Favorites Emerge Halfway Through the NFL Season

It’s just over halfway through the NFL season, and this year is shaping up to be one of the most exciting of all time. It’s had its fair share of drama, surprise contenders, unexpected flops and there are still eight weeks of action left.

The reigning world champion Philadelphia Eagles are currently on the outside looking in for a spot in the playoffs, but they remain in the thick of the NFC East race. The Super Bowl runner-ups, the New England Patriots, are sitting pretty with a 7-2 record, good for second in the AFC, following a shaky 1-2 start. The Kansas City Chiefs are exceeding expectations as head coach Andy Reid has led them to an 8-1 record behind the stellar play of quarterback Patrick Mahomes and the fantastic collection of offensive weapons around him.

The New Orleans Saints, one year after having one of the worst defenses in the NFL, all of a sudden have a top ten defense, and this, along with super play from quarterback Drew Brees, has helped them to a 7-1 start. And the two Los Angeles teams, the Rams and the Chargers, are presenting themselves as legitimate Super Bowl contenders, setting up a potential crosstown showdown. The Rams continue to cruise under the direction of second-year head coach Sean McVay, who has only lost six regular season games in his young career. The Chargers are second in the AFC West behind the Chiefs, and the play of quarterback Philip Rivers, along with a stellar defense featuring star rookie safety Derwin James, has them on course to make their first playoff appearance since 2013.

Perhaps one of the biggest storylines this season has been the play of the quarterbacks, both young and old. Mahomes, in his second year in the NFL and first year starting, is leading the league in passing yards and touchdowns, and he has a legitimate chance to break Peyton Manning’s single season passing touchdown record of 55. Jared Goff, in his third year out of Cal with the Rams, continues to shine as he sits second in passing yards and third in touchdowns. But it has not just been the young guys who are impressing this year. Tom Brady, who made his NFL debut in 2000, continues to play at an elite level, sitting top ten in all relevant statistical categories. Drew Brees also continues to play like a much younger man, leading his New Orleans Saints team to a 7-1 start, including last week’s victory over Goff’s Rams, who at that point were undefeated.

However, in a year where rookie quarterbacks were supposed to make big impacts on the field, many have failed to impress. Sam Darnold, the number three overall pick for the New York Jets, has thrown more interceptions than touchdowns while only completing 55 percent of his passes. Josh Rosen and Josh Allen, two other quarterbacks picked in the top ten, have also struggled with the rookie blues, each of them also posting ~55 percent completion percentages while throwing more picks than touchdowns. The only rookie quarterback who has lived up to some of the hype surrounding him is first overall pick Baker Mayfield, who has led the Cleveland Browns to two wins this season, double their win total from the previous two seasons. But as a whole, these four quarterbacks rank as four of the five worst passers in the league by quarterback rating, a statistic that measures the quality of a quarterback’s play.

While the quarterback play has faltered at times, other rookies have risen to the challenge. Saquon Barkley, while admittedly playing for a lackluster New York Giants offense in which he is a top two option, is on pace for more than 2,000 yards from scrimmage — receiving, rushing, and kick returns — something only two other rookies have accomplished. Calvin Ridley, a rookie wide receiver out of Alabama, has also impressed for the Atlanta Falcons, especially given the fact that he has to share the field with All-Pro receiver Julio Jones. On the other side of the ball, Bradley Chubb, a top ten pick out of NC State, has benefited from playing opposite Von Miller, one of the premier pass rushers in the game, with the Denver Broncos. He currently has eight sacks, one back from Miller and good for sixth in the league.

Speaking of sacks, the season began with its fair share of controversy as pass rushers seemed to be getting called left and right for roughing the passer penalties. That commotion seems to have died down now, and it has not prevented some players from putting up absurd sack numbers. Danielle Hunter of the Minnesota Vikings has 11.5 sacks, and could threaten Michael Strahan’s 22.5 sack season record, set in 2001. Aaron Donald, who was very briefly the highest paid defensive player in NFL history when he signed a six-year, $135 million contract, has 10 sacks and looks to be running away with the Defensive Player of the Year award. Miller, J.J. Watt, and Myles Garrett sit tied for third with nine apiece.  

It’s already been an incredible NFL season, and there’s still plenty of football left to be played.

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