Faces are new, but the NFL standings have a familiar look

Winds of no change

Midseason report

November 12, 2006|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,Sun reporter

Despite 10 new head coaches, 13 different quarterbacks and 18 changes at offensive coordinator, the NFL at midseason 2006 has a strikingly familiar look.

Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts once again are flirting with perfection.

The Chicago Bears have issues on offense, but they give no quarter on defense.

Terrell Owens still creates as much havoc in his own locker room as he does on the field for opposing defensive coordinators.

The more things changed from a year ago, the more they stayed the same, at least after nine weeks.

Nobody has caught up to the Colts' offense or the Bears' defense this year. And while the Pittsburgh Steelers have experienced a major comedown from their Super Bowl high, there are shockingly few changes at the top of either conference.

At the halfway point of the season, only two defending division champs are not in first place - the Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC North and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFC South.

In fact, if the playoffs started today, there'd be only two new entries in the six-team AFC field - the Ravens and the San Diego Chargers.

In the NFC, there are three new teams in the top six, but two of them (Atlanta Falcons, Minnesota Vikings) hold precarious wild-card spots at the moment.

What does this new-found stability suggest? Only that the good teams remained good and the bad teams remained bad, for the most part.

That said, here are 10 questions to ponder as we count down to this season's Super Bowl.

Will the Steelers stage another late- season run to make the playoffs?

Not this year. Not with Ben Roethlisberger playing like a traffic accident each week. Not with a receiving corps that starts and stops with Hines Ward, who has hamstring issues. Not with 24 turnovers, one more than the team committed last season. Not without Jerome Bettis to pound it in

Will the Colts go to the Super Bowl?

Only if Manning continues to play like he owns the league. Manning has played at a new high this season with 17 touchdown passes and only three interceptions. He has to win the game each week, it seems, while saddled with a defense that can't stop the run. That undersized defense or one poor decision by Manning in a playoff game could end their season short of the Super Bowl.

What was the best in-season move by any team?

The Seattle Seahawks will nose out the Ravens on this one. Their pickup of wide receiver Deion Branch from the Patriots was the coup of the year. He's averaging better than 15 yards per catch with three touchdowns, and that's with quarterback Matt Hasselbeck sidelined. The Ravens made the second-best move when Brian Billick dumped Jim Fassel as offensive coordinator and adapted the offense to the strengths of his best players.

Who will go to the Super Bowl?

Home-field advantage will keep the Colts in every postseason game they play. But the team that's already demonstrated it can handle the Colts in Indianapolis is San Diego. Unless coach Marty Schottenheimer gags again, the Chargers have as good a chance to go to the Super Bowl as any team in the AFC. Unless the New York Giants get healthy again, the NFC's road to the Super Bowl runs through Chicago. Hard as it is to believe, quarterback Rex Grossman could actually make the Super Bowl in his first full season.

Can Tony Romo do what neither Donovan McNabb nor Drew Bledsoe could?

That is, satisfy the Dallas Cowboys' Owens? The easy answer is that no quarterback, veteran or first-time starter, can deliver that miracle. But Romo is young enough and impressionable enough that Owens probably thinks he can mold him into a quarterback of his liking. Meanwhile, there are fresh reports every week that players in Dallas are growing weary of the nonstop distraction that Owens has become. It's a thorny issue when he costs the Cowboys a game, as he did with a drop against the Washington Redskins.

Which of the 10 new head coaches has done the best job?

The New Orleans Saints' Sean Payton has achieved the biggest turnaround, taking a homeless, 3-13 team to first place in its division. Signing Drew Brees was a master stroke, considering that every other team was afraid of the quarterback's shoulder injury. A little luck never hurts. Reggie Bush fell to them in the draft, and then they picked up Marques Colston, from Hofstra, in the seventh round. Without question, Colston is the rookie of the half-season with 44 catches, a 15.9-yard average gain and seven touchdowns.

If the playoffs began today, which teams would be in?

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