With the benefit of input from numerous league insiders and talent evaluators, PFW offers its midseason selections in five categories: best team, most surprising team (from a positive standpoint), most disappointing team, league MVP and best head-coaching job.
Another year, another shock to the system.
In a sport predicated on parity, the potential for the unexpected is ever-present. But even the most connected league insiders couldn't have predicted this season's major disconnect from the leaguewide preseason form sheet.
Looking for the perfect anthem for the 2010 NFL season at the halfway point? The classic Blood Sweat and Tears song "Spinning Wheel" fills the bill perfectly.
As we've all seen, "what goes up" (the Buccaneers in the NFC South, the Rams in the NFC West, and the Chiefs and Raiders in the AFC West) "must come down" (the Cowboys in the NFC East, the Vikings in the NFC North, the Niners in the NFC West, and the Chargers in the AFC West).
Supposed underdogs have been knocking off underachieving favorites week after week, making it next to impossible to accurately predict what lies ahead on the road to Cowboys Stadium on Feb. 6.
But with nine weeks now in the books, half the 2010 story has indeed been written, setting the stage for the usual plethora of midseason assessments. What follows are PFW's selections in five specific categories, all of which are supported by quotes from inside sources from coast to coast.
Best team: Pittsburgh Steelers
With a handful of upsets becoming a common weekly occurrence, it should not come as a surprise that the Steelers have been far from perfect, particularly on the offensive side of the ball.
Heading into their Monday-night visit to Cincinnati, the 5-2 Steelers have scored only one TD in their last six quarters and ranked 28th in total yards, 28th in passing yards and 16th in points per game. Pittsburgh's only clearly dominant effort the first half of the season was its 38-13 victory at Tampa Bay in Week Three, when Charlie Batch threw three TD passes in place of the suspended Ben Roethlisberger.
Clearly, though, despite hard-to-ignore shortcomings in its pass defense that have carried over from the 2009 season, Pittsburgh's defense, which is once again being masterfully coordinated by Pro Football Hall of Famer Dick LeBeau, is primarily responsible for its "best team" ranking.
"The key to success in Pittsburgh is very simple — Dick LeBeau. As long as he is there, they will be one of the most competitive franchises in football."
"They are the league's best all-around team and will be nearly impossible to beat once Big Ben (Roethlisberger) gets settled in."
"Despite their recent setback against the Saints, they are still the NFL's most complete, balanced team. They have the best defense and one of the league's top QBs in Roethlisberger. (RB Rashard) Mendenhall has been very productive."
"The Steelers might not have the best record at the moment, but they would qualify as the team I'd least want to face in the playoffs. They have a tough defense, a strong running game, a smart quarterback and one of the best coaches in the business in Mike Tomlin. Pittsburgh will be tough to knock out in January."
Most surprising team: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
With the exception of Raheem Morris — their perpetually upbeat 34-year-old head coach, who has been telling anybody who would listen that his team is the best in the NFC — nobody predicted the Buccaneers would be holding their own with the Falcons and defending Super Bowl champion Saints in the NFC South after their decidedly unimpressive 3-13 showing last year.
But after making a habit out of winning close games (4-0 in games decided by three points or fewer) and successfully coming from behind (under-the-radar QB Josh Freeman has directed six fourth-quarter comeback victories in 17 pro starts), the NFL's youngest team continues to attract more believers.
Young players like Freeman, RB LeGarrette Blount, WRs Mike Williams and Arrelious Benn and CB Aqib Talib are clearly making their presence felt.
"For an organization that does not spend, the Buccaneers have been very solid. If you pick apart their opponents, they may have the weakest strength of schedule in the league, but the kids can play. Josh Freeman has progressed at a very fast rate. Aqib Talib has played at a Pro Bowl level. The rookie receivers have been very good. Ever since Raheem Morris took over the defense last season, the arrow has pointed up. This regime still may not be safe next year, but you have to commend the job they have done."
"They didn't sign any great free agents, and some people thought embracing a youth movement would backfire and possibly get Morris fired, but they're in contention to win the NFC South. I didn't see that one coming!"
"Though they have beat up on bad teams so far, it's hard to overlook what Tampa has done with one of the youngest rosters in the NFL."
Most disappointing team: Dallas Cowboys
Is there anybody anywhere who thought this team would be off to one of its worst starts ever (1-7) after having been dubbed by numerous experts before the season as likely to make it to the Super Bowl in their glittering new stadium?
After losing five of their first six games by a TD or less, the Cowboys reached a low point in an embarrassing 35-17 Week Eight loss at home to a Jaguars team that had lost each of its previous two games by a combined 49 points. It got even worse in Week Nine as Dallas was blown out 45-7 by an injury-depleted Packers team.
Dallas' defense, coordinated by head coach Wade Phillips, has allowed an average of 35.8 points during a five-game losing streak. On the other side of the ball, their 31st-ranked ground game has been the lowlight of arguably the league's most disappointing offense, QB Tony Romo's broken collarbone notwithstanding.
"The running game has been anemic. It's embarrassingly bad. They have as much talent as any in football, but the offensive line has really regressed since (former OL coach) Tony Sparano left. It is a heavy, slow, inconsistent group, and they are not opening any holes. (Offensive coordinator) Jason Garrett was a hot commodity on the head-coaching circuit a few years ago and was paid like a head coach to stay in Dallas, but he is not getting the job done as a coordinator."
"With as much talent as they have, their coaching situation needs to be fixed."
"No question — the Cowboys have been the most disappointing team. We were fooled (as they were) into thinking they were great after, really, a strong four-game run at the end of last season. Their talent exceeds their execution by a mile."
"Penalties and dumb plays have killed them all season long."
"I was never on the Cowboys-to-the-Super Bowl bandwagon, because I didn't trust their offensive line or Wade Phillips from the start. But still, with all the talent on their roster, I never expected 1-6."
"For a team that was expected to be a Super Bowl contender, the Cowboys have been incredibly bad, even before Tony Romo went down. Talk about underachievers! A running game that should be one of the best in the league is instead one of the worst, and part of the blame has to fall on Jason Garrett."
First-half MVP: Colts QB Peyton Manning
At the age of 34, the four-time league MVP looks like he could be well on his way to his fifth such honor.
Manning has managed to complete 65.0 percent of his passes while registering an off-the-charts 16-4 TD-interception ratio despite season-ending injuries to TE Dallas Clark and WR Anthony Gonzalez and earlier injuries to WRs Austin Collie and Pierre Garcon.
"What was so remarkable — I was watching the Giants game in prime time, and I saw (Peyton) look over at the defense, look at the sideline and send two receivers out and bring two in. He changed the personnel and the play. I've heard he actually has an office at the facility. It's amazing what he does for them. I'd take him over 20 offensive coordinators in the league. It's very clear who is running the show there. He's like Michael Jordan in his prime. He's the most valuable piece of that organization, not even close. You can't pay guys like him enough."
"What he has done with the Colts' depleted cast of characters is amazing."
"He made undrafted rookie Blair White look like a legit WR when he needed him. With all the offensive and defensive injuries, he still finds a way. Incredible!"
"It's Manning by a mile. He has played much of the season without his top receivers and running backs, and yet the Colts' offense continues to produce. This may be his best season yet."
Best head-coaching job: Patriots head coach Bill Belichick
Forget the fact that the Patriots' defense has five rookie starters, their top two rushers were undrafted and 24 of the players on their 53-man roster are in their first or second seasons.
Somehow, some way, Belichick has New England tied with the Jets atop the AFC East with a 6-2 record — the latest testament to his well-documented coaching acumen.
"What is most amazing is how he has rebuilt the team and been able to overcome so many injuries and adversity. The team is always greater than any individual. He saw the distraction Tom Brady's deal could be and rightfully rewarded him. He saw the problem Randy Moss was creating and moved on.
"No Logan Mankins - plug and play. How many teams can lose the most valuable player on their defense (Ty Warren) and not miss a beat? There are never any excuses in New England. Belichick simply produces. He is an excellent matchup coach, maybe the best of all time. And he does not get enough credit for understanding the psyche of his football team. He is a very underrated motivator and communicator."
"Everyone knows how bad the defense has been, and yet they are 6-1 (now 6-2) with wins over the Ravens and in San Diego.
"At the end of the Ravens game, tied at 21, (QB Joe) Flacco is looking to hit Ray Rice out of the backfield with the secondary in a prevent and No. 52 makes a huge stop on Rice. On the very next play, Flacco looks to check down again, and boom, there's 52 again, and Rice doesn't make the catch. The Ravens are forced to punt.
"No. 52 was Dane Fletcher, an undrafted rookie out of Montana State in his second game being active. During the game, Belichick had essentially decided to put Fletcher in as a spy on Rice in their sub package because of his speed, and it worked. Fletcher has been on the field on passing downs often since then.
"That's just one example of how Belichick's schemes have allowed rookies and second-year guys on defense to make stops at critical times to get wins."