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NFL’s contenders and pretenders: Which teams are Super Bowl threats at midseason?

After Week 9 in the NFL, 19 teams have a record of .500 or better. But as the second half of the season unfolds, the great teams start to separate from the field.

Here’s our breakdown of all 19 of those teams, and a reason why each one is either a contender or pretender to reach the Super Bowl.

Contenders

Dallas Cowboys (5-3)

As running back Ezekiel Elliott continues to stave off a six-game suspension, the Cowboys offense is hitting its stride in its three-game winning streak. Most importantly, the defense has allowed opposing offenses – including the potent attacks of the Washington Redskins and Kansas City Chiefs – to score just 15.3 points a game in that span.

New Orleans Saints (6-2)

The only thing more impressive than a reinvented offense kick-started by running backs Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram is a defense that tied for ninth in scoring (19.4 points per game) just one season after it ranked 31st (28.4).

Los Angeles Rams (6-2)

First-year coach Sean McVay needed just eight games to surpass the Rams’ 2016 scoring total. Jared Goff is emerging as a reliable playmaker at quarterback, running back Todd Gurley is a fringe MVP contender and the defense allowed just 12.5 points per game in its last four contests.

Seattle Seahawks (5-3)

If not for a slew of self-enforced errors, Seattle would be a sure thing on this list. The Seahawks have a veteran roster with championship experience and plenty of talent on both sides of the ball. If Pete Carroll’s group can address penalties, missed field goals, and offensive line troubles, it will have a solid chance to make its third Super Bowl trip in five seasons.

New England Patriots (6-2)

After allowing opponents to score at a historic clip through the first month of the season (32 points a game), the defense has settled and is limiting explosive plays in the secondary. Over the second month, the defense has allowed only 12.8 points per game. And the Patriots still have Tom Brady.

Pittsburgh Steelers (6-2)

The key in the second half is limiting turnovers. The Steelers have 12 giveaways (tied for 18th), but five of them came in a Week 5 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars. An ascending and aggressive defense ranks second in scoring (16.4 points per game) and might be the best coach Mike Tomlin has had in recent history.

Kansas City Chiefs (6-3)

Losing three of their last four drops the Chiefs down a few notches, and a leaky secondary continues to get exposed. But Kansas City is tied for the lead in turnover margin (+16) and still has explosive weapons. Refocusing the offense around rookie Kareem Hunt, who has been quiet with just 191 rushing yards and no scores in the past four games, could get the Chiefs back on track.

Philadelphia Eagles (8-1)

Boasting the league’s best record, Philadelphia also might have the best balance of any team. Quarterback and MVP front-runner Carson Wentz is the spark for the second-ranked scoring offense (31.4 points a game), but the 13th-ranked defense has held its own.

Pretenders

Buffalo Bills (5-3)

They do have elements of a contender: leading the league in turnover margin (+11), tied for fifth in scoring defense (18.6 points per game), and ranking eighth in third-down conversion rate (41.9%). But a 1-3 record away from Buffalo suggests the Bills – who likely won’t secure home field advantage given a tough second-half slate – could fall apart late.

Miami Dolphins (4-4)

Too many holes along the offensive line and a defense that allowed 95 points in its last three games means Miami has an uphill battle to make the playoffs, let alone a conference championship.

Tennessee Titans (5-3)

Though they’re in a two-way tie atop the AFC South, the Titans have a point differential of -12. That’s the worst mark of any team at least tied for a division lead, with the Steelers the next closest at +36.

Jacksonville Jaguars (5-3)

A monster pass rush that leads the league in sacks (35) and the NFL’s top rushing offense (166.5 yards a game) have made the Jaguars a much-improved playoff contender. But Jacksonville isn’t consistent enough to compete for an AFC title. The Jags have alternated between victories and defeats three times this year, before winning their last two.

Washington Redskins (4-4)

The roster has the talent to win, but consistency is key after wins over the Rams, Seahawks and Oakland Raiders. And with an 0-3 division record with two losses against the Eagles and one against the Cowboys, the Redskins may have a tough time just making it to the postseason.

Minnesota Vikings (6-2)

The return of Teddy Bridgewater could settle an uncertain quarterback situation, and a fierce defense that yields 16.9 points a game makes the Vikings a contender to win their division. But an extremely weak schedule makes Minnesota feel more like fool’s gold.

Detroit Lions (4-4)

With a remaining schedule that features teams who have won just .385 % of their games, Detroit could make a push for the NFC North title. But the offense routinely falls behind early, and the line ranks 25th in sacks allowed (26).

Green Bay Packers (4-4)

No Aaron Rodgers, no Super Bowl hopes. It’s that simple for the Packers, who have lost three in a row since their franchise quarterback broke his collarbone.

Carolina Panthers (6-3)

Winners of two division games in a row, the Panthers have some momentum but are entirely too reliant on quarterback Cam Newton – who is responsible for 82.3 % of the team’s yards from scrimmage. Carolina’s running backs have gained just 554 rushing yards in nine games. That’s not a formula for success down the stretch.

Atlanta Falcons (4-4)

The offense just isn’t the same – scoring 12.6 a game fewer than last year’s under Kyle Shanahan. Now at the midway point under coordinator Steve Sarkisian, this is Atlanta’s new normal.

Arizona Cardinals (4-4)

Adrian Peterson has injected new life into Arizona’s offense, but relying on a 32-year-old running back is not sustainable. With Drew Stanton filling in for the injured Carson Palmer at quarterback for the foreseeable future, the Cardinals just aren’t as strong as other teams in the conference.

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