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Midseason Report: Winners and losers from first half

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The Dallas Cowboys owned the first half of this NFL season, so perhaps it's appropriate that they fell flat in such entertaining fashion to close out Week 8. It was a reminder that the next two months won't resemble the first half at all.

Very little has been decided, especially in an AFC with 11 winning teams. Even fewer teams look truly "out of it" in the NFC. The Seahawks are far from a juggernaut, and they will have to battle uphill just to make the playoffs, much less secure home-field advantage. It gives a wide-open feel to the home stretch.

As we continue our midseason review week here at NFL.com, here's a look at some of the biggest winners and losers from the season's first half:

Moving up


Playoff races: Denver and Arizona are the only squads to have two-game leads in their divisions, and we'd expect Seattle and San Francisco to make the NFC West a three-team race. The wild-card races in both conferences look even more insane. The NFC isn't as deep as the AFC, but we're hitting midseason with the Seahawks, Saints and 49ers out of the playoff mix. In the AFC, only one loss separates the "No. 2 seed" thus far and the No. 11 team. Basically the first half was just about eliminating four AFC teams: New York, Tennessee, Jacksonville and Oakland. Everything else is possible.

The G.O.A.T.s: It's been a nice half-season for any current quarterback mentioned in the "Greatest of All Time" discussion. Peyton Manning broke the all-time touchdown record and is surprisingly hitting more vertical passes down the field. He's playing better than ever, which is getting harder and harder to believe. Tom Brady started slowly, causing too many "Brady in decline" thinkpieces after the team's Week 4 meltdown in Kansas City. He's thrown 14 touchdown passes with no picks since.

Aaron Rodgers isn't on Brady and Manning's level yet historically, but plenty of folks have said he'll go down as one of the greatest ever. After a disjointed first three weeks, he's played as well as anyone in the league. The more things change around this trio in the NFL, the more they stay the same.

Free-agent wide receivers: Three of the top eight receivers in the league were signed in free agency: Golden Tate, Steve Smith and Emmanuel Sanders. Tate and Smith have been among the most valuable players at the position. DeSean Jackson, Brandon LaFell and Andre Roberts have also been worth the money. Conventional wisdom suggests that it's not easy for receivers to adapt to new systems, but most of the big-name free agents last offseason have proven to be bargains.

Rookie wide receivers: It's also supposed to be difficult for rookie wideouts to get up to speed at the NFL level. But this talented crop of wideouts, perhaps better prepared by learning pro concepts in college, have come out of the gates quickly. Seven rookies topped 80 yards receiving on Sunday; Kelvin Benjamin, Sammy Watkins, Brandin Cooks and John Brown could all be candidates for Offensive Rookie of the Year.

Cleveland relevance: The Browns haven't won more than five games since 2007. If they can take care of Tampa at home on Sunday, they will be 5-3. This doesn't look like a playoff team yet, but it's nice that one of the league's most downtrodden franchises will be playing November games that matter for the first time in a long time.

Oakland's rookies: Could general manager Reggie McKenzie really get fired if he nails his first two picks from the 2014 draft? Linebacker Khalil Mack has been an absolute force and is making folks look smart that had him pegged as the No. 1 overall prospect. It's early, but Derek Carr could be the best Raiders draft pick at the position since ... Ken Stabler in 1968? (Seriously, the next-best options are Marc Wilson and Steve Beuerlein.) Third-round guard Gabe Jackson has also been a capable starter.

John Elway: All his offseason moves are turning to gold. The Broncos have one of the best defensive backfields in football with free agent Aqib Talib and first-round pick Bradley Roby playing well. DeMarcus Ware has looked like his old self. And free-agent pickup Sanders has replaced Eric Decker at a fraction of the cost. This Broncos team is better than a season ago.

Kyle Orton: The quiet warrior was sitting on his couch a few months ago, pondering philosophy and retirement. Now he's won three out of four games as a starting quarterback again, with nine touchdown tosses, three interceptions, and eight yards-per-attempt. He's earned himself another five years in the league if he wants them.

Moving down


John Idzik: His hand-picked quarterback played poorly enough to jeopardize the Jets general manager's chances of ever choosing his own head coach. Rex Ryan seems all but gone, and now a clean sweep of the organization wouldn't be a shock.

NFC South: How did this once-intriguing division get so bad, so fast? The Saints' win over Green Bay Sunday night was the first triumph for anyone in the division in three weeks. It starts with defense. Rob Ryan has dialed up all the wrong blitzes in New Orleans, while Carolina's front seven is a shell of its former self. Lovie Smith hasn't improved the Buccaneers at all, and Atlanta remains one of the softest teams in the league despite all that offseason honking. New Orleans and Carolina have to be thrilled that eight or nine wins could be enough for a home game in the playoffs.

Rookie defensive ends: This is the flip side of the great class of wide receivers. Marc Sessler had a hard time even finding one defensive end for his early all-rookie team with few players getting on the field. The Panthers' Kony Ealy, who is starting to play more, looks like the best candidate for an improved second half.

Nick Foles' long-term viability: Chip Kelly says he judges quarterbacks on wins and losses, but Foles has not played well in plenty of Philadelphia's wins. Watching the Eagles often feels like Foles battling himself. Another half-season like this, and Philadelphia will have to consider bringing in stronger competition for him in 2015.

Seattle's invincibility: The defense is very good, but it's not quite dominant enough. The secondary is imbalanced between stars and role players figuring out the league. The Seahawks aren't forcing turnovers and they lack explosion on offense. They were very lucky to get out of Carolina with a win after the Panthers dominated the first half but dropped a touchdown pass and fumbled the ball on an unforced error in the red zone. The Seahawks are capable of turning things around quickly, but the path to a division title will be tricky.

The latest Around The NFL Podcast recaps every Week 8 game. Find more Around The NFL content on NFL NOW.

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