Ten winners and losers at NFL’s midway point

Derick E. Hingle, USA Today Sports

Now that the 2016 NFL season is at the midway marker, it is time to call out certain standout teams and players.

Who would have predicted a rookie quarterback-led team would be first in its division? On the other side of the field, a high-producing quarterback from last year has scored only five touchdowns.

Furthermore, some of last year’s high-flying teams are stuck in neutral. And, other struggling clubs just seem destined for failure for the foreseeable future.

The following makes for our list of mid-season winners and losers.

Winner: Tom Brady’s suspension was irrelevant 

There is not much to complain about if you are a New England Patriots fan.

A four-game suspension for star quarterback Tom Brady has only made the team stronger. New England won three of the games that Brady sat out and, and even played a third-string backup in the process.

Brady returned to the game in stellar, prime form. This is after spending his suspension time throwing the pigskin around to his wife and former receiver Wes Welker to keep in practice.

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Since his return, Brady is averaging 329.7 passing yards and four touchdowns per game, without an interception in sight. All the while, he has completed 73.1 percent of his passes.

Unfortunately, the rest of the AFC East teams are still trying to figure out life.

Rex Ryan’s Buffalo Bills (4-4) have been plagued with one injury after another. Keeping a handle on their second place status in the division is Buffalo’s only attainable goal.

The Miami Dolphins (3-4) will return from a bye and a two-game win streak. They’ll square off with a very beatable Jets squad in Week 9.

Quarterback woes and a defense allowing 26 points on average per week are crippling factors for a last place New York, (3-5).

At this time, there is no reason to believe that Brady and his Patriots will not win the division with flying colors, per the usual.

Loser: Tony Romo and NFC East fall victim to Dak Attack

Tony Romo

The Cowboys’ veteran quarterback might want to be sure his resume is updated. His starting job is not-so-subtly being stolen right before his eyes.

Rookie quarterback Dak Prescott has been incredible. Filling in for Romo for seven games, Prescott has tallied 13 total touchdowns compared to just two interceptions.

Best yet, the Cowboys are winning with this brilliant rookie passer under center. At the mid-season point, Dallas leads the NFC East division with a 6-1 record.

All the while, Eli Manning and his Giants are 4-3. New York’s offense has not exactly impressed, averaging just 19 points per contest. The Eagles are 4-3 as well. They were soaring high at the start of the season. But, rookie quarterback Carson Wentz and the gang have since lost some steam. Washington, perhaps surprisingly to some, sits at the bottom of the division with a 4-3-1 record.

Regarding Dallas, Romo has resumed practicing. But heading into Week 9, the Cowboys have already decided that Prescott will start.

They claim Romo is not quite back to full health. The writing on the wall is painfully obvious here. Romo has potentially already played his final snap as a starter with Dallas.

Winner: Everyone but the Chicago Bears in the NFC North

The bad news Bears sit at the bottom of the NFC North with a 2-6 record. Magnifying the Bears’ struggles are injuries at the quarterback position. Jay Cutler missed several games when he injured his thumb in Week 2.

Brian Hoyer did an adequate job as a fill-in until he broke his arm in Week 6. Cutler is back under center and looked great on Monday night. But we’ve all learned by now not to hold out too much hope as far as he’s concerned long term.

Regarding the rest of the division, first place could eventually be up for grabs. Currently, Sam Bradford’s Vikings lead with a 6-2 record. Minnesota’s top-ranked defense is stout and helps sustain an offense that isn’t exactly torching opposing defenses.

The Green Bay Packers are 4-3. This is partially because quarterback Aaron Rodgers and the Pack have not exactly brought their “A” game each week.

This left the door open for Matthew Stafford’s 4-4 Detroit Lions. That is not exactly a bragging record, but it is worth noting that Stafford is playing lights out. He has a quarterback rating of 103.4, and is playing like the best quarterback within the division.

In looking back to the Bears, it would take a lot of losses by the rest of the division to see Chicago make any noise. The Bears have not won the NFC North since 2010.

Loser: Jared Goff wasting away on the bench

Jared Goff

While other rookie quarterbacks are enjoying center stage, the first overall pick from the 2016 NFL Draft has been stashed on the bench.

Yes. Goff is literally wasting away while the Los Angeles Rams continue to have faith in Case Keenum. So far this year, Keenum has offered more tricks than treats. He has a lowly quarterback rating of 77.5 and has scored a total of nine touchdowns compared to 10 interceptions.

Because no one club is really owning the NFC West just yet, the Rams (3-4) still have a fighting chance. But, this chance will keep diminishing if Keenum remains under center.

Los Angeles is currently on a three-game losing streak. The offense is clearly not a well-oiled machine, so what could the team lose by allowing Goff to start? Los Angeles’ offense ranks 30th in the league and cannot get much worse.

It is only a matter of time before either the Seattle Seahawks (4-2-1) or Arizona Cardinals (3-4-1) surge ahead in the race and shut out the Rams.

The Rams gave up the farm to draft Goff, and we are still scratching our heads trying to figure out what Jeff Fisher is doing.

Winner: Oakland Raiders giving Denver Broncos a run for the money

It might be only a matter of time before Derek Carr and the Raiders surpass the Denver Broncos in the race to win the AFC West.

Carr is putting up some jaw-dropping numbers this season. As a result, the Raiders currently have the third-best offense in the league. Yes, we are talking about the Raiders here, folks.

Oakland’s quarterback played out of his mind in Sunday’s Week 8 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Carr passed for 513 yards in this one, throwing all four touchdowns after halftime.

Currently, both the Raiders and the Broncos are 6-2. In Week 9, something will give. Oakland hosts Denver in their first divisional game. Unless there is a tie, which would not be shocking considering we have seen two in the last two weeks, one team will advance.

The Raiders’ two losses this year come in home games. And, we can be sure that Denver’s defense will be the toughest one Carr and Co.  have faced.

Oakland’s defense ranks 31st in the league, so the Broncos’ offense could do some damage.

We must mention the Kansas City Chiefs here as they are tight in the huddle at 5-2. Unfortunately, there has to be a loser and it is San Diego at this time with just three wins.

If the Raiders keep up their pace, they’ll find themselves in the playoffs for the first time since 2002. Managing a win against Denver next Sunday certainly points them in right direction.

Loser: Cleveland Browns still the factory of sadness

If the Cleveland Browns (0-8) continue to lose for the rest of the season, they will have the No. 1 pick in the 2017 NFL Draft. Maybe that is part of the plan.

Each time we predict that the Browns might actually win their first game, they choke. Painfully, their quarterback curse continues. After the team rid itself of Johnny Manziel this offseason, Robert Griffin III was signed. Unfortunately it took about a minute for RGIII to become injured in Week 1 and land himself on IR.

Then, backup Josh McCown became injured in Week 2.

The Browns had no choice but to start rookie Cody Kessler. He actually has not been too bad, but a concussion held him out in Week 8. McCown is once again the starter.

And despite one loss after another, Cleveland’s offense ranks 12th-best in the league. Unfortunately, Cleveland’s defense is giving up a ghastly average of 421.5 yards and 29.8 points per game.

But, perhaps all hope is not lost in the AFC North. The Pittsburgh Steelers lead with just four wins. And both Cincinnati and Baltimore have disappointed with three wins each.

If the Browns can just manage a few wins while their divisional rivals lose, things could turn around. Based on how things are going for the Dawg Pound, we’re not holding our breath.

Winner: High-scoring Falcons soaring above their rivals

Matt Ryan, Julio Jones

While the Carolina Panthers appear to still be nursing their Super Bowl hangover, the Atlanta Falcons have swooped in to claim the division as their own.

Heading the NFC South with five wins, Atlanta is enjoying a nice two-game lead over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New Orleans Saints. Meanwhile, the Panthers finally scraped together their second win of the season and rank last in the division — a far cry from last year’s 15-1 season that eventually sent Carolina to the Championship game.

Now, it is time to give Matty Ice and the Falcons a shout out. The veteran signal caller has been simply amazing so far, passing for an average of 329.1 yards per game with 19 touchdown and just four interceptions. His passer rating is a golden 115.8. If he only had better protection from his offensive line that has allowed 20 sacks, his stats might even be higher.

The goal at this time would be for the Falcons not to allow their lead to slip away like it did early last year. Fortunately, Atlanta has a pretty favorable schedule moving forward to take full advantage of its hot start.

Loser: 49ers still stuck in the starting gate

We did not mention the 49ers when we discussed the Rams’ standing in the NFC West. This is because San Francisco has been practically irrelevant.

One win accomplished eons ago in Week 1 was the only positive thing the 49ers have done this season. Blaine Gabbert was under center that game when the 49ers shut out the Rams 28-0.

Gabbert has since been benched and replaced by Colin Kaepernick. Kap has started in two games and has been as unimpressive as Gabbert, and as an overall unit, the 49ers have just been horrible.

Their offense ranks 31st in the league while their defense ranks 22nd.

It would take a miracle at this point to see this team winning more than perhaps one more game. An early draft pick next year is about all Chip Kelly and his team can look forward to if things remain status quo.

Winner: David Johnson’s fantasy football owners

David Johnson

We have already mentioned the Cardinals and the fact that they have a middling 3-4-1 standing.

That does not matter one bit to those who own second-year running back David Johnson in fantasy football leagues. Johnson is on tempo to produce some monster numbers by the end of the season. Should he continue his pace, he will end 2016 with a total of 2,220 all-purpose yards.

Breaking this down, Johnson is averaging 138.75 combined rushing and receiving yards per contest. He is also toting the rock at an average pace of 4.5 yards per carry. Along with piling up yardage, Johnson has been scoring a ton of points. Currently, he has a total of 12 touchdowns on the books. If this continues, Johnson will have 24 scores by the season’s end.

The Cardinals clearly hit pay dirt when they drafted Johnson in the third round back in 2015. And fantasy owners who were lucky enough to land Johnson in this year’s first round are undoubtedly happy with their choice.

Loser: Russell Wilson’s mind-blowing stats

What is going on with Russell Wilson?

Wilson has been so bad it’s hard to remember what it looks like when he scores a touchdown. That is because he has not passed for a score since Week 4, friends. To date, Wilson has only five passing touchdowns and zero rushing scores.

He will finish 2016 with only 11 touchdowns if he continues down this path. Last year, Wilson posted a career-high 34 passing touchdowns and added one on the ground.

Thankfully, the Seahawks have a dominating defense, because Wilson’s offense is barely getting by with an average of 18.7 points per game.

Perhaps the newly married and father-to-be is simply distracted. Or maybe his injuries are hampering him more than he’d ever admit. Whatever it is, the Seahawks need to fix Wilson and the offense moving ahead. A quarterback who is barely scoring is not one we will likely be seeing in this season’s Super Bowl.