Almost halfway through the NFL season, the playoff landscape is beginning to take shape. Some of the usual contenders are right back at the sharp end once more, but the top teams in terms of record right now also feature some surprises. Let’s run the rule over them and determine whether we are buying or selling those teams as true contenders.
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New England Patriots – BUY
The easiest analysis of the lot. In a shock to nobody, the Patriots remain good at football as long as they have Bill Belichick and Tom Brady at the helm. What’s really making the 2019 version cook, however, is the defense, which has been suffocating and leading them to their undefeated record. New England has the No. 1 overall PFF grade on defense as a team and, in particular, is the top-ranked coverage unit, which has never been more important. Their schedule has been particularly generous and does toughen up slightly over the second half of the season, but there is little doubt that the Patriots are the AFC favorites. We are definitely buying their stock as Super Bowl contenders.
Buffalo Bills – SELL
Buffalo’s only defeat so far has come at the hands of the Patriots – one of the league’s two undefeated teams and the prohibitive favorites for the Super Bowl. They have been significantly better than expectations, but on the other hand, they found putting away the Miami Dolphins – arguably the worst team in football – tough going this week. The Bills have an impressive defense with one of the best coverage units in the game and haven’t needed quarterback Josh Allen to be consistently good, which is just as well. Allen currently has an overall PFF grade of just 60.5 and has only five big-time throws to 12 turnover-worthy plays on the season. Allen will likely need to step up his game at some point for this team to really contend, but they do have a favorable schedule. As encouraging as some aspects of this team are, the most likely truth to their contending credentials is that they are fool's gold.
San Francisco 49ers – BUY
One of the most unexpected contenders and the only undefeated team remaining in the tough landscape of the NFC, the 49ers are bit-by-bit convincing everybody that they are for real in 2019. Their scheme and system under Kyle Shanahan have always had a proven track record, but now their defense has pulled itself together and solved the weaknesses it had in prior seasons. In 2018, the team’s edge rushers combined to rack up 110 total pressures all season. Nick Bosa and Dee Ford alone have 49 across just six games. Having finally attacked their need for pass-rushers in both the draft and free agency, the team is reaping the benefits. On the back end, the team’s faith in their young coverage personnel has also been rewarded. Only the Patriots have a higher team coverage grade (89.5) through Week 7. The 49ers still have some work to do, and Jimmy Garoppolo has yet to hit the heights from earlier in his career, but it’s getting harder to conclude that the 49ers are anything other than legitimate contenders.
Green Bay Packers – BUY
Don’t look now, but Aaron Rodgers is starting to look like the old Aaron Rodgers again – you know the one – the guy who was the best quarterback in football and capable of doing things few if any NFL quarterbacks could replicate. With no Davante Adams, Rodgers has been forced to lean on receivers he clearly hasn’t been 100% comfortable with, but instead of retreating into his shell, he has teased increasing productivity out of them. The best two PFF grades of his season have come in the past two weeks, and if Rodgers can play his best football consistently this year, the rest of the roster is good enough to take advantage of that and help him win games. With the Packers atop the NFC North and at 6-1, it’s hard to do anything but buy their prospects of contending by the season’s end, but that division may be the toughest in football, so their path to success is a trickier one to navigate than most.
New Orleans Saints – BUY
The Saints could have been in trouble without Drew Brees for a number of weeks. Instead, they have gone undefeated thus far with Teddy Bridgewater as a starter, and Brees is now nearing his return with the team 6-1 atop the NFC South. New Orleans has one of the best offensive lines in football, some impressive weapons and a defense that had its typical slow start to the season before rounding into some solid form. This is a side that was expected to be contenders at the start of the season, and only an injury to Brees could have jeopardized that. Bridgewater has helped steer them through that choppy water, and they now look to get back one of the best quarterbacks in the game without a hole to climb out of. No passer has been more accurate than Brees over the past two seasons, and even before he went down this year, he had thrown the lowest percentage of uncatchable passes (9.5%) in the NFL. The Saints are for real.
THE 5-2 TEAMS
Baltimore Ravens – BUY
The Lamar Jackson offense is unique, and it’s hard to defend. They don’t need him to be among the most efficient passers in the game because their rushing attack is so potent. If the defense can round into shape, they should be the class of the division.
Seattle Seahawks – SELL
Russell Wilson has been operating at an MVP level for much of the season, but too much is wrong elsewhere on this roster for them to be lifting the Lombardi Trophy at the end of the year.
Kansas City Chiefs – BUY
Kansas City’s problems have remained from a season ago, but so has their MVP-caliber quarterback. If Patrick Mahomes can return from his dislocated kneecap without too much damage being done in his absence, this team should still be contenders.
Minnesota Vikings – BUY
The Vikings have their three division road games out of the way already and sit at 5-2. Kirk Cousins has been all over the map, but even an average Cousins puts them in a solid spot.