NFL Mid-Season Report

Alexander Bingham, Sports Editor

Here are some of the major storylines surrounding the NFL so far this year: 

Who will win the AFC?

In a year in which many of the preseason favorites have had their struggles, the AFC is suddenly wide-open. The Kansas City Chiefs, who have represented the conference in the past two Super-Bowls, opened the season 3-4, as Patrick Mahomes threw an uncharacteristically high nine interceptions, making the Chiefs once unstoppable offense look like a team that may not even make the playoffs this year. However, Kansas-City has turned it around and they are currently riding a four game win streak heading towards the end of the season. 

With the Chiefs’ struggles the Buffalo Bills, Tennessee Titans, and Baltimore Ravens were viewed as the next teams up as favorites to win the conference. However, the Ravens stumbled with two big losses to the Cincinnati Bengals and Miami Dolphins. Baltimore has also dealt with a revolving door at running back, pushing an increased dependency on the dynamic Lamar Jackson to win games. However, Jackson has looked shaky at times, such as in an ugly 16-10 win against the Cleveland Browns in which he threw four interceptions. If Jackson and the Ravens face an elite defense in the playoffs they could fall short for yet another season. 

As the AFC runner up last season the Bills seemed primed to take over with the Chiefs and Ravens falling behind, but failed to handle business against the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars, losing 9-6 before being blown out by the Colts 41-15. Additionally, star cornerback Tre’Davious White suffered a torn ACL and will be out for the season for Buffalo. 

The Titans surged to the top seed after a statement win over the Los Angeles Rams despite their trio of Derrick Henry, A.J Brown, and Julio Jones all landing on injured reserve. Tennessee could be quite a tough team to stop if all three of their weapons are healthy in the playoffs, but until then their grip on the playoff race is slipping. The Indianapolis Colts, led by dominant running back Jonathan Taylor, are looking to take over the AFC South division from Tennessee. 

Amidst all this chaos the team that just might just walk away with the AFC title is the New England Patriots. Led by the stellar play of offensive rookie of the year favorite Mac Jones and a stalwart defense, New England has flipped a rough 2-4 start to a 9-4 record. No rookie quarterback has ever made the Super Bowl before, but Jones, who is lauded for his precocious decision making and understanding of NFL defenses could possibly be the first to accomplish the feat. Aside from the top crop, the Bengals, Steelers, Chargers, Broncos, Raiders, and even the Dolphins are in the mix for the playoffs and could foreseeably get hot at the right time and make the Super Bowl.  

The Future of the NFL

Through the season thus far, many play callers have found ways to creatively use the athletic capabilities of their players in ways that go beyond the traditional confines of their positions, leading to a growing number of players that are challenging labels put on their position. Deebo Samuel has cemented himself as one of the top wide-receivers in the game this year because of his electric ability to create yards after the catch, but Samuel doesn’t exclusively play as a receiver. He can also be seen routinely taking jet sweep handoffs or even lining up as a running back, warranting some to call him an “athlete” instead of his listed position. 

Samuel isn’t even the only player in this mold on his team, as Brandon Aiyuk and even George Kittle’s often position bending play provide a real challenge to opposing defensive coordinators. Other players such as Kadarius Toney of the New York Giants and Laviska Shenault of the Jacksonville Jaguars add to the growing trend of players entering the league that possess elite skill in both receiving and running with the ball. Young tight ends like Kyle Pitts and Mike Gesicki add to this positionless football as despite being listed as tight end and possessing the frame to play as such, they are more often lined up as a receiver by their coordinators to exploit mismatches on the defense. 

While most of the players contributing to the trend are younger breakout stars, the most prominent positionless player this year has been the thirty year old Cordarelle Patterson. After serving mostly as a kick returner through his NFL career, this season the Falcons’ play calling has taken Patterson’s skill set to a new level. So far Patterson has a balanced 411 rushing and 500 receiving yards, both career highs. His versatility and explosiveness has made him an integral part of the Falcons offense as without him for two weeks Atlanta failed to score a single touchdown. Patterson was even listed as a third string safety before a game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, hinting at an even more expansive skillset. 

The positionless development of football even impacts the defensive side as both a counter to the development on offense and a way of creating mismatches. First and second year players Micah Parsons and Isiah Simmons respectively are examples of this with their ability to use their skill sets to play as edge rushers, run defenders, and in coverage, lending themselves as swiss-army-knife type weapons that defensive coordinators dream of. Another example on the defensive side of the ball is Jamal Adams of the Seattle Seahawks, who despite being listed as a safety was able to produce 9.5 sacks last year for Seattle.  Dynamic athletes that change the norms of football are starting to become the norm in football, making it difficult to imagine what the next generation of the game will be.