Every team in the NFL will have reached their halfway point of the season by the time this weekend’s games are finished, which means we are about to be officially in the stretch run. And the timing couldn’t be better. There are several games this weekend that could set the tone for the entire second half.
There are some huge division battles, key tests for top teams, and a few last chances for teams hoping to remain the playoff race. Nothing will be settled this weekend of course, but a whole lot of things will become much clearer.
You’ll learn a lot, in fact, from the outcomes of these five huge games:
NEW YORK JETS (4-3) at BUFFALO BILLS (5-2)
Do you believe in the Buffalo Bills? Their huge win over the Patriots earlier in the season should’ve convinced everyone. They even proved they can stomp on a bad team with their shutout win over Washington last Sunday. But this is a different challenge. The Jets were one of the AFC favorites, left for dead, and now clawing back to reclaim their season. If they knock off the Bills in Buffalo, a lot of the momentum in the AFC East could end up swinging their way.
Also, regardless of how the Jets have struggled, this Rex Ryan defense figures to be the toughest test so far for Ryan Fitzpatrick and his efficient and sometimes powerful offense. He’ll see blitzes he hasn’t seen before and he’ll likely lose his top receiver (Steve Johnson) to the coverage of Darrelle Revis. How will the Bills adjust? That won’t just tell the story of this game, it might tell the story of whether they’re truly contenders in this dangerous division or not.
Prediction: Jets 23, Bills 20 … The Bills won’t be finished after this, but letting the Jets back into the race will likely haunt them down the stretch.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS (4-3) at NEW ORLEANS SAINTS (5-3)
You think you’ve got the NFL all figured out, and then the winless St. Louis Rams – behind quarterback A.J. Feeley – take a 24-0 lead on the Saints and beat them 31-21. And now the Saints have lost two of three, including a 26-20 loss at Tampa two weeks ago. Now, that might make you think the Bucs have the momentum, but that Saints game was their only win in the last three games. It was sandwiched around a 24-18 loss in London to the Chicago Bears two weeks ago, and a 48-3 beating they took in San Francisco four weeks ago.
The Saints won 11 games last year, the Bucs won 10, and they finished second and third in the rough NFC South behind the 12-win Atlanta Falcons. So which of them can make a run this year? Or are they both just killing time until the Falcons straighten themselves out? Someone’s going to have to take control of this division in the second half. One of them could start right now.
Prediction: Saints 33, Bucs 20. … The Saints have more talent than any team in the division, despite their maddening inconsistency. They can be unstoppable on offense at times, especially at home.
NEW YORK GIANTS (5-2) at NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (5-2)
The NFL doesn’t seem too sure what to make of either of these teams. The Patriots are their usual selves on offense and everyone knew they’d be a contender. But their NFL-worst defense and passing defense is more than alarming and has a lot of people wondering if they can win the tough games when they count. The Giants, meanwhile, are 5-2 thanks to a soft schedule and are about to take an enormous step up in class with a dangerous run of potent opponents. It doesn’t help that their two biggest issues – besides injuries – are that they can’t run the ball or stop the run.
If the Patriots win this, the NFL will yawn, accept their greatness and move on to other concerns. The Giants, though, will look like just another pretender about to get slapped down by superior opponents. A Giants win, though, and they’ll suddenly look like the NFC East favorites, while the Patriots could be in for a big race over in the AFC.
Prediction: Patriots 37, Giants 27. … Too many injuries for the Giants and too many problems on defense to hang with a true Super Bowl contender.
BALTIMORE RAVENS (5-2) at PITTSBURGH STEELERS (6-2)
What has happened to the Patriots? Their once-powerful running game seems like a distant memory. The last two weeks they barely scored in a loss to Jacksonville in front of a national TV audience, then they struggled to beat the pathetic Arizona Cardinals. They’re another team that looked like true contenders only to fall in a bad rut. Here’s the thing, though: They’re still 5-2 and just a half game behind the Steelers, who looked like they could beat anybody last week when they laid out the blueprint on how to beat the Pats.
This is the perfect chance for the Steelers to get on a roll and get some separation in their division, especially with the upstart Bengals and, to a lesser extent, Browns ready to take a tumble with an increase in difficulty of schedule. The Ravens, though, need to right their ship quickly, rediscover Ray Rice and their running game and straighten Joe Flacco out otherwise they’ll be chasing the wild card and could have a very difficult postseason road.
Prediction: Ravens 27, Steelers 24. … The Ravens are so much better than they look, and nothing brings out their best more than a matchup with their bitter rivals.
CHICAGO BEARS (4-3) at PHILADELPHIA EAGLES (3-4)
Have we all had a good laugh at the expense of the self-proclaimed “Dream Team”? Good, because guess what? They aren’t dead. In fact, their 34-7 hammering of the Dallas Cowboys last weekend sent shivers down the rest of the NFC East. All of a sudden they’re two games back of the Giants, who are hitting the tough spot of their schedule, and with the Eagles home to the Bears and Cardinals in the next two weeks they could be battling for the lead in the division when they face the Giants in three weeks. A win here and they could find themselves on a roll.
This game is just as important to the Bears, though, who need a win to keep pace with the Detroit Lions in what appears to be a race for second place in the NFC North. Given some of the powerful teams in the NFC South, the Bears might need to leapfrog the Lions if they want a wild-card berth. That will get a lot tougher if they’re sitting at .500 halfway through the year.
Prediction: Eagles 31, Bears 20. … The Eagles may not be a Dream Team, but they have so much talent they remain a nightmare for opponents when they’re playing well. And they’re playing very, very well.
By RALPH VACCHIANO