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Wednesday, November 7, 2012
Updated: November 8, 9:10 AM ET
NFL musical midseason report: Part 1

By John Clayton
ESPN.com

Unfortunately, now that the first half of the NFL regular season is over, I don't see Roger Goodell joining me in turning on some Slayer and yelling to retired commissioner Paul Tagliabue, "Hey, Paul, we're done with this segment."

These actions are reserved for "This Is SportsCenter" commercials. In honor of that commercial, we're going to grade the first half of the season a little differently this season. Normally, I put on my professor gear and pass out grades. But my recent "SportsCenter" spot created a positive buzz, so we'll use a musical theme.

This year, we're breaking the league into four categories. I'm not using the label "elite" or identifying the next group as Chad Penningtons, as I do in my quarterback ratings.

Slayer doesn't do Chad Pennington.

Instead, we'll call the best teams "Heavy Metal." The next group is "Classic Rock," the teams good enough to fill an arena but not a stadium. The third classification is "One-Hit Wonders." The worst teams make up the "Elevator Music" category. No one wants to spend three hours listening to Muzak ... or watching the Kansas City Chiefs try to play catch-up.

Let's rock.


ESPN.com NFL Midseason Report:
Musical Midseason, Part 2  |  Musical Midseason, Part 3  |  Super Bowl prediction Video
Clayton's All-Pros and NFL Nation's All-Division teams  |  Playbook: Midseason logo spoofs
SportsNation: Rank the teams  |  Vote for MVP  |  Rank the QBs  |  Your predictions


HEAVY METAL


John Clayton

1. Atlanta Falcons (8-0)

The Falcons might not deafen your ears, but like Van Halen, they haven't disappointed. Matt Ryan has truly been Matty Ice. He keeps this team cool in case a fourth-quarter comeback is needed. The offense bounces between no-huddle and regular sets, but it beats you with a steady diet of passes to Julio Jones, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez. Head coach Mike Smith has gotten out of predictable zone schemes and, thanks to coordinator Mike Nolan, been more creative on defense. Using three defensive tackles on early downs has helped slow opposing runners, and the secondary has been solid.

Arrow is pointing: up



2. Houston Texans (7-1)

Wade Phillips might love country music, but his defense evokes Slayer. The Texans will rock an opposing offense until it bleeds. Defensive end J.J. Watt is the Texans' "Angel of Death." He's been the league's best defensive player in the first half of the season. He sacks quarterbacks and creates interceptions by deflecting passes like few others out of a 3-4 scheme. Running back Arian Foster is like "Raining Blood" as he wears down defenses. This team rocks.

Arrow is pointing: up



3. Chicago Bears (7-1)

Lovie Smith's defense is the Jimmy Page of the NFL this year. Few picked the guitar better than Page did for Led Zeppelin. Likewise, this Bears team has been making music with its pick-sixes, having produced seven interception returns for touchdowns. Chicago is on pace for a plus-32 turnover differential, and teams with those numbers usually win 12 games. Jay Cutler might not be lighting up the scoreboard, but he doesn't have to. If he can generate 20 points, an additional seven points a game from defense and special teams can make an average offense look like a great team.

Arrow is pointing: up



4. New York Giants (6-3)

Judas Priest, will you stop settling for field goals? The Giants are in a great spot to win the NFC East, and they have shown they might have the 49ers' number, but the offense needs to stop playing "football." Lawrence Tynes has 26 field goals in nine games on an offense that seems a little off. No need to worry, though. The Giants went to a Super Bowl with a nine-win team last year, and they will finish with a better record this season in a division that has flatlined in Philadelphia and Dallas.

Arrow is pointing: sideways



5. San Francisco 49ers (6-2)

Jim Harbaugh has assembled a running attack that is Megadeth to defenses. The 49ers are averaging 5.6 yards per carry, and their persona fits the name of their best runner -- Gore. Harbaugh loves to gore a defense with Frank Gore and an onslaught of runners. The running game has been so good they haven't needed to activate free-agent signing Brandon Jacobs, a big banger himself. Harbaugh reconfigured the receiving corps to get the most out of Alex Smith's 16 completions a game.

Arrow is pointing: up



6. Baltimore Ravens (6-2)

It's not true that the Ravens have gotten as old as the Rolling Stones, but they do have the wisdom that comes with age. Despite the loss of Ray Lewis, the Ravens are still pulling out victories, even though Joe Flacco has become a 50-50 proposition for being effective on the road. The 6-2 record puts them in the top six, but they have to play better in the second half to stay ahead of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Arrow is pointing: sideways



7. New England Patriots (5-3)

Like James Hetfield and Kirk Hammett of Metallica, Tom Brady plays fast. His game is tempo. He runs an Oregon pace for the running game. His three-receiver set has incredible tempo. This offense has no problem producing long drives and 80-play games. Problems in the secondary, though, force Brady to be the source of the Patriots' success. But hasn't that always been the case?

Arrow is pointing: up


8. Green Bay Packers (6-3)

If the Packers suffer many more injuries, this group might become a solo act: Aaron Rodgers. But Rodgers is good enough to carry an injured team, and he is doing just that. After this week's bye, the defense might still be without Clay Matthews and Charles Woodson. But Green Bay plays five of its six NFC North games in the second half, which offers the Packers a great chance to get back to the playoffs and be a factor once they get in.

Arrow is pointing: up


9. Denver Broncos (5-3)

Peyton Manning isn't heavy metal, but his return has turned an 8-8 Tim Tebow-led team into the AFC West front-runner. Manning listens to XM Outlaw Country, but the league hasn't found a way to outlaw the way he carves up defenses. He is more dink and dunk these days after four neck operations, but he's the surgeon on the field, and that is a pain in the neck to opponents.

Arrow is pointing: up


10. Pittsburgh Steelers (5-3)

Ben Roethlisberger has gone from Guns N' Roses to The Beatles. Offensive coordinator Todd Haley has Big Ben throwing smarter and shorter. He's dinking and dunking where he used to be gunning the ball downfield. Ben might not bring roses to his offensive staff meetings, but his body isn't getting pounded as badly as in the past, and the offense is exceptional on third down.

Arrow is pointing: up


ESPN.com NFL Midseason Report:
Musical Midseason, Part 2  |  Musical Midseason, Part 3  |  Super Bowl prediction Video
Clayton's All-Pros and NFL Nation's All-Division teams  |  Playbook: Midseason logo spoofs
SportsNation: Rank the teams  |  Vote for MVP  |  Rank the QBs  |  Your predictions