With the NFL having reached the midpoint of the season, it is time to sort out what we have learned, what we still don't know, and some new questions that have surfaced through the first nine weeks:
What we've learned
» The New England Patriots are playing in a different league than everyone else. Sure, their Week 9 showdown against the Indianapolis Colts was close, living up to its over-the-top hype. However, all the Patriots proved was that they're just as capable of winning when they're pushed to the brink as they are when they cruise as they did for eight weeks. Remember when a lot of us wondered if Randy Moss would disrupt the Patriots' team chemistry? Nope, I don't, either. Remember when a lot of us wondered if Richard Seymour's offseason knee injury and Rodney Harrison's four-week suspension might cause the Pats to stumble out of the gate? Nope, I don't, either.
» The Colts are doing justice to their status as defending Super Bowl champions. Losing to the Patriots doesn't change anything, although it could compromise their chances of repeating as AFC champs because that title is likely to be settled in Foxborough.
» Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, and Brett Favre are the best quarterbacks in the league. The rest of the top five is open for debate. Tony Romo would get plenty of support, but so would Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger, and Carson Palmer. And what about Jeff Garcia? Or Jon Kitna? Or how about Derek Anderson? You see, it isn't a clear-cut list, is it?
» The Titans are far better than a lot of us thought they were before the season when it appeared as if they had taken too many hard hits in the offseason to be competitive. One of the biggest blows seemed to have been the departure of running back Travis Henry. No problem. LenDale White has rushed for 100 yards in three consecutive games.
» Adrian Peterson is the new gold standard for running backs. It isn't merely that the rookie leads the league in rushing with 1,036 yards, 268 more than his closest challenger, Willie Parker. It's that he is doing so on a Vikings team that has no passing game. Peterson is piling up yards at an incredible pace against defenses that are supposedly loading up to stop him because they have no fear of being beaten through the air. Peterson seems so much larger, stronger, and faster than just about everyone trying to tackle him. He makes people miss and he makes them pay for not missing.
» Wade Phillips is up to the challenge of leading the Cowboys on their expected Super Bowl run. Remember when a lot of us wondered how Phillips would handle the disruptive force known as Terrell Owens? Nope, I don't either. Mike Tomlin is up to the challenge of taking over for the Bill Cowher, whose name and face long defined the Steeler franchise. Remember when a lot of us wondered whether Tomlin's defensive philosophy would clash with that of Dick LeBeau, the defensive coordinator he inherited? Nope, I don't either.
» Matt Millen, once the most maligned front-office executive in the NFL, is looking pretty smart these days. His Lions are 6-2 and look as if they will make good on Kitna's preseason assertion that they were good enough to win at least 10 games. Millen finally has gotten it right with coach Rod Marinelli, his third choice, who has turned out to be his best. And Millen has put together the right talent to fit his coach's demanding style.
What we still don't know
» Which division leaders, beyond the Patriots and Colts, will be division winners. You can't put Pittsburgh in that category until at least after the Steelers' Week 9 game against the surprising Browns, who are far better than they were when the Steelers pounded them in Week 1. Kansas City clings to the slimmest of leads over San Diego, and both have been inconsistent. Dallas could stumble; the New York Giants are a legitimate threat to overtake the Cowboys. Green Bay could stumble; the Lions are a legitimate threat to overtake the Packers. Tampa Bay could stumble; the Saints are a legitimate threat to overtake the Buccaneers. The outcome of the NFC West is anyone's guess; Seattle might finish on top by default.
» If the Chiefs' solid defense can overcome their shaky offense.
» If the Ravens can get healthy enough in time to turn their season around and take advantage of the league's third-ranked defense.
» If Clinton Portis can carry the Redskins' offense, and if that offense can perform well enough to complement a solid defense.
» With vastly more important matters than football occupying the attention of Andy Reid -- namely the legal problems of his two sons -- can he continue as coach of the Eagles for the balance of this season or beyond?
» What do the Bills do if J.P. Losman continues to have a hot hand through the second half of the season? Do they give him a contract extension after this year and make Trent Edwards, the rookie they once saw as their starter for the foreseeable future, their backup for the foreseeable future?
» When will JaMarcus Russell make his rookie debut with the Raiders?
» When will John Beck make his rookie debut with Miami?
» Who, besides the Titans and Browns, looks as if they have a strong shot at an AFC wild-card berth? Buffalo? Maybe. Jacksonville? Maybe. Kansas City? San Diego? One of them probably wins the AFC West, but the other could very well be out of postseason contention.
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