Seeing how this NFL season has been characterized by surprises, I've based my midseason report on the surprises of the season, as well as predicting the second half and handing out my awards and All-Pro spots.
Five Surprise Players
Cedric Benson: If somebody said that Cedric Benson would be the league's second leading rusher on a 6-2 Bengals team at the start of last year, they would have been tested for drug use. Now that is a reality.
Benson has been incredibly good so far this year behind a vastly improved offensive line. Benson has had 100-yard rushing games in both contests against Baltimore, traditionally one of the best run defenses in the league. Running up the middle, right at Ngata and Lewis isn't exactly a formula for success, but Benson made Baltimore's defense look like Detroit's in the two Bengals-Ravens games this season,
At this pace Benson should make his first Pro Bowl since being the fourth overall pick in the draft five years back. The Bears have to be wondering where this guy was in Chicago.
Brett Favre: Wait, aren't 40-year-olds supposed to slow down? Instead Favre was tied for the league lead in touchdown passes before his bye week came up. Favre cooked up a lot of magic this season. He threw the miracle pass to Greg Lewis in the back of the end zone, he beat his former team twice, and threw a bomb to Sidney Rice to set up the game winning field goal against Baltimore.
Favre hasn't been the turnover machine he's been in the past either. In fact, he has the best TD-interception ration the the NFL. Yes, in the Vikings only loss he had some extremely costly turnovers that gave Pittsburgh the game, but those were very fluky and not "signature" Brett Favre turnovers. He hasn't been forcing passes and taking big risks this season. It seems he's finally realized that he is 40 and not 28 anymore. Maybe the 50-yard, across the body throw into double coverage used to be attainable, but No. 4 knows he isn't the same guy who won those MVP's in the 90's.
Chad Ochocinco: Ochocinco might get on people's nerves, but among those should not be Bengals fans right now. The artist formerly known as Chad Johnson is back to being an elite receiver he was a few years ago. Now he can trash talk and back it up. That's not good news for anybody who doesn't like when Ochocinco runs his mouth.
To touch on Ochocinco's incredibly arrogant attitude, even I, an Oregon State fan and big supporter of Ochocinco, was tired of him bragging about being a top flight guy and dominating secondaries when he was going out on the field and laying duds. I thought the Bengals would be wise to move him and throw tons of money at Houshmandzadeh, who is a bit of a prima donna as well, but not in the same talent pool that Ocho is in.
Funny how things work out.
Vincent Jackson: True, Jackson had a very good year last year, but he's been great this year. It's not crazy, in fact, it's quite sane to say that he has been the league's best wideout thus far.
It seems like every game Jackson scores a touchdown (he has seven). Rivers no longer looks for Gates first, but Jackson. Also, in every game Rivers finds V-Jax for a 30-plus-yard bomb it seems. It is very arguable that Rivers and Jackson have better chemistry than any other QB-WR tandem in the league.
Darren Sharper: Sharper is now tied for the most interception return touchdowns of all-time with the great corner/safety Rod Woodson. The amazing thing is that he has had three of those this season, while in his mid-thirties.
He is the leader of a revitalized Saints defense and secondary that has almost single-handedly won them a few games this year. Even when Brees and the offense isn't clicking, the Saints have been able to win because their defense has scored points as well.
What a move the Saints were able to make by grabbing the veteran in free agency. No other new addition to any team has made such a colossal impact.
Five Surprise! They stink! Players
T.J. Houshmandzadeh: Who would have ever thought that leaving Cincinnati would be such a horrible decision for Houshmandzadeh. Not only is he less involved in Seattle's offense than he was in Cincy's, but the Bengals are the front runners in a stacked AFC North and finally have Carson Palmer healthy. Housh has been the victim of some very bad luck, but his production just doesn't cut for the elite receiver he has been for the past few years.
Matt Forte: Most running backs have a breakout year in their second year in the league (see Chris Johnson). Forte has taken a big step back. While he is still very involved in the passing game, he has done little for the Bears on the ground. He's barely averaging 50 yards per game carrying the ball, and he had more than 200 of his 441 yards in two blowouts of Detroit and Cleveland (a combined 3-13).
For Chicago to contend for the playoffs, Forte must step up his game.
Terrell Owens: Many who read this name will be thinking, "I already knew he stunk," or something like that. However, most people still predicted a 1,000 yard, eight-score season from Owens. Now those numbers seem utterly insane. Now having Ryan Fitzpatrick and Trent Edwards throwing to him doesn't help T.O., but he should be doing much better. A good wide receiver gets open enough for even a bad QB to get him the ball (see Calvin Johnson last season).
LaDainian Tomlinson: It wasn't too long ago that Tomlinson was breaking touchdown records. Now he's just breaking his body.
Even when healthy this season, LDT has been very ineffective, only averaging 3.2 yards per carry. It's time for Darren Sproles to start getting some of the work.
Jamarcus Russell: Okay, so we all knew he sucked, but nobody realized that he stunk this bad. He is completing only 48 percent of his passes and has an abysmal 48.3 passer rating. Oakland is going to be bad for quite a while longer.
Three Surprise Coaches
Jim Caldwell: He has been in Indy with Tony Dungy for a while and has done a job that Dungy would be proud of there. The Colts have dealt with a slew of injuries, especially in the secondary, yet the defense has been as solid as ever. Caldwell was a relative unknown when he was handed the Colts job, but his name is one every football fan should know now.
Josh McDaniels: McDaniels was seen as a "baby" head coach at the start of the season, not only because of his age and rookie status, but also how he handled the Cutler situation. Now he's regarded as somewhat of a coaching genius, particularly because of Kyle Orton's impressive play. It seems every quarterback McDaniels touches turns to gold.
Gregg Williams: He might not be a head coach, but his defense is the reason the Saints are still undefeated. The Saints pick off everybody (except, ironically, Jake Delhomme) they have won games solely because of their playmaking defense. Williams has been extremely aggressive against everybody they've played and it's panned out.
Three Surprise! They stink! Coaches
John Fox: The Panthers are on pace to put in yet another mediocre campaign the year after a successful one. The Panthers streak of missing the playoffs in the year after they make it should be in tact by the time January rolls around. The Panthers have inexplicably turned to Jake Delhomme to throw 40 times in close games, which considering their running game, is absurd.
Jeff Fisher: Fisher is the longest tenured coach in the NFL. So when was the last time the Titans actually won a playoff game? It was back in the McNair (RIP) and George days. Those days are long gone. Fisher might have overstayed his welcome if the Titans don't have a great second half.
Norv Turner: No surprise here. Everybody knows Norv is a great coordinator, but continually he underachieves as a head coach. He's done it yet again this year in San Diego. Why does he continue to get hired?
Midseason All-Pro Team (*easiest choices)
*no offensive linemen b/c of inability to judge them
QB Peyton Manning (Indianapolis)*
RB Chris Johnson (Tennessee)
RB Cedric Benson (Cincinnati)*
WR Reggie Wayne (Indianapolis)*
WR Vincent Jackson (San Diego)
TE Dallas Clark (Indianapolis)
KR/PR Percy Harvin (Minnesota)
DE Jered Allen (Minnesota)*
DE Dwight Freeney (Indianapolis)
DT Casey Hampton (Pittsburgh)
DT Kevin Williams (Minnesota)
OLB Elvis Dumervil (Denver)*
ILB David Harris (New York Jets)
ILB Patrick Willis (San Francisco)
OLB James Harrison (Pittsburgh)
CB Darrelle Revis (New York Jets)*
CB Asante Samuel (Philadelphia)
S Darren Sharper (New Orleans)*
S Jairus Byrd (Buffalo)
MVP: Peyton Manning - The Colts are off to a torrid start yet again with Manning at the helm. The Colts continue to dominate every single year and there might be a very small reason for that. Manning is one of the best football players ever and he's been the most valuable guy this season.
Offensive Player of the Year: Drew Brees - The best player on the league's best offense gets the nod. Brees has had some below-average games this season, but he's basically leading the new "Greatest Show on Turf" this year in the Superdome. The Saints offense is close to matching those early 2000s Rams and 2007 Patriots offenses.
Defensive Player of the Year: Darren Sharper - It seems like every week this guy takes an interception back for a touchdown. Nobody would be surprised if he took back a few more this season. He is a ball hawk.
Offensive Rookie of the Year: Percy Harvin - Mark Sanchez has been key for the Jets, but New York is fading fast. Harvin makes plays through the air, on returns and makes one huge play every week to help his team win. All of the teams that passed on Harvin in the draft must be kicking themselves now.
Defensive Rookie of the Year: Dairus Byrd - Five straight games with an interception for a rookie is about all that is needed for this award. He is tied for the league lead in interceptions with seven.
Comeback Player of the Year: Tom Brady - Up until the Denver game, there were whispers that Brady was never going to be the same; that he would never be 2007 Brady. Enter Tennessee and Tampa Bay. Brady threw for nine touchdowns in those two games. He is on pace for 32 touchdowns. Not too shabby for a guy coming off of an extremely serious knee injury.
Coach of the Year: Josh McDaniels - San Diego, New England, Cincinnati. Their combined records? 17-7. Denver has beaten all of those teams. By luck and hard nosed football the Broncos are now 6-2 with a coach who was rumored to be on the hot seat before the season even started. McDaniels knows how to get the best out of all of his guys and has proven all of the critics dead wrong about his leadership ability.
Predicting the Rest of the Year
MVP: Tom Brady
Offensive POY: Chris Johnson
Defensive POY: Dwight Freeney
Offensive ROY: Percy Harvin
Defensive ROY: Brian Cushing
Comeback POY: Tom Brady
Coach: Josh McDaniels
East: New England (14-2), New York Jets (8-8), Miami Dolphins (6-10), Buffalo Bills (4-12)
West: Denver (12-4), San Diego (12-4). Kansas City (4-12), Oakland (3-13)
North: Pittsburgh (13-3), Cincinnati (12-4), Baltimore (10-6), Cleveland (1-15)
South: Indianapolis (14-2), Jacksonville (8-8), Houston (8-8), Tennessee (5-11)
1. New England
5. San Diego
Pittsburgh over Cincinnati
San Diego over Denver
San Diego over New England
Pittsburgh over Indianapolis
San Diego over Pittsburgh
AFC Champion: San Diego Chargers
East: New York Giants (10-6), Dallas (10-6), Philadelphia (9-7), Washington (3-13)
West: Arizona (11-5), San Francisco (7-9), Seattle (6-10), St. Louis (2-14)
North: Minnesota (12-4), Chicago (8-8), Green Bay (8-8), Detroit (2-14)
South: New Orleans (13-3), Atlanta (10-6), Carolina (9-7), Tampa Bay (1-15)
1. New Orleans
4. New York Giants
Atlanta over Arizona
NY Giants over Dallas
New Orleans over Atlanta
Minnesota over NY Giants
Minnesota over New Orleans
NFC Champion: Minnesota
Super Bowl: San Diego 27, Minnesota 23 (MVP: Rivers)