Lawrence: Halfway Home, The NFL Season After Week 8

By Amy Lawrence

We made it! We’ve reached the midway point of the 2016 NFL season. Time to pause, take a breath and survey the landscape. Time to talk about what’s trending through eight weeks of another unique, unpredictable, erratic year on the gridiron.

The NFL is increasingly thick around the middle. The word “parity” doesn’t do this season justice. You can’t single out many powerhouses or obvious Super Bowl contenders at the midway point. With one loss each, the New England Patriots and Dallas Cowboys are the only teams leading their divisions by at least two games. Just a quarter of the teams have reached five wins, which leaves roughly half the league within a game of .500. Contrast this year with 2015 when the Patriots, Bengals, Broncos and Panthers were still undefeated at the halfway mark. This fall, very few franchises are separating themselves from the pack.

The NFC East and AFC West are on the rise. These two divisions are not only competitive, but they’re full of playoff potential. Along with the Cowboys, every other member of the NFC East sports a winning record. Anyone remember last season when only the Redskins managed to climb above the Mendoza Line in the final few weeks of the year? Even as Dallas continues to rattle off victories behind rookie Dak Prescott, the entire East can harbor wild card aspirations. In the AFC West, five-time defending champ Denver is locked in a battle with the Raiders and Chiefs. They’re all tied in the loss column, and they’re all dangerous in different ways. Expect the wild, wild West to be a duel to the death!

Elite quarterback play is still at a premium. Consistency at the most important position in football is extremely hard to find and worth its weight in gold. Through Week 8, a DOZEN teams have already used multiple quarterbacks because of injuries or ineptitude. Compare that to 19 teams all of last year. That number doesn’t include the Cowboys and Eagles who elevated their rookies from third-string to starter in the preseason. Nor does that number include the Rams who have yet to throw the first overall draft pick Jared Goff into the fray. All four of the franchises who advanced to last winter’s conference championships have been forced to make QB moves. Of course, they can’t hold a candle to the Cleveland Browns who’ve used six QBs, only slightly fewer than the number of games they’ve lost (eight).

Read more commentary from Amy Lawrence.

Thousand-yard rushers are an endangered species. Steady, reliable, dependable production at the running back position is scarce in today’s NFL. Of the seven players who finished with at least 1000 yards rushing last season, only Devonta Freeman remains in the top 20 in yardage. Adrian Peterson and Doug Martin, who set the pace with 1,400+ yards a year ago, are nursing long-term injuries. Featured backs LeSean McCoy of Buffalo and C.J. Anderson of Denver are also missing time. Only a half-dozen running backs have surpassed 600 yards on the ground at the halfway mark. Cowboys rookie Ezekiel Elliott is dazzling behind a stout offensive line, and he’s just shy of 800 yards. He’s also first in carries per game with nearly 23! Former Cowboy DeMarco Murray is resurgent in Tennessee with 756 yards rushing.

Fresh faces top the list of MVP candidates. Quarterbacks Matt Ryan of the Falcons and Derek Carr from the Raiders are neck and neck for the league’s top individual award, and they would each be first-time winners. As the point guards for their high-powered offenses, they compensate for extremely flawed defenses. Ryan is already sitting on 2,636 yards passing and 19 touchdowns, best in the NFL in both stats. As a team, Atlanta has racked up more yards and points than any other club through Week 8. Oakland is a perfect 5-0 on the road in large part because of Carr. His incredible 513 yards passing in Sunday’s overtime victory at Tampa Bay were a franchise record and the ninth most passing yards in a single game in NFL history! Tom Brady is gaining traction in the MVP race, too. The Patriots are unbeaten since his return from suspension, and he’s been nearly perfect with 12 touchdowns and more than 1,300 yards in a month.

Sagging TV ratings are THE talk of the town. Everyone has a theory (or several) to explain why NFL ratings are on the decline. Through the first six weeks, the numbers for national broadcasts were down 11% on average from last season. Primetime games have been thumped in the ratings by presidential debates and the World Series. A combination of factors is likely responsible, including the heated, historical election; unappealing matchups; a plethora of penalties and replays; and attention-grabbing national anthem protests. In addition, fewer people are watching traditional TV. More and more sports fans follow their favorite teams on their tablets or phones via live streaming or social media. And national broadcasts three days a week may be more over-saturation and less appointment viewing. The ratings trends certainly make for great debate among fans, players, advertisers and football executives.

It’s always fun to take stock of where we’ve been and contemplate where we might end up. With so much football yet to be played this season, the possibilities are endless. Time to strap in for the second half of the regular season and find out where this NFL journey takes us next!

A well-traveled veteran and pioneer of sports radio and television, Amy Lawrence is the host of CBS Sports Radio’s late-night program ‘After Hours with Amy Lawrence.’ The show can be heard weekdays from 2-6am ET on the nation’s largest 24/7 major-market radio network. Follow her on Twitter @ALawRadio.

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