All 32 NFL teams have reached the midpoint of an already unforgettable 2020 campaign, and 10 clubs have already completed nine games.
Though the league continues to experience an uptick of COVID-19 cases – a season-high 15 players and 41 team personnel tested positive last week – overall, it’s done a remarkable job managing the virus given it doesn’t have the benefit of the bubble environments used by the NBA, NHL and other leagues.
Thanks to stringent, fluid protocols and (with some notable exceptions) a high degree of discipline practiced by coaches, executives, staffers and players, the NFL has only had to reschedule a handful of contests and remains on track to complete its 256-game regular season.
From Commissioner Roger Goodell to Chief Medical Officer Allen Sills to the equipment managers, the league deserves a solid B+ for pandemic navigation.
As for the member clubs’ on-field performances? Let’s issue midpoint report cards for each …
Pittsburgh Steelers: Remarkable when considering this most decorated of organizations had never been 8-0 … until now. Have they been perfect? Nah, but who is? Pittsburgh has survived some surprisingly close calls and isn’t the offensive juggernaut it resembled a few years ago. But the talent on hand has been maximized. QB Ben Roethlisberger’s return from elbow surgery has stabilized that side of the ball while allowing a very inexperienced group of receivers to thrive. And as long as a defense that makes more big plays than any other – league-high 32 sacks, 15 takeaways (tied for second overall) – remains a force, the Steelers are a bona fide threat to win a record seventh Lombardi Trophy.
Arizona Cardinals: They’ve already matched last season’s win total (5), QB Kyler Murray graduating from rookie of the year to legitimate MVP candidate while triggering the league’s No. 1 offense. WR DeAndre Hopkins has fit seamlessly into the program, and S Budda Baker is one of the league’s more underrated studs. The only NFC West team that hasn’t dropped a divisional game, the Cards could easily finish in first place for the first time since 2015.
Carolina Panthers: They’re only 3-6. Fine. But let’s remember this is the only team – in the midst of the pandemic, no less – breaking in a new head coach, a pair of coordinators and a quarterback. Despite their lack of internal familiarity and a roster that currently includes 14 players with no more than a year of NFL experience, Matt Rhule, Teddy Bridgewater and Co. are unfailingly competitive – coming up just short of an upset in Kansas City on Sunday. And let’s not forget, Carolina is doing this even though Robby Anderson, DJ Moore, Mike Davis and Curtis Samuel have all outgained Christian McCaffrey to date. The Panthers seem headed in a very positive direction.
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Kansas City Chiefs: They’re making a strong bid to pull off the first successful Super Bowl title defense in 16 years. QB Patrick Mahomes (25 TDs, 1 INT) may now be in prime position to notch league MVP honors for the second time in three years. And good luck finding a better-designed or more explosive offensive attack – one that’s more than compensated for a recently sputtering ground game. K.C. does remain susceptible, especially defensively, to balanced opponents who can control tempo. Exhibit A: Raiders. Exhibit B: Panthers.
Miami Dolphins: Given all the free agents and rookies they brought in – and the newcomers didn’t have the benefit of a traditional offseason to assimilate – not a surprise they opened 0-2. But the Fins are 5-1 since, have allowed the fourth-fewest points in the league and have maintained their momentum despite a midstream quarterback switch to first-round pick Tua Tagovailoa, who orchestrated an impressive win at Arizona on Sunday. With a soft upcoming schedule, it would actually be a surprise if Miami missed the playoffs at this point.
Los Angeles Rams: Jared Goff is rebounding from a down year, completing a career-best 65.5% of his passes. Yet coach Sean McVay hasn’t had to ask as much from his quarterback, successfully restoring offensive equilibrium with a multi-faceted run game that’s surged since Todd Gurley’s departure. However the real story here might be a defense that’s quietly emerged as the NFC’s stingiest under first-year coordinator Brandon Staley.
New Orleans Saints: QB Drew Brees is finally piling up more “air yards,” WR Michael Thomas is back in the lineup, and the defense continues to get key contributions from unheralded linemen like David Onyemata, Marcus Davenport and Trey Hendrickson. Translation? The Saints, fueled by MVP candidate Alvin Kamara (league-high 1,036 yards from scrimmage) are settling in as the team we thought they’d be – which is a leading Super Bowl contender.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: There’s no unseeing that debacle of a performance against the Saints on Sunday in front of a national TV audience. But QB Tom Brady and coach Bruce Arians are still trying to blend their styles – even as this offense incorporates other parts like TE Rob Gronkowski and WR Antonio Brown. Given all the new kids in class, pretty impressive showing so far – more so given the emergence of a defense that typically makes splash plays on a par with Pittsburgh’s more renowned unit.
Tennessee Titans: On the heels of four successive 9-7 records, they’re 6-2 with the opportunity to open real daylight on their AFC South lead if they can beat the Colts on Thursday night. The season-ending injury to LT Taylor Lewan aside, the offense has maintained the momentum built last year when Ryan Tannehill took over under center. But the defense must buckle down if Mike Vrabel’s crew wants to make another deep playoff push.
Buffalo Bills: If only they could wed QB Josh Allen’s breakout showing with last season’s third-ranked defense and top-10 ground game. Regardless, Allen looks like the real deal, and his supporting cast – namely a defense that’s only held the Jets to fewer than 20 points – still has time to round into shape if this group is to give #BillsMafia its first division crown and playoff victory in a quarter-century.
Green Bay Packers: Dazzling as the Aaron Rodgers-to-Davante Adams connection has been this year, it also underscores the fact that this front office failed to add more weapons in the draft and at the trade deadline. And an erratic defense has been shredded in recent weeks and has the fewest takeaways (6) in the NFC.
Las Vegas Raiders: Jon Gruden has constructed an impressive offense that can strike deep, QB Derek Carr now armed with an array of downfield options, and/or simply maul opponents with jackhammer RB Josh Jacobs. But a deficient defense usually forces Carr and Co. into track meets. And you cringe to think at the next penalty coming down the pike if the organization flouts COVID-19 regulations yet again.
Seattle Seahawks: Little doubt QB Russell Wilson (league-best 28 TD passes) is going to deservedly garner his first-ever MVP votes … and it doesn’t hurt to be flanked by DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett, probably the league’s most dynamic receiving duo. But with a defense on track to hemorrhage the most yards in league history and a run game wracked by injuries, these ‘Hawks will struggle to end the year in gratifying fashion.
Baltimore Ravens: They’re a solid 6-2, but the middling “B” is largely due to the relative regression from a 2019 edition that steamrolled through the regular season, racking up a league-record 3,296 rushing yards. The play of QB Lamar Jackson has been a microcosm of the team – good and sometimes great but rarely approaching the MVP bar he set last year. The Ravens could still take flight but don’t appear to be on a level with the Steelers and Chiefs at this point.
Cleveland Browns: Rookie coach Kevin Stefanski is another who didn’t get the benefit of an offseason to imbue his philosophy or work with his players in a hands-on way. Yet the long underachieving Browns are playing complementary football thanks to an effective play-action offense and a big-play defense sparked by DE Myles Garrett’s superstar turn. At 5-3, Cleveland could finally return to the playoffs for the first time since 2002 … though the Browns’ inability to compete in a trio of blowout defeats is concerning.
Indianapolis Colts: The defense has joined the league’s elite, currently ranked No. 1 overall thanks to acquisitions like DL DeForest Buckner and CB Xavier Rhodes. But QB Philip Rivers, who has played better lately, has only managed to make the offense marginally better than it was with Jacoby Brissett last year. Indy looks strong enough to reach the playoffs but probably isn’t equipped to make much noise in January.
Chicago Bears: They’re getting next to nothing offensively, the run game ranked last in the league and QB Nick Foles looking like little more than a lateral move from demoted Mitch Trubisky. But gritty play, a tough defense and several strokes of good luck have Chicago just a half-game out of the NFC playoff field.
Cincinnati Bengals: Rookies Joe Burrow and Tee Higgins both look like potential home run picks, primary reasons for the offense’s marked improvement from 2019. The defense still has rampant problems, but 2-5-1 looks pretty good when compared to last year’s 2-14 finish.
New York Giants: First-time coach Joe Judge didn’t inherit a very impressive roster, then lost his best player (RB Saquon Barkley) in Week 2. Despite those circumstances and the erratic play of second-year QB Daniel Jones, this team is almost unfailingly competitive – and even at 2-7, it remains a viable contender to prevail in the lowly NFC East.
Denver Broncos: Losing Pro Bowlers like OLB Von Miller and WR Courtland Sutton to injuries so early, not to mention second-year QB Drew Lock’s early season shoulder issues, quickly halted any momentum this club had built at the conclusion of 2019. Even without Sutton, a young receiving corps has made nice strides. Otherwise, this may be shaping up as a lost year in the Mile High City.
New England Patriots: Bags don’t get much more mixed than this one. Should they have tried harder to retain Brady? Was signing QB Cam Newton to a one-year deal at the 11th hour as TB12’s replacement, albeit one with a fundamentally different skill set, the right move? Should Bill Belichick have more aggressively bolstered the supporting cast around Newton, one that was largely cited for failing Brady in 2019? Answers to those questions may be coming into focus. But Belichick does deserve credit for keeping this team afloat even as it was ravaged by COVID-19 opt-outs and Newton’s bout with the virus that effectively stunted his integration into the offense.
Detroit Lions: An average season might have earned coach Matt Patricia and GM Bob Quinn a stay of execution. But the Lions have now been embarrassed in successive weeks and probably need an expanded 16-team field if they hope to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2016.
Minnesota Vikings: A team that reached the divisional round of last season’s playoffs has paid the price for a defensive overhaul even coach Mike Zimmer hasn’t gotten his arms around. RB Dalvin Cook could run them back to relevance if he can stay healthy, but the Vikes seem relegated to continuing their pattern of missing postseason in alternating years under Zimmer.
Philadelphia Eagles: The apparent regression of QB Carson Wentz (league-worst 12 INTs) and a rash of injuries have been the major storylines in Philly. And yet the Eagles have gotten by with players like WR Travis Fulgham and RB Boston Scott and, even at 3-4-1, might be ready to charge away from the NFC East field with the cavalry about to arrive with personnel reinforcements.
Atlanta Falcons: All that first-round talent … all those squandered games. At least the decision to replace Dan Quinn with Raheem Morris appears to be working out, Atlanta responding with three wins in four outings under its interim boss. But hard to envision the Falcons making significant hay in the face of an unrelenting second-half schedule.
Jacksonville Jaguars: They haven’t won since opening day and, after voluntarily shedding former building blocks like RB Leonard Fournette and DE Yannick Ngakoue, have appeared incrementally less competitive as the season wears on. And with the quarterback position looking more unsettled, worth wondering if Jags will have to use some of their 2021 draft freight to find a better one.
Los Angeles Chargers: In many ways, the same old Bolts – key injuries waylaying stars like S Derwin James and RB Austin Ekeler, yet still plenty of leftover talent to win … if the Chargers just knew how to win games. However the emergence of rookie QB Justin Herbert might portend brighter days ahead … assuming he stays healthy and figures out how to generate the five extra points this team needs on a weekly basis.
Dallas Cowboys: Probably should have signed QB Dak Prescott to a long-term deal. Probably shouldn’t have radically changed the defense in a year when you couldn’t adequately teach new principles on a practice field. Live and learn, Jerry.
Houston Texans: WR DeAndre Hopkins is still gone. Deposed coach/GM Bill O’Brien has left very little in the cupboard for his eventual successor. And the guys on the field can’t beat anyone aside from Jacksonville.
Washington Football Team: Will be interesting to see how much the organization’s increasingly tarnished image will further dissuade free agents from signing. Tough environment to parachute into if you’re new coach Ron Rivera, whose battle with cancer only made matters tougher. And yet it’s worth wondering if, given a mulligan, Riverboat Ron might rethink how he handled the quarterback situation and the surprising release of veteran RB Adrian Peterson from a club ranked 29th in rushing.
New York Jets: No real surprise that last season’s 6-2 finish was a mirage. But a franchise-worst 0-9 start that’s made the NYJ frontrunners in the presumptive Trevor Lawrence Sweepstakes is a bit surprising. Seems pretty apparent that a culture change here is just as crucial as talent upgrades.
San Francisco 49ers: The dread “incomplete” grade seems only fair given their best players aren’t well enough to attend class. But you’d have to say a 4-5 record is fairly remarkable given Nick Bosa, Dee Ford, Jimmy Garoppolo, George Kittle, Raheem Mostert, Richard Sherman, Solomon Thomas and Jeff Wilson Jr. are all on injured reserve – and that only paints part of the picture regarding personnel issues – and COVID-19 stripped several key players for the Week 9 blowout to the Packers.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis.
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