What We Still Must Learn over 2nd Half of the NFL Season

Ty Schalter@tyschalterNFL National Lead WriterOctober 31, 2013

What We Still Must Learn over 2nd Half of the NFL Season

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    Every NFL season is like a Christmas present you unwrap very slowly. Sometimes, you know what you're getting before you even lay hands on it. Sometimes, you tug the first strip of paper away and see a fraction of the box and suddenly know.

    Sometimes, you unwrap the whole darn thing only to find out they re-used a cool box and your much lamer present is inside that box.

    After Week 8, we think we know what we're in for this NFL season. Teams have established themselves as great, good, okay, shaky or poor. Some fans are saving up for playoff tickets, while others are checking out 2014 mock drafts.

    Footballs aren't round, though, and they bounce in funny ways. Even when you think you know what's going to happen, there's still plenty you don't know about what's coming—and what that will mean for next season.

    What questions about the NFL still haven't been answered? Which teams or players still have surprises in store for us? What must we still learn about the NFL in 2013?

What Can Be Salvaged from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers?

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    There's no question Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Greg Schiano steered the Bucs' pirate ship right into the rocks this season.

    A team many thought would be in the mix for the NFC South crown is instead a horrific 0-7. Josh Freeman, a young starting quarterback on the cusp of several franchise passing records, was released a month ago. 

    Third-round rookie Mike Glennon has shown some promise in emergency starting duty, but he's not ready to lift the Bucs back to sea level.

    It's too bad, because Tampa Bay has more than enough quality players to contend.

    Injured tailback Doug Martin and a banged-up (but talented) offensive line can't help them win now, but deep threat Vincent Jackson and big possession target Mike Williams round out an offense that should be potent.

    Cornerback Darrelle Revis, defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and linebacker Lavonte David anchor the three levels of a young, skilled defense playing below its potential.

    Schiano will almost certainly be fired; the question is if he'll make it through the season. Once he's walked the plank, though, a competent skipper should be able to quickly right the ship.

Can Tom Brady Keep Winning Games by Himself?

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    The New England Patriots are falling apart. They're a M.A.S.H. unit. They're bleeding out. They're done.

    That's what you'd think if you listened to many football analysts or paid attention to Twitter.

    Actually, they're 6-2, two games clear of the flailing New York Jets in the AFC East, and more likely to secure the No. 2 seed in the AFC than miss the playoffs.

    Before the season, many analysts—myself included—declared the Patriots dynasty over, the Patriot Way dead, and the whole franchise the biggest circus in the NFL.

    Since then, seemingly half the roster has gone out injured or been slow to return from injury. Halfway through the season, four different Patriots running backs have over 100 yards. Per Pro Football Reference, nine different Patriots receivers have at least five catches.

    Yet through it all, Tom Brady—who, with an NFL passer efficiency rating of 74.9, is having his worst statistical year in his 13 years as a starter—has done just enough to keep the Patriots winning.

    Can Brady survive the merry-go-round of skill-position teammates—and can he survive behind an offensive line that's lost right tackle Sebastian Vollmer for the season?

Will the Buffalo Bills Be Good Enough for Playoff Contention?

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    To invoke the legendary Jim Mora rant, yes: I am talking about playoffs.

    The Buffalo Bills, one of several franchise-rebuilding projects that demolished everything in the offseason and started from scratch, are sitting at 3-5. That's not bad, considering they've played the ninth-hardest schedule in the NFL so far this season, per Pro Football Reference.

    It's even more impressive considering the quarterbacks they've been forced to use through that stretch: first-round rookie EJ Manuel, former Detroit Lions fourth-stringer Thad Lewis and undrafted free agent Jeff Tuel.

    That doesn't even count theoretical starter Kevin Kolb, lost for the season with a severe concussion before the season started, or veteran emergency option Matt Flynn.

    Manuel, who flashed some clutch, quality play over the first five games, has already returned to practice, per Bills official lead journalist Chris Brown. After the Bills take on the undefeated Chiefs in Week 9, they have a very soft schedule.

    The Pittsburgh Steelers, New York Jets, Atlanta Falcons, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Jacksonville Jaguars and Miami Dolphins are a collective 11-33 (.250 win percentage). The Bills could feasibly be 8-7 or 9-6 going into their season-ending tilt with the New England Patriots—the same Patriots the Bills narrowly lost to, 23-21, in the opening game.

Does Anybody Deserve to Win the NFC East?

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    After their shocking fourth-quarter collapse against the Detroit Lions, the Dallas Cowboys dropped to 4-4 on the season, putting them on track to finish 8-8 for the third straight year.

    That's simply not good enough for the storied Cowboys franchise—and, one would think, not for owner Jerry Jones, who presumably didn't build a $1.2 billion ultra-luxury football cathedral to house a perennial .500 team.

    Yet the Cowboys are still the class of the NFC East, a division that's collectively 11-20 (.355 win percentage) at the halfway mark. The only teams that NFC East squads have beaten, besides each other, are the Chicago Bears, Oakland Raiders, Minnesota Vikings and Tampa Bay Buccaneers (collectively 8-20, or .286).

    With the season half over, the New York Giants are in line to have the No. 5 overall pick in the 2014 draft, but they are only two games behind the Cowboys for the NFC East division title. That's unthinkable for what's been the NFL's marquee division.

Can Case Keenum Save Gary Kubiak's Job?

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    It's over for Gary Kubiak. His Houston Texans—shooting for postseason glory—are sitting at 2-5. Their unthinkable 38-13 loss to the punchless St. Louis Rams sealed Kubiak's fate.

    Just before a Week 8 bye that couldn't have come at a better time, though, backup quarterback Case Keenum turned in a creditable performance against the vaunted Kansas City Chiefs defense.

    Keenum went 15-of-25 for 271 yards, a touchdown and no interceptions, and the Texans fell two points short of handing the Chiefs their first loss.

    Bleacher Report National NFL Lead Writer Michael Schottey wisely threw cold water on Keenumania by noting the other Texans quarterbacks have better credentials and much more NFL experience, making it unlikely Keenum will be much of an improvement.

    Still, the balanced, talented Texans wouldn't need much of a lift to get over the hump; besides almost knocking off the Chiefs, they also took the 7-1 Seattle Seahawks to overtime.

    In a way, the Texans control their own destiny: Five of their six divisional games are yet to be played, and two of the remaining four outside the division are winnable games against the Oakland Raiders and Arizona Cardinals.

    Even if they lose to the New England Patriots and Denver Broncos, the Texans could still finish 9-7 with important tiebreakers in hand. In an AFC where the second Wild Card is completely up for grabs, that could be good for a third straight playoff berth—and another year for Kubiak.

Are the Detroit Lions Legitimate Contenders?

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    As I wrote in the wake of the Detroit Lions' dramatic Week 8 win over the Dallas Cowboys, the potential of Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson is limitless. 

    Yet the two of them have played at basically the same level for several seasons; the inconsistent team around them in 2013 is largely similar to the squads that went 10-6 in 2011 and 4-12 in 2012.

    After eight weeks, the 2013 Lions are 5-3. They're effectively a game-and-a-half behind the Green Bay Packers in the NFC North and in the driver's seat for a wild-card berth. As they go into their bye week, the Lions are one Packers loss from controlling their destiny.

    But it's fair to wonder if the 2013 Lions are due for a second-half collapse similar to the one they suffered in 2012.

    The defense is ranked 20th in points allowed, giving up an average of 24.6 per game. The offense has only been able to outscore that number by an average margin of 2.5 points, per Pro Football Reference, putting Detroit in the middle of the pack (13th) in points differential.

    The Lions are going to need the defense to take a step forward or the offense to keep up the otherworldly performance of Week 8 if they hope to roar in January.

Can Chip Kelly's Philadelphia Eagles Score Without Mike Vick?

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    All summer long, football fans and media across the nation were enthralled with new Philadelphia Eagles head coach Chip Kelly's high-powered offense and unconventional training techniques, as detailed by the MMQB's Jenny Vrentas.

    The Eagles opened their season with a big 33-27 win over Washington, powered by three Mike Vick touchdowns: two passing, one running. It looked for as though Vick was going to show young whippersnappers like Washington's Robert Griffin III how "mobile quarterbacking" is done.

    Since Vick was injured in a Week 5 match with the New York Giants, though, the vaunted Kelly offense has been all but powerless.

    Backup Nick Foles looked good against the hapless Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but in the following two weeks the Eagles have put up 10 points combined.

    A team that was averaging 27.7 points through Week 6 has averaged just five points in the two games since. A clearly unwell Vick went 6-of-9 for 30 yards and an interception in relief of a concussed Foles during the Week 8 Giants game; rookie third-stringer Matt Barkley did no better.

    Foles will start at the Oakland Raiders in Week 9, NFL.com's Chris Wesseling reports, and how Foles and the Eagles offense perform in the "Black Hole" will give Eagles fans—and football-watchers everywhere—convincing evidence that Kelly's offense will, or won't, work without Vick under center.

Will Rex Ryan Save His Job?

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    The New York Jets are sitting at 4-4, a half-game back of the San Diego Chargers in the wild-card race, with most of their scariest matchups behind them.

    After the Jets host the New Orleans Saints, they'll only play one game against a team currently with a winning record (at the 4-3 Carolina Panthers in Week 15).

    So, how could Rex Ryan's job possibly be in danger?

    Well, his Jets are phenomenally lucky to be 4-4.

    Their 23rd-ranked scoring defense is still significantly better than their 27th-ranked offense. The Jets are getting outscored by an average of 8.5 points per game!

    The Jets, per Pro Football Reference, are third-worst in the NFL in turnover margin—due, in no small part, to the wildly uneven play of rookie quarterback Geno Smith. Smith has thrown eight touchdowns and 13 interceptions, third-most in the NFL, putting both his offense and his defense at a big disadvantage.

    Ryan is technically a lame duck, coaching without a contract beyond this season. Yet, it's hard to imagine owner Woody Johnson keeping Ryan during an otherwise-clean sweep of Jets leadership if he didn't think Ryan was the right guy for the long-term job.

    Though the Jets are hardly setting the world on fire, going 8-8 would have to be considered a job-saving triumph—and given the Jets' record and remaining schedule, that looks very doable.

Are the Pittsburgh Steelers Really This Bad?

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    Though it's seemed to escape the attention of the football world, the always-proud, always-mighty Pittsburgh Steelers somehow seem to be just a little bit...what's the word?...terrible this season.

    At 2-5, the Steelers are all alone in the cellar of the AFC North, a division that has only one team without a losing record. According to Pro Football Reference's SRS strength-of-schedule metric, the Steelers have even played the ninth-easiest schedule to date.

    Worse news: Of their remaining nine games, the Steelers face four teams currently in line for playoff spots (at New England Patriots, Detroit Lions, Cincinnati Bengals, at Green Bay Packers). Of the rest of the teams (the Buffalo Bills, Baltimore Ravens, Miami Dolphins and Cleveland Browns twice), none are gimmes.

    It's not unthinkable that the Steelers—currently in the bottom third of the NFL in both scoring and turnover differential—finish up the 2013 season without winning any more games.

    They may not be that bad, but they're certainly this bad.

Can Mike Smith Keep the Atlanta Falcons on Track for 2014?

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    The Atlanta Falcons aren't going to the Super Bowl.

    That was the goal this season, after a heartbreaking 28-24 home loss in the 2012 NFC Championship Game.

    Aiming to end a three-year streak of double-digit-win seasons and zero Super Bowl berths, the Falcons added star tailback Steven Jackson and convinced legendary tight end Tony Gonzalez not to retire—all in an effort to win the Lombardi Trophy.

    Instead, they're 2-5.

    Though major injuries to both of their superstar wide receivers (Roddy White and Julio Jones) have understandably slowed their high-powered offense, the Falcons defense inexplicably aged a decade in one offseason.

    The Falcons allowed an average of 18.7 points per game in 2012, per Pro Football Reference, fifth-best in the NFL.

    Besides swapping out veteran defensive end John Abraham for veteran defensive end Osi Umenyiora and cornerback Brent Grimes for cornerback Desmond Trufant, essentially the same defense is allowing 26.3 points per game in 2013, ranked 22nd.

    Smith has earned as long of a leash as any coach in the NFL. Even if the Falcons don't win another game, he'll deservedly get one more shot at the Super Bowl in 2014.

    The question is, will he be able to get the Falcons there?

    Overcoming adversity and finishing strong over the back half of the season would go a long way toward answering in the affirmative.

More Unanswered Questions

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    There are plenty of questions still left unanswered in the NFL. Here are five more of them:

    Is Philip Rivers Really Back?

    If the season finished today, the San Diego Chargers would have a half-game edge on the New York Jets for the second wild-card spot, despite two teams in the Chargers' division going a collective 15-1.

    A lot of that has to do with the play of quarterback Philip Rivers, whose current NFL passer efficiency rating of 111.1 would be the best of his career if it holds. That's impressive, considering his career average is 95.6—and especially considering his last two seasons have checked in at 88.6 and 88.7. 

    Does Tom Coughlin Deserve to Come Back in 2014?

    After the first six weeks of the season, this wasn't even a question; the winless Giants were imploding in spectacular fashion.

    After two straight wins, though, the Giants are just two behind the Dallas Cowboys for the NFC East lead. The Cowboys currently have the head-to-head tiebreaker, but even that's still up for grabs with the return match unplayed.

    If the Giants can get rolling, they could even sneak into the playoffs—and save Coughlin's job.

    Is Terrelle Pryor Actually the Raiders' Future at QB?

    After a Week 8 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers, when Pryor got his Raiders off to an impressive start and successfully closed it out, I thought he proved he's the future of the Raiders.

    Pryor's still got learning and polishing to do—but he made the big play that got the Raiders rolling, and his two bad-break interceptions didn't get in the way of a victory. He was a born game-changer, and he's learning to be a game manager, too.

    Can Alex Smith Step Up When Necessary?

    Alex Smith deserves all the praise he's gotten for keeping the Kansas City Chiefs offense on schedule during their stunning 8-0 run.

    With that terrifying defense on the other side of the field, though, the offense's to-do list hasn't exactly been packed.

    Can Smith step up and lead touchdown drives when (not if) the Chiefs get caught in a shootout? Say, against the division-rival Denver Broncos, whom the Chiefs still have to play twice?

    If so, we haven't seen it yet.

    Is It Finally Safe to Trust Cam Newton?

    As a staunch Cam Newton defender, I'd be quick to answer this question "yes." Even the harshest skeptic, though, has to admit that Newton's following his half-season "Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde" pattern; either starting hot and finishing cold, or starting cold and finishing hot.

    Newton couldn't have started much colder, but he's on fire now. Backed by the NFL's second-best scoring defense, and pushing the offense toward the top 10 in scoring (No. 12, averaging 24.3 points per game), Newton is poised for a big second half even if tailback Jonathan Stewart, who said he's "ready," per Steve Reed of the Associated Press, doesn't return in Week 9 against the Atlanta Falcons.