The NFL has reached the halfway point of the 2020 season, and there’s suddenly a logjam at the top of the NFC.
With losses for the Seattle Seahawks, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Arizona Cardinals, there are now six teams that are within one game of the lead (6-2) in the conference. Over in the AFC, the 8-1 Kansas City Chiefs, thanks to star quarterback Patrick Mahomes, look like they may be the top team in their conference by a comfortable margin. And Mahomes suddenly may have become the favorite to win his second MVP award.
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Here are the Week 9 winners and losers.
Parity atop the NFC
As the Buccaneers, Seahawks and Cardinals lost and the Green Bay Packers and New Orleans Saints won, there’s suddenly a logjam atop the NFC. That sets up what could be a thrilling race for the No. 1 seed in the second half of the season. All of those teams have either five or six victories and either two or three losses. The Los Angeles Rams, who were on their bye week, are also in the mix at 5-3.
Due to changes to the playoff format, only the top seed in each conference will enjoy a bye. Making this even more salivating for football fans, each of these teams has a quarterback who can dazzle and take over games when called upon. At different points so far this season, each squad looked like it might be the best in the conference. And with the landscape so wide open, there should be an even higher sense of urgency as the season wears on.
QB futures in Miami and Arizona
Though the Miami Dolphins beat the Cardinals in a thrilling 34-31 game, both teams have to be feeling optimistic about what they saw out of their young quarterbacks. Dolphins rookie Tua Tagovailoa’s second career start answered many of the questions that popped up in his first. He showcased mobility, erasing any concerns from his significant hip injury sustained while at Alabama. He demonstrated he can make throws when flushed out of the pocket. Most importantly, he showed he can put the game in his hands and make plays when the Dolphins needed him to do so. Tagovailoa finished 20-of-28 for 248 yards with two scores.
Meanwhile, Murray continued to develop into one of the most dangerous dual-threat quarterbacks in the entire NFL. He became the first player in league history to throw for 275 or more yards with three passing touchdowns while adding 100 or more rushing yards with at least one rushing score. In fact, it was conservative play-calling late in the game that led to a missed Zane Gonzalez 49-yard field goal and the Cardinals’ loss.
While everyone was talking about Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson and Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers early in the MVP race, Chiefs passer Patrick Mahomes kept plugging along in a 33-31 victory against the Carolina Panthers.
Mahomes completed 30 of 45 attempts for 372 yards and four touchdowns. He has now thrown nine touchdowns in his last two games and has a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 25:1. He also became the fastest in NFL history to reach 100 passing touchdowns, doing so in 40 career games, four fewer than Miami Dolphin legend and previous record holder Dan Marino. Mahomes is just in his third year as Kansas City’s starter, has the defending Super Bowl champions sitting at 8-1 and may be on pace to add his second MVP award after this season.
Seahawks’ fatal flaw
Seattle had won eight consecutive games in the early slate of Sunday games but fell Sunday in a 44-34 loss to the Buffalo Bills. And for the Seahawks, who had looked like one of the top contenders in the NFL, it has become clear that their fatal flaw could be a defense that simply yields far too many yards and big plays. The 44 points was the most a Pete Carroll-led Seattle team has ever allowed. “So out of character across the board,” Carroll said after the game. “I don’t even recognize us.”
Buffalo quarterback Josh Allen went off in an ultra-efficient performance, completing 31 of 38 passes for 415 yards and four total touchdowns. The Seahawks are now giving up an average of 30.4 points a game, ranking them in the bottom quarter of the NFL. Though they generated seven sacks against Buffalo, their pass rush had been inconsistent. No other secondary in the NFL has allowed more passing yards (2,897). And while Wilson has been very impressive, Seattle’s leaky defense just puts too much pressure on its to outscore opponents. While the Seahawks (6-2) have been able to manage so far this season, as competition tightens and as they face tougher opponents if they reach the postseason, that pace may be unsustainable.
Tampa Bay looked utterly lifeless in a 38-3 loss against the NFC South-rival Saints. New Orleans swept the Buccaneers, which could prove to be critical in playoff seeding. It was also the most lopsided loss of quarterback Tom Brady’s storied career.
New Orleans’ offensive line completely dominated Tampa Bay’s typically disruptive pass rush, allowing Saints quarterback Drew Brees ample time to find open targets. Most concerning, Brady and the Bucs offense looked completely disjointed, going three-and-out in their first four possessions, only to be followed in the fifth by an interception. Brady finished the game with 209 yards, no touchdowns and three interceptions and had some baffling decisions. Tampa Bay rushed the ball just four times. The Buccaneers will want to erase this one from their memory, but injuries at receiver are just one of the team’s concerns.
Los Angeles Chargers’ luck
You really have to feel for Chargers fans. On a day when rookie quarterback Justin Herbert broke Cam Newton’s record for most passing yards through a rookie’s first seven starts, the Chargers again fell in heartbreaking fashion to the Las Vegas Raiders. On the final play of the game, the Chargers appeared to have a game-winning touchdown, but a replay reversal showed that tight end Donald Parham bobbled what would have been a touchdown grab as he fell to the turf. They lost, 31-26.
Los Angeles is now 2-6, and not only have their losses occurred almost universally in devastating ways, the defeats have all come by a one-score deficit with an average margin of four points. When looking at reasons for the trend, the chief culprit has to be a defense that has been a letdown during crucial stretches. At some point, the Chargers’ luck seems bound for a correction, but it’s looking increasingly like that could be too late if it does happen at all.
Denver Broncos’ slow starts
There’s plenty of blame to go around for the team’s 34-27 loss against the Atlanta Falcons, but a slow start – again – was too much to overcome. The first time Denver crossed into the red zone on offense came with 4:10 left to play in the game. The defense started the game letting Atlanta convert six of eight third-down attempts.
While the Broncos did outscore the Falcons 21-7 in the fourth quarter, it was their 17-point deficit headed into halftime that sunk their hopes of winning. By the time Lock and the Denver offense woke up, it was too late. Denver (3-5) has been plagued by significant injuries to its pass rush and secondary, but offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur’s decision to try to establish the run early in the game helped lead to that ineffective start. Lock ended up as Denver’s leading rusher. Slow starts are not the sign of a team that often wins on the road.
The Chicago Bears as a contender
Chicago has enjoyed a light schedule on the way to a 5-4 mark through the first half of the season, but this looks like a team that is worse than its record indicates. Coach Matt Nagy’s offense, again, was woeful and underwhelmed in a 24-17 loss to the Tennessee Titans.
Midway through the third quarter, the Bears had failed to convert any of their nine third down tries. Their leading rusher was Barkevious Mingo, a linebacker, who had one carry for 11 yards. They had just four offensive first downs. By the end of the game, those numbers weren’t much better. Chicago went 2-of-15 (13%) on third down; running back David Montgomery (14 carries for 30 yards) was their rushing leader, and the Bears finished with 22 first downs, though most were secured in garbage time. The offensive line cedes too much pressure and cannot open rushing lanes. To characterize production out of the tight end position as spotty would be quite generous. And situational coaching and play-calling decisions often make things harder than they need to be. The Bears have lost three in a row, and a playoff run looks like a pipe dream.