back to the Black Table
           
  AFTER NINE WEEKS, FOOTBALL GETS AN A: THE NFL'S MIDTERM REPORT.  
   
  OK, we'll play along. Halftime. Midseason grades. Mid-term reports.

The NFL season is through nine of its 17 weeks and, thanks to the glory of bye weeks, 28 of the league's 32 teams have played exactly half their games.

So this is the traditional and logical time to check in and see how wrong I was with my preseason predictions. And much to my surprise, I got a few things right, like four of the eight division leaders at this point.

And while I've changed my Super Bowl pick to get on that Kansas City Chiefs bandwagon, I'm going to stand by my final four teams. But enough patting myself on the back, let's see where your team stands now and we're they'll end up in eight weeks.

 

 
   
 

 

1. New England Patriots (preseseason prediction: 1). All these guys are doing is winning. Everything that should lead to losses keeps turning into wins: Injuries, no running game, turnovers, penalties. The Patriots will beat you by scoring 38 points; they'll beat you by scoring nine. Coach Bill Belichick has made very right call, and these guys could get much better when they get a slew of injured starters back. Grade: A.

2. Miami Dolphins (2). What will save the Dolphins this season, if anything is Brian Griese -- not Ricky Williams. Make no mistake: Williams, with 660 yards at 3.4 yards a clip, is having a bad year. But that's because defenses are selling out against the run and, if Griese beats them through the air, so be it. Nobody is worried about that happening consistently so they don't deal with it. Offensive coordinator Norv Turner's product looks nothing like what you'd expect from a supposed genius. Grade: B-.

3. New York Jets (4). I realize that the Jets are 2-6 and don't have much to play for. But their schedule isn't tough, everybody loves Chad Pennington (hint: blitz him) and Herman Edwards gets these guys to play for some reason. The Jets will win a few games and folks will get all dreamy about next season because Pennington finds a go-to receiver in Santana Moss when it probably would better serve the Jets to blow the season and get a high draft pick. Er, check that. If they got another high pick, they'd select the next Dewayne Robertson. Grade: D.

4. Buffalo Bills (3). The Bills are one of those teams that could wind up in the doghouse or in the Super Bowl, but you can figure out what I think of them. Over the past year, Drew Bledsoe has looked like a very average quarterback, and the defense came back to earth after an emotional start. Oh, anybody seen Lawyer Milloy lately? Last I saw Dante Hall was dusting him for a 67-yard touchdown on national TV. The Bills said they'd be a running team and then actually tried to be one. This is reminiscent of the Randy Ratio. If you tell everybody what's coming, they'll be able to stop it. Grade: F.

 

 
   
 

 

1. Baltimore Ravens (2). This is the least-evil division. Let's go the schedule. The Ravens might lose to St. Louis and Miami and be 5-5. But they'll win two out of three from Seattle, San Francisco and Cincinnati. Then they'll win at least two out of three again from Oakland, Cleveland and Pittsburgh. That makes them 9-7, meaning Cincinnati or Cleveland must go 6-2 to catch them and that ain't happening. Grade: C+.

2. Cincinnati Bengals (4). The question isn't whether the Bengals will make the playoffs because they won't, but rather whether No. 1 pick quarterback Carson Palmer will play. He won't because the Bengals are acting like they have something to play for and Jon Kitna is playing well enough that a change to Palmer would mean the Bengals are quitting and Marvin Lewis isn't about that. Grade: B+.

3. Pittsburgh Steelers (1). The best part about watching the Steelers implode is seeing the steam come out of Bill Cowher's ears. Sure, that might get old after another loss or two, but the Steelers are good enough and proud enough that they will start winning a few games. That'll get them ahead of the Browns, maybe all the way to 6-10. Still . . . Grade: F.

4. Cleveland Browns (3). Once upon a time (2001), I wrote something along the lines of Belichick being an idiot and the New England Patriots being a horrible team. Yes, they won the Super Bowl that season and, yes, I feel the same way about Butch Davis and the Browns. Name one strength of this team. Take your time. My email is mpitzer@usatoday.com. Grade: F.

 

 
   
 

 

1. Indianapolis Colts (1). No quibbles about the offense, though I have a lingering fear that Tony Dungy will find some way to screw it up. It's the 21st-ranked run defense -- 120.5 yards allowed per game -- that scares me. Oh, and Mike Vanderjagt was right. Tony Dungy has problems in the playoffs because he doesn't scare the crap out of anybody. Grade: A-.

2. Tennessee Titans (2). Look, I give up on Steve McNair. I want to doubt him, I want to penalize him for having so-so receivers other than Derrick Mason and no running game. But all he does is win and I have to stop trying to doubt him. Still, I don't think the Titans will win the division, or go far in the playoffs, because they can't run and they are woefully thin on defense. The Colts should be so lucky to meet them in the playoffs. Grade: B+.

3. Houston Texans (4). The only thing more astonishing than the Texans allowing 369.2 yards a game is the fact that they aren't last in the NFL. Atlanta is -- at 418.2 yards. Do you have any idea how hard it is to allow that many yards every week? Kansas City was atrocious last year and the Falcons are allowing nearly 30 yards more each game. And an average of 418 yards means they do a lot worse some weeks. What's that? We're talking about the Texans? Oh, that Domanick Davis kid could be quite a runner if he puts on a few pounds. Grade: C.

4. Jacksonville Jaguars (3). I'm not predicting any change in this division's standings the rest of the way. So sue me: I'm boring. But you don't honestly seeing the Jaguars doing anything, do you? Their coach put an ax in the locker room, for crying out loud. I bought an ax a while ago and my wife was ready to call 911 by the time I got home. An ax? Seriously, there are punters around. Grade: F.

 

 
   
 

 

1. Kansas City Chiefs (1). I'd be much happier about having picked the Chiefs to win this division if they weren't such a chic pick. They already have a 4 1/2-game division lead so they'll roll to the title. As long as the defense keeps creating turnovers, they have a very well-rounded club. They'll drop a couple of games along the way; being on top of your game for 16 weeks is just too hard. Whether they make the playoffs will depend on how many games they lose and, hence, whether they play New England in Massachusetts or Missouri. If it's at New England, Belichick will find a way to win. Probably something to do with snow, obscure rules and overtime. Grade: A.

2. Denver Broncos (4). Their defense scares me. Did you see on Monday night when they couldn't make a play to save their lives? The Patriots just rolled through them when it mattered. Jake Plummer has been much better than I thought and when he comes back, the Broncos will outscore enough teams and if they have a better AFC record than Miami, they'll win that tiebreaker and sneak in as a wild card. But they'll have at most one home game and Denver is a team that needs home-field advantage to be a serious threat. Grade: B-.

3. Oakland Raiders (2). The Raiders are two plays from 0-8 and the only reason I don't pick them to finish last is because the Chargers are atrocious. Oakland just looks old and it's pretty clear that a wild offseason is coming. Imagine the Raiders drafting in the top five. Oh, it'll be fun. Bill Callahan will be gone and remember that Al Davis can be a fairly shrewd football guy. How they turn out next year is a fascinating question. Grade: F.

4. San Diego Chargers (3). On Sunday, the Chargers play at home for the first time since Sept. 21 -- that's seven weeks between home games -- and nobody in San Diego cares. Sure, they were worried about that wildfire situation, but it's pretty damning to think that San Deigoans could be mad that their team is home again and will be three of the next four weeks. LaDainian Tomlinson is a wonderful back and what's happening to him right now is a shame and not his fault. Grade: F.

 

 
   
 

 

1. New York Giants (1). I picked the Giants to win the division and I've seen plenty to dissuade me from the pick - inconsistent special teams, a soft defense and way too many turnovers. But they also are an inbounds kickoff and one tackle on a punt return away from first place. The division first will depend on the Giants' rematches against the Eagles and Cowboys. If the Giants win, we'll have a massive logjam for first and the winner will be decided by number of touchdowns in non-division games under full moons. Grade: C.

2. Dallas Cowboys (4). No doubt that Bill Parcells has done a great job with minimal talent and has the Cowboys well-positioned with six wins already. That means they can afford a couple bobbles and they probably will have them with non-division games against New England, Carolina and Miami. Dallas made a stunning number of mistakes in last week's win against Washington. The Cowboys probably lose if they do the same thing Sunday against Buffalo and that's one of their easy games. Grade: A.

3. Philadelphia Eagles (2). I put the Eagles a little behind the top two teams because they seem to have everything barely tied together. They're hoping one of their running backs stays healthy and productive. They're praying somebody gets open for Donovan McNabb and that McNabb can hit him. And they have their fingers crossed not to lose any more defenders to injury. The Eagles haven't looked very good against the better teams they've played and that's not a good sign. Grade: C.

4. Washington Redskins (3). The odd thing about the Redskins is that every week they make the same mistakes, Steve Spurrier says the same things - "We have to coach 'em up better, we have to play smarter" - and then the Redskins go out the next week and make the same mistakes all over again. This season has been lost somewhere in the team's lack of pass-blocking and running backs. The Redskins' final eight games will be out making any tangible progress whatsoever. If they do, Spurrier returns in 2004. Grade: D.

 

 
   
 

 

1. Minnesota Vikings (2). OK, the last two games have proven that the Vikings' defense is not as stout as we thought it was when they won their first six games. Their line can be pushed around and the linebackers, except for Chris Claiborne, are mediocre and slow. Defensive coordinator and professional resume enhancer George O'Leary has gotten a ton of credit for shaping this defense. He really will earn his money if he fixes these holes. And if he does, O'Leary could be a hot head-coaching candidate, which probably wouldn't have happened if he hadn't lied on his resume and lost the Notre Dame job. Grade: A.

2. Green Bay Packers (1). Don't be surprised if the Packers make a run at the Vikings, especially if LaDainian Tomlinson runs for 250 yards this week and Minnesota loses its third straight. But the Packers just don't have enough. Ahman Green is having an incredible season and Brett Favre is great when he wants to be. They don't have enough receiving depth and the defense keeps getting worked over. Good news for Green Bay is that they play only two teams with winning records. Grade: C.

3. Chicago Bears (4). I'm stunned that these words are about to come from my fingertips, but the Bears have become a fun team to watch. Watching Chris Chandler at quarterback is kind of like watching a train wreck. Running back Anthony Thomas finally has reverted to his rookie form when he just lowered his shoulder and ran over people. And the Bears have all of these late-round draft picks you've never heard of who are starting and are simply flying all over the place. I don't know what that means other than the Bears are bad enough to have lots of playing time available. The Bears might not win another game after beating Detroit this week. Grade: D.

4. Detroit Lions (3). Unlike the Bears, the Lions are simply brutal to watch. The only thing that might surprise me more than seeing Butch Davis succeed in Cleveland is seeing Matt Millen succeed in Detroit. In the middle of a rebuilding process, the Lions still have one of the league's oldest lineups. Joey Harrington has not progressed this season (though losing Charles Rogers hurts). And there is virtually no young talent at any position. It's really quite remarkable. Grade: F.

 

 
   
 

 

1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1). The Bucs have been very inconsistent through the first half and have yet to win, or lose, two in a row. But don't be surprised if they make a bit of a run and win the division over the crumbling Panthers with about a 10-6 record. The Bucs have played best when the stakes are up so I fully expect them to win this week in their rematch against Carolina. Then Tennessee is the only opponent left currently with a winning record. Even if they drop one along the way, there are enough winnable games to reclaim first place. Grade: C.

2. Carolina Panthers (2). The Panthers were one of the nice surprise stories of the first half, but you can see they are teetering on the brink. They are three admittedly blown calls away from a three-game losing streak. Defenses increasingly are forcing Jake Delhomme to move the ball and now first-half star Stephen Davis is banged up. Carolina's defense has not come close to its preseason hype - except for Mike Rucker, who is having an MVP-type season - and if it does not improve soon, the Panthers will be toast now that they're wearing the bull's-eye. Grade: A.

3. New Orleans Saints (4). After upsetting Tampa Bay last Sunday, New Orleans has become a popular pick to make a second-half run but when has this team lived up to expectations under Jim Haslett? Their other three wins are against Atlanta, Chicago and Houston - seven wins combined - so let's not get carried away. Running back Deuce McAllister is having a phenomenal season with six 100-yard games in nine weeks. Quarterback Aaron Brooks, though, appears to be the problem. He still is too inconsistent and too lackadaisical. If Haslett gets canned after this season, likely if he doesn't make the playoffs, the new regime will not be tied to Brooks. Grade: C.

4. Atlanta Falcons (3). I really do feel bad for Dan Reeves. He is going to be run out of town by Michael Vick, who hasn't even played this year. And I guess we can go ahead and name Vick MVP every year for the rest of his career seeing how the Falcons collapsed without him. Nothing gone's right in Atlanta so I'm a little hesitant to pile on. There will, however, be major changes from the top down in the offseason, all centered around getting Vick what he needs to be a winner. The Falcons don't have much in the personnel department right now and they will have many holes to fill. Grade: F.

 

 
   
 

 

1. Seattle Seahawks (1). The Seahawks might be the worst 6-2 team ever and my faith in them is getting my drilled in some fantasy leagues. Their offense still hasn't clicked and the defense has tailed way off from its hot start with guys like rookie safety Ken Hamlin coming back to earth. But if Seattle has gotten this far without playing well, then surely the Seahawks will play better at some point. They should go at least 5-3 in the second half and the other teams in the division are too inconsistent to catch them. Grade: B.

2. St. Louis Rams (2). The Rams have gotten to this point, 5-3, by playing five full games without Marshall Faulk. If he remains healthy in the second half, the Rams could give Seattle a run, but health has not been Faulk's strong suit for three years now. And the 49ers provided the blueprint to beat Marc Bulger: Blitz him. Of course, other teams have tried this and the Rams' offensive line deserves a lot of credit for keeping Bulger healthy. And the 49ers also were ahead from the opening kickoff. So it's not an easy blueprint to copy, but if only a couple more teams manage to do it, the Rams will be fighting for a wild-card spot. Grade: B.

3. San Francisco 49ers (3). 49ers' fans ought to be frustrated because their team is one of the most inconsistent around. There were dominating wins against Tampa Bay and St. Louis and there were humiliating losses to Cleveland and Arizona. There is a potential quarterback controversy, a two-headed running back and a wide receiver who seems ready to make the team implode at any moment. There also is a potent defense that can keep the 49ers in every game, but that unfortunately will not be enough. Grade: C.

4. Arizona Cardinals (4). Marcel Shipp. That's the name to remember in 20 years when somebody asks you who finally put Emmitt Smith out to pasture. Shipp has been amazing the past two games, with over 300 rushing yards, meaning a future Hall of Famer might not be welcome back in the starting lineup when he gets healthy in a couple weeks. In the parity-driven NFL, two wins in a row can raise any team's hopes. But Arizona is in too much of a hole at 3-5 and, really, Jeff Blake is the quarterback. The Cardinals have overachieved to get here and if they get to even 7-9, that will be even more of a feat. Grade: B.

 

 
 

OTHER STUFF

AFC wild cards: Tennessee, Denver.
NFC wild cards: Dallas, St. Louis.
AFC Championship Game: Kansas City d. New England.
NFC Championship Game: New York Giants d. Tampa Bay.
Super Bowl: Kansas City d. New York Giants.

First-half offensive MVP: Steve McNair, Tennessee.
First-half defensive MVP: Mike Rucker, Carolina.
First-half rookie of the year: 1. Anquan Boldin, Arizona; 2. Domanick Davis, Houston.
First-half coach of the year: 1. Bill Belichick, New England; 2. Bill Parcells, Dallas.

 

*BT*

The last time Matt Pitzer wrote about football, he correctly predicted the outcome of the Super Bowl, proving that a stopped clock is right at least twice a day.