With Week 11 of the 2021 NFL season underway, all 32 teams have now played at least half of their 17-game schedule. Surprisingly, cresting the midpoint of the campaign has produced little clarity to the big picture.
Every club has at least two losses, yet 19 check in at .500 or better, and just five are more than 1½ games removed from holding a playoff spot – only the Lions completely out of the running in the NFC. And the field is compressing, division-leading teams suffering eight losses over the past two weeks to opponents that did not have winning records.
Yet even though unknowns abound going into the next two months, some things seem to have crystallized in the wake of the season’s first half – enough to crown some winners and label some losers after 10 weeks.
Tom Brady: But of course. Sure, the reigning Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers have lost their past two games, dropping them to the NFC’s projected No. 4 seed despite leading the NFC South. But plenty of games left for TB12 to make a push for his fourth MVP award – and maybe wrest away more of former rival Peyton Manning’s records. Brady leads the league in touchdown passes (27) and passing yards per game (318.9), numbers that should allow him to go threaten Manning’s marks for passing yards (5,477) and TDs (55) in a season.
Baltimore Ravens: They have 15 players on injured reserve, including All-Pro LT Ronnie Stanley and CB Marcus Peters plus top RBs J.K. Dobbins, Gus Edwards and Justice Hill. Yet the Ravens (6-3) have managed to remain atop the AFC North, and QB Lamar Jackson has developed into a more effective passer not a moment too late given his depleted backfield. And despite all that, Baltimore still boasts the league’s No. 1 run game even with Jackson on pace to throw for more than 4,600 yards while potentially capturing MVP honors for the second time in three seasons.
Les Snead: Well, we think he and his Los Angeles Rams are winners. Snead’s acquisitions of QB Matthew Stafford, who’s on the MVP short list, and OLB Von Miller further depleted the franchise’s already scant future draft resources (WR Odell Beckham Jr. arrived at almost no cost last week). LA now has as much big-name talent as any squad and sits only a a game behind the Green Bay Packers for the NFC’s top playoff seed. However if the Rams (7-3), also losers of two straight, ultimately put too high a premium on sex appeal and not enough on gritty players, Snead will be in the crosshairs of second guessers.
Cooper Kupp: Perhaps the primary beneficiary of Stafford’s arrival, he’s pacing the league with 85 receptions, 1,141 receiving yards and 10 TD grabs. And with the extra game on the schedule, Kupp has a shot to become the first man to collect 150 receptions and/or the first to amass 2,000 receiving yards.
Kliff Kingsbury: With the Arizona Cardinals off to an 8-2 start and holding first place in the typically tough NFC West, his job looks far more secure as Year 3 rolls on.
Manningcast: Listening to Peyton and Eli and their guests gab on ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” simulcast has been such a fun and refreshing way to consume NFL football – to the point it’s disappointing when the brothers have a bye week.
Cordarrelle Patterson: Rare to see a player reinvent himself on the wrong side of 30, but he’s managed to do exactly that. A four-time All-Pro due to his prodigious abilities as a returner, Patterson already has a career-best 776 yards from scrimmage and – despite missing Thursday night’s game with a bum ankle – led the Atlanta Falcons with seven TDs and 303 rushing yards and was second in both receptions (39) and receiving yards (473). Pretty cool to see a former one-trick pony – and Patterson still handles kickoffs – perform so many new tricks.
Carson Wentz: Revitalized upon being reunited with coach Frank Reich, the sixth-year quarterback appears capable of bringing long-sought stability to the position for the Indianapolis Colts and is playing close to the level that shot him to prominence in Philadelphia.
Teams with multiple first-round picks in 2022: If the season had ended after Week 10, the New York Giants, New York Jets and Philadelphia Eagles would all hold a pair of top-10 picks in next spring’s draft. Not ideal that all three clubs have sub-.500 ledgers, but certainly nice that the Chicago Bears, Miami Dolphins and Seattle Seahawks are struggling, too, since their 2022 Round 1 selections are the ones that convey to the other trio. And with Wentz having played in 99.3% of the Colts’ offensive snaps so far, it appears very likely Philly will enjoy three first-rounders next year.
Bill Belichick: The New England Patriots missed the playoffs in Year 1 post-Brady but now look as capable as any other team in the AFC of reaching Super Bowl 56. Leave it to Belichick to bring in quality free agents and rookies while restoring his defense to elite status.
Dak Prescott: A year removed from his grisly ankle dislocation, he’s leading the NFL with a career-best 110.8 QB rating and has the Dallas Cowboys (7-2) in comfortable control of the NFC East.
AFC North pass rushers: The Cleveland Browns’ Myles Garrett (13) and Pittsburgh Steelers’ T.J. Watt (12½) are the league’s top sack artists, though Watt, who missed one game, is actually on track for a single-season record 25. Good chance one will take home his first defensive player of the year award after the season.
Rookie pass catchers: Falcons TE Kyle Pitts, Eagles WR DeVonta Smith, Cincinnati Bengals WR Ja’Marr Chase and Dolphins WR Jaylen Waddle – all 2021 first-rounders – have each surpassed 40 catches and 550 yards while largely justifying their pre-draft hype. Chase is on track to become the first rookie to eclipse 1,500 receiving yards.
NFC: With four teams (Packers, Cardinals, Cowboys, Rams) owning at least seven wins – to say nothing of the Bucs (6-3) – it appears to be the power conference.
Aaron Rodgers: He’s got Green Bay in position to secure the No. 1 seed for the second straight season and earn a first-round bye for the third year in a row. And despite laying a Week 1 egg after being an off season no-show, Rodgers is also well positioned to make a run at a fourth MVP award.
Aaron Rodgers: His prevarication about his vaccination status – after getting on his soapbox in July regarding how the Packers organization operates – may have done lasting damage to his image and could ultimately cost Green Bay in the standings considering the team lost the game Rodgers missed. And if he does indeed become available next year, it’s worth wondering if Rodgers’ high-maintenance side might deter potential suitors.
AFC: Eleven teams had five or six wins heading into Week 11, with only the Tennessee Titans (8-2) banking more. Should make for a fascinating pre-playoff scrum down the stretch, yet it’s worth wondering how many of these seemingly average teams can really stand toe to toe with the NFC’s elite.
Rookie quarterbacks: With the notable exception of New England’s Mac Jones, a ballyhooed class of first-round passers – the Jacksonville Jaguars’ Trevor Lawrence (No. 1 overall), Jets’ Zach Wilson (No. 2 overall), San Francisco 49ers’ Trey Lance (No. 3 overall) and Bears’ Justin Fields (11th overall) – has largely disappointed. Jones has more wins (7) than the rest, including third-rounder Davis Mills, combined.
Urban Meyer: The NFL rookie learning curve has probably been harder on the Jags’ first-year coach than any incoming player in 2021. The three-time national champion college coach spent the better part of nine months pushing all the wrong buttons, notably his infamous decision to hang out in Ohio following the Jags’ Week 4 loss at Cincinnati. In fairness, Jacksonville has split its last four games and is starting to resemble a tough, physical football team.
2011 draft class: Arguably the greatest haul ever, its stars are breaking down 10 years later, several in unfamiliar uniforms. Miller, CB Patrick Peterson (Vikings), WR A.J. Green (Cardinals), WR Julio Jones (Titans) and DE J.J. Watt (Cardinals) all joined new teams with limited impact. However maybe QB Cam Newton’s return to the Panthers will spark Carolina into postseason.
Tua Tagovailoa: He’s missed four games, hasn’t played great when on the field, his team stinks, and only now is he getting a reprieve regarding speculation Miami would trade for Deshaun Watson. It could very well be a temporary one if Tagovailoa doesn’t turn things around for a team that was expected to be in the playoff conversation.
Running backs: Tennessee’s Derrick Henry (foot) is likely out for the remainder of the regular season (at minimum), Dallas’ Ezekiel Elliott finds himself sharing carries, and Minnesota’s Dalvin Cook, the Giants’ Saquon Barkley and Carolina’s Christian McCaffrey have all missed significant time. Further evidence this ain’t the position to play if you want to stick around the NFL for awhile.
Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill: Three months ago, they were battling for the New Orleans Saints’ starting quarterback job. Now Winston, who beat out Hill, is out for the year with a torn ACL, and Trevor Siemian was tabbed as his replacement over Hill. Winston and Hill are both ticketed for free agency after the season.
Detroit Lions: Still haven’t won a game even if they can take slight comfort they won’t lose them all after last Sunday’s tie.
Matt Nagy: Few head men entered the season on a hotter seat than his … and Fields’ struggles and Chicago’s record (3-6) and 31st-ranked offense haven’t cooled it one bit.
Sam Darnold: His apologists blamed the Jets for his three years of failure in New York. His detractors will note he’s tied for the league lead in interceptions (11) with a more-talented Panthers squad. Now on IR with a scapula injury, the realists are wondering if Darnold will get any more chances to be a QB1 in the NFL.
Washington Football Team: Their failure to adequately address the quarterback position predictably proved costly for the defending NFC East champions, who check in at 3-6. DE Chase Young’s torn ACL doesn’t bode well for the 2022 edition. Pretty much a wasted season here.
Baker Mayfield: His last-place Browns (5-5) have been one of the league’s more notable underachievers. A physically battered Mayfield has to take some blame for failing to delivering adequately on the field, even if he doesn’t really deserve the blame for the team’s divorce from Beckham. Still, not what Mayfield hoped for from a collective perspective nor a personal one at a time when the No. 1 pick of the 2018 draft only has one year left on his rookie contract.
Las Vegas Raiders: Their 3-0 start seems so long ago given this season will forever be remembered for former coach Jon Gruden’s stunning downfall and the obligatory releases of 2020 first-rounders Henry Ruggs III and Damon Arnette for extremely serious off-field transgressions. Despite a 5-4 record, the Silver and Black seem closer to rock bottom than the playoffs.
Deshaun Watson: The not-yet-former Houston Texans star is in a football purgatory of his own making, awaiting resolution of his legal troubles and what that could mean for a football career that once seemed destined for greatness.
Taunting: Is anyone happy with the disproportionate emphasis on this rule? There were 35 taunting calls through Week 10 – meaning it was flagged 30 more times than it was at the same point of the 2020 season. Players hate it, fans hate it, and – I daresay – so do the preponderance of NFL scribes given a little extra woofing had hardly become the scourge of the gridiron. Let’s hope a few out-of-touch folks who have the competition committee’s ear get this fixed sooner than later. In fact, officiating in general hasn’t seemed up to par in 2021. We feel your pain, Sean Payton.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NFL midseason winners, losers: Tom Brady up, Baker Mayfield down