2021 NFL Midseason Report

Nine weeks down, nine to go.

Even when the NFL season was 16 games, I did this Midseason Report following the Week 9 slate of games. Now that there’s an 18-week season, nobody can gripe about that timeline.

If you’re a longtime reader, (first of all, thanks for choosing to waste your time with me) you know the setup: the most surprising and disappointing entities of the season’s first half and I whip out my crystal ball to predict what’s to come in the second half of the 2021 campaign. So let’s get into it, shall we?

Most Surprising Team: Arizona Cardinals

Before the season, I thought this was a last-place team in a tough NFC West division that would be lucky to hover around .500. As it turns out, they’re leading said division and don’t appear to be letting up. The Cardinals have the second-best scoring offense and a defense that ranks in the top four in yardage and points allowed. Kyler Murray is a legit MVP candidate (though that campaign took a hit Sunday when Colt McCoy stepped in and led them to a 31-point outing on the road) and Markus Golden is a sneaky good option for Defensive Player of the Year. Nobody saw this coming — not even the three Cardinals fans I know.

Honorable mention: Cincinnati Bengals, Las Vegas Raiders

Most Surprising Player: Trevon Diggs

Last season, Diggs was, like many rookie corners, a liability on a bad defense. But he’s now the league leader in interceptions with seven and his two touchdowns are only one fewer than his brother, Bills receiver Stefon Diggs, has as the top weapon in Buffalo. The Dallas defense isn’t impressive statistically, but it is an opportunistic unit largely thanks to Diggs’ historic exploits.

Honorable mention: Ja’Marr Chase

Most Disappointing Team: Washington Football Team

I know, I know … local bias here. But that Washington defense was widely assumed to be elite in the offseason and currently ranks fourth-worst in both scoring and yardage allowed. I find that consistently inconsistent unit’s level of disappointment to be greater than that of Kansas City’s 5-4 start.

Honorable mention: Kansas City Chiefs, San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks

Most Disappointing Player: Chase Young

Young is the embodiment of the disappointing Washington defense, registering only 1.5 sacks and three tackles for loss in eight games. His Pro Football Focus ranking of 75.8 is good but still way down from the 87.2 he earned during his Defensive Rookie of the Year campaign in 2020.

Honorable mention: I mean, do we really need one here? I picked him to be Defensive Player of the Year for the love of Dexter Manley!

Offensive Rookie of the Year: Ja’Marr Chase

Cincinnati was skewered for taking Chase over Penei Sewell in this year’s draft but the Bengals appear to have made the right move after all. Chase already has 835 receiving yards and seven touchdowns, averaging a whopping 19 yards per catch. Each of those numbers ranks him in the top five in the league in those categories. Forget rookies — Chase is already one of the best receivers in the league, full stop.

There’s not even a close second so I’m just punting on an honorable mention here.

Defensive Rookie of the Year: Micah Parsons

As expected, Dallas drafted a beast at linebacker — but he also had to fill in as an edge rusher due to injuries along the Cowboys’ defensive line and has registered five sacks and 10 tackles for loss this season. Dallas has a star in the making, and he should get some hardware for having such an immediate impact.

Honorable mention: Asante Samuel Jr., Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah

Offensive Player of the Year: Lamar Jackson

As I said in this week’s NFL Recap: Lamar Jackson IS the Ravens offense. He’s accounted for 2,809 of Baltimore’s 3,423 yards — a whopping 82% of the team’s total offense. He’s by far the Ravens’ leading rusher in addition to having the 11th-best QBR in the league. Jackson is the ultimate offensive weapon and the league’s most valuable player (more on that below … sort of).

Honorable mention: Matthew Stafford, Dak Prescott, Kyler Murray

Defensive Player of the Year: Trevon Diggs

I was tempted to go with Myles Garrett and his league-leading 12 sacks here but Diggs is on pace to snag 14 interceptions, which would match Dick “Night Train” Lane’s 71-year-old NFL record. I’m not saying the Gaithersburg native will do it (and the loss to the Broncos showed Diggs is not a shutdown corner just yet) but he’s a big reason why the Dallas defense has gone from putrid to actually kinda good (18th in scoring, 21st in yardage).

Honorable mention: Myles Garrett, Markus Golden

Comeback Player of the Year: Dak Prescott

Do I really need to show my work here? Prescott has triumphantly returned from a gruesome 2020 ankle injury to post the NFL’s fourth-best passer rating (108.7) for Dallas’ top-ranked offense (in terms of yardage). He’s the driving force behind the Cowboys’ 6-2 record and might even garner MVP consideration if Dallas (uncharacteristically) finishes strong down the stretch.

There’s not even a close second so no honorable mentions here.

MVP: Lamar Jackson

I rest my case from what I said in the Offensive Player of the Year entry. Also, I’d like to nominate myself as the replacement for the departed Mark Ingram’s role as Jackson’s hype man.

Honorable mention: Dak Prescott, Matthew Stafford, Kyler Murray

Coach of the Year: John Harbaugh

Baltimore had as many as 17 players on injured reserve — including damn near the entire running back core — yet the 6-2 Ravens lead their division and have a legit shot at home-field advantage, thanks in part to finally beating the Kansas City Chiefs. If Baltimore makes a deep playoff run with a washed up Le’Veon Bell lined up in the backfield, this will be Harbaugh’s most impressive coaching job yet.

Honorable mention: Mike Vrabel, Kliff Kingsbury, Mike Tomlin, Rich Bisaccia 

Second half predictions:

Washington gets Ron Rivera a win in Carolina but the Burgundy and Gold only win two other games.

Rivera will almost certainly downplay his Week 11 return to the stadium in which he coached for over nine years but the emotional nature of that stroll down memory lane might galvanize Washington enough to beat the suddenly-slumping Panthers. Otherwise, the Burgundy and Gold have demonstrated little to inspire belief they can knock off the defending champions on Sunday or notch any more than one or two wins in the five-game NFC East gauntlet to end the season. The Ol’ Ball Coach thought 5-11 wasn’t very good, but 5-12 has an even worse look and feel nearly two decades later.

Conversely, Baltimore will only lose three games the rest of the way to finish 12-5.

The AFC North is one of two divisions (AFC West) in which all four teams are above .500 — but not all winning teams are created equal. Baltimore is built to push people around, leading the league in rushing (as they have the last two seasons) and giving defenses a steady dose of Lamar Jackson. Assuming he continues to play at an MVP level, I see the Ravens earning at least a split of the four key games against the rival Steelers and Browns.

Tennessee will earn home-field advantage in the AFC, Dallas will be the No. 1 seed in the NFC.

However, I don’t necessarily believe that will be the Super Bowl matchup. Dallas’ stinker against the Broncos Sunday reminded us the Cowboys are wholly capable of amassing an impressive regular season record and then crap the bed in the playoffs — especially with Mike McCarthy coaching the team.

The Titans, even without Derrick Henry, seem legit now that their defense is playing lights out. Tennessee’s remaining schedule includes five games against sub-.500 teams and seem like a good bet to notch at least 12 wins — so if they can avoid the Ravens in the postseason, the Titans could enjoy an even bigger win in Los Angeles come February.

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