NFL's 10 Biggest Surprises of the First Half
The Bills lead the AFC East? Cam Newton is the second coming of Joe Montana? Tony Sparano hasn't been fired? What is going on in the NFL?
As the first half of the season is wrapping up (for most teams, at least), the NFL is remains as intriguing as ever. Power houses have become doormats and doormats have been wiping their feet on other teams.
Some teams' seasons are already over and are eyeing the prize at the beginning of 2012's draft. It's only been one half of the season and I feel like there's been enough excitement for the entire thing. Stop and consider for a second that we came dangerously close to not even having an NFL season at all.
These are the 10 biggest surprises this season. If this is only the beginning, I can't imagine what the NFL has in store for us next.
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I expected Chris Johnson to struggle once the year began. When players miss training camp they always seem to come in and play below their normal level, but did anyone really expect Johnson to just be this plain bad?
Running backs don't run for 2,000 yards very often, so when Johnson lied to me and told me he was rushing for 2,500 I somehow believed him. He didn't do that, and in this follow-up year he'll be lucky to reach 1,000.
Johnson is averaging only 2.9 yards per carry this year. That includes his only 100-yard performance against the Browns in Week 4. This week he was gifted a get-back-on-track game against the Colts, who haven't been able to stop the run in years, and especially this year. They held him to 34 yards on 14 carries.
He's not been the beneficiary of good run blocking, but this is just ridiculous. Even Cedric Benson averages better than 2.8 yards per carry.
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May I introduce to you your AFC East first-place Buffalo Bills. Wait, what?
Yes, that's right. The Patriots were handled by the Steelers on Sunday and now the team most thought would be bottom feeding is the most likely playoff team out of what may be the best division in football.
The Bills offense has leveled off some, but has been effective and versatile. Ryan Fitzpatrick may not be the best quarterback in the league, but he's definitely above average and plenty good to compete. However, Fred Jackson has really been the one to lead the way.
Jackson is fourth in the league in rushing at 721 yards. His six rushing touchdowns are tied for fifth, behind Adrian Peterson's league-leading nine. He's also had 27 receptions for 353 yards. He's forced 24 missed tackles and has a league-high 4.03 yards gained after contact. All of this from a 30 year old running back.
The Bills defense is playing a lot like the Saints did when they won the Super Bowl. They give up a lot of yards in the air and on the ground, but they force a lot of turnovers. They lead the AFC in turnover differential at plus-nine.
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It doesn't matter what your opinion was of Newton on draft day. You could have thought he was a great prospect, very worthy of the No. 1 overall pick, or you could have thought he was a JaMarcus Russel franchise-ruining nightmare.
Either way, no one expected Newton to play the way he's playing. Newton threw for 400 yards in his very first NFL start. And in his second. He's on pace to shatter the NFL rookie passing records set by Peyton Manning, and more than anything he just looks good.
A lot of people didn't like Newton's personality, thinking he was an "entertainer" and he cared more about his brand than he did football. If you watch Newton play, there is nothing more apparent than the energy, desire and want to win. He tries harder than anyone else on the field, and that's something Carolina needed desperately.
We're looking at the rise of the next great quarterback. Newton is only a rookie, and he's defying what's conventional for a first-year quarterback.
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The Eagles went out and signed every big-name free agent they could find. They were gathering such a collection of god given talent that Vince Young called them the "dream team."
Then reality came crashing down on them. It turns out you can't just go sign every big-name player in a lockout where there's no training camp or OTAs and expect to just win.
The Eagles are sitting in a much better position after drubbing the Cowboys at home on Sunday night, but it doesn't erase the 1-4 hole they put themselves in to begin with. Michael Vick is not Superman (Cam Newton is) and the secondary is vulnerable despite ace cover men Nnamdi Asomugha and Asante Samuel.
The team has been vulnerable to distraction, bad play and just plain stupidity. Anyone who saw Ronnie Brown's half-hearted pass fumble about sums up the Eagles season. Every game is now a playoff game for them. The East is too competitive to think they can just show up and win.
Bill Belichick's Defense
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Belichick is renowned for being one of the greatest defensive minds in football. This year, it hasn't looked like it.
The Patriots defense is one of the absolute worst in football. Football Outsiders has them ranked 28th in their play-by-play value rankings, 30th against the pass and 21st against the run.
The Patriots won three Super Bowls because of a stellar defense, not because of Tom Brady's heroics. They are now out of first place in the AFC East because of their defense. If a team makes the Patriots one-dimensional like the Steelers did, they can be beaten. Or if you force turnovers and outright outscore the Patriots.
Belichick doesn't really have a great excuse, either. They have talent on the defensive side of the ball, especially on the defensive line. Devin McCourty had a tremendous rookie season and is a promising player. They really lack good safety play, but that's something a defensive guru is supposed to be able to deal with.
The Patriots look more mortal now than they have in a long time. It's clear this Patriots team isn't going to be able to match up against other powerhouse offenses like the Packers and feel good about it.
Mike Brown Budges
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It was the immovable object versus the unstoppable force. David versus Goliath. The Bengals versus an NFL football team.
Mike Brown versus Carson Palmer.
We had heard for months that Palmer was retired in the eyes of the Bengals. Mike Brown has an iron will and is rarely moved from the stances he takes. Palmer looked done to everyone in the NFL. Then on the day of the trade deadline Hue Jackson and Amy Trask of the Oakland Raiders convinced the Brown to let go of his former quarterback in return for a first-round pick this year and a second-rounder the year after that could conditionally become a first if the Raiders make it to the AFC Championship.
This is the same Mike Brown who wouldn't trade Chad Ochocinco to the Redskins for a pair of first-rounders. The man's stubbornness and stupidity has been hurting the organization for years, but it appears now that he might just get it.
One might say Palmer won out. He went to the Raiders.
Well played, Mike Brown, well played.
Philip Rivers' Struggles
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We've grown accustomed to Rivers being the driving force of the San Diego Chargers, but he's had a ton of problems this year.
Rivers has thrown only seven touchdowns this year, compared to nine interceptions. That's the most interceptions he's ever thrown during a six-game span. Oddly enough, all these interceptions have been coming on passes thrown within 10 yards.
Rivers has still managed to put up 1,715 yards.
Rivers cost the Chargers a game against the Jets that could have been put away. His two interceptions allowed the Jets to rally and make a come back victory.
Rivers was able to overcome all odds last year and post MVP-like numbers despite not having Vincent Jackson, Malcom Floyd, or Antonio Gates almost every game. This year he has his full cadre of receivers, though Gates has been hurt, and he still has been struggling mightily.
Rivers will need to step up his game and quickly. The Raiders and Chiefs are nipping at the AFC West lead.
Jim Harbaugh and the 49ers
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Harbaugh had all the looks of a sure-fire coach when the 49ers hired him. He's certainly proving that to be true.
The 49ers have the been the love child of the football media for the past few years. Every year they've been predicted to win the NFC West, and handily. They were a bad team last year, and despite losing several defensive stalwarts to free agency they have dramatically improved.
The 49ers could easily end up 13-3. The rest of their schedule is largely against their NFC West rivals, all of whom look to be the dregs of the league. Even if they drop four games of their last nine they would stand at 11-5 and a likely first-round bye.
What's really surprising is how well Harbaugh is getting Alex Smith to play. Smith isn't playing spectacularly by any means, but he's not turning the ball over and he's being very efficient in the passing game. I wouldn't want Smith to lead me to a Super Bowl, but right now it looks like he very well could.
I feel like I should erase that sentence.
Tony Sparano Hasn't Been Fired
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This one is truly astounding.
The Dolphins were publicly courting Harbaugh while Sparano was still coaching the Dolphins. They gave him a two-year extension as some kind of public apology and they are predictably regretting it. Sparano has a talented roster yet is unable to generate anything resembling a victory.
There should be some public skepticism of the Dolphins ownership and front office. Sparano seems like a sure fire way to lose as many games as possible, which begs the question that the Dolphins are all in on the Suck for Luck campaign. The players may be offended by the idea, but would ownership? They've been searching for their next Dan Marino for a long time.
Sparano's house is reportedly on the market. It may not be long, but they may wait until the Colts win a game to send him packing.
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Everyone in the league knew how valuable Peyton Manning was to the Colts, but if Manning were under center would the Colts even be .500 right now?
The Colts defense has been truly atrocious. It is easily handled on the ground and through the air, and doesn't even give the Colts offense a chance to put them in the game. Curtis Painter isn't a franchise quarterback, but he's average enough to get some wins.
The Colts' woes over the past couple years could just be covered up by how good Manning is. He scores points and keeps a defense that relies heavily on Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney off the field. How good would Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark be if it were not for Manning throwing to them?
The Colts have a serious lack of talent on both sides of the ball and it's showing. They've had very poor drafts over the past couple of years, and even if they draft a talent like Andrew Luck, they will not be the perennial contenders they have been for a couple of years.
This year will be the first time in nine years the Colts will not win at least 10 games.