The bad teams are now good. The rookies look like veterans. As we reach the midpoint of the season for most teams — and an interesting, though hardly great week of action — here are the best early story lines heading into Week Nine:
1. The Dolphins, Jaguars, Redskins, Browns, Buccaneers, Vikings, Rams and Colts combined for a 31-97 record a season ago. Less than halfway through the season, the Vikings, Rams and Colts have surpassed their ’11 win totals, and the Bucs can match theirs with a win Sunday at Oakland. Collectively, the eight teams are 25-35; three of them would make the playoffs if they started today. Two play Sunday in Indianapolis: Dolphins at Colts. They’d be the Nos. 5 and 6 seeds, respectively, in the AFC playoffs. Both teams start rookie quarterbacks, and both young men have been big reasons for their teams’ success. The Colts’ Andrew Luck leads all rookie QBs — with five starting around the NFL — in pass attempts per game (41.1), passing yards (1,971), 20-yard passes (28) and first-down passes (96). Miami’s Ryan Tannehill, despite missing a chunk of Week Eight with a deep thigh bruise, has averaged 7.3 yards per attempt (the same as Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees) and has run the no-huddle attack with deft skill.
2. Most importantly, these two are tied with Seattle’s Russell Wilson among rookies with the most important statistic: victories, with four. Tannehill was just a few plays short of beating the Cardinals and Jets, both going down as overtime losses, but he and the Dolphins have responded with three straight victories, including Sunday’s revenge blowout of the Jets. Actually, it was Matt Moore who finished Sunday’s win, and he played well (11-of-19 passing, 131 yards, TD), but signs point to Tannehill playing against the Colts. Luck led the Colts to a win over Rodgers’ Packers, jump-starting their current 3-1 streak. Sunday’s OT victory over the Titans was spiked by perhaps the play of the year to date: RB Vick Ballard’s twisting, vaulting TD catch and run in overtime. Amazing — the Colts and Dolphins were a combined 0-15 entering Week Nine a year ago. Now they face off in Indy in a game that could determine a playoff tiebreaker.
3. You can’t give up on the standbys, not yet at least. The Giants (four wins in a row) and Steelers (two) meet Sunday in a non-conference game that should be an interesting barometer of where the two conferences stand, although the NFC’s 20-12 mark over the AFC gives us a pretty good idea of where the strength lies. The Giants don’t sound like a team that is 6-2 with more than a two-game lead in the division, however, as Tom Coughlin has been ranting about the team’s lack of red-zone and third-down efficiency, plus the second-half defensive breakdowns against the Cowboys. The Giants are the fifth team since 1950 to blow a lead of at least 23 points and still win, not one that Coughlin is going to brag about at the country club. Both teams have a slew of injuries, with the Giants missing a day of rehab because of Hurricane Sandy (the team’s facility was closed Monday). They lost S Antrel Rolle, LBs Chase Blackburn and Keith Rivers and TE Bear Pascoe against the Cowboys and were playing without SS Kenny Phillips already, but replacement Stevie Brown (four INTs in his last four games) has been a revelation. The Steelers already have ruled out S Troy Polamalu (gratuitous weekly mention) and OT Marcus Gilbert, and S Ryan Clark (concussion) must pass his battery of tests before being cleared.
4. Three running backs are also banged up for the Steelers, but they could have their pick of the litter with Jonathan Dwyer (quad), Rashard Mendenhall (Achilles) and Isaac Redman (ankle) all good to go this week. Don’t be stunned if it’s Dwyer who starts and gets a chunk of the carries. He has had runs of 32 and 34 yards and has averaged 6.7 per rush the past two weeks as the main dog. It’s the best the Steelers have run the ball all season. The Giants defended the run well against the Cowboys, but it wasn’t much of a test as Felix Jones and Jason Garrett can make anyone’s run “D” look stout. Just the week prior, the Redskins smashed the Giants for a shocking 248 on the ground. We know Ben Roethlisberger is now on board with the “dink and dunk” offense, but can he live with a dose of “ground and pound"? The Steelers won’t ignore those talented wideouts they have, not against a secondary that just allowed Tony Romo 437 passing yards, but the run won’t go away.
5. We’ve come to expect madness from both the Eagles and Saints, mired in nightmarish seasons at 3-4 and 2-5, respectively. They will meet on Monday night to try to sort out the chaos. The bye week was no salve for the Eagles, who lost for the first time in that situation under Andy Reid in Week Eight. The return of Joe Vitt to the sidelines was no help for the Saints, who were bad on offense but worse on defense against the Broncos. Now they meet head-to-head with their seasons on the line. And no player is more squarely in the crosshairs — again, yet again — than Michael Vick. The Eagles will stick with him another week, and truthfully he was not the reason they lost to the Falcons; the defense most certainly was. But if he was on probation before, he has been elevated to “double secret” status now. If there’s a bright side it’s that the Saints have not allowed fewer than 237 passing yards this season (to the Chiefs!), have forced only nine turnovers and rank dead last in a number of defensive categories, but the flip side is if Vick fails against this group, it’s likely curtains.
6. The Saints won’t be benching their quarterback anytime soon, even though Drew Brees is coming off maybe the least accurate game of his Saints career. And the Eagles defense, now under the watch of Todd Bowles, whose debut was an unmitigated nightmare looked no different. Bowles seldom blitzed (maybe because there are few quality blitzers on the team?) and is not likely to against Brees, who typically handles that with aplomb. There’s a certain dour irony that the Eagles will be leaving a hurricane by traveling to New Orleans, but there might be other reasons to get out of town — sanctuary, for one. The home fans were disgusted, and rightfully so, with the team’s effort in Week Eight, and it will get away for a few days to try somehow to right the wayward ship.
7. Cowboys QB Tony Romo threw three first-half interceptions, plus a fourth in the fourth quarter, to bring his season total to 13 INTs. No other quarterback has more than 10. Heading into a road game against the 7-0 Falcons, who have forced 10 picks (tied for third-best in the NFL), there clearly is concern about Romo’s accuracy and decision-making. But Cowboys executive Stephen Jones said Monday, “In the long haul, Tony’s going to be just fine.” Also just fine are the soaring Falcons, who reversed a slightly negative trend, pre-bye, by smoking the Eagles from the get-go in Week Eight. Matt Ryan manipulated the Eagles' secondary deftly with his eyes and went to lesser-known targets such as Drew Davis and Leonard Pope, which if nothing else showed how diverse and dangerous this offense can be. If there’s slight concern it’s that the Cowboys’ pass “D” ate up the Giants for the most part and that the Falcons’ last two games in Atlanta have been closer than comfortable against opponents of lesser stature than the Cowboys.
8. We take a moment to recognize tight-end greatness. Tony Gonzalez, in his swan-song season, is capping off a career that has rewritten receiving greatness for the position. And he continues to be a major weapon, catching four TD passes this season, something the LB-shorthanded Cowboys must account for. But don’t overlook Jason Witten on the other sideline. With his career-best 18 catches (most ever by a tight end in a game, tied for third-most catches in a game by anyone) for 167 yards against the Giants, Witten actually stands ahead of Gonzalez at a similar point (through the seventh game of their 10th NFL seasons) in terms of receptions (747 to 681) and yards (8,396 to 8,251) but behind him in touchdowns (42 to 57). On top of that, you might not find two nicer, more accountable players in the NFL, for what it’s worth. And the great part is that both are still huge components of their respective offenses, which just happen to be top-10 passing outfits.
9. It’s a bit of a reunion for Seahawks WR Sidney Rice, offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell and (please don’t forget) LB Heath Farwell as they face off against their former team as the suddenly slipping Vikings come to town with extra rest but also additional concerns. After starting 4-1, the Vikings are now 5-3, having watched the other three NFC North teams win in Week Eight and crank up the pressure. In addition, the Seahawks lost, falling to 4-4, with their defense (ultimately) falling short against the Lions. That’s not good; that’s not how they typically lose games. Expect an ornery bunch as they return home, where the Seahawks are 3-0 this season (the Vikings are 1-2 away from home), on Sunday afternoon in Seattle.
10. Percy Harvin is tied for the league lead in receptions. Adrian Peterson leads the NFL in rushing yards, amazingly. They have carried the offense for the Vikings. The problem? Christian Ponder has not, at least not the past four games. He started out effective this season but has regressed again and appears hesitant and unsure. The Seahawks typically feast on this type of QB. After all, they contained Aaron Rodgers, unglued Cam Newton and bested Tom Brady late. The loser of this game has to be very worried about their playoff prospects in a deep NFC picture — the Vikings now are fifth in the conference, the Seahawks eighth. Pretty good game if you like rookies, too. Seahawks first-rounder DE Bruce Irvin (only seven tackles but 4.5 sacks), second-round LB Bobby Wagner and Russell Wilson are all key components. So, too, are Vikings first-rounders OLT Matt Kalil and S Harrison Smith, along with third-round CB Josh Robinson, suddenly thrown into the fire as a starter with Chris Cook out indefinitely. And who might Robinson see a lot of? Rice.
11. It’s not the game NFL Network hoped for on Thursday — Chiefs at Chargers — with both teams coming in ice cold (the Chargers have lost three straight, the Chiefs four). In fact, it might be the early stages of the ends not only for two embattled head coaches, Norv Turner and Romeo Crennel, but also the general managers, A.J. Smith and Scott Pioli, who have becomes Enemies No. 1 in their respective towns. In the something-has-to-give category, the Chiefs rank dead last in offensive red-zone execution, scoring a mere five TDs in 18 appearances inside opponents’ 20-yard lines, and the Chargers are 31st defensively, allowing 11 touchdowns in 15 opposing red-zone trips. For now, give the edge to the home team, which beat the Chiefs 37-20 back in Week Four and get to face a beat-up (mentally and physically) Matt Cassel, who is replacing Brady Quinn (concussion). The Chiefs have hit historic lows offensively. Shockingly, their 25 turnovers only put them on pace to be top-10 worst ever in that category. But they have not led for one second this season — through more than 428 minutes football — something that has not happened to a team through seven games since 1940, with their one victory coming in the sudden-death portion of overtime.
12. One way Bills DE Mario Williams can help turn around what has been a disaster season to date is to have a big game against his former team. The Bills visit Houston, but Williams is a week removed from minor wrist surgery. “I feel like I was stagnant,” Williams said of his decision to have the procedure. “That’s why I’m very excited to have been able to clean it out and (to be) optimistic about things.” His former team, meanwhile, is rolling without him and is well-rested coming off the bye. They rank second in sack percentage allowed, making Williams’ personal mission that much tougher, and appear well-loaded to attack a soft Bills defense with their vaunted run game and lethal play-action passing. This could be the biggest mismatch of the weekend.
13. Numbers can be deceiving. With the Broncos at 4-3 and the Bengals at 3-4, their meeting in Cincinnati this weekend would appear to be a closely matched battle. But it isn’t, at least not based on how the teams have played recently. The Bengals dropped three straight before the bye, outscored by a 75-54 count in those games. The Broncos have won two in a row and three of four, outscoring the Chargers and Saints 69-14 over the past six quarters. That’s when the defense — a good mix of youth and experience, but a unit lacking starting CB Tracy Porter — has come to life under Jack Del Rio’s watch. You throw that in with a premier left tackle (Ryan Clady), a top-10 running back (Willis McGahee), a sudden star receiver (Demaryius Thomas) and Peyton Manning, and you have the makings of a Super Bowl formula. If the Broncos can avoid relinquishing an early lead to the Bengals, which has been their weakness this season, they might keep the good times rolling.
14. Call it the Hope Springs Eternal Bowl. A stat you might hear a lot this week: Twenty-nine teams since 2000 — nearly three per season — sat at .500 or lower halfway through their schedule and still made the postseason. With both the Buccaneers and Raiders at 3-4, that’s exactly where each team lies; one will be 3-5, assuming no tie. The Buccaneers have cranked up the passing game in recent contests and could have a field day against the Raiders’ coverage-challenged secondary. Likewise, the Bucs aren’t so hot at the pass-coverage thing either — in fact, they’re statistically worse — but do make up for it with timely interceptions. That seems to suit Raiders QB Carson Palmer to a tee, who is averaging the sixth-most pass attempts (38.4 per game) in the NFL but also cut back on his interceptions (a mere five in 269 throws). Do we have an old-fashioned shootout here with Palmer and Josh Freeman, who suddenly has 14 TD passes? It appears we do. This could be a surprisingly fun one in Oakland.
15. The Cardinals rank sixth defensively in yards allowed and fourth in points, but they were nowhere close to that level Monday night in a 24-3 home loss to the 49ers. Of course, bad blocking on offense and short fields did them no favors, but they also allowed Alex Smith to complete 18-of-19 passes (with a clear drop included) and barely throw off his timing. That’s not going to work against Aaron Rodgers when the Packers and Cardinals face off in Green Bay Sunday. Another example of statistics being out of whack, the Packers rank 21st in yards offensively, and though they have been shorthanded at receiver, Rodgers and Co. can go to work on this “D” without significant improvement. On the flip side, look for the Packers to go after Cardinals QB John Skelton a week after being dissected somewhat by Jaguars QB Blaine Gabbert. Skelton only looked comfortable when he was getting rid of the ball on screens Monday. That offensive line is bad.