With the NFL season having reached the quarter mark, Sports Illustrated and Fox Sports NFL experts teamed up for a roundtable discussion to explain what they’ve seen and project what’s ahead. First up are our panel’s answers to six burning questions, including the most surprising team to date and the storylines they thought would emerge that did not, followed by each participant’s individual award winners (MVP, Coach of the Year, etc).
Our contributors: Greg Bedard (senior writer, SI), Chris Burke (staff writer, SI), Chris Chase (senior writer, FOXSports.com), Cameron DaSilva (staff writer, FOXSports.com), Melissa Jacobs (NFL editor, SI), Jonathan Jones (staff writer, SI), Dieter Kurtenbach (senior writer, FOXSports.com) Peter Schrager (NFL insider, FOX Sports).
COACH MOST LIKELY TO BE FIRED FIRST
CAMERON DASILVA, FOX: The Jaguars have to consider moving on from Gus Bradley soon. They haven’t had any success under him despite having several pieces to build around—namely Blake Bortles, Allen Robinson, Jalen Ramsey and Dante Fowler Jr. The coaching staff hasn’t yet found a way to get Myles Jack on the field, which is baffling, and Bortles hasn’t developed under Bradley’s leadership. They’re in need of a change if they ever hope to compete in the AFC South.
JONATHAN JONES, SI: Mike McCoy. Another fourth-quarter lead blown, another loss. The Chargers have lost 16 of the past 21 games, and he's 3-12 in games decided by eight points or fewer. Chuck Pagano is right behind him on this list, but the Colts' next four games are against the Bears, Texans, Titans and Chiefs.
CHRIS BURKE, SI: Jim Caldwell. Before his team’s win in London, I would have said Gus Bradley. I could also be talked into a Mike McCoy vote. But Caldwell’s Lions have losses to what look like two of the worst teams in football (Tennessee and Chicago), plus a new GM in Bob Quinn who deserves a chance to handpick his own coach. If the Lions lose to Philadelphia on Sunday, Teryl Austin could be Detroit’s interim before Week 6.
DIETER KURTENBACH, FOX: This was supposed the be the year the Jaguars made the jump. Nope. The Jags look like the worst-coached team in the NFL under Gus Bradley. Rex Ryan has the voodoo abilities to survive this season, and the Colts are so poorly run that Chuck Pagano will improbably survive until Black Monday. But the Jaguars can’t abide by this poor play much longer, even after a win.
CHRIS CHASE, FOX: There was a reasonable chance that whomever lost Sunday's London game between the Colts and Jags might get left in England, but Chuck Pagano returned despite the Colts' continuing to fritter away the youth of Andrew Luck with inexplicable losses like that one. Midseason firings are mostly meaningless—simply the transfer of power within a bad team—but in a wide-open AFC South, maybe it's just what Indy needs. Then again, Rex Ryan has a vacation home on the hot seat, so he's a close second.
MOST DISAPPOINTING TEAM
MELISSA JACOBS, SI: As it turns out, the Panthers’ three losses happen to have come at the feet of three of the best teams in the NFL (Denver, Atlanta and Minnesota). Except the Panthers entered the season as the NFC’s best team—and were only supposed to be improved with Kelvin Benjamin’s reunion with the reigning MVP. The secondary, riddled with rookies, has been problematic, but so has uninspiring play calling, an inability to adjust to great defenses, an erratic quarterback, an ineffective offensive line and not an ounce of momentum. And now with Newton possibly out with a concussion, the notion of the Panthers pulling out their fourth straight NFC South title is starting to feel preposterous.
KURTENBACH: The AFC South is a bad division, and the Jaguars have enough talent to compete for it. This whole season has been a debacle, and major changes should be imminent.
BURKE: It’s not just that the Cardinals are losing, but how it’s happening. They were outschemed and outexecuted in the opener vs. New England, steamrolled by the Bills and extremely sloppy again against Los Angeles in what should have been a bounce-back game. With major issues in the secondary and at QB, a recovery won’t be all that easy.
PETER SCHRAGER, FOX: The Panthers aren't just losing games. That happens. But they have no identity. No swagger. They were posing for team selfies and dabbing and walking the walk last year. They haven't been the same team in 2016. In fact, the last time they looked remotely like the squad we expected them to be was in the NFC Championship game.
GREG BEDARD, SI: Arizona. When the Cardinals were your Super Bowl pick and they start 1-3 with two home losses, there's really no other choice. But that team will still be dangerous once it gets things figured out.
MOST SURPRISING TEAM
BEDARD: The Eagles. New coaching staff, new schemes on both sides of the ball, a lot of personal changes and a rookie QB? Easy choice.
DASILVA: Despite losing Teddy Bridgewater, Adrian Peterson and Matt Kalil, the Vikings have stayed the course and played extremely well with Sam Bradford at quarterback. I was skeptical of the trade when it happened, but it’s clear the Vikings are contenders even without Bridgewater, and Bradford is the cog behind that narrative. Their defense was expected to be good, but I’m not sure anyone expected it to be this dominant. The Vikings are legit.
BURKE: The Eagles’ plus-65 point differential is eye-popping, but do they have two road wins? Two wins over 2015 playoff teams? Two wins within the division? Nope. L.A. does. The Rams managed to get to 1-1 without a scoring a touchdown and now are rolling, thanks to a playmaking defense. Is this the year Jeff Fisher finally delivers a .500 (or better) record for this franchise?
KURTENBACH: Denver’s quarterback situation was concerning, but there was attrition elsewhere too, especially at critical positions on the defensive side of the ball. But it looks like the Broncos haven’t missed a beat. Trevor Siemian being a viable NFL quarterback is shocking. Having Paxton Lynch look just as good is overkill.
JONES: It'd be easy to say the Vikings or the Eagles here, but I love both defenses. The Ravens are a great Derek Carr drive away from being 4-0, and they aren't particularly strong in any area.
STORY LINE YOU THOUGHT WOULD EMERGE THAT DIDN’T
CHASE: Deflategate. And as the clock struck midnight after Week 4, Tom Brady was back to being a member of the New England Patriots. (Does this mean his newspaper is folding? Daily print media, man.) Meanwhile, the NFLPA announced it would end whatever Deflategate fight remained. For a story that had longer legs than Gisele, the fact this season has played out as intended—with Brady sitting out four games, then returning—is a relief. It was a fun 623 days.
BURKE: The Jets defense emerging as a dominant force. The first six games on New York’s schedule made for a brutal stretch, but to me this looked like a team capable of at least putting some heat on the Patriots, mainly because of a loaded defense. It has not worked out that way. Darrelle Revis is getting picked on by opposing QBs, and the secondary is giving up too many big plays. Combine that with Ryan Fitzpatrick’s INT-happy ways and the 1-3 start is deserved.
SCHRAGER: After an offseason guessing game of who'd be playing quarterback for the defending champions, I expected at least some moments of head scratching and regret for letting Brock Osweiler walk and not spending big on some other veteran arm. Nope. Denver is 4-0.
JONES: Jared Goff would finally take over for Case Keenum. I especially thought it would happen after that clunker in San Francisco in Week 1. But now the Rams are 3-1 with Keenum and Goff hasn't taken a snap. It's as if the Rams don't want to burn their top pick's red shirt.
JACOBS: I honestly thought the baton passing from Peyton Manning to Trevor Siemian would leave Denver several notches below its Super Bowl-winning form. Boy, have I been wrong. The defense has, of course, been as good as ever, but Siemian’s poise and accuracy have truly wowed.
UNDER .500 TEAM WITH THE BEST CHANCE AT THE PLAYOFFS
BEDARD: The Panthers still play in the weakest division (the Falcons will come back to Earth), and that secondary will be better later in the season.
DASILVA: Even though they’re off to a slow start, the Cardinals are still among the favorites in the NFC. The Seahawks are really their only threat in the West, though the NFC as a whole looks strong. I expect to see Carson Palmer and the offense begin to figure it out and to shy away from taking deep shots on every other play to simply take what the defense gives them. Arizona remains one of the more talented teams in the NFL.
SCHRAGER: Yeah, I wouldn't write the Cardinals off just yet. Not with that coach. And not with that defense.
JONES: Even with Chuck Pagano on the hot seat, the Colts still play in the worst division in football. I'm not convinced the Texans will hold on to the division lead with J.J. Watt out, and Andrew Luck is still Andrew Luck.
CHASE: You could see Carolina's slow start coming from five months away. The schedule makers did the reigning NFC champs no favors by scheduling a rematch with the Broncos in Week 1 and then inviting the defending NFC North champs (with their own stout defense) to Charlotte in Week 3. Add in a Super Bowl hangover and 1-3 was almost inevitable. No matter. The schedule eases starting Sunday, and by the bye week Carolina should be at 3-3, in perfect position to win the NFC South yet again.
GAME BETWEEN NOW AND MIDSEASON YOU HAVE CIRCLED
SCHRAGER: Cowboys at Packers. Week 6. Dak Prescott has passed every test. He's done it all. Can he beat Aaron Rodgers in Lambeau?
BURKE: Eagles at Cowboys, Week 8. If the two teams maintain their current trajectories, this will have massive implications within the NFC playoff picture. This also is the week Dallas reportedly is targeting for Tony Romo’s return from injury, which could lead to a difficult decision depending on how the Cowboys’ next two games unfold. If we’re lucky, Carson Wentz vs. Dak Prescott will be the next great head-to-head QB rivalry.
JACOBS: Patriots at Browns, Week 5. No, this is not a matchup that will change the trajectory of either team or ultimately decide a playoff spot. But I am thoroughly fascinated to see how ageless wonder Tom Brady performs coming off suspension. Brady will likely dominate in all facets, but what if he doesn’t?
KURTENBACH: Vikings at Eagles, Week 7. The Vikings have the best defense in the NFL (by my estimation) and a question-mark offense. While I bought in on the Eagles’ defense in the preseason, Carson Wentz’s spectacular play makes them a legitimate Super Bowl contender—that’s a shocking development. I’m fascinated to see how these two teams that have started the season with success but still have major question marks—leaving something to prove—match up because it could well be an NFC title game preview.
DASILVA: Patriots at Steelers, Week 7. This will be a good gauge for how the AFC will play out not only for the rest of the season but in the playoffs, too. Tom Brady will be on the field, as will Le’Veon Bell for the Steelers. With J.J. Watt out for the year, the Texans look to have fallen off, so the AFC could very well come down to Pittsburgh and New England. Denver is obviously still among the contenders, but it’s hard to bet against Brady and Ben Roethlisberger.