NFL Midseason Report: The 10 Biggest Surprises and Headlines

Blake EatonContributor IIINovember 10, 2012

NFL Midseason Report: The 10 Biggest Surprises and Headlines

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    Through nine weeks of football, most teams have had their bye and find themselves at the halfway point in the season. Please kindly ignore that some teams have played nine of their 16 games.

    This season has already seen its fair share of upsets and surprises. The teams at the top and at the bottom of the NFL standings have moved very little, considering the heightened level of parity we have witnessed thus far. But the teams in the middle have done a lot of moving around.

    There are no teams without a win, although the 1-7 Kansas City Chiefs still have not led in regulation this season. And there remains just one undefeated team, the Atlanta Falcons, who I can almost guarantee you will not remain so much longer.

    The vast majority of NFL teams (20 of the 32) have between three and five wins, which is exactly where you would expect most of them to be after eight games.

    Here are the 10 biggest surprises and headlines through the first half of the 2012 NFL season, in reverse order from 10 to one (you know, to build suspense).

10. The Atlanta Falcons

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    This goes at the tail end of our list because it isn't exactly a huge surprise. The Falcons have been building this team for some time now, and it has finally come together under fifth-year starting quarterback Matt Ryan.

    Say what you want about easy schedules or luck...or luck with easy schedules, but it is not easy to go 8-0 in the NFL. It is true that the Falcons have played just one opponent with a winning record through eight games, but that isn't their fault. You still have to take care of business against the lowly teams. They are all still legitimate professional organizations after all...except for Kansas City.

    Michael Turner has been good, not great, posting a 4.0 yards per carry average. His 514 yards on the ground doesn't drop your jaw, but that's still on pace for a 1,000-yard season, the benchmark for success for running backs.

    Roddy White and Julio Jones, who have my vote for best receiving duo in the league, give the Falcons an extremely potent passing attack. There is a real possibility that White and Jones will both finish with more than 80 receptions, 1,200 yards and 10 touchdowns (something that has happened once in football history, when Randy Moss and Cris Carter pulled it off for Minnesota in 1999).

    And don't forget about the revitalized Tony Gonzalez, who has now played through four full presidential terms. The wily veteran got off to a tremendous start and is on pace to finish with 100 receptions, 1,000 receiving yards and eight touchdowns.

    The Falcons have not looked dominant during their 8-0 run, but they continually find a way to win games. It seems to me that they have a couple tough games to get through before 16-0 should even be considered. But they have proven that they can stick with anyone. If the defense stays sharp, they could be looking at a deep playoff run.

9. J.J. Watt

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    J.J. Watt is just a menace. 

    The beastly defensive end came out of Wisconsin two years ago and put up pedestrian numbers in his rookie campaign. But, instead of a sophomore slump, Watt has exploded out of the gate in 2012, putting up huge numbers, about as huge as numbers can get for a defensive end.

    Watt is leading the NFL with 10.5 sacks through eight games, just slightly off Michael Strahan's record pace (22.5 sacks in the 2001 season). He is also second on his team in tackles, with 39, a feat in itself because rarely do defensive lineman crack the top three in tackling for their team (almost always, those spots are reserved for linebackers).

    But perhaps most impressive of all, he has deflected 10 passes. He has an uncanny knack for rising up and getting a hand on the ball. It is a strategy underutilized by defensive lineman, as most only have eyes for getting sacks. But if Watt knows he isn't going to get there, he makes sure he gets in the passing lane. 

    Deflected passes aside, just think about how many pass attempts he has affected. He is always in the quarterback's face, making him change his footing, or making him choose a different release point, all things that don't show up in the box score. But they do show up in the win column.

    The Texans are looking great with a 7-1 record and control their own destiny in the race for home-field advantage in the AFC.

8. Reggie Wayne

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    Reggie Wayne heads into Week 10 leading the NFL in receiving yards. Yes, 33-year-old Reggie Wayne.

    After finishing in the top 10 in that category for five straight years, Wayne was left for dead in 2011 with no one to keep him company but Curtis Painter. He failed to break 1,000 receiving yards for the first time since 2003 and caught only four TD passes. The only season in which he scored fewer receiving touchdowns was his rookie season, 1973.

    The point is, he's been playing very well for a long time, and he fell victim to a terrible quarterback situation last year. Everyone decided it was time to get off the Reggie Wayne bandwagon.

    Except for me.

    I selected Wayne in the 10th round of my fantasy draft this year. If you wasted your first-round draft pick on Andre Johnson, let that soak in for a few moments while I provide for you a fun fact!

    Fun fact: Andre Johnson is the second-highest scoring fantasy player named Andre. He trails only Andre Roberts in that category. 

    Get the point? Awesome, moving on.

    Including Wayne's stats from the Thursday night game against Jacksonville, he has 69 receptions for 941 yards. He is on pace to set new career highs for both receptions and yards, and he is doing it with a rookie quarterback.

    Spoiler: There will be more Colts to come on this list.

7. Doug Martin

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    "Muscle Hamster" is probably one of the worst sports nicknames out there.

    It doesn't have a good ring to it. It doesn't roll off the tongue. Besides, Martin's not particularly muscular or hamster-like. It just doesn't make a lot of sense.

    That being said, the Muscle Hamster did not get off to a fantastic start. In the first four weeks, Martin had 71 carries for 247 yards and one touchdown. Not awful, but not dazzling either. And it was reflected in the team's 1-3 start.

    In the last four games, however, he has had 83 carries for 547 yards and five touchdowns. That's more like it! His recent play has vaulted him into the top three in both rushing yards and rushing touchdowns, as well as into the top 10 in yards per carry. 

    The team seems to have righted the ship with Josh Freeman and Doug Martin at the helm, and now sits at 4-4 looking to move up in the playoff picture.

    The most impressive thing about Martin's meteoric rise is that his most notable performance (25 carries, 251 yards, 4 TDs) came after all-pro guard Carl Nicks was put on injured reserve for the rest of the season. Many pundits had predicted that Martin's stellar play would subside after that huge blow to the offensive line, but he responded with a major statement game, one of the greatest fantasy days in history.

6. Alfred Morris

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    I still don't know who Alfred Morris is. 

    He goes one spot ahead of Doug Martin on this list, because at least I had heard of Martin before Week 1. I have never understood Mike Shanahan's strategies and I never will. At least he finally decided on one starting running back.

    And, boy, was his decision a good one. 

    Morris ranks in the top five at his position for both carries and yards, and also makes the top 10 for rushing touchdowns. He is averaging nearly five yards per carry and has helped Robert Griffin III turn Washington into one of the NFL's most exciting offenses. 

    It is incredible when you consider just exactly how "out of nowhere" his success has been. He played college football at Florida Atlantic, a team that went 1-11 last year. His stats from that season don't really catch your eye. Although 1,186 yards and nine touchdowns is nothing to sneeze at, they ranked 29th and 64th, respectively, among all college running backs last year.

    Why Morris, though? You don't see Terrence Ganaway (1,547 yards and 21 TDs for Baylor last year) making plays for an NFL team. I don't have a legitimate answer for you. Maybe the Redskins saw things other teams didn't. 

    Unfortunately, Morris' success has not translated to success for his team. The Redskins are 3-6 and fading fast from the NFC playoff picture. But it does seem that Washington has assembled a strong young nucleus that may lead them to greener pastures in the years to come.

5. The Philadelphia Eagles

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    I never said they were all good surprises, did I?

    America's Dream Team, which looked so dominant at the close of the 2011 season, looks flatter than day-old beer through half of the 2012 campaign. Its 3-5 record does not even properly describe its struggles.

    The Eagles could very, very easily be 0-8. 

    Their only wins have come against a subpar Browns team (which they beat by one point), the Ravens (another one-point win, fueled by a bogus pass interference penalty) and the Giants (by two points  because of another pass interference penalty that caused a long field-goal attempt by the Giants, which fell short as time expired).

    At no point have I thought to myself, "Gee, the Eagles look good today." At no point have they looked even close to dominant. I honestly don't know what happened.

    Michael Vick has been terrible. There's no way around it. He is 27th in the league in QB rating, ahead of only Blaine Gabbert, Mark Sanchez, Matt Cassel and Brandon Weeden. Great company you've got there, Mike. On top of that, he has thrown just 10 touchdowns passes, along with nine interceptions, and has fumbled 10 times.

    I suppose it isn't entirely his fault, though. His turnstile offensive line doesn't help matters. He has been sacked 27 times through eight games and is constantly under pressure. Imagine how big that number could be if he didn't happen to be the most mobile quarterback in the history of football. Would it be 35? 40?

    For all the talent this team has, it just isn't coming together. People are calling for Vick's head on a platter, but is Nick Foles a better option? It's not like they have a real backup like Tim Tebow

    I honestly thought the Eagles would be a strong contender for the best record in the NFL this year. Now I believe they could be firmly in the hunt for a top-five draft pick and a new head coach.

4. The New Orleans Saints

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    Maybe coaching does matter.

    After all the hubbub from "bounty gate" finally calmed, everyone still had the Saints penciled in for a 12-4 record and another NFC South division crown. Even without esteemed head coach Sean Payton and several other key members of the organization, we figured the team was good enough on its own.

    Well, it's not.

    The Saints' defense is awful, ranking 29th against the pass and dead last against the run. It has given up 229 points, tied for 26th with Oakland. Yeah, tied with Oakland, you heard me right. 

    Their pass game can still hang with anyone, but their "running back by committee" backfield is an absolute mess. Pierre Thomas leads the team with 301 rushing yards. That's not very many. Here are four players with more rushing yards than the leading rusher for the Saints: Vick Ballard (only became relevant four weeks ago), DeMarco Murray (hasn't played since Week 6), Daryl Richardson (Rams backup RB) and Cam Newton (a quarterback).

    It has been a tough season for Saints fans, and the team is probably lucky to be 3-5 at this point. I could see them making a run if they can shore up the defense a little. But with losses to Washington, Kansas City, and Carolina already under their belts, I can't imagine them finishing higher than 8-8. 

    Just like the Eagles, the Saints will be watching the playoffs from home this year.

3. Peyton Manning

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    The surprise isn't that he's still good. The surprise is that he's still this good.

    He has the highest QB rating in the NFL (108.6), is first in completion percentage (69.5%), first in yards per attempt (8.23), third in passing touchdowns (20) and fifth in passing yards (2,404). It's like he never left. 

    He has this Broncos team sitting in first place in the AFC West with a 5-3 record. It's not the most impressive record ever, but keep in mind that the Broncos have already played the toughest part of their first-place schedule. Their losses have come against three of the best five teams in the league: Atlanta, Houston and New England.

    Plus, their schedule from here on out is one of the easiest remaining: Carolina, San Diego, Kansas City, Tampa Bay, Oakland, Baltimore, Cleveland, Kansas City. Unless you think the Ravens can regroup from all the injuries, the Broncos should be favored in every game down the stretch. Barring an injury (knock on wood), Manning should lead this team to a 12-4 record, which could compete for a first-round bye.

    I was one of many who thought he wouldn't be the same. I mean, the guy had multiple invasive neck surgeries. Those kind of things don't just heal overnight. Reports kept coming in that he couldn't get any zip on the ball, that he could barely turn his head from side to side. He has proved us all wrong.

    But I suppose it is hard to stop efficiency. He doesn't necessarily rely on strength or power to get the ball where he wants it. He's like Greg Maddux. If he puts the ball in the perfect spot, it doesn't matter how hard he throws it, there's nothing you'll be able to do.  

2. The Chicago Bears Defense

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    The Chicago Bears are not a very good offensive team. I figured they would be with Matt Forte coming back healthy and the addition of Brandon Marshall. But they rarely seem to click on that side of the ball. Their passing attack ranks with the worst in the league, and Jay Cutler still makes plays that leave you scratching your head.

    Looking at the offense alone, you would be hard-pressed to explain why this team is 7-1. With an average defense, you figure maybe they would be 4-4, if that. But this is no average defense. This may turn out to be one of the greatest defenses ever.

    You can look at many of the major statistics, like yards allowed and points allowed, the Bears will be in the top 10 for all of them. Their numbers here aren't outrageous. They aren't giving up three points per  game or anything, but they are solidly in the elite group of defenses.

    More importantly, they are first in the NFL in takeaways and thus turnover differential. They have forced 28 turnovers already and have a fantastic +16 differential. You win a lot of games when you consistently win the turnover battle. 

    Even more importantly, the Bears' defense has taken those turnovers and scored eight defensive touchdowns through eight games. That's one per game.

    But most important of all, I drafted the Bears' defense in 13th round of my fantasy draft. My rule has always been that there is no point in drafting a defense or kicker before the final two rounds. But I was stuck in no man's land with absolutely no skill players that I even remotely liked. The 49ers' defense had gone long before and I decided to take a shot. It has to be the best pick I've ever made.

    The Bears' defense is the fourth-highest scorer out of all players, trailing only Aaron Rodgers, Robert Griffin III and Drew Brees. The Bears are approximately 60 points ahead of the next defense. They have led my team in scoring five times out of nine weeks and are the sole reason I am tied for first place.

    I'm not sure that there has been extensive archiving of fantasy stats, but I am positive this is the greatest fantasy performance by a defense ever. I'm glad to be a part of it.

1. Andrew Luck

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    Think about what the Colts have done here. Following 13 highly successful seasons with one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time, they somehow manage to find the No. 1 one pick the year Andrew Luck comes out of college. A "once in a generation" kind of talent, they told us.

    Get ready for another 13 years. 

    It seems as though it has been a seamless transition. All it took was one year of Curtis Painter and Andrew Luck was theirs forever. And here you have poor Kansas City, which hasn't won a football game with a quarterback that they have drafted in 25 years.

    Makes you kind of mad, doesn't it? How did we let the Colts get away with this?

    No one in their right mind would say now that Luck's career will rival Manning's, but you can't deny he has gotten off to a heck of a start. As of right now, he leads the league in passing yards with 2,631. Of course, he has played nine games whereas most quarterbacks have played just eight, but it is impressive none the less. He has just 10 passing touchdowns, but he has also run five in himself. How very Cam Newton of you, Andrew.

    Statistics aside, he has shown his ability to come through in the clutch. He beat the Green Bay Packers with a last-minute touchdown drive. He led the Colts past Tennessee in overtime. He won a game with huge earlier playoff implications against Miami, accumulating 433 yards through the air. That is a rookie record.

    With the Thursday night victory over Jacksonville, the Colts are 6-3, which means that they are one of the eight best teams in football, record-wise. I don't think anyone expected this kind of success this early in his career, but Luck has made the Colts a strong playoff contender. Their schedule is not hard the rest of the way, and I find it rather unlikely that this team won't make the playoffs. 

    Just don't be surprised when everyone starts saying, "Well, Manning didn't make it to the playoffs his first year..."