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NFL Midseason Report: 2009

The NFL's 256-game regular season is half gone (actually 50.4 percent, but who's counting?) You know the drill. It's midseason review time...

Story of the year -- Brett Favre is fantastic as a Viking: Nobody has bemoaned the never-ending Favre retirement melodrama more than me, but you have to hand it to the old goat; he has played his 40-year-old keister off in Minnesota. Two pressure-packed wins over Green Bay, a 16-to-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio, a 106.0 passer rating that is just a hair behind the league-leading Drew Brees (106.1), and a 68.0 completion percentage? Are you kidding me? What more could Brad Childress and his 7-1, first-place Vikings have wanted?Kudos to: The high-octane 8-0 Saints; the league's elite crop of quarterbacks having monster years.

Trend of the year -- It's a rich-man, poor-man's league: There were five teams that won just once in the season's first half: St. Louis, Detroit, Tampa Bay, Kansas City and Cleveland. Three more won only two games: Tennessee, Washington and Oakland. On the flip side of the awful eight were the elite eight. Five teams made it through the first half with just two losses: New England, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Denver and Dallas. Three more were either unbeaten or beaten just once: Indianapolis, New Orleans and Minnesota. That's 16 teams, or half the league, that were either living large, or barely breathing.Kudos to: The struggles faced by new head coaches; the very limited success of the Wildcat formation in year two.

Most overhyped storyline -- The return of Michael Vick: Let's just call this the Much Ado About Nothing award. Vick's return to the NFL in an Eagles uniform inspired reams of breathless coverage by almost every media platform other than the Food Network, but it has produced zilch in the way of on-field impact. Vick has passed for six yards, and rushed for 27. That's it. Thirty-three yards in his six games of action, or 5.5 per game. But he does lead the league in sit-down interviews with the NFL's various TV partners.Kudos to: The trade of Jay Cutler to Chicago; and the rise of the Rex Ryan-led Jets.

Most overlooked storyline: The Colts are undefeated, again: Maybe it's because Indy has started 8-0 in three of the past five seasons now, and we bore easily. But where's the love for a Colts team that has been perfect despite breaking in a new head coach (Jim Caldwell), is on a 17-game regular-season winning streak, and is getting it done without a running game, Marvin Harrison, or much in the way of healthy veterans in the secondary? Perhaps it's because Indy has beaten just two teams that currently have a winning record (Arizona and Houston).Kudos to: The first-place Cowboys; and no in-season head coaching changes so far.

Best Division -- AFC North: The Bengals and Steelers are rolling at 6-2, and the Ravens remain dangerous at 4-4, even if their defense has been a major disappointment.Kudos to: The NFC East, which features three winning teams, albeit with the Giants swooning.

Worst Division -- NFC West: The 5-3 Cardinals are the only team with a winning record, and after a strong 3-1 start, the 49ers have dropped four in a row and re-joined the ranks of the stragglers in the division (Seahawks 3-5, Rams 1-7).Kudos to: So much for the notion that the NFC North is the new power division. The Vikings are the only winning team, and the Packers, Bears and Lions have all been disappointing.

Best performance under the gun -- Tony Romo, QB, Dallas: They were all but writing Romo's obituary after a Week 4 loss at Denver dropped Dallas to 2-2, with seemingly every former Cowboys star shy of Duane Thomas coming out of the woodwork to critique the quarterback's inconsistent game. But one four-game winning streak later, the first-place Cowboys are being led to some pretty big things by their efficient (one interception in four games), big-play-making quarterback.Kudos to: Ben Roethlisberger not letting his off-field issues affect his game; Donovan McNabb blocking out all the Michael Vick chatter.

Sideshow of the year -- Jim Zorn loses his play-calling duties to a bingo caller:Sherman Lewis probably doesn't deserve all the cheap-shot jokes about the bingo game he led at a retirement home, but who can resist? The Redskins stripped Zorn of everything but his humanity, then sent him back out there to play the role of their head coach for a few more months.Kudos to: The Browns' George Kokinis-Eric Mangini disaster; the lingering ramifications of the Tom Cable-Randy Hanson bout in Oakland.

Statistic of the year -- Tom Brady throws for an NFL-record five touchdown passes in the second quarter: In that 59-0 Week 6 Patriots beatdown of the Titans, Brady looked like a kid playing in the snow at recess, telling his buddies to go long and then tossing them touchdown passes as easy as one, two, three, four and five.Kudos to: Brett Favre has three games this season with as at least three touchdown passes and no interceptions, and two of them came against Green Bay (a combined seven touchdowns and no picks).

Comeback of the year: Saints 46, Dolphins 34, Week 7: New Orleans trailed Miami 24-3 late in the second quarter and looked destined to lose its first game of the season. But the Saints improved to 6-0 by scoring 43 of the final 53 points, including 36 in the second half, and 22 in the final quarter. New Orleans entered play having not trailed all season, and wound up scoring at least 45 points for the fourth time in six games.Kudos to: Patriots 25, Bills 24, Week 1; Vikings 27, 49ers 24, Week 3.

Game of the year: Broncos 20, Patriots 17, OT: Besides the intriguing backdrop of rookie Broncos head coach Josh McDaniels beating his mentor, Bill Belichick, in their first head-to-head battle of wits, the game had plenty more. For starters, Denver wore those hideous brown and mustard-colored throwback uniforms, and that made it memorable enough. But Kyle Orton leading a game-tying, 98-yard fourth-quarter touchdown drive and Matt Prater kicking the game-winning 41-yard overtime field goal were the highlights for Denver, which improved to 5-0, prompting a post-game love-fest between McDaniels and his former nemesis, receiver Brandon Marshall.Kudos to: Vikings 27, 49ers 24, Week 3; Dolphins 31, Jets 27, Week 5.

Stinker of the year: Browns 6, Bills 3, Week 5: The less said about this one the better, but the NFL's only touchdown-less game this year turned on a Roscoe Parrish muffed punt return with less than three minutes left. It gave the woeful Browns the ball at the Bills 16, and kicker Billy Cundiff eventually made an 18-yard field goal with 26 seconds remaining. The game was mind-boggling bad. It represented the Bills' absolute nadir, and it's all that has kept Cleveland from making a real run at 0-16.Kudos to: Patriots 59, Titans 0, Week 6; Seahawks 41, Jaguars 0, Week 5.

• Upset of the year -- Raiders 13, Eagles 9, Week 6: If Philadelphia should miss the playoffs by just a game, this is the one the Eagles will look back on and regret. Philadelphia punted eight times, allowed six sacks and managed just three David Akers field goals against a Raiders team that had been dismantled by the Giants at the Meadowlands the previous week. In improving to 2-4, the Raiders actually resembled an NFL team, getting the best game of the year from quarterback JaMarcus Russell (224 yards, one touchdown).Kudos to: Bills 16, Jets 13, OT, Week 6; Jets 16, Patriots 9, Week 2.

Play of the year: Offense -- The Brett Favre to Greg Lewis game-winning, 32-yard laser in Week 3: It was the moment when we first realized something special might be in store this year for Favre in Minnesota. Lewis had barely played all day, but there he was in the back of the end zone, tight-roping the backline and making a catch for the ages with two seconds to go against the stunned 49ers. Alas, San Francisco had been Favred.

Play of the year: Defense -- Ray Lewis drops Darren Sproles in the backfield in Week 2: Protecting a five-point lead with 33 seconds to go and San Diego facing a fourth-and-2 at the Ravens 15, the Baltimore middle linebacker read the Chargers play call perfectly and shot the gap to drop Sproles for a 5-yard loss and the game-sealing play. Lewis later called it one of the greatest plays of his Hall of Fame-level career.

Best bounce-back by a losing team -- Cincinnati Bengals: After 14 weeks of the 2008 season, the Bengals were 1-11-1, Carson Palmer had been long lost with a season-ending injury, and nobody liked head coach Marvin Lewis's chances to survive into a seventh year in the Queen City. But the Bengals rallied to win their final three games of '08, and the turnaround has continued this year with a 6-2 start -- the franchise's best in 21 years -- and a share of first place in the AFC North.Kudos to: No one. There is no other winning team that had a losing record last year.

Worst impression of a playoff team -- Tennessee Titans: The Titans started 10-0 last season, and went 13-3, earning the AFC's homefield advantage in the playoffs. But that seemed like ancient history this year when Tennessee started 0-6, losing the last of those 59-0 in the snow of New England. The Titans have rallied to two straight wins, but Jeff Fisher's talent-laden club still stands as the most disappointing team of the NFL season.Kudos to: Green Bay, which is 4-4 after being picked by many (me included) to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.

Biggest move that didn't matter -- Big money for big Albert Haynesworth: The Redskins were going to finish last in the NFC East without Haynesworth, the prize of last year's free-agency class, and they're going to finish last with him. So why would Washington give him $100 million over seven years, including $41 million guaranteed? Because it's what the Redskins do. They win free agency, and lose during the regular season. Kudos to: Chicago trades for Jay Cutler and is still a .500 team; and Seattle signs T.J. Houshmandzadeh in free agency, to little impact.

Quirk of the year -- The NFL is Payton/Peyton's place: The Saints and the Colts are the last two undefeated teams in the league this season, and they both can thank a guy named Payton (or Peyton) for that. What are the odds of Saints head coach Sean Payton leading his team into the Super Bowl against the Colts and quarterback Peyton Manning? They're getting better all the time.

Flat joke of the year -- Jeff Fisher wearing a Colts jersey two days after his Titans fell to 0-6 with that 59-0 laugher at New England: Saying he just "wanted to feel like a winner,'' Fisher took off his shirt to reveal a Peyton Manning No. 18 jersey at a charity event with ex-Colts head coach Tony Dungy. The gag generated guffaws in the room, but mostly venom outside of it, given the sorry state of his team's season at that juncture. You know what they say about comedy, Coach. Timing is everything.Kudos to: Any and all quotes emanating from Dolphins linebacker Joey Porter.

Development we could have done without -- Throwback Uniforms become the norm, not the exception: Look, I'm a big old uniform guy. Love them. Grew up on them. But when is enough, enough? I can't remember what the Jets' real uniforms look like. My TV hasn't been the same since Denver debuted those '72 Padres knockoffs. And I can't help but think the Titans started playing like the old, hapless Oilers when they looked up and saw those oil derricks on their helmets. Kudos to: That Favre-cam that recorded everything No. 4 did at Green Bay except for his pre-game bathroom break.

Best post-game tirade -- Rex Ryan lets his Jets defense have it after a Week 5 loss at Miami: You knew Rex was going to be good after a tough loss, but he went above and beyond for us all after New York's 31-27 Monday-night defeat at the hands of the Dolphins. He called his defense's efforts "a complete embarrassment,'' noted that his guys made Miami second-year quarterback Chad Henne "look like Dan Marino,'' circled back to make sure we knew it was "a horrendous day'' for the New York defense, and wrapped up by saying he was "kind of at a loss for words with our defensive performance.'' Oh, no you weren't.Kudos to: Seattle head coach Jim Mora, for strafing Seahawks kicker Olindo Mare after a Week 3 loss at home to Chicago.

Best supporting role by a player we didn't think would be willing to play a supporting role -- Chad Ochocinco: At some point when we weren't looking, Chad Ochocinco morphed into the kind of positive, team-oriented player we never really thought possible of him after his mostly malcontent act of 2008. The Bengals chatty receiver is part of the solution rather than part of the problem in Cincinnati, and whether it's his Twittering ways, his gifts sent to enemy defensive backs, or his "bribing'' of NFL game officials, he's both relevant and productive again. Kudos to: It's early, but Vince Young appears to be pulling off a bit of a career rehab for himself in Tennessee.

Story that didn't turn out like we thought it would -- Brandon Marshall prospers in Denver under Josh McDaniels: C'mon, let's all just admit it. We were positive a train wreck was coming this season, except it never arrived. Marshall and McDaniels are not only co-existing in Denver, they're thriving together. So much for the trend of NFL diva receivers who shoot their way out of town. Kudos to: Kyle Orton gets booed out of Denver (not); and Terrell Owens blows up Buffalo's locker room.

Most Valuable Player -- Peyton Manning, QB, Indianapolis: There is absolutely no wrong answer when it comes to choosing between the seasons being turned in by Manning, and his fellow quarterbacks Drew Brees and Brett Favre. While Brees has had my vote for most of the season's first half, it's impossible not to notice that Manning has been equally spectacular. He's done so without the existence of a Colts running game and his receiving corps doesn't match the one Brees has at his disposal.Kudos to: Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans; Brett Favre, QB, Minnesota.

Offensive Player -- Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans: Brees has been the consummate trigger man for an offense that has scored a league-high 303 points -- 59 more than its nearest competitor (Minnesota). He leads the NFL in touchdown passes (17), passer rating (106.1) and absolutely refusing to allow his team to lose. Simply put, Brees played his position as well as anyone in the league in the season's first half.Kudos to: Peyton Manning, QB, Indianapolis; Chris Johnson, RB, Tennessee.

Defensive Player -- Darren Sharper, FS, New Orleans: Denver outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil and Minnesota defensive end Jared Allen have been superb, but no one has impacted his team's performance more so than the 34-year-old Sharper, who has picked off passes in five of the Saints' eight games, and returned three of his league-leading seven interceptions for touchdowns (with a 45.3-yard average return). Sharper's presence as the Saints centerfielder has been the key ingredient in New Orleans's transformation into an opportunistic, takeaway-minded defense.Kudos to: Elvis Dumervil, OLB, Denver; Jared Allen, DE, Minnesota.

Offensive Rookie -- Percy Harvin, WR/KR, Minnesota: The ex-Gator has quickly turned into the X factor in Minnesota, providing an electrifying big-play potential to the Vikings offense and kickoff return unit. Harvin already has a pair of kick return touchdowns -- the first Viking to record more than one in a season -- and he's becoming one of Favre's favorite targets in the passing game as well, with 28 catches for a 13.2-yard average, with three touchdowns.Kudos to: Mark Sanchez, QB, N.Y. Jets; Michael Oher, OT, Baltimore.

Defensive Rookie -- Brian Cushing, OLB, Houston: As difficult as it is to overlook Buffalo safety Jairus Byrd, whose seven interceptions are tied for the league lead, Cushing's play has been a difference-maker for 5-4 Houston. He's second in the league in tackles with 78, and his two interceptions, 1½ sacks, two forced fumbles and one safety has helped lift the Texans into playoff contention.Kudos to: Jairus Byrd, FS, Buffalo; James Laurinaitis, MLB, St. Louis.

Comeback Player -- Tom Brady, QB, New England: He may not be back to his other-worldly 2007 form just yet, but Brady is starting to look like his old self more each week after missing 2008 with knee surgery. He's thrown for 1,020 yards and 10 touchdowns in the course of New England's three-game winning streak, with three consecutive 300-yard games. His 16 touchdowns and five interceptions are identical to Peyton Manning's numbers, and his 99.2 passer rating ranks sixth in the NFL.Kudos to: Carson Palmer, QB, Cincinnati; Brett Favre, QB, Minnesota.

Coach -- Marvin Lewis, Cincinnati: Had the Broncos beaten visiting Pittsburgh Monday night to get to the midpoint at 7-1, I was prepared to go with Denver rookie head coach Josh McDaniels, whose 6-0 start caught the entire league by surprise after the tumult he endured in spring and summer. But in a tougher division, Lewis has done just as much with his 6-2 Bengals, guiding them to first-place record and a 4-0 mark in the AFC North, with a combined three wins over Baltimore and Pittsburgh. After that opening-day heartbreaker against McDaniels' Broncos, Cincinnati has won six of seven.Kudos to: Josh McDaniels, Denver; Jim Caldwell, Indianapolis.

Assistant coach of the year -- Gregg Williams, Defensive coordinator, New Orleans: So many good choices on this front, with Williams, Denver defensive coordinator Mike Nolan and Cincinnati defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer all doing great things for first-place teams. But I'm going with the job Williams has done in turning the Saints into an aggressive, takeaway-minded defense that is no longer a drag on the team's high-powered offense. The Saints had defensive talent on hand, they just didn't have the scheme or the mentality that worked. With Williams around, that's no longer a problem.Kudos to: Mike Zimmer, defensive coordinator, Cincinnnati; Mike Nolan, defensive coordinator; Denver.

Free-agent signing of the year -- Darren Sharper, FS, New Orleans: How do you do better than adding the play-making Sharper to the Saints defense for a measly $1.7 million, one-year contract? He's been the glue to a Saints secondary that has let New Orleans down in recent years, and his big-play touch has been unrivaled.Kudos to: Brett Favre, QB, Minnesota; Brian Dawkins, S, Denver.

Breakout player of the year -- Miles Austin, WR, Dallas: Who needs T.O.? Not the Cowboys. Not when they've got M.A. In the four starts he has made since replacing Patrick Crayton in the Dallas lineup, Austin has exploded for six touchdowns, almost all of them of the long ball variety.Kudos to: Mike Sims-Walker, WR, Jacksonville; Vernon Davis, TE, San Francisco.

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