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NFL midseason check-in: Tom Brady stands tall; Jets look small

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The 2014 NFL season is at the halfway point, and while there are some who would surely like a do-over (we're looking at you, Rex Ryan), some teams are already contemplating playoff seeding rather than ceding the season.

Below is a look at who stands where and what is still to come:

Separating from the rest

» The Denver Broncos and New England Patriots. They get recognized together because when considering either of these teams, it is useful to use the other as a measuring stick. The nearly annual showdown between Peyton Manning and Tom Brady is this weekend, but let's be honest -- it feels like a warmup for the AFC Championship Game. When John Elway admitted in March that he was in a free-agency arms race with New England, he was merely stating the obvious: The Broncos and Patriots are the class of the AFC, and a trip to the Super Bowl likely goes through them. Nothing has happened since to change that.

The Broncos look to be the most complete team in the NFL, with a fast, physical defense complementing an offense that might have somehow gotten better by adding Emmanuel Sanders. Their signature win: a 42-17 demolition of the San Francisco 49ers in Week 7. The Patriots, after early stumbles (largely attributable to instability on the offensive line) that had people wondering if Brady was finished -- if, and this has to make you double over in laughter now, it was time to consider moving on to rookie backup Jimmy Garoppolo -- have won four in a row. Since a Week 4 shellacking in Kansas City, Brady has completed 100 of 144 attempts for 1,268 yards, 14 touchdowns and zero interceptions, suggesting he is probably not washed up quite yet. Equally encouraging: Rob Gronkowski, the offensive wrecking ball and Brady's most important weapon, is back to full health.

Right now, the Broncos appear slightly -- slightly -- better. Their offense has been operating more smoothly for a tick longer; their defense has made running against it impossible; they have thus far played opponents of a higher caliber (Denver's only loss was in overtime in Seattle). But of the Broncos' nine remaining games, six are on the road, starting with the faceoff in Foxborough. Remember that Denver looked virtually unbeatable heading into this matchup last season, too -- before Bill Belichick forced Peyton Manning to throw into the wind in an overtime triumph for New England. We always learn something from these top-tier matchups, but we probably already can guess what will come out of Sunday's game: more anticipation for the postseason.

» The Green Bay Packers -- with an asterisk. Until Sunday night, the Packers were solidly in this category, having instilled as much confidence as any other team. Then they were trounced by the Saints. Hence the asterisk. Green Bay's defense had already been a cause for concern, but when Aaron Rodgers' hamstring got balky in New Orleans, it showed just how vulnerable the Packers are. Provided the hamstring issue doesn't linger after their Week 9 bye, they should resume being dominant, particularly because they play four of their next five at home -- and the three toughest offenses remaining on their schedule (Philadelphia, New England and Detroit) all must visit Lambeau Field. That should give Green Bay a significant edge in the playoff race. But if Rodgers is compromised for any length of time, the Packers plummet into the "anybody's guess" category.

Circling the drain

» Chicago's offense? Chicago's defense? Brandon Marshall might not have gone far enough when he called out teammates following the Week 7 loss to the Dolphins. Sunday's complete collapse against the Patriots captured the Bears' dysfunction in its entirety. Quarterback Jay Cutler had two turnovers (that's 12 for the season). The defense gave up five touchdown passes and had no interceptions of Brady. And the coaching staff failed to come up with a plan to contain Gronkowski, who had a game (nine catches for 149 yards and three scores) that suggested he had not even appeared in Chicago's scouting report. It's always a surprise to see a Bears team struggle on defense, but Chicago simply doesn't have the personnel on that side. However, the plethora of talent on offense -- and coach Marc Trestman's reputation as an offensive guru and quarterback whisperer -- makes the meltdown of the passing game stunning. Chicago's last stand will come after the Week 9 bye, at Lambeau Field.

» The New York Jets. They've lost seven in a row, and Rex Ryan didn't even know after Sunday's game who his starting quarterback would be next week at Kansas City. Does it even matter? New York is five games behind the Patriots in the AFC East and 3.5 games out of third place, and Ryan is choosing between bad (Michael Vick) and worse (Geno Smith). We knew this roster was seriously flawed during training camp, but the season has now become meaningless before Halloween. The only real questions are these: What will the Jets do with their quarterbacks in the future? And who will pay with their jobs? The coach? The general manager? How many players? Owner Woody Johnson has some painful decisions ahead.

» The entire NFC South is under .500. It's the only division that does not have a team with a winning record. Can we take away the NFC South's automatic playoff spot and give it to another division? Until the Saints' victory on Sunday night, nobody in the division had won a game since Oct. 5.

Something to believe in

»The Dallas Cowboys. This is the first in what is likely to be a series of mea culpas directed at Big D. The Cowboys have intelligently drafted a superb offensive line, they've embraced the running game, they've finally taken the bull's-eye off Tony Romo, and they've performed a miracle on a defense that had all the makings of a historical disaster. Jerry Jones is smiling, and all is well in the NFL universe. Who knew the Cowboys could be this ... well-functioning?

» The Arizona Cardinals. The Cards are now 13-3 over their past 16 games -- a full season's worth of proof that this is no fluke, especially because they're winning despite dealing with significant injuries and being in the NFL's toughest division. The way they beat the Eagles on Sunday tells you everything about how they win: via aggressive defense, timely and precise passing from Carson Palmer and a blossoming confidence that comes directly from their Kangol-wearing head coach, Bruce Arians. Best of all: The Cowboys and Cardinals play each other in Week 9.

» The Detroit Lions. It has taken improbable comebacks, timely delay-of-game penalties and a whole lot of personnel shuffling, but the Lions are 6-2, having survived a first half played largely without the services of a healthy Calvin Johnson or a reliable kicker. The injuries are piling up -- Nick Fairley went down in Sunday's win over the Falcons in London -- but the Lions now have Matt Prater to kick and they have a bye this week, which should give Johnson and Reggie Bush time to heal. The defense has been mostly superb, and the offense should improve as weapons return. Detroit has to go on the road to face its three toughest remaining opponents -- Arizona, New England and Green Bay -- but if Rodgers' hamstring injury lingers and the Packers falter, the Lions are poised to seize the NFC North.

Anybody's guess

» The Seattle Seahawks. The midlife crisis that seems to be engulfing the Seahawks has them teetering on the edge of the playoff picture. This is still a staggeringly talented and young squad that should be situated for many postseason appearances to come. And who would have imagined we'd be having this conversation after the season opener, when (since-departed) Percy Harvin seemed poised to add a frightening dimension to an already powerful group, and Packers coach Mike McCarthy was afraid to even test Richard Sherman? But if Seattle continues to play with the listlessness that has marked its games -- Sunday's 13-9 victory over Carolina counts as good news under these circumstances -- the team will have plenty of time in January to contemplate who doesn't like whom.

» The NFL likes to call this parity, but we call it incomprehensible. How can the Pittsburgh Steelers lose to the otherwise-winless Tampa Bay Buccaneers, have an offense so spotty that Snoop Dogg calls out coordinator Todd Haley and then put up 51 points on a team that looked like a Super Bowl contender until Sunday afternoon? The inconsistency around the league underscores the relentless dominance of teams like the Broncos, but in the meantime, good luck figuring out the long-term prospects of squads like the Chiefs, Bengals, Ravens, Bills, Dolphins, Texans, 49ers, Giants and Eagles. It seems like we'll either see you in the playoffs -- or maybe when you fire your coach on Black Monday.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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