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The Schein Nine

Bengals, Raiders, Todd Gurley demand attention at midseason

The first eight Sundays of the 2015 season are in the books. Statements have been made, by players, coaches and teams. Now it's time for me to follow suit.

Here are my nine biggest statements about what I've seen in the first half of the regular season:

1) Andy Dalton and these Bengals are different.

As regular readers of this column know, I am a major skeptic of Andy Dalton and Marvin Lewis. Historically, they've proven to be at their worst in pressure situations, prime-time contests and, most especially, the postseason. That's just the truth. The bad plays by Dalton, the poor decisions by Lewis and the collective donut in the playoff win column appropriately add fuel to the fire.

But being fair and objective, I have to acknowledge that these 7-0 Bengals have a different feel. They look complete. They ooze talent. And Dalton has played liked a legit franchise quarterback.

Three wins specifically stand out to me: at Baltimore in Week 3, home against Seattle in Week 5 and Sunday's triumph in Pittsburgh. In all three, Dalton had moments of ignominy, plays when it appeared the Red Rifle could be reverting to maligned status. Yet, in all three, Dalton found a way to shake off mistakes and punch adversity in the face. The Ravens win obviously has lost some luster with how Baltimore's season has played out, but at the time, that was a significant win for Cincy. All three were big games -- big spots for a quarterback -- and Dalton acquitted himself well. All in all, the Bengals' fifth-year quarterback is completing 66.2 percent of his passes with a 15:4 TD-to-INT ratio and a sparkling 107.6 passer rating. Offensive coordinator Hue Jackson has done a superb job coaching him up.

Cincy, of course, has a ton of talent around Dalton on offense. And the defense makes plays. This is a very well-rounded team that could end up with a first-round bye in the playoffs.

And that's where we come full circle with this team.

There always will be an element of doubt around Dalton/Lewis -- until the pair does it in January. At the moment, though, this doesn't appear to be a team destined to turn into a pumpkin when the calendar turns to 2016. And, even in early November, that's a significant development.

2) Tom Brady and the Patriots are beautifully abnormal.

The NFL is set up for competitive balance. But Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and the Pats simply defy logic. The Dolphins entered last Thursday night's game with some legit matchup advantages, like their defensive line against the Pats' O-line. No matter. New England completely blew Miami off the field, winning 36-7.

The Patriots are just so well-coached, and No. 12's just so damn good.

Yes, New England has the best coach in NFL history. Belichick has masterfully put his stamp on this defense. Surrounded by questions entering the season, the unit ranks second in the NFL in sacks and ninth in scoring D.

Meanwhile, Brady's revenge tour is real and spectacular. He has 20 touchdown passes against one pick. (And that one pick was a Julian Edelman drop against Indy that bounced right into Mike Adams' hands.) Brady is nothing short of incredible, playing the best football of his career at age 38. If awards were handed out today, Brady would have his third MVP trophy.

3) Oakland is legit.

I predicted in the preseason that the Oakland Raiders would resemble a real football team in 2015. That is the case -- and then some. With a 4-3 mark at the outset of November, Oakland currently projects as the No. 5 seed in the AFC playoffs. Seriously.

And there's nothing fluky about it.

Over the past two weeks, the Raiders have hammered the Chargersand Jets, with Derek Carr completing 70.2 percent of his passes in that time for seven touchdown passes (against zero interceptions) and a 134.0 passer rating.

Obviously, there's still a ways to go. But no, Raider Nation, it's not too early to begin thinking about a legit postseason push.

4) Todd Gurley is the truth.

I'm still not ready to call Todd Gurley the Offensive Rookie of the Year, given the outstanding play of my preseason pick, Amari Cooper. But don't get it twisted: Gurley is flat-out amazing.

In Sunday's 27-6 win over the hapless 49ers, Gurley topped 125 yards rushing for the fourth straight start to begin his NFL career. Every time this guy touches the ball, you think he could go the distance -- and quite frequently, he does. (See: This 72-yard TD to give St. Louis a lead it would never relinquish.)

Back in April, on NFL Network's "NFL Championship Chase: The Draft," NFL Films guru Greg Cosell told me Gurley was "a top-three talent in the draft." Shortly thereafter, I made a prediction: "Gurley goes in the top 12 and stars in the NFL." Despite Gurley being fresh off a major knee injury, Rams general manager Les Snead wisely scooped up the stud at No. 10 overall -- and now, St. Louis is reaping the benefits.

Gurley changes the entire feel and image of the Rams. And here's a frightening thought for opponents: He's still less than a year removed from major knee surgery.

5) Cam Newton is an MVP candidate.

I thought the Panthers would win six games this year. They accomplished that in the first six games of the season. Great call on my part ...

Entering the season, I questioned the talent at receiver and along the offensive line. But Cam Newton has been tough and clutch, simply making everyone around him better. No Luke Kuechly? No problem. Cam and Co. won three games without the team's best player, who was sidelined with a concussion.

In the stat-driven age we live in, Newton's numbers don't exactly jump off the page: 55.8 completion percentage with nine TD passes and seven interceptions, plus four rushing scores. But what would this team be without No. 1? Certainly not the last remaining undefeated team in the NFC, entering Monday night's game against Indianapolis.

6) Arizona is the most complete team in the NFC.

The Packers have the NFL's best quarterback and remain my pick in Super Bowl 50. Carolina is unblemished entering Monday night.

But when you look at the talent Steve Keim has compiled -- when you take into account coaching, balance, depth and the ability to beat you in any phase -- the Cardinals deserve recognition and respect. Arizona ranks third in total offense and fourth in total defense. The Cards boast difference-makers everywhere, on both sides of the ball.

Right now, what does this team lack?

7) The 2015 AFC South could be the worst division ever.

The 2010 NFC West featured a 7-9 division winner. Last year's NFC South was historically bad. This year's NFC East is a jumbled mess.

Yet, the AFC South is currently more laughable than all of the above.

The Tennessee Titans are 1-6. In a related note, the Tennessee Titans are not dead in the division race. Far from it.

The Houston Texans cut the quarterback who started Weeks 2 through 5, and the defense is a dumpster fire. Also, not dead.

The Jacksonville Jaguars seemingly are years away. But you could argue they are the most complete team in the division.

Indianapolis is a dysfunctional mess, with poor play on the field and widely reported in-fighting off it. The Colts were supposed to take the next step in 2015 and hit the Super Bowl. Let's be honest: They won't be visiting Levi's Stadium in February unless they buy tickets.

Does anyone actually want to win this division?

8) Jay Cutler is the Bears' quarterback.

Quietly, Cutler has played really tough, solid football. And quietly, people around the league are beginning to believe that the Bears' brass and staff think they can win with Cutler in 2016 and beyond.

It's all rather surprising. And impressive. Cutler deserves recognition for his positive play, especially considering how much everyone typically loves to dwell on the negatives with the 32-year-old QB.

9) There will never be another Steve Smith.

OK, this is a statement I'm making in response to a disheartening development on Sunday.

Steve Smith tore his Achilles during the Ravens win over San Diego. His season is over. And his career could be, too. This is sad.

Back in August, Smith joined me on my CBS Sports Network show, "Time To Schein," and swore that this would be his last season, even if he continued to play at a high level (which he had before Sunday's injury). Thus, the first half of 2015 might come to represent the last time we ever got to watch one of the great characters, competitors, entertainers and tough guys at the receiver position. If that's the case, Steve Smith had a specular career. And he will certainly be missed on Sundays.

Follow Adam Schein on Twitter @AdamSchein.

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