Rodgers, Harbaugh, Phillips and Tate deserve our praise, with a Ravens-Packers SB
Clayton Midseason Grades: AFC North
Make no mistake, the 136-day NFL lockout had its effect on the 2011 season.
All you have to do is look at the dozen teams with losing records. The common theme is that most of the teams that changed quarterbacks, coaches, systems or talent got off to slow starts. The Philadelphia Eagles' "Dream Team" has turned nightmarish at 3-5 because multiple changes on defense led to problems. Rookies Cam Newton, Christian Ponder and Blaine Gabbert are on 2-6 teams that could improve in the second half.
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Going from Matt Hasselbeck to Tarvaris Jackson dropped the Seahawks from a seven-win playoff team to a 2-6 Andrew Luck contender. Peyton Manning keeps getting people to campaign for his MVP candidacy because his absence could lead to a winless season for the Indianapolis Colts.
But out of the confusion of the labor situation has come plenty of excitement. Fans are talking playoffs in non-playoff cities such as San Francisco, Detroit, Cincinnati and Buffalo. Despite not having an offseason to train with their teammates, quarterbacks are having monster years. Drew Brees, Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers could destroy Dan Marino's record of 5,084 yards passing.
It's been a tough season for defenses because rules to protect players from injuries have made it hard for defenders to figure out how to tackle. Hamstring injuries have depleted backfields and thinned out wide receiving corps. Still, scoring is up, and so is the excitement level.
Q: How is the Super Bowl race shaping up?
A: In the NFC, the defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers are back and better than ever. They are 8-0 and look like a team that will go no worse than 14-2 or 15-1. They'll end up with the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage. Jim Harbaugh has established his physical Stanford style of football with the 49ers. They will get the No. 2 seed and could wrap up the NFC West crown by Week 11.
The best race is in the NFC South. The Saints visit the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday in the first of two meetings that will determine the best team in the division. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are still in the race at 4-4, but something is missing. The Bucs haven't scored a first-quarter offensive touchdown in eight games, and Josh Freeman isn't in sync with his receiving corps, which underachieved during the first half of the season. Where the Bucs screwed up was thinking their 10-6 season in 2010 -- four of the wins coming against NFC West teams -- made them good enough that all they needed to win the division was to add punter Michael Koenen.
The worst race is in the NFC East, because those teams haven't taken full advantage of the NFC West. The Seahawks, Cardinals and Rams have a combined 1-7 record against NFC East teams, but the only NFC East team with a winning record is the New York Giants. As long as the Giants don't have a second-half collapse, they'll get the third or fourth seed, and host the Lions, the Bears or the second-place team in the NFC South.
In the AFC, the Steelers, Ravens and Bengals have taken advantage of the NFC West and AFC South to give them seeding edges in the playoffs. The Ravens should get the No. 1 seed after sweeping Pittsburgh, but the Steelers have an easy enough schedule that they should finish with 11 or 12 wins and end up with the top wild-card spot and fifth seed.
At 6-3 and with a below-average closing schedule -- fourth easiest in football -- the Houston Texans can get the No. 2 seed. Sunday night's game between the Jets and Patriots could point out where the AFC East is heading. If the Jets win, they could take control of the East because their three following games against Denver, Buffalo and Washington could get them to 9-3 by Dec. 4.
The AFC West smells like a division that will be the No. 4 seed and not have a wild-card contender. The Chargers, Raiders and Chiefs are 4-4, and playing inconsistently. Philip Rivers is forcing too many turnovers. The Raiders don't look the same since making the Carson Palmer trade. And the Chiefs' strong closing schedule and struggles in the first half make it hard to believe they will finish 8-8 or better.
As for the wild card, the Bengals need to get one or two wins against the Steelers and Ravens to stay ahead of the second-place team in the AFC East to get the No. 6 seed.
Q: What are the main challenges for the elite quarterbacks in the second half of the season?
A: All you have to do is watch Tom Brady's recent struggles to know that man-to-man defenses are challenging top quarterbacks. However, man-to-man defenses aren't problems for teams with fast wide receivers. The Steelers, for example, have speed with Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown to win the individual battles against man coverage. And the Packers don't have any problems because of their receivers. But teams such as New England, Baltimore and others struggle when they face man teams.
The tipoff to this came during the preseason when the Lions faced the Patriots. Lions coach Jim Schwartz tried plenty of man coverages against the Patriots' spread-them-out two-tight end formations and neutralized the Patriots' pass offense. The Ravens traded for Lee Evans to help them match up better against man coverage, but he's been out with an ankle injury.
Offenses that lack speed at wide receiver don't get separation from their defenders. That forces quarterbacks such as Brady and Joe Flacco to hold on to the ball longer. Rivers is experiencing similar problems in San Diego.
There are solutions, though. Quarterbacks can tire out man coverage by going no-huddle and maintaining an upbeat tempo of plays. They can use more crossing routes and bunched formations to throw off the defenders. Quarterbacks who can run can use their legs for first downs when opponents go man.
What are the key games down the stretch?
A: In divisional play, no games are bigger than the New Orleans-Atlanta matchup Sunday and the Dec. 26 showdown between the two in New Orleans. The Green Bay-Detroit meeting on Thanksgiving is the most meaningful Lions game in more than a decade. Sunday's Giants-49ers meeting could determine the conference's No. 2 and No. 3 seeds if the Giants need a tiebreaker. With five more games to play against NFC West teams, the 49ers look like they are going for a 12- or 13-win season. But if the Giants can win the NFC East with 11 or 12 wins, they could get the playoff bye week if they beat the 49ers.
And don't discount the possibilities of the Cowboys-Giants game Dec. 11. The Cowboys trail the Giants by two games. Dallas faces the Bills on Sunday, then has winnable games against the Redskins, Dolphins and Cardinals. That could give the Cowboys a five-game winning streak and an 8-4 record heading into that Giants game. The Giants could lose two or three of the next four because they face the 49ers, Eagles, Saints and Packers.
Over the next two weeks, the Bengals will find out whether they can contend with the Steelers and Ravens. They host the Steelers on Sunday and travel to Baltimore on Nov. 20, looking for at least one win in those two games. They also get two more chances -- against the Steelers on Dec. 4 and the Ravens on Jan. 1 in Cincinnati.
The Chiefs and Chargers already have split their divisional games, but the Raiders and Chargers are just starting theirs, beginning Thursday in San Diego. That leaves the possibility of a division-deciding date Jan. 1 in Oakland. If the Chiefs can hang in there for the next several weeks, they host the Raiders on Dec. 24.
What was the key trend during the first half of the season?
A: Last season, it was the development of the slot receiver. This season, it's the tight end. Tight ends have become increasingly important over the past two years. Now, good offenses can't survive without a great pass-catching tight end. The way this season is going, there could be as many as 18 tight ends with 50 catches.
Teams that have a pass-catching tight end can destroy zone defenses. Look at the New Orleans Saints, who struggled for years against Cover 2 defenses. Brees can send TE Jimmy Graham across the middle of the field to beat a Cover 2. The Patriots destroy zone defenses with the combination of a slot receiver (Wes Welker) along with tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. If you add a quick pass-catching back, as the Saints did with Darren Sproles, the Drew Breeses of the NFL can cause serious problems for team trying to go zone against them.
Who are my midseason award winners?
MVP: Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay Packers. No need for any further discussion.
Head coach: Jim Harbaugh, San Francisco 49ers. He's 7-1 in a division that is easier to win than the Big East. Plus, he has five more games in the division. The 49ers struck gold hiring him.
Assistant coach: Wade Phillips, Houston Texans. The Texans are giving up 9.3 fewer points a game than last season. He took over a defense that was one of the worst in league history and has it ranked No. 1 in fewest yards allowed with 274 per game. Incredible.
Offensive rookie: Cam Newton, QB, Carolina Panthers. So much for the critics who said he needed to sit during his first season. He's throwing for 299.1 yards per game and completing 60.6 percent of his passes. He's also among the league leaders for 10-play and 5-minute drives.
Defensive rookie: J.J. Watt, DE, Houston Texans. One of the reasons the Texans went from among the worst to first on defense is Watt's performance at defensive end. He frees up Antonio Smith to pass rush from the other side, plus he's great against running plays.
Super Bowl pick
Before the season, I thought it would be the Patriots beating the Green Bay Packers. However, the Pats look vulnerable. The Packers should win, beating the Baltimore Ravens if they win the AFC North. I'm not ruling out the Steelers if they get the No. 5 seed, but the Ravens, who have won four playoff games with Joe Flacco at quarterback, finally will get home playoff games if they get the division title.
NFC EAST: N.Y. Giants: B | Philadelphia: C | Dallas: C | Washington: D
NFC SOUTH: Atlanta: B- | New Orleans: B- | Tampa Bay: C | Carolina: C
NFC NORTH: Green Bay: A | Chicago: C | Minnesota: D | Detroit: A
NFC WEST: Seattle: D | Arizona: F | San Francisco: A | St. Louis: F
AFC SOUTH: Indy: F | Tennessee: B- | Houston: B | Jacksonville: D-
AFC NORTH: Pittsburgh: B | Baltimore: A | Cincinnati: A | Cleveland: D
AFC WEST: San Diego: C | Kansas City: C | Oakland: C | Denver: D
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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