So where are these .500 teams headed? Will they improve, stay the same or struggle in the second half?
That question was posed to me by the crack editorial staff at NFL.com. Here are my answers for each team, in alphabetical order:
Rex Ryan opted to go full clown in advance of his return to the Meadowlands. Making IK Enemkpali -- the ex-Jet who slugged Geno Smith in the face, breaking his jaw during training camp -- a game-day captain on Sunday? That's just classless. And what kind of NFL coach wears a football helmet to a press conference? What kind of NFL coach knocks the look of the opposing quarterback? What kind of NFL coach takes pot shots at the players he drafted?
Rex hit it all. All that was missing was a wig and a big red nose.
And that's this Rex Ryan-led team in a nutshell. Just like earlier in the year, when Rex kept talking about the Patriots as the Bills committed penalties at a precipitous rate (Buffalo averages an NFL-high 10.6 per game) and overlooked the Giants. Just like when the Bills dropped a game in gruesome fashion to the Jaguars in London -- that coming after Mario Williams openly questioned Rex's defensive scheme. While the improved health of Tyrod Taylor and Sammy Watkins gives Bills fans reason for hope, there's just too much stuff that accompanies a Rex Ryan team. We've seen this movie before. We know how it ends.
I'm all in on the Oakland Raiders. They will improve and win at least nine (possibly 10) games -- and make the playoffs in the AFC. And I smile for Raider Nation as I type that!
Oakland's offense has emerged as a true force, currently slotting seventh in scoring and eighth in yardage. Derek Carr has become a star quarterback in Year 2. Completion rate of 63.7 percent, a 19:4 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a 104.3 passer rating? Yeah, this dude's a player. Of course, it helps that he now has a real receiver corps. Rookie Amari Cooper is truly special, while Michael Crabtree's contributions haven't gotten the attention they deserve. Latavius Murray is a legit No. 1 back (see: 4.9 yards per carry in 23 career games). And the offensive line has been solid.
Defensively, the Raiders still have some work to do, but Jack Del Rio is changing the culture. Yes, Oakland was just gashed by DeAngelo Williams this past Sunday, but even after giving up 195 rushing yards to the Steelers, the Raiders still rank eighth in run defense. Thus, they've been pretty darn stout up front for the bulk of the season. When it comes to individual efforts, Charles Woodson is sipping from the fountain of youth -- playing Pro Bowl-caliber football at age 39 -- but the Raiders also possess some promising youngsters on this side of the ball. Everyone knows about the freakish Khalil Mack, but how about his bookend buddy Mario Edwards Jr.? The rookie out of Florida State is starting to look like a second-round steal.
DeMarco Murray and Sam Bradford will play better in the second half. Can't be any worse, right? Actually, Bradford (295 yards passing and a touchdown) and Murray (161 total yards and a touchdown on 24 touches) are both coming off a highly productive game in Dallas. As disappointing as the offense has been at times, the Eagles still rank 10th in rushing and total yardage. And Philly's defense is much better than everyone anticipated, ranking 10th in points allowed. It starts up front with Fletcher Cox, who's playing like an All-Pro, and Bennie Logan, who has really come into his own in Year 3.
Outside of a trip to Foxborough in early December, the schedule is favorable down the stretch. I think Philly gets to nine wins, which should be good enough to win the watered-down NFC East.
St. Louis Rams
While Jeff Fisher has an earned reputation of being Mr. Mediocre, I think he bucks that trend with a 9-7 season.Todd Gurley is that special. He completely changed the feel of St. Louis this season. After all, the rookie has the fourth-most rushing yards in the league despite not really getting the rock until Week 4. We're talkin' 5.6 yards a pop, people! This guy's a game changer. Nick Foles has been average -- at best. But like the man he was swapped for (Bradford), Foles will get better in the regular season's final two months. Having a half-season under his belt with a new team is a significant deal. The increased comfort level will show down the stretch.
The offensive line isn't the same, giving up a league-high 31 sacks and forcing Russell Wilson to constantly run for his life. Marshawn Lynch's current yards-per-carry average (3.6) is down more than a yard from last year's figure (4.7). "Beast Mode" has eclipsed 75 yards rushing once. Jimmy Graham has been more involved in the offense of late, but he still hasn't made the profound impact many anticipated. Consequently, Seattle sits at 28th in passing offense.
I acknowledge the upside for Seattle. This is a battle-tested team with great players and coaches. But these 'Hawks have dealt with a lot of baggage over the past year or so -- the distractions could be catching up with them.