The Debrief, Week 9: NFC remains wide open; AFC West loaded

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Gregg Rosenthal catches you up on everything you need to know as we turn from Week 8 to Week 9.

Monday night's Chicago Horror Picture Show for the Vikings was a reminder of how young this season remains, how tenuous our assumptions are and how wide open the NFC looks.

Losing convincingly to the Bears does not equate to a Norse funeral for this Minnesota squad, just a stark realization that no wins are guaranteed with offensive-line issues this pronounced. The Vikings have shown too much mental toughness and talent on defense to be counted out, despite giving up 403 yards to Jay Cutler and friends. They were never set to sail to a 14-2 record, something that's true for the entire conference.

The Cowboys, the NFC's current No. 1 seed, are led by a rookie quarterback and have no pass rush. They are a fantastic story and fun to watch, but that doesn't make them some early '90s Dallas juggernaut. There's no reason for the teams in Seattle, Green Bay, Atlanta and Philadelphia to be viewed as belonging on some tier apart. The playoff hopefuls below that group -- essentially every other NFC team except the Bears and 49ers -- can make a compelling case for a second-half push.

Add it all up, and we should be headed for a mad dash for playoff spots and seeding in the NFC. It's a season where teams with flaws should look around, be unimpressed with their surroundings and think, "Why not us?"

The wide open NFC is just one of the ...

First-half storylines that deserve more attention

1) The tie in London was an unsatisfying ending to the Redskins' European vacation, especially when you consider that the team outplayed the Bengals for so much of the game. But Kirk Cousins' performance gives Washington hope heading into its bye week. His best three games of the season were the last three, as he recovered from an ugly first month the Redskins were lucky to survive. Coach Jay Gruden is an underrated offensive mind, and Cousins is comfortable again as a point guard in Washington's offense, especially with tight end Jordan Reed's return to health.

2) Marcus Mariota was perhaps Tennessee's biggest problem during the Titans' slow start. That's almost a positive now that they've hit midseason at 4-4; the fact that Mariota is too talented not to improve gives this team considerable upside. His performance against the Jaguars on Thursday night showed what he can do and the kind of support he's starting to receive. Coach Mike Mularkey has built the offensive line of ground-and-pounders' dreams. The blitz-happy defense resembles early 2000s Steelers in style, if not substance. The Titans are my pick to take the AFC South.

3) How good do you have to be to win an MVP after missing a quarter of the season? That's the question Associated Press voters could face in January if Tom Brady keeps up his current pace.

Back in 2010, there was a similar debate with Brady on the other side. Mike Vick was a trendy pick for the award at one stage despite missing three games and part of another. I recall arguing at the time that Vick needed to be vastly superior to Brady to earn an award over someone who started 16 games. It would be like handing the MVP in baseball to someone who missed 40 games. A player needs to lap the field to make up for all that missed time.

Vick stumbled at the finish of that season, settling for another award and making the MVP choice much easier. These arguments usually have a way of working themselves out. Perhaps Brady will continue to play so well that there is no other choice.

4) Sean Payton found a new recipe for success in the last few weeks. The Saints' offense is making a pronounced effort to run more and possess the ball, keeping opponents off the field. The Seahawks had only nine drives in the Superdome on Sunday, putting a ton of pressure on Seattle's offense to keep up after the Saints scored on six straight possessions. Watching New Orleans is like watching some bizarre hybrid between ball-control offense and Arena League strategy, where every punt is death. The Saints only have two games left against teams over .500, making them a deep sleeper for a playoff spot.

Narratives that were busted

1) Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz wanted to see how the Cowboys would respond if forced to play from behind. He didn't like what he discovered during Dallas' 10-point fourth-quarter comeback. Rookie Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott shook off his worst three quarters as a pro, and Philadelphia's front finally wore down against Dallas. It was a fork-in-the-road game for the NFC East, creating separation between the Cowboys and the other three teams in the division. The Eagles played the style of game they wanted and couldn't win. The Cowboys only reached third down once each drive during their long, decisive touchdown marches.

2) Who says International Series games can't be fun? Redskins vs. Bengals had a little bit of everything for 75 minutes of game action, including some much-needed offense after a string of overseas punt-festivals.

Cowboys coach Jason Garrett's aggression on fourth-and-1 in overtime stands in stark contrast to Jay Gruden's timidity piloting the Redskins. Facing second-and-4 from the Bengals' 13-yard line, Gruden instructed Kirk Cousins to back up 3 yards to get the ball on the right hash mark for a 34-yard field-goal attempt. Dustin Hopkins missed a kick that came way too soon. The Redskins' last play from scrimmage before the field-goal sequence was a thundering 16-yard gain by Robert Kelley against a tired Bengals defense. Why not try to keep hammering the ball with Kelley before turning to a kicker that had already missed once?

3) The Bills' overachieving defense can't be considered a top-10 group after coughing up a late lead to Jay Ajayi and then giving up 41 points to the Patriots (even if it's the Patriots). As great as Zach Brown and Lorenzo Alexander have performed for Rex Ryan, it's a group that has played to the level of its opponent. The Bills need to show they can shut down offenses not run by Colin Kaepernick, Case Keenum or Jacoby Brissett.

4) Let's hold off on burying the defending NFC Champions. While the rematch between the Cardinals and Panthers of last season's conference title game was a reminder of how quickly offseason narratives get busted, Cam Newton has still played like an MVP more often than not. Perhaps the bye week and a season-best show of aggression from the previously inept Panthers defense can still salvage this season. No NFC team has been streakier than Carolina under Ron Rivera.

Best Coast

Halfway through this 2016 NFL regular season in the AFC, we know a few things: 1) The Patriots are likely to get a playoff bye for the seventh straight year; 2) The AFC South will only get one playoff entrant, and that feels like too many; and 3) The rest of the conference has an AFC West problem.

The Broncos, Raiders and Chiefs are in great position to put three teams from the same division in the playoffs. Denver and Oakland, set to be serenaded by Carrie Underwood this week, hit the midseason mark at 6-2. The Chiefs, winners of three straight, should also hit 6-2 in Week 9 after they dispatch a Jaguars team in disarray. Every other AFC wild-card hopeful trails the three western teams by at least two games in the loss column.

Denver's formula would be cliche if it weren't so effective. The Broncos take the ball away and knock down opposing quarterbacks. They lead the league in scoring after turnovers, and the last game they lost after winning the turnover battle came in Week 3 of 2012. Trevor Siemian also has a knack for making big throws at the right time. The Broncos appeared vulnerable against San Diego midway through the fourth quarter Sunday, after the Chargers converted a pick-six off a dropped pass by Jordan Norwood. The next two plays: Siemian to Virgil Green for 31 yards and Siemian to Demaryius Thomas for 40 yards.

The Chiefs are a well-coached team that looks better on both sides of the ball every week, even when Nick Foles is at quarterback. On paper, the Raiders are in the most precarious position of anyone in the group due to their reliance on last-minute comeback heroics. They have only outscored opponents by 12 points this season, and setting the NFL single-game record for penalties is not a habit to get into, even if it's the coolest Al Davis tribute in a while. Yet, Raiders fans will be too happy to over-aggressively point out that the defense has improved throughout the season, and their road-heavy, first-half schedule leaves them with five games in the Black Hole down the stretch.

It's been 15 seasons since Oakland has hosted so many meaningful late-season games, and the NFL will be better off for it. Nearly every AFC West game the rest of the way should feel like a playoff game, because nearly every team in the division should make the playoffs.

Don't panic

1) The Chargers remain allergic to boring football, delivering another nail-biter in Denver. The NFL's most talented, entertaining team under .500 is not done at 3-5, although San Diego's margin for error is eroding in a loaded division. After splitting with Denver and winning in Atlanta, there is hope, if you look at the Chargers' schedule. Five of their remaining eight games are at home, including their two remaining division games. The Texans are the only winning team San Diego plays outside of the division. Philip Rivers won't be giving up. Why should we?

2) It's a little crazy that Carson Wentz didn't complete a pass over 14 yards in 43 attempts against Dallas, but he was just executing a conservative Eagles game plan that attempted to minimize the team's weaknesses at receiver and on the offensive line. If coach Doug Pederson didn't coach so tight late in the game, we'd be talking about Wentz's big win over his rookie quarterback rival.

3) Perhaps the Patriots' Super Bowl title hopes went down a percentage point with the team's shocking trade of linebacker Jamie Collins, but one defensive player only changes a 53-man roster so much. This team has dealt with injuries and dramatic transactions before. I wrote way too much about this trade already, but it's acceptable to believe coach Bill Belichick knows what he's doing even when he does the inexplicable.

4) Call off the 0-16 watch for the Browns. This team has been too competitive week after week to continue its losing streak for much longer. The return of rookie wide receiver Corey Coleman and the addition of Collins, not to mention improved health at quarterback, should get the Browns in the win column before too long.

Some panic is acceptable

1) In Year 2 of his career, Jameis Winston is not ready to carry a bottom-five NFL roster, but that's what the Bucs look like, despite their 3-4 record. His task is reminiscent of what the Colts asked Andrew Luck to do, and Winston can't handle all that weight just yet.

2) It's a concern when a team like the Cardinals struggles with the same problems every game (can't handle blitzes, poor vertical passing) and can't fix them. It's a bigger concern when the team subsequently loses its best pass protector, left tackle Jared Veldheer. Arizona is too proud and talented to simply lay down, but the Veldheer injury reduces the team's already diminished expectations.

Players I hope Chris Wesseling considers for his midseason All-Pro team

My friend and podcast comrade Chris Wesseling ably handles the midseason All-Pro team every year for NFL.com. He no longer speaks to me except on air, so this is my only chance to campaign for players.

1) Melvin Ingram, OLB, San Diego Chargers: Ingram could get squeezed out at a deep position, but his steady growth into a game-wrecker on all three downs deserves notice.

2) Brandon Graham, DE, Philadelphia Eagles: Whether you want to call him a defensive end or an outside linebacker, just call him an All-Pro, especially with Michael Bennett now on the shelf.

3) Ndamukong Suh, DT, Miami Dolphins: How did one of the game's most polarizing, wealthy players get so forgotten and underrated?

4) Landon Collins, S, New York Giants: He's making tone-setting hits from a strong safety cool again.

5) Aqib Talib, CB, Denver Broncos: It's remarkable that Talib is having perhaps his best season after missing most of training camp with a gunshot wound.

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal

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