The assignment was straightforward: Review the first half of the NFL season and draw conclusions about how the final two months will play out. Initial reaction? No problem.
Second reaction? Big problem.
Arguably, no season has started as wildly and as unpredictably as this one. Every week, if not every day, there has been something to make you pick your jaw off the ground.
If November and December are as eventful as September and October, we just might need a work stoppage to catch our breath. OK, bad joke. But consider:
• Preseason Super Bowl contenders Dallas and Minnesota lose 11 of their first 14 games after losing just nine times all of last season; yet the 5-2 Chiefs are only one win from matching their victory total from the previous two seasons combined, and the 4-4 Rams are just two shy of equaling their total from the previous THREE years.
• After the league threatens to suspend players for violent hits to the head of defenseless receivers, Pittsburgh linebacker James Harrison, the 2008 Defensive Player of the Year, announces he might retire because of the crackdown. A day after being excused from practice, he returns to work.
• Washington coach Mike Shanahan celebrated the offseason trade for QB Donovan McNabb, who led Philadelphia to five NFC Championship Game appearances. But in Week 8 he stunned everyone when, trailing by a score at Detroit, he pulled McNabb for journeyman Rex Grossman, whom Shanahan claimed had a better handle of their two-minute offense. The next day Shanahan came clean and said McNabb was not in good enough shape to run the hurry-up offense. Ouch.
The list goes on and on, from the Chargers' release of linebacker Shawne Merriman to Andy Reid playing musical quarterbacks to the Cardinals having no credible signal-callers. What can we expect in the next two months? Some guesses, educated and otherwise:
Previously it was thought that no moves would be made during the season, largely because of a potential work stoppage in 2011. But some situations have become so toxic that owners may have no choice but to act. The most obvious situations are in Dallas, where the Cowboys and coach Wade Phillips are 1-6; and in Minnesota, where coach Brad Childress seemingly is trying to alienate as many people as possible.
Already unpopular with some key players -- not to mention fans who are displeased with the Vikings' 2-5 record -- Childress reportedly angered management Monday when he told the players he was going to waive Moss, this before he informed ownership of his intentions. It's never wise to tweak ownership when the team is underachieving, the fans are upset and the players are second-guessing you.
In Carolina, John Fox plans to leave when his contract expires at the end of the year; and Marvin Lewis might do the same in Cincinnati if owner Mike Brown refuses to hire a GM/personnel man. Other situations to watch include San Francisco (Mike Singletary), Chicago (Lovie Smith), Jacksonville (Jack Del Rio) and Cleveland (Eric Mangini).
As bad as the Broncos' season has been -- at 2-6 it's careening past awful and approaching embarrassing -- coach Josh McDaniels would be foolish to turn to the popular rookie QB from Florida. First, Tebow is not ready. Second, he doesn't deserve the opportunity, not with Kyle Orton ranking second in passing yards, sixth in touchdowns and seventh in QB rating. Benching Orton for Tebow would cost McDaniels credibility points in the locker room that he cannot afford to lose at this point.
The Broncos' primary problems are their inability to run the ball or to stop the run. They're averaging a league-low 67.2 yards rushing per game, while surrendering 154.6 per outing, second-most overall. Unless McDaniels plans to play Tebow at halfback, the former Heisman winner should maintain his current role: clipboard-holder and goal-line runner.
McCarthy, arguably, has done his finest work since arriving in Green Bay in 2006. He started the season without injured secondary starters Al Harris (knee) and Atari Bigby (ankle), then lost running back Ryan Grant, linebacker Nick Barnett (wrist), tight end Jermichael Finley (knee) and safety Morgan Burnett (knee) to season-ending injuries. Both of his lines have been banged up and outside linebacker Clay Matthews has been fighting a hamstring injury, still the Packers are 5-3 and leading the NFC North.
They have not been the juggernaut we all expected, but they appear to have developed some grit that was missing earlier in the year when they lost three of their first six games by a field goal each. The past two weeks, however, they beat a desperate Minnesota team by four and halted the Jets' five-game winning streak despite failing to score a touchdown.
They appear to be building momentum similar to last year, when they started 4-4 and rallied to win seven of their final eight. If the Packers have similar success this year, McCarthy should be strongly considered for Coach of the Year. More likely, he'll be overshadowed by Kansas City's Todd Haley, St. Louis' Steve Spagnuolo and Tampa Bay's Raheem Morris, each of whom has turned a projected doormat into midseason contenders. They deserve the recognition, but so does McCarthy.
Don't know when. Don't know where. I just know that Favre is taking too many hits for a 41-year-old who often looks as if he regrets coming back for another season. How he has lasted 292 consecutive starts is one of the great mysteries of the universe. Seriously. The streak, in my opinion, ranks ahead of DiMaggio hitting safely in 56 consecutive games, or Ripken playing in 2,632 straight, or Hershiser tossing 59 consecutive scoreless innings. None of them had 250-pound linebackers and 300-pound linemen seemingly trying to decapitate them on every pass play.
I realize that no tight end has ever been voted league MVP. However, just because it hasn't happened doesn't mean it shouldn't. He has played all season without a proven No. 1 receiver on the outside -- and has been battling turf toe the past two weeks -- yet he leads the league with nine touchdown catches and ranks third with 663 yards (on 40 catches). More astonishingly is that he consistently beats 1-on-1 coverage by two or three steps.
Titans safety Michael Griffin said Gates is a tough matchup not only because of his combination of size, speed and hands, but also because it's tough to simulate him in practice. He likened it to opponents trying to prepare for Chris Johnson's speed. You can talk about it and try to practice for it, but unless you have someone with those abilities on your roster, there's no way to really experience it until game day.
The Chiefs lead the Raiders by two games in the loss column and are three up on San Diego. They have only two teams with winning records remaining on their schedule and have four games left at home, where they are 4-0.
More importantly than the schedule is that Matt Cassel and Dwayne Bowe are starting to live up to expectations after struggling early in the year. Cassel threw three picks over the first three games but has not been intercepted in the past four. Bowe has five TD catches in his past three outings after managing just one in his first four. Combine that with the league's top-ranked running game, an opportunistic defense and a favorable schedule, and it's a prescription for success.
Oakland also appears capable of winning the division, beating Denver and Seattle by an aggregate of 92-17 the past two weeks. Running back Darren McFadden is healthy and playing like a top-5 draft pick, and the defense has figured out how to stop the run, limiting opponents to 75 or fewer yards in each of the past two games. A concern, however, is the ankle injury that Pro Bowl cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha sustained last week. If he can't play Sunday against the Chiefs, it's a major advantage for Kansas City.
You have no idea how hard it was to type that. I've learned over the years never to doubt Drew Brees, who is one of the most competitive and conscientious players I know. But the strain of trying to defend the championship they won last season is weighing on the Saints. Last year they played in one Super Bowl. This year they will play in 16 during the regular season. It's too difficult to respond to that every Sunday. Combine that with the absence of a consistent running game due to injuries to backs Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush, and Brees is having to shoulder too much of the load. New Orleans will expend so much energy to get to the playoffs that it will have nothing left once it arrives.
It has become painfully clear that the Alex Smith era is over in San Francisco. And while some look to Troy Smith for hope after his solid showing in Sunday's win over the Broncos, the 49ers">49ers (2-6) realize the key to relevancy is finding a franchise player at the position. That reality is all the more obvious after witnessing how No. 1 pick Sam Bradford has turned the Rams into contenders as a rookie. With veteran Matt Hasselbeck's future in Seattle uncertain, and Arizona looking lost at the position following the retirement of Kurt Warner, the 49ers know that a quality QB likely is all that stands between them and a return to the playoffs for the first time since 2002.
There's no way the relationship with Mike Shanahan can be repaired, regardless of what's said publicly. One day Shanahan is questioning McNabb's football intelligence, the next his conditioning? Even if what Shanahan says is true and McNabb could not handle the hurry-up offense from a "cardiovascular standpoint," it's a conversation that should have been between the two of them and not the media. The feud won't be the public spectacle of Shanahan vs. Albert Haynesworth, but I'm told there will be lingering resentment with McNabb. His issue isn't what was said, but where it was said.
I'm sticking with
As for the road to North Texas:
In the AFC, I have New England, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh and Kansas City as division winners, with Baltimore and the Jets as wild cards. New York defeats Pittsburgh in the conference final.
In the NFC I have Atlanta, the Giants, Green Bay and St. Louis as division winners, with the Eagles and Saints as wild cards. The Packers will defeat the Giants in the conference final. The Jets claim the Vince Lombardi Trophy with a 20-16 victory.