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  • Writer's pictureJoshua U.

2023 NFL Midseason Notes, Who's Truly In Contention?

The NFL's trade deadline passed just yesterday at 4pm, and while there weren't an overwhelming amount of fireworks, one team in particular made moves that reverberated throughout the entire league, and the initial reviews have not been positive at all from major NFL voices.


On July 12th, 2023, the NFL approved the sale of the Washington Commanders -- the franchise was sold away from longtime owner Dan Snyder over to an investment group led by Josh Harris (owner of the NBA's Philadelphia 76ers & New Jersey Devils as well), and headlined by NBA Hall-of-Famer and entrepreneur Magic Johnson.


FROM LEFT TO RIGHT: Former Washington Commanders' owner Dan Snyder, new majority owner Josh Harris, and new minority-owner Magic Johnson.


Snyder's tenure as Commanders' CEO was, to put it kindly, tumultuous, and the change in ownership signaled a sort of breath-of-fresh-air for the franchise and its fans. And this wasn't the only reason for excitement before the season. The team wasn't favored to win the NFC East by any means, but they had brought over Eric Bieniemy to run their offense, fresh off a wildly successful run as the Kansas City Chiefs' play-caller. They felt good about their QB Sam Howell -- their fifth-round pick from 2022's draft who showed real signs of competency towards the end of last season. And, above all else? They carried into this season a fiercely talented defensive line, ranked by many up among the best five units in the league at worst -- headlined by interior defensive linemen Da'Ron Payne & Jonathan Allen, and edge rushers Montez Sweat & Chase Young, the latter being the #2 overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. The ONLY reason why this group hadn't lived up to their full potential thus far in their collective careers was injury. This was especially the case for Young, who suffered a torn ACL & patellar tendon in 2021 after his Defensive Rookie of The Year campaign in '20.


After a 2-0 start, the Commanders folded in recent weeks, with losses to abhorrent teams like the Bears & Giants. Now, today, both Sweat and Young have been shipped out.


Montez Sweat is now a Chicago Bear, acquired for a 2nd-rounder in this year's upcoming draft. It's another curious midseason transaction for Chicago, as this marks the second straight year they've shipped out a 2nd-round pick (which are typically 18K gold for rebuilding franchises) for an "impact" player. The Bears also did so for troubled WR Chase Claypool in 2022, which... wasn't great in terms of ROI, to say the least. We'll see how Sweat does with the Bears, who are loaded with two top-5 picks in the 2024 draft as it stands today and look to change the entire course of their franchise around with that treasure trove.


Guess who got Chase Young, though.


The San Francisco 49ers, coming off two consecutive NFC Title Game appearances (3 out of the last 4 seasons as well), started this season 5-0, the latter of those wins being a 42-10 demolition of an excellent Dallas Cowboys team. They've since lost three straight -- two road games to the Browns & Vikings, and last week at home to the surging Bengals.


Brock Purdy looked shaky at multiple points during this most recent L coming off a week spent in concussion protocol. He threw two interceptions on back-to-back throws, and the latter immediately led to a Burrow-to-Chase TD that put the game out of reach for the Niners. SF now sits at 5-3 & SECOND PLACE in the NFC West, due to the Seattle Seahawks' recent rise. Clearly, that wasn't sitting well with GM John Lynch. The acquisition of Young is a star addition to an already star-laden group of defensive trenchmen, including, of course: Nick Bosa, who's only Young's DROY peer, the defending Defensive Player of The Year, and, of course, Young's former teammate at Ohio State.


It's said that Quarterback is THE most important position on the football field, in terms of deciding who wins and loses. With, that being said, the most important position to address on the defensive side of the ball is, without question: the defensive line. This is common knowledge in NFL circles: if you can get consistent pressure with just 4 guys, you're much more likely to field an elite, championship-caliber defense. It makes that much of a difference. The 49ers were already great at it before acquiring Chase Young. This only bolsters their NFC championship candidacy against the likes of the Philadelphia Eagles, who currently boast the best record in the entire NFL at 7-1, and can say the same for themselves regarding their pass-rush ability.


So, the Commanders... what can you say. This is clearly a hard reset on their part, although it was a shock that they traded BOTH Sweat & Young. The expectation amongst NFL insiders was that they'd deal away one & try to lock up the other long-term. But, expectation is not reality in this case.


Let's turn our attention towards the top teams this season. We've already detailed the 49ers' outlook through 8 weeks. The aforementioned Eagles have also looked shaky at several points this season, as their inconsistent pass-coverage on defense and Jalen Hurts' sudden proclivity for turning the ball over (he's on pace to shatter his previous personal career-high for interceptions in a season) caught all the way up to them in a shocking Week 6 loss @ MetLife Stadium vs the New York Jets. They've gotten back on track the last two games, led by Hurts -- he had by far his best game of the season last week @ Washington: 76% on completions with 319 yards passing and 4 TD passes. In fact -- I'm sure Hurts wishes he could play the Commanders every week: He's totaled 319 pass YPG, 6 TD, and NO interceptions in two games vs WSH this season... and 250 YPG, just 7 TD, and 8 interceptions (!!!) in 6 games against all other opponents. Quite the distinction. Of course, it helps to have weapons like A.J. Brown at your disposal: "Swole Batman" just set an NFL record for the most consecutive games with 125 yards receiving at 6 weeks (and counting). Brown, Hurts & the Eagles face a big test this week: they'll host the Dallas Cowboys at Lincoln Financial Field at 4:25pm this coming Sunday.


Big game for Philly, bigger game for Dallas. The Cowboys sit at 5-2 before Week 9 gets underway. The Cowboys under Jerry Jones' tenure always have a lot at stake, but it does feel like even more pressure sits on the shoulders on this year's team. Plenty is at stake for both HC Mike McCarthy and QB Dak Prescott. But they're off to a good start. They boast the NFL's 4th-best point differential at +77 -- even better than Philadelphia's mark by a significant number. But even with all this positivity, when it comes to Dallas, we just have to spend time on the negative & unfortunate. They lost their All-Pro corner Trevon Diggs for the season to a torn ACL weeks ago, a crushing blow to a still-talented defense. And, yes, they have just 2 losses on the season thus far, but both losses were as gut-punchy as it gets. Dallas is responsible for the only win on the lowly Arizona Cardinals' record, a 28-16 Week 3 loss in Glendale. Then, in Week 5... Dallas, riding high off a 38-3 drubbing of the New England Patriots in the prior week, pulled up to San Francisco -- the site where their 2022 campaign came to a close last postseason -- and got absolutely dogwalked. You would've expected such a talented team like Dallas to arrive with the requisite competitive mindset to avenge their playoff loss, but it just wasn't in the cards at all that night. They'll have a great chance for redemption against the other prime NFC contender in Philly.


Now, I'll admit: it does feel a little odd to vault SF up at the top of the NFC totem pole when they aren't even leading their division right now. On that note... what to make of the Seahawks? They're 5-2, just like Dallas. They're top-10 in point diff as well, a +30 through seven games. But they haven't been overly dominant in really any major team statistical category -- 16th in total YPG, 16th in YPG allowed, 11th in scoring offense and 11th in scoring defense. At least they're consistent! Seattle's going to be a team to watch over the course of November to see if they sink or swim. NFL fans will get the opportunity to find out pretty much right away. From Nov. 12-30, Seattle hosts Washington, will travel to LA for a quasi-road game vs their divisional foe Los Angeles Rams, then they'll have a hellacious back-to-back weeks to close out the month: at home vs SF on Thanksgiving Night, and @ Dallas.


This week? Seattle will travel cross-country to face the red-hot Baltimore Ravens this Sunday. Whew!


The Ravens are one of FOUR AFC TEAMS that boast a 6-2 record. They meet all the typical benchmarks for a Super Bowl contender thus far. Above all other benchmarks -- they field the #1 scoring defense in the NFL through 8 weeks. Pairing that with the dynamic MVP caliber play of one Lamar Jackson? That's a dangerous, dangerous combination. Jackson in the recent weeks has seemed to get more & more comfortable in new OC Todd Monken's pro-style offense. And with plenty of time to go until the postseason, the Ravens are absolutely to be feared.


Are the Miami Dolphins to be feared? They sure struck the fear of God into the Denver Broncos, winning 70-20 in Week 3. They just got star corner Jalen Ramsey back this past Sunday, as the 29 year-old secured a pick in his season debut vs New England. Miami's defense sits at 15th in yardage allowed, right at the middle of the pack, but Vic Fangio's unit is just now getting healthy. The real talk with Miami starts with their offense. Mike McDaniel's squad came SPRINTING out of the gate on that side of the ball, led by MVP frontrunners Tua Tagovailoa & Tyreek Hill.

Miami's offense is on a record pace. Tua leads the league in passing yardage to this point, and Tyreek Hill is now the rare WR over the course of NFL history that's landed himself into legitimate MVP consideration & conversation. But is it more smoke and mirrors to Miami than just their offensive misdirection & mesmerizing pre-snap motion?


The Dolphins' 6 wins have come against: the 2-5 Patriots (twice), the 3-4 LA Chargers, the 3-5 Broncos, the 2-6 Giants, and the 1-6 Panthers. Their two L's? A 28 point loss @ Buffalo vs the Bills, and a 14 pt. loss on Sunday Night Football @ Philly. I absolutely love what Miami's doing, ESPECIALLY offensively... but I can't lie -- they're on "Fraud Watch" until further notice. Win a big road game vs a contender, then I'll reconsider. They'll get their first chance right away this Sunday MORNING... in Frankfurt, Germany vs the reigning Super Bowl Champion Kansas City Chiefs.


The Chiefs are also 6-2 and it almost feels dull. Maybe it's because Travis Kelce's new violently-publicized (and marketed) relationship with pop mega-star Taylor Swift has been the most notable story following the franchise this season.



Yeah, the Swifties/Chiefs Kingdom crossover saga wasn't something I had on my preseason Bingo card.


But, as far as the on-field product: I hear people talk about the Chiefs as if they're lesser than, or like Mahomes' play has declined. Yes, Patrick is currently tied for the league-lead in picks, and is well on pace to set a career-high in that category. But I think part of the reason why fans are (for lack of a better phrase) bored with Kansas City is the fact that they've figured out a way to win games in much different fashion than what the viewing public's grown accustomed to in the Reid/Mahomes era. KC currently ranks OUTSIDE the top-10 in Scoring offense, which is nuts, yes. But their defense is currently 4th in yards allowed & 2nd in points allowed. They solved their contract dispute with star interior defensive lineman Chris Jones after Week 1's ring night loss to the Detroit Lions and are obviously better for it. Sunday's loss at Denver was disappointing, but it was only their first loss against Denver in 17 games. That top-flight defense vs the Dolphins on Sunday? Box office! (even at 9:30am EST.)


The last 6-2 AFC team to get to? That'd be the Jacksonville Jaguars. I just mentioned the Detroit Lions, who moved to 6-2 with a Monday night win vs the hapless Las Vegas Raiders, whom, just hours ago, sent HC Josh McDaniels packing. I'm gonna group the Jags and Lions in the same category here.


Are they contenders?


In my expert opinion... I don't know.


But I hope they prove to be.


Both teams are crazy identical, almost mirror images in my view. Both have poised, former #1 overall picked QBs leading them, in Jared Goff and Trevor Lawrence. Both QBs have their offenses pouring on the points, each team ranking top-10 in Scoring offense. And both franchises are pretty storybook as well. Over the course of NFL history, Detroit and Jacksonville both rank bottom-7 in all-time win percentage. It has been a lot of lean years between them. But, through intelligent team-building, dealing and drafting over the past half-decade, and smart hires at head coach (Detroit's Dan Campbell and DUUUUUUVAL's Doug Pederson), both franchises are truly on a parallel come-up.


And they'll enjoy parallel bye weeks this week too. I told you, mirror images!


Speaking of teams with soul ties: two major AFC players that aren't 6-2 and were unfortunately involved in both near-tragedy AND a playoff matchup last year: The Bills and the Bengals. These two teams met up twice last season, but only one of those games was able to be completed. The Damar Hamlin scare late in last year's regular season shook up the NFL in more ways than one, and the remainder of that game was canceled. Cincy had to travel to snowy Buffalo and won in last year's postseason to advance to their second straight conference championship game. Now, Josh Allen and Joe Burrow will match up once again on Sunday Night Football, with Cincinnati hosting. The Bills have actively tried to take some rushing load of Josh Allen's plate early this season, with mixed results, as they still haven't been able to get their running backs, most notably James Cook, all the way going. The Bengals have remarkably started 0-2 and worked their way back to 4-3 in now back-to-back seasons. Their team statistical profile isn't all that impressive, partly due to Burrow's slow start managing a calf injury. But, I do know one thing concerning the "Cardiac Cats" -- as long as Joe Burrow is healthy late in-season, the Bengals are going to be relevant in January and potentially February. The last three seasons 'Joe Cool' has finished healthy since 2019: A Natty @ LSU, a Super Bowl appearance in '21 and a AFC Title Game loss at Arrowhead last season that they easily could've won if not for a crucial defensive penalty on KC's final drive. Both these teams will be very intriguing to follow down the stretch and it'll also be an intriguing game on Sunday night.


So there you have it. Each team I went in-depth with are the most interesting teams in the league to me as we sit today. But are all of them in my contender category? Here are my mid-season rankings, as we get ready to dive into the post-trade deadline portion of the 2023 NFL regular season.


Contenders:

  • Eagles (7-1)

  • 49ers (5-3)

  • Chiefs (6-2)

  • Ravens (6-2)

  • Bengals (4-3)


Pretenders:

  • Dolphins (6-2)

  • Seahawks (5-2)

  • Bills (5-2)


If Everything Breaks Right:

  • Jaguars (6-2)

  • Lions (6-2)

  • Cowboys (5-2)


Likely Playoff Makes:

  • Browns (4-3)

  • Jets (4-3)

  • Saints (4-4)

  • Falcons (4-4)

  • Texans (3-4)


Likely Playoff Misses:

  • Steelers (4-3)

  • Vikings (4-4)

  • Buccaneers (3-4)

  • Chargers (3-4)

  • Titans (3-4)

  • Broncos (3-5)

  • Rams (3-5)

  • Colts (3-5)


Get the Tank Revved Up, Buddy:

  • Commanders (3-5)

  • Raiders (3-5)

  • Packers (2-5)

  • Patriots (2-6)

  • Giants (2-6)

  • Bears (2-6)

  • Panthers (1-7)

  • Cardinals (1-7)


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