We've reached the midway point of this NFL season and there's already been enough surprises to cover an entire year. Far too many star players are sidelined with injuries, a list that includes Packers QB Aaron Rodgers, Cardinals RB David Johnson and Giants WR Odell Beckham Jr. A number of upstart teams have playoff aspirations (namely the Jaguars, Rams and Bills), while a host of talented squads find themselves mired in weekly misery (the Giants, Broncos and Buccaneers). It also looks like the Falcons are just the latest team to suffer through that most notorious of dreaded pro football ailments: The Super Bowl Hangover.
The upside here is that the league hasn't been this wide open in years. It's not just another race to see who might be able to deal with New England in another Super Bowl. The Eagles are flying high in the NFC, with the Saints and Cowboys also surging in their own right. The Chiefs have an explosive offense and the Steelers are rounding into form. Hell, even the Jets have done enough impressive things -- with a roster that purportedly was built for tanking -- that they could wiggle their way into wild-card contention.
So, what does this all mean? Basically, that the next couple months are going to be as wild a ride as we've seen in this sport in some time. In fact, here are the five biggest questions that will emerge in the second half:
1) Will the Philadelphia Eagles continue to be the league's best team?
It's difficult to criticize a team that's 8-1 and has won seven straight games. However, it's about to happen. As good as the Eagles have been, it's impossible to think they'll keep rolling in the second half of the season. First off, they're about to start playing a much tougher schedule. Of all those wins Philadelphia compiled in the first nine weeks, only one came against a team that is currently above .500 (Carolina). Now compare that to what the Eagles are about to face in the four games following this week's bye. They'll take road trips to face the Cowboys, Seahawks and Rams during that stretch, which means the Eagles will be dealing with more than enough talent to give them fits. That doesn't mean there isn't a lot to like about Philly. Quarterback Carson Wentz is the leading candidate for MVP honors, that defense is definitely nasty and head coach Doug Pederson has done a masterful job leading this bunch. However, the Chiefs -- the sameChiefs who gave the Eagles their only loss -- stumbled back to earth after a 5-0 start precisely because they had to deal with their own assortment of playoff-worthy opponents during a grueling period in their schedule. You can bet Philadelphia is about to suffer through its own dose of harsh reality in the NFL.
2) Which midseason trade is going to have the biggest impact?
Anybody who's watched Seattle's offense this season has a pretty vivid image of how that unit has been operating. It comes down to star quarterback Russell Wilson taking a snap, running for his life and somehow finding a way to hit a receiver downfield for a big play. It's a strategy that has worked for weeks, but the Seahawks finally decided to do something about a plan that had a good chance of ending their quarterback's season. That is why the trade with Houston that brought left tackle Duane Brown to Seattle was so critical. It's impossible to think one man can completely change all the struggles of this offensive line. It is realistic to predict that Brown's presence will make life easier for the other four men lining up next to him. He is something Seattle hasn't had in years -- a multi-time Pro Bowl lineman who can have an instant impact in the trenches. The Seahawks still have plenty of issues at the running back position, where injuries have plagued them to the point that Wilson leads the team in rushing with 271 yards. But at least now they also have reason to feel better about their ability to consistently protect their franchise quarterback moving forward.
3) Which surprise NFC team is going to be dangerous come January?
It's been a long time since the NFC was this unpredictable. Coming into this season, many people thought the Eagles would be the worst team in the NFC East. The Saints looked horrible after their first two games (both defeats). Throw in the Vikings (who are being led by a quarterback on his third team in four years) and the Rams (who haven't enjoyed a winning season since 2003), and you should get the picture. Anybody who picked all four of these teams to be leading their respective divisions at this stage needs to buy a lottery ticket ASAP. That said, the Saints have the look of a team nobody wants to see in the postseason. They have the best quarterback in the bunch, as Drew Brees is still capable of posting big numbers and he's the only signal caller among the current NFC division leaders with a Super Bowl ring. Head coach Sean Payton also has done something that was beginning to seem impossible: He's placed more faith in his running game and cultivated a defense that has played with confidence and conviction. The Saints are currently sixth in the league in scoring (27.6 points per game), seventh in rushing (122.8 yards per game) and ninth in points allowed (19.4 per game). Now consider this: Every time Payton has had a team that ranked at least 20th in scoring defense, he's made the playoffs. That's about to be the case once again this season -- and the rest of the conference better beware.
4) Which surprise AFC team is going to be dangerous come January?
The Bills have been fun to watch, but how can you bet against Jacksonville? The Jaguars opened this season with an eye-opening thumping of the Texans. They increased their credibility by whipping the Steelers in Pittsburgh in Week 5. They also close the season with six of their last eight games coming against teams that don't have winning records right now. That tells this writer that Jacksonville is going to have some major momentum when the postseason arrives. The Jaguars also are good enough to host a home game, especially since the AFC South title might be decided in their season finale at Tennessee. The scariest thing about the Jaguars is that they have exactly what an upstart team needs to win in the playoffs. They've built a powerful running game behind rookie Leonard Fournette. Their aggressive defense leads the league in sacks and points allowed. Oh, and the aforementioned win over the Steelers also provided the Jaguars with plenty of confidence that will be useful down the road. So people can make all the jokes about quarterback Blake Bortles that they want. The bottom line is that this team is for real and doesn't need a dynamic signal caller to be a significant threat.
5) Who's going to win Coach of the Year?
Since this question is about the future and not the past, the Rams' Sean McVay gets the edge over a strong list of candidates that includes Pederson, the Jags' Doug Marrone, Bills' Sean McDermott, Vikings' Mike Zimmer and Jets' Todd Bowles. All those coaches have done impressive things in the first half of the season. McVay, on the other hand, has the best opportunity to showcase his coaching skills in the coming weeks. The Rams didn't get to 6-2 by benefitting from a soft schedule. They've already beaten the Cowboyand Jaguars, and they'll see five more playoff-caliber teams in the next eight weeks (the Vikings, Saints, Eagles, Seahawks and Titans). If Los Angeles wins three of those games, McVay is going home with this trophy. He's already turned Jared Goff into the quarterback the Rams were hoping to land with the first overall pick last season. The Rams also currently have an offense that leads the league in scoring (32.9 points per game) and a defense that ranks ninth in points allowed (19.4). That's not just because McVay is some boy wonder. He's hired strong assistants -- including defensive coordinator Wade Phillips -- and given them the room to do their jobs at a high level. Don't get this wrong: The Rams are still a work in progress. However, this team is infinitely better than it's been in well over a decade -- and that has everything to do with the young coach who's leading it.