The NFL season is somehow, thanks to a thing called time, already at its halfway point. While many teams are where we expected, others have fluctuated in form while others have flat-out surprised or everyone. As for the players, some are already gearing up for the playoffs while others are still trying to find their feet, with a rookie or two on the tip of our tongues.
Nine weeks in, here’s a look at the league’s contenders from all angles.
The four Super Bowl front-runners:
I’ll say this now, the New England Patriots are an automatic Super Bowl contender, as they are every year. There’s not a huge amount of point or enjoyment in writing about what makes them successful and where they may finish. They’ll be there at the end, as long as age doesn’t catchup with Tom Brady in the next four months. Therefore the next four teams are one’s who are an unexpected contender, or feature an interesting aspect to their recent success.
New Orleans Saints
Two straight wins against the Vikings on the road and the Rams at home have put the Saints into the Super Bowl conversation, and for mine they are the favorites to come out of the NFC at the moment.
The Saints in 2017 overcame their defensive struggles of the recent past and became a threatening overall unit, with exciting young talents on both sides of the ball. This year follows a similar trend, as they rank first in rush yards conceded per game with 76.4 and average rush yards per carry with 3.4. However their secondary has struggled to isolate the passing game, ranking 31st overall by giving up an average of 311.4 yards per game – a significant decline on their 2017 numbers.
Their offense as per usual though has been one of the league’s best, ranking 7th in total yards per game with 402 and scoring the third most points in the league so far with 279. Drew Brees as usual has been in great form, but this year is more about his efficiency than is numbers. Brees has only one interception so far, while having the best completion percentage at 76.3 amongst starting quarterbacks.
The Saints still have a road game against the Panthers, sandwiched in between home games with the Eagles, Falcons, Steelers and Panthers, and are more than likely to win four of those games to secure the number one seed in the NFC.
The win over the Rams will be crucial down the stretch as a tie-breaker for the Saints, and could determine which one of the two contends for the Vince Lombardi trophy.
Los Angeles Rams
The Rams are the only side that are where many expected them to be at this point in the season. A range of offseason roster moves strengthened their squad to be capable of winning the Super Bowl, and so far they look a strong contender to qualify.
The Rams started the year 8-0, before losing last week’s game to the Saints in New Orleans. A loss that shouldn’t be looked at negatively, as the Saints are a fellow NFC heavyweight. Their offensive production has been their most impressive aspect, leading the league in yards per game with 447.1, ranking 5th in passing and 1st in rushing yards per game. Gurley’s numbers this season are as good, if not better than his 2017 numbers which saw him take out the league’s offensive player of the year award.
On the defensive side the rams have managed to improve in both the rushing and passing game. They’ve improved from 14th and 28th in rush and pass yards against respectively in 2017, to 13th and 14th in 2018. Impressively, the Rams rank second in the league in net points at +99, only two behind the Chiefs which signals dominating wins. For now though, it’s nothing to worry about especially with an offense clicking the way it is. Given the offseason adjustments and quality in coordinator Wade Philips, there is room for improvement on that side of the ball
Youngsters in Coach Sean McVay and quarterback Jared Goff are likely to have learnt from their disappointing result in last year’s Wild-Card loss to the Falcons at home, which should be righted in the playoffs with a deep run on the cards.
Kansas City Chiefs
An unfortunate reality for the Chiefs when Andy Reid arrived in 2013 was, aside from his consistent post season appearances, he hadn’t won a Super Bowl. This effectively was going to see the Chiefs fail to lift the Vince Lombardi trophy unless Reid was able to snag himself a top-quality quarterback, something that has eluded him in his head coaching career.
However with the meteoric rise of quarterback Patrick Mahomes, who is responsible for the Chief’s improved performances this year compared to last, the Chiefs have their man and are firmly in the Super Bowl conversation.
In his first year as a starter, Mahomes has shown off tremendous natural skill as a passer and ball-runner, which emulates much of Aaron Rodgers and Steve Young in one body. Arm strength, movement and accuracy are just a few traits he has mastered so far, and those in themselves open up so many other avenues for a quarterback. He chaperones a big four on the offensive side of the ball, which includes Kareem Hunt at running back, Tyreek Hill out wide and Travis Kelce at Tight End, who are all likely to stick around for at least the next five years.
Unlike the other Super Bowl contenders, the Chiefs are somewhat struggling on the defensive side of the ball. Their time of possession numbers are low, which in turn allows opposing teams to settle into their offense. They rank 31st in total yards allowed and 25th in total points conceded.
Their defensive struggles could become an Achilles heel in the postseason, however for now the offense is doing enough for them to win comfortably.
Los Angeles Chargers
The Chargers are looking more and more like a danger side for other AFC heavyweights. They’re currently riding a five game winning streak and trending upwards at great speed.
Quarterback Philip Rivers is one of the few veterans in the league who deserves a Super Bowl ring for his services. He has consistently put up strong numbers for his side, but this year he has quietly entered the MVP conversation, on track for his best season to date. So far he has posted 19 touchdown passes and only three interceptions with a completion percentage 67.1, all leading to a career-best (so far) passer rating of 116.1. The Chargers also rank fifth overall in rushing yards per game, highlighted by Melvin Gordon sitting 7th equal in yards and averaging an impressive 5.4 yards per carry, which gives Rivers a reliable second option if the pass game isn’t working at times.
Defensively the Chargers have remained solid considering they are still missing their Pro-Bowl defensive end Joey Bosa, who could return by week 11. Bosa was fast becoming one of the best defensive players in the game, but the likes of Brandon Mebane and Melvin Ingram have been able to carry the load and maintain a strong front seven in the meantime.
Games against the Steelers, Bengals, Chiefs and Ravens could determine the Chargers credibility as a Super Bowl contender, and if they can hold their own it could see them make the divisional round for the first time since 2009.
MVP = Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints
The subjectivity around the MVP award will be in full swing this year, more so than many, as there appears to be two frontrunners in Drew Brees and Patrick Mahomes, with Todd Gurley and Philip Rivers nipping at their heels. For mine, given his side’s impressive seven game winning streak and his overly efficient personal numbers, Drew Brees is the man for the award.
This year Brees has been breaking records, while posting some of the most efficient numbers of his career. So far the veteran quarterback has 18 touchdown passes and only one interception, while having a league best 76.1 completion percentage amongst other starters. Of the percentage of Brees’ pass attempts, only 0.4 of them are interceptions, a number that is far lower that the league average. More importantly the Saints are 7-1, riding a seven game winning streak as well as recently beating the Vikings and Rams in their previous two games, two top-ranked defensive sides and NFC heavyweights.
Mahomes has Brees’s number when it comes to touchdown passes, with a staggering 29 and on track to crack 50 (which is unlikely to be fair), but in almost all other factors Brees takes the advantage.
I like most may lean towards Brees based on a sentimental value. He’s produced brilliant numbers since he was drafted, and has broken plenty of records along the way. Having never won an MVP and finishing second on multiple occasions, it feels as though he deserves this one right now. This MVP represents a valuable career as much as a valuable season.
Coach of the year = Matt Nagy, Chicago Bears
Coach of the year was actually the hardest one to pick as there isn’t a clear-cut candidate. But in his first year and looking likely to deliver a division title to a ‘bottom-feeder’ team, Matt Nagy of the Chicago Bears seems to be the front-runner at the moment.
The Bears have slumped to a 45-67 record since their last playoff appearance in 2010, and bringing in a coach in Matt Nagy who has succeeded as an offensive coordinator seemed logical given the Bears already had a solid looking defensive unit.
Most importantly he has his team on a winning record at the moment, which has been helped by the addition of Khalil Mack and his impact on the defense. That defense has become elite, which maybe comes down to coordinator Vic Fangio as much as Nagy, but nevertheless the coach gets the final say, right?
Nagy has handled a tough quarterback situation well and in turn seemed to get the best out of second-year pro Mitchell Trubisky, who had question marks all over him coming into the season. Many of those question marks are still there, but just not as many.
Offensive Player of the Year = Todd Gurley, Los Angeles Rams
The offensive and defensive player of the year awards are not, or at least should not be debatable around the prerequisites. Simply put, it’s whoever has put up the best and most impressive numbers on each side of the ball. Todd Gurley is that man offensively, who is on track to back up his 2017 award and also looks likely to break LaDainian Tomlinson’s single season touchdown record in his 2006 MVP season.
Gurley leads the league in rushing yards with 868 as well as leading the league in scrimmage yards with 1,230, having a significant lead over running back James Conner of the Steelers in both categories. Gurley also averages 9.6 yards more per game in 2018 than he did in 2017, which has helped the Rams offense lead the league in rushing offense with 144.3 yards per game, a significant improvement on their 2017 average.
Outside of Gurley, Vikings receiver Adam Thielen could be dark horse recipients of the award if he can put up strong numbers to finish the year.
Defensive Player of the Year = Aaron Donald, Los Angeles Rams OR Khalil Mack, Chicago Bears
Aaron Donald’s numbers have been impressive, on a Ram’s defensive unit that is one of the best on paper in the game. However, Khalil Mack of the Chicago Bears has had a huge impact on the Bears and Raiders defenses since his trade.
For mine, it’s a real toss-up, but there’s one problem.
Mack has been out the past two games due to injury, but is expected to return this week against the Lions. That places Donald, ever so slightly, in first place by default.
Donald is second in the league in sacks with 10, but for the majority was leading before the Rams loss to the Saints, where he didn’t register a single sack. What makes Donald menacing though is the eye test, which shows that he is the most unstoppable force on the defensive side of the football at the moment, which plays into his favor strongly.
For Khalil Mack he has become valuable defensive player as the Bears have trended upwards since his arrival, while the Raiders have been reeling without his presence.
Oakland’s defense hasn’t fallen too much, where as their sack total so far is a mere a seven so far, on track to have a total of 14 by the year’s end whereas a year ago they managed 31 sacks in total, over double their season projection. The Bears by contrast have 24 sacks so far, over three times the amount of the Raiders, and likely to improve on their 2017 total of 42 with around 45-50.
It’s not fair to disadvantage Aaron Donald for staying put on one team and never giving us an idea around whether he can impact another team, or his former, to such a degree. Mack returns this coming week, and if he can post similar numbers then the award will go to him.
Sports writer based in Auckland, New Zealand. I have a strong passion for a range of codes, including the NBA, NFL, Soccer, Rugby and more.