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Winners and losers from NFL’s first half

David Kenyon
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Three historic franchises mustered a single victory apiece.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Eight games are in the books for several NFL teams, and the midpoint of the regular season offers an ideal moment to reassess the league’s status.

There’s a clear group of front-runners this season, considering the Los Angeles Rams and Kansas City Chiefs have combined for one loss. The New England Patriots also remain squarely in that discussion, as usual.

But there are plenty of disappointments. Three historic franchises mustered a single victory apiece. Touted quarterbacks are struggling all over. One coach has already been canned, and more firings could be coming.

We’ve highlighted the teams, players and coaches who are thriving the most — or doing the opposite halfway through 2018.


Winner: Los Angeles Rams

Former Rams head coach Mike Martz is not inspired by Sean McVay's hire.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

In a matter of two years, Sean McVay has changed the franchise’s perception in the most amazing way possible. After 10 straight losing campaigns, the Rams are 19-5 under his watch. This year, Los Angeles is 8-0 — and the last unbeaten. No team has a greater point differential than the Rams, who’ve scored 264 and surrendered 155. Only the Chiefs boast a more prolific offense, and touchdown machine Todd Gurley leads the league in yards from scrimmage. Barring a stunning collapse, Los Angeles will finish either No. 1 or No. 2 in the NFC.


Loser: New York Giants

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Saquon Barkley is a superstar. Despite the Giants’ overall lack of success, the rookie has tallied more than 1,000 yards from scrimmage. His production, however, is largely overshadowed by New York’s 1-7 record. Eli Manning is nowhere close to the player who led a pair of Super Bowl wins. The front office has officially begun the rebuilding process, trading cornerback Eli Apple and defensive tackle Damon Harrison while dangling several others on the market. The Giants will never really leave the headlines, but they’ll rarely be covered for positive reasons.


Winner: Kansas City Chiefs

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Can you say MVP? Patrick Mahomes has posted league-high marks of 2,526 yards and 26 touchdowns while guiding Kansas City to a 7-1 record. The first-year starter has become the most-feared young quarterback. Kareem Hunt trails only Gurley for most touchdowns by a non-quarterback while Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce are both in the top-15 in receiving yards. This scoring attack is nothing short of a juggernaut, leading the NFL with 36.2 points per game. While an average defense is concerning, the Chiefs have elite potential because of Mahomes and this offense.


Loser: Oakland Raiders

NFL Oakland Raiders Jon Gruden

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Jon Gruden didn’t inherit a mess, but Oakland has quickly become one. The Raiders have trudged to a single — somewhat controversial — victory over Cleveland and dropped every other outing. Even worse, they’ve fallen by 14-plus points four times. Not only is Oakland losing a lot, it’s typically not even close. The roster overhaul continued with Amari Cooper getting sent to Dallas, and the team is reportedly souring on quarterback Derek Carr. Gruden might figure this out eventually, but it’s highly unlikely it happens before the Raiders head to Las Vegas in 2020.


Winner: New England Patriots

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That 1-2 record feels like a decade ago in football time. Since the frustrating start to the campaign, New England hasn’t lost again. Injuries have limited Rob Gronkowski and standout rookie Sony Michel, but James White is picking up the slack with Tom Brady. Julian Edelman’s return and Josh Gordon’s emergence have helped, too. So, as the second half approaches, New England stands atop the AFC East as the rest of the division falters. What’s new, right? Kansas City has become a real threat, but the Patriots clipped the Chiefs in Week 7 and remain a primary contender.


Loser: Tennessee Titans

Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

In previous seasons, it seemed Tennessee’s staff was holding back Marcus Mariota. The coaching change brought hope of improvement. However, Mariota has mustered just 1,030 yards with three touchdowns to five interceptions. Context matters, of course; He’s battled injury and lost Delanie Walker, Eric Decker and Rishard Matthews for various reasons. But there’s no explosiveness to this offense, which ranks 30th in the NFL at a mere 15.1 points per game. To this point, the 3-4 Titans have wasted one of the league’s most efficient defenses.


Winner: Houston Texans

Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

The Texans dropped their first three outings by 15 total points. Given the tight margins, panic mode wasn’t necessary. But at 0-3, moral victories needed to become actual wins. How does five straight sound? Houston has soared from the cellar to a 1.5-game advantage in the AFC South. Although Deshaun Watson is still prone to mistakes behind a shaky offensive line, his best moments are stellar. DeAndre Hopkins remains as outstanding as ever. Will Fuller’s season-ending right ACL tear is an issue, but the Texans have playoff potential in 2018.


Loser: Jameis Winston, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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Tampa has reached a fork in the road. During the offseason, the Bucs picked up a fifth-year option on Jameis Winston. That season is only guaranteed if he’s injured. After missing three games due to a suspension, Winston has been so ineffective this year he was recently benched. He’s managed 8.0 yards per attempt with six touchdowns and 10 interceptions, while Ryan Fitzpatrick has 10.8 yards per throw with 13 scores and five picks. If the Bucs are committed to Winston long term, he needs to play. Otherwise, they must give Fitzpatrick the reins and keep Winston healthy in order to cut him this coming offseason.


Winner: New Orleans Saints

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New Orleans lost a high-scoring clash to Tampa in the opener. Since then, the Saints have rattled off six consecutive wins and enjoyed another tremendous year from Drew Brees. The veteran, who set the NFL’s all-time yardage mark, has completed a would-be record 77.4 percent of his passes with 14 touchdowns and only one interception. Alvin Kamara ranks seventh in yards from scrimmage, Michael Thomas is a dominant receiver and Taysom Hill has emerged as a gadget weapon. The Saints should earn consecutive playoff berths for the first time since 2009-11.


Loser: Denver Broncos

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Disappointing is the word for the Broncos. They weren’t expected to contend for the Super Bowl, but this roster had playoff-caliber talent if quarterback Case Keenum could steady the offense. Instead, the marquee free-agent signing has 10 touchdowns and an NFL-worst 10 interceptions. He’s also been sacked 22 times. Denver owns a trio of one-possession losses and also fell to the mediocre New York Jets by 18. Vance Joseph’s job is in jeopardy. And with an ownership battle potentially on the horizon, it might get a whole lot uglier in Denver before the team gets better.


Winner: James Conner, Pittsburgh Steelers

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No Le’Veon Bell, no problem. James Conner has smashed, crushed and obliterated any and all expectations this season. The second-year running back has registered four games with 100-plus yards and two touchdowns on the ground. He’s caught at least three passes in every contest, and his 922 yards from scrimmage are fourth-most in the NFL. Meanwhile, the Steelers have overcome a sluggish September to lead the AFC North. Bell is likely to return so he can accrue a year toward free agency, but Pittsburgh won’t be in a rush to remove Conner from featured status.


Loser: Cleveland Browns

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Well, it was fun while it lasted. Cleveland opened the campaign 2-2-1 but had a legitimate opportunity to win every game. Although quarterback Baker Mayfield wasn’t perfect, the No. 1 selection of the 2018 draft showed he belonged in the league. Since then, however, the Browns have stumbled and dropped three straight contests. Each of those losses included the defense giving up 400-plus yards. The playoffs were never likely for this team, but a road to improvement was apparent. With that path untraveled, Hue Jackson has coached his last game in Cleveland.


Winner: Adam Thielen, Minnesota Vikings

Adam Thielen

Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Who would’ve thought Minnesota State would produce one of the NFL’s most dominant receivers? Adam Thielen has opened the year with eight straight 100-yard showings. Nobody in NFL history had accomplished that feat, and only Calvin Johnson ever reached the 100-yard plateau in eight consecutive games at any point during a season. Halfway through the campaign, Thielen leads the league in receptions, targets and yards and has scored six touchdowns. Not bad for someone who might’ve sold dental equipment if he didn’t make the NFL.


Loser: Jacksonville Jaguars

Blake Bortles Jaguars

Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

There could be a referendum on Blake Bortles in the front office soon. In only eight weeks, the Jaguars have failed to score 20 points five times and he was benched briefly, too. As problematic as he’s been, however, he’s not Jacksonville’s only big issue right now. Last year’s tenacious defense hasn’t matched that performance. During a four-game skid, the Jags surrendered 40 points to the Dallas Cowboys. How a defense that held Tom Brady and the Pats to 20 gives up that many to Dallas is stunning. Sitting at an ugly 3-5, Jacksonville better figure it out quickly.


Winner: Los Angeles Chargers

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The Chargers only have two losses. Those happened against the Rams and Chiefs, who sport a 15-1 combined record. So, yeah, Philip Rivers and Co. should be taken seriously. The scoring attack ranks eighth at 27.9 points per game, largely thanks to a hyper-efficient season from Rivers. His 69.1 completion percentage and 9.1 yards per attempt are career-high marks, and he’s thrown 17 touchdowns to only three interceptions. A brutal December schedule will determine if the Chargers are a playoff team, but they’re in position for at least a wild-card berth.


Loser: Arizona Cardinals

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Thanks a lot, Arizona, you’ve broken Larry Fitzgerald. The Cardinals are so bad that the receiver’s son attended the Arizona State Fair rather than support the team against the San Francisco 49ers. Fitzgerald then unleashed the first spike of his career during the game out of frustration. Sure, the Cardinals managed a win, yet they’re still just 2-6 for the season. Arizona ranks 31st in points and 32nd in yards per game. Josh Rosen is the future of the offense, and all playing time is important for the rookie right now. But that’s not going to result in many wins this season.


Winner: Darius Leonard, Indianapolis Colts

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Although the Colts are just 3-5, Darius Leonard has excelled. When the organization used a second-round pick on the linebacker in the 2018 NFL draft, most analysis labeled him a reach. Indianapolis could’ve grabbed him later, perhaps. But with this production, there’s no longer any concern about it. Leonard has racked up a league-best 88 tackles, recording at least 13 in a game five times. The South Carolina State product topped out at 19 against Washington. Leonard, who’s also tallied four sacks and three forced fumbles, is already a star for Indy.


Loser: Buffalo Bills

Will pending legal troubles hurt LeSean McCoy?

Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Here’s some not-breaking news: Winning is difficult when the offense doesn’t put up points. Just once has Buffalo scored three touchdowns, so it shouldn’t be a surprise the Bills own the lowest scoring average in the league. An elbow injury to quarterback Josh Allen isn’t helping, but Buffalo quarterbacks have combined for three passing touchdowns and 12 interceptions. LeSean McCoy has trudged to just 4.3 yards per touch during an injury-affected campaign and is also the subject of trade rumors. Good thing the Bills made the playoffs last year for the first time since 1999, because it could be a while before that happens again.


Winner: Carolina Panthers

Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

The torrid start in New Orleans has overshadowed what’s happening with the Panthers, but they’re right behind the Saints. A resurgent Cam Newton has amassed 1,953 total yards of offense and accounted for 17 touchdowns with only four interceptions. His 66.4 completion mark is smashing a previous best of 61.7, and Carolina is averaging 5.3 yards per carry compared to 4.3 last year. Throw in an above-average defense, and the Panthers remain a top NFC South contender. They could appear in the postseason for the fifth time in the last six seasons.


Loser: San Francisco 49ers

Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Kyle Shanahan’s club hasn’t done any winning since losing Jimmy Garoppolo. The potential franchise-saving quarterback tore his right ACL in Week 3. His replacement, C.J. Beathard, has lumbered to 7.4 yards per attempt with seven interceptions in five starts, and the 49ers have fallen to 1-7 in the process. They’re not going to thrive without Jimmy GQ, but a fourth-quarter collapse against the Cardinals is flat-out embarrassing. Some late-game competence would be promising from San Francisco. Instead, the Niners are playing for draft position.

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