We’ve been busy lately, with paid music and writing gigs and also a special free-lance photography project I hope to have completed by the spring of ‘08. I’ve still got my finger on the NFL’s pulse, though.
For most teams, this is the halfway point—eight games into the season—and a good time to take stock. There are plenty of disappointments out there: Rams (0-8), Jets (1-8), 49ers (2-6), Bengals (2-6), Broncos (3-5), Bears (3-5), and I guess even the Dolphins (0-8), though maybe they’re about where they should be. (Not a good team, those Fins.)
The downtrodden are balanced a little by the happy warriors of pleasant surprise: Packers (7-1), Giants (6-2), Lions (6-2), and Browns (5-3).
While the Patriots continue to make it all look academic, watching the mini-races in the divisions is where all the second-half fun will be. Here’s what everyone did this past weekend:
Patriots 24, Colts 20—Well, anyway, Vegas was wrong. The Colts (7-1) covered the spread—but not Randy Moss and Donte Stallworth when it counted most. If anyone needed convincing that the 9-0 Pats are the very best in football, it’s a done deal now. They won on the road, too—and wiped out a 10-point deficit in the fourth quarter. Against the then-undefeated world champions. Impressive.
Titans 20, Panthers 7—Never mind Vince Young. Three years ago the Titans drafted a bunch of defensive linemen most people never heard of. They threw them in with veteran underachiever Albert Haynesworth and picked up veteran overachiever Kyle Vanden Bosch along the way, and then added unheralded Tony Brown into the mix. Now they’re all of them kicking serious ass. The team is 6-2, and with a D like that, Young can sputter and they still win. Pacman who?? LenDale White records his third straight 100-yard rushing game. Panthers (4-4) have QB woes but still very much alive in the NFC South.
Redskins 23, Jets 20—Skins remain the worst 5-3 team around. Still, they hung tough on the road against a desperate Jets squad, rebounding from a 17-3 deficit and winning it in overtime. Clinton Portis gains 196 yards on the ground. The Jets also have QB woes, and at 1-8 have to wonder who put this awful hex on ‘em. (Don't look at me—I picked 'em at 9-7 for the season.) They were 10-6 in ‘06 and went to the playoffs.
Lions 44, Broncos 7—The preseason SMA prediction on the Lions? 10-6. People laughed. How do you like me now?? Detroit is 6-2, tied for the second-best record in the NFC. And they’re probably getting better, too. The Broncos are a real surprise at 3-5. Mike Shanahan teams just don’t usually look this bad. QB Jay Cutler gets added to the team's growing injury list, and RB Travis Henry still has an upcoming date with a judge. And the secondary is looking old. Don’t count ‘em out quite yet; they’re in that goofy AFC West.
Saints 41, Jaguars 24—That’s four straight for the now 4-4 Saints, after a miserable start and the loss of Deuce McAllister to injury, possibly forever. Drew Brees throws for 445 yards, three TDS and 0 INTs, and suddenly New Orleans is right back into the hunt for the NFC South crown. Jags missing David Garrard, and very unusual for them to yield 41 points. Now 5-3, they fall to third place in the AFC South.
Vikings 35, Chargers 17—Vikes only 3-5 but blessed with the best running back on the planet. Adrian Peterson gains 296 yards against a usually stingy Chargers D, setting a new single-game NFL record. They say he reminds people of Eric Dickerson, but that’s a politically easy evasion. The fact is he looks a lot like—gasp!—O.J. Simpson in his prime. He’s big and rangy and galloping and can make subtle cuts. That’s running like The Juice. E.D. had more of a straight-up style, which A.P. mimics near the line of scrimmage, but once he’s loose he’s an O.J. clone. Chargers are 4-4 and suffering the Curse of the Norv. Yet they’re tied for the AFC West lead and can still control their destiny.
Packers 33, Chiefs 22—So far, the Patriots notwithstanding, this is the story of the year. Green Bay is 7-1, and only one weak quarter against the Bears away from perfection. They have no running game, but Brett Favre continues to reaffirm his legend. Plus, this Little Engine That Could has a tenacious defense and a lot of young, hungry players. Last week, they won an emotional game in overtime in Denver on a Monday night. Then, with a short work week, and again going on the road, they pulled the same theatrics on the Chiefs, who are not a bad team at all. That’s serious stuff, and whether it’s magic or moxie, the Packers look to be contenders. Chiefs, now 4-4, missed a chance to take AFC West lead, but they’re still right there.
Browns 33, Seahawks, 30—Another surprise team, the Browns improved to 5-3. The emergence of Derek Anderson at QB has been a godsend, and they should continue to challenge better teams. Seahawks look uninspired. RB Shaun Alexander seems to have lost his mojo. But the team is situated in the mediocre NFC West, and they lead the pack there with a 4-4 record.
Bills 33, Bengals 21—The SMA preseason prediction had the Bengals contending strongly for the AFC North crown. Hah! They’re 2-6 and just look lousy. They’re totally out of synch. They can score points, but when they do, their defense just gives ‘em right back. The Bills, on the other hand, are now a surprising 4-4. This after devastating injuries on both sides of the ball and some tough early losses. A totally scrappy bunch, and Dick Jauron’s an early favorite for AFC Coach of the Year.
Buccaneers 17, Cardinals 10—Look who’s leading the NFC South. It’s the 5-4 Bucs, behind the indefatigable Jeff Garcia. Predicting the Bucs’ fate is impossible—they simply don’t seem to have the horses or the staying power. But if they just take it one game at a time... Cards are a mediocre 3-5, and they truly look like a mediocrity. Yet they’re only a game out of the NFC West lead, so there is definitely something to play for.
Texans 24, Raiders 17—I said in the preseason that the Texans were an interesting team to watch. They’ve disappointed a little, but they’ve also had health problems with starting QB Matt Schaub. Yet they remain a competitive 4-5 in the tough AFC South, and Sage Rosenfels (one of my favorite NFL names) has stepped up as signal-caller and seems to have a knack for throwing big passes. They’re not done. The Raiders, however, at 2-6, just might be. They’re rotating their retread QBs, which maybe means that JaMarcus Russell’s debut can’t be far away. At least the Raiders aren’t embarrassing themselves like last year. Not yet, anyway.
Falcons 20, 49ers 16—Both teams are now 2-6. For the Falcons, that shows progress; for the Niners, it’s more disappointment, and their sixth loss in a row after a 2-0 start. Any news is good news for Atlanta, and QB Joey Harrington minimized mistakes and RB Warrick Dunn rushed for more than 100 yards.
Cowboys 38, Eagles 17—I turned this game off early on Sunday night. It kind of smelled like a dog of a contest, and indeed it was. Cowboys, now 7-1, look to be the class of the NFC. Eagles are 3-5, and got spanked at home by a rival they should always be up for. Andy Reid’s on-field troubles threaten to match his off-the-field woes.
Steelers 38, Ravens 7—Another prime-time stinker. Ravens generate no offense, and Steelers' Roethlisberger stands tall in the backfield and hurls five TD passes. Now 6-2, Pittsburgh looks like possibly the only legit candidate to ruin the Patriots' aspirations for a perfect season. They play at New England on Dec. 9. The Ravens get a crack at the Pats in Baltimore on the Monday night prior, Dec. 3.