Wednesday October 29th, 2008

Two months down, two months to go in a NFL regular season that has defied conventional wisdom even more than most. You know the drill. It's midseason review time...

Most over-hyped storyline: Anything having to do with Brett Favre. Look, no one's saying that when a beloved league icon who happens to be the NFL's career touchdown pass leader un-retires and switches teams it isn't news. But I would like to point out the following: Without Favre last season, the Jets finished in third place in the AFC East. With Favre this season, the Jets are in third place in the AFC East. And that's without you-know-who playing quarterback in New England this year.

Most overlooked storyline: The undefeated Tennessee Titans. It's remarkable to think that it only took the Titans eight weeks to build a four-game lead over the other three teams in the AFC South -- a division that last year featured three playoff teams and no clubs with losing records. Not only is Tennessee the NFL's lone unbeaten entering November, but the well-balanced Titans feature the league's toughest defense to score against (12.4 points per game) and the NFL's fourth-best run game (145.0 yards per game). And they've done it all with their backup quarterback taking over full time since Week 2.

Sideshow of the year: The Al Davis press conference. It was like that scary, morbid, fascinating car crash we all slowed down and gawked at, but immediately felt a little sleazy for doing so. The Davis-Lane Kiffin divorce was a carnival event that went on far too long, but it did provide fascinating insight to the level of dysfunction, intrigue and paranoia existing in Oakland. And hey, who knew anyone still owned an overhead projector?

Story of the year: Tom Brady's knee injury. Though they won their opener against the Chiefs, the Patriots' attempt to duplicate their perfect regular season of 2007 effectively ended less than eight minutes into 2008. That's when No. 12 was felled by K.C.'s Bernard Pollard, setting off what I've already identified earlier this season as a seismic shift in terms of the league's balance of power. With no New England in the role of the NFL's Goliath, the league features a bunch of scrappy David's fighting it out. And it's kind of fun.

Trend of the year: The "Wildcat'' formation. Who needs quarterbacks? They're always getting hurt (or benched) anyway. The Dolphins, who have been trying without success to replace Dan Marino since 2000, are on to something here. Just snap the ball directly to running back Jim Thorpe, uh ... I mean, Ronnie Brown, and let him either run it, throw it, play-fake it to a motioning Ricky Williams, whatever. The single-wing formation that Pop Warner invented 101 years ago is restoring some fun to the No-Fun League. And it's getting copied left and right in the copycat NFL.

Best feel-good story of the year: Ending an error that was eight years in the making. The Lions finally fired team president/CEO Matt Millen after three games this season, making all of Detroit feel good. Millen, who was Detroit's most visible failure since the Edsel, had presided over Lions teams that went a staggering 31-84 (.270) since he took over the front office in 2001. But the Lions steadfastly refused to put him out of his misery until Bill Ford Jr., the son of team owner William Clay Ford, came out in favor of his firing at a meeting of the Detroit Economic Club.

Best player you don't know enough about, offense: Andre Johnson, Houston, WR. He piled up 103 catches for 1,147 yards as recently as 2006, so Johnson isn't an unknown quantity. But the Texans' relatively low national profile has kept him from getting sufficient pub. The guy has numbers that the other Texas-based No. 1 receiver -- the one and only T.O. -- would kill for. Johnson leads the league in receptions (56), receiving yardage (772), 100-yard games (five) and games with 10 catches or more (four). In October alone, he caught 41 passes for 593 yards and two touchdowns.

Best player you don't know enough about, defense: Nnamdi Asomugha, Oakland, CB. The Raiders have quite a collection of first-round misses, but that's one club that the sixth-year veteran Asomugha doesn't belong in. The guy that Oakland designated its franchise player last spring is so solid at his position that quarterbacks don't even throw it his way any more. He's had eight passes directed at him in seven games, with Favre the only guy foolish enough to try it twice in the same game (one completion for no yards). People within the league know how good Asomugha is, but the Raiders failures keep him from being widely hailed as the NFL's best cornerback.

Surprise team: Washington Redskins. The Giants made the Redskins look unprepared for prime time in their Thursday night season opener, but Washington is 6-1 since that Sept. 4 loss and just a half-game back in the NFL's toughest division top to bottom. Almost universally picked to finish last in the NFC East, the Redskins have already won at Dallas and Philadelphia, and they're 3-1 at home under first-year head coach Jim Zorn. This is a Washington team that doesn't beat itself, and gets big, game-changing plays out of its best players. When was the last time you could say that about the Redskins?

Worst impression of a playoff team: San Diego Chargers. When Brady went down in Week 1, the talent-laden Chargers should have stepped forward and seized their opportunity to own this year's AFC race. Instead, we've been treated to a San Diego team that seems adverse to prosperity, unable to conjure up the same level of intensity from week to week and prone to losing the close games (three losses by a total of eight points). I still say San Diego wins the weak AFC West for a third-consecutive season, and fourth in five years, but the Chargers seem to love doing things the hard way.

Best bounce-back by a losing team: Atlanta Falcons. With a tip of the hat to the early season successes of both the Dolphins and Ravens, nobody went through the almost unique hell of 2007 that Atlanta endured, with the Michael Vick and Bobby Petrino debacles book-ending its season. Despite playing a rookie quarterback, and hiring a rookie head coach and general manager, the Falcons matched their four-win total of last season in just six games, and they're a team that is not content to wait its turn and hope for respectability down the road.

Best performance while under the gun: Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay, QB. When the Favre un-retirement melodrama dragged on for weeks this summer and became the story that would not end, I figured it meant one way or another, Rodgers was toast in 2008. No way he could play and play well in Green Bay this year after Favre's bid for a triumphant return to Titletown was spurned. I didn't think he could keep Packers fans from looking back longingly at the Favre era, but he's done that and so much more. Despite playing with a sore shoulder part of the time, Rodgers has thrown 12 touchdowns and just four interceptions, with a stellar 98.8 rating and the cool efficiency of a seasoned pro.

Free agent signing of the year: Michael Turner, Atlanta, RB. Though his pace has dropped off in the Falcons' past two games, LaDainian Tomlinson's former backup still ranks third in the league in rushing with 655 yards in seven games. He has six touchdowns, a healthy 4.5-yard average run and three 100-yard-plus rushing games, which happen to coincide with three of Atlanta's four wins. His 220-yard showing in his Falcons debut against Detroit in Week 1 still stands as the NFL's best single-game rushing performance of the season.

Game of the year: Denver 39, San Diego 38, Week 2. Ed Hochuli may beg to differ, but for drama, plot twists, and a controversial finish, it's tough to beat the Broncos-Chargers thriller at Invesco Field. It had the gutsy game-deciding two-point conversion call by Denver coach Mike Shanahan, and the equally game-deciding botched premature whistle by referee Hochuli on the Jay Cutler late fourth-quarter fumble. And it featured a pair of quarterbacks who combined to throw for 727 yards and seven touchdowns in Cutler and San Diego's Philip Rivers.

Best performance in the face of tragedy: Matt Bryant, Tampa Bay, K. Playing just four days after his infant son, Tryson, died at home, the Bucs veteran kicker made three field goals and three extra points to help Tampa Bay to a 30-21 Week 4 win over visiting Green Bay. Bryant's 24-yard field goal with 2½ minutes to play gave the Bucs a 23-21 lead and kept Tampa Bay tied for the NFC South lead with Carolina at 3-1.

Biggest choke job of the year: Indianapolis 31, Houston 27, Week 5. The Texans dropped to 0-4 on the year by somehow losing a 27-10 lead in a 2:10 span late in the fourth quarter. The Texans' collapse was aided by two fumbles and an interception from backup quarterback Sage Rosenfels, who got the start due to Matt Schaub's pregame illness. The game was the Texans' long-delayed home opener after Hurricane Ike damaged the roof of Reliant Stadium.

Best post-game tirade: San Francisco's Mike Singletary, after a Week 8 loss to Seattle. Even though he tried to soften his remarks about 49ers tight end Vernon Davis the next day, Singletary's "Cannot play with them, cannot win with them, cannot coach with them'' rant was an instant classic. He may coach San Francisco for 20 years and never have a better moment than that bit of brutal honesty.

Cast-off of the year: Chad Pennington, Miami, QB. Jettisoned by the Jets after Favre arrived in New York with the fanfare of visiting royalty, Pennington quietly relocated to the division rival Dolphins and has proceeded to help Miami (3-4) to just one fewer win than the Jets. And impressive wins they have been, with the Dolphins beating New England on the road, the Chargers at home, and Buffalo at home.

Panic move of the year: Scott Linehan, St. Louis, head coach. Trying anything to desperately save his job, Linehan benched Rams starting quarterback Marc Bulger for a Week 4 home game against Buffalo, replacing him with veteran Trent Green. The move sparked a near locker-room mutiny in St. Louis, and didn't get results either. The Rams lost 31-14 to the Bills, and Linehan was fired the day after the game.

Beating of the year: The Eagles sacked Ben Roethlisberger eight times in Week 3. Philadelphia's 15-6 beat-down of Pittsburgh turned into an assault on Roethlisberger. The Steelers quarterback was dropped eight times, including once for a safety, and was hit at least another half dozen times after he released the ball. He finally left the game in the fourth quarter with a hand injury, allowing Philadelphia's swarming, blitz-happy defense to register a ninth sack, against Steelers backup Byron Leftwich.

Statistic of the year: Detroit's pass defense. The Lions pass defense ranks next-to-last in the NFL, allowing 258.7 yards per game. But that's not the mind-boggling part. Detroit has allowed six of the seven opposing quarterbacks it has faced to set career-high passer ratings against it, with all six of those quarterbacks posting a 117.0 or higher. The list goes from Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers at 117.0 to Atlanta's Matt Ryan at 137.0. The only exception to the rule was Minnesota's Gus Frerotte, who had to settle for throwing for 301 yards against Detroit.

Upset of the year: Miami 38, New England 13, Week 3. The winless Dolphins went into Gillette Stadium and thrashed the Patriots, snapping their NFL record 21-game regular-season winning streak. It was the first career win for Dolphins head coach Tony Sparano, and it came on the back of Miami's versatile Ronnie Brown, who scored four rushing touchdowns and threw for one -- with four of the scores coming on the Dolphins' "Wildcat'' formation.

Most Valuable Player: Drew Brees, New Orleans, QB. With great respect for what Washington running back Clinton Portis is doing these days, my vote goes to Brees, who remains on pace to break Dan Marino's single-season passing yardage record of 5,084 set in 1984. It's not Brees' fault defensive shortcomings still plague the 4-4 Saints. His 2,563 yards passing, 15 touchdown passes, and 101.6 QB rating proves to me that he's playing his position better than anyone else in the NFL.

Offensive player of the year: Clinton Portis, Washington, RB. Though I have my doubts that Portis can continue to carry so much of the load for the Redskins, you can't overlook the contributions of a running back who's leading the league in rushing by a whopping 260 yards, and averages 118.0 yards per game. Portis has scored in five of Washington's eight games, and he has at least 96 yards rushing in six of eight, including 121-plus in his last five.

Defensive player of the year: Albert Haynesworth, Tennessee, DT. The best player on the league's best defense is the simplest way to sum up Haynesworth's season thus far. He's a force both against the run and in his pass-rushing role, with a team-leading six sacks. The Titans are the NFL's only remaining unbeaten team, and they're giving up a league-low 12.4 points per game. The Colts on Monday night scored a garbage touchdown with 1:17 left, making them the first team to top 17 points against the Titans since Week 14 of last year.

Coach of the year: Jim Zorn, Washington. Can't say I remotely saw this coming for the Redskins, especially after their out-of-sync performance in Week 1 at the Giants. For a rookie head coach to not only compete but thrive in the rugged NFC East is no small feat. When you throw in the job that Zorn has done with quarterback Jason Campbell's still-evolving game, nobody in the NFL headset crowd has done better work.

Offensive rookie of the year: Matt Ryan, Atlanta, QB. There have been some great rookie rushers and receivers this year, but there's no harder position for a first-year player to succeed at than quarterback. Ryan and Baltimore's Joe Flacco have disproved the axiom that you can't win with rookie quarterbacks in the NFL, and the former Boston College star has been particularly impressive in terms of his steady and efficient first-half performances.

Defensive rookie of the year: Jerod Mayo, New England, LB. Playing inside linebacker as a rookie in Bill Belichick's 3-4 defense is a study in multi-tasking. Mayo has seamlessly fit into his complicated role and consistently shown up among the team's leading tacklers. The Patriots defense has yet to hit its stride, but Mayo's play has represented a big upgrade over last year's starter, Junior Seau.

Comeback player of the year: Joey Porter, Miami, LB. With Ronnie Brown returning so strong after last year's knee injury, the improved Dolphins have a couple early candidates for this honor. But Porter has a league-leading 10½ sacks in just seven games, tying his career high, and he's been a playmaking force for Miami's defense after looking like a free-agent bust in his first season with the Dolphins (just 5½ sacks in 2007).

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