Opinion: Marquee teams highlight biggest surprises, disappointments from first half of NFL season

The NFL has officially reached the halfway point of the 2020 season. 

It’s clear that this will go down as an immensely memorable year due in part to the challenges that COVID-19 has presented. However, the on-field action has been quite compelling. 

The defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs might be even better this year. The Super Bowl runner-up San Francisco 49ers, meanwhile, have been ravaged by injury. 

The NFC West looks like the best division in football, with three playoff-caliber squads, while the NFC East is historically bad. 

Two long-time head coaches (Bill O’Brien and Dan Quinn) have been fired. Two second-year coaches (Brian Flores and Kliff Kingsbury) have their teams in contention. 

Big-name stars like Nick Bosa, Odell Beckham Jr., Saquon Barkley and Dak Prescott all suffered season-ending injuries are all lost for the year to injury.

Here’s a look at some of the biggest surprises and biggest disappointments of the first half of the season. 

Surprise: Buffalo’s leap – The Buffalo Bills seemed prime for improvement in 2020, but their 7-2 start has impressed. No longer is this a mediocre offense carried by a strong defense. Buffalo ranks among one of the most well-rounded squads thus far. 

Quarterback Josh Allen, who has made quite a jump in Year 3, ranks third in passing yards (2,587) while improving his completion rate from 58.8% in 2019 to 67.1% this season. Entering the year, Allen had yet to notch a 300-yard passing day. This year, he has five, including two 400-yard outings. Already, he has thrown for 19 touchdowns a year after notching 20. His passer rating also has jumped from 85.3 to 107.2.

The Bills’ two losses have come against the Super Bowl champion Chiefs and AFC runner-up Tennessee Titans. However, Buffalo owns a 4-0 record in the AFC East and boasts statement wins against the Los Angeles Rams and Seattle Seahawks.

Disappointment: New England’s collapse – We knew life without Tom Brady would be interesting, but Bill Belichick's teams are always well-coached, and Cam Newton’s arrival sparked hope that the New England Patriots would exceed expectations. But Newton has struggled mightily, recording only two touchdown passes and seven interceptions, and New England enters Monday with a 2-4 record after experiencing its first three-game losing streak since 2002. 

Now, more than ever, Brady’s departure looks like a genius move. The cupboard in New England may have been even more bare than anyone realized. The Patriots’ offensive playmakers are missing in action, and young defensive players counted on to fill voids left by free agent departures and COVID-19 opt-outs have underperformed. Belichick's Pats appear headed for their first losing record since 2000, his first season with the squad.

Surprise: Russell Wilson’s TD pace – Quite possibly one of the game’s most underrated stars, Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson entered this season having never received an MVP vote. He appears determined to change that this season. Gone is the conservative offensive approach that the Seahawks have traditionally utilized. They’re letting Russ cook, and he is responding authoritatively, delivering a league-high 28 touchdown passes, putting him within reach of Peyton Manning's single-season record (55), while ranking second in passer rating at 117.1. Meanwhile, Seattle's offense leads the NFL in points per game while the team is tied the best record (6-2) in the conference.

Disappointment: Seattle’s defense – The Seahawks very well could be undefeated if they could play a lick of defense. Instead, they give up more yards (455.8 per game) than any team in the league while allowing 30.4 points per game. They can’t stop the run, can’t stop the pass and can’t get after the quarterback. This puts way too much pressure on Wilson and the offense to be perfect. The absence of Jamal Adams hurt, but the All-Pro safety made his return Sunday. The Seahawks are hoping that a healthy Adams and last week’s trade for Carlos Dunlap provides a spark in the second half of the season. But will that be enough?

Surprise: Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert – They haven't been perfect, but the Cincinnati Bengals' Joe Burrow (the No. 1 overall pick) and the Los Angeles Chargers' Justin Herbert (the No. 6 pick) have shown they can sling it with the best of them. Both rank among the top 10 in passing yards per game. Herbert is averaging 306.6 yards while completing 67.3% of his passes with 17 touchdowns and five interceptions. Burrow is averaging 284 yards and completing 67% of his passes with 11 touchdowns and five interceptions. Both have displayed remarkable poise and feel for the game. Their teams still have to surround these young passers with more talent, but the future is indeed bright in Cincinnati and L.A. 

A third rookie quarterback, Tua Tagovailoa (the No. 5 pick), just took the reins for his team last week, but is 2-0 now for the 5-3 Miami Dolphins. He very well could join Burrow and Herbert on the list of impressive rookie passers by season’s end.

Disappointment: Jones' and Haskins' struggles – The New York Giants and Washington Football Team each needed their second-year quarterbacks to take big steps forward this season, but Daniel Jones and Dwayne Haskins haven’t at all delivered in a way that their coaches have hoped. Jones, the No. 6 overall pick of the 2019 draft, has only eight touchdown passes to go with nine interceptions for the 2-7 Giants. And Haskins, taken nine picks later, was benched after four games for 2-6 Washington. Jones can thank his lucky stars for Washington. He owns a 4-0 record against the NFC East rival and a 1-17 record against the rest of the NFL. Haskins has been waiting for his second chance since Week 4, but with Kyle Allen now injured, he just might get another shot.

MORE: 32 things we learned from Week 9 of the 2020 NFL season

Eric Ebron of the Pittsburgh Steelers celebrates a touchdown with JuJu Smith-Schuster #19 during the second half of a game against the Dallas Cowboys at AT&T Stadium on November 08, 2020 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo: Ronald Martinez, Getty Images)

Surprise: Pittsburgh’s rebound – The Pittsburgh Steelers did an admirable job going 8-8 with Ben Roethlisberger lost to injury the bulk of last season, and his healthy return was expected to make the group more competitive. But few in or outside of the organization would have predicted that Pittsburgh would own an 8-0 record halfway through the season. Yet here they are. Powered by an aggressive, young defense, talented emerging offensive weapons, a wily quarterback and an unflinching, tone-setting head coach, the Steelers are the only unbeaten team in the league. They haven’t been perfect. Their games mostly are nail-biters. But they do possess a special resilience, and that has made all the difference.

Disappointment: Dallas’ dismal start – Mike McCarthy was supposed to take the perpetually underperforming Dallas Cowboys and make them contenders. But so far, the former Super Bowl-winning head coach has appeared to be in over his head. Even before Prescott’s season-ending injury, Dallas failed to live up to expectations with its 2-3 start. Since then, things have gone from bad to worse. The Cowboys have lost four straight. They can’t stop anyone. They can’t move the ball or score consistently, and now they’re on their fourth quarterback. Dallas (2-7) is fortunate it plays in the putrid NFC East, but the team's chance of a turnaround appears shot. 

Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Mike Jones on Twitter @ByMikeJones and listen to the Football Jones podcast on iTunes.

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