We are officially halfway through the 2020-21 NFL season. While this year has been chaotic and complicated, the NFL has pressed onward and has been able to combat almost anything 2020 has thrown at them. With the majority of Week 9 in the books; and the NFL season is becoming more and more dramatic with every passing day, it’s time to review how everything is looking as the push for the playoffs begins to intensify.
Winner: New Orleans Saints
After an underwhelming start to the season, NOLA looks to have finally found its stride with a 38-3 thrashing of the division-rival Buccaneers. Tommy terrific was anything but in the loss, tossing three interceptions, while Drew Brees completed 81% of his passes with four touchdowns, as his Saints cruised to take the division lead. As Brees’ squad secured the sweep over Tampa, they restored a feeling of confidence in the team, not seen since the pre-season. The Saints need to be all-business moving forward, as their on the field performances have taken a back seat to off the field drama. However, this win over the Buccaneers will help the Saints assert dominance over their main rivals and prepare for the Seahawks and Packers. The offense has been prolific since their last loss, winning five straight along with 1,360 passing yards from Drew Brees, accompanied by 11 touchdown passes. Pro-bowler Alvin Kamara is on pace to break Marshall Faulk’s receiving record for a running back and solidify his spot as a top-3 player at his position. The problems lie with the defense and the status-quo. The Saints defense has the benefit of cornerback Marshon Lattimore’s stellar performances, but the unit has allowed the 5th most TDs this season with 19. Finally, the Saints need to shake the choker label they have received over the past couple of seasons. The Saints need to go into the playoffs with a better gameplan and laser focus. Over the past couple of seasons, the Saints’ regular-season successes have hampered their work ethic and ability to get back to the promised land. Therefore, I would be cautious in the assessment that the Saints are title-contenders, but this win can hopefully fuel them to be a better and more hard-working team.
Loser: San Francisco 49ers
While there is still hope to salvage the Niners season, it is unlikely. The Superbowl LIV runners-ups were hit with a myriad of injuries, losing George Kittle and Jimmy Garappolo to the IR and Brandon Aiyuk and Deebo Samuel after a positive COVID-19 test. While Samuel and Aiyuk did not contract the virus, they were still held out of a crucial Thursday night game against Green Bay. This would cause the Niners to lose the game handily to the powerhouse Packers. While there is a chance that San Francisco can pull the team together for a potential playoff-run, their situation looks increasingly worse each day. The Niners face off against some stiff competition in the upcoming weeks, taking on the Saints, Seahawks, Bills, Rams, and Cardinals. Sitting at a 4-5 record, and dead last in the most competitive division in football does not help either. It is not the 49ers’ fault that their team has been bitten by the injury bug, but this unfortunate turn of events looks to cost the contenders their season.
Winner: Aaron Rodgers’ MVP campaign
Aaron Rodgers and the Packers enjoyed an easy victory over the injury-riddled 49ers on Thursday. In that game, the Packers quarterback tossed for 305 yards and four touchdowns. Another strong performance by Rodgers puts him further into the MVP conversation after it looked like Russell Wilson’s award to lose. The Packers have looked like one of, if not, the best teams in football this season. Sitting at the top of their division, the Packers need to keep rolling, and they will most likely end the season with two losses. Rodgers has been the team MVP, no question, with 2,253 yards and 24 touchdowns to his name, and a top-10 rank in both categories. Rodgers has also been as reliable as usual, with only two INTs on the season, second-lowest for a starting quarterback this season. The Packers have been on fire this year, don’t be surprised if Aaron Rodgers earns his third MVP to go along with a spectacular season and a potential Superbowl victory.
Loser: Russell Wilson’s MVP campaign
After starting the season with a 5-0 record, the Seahawks would drop two games and enter week 10 with a 6-2 record. One of their losses was a hard-fought overtime thriller against the Cardinals. The other was a 44-34 shootout versus the Buffalo Bills last Sunday. The Bills are a playoff-caliber team, but dropping the ball with this one is inexcusable. The Seahawks should have owned the Bills in every department, but the Seahawks followed up an impressive third period with a nearly scoreless fourth quarter. In that game, Wilson completed 28 of his 41 passes and scored three touchdowns, but he tossed two crucial INTs to go along with it. While Russ still ranks among the best in yards and completion percentage, he has now thrown eight interceptions on the season, which is one less than Daniel Jones and two less than Kirk Cousins. There is still a chance that Russ pulls through and captures the MVP that he has so desperately wanted, but Aaron Rodgers is closing the gap. Add in a couple more losses, and the race will get more competitive than was thought three weeks ago.
Winner: Miami Dolphins
The Dolphins rebuilding year turned into a playoff push after four straight victories. Fifth overall pick: Tua Tagovailoa followed up a rough debut with a beautiful display versus the Arizona Cardinals, where he led Miami to a 34-31 win with 248 yards and two TDs to his name. Tagovailoa ended the game with a passer rating of 122.3 and a 71% completion percentage. The departure from established veteran QB Ryan Fitzpatrick to the talented but potentially raw Tagovailoa seemed like a risky move, but it paid dividends on Sunday and could get them into the playoffs if he keeps the hot streak alive. Tagovailoa has limited experience in the way of professional reps, but this is mostly a learning experience for the young gunslinger. Tua is allowed to get valuable playing time and quality mentorship from Ryan Fitzpatrick without the need to get to the playoffs. All Tagovailoa and the Dolphins need to do is develop the young players and end the season looking stronger than they started. If they make the playoffs they can lure coveted free agents, if they don’t, they will receive a higher draft pick. As long as Tua continues to progress the Dolphins might contend for a Superbowl in the near future.
Loser: Gardner Minshew
Everyone’s favorite mustached gunslinger is in danger. Though Minshew captured the hearts and imaginations of NFL fans, his job is potentially in jeopardy. Minshew has had a solid season, but the Jags sit at 1-7 and are dead last in their division. While Minshew was sidelined with a thumb injury, rookie quarterback Jake Luton stepped in threw for 304 yards in his absence. It is confirmed that Luton will start next week, and if he continues to impress, Jacksonville might end up making a permanent switch. Even if Luton cannot replicate his performance against the Texans, Minshew may still find himself unemployed by the end of the season. The Jaguars are in line for a top pick in the 2021 NFL draft and could have their sights set on either Justin Fields or Trevor Lawrence, two potentially generational talents. I’m sure the Jaguars will look at Minshew one last time before April, but I don’t think they’ll keep him after the draft. Minshew’s short but memorable tenure in Jacksonville could be coming to an end by 2021, and Minshew’s performance previous to the Jaguars week nine contest did not do much in the way of helping him remain the team’s starting QB.