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Former JMU football long snapper Derek Hart signed with the Green Bay Packers in 2017.

The NFL is just past the midway point, and in what's been a crazy season, it's hard to tell who the top teams are. There are no zero or one loss teams at the halfway point; every team has two or more losses. But who still remains the best team in the league?

Green Bay is the top team 

Graham Skinker | contributing writer

The Packers had a rough start to the season, but despite getting blown out 38-3 by the Saints in Week 1, Green Bay has looked dominant ever since. The biggest difference between this year’s Packers and those of previous years is the defense. Green Bay’s defense has been among the top units in 2021. Over the past three weeks, the Packers have faced Kyler Murray’s Cardinals, Patrick Mahomes’ Chiefs and Russell Wilson’s Seahawks — teams led by three of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. Over those three weeks, the combined stats of those quarterbacks are 62-of-110 (56.3% completion rate), 601 yards, 1 touchdown and 4 interceptions. That’s championship-level play. 

There are many reasons why the Packers are looking like the best team in the NFL, including the Rodgers-to-Adams connection. The duo remains utterly unstoppable as they’ve been over the past few seasons. The two have combined for 822 yards and 3 touchdowns in just eight weeks as Adams missed Week 8 and Rodgers missed Week 9 while on the Reserve/COVID-19 list. Rodgers and Adams have torched good defense after good defense this year. Their best game came in Week 5 when the duo accounted for 206 yards and a touchdown on Adams’ 11 receptions. 

In addition to an elite passing attack, the Packers have a two-headed running back monster. Aaron Jones and AJ Dillion have headlined one of the NFL’s best rushing attacks. Heading into Week 11, the two have rushed for almost 1,000 yards combined. Jones currently sits at 541 yards and three touchdowns on 123 attempts, while Dillon has posted 421 yards and two touchdowns on 97 attempts. Dillon’s emergence has helped fill the void left by Jamal Williams’ departure last offseason in addition to helping to lessen Jones’ workload in order to preserve his health throughout the year. 

Jones and Dillon have also been very effective in the passing game. Jones is Green Bay’s second leading receiver with 37 catches for 298 yards and four touchdowns. Dillon, who’s more of a traditional power back, hasn’t been as involved as Jones in the passing game but still has posted respectable receiving numbers. He currently has 16 catches for 196 yards and one score. 

The biggest difference between the Green Bay Packers and the rest of the NFL is that they have, as Stephen A. Smith would say, “that baaaad man” named Aaron Rodgers playing quarterback. Rodgers is arguably the best quarterback in the NFL and is playing like it in the 2021-22 season. The 2020-21 MVP has posted MVP-type numbers again through Week 10. Rodgers has thrown for 2,186 with 17 touchdowns and 4 interceptions while also notching a 101.9 passer rating. With Rodgers under center, Green Bay is 8-1, and if Rodgers hadn’t landed on the Reserve/COVID-19 list prior to their Week 8 showdown with the Chiefs, the Packers would likely be 9-1. The Packers held Kansas City to just 13 points, but without Rodgers at the helm, they were only able to put up 7 points in Rodgers’ absence. 

With Green Bay’s defense looking to be one of the best in the Aaron Rodgers era, combined with a strong running game and another MVP-caliber campaign from Rodgers, the Packers are looking like the cream of the crop in the NFL heading into Week 11. 

Contact Graham Skinker at skinkegm@dukes.jmu.edu. For more coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.  

Arizona dominates the NFL

Jackson Hephner | contributing writer

Who would’ve predicted before the season started that by Week 11 of the NFL season, the Arizona Cardinals, would be tied for first place in the league at 8-2 after starting the season 7-0?

Why was this surprising? This is Arizona we’re talking about, the team that hasn’t won a championship in 74 years and was the worst team in the league just three seasons ago. That 3-13 2018 campaign landed them quarterback Kyler Murray with the first overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft. Murray won OROY in 2019 and led the Cardinals to an 8-8 season in his second season — definitely an improvement, but nothing that screams, “best in the league.” 

The Cardinals have made many moves to get to where they currently are. It started with a trade they didn’t initiate or even expect: Former Houston Texans head coach Bill O’Brien’s decision to trade wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins to the Cardinals is so layered, but the point is that the Cardinals got one of the best receivers in the league. That offseason, Arizona made two big additions, signing wide receiver AJ Green and defensive end JJ Watt, two big-name difference makers. Suddenly, Arizona looked like a legitimate contender.

That doesn’t explain how Arizona went from potential contender to best team in the league. In fact, the most surprising thing about Arizona’s rise to the top of the NFL is that the Cardinals have often won despite the absence of their new additions.

In Week 7, Watt suffered a shoulder injury that potentially ended his 2021 season. Linebackers Jordan Hicks and Markus Golden have led a solid defense that’s only allowed for an average of 18 points compared to Arizona’s offensive average of 29 points per game. 

Green’s time in Arizona has been better compared to his recent seasons, but with just 460 years and three touchdowns he hasn’t been able to recreate the heights he reached earlier in his career. It doesn’t matter, though — Hopkins has picked up the slack with seven TDs and 486 yards, and in the past two weeks when Hopkins was out with a hamstring injury, wide receiver Christain Kirk has excelled, leading all Cardinals receivers in yards on the season with 603. 

In Week 9, Murray sat out of practice due to an ankle injury, eventually missing Arizona’s games in both Week 9 and Week 10. Backup quarterback Colt McCoy stepped up in his two games as starter, completing 71.7% of his passes and averaging a proficient 92.3 passer rating, helping lead the Cardinals to a 31-17 win over the 49ers before losing to Carolina 34-10. 

Even despite their losses — the other coming to Green Bay by three points — the Cardinals are still tied with the Packers and Titans atop the NFL’s standings and are holding off a stacked Rams squad with a one-win lead in the NFC West, all while dealing with major injuries that could doom many other teams.

That’s why Arizona is the team to beat right now — because they just can’t seem to lose. Its Week 10 performance against Carolina has been the sole off week for the Cardinals, and in that game, they were without Murray and Hopkins. Throughout the rest of the season, they’ve been a threat. Their 35 touchdowns on the season is tied for second most in the league with Dallas and only behind Tampa Bay. Thirty-five touchdowns is also 13 touchdowns more than their opponents have scored against them. Their offense is hot, scoring more than 30 points seven times, and their defense is solid, allowing more than 20 points only three times.

No matter how many big-name players teams like Tampa Bay or the Los Angeles Rams have added, Arizona has the depth and talent to have a real shot at their franchise’s first championship since 1947. 

Contact Jackson Hephner at hephnejt@dukes.jmu.edu. For more football coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.