ESPN staff13 Minute Read
The midway point of the 2023 NFL season is here. Nine weeks (and one Week 10 Thursday night game) down, nine to go. We saw a little bit of everything in the first half, but even at midseason, it’s still very early. A lot can still happen over the two months remaining in the regular season.
So we asked 18 of our NFL analysts for their best prediction for the rest of the season and how it will play out. Will we see shocking division winners, playoff teams and No. 1 seeds? Will offensive stars post huge numbers over their final eight or nine games to make an MVP candidacy statement? Could one team go winless the rest of the way? And could we see a long-standing record fall by season’s end?
Let’s predict the second half of the season, starting with a pair of No. 1 seed projections.
Who will land the No. 1 seeds?
The Jacksonville Jaguars will earn the No. 1 seed in the AFC
Jacksonville sits at 6-2 with an offense that hasn’t even peaked yet. The Jaguars have a well-rounded roster that poses problems for most teams, and the carnage from a loaded conference could leave several teams with five or six losses, opening the door for an AFC South contender to slide into the top position. Jacksonville has the 16th-toughest schedule the rest of the way, per ESPN’s Football Power Index, while the Bills, Bengals and Ravens are all in the top five. — Jeremy Fowler, national NFL reporter
The Detroit Lions will earn the No. 1 seed in the NFC
The 6-2 Lions are surprisingly higher than the 8-1 Eagles in my DVOA ratings, and they have the fourth-easiest schedule the rest of the way. In fact, they have only one game (at Dallas in Week 17) against teams currently in the top 10 in DVOA. Of course, winning the No. 1 seed doesn’t necessarily mean Detroit is going to its first Super Bowl, but the road to Las Vegas could absolutely go through Ford Field. — Aaron Schatz, NFL analyst
How will the playoff races play out?
The Houston Texans will claim an AFC wild-card spot
They have a tough one this week in Cincinnati, but the rest of the Texans’ schedule looks fairly soft. After Week 10, they don’t play another road game until Dec. 10, and their remaining road games at that point are against the Jets, Titans and Colts. Their remaining home games are against the Cardinals, Jaguars, Broncos, Browns and Titans. It’s not tough to look at that and get the Texans — who are playing very well — to 10 wins. And if the Steelers and/or Browns falter, spots will open up for DeMeco Ryans’ surprising 4-4 squad. The Texans’ Christmas Eve game against Cleveland could carry serious playoff implications. — Dan Graziano, national NFL reporter
The Pittsburgh Steelers will make it to the postseason
Their formula for winning has not been pretty, but it is effective. They sit at 5-3 and are 2-0 in the division. The Steelers’ defense has a takeaway on 18% of opponents’ drives, second-best in the league, and it is limiting red zone opportunities. And then factor in that Pittsburgh has the 17th-easiest strength of schedule remaining, while the Bengals and Ravens have to face two of the five hardest. The Steelers have already beaten the Ravens and have two games left against the Bengals, so they are in the driver’s seat. — Anita Marks, fantasy/betting analyst
The Detroit Lions will win the NFC North for the first time since 1993
That 1993 team was led by coach Wayne Fontes, future Hall of Fame running back Barry Sanders and wide receiver Herman Moore. And with the Bears and Packers clearly rebuilding, and the Vikings without quarterback Kirk Cousins (torn Achilles) for the rest of the season, the NFC North is ripe for the taking. The Lions are built well enough on both sides of the football to take advantage of it. — Eric Moody, fantasy/betting analyst
The Los Angeles Chargers will get hot and clinch a shocking AFC West title
Even with the Chiefs at 7-2, this is doable for the 4-4 Chargers. I could see quarterback Justin Herbert leading a resurgent L.A. team, surprising the Chiefs with a division-clinching win on the final weekend of the regular season. And if he does that, he’ll wind up in the MVP conversation. — Mike Tannenbaum, NFL analyst
The Cincinnati Bengals will claw their way to an AFC North title
Yes, Cincinnati is sitting in last place in the AFC North going into Week 10. But coming off victories over the 49ers and Bills, the 5-3 Bengals will continue to build on this four-game win streak. Quarterback Joe Burrow — now healthy after dealing with a calf injury through the first several weeks — has a league-leading 76% completion percentage since Week 5, and he’s tied for the top spot over that span with 10 passing touchdowns. Defensively, the Bengals are shutting down opponents behind coordinator Lou Anarumo, who has put his players in position to create multiple turnovers in four straight games. And as we’ve seen over the past few seasons, the Bengals are among the NFL’s best teams after midseason. — Lindsey Thiry, national NFL reporter
Who will pile up stats … and could a record fall?
DaRon Bland will finish with the NFL’s most interceptions
Through eight games, the Cowboys cornerback already has four picks — returning three for touchdowns — and four pass breakups. Bland is currently tied for second on the interception leaderboard, trailing only Baltimore’s Geno Stone. With his cover skills and closing speed, Bland will be in position to create high-level on-the-ball production over the second half of the season. And he’ll get those opportunities in Dallas, where the Cowboys play man coverage at a rate of 66.9%, the most in the NFL. — Matt Bowen, NFL analyst
The Baltimore Ravens‘ great defense will regress … a little
Through Week 9, the Ravens’ defense ranks first in expected points added (and second specifically on pass plays), and it has allowed the fewest passing TDs (six) and lowest yards per attempt (5.5). Strength of schedule is a big factor here, as Baltimore has faced C.J. Stroud in his NFL debut, Joe Burrow when not fully healthy in Week 2, Gardner Minshew, Dorian Thompson-Robinson, Kenny Pickett, Ryan Tannehill/Malik Willis, Jared Goff, Joshua Dobbs and Geno Smith.
Starting with this weekend, though, the projected opponent QBs moving forward are Deshaun Watson, now-healthy Burrow, Justin Herbert, Matthew Stafford, Trevor Lawrence, Brock Purdy, Tua Tagovailoa and Pickett. That’s quite a change. Baltimore’s defense has enough talent to remain one of the league’s better units, but don’t be shocked when the stats and efficiency metrics aren’t as good in the second half of the season. — Mike Clay, fantasy analyst
Javonte Williams will eclipse 1,000 rushing yards
The Broncos running back only has 357 rushing yards on 90 carries, but Williams will end up with a career-best rushing effort. Over the first two years of his career, he managed 2.5 yards after contact and cleared 10 yards on 13% of his rushes. Coming off a right ACL injury, he struggled in the first month of the season, as he averaged 1.2 yards after contact and saw 8% of his rushes go over 10 yards in Weeks 1-4. But over his past three games, Williams has logged 2.1 yards after contact and is gaining 10 or more yards on 14% of his carries this year. The data — and tape — suggests that Williams is returning to form, which figures to translate into massive gains down the stretch. — Liz Loza, fantasy analyst
C.J. Stroud will win Offensive Rookie of the Year
I know, this might seem obvious as we’re sitting at Week 10, but not only will the Texans quarterback be the unanimous OROY, he might even get some MVP votes. Stroud is third in the NFL in passing yards per game (283.8) and has the best touchdown-to-interception ratio (14-1) in the league. Send in your OROY ballots now. It’s the No. 2 overall pick’s award to win. — Matt Miller, NFL draft analyst
At least one player will break the single-season sack record
Sacks are occurring on 6.8% of dropbacks leaguewide, the highest rate in over 20 years. And that’s happening while we have three legitimate superstar pass-rushers in their prime, who are all real candidates to break the sack record: Cleveland’s Myles Garrett (9.5 sacks), Pittsburgh’s T.J. Watt (9.5) and Dallas’ Micah Parsons (7.5). Plus, there’s maybe even an outside shot for someone like Las Vegas’ Maxx Crosby (9.5) or Philadelphia’s Haason Reddick (7.5) to pass the record 22.5 number, set by Michael Strahan in 2001 and tied by Watt in 2021. Parsons and Garrett are on track for the highest and seventh-highest pass rush win rate seasons in the history of the metric (since 2017), respectively. — Seth Walder, analytics writer
Which stars will be in the MVP race?
C.J. Stroud will get himself into MVP conversation
Miller mentioned Stroud as the eventual Offensive Rookie of the Year, but I’ll take it a step further. Stroud will be in the MVP discussion. Consider that the rookie has taken a Texans team that went 3-13-1 last season to 4-4 reord at midseason. Plus, Stroud is seventh in passing yards (2,270), third in yards per attempt (8.1), tied for seventh in TD throws (14) and 12th in Total QBR (62.2). And he has thrown only one interception. — Dan Orlovsky, NFL analyst
Patrick Mahomes will win his second straight — and third overall — MVP
This is a much bolder pick than it would have been at the season’s start. At 7-2, the Chiefs are tied with the Ravens for the best record in the AFC, and Mahomes is third in the league with 2,442 passing yards, third in Total QBR at 73.0 and fourth with 17 touchdown passes. But he has had to overcome the Chiefs’ shaky pass-catching group, which has dropped more passes (21) than any other team. No matter — look for Mahomes to make it all work for the Chiefs en route to winning more hardware. — Jason Reid, senior Andscape writer
Joe Burrow will make a push to win MVP
Burrow has been red-hot, looking like the quarterback we’ve seen over the past few seasons and not the one who was so clearly hampered by a calf injury for the first month-plus of the season. After rushing eight times for a total of 3 yards the first four games, the Bengals signal-caller now has 19 rushes for 58 yards over his past four contests, underscoring that his in-pocket and out-of-pocket mobility are back to where they need to be for him to lead the Bengals to a possible division title. — Field Yates, NFL analyst
What can we expect from a pair of veteran QBs?
Aaron Rodgers will return late this season
Rodgers will come back from his ruptured Achilles to take the reins for the Jets. The star QB is moving through his rehab at an unprecedented pace, and things have been progressing smoothly. Working in his favor is the fact that he does not face the same physical explosive demands of a wide receiver, defensive back or running back; he does, however, need to be mobile enough to protect himself and strong enough to get the ball downfield, something made easier given the injury is to his left leg. The Jets will do their part by hanging around the playoff hunt enough to make his return worthwhile. — Stephania Bell, fantasy writer/injury specialist
These will be the final games of Matthew Stafford‘s career
To be clear, I have no inside information. But I watched how ready and optimistic Stafford was during the Rams’ training camp, and this season, while a known rebuild, has been brutal. It’s the second straight season in which he has gotten beat up every week, too, taking a sack on 7.5% of his dropbacks since the start of 2022. He has banked in the neighborhood of $300 million during his career. He has won a Super Bowl. And he has numbers that will merit serious Canton consideration. So factoring all that in, my prediction is that Stafford calls it a career after the season. — Seth Wickersham, NFL writer
Will we see a surprise team at No. 1 in the 2024 draft?
The New York Giants will go winless for the remainder of the season and pick No. 1 in 2024
Quarterback Daniel Jones is already out for the rest of the season with a torn ACL in his right knee, and this whole Giants team is in flux with questions under center and plenty of injuries. At 2-7, it’s a complete 180 for a team that won a playoff game last season. According to ESPN’s FPI, the Giants have the eighth-hardest remaining strength of schedule and third-best chance to earn the No. 1 overall selection in April’s draft (25.5%), meaning they could jump the Cardinals and Bears. And that’s especially true if they lose out and go 2-15. — Jordan Reid, NFL draft analyst