We're about to make the turn and head into the second half of the NFL's 2010 schedule. You know the drill. Midseason review time...
• STORY OF THE YEAR -- High-speed collisions and their impact: In Week 6, high-profile hits dished out by the likes of New England safety Brandon Merriweather, Pittsburgh linebacker James Harrison and Atlanta safety Dunta Robinson set off a firestorm of criticism and alarm about what constitutes the acceptable level of contact in today's NFL. The league immediately added teeth to its rules concerning illegal hits to the head and neck area, threatening future suspension and issuing fines of $50,000 to $75,000 to the three aforementioned defenders. The whole saga sparked a raging, weeklong, national debate about the physical price the game exacts, and whether players or the league know what's best for football.-- Kudos to: The league's lack of an elite class in the season's first half, with upstart Kansas City being the last unbeaten at a modest 3-0.
• SIDESHOW OF THE YEAR -- Randy Moss keeps running go patterns: Moss just joined the Titans, his third team in the past five weeks, and that makes him the runaway leader for the league's Go-Away Player of the Year (as opposed to Comeback Player of the Year). Moss talked his way out of New England, then found he missed Foxboro so much he couldn't quite bring himself to leave it once his Vikings came for a visit in Week 8. For a guy who everyone agrees is a great teammate and game-changing talent, there never seems to be any shortage of folks who are willing to live without him.Kudos to: The Albert Haynesworth-Mike Shanahan power struggle in Washington, with all its many splendid twists of intrigue and ambiguity.
• BENCHING OF THE YEAR -- Calling Rex "Two-Minute'' Grossman!: We tend to react to benchings these days as if they were public beheadings -- which are clearly irreversible -- but it was difficult to overstate the impact of Mike Shanahan yanking Donovan McNabb late in the Redskins' Week 8 loss at Detroit to play Grossman, his long-forgotten and lightly-respected backup. Shanahan first cited Grossman's superior execution of Washington's two-minute offense, then switched to a discourse on the lack of McNabb's cardiovascular fitness. In other words, to play for Shanahan, you gotta have heart. Miles and miles of heart.Kudos to: Kevin Kolb takes a seat behind Michael Vick in Philadelphia in Week 4, right after Andy Reid reminded everyone that the recently-concussed Kolb was still his starter.
• MELTDOWN OF THE YEAR -- You need a ticket to get in: Watching the 1-6 Cowboys implode after spending all offseason talking up their intention to become the first team to play a Super Bowl on their own home field has been a Dallas hater's Mardi Gras. The only thing that has come close to matching the Cowboys' lack of discipline and execution has been their lack of determination and desire. Oh, and did we mention their glaring void on the leadership front? What a fun, whimsical Super Bowl week in the Metroplex it's going to be for Jerry Jones and friends.Kudos to: Brad Childress suddenly acquiring that reverse Midas touch in Minnesota, where his Super Bowl-or-bust Vikings (2-5, and tied for last in the NFC North) have reeled from one debacle to the next.
• WORST PERFORMANCE BY A LEADING MAN -- Missing Mississippi: Twice in the past three seasons, Brett Favre has lost in overtime of the NFC title game, and then failed to go out on that relative high note with his legacy intact. But he has never paid for his waffling ways when it comes to the retirement question quite like this season. He has absorbed some of the biggest hits of his career, and been routinely ridiculed and assailed. And that's just off the field, where the Jenn Sterger tabloid-fest continues to loom over his reputation. As his injury-riddled nightmare of a season unfolds, the 41-year-old Favre looks more and more like the guy who stayed too long at the party and spoiled a pretty good thing.Kudos to: The Redskins are better this season, but the Donovan-McNabb-as-savior storyline looks a little silly in the span of time.
• TREND OF THE YEAR -- Kicking game big-play impact: Right around Week 4 or so, one AFC general manager told me he couldn't remember a season in which so many big plays on special teams were helping decide the outcome of games. And then things got really crazy on that front. According to the Dallas Morning News, there were 63 "explosive plays'' on special teams in the first seven weeks of the season, meaning touchdown returns, blocked kicks or turnovers. That's up from 38 such plays over the equivalent seven-week span as recently as 2008.
PETER KING: Special teams are secret to this crazy season
According to the NFL's PR department, the 11 kickoff return touchdowns in the opening eight weeks is tied for the most in league history at that point in the season. And remember New England's Week 4 performance at Miami? The Patriots became the first team in NFL history to score touchdowns on a running play, passing play, interception return, kickoff return and blocked field goal in the 41-14 win, which prompted Dolphins head coach Tony Sparano to fire his special teams coach, John Bonamego, within 12 hours.Kudos to: The parity thing. A league-record 21 teams have .500 or better records through eight weeks. But maybe more telling in terms of how closely teams are clumped, 20 of those 21 teams have either four or five victories.
• STATISTIC OF THE YEAR -- New blood come January? Eight of the 10 teams that currently hold at least a share of first place in their divisions did not win their divisions last season. Six of the NFL's eight divisions have new leaders or new co-leaders. If those six finish the job, it would tie 2008 for the most new division winners ever. Only New England (6-1) in the AFC East and Indianapolis (5-2) would be repeat champions. The other six divisions feature Pittsburgh and Baltimore (both 5-2) atop the AFC North, Kansas City (5-2) leading the AFC West, the Giants (5-2) in first in the NFC East, the Packers (5-3) atop the NFC North, Atlanta and Tampa Bay (both 5-2) sharing the top of the NFC South, and Seattle (4-3) leading the NFC West.Kudos to: The Chargers have the NFL's top-ranked offense (426.9 ypg) and defense (260.0), and yet are 3-5, in large part due to special teams breakdowns. San Diego has had four punts blocked in eight games.
• GAME OF THE YEAR -- Falcons 27, Saints 24, OT, Week 3: Atlanta knocked off its arch division rival and the defending Super Bowl champions, silencing the Superdome when kicker Matt Bryant nailed a 46-yard field goal with less than two minutes remaining in overtime. The Saints were dangerously close to improving to 3-0 and knocking the Falcons to 1-2, but New Orleans kicker Garrett Hartley missed a 29-yard field goal wide left in overtime, giving Atlanta new life and the rest of the league hope that the Saints were indeed beatable. Quarterbacks Drew Brees and Matt Ryan combined for almost 600 yards of passing and five touchdowns.Kudos to: Texans 30, Redskins 27, OT, Week 2.
• EGG-LAYING OF THE YEAR -- Raiders 59, Broncos 14, Week 7: Oakland scored the game's first 38 points, all in the first 22 minutes, then cruised to the 45-point win before a stunned crowd at Denver's Invesco Field. It was the highest point total in the 51-season history of the Raiders franchise, and tied for the most points ever allowed by the Broncos in those same 51 seasons. Oakland rolled up 328 yards rushing, with Darren McFadden scoring four touchdowns. It dropped Josh McDaniels to 0-4 in division play at home in his two seasons on the job, and 4-13 overall since Denver opened last year a surprising 6-0.Kudos to: Seahawks 31, 49ers">49ers 6, Week 1.
• UPSET OF THE YEAR -- Browns 30, Saints 17, Week 7: Cleveland may not know how to build a playoff team, but the Browns know how to take out a defending Super Bowl champion on any given Sunday. For the third year in a row, Cleveland beat the guys who hoisted the trophy the season before, and this time it was the most convincing victory of all. The Browns intercepted Drew Brees four times, sacked him three times and returned two of the picks for touchdowns (both by veteran linebacker David Bowens). Cleveland improved to 2-5, and the Saints slipped to 4-3, dropping their second home game of the year after going 8-2 in the dome last season.Kudos to: Rams 20, Chargers 17, Week 6.
• MOST OVERHYPED STORYLINE -- Whatever will the Steelers do without Ben Roethlisberger? Umm, mainly win. During Roethlisberger's four-game league suspension, the Steelers went 3-1, losing only at home narrowly to Baltimore in Week 4. And the way Pittsburgh ran the ball and played defense, it didn't really matter who played quarterback in those games, although Charlie Batch and Dennis Dixon turned in some solid relief work.Kudos to: Andy Reid and the Eagles' season-long quarterback controversy, which seems mostly to be resolving itself week by week.
• MOST OVERLOOKED STORYLINE -- The Bucs are back: Tampa Bay started last year 1-12, and we were all wondering if rookie head coach Raheem Morris was overmatched and headed for a one-and-done experience as the team's front man. But the Bucs are 7-3 in their last 10 regular-season games, and this year's 5-2 start has them tied for the NFC South lead with Atlanta heading into Sunday's first-place showdown at the Georgia Dome. While we were all fixated on Mark Sanchez and Matthew Stafford last season, the other 2009 first-round quarterback, Josh Freeman, was getting better by the week.Kudos to: The disappearance of the Vikings' vaunted pass rush. Where have all the sacks gone, Jared Allen?
• BEST DIVISION -- AFC South: There's not a losing record in the division, and the Colts (5-2), Titans (5-3) and Texans (4-3) have all had their big, impressive victories this season. Even Jacksonville (4-4) can whip up on you if you're not careful. Isn't that right, Cowboys?Kudos to: AFC East, where the Patriots (6-1), Jets (5-2) and Dolphins (4-0 on the road) are all formidable.
• WORST DIVISION -- NFC West: A shocker, right? The entire division owns just one road win outside of head-to-head division play (Seattle won at Chicago), and the so-so Seahawks are the only team with a winning record at 4-3.Kudos to: NFC North, where the 5-3 Packers have underachieved but are still the only team that looks capable of making anything resembling a playoff run.
• WHINE OF THE YEAR -- Are we there yet? Like some 5-year-old in the back seat of his parents' car, new Giants safety Antrel Rolle, he of the multi-million dollar free-agent contract, actually complained about New York's travel schedule for a Week 2 trip to Indianapolis. Rolle said coach Tom Coughlin got the team to Indy too early for a Sunday night game, and there was too much waiting time before kickoff. Shut up and play football.Kudos to: Randy Moss disses the quality of the catered Vikings' team lunch last week. (And such small portions!).
• HE'S NO NOSTRADAMUS AWARD -- Jed York: After his team started this season 0-5, the 49ers team president sent a text to a media member predicting San Francisco would still win its division. No 0-5 team has ever dug out of that hole to make the playoffs, but the 49ers are 2-1 since York got his phone out. That still puts them 2½ games behind division-leading Seattle with eight games remaining for San Francisco. It's also worth noting that at the end of the 2008 season, upon removing the interim tag from head coach Mike Singletary's title, York guaranteed his team that it would make the playoffs in 2009. The 49ers went 8-8 and finished second.Kudos to: That 2,500-yard rushing season just ain't happening for Chris Johnson in Tennessee this year.
• NAME OF THE YEAR -- Mike Williams: Oh, to be young and an NFL receiver named Mike Williams in 2010. We've got two of them, you know. There's the new Mike Williams in Tampa Bay, and the old one in Seattle. The old one was a first-round flop in Detroit, but then he went away for a while, lost weight, and came back as a revelation with the first-place Seahawks.
The new Mike Williams has been quite a find as well for the first-place Bucs. Tampa Bay drafted him in the fourth round this year out of Syracuse, and he's leading all rookie wide receivers with 32 catches for 470 yards and four touchdowns. That's even better than the old Mike Williams, who has 33 catches for 375 yards and one touchdown in Seattle.Kudos to: The man they call Law Firm, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, the Patriots running back who has rushed for six touchdowns in their past five games.
• BIGGEST MOVE THAT DIDN'T MATTER -- Batman and Robin, foiled again: The Terrell Owens signing in Cincinnati certainly got Chad Ochocinco excited -- I can still see them both on that ESPN bus during training camp, smiling, laughing and practically giddy at their prospects -- but it hasn't really translated into wins. The Bengals are 2-5 after going 10-6 and winning the AFC North last season. The unstoppable Cincinnati passing game has been fairly stoppable, even though Owens has produced of late. Getting out of Buffalo looks like it was the right move for T.O., but just barely.Kudos to: Chester Taylor, Chicago. The Bears running back has 160 yards on 44 carries thus far. Yawn.
• BEST MOVE -- Different bird, same player: The Ravens gave up third- and fourth-round picks to get receiver Anquan Boldin from the Cardinals in March, and he's been everything and more than Baltimore could have wanted. Boldin is pacing the Ravens in receptions (38) and yards (518), with five touchdowns. He quickly became Joe Flacco's go-to target, and the Baltimore QB has targeted him 60 times in seven games. Boldin instantly upgraded a Ravens receiving corps that was the biggest weak link on Baltimore's Super Bowl-quality roster.Kudos to: LaDainian Tomlinson is a Jet, and New York's backfield is better for it. Who said L.T. was washed up at 31? (I did).
• THE LOOK OUT AWARD -- The Chicago Bears offensive line: In just seven games, the Bears beleaguered offensive line has given up an NFL-worst 31 sacks (eight more than anyone else) and 53 quarterback hits (also the league's most). Quarterback Jay Cutler has absorbed 27 of those sacks, including a staggering nine in the first half of a 17-3 loss at the Giants. To no surprise whatsoever, Cutler was knocked out of that game with a concussion. And it's not getting any better in Chicago. In Cutler's last three games, he has been dropped 19 times.Kudos to: Washington's offensive line, which has surrendered 23 sacks and 50 quarterback hits, second-most in the league in both categories. No wonder they're worried about Donovan McNabb's cardiovascular health. He's running for his life.
• INDIVIDUAL PERFORMANCE OF THE YEAR -- DeAngelo Hall becomes Jay Cutler's favorite receiver: The Redskins cornerback picked off Cutler four times in the second half of Washington's three-point win at Chicago in Week 7, returning one of those 92 yards for a touchdown. Afterward, Cutler was unbowed, saying he'd throw in Hall's direction the next time they played one another. If they let him play, that is.Kudos to: Houston running back Arian Foster shreds the Colts defense for 231 yards rushing and three touchdowns in a 34-24 win in Week 1. Foster had 191 yards and all three touchdowns in the second half.
• MOST VALUABLE PLAYER -- Tom Brady, QB, New England: With Randy Moss taking his Hall of Fame act elsewhere, Brady is back to winning with smoke and mirrors once again. In this case, the smoke is named Danny Woodhead and BenJarvus Green-Ellis and the mirrors are Deion Branch, Wes Welker, Brandon Tate and rookie Aaron Hernandez. Nobody does more with less than Brady, whose 12 touchdowns, four interceptions and 96.6 passer rating don't tell the whole story.Kudos to: Peyton Manning, QB, Indianapolis.
• OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR -- Roddy White, WR, Atlanta: Not only is White leading all NFL pass-catchers with 54 catches for 747 yards and five touchdowns, but also he's basically the only receiving threat Atlanta has other than tight end Tony Gonzalez. With more than 106 receiving yards per game, White is doing as much of the heavy lifting as anyone else on offense for the first-place Falcons.Kudos to: Philip Rivers, QB, San Diego.
• DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR -- Clay Matthews, LB, Packers: There are a lot of closely bunched defensive stalwarts this season, but Matthews, in just seven games, has an NFL-high 9½ sacks, with a forced fumble as well. A hamstring injury has slowed him at times, but no one has found a way to consistently stop him this season. His twin three-sack showings against the Eagles and Bills got Green Bay's season off to a 2-0 start.Kudos to: James Harrison, OLB, Pittsburgh.
• COACH OF THE YEAR -- Todd Haley, Chiefs: Haley, along with Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli, has changed the losing culture in Kansas City in less than two seasons, and that's the toughest job an NFL coach faces. That Haley is a first-time head coach makes it even more impressive. Despite winning just 10 games in the past three years, Kansas City is already halfway to that total this year in just seven games. The Chiefs are in line to chase their first division title since 2003 in the season's second half.Kudos to: Bill Belichick, New England.
• OFFENSIVE ROOKIE OF THE YEAR -- Sam Bradford, QB, Rams: Bradford doesn't have glitzy statistics, but what his presence has meant to the resurgent Rams is as obvious as the horns on their helmets. He has given St. Louis the chance to win this season, and they're 4-4, already topping the franchise's victory total from the last two seasons combined (three). Bradford has a receiving corps of no-names, and he's getting better by the week. St. Louis started 0-2, but has won four of six.Kudos to: Maurkice Pouncey, C, Steelers.
• DEFENSIVE ROOKIE OF THE YEAR -- Ndamukong Suh, DT, Lions: With 6½ sacks, one interception, and one fumble recovery for a touchdown in just seven games, Suh could sit out the rest of the season and probably still win the defensive rookie award. The man has brought an attitude and an intensity to Detroit's defense that was sorely lacking, and he already routinely sees double-team blocking.Kudos to: Earl Thomas, S, Seahawks.
• COMEBACK PLAYER OF THE YEAR -- E.J. Henderson, LB, Vikings: There are a bunch of good comeback stories of varying shapes and sizes in the NFL this season, but it's hard to overlook the accomplishment of Henderson merely stepping foot back on the field after suffering his gruesome broken femur last December in a game against Arizona. And Henderson isn't just playing, he's making an impact for a Vikings defense that has played better than the team's vaunted offense.Kudos to: Mike Williams, WR, Seahawks.
• BREAKTHROUGH PLAYER OF THE YEAR -- Darren McFadden, RB, Raiders: In this third year, McFadden has finally stayed semi-healthy and started to produce numbers worthy of his top-five draft slot in 2008. His 111.3 rushing yards per game leads all NFL running backs, and he has 885 yards from scrimmage and six touchdowns in just six games of action. With the Raiders running game in good hands, Oakland is 4-4 and playing meaningful games at this time of year for the first time since its Super Bowl season of 2002.Kudos to: Brandon Lloyd, WR, Denver.
• ASSISTANT COACH OF THE YEAR -- Perry Fewell, defensive coordinator, Giants: New York head coach Tom Coughlin made the right hire when he locked up the former Bills interim head coach/D-coordinator. New York's pass rush has been restored to its previous ferocity, and that has been the key to the Giants' current four-game winning streak and rise to first place in the NFC East.
• EXECUTIVE OF THE YEAR -- Scott Pioli, general manager, Chiefs: Kansas City has all the makings of the turnaround story of the year in the NFL, and Pioli's handprints are all over the Chiefs' renaissance. The team's 2010 draft has a chance to be a cornerstone-type class, and the work of newly hired coordinators Romeo Crennel and Charlie Weis have quickly paid off as well.