NFL Midseason Report: 2012

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• STORY OF THE YEAR -- After a year off, Peyton Manning returns as a slightly better version of Peyton Manning: No more calls, we have our answer. No. 18 is back, and I already can't remember what the months and months of intrigue and guesswork were all about. Something about his neck, maybe?

Manning has thrown a wobbly pass or three for his new team in Denver, but hey, so did Tim Tebow. The bottom line is through eight games Manning is on pace to throw for career highs in yards (4,808) and completion percentage (69.5), with his career's second-best showing in touchdowns (40) and passer rating (108.6).

Of his six interceptions, only three came in a Denver loss, and all of those were in the first half at Atlanta in Week 2. And did we mention the Broncos are 5-3, in command in the AFC West, and look poised to better their recent hot streak of four wins in the past five games? Yeah, I think he's going to be OK, folks. Let's move along. Nothing to see here.

-- Kudos to: The Replacement Refs Fiasco. They missed calls, and made everybody else miss the real thing. Has three weeks ever felt longer than the 48-game referee lockout that dominated the news in September? As successful and well-thought out experiments go, it was right up there with New Coke.

• PLAY OF THE YEAR -- The Simultaneous Catch catastrophe in Seattle: Not only did the worst blown call in recent NFL history end the embarrassing episode known as the NFL officials lockout all by itself (yes, yes it did, NFL, and you know it), but also it inspired a breathtaking public outcry and screwed the Packers out of a Week 3 win that might prove pivotal to their playoff chances.

No matter what Seattle receiver Golden Tate says, our eyes didn't lie: Green Bay safety M.D. Jennings caught the ball for a game-ending interception in the end zone, and Tate didn't. But the 14-12 Seattle victory stood, and two days later, the lockout was quickly and unceremoniously brought to a close.

-- Kudos to: Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins racing about 70 yards to chase down Tampa Bay receiver Vincent Jackson at the 1 1/2-yard line in the ultimate hustle play of the season. New Orleans wound up holding the Bucs out of the end zone and won that game, giving some hope to its disastrous season.

• GAME OF THE YEAR -- Denver 35, San Diego 24, Week 6: Down 24-0 at the half in San Diego, and in danger of slipping to 2-4 on the season, the Broncos rallied for 35 unanswered points on Monday Night Football, beating the Chargers by 11 points and pulling into a 3-3 tie for first place in the AFC West. The division race swung firmly in Denver's direction in those memorable 30 minutes, and it was also the game that convinced everyone that Peyton Manning was indeed back to his Hall of Fame form. No team had ever trailed by as many as 24 points and gone on to win by double digits in the long and storied history of MNF.

-- Kudos to: Tennessee 44, Detroit 41 in OT, Week 3. In the wildest game of the NFL season, the Titans set a league record with five touchdowns of 60 yards or longer.

• UPSET OF THE YEAR -- Indianapolis 30, Green Bay 27, Week 5: Inspired by their new head coach, Chuck Pagano, who was hospitalized that week with a diagnosis of leukemia, the Colts rallied from an 18-point halftime deficit to stun the Packers in Indianapolis. The Colts scored on five of their seven second-half drives, outscoring Green Bay 27-6 in the pivotal, final 30 minutes. Rookie quarterback Andrew Luck threw for 362 yards in the comeback win, 212 of them to veteran receiver Reggie Wayne, who caught 13 passes and scored once. Green Bay won 15 games last season and the Colts just two, but Indianapolis had emotion and energy on its side on this day.

-- Kudos to: Arizona 20, New England 18, Week 2: The Cardinals knocked off the powerful Patriots despite being two-touchdown road underdogs, thanks in large part to New England kicker Stephen Gostkowski missing a 42-yard field goal wide left on the second to the last play of the game.

• EGG-LAYING OF THE YEAR -- San Francisco 45, Buffalo 3, Week 5: The week after getting blown out 52-28 at home against the Patriots, the Bills followed that up by making history in San Francisco. The 49ers">49ers became the first NFL team ever to record at least 300 yards passing and 300 rushing in the same game, with 237 of their 303 passing yards in the first half, and 228 of their 311 yards rushing in the second half. Combined with the 45 second-half points they gave up against New England, the Bills were nipped by a tidy 90-17 margin over the span of maybe the worst six quarters of NFL football in recent memory.

-- Kudos to: New York Giants 36, Carolina 7, Week 3: In a game that was supposed to announce them as a rising power in the NFC, the Panthers were completely dismantled at home on Thursday night football by the injury-depleted defending Super Bowl champions. It was probably the first indication that Cam Newton and Co. weren't going to be meeting expectations in the season's first half.

• SIDESHOW OF THE YEAR -- The Cam Newton postgame couch sessions: It has been avert-your-eyes tough to watch the second-year Carolina quarterback at times this year, but mostly once the games are over and he drops back into soul-searching mode, plumbing the depths of his own disappointment and dejection over being in last place in the NFC South and a shell of his rookie phenom self. Newton's promise to bring in "a suggestion box'' as a means to solicit answers to the team's troubles was an NFL first. The league quickly ruled such a move would constitute a competitive advantage for therapeutic reasons and informed the Panthers they would have to accept suggestions by email, or not at all.

-- Kudos to: The Greg Schiano-inspired week-long debate about the wisdom of blowing up an opponent's victory formation was interesting, but I still think the move is kind of weak and would like to see tape of the three or four times Rutgers supposedly used it successfully under Schiano. Just sayin'.

• TREND OF THE YEAR -- The 50-and-over crowd: Led largely by a trio of cannon-legged rookie kickers in the Rams' Greg Zuerlein, the Vikings' Blair Walsh and the Ravens' Justin Tucker, the NFL has been a long-distance kicking fest so far in 2012. Through Week 9, kickers are a combined 47 of 75 from attempts of 50 yards or more, a success rate of 62.7 percent. That's only slightly behind last year's league record pace of 64.3 percent for the entire season (90 of 140), and that's with kickers slumping to just 2 of 8 from 50-plus in Week 9.

Zuerlein's leg is a real weapon that has helped the 3-5 Rams already top their victory total of last season, and he's 5 of 7 on kicks of 50 yards or more. Walsh (5 of 5) and Tucker (4 of 4) have both been perfect from downtown, helping the Vikings and Ravens feel very good about moving on from veteran kickers Ryan Longwell and Billy Cundiff, respectively.

-- Kudos to: Everybody loves to spout that stat about the NFL featuring five or six new playoff teams every year since the dawn of time, but the streak might be in jeopardy of ending this season. Six of the eight division leaders at midseason won their division last season (only Atlanta and Chicago didn't), and if the playoffs started today, only the Bears, Seahawks and Colts would be new playoff teams this year. Status quo anyone?

• STATISTIC OF THE YEAR -- Chiefs show no interest in being front-runners: Through eight games of regulation time, and one overtime at New Orleans in Week 3, the only time Kansas City has led this season came when they beat the Saints on a Ryan Succop field goal in the extra period. According to Elias Sports Bureau, the Chiefs are the first team to not hold a lead in regulation during their first eight games since the 1929 Buffalo Bisons, who I thought were a Triple A baseball team. At 1-7, Kansas City has been outscored by almost 14 points per game, and the longer their ineptitude extends, the more I can't fathom how the Chiefs beat the 13-0 Packers just last December.

-- Kudos to: Don't know if you've noticed, but quarterbacks aren't getting benched this year, and quarterbacks always get benched in the NFL. Plenty of benching talk, to be sure. But almost no benchings. Michael Vick, Mark Sanchez, Blaine Gabbert, Brandon Weeden, Russell Wilson have all staved off their backups getting the nod, and only injuries to Jake Locker in Tennessee, and John Skelton and Kevin Kolb in Arizona prompted quarterback changes. In Kansas City, Matt Cassel was injured and replaced by Brady Quinn, and the Chiefs wound up sticking with Quinn for a brief time even after Cassel was healthy. But that's it, the only QB benching of 2012 thus far.

• MOST OVERLOOKED STORYLINE -- The 8-0 Falcons go where no Falcons team has gone before, and a football nation yawns: I know we've gotten a bit jaded by all the perfect season runs we've had in recent years (Packers, Patriots, Saints, Colts, etc....), but wouldn't it be crazy if this was the year the crotchety old 1972 Dolphins finally had to keep the cork in the champagne bottle? I know, we're a long way from 19-0 in Atlanta, but hey, you gotta start somewhere. And let's throw a little credit to the Falcons for their gutsy move of hiring two new coordinators despite being a playoff team in three of the past four years. Dirk Koetter on offense and Mike Nolan on defense didn't sound like masterstrokes to me when they signed on, but something's working like a charm for Mike Smith's resilient team.

-- Kudos to: Miami looked like a train wreck waiting to happen in the preseason (see your HBO listings for proof), but Joe Philbin's plucky little team never crashed. The Dolphins are a solid 4-4 at midseason, with a quality defense, a surprisingly good rookie quarterback in Ryan Tannehill and more than a little bit of gumption to them. Who needs Jeff Fisher?

• MOST OVER-HYPED STORYLINE -- The "inevitable'' Sanchez-Tebow quarterback competition in New York: Umm, maybe not. Sure, No. 15 could still supplant his fellow Jets quarterback as the starter at some point in the season's second half, but do you really think it's going to wind up mattering all that much for Rex Ryan's team? This looks like seven-win material in New York this season, with or without a touch of Tebow magic. And I think it's fairly apparent by now that if Ryan thought Tebow could really save his team's floundering season, he'd have been under center for a few weeks already.

-- Kudos to: The Saints will play all season with a chip on their shoulder. Or, you know, the dead weight of a historically bad defense on their back. Either one. If revenge against the league office is what's driving New Orleans this season, its effort in 2012 so far hasn't covered much ground.

• BIGGEST MOVE THAT DIDN'T MATTER -- Super Mario goes to Buffalo: For $100 million or so, Mario Williams was supposed to add an elite talent to the emerging Bills defense. Hasn't quite worked out that way, has it? Williams has a modest 4.5 sacks in his first eight games in Buffalo, and has made minimal impact on run defense. Recent wrist surgery might lead to a healthier and bigger second half, but Williams and the rest of the Bills have been one of the bigger disappointments this season. At this point, Buffalo's 12-year playoff drought looks like a good bet to reach its awkward teenage phase by January.

-- Kudos to: Matt Flynn chose Seattle in free agency, but ultimately the Seahawks didn't choose him. At least as their starting quarterback, thanks to the superb preseason work turned in by rookie Russell Wilson. And halfway through the year, Flynn remains the backup in Seattle. He's getting paid well, but in Green Bay he was at least sitting behind the league's reigning MVP.

• BEST MOVE OF THE YEAR -- Saying hello to Peyton in Denver, and goodbye to Tebow: Not to knock the charismatic quarterback who took the Broncos to the playoffs and a postseason victory last year, but I think we can all recognize an upgrade when we see it. Is there anyone in Denver who still pines for Tebow Time?

-- Kudos to: The Bears have needed a big, ball-magnet of a receiver forever, but they've got one now thanks to the Brandon Marshall trade with Miami this spring. With 59 catches for 797 yards and seven touchdowns, Marshall is on pace for a monster, team-record-setting first season in Chicago.

• BEST DIVISION -- NFC North: The NFC West started out like a house afire this season, but both the Cardinals and Rams have dropped below .500 at midseason. Give me the NFC North, where even the last-place Lions are 4-4 and on the come, winning three of their past four. With Chicago (7-1) and Green Bay (6-3) leading the way, the NFC North is the only division with three winning teams, and paces all divisions with 22 victories and just 12 losses.

-- Kudos to: NFC West, where the 49ers and Seahawks both play punishing, physical defense and look playoff-bound at midseason.

• WORST DIVISION -- AFC West: All you need to know is that Denver is 5-3 and already starting to keep track of its magic number. The AFC West has just one winning team, and its combined record of 13-19 is the worst in the NFL.

-- Kudos to: NFC East. The Giants look playoff-ready, but the Eagles, Cowboys and Redskins are staging a race to the bottom of the division. The East had a long and illustrious run of glory days, but they're so over.

• BEST INDIVIDUAL PERFORMANCE-- Doug Martin destroys the Raiders: Born in Oakland and raised in Stockton, Calif., the Bucs rookie running back made a historic homecoming in Tampa Bay's 42-32 slugfest road win against the Raiders in Week 9. Martin ran for a team-record 251 yards and four touchdowns on 25 carries, the NFL's 10th-best rushing performance of all time.

He became the league's first player to record at least three rushing touchdowns of more than 45 yards (45, 67, 70 yards) in the same game, and all four of his touchdowns and 220 of his rushing yards came in the second half. Martin and former Denver running back Mike Anderson are the only backs to ever rush for at least 250 yards and score four times in a game. Not bad for a guy who lasted until the 31st pick in the draft.

-- Kudos to: Reggie Wayne's 13-catch, 212-yard, one-touchdown day in the Colts' Week 5 upset of Green Bay beats out the monster games turned in by Miami receiver Brian Hartline and Dallas tight end Jason Witten, both of which came in losses.

• WORST COLLECTIVE PERFORMANCE-- Arizona's offensive line charged with attempted murder of Cardinals quarterback Kevin Kolb: In a 17-3 Week 5 loss in St. Louis, the Cardinals' dreadful (and dangerous) offensive line stood by like paying spectators as Kolb absorbed nine sacks and several other bruising hits. Kolb's helmet flew off on two of the sacks, leaving him bloodied and battered, but fortunately his head somehow stayed intact. It was that showing that started Arizona's current five-game losing streak.

-- Kudos to: Not to pick on the Cardinals offense or offensive line, but Arizona managed just 7 yards rushing in a 24-3 Week 8 loss at home against San Francisco, the lowest rushing total by a 49ers opponent since 1972.

• TEASE OF THE YEAR -- The Cardinals' wild ride: Arizona's wholly unexpected 4-0 start disappeared faster than an ice cube in the desert, with the Cardinals now on a five-game losing streak since beating Miami in overtime at home in Week 4. In the course of its slide, Arizona has somehow managed to lose to quarterbacks who completed all of seven passes (the Rams' Sam Bradford) and eight passes (the Vikings' Christian Ponder).

-- Kudos to: Dallas went into the Giants' backyard in Week 1 and became the first visitor to ever knock off the defending Super Bowl champion in the NFL's annual regular-season kickoff game. But after hitting that high to start the year, the Cowboys have again flat-lined, losing five of their next seven games to sit 3-5 at the turn.

• I WISH I WOULDN'T HAVE DONE THAT AWARD -- Ryan Kalil puts his money where his mouth is: I liked the confidence the Panthers veteran center showed in his team, but as it turns out, it was the wrong year to buy a full-page ad in the Charlotte Observer predicting/promising a Super Bowl run in Carolina. And he should have known that. It was in all the papers.

-- Kudos to: For being such a smart guy, why did Calvin Johnson want to go and mess with the Madden cover curse? The Lions superstar receiver has just one touchdown catch this season (15 fewer than last year), and three times already this year has been held to 54 receiving yards or less in a game. And there's his balky left knee to contend with as well.

• IT'S ALL YOUR FAULT AWARD -- Andy Reid fires defensive coordinator Juan Castillo, fixes what ain't broke: The Eagles' primary problem this season hasn't been their defense, so it was more than a bit curious for the embattled Philly head coach to lower the boom on Castillo during the team's Week 7 bye. It wasn't exactly a miracle cure for what ails the Eagles. That week at home against undefeated Atlanta, Philadelphia allowed the Falcons to score on their first six possessions en route to a 30-17 defeat, dropping the Eagles to 3-4 on the season. As first impressions go, new defensive coordinator Todd Bowles' debut was a dud.

-- Kudos to: Carolina canned longtime general manager Marty Hurney the day after a disheartening home loss to Dallas in Week 7, and even Hurney understood the Panthers' lack of success since 2008 made him extremely vulnerable. But timing-wise, firing a GM in the middle of the season is mostly a "do-something'' move made to appease the football gods (i.e., the fans and media).

• TAKE THAT AWARD -- 49ers backup quarterback Colin Kaepernick shows Tim Tebow and the Jets how it's done: It had to leave a bit of a mark on the bruised psyches of the Jets when San Francisco, with great success, used its second-year No. 2 quarterback in the Wildcat formation role that was supposed to be Tebow's calling card this season. In the 49ers' 34-0 road spanking of New York in Week 4, Kaepernick carried five times for 50 yards, opening the day's scoring with a 7-yard touchdown that stood up as the game-winning points. Tebow was virtually a non-factor in the same game. Ouch.

-- Kudos to: The Ravens in Week 3 got revenge on the Patriots for their bitter three-point AFC title game loss in Foxboro last January, winning 31-30 on a final-play 27-yard field goal by rookie kicker Justin Tucker. You know who Tucker replaced in Baltimore, don't you? Veteran kicker Billy Cundiff, he of the unspeakable 32-yard shank job that would have sent the AFC Championship into overtime.

• MOST VALUABLE PLAYER -- Matt Ryan, QB, Atlanta:Peyton Manning is making an impressive case for himself week by week, but Ryan has been the best player on the league's best team in the first half, and that still defines the MVP requirements for me. His play has been both consistent and clutch, and Atlanta's 8-0 record speaks volumes.

-- Kudos to: Peyton Manning, QB, Denver.-- My preseason pick: Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay.

• OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR -- Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay: Ryan, Manning, Adrian Peterson or Percy Harvin all would be solid choices, but let's not overlook the season Rodgers is having for a Packers team that has won four in a row. His 2,383 yards passing, 25 touchdowns, five interceptions and 107.4 rating are going to put him into the MVP discussion once again if Green Bay keeps winning.

-- Kudos to: Peyton Manning.-- My preseason pick: Rodgers.

• DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR -- J.J. Watt, DE, Houston: Watt has emerged as the league's preeminent impact defender in just his second season, with a league-leading 10.5 sacks, 39 tackles, 15 tackles for loss and 10 pass deflections, several of which have turned into interceptions for teammates. And Watt is doing it all in the less-glamorous 3-4 defensive end role, which means he gets double-teamed at times and plays inside on plenty of downs. Watt is the rare three-down defender who can both stuff the run and harass the passer, and there's no apparent weakness in his game.

-- Kudos to: Charles Tillman, CB, Chicago.-- My preseason pick: Clay Matthews, OLB, Green Bay.

• OFFENSIVE ROOKIE OF THE YEAR -- Robert Griffin III, QB, Washington:Andrew Luck has his Colts in playoff contention, but Griffin's spectacular debut doesn't deserve to take a backseat to anyone. Griffin has thrown for eight touchdowns and rushed for six more, and his 93.9 passer rating and 65.6 completion percentage are significantly better than Luck's (79.0 and 56.5). With 1,993 yards passing and 529 yards rushing, Griffin has been a playmaking force.

-- Kudos to: Andrew Luck.-- My preseason pick: Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle.

• DEFENSIVE ROOKIE OF THE YEAR -- Chandler Jones, DE, New England: The former Syracuse star has provided instant impact to a Patriots defense starved for playmakers. His six sacks, three forced fumbles and 33 tackles in eight games put him in the pole position for the top defensive rookie honor at the season's mid-point.

-- Kudos to: Casey Hayward, CB, Green Bay.-- My preseason pick: Whitney Mercilus, OLB, Houston.

• COMEBACK PLAYER OF THE YEAR -- Peyton Manning, QB, Denver: Given his lingering neck issues of 2011 and early 2012, it's almost ridiculous how well Manning is playing for his first-place Broncos. He keeps telling us he's still not 100 percent, but at this rate, who needs perfection? It's almost unfair to not split this award between Manning and Minnesota running back Adrian Peterson, who leads the league in rushing with 957 yards just a little more than 10 months after undergoing reconstructive knee surgery. Peterson is averaging 5.7 yards per carry and is on pace for his best season since 2008.

-- Kudos to: Adrian Peterson, RB, Minnesota.-- My preseason pick: NA.

• COACH OF THE YEAR -- Bruce Arians/Chuck Pagano, Indianapolis: Another major quandary in my book. How do you overlook the remarkable pinch-hitting job turned in by both the Colts' interim head coach Bruce Arians, and by Pagano, who has clearly provided the inspirational fuel and intensity for 5-3 Indianapolis, the turnaround story of the year thus far in the NFL? I'm saluting both men, and I think it's fair to say this unusual arrangement has worked a whole lot better than the Aaron Kromer-Joe Vitt coaching tandem in New Orleans.

-- Kudos to: Mike Smith, Atlanta.-- My preseason pick: Gary Kubiak, Houston.

• DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR OF THE YEAR -- Rod Marinelli, Chicago: I don't know how you do better than what the Bears have produced on defense this season: Seven interceptions returned for touchdowns, 28 takeaways in eight games, and just 10 touchdowns allowed. With a dominating run defense and maybe the best duo of cornerbacks in the game (Tillman and Tim Jennings), there are monsters on the Midway once again in Chicago.

-- Kudos to: Mike Nolan, Atlanta.-- My preseason pick: NA.

• OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR OF THE YEAR: Dirk Koetter, Atlanta: The Falcons' new offensive coordinator has instilled an aggressive, pedal-to-the-metal approach and it's working. Using the same players that former Falcons OC Mike Mularkey had at his disposal, Koetter is getting much more explosive results, and eye-popping production out of quarterback Matt Ryan, receiver Julio Jones and tight end Tony Gonzalez.

-- Kudos to: Mike Sherman, Miami.-- My preseason pick: NA.

• EXECUTIVE OF THE YEAR: Rick Smith, general manager, Houston: Love the work new Colts GM Ryan Grigson has done in Indy (especially re-signing Reggie Wayne) and Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff also deserves credit for building the foundation that Atlanta is thriving on. But Smith gets the nod for bold moves that have all worked out: Trading locker room favorite DeMeco Ryans to Philly, not bidding for the over-valued Mario Williams in free agency and cutting the popular Eric Winston. At 7-1, the Texans are the AFC Super Bowl front-runner.

-- Kudos to: Ryan Grigson, general manager, Indianapolis.-- My preseason pick: NA.