- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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If the NFL wants to add new television programming, it should start a "CSI" show to determine what happened to five playoff teams from last season.
"CSI NFL" should do an autopsy on the seasons of the Minnesota Vikings, Dallas Cowboys, Arizona Cardinals and Cincinnati Bengals. Also, let's keep a doctor handy to monitor the pulse of the 4-5 San Diego Chargers.
Going into the season, the Cowboys (1-7) and the Vikings (3-5) appeared to have the most talent in the NFC. It's astonishing to see them with just four wins combined at midseason. The Cowboys' terrible start cost Wade Phillips his job as head coach, and there's a weekly Brad Childress firing watch in Minnesota.
The collapse of the Bengals is the AFC's biggest disappointment. Marvin Lewis assembled one of his more talented defenses and also added receivers Terrell Owens, Jermaine Gresham and Jordan Shipley to an offense that ranked 24th last season. But the Bengals are 2-6 and their season is on life support.
Q: How does the Super Bowl race shape up?
A: Clearly, it's not as easy to figure as last season. The Indianapolis Colts and New Orleans Saints were undefeated at midseason last year, making it easy to forecast who would end up in the Super Bowl. Parity has made 2010 season a crapshoot as a record 21 teams reached midseason with records of .500 or better.
The NFC is much easier to handicap than the AFC. The Atlanta Falcons (6-2) have the best chance to get 12 wins and earn the No. 1 seed because of an easier road schedule than the other top teams in the conference. The Falcons play at St. Louis on Nov. 21 and have a three-game road trip starting Dec. 5 that includes Tampa Bay, Carolina and Seattle. If the Falcons can go 3-1, I think they can win three of their final four home games. The Saints should win 11 games and get a wild card. Two teams should come out of the NFC East. The New York Giants (6-2) have the best chance to win the division, but their difficult schedule could leave them at 11-5 or 10-6.
The Green Bay Packers should win the NFC North, but they still must play the Falcons and Giants. Unless the Packers sweep both games, they won't get to 12 wins. The Philadelphia Eagles could get the final wild card. The Chicago Bears and Washington Redskins have outside shots at the playoffs but will fall short, and whoever wins the NFC West will probably be one-and-done in the first round of the playoffs. That sets up an eventual showdown between the Giants and Falcons for the NFC title. Because Atlanta will earn home field through the playoffs, I think the Falcons will make it to the Super Bowl.
Expect a battle of attrition in the AFC, which is almost impossible to handicap. Flaws have been exposed on most of the top AFC teams. The Colts lost Dallas Clark and Anthony Gonzalez for the season and have been down to their fourth running back at times. After the Randy Moss trade, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has had three straight games in which he hasn't completed at least 60 percent of his passes. The New York Jets are blitzing and not getting to the quarterback, and QB Mark Sanchez is inconsistent. With Kenny Britt out six to eight weeks with a hamstring injury, the Tennessee Titans hope Moss will fill the big-play void. The Kansas City Chiefs and Oakland Raiders are the AFC's surprise teams and the Chargers aren't out of it, but none of these teams has won more than one game on the road. The AFC North title should come down to who wins the Dec. 5 Steelers-Ravens showdown in Baltimore. I like the Steelers to win the AFC, especially if they beat the Patriots on Sunday night, which would help them get home field and the No. 1 seed.
In a rematch of their Week 1 overtime game, the Steelers will meet the Falcons in the Super Bowl. (Sorry, I'm not picking a winner yet.)
Q: Is it time to redefine my elite quarterback ranking?
A: Perhaps. I started the season with 14 quarterbacks rated elite -- seven in each conference. By elite, I mean quarterbacks who complete at least 60 percent of their passes, have 4,000-yard potential and have fourth-quarter comeback ability.
Based on their performances in 2010, the elite status of Brett Favre, Donovan McNabb and Carson Palmer must be reviewed. Fighting injuries, Favre has struggled for the Vikings, throwing nearly twice as many interceptions in eight games (13) as he did all last season (7). McNabb has directed the Redskins (4-4) to as many wins in eight games as they had all last season, but Mike Shanahan appears willing to let him go after one season. He benched McNabb for the final two minutes of a loss to the Lions, questioning McNabb's conditioning. McNabb is on pace to throw for nearly 4,000 yards, but he has only a 57.4 completion percentage. McNabb has improved the Redskins' offense by only 2.8 points a game over 2009, but elite QBs usually add at least five points to a new team's offense.
It's still hard to remove Palmer from elite status in a season in which he's on pace to throw for 4,200 yards. But the Bengals are just 2-6 and average only 20.9 points a game. Dallas' Tony Romo, who has a 69.5 completion percentage, is still elite, but he's probably not going to play the rest of the season because of a broken left clavicle. The NFC is clearly affected by the down seasons of Favre and McNabb, Romo's injury and the retirement of Kurt Warner. NFC teams are scoring 20.5 points a game, 2.4 points a game less than AFC teams.
Q: What are the key games to watch in the second half of the season?
A: Concerned about teams wrapping up divisions early and not playing starters in the final weeks, commissioner Roger Goodell ordered more divisional games in the final week of the season and in the second half. As a result, 58 of the 96 divisional games remain, and that includes nine of the 12 NFC East games and eight of the 12 AFC South games. Those divisions are the most competitive. The Giants meet the Eagles on Nov. 21 and Dec. 19. The Titans face the Colts on Dec. 9 and Jan. 2. The Steelers head to Baltimore Dec. 5 to determine the direction of the AFC North. The Patriots' home game against the Jets is on Dec. 6.
The Chargers will determine their fate in the AFC West with three divisional home games in the four weeks following this week's bye. The Saints, who lost at home to the Falcons, play at Atlanta on Dec. 27. The Bears are chasing the Packers, but they may be out of the NFC North race by their Week 17 game in Green Bay.
There are plenty of other key games outside the division. The Patriots have big games in the next two weeks: Sunday night against the Steelers, followed by the much-anticipated Nov. 21 game against Peyton Manning and the Colts. Playoff seeding will be on the line for the Packers on Nov. 28 when they play Atlanta and Dec. 26 when they host the New York Giants. The Dec. 19 meeting between the Jets and Steelers at Heinz Field has playoff ramifications. The Ravens-Saints game that day in Baltimore also could be fun.
Q: What are the key trends picked up during the first half of the season?
A: There is no question that the biggest impact in passing is the evolution of the slot receiver and the increased use of the tight end as a passing threat.
Slot receivers, who used to be the third or fourth options in passing games, are becoming the No. 2 option and sometimes the main options. Reggie Wayne, Roddy White, Terrell Owens, Marques Colston, Brandon Marshall and Hakeem Nicks are the top six wide receivers for receptions, but look at the rest of the list. Santana Moss of the Redskins is juggled between the slot and flanker, and he's seventh among receivers with 47 catches. He's followed by slot receivers Steve Smith of the Giants (47 catches for 517 yards), Danny Amendola of the Rams (45 catches for 379 yards), Miles Austin of the Cowboys (45 catches for 657 yards) and Austin Collie of the Colts (45 catches for 502 yards). Slot receivers Davonne Bess (Dolphins), Wes Welker (Patriots), Anquan Boldin (Ravens) and Percy Harvin (Vikings) are also on pace for 80-catch years. In the case of slot receivers such as Welker, offenses can use bubble screens and quick passes to replace running plays.
A pass-catching tight end is also necessity for a good offense. With rookies Aaron Hernandez (Patriots), Gresham (Bengals) and Tony Moeaki (Chiefs) added to the mix this season, 19 tight ends have at least 25 receptions this year, a 50-catch pace. Last year, there were only 14 50-catch tight ends.
Q: Who are my midseason award winners?
A: Comeback player: Mike Williams of the Seahawks. A bust in Detroit, he finally got in shape and has become Seattle's No. 1 receiver. He has 35 catches for 400 yards after sitting out almost all last season.
Assistant coach: Lions offensive coordinator Scott Linehan. At 25.4 points a game, Detroit is the NFC's No. 2 scoring offense. Linehan has done it most of the way with backup quarterback Shaun Hill.
Coach: Kansas City's Todd Haley. His coordinators, Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel, deserve runners-up awards for assistant coach.
Offensive rookie: St. Louis QB Sam Bradford. Even though he has lost his top receiving threats because of injuries, he has thrown for 1,674 yards and 11 touchdowns for the 4-4 Rams.
Defensive rookie: Defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, who has 6.5 sacks, has stabilized the Lions' defense.
MVP: Indianapolis QB Peyton Manning. I was thinking about giving it to Philip Rivers, who has thrown for 2,944 yards even though his receiving corps has suffered injuries and Vincent Jackson has been MIA. But it's hard to give it to him when the Chargers are 4-5. That's why I picked Manning, whose team is 5-3 despite injuries at wide receiver, tight end and in the backfield.
Offensive Player: Rivers.
Defensive player: Packers linebacker Clay Matthews, who leads the NFL with 10.5 sacks.
NFC EAST: NY Giants: A | Philadelphia: B | Dallas: F | Washington: B
NFC SOUTH: Atlanta: B+ | New Orleans: B- | Tampa Bay: A | Carolina: F
NFC NORTH: Green Bay: B | Chicago: B | Minnesota: C | Detroit: B
NFC WEST: Seattle: B | Arizona: C | San Francisco: C- | St. Louis: B+
AFC EAST: New England: B | New York Jets: B | Miami: C | Buffalo: D-
AFC SOUTH: Indy: B | Tennessee: B+ | Houston: C | Jacksonville: B
AFC NORTH: Pittsburgh: A- | Baltimore: B+ | Cincinnati: C | Cleveland: B
AFC WEST: San Diego: C | Kansas City: B+ | Oakland: B | 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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