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4 bold predictions for the second half of the 2019 NFL season

Which surprising team will make the playoffs? Which team will miss them?

NFL: Miami Dolphins at Buffalo Bills Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

The Patriots will make it to the AFC title game. A quarterback will win the regular season MVP award.

These are not bold predictions. They are the -500 lines that dot the top of betting sheets. No one looking to make a “fun” wager is betting on a tried-and-true tradition or a good team remaining good. The fun bets are the 20-to-1 Hail Marys that carry a 1-4 team to the postseason or make a sixth-round pick a rookie of the year.

You know, something like the Chargers rallying to the playoffs despite half a season of self-inflicted wounds. Or Raheem Mostert catching fire and becoming the league’s rushing leader. Or the Dolphins winning multiple games.

Previously, we broke down all the preseason predictions we were most wrong about — NFL MVP Baker Mayfield, Patriots Pro Bowler Michael Bennett, the Eagles and/or Cowboys ruling the NFC, etc. But with that cathartic exercise behind us, it’s time to make some new prognostications we’ll soon disown as 2020 looms.

The Bills will win their first playoff game since 1995

Buffalo has a clear path to the postseason after a 5-2 start, but there are plenty of questions Sean McDermott’s team has to answer before it’s taken seriously as a contender. None of the Bills’ five wins have come over teams with winning records. If you remove the 4-4 Titans from that list — who were one game shy of benching Marcus Mariota for his offensive struggles — Buffalo’s slate of vanquished foes have a combined record of 3-27.

There’s also the matter of the man behind center. Josh Allen has been better in 2019 than he was as a rookie, raising his passer rating from a putrid 67.9 to a merely bad 80.4. He’s had two games where he’s accounted for multiple touchdowns and zero turnovers ... and that came against the Giants and Dolphins, who are currently in the midst of complex AAF cosplay.

In his three games against non-losing teams, he’s thrown for four touchdowns, four interceptions, and four fumbles. While his completion rate is up from 52.8 to 60.1, his catchable pass rate has actually decreased this season, even as his average throw depth has dropped by two full yards.

That’s not ideal, but there’s reason to believe a still-growing Bills team can overcome this weakness and roll on to the Divisional Round come January. Buffalo’s defense has been a monster, even if the Eagles gashed it for a season-high 31 points (in Orchard Park, no less!). Even so, the team still ranks third in the league when it comes to yards allowed per play at 4.8, behind only undefeated San Francisco and New England. Teams that rank in the top five in that metric and make it to the postseason have gone 11-9 in the playoffs over the past four years. Blake Bortles and Brock Osweiler each won playoff games behind swarming defenses.

Allen, for all his struggles, has the wheels to make the Bills dangerous enough to topple a flawed opponent — like the Ravens, Texans, or Colts, any of which they might face in a wild card matchup. He’s also flanked by a potent running game behind ageless Frank Gore and rookie Devin Singletary. They could carry the offense to just enough points, and that’d allow the Buffalo defense to push this junked-down racecar over the finish line and into the playoffs’ second weekend. — Christian D’Andrea

The Rams will miss the playoffs

Call it a hunch if you must, but I’m not seeing the Rams winning most of their remaining games. Jared Goff has been shaky at times. They play in the hardest division in the NFL this season. They’ve already dropped decisive NFC West games to the Seahawks and 49ers, and still have to play each rival again, along with the Cardinals twice.

If the playoffs started today, the Seahawks and Rams would be in, and the Rams would be out. The Rams made some big trades this season, including acquiring cornerback Jalen Ramsey — a sign that, at the very least, they’re concerned and trying to fight off third place in the division.

It’s certainly possible that the 49ers, Seahawks, and Rams all make it, but it’ll be a tough road to the postseason for Los Angeles. The Cowboys, Ravens, and Bears also remain on the schedule.

Provided Seattle and Los Angeles are battling for one spot, it comes down to strength vs. strength, at least in my mind. At that point, the conversation isn’t Russell Wilson vs. Goff, but rather Wilson vs. the Los Angeles defense.

And I’m just not ready to bet against Wilson, while Goff has shown enough uneven play for me to believe it’s certainly possible they lose games against the Bears, Ravens, Cowboys, and rematches against San Francisco and Seattle. They’re 5-3, but I could easily see a 3-5 finish to their season. And 8-8 won’t get them into the playoffs. — James Brady

The Browns will make the playoffs

We all had so much hope heading into the season that this Browns team was different. This Browns team had a real quarterback. This Browns team had a scary defense. This Browns team had Odell freakin’ Beckham. This Browns team was an actual contender.

Halfway through the season, this Browns team is 2-5 — and they look like the same old Browns. Baker Mayfield is throwing picks at a rate matched only by Jameis Winston, except Winston has more than twice as many touchdowns as Mayfield. Mayfield’s QB rating ranks 31st in the league, only higher than Cavity Sam himself, Sam Darnold.

The defense is surrendering more points than it did last year and it’s not forcing many turnovers, ranking in the bottom third of the NFL in both categories. Beckham currently has a career-low 69.7 receiving yards per game and just one measly touchdown.

The Browns are averaging more penalties per game than any other team, and their first-time head coach has absolutely no idea what he’s doing:

And I don’t care. I don’t care about Mayfield getting pissy with a reporter who constantly trolls him. I don’t care that Beckham has been a disappointment so far in Cleveland. I don’t care that the Browns can’t get out of their own way and lack any discipline whatsoever.

Other than maybe the blowout loss to the 49ers, this Cleveland team still looks competitive each game. Nick Chubb has been terrific (minus the occasional fumble), leading all rushers with 105.4 running yards per game. Myles Garrett has lived up to his high expectations this season, totaling 10 sacks through seven games. The defensive line as a whole has been getting pressure on the quarterback without having to blitz much, and the secondary is starting to getting healthy again with the return of Denzel Ward and Greedy Williams.

They’ve also played one of the toughest first-half schedules, including games against the last two unbeaten teams. The second half of the season is another story: They have the NFL’s second-easiest schedule.

All the Browns need right now is that confidence boost that comes after a victory. Then it becomes easier to string togethers wins. Mayfield in particular thrives off of that energy, and I think if he and Beckham can just get a rhythm going, they’ll both find that extra gear in the last nine weeks.

Luckily, every game remaining is winnable for the Browns — their two biggest hurdles are against the Bills (who have a lower DVOA than the Browns) and the Ravens (who already lost to the Browns, in Baltimore). They have three matchups against the two teams with zero wins between them.

The Browns don’t even have to win every game to get to the playoffs. If they can go 7-2 the rest of the way, that just might be good enough in the AFC. — Sarah Hardy

The Bengals will steal the No. 1 pick from the Dolphins

Miami is trying its hardest to be the worst team in the NFL — or at least, the front office is. The roster has been gutted with key players like Laremy Tunsil, Minkah Fitzpatrick, and Kenny Stills all traded away for draft picks. The only player who represented the Dolphins in the Pro Bowl last year was cornerback Xavien Howard, and now he’s injured reserve.

And yet, in spite of the effort to tank, the Dolphins have been close to winning games. They led at halftime in each of the last two weeks, but couldn’t hold those leads to beat the Bills or Steelers. Prior to that, Miami was a two-point conversion away from beating Washington.

The Dolphins are 0-7, but a win still looks conceivable for them. It looks more likely than the 0-8 Bengals finding a victory in the back half of their schedule.

Cincinnati is going the wrong direction and just became the second team in the Super Bowl era to allow at least 460 yards in four consecutive games. The only other team do that? The 2018 Bengals.

Now the Bengals are apparently embracing their downward spiral and benching nine-year starter Andy Dalton. Fourth-round rookie Ryan Finley is taking the reins in Cincinnati where he’ll be blessed with the NFL’s worst rushing attack that averages 3.2 yards per carry and a defense that can’t stop anyone. Good luck!

If neither the Dolphins nor the Bengals can win beforehand, the owner of the No. 1 pick in the 2020 NFL Draft will almost certainly be decided on Dec. 22. The Bengals will travel to Miami in the pillow fight of the season. My guess, though, is that the Dolphins will win before that Week 16 tank collision and then hammer the nail in the coffin by pushing the Bengals one step closer to an 0-16 season — and having dibs on the first quarterback in the draft. — Adam Stites