— Any weekly power rankings can tell you where teams stand right now. But how will the NFL landscape look at the end of the season? Here’s a look at where we think teams will finish, and how they’ve looked in the first half.
16. Carolina Panthers; 1-7; Predicted finish 2-14
What’s gone right: The defense is actually pretty good. Dan Connor and James Anderson were revelations at linebacker. The Panthers are very tough to pass against. For the most part, the Panthers don’t get blown out.
What’s gone wrong: Connor and starting quarterback Matt Moore were lost for the season in Week 9. With Moore’s help, the Panthers have put together one of the worst passing attacks of the last decade. Rookie QB Jimmy Clausen has looked absolutely lost when given the chance. DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart have no holes to run through, so a once-dominant running game has collapsed.
What’s next: It’s not John Fox’s fault, but this Panthers season is turning into a textbook case of what can go wrong in a lame duck season. Fox won’t be back next year. The organization has no quarterback solution and a long uphill climb back up the NFL mountain.
15. Dallas Cowboys: 1-7; Predicted finish 3-13
What’s gone right: Um, well … Dez Bryant looks like a keeper! First-time starter Doug Free has probably been the best player on the offensive line at left tackle. DeMarcus Ware remains DeMarcus Ware.
What’s gone wrong: The Cowboys season was sunk in a sea of turnovers and penalties before Tony Romo broke his clavicle. A veteran defense built to dominate is way too easy to throw against. More than anything, the Cowboys lack toughness. Push them a little and they fall over. The offensive line has to be overhauled.
What’s next: We see a lot of miserable Sundays ahead and a higher draft pick then the Cowboys ever imagined. There’s no reason to bring Romo back this season with no chance at a playoff spot. Firing Wade Phillips won’t change anything.
14. Detroit Lions: 2-6; Predicted finish 5-11
What’s gone right: Ndamukong Suh is somehow better than advertised. Pair him with Kyle Vanden Bosch, and the Lions actually have a great pass rush. The offense has scored plenty of points (6th in league) whether Matthew Stafford or Shaun Hill is at quarterback.
What’s gone wrong: Stafford’s habitual shoulder injuries cast a pall over the whole season. This year is all about his development and he may wind up barely playing. The back seven on defense still gives up too many big plays and needs major help.
What’s next: We were ready to project 6-7 wins before Stafford re-injured his shoulder. His health problems are a major drag for the organization.
13. San Francisco 49ers: 2-6; Predicted finish 5-11
What’s gone right: Frank Gore has put together one of his better seasons in an outstanding career. The 49ers have shown an ability to hang with good teams (Falcons, Saints, Eagles), but they can’t close them out. San Francisco remains only two games out in the worst division in football.
What’s gone wrong: Alex Smith once again disappointed his head coach. At times, the offense simply doesn’t look professional. The stout defense of 2009 has proven mediocre. Mental meltdowns have become the norm, as the 49ers have taken on the personality of their emotional head coach Mike Singletary.
What’s next: You could make a case that the 49ers are right in the NFC West race, even with Troy Smith at quarterback. But this is too big a hole for a mistake-prone team. They are sure to lose in Green Bay and San Diego. Split the other 6 games and you get 5-11.
12. Seattle Seahawks: 4-4; Predicted finish 6-10
What’s gone right: Pete Carroll has the Seahawks at .500 despite a lackluster roster. The defense has improved greatly, especially at home. Rookie first round pick Earl Thomas looks like a perennial Pro Bowler and wideout Mike Williams may be Comeback Player of the year. Seattle’s special teams have been great overall.
What’s gone wrong: The Seahawks have lost their four games by a combined score of 125-27, mostly to mediocre opponents. Rookie tackle Russell Okung can’t stay healthy and the offensive line is poor overall. Quarterback Charlie Whitehurst looked badly overmatched in his first career start. The offense is not explosive.
What’s next: The NFC West is up for grabs, but we don’t think Seattle will win it. If they don’t win in Arizona in Week 10, they are staring at 4-7 because of games against the Saints and Chiefs.
11. Washington Redskins: 4-4; Predicted finish 6-10
What’s gone right: The Redskins beat three teams with winning records despite an uneven, mistake-prone offense and a defense that gives up tons of yards. They did it with turnovers and playmaking performances from safety LaRon Landry. Rookie Trent Williams looks like a keeper at left tackle, a rare young cornerstone for this team to build around.
What’s gone wrong: It took seven weeks to get much from Albert Haynesworth. Donovan McNabb has struggled to learn the offense and doesn’t look comfortable. (And that was before he was benched for Rex Grossman.) Clinton Portis got hurt again. Despite all the turnovers, the defense is worse than it was under Jim Zorn last year.
What’s next: The bad vibes around this team won’t change with games against the Eagles, Titans, Vikings, and Giants coming up. Look for a 1-3 stretch there, which will knock them out of the playoff race.
10. St. Louis Rams: 4-4; Predicted finish 7-9
What’s gone right: They found a franchise quarterback in Sam Bradford. Nothing else really matters, but the Rams have been very tough to beat at home and Steve Spagnuolo has found a pass rush. (The Rams may just have a good coach.) The offensive line has also brought stability.
What’s gone wrong: The wide receiver group has been a mash unit. The team still hasn’t won on the road, and the secondary can be exploited. As great as Bradford has looked, he’s still among the league’s worst in yards-per-attempt. It’s a dink-and-dunk offense and this team’s margin for error is small.
What’s next: They have four games on the road out of five. Their next two home games are against Atlanta and Kansas City. Three more wins is optimistic unless they can dominate division opponents.
9. Chicago Bears: 5-3; Predicted finish 7-9
What’s gone right: Jay Cutler and Mike Martz looked like a perfect marriage during a 3-0 start. Matt Forte rebounded at running back. Johnny Knox has developed as hoped, and the defense is enjoying its strongest (and healthiest) year overall since the Bears made the Super Bowl. It’s a tough team to run on.
What’s gone wrong: Jay Cutler and Mike Martz look headed for a divorce after a 3-0 start. The team’s offensive line could be the single worst unit on any team on either side of the ball in the NFL. Cutler seemingly hasn’t matured since his second year in the league. If anything, he’s devolved.
What’s next: The Bears got fat on a soft schedule early, but not fat enough. Now it gets much tougher with games against the Eagles, Dolphins, Patriots, Jets, and Packers coming up. Chicago has too many holes to survive.
8. Minnesota Vikings: 3-5; Predicted finish 8-8
What’s gone right: They have provided entertainment for a nation of people not-so-secretly rooting against Brad Childress and Brett Favre. Oh, and Adrian Peterson is having an MVP-caliber year despite the gradual decline of his offensive line.
What’s gone wrong: Where to begin? The tackles have struggled to protect Favre, who has turned into a turnover machine again. Brad Childress’ players seem to harbor a barely-concealed resentment towards their boss. The run defense isn’t nearly as dominant as it once was. Randy Moss returned to Minnesota … for only three weeks. It’s still hard to believe that really happened.
What’s next: The Vikings have shown nothing to suggest they can go on a sustained run, although the schedule allows for that possibility. Expect improvement in the second half, but not enough sustained play to avoid a deeply unsatisfying ending for a Vikings team built for this year.
7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 5-3; Predicted finish 8-8
What’s gone right: Josh Freeman may be the best quarterback under 25 years old in the league. And he’s still only 22. Rookie wide receiver Mike Williams was a top-five talent in the fourth round. The secondary, led by cornerback Aqib Talib, has proven opportunistic. This is a young team that gives great effort every week.
What’s gone wrong: A once-promising young offensive line is no longer that promising. The Bucs rush defense regularly gets gashed, with No. 3 pick Gerald McCoy not providing much of an impact. Tampa Bay lost by 25 points at home to the Saints and Steelers.
What’s next: They have a real chance to make the playoffs with homes against the Panthers, Lions, and Seahawks. Ultimately, we don’t think the talent base is quite there this year.
6. Philadelphia Eagles: 5-3; Predicted finish 10-6, Wild Card
What’s gone right: Reid found a good quarterback problem with both Michael Vick and Kevin Kolb playing well. The young skill position guys (DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, LeSean McCoy) have developed as hoped. After a slow start, the defense has steadily improved.
What’s gone wrong: An inert home loss to Donovan McNabb was painful, as was blowing a fourth quarter lead in Tennessee. Stewart Bradley hasn’t looked all the way back at middle linebacker, and the team’s defense is inefficient. They are 12th in yards allowed, but 20th in points allowed.
What’s next: With Vick, truly anything seems possible. It’s a boom or bust year with five games left in the division. Getting the Cowboys twice in the final four weeks should prevent any late slide.
5. New Orleans Saints: 6-3; Predicted finish, 11-5; Wild Card
What’s gone right: They are 6-3 despite a lot of things going wrong. A stirring 20-10 win over the Steelers helped right the ship. The defense doesn’t create quite as many turnovers, but it is sounder overall than last year. The team is getting healthier, especially in their secondary and backfield.
What’s gone wrong: The Saints have struggled to make big plays and Drew Brees has made far more mistakes than a year ago. The running game is rarely a big factor. A league-best offensive line has given up more sacks and committed more penalties. Basically an all-world offense just turned into very good.
What’s next: The entire NFC South got a cake schedule this year. The Saints will be heavy favorites in each game until back-to-back road games in Baltimore and Atlanta in Weeks 15 and 16. 10-6 looks like a worst case scenario.
4. Arizona Cardinals: 3-5; Predicted finish 7-9, NFC West Champs
What’s gone right: They won in St. Louis, and beat two teams with winning records at home (Oakland, New Orleans.) LaRod Stephens-Howling looks like a Pro Bowl return man. The Cardinals have eight return touchdowns whether on special teams or defense
What’s gone wrong: The Cardinals have only 11 offensive touchdowns. The quarterback position has been a disaster. Derek Anderson majors in untimely interceptions, while Max Hall is overmatched. They blew late leads against the Bucs and Vikings.
What’s next: Despite it all, we’ll stick with our preseason prediction of Arizona as division champions … by default. They have the best leadership among their coaches and players. They host three more division games, and have winnable games against Denver, Carolina, and Dallas.
3. Green Bay Packers: 6-3; Predicted finish 11-5, NFC North Champs
What’s gone right: The Packers survived an avalanche of injuries to hit the bye week at 6-3. The defense has steadily improved, with cornerback Tramon Williams playing like a Pro Bowler. Aaron Rodgers’ protection has been better. The team showed toughness in back-to-back wins over the Vikings and Jets.
What’s gone wrong: Key players like Ryan Grant, Nick Barnett, and Jermichael Finley aren’t coming back. The talent level has decreased. Rodgers’ play hasn’t been as consistent as last season. Charles Woodson has clearly shown decline. While Brandon Jackson is increasingly effective, the team could use a better power running game.
What’s next: The Packers have four out of five games on the road before finishing with two home games. All of their injuries could prevent them from getting a bye, but they should be playing their best football entering the playoffs. Look for a comfortable division title.
2. Atlanta Falcons: 6-2; Predicted finish 12-4, NFC South champs
What’s gone right: Atlanta has shown a knack for not making mental mistakes. The defense is definitely improved over a year ago — especially the pass rush and safety play. Michael Turner leads a strong running game, as always. Roddy White has looked like the best receiver in football. Winning in New Orleans was a season-changing game.
What’s gone wrong: They don’t blow teams out — even inferior competition. Matt Ryan has looked good overall, but has bouts of wildness with his accuracy. Good teams can still pass on Atlanta.
What’s next: The Falcons’ toughest games are at home: Baltimore, New Orleans, and Green Bay. Atlanta may not even have to beat the Saints in Week Sixteen to win the division.
1. New York Giants: 6-2; Predicted finish 12-4, NFC East Champs
What’s gone right: After a 1-2 start, this has looked like the best team in the conference. It’s not even close. They are very balanced on both sides of the ball. Eli Manning is playing like he did a year ago, but his receivers are a year better. Ahmad Bradshaw is a top-10 running back. Most of all, the defense has been reborn with Osi Umenyiora and a dangerous pass rush leading the way.
What’s gone wrong: The Giants turn the ball over too much, often on dropped passes. The Titans caused the Giants to lose their cool in rainstorm of personal foul penalties. The offensive line could be the potential weak spot here because of age and injuries.
What’s next: A perfect mix of nearly automatic wins (home to Cowboys, Jaguars) and difficult playoff-preparation tests (two games against Philly, a road game in Lambeau.) The game against the Packers could be for homefield advantage.