On Football: Halfway through season, who are awards leaders?

The Steelers, led by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and head coach Mike Tomlin, are 8-0 for the first time in the illustrious franchise’s history.

En route to their fourth Super Bowl championship in 2014, the New England Patriots opened that year with a disheartening 33-20 loss to the Miami Dolphins — a team that hadn’t had a winning season since 2008 and would finish the season 8-8. Three weeks later, New England traveled to 1-2 Kansas City and got its doors blown off, 41-14.

“We’re on to Cincinnati,” head coach Bill Belichick memorably deadpanned two days after that disastrous defeat.

The Patriots won 13 of 15 the rest of the way, culminating with a thrilling win over the Seahawks in Super Bowl IL.

Even the 2018 edition that ultimately defeated the high-flying LA Rams in Super Bowl LIII suffered some humiliating losses, including road defeats to Jacksonville (which would finish 5-11) and Detroit (6-10) to go with a lopsided 34-10 setback to Tennessee in Week 10 and the disastrous 34-33 last-second loss in South Florida that became known as the “Miracle in Miami.”

So I guess I’m prefacing the following 2020 NFL season analysis with the disclaimer that any championship team can survive jarring regular-season defeats and still put things together in the playoffs. But those losses are still on their ledgers, and could derail the team’s momentum and hopes for postseason glory.

Let’s take a look at some of this year’s contenders and perhaps poke some holes in their résumés as the second half of the NFL season unfolds.

In the NFC, there are four elite teams: Seattle, New Orleans, and Green Bay, who are all 6-2, along with Tom Brady’s Tampa Bay team that sits at 6-3. Still holding out hope are a pair of Seattle’s division mates, Arizona and the Rams, who are 5-3.

The Seahawks, a perennial playoff team and a franchise that hasn’t had a losing record since 2011, has the primary MVP candidate in QB Russell Wilson, but its defense, once one of the team’s hallmarks, is horrendous, and has surrendered 243 points in eight games, which is better than only the 2-7 Cowboys and the 3-6 Falcons. Last season, Seattle gave up 25 points or more in 10 of its 16 games, and this season it’s only given up fewer than 25 once.

Luckily, the Seahawks have a favorable upcoming schedule that includes the horrid NFC East teams along with the winless Jets, so Seattle could still win the NFC West, but my money right now for the division crown is the Rams — the Seahawks’ foe this Sunday.

New Orleans is definitely one of the conference’s top teams, but it still has a couple of mystifying losses, including a 10-point road loss to Vegas and a home defeat to the Packers — a squad that was demolished by the Bucs, 38-10, two weeks later. How did New Orleans lose to a Green Bay team that was obliterated by the same Tampa Bay team that the Saints have beaten twice already this season?

Meanwhile, that Brady-led Bucs team has been wildly inconsistent, with only that Packers’ blowout representing a quality victory thus far in 2020, while Tampa Bay has not only lost to the Saints twice (including a 38-3 home beatdown last week), but also lost to 5-4 Chicago and topped the hapless Giants by just a couple of points two weeks ago.

The Bucs have a challenging four-game stretch coming up, including a home date with KC, but finishing the season with two games against the Falcons and a matchup with the Lions should clinch at least a wild-card slot for Brady’s Bucs.

The Packers should have an easier road to the postseason. That 38-10 loss to the Bucs in Week 6 was not only alarming, but a definite wake-up call to a team that had been coasting to that point (also noteworthy was the Pack’s six-point home loss to the surging Vikings two weeks later). Still, only two NFL teams have scored more points than the Packers, and their division consists of primarily pushovers, and with a favorable schedule the rest of the way, Green Bay seems destined for the NFC Championship Game for a second straight season.

The Rams were in the Super Bowl just two seasons ago, and despite losing two of their last three games this season, they should be in the hunt for a wild-card spot, if not the NFC West title if they can hold off the defensively-challenged Seahawks and the inconsistent Cardinals.

Likely playoff teams (field expanded to seven for 2020): Eagles (East), Saints (South), Packers (North), Rams (West), and the wild cards: Bucs, Cardinals, and Seahawks.

In the AFC, the 8-0 Steelers and 8-1 Chiefs seem to be on a collision course for the conference championship game, but the 7-2 Bills, the 6-2 Ravens and the 6-3 Colts and Titans may have something to say about that.

The Steelers have the stingiest defense in the AFC, but reside in perhaps the toughest division in the league, and that’s why their road to 16-0 could be compromised. Pittsburgh hasn’t won a playoff game since 2016, and missed the last two postseasons altogether. Still, back-to-back road wins over the Titans and Ravens give Steeler fans hope for the team’s first Super Bowl appearance since 2010, but QB Ben Roethlisberger has been beat-up this season (and in virus quarantine), so I’ll reserve judgment on Pittsburgh’s realistic chances for future success until after it visits Buffalo in Week 14.

The Bills leads the East for the first time in forever (OK, 1993), but despite collecting some impressive wins, I’m still disturbed by the team’s 42-16 dismantling in Nashville in Week 5. Buffalo’s upcoming slate — Arizona, Chargers, Steelers — could give us a better idea of the team’s makeup and potential moving forward.

AFC South co-leaders Indy and Tennessee, both at 6-3, could pose some problems down the line for some teams, but the Colts’ staunch defense is often offset by its aging QB problems, and the Titans lost to 1-5-1 Cincinnati two weeks ago and were outscored, 24-0, in Thursday night’s home loss to Indianapolis after taking an early lead. Tennessee was an AFC finalist last season, but I view that as a bit of a fluke, and see the Titans as an early playoff casualty this year.

The Chiefs seem to be the cream of the crop, along with the Steelers, and the only blemish on their record to this point in the season is a surprising 40-32 loss at home to Jon Gruden’s Raiders in Week 5. The two teams have a rematch next weekend, and KC also has tough road dates coming up in Tampa, New Orleans, and Miami.

Baltimore had better beat New England Sunday night, or it will have little chance to seize control of the AFC North from the Steelers, and Vegas at 5-3 still has to explain away embarrassing losses to the Patriots and Bucs.

That leaves one remaining interesting team to watch: the 5-3 Dolphins.

Looking at it now, it seems incomprehensible that this improving and dangerous team started off 0-2 with a road loss to New England and a home defeat to Buffalo. Since then, though, the team has gone 5-1, with impressive victories over the 49ers, Rams, and Cardinals. Four winnable games lurk for the Fins after this weekend’s home matchup with the snakebitten Chargers, and then I’ll be glued to the set to watch Miami take on KC, Vegas, and Buffalo for the chance to snatch the AFC East title in Week 17.

Likely playoff teams: Buffalo (East), Pittsburgh (North), Indy (South), KC (West), and the wild cards: Dolphins, Ravens, Titans, and either the Browns or Raiders.

Chris Young’s column appears Saturdays in the Sun Chronicle’s Weekend Edition. He can be reached at ballparkfigures@comcast.net.

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