Looking into the Second-Half Crystal Ball
The first nine weeks were marked by close games and much more parity than in 2007. Tennessee (8-0), the New York Giants (7-1), Pittsburgh (6-2), and Carolina (6-2) are the only franchises with two or fewer losses. There were eight such squads at this time last season, with all but Detroit reaching the postseason.
25 teams remain in legitimate playoff contention, leaving just seven clubs (Detroit, Cincinnati, Kansas City, St. Louis, San Francisco, Seattle, and Oakland) already looking ahead to 2009.
It's plausible that the AFC West winner will finish at .500 or below—Denver (4-4) and San Diego (3-5) are currently atop the division—while a 10-win NFC East team is sitting at home in January.
Amid such wackiness, here is my best effort to answer 10 questions about how the rest of the 2008 campaign will unfold.
1. Do the Miami Dolphins have a better shot at reaching the playoffs than the Dallas Cowboys?
Amazingly, yes. A Dolphins squad with a single win last season is one game out of first place in the AFC East at 4-4. Dallas—the preseason NFC favorite to reach Super Bowl XLIII—dwells in the NFC East basement with more regular-season losses (four) than they suffered in all of 2007.
After last Sunday's 35-14 drubbing by the division-leading Giants, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones admitted his team's only realistic shot at making the playoffs is as a wild card. For that to happen, the Cowboys (5-4) must leapfrog Washington (6-3) or Philadelphia (5-3) and then hope their record is good enough in a conference that currently features five other non-division leaders with four or fewer losses.
While playing four of their final five games on the road, the Dolphins also must make up ground in a division that has three 5-3 teams (New England, Buffalo, and the New York Jets). But Miami—which, unlike Dallas, is remarkably healthy—benefits from having the NFL's easiest remaining schedule. Miami's upcoming opponents own a .375 winning-percentage, with the combined record of the five non-division foes standing at 9-31.
Bill Parcells, who coached and constructed much of the Cowboys current roster between 2003 to 2006, has reason to smile in his first season running Miami's football operations.
Parcells already worked a minor miracle in 1997 by helping the Jets improve from 1-15 to 9-7 in his first year as head coach. Of the nine clubs to finish winless or with one victory since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger (excluding strike seasons), only the 2002 Carolina Panthers experienced as great a turnaround the following season as the 1997 Jets. Neither team, though, made the playoffs.
One common thread between the 2002 Panthers and 2008 Dolphins: Offensive coordinator Dan Henning. He has done a masterful job getting the most out of a unit sorely lacking big-play wide receivers through smart playcalling and the "Wildcat" formation that has maximized the skills of running back Ronnie Brown.
Miami's defensive coaches also deserve credit for helping a slew of players improve their game, most notably linebacker and NFL Defensive Player of the Year front-runner Joey Porter (league-high 11.5 sacks).
Even without a playoff berth, the Dolphins already have exceeded expectations for 2008. Obviously, the same can't be said about the Cowboys.
2. Will the Tennessee Titans go undefeated?
The 1972 Miami Dolphins shouldn't be sweating—yet.
Tennessee (8-0) isn't nearly as dominant as the 2007 New England Patriots, which outscored their regular-season opponents by an average of 20 points a game en route to a 16-0 record. But the Titans don't have a brutal remaining schedule—five opponents are .500 or below—and catch a break Sunday in Chicago with Bears quarterback Kyle Orton (ankle) sidelined.
The season's final two weeks could be especially interesting, with Tennessee hosting Pittsburgh (6-2) and finishing at Indianapolis (4-4). The Steelers are one of the few remaining foes that can stymie Tennessee's dominating ground game, while the Colts should give a better defensive effort with strong safety Bob Sanders healthy again.
3. Will the Detroit Lions win a game?
No team has ever gone winless in a 16-game season, but the Lions (0-8) have a legitimate shot at entering the record books for all the wrong reasons.
The problems start at quarterback, where Dan Orlovsky is out for several weeks with a sprained thumb. That leaves either the unproven Drew Stanton or recently signed retread Daunte Culpepper under center.
After Sunday's home game against Jacksonville—which just lost to the previously winless Bengals—Detroit doesn't play a sub-.500 team the rest of the season. Unless the Lions can catch an opponent sleeping, Detroit's best shot at winning may come Dec. 7 against visiting Minnesota (4-4).
The Lions will be coming off a long rest following a Thanksgiving Day game against Tennessee (eesh) and fell just short on the road against the Vikings in last month's 12-10 loss.
4. Which rookie quarterback will make the playoffs—Atlanta's Matt Ryan or Baltimore's Joe Flacco?
Ryan. As I've written before, there's no way he's a rookie. My sources say Ryan has actually been playing in Canada the past three years under an assumed name.
In all seriousness, Ryan won't break Ben Roethlisberger's NFL rookie record for victories (13) but he is a much more polished product. Ryan also is surrounded by Pro Bowl talent at running back (Michael Turner) and wide receiver (Roddy White), as well as an offensive line playing significantly better than expected.
While the secondary and run defense are still areas of concern, the Falcons do benefit from a schedule that includes five home contests and no cold-weather games.
Baltimore's playoff path is brutally bumpy, with games against all four NFC East teams as well as a Dec. 14 home rematch against the AFC North-leading Steelers. That will probably be too much for Flacco to handle at this point in his career. But thanks to a sound rushing attack and menacing defense, the Ravens could make things interesting—especially with Pittsburgh also facing a challenging second-half schedule and Roethlisberger (shoulder) banged up.
5. Who will win the NFL's Most Valuable Player award?
This one is too close to call. Unlike in most seasons, the best teams so far (Titans and Giants) don't have a single skill-position player who stands out as worthy of this honor. A strong argument can be made for Tennessee defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth, but the MVP is rarely given to players at any other positions besides quarterback and running back.
Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor (1986) and Redskins kicker Mark Moseley (1981) are the lone exceptions over the previous 36 seasons.
Another curious piece of history: The last MVP from a non-playoff team was running back O.J. Simpson in 1973. That could very well be the case this year with New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees, who is my choice ahead of Redskins running back Clinton Portis, Arizona quarterback Kurt Warner, and Houston wide receiver Andre Johnson.
Not only is he on pace to break Dan Marino's single-season passing record of 5,084 yards, Brees has completed 69.1 percent of his passes despite being without the services of such receiving targets as Reggie Bush, Jeremy Shockey, and Marques Colston at different points during the first eight games.
Brees also has thrown just seven interceptions in 304 attempts and, as evidenced by his seven sacks, augmented excellent pass protection with his nimbleness in the pocket.
But will MVP voters want to reward Brees if he doesn't make the postseason? Largely because of defensive deficiencies, the Saints (4-4) are in last place in the NFC South. New Orleans must make up ground in five division games over the next eight weeks, including Sunday's road match-up with Atlanta.
Here's what we do know: Quarterback Tom Brady—who received 49 of 50 MVP votes in 2007—won't repeat after suffering a season-ending knee injury in the first game.
6. What head coaches won't be back in 2009?
It might be easier to list the ones who will be returning. We've already had three in-season changes, with St. Louis' Jim Haslett having much better odds of keeping the spot permanently than fellow interim coaches Tom Cable (Oakland) and Mike Singletary (San Francisco).
Seattle's Mike Holmgren is committed to retiring at the end of the season. Indianapolis coach Tony Dungy could very well be joining him.
Detroit's Rod Marinelli is a goner. Cincinnati's Marvin Lewis and Kansas City's Herm Edwards—whose teams are a combined 2-15—could be coaching their last game against each other in the Dec. 28 season finale.
Wade Phillips (Dallas), Brad Childress (Minnesota), Romeo Crennel (Cleveland), and Eric Mangini (Jets) are in trouble if their teams don't make the playoffs or show notable improvement in the season's second half.
Denver coach Mike Shanahan seems safe because of his strong relationship with team owner Pat Bowlen, but it's fair to question his job security should the Broncos fail to make the playoffs for a third consecutive season.
Another caveat: The University of Tennessee's vacancy—which should pay in the $4 million range annually based on what other top college head coaches are earning—could prove alluring to an NFL boss. Rumors about Tampa Bay's Jon Gruden were circulating even before it became official that Phil Fulmer won't be back.
7. How will Brett Favre's first—and potentially last—season with the New York Jets turn out?
Favre has proven maddeningly inconsistent in his first eight games with Gang Green. He has thrown a touchdown once every 17.5 pass attempts. Only San Diego's Philip Rivers has a better percentage among the other four quarterbacks with at least 15 touchdown passes.
Favre, though, also has tossed an NFL-high 12 interceptions. Many have come on ill-advised throws. Jets coach Eric Mangini has spoken with Favre about making better decisions, which paid dividends last Sunday when he was picked off just once in a 26-17 road victory at Buffalo.
Even if Favre doesn't completely tone down his gunslinger style, I give New York better odds of making the playoffs than his former team—the up-and-down Green Bay Packers (4-4).
The Jets should win for the fifth time in six games Sunday against visiting St. Louis. New York also plays only one team with a winning record in its final five contests.
But for a player nearing the end like Favre, just reaching the postseason isn't good enough. Whether the Jets are a legitimate Super Bowl contender should become clearer after back-to-back road games later this month against New England and Tennessee.
8. Can the Arizona Cardinals find a way to blow the NFC West?
Not even the Cardinals can mess this one up. Arizona (5-3) already has a three-game lead in the NFL's worst division and is on track to play its first home playoff game since—get this—1947.
The big question now is whether Arizona can secure a first-round bye, which would be huge for a team that melts outside the desert. The Cardinals have lost all three of their games in the Eastern Time Zone and may ultimately have to return in the postseason to face the Giants.
At least one victory in upcoming games at Philadelphia (Nov. 27) and New England (Dec. 21) would go a long way toward boosting Arizona's confidence heading into the playoffs.
9. What team is best poised for a second-half surge?
Dare I say the aptly-named San Diego Chargers? Yes, this is the AFC's most disappointing franchise. San Diego, though, has lost four games by a combined total of 14 points and is only one game out of the AFC West lead. Just like last season, the Chargers can get on a second-half roll with four of their next five games at home.
Winning the division also would secure a first-round playoff game, even though the conference's two wild-card teams would probably finish with a better record.
10. Will Adam "Pacman" Jones play in the NFL again this season?
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones is still holding out hope, but I just can't see NFL commissioner Roger Goodell letting Adam Jones on the field in 2008. Pacman knew he was on a short leash when initially reinstated by Goodell and still couldn't keep from getting into trouble.
Is Jones really going to reinvent himself after just four weeks in an alcohol rehabilitation program? Don't expect Goodell—whose league gets embarrassed every time Jones screws up—to try and find out.
This article originally published on FOXSports.com.
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