Super Bowl 51: 5 Top Contenders At Midseason

Super Bowl 51 isn’t until February, but with eight weeks of the 2016 NFL regular season in the books, it’s fair to start labeling teams as contenders.

Coming into the season, we thought teams like the Arizona Cardinals and Cincinnati Bengals would be able to win a big haul of games. Instead, both of these teams have losing records at 3-4-1, and while it would be wise to expect a turn-around, neither team is leading their division.

Most of the teams we expect to be contenders, such as the New England Patriots, have excelled this season. However, we’ve seen plenty of surprise teams, most namely the Oakland Raiders. With Derek Carr, Amari Cooper, and an improved defense, a winning season from Oakland was not a bold preseason prediction. But 5-2 and tied with the Denver Broncos in the AFC West? Now that’s called a rebirth.

Teams still have eight or nine games left to play in 2016, but, for now, let’s take a look at the five best Super Bowl 51 bets at the NFL season’s halfway mark.

Oct 23, 2016; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Minnesota Vikings quarterback Sam Bradford (8) scrambles in the pocket against the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field. The Eagles defeated the Vikings, 21-10. Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Minnesota Vikings

At this point, nobody remembers Adrian Peterson, because the Minnesota Vikings are doing just fine without him. Okay, fine, the Vikings are dead last in yards per carry (2.6) and 31st in yards per game on offense. And you get the feeling that they could collapse on that side of the ball at any given moment. Just last week, the Vikings could only muster 10 points against an excellent Philadelphia Eagles defense because Sam Bradford wasn’t perfect for the first time this season.

No, seriously, Bradford had been perfect up until that moment. Bradford came into the season as a joke among some fans, as they wondered why the heck the Vikings paid such a steep price to acquire a seemingly chronic underperformer from the Eagles.

Though Bradford ran into a wall against his former team, he has been fantastic this season. Prior to Week 7, Bradford did not throw an interception, nor did he have a game with a QB rating under 90. All of this comes despite the fact that rookie first-round pick Laquon Treadwell hasn’t done jack, the running game has done even less, and he has the second-worst tackle pairing in the league (Russell Wilson wins this “woe is me” battle).

However, the Vikings are Super Bowl contenders at 5-1 because of what they are good at. Bradford has shown that he can successfully integrate anyone into the offense beyond stalwarts Stefon Diggs and Kyle Rudolph. Players like Adam Thielen and Cordarrelle Patterson have been surprisingly productive. Bradford has done just enough to keep the offense afloat and we all know that a smart QB with an elite defense can be the right combination to win it all. After all, that’s what those early-2000s New England Patriots teams taught us.

Well, the Vikings defense is the best in the NFL. Besides maybe Seattle, there isn’t a better pass rushing trio in the NFL than Danielle Hunter, Everson Griffen, and Brian Robison. The likes of Eric Kendricks, Harrison Smith, and Xavier Rhodes are elite players at their positions, and they will ensure that this Vikings defense remains the best in the NFC.

Sure, the loss to the Chicago Bears in Week 8 isn’t inspiring anyone. However, if they can get their fire back, this defense is every bit good enough to take them places.

Oct 24, 2016; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Broncos cornerback Aqib Talib (21) reacts following a play in the second half against the Houston Texans at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. The Broncos defeated the Texans 27-9. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Denver Broncos

Denver won it all last year, and they are here to stay as premier Super Bowl contenders. In the offseason, people like me joked that it wouldn’t be too hard for the Broncos to be better on offense, because Peyton Manning was the worst quarterback in the league in 2015. Before the season, nobody knew who Trevor Siemian was, other than the fact that he was the “other guy” competing with Mark Sanchez and Paxton Lynch for the starting job.

Siemian has been pretty good under center and he’s certainly improved as a vertical passer since a weak showing in the Broncos narrow Week 1 title defense against the Carolina Panthers. Unlike Bradford, Siemian gets to benefit from a reasonably good 1-2 punch in the backfield. C.J. Anderson and Devontae Booker are capable of getting more than the blocking in front of them, which is critical given how unreliable the offensive line can be at times.

Third in the league in yards per game allowed and first in net yards per pass attempt, Denver’s calling card remains its defense. Star players like Malik Jackson and Danny Trevathan may be gone, but the idiots who thought the Broncos defense would suffer greatly have been sorely disappointed.

Von Miller is as dominant as ever, the safeties remain undervalued, and Aqib Talib has stepped up his already-strong game to new heights in 2016. The run defense has suffered after the offseason departures, but it’s not like teams get a chance to run the ball frequently against Denver anyway (25th in rushing attempts faced this season).

Oakland may have the same record at 6-2, but the Broncos remain the class of the AFC West. Derek Carr is Oakland’s ultimate advantage, yet it is just too hard to say that they are a better team than the Broncos due to the disparity in defensive consistency.

Oct 30, 2016; Orchard Park, NY, USA; New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) looks to throw a pass during the second half against the Buffalo Bills at New Era Field. The Patriots beat the Bills 41-25. Mandatory Credit: Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

New England Patriots

We sometimes have to wonder if the New England Patriots are getting too cocky, because how many Super Bowl contenders trade one of their best young players in midseason for a third-round pick? How many 7-1 teams with a 39-year-old quarterback decide to make a move for the future?

That’s how Bill Belichick operates and he has every reason to be supremely confident about the machine that just keeps churning out victories in Foxboro. Despite starting three different quarterbacks, the Patriots offense hasn’t thrown an interception and they are third in points per game. Contrary to what some overly critical fans believe, the Patriots defense has also been solid, as they are fifth in points per game allowed.

Right now, no player in the NFL is dominating like Tom Brady. He is indeed as ticked off as ever. Brady is averaging 330 yards per game and 9.8 yards per attempt. Still yet to throw a pick, he’s thrown a touchdown on nine percent of his passes. Moreover, his completion percentage is at 73.1 percent and his QB Rating is 133.9.

The Patriots offense has it all. The young offensive linemen have been better than expected. LeGarrette Blount is doing yeoman’s work. And the wide receivers—my goodness, the wide receivers. If you want to make a list of the NFL’s most under-appreciated players, put Danny Amendola and Chris Hogan on that list. Oh, and I heard their tight end duo is the best ever.

Aside from depth on defense, the Patriots shouldn’t have any major concerns. As long as Devin McCourty, Malcolm Butler, and Jabaal Sheard stay healthy, this defense should be fine. If someone like Kyle Van Noy or, more likely, Barkevious Mingo emerges as a pass rushing threat, then the Pats don’t have to worry about the Chandler Jones or Collins trades biting them in the behind.

Oct 30, 2016; New Orleans, LA, USA; Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson (3) stiff arms New Orleans Saints outside linebacker Craig Robertson (52) in the second half at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The Saints won, 25-20. Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

Seattle Seahawks

The Seattle Seahawks are coming off of a gross primetime tie that they could have easily lost, as well as a disappointing performance against the New Orleans Saints that did result in an “L.”

Even though Seattle is 29th in the league in scoring offense and can’t get a good rushing attack going due to their garbage offensive line, I don’t see a reason to panic. When Russell Wilson feels 100 percent, the most important aspect of the Seahawks offense will be back in place, and the offensive line’s struggles won’t matter as much.

Remember, judging by Seattle’s roster-building, they have viewed the offensive line as a sacrificial lamb of sorts. And don’t give me that Germain Ifedi nonsense, because they knew he would be a long-term, work-in-progress when they drafted him this year.

Since the Seahawks are second in the league in points per game allowed, this defense is as good as ever. Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor are balling and the same can be said for cornerbacks Richard Sherman and DeShawn Shead, who leads the team with nine passes defended. The secondary is as good as ever and the defensive line is even better.

If Wilson is able to be 100 percent, then he could help reignite the running game. Plus, Thomas Rawls is on the shelf. And while Christine Michael has talent, he isn’t half as good at Rawls is at consistently getting more from the blocking in front of him. Rawls is one of the most powerful backs in the NFL and he was the most efficient in the NFL last year (5.6 yards per carry) prior to his injury.

The Seahawks are like the Broncos and the Patriots in that they are always in the thick of it. As we saw last year, it is never wise to count them out at any given moment, but we’re starting to see just how much this team relies on Wilson’s once-in-a-lifetime skill-set. And no, I’m not just talking about his physical tools; I’m talking about his ridiculously underrated on-the-fly mental processing that makes this offense tick.

Oct 30, 2016; Arlington, TX, USA; Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott (21) celebrates after the game against the Philadelphia Eagles at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Dallas Cowboys

If the playoffs started today (yeah, I know it’s a stupid saying, but it’s part of a stat), then the Dallas Cowboys would be the NFC’s No. 1 seed. They nabbed a critical win over the Philadelphia Eagles in overtime in Week 8 and it is truly extraordinary how much intestinal fortitude is contained in this team.

We’ve seen Ezekiel Elliott put himself on a Hall of Fame track, Dak Prescott step into a franchise legend’s shoes and shine as both a player and a leader, and we’ve even seen Morris Claiborne repay the Cowboys by finally becoming a star corner. Terrelle Pryor is the league’s craziest redemption story, but don’t forget about what Claiborne has been doing.

The Cowboys have weathered suspensions that turned their pass rush into a non-existent part of the defense, and they’ve done it by relying on a secondary that needs to get more credit. Players like Claiborne, Barry Church, and Byron Jones should be household names. Alright, technically Claiborne has always been a household name, but it should be for good reasons now.

Based on how well Elliott and Prescott have played, it’s no surprise that the 6-1 Cowboys are seventh in the league in points per game. However, it may shock you to see that the Cowboys are also allowing just the seventh fewest points per game. There’s a chance this is fluky, but the Cowboys are no longer a laughingstock on defense.

Between the Cowboys and the Atlanta Falcons, I’d give Dallas a greater chance of doing damage in the posteason. The Falcons running game and offensive line are also exceptional, but Elliott and his blockers are doing special things. Dallas leads the league in rushing yards, and Elliott is blowing everyone out of the water with his average of 114.1 rushing yards per game.

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