With the LA Chargers 27-to-6 victory over the New York Jets Monday night, the 2023 NFL regular season reached its halfway point. Here’s my recap:
Midway through the 2023 NFL season, all 32 teams have won at least one game. No team is undefeated. One AFC division boasts four clubs with winning records, who collectively have tallied 22 victories. One NFC division has recorded just 13 wins total! Both of last year’s Super Bowl participants lead their conferences. No team is without weakness. And the league’s likely offensive and defensive MVP’s are all familiar names.
Days before the halfway point, Las Vegas’ s Josh McDaniels became the season’s first head coaching casualty. After a contentious team meeting where negative feelings bubbled over, Raiders’ owner Mark Davis felt he had no choice but to make a change, promoting his resident linebackers coach Antonio Pierce to the top job. The Raiders responded with a 30-to-6 thumping of the struggling New York Giants, whose own second-year head coach Brian Daboll was last season’s AP NFL Coach of the Year. Go figure.
Following a 3-1 start, the Tampa Bay Bucs have dropped 4 straight, culminating with a fourth quarter defensive collapse against rookie quarterback CJ Stroud and the Houston Texans. Each new Tampa defeat brings beleaguered Bucs head coach Todd Bowles’ closer to unemployment. Just 2 ½ years ago, Tampa Bay beat Kansas City in Super Bowl LV (55). In 2023, NFC South teams (Bucs, Panthers and Falcons) have combined for just 8 wins—by far the senior conference’s losingest division.
Last week, despite a mid-season quarterback change, the Falcons continued their decline under head coach Arthur Smith, losing to Minnesota in the game’s closing seconds 31-to-28. Much to Smith’s chagrin, this game featured the season’s most inspirational performance, a gritty Vikings debut by journeyman quarterback Joshua Dobbs, acquired from Arizona by trade just six days earlier.
Dobbs was not scheduled to play. Minnesota rookie QB Jaren Hall—who himself was replacing veteran QB Kirk Cousins, whose season ended due to a ruptured Achilles—started his first NFL game and promptly led the Vikings to a field goal. Then he left the game with a concussion. Enter the New Guy.
Dobbs took the field, introduced himself to his teammates, called plays he never practiced from a playbook he never had time to study—then was tackled in his own end zone for a safety. Not a fortuitous beginning to his Minnesota tenure.
But Joshua Dobbs persevered. In the fourth quarter, trailing 28-to-24, he pieced together an 11-play, 75-yard drive featuring a 22-yard, fourth down and seven scramble that kept Minnesota’s hopes alive. His 6-yard, game-winning touchdown pass to Brandon Powell came with just :22 seconds left in the game.
For his efforts, the Vikings welcomed him to their post-game locker room with a rousing ovation and a game ball—quite a day for the University of Tennessee star playing with his third NFL team this calendar year (Arizona and Cleveland). Along the way, the aerospace engineer earned a new nickname: “Pass-tro-naut.” After a 1-4 start, the Vikes fourth consecutive victory brought their record to 5-4
Minnesota now trails only the 6-2 Lions in the NFC North, and Detroit's remaining schedule is not that difficult. Green Bay and Chicago appear to be non-factors, and if Bears QB Justin Fields doesn’t return soon and Chicago keeps losing, Matt Eberflus may well be the next head coach to lose his job—if Atlanta’s Arthur Smith doesn’t get torpedoed before him!
In the AFC North, Pittsburgh is one of three teams (Cleveland & Cincinnati) tied at 5-3. Few people are comparing Steelers QB Kenny Pickett ro Patrick Mahomes. But in just 20 career starts, Pittsburgh’s second-year passer has executed 6 fourth quarter, come-from-behind wins, including last week’s 20-to-16 triumph over the 3-5 Tennessee Titans. That ain’t bad, KP!
Elsewhere in the NFL’s winningest division, Cleveland pitched a 27-to-0 shutout against the Arizona Cardinals, the third game this year in which the Browns did not allow a touchdown. The Browns are allowing the fewest total Yards Per Game (234.8) by far and rank third in total Points Per Game (15.9), trailing only Baltimore and Kansas City.
Their Ohio counterparts the Cincinnati Bengals won their fourth straight game, a convincing 24-to-18 primetime victory at home against Josh Allen’s inconsistent Buffalo Bills. (The description came from Bills head coach Sean McDermott.) Bengals QB Joe Burrow’s strained calf muscle seems to be fully healed, and defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo’s opportunistic unit has now recorded 11 interceptions, second best total in the NFL. Watch out for these guys!
But all three of these competent AFC North contenders trail the 7-2 Baltimore Ravens, arguably the scariest team in pro football. Consider these things:
During the Ravens current four-game win streak, Baltimore has scored 130 points and allowed just 49. The Ravens rank second overall in Fewest Yards Allowed Per Game (262.6), Passing Yards Per Game (170.6) and Passes Defended (52). They lead the league in Sacks (35.0) and Fewest Points Allowed (120)—despite having played nine games without a bye, one more than 13 other NFL teams.
Offensively, Lamar Jackson’s 71.5 pass completion percentage ranks as the NFL’s best. But it’s his 440 rushing yards that make Lamar special. They seem to come at critical moments in Ravens’ contests, and their impact is often devastating. When added to Baltimore’s team total, they elevate the Ravens’ Rush Yards Per Game number to 160.3, by far the most in the NFL. This week they tangle with the Browns in Baltimore. It promises to be a good one.
In the AFC, only Kansas City rivals Baltimore’s strength and balance on both sides of the football. Witness Kansas City’s dismantling of the Miami Dolphins, a total team effort last Sunday in Germany.
After building a 14-to-0 lead on two Patrick Mahomes TD passes, Chiefs defenders sandwiched Miami wide out Tyreek Hill, forcing a fumble recovered by KC safety Mike Edwards. When cornered, Edwards wisely lateraled the ball to teammate Byron Cook, who tightroped the sideline for a 59-yard score and a commanding 21-to-0 halftime lead.
In the third quarter, a pair of Miami touchdowns made it a one-score game. But in the final stanza, the Dolphins offense crossed midfield only twice. The first time, a run stop and a sack resulted in 17 lost yards and a punt. On their final possession, Miami QB Tua Tagovailoa threw three consecutive incompletions before fumbling a snap in the face of a Kansas City blitz—and the Dolphins forfeited yet another chance to make a statement with a season-making win.
Post game, Mahomes called his Chiefs defense the best in the pro football. San Francisco wide receiver Deebo Samuel took exception, calling both the 49ers offensive and defensive units the NFL’s best.
This weekend, the 49ers can make their statement on the field, as they take on the Jaguars in Jacksonville. With Trevor Lawrence playing at a high level for second-year head coach Doug Pederson, the Jags conceivably could run away with the AFC South. But defensively, Jacksonville still appears to be a few key player acquisitions away from a championship unit. Sunday’s game will tell us a lot.
A month ago, I thought San Franciso RB Christian McCaffrey and QB Brock Purdy would share this year’s Most Valuable Player award. But three straight 49ers losses have muddied the waters, casting doubt on San Francisco’s early-season dominance. The burden rests with the 49ers to right their own ship. Chase Young's edge rush presence should help.
Baltimore’s 37-to-3 humbling of Seattle last Sunday accomplished two things. It elevated Ravens’ QB Lamar Jackson into the MVP discussion (Jackson won the award in 2019). And it brought about a tie atop the NFC West. Both the Seahawks and the 49ers enter this weekend at 5-3. But while the Seahawks may have reached their limit with QB Geno Smith, Purdy and the 49ers definitely possess more upside.
San Francisco versus Jacksonville just may be this week’s most consequential game.
Finally, there’s the NFC East, where the Philadelphia Eagles enter their bye week with an NFL best 8-1 record. Last Sunday night, the Dallas Cowboys came within inches of beating the Birds and taking control of the division. Alas, they did not.
No team in football has allowed fewer rush yards than Philadelphia. That’s because everybody throws the ball against the Eagles with great success. The Eagles rank 28th in Pass Yards Per Game and dead last in total pass yards allowed (2313). Last Sunday, Dallas QB Dak Prescott completed 29 passes for 374 yards and 3 TD’s. It would have been 4 if Dallas tight end Luke Schoonmaker’s knee hadn’t touched the ground before he extended the ball over the goal line. So close, but then, so was Dak's two point conversion attempt.
Fortunately for Philly, the team’s offense continues to excel. Quarterback Jalen Hurts is leading his team at an MVP level. Wide receiver AJ Brown ranks third in the league in receptions (67) and second in yards gained (1005) and explosive 20+ yard catches (18). Though the Eagles ground game has been sluggish of late, Philly still averages 28 Points Per Game, second only to Miami’s 31.7. The Eagles’ Tush Push (aka. Brotherly Shove) success rate is off the chart!
So who is this year’s MVP? If Philadelphia keeps winning, probably Hurts. The same for Mahomes in Kansas City. Jackson is making his case weekly with the Ravens. And don’t discount Purdy and Prescott in San Francisco. Or Burrow if he keeps dealing in Cincinnati. Or Prescott if he remembers to keep his feet inbounds.
As for who will play in Super Bowl LVIII (58), reread the previous paragraph. Two of the above names will face off against each other for this year's Lombardi Trophy.