David Naylor examines the storylines and surprises of the season’s first half
1. Cedric Benson is a premier running back
The list of high NFL draft picks who struggle and then come back to life is a short one. More than one year after being released by the Chicago Bears, the team that took him fourth overall in the 2004 draft, Benson is enjoying a career season with the Cincinnati Bengals. He’s already set a career high in rushing and has had four 100-yard games. He is the biggest surprise on one of the NFL’s most surprising teams so far.
2. The Dallas Cowboys have a game-breaking receiver in Miles Austin
The undrafted receiver out of Monmouth University caught 18 passes his first three years, but has been a dynamo so far this season, with seven touchdowns and 612 yards. He ranks 11th in NFL in receiving yardage and his 22.7-yard average is the best among players with at least 15 catches. His only catch last Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles was a 49-yard game-winning touchdown.
3. The Pittsburgh Steelers can win with a passing offence
Even after claiming his second Super Bowl ring last February, Ben Roethlisberger got only grudging respect as a passer. This season, the traditionally run-oriented Steelers have an offence built around their quarterback’s ability to throw the ball, attempting at least 30 passes in six of eight games. Roethlisberger has completed more than 20 in all but one.
4. Rome wasn’t built in a day
The worst teams in the NFL from a year ago are all still among the worst teams this season – suggesting rags-to-riches stories like the Atlanta Falcons last season are far more the exception than the rule. In 2008, the three teams with the worst records were the Detroit Lions (0-16), St. Louis Rams (2-14) and Kansas City Chiefs (2-14). All three teams brought in new head coaches and are all 1-7 in 2009.
5. No lead is safe against the New Orleans Saints
In the past three weeks, the Saints have trailed the Carolina Panthers 17-3, Atlanta 14-7 and the Miami Dolphins 24-3 – and won all three games by an average of 10 points. The Saints’ ability to score points quickly is unparalleled.
6. The Cleveland Browns and Oakland Raiders are in worse shape off the field than on it
If their performances aren’t very entertaining, at least there has been lots of drama. The two franchises have together been outscored by 254 points, and generated just 13 touchdowns in 16 games. Browns owner Randy Lerner fired first-year general manager George Kokinis, who had been hired by first-year head coach Eric Mangini. In Oakland, there is the saga of head coach Tom Cable, who has been accused of assault by an assistant coach and two women, his former wife and a former girlfriend.
7. Buffalo Bills offence is even worse with T.O.
Signing star receiver Terrell Owens wasn’t going to turn the Bills from a bad to a good team, but it did not seem too much to assume he’d improve their offence, giving them more big-play potential and the ability to stretch the field. Instead, Owens has caught just one touchdown pass and hasn’t made a catch for more than 20 yards since Week 4. Last season, the Bills were the NFL’s 22nd-ranked passing team and 25th in total offence. This season, they are 30th in passing and 29th in total offence.
8. Michael Vick is not a factor
Even animal-rights protesters have largely left him alone. After two years in prison, Vick’s return to the NFL was supposed to be one of the great storylines of this season. The former Atlanta Falcons star is a role player in an otherwise powerful Philadelphia Eagles offence. He’s hardly even a curiosity at this point. He doesn’t appear to have the great acceleration that made him so unique before he went to prison for his part in running a dog-fighting ring. And the Eagles don’t even need him as a backup, since Kevin Kolb has played well when Donovan McNabb has been hurt. The only curiosity is about which team will trade for Vick before next season.
9. It is possible to go from the penthouse to the outhouse overnight
A year ago, the Tennessee Titans and Carolina Panthers had the best records in their respective conferences at 13-3 and 12-4. Not only are they no longer on the list of teams to beat, but they’ve got off to a combined start of 5-11. Both squads have struggled at quarterback, with the Titans going from Kerry Collins to Vince Young after they lost their sixth consecutive game to open the season. On defence, the Titans rank No. 31 compared to No. 7 a year ago. The Panthers have just five touchdown passes, compared to 14 interceptions – enough to sink any team in a hurry.
10. It was worth waiting for Brett Favre to decide if he wanted to play this season
Given the way he finished last season, and given what happens to most athletes who try to extend their careers beyond their best-before date, Favre ending his retirement to join the Minnesota Vikings seemed like a giant risk for both sides. It’s not just the on-field heroics that have helped the veteran quarterback exceed expectations. He’s also on pace for one of his best seasons – at 40.
Five to Watch
1 Cincinnati Bengals (6-2) at Pittsburgh Steelers (6-2)
The surprising Bengals have knocked off division rival Baltimore twice this season. Can they do the same to Pittsburgh? Steelers have won five in a row.
2 Dallas Cowboys (6-2) at Green Bay Packers (4-4)
Winners in five of their past six, the Cowboys ride the momentum of last week’s win over Philadelphia into Lambeau Field. Packers are still reeling from loss to previously winless Tampa Bay.
3 Philadelphia Eagles (5-3) at San Diego Chargers (5-3)
Chargers try to win second in a row against an NFC East opponent. Eagles continue to blow hot and cold from week to week.
4 New England Patriots (6-2) at Indianapolis Colts (8-0)
The classic matchup of the two dominant NFL teams and quarterbacks of the past decade – and the toughest challenge yet for the Colts.
5 Atlanta Falcons (5-3) at Carolina Panthers (3-5)
Panthers earned some respect last week, keeping things close against New Orleans until late. Falcons have been perfect against mediocre teams, including the Panthers in Week 2.
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