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Debrief: Top NFL storylines to track in second half of 2020 

The New Orleans Saints have played in innumerable Big Games over the years, even if you only start counting since the latest iteration of their NFC South dynasty was born in 2017, when the team selected Alvin Kamara, Ryan Ramczyk and Marshon Lattimore in the same draft class.

These Tompa Bay Buccaneers have now played in one Big Game, although they didn't stick around for long in their 38-3 home loss to the Saints on Sunday night.

The Bucs' no-show was a jolting preview of the second half of this season, when the games take on increasing weight each week. If there's a theme to the 2020 campaign thus far beyond high scoring and COVID-19 complications, it's the predictability of it all. Most of the best teams are familiar and were favorites coming into the season. New would-be kings, like the Bucs, Cardinals and Dolphins, are just beginning to test their mettle with meaningful games.

One result doesn't lower the ceiling of a Bucs team that remains as complete on paper as any squad in football, but it puts them in a trail position, now reliant on Saints losses to win the NFC South. (The Bucs' tougher schedule moving forward won't help.) It also lowers the likelihood of any team running away and hiding in an incredibly crowded NFC playoff picture.

Only one loss separates the NFC's current top seed, the Saints, from the seventh-seeded Rams. The Big Games are just starting, with the No. 1 seed having greater importance than ever, because only one team in each conference gets to skip the Wild Card Round. Then again, home-field advantage is not what it used to be: Home teams have a losing record this season entering Week 9's Monday Night Football matchup.

Add it all up, throw in the increasing weekly challenges provided by COVID-19 and injuries, and this promises to be a complicated second half.

Here's what else I'm looking forward to in the next eight weeks:

1) An actual AFC East division race. The Patriots have won the division every season since 2009, usually by a wide margin. You have to go back to 2000, Bill Belichick's first year in Foxborough, to find a season where the Patriots didn't at least tie for the AFC East's best record. Something would have to go seriously wrong for that to happen again.

While the Patriots are more likely to go 6-10 than 10-6, the Buffalo Bills and Miami Dolphins both made a show of force in their respective Week 9 wins. With John Brown fully healthy again as the Robin to Stefon Diggs' Batman in Buffalo, the Bills showed for the first time since the first quarter of the season that their passing game has a ceiling that rivals any in football. Coordinator Brian Daboll has built an offense that can shapeshift depending on the matchup, and the Bills took advantage of a confounding gameplan by Seahawks coach Pete Carroll on Sunday that relied on blitzing and man coverage, despite Josh Allen destroying that approach back in September.

At 7-2, the Bills are extremely likely to make the playoffs. But with tough games left at Arizona and against Pittsburgh, the division could come down to their Week 17 game against the Dolphins. (Save us from the NFC East please, NBC!)

Anyone still doubting the staying power of the Phish needs to watch Tua Tagovailoa's performance in a win over the Cardinals. His athleticism is further along than expected, given that he's just about a year removed from having hip surgery. His decisiveness, accuracy and feel for playing quarterback is as advertised. Brian Flores is a strong Coach of the Year candidate because his Miami defense is so hard to prepare for, often limiting the opponent's best traits and excelling in situational football. DeAndre Hopkins was held to 30 receiving yards, and the Cardinals' fourth-quarter struggles in short-yardage situations made all the difference on Sunday.

In a season of predictability and atrophy, the reborn Dolphins are as refreshing as Dan Marino's acting chops. The new kids of the AFC East faced the top teams Sunday from the best division in football, the NFC West, and they came out on top. Speaking of Tua ...

2) The staying power of the rookie QB trio. It's hard to overstate how ready and consistent Justin Herbert and Joe Burrow have been all season. Herbert, the sixth overall pick, has balled like a top-10 quarterback from the jump with the Chargers, so it's only natural to worry about a stagnation. Burrow, the first overall pick, has improved every week after starting off rather high for a rookie with the Bengals. If Tagovailoa, the fifth overall pick, joins them as a consistent difference maker, the entire slate of weekly Sunday games will look a whole lot more entertaining than it was even a year ago.

3) The AFC's wild-card race. Unlike the muddled NFC, there is a clearer demarcation in the AFC between the haves (Chiefs, Steelers and Ravens) and the rest (Titans, Colts, Dolphins, Raiders and Browns), with the Bills fitting somewhere in the middle, depending on which side of the bed their offense woke up on. 

Nine AFC teams reached midseason at 5-3 or better, making it less likely that a team with a losing record -- like the Patriots, Chargers or Broncos -- will make a serious playoff push. This wild-card race is where the new postseason blood is going to come from, and it means plenty, even if these teams aren't title contenders. Just making the postseason would be a remarkable step forward for the Raiders, Browns or Dolphins. As has been true for much of the season, the strength of schedule gods give the Browns an edge.

4) The Steelers as frontrunners. The Steelers have never been in a position like this under Mike Tomlin in his 14 seasons as head coach. Not only is this their first 8-0 start in team history, it's only the second time since 2011 that they have won more than five games in the first half of the season. (They were 6-2 in 2017.) 

Holding on to the No. 1 seed in the AFC will be challenging for Pittsburgh, with games against the Ravens, Colts, Bills and Browns in the back half. Even the two games against the Bengals shape up to be tougher than they look on paper. 

I'm conflicted about how good this Steelers team truly is. As 8-0 squads go, they clearly aren't that dominant. But they combine one of the league's undeniable defenses with a savvy quarterback, terrific talent at receiver and a great coach. In seven of Pittsburgh's eight games this season, the result was in doubt during the fourth quarter. They won all seven of those games, including Sunday's surprisingly complicated win in Dallas. You can call that luck, but at some point, closing strong in games becomes part of a team's DNA. They expect it. I'm inclined to believe that all these deposits in the Bank of Mojo matter when so little separates the top teams.

5) The Ravens' defense. Baltimore has gone 25-5 in Lamar Jackson's career starts for two primary reasons: Their running game, led by Jackson, and their defense. I believe this group of Ravens defenders, ranked first in points allowed, is their best since Ray Lewis, Haloti Ngata, Terrell Suggs and Ed Reed roamed the land.

The addition of Yannick Ngakoue gives defensive coordinator Don Martindale even more options when it comes to deploying his creative blitzes and excellent man-coverage secondary. Baltimore's defense suffocated AFC contenders Pittsburgh and Indianapolis in successive weeks, with Jackson's turnovers against the Steelers being the only reason there isn't full-throated "The Ravens are back!" talk after their win over the Colts

The Ravens' kryptonite in Kansas City looms, and Baltimore's passing game needs to be more consistent, but the key here is how much this 6-2 team can still improve. The team's dominance in the second half Sunday -- where the Ravens outscored the Colts 17-0 and at one point had 16 first downs against five plays for the Colts -- was reminiscent of the 2019 Ravens. They can knock teams out quickly and tread water for the rest of the game. The Ravens' defense historically gets better down the stretch, and Jackson can cut down on the sacks and fumbles that have marred this season. Outside of the defending champions, there still isn't a team in either conference I trust more.

6) Dalvin Cook and Gary Kubiak making sweet magic. The Vikings are 3-5 and have an uphill climb to make a serious run at the playoffs, although I wouldn't rule it out, based on their schedule. Whether they are winning games or not, you have to be dead inside not to enjoy watching Cook run the football.

As my friend Chris Wesseling said on our Around the NFL Week 9 recap pod, it's rare to see a running back's gifts at their peak meet a perfect scheme with the kind of synchronicity that Cook has with Vikings coordinator Gary Kubiak's zone-blocking approach.

Cook has played only six full games this year. He's topped 199 yards from scrimmage in three of them, with 478 scrimmage yards in the last two games alone against real, live NFL professionals. With Cook as the main course and rookie receiver Justin Jefferson as a delicious side dish, the Vikings are eminently tasty and figure to be a dangerous team down the stretch.

7) The Saints' defensive line. For all the talk about Drew Brees getting his weapons back and the rollercoaster Saints secondary, I believe New Orleans' path to the Super Bowl goes through their defensive line. If Cameron Jordan, David Onyemata, Marcus Davenport, Trey Hendrickson and Malcom Brown can approach their level of dominance against the Bucs on a semi-regular basis, then the Saints can be the most complete team in the NFC.

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