We've just passed the midway point of this NFL season, and, as usual, there's been plenty to talk about already. We've watched Colin Kaepernick impact the league before he ever took a snap. We've witnessed the rise of Dak Prescott in Dallas, along with all the expected questions about why he lasted until late in the fourth round of this year's draft. We've also watched the New England Patriots prove their resilience yet again (during the four-game suspension of Tom Brady), experienced the surprising collapse of the defending NFC champion Carolina Panthers (and the weekly assault on reigning MVP Cam Newton) and heard more than enough complaints about officiating to cover an entire year.
The question now is simple: What can we look forward to next?
As always, there are plenty of teams still very much in the hunt for playoff spots and ample storylines still developing as we move into winter. This is why it's a good time to ponder the five biggest questions of this year's second half. The first is one that seemingly will never get old ...
Since everyone else who cares about the NFL has an opinion about this, here's another to add to the mix. This wouldn't even have been cause for debate a month ago. Now that the Cowboys are riding a seven-game winning streak, everything has changed.
Rookie quarterback Dak Prescott has gained more confidence with each passing week, and it's obvious that his teammates respect and believe in him. The turning point came two weeks back, when Prescott overcame a poor performance and rallied Dallas to a 29-23 overtime win over Philadelphia. That victory said the fourth-round pick had the type of maturity that can win games in November and December -- and you can bet Cowboys owner Jerry Jones saw the same thing.
Now, does that mean Romo is done in Dallas? That's a bit of a stretch. There's always the chance that Prescott sustains an injury or begins struggling as things heat up. Realistically, the likely scenario here is that Dallas follows a script similar to the one the Denver Broncos used last season, when Peyton Manning was injured and Brock Osweiler was leading that team to five wins in seven games. Denver eventually went back to Manning in the season finale, when the Broncos' chances of winning the AFC West were in danger. However, if the Cowboys can stay firmly ahead of the pack in the NFC East -- where they currently hold a two-game lead over the 5-3 New York Giants -- it's hard to see Prescott going back to holding clipboards.
Let's go out on a limb right now and say the Patriots are going to claim the top spot in this year's AFC playoff race. That's a reasonable prediction to make for a team that is 7-1 and hardly missed a beat during Tom Brady's four-game suspension. The real question is whether any team has the juice to go into the Pats' backyard and knock them off in the postseason.
The Denver Broncos are the reigning Super Bowl champs, but they are becoming more flawed with each passing week, especially with an offense that has been plagued by a slumping Trevor Siemian, an injury-riddled running game and an embattled offensive line. The Pittsburgh Steelers were also once a sexy pick, but their normally potent offense has been struggling, as well. Other possible contenders include the Texans (whom the Patriotsalready humiliated earlier this season, with Jacoby Brissett at QB), Chiefs (whom the Patriotsbeat at home in last year's divisional round) and Raiders (who are playing as well as anybody, but haven't appeared in a playoff game since January of 2003).
So let's just go with a firm no to this question.
3) Who is going to win the AFC West?
It might be boring to place the Patriots back in another Super Bowl, but that doesn't mean there won't be any suspense before we reach that point in the season. In fact, the smart money should be on the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoffs coming out of the AFC West, which quickly has emerged as the best division in football. It's quite conceivable that both AFC wild-card teams could come from the West -- the Raiders are 7-2, the Chiefs are 6-2 and Denver is 6-3 -- while San Diego might be the best 4-5 team in football (if only the Bolts hadn't blown four second-half leads this season ...).
One thing we do know for sure: Denver is trending in the wrong direction. The Broncos still have a talented defense, but they've struggled against the run and they're also hurting on offense. The Raiders exploited both those issues in a win this past Sunday night, one that cemented Oakland's stature as one of the best young teams in the game.
The Chiefs also quietly have positioned themselves to make a strong run at this division title. They're 2-0 in the division, and one of the best-kept secrets in the NFL is that Kansas City now has won 16 of its last 18 regular-season games. If the Chiefs stay healthy -- they beat the Jaguars last week despite injuries to several key players, including quarterback Alex Smith -- don't be surprised if they win out. They always play Denver tough, and they've already beaten the Raiders in Oakland.
4) Which surprise division leader is the more dangerous playoff contender: Oakland or Atlanta?
On the other hand, the Falcons made a dramatic statement by going into Denver earlier this season and knocking around the previously undefeated Broncos. That victory told us the Falcons weren't just a high-scoring team that could take advantage of weaker defenses. This bunch has more mental toughness and more desire to prove that this fast start won't lead to another late-season collapse (as was the case in 2015).
That's why Atlanta gets the edge here. The Falcons might not have as good a record as Oakland (6-3 vs. 7-2), but quarterback Matt Ryan looks like the early favorite to win league MVP honors. Even with ample questions on defense -- which won't improve if a recent shoulder injury sidelines cornerback Desmond Trufant for any lengthy period of time -- the Falcons also have more players who've been to the postseason on their roster. That means plenty when you're trying to separate contenders from pretenders.
5) Which struggling NFC North team is worth believing in: Green Bay or Minnesota?
There was no gutsier team in football for the first five weeks of the season than the Minnesota Vikings. They lost starting quarterback Teddy Bridgewater before the opener and rallied behind Sam Bradford after he arrived in a trade. They watched Pro Bowl running back Adrian Peterson go down with a knee injury in a Week 2 win over Green Bay and still managed to start the year with five straight victories. There have been other key injuries -- and the stunning resignation of offensive coordinator Norv Turner -- and still the Vikings keep talking like they will overcome.
But it's time to face reality: It's hard to see Minnesota keeping pace down the stretch.
The Packers have their own problems -- including an injury-riddled backfield and the fact that they're beginning a three-game road swing after dropping three of their last four contests -- but they also have Aaron Rodgers. If he can continue to shake off the early-season struggles that plagued him, the Packers should be in good shape. Wide receiver Jordy Nelson is looking more comfortable in his return from a torn ACL sustained last season and Green Bay still has history on its side. After all, the Packers haven't missed the playoffs since 2008 -- tied for the longest current streak in football with New England.