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Who makes the playoffs? Who gets fired? Previewing the NFL season’s second half

The NFL writers of SI and FOX Sports gather for a midseason roundtable, discussing which surprise teams will and won't make the playoffs, which coach will get fired first and much more.

With the NFL season having reached the midway point, FOX Sports and Sports Illustrated NFL writers teamed up for a roundtable discussion that looks forward to what’s ahead in the second half. But first, meet the contributors: Greg Bedard (senior writer, SI), Chris Burke (staff writer, SI), Jonathan Jones (staff writer, SI) Melissa Jacobs (NFL editor, SI), Peter Schrager (NFL insider, FOX Sports), Chris Chase (senior writer, FOX Sports), Dieter Kurtenbach (senior writer, FOX Sports) and Cameron DaSilva (staff writer, FOX Sports).

What second-half game are you most anticipating?

Chris Burke, SI: Chiefs at Broncos, Week 12. Kansas City already has a win in Oakland. If it gets one in Denver, too, you probably can hand over the AFC West title. This is the first of two meetings between the Chiefs and Broncos, with the other back in Kansas City on Christmas night. I really believe Kansas City has the most complete team in the West, as its 26–10 win over the Raiders hinted. But I also wouldn’t write off the possibility of the defending champs flipping a switch in the second half, with a better run game and more consistent quarterback play. There will be a lot—the division race, wild-card spots, home field advantage—riding on the two K.C.-Denver clashes.

Jonathan Jones, SI: Week 17, Oakland at Denver. This is my odds-on favorite to get flexed to the Sunday night spot, and it could very well be the most consequential game of the season. The AFC West has proven to be the best division in the NFL through the first half of the season, and this game will likely decide who wins the division (and possibly a first-round bye) and who gets the wild card. And if things get really crazy these last eight games, it may be win or go home.

Melissa Jacobs, SI: Denver at Oakland this weekend. This is best matchup of the year to date. The Broncos and their NFL-best passing defense against the increasingly dangerous Raiders aerial attack. These teams are tied for the AFC West at 6–2, and this game will provide a strong lens into who will grab the No. 2 seed in the AFC. (We already know No. 1!)

Peter Schrager, FOX: Week 15, Broncos-Patriots. I'm not sure who can beat the Patriots this year, but I know the Broncos have gotten the best of Tom Brady the last two times they’ve faced him. Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware could be the last things standing in TB12’s way this year. They ruined his run to the Lombardi last year. 

Chris Chase, FOX: Cowboys-Steelers in Week 10. This is tough. There’s not a single AFC game that even slightly piques the interest. Some big games involving Seattle, Arizona and Carolina could be as good as they looked back when the schedule was released or they might be battles of sub-.500 teams. And every NFC East game will be a show (Thanksgiving’s Redskins-Cowboys game, in particular) but we won’t know which year-end matchup will be do-or-die until then. So, give me Steelers-Cowboys. One is a Jekyll-and-Hyde team, and the other has Jerry Jones just waiting for a reason to start thinking about bringing back Tony Romo.

The biggest question facing each team in the second half

Who will be the next coach or GM to be fired?

Greg Bedard, SI: Gus Bradley. If the team’s effort against the Titans was any indication, this is going to go downhill in a hurry and owner Shad Khan will be forced to take action.

Melissa Jacobs, SI: Gus Bradley.Jacksonville fired defensive coordinator Bob Babich at the end of last season. Now they fired offensive coordinator Greg Olson. At some point this lowly, underperforming team will run out of culprits. In four years as Jags coach, Bradley is 14–41, and he’s a stunning 2–5 this season with his most stacked roster yet. The Jags are coming off perhaps their most embarrassing loss in the Bradley Era. Bad schematics and execution is one thing; having players completely despondent in game is another level. Jacksonville is not in a rich market like Dallas or Pittsburgh with capital to spare. It needs fans who buy tickets and merchandise, who believe in the path of this team. Jags owner Shad Khan has to know a reroute is in order, starting with Bradley.

Dieter Kurtenbach, FOX: It's borderline inexcusable that Gus Bradley is still in charge in Jacksonville, which has the talent to win the worst division in football but appears consistently flustered on both sides of the ball. 

Cameron DaSilva, FOX: Gus Bradley. Nothing has gone right for the Jaguars this season, nor have they improved since 2015. Blake Bortles’s horrendous mechanics are a big reason for that, but Bradley’s team looked like it had given up last week. There’s no way he should make it through the year. This team needs a spark, and Bradley hasn’t provided that this season.

Chris Chase, FOX: Some men were born to be coordinators. Gus Bradley is one of those men. The Jags coach is 14–41 in his career, the worst mark in 50 years. He’s like Jeff Fisher, without those previous successful seasons on which to coast.

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What current under-.500 team will make the playoffs?

Greg Bedard, SI: The Bengals. Andy Dalton is playing at a really high level, and they have a relatively easy schedule down the stretch. A few breaks and this team is right back in it.

Chris Burke, SI: None of them? There’s a lot of ground for the sub-.500 AFC teams to cover to reach playoff positioning, and the sub-.500 NFC teams have been uninspiring. Maybe the NFC South turns over or Arizona gets hot, but I don’t expect either outcome. If I really have to pick one team here, I’ll say Miami. The Dolphins are 3–4, with a schedule that gives them a shot to be 7–5 or so in early December. If that happens, they’d be smack dab in the middle of the wild-card race.

Jonathan Jones, SI: The Arizona Cardinals. I’d love to say the Bengals (3-4-1) here, but the AFC West may get both wild-card spots and leave Cincinnati out of the playoffs. The Cards are a game behind Seattle for first place in the NFC West and will face the Seahawks the day before Christmas. Arizona’s defense will miss Tyrann Mathieu for the next few weeks but should be able to get by and earn enough wins to at least compete for a wild card.

Dieter Kurtenbach, FOX: I don't have any under-.500 teams making the playoffs, but the team with the best chance is the Bengals, with New Orleans being the dark horse. 

Cameron DaSilva, FOX: The Arizona Cardinals are barely under .500 at 3-4-1 and they should be 4–4 after that atrocious tie with the Seahawks two weeks ago. It will be an uphill climb, especially with their left tackle and Tyrann Mathieu out, but the Cardinals still have as much talent on their roster as any team in the NFL. Running the offense through David Johnson is something Arizona must do going forward.

What current over-.500 team will miss the playoffs?

Greg Bedard, SI: Washington. All four teams in that division can make playoff pushes, but Washington has a brutal schedule down the stretch (the most difficult in the league by with the Vikings, Packers, Cowboys, Cardinals, Eagles and Panthers in succession after the bye week.

Jonathan Jones, SI: The New York Giants. There’s a bad feeling I have about Eli Manning for the latter half of this year. He’s relied so much on Odell Beckham Jr. so far, and it may not be a sustainable model for the rest of the season. The Cowboys should win the division, and I believe the Eagles will get a wild card. That could leave the Giants on the outside looking in.

Melissa Jacobs, SI: The defense has been the strength of the Texans in J.J. Watt’s absence, but the team as a whole feels like it’s already peaked. Bill O’Brien’s schematics have been top-notch, but here’s guessing that opponents start catching up. Brock Osweiler has been mostly a liability and lacks the accuracy and decision-making to lead the Texans to victory over emerging teams like Green Bay and Oakland. The AFC South is always a land of confoundment, and I think there’s a lot of reshuffling left in the season.

Peter Schrager, FOX: Minnesota seems to be in trouble, and I’d take Buffalo, too, if they weren’t right at .500 already. 

Chris Chase, FOX: Besides the Vikings? Let’s go with the Eagles, a yo-yo team that looks primed for January one week and then appears desperately in need of the top-10 pick they won’t have in the next. (Remember, their 2017 first-rounder was jettisoned in the Carson Wentz deal.) At least one team from the NFC East—where all four teams have winning records—will miss out on the postseason, and the one with the rookie quarterback and new coach seems like the natural choice.

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Will TV ratings return to respectability in the second half?

Chris Burke, SI: Yes. They’ll get a bump, at least. There are so many teams still involved in the playoff hunt that fans who have not been paying attention will start tuning in for that reason alone. The election’s merciful conclusion and baseball being over will help, too. There might be a cap because of other external factors (i.e. the increase in people cord-cutting these days), but the last two months of the regular season should be better than the first two.

Melissa Jacobs, SI: No, I don’t buy the notion that fans will rediscover the NFL just because the election is over. The league has lost a lot of fringe fans for myriad reasons, be it the overpenalizing of celebrations, the lack of quarterbacks or anthem protesting. But mostly the NFL is not presenting a product that should inherently draw in new viewers, particularly out of market. Games are sloppy, injuries are as high as ever, and the lack of star power is pretty startling. The NFL won’t be hitting an apocalypse—most of its revenue comes from TV contracts signed through 2022—but it will need to make a number of tweaks to stop the bleeding.

Peter Schrager, FOX: Respectability? That’s an amazing word to use. My profession is to report on and talk about this sport. So I am biased. If football is popular, it’s good for me. And what’s good for me is good for my family. But I had my first Sunday off in seven years this past weekend. I sat on my butt and enjoyed 16 straight hours of football. Four games back to back to back to back. Watched the FOX pregame show and laughed out loud and learned stuff. Watched Randy Moss on ESPN’s pregame and loved him. Saw The Red Zone for the first time. It was incredible. Moreover, it was nice to take a break from the hot air of our country's politics and the vitriol being spewed on those networks all day. I had an opportunity to enjoy some mindless, guilt-free sports entertainment. And I liked it. A lot. There are a ton of external factors as to why the ratings are slightly down. Will they return to respectability? Take the Jaguars and Titans at 9:30 a.m. in London and it will outrate any random hockey playoff game. NFL pregame shows outrate the WNBA finals. The FS1 shows do their best ratings on Mondays after football games. People want to see what Colin Cowherd has to say. My NFL Network show gets its best ratings on Mondays, too. People want to see the highlights they missed. Again, I’m biased. I wouldn’t be acting in good faith or being completely honest if I didn’t say I’m rooting for the ratings to bounce back big. I can’t promise they will. But I think this story line is also a bit overblown. And it’s become an obsession for some. Let’s revisit post-election. 

Cameron DaSilva, FOX: They will, because of two reasons: The MLB playoffs are over, and the election madness will be soon. It was a perfect storm (in a bad way) for NFL ratings this fall with the Cubs being so interesting and the presidential candidates being the most polarizing of all time. Additionally, the primetime games are going to get better once the NFL begins flexing the schedule and the playoff picture gets a bit clearer.

Chris Chase, FOX: Unless Peyton Manning magically appears in a Broncos uniform, the ratings issues will linger. Losing Manning was a bigger blow than anyone wants to admit. That’s 10 nationally televised games with the league’s biggest star—gone. Cam Newton and Russell Wilson taking steps back in their star turns hasn’t helped either. Still, the ratings aren’t of the “sky is falling” variety yet. Just as many are watching, they’re just watching less.

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What will be the most talked-about story line of the second half (on or off the field)?

Chris Burke, SI: The Tony Romo–Dak Prescott discussion. I’m not sure anything else will even come close, aside from the overall playoff races. The Cowboys have been the best team in the NFC thus far, and they’re on the verge of pulling away in the NFC East. That they even need to have a discussion about their quarterback is fascinating.

Jonathan Jones, SI: Tom Brady was the story before the season started, and he will be at the end of the season. He is well on his way to his third NFL MVP. I couldn’t justify giving him the award at the midpoint of the season because he missed 50% of the games. But by year’s end he will have played in three-quarters of the season and could very well best Aaron Rodgers’s all-time best passer rating of 122.5. Brady’s pursuit of the MVP (and a 12–0 record) will be the most intriguing story line.

Dieter Kurtenbach, FOX: TV ratings—because we prefer to discuss the NFL more than actually watching it. (And I can’t blame anyone for that.) It’s all so meta. 

Peter Schrager, FOX: Cowboys. Cowboys. Cowboys. If they keep this up, the Cowboys will be to football what the Cubs are to baseball this season. Talk to me about ratings if Dallas is the one seed in the NFC playoffs. 

Cameron DaSilva, FOX: Tony Romo and Dak Prescott. Because of course it will be. It’s been the most talked-about story line all year long, and Tony Romo isn’t even ready to return yet. Just wait until he’s healthy and the Cowboys are 8–2 or 9–1. There won’t be a tougher and more scrutinized decision in the NFL.

What is your one bold second-half prediction?

Greg Bedard, SI: The Browns will win one game, either at Baltimore on Nov. 10 or at Buffalo on Dec. 28.

Chris Burke, SI: Matt Ryan doesn’t even finish top three in MVP voting. I still believe the Falcons win the South, mainly because of what Ryan and his offense will continue to do. But he’s feeling MVP-race heat from Tom Brady, Ezekiel Elliott, Drew Brees and others. Even a slight slowdown will bump him from his place among the top contenders. The Falcons have hit 300 yards passing just once in their past four games, so Ryan already has eased off the gas a bit.

Jonathan Jones, SI: Tony Romo will reclaim his starting spot and then lose it again. This will be an even better story line than last year’s Broncos’ quarterback situation. I think Romo will take over as the starter after rookie Dak Prescott loses a game or two, but then his play will be so poor that the Cowboys (possibly with an invisible push from Jerry Jones) move back to Prescott in December to secure the division title.

Dieter Kurtenbach, FOX: Washington makes the playoffs behind a late-season Kirk Cousins surge, only to see the quarterback spectacularly implode (four picks, lost fumble) in the playoffs. 

Chris Chase, FOX: The Browns don’t win one game. They win two.