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NFL Midseason Report: The AFC

Part one of a two-part series previewing the second half of the NFL season

Check back tomorrow for part two of Barnwell’s Midseason Report.

It’s the halfway point of the NFL season! With Week 9 just days away, we’ve got enough of the season in the books to garner some perspective on what’s happened, but there’s still enough time left for everything to drastically change. Last season, after Week 9, the 5-3 Titans were tied for first place in the AFC South. They promptly went 1-7 the rest of the way and everyone got fired. The 1-7 Cowboys pulled off the opposite move, finishing 5-3 after firing Wade Phillips. A lot can and will happen over the next nine weeks of football.

Who are this year’s Titans and Cowboys? And what’s the one story that your favorite team will need to keep in mind over the second half of this wild NFL season? Read on, friends. We’ll start with the AFC today and finish up with the NFC tomorrow.

AFC East

Buffalo Bills

Turnovers have been the fuel in Buffalo’s stunning rise to the top of the AFC East. The Bills have a league-high 14 interceptions in just seven games, and all those short fields create opportunities for an offense that had not lost a fumble until last week. Only two teams over the past 20 years have averaged two picks per game (like the Bills currently are, if you can’t divide 14 by seven), so it’s hard to figure that Jairus Byrd & Co. will be able to keep the interceptions at this level. If only they got to play Michael Vick again!

The question: Will the Bills be like the 2009 Buffalo defense, which had 13 picks in its first seven games and then finished with 15 more over their final nine games? Or will they be like the 1993 Bills, who had a whopping 17 picks in their first seven games and then just six more over their final nine games? If they can force Mark Sanchez into a bevy of mistakes during their two upcoming games with the Jets, it should be enough for them to make it into the playoffs.

Miami Dolphins

A little bit of luck (or Luck) should be heading Miami’s way in the second half; they’ve played three games that were decided by one touchdown or less and lost all of them. How long do you think it will be ’til a camera spots the first LUCK #12 jersey in Miami? Week 13? And how long will it take that person to realize that no. 12 is actually retired in Miami (Bob Griese) and that they’ve spent $300 on a custom jersey that they can guarantee will never actually come to fruition? This is absolutely going to happen.

New England Patriots

That New England pass defense is simply a disaster, and it’s going to get worse without Leigh Bodden or Ras-I Dowling around for the rest of the season. The scary thing for Patriots fans is that they’ll probably forget about it over the second half of the season, since New England really doesn’t play against many great passing offenses. After the Giants this week, they get the Eagles in Week 12 and the Bills in what could be a meaningless Week 17 matchup. They don’t play a single above-average passing offense besides that. We personally can’t wait for all the Patriots fans we know to start believing in the pass defense sometime in December, only to see Philip Rivers show up in the playoffs. Two minutes into the Divisional Round, those same fans are crushed when they finally realize that Kyle Arrington is a starting cornerback on this team.

New York Jets

The two constants of the Sanchez era have been the Jets’ ability to run the football. And interceptions. Well, things are different in 2011; the Jets simply have not been able to move the ball on the ground this year. Gang Green is averaging just 3.7 yards per carry this season, which is 29th in the NFL. Last year, they were getting 4.4 yards a pop. The biggest problem has been up front, where a once-dominant offensive line hasn’t been playing at a high level.

Center Nick Mangold missed two games with a high ankle sprain that hasn’t yet gone away, and utility lineman Wayne Hunter is badly stretched as the team’s new right tackle. Things are looking up for the Jets, though, as their best running day all year came in their last game, when they beat up the Chargers for 162 yards on the ground. Mangold just got a bye week to heal his ankle, and they’ll get to play the Bills this week with star defensive tackle Kyle Williams on the sidelines.


Baltimore Ravens

If the Ravens can continue to keep rushing the passer the way they have during the first half of the season, there’s going to be a home playoff game in Baltimore in January. Terrell Suggs leads a defense that has 25 sacks through seven games, the second-highest total in football. Last year, the Ravens had 27 sacks all season. And considering that they get to play professional statue Ben Roethlisberger this Sunday night, we’re guessing that they’ll be leading the league very shortly. Of course, the Ravens’ defensive starters have also failed to miss even a single game so far this season; if they can keep that up, there will probably be two home playoff games in Baltimore.

Cincinnati Bengals

How on earth have the Bengals scored 171 points? Well, their opportunistic defense has garbage-time touchdowns in each of their past two games, the 49ers gave them an intentional safety, and their winning touchdown in Week 1 came when the Browns were slow out of their huddle. None of those plays on their own suggest anything lucky, but that’s 23 points basically gift-wrapped for them. The Bengals haven’t lost a fumble on offense all season and have managed to grab 13 of the 18 fumbles in their games this year.1 The fumble luck and short fields have helped Cincinnati’s limited offense to the best average starting field position in football. The other reason to think they’re about to stop scoring? They still have four games to go against the Ravens and Steelers.

Cleveland Browns

The Browns were supposed to be the anti-Rams. Get off to a hot start early thanks to an easy schedule, end up on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a 7-3 team in November with a headline like “CLEVELAND ROCKS!,” and then barely hold on during a brutal final stretch in December to make the playoffs. Instead, they’re 3-4 and SI isn’t about to come calling, especially since they still have four games against the Ravens and Steelers left on their schedule.

Meanwhile, a fun trick with stats that you’ll probably hear an announcer employ this weekend: Did you know Cleveland has allowed the second-fewest passing yards in football? Does that sound impressive? It isn’t. The Browns have also faced the fewest pass attempts in football, and that’s because of who they’ve played. Here are the starting quarterbacks they’ve faced this season: Andy Dalton, Kerry Collins, Chad Henne. Matt Hasselbeck, Jason Campbell, Charlie Whitehurst, Alex Smith. The only quarterback on your fantasy league’s waiver wire missing from this list, coincidentally, is Browns starter Colt McCoy.

Pittsburgh Steelers

The takeaways still have not arrived for the Steelers. We’re now eight games in and the Steelers defense has just two interceptions and one fumble recovery. That’s three takeaways, and it’s the fewest for any team in NFL history through their first eight contests. Troy Polamalu has more dead-meat dropped pick-sixes than hair-care commercials this year, and it’s not close. We have to assume that the takeaways will show up eventually, but Steelers fans don’t have much to worry about if they don’t. After they play the Ravens this week, Pittsburgh has four games against the Bengals and Browns, two games against the NFC West, and the Chiefs. 14-2 is still a very distinct possibility.

AFC South

Houston Texans

A little bit of offensive balance would be nice for the Texans during the second half. These days, that usually means running the ball more frequently, but Houston’s actually been running the ball too much. Arian Foster has averaged 25 carries per game since returning from his hamstring injury in Week 4; that’s a 400-carry pace for a full season, and it’s going to get him injured if the Texans keep handing him the ball that frequently.

Meanwhile, poor Matt Schaub has gone from leading the league in attempts in 2009 to throwing the sixth-fewest attempts per game this season. The return of Andre Johnson will help correct things, but even without AJ in the lineup, Houston should be tossing the ball around more and giving their star running back more plays off.

Indianapolis Colts

The Colts aren’t the worst 0-8 team ever, but they’re not all that far off, either. Their point differential through eight games, thanks to that miserable loss to the Saints, is at -131. That’s the worst differential for an 0-8 team since 1991, when these very same Colts had a -138 point differential and failed to score more than seven points in seven of their first eight games. They finished 1-15 and had the first two picks in a legendarily shallow draft that saw them take Steve Emtman and Quentin Coryatt. Maybe they should have tried to draft a 3-year-old Andrew Luck.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Since 2000, teams have thrown for fewer than 100 yards in a game 363 times; it happens about 30 times a year to the league as a whole. Blaine Gabbert has now failed to hit the century mark in three consecutive games! That is half of his entire pro career! That feat has only happened four times since 2000, most recently with the dream team of Derek Anderson and Brady Quinn for the Browns in 2009. Gabbert’s schedule is easier during the second half of the season, but he’s struggling to hit an awful low bar here. It’s a shame, too, because there’s a good defense in Jacksonville.

Tennessee Titans

One of the leading candidates to be this year’s 2010 Titans is, well, this year’s Titans. Tennessee has a winning record despite being outscored by six points this season, and according to pro-football-reference, they have faced the easiest schedule in football this season. Six of their final nine games are against teams with winning records. They’ve also gotten seven healthy games out of Matt Hasselbeck, who has his highest completion percentage since 2002 and his lowest interception rate since 2007. Who knew that an offense with Nate Washington and Damian Williams at wideout could be so successful?

AFC West

Denver Broncos

This season is about to get very ugly for Broncos fans. The easier games on the Denver slate are mostly over. The Broncos still have to travel to each of their AFC West rivals and have a home game against the Chiefs. Outside their division, they still have to play the Bills, Jets, and Patriots from the AFC East and the Bears and Vikings from the NFC North. There are at least six above-average teams in that group. The tough schedule allows them the privilege of Sucking for Luck surreptitiously. Imagine if Tim Tebow’s comeback against the Dolphins costs them the first overall pick? That’s going to be a 40 for 40 documentary if it happens.

Kansas City Chiefs

Nothing about the Chiefs’ underlying performance screams winning record. They’re 25th in points scored and points allowed, and as you might suspect, their point differential isn’t too hot. A team that’s been outscored by 42 points in seven games, like the Chiefs, would normally have something like 2.4 wins. The Chiefs are 4-3 because they’ve gone 3-1 in games decided by a touchdown or less.

Prediction: They’ll beat the Dolphins and Broncos these next two weeks, get to 6-3, and we’ll get a lot of angry e-mail from Chiefs fans for being sour on their team’s chances. Then they play the Patriots, Steelers, Bears, Jets, Packers, and Raiders in a row. We predict the e-mail will quiet down after that stretch.

Oakland Raiders

Another AFC West team that has a winning record (4-3) despite being outscored this year (by 18 points)! The Raiders may be able to maintain a winning record because they probably won’t continue to be this bad in the red zone. Oakland’s defense has allowed touchdowns on 64 percent of red zone trips, the second-highest rate in the AFC behind the zombies of Indianapolis.

On the other hand, the offense is built upon the excellence of Darren McFadden and Sebastian Janikowski, and both those guys are injured at the moment. So maybe they won’t be able to maintain that record. This feels a lot like a .500 team.

San Diego Chargers

We finish with the conference’s unluckiest team. They’ve only managed to outscore the opposition by two points, but they could very easily be 6-1 right now. You all certainly remember the Abomination at Arrowhead from Monday night, but keep in mind that they were driving to go up ten points on the Jets with ten minutes left, only for a dropped pass to fall into Darrelle Revis’ hands and produce a 14-point swing. They would be an overrated team at 6-1, but they’re extremely underrated at 4-3. Perhaps Philip Rivers will continue to lead the league in interceptions, but we suspect that there’s a strong second half coming from the Chargers.

Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Previously from Bill Barnwell:
Breaking Down the Suck for Luck Campaign
Handicapping the 2011 NFL MVP Race
The Hedge, the Tease, and the Life of the NFL Bettor
Debunking the Tim Tebow Myth
Could Alex Smith Become the Worst Quarterback to Ever Win a Super Bowl?
The Cost of Carson and the Rest of the NFL Trading Deadline Deals

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Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

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