2018 second-half predictions: Nine headlines from the future!
We’ve officially entered the second half of the regular season now that every team has played at least half of its games. What developments over the next eight weeks will spark spirited conversation around the league? Jeremy Bergman has the answers! Here are nine headlines you can expect to see in the next two months.
1) Brockcember: Dolphins shelve Tannehill for good, Osweiler under center for playoff push — Wednesday, November 21, 2018, 11:15 a.m. ET
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My prediction: Ryan Tannehill has started his last game in a Dolphins uniform. For the third time in as many seasons, Miami’s supposed franchise quarterback is injured, and for the second time in three years, he’s out during a playoff run (swim?). At this point, you’re more likely to find Tannehill on the mend than on the field.
It’s still not clear when Tannehill, who’s missed the last four games with an injury to his throwing shoulder, will return. Head coach Adam Gase didn’t rule Tannehill out for Sunday’s game against the Packers when he was asked about the QB’s status on Monday, telling reporters "It’ll be interesting to see what happens the next two days, and the (Week 11) bye week, and we’ll go from there." But by the time the Dolphins return from their bye, the unreliable Tannehill still won’t be ready to go and the Fins will place him on season-ending injured reserve. Osweiler will continue to hold the reins for the stretch run, and try to keep the Dolphins, who enter Week 10 at 5-4, afloat in the wild-card race.
2) Bell returns, but Conner maintains tight hold on Steelers’ starting job — Monday, November 26, 2018, 8:37 a.m. ET
Le’Veon Bell’s "Fairwell" declaration to Miami on Monday might have signaled, in as any many typos, that the M.I.A. Steelers running back is set to return from MIA to PIT within the next week. When Bell does return to the Steelers — we’re predicting he will — he won’t be welcomed back to the locker room with open arms. When asked if his team still needs Bell back, coach Mike Tomlin said Sunday that his team needs "volunteers, not hostages." One of his offensive linemen said "no one cares" about the tailback’s absence. And why should he? Bell’s replacement, James Conner, is putting up better numbers through eight games than Bell did last season, especially when it comes to putting the ball in the end zone, while Bell is putting out corner-store mixtapes.
Will that change once Bell reports to Pittsburgh on Nov. 12? Nah. Conner is a tank, physically able to do the things on the field that Bell, prioritizing delayed gratification, neglected to this year. Though Conner figures to be worn down more than he ever has in his football career by the time Bell is ready to play, it will become clear shortly after Bell’s return that he Wally Pipp’d himself. Bell will be the de facto RB2, earning as many snaps per game as Vance McDonald, not as Antonio Brown, and playing a bigger role in the passing game than ground game.
3) Column: After fourth loss in five games, time for Packers to pack it in — Tuesday, November 27, 2018, 7:13 a.m. CT
It’s getting late for Mike McCarthy and Co. in Green Bay. The Packers’ double-digit loss in New England on Sunday night crystallized the talent disparity between Green Bay’s roster and that of year-in, year-out contenders, something that should only further frustrate an always testy midseason Aaron Rodgers. But now it’s not only A-Rod silently stewing over the Pack’s continued letdowns. Before November ends, the fans and the press are ready to pasteurize this stinky operation. Following a close win over Brock Osweiler’s Dolphins in Week 10, Green Bay will crumble late in road tests in Seattle and Minnesota and fall to an unthinkable 4-6-1, adding more fuel to the firing squad. The defeat will prompt thought leaders from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel to The Athletic to BobMcGinnFootball.com to pen essentially the same article, pinning the Pack’s woes on McCarthy and calling for his head.
4) Colts corral Texans, pull within a game of AFC South lead — Sunday, December 9, 2018, 4:51 p.m. CT
The Colts are peaking at the right time. After two get-right blowouts of Buffalo and Oakland and a well-deserved bye, Indianapolis begins a five-game stretch that includes three straight games at home and four against division opponents, the last of which is in Houston. If not for Frank Reich’s rookie cajones in their first meeting, the Colts could’ve knocked off the Texans in overtime, and both rosters have improved markedly since then with Indy getting healthy and Houston getting Demaryius Thomas. By the time they meet in early December, Houston’s six-game winning streak will have snapped and Indy will be on the Texans’ tail. Thanks to four TDs from Andrew Luck, Indy will escape NRG Field with a dub and a 7-6 record, one game behind Houston’s 8-5. This will set up a make-or-break three-game stretch to close out the regular season for both sides, who must also hold off the threatening 6-7 Titans.
5) Flacco flops in K.C., Jackson to start Ravens’ remaining games — Monday, December 10, 2018, 10:37 a.m. ET
Slowly but surely, the Ravens are weaning the offense and their supporters onto the idea of Lamar Jackson replacing Joe Flacco under center this season. First, he’s sharing the field with him. Then, he’s taking snaps. Now, he’s throwing passes — better than Joe! — and inspiring statements from his embattled coach that Baltimore could hand him an entire series in the coming weeks. The slow coup in Charm City is underway. But it won’t be complete until Flacco goes full Fitzpatrick in Kansas City in Week 14. After the Ravens pull themselves back to 6-6, Flacco will waste a stellar outing from the defense against Patrick Mahomes by completing 49 percent of his passes and throwing two fourth-quarter interceptions vs. the Chiefs. With the Ravens, and the John Harbaugh era, on their last legs, the coach will then depose the veteran quarterback and hand the keys to the franchise to the young QB.
6) Chargers upset Chiefs in Arrowhead; AFC West, home-field advantage up for grabs — Friday, December 15, 2018, 12:21 a.m. CT
Back to Arrowhead, where after brawling with Baltimore, the 11-2 Chiefs will face off against the 10-3 Chargers. The FOX-NFL Network marketing teams will enter Week 15 with fat pockets as ad buys go through the roof for this Thursday night matchup between two of the league’s top five offenses and leading MVP candidates in Mahomes and Philip Rivers with the division on the line. If K.C. wins, the West is theirs. But it’s not to be. Rivers will hook up with Mike Williams for two scores. Signed off the couch one day before, Kai Forbath will connect on four field goals, destroying for all time the Bolts’ kicker curse. The Chiefs’ offensive slide will continue as Derwin James will strip-sack Mahomes with 38 seconds left, thwarting the Chiefs’ late comeback bid and sealing a 26-24 Chargers victory.
7) NFC South to be decided on Sunday night: Panthers-Saints finale flexed to SNF with division title on the line — Sunday, December 23, 2018, 11:47 p.m. ET
More divisional drama! For the second straight season, the NFC South title race is toight like a toiger with the Saints and Panthers leading the way. The scheduling gods at the league office handed us a gift when they locked in these two rivals for two matchups in the final three weeks. The first game, a Monday nighter in Week 15, will end in a Carolina landslide, or 27-20 by this rivalry’s standards, putting the Panthers at 11-3 and the Saints at 10-4. While New Orleans will take care of business in Week 16 against Pittsburgh, the Panthers will stumble at home against the surging Falcons, setting up a winner-takes-all Week 17 showdown. The peacocks at 30 Rock will phone the commissioner immediately following that Sunday’s proceedings with a simple message: "Cam and Brees, please." Wish granted. The regular season will end in the Superdome.
8) T.G. < L.T.: Gurley’s three TDs in season finale not enough to top Tomlinson’s mark — Sunday, December 30, 2018, 4:33 p.m. PT
Todd Gurley will be given the green light from Sean McVay to score at will against the 49ers’ AAA farm team at the L.A. Coliseum. With a win, the Rams would secure home-field advantage over the winner of the NFC South, so McVay won’t play his stars like it’s the preseason. Gurley will score 10 more touchdowns over the next six games, giving him 26 total end-zone visits heading into Week 17 and needing five to tie LaDainian Tomlinson’s record of 31 touchdowns. Try as he might, Gurley will score only three — two in the first half and one in the second. McVay will catch flack, and a few boos, for running a jet-sweep touch pass to Malcolm Brown instead of Gurley in the fourth quarter but it’s all in good fun. The 45-12 win over San Francisco means the Rams will lock up home-field advantage in the NFC at 13-3.
9) Bears down, then out: Nagy’s boys knocked out of division, postseason chase in loss to Vikings — Sunday, December 30, 2018, 8:12 p.m. CT
With the Packers in the rearview mirror, Chicago and Minnesota will stay neck-and-neck in the standings until the end of the season. The Vikings might boast the more superior roster, but Minnesota has more potential hiccups on its schedule than Chicago, which still gets to play the Lions twice, the Giants and the 49ers. By the time their season finale rolls around, the Bears (9-6) and Vikings (9-5-1) will be in a win-or-go home scenario. When the inexperienced Bears lose handedly to their Norse rivals, falling to 9-7, not only will they lose the North title, but will fall completely out of the playoffs thanks to the ascendant Falcons finishing on an absolute tear. No postseason for the young Bears, but not a bad first go-around for Matt Nagy in his rookie season. They’ll be back to compete and lead in the North for years to come.
Follow Jeremy Bergman on Twitter @JABergman.
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