Heroes & Villains: Deluxe midseason edition

All season long, Around The NFL's Marc Sessler will offer up his laundry list of heroes and villains from the week that was.

Now that we're halfway through the season, it's time to shift gears and hand out some midseason awards.

Let's get down to it:


The Undefeateds: Still-perfect squads deserve plenty of props. The Patriots (7-0), Broncos (7-0), Bengals (7-0) and Panthers (7-0) have each spun compelling story lines and slapped down their doubters. Let's start in Denver, where coordinator Wade Phillips has woven a defense with the potential to be remembered alongside the '85 Bears and Y2K Ravens. Who else can hold superhuman passer Aaron Rodgers to 77 yards through the air while simultaneously dropping mega-shade on the city of Green Bay?

In Carolina, the pristine Panthers still struggle for league-wide respect, but Carolina's record is no fluke. Ron Rivera and Dave Gettleman form the most underrated coach/GM duo in the NFL. Meanwhile, the Bengals -- for years a January laughinstock -- are heat-seeking a first-round bye.

As for the Patriots, plenty are waiting for Tom Brady and Bill Belichick to finally hit the skids, but reality is a different beast: New England's roster is torching all comers and playing with a zoned-in focus rarely seen in the NFL. I'm fully convinced this Under Armour ad is a subliminal reminder to all humans that Brady is, indeed, a government-issued sports droid, fine-tuned and upgraded annually -- growing stronger and more annoyingly perfect with every season:

The Upstart Carnival of Silver and Black Goodness: It's been fashionable to hate on the Raiders for a decade-plus. That's the inevitable backdraft for a franchise that celebrates itself with a "Commitment to Excellence" campaign during a 12-year stretch of non-winning seasons. It's all changing, though, with young Derek Carr leading a revived offense that grows stronger weekly. The Around the NFL gang "forked" the Silver and Black last month, but today we feel destined to make a meaty donation to a Bay Area-based charity come January.

LondonTown: As the NFL grows across the sea, I'll look back on this season as rock-solid proof that London's ballooning collection of football heads are legitimate to the core. Traveling to Great Britain to cover Week 7's Bills-Jaguars tilt, Conor Orr and I were impressed with the city's collection of super-smart fans. It remains a tricky proposal to bring a team to London full-time, but here's an idea: Eight home games at Wembley, offering a mix of 16 different teams. That setup would honor what we found to be a true melting pot of fans. After seeing jerseys from all 32 teams, why not cater to the country's widespread fascination?


Everything Lions: The people of Detroit deserve better. We know coach Jim Caldwell is suffering along with his team, but this train has spun too far off the tracks. It's depressing to watch last year's second-ranked defense tumble to 28th overall. And don't even talk to us about Matthew Stafford, the crown jewel of ultra-frustrating passers and a player who seems completely lost in his seventh season. The hype over Ameer Abdullah has quieted, Calvin Johnson's looming cap hit is crippling and it's fair to wonder if the issues all chart back to coaching: We're disappointed with the Lions because of the genuine talent on this roster. The crumby results are baffling and inexcusable.

Doomed Offseason Narratives: Speaking of Abdullah, he's just one of many offseason hype-bunnies failing to live up to the breathless praise. We don't blame the rookie runner -- his team is a shattered mess -- but we seem to spiral down this wormhole every year. I'm guilty of falling for the offseason buzz, gushing overVikings wideout Charles Johnson and getting all hot and bothered over the potential of Saints tight end Josh Hill. Part of the problem is that clubs in the offseason hint at a tectonic shift, such as New Orleans preaching a ground-and-pound attack or Seattle pumping up their newfangled "jumbo" scheme -- a package build partly around Super Bowl upstart Chris Matthews, a wideout with seven targets all year. Once again, the long and winding offseason produced more hyperbole than code-cracking.

Zebra Hell: It's not an easy job, but the officiating this season has delivered one headache after the next. Whether it's the raging mystery over what constitutes a catch, out-of-nowhere timekeeping gaffes or officials not understanding how timeouts work, the game's gaggles of refs have underwhelmed.

Midseason Update From The Streets on Private Eye/Play-Caller Frank Cignetti, Jr.

These are heady days for Frank Cignetti, the enigmatic Rams offensive coordinator who continues to moonlight as a West Coast-based gumshoe. As you know by now, Frank's on the hunt for a missing L.A. teen by the name of Regina Jane François. His obsessive search has driven Rams officials batty, with Cignetti vanishing from the building for days at a time in search of the lammed-out young lass. Frank's patchwork game plans -- hashed together during Friday night whiskey bouts -- were magnets for criticism until thunderous first-year runner Todd Gurley put the Rams on his back.

Now Ol' Cignetti has the run-heavy attack on autopilot while he steers his rented Buick through the Hollywood Hills. It was there, in the Bel Air canyons, where Frank uncovered a clue that turned the case on its ass: A diary found below the floorboards of Regina Jane's teenage bedroom. Opening its perfume-scented pages, he came upon the following, written in cursive: "I wish to vanish. Far away from this city, from mother and father, from my studies and cemented future. My current life is over. I'm part of 'The New Dawn Collective' now. Someone entirely new. Regina Jane François no longer exists."

Into his trusty pocket recorder, hands trembling, Cignetti whispers: "Mega-ton note to self: 'The New Dawn Collective' ... What is it? Who is it? It's time to canvass bars, talk to known associates and find out what makes François tick. Rams second. Regina Jane first."

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