Key players, storylines, coaches — Everything you need to know for the second half of NFL season

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What’s on the line in the second half of the season:

1. The health of Patrick MahomesWith him at 100 percent, the Chiefs could (could, I wrote, not would) have the kind of explosive offense to win in Foxboro and beat back the strong contenders in the NFC in the Super Bowl. With him at 88 percent-ish because of the after-effects of the dislocated kneecap, his quick-twitch movements in and out of the pocket disappear, and the Chiefs would have to be significantly better on defense than they are today to win Super Bowl 54. This is the reason I fully back Any Reid sitting Mahomes on Sunday against Minnesota, though Mahomes was probably healthy enough to play hobbled: As of this morning, only one of KC’s seven foes down the stretch has a record over .500. Get Mahomes to max health, even if it costs the Chiefs the two seed.

2. Why 8-0 San Francisco might not win NFC home-field—and might not get a first-round bye. Five NFC teams have seven or more wins through nine weeks, which is amazing. The Niners are terrific on both sides of the ball, particularly on defense, but it’s possible 7-2 Green Bay and 7-1 New Orleans could pass them for the top two seeds. San Francisco’s second-half schedule is a killer: Seattle twice, the Rams once, and Baltimore and New Orleans on the road.

3. The end of the line for the Brady/Belichick marriage? No one knows for sure. I would not predict—with the Patriots sitting atop the AFC, Tom Brady playing well at 42, and there being no clear successor in-house after the jettisoning of Jacoby Brissett and Jimmy Garoppolo in 2017 trades—that Brady will retire, or be quarterbacking the Bears or Titans or Broncos or Raiders in 2020. (Lord! Gruden and Brady on the Las Vegas Strip 10 months from now. Only in America.) But when Adam Schefter, as plugged into Belichickland as any reporter ever has been, says Brady leaving the team in 2020 is a real possibility, sit up. Pay attention. To me, Brady getting his contract to void after this season is a sign he would like to choose his fate in 2020, not have it chosen for him. And doesn’t he deserve that after 20 mega-productive years with the Patriots?

4. Whither pass interference? The new pass-interference challenge “rule” has been more of a “laughably rarely enforced suggestion” in the first half of this year. Senior VP of Officiating Al Riveron seldom overrules a call on the field (2 of 31 coaches’ challenges between Week 3 and Week 8 were denied, ESPN reported) and seemingly at will. Maybe we’ll all be happy if it saves a horrible call in a playoff game. Maybe. But I don’t see this debacle of a rules change getting 24 of 32 votes next March to continue in the 2020 season.

5. The scramble for the top draft picks(s). As of this morning, the race for the first pick seems to be a five-team race: Cincinnati (0-8), Washington (1-8), Atlanta (1-7), Jets (1-7) and Miami (1-7). As of today, there is no must-have overall first pick. Ohio State pass rusher Chase Young is likely the surest draft thing. Two quarterbacks are likely to go in the top five, at least. The most compelling draft storyline, of course, will be Miami, which also owns the first-round picks of Pittsburgh and Houston. Let’s just guess the Dolphins end up with the second, 10th (from Pittsburgh, for Minkah Fitzpatrick) and 22nd (from Houston, for Laremy Tunsil) picks in round one. Miami also has two firsts and two seconds in 2021. They could be frothing over Young at a major need position, and know they need a quarterback too. No team would be in better position to trade up than Miami. The Dolphins, in this scenario, might be able to trade the 10th overall pick this year plus a first and a second next year to move from 10 to three with a franchise not desperate for a quarterback. Amazing, that would still leave Miami with another first-rounder this year, and picks in the first and second rounds next year. Theoretically, that’s how they could end up with Young and one of the three quarterbacks with soft question marks—Tua Tagovailoa (nagging injuries), Justin Herbert (not an alpha-male leader type), Joe Burrow (one-year wonder).

6. The Hall of Fame’s questionable call on the Hall of Fame class of 2020. This is going to reverberate. Pro Football Talk reported that the Pro Football Hall of Fame has decided its 2020 Centennial Class—a total of 15 players, coaches and contributors—will be enshrined without being voted on by the 48-member Hall of Fame selection committee. In the 56 years of Hall of Fame history, 326 football legends in 56 classes have been enshrined by a vote of the selection committee. But not this year. Fifteen men will enter the Hall through a different gate, likely to be viewed by history with an asterisk. Much more to come on this in 10 Things I Think I Think.

7. The disappearing commissioner. Other than a press availability for a few minutes at the NFL fall meetings in Florida last month, has anyone seen Roger Goodell? Anywhere? Odd, considering this is a year when I thought the league would be celebrating its 100th. That, too, has been mostly invisible. It should not be much of a career change for Goodell when, as most people around the league believe, he walks away into private life after the negotiation of the next CBA (talking now, but not likely done till 2021) and the next TV/streaming rights deal (2022).

8. The fate of the 2015 quarterbacks. The Titans, frustrated that Marcus Mariota never became the decisive playmaker they thought they drafted number two overall in 2015, have planted him on the bench behind another failed starter, Ryan Tannehill. Mariota will likely back up another quarterback in 2020. Maybe Chicago, where his former coach, Mark Helfrich, is offensive coordinator—though the Bears might want a player with a better résumé to challenge Mitchell Trubisky in 2020. In Tampa, Jameis Winston has gone from an 80-percent sure bet for a second contract with the Bucs to who knows. In his last two games prior to Week 9, Winston turned it over 10 times—and he’s lucky it wasn’t 12, because two of his fumbles were not lost. But then he throws for 335 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions in nearly upsetting Seattle on the road. So like I said, who knows. Coach Bruce Arians has been fiercely defensive of Winston, but that’s what happens when a coach is trying to save a quarterback whose middle name is Potential. I won’t be surprised, barring an efficient second half of the season, if GM Jason Licht pushes the QB decision down the road and offers Winston a bridge deal of a couple of years.

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Steering clear of quarterbacks, because they’re always going to be high on valuable-player lists, here are the five players most crucial to the playoff chase in the second half:

Aaron Jones, Green Bay running back. What I like about the Packers this year is their malleability, and their ability to adjust while being slammed with injuries at receiver, and to do it all without bitching. Part of that is having Jones, who’s becoming a Le’Veon Bell-sort of versatile back. A fifth-round pick from UTEP in 2017, Jones has morphed into a back coach Matt LaFleur is comfortable splitting out. In the Week 8 win at Kansas City, per Pro Football FocusJones played 15 of 42 snaps at receiver—six in the slot, nine lined up wide. In a brilliant example of design and execution, Jones lined up wide left on one snap, went into motion, stopped behind tight end Jimmy Graham, took a quick pass from Aaron Rodgers, and weaved/sprinted 67 yards for the touchdown. That was part of a seven-catch, 159-receiving-yard performance, the best by a back in the Rodgers era. “In this offense,” Jones told me in a conversation for “The Peter King Podcast” this week, “backs are asked to be used in different ways and you gotta be versatile. I’m glad I can bring that aspect.”

Jones had to grow up fast. His mom and dad, both career Army veterans, were deployed to Iraq in 2003 and Jones, at age 8, and two siblings lived with an aunt and uncle for six months. “At the time,” Jones said, “you’re not understanding really what war is. You hear ‘war’ when you’re younger and you just think of people being killed. So you’re not knowing if you’re gonna see them or anything.” The lesson he learned from those long days and nights, his parents on the other side of the world in harm’s way? “Never take a second with them for granted because they’re 29, 27 years in the Army. Any day could’ve been the day. I don’t know what went on over there, but who knows. One step to the right, one step to the left, things could’ve been different.”

Back to football … In Rodgers’ 12 starting seasons, a back has never been higher than third in receptions on the team. Jones, through nine weeks, has 34 catches, nine more than any Packer. “The offense that Coach LaFleur runs, I think it fits me very well,” Jones said. “He likes to use backs everywhere, all over the field and so the better you can catch, the more you’ll play.” Even as Davante Adams returns from a foot injury, look for Jones to use his versatility to be a hard-to-defend weapon for Rodgers.

Emmanuel Ogbah, defensive end, Kansas City. With the touted Frank Clark (neck) playing hurt and playing unproductively (three sacks in 405 snaps), the Chiefs are counting on another defensive end to fulfill his promise. The 32nd pick in the 2016 draft, Ogbah never panned out for Cleveland and was sent to the Chiefs in April for safety Eric Murray. The Chiefs have gotten the better of the deal. Ogbah has a team-high 4.5 sacks and 17 pressures/hits. If the Chiefs are going to going to be good enough defensively, Ogbah’s got to pick up the Clark slack.

Fred Warner, middle linebacker, San Francisco. With the loss of playmaking outside ‘backer Kwon Alexander to a torn pectoral muscle, the weight falls on Warner to be a sideline-to-sideline insurance policy behind the strong Niners’ defensive front. Warner’s missed some stops, but he’s the team leader in tackles, and defensive coordinator Robert Saleh’s put a lot on his plate: Warner has played every snap in six of San Francisco’s eight wins.

Andrew Whitworth and Rob Havenstein, left and right tackle, L.A. Rams. Last year, Havenstein was PFF’s fourth-rated offensive tackle, and Whitworth eighth. This year, through midseason, Whitworth is 22nd and Havenstein has plummeted to 73rd. It likely has to do with the chaotic interior line; the two guards and center are all in the bottom five of PFF’s rankings at their positions. “Teaching the puppies,” Whitworth told me a couple of weeks ago, about the difference in the 2019 Rams. They’d better learn fast.

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Most compelling coaches to watch in the next two months, for many reasons:

Matt Eberflus, defensive coordinator, Indianapolis. A few months before the Rams hired Sean McVay at 30 in 2017, one of our writers at The MMQB, Andy Benoit, wrote that McVay was far and away, despite his age, the best head-coaching candidate in the NFL. Rams COO Kevin Demoff read the piece, got interested in McVay, interviewed him, and the rest is Rams history. “I’m probably as high on Eberflus as anyone since Sean McVay,” Benoit said on my podcast this week. Eberflus has integrated scads of young players into his defense and gotten them to play fast quickly. Very highly regarded about the league. Should get a head-coaching job.

Jason Garrett, head coach, Dallas. It’s a myth that Dallas needs to win X number of games, or get to X point in the playoffs for Garrett to stay. Now that Sean Payton has re-signed in New Orleans and likely won’t be going anywhere, Jerry Jones would prefer to keep Garrett, but he won’t if the Cowboys have a clunker finish.

Freddie Kitchens, head coach, Cleveland. Two big issues with the Browns that must improve for Kitchens to be sure to return in 2020: Baker Mayfield and Kitchens made beautiful music post-Hue Jackson last year, and Mayfield stinks through half a season now. In eight games with Kitchens as play-caller last year, Mayfield was plus-11 in TD-to-pick ratio. In his first eight this year, he’s minus-five. Mayfield is Kitchens’ baby, and the baby’s been colicky for two months. (And Kitchens has to get Mayfield to stop making mountains out of piss-ant, nothing issues. It’s always something with the guy.) And the Browns’ discipline has been awful: 12.6 penalties called on the Browns per game, through Week 8, far and away the most in the league. The wins will come in the soft eight-game end to the season; I see Cleveland rallying to 7-9 or 8-8. But the sloppiness and quarterback crappiness/moodiness has to end. If not, I could see John Dorsey having a head-coaching decision (Eric Bienemy? Lincoln Riley?) to make after one season.

Josh McDaniels, offensive coordinator, New England. Packers got turned off (at least some in the organization did) by McDaniels’ about-face with the Colts in February 2018, which is understandable. McDaniels gets the who-couldn’t-win-with-Brady treatment too. But some team with a malleable quarterback (or one to draft) would be smart to overlook that in the face of McDaniels’ inarguable production. He entered this year with seven straight years with a top-five offense as coordinator, is totally trusted and nearly revered by Brady, was given money far beyond coordinator money to stay in New England, has been given assurance that he’ll get first crack at being Belichick’s heir, has never had a franchise receiver, and has made due with overall average offensive talent at best. I know this: If I ran a team with a coaching opening, and if I got satisfactory answers about why McDaniels jilted the Colts, and if I had a struggling quarterback, or I were about to draft a quarterback of the future, McDaniels would be my slam-dunk choice.

Robert Saleh, defensive coordinator, San Francisco. He’d better get his best suit pressed, and his polish his head-coach presentation. Saleh will be sought for interviews after the regular season, and rightfully so. Players in San Francisco played hard for him when they had a talent deficit, and now that they’re significantly better, Saleh’s schemes and play-calling are showing them off.

Eric Bienemy, offensive coordinator, Kansas City. A natural in front of a room of players. Imaginative. Patrick Mahomes swears by him. If I were running the Washington search, Bienemy, McDaniels and Shaw would be high on my list

Lincoln Riley, head coach, Oklahoma. I don’t see it, though he might have to have a conversation if Jerry Jones calls. I keep hearing he may leave Oklahoma one day for the NFL, just not now.

Other college guys. Ohio State’s Ryan Day is intriguing, and almost went with Mike Vrabel as offensive coordinator a couple of years ago. A riser … One of these days, an NFL team will think Brian Kelly is the right fit and go after him hard … I still think, despite the shine being off Stanford a bit, that David Shaw would be a perfect NFL coach. I’m not sure I’d leave Stanford for the NFL pressure, but that doesn’t mean an NFL president shouldn’t go knocking on his door.

Adam Gase, head coach, Jets. He’s 5-15 in his last 20 games as a head coach, and Sam Darnold has been regressing. No indication Gase could be one-and-done, but the Jets play teams with a combine 6-25 record in the next five weeks. With an impatient owner. Would be smart to win three of those.

Read more from Peter King’s Football Morning in America column here