Even after an exciting first half, there are some unanswered questions heading into the remainder of the season. Can anyone knock off the Patriots? Will Adrian Peterson ever slow down? Who will breathe some life into the Dolphins and Rams? And which NFC team will be the AFC's punching bag in the Super Bowl?
Here are 13 questions worth pondering as we head into the season's second half.
1. Will the New England Patriots go 16-0?
Conventional logic suggests that no team will go 16-0, let alone the 19-0. However, I'm of the belief that New England is going undefeated this season, with only a likely rematch with the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC championship game standing in the way. In addition to "Spygate," Randy Moss trying to prove to the world he's still a great player and Tom Brady taking his game up a notch, the Patriots are playing with an edge. Some players such as Tedy Bruschi and Mike Vrabel realize this is probably their last chance at a title. Here's one additional thing to consider: Having done the championship thing three times, I really think the Patriots are looking to leave their imprint on NFL history in some unique way. It has to be indelible and undeniable. It has to be perfection.
2. Will the St. Louis Rams or Miami Dolphins become the NFL's first 0-16 team?
Strange as it sounds, I think it's harder to go 0-16 than it is to go 16-0. Parity not only keeps teams from establishing dynasties, but it creates big holes in every team. Among its final eight games, St. Louis has the San Francisco 49ers, Cincinnati Bengals, Atlanta Falcons and Arizona Cardinals. Miami has the Philadelphia Eagles, the New York Jets, Cincinnati Bengals and two games with the Buffalo Bills. Somewhere along the line there's going to be a collision of awfulness that will produce a victory for each team.
3. Will the San Diego Chargers reach the postseason?
I considered San Diego the best team in football coming into this season, and there's still a glimmer of belief that Norv Turner and the Bolts will get it going, especially in the porous AFC West. The Chargers are amazingly talented and have been vast underachievers this season. The loss to the Minnesota Vikings, in which Adrian Peterson broke the league's single-game rushing record, was a pure embarrassment. The strangest part of San Diego's inconsistent play has been the implosion of the defense. Defensive tackle Jamal Williams has regressed this season because of injury and now end Luis Castillo is out. Still, this unit should be much better. As for the offense, Turner needs to get quarterback Philip Rivers playing with some consistency.
4. Can the New Orleans Saints get back to the NFC title game?
Colgate might be able to make a run at the NFC title this year, so, yes, the Saints are a viable candidate despite an 0-4 start. After being held to 14 points or fewer in the first four games, New Orleans has 22 or more in each of the past four (all victories) and put 41 on a good Jacksonville Jaguars defense last Sunday. Wide receiver Marques Colston has got his groove back and while Reggie Bush is still not a bruiser, coach Sean Payton has been finding ways to get him into space even without bullish back Deuce McAllister around to carry the load. If the Saints' offense gets on a roll, they can score on any defense in the NFC.
5. Can the Tennessee Titans make the playoffs despite their lack of a passing attack?
The Titans are 6-2 with Vince Young playing terrible football (61.2 passer rating, 3 TD passes, 8 interceptions and a 3.5 yards per carry average), but the defense has been outstanding. Coordinator Jim Schwartz could garner head coaching interest this offseason and tackle Albert Haynesworth has turned his game around as he approaches free agency. The Titans have four second-half contests they should win and two (Jacksonville on Sunday and Kansas City Chiefs later in the season) that are flip-of-the-coin games. If they get to 10 wins, they should reach the playoffs.
6. Can the Green Bay Packers win the NFC with that running game?
Hall of Fame coach John Madden, normally a pretty wise man, was incredibly off base when suggesting during a Packers-Chicago Bears broadcast in Week 5 that the Packers should junk the run and throw it with Brett Favre all the time. The Packers play in bitter cold and snow come December and January, so they have to run the ball. It must be better than the current 3.3 yards per carry – good enough to at least control the tempo of a game or else that great young defense that general manager Ted Thompson has built is going to get worn out by season's end. There are some signs that the running game is coming along, but it's a long way from good enough.
7. What would you do if you were Andy Reid?
Take another leave of absence. Right now, Reid isn't doing the Eagles much good on the field and the constant off-field issues make it worse. Reid is a good coach, really good, but he needs to get his home life back in order and make his sons a priority. Assistant head coach Marty Mornhinweg or defensive coordinator Jim Johnson can handle the job in the short term and the priority for the rest of this season should be to make sure quarterback Donovan McNabb is ready for next season, one way or another.
8. How bad will things get in Cincinnati?
While the popular notion is that the Cincinnati Bengals are an unruly bunch of hard-to-control characters, the real answer to what ails Cincy is much simpler: The defense stinks. When you watch them play, it's easy to understand why: The front seven is horrible, particularly the defensive tackle. Is coach Marvin Lewis to blame for that? Somewhat. He's a defensive coach and should have known how to rebuild the unit by now. However, Lewis is also smart enough guy to realize his mistakes and learn. Given that the Bengals had problems finding a decent coach for years, they'd be wise to stick with Lewis and find ways to get some better players on defense, which will allow that talented offense to be dominant.
9. Can Priest Holmes be good enough to replace Larry Johnson and lead Kansas City to the playoffs?
What can anybody really tell after seven carries for 17 yards so far? The bigger question is whether Holmes wants to deal with the pain of being the everyday guy again after being out of the game for the better part of two years. The reality is that it's probably not going to work long term if Johnson's foot injury is serious. That means the 4-4, tied-for-first in the AFC West Chiefs need to see if rookie Kolby Smith has anything that can help them. Smith has no carries and two receptions so far this season. Welcome to the big time, son.
10. Can the Cleveland Browns offense keep this up?
Yes, but probably not the next two weeks. Cleveland faces Pittsburgh on Sunday and even with Derek Anderson, it's probably going to be a tough day for the Browns. Then, the Browns face a pretty good defense in Baltimore. After that, however, comes a nice run of beatable teams with the Houston Texans, Arizona, the Jets, Buffalo, Cincinnati and San Francisco. All of those defenses are susceptible, particularly to a team with two receivers (Braylon Edwards and tight end Kellen Winslow) who are playing like the stars and a third receiver (Joe Jurevicius) who's a consummate pro. Throw in running back Jamal Lewis, who is playing for one more monster contract, and the strong-armed and accurate Anderson and you have a great team to follow for the second half.
11. Are the New York Giants for real or will they fold like they did last year?
Six wins in a row going into a huge game against the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday is pretty heady stuff for a team a lot of prognosticators were thinking might not win six games all year. The key for the Giants is that they have two things which work very well together: a quick-strike offense that tends to score early in games now (they have combined to score 53 points in the first half of their past three games) and a great pass rush. What that means is that the Giants can get ahead fast and force the other team to throw early, which plays right into the strength of their defense. That said, the Giants have no depth. If they lose one or two top starters, they are in big trouble. That's what happened last year.
12. Will Terrell Owens somehow spoil a good thing in Dallas?
Give Owens a lot of credit this year. He has been happy. This is what happens when coaches are smart enough to just let Owens be without having to exert their will on him. That's what Wade Phillips has done as head coach and what offensive coordinator Jason Garrett has done in a much quieter way. But the key all along is that quarterback Tony Romo keeps feeding the ball to Owens so that Owens has no reason to complain. Bottom line: Owens may finally trust the people around him because none of them seem to want to mess with his head.
13. Is the Indianapolis defense good enough to slow down New England again in the playoffs?
Traditionally, the Colts play much faster at home, where crowd noise (yes, legit crowd noise) and artificial turf allow them to gain an even greater edge. That said, when the Colts are healthy, they give the Patriots fits. It wasn't until the end of the game when Marlin Jackson and Bob Sanders got banged up that Tom Brady was able to really figure out how to attack the Colts. Beyond that, the Colts have no respect for the Patriots' running game, knowing they can stop New England's delays and draws without having to commit more defenders. That allows the Colts to overplay against the pass. Indy can do just about the same thing on the road in January to create just enough problems for New England to allow the Colts' offense to score some points. In short, a playoff rematch should be another fantastic game.