patriots are a team defined by defense and special teams units, as the Mac Jones-led offense has yet to break out.
What we don’t know yet: Is the offensive coaching setup, with Matt Patricia as the playcaller and Joe Judge as the QBs coach, built to last? After an offseason of buildup about Mac Jones taking a Year 2 jump and elevating into the conversation of a being franchise quarterback, it hasn’t happened to this point.
Circle this upcoming game: The Patriots come out of their Week 10 bye and play three games in 12 days — Nov. 20 against the New York Jets (6-3), then Thanksgiving night Nov. 24 against the Minnesota Vikings (7-1) before another Thursday game on Dec. 1 against the Buffalo Bills (6-2). We’ll find out a lot more about the Patriots after that three-game stretch. — Mike Reiss
What we know: The Jets are a very good defensive team, and that will allow them to compete with the so-called elite teams. They have at least one takeaway in every game and have held four of their past six opponents under 200 passing yards. Defensive tackle Quinnen Williams and cornerback D.J. Reed are having career years, and Sauce Gardner is a candidate for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. It’s a resilient team — 3-3 when facing double-digit deficits, compared to 3-40 in the previous four seasons.
What we don’t know yet: Quarterback Zach Wilson still isn’t good enough to carry the offense for four quarters, so it’s fair to wonder how they’d fare in a shootout-type game. They have enough playmakers, especially with rookie wide receiver Garrett Wilson heating up, but he needs to be managed because of his penchant for mistakes. He needs a ground game; they’re 6-0 when scoring rushing touchdowns.
Key injury to watch: Wide receiver Corey Davis (knee), who missed two games, is expected to return in Week 11. When he does, who gets dropped from the receiver rotation? How will it affect chemistry? Denzel Mims has played well enough to earn a permanent role, according to coach Robert Saleh. Someone has to be the odd man out, and it could be Elijah Moore, whose production has disappeared. Curiously, he hasn’t caught a ball since his trade request. — Rich Cimini
What we know: Lamar Jackson and the Ravens have been nearly unstoppable running the ball. Baltimore has rushed for 150-plus yards in eight straight games, which is the longest single-season streak since the 1985 Chicago Bears. The offensive line has been so dominant that five players have totaled over 100 yards rushing this season. Jackson remains elusive, producing 26 runs of 10 or more yards (second most in the NFL).
What we don’t know yet: Can Baltimore win if Jackson has to throw the ball? Jackson ranks fourth with 16 touchdown passes, but he is 18th in passing yards with 1,768. He has lacked consistency hitting his receivers this season. Over the past five games, Jackson has completed less than 60% of his passes four times and has averaged 175 yards passing. Some of the decreased production is the result of injuries to skill position players. But Jackson also hasn’t been sharp. His 19.3% off-target rate is the seventh worst in the league.
Circle this upcoming game: The Ravens close out the regular season at the Cincinnati Bengals (5-4), and this looks like the game that will decide the AFC North. The Browns (3-5) have struggled with quarterback Deshaun Watson on suspension, and the Steelers (2-6) have sputtered without Ben Roethlisberger. This division is a two-team race between Baltimore and Cincinnati, which have combined for three of the past four AFC North titles. The Ravens, though, need to reverse history after losing seven of the past 10 games in Cincinnati. — Jamison Hensley
Marcus Spears breaks down why he sees the Ravens as Super Bowl contenders.
What we know: The Bengals have been a very up-and-down team. They started 0-2 before rallying to win five of their next seven games. That included three wins over a bad NFC South division. The things that made Cincinnati the AFC champs last year — timely offense and a stout defense — are the core of this year’s team, too.
What we don’t know yet: If the Bengals will be able to withstand the upcoming opposition in their playoff push. According to ESPN Analytics, the Bengals have the second-toughest remaining strength of schedule. With Cincinnati a game behind Baltimore for the AFC North lead and the Ravens facing a much softer schedule (24th-toughest SOS), a wild-card berth could be the Bengals’ best chance of returning to the postseason.
Key injury to watch: The timetable for wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase’s return will be pivotal to Cincinnati’s playoff chances. Chase has been one of the best receivers in the NFL since he entered the league in 2021. When he’s on the field, he forces opposing defenses to adjust their schemes accordingly. Chase is a key asset for quarterback Joe Burrow and an offense looking to remain one of the NFL’s most efficient units. — Ben Baby
What we know: The Browns boast one of the top rushing offenses in the NFL. Nick Chubb is second in the league in rushing (841 yards), averaging a whopping 5.64 yards per carry with a league-best 10 rushing touchdowns. Kareem Hunt, staying with the Browns past the trade deadline, remains one of the NFL’s top backup backs. And the offensive line, led by Pro Bowl guard Joel Bitonio, continues to dominate the line of scrimmage.
What we don’t know yet: How good is this Browns defense? Thanks to a series of rough performances to begin the season, the Browns rank just 27th in defensive efficiency. But Cleveland is also coming off its best outing of the year, completely shutting down Joe Burrow and the Bengals on Monday Night Football. The talent is there, headlined by All-Pro pass-rusher Myles Garrett. If the Browns can find consistency, especially in the fourth quarter, the defense could begin to meet its lofty preseason expectations.
Stat that defined the first half: The Browns’ defense ranked 30th in defensive expected points allowed (-13.08) in the fourth quarter. Late-game collapses against the New York Jets, Atlanta Falcons and Los Angeles Chargers are the biggest reason Cleveland is 3-5 despite ranking 10th in the league in ESPN’s Football Power Index. The analytics suggest the Browns should have a much better record at this point, and fourth-quarter defense is why they don’t. — Jake Trotter
What we know: The Steelers aren’t performing like a playoff team — or anything close to it. Though the end of Ben Roethlisberger’s career wasn’t smooth, the Steelers are still dealing with the ripple effects of life without a veteran signal-caller and the transition to a younger core on both sides of the ball. The defense, playing without T.J. Watt for nearly the entire first half of the season, struggled through the NFL’s toughest schedule, unable to get pressure on the quarterback and stop big passing plays.
What we don’t know yet: Not only do we not know the identity of this offense, we don’t know if they’ll ever develop one. The Steelers made the early-season switch to Kenny Pickett, but the offense still isn’t producing points. The plan is predictable, the run game is stagnant (ranked 28th in the NFL), and Pickett, while having the demeanor and confidence to remain composed in big moments, has eight interceptions to just two touchdown throws. Mike Tomlin is adamant he won’t make any midseason coaching changes, so will the Steelers ever be able to figure out the offense?
Non-quarterback X factor for the second half: After sustaining a pectoral muscle tear in Week 1 and undergoing an unrelated arthroscopic knee surgery, Watt is set to return for the Steelers’ Week 10 matchup against the New Orleans Saints. Without Watt, the Steelers have recorded just eight sacks in seven games after recording seven in the Week 1 win against the Bengals. Not only is Watt returning, but the Steelers are also getting safety Damontae Kazee off injury reserve and they traded for corner William Jackson III at the deadline. At 2-6, the Steelers are solidly in last place in the AFC North, but they could still salvage a .500 — or even winning — season. — Brooke Pryor
What we know: The Texans are 1-6-1, and according to ESPN’s projected draft order, they have the best chance (30%) to land the No. 1 overall pick. The team hasn’t been as bad as its record would suggest — every game has been a one-possession game in the fourth quarter. But they haven’t been able to finish.
What we don’t know yet: If quarterback Davis Mills is the long-term answer at the position. Mills’ second year has been inconsistent. His passer rating is 81, and his completion percentage is 62%, both figures down from his rookie year of a passer rating of 88 and completion percentage of 66%. He’s on pace to throw 21 touchdowns and pass for 3,519 yards. But will that be enough to keep the starting gig in 2023?
Team trend to watch: The Texans’ run defense is bottom of the league. They’ve allowed 1,445 yards passing (most in the NFL), 12 touchdowns (third most) and 5.5 yards per carry (third highest). They’ve allowed the two highest rushing totals in a game this season as the Tennessee Titans rushed for 314 yards in Week 8 and the Chicago Bears hit 284 in Week 3. — DJ Bien-Aime
What we know: The firing of coach Frank Reich and installation of Jeff Saturday as interim coach means the Colts are now in an evaluation mode for the remainder of the season. Already 3-5-1, the upheaval certainly doesn’t figure to boost their chances of turning the season around. So, the Colts are likely to approach the final eight games with an eye toward next season, looking for indicators on what shape the team should take in 2023.
What we don’t know yet: What kind of reaction comes to the Saturday experiment. This is as unconventional a hire as you’ll ever see in the NFL, so it will be fascinating to see how the players and remaining staff members respond. Saturday will be watched closely by his players, who will easily be able to tell whether he is up to the task despite having never coached beyond the high school level. Add to this the reality that Saturday is taking over a team in disarray, and it’s clearly a tall order.
Breakout player so far: Rookie receiver Alec Pierce hasn’t yet posted huge numbers (25 receptions, 396 yards), but if you consistently watch him play, his potential is apparent. Pierce has already shown great strides in two areas the Colts feared might take him some time: He is displaying impressive ability to beat press coverage, which has enabled him to be a downfield threat. He also is proving he can work across the middle and in traffic against tight coverage, erasing concerns in that area as well. — Stephen Holder
What we know: The Jaguars aren’t the easy out they’ve been the past several seasons. Seven of their nine games have been decided by one score, and the other two were blowout victories. Quarterback Trevor Lawrence has been up and down in his second season, but the Jaguars can run the ball well (seventh in the NFL) and running back Travis Etienne Jr. is a rising star.
What we don’t know yet: The Jaguars did a lot of work on the defense — signing four free agents and drafting three players in the first three rounds — but the pass rush is below average (16 sacks), and they’ve forced only two turnovers in the past five games. They’ve also failed to hold fourth-quarter leads in four of their losses. No one has emerged as a consistent playmaker for first-time coordinator Mike Caldwell. The Jaguars need to find cohesiveness with the hardest part of schedule ahead.
Stat that defined the first half: Lawrence has been bad in the red zone: His QBR is 10.8 and ranks 31st (ahead of only Russell Wilson), and he has thrown a league-high three interceptions in that area. Two of those were in the end zone on nearly identical throws. If he doesn’t throw those picks, the Jaguars likely win both games (Denver, Houston) and could be 5-4 and battling the Titans for the division lead. — Mike DiRocco
What we know: Everything revolves around Derrick Henry and the offensive line. Henry leads the NFL with 870 rushing yards. The offensive line has undergone some shuffling due to injuries but has recently hit a stride paving the way for Henry to rush for 100 or more yards in six consecutive games. Henry is the Titans’ biggest scoring threat. His nine rushing touchdowns are more than everyone else on the team combined.
What we don’t know yet: How good can this defense be? Tennessee’s relentless front is led by Jeffery Simmons and has a rotation that goes at least seven deep. The Titans specialize in getting pressure with just the front four, allowing them to drop seven into coverage. Denico Autry is quietly one of the most disruptive players on the defense. If the Titans can find ways to close games out, they could prove to be one of the NFL’s top units.
Stat that defined the first half: 99-33. That’s how many points the Titans have allowed in the second half as compared to how many points they’ve scored. The Titans get off to great starts, at one point scoring a touchdown on the first four game-opening drives of the season. But they haven’t carried that success over to the second half. Tennessee was outscored 21-7 in its season-opening loss to the Giants and 11-3 in its most recent loss to the Chiefs, leading to a 5-3 record. — Turron Davenport
What we know: We know without a doubt that the Broncos cannot compete at a playoff level if they score 1.4 touchdowns per game, even with one of the best defenses in the league. The Broncos have 11 touchdowns in eight games and had just eight touchdowns in the first seven. Everyone, from coach Nathaniel Hackett (the playcaller) to quarterback Russell Wilson, has too often pressed to try to fix the offense in one play. They found at least a little composure with the trip to London just before the bye and need to keep it now that they are back in the criticism swirl of their hometown.
What we don’t know yet: The Broncos simply need to do what they should and not what they want, both in approach and in the moment. Over and over again, they’ve tried to be something they’re not — Wilson is running plays out of the shotgun and open formations as their pass protection repeatedly fails them. Some of the decisions have been due to injuries as well as constantly trailing in games. But when they play with more heft in the personnel groupings, with Wilson under center more (especially in the red zone) and just a sliver of more patience, they perform far better.
Key injury to watch: Outside linebacker Randy Gregory suffered a meniscus injury in the Broncos’ Week 4 loss to the Raiders and hasn’t played since. The Broncos hoped Gregory, who signed a five-year, $70 million deal in the offseason, would fuel their pass rush, especially given the impact he showed early on. But with the trade of Bradley Chubb to the Dolphins, Gregory’s ability to stay on the field and perform at a high level is even more important. He’s still multiple weeks away from a return, but if the Broncos are really going to make something of the season’s second half, they’re going to need him to be at his best when he does. — Jeff Legwold
What we know: The Chiefs lead the league in scoring and are getting a huge season from quarterback Patrick Mahomes and big receiving contributions from Travis Kelce, JuJu Smith-Schuster and others on occasion. Opponents that have slowed the Chiefs have kept blitzing to a minimum while still generating some pressure.
What we don’t know yet: The Chiefs are still figuring who they are on defense. Their pass rush is much improved but inconsistent. Their pressure tends to be every down or nonexistent for long stretches. The Chiefs were playing great run defense early in the season, but that part of their game has declined. Five rookies are either starters or receive significant playing time on defense, so the Chiefs have a reasonable expectation for improvement.
Circle this upcoming game: The Chiefs, who beat the Chargers in Week 2, head to Los Angeles for the rematch in Week 11. A win would give them the season sweep of the division rival closest to them in the standings and a massive edge in their pursuit of a seventh straight AFC West championship. The past three games between the Chiefs and Chargers were decided by six (with a late-deciding TD), six (in overtime) and three points. There just hasn’t been much to separate these two teams when they get together. — Adam Teicher
What we know: Josh Jacobs might have taken some offense to not having his fifth-year option picked up by the Raiders’ new regime, as the former Pro Bowl running back has been the team’s MVP through eight games. Consider: The 2019 first-round pick is on pace to set career highs in rushing yards (1,579) and rushing TDs (13) and had a three-game stretch in which he rushed for 144, 154 and 143 yards to lead the Raiders to two wins in that stretch — their only two of the season. Jacobs has been a revelation for coach Josh McDaniels, who traditionally uses a running back-by-committee approach.
What we don’t know yet: When, or if, the Raiders will play a solid 60 minutes of football. Blowing three games in which they led by at least 17 points is a sign of a squad that doesn’t know how to finish, a shocking development for a team that was in the playoffs a year ago and supposedly took a step forward with a seemingly elite playcaller in McDaniels. Plus, the defense giving up 15 touchdowns in 15 goal-to-go situations is more than mind-numbing.
Key injury to watch: Tight end Darren Waller’s latest malady is the hamstring he injured in Week 5, playing just eight snaps at Kansas City. He has not played since. Waller injured the other hamstring in training camp, just before signing a three-year, $51 million extension. Throw in the knee and back injuries he suffered last Thanksgiving at Dallas, and Waller has missed eight of the Raiders’ past 14 regular-season games. As uneven and incomplete as Las Vegas’ offense has been, Waller’s healthy presence would have a settling effect. — Paul Gutierrez
What we know: The Chargers built one of the best rosters on paper over the offseason, featuring a league-high eight players featured in ESPN’s NFL top 100 rankings. However, the group never has played — and never will play — a single game together this season due to a rash of injuries, which resulted in wide receiver Keenan Allen missing five games because of a hamstring issue and edge rusher Joey Bosa, left tackle Rashawn Slater and cornerback J.C. Jackson each being placed on injured reserve.
What we don’t know yet: If, despite the injury situation, the Chargers are ready to become a playoff team. The Bolts haven’t made the postseason since 2018, which counts as their only appearance over the past eight seasons. They appeared poised to compete in the AFC in a Week 2 showdown with the Chiefs despite losing 27-24 at Arrowhead Stadium. However, they have yet to play a consistent — let alone dominant — game since and even failed to show in a Week 3 loss to the Jaguars and a Week 7 loss to the Seahawks.
Circle this upcoming game: Week 11, the Chargers host the Chiefs at SoFi Stadium. Even with several significant injuries, an offense that has regressed from 2021 and a defense that has flashed but has yet to display consistent improvement from a year ago, the Bolts remain in second place in the AFC West behind the Chiefs. A win over quarterback Patrick Mahomes & Co. could provide this group a much-needed morale boost and confidence to make a push down the stretch. — Lindsey Thiry
What we know: The Cowboys have a chance to be the NFC representative in the Super Bowl. How good of a chance? That remains to be seen. They have a dominant defense that can affect the quarterback (Micah Parsons & Co.) and take the ball away (Trevon Diggs & Co.). They can run the ball effectively with Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard. They have a more than solid special teams unit. The players are in place for the Cowboys to make it to at least a conference title game for the first time since 1995. Can they clear whatever mental hurdle has clamped down on this franchise since the mid-1990s?
What we don’t know yet: Can the offense consistently put up points? It cleared 25 points just once in the first eight games, and if you want to give as the reason for it that backup quarterback Cooper Rush started five times, that’s fine. Dak Prescott, CeeDee Lamb, Michael Gallup, Dalton Schultz and whoever else will have to consistently show they can get it done in the passing game. The 42 points scored on offense (of the 49) against the Chicago Bears was a positive, but it can’t just be a one-off.
Circle this upcoming game: Dec. 24 vs. the Philadelphia Eagles. Since their loss to the Eagles in October, the players were talking about the rematch. They feel like they let a chance slip away at Lincoln Financial Field because of a slow start and three interceptions, and Prescott did not play in that game. It could be for the NFC East title and potentially home-field advantage, but even if it isn’t, a win would give the Cowboys a huge boost heading into the postseason. — Todd Archer
What we know: The Giants are vastly improved from the past five years when they were tied for the worst record in football. Start with the coaching and leadership. Coach Brian Daboll looks like the real deal and general manager Joe Schoen has done a masterful job juggling a flawed roster with little money under the salary cap at his disposal. It appears the Giants finally have their coach and GM for many years to come.
What we don’t know yet: It’s still to be determined how the Giants handle the futures of quarterback Daniel Jones and running back Saquon Barkley. Both are impending free agents. Schoen has the franchise tag at his disposal, but does he use it on either? The final nine games will go a long way in determining whether the Giants want to build around Jones and if they want to invest in a running back. Staying healthy is paramount for both players.
Circle this upcoming game: Giants vs. Cowboys in Dallas on Thanksgiving. The next two weeks, the Giants have the Texans and Lions at home, and it’s entirely possible they’re 8-2 entering that Cowboys game. It’s their opportunity to prove this team is legit and isn’t going away in front of a national audience, especially after Dallas handled them rather easily in their first matchup in New Jersey. — Jordan Raanan
What we know: The Eagles have the NFL’s best record and are 8-0 for the first time in franchise history. That’s largely due to the MVP-caliber play of quarterback Jalen Hurts, who has won 11 straight starts, the longest active streak among quarterbacks. He has 18 total touchdowns and just two interceptions. Turnover differential tells the tale of a team that is taking care of business on both sides of the ball. The Eagles have won the turnover battle in all eight games played, posting an NFL-best plus-15 differential this season, and are the first team to do so since the 1972 Steelers.
What we don’t know yet: Just how long this remarkable run will last. The Eagles are projected to be favored in every game remaining on their schedule with the exception of their Christmas Eve matchup at the Dallas Cowboys, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index. It’s difficult to identify holes on either side of the ball. But the players are aware that, as the NFL’s only undefeated team, they’ll be getting everyone’s best game from here on out.
Key injury to watch: Rookie defensive tackle Jordan Davis is on injured reserve with a high ankle sprain, but he is expected to return at some point this season. In the meantime, the Eagles’ defense needs to stabilize against the run. It allowed Texans rookie Dameon Pierce to go off for 139 yards on 27 carries in Week 9. Entering that game, the Eagles allowed 3.9 yards per rush with Davis on the field (70 rushes) versus 6 yards per rush with him off the field (112 rushes). — Tim McManus
What we know: Their offense lacks any sort of consistency or identity. They have good skill talent with receivers Terry McLaurin, Curtis Samuel and Jahan Dotson and versatile back Antonio Gibson. But the offense has scored more than 17 points only once in the past seven games. Meanwhile, the Commanders’ defense has kept Washington in every game since Week 2. Tackles Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne have combined for 10 sacks and 26 tackles for a loss.
What we don’t know yet: Who will start at quarterback for the second half? Taylor Heinicke will start his fourth game vs. the Philadelphia Eagles on Monday and then Carson Wentz will be eligible to come off the injured reserve list. Wentz has the higher ceiling, but learning a new offense combined with playing behind poor protection has led to problems. Heinicke’s mobility provides a spark to the offense, but his other physical skills are limited. It’s also uncertain what boost defensive end Chase Young will provide when he returns from a torn ACL.
Non-quarterback X factor for the second half: The run game. The Commanders don’t have the quarterback play, or protection, to become a pass-heavy team. However, they have not developed a consistent run game in Ron Rivera’s three seasons. They rank 21st in rushing yards per game and 25th in yards per carry. At times it’s about commitment; other times it’s blocking or run design. Regardless of the reason, if Washington doesn’t develop a more consistent run game, it’ll be out of contention for the third wild-card spot in mid-December. — John Keim
What we know: Development for a franchise in the first year of a rebuild provides hope for the future regardless of what the win-loss column looks like in 2022. This offense is unlocking Justin Fields’ strengths as a pure runner (he set the regular season single-game QB rushing record with 178 yards vs. Miami) and capitalizing off his arm talent. His passing numbers aren’t gaudy, but the way he’s throwing the ball (two of his passing touchdowns against the Dolphins came while under duress) has improved. In his last five games, Fields has thrown for 851 yards, 11 touchdowns, and two interceptions while posting a 100.5 QB rating. He’s doing his part to prove he’s the answer at quarterback.
What we don’t know yet: Immediately after completing his teardown at the trade deadline, Ryan Poles made a move to support Fields by trading for wide receiver Chase Claypool. What’s the next step for the Bears’ general manager? Poles has upward of $123 million in cap space and eight draft picks to use in the offseason. The offensive and defensive lines need work. Fields needs better receivers. The Bears need to determine whether they’re comfortable moving forward with Khalil Herbert as their lead back or give David Montgomery his next contract. The next eight games are an evaluation period for a roster comprising players on rookie contracts and veterans on short-term deals. How many of those players do the Bears envision as part of their long-term plan?
Breakout player so far: Eddie Jackson is the best player on the Bears’ defense and ranks second in the NFL in interceptions (4) through nine weeks. That’s a welcome turnaround for the veteran safety whose production dipped the last two years despite posting the highest tackle totals of his career. Rebuilding Chicago’s secondary was the primary focus of the draft, and the addition of rookie Jaquan Brisker has put Jackson in a position to roam at free safety and create big plays. Jackson has the seventh-highest cap hit of all safeties at $13 million in 2023 ($9.6 million in dead money). The Bears have had no issue accumulating dead cap this season, but if they believe Jackson’s level of production is sustainable, he should remain in the fold. — Courtney Cronin
What we know: Rookie Aidan Hutchinson is legit. The No. 2 overall pick ranks first for rookies in sacks (4.5), quarterback hits (9) and total pressures generated (24). He even recorded an interception off Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Hutchinson is trying to help change the culture in Detroit, and he has a fan in former Lions star Ndamukong Suh. “Hopefully the GM and ownership are smart enough to build around him!” Suh recently wrote on Twitter when asked his opinion of the rookie.
What we don’t know yet: Can the Lions’ defense turn it around? Entering Week 9 win versus Green Bay, the Lions were allowing a league-worst 32.1 points per game — which led to the firing of defensive backs coach Aubrey Pleasant. Against the Packers, they allowed just nine points, which was their fewest in a game this season. The defensive unit held a players-only meeting the week of the Packers game, which may have helped inspire that performance, but it remains to be seen if this play is sustainable moving forward.
Key injury to watch: The health of running back D’Andre Swift. A shoulder and ankle injury has limited Swift to playing in five of the first eight games of the season. He’s averaging a career-best 7.3 yards per carry but has just 34 rushing attempts in comparison to Jamaal Williams’ 126 carries. Even after missing three games, Lions head coach Dan Campbell and his staff continue to monitor Swift moving forward as they prepare to face the Chicago Bears on the road Sunday. “We feel like there wasn’t a setback and we gave him enough plays to where we feel like he could handle it. And yet, we could use the things that he does well,” Campbell said. “And so, we’re hopeful we can give him a little bit more this week.” — Eric Woodyard
What we know: The Packers are in disarray. Their 3-1 start was a mirage. Their defense had coverage breakdowns, and coach Matt LaFleur couldn’t find a balance between the run game and Aaron Rodgers. All of that has been exacerbated during a five-game losing streak, their longest since Rodgers’ first season as a starter (2008). And considering their next three opponents have a combined record of 19-5, it’s hard to imagine this turning around anytime soon.
What we don’t know yet: If they will give Jordan Love a look. LaFleur probably won’t even entertain the thought unless the Packers have been eliminated from playoff contention. At that point, however, it would serve the organization best if they can see Love in action to determine whether he’s made progress from last year and can be considered the heir apparent — especially if either the team or Rodgers are undecided about moving forward together in 2023.
Stat that defined the first half: The Packers have averaged 17.1 points per game, their fewest through nine games since 1992 — Brett Favre’s first season in Green Bay. — Rob Demovsky
Marcus Spears breaks down why he wouldn’t bench Aaron Rodgers if the Packers fall out of contention.
What we know: The Vikings all but locked up a playoff spot in the top-heavy NFC before they reached the midpoint of their season. A 7-1 start, combined with disastrous openings in Green Bay, Chicago and Detroit, gives the Vikings a 99.3% chance to reach the postseason, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index. They could play at .500 the rest of the way and still ease their way into the playoffs.
What we don’t know yet: At least part of the Vikings’ success can be attributed to excellent health among a veteran core that is getting the vast majority of the team’s playing time. Through eight games, two starters missed a total of two games. Players like Harrison Smith (33), Patrick Peterson (32) and Adam Thielen (32) are logging a lot of snaps. However, can they sustain their health and effectiveness through a 17-game season?
Stat that defined the first half: The Vikings won six consecutive games by one score, and four required the Vikings to overcome a fourth-quarter deficit. — Kevin Seifert
What we know: Arthur Smith’s team has a clear identity and plan to win — run the ball on offense and be OK with yardage but not points on defense. On offense, it’s working. Atlanta has run for 1,466 yards this year and has four players with 299 yards or more on the ground. On defense, which is where the Falcons still need the most improvement, they are allowing 25 points per game.
What we don’t know yet: Well, a lot. This is a team in transition, so the future of the quarterback position — particularly in the long term — remains a question along with when the Falcons will get Kyle Pitts (23 catches, 285 yards, two touchdowns) going with more consistency. So, too, does a semblance of a pass rush. The Falcons are better there than last year — Atlanta has 12 sacks through nine games after only 18 in all of 2021 — but it’s still coming too infrequently. Where that could improve is still a major question.
Non-quarterback X factor for the second half: Pitts. If Atlanta is able to get its star tight end consistently involved as a receiver, then it can open up much more of the offense. After a 1,000-yard season last year, Pitts has had only two games of more than 30 yards receiving and just two games with more than three catches this season. Last season, Pitts had nine games with four catches or more and 13 games with more than 30 yards receiving. It’s a different offense now, but considering Pitts’ 30% target share, his 2022 numbers should be much better. — Michael Rothstein
What we know: This team is a dysfunctional mess. Head coach Matt Rhule was fired after a 1-4 start, and Christian McCaffrey, the face of the franchise, was traded to the San Francisco 49ers a week later. And yet the biggest mess remains the quarterback position that has been the failing this franchise for the past three-plus seasons. The answer isn’t Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold or PJ Walker, but somebody in the 2023 draft.
What we don’t know yet: Who will be the next head coach? Interim coach Steve Wilks had to do an exceptional job to be a factor. And while his strong leadership has been exceptional, it hasn’t changed much on the field. He very well might be the answer moving forward. He deserves a fair shot to be a head coach in the league, but he’ll need to put together a string of wins and remain viable in the weak NFC South to get a look from owner David Tepper, who will want to make a splash with his next hire.
Stat that defined the first half: Look no further than a 26.7% third-down conversion rate that’s last in the NFL. The offense’s inability to keep drives alive defined the inconsistency of the quarterback position and put way too much pressure on a young defense with talent. — David Newton
What we know: The Saints don’t have a long-term quarterback situation. They’re sticking with Andy Dalton over Jameis Winston for now after Winston was injured early in the season, which is the second time the Saints have chosen another quarterback over Winston (the first being when they tried to get Deshaun Watson in the offseason). Dalton has been able to move the offense but not consistently, and neither seems like a surefire option in 2023 or beyond. Considering the Saints do not have a 2023 first-round pick, the future seems murky at that position.
What we don’t know yet: What the Saints’ true potential can be. The Saints played as well as they had all season against the Raiders before taking a huge step back against the Ravens. Their season has been defined by their inconsistency so far, and they’ve shown only flashes of solid play. But the Saints remain in it, despite being 3-6, because of a weak division. They still have a chance to make a run, but only if they can string together more than one good game at a time.
Breakout player so far: Wide receiver Chris Olave. Olave has been one of the bright spots of the Saints’ offense, catching 43 passes for 618 yards and two touchdowns. Olave’s play has helped ease the Saints’ pain of losing Michael Thomas for a second straight season, and it has been needed considering Jarvis Landry has been out for more than a month. The first-round pick seems like a budding star for the Saints long term. — Katherine Terrell
What we know: This isn’t last year’s team. They’re averaging 17.2 points per game on offense — 26th in the league — after leading the NFL a year ago. There is no Rob Gronkowski. There is no Antonio Brown. They’re not scoring at will — nowhere close to it. And center Ryan Jensen might not return in time for the playoffs — if they even make it that far.
What we don’t know yet: Can the defense get healthy and stay that way? The Bucs looked like a dramatically different team when defensive tackle Akiem Hicks and cornerbacks Carlton Davis III and Sean Murphy-Bunting led the way to help snap a three-game losing streak Sunday against the Rams. Until the offense can put up more points, they have to carry the load.
Team trend to watch: The Bucs currently lead the NFL with 19 drops. They had 30 all of last year. That number needs to come down if they want to sustain drives and score. Interestingly, it’s Mike Evans who’s leading the team with five, followed by Leonard Fournette with three. — Jenna Laine
What we know: The Cardinals aren’t a well-organized team. They’ve been plagued by mental errors and self-inflicted mistakes, a sign of a lack of discipline. Arizona’s offense also can’t find a rhythm, which, for a team that has a slew of stars on the offensive side of the ball, doesn’t bode well for the future. This is a team that’s currently in a state of disarray.
What we don’t know yet: How the Cardinals will respond to the first half of the season. Throughout the first two months, coach Kliff Kingsbury has said time and time again that the Cardinals hope this season will unfold as the opposite of last year: a slow start followed by a strong finish. The question now is: Is this team capable of resurrecting this season?
Key injury to watch: Center Rodney Hudson’s knee might hold a key — not the key — to the rest of the season. The more time he misses, the more the offense will likely look unorganized and be unproductive. He was the glue that held it together — not just the offensive line, the entire offense. His ability to present a sense of calm upfront and guide quarterback Kyler Murray through checks and defensive schemes was a major factor in the Cardinals’ success the past couple of years. — Josh Weinfuss
What we know: This 2022 Rams team doesn’t look like the roster that went 12-5 last season en route to a Super Bowl victory. The Los Angeles offense, having added Allen Robinson II and subtracted Robert Woods and Odell Beckham Jr., hasn’t found any consistency. The Rams have scored 131 points — compared to 245 points at this point last season. The 131 points are tied for the second fewest by a defending champion in the Super Bowl era.
What we don’t know yet: Whether Cooper Kupp can single-handedly turn this season around for the Rams’ offense. It seems unlikely through eight games that this will be the case, as Kupp has 72 catches for 813 yards and six receiving touchdowns, and the Rams are still 3-5. But if there is a non-quarterback in this league who could spearhead that change, it would probably be Kupp, who has caught 75% of the team’s passing touchdowns this season.
Team trend to watch: Can the Rams find any success on the ground? Despite getting running back Cam Akers back Sunday against the Buccaneers, the Rams combined for 68 rushing yards on 24 carries. Twenty-three of those yards came on one play by Darrell Henderson Jr., which was the Rams’ longest run of the season. Los Angeles will likely get rookie running back Kyren Williams back next week against the Arizona Cardinals, but will that be enough to jump-start a rushing offense that came into the loss against the Buccaneers ranked 31st in the NFL? — Sarah Barshop
What we know: When healthy, the 49ers have one of the most dominant defenses in the league and an offense that’s trending upward. Despite a couple of hiccups, the defense still ranks near the top of the league in many key categories and should get most of its injured starters back. The offense boasts elite talent but seeks consistency. At 4-4 and 3-0 in the NFC West, the Niners are in the thick of the playoff picture.
What we don’t know yet: Two significant questions that need answers: Can the Niners get and stay (relatively) healthy, and can quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo avoid big mistakes at crucial moments? Injuries are an issue all over the league but have been a bigger problem in the Bay than most places for going on five years. Garoppolo has his limitations, but if he’s taking care of the ball and distributing it to his playmakers, the Niners can beat anyone.
Non-quarterback X factor for the second half: RB Christian McCaffrey. Sometimes the obvious choice is obvious for a reason. McCaffrey hasn’t had much time with his new team but has already proved capable of being the centerpiece of the offense in a meaningful game. With so much talent at the skill positions, McCaffrey should not only produce big numbers but create opportunities for his teammates to do the same. If that happens, the Niners will be poised for another postseason run. — Nick Wagoner
What we know: Geno Smith and the Seahawks are for real. They’ve been one of the biggest surprises of the NFL season, Smith playing at a high level — after spending the past seven seasons as a backup — and Seattle sitting at first place in the NFC West after few expected them to compete without Russell Wilson. And none of it feels like a fluke. Smith has the NFL’s fourth-best QBR and has statistically been the league’s most accurate quarterback. The defense has gone from awful to excellent, allowing the fifth-fewest points since its turnaround began in Week 6. And after the Seahawks scored three straight touchdowns Sunday to beat the Cardinals in Glendale after falling behind on a third-quarter Smith pick-six, we also know they’re a resilient team.
What we don’t know yet: Where do they rank — and where will they finish — in the NFC pecking order? Only two teams in the conference currently have more wins than the 6-3 Seahawks, and one of the two other teams that also has six wins — the Giants — got handled by the Seahawks in Week 8. The Giants haven’t looked spectacular, nor have the 7-1 Vikings. Based on outside expectations, the Seahawks were more likely to end up with a top-10 pick than to compete for one of the NFC’s top two playoff spots, but that’s an attainable goal. They have the NFC’s toughest remaining schedule, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index. But five of their remaining eight games are at home, and they’ve still got their bye.
Non-quarterback X factor for the second half: Can their stellar draft class avoid the proverbial rookie wall? Six of the Seahawks’ nine draft picks are already significant contributors, including a pair of rookie of the year candidates in cornerback Tariq Woolen and running back Kenneth Walker III. Tackles Charles Cross and Abe Lucas, outside linebacker Boye Mafe and nickelback Coby Bryant are also playing well, giving the Seahawks their most talented group of young players since their Super Bowl teams of nearly a decade ago. But there’s a danger in rookies slowing down late in the year because the NFL season is much longer than the college slate, especially now with a 17th game. In Walker’s case, it might help that he has less mileage on his legs because he didn’t take over as Seattle’s RBI until Rashaad Penny went down in Week 5. — Brady Henderson