Here we are at the unofficial midpoint of the 17-game regular season – there must be a designated midpoint, so Internet companies, TV networks and print-media survivors can program accordingly – and as I prepare to lay out the NFL's pecking order in inquisitive form, I'm desperately searching for themes.
Some have suggested that this is a season of surprises, but that's every year. Still, from the Week 1 opener in Philly to the Randy Moss(notes) tirade that nearly unraveled Chilly, the 2010 campaign has taken on an especially surreal quality that surpasses the usual worst-to-first/first-to-worst intrigue.
In that spirit, here are 8½ pleasant surprises to send you steamrolling toward the end zone, no second-act exception required:
• Michael Vick(notes): It's arguable that no star athlete has ever lost as much as the quarterback whose freedom, reputation, career and fortune were undone by a dogfighting scandal of his making. His return to the NFL in 2009 seemed decidedly underwhelming, and going into the season he was regarded as little more than a backup and Wildcat novelty act trying to get his life back together in a structured environment. Now? He's the starting quarterback for a 5-3 Eagles team whose play has been transcendent and whose impressive statistics (60.8 completion percentage, seven TDs, zero interceptions, 261 rushing yards in five games) don't tell the real story of his impact. As I said Monday, he's a very legitimate MVP candidate.
• Osi Umenyiora(notes): Benched during the Giants' 2009 collapse, the elite pass rusher seemed destined to relocate last February after proclaiming he'd "absolutely" retire if he didn't get his starting job back. In April the Giants seemed to draft his replacement, Jason Pierre-Paul(notes). Umenyiora stayed, and New York lost two of its first three games and seemed on the verge of collapse. Five impressive victories later, the team's vaunted pass rush is back, and Umenyiora (eight sacks, seven forced fumbles) is right up there with Packers linebacker Clay Matthews(notes) as an early NFL defensive player of the year candidate.
• Deion Branch(notes): When I saw Branch at Seahawks training camp this summer, he insisted he still had skills – but everyone else I talked to in Seattle seemed to suggest otherwise. After years of underwhelming production, Branch was headed for another nondescript campaign when, suddenly, salvation struck: The Patriots traded Moss and swung a deal with the 'Hawks to bring Branch home after four-plus seasons. The former Super Bowl MVP immediately regained his comfort zone, catching nine passes, including some very big ones, in a crucial overtime victory over the Ravens. Branch remains an important part of the Pats' new offense, and I'm not sure who's more ecstatic about this – him or Tom Brady(notes).
• Josh Freeman(notes): We could tell last season that the then-Bucs rookie quarterback, supposedly so raw coming out of Kansas State, had serious potential. In his second year, Freeman now looks like a potential superstar. With an incredible knack for fourth-quarter heroics – he has already led Tampa Bay to six fourth-quarter comeback victories in his brief career – and a gift for completing the deep ball, Freeman is the biggest reason the Buccaneers (5-3) have made a stunning push for playoff contention in 2010. Who knew he'd be so good, so soon?
• Darren McFadden(notes): Run DMC ran for 164 yards in his second NFL game, a 2008 Raiders victory at Kansas City, and looked every bit the stud he was projected to be after Oakland selected him with the fourth overall pick. Then he got hurt and slowly faded from relevance in Oakland's offense; last year, coach Tom Cable didn't seem to know how to use him and was more comfortable with punishing back Michael Bush(notes). This year, with new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson calling the shots, McFadden has emerged as one of the most important players for the revived Raiders (5-4), who have won three straight games and are fighting for an AFC West title. He has 757 rushing yards (fourth in the NFL) and seven touchdowns, a 5.4-yard-per-carry average and 24 receptions for 242 yards and two TDs. "It's time for me to step up," McFadden told me after Sunday's victory over the Chiefs. He's doing it, in a conspicuous way.
• Terrell Owens(notes): I don't even know what to say about T.O., other than the fact that, at 36, he seems to appreciate football more than ever – and has been one of the best players in football this season. For a guy who languished in Buffalo last season and seemed to have trouble finding work before taking a bargain-basement deal with the Bengals, the future Hall of Famer has produced at a downright stunning rate: In eight games he has 55 catches for 770 yards and seven touchdowns, and he still blocks hard on the backside. The only bummer is that the Bengals, coming off an AFC North title, have wheezed to a 2-6 record. Owens, however, has done everything possible to give Cincy a chance.
• Tamba Hali(notes): I had a chance to see the Chiefs' Liberian-born pass-rushing linebacker in person last Sunday, and I was not disappointed. After four seasons of decent but not exceptional production, the former first-round pick out of Penn State is on pace for a career year. In his second season after transitioning from a 4-3 end to a 3-4 linebacker, Tali already has eight sacks (tied with Umenyiora and DeMarcus Ware(notes) for third in the NFL) and two forced fumbles, and he is one of the impact players on a 5-3 Chiefs team that has a legitimate shot at winning the AFC West.
• Peyton Hillis(notes) OK, raise your hand if you saw this coming: Hillis has 644 rushing yards, one fewer than Maurice Jones-Drew(notes), and seven TDs, one fewer than Chris Johnson. The third-year converted fullback, overshadowed because he played in the same collegiate backfield as McFadden and Dallas' Felix Jones(notes), seemed like an afterthought in the offseason trade that sent him from the Broncos to the Browns for quarterback Brady Quinn(notes). Now he's practically a cult hero in Cleveland after a 29-carry, 184-yard, two-TD performance in the Browns' drubbing of the Patriots last Sunday, Cleveland's second consecutive upset of a highly regarded opponent. If the 6-foot-1, 240-pound wrecking ball ever leaves town it likely won't be by choice, and I can guarantee he won't announce it on a live television special.
• LaDainian Tomlinson(notes): Here's our half-surprise: Discarded and dissed by the Chargers after nine fabulous seasons in San Diego, the future Hall of Fame halfback got off to a great start for the Jets and seemed to take pleasure in his former team's struggles. His overall stats remain impressive – he has run for 599 yards on 123 carries, a 4.9 average, and caught 30 passes for 191 yards – but the 31-year-old runner has leveled off in his last three games and could increasingly give way to teammate Shonn Greene's(notes) young legs as the Jets (6-2) fight for a division title. Meanwhile, LT's former Chargers quarterback, Philip Rivers(notes), is putting up MVP-caliber numbers, and San Diego seems to be gearing up for its annual late-season run from nowhere.
Will the Chargers get there? Will LT get to face them in a playoff rematch? Stay tuned for the second half of the season – and for the 32 queries you know and love:
9. New Orleans Saints: Does the fact that Drew Brees'(notes) passes were 62.7 percent accurate in Sunday's victory over the Panthers suggest a report that he has a fracture and torn meniscus in his left knee was less than "100-thousand-million-trillion percent" accurate?
12. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: How badly does this team need an elite pass rusher – and how scary-good can the Bucs be once they get one?
13. Kansas City Chiefs: Dwayne Bowe(notes) has to hold on to that potential game-clinching third-down pass in Oakland, doesn't he – and will it still be bugging K.C. fans when the two teams meet again in the regular-season finale at Arrowhead?
16. San Diego Chargers: Don't you get the feeling that Rivers could line up with a receiving corps of John Jefferson, Charlie Joiner and Kellen Winslow(notes) Sr. – in their current physical states – and still throw for 400 yards?
19. Minnesota Vikings: Is it just me, or do you also wonder if, before Ryan Longwell(notes) kicked that game-tying extra point against the Cardinals with 27 seconds to play, he looked over at buddy Brett Favre(notes) and thought, "I could probably push this a few feet to the left and improve his reality in a big way"?
20. Cleveland Browns: What's more startling – that Eric Mangini was able to make a "Ghosts of Girlfriends Past" reference after pummeling the Patriots, or that an NFL coach has actually seen a movie in the past 18 months?
21. Houston Texans: Given that only seven NFL head coaches have been in their current jobs longer than Gary Kubiak – and all seven have gone to the playoffs at least twice – perhaps I should have included him on this list of embattled coaches?
30. Denver Broncos: Could that Hillis-and-two-draft-picks-for-Quinn trade help put general manager Brian Xanders' job in jeopardy – or might he simply be a convenient scapegoat for this team's collapse?
32. Buffalo Bills: Why would a winless team that recently switched to the 4-3 defense sign a 3-4 outside linebacker who won't want to stick around next year (other than the fact that they're, you know, the Bills)?