NFL contenders or pretenders at midseason? Saints, Texans can hit 10 wins; Chargers, Falcons cooked
The 2023 NFL season just hit double-digit weeks. This is when teams really start to take shape. And for the 10 that are currently either .500 or within one game of .500, this could be the beginning of a playoff push … or a free fall into a top-10 draft slot next April. So, how many of these 10 teams — let’s call them the middlers — are poised to make noise? And which ones are phony-baloney? Well, that’s what I’m here to determine today.
But before we get into the meat of this piece, though, I have to address one particular middler: the 4-4 New York Jets.
Just before the season kicked off, I predicted the Jets would log at least 11 wins. Then, in just his fourth snap with his new team, Aaron Rodgers tore his Achilles. As I wrote right after the injury, that gutting development completely changed my entire outlook on the Jets. They were finished, in my mind. I just didn’t trust Zach Wilson to lead the charge in a loaded AFC. And while Robert Saleh and the defense have done an admirable job since then to get this team to .500 at the midway point, Wilson hasn’t shown me anything to change my view of his ability to guide an NFL team. As long as he’s under center, I can’t trust these Jets to be serious players in the postseason race.
What about the remaining middlers, though? Which are contenders? Pretenders? Here’s my rundown, Schein Nine style.
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Back in the offseason, I envisioned big things for Derek Carr and these Saints. They were my Cinderella team for 2023! I’m already disappointed by the volume of mind-numbing losses, but the last two weeks have represented a shift in energy and results.
After coming out flat as a pancake in a Week 7 home loss to Jacksonville, New Orleans was fantastic in a 38-27 win at Indianapolis in Week 8. This past Sunday, the Saints weren’t as impressive, but they were good enough to hold off the woeful Bears.
I still love Carr, Alvin Kamara, Chris Olave and this ballhawking New Orleans defense. While the Saints failed to take full advantage of the soft early-season schedule, they are clicking now and should be able to go 5-3 in the rest of the way. Ten wins should be enough to take the weakest division in the league this season, the NFC South. So, I do indeed believe New Orleans is heading to the playoffs for the first time in three seasons.
I love this team, this head coach and this culture. And color me obsessed with the Josh Dobbs story. He’s so brilliant and likable and a truly solid quarterback. He’s a pro! His win in Atlanta — mere days after arriving in Minnesota via trade, with Dobbs coming in cold off the bench after starter Jaren Hall’s first-quarter injury — was absolutely remarkable. The guy had to show the Vikings’ offensive linemen his cadence on the sideline just before entering the game! One of the wildest developments we’ll see all season — and just another feather in the cap of second-year head man Kevin O’Connell. The 38-year-old has incredible coaching acumen. After losing first-team All-Pro wide receiver Justin Jefferson (hamstring), O’Connell’s Vikes ran off three straight wins. Then the team lost franchise quarterback Kirk Cousins (Achilles tear) and promptly extended the win streak to four. What a testament to O’Connell, Brian Flores’ improving defense and the overall confidence in this locker room.
On the NFC side, I believe the following six teams will make the playoffs: Dallas, Detroit, New Orleans, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Seattle. The seventh slot, in my mind, will come down to the Falcons, Rams and Vikings. But Los Angeles has hit the skids, with three straight losses and an injury to Matthew Stafford. And yeah, the Vikings just handed the Falcons a home loss. This is a great story of resiliency in Minnesota, and I believe it’s a story that will continue into the postseason.
Ugh. The Bills were my preseason pick to represent the AFC in Super Bowl LVIII, but it’s impossible to see them in that light right now. I haven’t thought of them as a conference power since the Patriots debacle back in Week 7. How could I? Josh Allen remains terrific, but his supporting cast on offense is lacking, while Buffalo’s defense has been devastated by injuries to crucial players at all three levels. And the remaining schedule is daunting, especially this stretch:
- Week 12: at Philadelphia Eagles
- Week 13: Bye (better rest up!)
- Week 14: at Kansas City Chiefs
- Week 15: vs. Dallas Cowboys
And that doesn’t include a home game vs. the Jets (who are kryptonite to the Bills at times) and roadies against the talented Chargers and explosive Dolphins. On the plus side, Miami’s 0-3 vs. teams with winning records, having been lambasted by the Bills in Buffalo back in Week 4. And yes, Allen’s a rare gamechanger.
Contender for playoffs? Absolutely. For these Bills, making the playoffs is expected, not accepted. This team’s standard is to make a legit Super Bowl run. Missing the postseason altogether would be an abject failure.
The love I have for my guys DeMeco Ryans and C.J. Stroud is well-documented. And those were thoughts I shared before Stroud’s transcendent performance this past Sunday. In just his eighth NFL game, the No. 2 overall pick threw for 470 yards and five touchdowns! That’s Peyton Manning in his prime stuff!! He guided Houston to a comeback win over Tampa Bay without a kicker. Or his starting running back. And that final drive was pulsating and majestic.
Houston can absolutely hit 10 wins. Shoot, this fun, young bunch has the ceiling to beat any team in the NFL on any given Sunday. The attitude Ryans has instilled is legit. Stroud is enjoying the greatest season ever for a rookie quarterback. The competition will be intense down the stretch, and Houston will undoubtedly battle some growing pains, but these Texans are most certainly contenders.
I loved the way the defense played in Monday night’s 27-6 road win over the Jets, with Joey Bosa (2.5 sacks), Khalil Mack (2) and impact rookie Tuli Tuipulotu (2) terrorizing the overmatched Zach Wilson. But as I stated at the top of this piece, I don’t really think much of Gang Green sans Aaron Rodgers. And this team just has not been trustworthy at all in the Brandon Staley era. Furthermore, what’s going on at the game’s most important position?
While Justin Herbert’s Week 4 injury occurred on his non-throwing hand, it’s clearly impacting him. He’s yet to reach 300 yards passing since, completing 16 of his 30 throws for 136 yards and no touchdowns against the Jets. If Herbert isn’t transcendent, how can the Bolts be? Even when the talented quarterback has been firing on all cylinders in years past, Staley’s Chargers have been snake-bitten. Now the golden boy’s off his game. I don’t like these vibes.
I can’t believe I have Atlanta in this category, but what else can I do? I loved the Falcons this past offseason, touting them as a sleeper squad during the summer and picking them as a playoff team just before kickoff. Then Desmond Ridder started playing hot potato with the football, ultimately earning a spot on the bench. Taylor Heinicke is a solid backup, but he’s still Taylor Heinicke. I just can’t trust the well-traveled veteran to turn this thing around.
Arthur Smith’s play-calling has been odd. Bijan Robinson’s usage has been odder. The defense, which started the year with such promise, has been walloped in back-to-back games by Will Levis (making his NFL debut) and Josh Dobbs (making his Vikings debut). And as I touched on above, that head-to-head loss to the Vikings looms large in the wild-card race.
Look, I want to have this team, which just turned over a new leaf, in the CONTENDERS section. But former coach/tyrant Josh McDaniels guided this ship to the land of no return.
I loved the energy interim coach Antonio Pierce gave Josh Jacobs, Davante Adams, Maxx Crosby and Co. in Sunday’s inspiring 30-6 shellacking of the Giants. I adored the postgame scene, with players smoking victory cigars and actually enjoying themselves. They deserved it. Clearly, it had been a soul-sucking, chaotic experience under the previous regime. So much underachievement. Losses to fresh-to-coaching Jeff Saturday, fresh-off-the-plane Baker Mayfield and fresh-to-high-level-football Tyson Bagent. Not to mention, all the blown leads — many of the multi-score variety.
There’s talent on this roster — as well as a fresh dose of believability and juice! But I think this team just dug too deep a hole to get out of before the postseason tournament begins. I count five more wins max — and that’s if everything goes well. I don’t think that’ll be enough in the loaded AFC. Sad that this season started the way it did.
There are plenty of positives in Indy. I like head coach Shane Steichen a lot — he’s kept this group hovering around .500 despite being without Anthony Richardson for most of the year and not getting Jonathan Taylor back until Week 5. Speaking of Taylor, I think he’s primed to have a monster second half, having averaged 95 scrimmage yards per game over the past three outings.
The issue here is the absence of Richardson for the rest of the season. Gardner Minshew is a gamer, but without the dual-threat upside the No. 4 overall pick brings to the offense, there is a ceiling on this team. It doesn’t help that the competition for a wild-card spot in the AFC will be stout, or that the Jaguars and Texans (and, now that Will Levis is starting at QB, possibly the Titans) are better teams within the AFC South.
Give Ron Rivera and Co. credit for beating Bill Belichick days after the Commanders traded away two of their best players (Montez Sweat and Chase Young). But give Washington even more credit for making those moves for the future. Because a look at the remaining schedule reveals a gauntlet of imposing matchups (at the Seahawks on Sunday, then at the Cowboys in Week 12, vs. the Dolphins in Week 13, vs. the 49ers in Week 17 and vs. the Cowboys in Week 18) that is likely to push this team firmly out of the 2023 playoff picture.
The Commanders’ four wins have come against teams with a combined record of 10-25, and none of the other teams currently within spitting distance of a wild-card spot in the NFC carry a point differential quite as dreadful as Washington’s (-54). More change is almost certainly coming to this organization.
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