Barnwell: What’s real and what’s not from the NFL’s first half

With the NFL season hitting its halfway mark at Week 9, it’s a great time to take a look at some of the statistics I rely upon to help project and make sense of the NFL season. We’re not dealing with a huge sample when you consider that the league’s 32 teams have played only eight or nine games, but when you look at the league with statistics based around points or plays as opposed to wins, the extra data can reveal quite a bit about what’s going to happen in the second half of this campaign.

You can find out more about many of the numbers I’ll mention by reading this primer. I’ll also be citing ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI), which projects what will happen over the rest of the NFL season and postseason. I’ll start by looking on the bright side:

1. Some bad teams are going to improve … if they don’t throw in the towel.

Let’s start on the bright side. It’s always dangerous to project improvement for teams either down to unplayable backups or decaying statesmen under center, because when the numbers that normally help predict performance don’t work, there’s usually replacement-level quarterback play to blame. There’s a chance teams down toward the bottom of the NFL standings simply don’t resemble the units of the first half as organizations try out young talent or tune out lame-duck coaches. With that being said, there are some obvious candidates for teams that have outplayed their record so far this season, though they have little hope of turning things around into meaningful campaigns.

The injury-riddled 49ers are 2-7 heading into Monday Night Football, but their point differential suggests that Kyle Shanahan’s team should be something closer to a 3.6-win team so far. The Niners have been competitive even after losing Jimmy Garoppolo and narrowly lost to the Cardinals, Chargers and Packers on the road despite leading each of those games in the fourth quarter. Their turnover margin — minus-13 — is likely to improve, given that the defense has forced only five takeaways in nine games. The 49ers get to play the Giants and Buccaneers over the next two weeks, two of the more generous offenses in the league.

Speaking of the Giants, they’re also in this discussion, although I’m a little skeptical. Odell Beckham Jr. & Co. are 1-7, but their Pythagorean expectation suggests they should have something closer to 2.6 wins. The Giants are 1-5 in games decided by a touchdown or less, but they’ve scored garbage-time touchdowns in three of those games to make the final score seem closer. There are games like this every year with teams that have subpar records in one-score games, of course, but rarely do we see three in what amounts to a half-season.

At the same time, the Giants did lose a game on a 63-yard field goal. They have been the unluckiest team in football so far in terms of what Football Outsiders calls “hidden” special-teams plays, which are entirely out of their control. They’ve faced the third-toughest schedule in the league so far, but Pat Shurmur’s team has to deal with only the 23rd-toughest slate in the league after this point. The Giants are not going to be good, but they should be slightly more competitive. (Cue Giants fans who want the team to tank.)

It’s a dangerous game to play when you’re talking about a team possibly quarterbacked for multiple starts by Nathan Peterman, but the Bills also should be more competitive over the second half. Their defense has been left in compromising situations defending short fields week after week, but quietly, Sean McDermott’s unit ranks second in DVOA. Buffalo has recovered only 40.5 percent of the fumbles in its games, the fifth-lowest rate in the league. The Bills have forced a league-high 23 fumbles but recovered only seven, which is sheer randomness.

Those fumble recoveries should gift the offense a few more short fields, which would help given just how bad the Bills have been during the first half. Going back through the 1970 merger, there have been 1,445 teams to complete nine games. If we use standardized score to compare each team’s points scored through those nine games to the league average, the 2018 Bills are in 1,430th place. It’s almost impossible for an offense to stay that bad, as recent examples such as the 2009 Browns, 2013 Jaguars and 2015 49ers — each of whom were worse on offense through nine games after normalizing scores than this year’s Bills — were all able to improve over the final seven contests. Josh Allen and Derek Anderson haven’t been good, but even they would be a massive upgrade over Peterman.

The Bills also were forced to endure the league’s toughest schedule through nine weeks per FPI, which seems quite unfair. The good news is they’ll face the league’s easiest slate going forward, with two games against the Dolphins and Jets, along with tilts against the Jaguars and Lions. The Patriots are the one current playoff team the Bills are set to play over the final seven games.

One more team in this discussion: the 3-6 Broncos, who rank eighth in DVOA and have a point differential of minus-8, suggesting they’re basically a .500 team through nine games. Keep in mind that three of their losses are to the Rams and Chiefs by a combined 14 points. Their offense might collapse after trading Demaryius Thomas and losing Ronald Leary and Matt Paradis to injuries for the season, but the Broncos have been better than their record, and teams who fit that bill usually improve over the second half of a season.

2. The Ravens are on the precipice and might need their offense to save their season.

If you’re looking for a more relevant team, the Ravens are the most obvious example of a team whose record doesn’t match up with their underlying level of play. Baltimore is 4-5 with the point differential of a 6-3 team. Much of that comes thanks to a 44-point victory over the Bills in Week 1, but again, history suggests that blowing out bad teams is a good indicator of future success.

The Ravens also beat an underrated Broncos team and the division-rival Steelers by double digits, and shut out the Titans. Their losses include a single-point defeat to the Saints and an overtime loss to the Browns in a game in which Justin Tucker had a field goal attempt blocked, and Joe Flacco threw an interception inside the 5-yard line. They lost to the Steelers on Sunday in a game in which five of their eight meaningful drives made it onto Pittsburgh’s side of the field, only for Baltimore to come away with a mere 16 points.

Even with much of the same personnel, this team has played differently than the one we saw last season. The 2017 Ravens ranked first in special teams DVOA and third in defensive DVOA, but with dismal wideout play and an offensive line ruined by injuries, Baltimore ranked 21st in offensive DVOA. This season, the Ravens are 13th in offensive and special teams DVOA and only 10th in the league on defense.

Don Martindale’s defense is still playing well, but something’s missing. The Ravens forced a league-high 34 takeaways on defense last season, including 10 over the first two games of the season. This season, Baltimore has forced only seven takeaways in nine games, which is the fifth-lowest rate in football. After recovering 12 of the 22 fumbles it forced on defense last year, Baltimore has picked up only two of nine so far this season. It would be unfair to expect the Ravens to force 11 takeaways over their next three games, as the 2017 team did after its own Week 10 bye, but this unit is too talented to come up with fewer than one turnover per game.

Coach John Harbaugh said he intended to stick with Flacco coming out of Baltimore’s bye. If the Ravens go on a run over the next few weeks, Harbaugh might look like a genius without getting materially better play out of his passer. Through nine games, the Ravens have played the 12th-hardest slate of opposing defenses in the NFL by DVOA.

Over their next five contests, though, things get quite easy. They face defenses that rank 23rd (Bengals), 27th (Chiefs), 30th (Falcons), 31st (Raiders), and 32nd (Buccaneers) in DVOA. How Flacco performs in that five-game run against weak defenses could end up drastically shifting the future of this franchise, including whether he and Harbaugh will be wearing purple in 2019.

The biggest problem for Flacco has been making plays downfield. When his passes have traveled 16 or more yards in the air this season, the Ravens’ starter has posted a Total QBR of just 50.9, which ranks 29th among 32 qualifying passers. Lack of receivers might have been an excuse in years past, but the presence of John Brown should give Flacco a viable deep threat. Even if the Ravens don’t plan on turning things over to Lamar Jackson this season, adding a deep shot to his run-heavy package could unlock a sorely needed big play.

3. Miami and Washington might not be able to keep pace.

Two of the surprises from the first half of the season are the 5-4 Dolphins and 5-3 Washington, the latter of which still tops the NFC East after nine weeks. Both have exceeded expectations. I would be worried that they’re going to fall back to those expectations in the weeks to come.

Washington’s three-game winning streak consisted of wins over the Panthers, Cowboys and Giants, each by seven points or fewer. (The Giants game wasn’t as close as it seems, but you get the idea.) Washington is 3-0 in one-score games this season. It has been outscored by opponents by 12 points, suggesting it should be slightly under .500 as opposed to one game over it. Its schedule also gets tougher, as FPI estimates its strength of schedule will go from 20th before Week 9 to eighth from here. Five of Washington’s final eight games are on the road, and it still has a home-and-home left with the Eagles.

Most disconcerting, though, has to be the injury issues. Washington’s season fell apart in 2017 once its offensive line was ripped apart by injuries. Bill Callahan’s line has been one of the best in football so far this season in terms of creating holes for Adrian Peterson, but injuries have taken a toll again. Guards Shawn Lauvao and Brandon Scherff were put on injured reserve this week. Star left tackle Trent Williams is out for several more weeks, and right tackle Morgan Moses committed four penalties while trying to play through a knee injury last week and might not be able to play against the Buccaneers on Sunday.

They’re not the only ones on the offense, either. Wideout Paul Richardson also hit IR this week. Receiving back Chris Thompson missed the Falcons game because of an aggravation of his rib injury. Peterson is playing with a shoulder he dislocated in Week 5. Jordan Reed is playing through a neck injury. Can a defense that has ranked 25th in DVOA this season carry Washington to the postseason if the offense slips?

The Dolphins are 5-4 with the point differential of a 3.5-win team, thanks to a season in which each of their five wins have come by eight points or fewer. Those wins include two victories over the Jets and an eight-point win over the Raiders, although Adam Gase’s team did beat the Titans in a lightning-marred opener and topped the Bears in a wild shootout at home. Miami’s four losses, meanwhile, have each been by double digits and an average of nearly 18 points. Those include three current playoff participants in the Bengals, Patriots and Texans, all of whom hold possible tiebreaker implications come the end of December.

I’ve written a bit about Miami’s red zone defense already this season, and while it has begun to regress — the Dolphins gave up four touchdowns in four trips to the Texans in Week 8 — it still ranks fourth in the league in terms of points per red zone possession, giving up 4.17 points per trip. The way to deal with this regression is to stop teams from getting to the red zone altogether, and the Dolphins pulled that off against the Jets last week. After giving up 31 red zone possessions on defense through eight games, Miami held Sam Darnold & Co. out of the red zone while picking off the rookie four times.

There are other reasons to be optimistic about the Dolphins, to be fair. They’ve recovered only four of the 15 fumbles in their games so far, and that 26.7 percent retention rate is the lowest in football. They’ve also posted the league’s fourth-lowest sack rate at 4.7 percent, and sack rate is mostly random over the course of a season, so they can expect to get to the quarterback more frequently in the second half of the season.

4. Wait, what was that about sack rate?

If you look at each NFL team’s sack rate going back through the 2001 campaign and split their seasons into halves, it would stand to reason that the sack rate in the first half would be predictive of the sack rate in the second half, given that you’re working with the same pass-rushers. Drew Brees is consistent from half to half. Why wouldn’t Von Miller be consistent, too?

As it turns out, though, the correlation of determination between a team’s sack rate in Games 1-8 and their sack rate in Games 9-16 suggests that 1 percent of a team’s second-half sack rate can be explained by the first-half sack rate. In other words, it’s close to useless as a predictor. To put this in context, the teams with the 30 highest sack rates in the first half since 2001 took down opposing quarterbacks 9.9 percent of the time. Over the second half, they collectively sacked passers 6.4 percent of the time. Meanwhile, the teams with the 30 worst first-half sack rates saw their takedown percentage double from 2.9 percent to 5.8 percent.

With that in mind, teams with subpar sack rates should improve on defense over the second half. While that group includes teams like the Raiders and Giants, more notable contenders like the Patriots (3.2 percent, 31st), Falcons (4.8 percent, 28th), and Saints (5.2 percent, 27th) could ride some regression toward the mean to improved defensive play.

Likewise, you might be concerned about those defenses that are riding a sack high to stay afloat. The obvious candidate here would be the Lions, who top the league with a 9.6 percent sack rate despite spending most of the first half without star edge rusher Ezekiel Ansah. When you remove sacks, the Lions rank 30th in the league in QBR allowed (85.6) and passer rating (112.5). The Vikings (9.0 percent, second), Broncos (8.3 percent, third), Packers (8.3 percent, fourth), and Cardinals (8.1 percent, fifth) might also suffer some in the second half.

5. Danielle Hunter is great but probably not this great.

With Everson Griffen missing most of the first half and Brian Robison released, the Vikings have essentially relied on the 24-year-old Hunter to serve as their pass rush. The results have been spectacular. He leads the league with 11.5 sacks in nine games, and the former third-round pick is on pace to top 20 sacks this season. No other Minnesota player has racked up more than three sacks.

Hunter has managed to do this while knocking down the quarterback only 15 times. History tells us that pass-rushers typically rack up sacks about 45 percent of the time they take down the quarterback, and players who veer dramatically from that sack percentage tend to regress toward it over a longer period of time. Before 2018, Hunter had racked up 25.5 sacks on 39 knockdowns, which is more than you would expect given the 45 percent measure, but not quite this extreme of a total. By the 45 percent mark, we would estimate that Hunter should have just under seven sacks so far, not 11.5.

The good news for the Vikings is that the rest of the pass rush should help to counteract a potential Hunter drop-off. The trio of Griffen, Sheldon Richardson and Stephen Weatherly have combined for only seven sacks on 28 knockdowns when that number would typically create something closer to 12.6 sacks. One of the more obvious outliers in this same category would also benefit Minnesota, as Bears pass-rusher Khalil Mack has five sacks on only four knockdowns this season. Given that Mack racked up 22 knockdowns last season, though, it seems likely he’ll up his underlying hit rate once he returns from an ankle injury.

Elsewhere, standout rookie Bradley Chubb might struggle to make it to 16 sacks, as the Broncos’ first-round pick has eight sacks on 11 knockdowns, which would typically produce about five sacks. Teammate Von Miller has nine sacks on 15 knockdowns, and while it would be crazy to bet against arguably the league’s best edge rusher, Miller’s actual sack rate since 2011 (83.5) is pretty close to his expected sack rate (76.5). Panthers rotation rusher Mario Addison has seven sacks on only eight knockdowns.

On the flip side, the Eagles could see more big plays out of their pass-rushers. Interior disruptor Fletcher Cox has only four sacks on 17 knockdowns, which would typically produce 7.7 sacks. Teammate Michael Bennett has 3.5 sacks on 16 knockdowns, and Chris Long has three on 11 knockdowns.

Likewise, the Jaguars and their once-dominant pass rush could use a bit of good fortune. Yannick Ngakoue has only five sacks on 16 knockdowns, 2.2 sacks below that 45 percent expectation. Malik Jackson has only one on eight knockdowns. Blake Bortles might be permanently on the fritz, but it’s reasonable to expect more out of Jacksonville’s expensively assembled pass rush in the second half.

6. The outsider team that could go on a run to the AFC playoffs is in the AFC South …

… but it’s not the Jaguars, whom FPI pegs with just a 5.8 percent shot of making the playoffs. If I had to run through the teams with a sub-20 percent chance of sneaking into January, I think I’d go with the 3-5 Colts. To start, they’ve been better than their record; Indy has outscored opponents by 18 points in eight games, which is something close to a 4.4-win pace over eight games. DVOA has the Colts 15th in the league, just ahead of the Vikings.

The Colts have played an easy schedule, but FPI expects their schedule to stay easy. Indy has been up against the league’s seventh-easiest slate, but over the final eight games, it will actually face the fourth-easiest run of opponents in the NFL. The Colts’ only games outside the AFC South over the remainder of the season come against the Cowboys, Dolphins and Giants, all at home. Five of their final eight contests come in Indianapolis.

As I mentioned on Monday, their offense is also getting better with Andrew Luck working his way back into game shape and his offensive line finally coalescing with the return of Anthony Castonzo. Luck has been sacked only once in the past four games. Indy’s offense has averaged a league-high 34.3 points since the end of September.

I wouldn’t expect the Colts to make a run to the top of the AFC South. The Texans have been massively unlucky in the red zone on both sides of the ball and face an even easier schedule over the final eight weeks of the season than the Colts. FPI gives the 6-3 Texans a 76.5 percent shot of winning the South. Barring a serious injury to Deshaun Watson, Houston should be able to close up shop and host a playoff game in January.

As for the 4-4 Titans, well, even the numbers don’t know what to make of Tennessee. They’ve been outscored by eight points, so they’re essentially a .500 team by point differential. Mike Vrabel’s team is 22nd in DVOA. The Titans have posted the league’s best red zone defense so far, giving up only 3.4 points per trip while creating six stuffs (no points allowed) in 22 tries. Those stuffs include a failed fourth-and-1, a bad snap on a field goal try, a Malcolm Butler interception, and three red zone failures by the Cowboys on Monday night. FPI essentially has them in a dead heat with the Colts for the playoffs at 18.9 percent, but I prefer Indy’s chances.

7. The NFC North is up for grabs.

FPI feels quite confident that the Lions, who have a 1.7 percent shot of winning the division, are out of the NFC North race. Otherwise, it’s open. The 5-3 Bears are unsurprisingly the FPI leaders, with a 46.1 percent shot, but the Vikings are right behind them at 37.0 percent, with the Packers lurking at 15.3 percent. There’s close to a 50 percent chance of this division sending two teams to the postseason, but the division title is still too close to call.

As someone who thought the Bears were among the most likely teams in football to improve even before the Khalil Mack trade, I’m not surprised to see Chicago taking a leap to the top of the division. The Bears have been better in close games. Their interception rate, the fourth lowest in the league a year ago, has spiked to the league’s second-best rate so far this season. Their offense has been healthier and flashed stretches of impressive play. The Bears are for real.

The problem is that they’re about to face a lot more real teams, too. The Bears faced FPI’s easiest schedule over the first nine weeks. From here, they’ll face the 11th-toughest slate of opponents. Chicago gets a home-and-home with the Vikings, a rematch against the Packers, and a home game against the Rams. Their road schedule is otherwise pretty modest — trips to play the Lions, Giants and 49ers — but the Bears already have lost to the Packers and Dolphins on the road, and needed a fourth-quarter comeback to beat the Cardinals in Arizona. Taking those three winnable road games and going .500 at home should be enough to push the Bears into the postseason.

The Vikings, who were on the list of six teams most likely to decline, already can’t match their 13-3 mark from a year ago. What’s far worse is that they also have to worry about their schedule getting tougher; FPI says that they’re about to jump from the third-easiest schedule to the league’s sixth-toughest slate. Four of Minnesota’s final seven games are on the road, and that schedule includes a brutal four-game stretch after the bye: The Vikings travel to play the Bears, face the Packers at home, head to Foxborough to play the Patriots, and finish up with a Monday night game in Seattle.

The Packers seem out of it at 3-4-1, and even that seems like a stretch. Their three wins include a 22-0 home victory over the Bills and a pair of frantic fourth-quarter home comebacks with no margin for error over the Bears and 49ers. As you can probably infer, the Packers are 0-4 on their travels away from Lambeau Field, losing those games by an average of 9.5 points.

The good news is that their schedule is actually about to get easier. Green Bay’s scheduled ranked 18th in the league so far, but those road games were brutal. Those four losses came against three-first place teams (the Rams, Patriots and Washington) and a fourth against the Lions in the game in which Mason Crosby was replaced by a fan and missed five kicks. The Packers lost all three of their fumbles in that game. Fate wanted the Packers to lose.

From Week 10 on, the Packers have the league’s fifth-easiest schedule. Their road schedule actually doesn’t get much easier outside of a trip to play the Jets, given that they still have to travel to play the Bears, Seahawks and Vikings, but their home slate is extremely friendly: They’ll face the Dolphins, Cardinals, Falcons and Lions in the Crosby Revenge Game come Week 17. If the Packers do make a run into the postseason, it’ll probably come from a clean sweep of those home games.

8. The Saints might not be safe on top of the NFC South.

There are three teams whose records are more impressive than their underlying statistics. All of them are still very good. The Rams are 8-1 with the point differential of a 6.5-win team. The Chiefs are 8-1 with the point differential of a 6.4-win team. They will probably settle in comfortably around 13 wins by the time we get to January, and they’re comfortably favorites to finish as top seeds. The Chiefs have a 62.0 percent shot of claiming home-field advantage in the AFC, and the Rams are at 61.9 percent in the NFC.

The largest negative gap in the NFL between point differential and win-loss record right now, though, belongs to the Saints. At 7-1, they’ve outscored their opponents by 61 points, or a little over 7.6 points per game. Their Pythagorean expectation is basically of a 5-3 team at 5.1 wins. They rank seventh in DVOA and 28th in defensive DVOA. Most metrics would say the Saints are closer to good than great right now.

Fortunately for New Orleans, it just swept the toughest part of its schedule by beating the Ravens and Vikings on the road and overcoming the Rams in arguably the Game of the Year last weekend. The Saints have a 96.4 percent shot of making the playoffs. Since the league went to its current divisional structure in 2002, only one 7-1 team — the 2012 Bears — failed to advance to the postseason.

The division, though, might still be vulnerable. The Panthers are only a game behind and still have a home-and-home to come over the final three weeks of the season. Carolina has rode its luck with some late-game heroics from Graham Gano, but the Panthers have a point differential within 21 points of the Saints and rank third in DVOA. Both teams face difficult schedules the rest of the way, with the Saints up against the league’s third-hardest slate and the Panthers just behind in fifth. There’s a reasonable chance that Week 17 will see a Panthers-Saints game that could both determine the division title and serve as Drew Brees’ final statement in the MVP race.

The Falcons probably can’t win the division, but they still have a 34.7 percent chance of making the postseason after winning their past three games. They could serve as a spoiler if the race comes down to record within the South. The Falcons beat the Panthers but narrowly lost to the Saints in Week 3, while the Saints’ only loss came at the hands of FitzMagic and the Bucs in Week 1.

Atlanta could ruin Thanksgiving and make playoff life more difficult for the Saints by beating them in New Orleans on Nov. 22. They’ll need to maneuver through a three-game stretch with the Saints, a home game against the Ravens, and a road trip to Lambeau in December against a Packers team who could loom as a wild-card rival.

9. Julio Jones is going to score more touchdowns.

He finally got one last week, but the Falcons’ star receiver is touching the ball too frequently to avoid the end zone. Jones has 60 catches for 933 yards through eight games, but after a three-touchdown 2017 season, he has only that lone score to show for his efforts. To put things in context, the receiver who had previously racked up the most yards with one touchdown or fewer over the first eight games of a season was Calvin Johnson, who had 767 yards during the first eight games of 2012 and one score to show for it.

Megatron scored four times over the second half of his record-setting campaign, and unless Jones gets injured, he’s going to score more frequently out of sheer volume. The Falcons haven’t been throwing Jones the ball much in the red zone — and they’ve posted the best red zone offense in football since Week 2 while playing keep-away, for what it’s worth — but Jones is too talented to keep out of the end zone.

With a nod to colleague Mike Clay, some touchdown regression to watch out for over the second half:

  • Patrick Mahomes has thrown 29 touchdown passes in nine games, which is awfully hard to keep pulling off. He has thrown touchdown passes on 9.1 percent of his attempts so far. No quarterback has ever topped 9 percent over a 500-attempt season, though Aaron Rodgers’ 2011 season rounds up to 9.0 at 8.96 percent. Mahomes could keep up his touchdown totals by throwing the ball more frequently if the Chiefs struggle, but the most likely outcome is that his touchdown rate slows during the second half of the season.

  • From 2015 to 2017, Blake Bortles had the league’s fourth-highest touchdown percentage in the red zone, throwing scores on 29.0 percent of his passes. This season, the embattled Jags quarterback has thrown for touchdowns on just 17.9 percent of his red zone attempts, which is 29th among 34 qualifying passers. He should bounce back and throw a few more touchdown passes during the second half.

  • Alvin Kamara was projected to regress toward the mean in yards per carry and receptions after posting unsustainable averages last season, and his numbers have fallen back to earth. Projection systems also expected his touchdown rates to drop, but that hasn’t yet happened; after scoring eight times on 120 rushes in 2017, Kamara has nine rushing scores on 111 rush attempts this season as part of a 12-touchdown half-campaign. While it’s tempting to say Kamara can continue to beat the system, it’s unlikely that he’ll score on 60 percent of his carries inside the 5, as he has so far this season. It also seems likely that the Saints will lean a little more on Mark Ingram during the second half, in part to help keep Kamara fresh for the postseason.

  • Poor Alfred Morris has eight carries inside the 5-yard line and more fumbles (two) than touchdowns (one) to show for it. The 49ers have given the veteran only one carry inside the 5-yard line since Week 5, so consider this one more of a boon for Matt Breida: The 49ers are going to score on more than 20 percent of their rushing attempts inside the 5-yard line over the second half.

  • Better days are ahead for Odell Beckham Jr., who has nearly matched Jones with two touchdowns on 61 receptions. Beckham leads the league with 165 garbage-time yards, which are yards on drives which a team begins with less than a 1 percent chance of winning. He might not have as many garbage-time catches if the Giants are more competitive in the weeks to come, but Beckham’s history suggests that he’s extremely unlikely to catch 30 passes for every touchdown he brings in.

  • On the other hand, while he’s a superstar, there’s little in Antonio Brown‘s track record pointing to his current touchdown rate. During his five-year run of excellence as arguably the best wideout in football, the Steelers’ star has 52 touchdowns on 582 pass receptions, or just over one every 11 catches. This year, Brown has a league-high nine touchdown catches on 51 receptions, which is about half his established rate. Expect the Steelers’ other receivers — a list that might sooner include Le’Veon Bell — to shoulder more of the touchdown load the rest of the way.

10. The Buccaneers’ defense will get better.

This isn’t an advanced statistic, but it’s worth mentioning. If you’re looking for a league MVP, you can probably choose between Drew Brees or whichever quarterback is lucky enough to face the Buccaneers, since their numbers have been virtually identical through the first half:

Tampa also has thrown in six pass interference penalties for an additional 83 yards. Over the next three weeks, the Bucs get to face Alex Smith without three-fifths of an offensive line, Eli Manning and Nick Mullens. If they’re ever going to look like an NFL defense, now is the time.

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