Week 8 isn't on par with baseball's seventh-inning stretch, but it does give fans a chance to catch their breath before the stretch run of the NFL season. Yep, this is the midway point -- with visions of sugar plums and playoff berths dancing in the heads of some teams.
Twelve teams have winning records, with another six at .500. Green Bay is the only first-place team with more than a one-game cushion. The Packers are 3 1/2 games in front of Chicago and Detroit. Two divisions -- the AFC North and NFC West -- have ties atop the standings. However, those logjams will be short-lived; Pittsburgh plays at Baltimore and Arizona visits San Francisco on Sunday.
While the Steelers, Ravens, Cardinals and 49ers all have All-Pro players, each team also has at least two rookies making significant contributions:
Arizona: Defensive end Wendell Bryant, a first-round draft choice from Wisconsin, made his NFL debut in a Week 3 game against San Diego and has shown a knack for rushing the passer, recording his first career sacks (1.5) in a 16-13 win against Carolina on Oct. 6. Free-agent running back Damien Anderson saw his first NFL action in the Carolina game and rushed for 61 yards.
Baltimore: Since the NFL established 53-man rosters in 1993, no team has had more rookies or first-year players than Baltimore this season (19). The Ravens start two rookies at safety: Ed Reed (Round 1, Miami) and free-agent Will Demps (San Diego State). Reed is tied with linebacker Ray Lewis for the club lead in interceptions (2). Punter Dave Zastudil (Round 4, Ohio) is placing 41.7 percent of his punts (15 of 36) inside the 20-yard line.
Pittsburgh: Wide receiver-kick returner Antwaan Randle El (Round 2, Indiana) is third in the AFC with a 27.8-yard kickoff-return average, including a 99-yard return for a touchdown in Week 6. A quarterback in all but one game in college, Randle El has 20 catches for 243 yards (12.2 avg.) and has rushed nine times for 68 yards (7.6 avg.). Guard Kendall Simmons (Round 1, Auburn) has started every game since Week 2 and linebacker Larry Foote (Round 4, Michigan) has drawn solid reviews from Pittsburgh head coach Bill Cowher. Wide receiver Lee Mays (Round 6, UTEP) has excelled on special teams by returning 14 kickoffs for a 22.3 average.
San Francisco: Seventh-round pick Eric Heitmann has moved into the starting lineup at left guard, helping the club average 5.4 yards per rush, tied with Kansas City for the best in the NFL. First-round draft choice Mike Rumph has seen action in every game at cornerback.
You want offense? This game promises more scoring than the Mustang Ranch. These teams rank 1-2 in total offense (Oak., 433.8 yards; K.C., 390.4) and scoring (K.C., 34.1 points; Oak., 32.7). Expect this trend to continue: Six of the past seven meetings have been decided by seven points or less.
While the teams meet for the eighth consecutive season (longest active streak among non-division rivals), the subplot is a matchup of former Michigan QBs -- Denver's Brian Griese and New England's Tom Brady. They will be facing the AFC's top two defenses: No. 1 Broncos and No. 2 Patriots.
Keep an eye on two players: New York DE Michael Strahan aims for his fourth consecutive multi-sack game vs. Eagles (has 8.0 sacks of Eagles QB Donovan McNabb, most of any QB he's faced). McNabb is 2-0 on Monday Night Football with a 93.6 passer rating (41 of 64, 446 yards, 3 TDs, 1 INT).
Emmitt Watch Emmitt Smith's quest for the all-time rushing record may conclude at Texas Stadium. Through seven games, the Cowboys RB has 447 yards and is now 93 yards shy of breaking Walter Payton's mark of 16,726. Dallas plays host to Seattle on Sunday; Smith has averaged 63.7 ypg vs. the Seahawks.
Through seven weeks of the season, there have been 16 individual 150-yard rushing games, compared to nine at this point last season. At this pace, there would be a record 40 150-yard rushing games this year, topping the previous high of 29 in 2000.
Yada, yada, yada
"It's hard to cover speed. You can do so many different things to stop a run game, but when you have speed, it's hard to cover and stop. You can put two guys on him, and if he runs right through the coverage, the fast guy wins. He thinks he can make any play." -- Texans QB David Carr on WR Corey Bradford.
CNNSI.com's Richard Harris notes Denver QB Brian Griese had his fourth consecutive 300-yard game, and also has thrown for at least one touchdown in 22 games in a row. Even better, TE Shannon Sharpe is becoming a more viable threat; 12 catches, 214 yards, two TDs vs. K.C. They are just two of the players whose stock is rising. For more insider info, check out this week's Tip Sheet.
André Davis, WR, Cleveland 2002 stats: 21 catches, 266 yards, 4 TDs
Davis, a second-round draft pick from Virginia Tech is tied for the rookie lead in receiving touchdowns (4) and stands third among rookies in receptions (21).
In addition to his offensive duties, Davis is contributing on special teams. He has 19 kickoff returns for 475 yards (25.0 avg.) and one touchdown.
At Virginia Tech, Davis was a three-year starter at flanker and also excelled on the track team, serving as the anchor on the 4x100-meter relay in addition to running the 200-meter dash. He is third on the school's career list with 1,986 yards receiving and 103 catches.
Davis' 18 career TD catches rank second to Antonio Freeman (22, 1991-94). Davis also holds the Hokies' all-time records with 872 yards and a 15.8-yard average on 55 punt returns. His four punt-return TDs tied the school mark first set by Frank Loria (1965-67).
I would want Marv Levy to have one more chance at the big one. With all those heartaches, maybe he'd motivate the guys to play to their real level. Jonny -- Tampa, Fla.
First impulse was Vince Lombardi. But when I gave it more thought, I think Hank Stram would do wonders with today's fast-paced NFL. Bill -- New Orleans
Year in and year out, Bill Cowher loses a star defender and still has a premiere defense. You gotta respect that. I'd like to see him win a few. Berto -- Sparta, N.J.
Even though I am not a Chargers fan, I would like to see Marty Shottenheimer win the big one just once. He is an accomplished coach who has taken so many good teams to the playoffs but just didn't finish the deal. (John Elway and Jim Kelly had a lot to do with that!) He's got something brewing there in Chargerland with Brees and Tomlinson so maybe he'll get another shot shortly. Silva -- Springdale, Ark.
Bud Grant had four chances, but he deserves a ring! Purple People Eaters rule! Real men don't wear long sleeves and underwear! Thom -- Denver
Even when his team was losing, Don Coryell, former head coach of the Chargers, created excitement with his passion for the passing game. He was a master of the pass attack offense. Only Cincinnati's freezing winter weather stopped Coryell's QB, Dan Fouts, from winning the AFC Championship Game more than two decades ago and giving his coach a chance to win a Super Bowl. I am still in mourning. Jim -- San Diego
Jim Haslett is the toughest and most resourceful coach in the NFL. Seeing what he has been able to do with the players available in his three years with the Saints, he has to be considered one of th best and most underrated coaches in the game. Even with their 6-1 record against a tough schedule so far this year, coach Haslett and the Saints are not recieving the attention or the merit they deserve. Guy -- New Orleans
I would like to see Tony Dungy get his shot at winning the Super Bowl for two reasons: 1) He's a class act and a great coach; 2) I think black coaches do not get a shot at the head coaching jobs because of a perceived lack of success in the playoffs (Art Shell, Denny Green, Ray Rhodes, etc). Dungy deserves a Super Bowl win, and black coaches deserve to get another silly stereotype shot down in flames. Rick -- San Diego
I'll take Buddy Ryan every day of the week. He may lose, but heck it would be fun! Jeromy -- Philadelphia
Jim Mora coached teams that were good on one side of the ball. Maybe if he had balance on both sides it would have been different. Mike -- Secaucus, N.J.
John McKay -- Just think of all the great quotes leading up to the game. I'd also know to bet on the opposing team.... Steve -- Seattle
Dave McGinnis, just because nice guys shouldn't always finish last. Luke -- Lawrencetown, Nova Scotia
I would have loved to seen Chuck Knox win a Super Bowl. A coach who continuously took mediocre talent (with the exception of Steve Largent/Curt Warner/Kenny Easley/Jacob Green) to the playoffs derserves to win a Super Bowl. He transformed a laughingstock expansion team into a playoff contender. Since "Ground Chuck" left Seattle, the Seahawks reverted to perennial losers. Sean -- San Diego
Bum Phillips -- Class guy and a great coach. His players would run through a wall for him. But he had the misfortune of running into the Steelers in the playoffs every year. Kevin, Huntsville, Texas
George Halas, although, I'm not sure he would accept the "Lombardi" Trophy, unless it was temporarily renamed! Pete -- Davenport, Iowa
This week's topic: Should the NFL rotate the Super Bowl throughout the 31 league stadiums -- regardless of weather?