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  NINE AND A HALF WEEKS IN... A SIZZLING NFL MIDSEASON REPORT.  
   
   
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The San Diego Chargers have scored the most points in the league.

To those of us nimwits who presume to figure the league out on a weekly basis, this is fascinating. The Chargers widely were presumed to be one of the worst teams in the league in preseason. Their coach, Marty Schottenheimer, was a dead man walking, merely hoping to survive the season before being booted to the street. To describe his style of play, Marty Ball, as three yards and a cloud of dust would be generous to the dust. The Chargers spent a good part of their offseason devising a way to not be stuck with the consensus No. 1 overall draft pick, who had said he did not want to play in San Diego.

And here the Chargers are, with 262 points (29.1 a game), rewriting fantasy football rules as they go and finding themselves tied for first place in the AFC West with the Denver Broncos. San Diego was an 80-1 pick in Las Vegas to win the Super Bowl, ahead of only the 110-1 Arizona Cardinals.

The Chargers, however, play in the tough AFC. Their 6-3 record has them set to make a playoff run but with seven other conference teams with three losses or fewer, their margin of error to make the postseason is razor thin. If they were in the NFC, where only five teams are above .500, they could start printing playoff tickets already.

Let's start the second-half preview with a few half-season awards.

 

 
 

Awards

 

 
     

MVP: Terrell Owens, Eagles. There has been a movement lately toward Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger or San Diego's Drew Brees. Neither is as important to his team as Owens. The Eagles are probably a .500 team without Owens. Roethlisberger and Brees are part of great team efforts and wouldn't finish ahead of Indianapolis' Peyton Manning in this voting.

 

 
     

Offensive player of the year: This is a dumb award because it should go to Owens since, well, he's the MVP. But the NFL gives out a different award, so we will too and hand this one to Peyton Manning, on pace to throw 52 touchdown passes. In the past five weeks, he has thrown more than three TDs four times. This off-the-charts performance dwarfs the play of Minnesota's Daunte Culpepper and Chiefs running back Priest Holmes.

 

 
     

Defensive player of the year: Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis always wins this award just because he is Ray Lewis. Lewis is still pretty good, but he is not the Lewis of four years ago, no matter how much TV broadcasters fawn over him. He is the third most effective defensive player on his own team, behind safety Ed Reed and linebacker Terrell Suggs. I'll take Jacksonville defensive tackle Marcus Stroud for this award. The Jaguars are 5-3 because of their defense, which beats down teams enough to give them a chance to win late. When the Jaguars experimented with Stroud at defensive end in an October game against San Diego, the Chargers torched them for 34 points, easily their worst game of the year.

 

 
     

Coach of the year: Bill Cowher, Steelers. Pittsburgh's resurgence this year is primarily because Cowher remade the Steelers as a run- and defense-oriented team. He factored heavily in the decision to pursue running back Duce Staley and hire Dick LeBeau as his defensive coordinator.

 

 
     

Rookie of the year: Impossible to argue with Ben Roethlisberger. Everybody else is playing for second. Those in the running include Broncos linebacker D.J. Williams, Jets linebacker Jonathan Vilma, Buccaneers receiver Michael Clayton and Lions receiver Roy Williams (if he could only stay healthy). New England defensive tackle Vince Wilfork could make a run in the second half.

 

 
 

AFC Playoff Picks

 

 
     

AFC East: New England, easy. The Jets are a nice contender and all, but they will be happy to go 2-2 in the next four weeks with Quincy Carter replacing Chad Pennington at quarterback. That leaves them 8-4 heading into a final four-week sked against Pittsburgh, Seattle, New England and St. Louis. The Patriots do not look like they will go worse than 12-4, barring something unforeseen. The Jets are very good when they have a balanced offense, but I'm not convinced Curtis Martin will be rushing for 120 yards without Pennington to avert attention.

 

 
     

AFC North: Pittsburgh's first-half run to 7-1 has been overwhelming. The Steelers have dominated both sides of the ball, and their only loss was at Baltimore when Roethlisberger got his first action, replacing the injured Tommy Maddox mid-game. I expect Pittsburgh will be out for revenge when the Ravens visit in Week 16. Even if Baltimore doesn't lose any other games, that still leaves Pittsburgh a three-game cushion, and the Steelers are playing so well that, even with a moderately difficult schedule, they should rack up the wins. If they stay on top of their game, their win two weeks against New England might have secured home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

 

 
     

AFC South: An intriguing division because the Titans have played horribly and are still only two games back at 3-5. All four teams will continue to beat each other up, and it is the Texans, at 4-4, who could play a decisive role. Their best chance to win is to open up the offense and let David Carr and Andre Johnson light things up. They won't do that, but their four remaining division games will cause somebody some headaches. If the Colts can avoid a lapse this weekend and beat Houston at home, they will have room to take a mulligan in the second half. After this week comes a game at Chicago, but the Colts' next five games are either at home or in favorable conditions, which will allow their precision passing game to operate smoothly. I like the Jaguars' defense, but their offense has become a liability, and now savior Byron Leftwich is out.

 

 
     

AFC West: The Chargers are the surprise of the league. Much has been made of their remaining schedule, which features only two games against teams with winning records. But two games against Kansas City, one at Cleveland -- in addition to those games against Denver and Indianapolis -- give the young team plenty of opportunities to slip up. Denver's schedule is much more favorable, and the Broncos easily could run the table. They are an inconsistent group but should be able to take care of the division.

 

 
   
 

AFC Wild cards: San Diego ought to rack up enough wins to lock down one slot. The second-place team in the South (Houston or Jacksonville) might be the next-best team, but they likely could finish at 9-7 and be at the mercy of tiebreakers. Which brings me back to the Ravens. I'm sure they would take a 10-6 record right now; road games against New England, Indianapolis and Pittsburgh will be difficult. If they avoid any other slips -- and their defense makes that very likely -- the other wild-card slot is theirs.

 

 
 

NFC Playoff Picks

 

 
     

NFC East: The Eagles easily are the team to beat. The Redskins and Cowboys, despite being only one game out of a wild-card berth, are not good teams. The tide is starting to turn on the Giants. Michael Strahan, the defensive leader, is done for the season, and Kurt Warner is starting to look like the Kurt Warner of last season - hit him a few times and he gets rattled. Philadelphia is a flawed team but still should get to at least 12 wins fairly easily.

 

 
     

NFC North: This should be the Vikings' division, but coach Mike Tice is doing his best to screw it up. Tice seems like a great guy and, as a former player, he always communicates well with players. But his coaching decisions, on- and off-field, are always interesting. This year's big gaffe is screwing up the Randy Moss injury situation. Given that they are already 1-2 without Moss, with another loss likely this weekend, Moss' importance to the team cannot be overstated. And that has allowed Green Bay -- a team that, by all accounts, should be dead in the water -- back in the race. The Packers' schedule still has plenty of pitfalls, and they will have to sweep two games against Minnesota. The second one is not until Week 16. Despite Tice's best efforts, Moss should be healthy by then, and that will be enough for Minnesota.

 

 
     

NFC South: Another strange division. The Atlanta Falcons are on top but are the worst 6-2 team in the league. The team to watch is Tampa Bay -- a team with some offensive spunk now that quarterback Brian Griese and running back Michael Pittman both are playing well. If that offense stays hot, the Bucs can make up a lot of ground, thanks to upcoming games against San Francisco, New Orleans, Carolina and Arizona. The key will be their two games against the Falcons, including one this weekend. The Bucs would be 3-6 if they lose the first one; if they win, they'll go on to take the division, maybe at 9-7.

 

 
     

NFC West: The 5-3 Seahawks can all but put a stranglehold on the division by beating the Rams this week. A win would give them a two-game lead, and Seattle should be ready for revenge after blowing a fourth-quarter lead in an earlier game against the Rams, a loss that sent the Seahawks on a three-game losing streak. Seattle is a schizophrenic team, but they will get some defensive players, especially pass rusher Grant Wistrom, back from injury in the second half. Running back Shaun Alexander quietly is having an MVP-caliber season, and the Seahawks will be dangerous enough to at least win the division.

 

 
   
  NFC Wild Cards: Do we have to have them? This year's NFC races should quiet any talk of expanding the playoffs; there just aren't enough good teams. A 9-7 record will get a team into at least a tie for a wild card; the dreaded 8-8 team could make it also. If 8-8 is good enough, that gives every team a chance except for Carolina and San Francisco. I'm going to go with Tampa Bay and Green Bay, although St. Louis also should be in the mix.  
 

 

The Road to the Super Bowl.

Postseason matchups always can cause strange things, but you should go ahead and make the AFC team about a touchdown favorite in the Super Bowl. The NFC just doesn't have the guns this year, while Pittsburgh and New England clearly are the class of the AFC. Only Philadelphia has the chance to compete with those two.

The Steelers just throttled the Eagles. Though winning a second such game is always more difficult than the first, Pittsburgh clearly outclassed Philadelphia; this wasn't a coaching win or a fluke turn of events. If they meet again, the Steelers must be favored. And if Philadelphia faces New England, the Patriots thrive by shutting down one-trick ponies (Terrell Owens) such as the Eagles.

Denver is one team that could make a mess of things in a home playoff game, but the Broncos currently are in line to play at either Pittsburgh or New England in the second round, and elite teams do not often blow two-game leads. Don't be surprised if the Chargers also reach that second round with Denver, with both losing for a New England-Pittsburgh AFC title game. The home team wins.

And the NFC? Honestly, if the Eagles don't make it this year, coach Andy Reid deserves to be fired. Barring a serious second-half downturn by the Eagles, nobody appears possible of taking away home field. Either Minnesota or Green Bay has the chance to make things interesting, but the Vikings already have been trounced in Philadelphia. Green Bay plays in Philadelphia on December 5 in what could be a possible Eagles' speed bump. Remember that Green Bay was a fourth-and-26 play away from winning in Philadelphia in last year's playoffs.

Seattle is the second-best NFC team and has the best chance to also host a second-round game. But the Seahawks easily could be upset, by either Minnesota or Green Bay. Take second-round games of the Packers at Philadelphia and Minnesota at Seattle. The Eagles will not lose before the championship game, but the Seahawks will. Then Philadelphia finally will reach the Super Bowl by beating Minnesota again before losing the big game fairly handily.

 

Matt Pitzer is fantasy football expert for USA Today Sports Weekly. You can chat with him about fantasy football at USA Today's Web site at noon Thursday right here.