The Schein Nine  

 

Derek Carr, Tom Brady headline NFL's biggest statement makers

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Well, we've reached the midway point of the 2016 regular season. And boy, have we learned some interesting lessons over the first two months of play.

Here are the nine biggest statements across the league, as we look back at the first half of the season ... and look forward to the stretch run:

1) Derek Carr for MVP! Raiders to the playoffs!!

In his third NFL season, Derek Carr is the midseason leader in my clubhouse for MVP. The Raiders rank 31st in total defense and lead the league in penalties ... yet here they are at 6-2. It's awesome -- and it's Carr. The numbers (17:3 TD-to-INT, 100.9 passer rating) are great. The feel is better. The connection with Amari Cooper (52 catches for 787 yards) is special. The way Carr has rejuvenated Michael Crabtree's career in Oakland (15 TDs in 24 games with the Raiders) is instructive.

The Raiders are legit because Carr is a true franchise quarterback. On the road this year, the 25-year-old is 5-0 with 11 touchdown passes (against one interception) and a 102.6 passer rating. Dude is a gamer.

And Jack Del Rio has acquitted himself quite well in Oakland, as well. After improving the Raiders' win total by four games in Year 1 on the job, Del Rio has this franchise off to its best start since 2001. The penalties obviously need to come down, but Del Rio's 13-11 mark with this (long-downtrodden) club is nothing to scoff at.

I believe the Raiders can play even better in the second half of the season, and live up to my preseason expectation as a division winner. And that's saying something in this group of four ...

2) AFC West: The best division in 2016

What a statement this is. And it's not even close.

I think the last-place Chargers (3-5) -- behind future Hall of Famer Philip Rivers, emerging Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate Joey Bosa and second-year stud Melvin Gordon -- could beat well over half the league!

And the other three teams should all make the playoffs.

Just went over the Carr-led Raiders above. Can't wait for their showdown with the Broncos this Sunday night. Speaking of Denver, the defending Super Bowl champs are 6-2. The offense remains a work in progress with first-year starter Trevor Siemian at the helm, but the defense is an absolute beast (again). Von Miller is second in the NFL with 8.5 sacks, while the trio of Aqib Talib, Chris Harris Jr. and Bradley Roby is the best cornerback group in the league. Lastly, Kansas City (5-2) is so well-rounded and well-coached. Andy Reid deserves the credit for maximizing this team while dealing with major injuries.

3) Tom Brady: The best quarterback ever

I've written this multiple times on NFL.com and talked about it on SiriusXM and CBS Sports Network. In addition to the overall feel, Brady has the numbers, the wins, the Super Bowl appearances (6) and the Lombardi Trophies (4) to prove it.

But this year is next-level stuff.

After being suspended four games to start the season (wrongfully so, in my estimation), Brady is arguably playing the most perfect football of his career. Four games in, the 39-year-old wonder has thrown 12 touchdown passes against zero picks, while completing a whopping 73.1 percent of his passes. None of this is surprising, by the way: Everyone knew Brady would come out with a take-no-prisoners mentality. But that doesn't make his staggering production any less ... well ... staggering.

As I said above, Carr is my leader for MVP, but Brady is a close second. And here's the beauty: The Patriots aren't going to lose again. The remaining drama in the AFC is the race for No. 2.

And Bill Belichick can make a "wow" trade on Monday, dealing an ultra-talented linebacker (Jamie Collins) to Cleveland for a pick. Was Collins asking for too much money as a free agent-to-be? Was the 27-year-old freelancing too much on defense? Was this some kind of message to the locker room?

Honestly, Bill Belichick can do whatever he wants -- because he's Bill Belichick. And he has Tom Brady.

4) Dak Prescott gives Dallas the best chance at a Super Bowl run

The Cowboys are Super Bowl contenders -- if not the Super Bowl favorites -- in the NFC. They have a clutch quarterback who makes everyone around him better. And yes, that clutch quarterback is a rookie who was selected 135th overall in April and was taking third-string snaps in August.

I've always been a huge Tony Romo supporter and fan. He's been a fantastic player. But Romo isn't healthy -- and his 36-year-old body isn't getting any more resilient.

This is Dak's team. End of story.

Dak's had a knack all year for being clutch. We saw it again Sunday night in the big divisional showdown with Philly -- just like we saw it against the Packers, Bengals, 49ers and Redskins.

No. 4 overall pick Ezekiel Elliott (what a draft for Dallas!) has been the top NFL running back in the first half of the season -- he's a top-five MVP candidate. The offensive line is the best in the business. Rod Marinelli's defense makes plays when it matters.

But this is a quarterback league. Dak's smarts, athleticism, arm and accuracy make Dallas legit.

5) Mike Zimmer for Coach of the Year

Yes, Monday night's loss at Chicago was highly disappointing. But since this is a midseason column, let's take a step back and assess the Vikings' first two months as a whole.

No Adrian Peterson? No Teddy Bridgewater? An offensive line that's injured and derailed? No problem! The Vikings are 5-2, sitting atop the NFC North -- and that's all Zimmer. The no-nonsense coach has his defense playing fast and furious in his identity (see: No. 1 scoring defense, No. 2 total D). Zimmer and offensive coordinator Norv Turner deserve so much credit for how they've made the Sam Bradford transition so seamless after Rick Spielman's trade for the veteran over Labor Day weekend. The O-line needs to stop allowing so many QB hits, but so far, Bradford has completed 66.5 percent of his passes while posting an 8:1 TD-to-INT ratio and 98.2 passer rating.

Minnesota's in a bit of a slump, having lost two straight, but I trust Zimmer to right this Viking ship.

6) Matty Ice is back -- and Atlanta's for real

Matt Ryan and the Falcons made a strong first half stick with their pulsating, one-point win over the Packers on Sunday. Ryan has emerged as a top-tier MVP candidate, leading the league in passing yards (2,636) and passing touchdowns (19), while ranking second in passer rating (115.8) and yards per attempt (9.45) -- behind only Tom Brady in both of the latter categories. Ryan and Kyle Shanahan are on the same page in their second year together. In fact, I have Shanahan as my early choice for coordinator of the year, with the way he has established the run and won games when the defense has rolled extra coverage over to the great Julio Jones.

Free-agent signees Mohamed Sanu and Alex Mack have added professionalism, leadership and talent upgrades to the offense, while rookies Deion Jones, De'Vondre Campbell and Keanu Neal have provided some much-needed oomph on the other side of the ball.

After a few years of irrelevancy, Ryan and the Falcons are back to contender status.

7) Brock bottom: Osweiler looks nothing like a franchise QB

Brock Osweiler signing with the Texans -- and leaving the defending Super Bowl champions -- was the signature move of the offseason. And Osweiler has been positively dreadful.

I admittedly loved the signing when it was made, believing it was a major upgrade over the clown car known as Houston's quarterback room in 2015. Yet, Osweiler has as many picks as touchdown passes (9). Among qualified QBs, he ranks 32nd in yards per attempt (5.79) and 30th in passer rating (73.1). And he was positively horrendous in big spots against the Patriots and Broncos.

This is what you get these days for $72 million?

8) What happened to the NFC West?

I thought Arizona and Seattle had two of the best teams in the NFL, both sure things for the playoffs.

Not even close.

I actually picked the Cardinals to hit Houston for the Super Bowl. The only way that's happening is if they buy tickets. Special teams cost Arizona against the Patriots and Seahawks. And the Cards got clubbed (once again) in Charlotte. A talented roster is being wasted.

Seattle's offensive line is porous -- and as a result, Russell Wilson has been injured and ineffective all season.

Jeff Fisher's Rams are well on their way to yet another middling campaign, while Chip Kelly's 49ers are vying for the No. 1 overall pick.

9) Keep pounding? ... Start pounding?

"Riverboat Ron" or "Titanic Ron"? Mr. Rivera needs a new nickname, as the ship is sinking for the defending NFC champs.

The offensive line is a mess. Cam Newton really hasn't gotten started. The pass rush has been mostly non-existent (Sunday notwithstanding). Dave Gettleman foolishly jettisoned Josh Norman.

These Panthers, who went 17-2 overall last year, have earned their 2-5 record and are toast in 2016. It's stunning how they've fallen so far so quickly.

Follow Adam Schein on Twitter @AdamSchein.

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