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Posted Nov. 09, 2011 @ 2:46 p.m. ET
By PFW staff

When the theories about what football would look like after an offseason without minicamps and OTAs were finally put to the test, the NFL's new state of normal established the truth.

The defending Super Bowl-champion Packers are the league's most dominant team. They have yet to lose. At the opposite end of the spectrum are the 1-7 Dolphins and 0-9 Colts, who are top contenders in the sweepstakes for Stanford QB Andrew Luck.

The people who supposedly were going to be hindered the most by the lockout are, in many cases, enjoying unexpected success.

Rookie QB Cam Newton, the No. 1 overall draft pick, is exceeding expectations, and second-round QB Andy Dalton is leading a winning team. First-year head coaches prepared their teams well in the short amount of time provided, and Jim Harbaugh, in his first season with the 49ers, has his team competing to be the top seed in the NFC.

The Lions have gone from up-and-comers to 6-2 and favorites to make the postseason. The Bills, whose playoff drought stands at 11 years, are tied for the lead in the AFC East, and the Bengals are keeping up with the Steelers and Ravens in the AFC North.

The NFL is doing what it does best. It's showing us that no matter how much we study the game, it will surprise, and sometimes shock, us — there already have been a league-record five games in which a team has come back to win after trailing by 20 points or more.

As for historic individual performances, three quarterbacks — Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady — are on pace to break Dan Marino's record for most passing yards in a season (5,084).

It's a passing league, and some pass rushers are taking advantage of the increased opportunities to get after quarterbacks. Jared Allen and DeMarcus Ware are both on pace to pass Michael Strahan's record for most sacks in a season (22½).

Records could be falling frequently after a thrilling first half. Watch out for those, and the unexpected, in the months ahead.

1. Green Bay Packers

Team MVP: Aaron Rodgers has been in a league of his own, looking like he is on his way to earning league MVP honors if he can continue playing at such an elite level. Completing more than 70 percent of his passes while compiling an off-the-charts 24-3 TD-interception ratio, Rodgers has made it look effortless this season, displaying pinpoint accuracy and doing a magnificent job of spreading the wealth in an offense that's loaded with high-powered weapons.

Top newcomer: One of those high-powered weapons is second-round draft pick Randall Cobb, who made an instant splash in the prime-time season opener against the Saints with a 108-yard kickoff return for a TD and a 32-yard TD catch. Cobb has cooled down a great deal since then, but with the versatility to play in five different spots if need be (wide receiver, return man, running back, holder and quarterback), he quickly has become a very valuable asset.

Big games to watch: Considering that the Lions played the Packers as tough as anyone last year, the first of two games against Detroit on Thanksgiving Day definitely will be worth the price of admission. Just four days after a tussle with Tampa Bay at home, the Packers could be entering a real hornet's nest at Ford Field.

Second-half spotlight: Last year, Green Bay's secondary finished a spectacular season second to none, with three starters — CBs Charles Woodson and Tramon Williams and FS Nick Collins — playing at a Pro Bowl level, and No. 3 CB Sam Shields coming on like gangbusters down the stretch. It has been a much different story so far this season, though, with Collins out for the season with a neck injury, Williams and Woodson fighting through nagging injuries and Shields struggling to find himself. Major improvement will be needed from this unit if the Packers are to repeat as Super Bowl champions.

Fearless prediction: Rodgers is the league MVP, but the Packers fall short in the playoffs, losing the NFC title game to either the Falcons, Lions or 49ers.

2. San Francisco 49ers

Team MVP: Frank Gore's three-year, $21 million contract extension ($13.5 million guaranteed) looks like a big-time bargain. Running harder and shiftier than ever, Gore has settled into the high-rent district for NFL backs, racking up prodigious numbers. Through Week Nine, he has rushed for more than 100 yards in five consecutive games for the first time in his career. Off the field, his 24/7 work ethic is a perfect pacesetter for the blue-collar mindset that new head coach Jim Harbaugh has so quickly and successfully developed.

Top newcomer: With apologies to excellent rookies like Aldon Smith and Chris Culliver and valuable free-agent additions like Carlos Rogers and Jonathan Goodwin, it has to be Harbaugh. With apologies to Bruce Springsteen, someone should write a song about the Niners' new boss man: "Born to Coach." Stressing a no-nonsense, blue-collar team concept devoid of prima donnas and a "whatever it takes" attitude entering every game, Harbaugh and his hot start in the pro coaching ranks could rank as the 2011 season's best first-half story line. 

Big game to watch: Oh, brother! Do you think the competitive juices could be overflowing just a tad when the Harbaugh brothers square off in Baltimore on Thanksgiving night? It was a game worth highlighting in magic marker before the season ever began because of the brothers angle alone. But with the Niners becoming such a shocking success, this matchup of likely playoff teams has taken on a whole new dimension. 

Best play of the first half: In Week Four in Philadelphia with a little more than two minutes remaining and the Niners hanging on to a 24-23 lead, Eagles WR Jeremy Maclin looked like he could be on his way to paydirt. But out of nowhere, relentless DE Justin Smith caught up to the speedy Maclin and forced a fumble that the Niners recovered to seal the deal. Smith's all-out hustle on that play is emblematic of this Niners team.

Fearless prediction: Aldon Smith breaks Jevon Kearse's league rookie record for sacks (14½), and the edgy Harbaugh makes postgame waves by mixing it up with an opposing head coach at least one more time this season.  

3. Baltimore Ravens

Team MVP: RB Ray Rice is the Ravens' player whom opposing offenses gear up to stop. His varied skill set makes that rather difficult, and as a result, the offense, though sputtering at times — and not coincidentally, at times when Rice is defended well — has generally got the job done this season. The 5-8, 212-pound Rice has the quickness to be dangerous in space and the strength to leave tacklers in his wake.

Top newcomers: FB Vonta Leach has been a welcome addition to the offense. One of the game's top blocking backs, Leach has been a key part of a ground game that is improved over a season ago, and the veteran blocking back has been a big reason why. Honorable mention goes to rookie WR Torrey Smith, whose three-TD outburst essentially put away St. Louis with three quarters left to play in Week Four; rookie DE Pernell McPhee, a promising pass rusher; and SS Bernard Pollard, who has added even more physicality to an imposing defense.

Big game to watch: With the two matchups against the Steelers in the books, the Week 11 matchup against the Bengals looms as the Ravens' biggest game left on the schedule. The Bengals swept the Ravens in 2009, helping to propel Cincinnati to the division title. The Ravens, meanwhile, were stuck with a wild-card spot. If the Ravens want the AFC North title and the guarantee of a postseason home opener that comes with it, taking care of business vs. Cincinnati — a surprise factor in the division race — would be very helpful.

Other games to watch: The Ravens' Thanksgiving Day game vs. San Francisco is no longer just about the novelty of the Harbaugh brothers meeting in an NFL game. It is very much a measuring-stick game for both clubs. The 49ers have romped to the head of the class in the NFC West in impressive fashion. Also, the Ravens' Week 15 game at San Diego looms as an interesting test, with the Chargers possessing a formidable offense.

Fearless prediction: The Ravens' inconsistency again will cost them down the stretch, and the Steelers will narrowly capture the AFC North. Baltimore has played alarmingly poorly in losses to Tennessee and Jacksonville and in a near-miss vs. Arizona. If the Ravens are going to go to the Super Bowl, it will be from a wild-card spot.

4. Pittsburgh Steelers

Team MVP: With the running game sputtering, the Steelers have needed QB Ben Roethlisberger to be sharp, and he has been just that for most of the season. He has a knack for shaking off injuries and playing well, as he showed in the Week Five win vs. Tennessee, when he threw five TD passes. His ability to create in the face of a strong pass rush is his calling card.

Top newcomer: Second-round pick Marcus Gilbert took over at right tackle after Willie Colon was lost to a season-ending injury in Week One. Though Gilbert has had a few struggles along the way, his ability to handle major responsibility right off the bat has been a positive.

Big game to watch: Two games stand out — the Week 10 tilt at Cincinnati and the Week 12 matchup at Kansas City. Both are challenging in different ways. The Bengals have a tough defense and an offense with playmakers in the passing game. The Chiefs, meanwhile, upset Pittsburgh two years ago. The Steelers will be expected to win at Kansas City once again, and they will be coming off a bye. Will they be sharp?

Second-half spotlight: With the vast majority of the Steelers' remaining games outdoors and in settings where wintery weather could be a factor, Pittsburgh needs its running game to be sharp. RB Rashard Mendenhall, the focal point of the Steelers' ground-game efforts, has had something of a down season to date, but he possesses the speed and power to be a difference maker in the final weeks. 

Fearless prediction: The Steelers' schedule sets up well for them. Road games at Cincinnati, Kansas City and San Francisco look to be the biggest challenges, but Pittsburgh is capable of winning the majority of those contests, and perhaps all of them. Given that they have been slightly more consistent than the Ravens and could prove to be very tough for the upstart Bengals, the Steelers rate as favorites to capture the AFC North for a second consecutive season.

5. New York Giants

Team MVP: Eli Manning is having a career season, which has been more impressive because there has been no run game to fall back on. The mandate was for Manning to cut down on the career-high 25 interceptions from 2010, and so far he has only six. He is virtually carrying the offense.

Top newcomer: Free-agent C David Baas hasn't been special, and no rookie has made a significant impact yet. We'll fudge a little and go with TE Jake Ballard, who qualifies in our minds because he spent last year on the practice squad and played briefly in one game late last season. He was a complete afterthought coming into this season, and no one thought in any way he could replace Kevin Boss. But Ballard has 23 catches for 395 yards and three TDs and is on pace to better Boss' modest 2010 numbers. Ballard caught the game-winning TD with 15 seconds remaining in the Week Nine victory over the Patriots. Ballard's Week Eight drop was legitimately his first of the season. He's huge and was supposed to be much more of a blocker, but at this point he's a better receiver.

Big game to watch: Nov. 20 against the Eagles at MetLife Stadium. The Giants' divisional lead could shrink by the time they see the Eagles again. There is no way that game won't have significance in the NFC East, and the Giants already own a victory over the Eagles in Philly. If they can sweep the two-game series, it will be a huge step in pushing them past the Eagles in terms of the division race and tiebreakers.

Best play of the first half: It has to be Manning throwing into double coverage and Victor Cruz somehow coming up with the catch for a 28-yard TD between Eagles CB Nnamdi Asomugha and S Jarrad Page. At the time, the Giants were trailing 16-14, and that TD with 8:07 remaining put them ahead 22-16 on the way to a 29-16 victory at the Linc. It was one of those "oh no" passes from Manning, and who would have thought the unknown Cruz would beat Asomugha on a play like that?

Fearless prediction: The Giants have had incredible early-season success under Tom Coughlin — they reached the 5-2 mark for the seventh time in eight years, and the only time they weren't 5-2 after seven games was in 2008 when they were 6-1. But the guess here is that the success will not follow into the second half, as it often hasn't. The schedule gets much more difficult, and the Giants have shown no ability to stop the run or run the ball, the two areas in which they usually pride themselves.

To read the rest of PFW's exclusive midseason reports for all 32 teams, order a copy of the current issue of Pro Football Weekly. In the latest edition of PFW you will also find our annual Midseason All-Pro team, highlighted by four 49ers, including head coach Jim Harbaugh. Also, draft analyst Nolan Nawrocki tells you who caught NFL scouts' eyes from the LSU-Alabama game. And don't miss the Way We Hear It, fantasy football analysis and much more.

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