With half of the 2016 National Football League season in the bag, it’s time to take a new look at the teams that can really contend for Super Bowl 51. While it’s clear that the New England Patriots appear ready to capture their fifth Lombardi Trophy, there are a few preseason contenders who will need some miracles to reach the postseason. Carolina and Arizona, the two teams that played for the NFC title a year ago, are a combined 6-9-1 thus far this season. Both teams are way off pace in their divisions and in the wild card race. Here’s a look at which teams have a legitimate shot at the postseason and my midseason Super Bowl 51 projections.
AFC & NFC Super Bowl 51 Projections
New England Patriots[wpsm_video]https://youtu.be/Ohz5t5luypA[/wpsm_video]
The Patriots survived Tom Brady’s suspension going 3-1 in the first four games of the season using backups Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett at quarterback. Since Brady’s return, New England has been virtually unbeatable. The offense is averaging nearly 35 points a game and the defense is one of the league’s best. The Patriots are second in the NFL in scoring defense through eight games giving up just 16.5 points per game. Brady is on top of his game even at 39 years of age and TE Rob Gronkowski is healthy. The Patriots have beaten each of their last four opponents by double-digit margins. The second half of the season brings dates with Seattle, Baltimore, and Denver. Should Brady and company navigate the rest of the season favorably, there is no question that they have what it takes to win Super Bowl 51.
The surprise of the AFC (and maybe the NFL) is that the Raiders are 7-2 and leading the AFC West. Oakland just beat long-time rival Denver 30-20 to take command of the division. The Raiders offense is hard to stop with QB Derek Carr, RB Latavius Murray, and WR Amari Cooper forming one of the most deadly trios in the league. Oakland is among the NFL’s leaders in scoring (27.2 points per game, fifth in the league), but where they become a question mark is on defense. The Raiders defense has had its share of issues in the first half of the season. Despite having one of the best young pass rushers in the game in Khalil Mack, the Raiders give up a ton of points. That might prevent them from becoming a Super Bowl champion.
The defending Super Bowl champs certainly are a different team than they were a year ago. New quarterback Trevor Siemian has performed well enough to lead the Broncos offense. Head coach Gary Kubiak relies heavily on the run and RB C.J. Anderson was having a great season until a knee injury ended it. Rookie Devontae Booker will have to pick up the slack in the running game and Denver will continue to rely on one of the NFL’s best defenses to get them back to the AFC championship game. The Broncos are the NFL’s best against the pass and OLB Von Miller is second in sacks with 9.5 so far this season. While the defense can definitely get them into the postseason, it will be the offense that determines how far the Broncos can advance.
The best team in the NFC right now is the Dallas Cowboys. Who would have thought after starting quarterback Tony Romo went down in Week 1? Rookie Dak Prescott has not lost a game yet as the starter and rookie RB Ezekiel Elliott is the league’s leading rusher. Prescott and Elliott lead the offense, which is fourth the NFL in scoring (27.9) and the defense is as good as a Cowboys defense has been in several years. Dallas gives up 17.5 points a game, tied for fourth-best in the league. Dallas still has several tests remaining on the schedule including dates with Pittsburgh, Baltimore, the Giants, and Minnesota.
Speaking of the Vikings, head coach Mike Zimmer’s squad was a definite Super Bowl contender entering the season but after three consecutive losses Minnesota is at a crossroads. They are without RB Adrian Peterson and both starting offensive tackles. All were lost for the season due to injury. The defense is still outstanding, but Minnesota is going to need production on offense to help them advance in the postseason. They still have what it takes to win the NFC North, but can they beat anyone in the playoffs without any offense?
It’s not a postseason conversation without mention of the Seattle Seahawks. Head coach Pete Carroll and company are 5-2-1 and leading the NFC West. With Arizona stumbling, Seattle should win the division. The question for the Seahawks is much the same as that of Minnesota. Seattle is strong defensively, but the offense is struggling.
The surprise of the NFC may be the Falcons who once again have started fast. Last year, Atlanta started 5-0 but failed to make the postseason. They are 6-3 so far this season and in control of the NFC South. The Falcons have the NFL’s best offense led by NFL passing leader QB Matt Ryan and WR Julio Jones. Much like Oakland in the AFC, the Falcons have some serious issues on defense. Through nine games, Atlanta is giving up almost 29 points per game (28th out of 32 teams).