It's time to look forward toward the second half of the NFL season and attempt to figure out what will occur over the final few months of the 2012 campaign. That means bad predictions. It means bringing up naive-yet-logical ideas that will never actually happen. And it means picking the wrong long shot to come through. That is just part and parcel of any mid-season review. This one is no exception.
The truth about the midway point of a season is that we think we know more about the NFL than we actually do. Eight games might be 100 possessions or 500 plays, like I suggested yesterday, but I also pointed out in that article that randomness has played a huge role in helping define what we "know" about these teams through eight games. Would the Broncos be 7-1 if they had recovered the league's highest percentage of available fumbles as opposed to the league's lowest? Would Marty Hurney still have a job if the Panthers had enjoyed much better luck in close games? Remember: At the halfway point last year, the Bills were up two games on the Broncos in the AFC, the Buccaneers were a .500 team, and Victor Cruz was still coming off the bench for the Giants. A lot can change in the course of a half-season.
Our predictions for the second half, though, start with a team currently playing at a high level remaining at that level for the rest of the year:
1. The Texans finish with the best record in football. If I have to pick a win total, I'll go with 13, but I expect the 6-1 Texans to finish with the league's best record by the time the regular season is over. Houston finishes the first half of the season with the best point differential in the league, even while giving up a game played to teams who haven't yet had a bye. Their schedule over the second half isn't particularly challenging, as they still have four games to come against their own division, plus matchups with the Bills and Lions (albeit with trips to Chicago and New England in store). Houston's good at everything and, outside of one bad performance against the Packers, has consistently looked as good as anyone else in football. One thing they might want to watch out for, though
2. Arian Foster will go over 370 carries. The "Curse of 370" is a controversial argument in football nerd circles. It theorizes that a running back who gets 370 carries or more in a given season is significantly more likely to break down with an injury or suffer a dramatic decline in performance during the subsequent season than one whose workload is better managed. Others accuse it of being arbitrarily defined and mathematically unsound. Does this sound like an exciting debate to you? It does to me, so I'll tell you what I think: There's nothing meaningful about the 370th carry that turns some muscle into jelly months down the road like the Dim Mak death punch, but there's also no reason to give a running back an excessive number of carries in 2012. That seems reasonable, right?
Arian Foster, though, is on pace to break 370. If he maintains his current workload, he'll hit 384 carries, which will place him just above the threshold and make him a qualifier for the vaunted curse. With backup Ben Tate struggling with a nagging hamstring injury and third-stringer Justin Forsett new to the backfield, the Texans have been comfortable leaning on Foster, week after week, with an unprecedented workload. Perhaps owing to a combination of the workload and the offseason changes made to his offensive line, Foster's been far less efficient this year;1 after averaging 4.7 yards per carry over his first three seasons in the league, he's down to a rushing average of 3.9 yards this year.
Regardless of whether you believe in the Curse of 370, it's clear that the Texans could find some space to give Foster a breather and get much-needed reps for another back. Take one obvious split as an example. When the Texans have been up 14 points or more in the fourth quarter this season, Foster's carried the ball 27 times. That's one-sixth of his workload, coming in situations in which the Texans have basically already sealed the game. He's not doing much with those carries beyond running into the line, either, as he's averaging a mere 3.1 yards per attempt on those carries. If the Texans merely hand those duties off to Forsett or a returning Tate, they'll save valuable wear and tear on a player who just entered the first year of his contract extension with the team. They might even avoid cursing him in the process. Given Tate's injury and Houston's indifference toward the situation, I think Foster hits 370.
3. The Falcons will finish with the top seed in the NFC. Predicting the team with the best record in each conference to stay atop the conference over the second half! How risky! Even though I think the Falcons are a tad overrated, I think their second-half schedule should be friendly enough to keep them atop the NFC for the remainder of the regular season. The Falcons have four games left against the NFC South, which doesn't look quite as tough as it did before the season. The key matchup for the NFC crown will be in Week 15, when the Falcons match up against the Giants, and I favor the Falcons because they'll be playing that game in the Georgia Dome.
4. Matt Ryan will win league MVP. I'm happy to say that I was on this one before the season, but I think Ryan wins this because he's the best candidate in a down year for the MVP award. Who else is a really viable option? The Texans might end up being the league's best team, but neither Foster nor Matt Schaub has been productive enough to get the award, and the voters aren't smart enough to give it to J.J. Watt. Aaron Rodgers is coming on strong, but MVP voters (regardless of the sport) always have a bias toward giving the award to somebody new as opposed to a repeat winner, especially one who would be holding the title for consecutive years. Does Peyton Manning get the sentimental vote if the Broncos win the AFC West at 10-6? Could Eli figure into the discussion if the Giants end up with the best record in the NFC? Will RG3 receive a vote? (Yes.) All things considered, Ryan is the best candidate available as of right now. If the season ended today, I think he'd win. And unless somebody really separates from the pack before the season ends, I still think he ends up as the guy.
5. The league's awful teams play hard because nobody really wants the first overall pick. Although it isn't the salary cap-destroying Winner's Curse that it was before the CBA renegotiations, the first overall pick might be more of a hassle than it's worth this year. With expected no. 1 pick Matt Barkley struggling at USC, teams will have to decide between taking a risk on Geno Smith or selecting one of the many defensive linemen in contention for the top spot. Last year, the draft had two clear stars and then a huge dropoff in value before the third pick. This year, the first overall pick might not be worth much more than the sixth or seventh pick, and those selections come without the franchise- and career-defining stigma that comes with the first overall pick.2
Interestingly enough, several of the teams in contention for the first overall pick really don't need a quarterback. The 1-6 Panthers aren't about to get rid of Cam Newton, and the 2-6 Browns have probably seen enough out of Brandon Weeden this year to give him another shot under new management in 2013. The 1-6 Jaguars could even consider giving Blaine Gabbert one more year to work his problems out, leaving the 1-7 Chiefs as the only team at the bottom of the league really looking for a quarterback. Everyone I just mentioned besides the Chiefs is also in desperate need of a pass rusher, so it might actually benefit those other teams to stay put and go after the best rusher available when they show up on draft day.
Is there really evidence that teams gave up last season? It's awful flimsy, but let's work with this: Teams who were underdogs of 10 points or more in Vegas last year after Week 11 won just one of the 17 games they played, a winning percentage of just .059. Over the previous two years, they were 7-29, winning three times as frequently. On the other hand, they went 1-13 in 2008 in advance of the 2009 NFL Draft, which wasn't notable in the same way that the Luck/RG3 spectacle was.
Since the league adopted its current alignment in 2002, 25 teams who were .500 or worse through their first eight games have made the playoffs. Twenty-two of those teams were 4-4, while the final three were 3-5. One of those teams was the 2011 Broncos, who were part of an atypical season last year; by the time the midway point rolled around, we basically had a good idea of who was heading to the playoffs. The other 11 playoff teams were all 5-3 or better at the halfway point last year, so the teams who were good mostly stayed that way. That may not be the case this season.
Obviously, since most teams are about to play their eighth game this upcoming weekend, we're not entirely sure which teams will qualify as possible dark horses, but it's safe to say that the league's also-rans are going to want to hit .500 by Monday night if they want to have a serious hope of making it to the dance. That means that last night's victory by the Chargers basically qualified as the first of several must-win games we'll see this weekend, and the list of teams who will need to join them with victories to bounce up to 4-4 is a mix of similarly flawed franchises: Buffalo, Cincinnati, Oakland, Philadelphia, Dallas, and Tampa Bay. Along with whichever 4-3 teams (Dolphins, Steelers, Colts, Broncos) lose this weekend and the Cardinals and Seahawks, who are already 4-4, we're looking at a group of about 12 teams competing for two or three playoff spots.
One thing that is true: Your alignment helps your chances of making the playoffs a lot. At the moment, there are six five-win teams in the NFC and just three of them in the AFC. A 4-4 team like the Chargers still has a reasonable shot at winning its division, let alone procuring a wild-card spot, which is something that should only take nine wins in the AFC. Depending on this weekend's results, the Chargers could actually be in a wild-card berth by the time Week 9 shakes out. Compare that to the 3-4 Eagles, who would still be 1.5 games back behind the Giants with a win (and Giants loss) this weekend, as well as a game behind the Vikings and Packers for a wild-card berth. Their path to the playoffs is simply tougher.
Which of them will make it? Good question. If we assume that a team has to be 4-4 to have a shot at getting in, there's an eliminator game this week between Tampa Bay and Oakland, each of whom are 3-4. The winner of Miami-Indianapolis will be 5-3 and actually be extremely well positioned for a wild-card spot. Since 2002, teams that started 5-3 have made the playoffs 59 percent of the time. I think that the Bucs and Colts win those games, so that knocks out the Raiders and pushes the Colts away from our .500 baseline. And Dallas and Buffalo, each 3-4, have to win on the road at Atlanta and Houston, respectively — a tall order.
As I mentioned earlier, the winner of Indianapolis-Miami is likely to make the playoffs. They'll take up one wild-card spot in the AFC. That leaves Cincinnati-Denver as a very important game this weekend; if Denver wins on the road, they go up one game in the division (with the tie-breaker over the Chargers) and start positioning themselves as the class of the AFC West, all while basically knocking the now-3-5 Bengals out of the race. If the Buccaneers do beat the Raiders, and the Steelers fail to come up with a victory over the Giants, that would leave Pittsburgh, San Diego, and the loser of the Indy-Miami game competing for the final wild-card spot.
In the NFC, the path to contention for those 4-4 teams is much tougher. It seems likely that the Giants, Falcons, and 49ers will each win their divisions, and while one of the Bears, Packers, and Vikings will win the NFC North, the second-place team in that division is a favorite to take a wild-card berth home. Of the three, Minnesota seems likeliest to drop out of the hunt: They have the league's toughest schedule from here on out, including all four games to go against the Bears and Packers and road tilts at Seattle and Houston.
If you assume that the NFC North takes two spots, you end up with an ugly crew of teams competing for the sixth wild-card berth. Arizona's out for me, thanks to my belief that their 4-0 start was predicated upon some incredible luck in close games, as well as an extremely tough schedule over the second half of the year. The Lions could sneak in, but they're not the same team without Louis Delmas, who's hurt yet again and seemingly not getting any healthier. The Buccaneers would basically be eliminated with a loss in Oakland this weekend, and it seems foolhardy to believe in either the Cowboys or Eagles (although I'd prefer the Cowboys and their friendly upcoming schedule, if given a choice of the two).
That leaves the Seahawks, who feel like the average team that can sneak into the playoffs almost by default. Their schedule going forward is actually pretty friendly, especially considering the fact that they get to play five of their eight remaining games at home, including three games against their NFC West brethren. Their three road games include trips to Buffalo and Miami, which aren't exactly the most fearsome locations in the league. Barring some miraculous run by the Cowboys or Bucs, Seattle feels like it'll be the "surprise" average team to come out of the NFC.
For the first time during the Rex Ryan era, the Jets are essentially out of playoff contention halfway through the season. At 3-5, their best hope for contention revolves around an easy schedule, as Gang Green still has to play the Rams, Cardinals, Jaguars, Titans, and Bills in the second half. Football Outsiders has the Jets' chances of making the dance at 11.5 percent, and even that doesn't do a great job of accounting for the injuries that have taken Santonio Holmes and Darrelle Revis off the roster for the remainder of the season.
With that in mind, though, an idea occurred to me shortly after the Revis injury. Before Revis tore his ACL, he had made noise about wanting a new contract, an option that the Jets refused to consider after acquiescing to his demands in September of 2010 and giving him a four-year deal. Now the Jets look smart for having passed on the renegotiations, but what if they saw the Revis injury as an opportunity as opposed to a setback? What if they gave Revis a contract extension now?
Why on earth would you give a guy with a torn ACL a multi-year contract extension with what will undoubtedly be an enormous guarantee? Well, there are a lot of reasons. For one, you're going to get a significant discount. Any deal the Jets signed with a healthy Revis would have likely made him the highest-paid cornerback in NFL history, a contract that the perpetually capped-out Jets would have found difficult to swallow. By signing Revis this winter, they'll be able to cut millions of dollars off of both his signing bonus and future salaries, saving the team valuable cap space. They will begin to experience the effects of the cap hit from the new contract earlier, which will help them build a more competitive team when Revis is back and closer to 100 percent. They'll be signing Revis at 27 as opposed to 29, which means they're more likely to pay for prime seasons of his career. And if they go through with a deal now, when Revis's leverage is virtually nil, they'll endear themselves to the organization's best player (and his agent) in a way that should end any further discussion of future holdouts.
The downside is obvious: You pay for something resembling Darrelle Revis and you end up giving big bucks to a guy with a bum knee. It's a legitimate risk, but Revis's injury was merely an ACL tear as opposed to the sort of multi-ligament injury suffered by Adrian Peterson this past year. Rehabbing those sorts of injuries is relatively straightforward, and barring some unforeseen complication, Revis should be able to return as virtually the same player he was before the injury.
In addition to the advantages mentioned above, it shouldn't be difficult for the Jets to insert some sort of bonus structure into the deal that would allow them to escape after two years without affecting their cap or paying Revis an inordinate sum. Mark Sanchez's contract extension from before this season has a similar structure, one in which the Jets turned a bonus and possible salaries into guarantees over the next two seasons, but one in which he can be released after the 2013 season without costing the team a penny more. A Revis deal would likely have such an out after the 2014 campaign, by which point the Jets will know whether Revis is back to his old form or not.
For a variety of reasons, a Revis signing is unlikely to happen. The Jets might not be able to afford it under their current salary structure. They might not trust Revis's knee to hold up. Or they might just be scared of how it'll look. Teams simply don't lock up players who have long-term injuries, even if they can extract significant value by doing so.3 It's an easy move for sports talk callers and local media types to take shots at, something the Jets are more sensitive to than virtually any other team in the league. The move would be risky and out-of-the-box, but I truly think Mike Tannenbaum would be correct to re-up Revis before he puts on a Jets jersey again.
6. Michael Vick doesn't lose his job. You know how newspapers write the obituaries of famous people before they die and just fill in the specific details on the day of the person's actual death before publication? Every writer on the planet has a column on Michael Vick's benching that they've been sitting on for a month now, just waiting to be filed after rookie third-rounder Nick Foles works his way into the starting lineup. I personally think that those columns will collect nothing but dust this season; as bad as Vick's been, Foles isn't a better option.
Andy Reid knows that, and because he's coaching for his job, it's not in his interest to bench Vick and give an unproven third-rounder a shot with a veteran team. If Reid really had enough confidence in Foles to sit Vick, to be quite honest, it would have happened by now. Instead, as Vick's crazy turnover rate continues to regress toward the mean from its early-season highs, Eagles fans will be able to trace some fragments of progress and tolerate Vick remaining in the lineup for the rest of the season. I don't think Foles will see a full series this year, but if he does last a quarter or even two, expect Eagles fans to turn their affection right back to Vick.
7. Two coaches lose theirs before the season ends, but their names are not Andy Reid or Norv Turner. Instead, I think it'll be two less prominent coaches — Chan Gailey of Buffalo and Pat Shurmur of Cleveland. Both are locally unpopular offensive gurus who haven't led a good offense in years (or ever) and who have struggled to develop their quarterback of choice into very much. Shurmur's the pick of an old ownership and management team, making him basically irrelevant, and Gailey's the one who will be scapegoated for the dismal Mario Williams signing and how it failed to strike up the Buffalo defense. Other coaches will be fired, too, but I don't expect Shurmur or Gailey to make it through the season.
8. Chip Kelly will show up in the league next year. I just don't know where. Cleveland's come up as a possible landing point, but why would somebody want to take over the Browns when they might have their choice of coaching gigs? If Reid and Turner get fired, Kelly could take over with either Michael Vick or Philip Rivers as the quarterback of his spread offense. A sleeper pick: Kelly takes over for a retiring Pete Carroll in Seattle, which would allow him to remain in the Pacific Northwest, albeit at the cost of inciting the Portland-Seattle sports war yet again.
9. The guy with the beard in the blue jacket from the NFL Network commercials unexpectedly stumbles onto the field in a stupor during a key moment in a playoff game. This guy was in a commercial during every single block of ads on NFL Network during the first three weeks of the football season, but once the replacement referees were kicked to the curb, he also disappeared from the public eye without warning or precedent. Did the NFL just abandon the concept? Was he a replacement referee? Did the league forget to take his all-access pass away?
10. Tim Tebow never takes over for Mark Sanchez and is traded to the Jaguars in the offseason. Again, if the Jets were really going to use Tebow in a key role, wouldn't that process have begun by now? How many sub-50 percent completion games in a row would it take to get to the center of a quarterback controversy? Apparently, the Jets need to keep lickin'. And if they're not going to use Tebow as a regular, the Jets will probably find a way to deal him to the Jaguars for a mid-round pick.
11. I'm sticking with my Super Bowl pick. The Packers will defeat the Texans in Super Bowl XLVII.
On the other hand, he's been able to rid himself of the fumble issues that plagued him toward the end of the 2011 campaign; Foster hasn't fumbled once all season.
The Cowboys weren't defined by Russell Maryland when they took him with the first overall pick in 1991 and ended up getting a merely competent defensive lineman, but they were also glowing in the remnants of the Herschel Walker trade and about to begin a dynasty, so they're the exception, not the rule.
An exception: The Cowboys recently signed safety Barry Church to a four-year extension with just under $4 million guaranteed, despite the fact that Church suffered a torn Achilles — a far more devastating and difficult-to-predict injury — and was on injured reserve at the time of the signing.