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NFL Midseason Report: 2011

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.

• MOST OVER-HYPED STORYLINE -- The Eagles are a Dream Team: Hey, don't blame us. Vince Young said it. We just took the label and used it to bash Philly over the head for the next 10 weeks or so. It's what we do. If it rhymes, we're going to belabor it (see: Suck for Luck).

-- Kudos to: Albert Haynesworth and Chad Ochocinco take their baggage to New England and learn the Patriot Way. OK, then what happened? Best we can tell, not too much. Not too much at all.

• MOST OVERLOOKED STORYLINE -- The Bengals are contenders: Buoyed by their Mike Zimmer-coached defense and that boffo rookie QB-receiver combination of Andy Dalton and A.J. Green, 5-2 Cincinnati has already topped its 2010 win total of four and is breathing down the neck of first-place Pittsburgh (6-2) in the AFC North. Did anyone see this coming? Not me. I picked the Bengals to be the worst team in the NFL this season and win the Andrew Luck sweepstakes. And adding to their hot streak, Bengals owner Mike Brown might have executed the steal of the century (at least the new one) by shipping Carson Palmer to the desperate Raiders.

-- Kudos to: The regression by St. Louis and second-year quarterback Sam Bradford . The Rams were a widely popular pick to win the NFC West, and win it handily. But St. Louis didn't earn its first victory until Week 8, and the besieged Bradford at times has looked like he's taking the David Carr career track.

• BIGGEST MOVE THAT DIDN'T MATTER -- Kevin Kolb lands in Arizona: The Cardinals won the bidding for the former Eagles backup/starter/backup, but that's about all they've won this year. Kolb so far has been more Scott Mitchell and Rob Johnson than Matt Schaub or Matt Cassel, and the more he plays, the more his flaws seem to be exposed.

-- Kudos to: How'd that Donovan McNabb acquisition in Minnesota work out? About the same as it did in Washington.

• BEST MOVE OF THE YEAR -- Jim Harbaugh makes nice with Alex Smith: It would have been easy for the 49ers' new head coach to decide Smith's days were done after six mostly desultory seasons. But he didn't throw the former No. 1 overall pick out with the trash, he wooed him instead, and then turned the keys to his offense over to Smith. The results have been eye-opening. The 49ers are 6-1 and cruising to the NFC West title, and Smith is playing the best football of his career.

-- Kudos to: The Buffalo Bills' brain trust, for resisting the urge to draft a first- or second-round quarterback this year. The Bills believed in Ryan Fitzpatrick, and the rest of us have come around pretty quickly to the wisdom of that stance.

• BEST INDIVIDUAL PERFORMANCE OF THE YEAR -- DeMarco Murray "Wally Pipps'' Felix Jones: The Cowboys rookie running back made the most of the first extended playing time of his NFL career, rushing for a franchise record 253 yards on 25 carries in a Week 7 rout of the Rams. Duane Thomas, Tony Dorsett and Emmitt Smith never had a game like that, and Murray's 91-yard touchdown burst was the second-longest in Cowboys history.

-- Kudos to: Cam Newton becoming the first rookie quarterback to throw for 400 yards in his NFL regular season debut. Newton had 422 yards on 24 of 37 passing, with two touchdowns and one interception in a 28-21 Week 1 loss at Arizona.

• UNDERAPPRECIATED STATISTIC OF THE YEAR -- The long-distance field goal craze: You probably haven't noticed it, but field goals of 50 yards-plus are all the rage this season, and we're not just talking about Oakland's thunder-footed Sebastian Janikowski. Through eight weeks, there have already been 45 field goals of at least 50 yards, the most ever at that point (there were 36 through eight weeks of 2010). The single-season record is 66, set in 2008, but the league is on a pace for 96 this year, obliterating the previous standard. In Week 5 alone, kickers went 10 of 10 on field goals of 50 yards or more, the most ever made in any one week.

-- Kudos to: Where have all the overtimes gone? There have only been four games that went into OT this year, and that's the league's lowest eight-week total since 2007. In 2010, there were twice as many overtime games through eight weeks (eight), and 19 games went to OT all season. The NFL is on pace for nine overtime games this season, which would be its lowest total since 1998 (seven).

• MOST VALUABLE PLAYER -- Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay: Can't be much MVP debate this year. Rodgers is playing in a league of his own so far, with 20 touchdown passes, three interceptions and seven consecutive games with a passer rating of at least 111.0. His overall passer rating of 125.7 is more than 20 points higher than the QB in second place in that department, Tom Brady. My MVP standard is always who's the best player on the best team, and that's a no-brainer in Rodgers' favor.

-- Kudos to: Calvin Johnson, WR, Detroit.-- My preseason pick: Rodgers.

• OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR -- Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay: As much as I respect the dual-purpose talents of Chicago running back and the receiving machine that is Detroit's Calvin Johnson, Rodgers is again a lay-up choice. His 71.5 completion percentage, 9.9-yard average attempt, and five games with three or more touchdown passes make him the game's most potent offensive weapon.

-- Kudos to: Matt Forte, RB, Bears; Calvin Johnson, WR, Detroit.-- My preseason pick: Rodgers.

• DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR -- Jared Allen, DE, Minnesota: Allen's monster season is getting overlooked to some degree due to the Vikings' struggles, but he has been a play-making force with a league-best 12.5 sacks, three forced fumbles, one interception and four passes defensed. And Allen has been consistent, with at least a half-sack in each of his eight games, and four games with multiple sacks.

-- Kudos to: DeMarcus Ware, OLB, Dallas; Patrick Willis, MLB, San Francisco.-- My preseason pick: Ndamukong Suh, DT, Detroit.

• OFFENSIVE ROOKIE OF THE YEAR -- Cam Newton, QB, Carolina: Newton is averaging almost 300 yards passing a game, with 11 touchdown passes, seven rushing touchdowns, and a respectable 87.1 passer rating. You have to give Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton the edge in terms of winning, because the Bengals are 5-2 and the Panthers are 2-6, but Newton's impact has simply created more offense than any other rookie.

-- Kudos to: Andy Dalton, QB, Cincinnati.-- My preseason pick: Julio Jones, WR, Atlanta.

• DEFENSIVE ROOKIE OF THE YEAR -- Von Miller, OLB, Denver: With six sacks, 26 tackles, two forced fumbles and two passes defensed, the No. 2 overall pick in the draft has been what the Broncos hoped he'd be. Right there with Miller in terms of first-year impact is 49ers linebacker Aldon Smith, who has 6.5 sacks, 13 tackles, a safety, one forced fumble and three passes defensed.

-- Kudos to: Aldon Smith, LB, San Francisco.-- My preseason pick: Von Miller, OLB, Denver.

• COMEBACK PLAYER OF THE YEAR -- Alex Smith, QB, San Francisco: Through seven games last year, Smith had nine touchdowns and nine interceptions, and the 49ers were 1-6. Through seven games this year, Smith has nine touchdowns, two interceptions, and the 49ers are 6-1. He has career highs so far in completion percentage (63.2), yards per attempt (7.0), and passer rating (95.7).

-- Kudos to: Matthew Stafford, QB, Detroit.

• COACH OF THE YEAR -- Jim Harbaugh, San Francisco: Interestingly, Harbaugh gets the nod over Detroit's Jim Schwartz based on the outcome of their hotly-contested meeting in Week 6 in Motown. No, not the one involving the handshake after the game. The one the 49ers won on the field, just before the handshake gone bad. Both coaches are leading turnaround teams that will make the playoffs, but Harbaugh's 6-1, first-place showing barely edges Schwartz's 6-2, second-place results.

-- Kudos to: Jim Schwartz, Detroit.-- My preseason pick: Jim Schwartz, Detroit.

• COORDINATOR OF THE YEAR: Mike Zimmer, Cincinnati defensive coordinator: Despite losing standout cornerback Johnathan Joseph in free agency, Zimmer has pieced together a Bengals defense that ranks fourth overall in yards allowed (297.4), fourth in points allowed (17.6), second in rushing (85.4), and has given up just six touchdown passes, third lowest in the league. The Bengals D is the biggest reason Cincinnati is a surprising 5-2.

-- Kudos to: Wade Phillips, Houston defensive coordinator.

• ASSISTANT COACH OF THE YEAR: Sean Kugler, Pittsburgh offensive line coach: Kugler is doing superb work once again despite a bevy of injuries to deal with, just as he did last season when the Steelers' injury-decimated offensive line still managed to hold together long enough for the team's run to the Super Bowl.

-- Kudos to: Gary Gibbs, Kansas City linebackers coach.

• EXECUTIVE OF THE YEAR: Buddy Nix, Buffalo general manager: Nix hired Chan Gailey last year, drafted defensive tackle Marcell Dareus this year, and has built a talented offense around lightly regarded players such as quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, running back Fred Jackson, receiver Stevie Johnson, tight end Scott Chandler and receiver David Nelson. The Bills have responded with a breakthrough season so far, and are 5-2 and tied with New England for first in the AFC East.

-- Kudos to Ted Thompson, Green Bay general manager.

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