NFL Midseason Report: 2011
The season has been dominated by long-suffering teams turning it around
The death of icon Al Davis was the season's biggest headline so far
Upset of the Year, No-Show of the Year, Midseason Awards and much more
As NFL regular seasons go, the one we thought we might not have in 2011 (see lockout, protracted) hasn't been half-bad. But it is almost half gone. So as November arrives, it's time for our annual midseason review...
STORY OF THE YEAR -- The proliferation of turnaround teams, and the potential end of some long playoff droughts: Buffalo, Detroit, Cincinnati, Houston and San Francisco all finished either in last place or a game out of it in 2010, but each of those five teams would make the playoffs if the postseason opened today. The Bills (5-2) and Lions (6-2) have the league's longest active playoff-less streak, both having last qualified in 1999. The Texans (5-3) have never made the postseason since launching their expansion effort in 2002, and the 49ers (6-1) last went to the playoffs that same season. When you factor in 4-3, second-place Oakland (no playoff trips since 2002), the 12-team postseason field has a chance to be infused with some new blood in 2011.
-- Kudos to: The staggering production in the passing game, with three quarterbacks -- Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers, New England's Tom Brady and New Orleans' Drew Brees -- still on pace to break Dan Marino's 1984 single-season record of 5,084 passing yards. Brees is on pace for 5,491 yards; Rodgers for 5,422; and Brady for 5,397.
HEADLINE OF THE YEAR -- The death of Raiders owner Al Davis: How many teams have been so identifiable with their owner that you can't even separate them in your mind? That was the case with Davis, who did everything over the course of his 50-plus-year career in pro football except play the game. But if he could have suited up and made it onto the field, he would have been a Raider, because the entire franchise was modeled in his combative image. Davis wasn't beloved so much as he was revered by those on his side of the fight, and even his enemies respected his dogged and determined belief that his way, the Raider way, was the right way. The results weren't there in the final nine years or so of his long reign, and the Raiders faltered because of it. But Davis never lost his nerve, and his willingness to take a chance.
-- Kudos to: Peyton Manning takes a seat. Has there ever been an injury with more league-wide ramifications than Manning not being ready to open the season under center in Indianapolis? It ruined the season for the Colts, ending one of the greatest playoff streaks in the game's history. It wrecked the prime time TV schedule for more than one network, and robbed the NFL and its fans of the biggest marquee name in the sport. The only time we get to see Manning work this season is during a game's commercial breaks.
SIDESHOW OF THE YEAR -- The Handshake that Shook Detroit: The over-exuberance of 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh's postgame demeanor didn't sit too well with vanquished Lions head coach Jim Schwartz in Week 6 at Ford Field, and the two leaders of men reacted like a couple dawn-of-puberty junior-highers who just felt that first full blast of testosterone kick in. Harbaugh did everything but snap a locker room towel in Schwartz's direction, and Schwartz looked ready to put somebody in a headlock and commence wailing on him. Naturally the media went for the understated approach, covering it like it was Nixon vs. Khrushchev in the kitchen debate.
-- Kudos to: Michael Vick's Week 3 "Why-aren't-the-referees-protecting-me'' postgame press conference was a keeper. I thought the whiny Eagles quarterback should have hired a violin player to accompany him, but that's just personal preference.
TREND OF THE YEAR -- The Big Comeback: When the Ravens fell behind the Cardinals 24-3 late in the first half last Sunday in Baltimore, it was obvious Arizona was hopelessly ahead. At least that's what it has seemed like this season, with so many teams overcoming so many sizable deficits to win. Baltimore won the game 30-27, marking the fifth time this season that a team trailed by at least 20 points and still managed to rack up a W. That's the most such comebacks in any single season in the NFL, and it has been 12 years since we've even seen as many as four in a year. In Weeks 3-4 this season, the Bills (down 21), the Lions (down 20), the 49ers (down 20) and the Lions again (down 24) all won despite trailing by three touchdowns. In the NFL this year, it's really never over until it's over.
-- Kudos to: All the impact play from rookie quarterbacks. Carolina's Cam Newton, Cincinnati's Andy Dalton and Minnesota's Christian Ponder look like they've been pros for years, not weeks. I say good for them, and good for us, because now we don't look quite so foolish for making such a big fuss about the quarterbacks every draft season.
SHOCKER OF THE YEAR -- The Colts implode: One of the great unanswerable mysteries of recent NFL times was the question of how much of the success in Indianapolis was due to Peyton Manning's individual brilliance? Any further questions? I didn't think so. Like Wile E. Coyote, the Colts without Manning ran straight off the cliff, hung there for a couple seconds, then looked down to realize where they were and plummeted. Furiously. Indy is 0-8, lost 62-7 at New Orleans in Week 7, and should be mathematically eliminated from the playoff chase any second now. All those rumblings about Manning getting a few MVP votes this year -- Slogan: Manning, now more than ever -- represent a misplaced sentiment. But I do understand it.
-- Kudos to: The Cam Newton Express. Why, of course we saw a couple 400-yard passing games coming to start Newton's NFL career. I'm pretty sure that's the same way Jimmy Clausen began his rookie experience in Carolina last year.
THE NO-SHOW AWARD -- Chris Johnson gets his money, not his yards: First the Titans running back held out of training camp for a month in a contract dispute, and then he disappeared again once the games started counting. Oh, he's in uniform all right. He's just not in the end zone. And maybe not in the backfield for much longer if he keeps averaging 2.8 yards per carry, which currently ranks 50th among the top 50 qualifying running backs. Johnson's 2.8 average is exactly half of what he produced two years ago, when he hung up a 2,006 yard rushing season, accounting for more than 2,500 yards from scrimmage and 16 touchdowns.
-- Kudos to: This year's example of the Be Careful What You Wish For Syndrome, Patriots receiver Chad Ochocinco. After years of pining for a chance to play for Bill Belichick in New England, No. 85's dream came true. The Bengals are better off without him. If only New England was better off with him.
THE MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING AWARD -- Tim Tebow, Take Two: Like a shiny object that mesmerizes us for unknown or unexplainable reasons, we can't take our eyes off the second-year Denver quarterback, even though his passing can be painful to watch at times. Believe me when I tell you this, Tim, it's not you, it's us. You're just trying to get along as best you can and learn how to play quarterback in the NFL. But we're fascinated with every little facet of your story, right down to the sideline poses you strike. Can you issue a restraining order for an entire league's fan base? I'd look into it.
-- Kudos to: The Lockout Effect -- I'm sure there have been real-life ramifications of having the entire NFL offseason wiped out by the labor stand-off. But is anyone entirely certain and could demonstrably prove what they were?
THE HOW CAN WE MISS YOU IF YOU WON'T LEAVE AWARD -- To those old and slow Pittsburgh Steelers: OK, so we might have over-reacted in the wake of that 35-7 season-opening defeat at Baltimore, but in fairness, I think Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin's reaction was pretty forceful, too. Pittsburgh got to read its own obituaries, then went back to work and proceeded to win six of its next seven games, taking over first place in the AFC North and the conference's top seed with last Sunday's 25-17 defeat of New England at Heinz Field. One of these days, reports of the Steelers' demise are bound to be accurate.
-- Kudos to: As I recall, the defending AFC West champion Chiefs had a little dirt thrown on their graves in September, in the midst of their ragged and injury-plagued 0-3 start. But they went 4-0 in October, rising from the dead and tying for first place on Halloween night.
THE KEEPING IT INTERESTING AWARD -- The Romo-coaster Effect: Nobody had a first month of the season like Dallas quarterback Tony Romo, who single-handedly was the reason the Cowboys won dramatically in Weeks 2 and 3 of the season, at San Francisco and home against Washington, and lost dramatically in Weeks 1 and 4, at the Jets and home against Detroit. Romo is a difference maker all right. But the pendulum swings are doozies.
-- Kudos to: The Grossman Chronicles. The whole Good Rex, Bad Rex was on display again for a while in Washington in the season's first six weeks. But as always, Bad Rex wins out, and that means the Redskins and Good Rex lose.
WRONG NAME, WRONG YEAR AWARD -- Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be named Peyton, or Payton (in 2011). The trouble they've seen. Peyton Manning's slow-healing neck. Sean Payton's busted leg. Peyton Hillis' strep throat. Walter Payton's legacy. In the NFL, the Peytons and Paytons are all in a difficult place.
-- Kudos to: It was great to be an NFL receiver named Mike Williams last season, but this year, not nearly so much. Seattle's Mike Williams and Tampa Bay's Mike Williams both caught 65 passes in 2010, combining for 1,715 yards and 13 touchdowns. This year so far: 40 catches combined, for 406 yards and two scores.
WORST DIVISION -- NFC West: By now, this award has been retired in honor of the NFC West. The good news is that with the 49ers being 6-1, it's almost guaranteed the division will send a winning team to the playoffs this season. The bad news? The other three teams in the division are a combined 4-17 so far, a lofty winning percentage of .190.
-- Kudos to: The AFC South, which features the NFL's version of the Washington Generals, your 2011 Indianapolis Colts.
BEST DIVISION -- AFC North: The Steelers, Ravens and Bengals are all dangerous two-loss teams, and even last-place Cleveland is a competitive 3-4. The secret to the division's success? It drew the weak NFC West and AFC South in the league's scheduling format this year.
-- Kudos to: The NFC North, where the pace-setting Packers remain perfect at 7-0, but the Lions (6-2) and Bears (4-3) are all representing.
STATISTIC OF THE YEAR -- The 49ers could be home (free) by Thanksgiving: At 6-1, San Francisco holds a commanding 4-game lead over second-place Seattle (2-5) in the NFC West. According to ESPN.com, which did the leg work on the math, the 49ers can clinch the division if they win their next three games, to improve to 9-1, then get three losses from the Seahawks, two from the Cardinals (with a win over St. Louis), and two from the Rams (with a win over Seattle). That could all occur by Nov. 20, or Week 11. The upshot? The 49ers could be playing for playoff positioning for the final six weeks of the season.
* Kudos to: Parity is alive and kicking. Nineteen of the league's 32 teams will take winning records into Week 9, and every division except the NFC West and the NFC East features either multiple teams tied for first place, or teams separated by no more than 1½ games.
GAME OF THE YEAR -- Packers 42, Saints 34, Week 1: We're 116 games into the NFL's 256-game schedule, and I still haven't seen a better game than the first one of the season, on opening night in Lambeau Field. Maybe it was partly the relief of the NFL having escaped the lockout relatively unscathed, or maybe it was the dizzying pace of big plays and scoring that made it so memorable. Whatever the case, Green Bay and New Orleans put on a heck of an entertaining show for the nation's football-starved fans, and it wasn't decided until Packers linebacker Clay Matthews stuffed Saints rookie running back Mark Ingram just shy of the goal line on the game's final play.
-- Kudos to: Lions 34, Cowboys 30, Week 4. Down 27-3 in the third quarter, the Lions stormed back to win and saddle the Cowboys with the biggest blown lead in Dallas franchise history.
UPSET OF THE YEAR -- Bills 34, Patriots 31, Week 3: New England had beaten AFC East rival Buffalo 15 consecutive times, dating to 2003, but even a 21-0 second-quarter Patriots advantage wasn't enough to hold off the comeback-happy Bills, who improved to 3-0 and took over the division lead. New England quarterback Tom Brady threw for four touchdowns, but was intercepted four times, too, including a 27-yard pick-six by Buffalo cornerback Drayton Florence early in the fourth quarter.
-- Kudos to: Rams 31, Saints 21, Week 8. St. Louis was 0-6 and playing without injured starting quarterback Sam Bradford, but the visiting Saints (5-3) fell behind 24-0 and could never recover.
EGG-LAYING OF THE YEAR -- Saints 62, Colts 7, Week 7. It's never a good development when your defense gives up more touchdown passes (five) than incompletions (four), but that's the kind of night it was for the winless Colts. New Orleans set franchise records for points and winning margin, and its 62 points tied for the most any team has scored since the 1970 merger. Saints quarterback Drew Brees was 31 of 35 for 325 yards and those five scores in less than three full quarters of action, and New Orleans also found time to rush for 236 yards and collect a team-record 36 first downs.
-- Kudos to: Chiefs 28, Raiders 0, Week 7. Given the build-up in Oakland in the days just after the blockbuster Carson Palmer trade, the Raiders' effort against the Chiefs was spectacular in its deflation effect. Both Kyle Boller and Palmer threw three interceptions each, with Kansas City recording a pick-six against both passers.
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