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NFL Midseason Report: 2014

Here’s how suddenly and dramatically a week can change the look and landscape of the NFL: Go back and read all those midseason reviews that were written just last week, after eight weeks of the regular season, and then read this one, from the vantage point of nine weeks in. Suffice to say waiting for every team to play at least eight games before taking an annual midyear snap shot might be the way to go. A week can mean a lot.  

Has our perception of the suddenly reeling Dallas Cowboys been altered, now that they’re on the first losing streak of their season? How about the relative strength of New England to AFC defending champion Denver? Or the pecking order between Baltimore and Pittsburgh in the tightly packed AFC North?

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Did you think San Diego had a better shot as an AFC wild-card hopeful than Miami, at least until Sunday? The Saints finally scratched out a road win and found their way into first place in the mild NFC South. Does that change their outlook in the season’s second half? Are the third-place 49ers really still playoff material at .500, and are second-half bumps in the road ahead for Philadelphia, now that Nick Foles has given way to Mark Sanchez at starting quarterback?    

A week in the NFL can wipe out a ton of conventional wisdom, and send everyone scrambling to amend a host of perceptions. But with 134 of the NFL’s 256-game regular season in the books (52.3 percent), here goes: midseason review time.

Examining the key issues entering Ray Rice's NFL appeals hearing

Story of the Year, Part I--The video renders both Ray Rice and the NFL damaged goods: In the NFL’s rich 95-year history, there’s never been a story that so completely overshadowed the action on the field, for what seemed weeks at a time, like the Rice saga. There were no winners in this shameful and still-unfinished fiasco, only losers, unless you count the positive changes that were sparked during a much-needed national discussion about the seriousness of domestic violence. Once deemed practically infallible, the league and commissioner Roger Goodell suffered a significant loss of credibility in the court of public opinion, and the controversy had tentacles that reached in many divergent directions.

Story of the Year, Part II --How ‘bout them Cowboys: They are undeniably leaking oil as we get into November, but even a two-game losing streak can’t deny the 6-3 Cowboys their due. Dallas was thought to be almost defense-less and destined for a state well below its usual mediocrity of 8-8 this year, but as it turns out, we were misinformed. With running back DeMarco Murray being the horse they chose to ride -- mixed in with some Rod Marinelli magic on defense -- the Cowboys are relevant again and dreaming of making the playoffs for the first time in five years. There’s a long way to go, especially if quarterback Tony Romo isn’t healthy, but who besides Jerry Jones thought Dallas would even get this far?

Cowboys' punchless loss underscores Romo's value; more Snap Judgments

-- Kudos to: Peyton Manning does his record-breaking routine again, surpassing Brett Favre as the league’s leading all-time touchdown passer with four more scoring throws against visiting San Francisco in Week 7. Touchdown No. 509 was the history-maker, but he’s at 515 and counting in 248 career games at midseason.

Trend of the Year--Thursday night’s all right for blowouts: There have been nine Thursday night prime-time games thus far in the regular season, and almost three of them have been watchable. For a while there in September and part of October, I thought CBS stood for “Colossal Blowout Show,’’ because that was all it televised on Thursday nights. Each of the season’s first five Thursday night games was decided by at least 20 points, and who can forget such thrillers as Atlanta 56-14 over Tampa Bay, Green Bay’s 42-10 lambasting of Minnesota, and the Giants flogging Washington 45-14? The nine games have been decided by a margin of 184 points, or 20.4 per week. And still we watch. What else are you going to do on a Thursday night? 

-- Kudos to: Rookie receivers don’t need learning curves any more, just go-from-the-start patterns. The season’s first two months have been a golden age for rookie pass-catchers, and they’re almost too numerous to mention. Buffalo’s Sammy Watkins and Carolina’s Kelvin Benjamin are the leaders of the class, but don’t forget Mike Evans, John Brown, Jordan Matthews, Brandin Cooks, Allen Robinson, Allen Hurns, Martavis Bryant, Donte Moncrief, Davante Adams and Taylor Gabriel. You get our point?

Game of the Year--Seattle 26, Denver 20, in OT, in Week 3: Well who knew these two interconference rivals could play a tight, entertaining game? That would have come in handy last February in the Meadowlands, when we instead were treated to a 35-point Super Bore that wouldn’t end. This time, the Seahawks blew a 17-3 fourth-quarter lead, watching as Peyton Manning drove almost the length of the field for a game-tying touchdown and two-point conversion with 18 seconds remaining in regulation. But Seattle again got the last laugh, because Manning’s Broncos never got the ball back in the extra period. Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson saw to that, leading the Seahawks to a first-possession overtime touchdown, which came courtesy of Marshawn Lynch from six yards out.

Rams burn Seahawks with trick plays, upset defending champions 28-26

-- Kudos to: St. Louis 28, Seattle 26, Week 7: I didn’t see it at the time, but apparently the Rams’ Jeff Fisher coached the entire day wearing this really cool magician’s top hat, and he kept pulling rabbits out of it the whole game. But more on that below. What matters is the last-place Rams beat the defending Super Bowl champions, officially signaling that Seattle’s mojo of 2013 was non-transferrable, as they say. 

Play of the Year--What the Hekker just happened?: The aforementioned Jeff Fisher, he’s got big brass ones, and we’re not talking about his lawn ornaments. The Rams’ coach made the gutsiest/craziest call I’ve ever seen in that Week 7 upset of Seattle, rolling the dice in a way that made Bill Belichick look perfectly sane for going for that 4th-and-2 against Indianapolis in 2009. Leading 28-26 and facing a 4th-and-3 from his own 18-yard line with 2:55 left, Fisher let punter Johnny Hekker fake it, and throw for a mind-boggling 18-yard completion to Benny Cunningham as the disbelieving Seahawks looked on. It was pure genius because it worked, but had it not, Rams owner Stan Kroenke should have gone to the sideline and had Fisher turn in his key card and parking pass right then and there. 

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-- Kudos to: In that same ridiculous Seahawks-Rams game, the St. Louis punt return unit pulled off its own certifiable miracle when the Rams’ Stedman Bailey somehow made himself invisible to everyone in Seattle colors, then fielded the ball and went untouched down the right sideline for a 90-yard touchdown return. On the opposite side of the field, St. Louis return man Tavon Austin acted like he was going to field the ball, and the Seahawks all took his word for it (at least in body language form), never once checking to see where the Seattle punter actually kicked it.

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Inside reports of divided Redskins locker room after incident with RGIII

Sideshow of the Year-- The plot (always) thickens in Washington: There’s enough drama to go around when a team employs the three-headed quarterback carousel of Robert Griffin III, Kirk Cousins and Colt McCoy, joining only Tennessee and Minnesota among NFL teams that have started three QBs in the season’s first half. But when you add in the Griffin-loses-his-locker-room reports, Sunday’s bizarre pregame bus crash, the ongoing team nickname controversy and the notion that the quarterback call is coming from the front office, you’ve got all the elements that make D.C. dysfunction junction.

-- Kudos to: Russell Wilson has his own locker room issues in Seattle (maybe), and the surprising Percy Harvin trade was an indication that all is not right in Winnersville this season. Maybe it’s just a Washington thing this year.

Statistic of the Year--DeMarco Murray outruns Jim Brown: The Cowboys’ running back started his monster season by running for at least 100 yards in the first eight games of