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Surprise, surprise

Who knew we'd be talking Steelers, Chargers at mid-way point

Posted: Wednesday November 10, 2004 11:54AM; Updated: Wednesday November 10, 2004 3:41PM
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San Diego TE Antonio Gates paces the Chargers' potent offense with a league-leading 54 receptions.

We've learned a few things about the NFL after nine weeks. The New England Patriots aren't going to go undefeated. Joe Gibbs isn't a miracle worker. And the Kansas City Chiefs defense actually can get worse each year. But those are all facts that we could've predicted before the season began. It's more fun to reflect on the stories we didn't see coming. Here's my list of the 10 biggest surprises of the first half:

1. The resurrection of the Pittsburgh Steelers: With all the talk about rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, it's easy to forget a big factor in the Steelers' success is a return to their roots. The arrival of free-agent running back Duce Staley has helped them field the league's best rushing offense. The return of defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau has produced the league's second-ranked defense. Big Ben's emergence is an amazing story but those other factors make his life much easier.

2. The San Diego Chargers sudden offensive explosion: A year ago this team's entire strategy for scoring points revolved around two options -- hand the ball to LaDainian Tomlinson or throw the ball to LaDainian Tomlinson. Now he's practically a role player. Quarterback Drew Brees has turned into an MVP candidate (18 touchdowns, three interceptions, 108.7 passer rating). Wide receiver Keenan McCardell showed up in a trade a few weeks ago and has become a valuable weapon. And tight end Antonio Gates -- a player who spent his college years on the Kent State basketball team -- leads the league in receptions. I thought Marty Schottenheimer had been using Vince Lombardi's playbook for the last few years. Now he has one of the more dangerous offenses around as the second half begins.

3. The sorry state of the league: This has been one of the least entertaining NFL seasons in years. Every time I peek at a schedule, I'm stunned at how many bad games are on tap for the coming week. Part of that has to do with parity -- it's impossible to know who's any good anymore except for a handful of teams. Part of that has to do with injuries -- there have been so many this season that most teams are playing second- and third-string guys that probably wouldn't even be in the league. The game has become unwatchable in some places. And if you think I'm lying, you probably missed the 49ers-Bears Sunday Night football contest two weeks ago.

4. Terrell Owens has become the most compelling person in the NFL: Everybody knew he would energize the Eagles passing game when Philadelphia signed him but he's quickly become weekly fodder for every sports talk radio show in America. I've got to give the man credit for his marketing skills. Now that he's bashed old teammates, mimicked Ray Lewis' end-zone antics and screamed at Donovan McNabb on the sidelines, people can't wait to see what he's going to do next. Personally, I think he loves the enmity he creates. No player in the league thrives on being hated more than T.O.

5. The Minnesota Vikings becoming Daunte Culpepper's team: They belonged to Cris Carter when Culpepper arrived in 1999, and Randy Moss for years after that. Now Culpepper has taken complete control of this team with his rocket right arm and his ballooning confidence. The major difference in his game is that he no longer relies primarily on Moss for the big plays. He's learned to spread the ball around to host of speedy receivers and he stays connected with them off the field, usually by hosting dinners after games. That chemistry has paid off big for him. He's currently the league's second-rated passer.

Jets RB Curtis Martin is third in the NFL with 865 rushing yards.

6. Bill Parcells is human after all: I've never seen a brilliant coach look more baffled by his team than Parcells has appeared in recent weeks. He really has no explanation for how bad the Cowboys have become. Well, here are a few reasons that he's not offering. He didn't pursue a veteran cornerback during the offseason, which left his secondary vulnerable to big pass plays. He passed on a number of highly rated running backs in the draft and selected Julius Jones, who has had no impact on a weak rushing attack. His decision to sign quarterback Vinny Testaverde hasn't paid off either. Pretty soon, the Cowboys might have to start looking at what Drew Henson can give them for the future.

7. The resurgence of New York RBs Curtis Martin and Tiki Barber: The Jets' Martin is proof that not all running backs go downhill once they pass the age of 30. While the Giants' Barber has shown that he's no longer a turnover waiting happen. Currently, they rank third and fourth in the league in the rushing, respectively, and both ignited their team's fast starts.

8. The disappointing Seattle Seahawks: Like everyone else, I was on this team's bandwagon earlier and I have no clue why they've played so inconsistently. They have a Pro Bowl quarterback (Matt Hasselbeck), a Pro Bowl running back (Shaun Alexander), an improved defense and a coach with a Super Bowl ring (Mike Holmgren). Even with speedy receivers who drop a few too many balls, they shouldn't having any problems cruising to a title in the weak NFC West. They can still get their issues corrected but those Super Bowl predictions sound a bit premature now. No team was more overrated when this season began.

9. Steve McNair Sits Down: I had started to believe last year's co-MVP could play through anything but a bruised sternum finally forced him to the sidelines. He's missed two games already this season and injuries aren't his only problem. His supporting cast isn't what it used to be. The trade of Justin McCareins to the Jets and the gimpy knees of promising second-year wide receiver Tyrone Calico left McNair without any big-play threats.

10. Denver's latest discovery: Reuben Droughns has turned out to be a pretty effective running back after being told for four years that he couldn't carry the football. Since moving from fullback to halfback in Week 5, he's gained 678 yards and is on pace become the Broncos ninth 1,000-yard rusher in the last 10 seasons. That's not bad for a guy who spent his career bouncing around Detroit and Miami before becoming a special teams standout in Denver prior to this season.