Analysis  

 

Midseason musings: Volatility rules NFL in wild 2013 campaign

As the Dallas Cowboys melted down Sunday afternoon, Dez Bryant launched into a frustration-fueled tirade. Despite substantial TV airtime of the incident, it was difficult to lip-read what the star wide receiver was screaming, what Jason Witten was retorting or what DeMarcus Ware was saying to try to diffuse the fusillade.

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That seemed a fitting highlight as the NFL arrived at its halfway point: Like trying to divine what Bryant wanted, it has been nearly impossible to decipher the direction of this volatile season so far.

The passing game continues to render the running game obsolete. Kickers are absurdly accurate. Brandon Meriweather will hit opponents in the head. Beyond that, you could go as crazy as Bryant did trying to figure out what is going to happen next.

To put a number on it, eight teams have two or fewer victories right now. Four of them -- the Falcons, Texans, Redskins and Vikings -- were in the playoffs last year. Two of them -- the Giants and Steelers -- have won four of the past eight Super Bowls.

Much of the league's unpredictability, of course, is the result of injuries, particularly ones that have affected some of the best players in the game. How many more wins might Washington have if Robert Griffin III weren't still compromised to some degree by his right knee? Would Chip Kelly's offense be revolutionizing the NFL if Michael Vick's hamstring could hold up? Would New England look quite as vulnerable if Rob Gronkowski and Danny Amendola had been healthy for the past two months, or if Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo weren't out for the year? If NFL fans can't count on the Patriots rolling through the AFC East, what can they stake their faith on?

Not much, it turns out. Here, then, are a few things we know -- or think we know -- about this season. And a few questions the second half will have to answer.

What we know

1) There are not enough good quarterbacks to go around. Check out some of the anticipated starters for Week 9: Mike Glennon, Josh McCown, Jason Campbell, Kellen Clemens, Case Keenum, Nick Foles/Matt Barkley. Whether through injury or incompetence, the shortage of good -- even adequate -- quarterback options has been exposed this season as rarely before. The hopeful news is the QB draft class of 2014 is expected to be very deep. The Jacksonville Jaguars almost certainly will take one, but a quick look around the league raises at least a half dozen teams that will be in the market, either in the draft or through free agency. This includes Arizona, Philadelphia, Cleveland, probably Tampa Bay, perhaps Houston, Minnesota and a handful of others. It's going to be a very good year to be Jay Cutler, who is scheduled to be a free agent.

2) Offensive line play isn't so great, either. The problem for the Giants and Steelers, two of the most stunning disappointments in the first half? Their offensive lines haven't played well. And these two teams are hardly alone. (We're looking at you, Atlanta.) The run on offensive linemen in last spring's draft underscored how many teams needed help. Personnel evaluators have lots of theories why this is happening, including limited practice time/contact during the week, pass-heavy offenses reducing the emphasis on moving defenders out of the way and a de-emphasis on line play at the lower levels of the game. Whichever theory you subscribe to, the end result is the same: quarterbacks being chased to the ground, running backs getting stuffed and offenses generally screeching to a halt.

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3) The Cowboys are the prototypical NFC East team. Dallas has been alternately brilliant (the offense in its epic battle with the Broncos) and buffoonish (the defense in that Broncos game, and against Matthew Stafford/Calvin Johnson on Sunday), with a healthy dose of drama (see Bryant, above). Those traits nicely sum up the entire laughable division. The NFC East is 5-14 against non-division opponents and a ghastly 1-9 against the AFC. It sounds unlikely that the Giants could go 6-2 to finish at .500 against a very difficult second-half schedule, but no more unlikely than a team starting 0-6 and being just two games out of first place at midseason.

Still waiting for answers

1) The best team in the AFC is ... ? Until two weeks ago, the Denver Broncos looked unbeatable. Then the Indianapolis Colts, who already had beaten San Francisco and Seattle, finished off the third of the three most impressive victories of the season, knocking Peyton Manning and Co. from the ranks of the unbeatens. Speaking of unbeatens, the Kansas City Chiefs are the last one left. Andy Reid's team, though, has looked listless in beating the Texans and Browns over the last two weeks. The Colts have to play the rest of the season without Reggie Wayne. The Broncos enter their bye wobbling on Manning's two painful ankles -- though John Fox said Monday his defense played by far its best game in helping to engineer the comeback victory over Washington. Still, Denver has a difficult stretch right after this off week, with games at San Diego, against Kansas City, at New England and at Kansas City. And do the Cincinnati Bengals belong in this conversation, too?

2) Have the Carolina Panthers finally turned the corner? They've won three straight, during which Cam Newton has completed 77 percent of his passes and the team has averaged 32 points per game. And the Panthers boast a top-three defense, to boot. Now that they're above .500 for the first time since the end of the 2008 season, can they nudge into the NFC playoff picture?

3) In the battle between Seattle's physical defense and New Orleans' explosive offense, who wins? They play Dec. 2 at CenturyLink Field, and the NFC's top seed might be on the line. If the Saints can't beat the Seahawks, can anybody in the NFC? The St. Louis Rams sure came close on Monday night, but Seattle's imposing defense clamped down with a dramatic goal-line stand in the game's final minute.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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