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Second-half primer: What to watch

Believe it or not, we've reached the midway point of the 2013 NFL season. Some teams are looking forward to making a playoff push, while others already are in evaluation mode. Below are some storylines (clearly not comprehensive) to watch for in the second half of the season.

AFC East

New England Patriots (6-2)

Some struggles were expected with Tom Brady breaking in a new receiving corps. It would be foolish to believe Tom Terrific won't catch his stride down the stretch. The Pats' defensive injures, including season-enders to Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo, will be much more difficult to cover up with a patchwork crew. Brady and Bill Belichick have had Leonardo da Vinci-esque success together. This might not be a Mona Lisa season, if you will. But when at the end of the season, after they've won the AFC East and are congealing as the playoffs roll around, we'll be saying it certainly was work worthy of hanging in the Louvre.

Key Games:

Nov. 24 vs. Broncos; Dec. 22 at Ravens

New York Jets (4-4)

It's too simple to say the second half of the season is in the hands of rookie quarterback Geno Smith, but I don't have 6,000 words to spend on the Jets. A chart of Smith's passer rating by game would confound engineers at Six Flags. Rex Ryan's defense has done enough this season to be a winning team. Could the Jets make the playoffs? Yes, if Good Geno dispatches Bad Geno and becomes Steady Geno. If the San Diego Chargers succumb to their difficult schedule. If the Jets sweep their remaining division games. If they beat Baltimore, and the Ravens' apathetic offense continues to struggle. That is a lot of ifs. The biggest being Geno's consistent play.

Key Games:

Nov. 17 at Bills; Nov. 24 at Ravens; Dec. 1 vs. Dolphins; Dec. 29 at Dolphins

Miami Dolphins (4-4)

Dolphins fans would like me to say that we should see more of Lamar Miller in the second half. The ground attack has shown some potency the past two weeks. However, I'm not going to pretend to know what Mike Sherman is thinking. (The man once challenged Warren Sapp, for heaven's sake.) What I do know is Thursday's Week 9 victory should give Ryan Tannehill confidence that he can help keep the Dolphins in the playoff hunt. The only thing that will stop Cameron Wake is his own health.

Key Games:

Nov. 17 vs. Chargers; Dec. 1 at Jets; Dec. 15 vs. Patriots

Buffalo Bills (3-5)

The future is bright in Buffalo. The Bills have so many young pieces, you have to be excited to watch how they progress. Kiko Alonso is the leader in the Defensive Rookie of the Year race. Robert Woods has show flashes of being a playmaker. Mario Williams finally is playing like he's getting paid to perform. The Bills showed a ton of promise with EJ Manuel running the offense before the rookie quarterback injured his right knee. He should return within the next few weeks. It might be too much to expect Buffalo to make a playoff push this season, but it's easy to see the building blocks team president Russ Brandon, general manager Doug Whaley and coach Doug Marrone put in place.

Key Games:

Nov. 17 vs. Jets; Dec. 22 vs. Dolphins; Dec. 29 at Patriots

AFC North

Cincinnati Bengals (6-3)

The loss of Geno Atkins for the second half of the season is huge for the Bengals, who were poised to run away with the AFC North. Still in the catbird seat, Andy Dalton will have to lead with his dangerous offensive attack. He has as many weapons as any team outside of Denver, and when he's on target it's an unstoppable offense. Giovani Bernard should see the ball more. Coordinator Jay Gruden knows his rookie running back brings a dimension to the offense that few in the NFL can corral.

Key Games:

Nov. 10 at Ravens; Dec. 8 vs. Colts; Dec. 29 vs. Ravens

Baltimore Ravens (3-4)

The Ravens face a tough schedule. Their final three games of the season, at Detroit, against New England and at Cincinnati could ultimately decide their playoff fate. Before it even gets to that, the offense needs to perk up. The offensive line shuffling has created stagnant play. Ray Rice is confident he'll pick up his production and we have no reason to doubt he will. However, with a schedule back-loaded with difficult games it might not be enough to overcome a slow start to the season. The Ravens need another run from Joe Flacco like the one that propelled them to the Super Bowl last season.

Key Games:

Nov. 10 vs. Bengals; Nov. 28 vs. Steelers; Dec. 22 vs. Patriots; Dec. 29 at Bengals

Cleveland Browns (3-5)

The trade deadline passed, so paranoid Browns fans can exhale for the next several months and just watch Josh Gordon do work. The thought of the team trading its most dynamic playmaker seemed insane on the face of it. Now that Brandon Weeden has been re-benched, the rest of the auditions for 2014 and beyond begin. Joe Banner and Mike Lombardi will go after their quarterback of the future in the draft. But with a solid defense and stellar -- if not banged up -- offensive line, the Browns have some nice pieces for the future.

Key Games:


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Nov. 17 at Bengals; Nov. 24 vs. Steelers

Pittsburgh Steelers (2-5)

Steelers fans already are bracing for a disappointing ending to the season. Pittsburgh's defense actually has been one of the better groups, despite its age. There isn't much of a youth movement to be had on the Steelers' roster. Rookie linebacker Jarvis Jones should see more time in the second half, but he has been inconsistent. When running back Le'Veon Bell is going good he adds a different dimension to the offense, but he's had his share of lackluster weeks even when healthy. The offensive line woes will continue in the second half of the season simply because there are no answers and the injuries keep piling up.

It's been 10 years since the Steelers finished under .500, a run that is all but over.

Key Games:

Nov. 3 at Patriots; Nov. 28 at Ravens

AFC South

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Indianapolis Colts (5-2)

Given the injuries and chaos within the AFC South, it's not a stretch to say the Colts will be in contention for a playoff bye. Andrew Luck will keep them in every contest. The big trade for Trent Richardson hasn't paid off, and the offense even seems to run better with Donald Brown on the field. How the trio of T.Y. Hilton, Darrius Heyward-Bey and LaVon Brazill replaces Reggie Wayne will be interesting to watch during the second half of the season.

Key Games:

Nov. 14 at Titans; Dec. 15 vs. Texans; Dec. 22 at Chiefs

Tennessee Titans (3-4)

Jake Locker has played well when healthy. In the second half of the season he needs to continue to improve his accuracy. He has a legit go-to receiver in Kendall Wright and the duo only should grow together. The Titans could shift toward running back Shonn Greene on early downs and Chris Johnson in passing situations. The Titans' defense has been in the upper echelon through the first half. Alterraun Verner has been a stud in the secondary with no signs of slowing down.

Key Games:

Nov. 14 vs. Colts; Dec. 1 at Colts; Dec. 8 at Broncos; Dec. 29 vs. Texans

Houston Texans (2-5)

The Texans' defense struggled last season when Brian Cushing went down. They'll deal with the same situation in a crucial second half for coach Gary Kubiak. The seasoned coach decided this week that Case Keenum gives him the best chance to turn the tide of a spiraling season. The young quarterback has some promise, but he's raw. With running backs Arian Foster and Ben Tate battling injuries, there is a lot on Keenum's plate in short order.

Key Games:

Nov. 3 vs. Colts; Dec. 15 at Colts; Dec. 22 vs. Broncos

Jacksonville Jaguars (0-8)

This space previously was dedicated to pointing out the bright future of the Jags' trio of receivers: Justin Blackmon, Cecil Shorts and Mike Brown. However, with Blackmon's future now in question it throws another monkey wrench into Gus Bradley's evaluation plans. The first-year coach still is trying to find players for the future while fighting to avoid the goose egg in the win column. The quarterback of the future isn't on the roster. It looks to be a long second half for Jacksonville fans.

Key Games:

Dec. 1 at Browns; Dec. 22 vs. Titans

AFC West

Kansas City Chiefs (8-0)

The Chiefs' schedule difficulty ramps up in the second half. Key battles with the Broncos await. Jamaal Charles will continue to thrive in Andy Reid's offense. Sooner or later Alex Smith is going to have to do more than avoid turnovers. The Chiefs' offensive line has not been good, even if it hasn't cost them yet. The defense has been dominant, especially up front. That group should continue its dominance in the second half as it goes against multiple shaky offensive lines.

Key Games:

Nov. 17 at Broncos; Dec. 1 vs. Broncos; Dec. 29 at Chargers

Denver Broncos (7-1)

Peyton Manning will continue his MVP campaign. It will be interesting to see how the aged veteran holds up as the weather turns and the wear-and-tear builds up on his 37-year-old body. Manning still has the NFL's best compilation of offensive playmakers. The defense looks more well-rounded with Von Miller back from suspension. If Jack Del Rio's group returns to its 2012 form, the Broncos will streak into the playoffs with the AFC's best record.

Key Games:

Nov. 17 vs. Chiefs; Nov. 24 at Patriots Dec. 1 at Chiefs

San Diego Chargers (4-3)

Philip Rivers looks like he's found the fountain of youth. There is nothing to suggest his precision in Mike McCoy's offense will flounder. Rookie Keenan Allen has provided Rivers with a dynamic go-to receiver on the outside to match with Antonio Gates' resurgence. The schedule, however, doesn't favor the Chargers, who still have four games remaining against the Broncos and Chiefs. Clinging to the final playoff spot, the Chargers' defense will need to improve to help stave off a late-season downfall.

Key Games:

Nov. 10 vs. Broncos; Nov. 24 at Chiefs; Dec. 12 at Broncos; Dec. 29 vs. Chiefs

Oakland Raiders (3-4)

Terrelle Pryor's play has made the Raiders one of the most entertaining teams to watch in 2013. His improvement will dictate how the second half of the season goes. As teams figure out how to scheme to take away his athletic plays, Pryor will need to show more poise and precision from the pocket. The Raiders' defensive line continues to improve by the week, and the run defense has been in the top third of the NFL. If the young players continue to improve, the second-half schedule sets up well for Oakland to hang around the outskirts of the playoff chase into December.

Key Games:

Nov. 24 vs. Titans; Dec. 8 at Jets; Dec. 22 at Chargers

NFC East

Dallas Cowboys (4-4)

The enigma that is the Cowboys continues in 2013. This is the best compilation of talent in the NFC East, and anything short of a division title will be tragic for Tony Romo and Co. The maligned quarterback has been stellar through the first half, but he will need to be spectacular down the stretch. Watch for Dez Bryant to explode in the second half. The up, down and way-down defensive group needs to find some consistency. DeMarcus Ware's eventual return will help. He, along with Defensive Player of the Year candidate Jason Hatcher, linebacker Sean Lee and cornerback Brandon Carr, give the Cowboys pieces at every level.

Key Games:

Nov. 10 at Saints; Nov. 24 at Giants; Dec. 15 vs. Packers; Dec. 29 vs. Eagles

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Philadelphia Eagles (3-5)

Chip Kelly's offense has been stymied by quarterback troubles. The shuffling under center has hindered LeSean McCoy's season. It's unknown when or if Michael Vick will return to form. Until then, Nick Foles will have to provide consistency running Kelly's offense to turn the season around. However, with a so-so offensive line and a defense unable to get stops, many of the current players are auditioning for a future roster spot.

Key Games:

Nov. 17 vs. Redskins; Dec. 29 at Cowboys

Washington Redskins (2-5)

We're still waiting for Robert Griffin III to round into form. It could happen in the second half of the season (when he made his ridiculous run in 2012). Truthfully it might not happen until he has a full offseason of work. Alfred Morris is averaging 5.5 fewer carries per game this season. He needs to see the rock more. The Redskins' defense has improved the last four weeks, which is saying a lot after a dreadful start to the season. The group has forced six interceptions after getting just one in the first three weeks. This unit will have to continue to improve in order to contend in the NFL's worst division.

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Key Games:

Nov. 17 at Eagles; Dec. 1 vs. Giants; Dec. 22 vs. Cowboys

New York Giants (2-6)

From 0-6 to two game back of the division lead, isn't the NFC (L)East fun? The problems with the offensive line and running game look to continue early in the second half of the season. Eli Manning must quit with the horrendous turnovers. The defense is rounding into form. This group especially has been adept at stopping the run. If that continues, shockingly, all is not lost for Big Blue.

Key Games:

Nov. 24 vs. Cowboys; Dec. 1 at Redskins; Dec. 29 vs. Redskins

NFC North

Green Bay Packers (5-2)

Despite the injuries on both sides of the ball, the Packers' schedule sets up for them to make a run at the NFC's best record. When receivers James Jones and Randall Cobb return, Aaron Rodgers' crew might just be unstoppable. Rookie running back Eddie Lacy provides a reliable weapon from the backfield, giving the Packers the most balanced attack they've had in recent memory. Let's not forget that Clay Matthews should return later this month. The Packers look loaded for a deep playoff run.

Key Games:

Nov. 28 at Lions; Dec. 15 at Cowboys; Dec. 29 at Bears

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Detroit Lions (5-3)

Calvin Johnson, Matthew Stafford and Reggie Bush give the Lions a potent offense. How much they will get from other players remains to be seen. Nate Burleson's return will be a boost, but Stafford must continue his newfound trust in other targets. Linebacker DeAndre Levy played his best stretch of any games in his career for the Lions' defense during the first half. He'll need to continue at that pace for the Lions to snatch a playoff berth.

Key Games:

Nov. 10 at Bears; Nov. 28 vs. Packers; Dec. 16 vs. Ravens

Chicago Bears (4-3)

Jay Cutler will return at some point this season, but how far off the pace will the Bears drop while he's out? Alshon Jeffery should continue his big play, regardless of who is the quarterback, as defenses are forced to roll toward Brandon Marshall. The Bears' young offensive linemen have been up and down but showed promise they can build upon. The defensive side of the ball has been decimated by injuries. Lance Briggs will return later this season. Until then, it falls on rookie linebacker Jon Bostic, who has shown flashes but will have to step up as a leader in the defensive huddle.

Key Games:

Nov. 4 at Packers; Nov. 10 vs. Lions; Dec. 29 vs. Packers

Minnesota Vikings (1-6)

Not much has gone right for the Vikings. From Christian Ponders' poor play, to the Josh Freeman experiment, to the inability to get Adrian Peterson loose, to Greg Jennings' struggles in his first season in purple, to the defense's atrocious play, it's been a season to forget so far. Getting Cordarrelle Patterson involved should be a priority with defenses stacking the box (as if that is something new). Defensive back Harrison Smith could return later in the season, but it will likely be too late to save the Vikings' lost season. The seat underneath coach Leslie Frazier will get extremely hot in short order.

Key Games:

Nov. 24 at Packers; Dec. 29 vs. Lions

NFC South

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New Orleans Saints (6-1)

Sean Payton's offense is functioning like clockwork after his return from a season-long suspension. Drew Brees is an MVP candidate. Rookie Kenny Stills has improved by the week and gives Brees another option on the outside. Jimmy Graham's plantar fascia injury is something to monitor in the second half. The foot injury can be a lingering problem. I'm not expecting anything new from the ground game. Cameron Jordan should be a DPOY candidate as the season moves on. The schedule gets more difficult with the 49ers, Seahawks and a double dose of the Panthers on the docket. If the Saints want a playoff bye, they'll have to earn it.

Key Games:

Nov 17 vs. 49ers; Dec. 2 at Seahawks; Dec. 8 vs. Panthers; Dec 22 at Panthers

Carolina Panthers (4-3)

"Riverboat" Ron Rivera has his team playing with swagger for the first time in his tenure. The stalwart defensive line has been dominant and isn't something that will slip in the second half. Cam Newton will rely on a pounding ground game to set up his play-action passing game in the tail end of the season. The Panthers need to scratch and claw to earn a playoff bid, with two dates remaining against the Saints, but at least the questions about Rivera's future have subsided for the time being.

Key Games:

Nov. 10 at 49ers; Dec. 8 at Saints; Dec. 22 vs. Saints

Atlanta Falcons (2-5)

Lost in the Falcons' disastrous season is that quarterback Matt Ryan has been very consistent through the first half. He'll have to continue that trend and spread the ball around. His offensive line hasn't helped him and, if possible, has been worse at opening holes for the running game. There is no panacea for the Falcons' defense. With a difficult second-half schedule, it's time for general manager Thomas Dimitroff to start looking at how he's going to cure the defensive ills moving forward.

Key Games:

Nov. 3 at Panthers; Nov. 10 vs. Seahawks; Nov. 21 vs. Saints; Dec. 29 vs. Panthers

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (0-7)

The second half of the season will be about finding out who has a future with the Bucs. Coach Greg Schiano is foremost on that list; though, it might be too late for him to save his job. Rookie quarterback Mike Glennon needs to show weekly improvement in his reads and mental makeup. The defense needs to figure out its identity. It has the pieces to be great but has struggled mightily the last three weeks. We should see more press coverage from Darrelle Revis as the season progresses and he gains more trust in his surgically repaired knee. That move alone will make the Bucs better defensively.

Key Games:

Nov. 11 vs. Dolphins; Nov. 17 vs. Panthers

NFC West

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Seattle Seahawks (7-1)

The offensive line concerns will be the biggest obstacle for the Seahawks in the second half. Starting offensive tackles Russell Okung and Breno Giacomini will miss at least a couple of more weeks. Their return for the stretch run should be a boon for Russell Wilson, who has taken a beating to start the season. Percy Harvin's eventual return will boost a receiving corps that lacks playmakers (especially after Sidney Rice's season-ending knee injury). As for the dominant defense, it's time to unravel the "Earl Thomas for DPOY" banner.

Key Games:

Dec. 2 vs. Saints; Dec. 8 at 49ers

San Francisco 49ers (6-2)

The 49ers' offense has been on an upslope the last four weeks, but it hasn't yet peaked, according to offensive coordinator Greg Roman. The formula for said peak will continue to consist of feeding Frank Gore on the ground and relying on Vernon Davis through the air. Mario Manningham's return in a couple of weeks will help, but Michael Crabtree's return will provide more oomph. It's possible Crabtree returns sometime late this month. How much Aldon Smith plays after the bye week will be interesting to watch. Corey Lemonier has played very well in his stead.

Key Games:

Nov. 17 at Saints; Dec. 8 at Seahawks

Arizona Cardinals (4-4)

The 4-4 Cardinals continue to hang around the playoff race. A superb defense will keep them in play. Unfortunately, Carson Palmer hasn't been nearly as steady on the offensive side of the ball. The Cardinals have intimated that rookie running back Andre Ellington will get more touches, even if he's not Bruce Arians' idea of a bell-cow back. Ellington is a game-breaker from the Cardinals' backfield, getting him in space would be beneficial to the Cardinals' offense the rest of the season.

Key Games:

Nov. 24 vs. Colts; Dec. 22 at Seahawks; Dec. 29 vs. 49ers

St. Louis Rams (3-5)

At this point it's almost foolhardy to suggest Tavon Austin will be seen in an enhanced roll in the Rams' offense. If Brian Schottenheimer hasn't figured out how to get Austin the ball by now, he won't through the final eight games. Instead we'll watch rookie Zac Stacy to see if he can continue the great play on the ground he's shown the last several weeks. The defense has some good pieces to lean on. Robert Quinn has been dominant. Combined with Chris Long, the Rams have a solid pass rush moving forward. Watch linebacker Alec Ogletree. He's made some dynamic plays this season, but he can get lost. If he improves, the Rams have the makings of a scary defense moving forward.

Key Games:

Dec. 1 at 49ers; Dec. 8 at Cardinals; Dec. 29 at Seahawks

We preview every Week 9 game in the latest "Around the League" Podcast.

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