Now that every team has played at least eight games, it's time to take a look at the NFL at midseason:
Anybody who picks Super Bowl teams at the halfway point is crazy. Not in a week that saw winless Tampa go into Seattle and almost conquer the best home field advantage in the league. Or when the Jets can go from losing by 40 six days earlier and rebound to beat a one-loss Saints team by constantly harassing Drew Bress. Or when the unbeaten Chiefs continued to look unimpressive in beating yet another backup quarterback in the greatest streak of schedule luck in NFL history. Or when the Denver Broncos lose their head coach for multiple weeks after he needs emergency heart surgery. Don't laugh, but the Panthers-Patriots Monday night game in a couple of weeks could be a Super Bowl preview, 10 years after they met in Super Bowl XXXVIII.
I will still stick with my preseason final four of Denver over New England in the AFC and Seattle over Green Bay in the NFC, but wouldn't bet anything on it. There's too much uncertainty and injuries are the great equalizer. Update: The day after I wrote this, Aaron Rodgers hurt his shoulder for Green Bay, and if he is done, so are the Packers.
The Patriots (7-2) played their best game of the season Sunday, but it was against a crappy Steelers team that lost to then-winless Minnesota. After a bye, the Pats gets the resurgent Panthers and then the Broncos, so that will tell us a lot more about how far they will go into the playoffs. If Gronk and Danny Amendola stay healthy, Tom Brady will have two huge weapons, so the 55 they scored Sunday might not be an aberration. The Jets continued their yo-yo season of win-loss-win-loss-win-loss-win-loss-win by upsetting the Saints. They are way too inconsistent to make the playoffs. Miami (4-4) started 3-0 and then fell apart, while the Bills (3-6) can't keep a quarterback healthy. I think Buffalo is well coached and has a legitimate future in 2014 and beyond if rookie E.J. Manuel can spend more time on the field than in the training room. Pick: The Patriots win the division, and are the only playoff team from the division.
The Bengals (6-3) are the best team in a weak division, but I was not surprised to see them lose at Miami on a walk-off safety. At home, the Bengals are perfect, with wins over the Patriots and Packers. On the road, they are 1-3, losing to the likes of Cleveland and Miami. The Ravens and Browns and the Steelers will fight to see who will finish second with a .500 record at best. The Ravens may be he defending champions but they simply lost way too many players in the offseason. A wild card is a long shot, as the Ravens close with games against the Lions, Patriots and Bengals, all teams contending for their division. Pick: The Bengals win the division and the Ravens go from Super Bowl champs to also-ran.
The most compelling team, if you like watching disasters unfold, are the winless Jaguars (0-8). They've lost every game by double digits and could wind up the worst team in league history. The only maybe-winnable games I see are home games against Arizona, Buffalo and Houston, with the two latter teams possibly playing backup quarterbacks.
The Colts (6-2) staged a great comeback Sunday night and all but buried the Texans (2-6) in the division. Indy has the three best wins of any team – San Francisco, Seattle and Denver – but the loss of receiver Reggie Wayne for the season will hurt them down the stretch. If they make the playoffs, the Colts will have the title of the "Team No One Wants To Face." The Titans are 4-4 and about as blah as their record. A wild card berth is possible but only because the AFC is pretty average once you get past Denver, KC, Indy, New England and Cincinnati. Pick: Colts win the division and the Titans battle for a wild card in a race hard to predict.
The story of this division is the combined 9-1 record the Broncos, Chiefs and Chargers have against the NFC East. It has really helped these teams go 20-5 and have an edge in all having solid playoff shots.
The 9-0 Chiefs have had an amazing streak of luck, playing backup quarterbacks in four of their last five games (and the fifth was Terrell Pryor, basically a rookie). Even so, the Chiefs really struggled in their last three games, and were lucky they weren't playing good quarterbacks. Sunday, they faced Jeff Tuel, a cute but raw third-stringer for the Bills. The Bills gained 470 yards on the Chiefs, but two turnovers proved key. On one, Tuel had a receiver wide open in the end zone and instead threw to an out-of-position defensive back who ran 100 yards for a pick six. On the other, a receiver made a catch, fumbled and a it was returned for a TD. Final tally – Chiefs defense, 14 points; Chiefs offense, 9 points, Bills offense, 13 points. If KC plays like this two weeks from now in Denver, they will be crushed. The Chiefs have the look of a team that will lose its first playoff game, unless they get lucky again to face a backup. Let's not forget, though, that this team went 2-14, meaning Andy Reid has already wrapped up coach of the year and Alex Smith comeback player.
The 7-1 Broncos are still the class of the AFC, and I think they can only beat themselves. That, however, is possible. In their last three games, Denver has 11 turnovers and Peyton Manning has been responsible for seven of them. If they can correct their ball handling, they have so many weapons that only bad weather can stop them. Their schedule the next month is brutal: at San Diego, Kansas City, at New England, at Kansas City. If they beat KC twice, they will win the division. The wild card for the Broncos is how they deal with the loss of head coach John Fox, who will miss several weeks after his heart surgery. The Colts lost their coach last season and the team rallied to make the playoffs. We'll see if Denver does the same.
The Chargers (4-4) lost a tough overtime game in Washington, but are still positioned to make a wild card run. The Raiders (3-5) gave up an NFL/NFL-tying record eight/seven TD passes to Nick Foles and the Eagles, which tells you all you need to know about Oakland. Pick: Denver wins the division, the Chiefs are an obvious wild card, and the Chargers fight the Titans, Dolphins, Jets and (maybe) Ravens for the last spot.
The Giants are 2-6 but only two games out of the first place in the loss column, which says how lousy this division is. Dallas is 5-4, the Eagles 4-5 and Washington 3-5. The Cowboys are still the favorite because they have swept the division and have only one game left against a quality team (Green Bay). But their habit of blowing big leads won't make any of their fans feel comfortable. Pick: Dallas wins the division at 9-7 with no one else at .500.
This is all contingent on the Packers beating a banged-up Bears team on Monday night. If so, Green Bay at 6-2 leads Detroit by one game. The Bears (4-3) have too many injuries to contend, while the Vikings (1-7) are playing for a top draft pick inn 2014. The Thanksgiving game between the Packers and Lions could be the first meaningful Turkey Day tilt in Detroit in ages. Pick: The Packers win the division and the Lions become a dangerous wild card that can score on anybody. Update: The Bears beat the Packers, but more importantly, Aaron Rodgers was hurt and this has totally changed the dynamic in the division.
Don't look now, but the Panthers (5-3) are surging, having won four in a row, while the 6-2 Saints have lost two of three. Carolina hasn't beaten anyone – their win streak is against teams with a combined 6-27 record – but they have won the games handily, which suggests their talent is showing itself. The Saints must be thrilled to be done with road games against the AFC East, having lost at New England and New York. With games against the 49ers and Seahawks, the schedule for New Orleans isn't easy, but the Panthers have to play the Patriots and 49ers. The division will likely be decided by their two head-to-head matchups. The Falcons (2-6) were a preseason Super Bowl contender but have fallen apart and aren't even competitive. Tampa Bay (0-8) blew a 21-0 lead at Seattle, which sums up their season (that and the MRSA that has hit their complex). Pick: The Saints hang on to win the division and the Panthers come up short for a wild card.
The Seahawks are an ugly 8-1, and have barely survived the past two weeks against weak teams in St. Louis and Tampa Bay. Seattle has major offensive line problems and is lacking quality receivers. On the plus side, they have a great defense and a cake schedule down the stretch, playing only New Orleans and San Francisco with winning records. The 49ers (7-2) have won five in a row but their loss at Seattle looms large. The Niners must win the rematch or else they're a wild card at best. Both Arizona (4-4) and St. Louis (3-6) play teams tough, but that's about it. Pick: Seattle wins the division and gets crucial home field for the playoffs, while the 49ers are the top wild card.
HOT PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Nick Foles of the Philadelphia Eagles (see photo at top of page) tied a record by throwing seven touchdown passes in a 49-20 rout of the Oakland Raiders. Peyton Manning also tossed seven Tds in Week 1, but prior to that, it hadn't been done since 1969. Twice in half a season is amazing, even more so for Foles and the Eagles, who hadn't scored an offensive TD in their last two games.