The second half of the NFL season begins now.
The tinkering and experimenting is over. Last minute upgrades via trades are over. It’s time to go. Over the next nine weeks, the frontrunners will stand out from the pack, the second-tier teams will jostle for places, and the hopes of the rest will fade.
If the season ended today, the Kansas City Chiefs would hold the top seed in the AFC, followed by the Baltimore Ravens, Jacksonville Jaguars, Miami Dolphins, Pittsburgh Steelers, Cleveland Browns and of the Cincinnati Bengals. The Buffalo Bills would miss the cut, as would projected preseason contenders like the Los Angeles Chargers and New York Jets. The Philadelphia Eagles, meanwhile, would hold the top seed in the NFC, along with the Detroit Lions, San Francisco 49ers, New Orleans Saints, Seattle Seahawks, Dallas Cowboys and Vikings from Minnesota completing the field. The Washington Commanders, Atlanta Falcons and Tampa Bay Buccaneers would narrowly miss the cut.
What will the playoff picture look like in four weeks and four weeks after?
We’ll know soon enough. But for now, here are five of the top storylines from Week 10. (Find the NFL’s Week 10 schedule here.)
Lamar Jackson and the Ravens (7-2) are in great shape, having won four straight and looking dominant. In two of the last three weeks, Baltimore has beaten NFC leaders Detroit and Seattle by a combined score of 75-9. Now the Ravens face the Browns (5-3). With a win, the Ravens would increase their lead in the AFC North and complete the season sweep following a 28-3 win at Cleveland in Week 4.
Jackson enters this game with 440 rushing yards this season, which leads all quarterbacks. With 52 yards, he will pass Randall Cunningham (4,928) for fourth on the all-time quarterback rushing list. With 60 rushing yards, Jackson will become the first quarterback to record at least 500 rushing yards in each of his first six NFL seasons.
The Browns, meanwhile, badly need a win. In Week 11, they will face another AFC North rival, the Steelers, who are also 5-3. After missing time with a shoulder injury, Deshaun Watson returned to action last week, throwing for 219 yards and two touchdowns. He’ll have to do his best to keep up with Jackson and company. (Browns at Ravens, 1 p.m. ET Sunday.)
NFL Second Half Predictions for All 32 Teams: Keep an Eye on Lamar Jackson and Kyler Murray
2. 49ers, Jaguars moving in opposite directions
At one point, the 49ers were among the hottest teams in the league. They are now on a three-game losing streak. To end the skid, they’ll need to find a way to slow down the Jaguars, who are 6-2 and have won five in a row, the longest winning streak in the NFL. Both teams are coming off a bye, meaning they should be rested. The 49ers certainly needed the break after struggling mightily without injured star left tackle Trent Williams and wide receiver Deebo Samuel. Williams is questionable for Sunday, but Samuel will be back. Their returns would give San Francisco a much-needed boost against a Jacksonville defense that has held opponents to 19.5 points per game.
Yet 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan is just 3-4 after a bye week, and Jaguars coach Doug Pederson is 2-4. Who wins this time? A 49ers team desperate to get back into Super Bowl contention? Or the Jaguars, who aim to keep pace with the AFC with the Chiefs and Ravens? (49ers at Jaguars, 1 p.m. ET Sunday.)
Who is the odd man out in the AFC North? Is Week 10 a must-win for the 49ers? Our NFL Editors Discuss
3. Additional performance
Rocket scientist Josh Dobbs plunged to Minnesota via trade Tuesday after Kirk Cousins suffered a torn Achilles tendon, then led the Vikings to a comeback victory over the Falcons a few days later when Jaren Hall suffered a concussion in the first quarter.
Despite not taking any practice reps last week, Dobbs threw two touchdowns and rushed for another last Sunday. In doing so, he helped extend the Vikings’ winning streak to four games to keep their playoff hopes alive. How will the companion fare with a full week of preparation under his belt?
Dobbs and the Vikings (5-4) welcome the Saints (5-4 and first in the NFC South) and will try to take another step to catch up with the Lions, leaders of the NFC North (6-2). That will require more wizardry from coach Kevin O’Connell, who has managed to keep his team afloat first without injured senior receiver Justin Jefferson and now without Cousins. Meanwhile, defensive coordinator Brian Flores’ unit aims to maintain its dominance. Minnesota’s defense has held opponents to an average of 17 points per game, with eight outs, during the Vikings’ four-game winning streak.
Dobbs wasn’t the only NFL figure to make an impressive debut last week. Former NFL linebacker turned Las Vegas Raiders interim coach Antonio Pierce led his team to a commanding and much-needed victory just days after Mark Davis fired Josh McDaniels. The Raiders (4-5) responded to the change in a big way, thriving on offense and defense, and they broke out victory cigars to celebrate the new era.
Pierce managed to push all the right buttons last week, but is it sustainable? Can his team build some momentum as they host the Jets? (Saints at Vikings, 1 p.m. ET Sunday; Jets at Raiders, 8:20 p.m. ET Sunday.)
The Arizona Cardinals got off to a 1-8 start to the season as franchise quarterback Kyler Murray completed his recovery from the torn ACL that ended his 2022 season in Week 13. Now finally ready to start on Sunday, Murray returns under a fair amount of pressure, as the Cardinals last winter fired the coach and general manager who drafted him first in 2019.
Murray has shown flashes of greatness during his NFL career, but he has largely underperformed and failed to demonstrate the consistency a team needs from a franchise quarterback. Not only must Murray prove that he still possesses the athleticism and speed that made him a highly coveted prospect, but he must also show that he can fit well into the system of new coach Jonathan Gannon and offensive coordinator Drew Petzing and raising the franchise. Otherwise, the Cardinals could go in a different direction next offseason. (Hawks at Cardinals, 4:05 p.m. ET Sunday.)
It’s now or never for teams in major holes after a slow start to the season. The Green Bay Packers, Tennessee Titans, Buccaneers and Chargers started the season with playoff expectations. Instead, the Packers, Titans and Bucs are all 3-5. The chargers are 4-4. The Commanders need a strong campaign to help save Ron Rivera’s job, but they are 4-5 and extremely inconsistent right now.
• So far, the Jordan Love experience has been like a roller coaster. The young quarterback must harness a greater level of efficiency and consistency to give Green Bay a chance to return to the playoffs after missing out last year.
• The Titans officially turn to rookie quarterback Will Levis as their starter over Ryan Tannehill as they face the Bucs, whose coach (Todd Bowles) and quarterback (Baker Mayfield) began the year facing decisive scenarios.
• Rivera’s Commanders beat the Patriots on the road last week to give the coach at the helm a brief reprieve, but a win in Seattle will be much tougher.
• Staley’s Chargers beat the Jets in Week 9, but they have no margin for error, especially as they begin a three-game stretch against the Lions, Packers and Ravens.
• And speaking of time running out…the Jets believe they still have a chance to make the playoffs. They certainly have defensive and offensive weapons. But the difficulties continue for quarterback Zach Wilson and his offensive line. Robert Saleh’s team is 4-4, but the coach now frequently fields questions about whether he will make a change at quarterback. But is Tim Boyle really a better option? And more importantly, how logical are these playoff aspirations? Aaron Rodgers continues to try to sell the hope that he could return later in the year and take the team to the playoffs if they can just keep things close. But none of this seems realistic.
(Photos by Lamar Jackson, Robert Saleh, Josh Dobbs: Greg Fiume, Sarah Stier, Greg Fiume / Getty Images)
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