Five key second half storylines
With the 2014 NFL season at the midway point, here are five situations to watch for the rest of the year.
The Seattle Seahawks’ playoff hopes
The Seattle Seahawks are finding out how hard it is to repeat as Super Bowl champions. Their 4-3 record wouldn’t be good enough for the playoffs if the season ended today.
Seattle lost its offensive identity trying to expand the passing game with more reliance on wide receiver Percy Harvin. The ball is being run 46.8 percent of the time after a 52.3 percent clip last season. Harvin was traded to the New York Jets in Week 7 for a conditional 2015 sixth-round selection (could be as high as a fourth-round pick depending upon Harvin’s performance) because of locker room issues and the difficulty of integrating him into the offense. His departure hasn’t solved Seattle’s offensive problems or the locker room issues. Four-time Pro Bowl running back Marshawn Lynch, who missed eight days of training camp in a contract dispute, reportedly has a fractured relationship with the organization and isn’t expected back next year. The offensive line, which was a question mark last year, has regressed. The defense has also lost some of its intimidation factor with strong safety Kam Chancellor slowed by bone spurs in his ankles.
Seattle’s playoff hopes will likely hinge on how they fare in NFC West contests during the homestretch of the season. There are two games against rival San Francisco and the division-leading Arizona Cardinals. The 49ers are in the same boat as the Seahawks playoff-wise, but their defense should improve with All-Pros NaVorro Bowman (torn ACL) and Aldon Smith (personal conduct and substance abuse policy suspension) returning to the lineup in the second half of the season.
DeMarco Murray’s chase of the record book
Murray has been on cruise control in 2014.
DeMarco Murray is having a historic season in the Dallas Cowboys’ unexpected 6-2 start. He has already broken Jim Brown’s 56-year-old NFL record of six consecutive games with 100 rushing yards or more to begin a season. Murray’s streak is at eight games. He has 1,054 rushing yards and 1,293 yards from scrimmage. Murray is on pace to break Eric Dickerson’s single-season rushing record of 2,105 yards by three yards and Chris Johnson’s single season yards from scrimmage record (2,509 yards). Murray is also on track for 412 carries, which would be the second-highest single season total in NFL history. Durability concerns may be the biggest threat to Murray chasing the records. He’s missed eleven games in his three previous NFL seasons because of ankle, foot, and knee injuries without playing a full slate in any of them.
NFC South mediocrity
None of the teams in the NFC South have a winning record. The New Orleans improved their record to 4-4 and assumed first place in the division with Thursday’s night victory over the Carolina Panthers. The Saints are a Jekyll and Hyde team which plays much better at home than on the road. The Carolina win snapped New Orleans’ regular season road losing streak at seven games. However, their home winning streak (11 games) will be put to test with an upcoming three-game home stand against the San Francisco 49ers, Cincinnati Bengals and Baltimore Ravens.
The Panthers rode a strong defense that led the NFL with 60 sacks and was second in scoring (15.1 points per game) and run defense (86.9 yards per game) to the NFC South crown in 2013. Sacks are way down with 20 in nine games and the team is giving up 26.2 points per game (26th in the NFL). Pro Bowl defensive end Greg Hardy, who had a team-high 15 sacks in 2013, isn’t coming to the rescue. He will remain on the Exempt/Commissioner’s Permission List for the rest of the season since his domestic violence jury trial has been postponed until after the season. The run defense has been atrocious. The Panthers are giving up 131.9 yards per game to rank 27th in the league.
The Atlanta Falcons are in the midst of a five-game losing streak. The offensive line has been decimated by injuries, with five linemen on injured reserve. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ offseason roster overhaul isn’t paying dividends. It’s resulted in a 1-6 record.
It’s taken at least 12 victories to win the NFC South in the previous six seasons. It wouldn’t be a surprise if the division winner makes the playoffs with an 8-8 record.
AFC North dogfight
The AFC North is the NFL’s toughest division, with every team in the division owning a winning record at the moment. The Cincinnati Bengals are in first place at 4-2-1. All-Pro wide receiver A.J. Green’s toe injury derailed Cincinnati’s 3-0 start. He is expected back in the lineup after missing the last four games.
ICONWill Dalton and the Bengals withstand the onslaught from their divisional foes?
The Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers are nipping at Cincinnati’s heels with matching 5-3 records. The Ravens have the NFL’s best point differential, outscoring opponents by 86 points on the season. They have been able to put aside the distraction of running back Ray Rice’s early-season release because of his domestic violence incident. The running game has been effective without him. Journeyman Justin Forsett is leading NFL running backs with 5.5 yards per carry and is fourth in the league with 571 rushing yards.
The Steelers have lacked consistency. They are responsible for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ only win of the season, but also easily handled the AFC South leading Indianapolis Colts with their best offensive output (51 points) in Mike Tomlin’s eight years as the team’s head coach. The Cleveland Browns have a surprising 4-3 record under first-year head coach Mike Pettine. The team hasn’t won more than five games in a season since 2007. Brian Hoyer has solidified his grip on the quarterback job after beating out 2012 Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel during the preseason. The passing attack should get a lift from Josh Gordon’s return for the final six games when his drug suspension is over.
Cincinnati’s season sweep of Baltimore could loom large in determining the division champion. The drawback to the competitiveness within the division is the number of teams that make the playoffs may be limited. A combined 12-5-1 record outside of the division suggests there should be at least one AFC North wild card team.
Oakland Raiders’ futility
The Oakland Raiders are the NFL’s only winless team at 0-7 and currently own a 13-game losing streak. Head coach Dennis Allen was fired at the bye week after an 0-4 start. The team is more competitive under interim coach Tony Sparano, but it isn’t being reflected in the bottom line. It’s conceivable that the Raiders could join the 2008 Detroit Lions as the only 0-16 teams in NFL history. The Raiders have the toughest remaining schedule in the NFL. These opponents have a combined 40-25 record (.615 winning percentage). There’s one game left against a team with a losing record. The Raiders face the 2-5 St. Louis Rams at home in Week 13.
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Joel Corry is a former sports agent who helped found Premier Sports & Entertainment, a sports management firm that represents professional athletes and coaches. Prior to his tenure at Premier, Joel worked for Management Plus Enterprises, which represented Shaquille O'Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon and Ronnie Lott. You can email Joel at firstname.lastname@example.org.