NFL midseason report - NBC Sports

NFL midseason report
How's your team fared and what's next? We have answers for you
From left, Bears defensive players Julius Peppers, Brian Urlacher and Tim Jennings lead the NFL's best defense.
November 7, 2012, 5:11 pm

With 132 games in the books, we have crossed the midpoint of the 2012 NFL season. How has your team done? Where are they headed from here?

Let's review.

Midseason All-Pros | Biggest surprises | Contender or pretender?

Midseason All-Pros | Biggest surprises | Contender or pretender?

Midseason All-Pros | Biggest surprises | Contender or pretender?


1. New England Patriots (5-3)

Patriots are the first team since 1940 to have three losses by a combined four points through eight games of a season. No offense has scored more points or gained more yards and first downs. They are on a record streak of 17 straight regular season games with at least 350 yards of offense.

Image: Tom Brady
Jim Rogash / Getty Images

Tom Brady.

Known as a passing team with Tom Brady, the Patriots are second in rush attempts per game (34.5) and fourth in rushing yards per game (149.6). Bill Belichick's defense continues to play a bend-but-don't-break style, ranking 22nd in yards per game, 12th in points per game, and third in takeaways (20). They are 1-2 against teams with a winning record after losing to Baltimore and Seattle despite holding 13-point leads in each game.

The Patriots will be heavily tested in December when they host Houston and San Francisco in consecutive weeks, but remain a big favorite in the AFC East.

2. Miami Dolphins (4-4)

In a new era led by two rookies, coach Joe Philbin and quarterback Ryan Tannehill, the Dolphins have played very well after an opening-day disaster in Houston, going 4-3 since. However, they have not made the plays late to win games, losing each time by a field goal.

Joel Auerbach / Getty Images

Reggie Bush

Philbin has gone from the high-flying offense in Green Bay to a passing attack with just six touchdown passes this season. Brian Hartline (41 receptions for 662 yards) has emerged as the top receiver, and Reggie Bush leads the ground game (534 yards). The defense had been one of the best in the AFC led by Cameron Wake's 8.5 sacks, but they allowed a record performance to Indianapolis' Andrew Luck in a big loss on Sunday.

With three games remaining against the Patriots and 49ers, it will be very difficult for the Dolphins to reach the postseason this year, but a second-place finish is still likely.

3. New York Jets (3-5)

After losing Darrelle Revis and Santonio Holmes for the season, the Jets have struggled against a tough first-half schedule. They have played seven consecutive teams .500 or better, going 2-5 in those games.

Image: Tebow
Nick Laham / Getty Images

Tim Tebow

Mark Sanchez is completing a league-worst 52.9 percent of his passes, and backup/personal punt protector Tim Tebow would offer little help in that regard. He's a 47.5 percent career passer. While the pass defense has survived without Revis, the run defense is 29th in rushing yards per game, and 23rd in yards per carry.

The Jets are 3-8 in their last 11 games, and while the rest of the schedule may lighten up, Rex Ryan appears headed for his first losing season as head coach.

4. Buffalo Bills (3-5)

Despite the high-priced signing of free agent Mario Williams to team up with Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus, the Buffalo defense has been one of the biggest disappointments of the season.

Mario Williams
Rick Stewart / Getty Images

Mario Williams

It started in Week 1 when the Jets were able to score 34 offensive points. After wins vs. lowly Kansas City and Cleveland, Buffalo allowed 45 points in the second half alone to New England. A week later the 49ers became the first team in NFL history to rush and pass for over 300 yards each in a 45-3 rout. Tennessee went into Buffalo and scored five touchdowns with Chris Johnson rushing for 195 yards.

Run defense has always been a problem for Buffalo, but it's never been this bad. It even offsets the strong rushing performance of the offense, with Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller leading the team to the third best yard-per-carry average in the league (5.3). Of course, Ryan Fitzpatrick has not played well enough to take advantage of it. Chan Gailey is 13-27 (.325) in Buffalo, so look for changes to be made.


1. Baltimore Ravens (6-2)

It is strange to see the Baltimore offense rank higher than their defense, but that is the case this season. The "high-flying offense" with Joe Flacco has calmed down the last four games, while the defense finally held an opponent under 300 yards for the first time this season (Cleveland had 290 yards in Week 9). That is something they did nine times in 2011.

Image: Flacco
Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

Joe Flacco

Of course it is harder when Terrell Suggs only recently returned, and Ray Lewis and Lardarius Webb have been lost for the season. But even before injuries Baltimore was struggling, allowing over 200 yards rushing in consecutive games for the first time in franchise history.

The 6-2 record is big in the AFC, but the Ravens have several tough games remaining and will have to take care of Pittsburgh to win the division for the second straight season.

2. Pittsburgh Steelers (5-3)

Coming into Week 9, the Steelers' offense had the fewest possessions (69) this season, while the defense faced the fewest drives (66). New offensive coordinator Todd Haley has taken a lot of risk out of the offense, putting a premium on third-down conversions, which the Steelers are the best in the league at, converting 51.3 percent of the time.

Justin K. Aller / Getty Images

Ben Roethlisberger

Ben Roethlisberger has a career-best sack percentage of 5.4 percent, and has thrown 16 touchdowns to four interceptions with a 101.1 passer rating. The Steelers were only 2-3 after blowing the fourth-quarter lead in four games, but have put together an impressive three-game winning streak to get back into contention.

They will play Baltimore in Weeks 11 and 13, which should ultimately decide who wins the AFC North. The good news is they should be able to get players like Troy Polamalu, Rashard Mendenhall and David DeCastro back from injury.

3. Cincinnati Bengals (3-5)

The Bengals were 3-1 to start the season, but their wins came against teams with a combined 6-20 record. They have lost four straight, and have yet to beat a quality opponent since Andy Dalton became the starting quarterback last season.

Image: Cincinnati Bengals v Washington Redskins
Larry French / Getty Images

A.J. Green

Dalton has regressed some in recent weeks, even though sophomore receiver A.J. Green has played like a superstar with 51 receptions for 735 yards and eight touchdowns. BenJarvus Green-Ellis has not provided a strong running game, averaging 3.4 yards per carry and suffering the first three fumbles of his career. The offense is 31st on third down. The defense has regressed from last season, ranking 20th or worse in most major categories. They have allowed a game-winning drive in the fourth quarter of three straight games.

With several tough games remaining, this looks like a losing season in progress for the Bengals.

4. Cleveland Browns (2-7)

Despite their 2-7 record, the Browns have been competitive in every game this season. The 29-year-old rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden has had the most growing pains of all the rookie QBs starting this year, though it may just be due to the fact that he is the worst player of the group.

Philadelphia Eagles v Cleveland Browns
Jason Miller / Getty Images

Coach Pat Shurmur and quarterback Brandon Weeden.

Cleveland has tried to help him with fellow rookies like running back Trent Richardson and wide receiver Josh Gordon, but it has still produced one of the worst offenses in the league. The defense has not been much better, putting Pat Shurmur (6-19) on the hot seat with new ownership in town.

Midseason All-Pros | Biggest surprises | Contender or pretender?

Midseason All-Pros | Biggest surprises | Contender or pretender?

Midseason All-Pros | Biggest surprises | Contender or pretender?

1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | Next >
< Prev | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | Next >


1. Houston Texans (7-1)

Houston owns the second-best scoring differential in the league (+100). It held at least a 20-point lead in each of the first four games this season, becoming the fourth team in NFL history to do so. The Texans demolished the Ravens 43-13 in an AFC showdown in Week 7. They can throw it off play action with the best of them, they run the ball well, they have a league-low six giveaways, and the defense is ridiculously active, led by Defensive Player of the Year candidate J.J. Watt.

J.J. Watt
Thomas B. Shea / Getty Images

J.J. Watt.

But what's the eyesore for the Texans? It is that 42-24 rout the Packers put on them in Houston in front of a national audience.

Now the Texans get their next chance with a road game in Chicago against the best defense in the league. It is important they win a game like this or the one in New England (Week 14) if fans are to take the team seriously as the Super Bowl favorite out of the AFC.

Midseason All-Pros | Biggest surprises | Contender or pretender?

Midseason All-Pros | Biggest surprises | Contender or pretender?

Midseason All-Pros | Biggest surprises | Contender or pretender?

2. Indianapolis Colts (5-3)

Perhaps the surprise team of 2012, the Colts have already more than doubled their 2-14 result from last year, and with a rookie quarterback and interim coach to boot.

Image: Andrew Luck
Darron Cummings / AP

Andrew Luck

But Andrew Luck is no ordinary rookie, as he is on pace to pass for 4,808 yards. He just threw for a record 433 in a win over Miami, which was his fourth game-winning drive in eight games; another NFL record for a rookie. He's not doing it alone as Reggie Wayne leads the league with 835 receiving yards.

This is still a young team, but they are 4-1 since the news of Chuck Pagano's leukemia diagnosis, and they are fighting as the underdog each week. If the defense can start getting takeaways (they have a record-low three through eight games), then that will take some pressure off Luck and improve their scoring.

But right now, it's a three-game winning streak and a game in Jacksonville on Thursday night is enticing to make it four straight for the team everyone expected was a few years away from winning again.

3. Tennessee Titans (3-6)

The Titans were an enigma last season, but this year is pretty clear. The defense is historically terrible. By allowing 308 points, that is tied for the sixth most through nine games in NFL history. Three of the teams ahead of them were in their first season in the NFL, and two of those teams did not return for a second (1950 Baltimore Colts, 1952 Dallas Texans). Quarterbacks are completing 72.2 percent of their passes against the Titans, who have a 108.4 defensive passer rating (worst in the league).

Al Messerschmidt / Getty Images

Matt Hasselbeck

They have three wins, all fourth-quarter comebacks, including an upset of Pittsburgh and a wild overtime win over Detroit where they set a record with five touchdowns of 60 or more yards. Matt Hasselbeck has replaced the injured Jake Locker and added some stability to the offense, but the defense is too much to overcome. Chicago, with a lot of help from their defense, just dropped 51 points, including 28 in the first quarter in Tennessee.

If things do not get better, this could be another quick hook for a head coach (Mike Munchak).

4. Jacksonville Jaguars (1-7)

Cecil Shorts giveth, and Cecil Shorts taketh. The second-year receiver has been the lone bright spot on the league's worst offense. Without his stunning 80-yard touchdown to beat the Colts, this team could be headed for a 0-16 season.

Image: Shorts
Andy Lyons / Getty Images

Cecil Shorts

Though, Shorts did lose a fumble to set up a game-winning field goal in overtime for the Raiders. Shorts is still doubling up first-round rookie Justin Blackmon's production, who averages just 9.8 yards per catch. Blaine Gabbert is still one of the worst quarterbacks in the league whether he has Maurice Jones-Drew or not. When your offense has scored at least 24 points once in 24 games, it puts a lot of pressure on the defense to play well, which has not been the case this season.

This was supposed to be a year of improvement, but Jacksonville has gone backwards after a 5-11 season.


1. Denver Broncos (5-3)

Peyton Manning turning the team into the Denver Colts is complete. He has them already mastering the "games with limited possessions, highly-efficient offense, and a strong chance for fourth-quarter comebacks" formula from Indianapolis. Denver's never out of a game with Manning, and we have seen that numerous times this season, even if the deficit was 24 points. Manning is putting up some of the best stats of his career all across the board.

Image: Willis McGahee, Demaryius Thomas
Denis Poroy / AP

Willis McGaheeÿand Demaryius Thomas.

The Broncos have three comeback wins, and are one of only two teams to score at least 21 points in every game this season (Houston). Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker are on pace for big seasons, while Willis McGahee and Ronnie Hillman provide Manning with the best running game he's had since 2006. The offense keeps getting better, the defense has come along well, and the schedule only gets easier.

There is no reason Denver cannot win out from here.

2. San Diego Chargers (4-4)

The Chargers had their season going according to expectations. They won the games they should have, lost the games they should have.

But when they had a 24-0 lead at halftime on Denver in Week 6, that was a game they had to close to take control of the division. Instead the historic comeback or collapse depending on your viewpoint happened, and the Chargers did not recover even with a bye week, losing 7-6 in Cleveland.

Image: Norv
Jeff Gross / Getty Images

Norv Turner

A sweep of Kansas City has them sitting at 4-4, but with Philip Rivers still not looking like the old Rivers, a decaying set of skill position players, a suspect defense and Norv Turner, it is hard to see San Diego rallying for a return to the postseason. When they blew the 24-point lead, they blew their shot this season.

3. Oakland Raiders (3-5)

Al Davis is gone, but he's not forgotten. This is the story of . Darren McFadden with nagging injuries, and Carson Palmer throwing critical interceptions late in games. Sound familiar?

Carson Palmer
Ezra Shaw / Getty Images

Carson Palmer

Palmer's had his moments with big comeback wins over Pittsburgh and Jacksonville, but he also has a lot of empty stats as he is on pace for 4,710 passing yards on a below-average scoring offense. The offense has to try and catch up with that defense, which has been brutal against the pass. They have also had two games in which teams rushed for over 260 yards as well.

Dennis Allen is a young coach who has yet to put his stamp on this team. It blends right in with the disappointment we have seen since the 2003 season.

4. Kansas City Chiefs (1-7)

Worst team in football. So much for the healthy returns of Jamaal Charles, Matt Cassel, Eric Berry and Tony Moeaki helping out Romeo Crennel this season.

Jamaal Charles
Stacy Revere / Getty Images

Jamaal Charles

Somehow the Chiefs have managed to go eight games without a single lead in regulation. Not even an opening-drive field goal to go up 3-0. All they have is a field goal in overtime to beat New Orleans, which despite the Saints' struggles, looks like the upset of the year given they trailed 24-6 (largest comeback in Chiefs' history).

Crennel has had to delegate defensive coordinator duties, but while the defense has been terrible, the offense is embarrassing. Kansas City already has 29 giveaways, which are the most through eight games since the 1997 Saints had 30. The Chiefs' turnover differential is -20. Only three teams since 1940 have managed to be at -21 through eight games, so there could be a record brewing there.

The NFL Network had a great stat last week that Kansas City has not had a quarterback they drafted win a game for them since 1987 (Todd Blackledge). The Chiefs started Tyler Palko last year and Brady Quinn this season. Why not some Ricky Stanzi in the second half this season? It would be hard for the season to get any worse than it has been.

Midseason All-Pros | Biggest surprises | Contender or pretender?

Midseason All-Pros | Biggest surprises | Contender or pretender?

Midseason All-Pros | Biggest surprises | Contender or pretender?

< Prev | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | Next >


1. New York Giants (6-3)

The Giants started 5-2 or better for the NFL record-tying ninth straight season. Eli Manning has led three more fourth-quarter comeback wins after seven last season, giving him 24 for his career; the most by any quarterback through nine seasons in NFL history. Though Manning already has 2,426 yards passing, he only has 12 touchdowns, including just two in his last four games.

Eli Manning
Elsa / Getty Images

Eli Manning

Defensively, the Giants rank 25th in yards per game, but rank 10th in points per game with 26 takeaways (second most in NFL). Their 25 sacks are tied for third most. Every season the Giants usually go on a slump in November, and they just lost to Pittsburgh after a rough week with Hurricane Sandy.

The schedule will be getting tougher, but the Giants have a solid lead in the division and in a one-and-done playoff game, few teams are more feared.

Midseason All-Pros | Biggest surprises | Contender or pretender?

Midseason All-Pros | Biggest surprises | Contender or pretender?

Midseason All-Pros | Biggest surprises | Contender or pretender?

2. Philadelphia Eagles (3-5)

Turnovers will kill you, and the Eagles have 19, giving them a -9 turnover differential on the season. After starting 3-1 with the wins by a combined four points, the Eagles have lost four straight, putting the future of Andy Reid and Michael Vick in Philadelphia in jeopardy.

Alex Trautwig / Getty Images

Michael Vick.

They barely scraped by for those close victories, lost two such games, and have now been outclassed by the Falcons and Saints the last two weeks. Defensive coordinator Juan Castillo was fired, but the defense has hardly performed any better with their lack of takeaways and sacks.

The Eagles have failed to score more than 24 points in any game this season, which is the longest streak for the team since the 2005 season. That was the last time Philadelphia finished with a losing record (6-10), and this could be the end of the road for Reid's tenure after 14 seasons.

3. Dallas Cowboys (3-5)

Dallas is third in the division, but first in drama. After upsetting the Giants in New York on opening night, the Cowboys are just 2-5 since that strong performance. Tony Romo is usually a lock for a mid-90's passer rating, but this season he has 10 touchdowns, 13 interceptions and an 82.2 passer rating.

Image: Dallas Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett and quarterback Tony Romo talk in Arlington, Texas
Mike Stone / Reuters

Coach Jason Garrett and quarterback Tony Romo.

Dallas' problems are not finishing drives on both sides of the ball. The offense ranks sixth in yards, but 26th in points. The defense ranks fifth in yards, but 18th in points. The coaching and play-calling has been very suspect late in close games against Baltimore and the Giants, while the defense could not get off the field quick enough against undefeated Atlanta in what was a winnable game.

A 3-5 hole is a tough one to climb out of in the NFC, but the Steelers are the only team with a winning record left on the schedule. For Dallas to recover, it has to start in Week 10, or else Jason Garrett may be hitting the unemployment line.

4. Washington Redskins (3-6)

The excitement has been provided from rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III. He has completed 65.6 percent of his passes with a 93.9 passer rating. Griffin may only have eight touchdown passes, but he has six rushing scores and 529 yards rushing, which is the fifth-highest rushing total through nine games by a quarterback in NFL history.

Image: Robert Griffin III
Gene J. Puskar / AP

Robert Griffin III

But the offense has been grounded the last three weeks during a losing streak where they have struggled with turnovers (Giants), dropped passes (Steelers), and in the red zone (Panthers). Washington is last in the league on third down, converting 28.6 of their plays. The defense has struggled all season, allowing a gross of 325.6 passing yards per game, and four game-winning drives against a unit missing Brian Orakpo, Adam Carriker, and with London Fletcher playing hurt.

Mike Shanahan may get a pass for what they have done with Griffin and all the injuries on both sides of the ball, but with a 14-26 (.350) record in three seasons, he could find himself on the hot seat should the losses continue. Five of the last seven games for Washington are against the NFC East.


1. Chicago Bears (7-1)

This is the best defense in football. They may not officially be No. 1 in points allowed, but when you factor in Chicago's ability to score on defense, then there is no comparison.

Image: Brian Urlacher, Julius Peppers, Tim Jennings
Joe Howell / AP

From left, Bears defensive players Julius Peppers, Brian Urlacher and Tim Jennings.

Chicago has allowed 120 points, but only 104 should be charged to the defense, which has scored an incredible 48 points. That is a net of 56 points allowed, or 7.0 points per game. That does not even include a blocked punt returned for a touchdown. Chicago's seven interceptions returned for touchdowns are a NFL record for eight games of a season.

Oh, and the offense has been solid as well with Jay Cutler reuniting with Brandon Marshall. They also do well on special teams annually. About the only thing this team does poorly is play in Green Bay, and that's mostly on Cutler.

For now, the Bears are one of the elite teams this season and do not have to worry about playing in Green Bay as long as they win the division.

Midseason All-Pros | Biggest surprises | Contender or pretender?

Midseason All-Pros | Biggest surprises | Contender or pretender?

Midseason All-Pros | Biggest surprises | Contender or pretender?

2. Green Bay Packers (6-3)

It was a surprising 2-3 start with Green Bay's offense not looking so elite, but things have turned around with a four-game winning streak in which Aaron Rodgers has thrown 15 touchdowns to one interception.

Image: Green Bay Packers v St Louis Rams
Doug Pensinger / Getty Images

Receiver Jordy Nelson and quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

The defense is improved from last season, but Green Bay's not getting all the takeaways they used to. The team has battled injuries in recent weeks to some of their big-name players, but they have a bye week to improve their health.

Road games in Detroit and New York (Giants) will offer better gauges of where the Packers are than the last few weeks have. They also have their second big meeting with Chicago in Week 15. Last year the Packers ran out of steam for the playoffs, but this year they have the chance to get stronger later in the season.

3. Minnesota Vikings (5-4)

The Vikings had one of the great upsets of the season when they handled San Francisco 24-13 in Week 3, but in the last four weeks (1-3) they have looked more like the team we expected. Adrian Peterson has returned phenomenally from his torn ACL injury, leading the league in rushing with 957 yards. Percy Harvin has had a great all-purpose season, but is dealing with an ankle injury.

Hannah Foslien / Getty Images

Percy Harvin

The defense has improved after last season's disastrous performance, but they are still not in the top 10.

The team's biggest problem is Christian Ponder, who actually started the season completing 68.2 percent of his passes. But in the last three weeks Ponder has completed 51.4 percent, and was held to 58 and 63 yards in two of the games. This should never happen in 1982, let alone 2012. Ponder's downward spiral mixed with a brutal schedule - they have yet to play Chicago, Green Bay and Houston - likely means a top 10 draft pick for the Vikings.

4. Detroit Lions (4-4)

The Lions are 9-11 since their 5-0 start last season. With their first three wins requiring fourth-quarter comebacks from Matthew Stafford, the Lions finally had an easy win in Week 9, albeit the opponent was Jacksonville. After throwing 41 touchdowns last season, Stafford has eight this year, and none have been to Calvin Johnson, even though he has 48 catches for 767 yards.

Detroit Lions v Green Bay Packers
Jonathan Daniel / Getty Images

Calvin Johnson.

The Lions have been slow starters, scoring 104 points in the fourth quarter, which is the second most in NFL history through eight games (2002 Chiefs scored 109 points). The defense is seventh in yards per game allowed, but just 22nd in points per game.

The schedule is tough, they have to leapfrog from last place, but the offense should always give them a chance to come back against anyone. Detroit's best players just have to play more consistently for them.

Midseason All-Pros | Biggest surprises | Contender or pretender?

Midseason All-Pros | Biggest surprises | Contender or pretender?

Midseason All-Pros | Biggest surprises | Contender or pretender?

< Prev | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4


1. Atlanta Falcons (8-0)

Atlanta is the 25th team to start 8-0 since 1940. Matt Ryan has led four game-winning drives, including two which started in the final minute of the fourth quarter (Carolina, Oakland). His 20 game-winning drives are the most through a player's first five seasons in NFL history.

Image: Ryan
Rob Carr / Getty Images

Matt Ryan

The Falcons has been a great team at closing under Mike Smith. They have only allowed three fourth-quarter comebacks since 2008. With Julio Jones in his second season, it gives Ryan a third great option with Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez to raise his game to a next level as he is a strong MVP candidate. The defense is not a shutdown unit, but they limit points (No. 5) and make big plays (17 takeaways).

Can they go 16-0? The Saints are always tough for Atlanta, and hosting the Giants (Week 15) will be a challenge. Other than that, it is very possible. But ultimately this team will be judged on the postseason, where they are 0-3 in this era. Still, they are doing all they can right now to best position themselves for that deep run. It is easy to see this is the best team Smith has had yet, and they will become a bigger story the longer they stay undefeated.

Midseason All-Pros | Biggest surprises | Contender or pretender?

Midseason All-Pros | Biggest surprises | Contender or pretender?

Midseason All-Pros | Biggest surprises | Contender or pretender?

2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-4)

After a 10-game losing streak to end 2011, this was supposed to be a rebound year for Josh Freeman and the young Buccaneers in Greg Schiano's NFL debut as coach. They ended the losing streak right away, but after allowing 510 yards to Eli Manning in a loss in Week 2, the Buccaneers were known for their aggressive defense on a kneel down at the end of the game. That started a three-game losing streak, making the Bucs afterthoughts.

Image: Vincent Jackson, DeAngelo Hall
Chris O'meara / AP

Vincent Jackson

But they have won three of four, Freeman has 11 touchdowns to one interception, and rookie Doug Martin has just gained 486 yards from scrimmage the last two weeks, setting a rookie record. The offense actually ranks fourth in the league in scoring as Vincent Jackson has been a big help to Freeman. They need to pick up the pace for the defense, who at least does have 17 takeaways.

Tampa Bay's an interesting 4-4 team, but let's keep in mind their best win was at Minnesota in Week 8. Can they beat a San Diego, Atlanta (twice), Denver, or split with the Saints? We will find out, because those games are coming up.

3. New Orleans Saints (3-5)

Of all the teams with a losing record right now, the Saints are the one you would pick as the most likely to make a run for the playoffs. That is largely due to having Drew Brees, one of the best quarterbacks. That was the same reason the Saints were expected to make the playoffs regardless of Sean Payton's suspension for Bountygate, but things did not start well.

Sean Gardner / Reuters

Drew Brees

Brees still put up numbers, though he makes more mistakes than usual without his brain-trust around. The defense is the only in NFL history to allow over 420 yards in all eight games to start a season. Holding Philadelphia to 13 points was big, as it was the first time all season someone scored fewer than 24 against New Orleans.

With Brees and all of his talented skill players, Joe Vitt being an improvement over Aaron Kromer as interim coach, the Saints may still have a shot at doing something this season. Two games against undefeated Atlanta, who they always play well, will really be the test as the Saints cannot afford any more than two losses the rest of the season. They also host San Francisco, who ended their season in the playoffs.

4. Carolina Panthers (2-6)

While everyone points to a sophomore slump for Cam Newton, the truth is his play this season has been a lot like his rookie season. The perception for how good he was last year was overblown, and more of the reality is coming out this year as Carolina continues to lose under Newton and coach Ron Rivera.

Image: Cam
John Gress / Getty Images

Cam Newton

The big difference for Carolina has been a lack of scoring this season, as the offense has actually fallen behind the defense. But whether it is 31-27 or 13-9 late in the game, the offense's task is the same. Carolina's problem is they fail to finish the close games at a historic level.

Newton is 1-13 (.071) in games where he has the ball in the fourth quarter and the game is tied or Carolina trails by 1-8 points. That's the worst observed record in NFL history (min. 12 games). They have lost 11 straight such games, and it's always something that comes up and bites them in the end.

Newton has said he's tired of the same script, but all Carolina can do is start blowing teams out, which they just are not talented enough to do on a consistent basis. They have to learn how to close first, then the wins will start coming.


1. San Francisco 49ers (6-2)

With expectations of a Super Bowl, the 49ers are right about on track with a 6-2 record. But are they really better than last season's team?

Image: Alex Smith
Brian Bahr / Getty Images

Alex Smith

Alex Smith, for the most part, is having a better season with some contributions from new additions Randy Moss and Mario Manningham. The running game is the league's best; ranked first in yards and yards per carry. The defense is still great (league-best 12.9 points per game).

But the 49ers have had their two worst performances of the Jim Harbaugh era with a 24-13 loss in Minnesota, and a stunning 26-3 defeat at home against the Giants. Last season the 49ers had a lead or tie in the fourth quarter of all 18 games they played. This season they have either led considerably or trailed by two scores in the fourth quarter.

Their two remaining big tests in the regular season will be Chicago (Week 11) and at New England (Week 15). Those games must go better than the loss to New York should the 49ers be considered a serious Super Bowl contender.

2. Seattle Seahawks (5-4)

Pete Carroll's bunch may be young and cocky, but they back it up with sound play on both sides of the ball. The offense has been a bit vanilla with Russell Wilson, but the rookie has been a good vertical passer and already has 13 touchdown passes, including two game-winning drives.

Dilip Vishwanat / Getty Images

Marshawn Lynch.

Marshawn Lynch is having the best season of his career with 881 rushing yards. Seattle runs the ball on 53.8 percent of their plays. The young secondary is most impressive with Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor, Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner all drawing attention this season. Seattle is 4-0 at home, but just 1-4 on the road, including three losses in close games in the division.

They can make the playoffs just by protecting home-field, but they need to prove they can win road games before buying into this team.

3. Arizona Cardinals (4-5)

Was this team really 4-0 at one point? Whether it is Kevin Kolb or John Skelton at quarterback (both have been injured), the results are pretty much the same: sacks, sacks, and more sacks. The two have already gone down 39 times in half a season. Arizona boasts the worst offensive line and running offense in the game, so it's a bad recipe for the quarterbacks to drop back so often, but that is the offense Ken Whisenhunt runs.

Peter Aiken / Getty Images

John Skelton.

Going back to last year the team had been on an improbable run of late-game wins, but while that continued early into this season, the last three weeks have not been close enough late in the game for Arizona to pull off an upset. Andre Roberts has shined alongside Larry Fitzgerald this season, but so often we are used to seeing the Arizona quarterbacks on their back before they can get the ball to their playmakers. The schedule consists of several stingy defenses too, so things are not likely to get better any time soon.

4. St. Louis Rams (3-5)

When the Rams beat Arizona to move to 3-2, it ended a 71-month streak of not being over .500. But since that point, the team has lost three straight, including blowouts at the hands of Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady destroying the under-matched defense. The addition of Cortland Finnegan can only do so much, and rookie Janoris Jenkins has been struggling.

Image: Finnegan
David Welker / Getty Images

Cortland Finnegan.

Sam Bradford continues to underwhelm, but it has been an improvement over a dreadful 2011. He has been missing injured receiver Danny Amendola who was on pace for a great season. The best prospects for the Rams look like a 7-9 season, but this is year one of Jeff Fisher's plan, though he must realize improvement has to be continuously shown. One thing the Rams love is rookie kicker Greg Zuerlein, who has made 17 of 20 attempts and shown incredible range from long distance.

Yeah, we end on a kicker, though 2012 has been a historic season for them too. Kickers league-wide have made 86.3 percent of their field goals. The single-season record is 84.5 percent (2008).

That is just one of the many things to keep an eye on in the second half of the season.

Midseason All-Pros | Biggest surprises | Contender or pretender?

Midseason All-Pros | Biggest surprises | Contender or pretender?

Midseason All-Pros | Biggest surprises | Contender or pretender?

Scott Kacsmar (@CaptainComeback) writes for Cold, Hard Football Facts, Bleacher Report, Colts Authority, and contributes data to and NFL Network.

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