As the schedule transitions from Week 8 to Week 9, we approach the official second half of the 2015 NFL season. While many teams have yet to play their eighth game, division races are already taking shape. In fact, the AFC arguably has three division winners ready to be crowned, while the NFC features relatively tight competition throughout.
The current playoff picture was further enhanced by the action in Week 8, during which five of the eight teams currently leading their division secured wins. There are, however, a handful of postseason-worthy franchises nipping at the heels of those in the lead, and a constant battle for positioning is likely for the remainder of the year.
1. New England Patriots (LW: 1)
What began as a hypothetical question has morphed into one of legitimacy: Will the New England Patriots lose a football game in 2015? The fact that the Patriots are undefeated is not completely surprising — as they are consistently one of the best teams in the league year-after-year — but there is a difference between unbeaten and unbeatable. New England is beginning to look like the latter.
2. Cincinnati Bengals (LW: 3)
Now the Cincinnati Bengals have ascended into the elite class. After starting the season 6-0, the same questions that surrounded Cincinnati in years past were asked of the 2015 version: What will the Bengals do when it counts? Although it is a far cry from the playoffs, divisional showdowns are the closest approximation to a high-leverage game as a team can experience, and Cincinnati distanced itself further from the pack with a win in Pittsburgh in Week 8. Now with a 7-0 record, 2-0 in the division, and a head-to-head win against the Steelers, it would take an epic collapse for the Bengals to not emerge as AFC North champions. The 2015 team is too good to let it happen.
3. Denver Broncos (LW: 5)
So much the Denver Broncos’ perfect record being in jeopardy. With a Week 7 bye week placed perfectly for a franchise led by a veteran quarterback potentially nearing the end of his career, the Broncos returned to action looking far better than they had in previous weeks. If Denver can carry some momentum from its Week 8 win through the next few games, the league should be on notice.
4. Carolina Panthers (LW: 4)
The Carolina Panthers can receive criticism for playing an easy schedule — including back-to-back Monday Night Football games at home — and showing bouts of inconsistency. They are 7-0, regardless. Despite the flaws — they were out in full force during The fourth quarter of their Week 8 overtime win — the Panthers simply keep winning one game after another. Carolina will now be playing for postseason positioning for the remainder of the year, but the Panthers still need to prove exactly how valid their unscathed record is.
5. Green Bay Packers (LW: 2)
The Green Bay Packers are beatable, after all. Returning from the team’s bye week and traveling to Denver for Sunday Night Football, the Packers were finally topped by an opponent. Surely, losing to the undefeated Broncos in a game where someone’s record was guaranteed to suffer is no cause for concern, but the quickly tightening NFC North race between Green Bay and Minnesota cannot be overlooked.
6. Arizona Cardinals (LW: 7)
For longer than they would have liked, the Arizona Cardinals looked poised to fall victim to another road upset when they trailed the Browns by 13 points approaching the end of the first half in Week 8. As Arizona tends to do, it tallied points at an unstoppable rate, as the Cardinals scored 27 unanswered points to beat the Browns. Arizona now enters its bye week with a 6-2 record, leading the NFC West.
7. Atlanta Falcons (LW: 6)
The Atlanta Falcons had flirted with disaster for far too long. Entering Week 8 with a 6-1 record, the Falcons had only won two games by more than six points. When the Buccaneers came to town, the Falcons’ inability to take advantage of weaker opponents came back to bite them, as Atlanta lost its second game in three weeks. Making matters worse, both of Atlanta’s losses came against division opponents.
8. Minnesota Vikings (LW: 9)
It almost didn’t happen. The Minnesota Vikings were in a footrace with the Chicago Bears throughout most of their Week 8 matchup before the Vikings left Soldier Field with a victory. Minnesota’s most recent win might have been its least attractive, to date, but it is also their fifth in six games, and now, third consecutive victory. At 5-2, the Vikings are firmly entranced in the playoff — if not, division — hunt.
9. St. Louis Rams (LW: 11)
With three wins in their last four games — including back-to-back wins following a bye week — the St. Louis Rams have pulled to within one game in the loss column behind the Arizona Cardinals. In addition, St. Louis has the head-to-head tiebreaker with Arizona after the Rams won their Week 4 matchup, as well as a perfect 3-0 record against division opponents. Week 8 suddenly brings a difficult test, as the Rams will head to Minnesota after home games against the Browns and 49ers, but St. Louis is suddenly a team to watch in the NFC playoff chase.
10. Seattle Seahawks (LW: 13)
The Seattle Seahawks have proven only one thing to be true in the first half of 2015: they will not be getting ‘style points’ for many of their wins. This hardly matters to a Seattle franchise currently sitting in third place in the NFC West, but their less than stellar play is a constant reminder that wins won’t come easily, this year. Seattle has, at least, turned in back-to-back road wins against teams with losing records.
11. Oakland Raiders (LW: 16)
Finally, the Oakland Raiders are putting it all together. Entering Week 4, the Raiders were poised to turn over a new leaf in 2015 and step out from the perennial basement of the league. They promptly lost back-to-back games to the Bears and Broncos. Following their Week 6 bye, however, the Raiders exploded for two wins by a combined 22 points. The 7-0 Broncos seem unwilling to concede any ground in the AFC West race, but the Raiders should be a mainstay in the Wild Card chase for the remainder of the year.
12. New York Jets (LW: 8)
In an instant, everything that the New York Jets built in 2015 came crashing down. Minutes into what would become their second consecutive loss, the Jets lost starting quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick to a hand injury that left his status questionable, at best, for the foreseeable future. Aside from the quarterback, the Jets looked thoroughly outplayed in all aspects of their Week 8 loss in Oakland, and, at 4-3, New York suddenly has more questions than answers.
13. Pittsburgh Steelers (LW: 10)
There are teams with bad luck, and then there are the Pittsburgh Steelers. With quarterback Ben Roethlisberger finally under center in Week 8, the Steelers lost star running back Le’Veon Bell for the remainder of the season with a knee injury. The team had played at an impressive level in Roethlisberger’s absence, but back-to-back losses — including a defeat at the hands of the division-leading Bengals — likely restricts Pittsburgh to only a Wild Card race, at best.
14. New Orleans Saints (LW: 19)
Slowly, but surely, the New Orleans Saints are making a push for playoff consideration. Once flailing at 1-4, the Saints have now won three consecutive games, capped off by a record-tying performance by quarterback Drew Brees in Week 8. The disparity between the team’s offense and defense is absurd — as New Orleans tallies the second-most yards on offense but allows the third-most on defense — and its most recent wins have come against opponents that struggle against the pass. The Saints have proven that they aren’t dead yet, but the resurrection is not complete.
15. New York Giants (LW: 14)
The New York Giants are the chameleons of the 2015 season. Morphing into the form of whichever opponent they face in a given week, the Giants’ most recent costume was one of a high-flying offense collecting points like candy. Unfortunately, their flaws also mirror their opponents’, as the Giants’ defense was completely irrelevant in its Week 8 loss in New Orleans. Deserving of a 4-4 record — five of New York’s eight games have been decided by a touchdown or less — the Giants still have yet to remove their mask and reveal their true identity. Luckily for New York, it still leads the mediocre NFC East, and has the ability to pull away at any time.
16. Indianapolis Colts (LW: 12)
A sudden, precipitous drop for a team that has seen nothing but success in recent years is always eye-opening. This is especially true when the franchise has its quarterback position set for the next decade, yet watches as he is constantly getting battered by opponents. Under normal circumstances, everyone on the Indianapolis Colts would currently be on the ‘hot seat,’ but 2015 has been anything but normal for Indianapolis. At 3-5, the Colts lead the AFC South. Clearly, there is work to be done before they actually deserve it.
17. Buffalo Bills (LW: 17)
The Buffalo Bills went from ‘potential breakout’ to ‘actual breakout’ to a franchise in the middle of yet another losing season. After jumping out to a winning record in their first three games, the Bills have only one win — by one point, in Tennessee — in their last four games, and enter their bye week already lost in the AFC East. Perhaps Buffalo can turn everything around — the team has proven that it can win games in 2015 — but it is running out of time, quickly.
18. Philadelphia Eagles (LW: 18)
At 3-4, in a division that likely won’t require eleven victories to win, the book on the 2015 Philadelphia Eagles is still unwritten. Their season has ranged anywhere from explosive and dynamic to chaotic and disorganized. With that, a Week 8 bye arrives at the perfect time for a franchise that needs to reset and readjust for the remaining stretch of the season.
19. Miami Dolphins (LW: 15)
It couldn’t have been that easy. Immediately following the firing of head coach Joe Philbin, the Miami Dolphins completely reversed course on what was surely a lost season with back-to-back blowout wins. Unfortunately for the Dolphins, they ran into an unstoppable force in New England in Week 8, and the euphoria of a new regime quickly evaporated.
20. Washington Redskins (LW: 20)
The Washington Redskins are one of the easiest teams in the National Football League to cast aside. They shouldn’t be. At 3-4 and with a 1-1 division record, Washington entered its Week 8 bye following a dramatic comeback against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Redskins have an uphill battle in the future — as their schedule includes games in New England and Carolina — but they are deservingly still in the division race.
21. Kansas City Chiefs (LW: 23)
Maybe all hope is not lost for the Kansas City Chiefs. With a Week 8 win in London, the Chiefs won back-to-back games for the first time, all season. More impressively, the overseas victory was a 35-point thumping, and Kansas City has now outscored its last two opponents by a combined 68-23 — albeit against the injured Steelers and the one-win Lions.
22. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (LW: 25)
With the Carolina Panthers and Atlanta Falcons battling atop the NFC South, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers — the only team in the division with a losing record — are largely overlooked. Certainly, Tampa Bay’s 1-3 start to 2015 was not inspiring, but a 2-1 record in the team’s last three games that included only a one-point road loss is a sign that the Buccaneers are heading in the right direction.
23. Houston Texans (LW: 31)
Throughout the quarterback controversy, benching, and firing, the 3-5 Houston Texans will enter their bye week tied for the AFC South. With a win against the Titans and a Colts loss to the Panthers in Week 8, the Texans fought through the loss of running back Arian Foster and kept their season alive. With a goal actually within reach, Houston is given the opportunity to assess and plan at the best possible time.
24. Dallas Cowboys (LW: 21)
The Dallas Cowboys have entered a permanent holding pattern. As the team welcomed wide receiver Dez Bryant back to the field in Week 8, it remains without its starting quarterback for yet another game. Now 0-5 without Tony Romo, the Cowboys are buried behind the rest of the NFC East. Thankfully for Dallas, the entire division is separated by only one game in the loss column, but, until Romo returns, there is little reason to believe that the Cowboys will be the team to emerge victorious.
25. Cleveland Browns (LW: 22)
Had the Cleveland Browns pulled off an upset in Week 8 when it hosted the Cardinals, it would have likely rocked the football world. However, it shouldn’t have been anything more than an under-valued team toppling a giant. Between Weeks 2 and 6, the Browns lost three games by an average of fewer than five points per game, and had all the makings of a sneaky team on the rise. With back-to-back double digit losses, the Browns fall right back to where most people would have expected, and they now limp into Cincinnati and Pittsburgh in the next two weeks.
26. San Diego Chargers (LW: 24)
Even if the San Diego Chargers would have ended their seesaw battle in Baltimore in Week 8 with a victory, it would have hardly mattered in the standings. Now 2-6 and nearing mathematical elimination in the AFC West, the Chargers have proven to be one of the most erratic teams in the league. This is, however, a surprise for a franchise that is generally consistent, as San Diego has neither lost nor won double-digit games since its 13-3 2009 season. It is beginning to look like 2015 will break that trend.
27. Jacksonville Jaguars (LW: 26)
The Jacksonville Jaguars just never seem to get anything right. Even when the franchise drafts and develops its best collective group of talent in years, it fails to materialize in wins. What makes matters worse is that the AFC South is more winnable than ever, yet Jacksonville refuses to take advantage. The Jaguars’ explosiveness was on full display in Week 7 when it beat the Bills in London, but it was only one win for a franchise that needs more.
28. Baltimore Ravens (LW: 30)
Even while the Baltimore Ravens win, they lose. As the Ravens secured their second win of the season in Week 8, star wide receiver Steve Smith Sr. suffered an injury that will not only end his season, but possibly his career. In addition to the veteran leadership that Smith brings to the team, the offense was lacking, even with the receiver in the lineup. As they enter their bye week, the two-win Ravens need to find a way to emerge with a new gameplan.
29. Chicago Bears (LW: 28)
The Chicago Bears may be 2-6 and completely out of any division race, but they have played significantly better in their last four games as compared to their first three. Since getting shut out in Seattle in Week 3, Chicago is 2-2 with two losses by a combined six points. The best that the Bears could do, going forward, is to play spoiler for the rest of the NFC North, but they might actually be up to the task.
30. Tennessee Titans (LW: 27)
Perhaps defense isn’t enough, on its own. The Tennessee Titans entered Week 7 with one of the most underrated defenses in the league, only to limp out of Houston with a loss. Now a pathetic 1-6, Tennessee has a mathematical chance at competing for the AFC South, although the reality is far greater than the wishful hope — the Titans are closer to the basement than the ceiling.
31. San Francisco 49ers (LW: 29)
The 2-6 San Francisco 49ers closed Week 8 with yet another nauseating performance. San Francisco has topped out at seven points in four of the team’s eight games, scoring a total of nineteen points against the Cardinals, Packers, Seahawks, and Rams. By comparison, 17 teams scored more than 19 points in Week 8, and the Saints and Giants fell eight points short of tying the 49ers’ season total in their Week 8 shootout. The most recent dud was apparently too much for the 49ers to take, as they will enter Week 9 with quarterback Colin Kaepernick on the bench.
32. Detroit Lions (LW: 32)
What a disaster the 2015 season has been for the Detroit Lions. With an International Embarrassment capping off the first half of a 1-7 season, the Lions will depart from London and head into their bye week with absolutely nothing going right for them. It appeared that Detroit was on the verge of winning multiple games, earlier in the year, but it’s now clear that the Lions are simply horrible.