The Monk's predictions before the season started are looking . . . no worse than most "experts," quite honestly, other than Peter King -- who famously picked the Lions to top the NFC Central. With the first half of the NFL season about to conclude, here are some observations.
If the season ended today, the Colts would be right where they were last year: the #1 seed with all to play for at home in the playoffs. The remaining playoff teams would be #2 Denver (sound familiar?), #3 Baltimore (6-2, lost to Denver); #4 New England (6-2, lost to Denver and Indy); #5 San Diego and #6 KC. So three of four division winners repeating and the three best teams to miss the playoffs in '05 would take a step up in '06. Seems fair.
At this point, the AFC East is New England's in a walk. The Pats are far superior to the rest of the division and probably most of the conference, other than the Broncs and Colts. The Pats' easy second-half schedule (two .500+ teams) will put pressure on the Broncs and Ravens for that second bye position. The rest of the division is awful -- the Jets are simply poor, the Bills stink and the Dolphins are desperately wondering why they went for Culpepper over Brees in the offseason.
The AFC Central is the Ravens' to win. The Bengals are 4-4 and have road games against New Orleans, Indy and Denver and a home date with the Chargers. They have allowed more sacks this year than in all of '05. Carson Palmer is a bit skittish in the pocket. An 8-8 total would not surprise. The Steelers have been awful and their season is effectively over -- they'd have to win out to even challenge for the playoffs, and with two games against the Ravens, a roadie at Cincy and an offense that is completely out of whack, it won't happen. The Browns will continue to play tough and lose; imagine if Romeo Crennel actually had some talent.
At this point, the only races in the AFC are: bye #2, AFC West champ and a race for the wild card between San Diego/KC/Denver (whoever doesn't win the west) and Jacksonville. That's not much with half the season remaining. The West teams have similar schedules: 2-3 games against each other, plus Seattle and Cincy (Denver, SD) or Baltimore and Jacksonville (KC). The Jags have four girls' teams, plus the Giants, Pats, Colts (all at home) and KC. All things considered, The Monk would actually favor the three AFC West teams because LT2 is playing well, the Broncos can suddenly score, and KC's running back Larry Johnson is now in midseason form, on his way toward 1,800 yards.
The Colts are, in a way, amazing. First, they have a poor run defense, but are able to get stops or turnovers as needed to win. Second, their run offense is hit-and-miss, but even the best defense they played couldn't do a thing against Manning (34-31 at Denver). Most importantly, the Colts have won two straight AT New England -- what once was a Russell/Chamberlain rivalry between Brady and Manning where the spectacular player would lose to the merely excellent player and his superior team is now too close to call.
The NFC is both more interesting, and less. It's still weaker than the AFC, although the Giants and Bears have closed that gap a bit. All of its races are still alive, except the NFC Central title (although the Giants have BIG advantages in the NFC East: two-game lead, 3-0 in division). So who is for real?
Despite their excellence through the first seven games, the jury is still out on the Bears. Why? First, the only supra-.500 team they beat was a Shaun Alexander-less Seattle. Second, they should have honked at Arizona. Third, they DID honk at home to the post-mortem Dolphins by 18 points! The Bears had an easy schedule, and it only stiffens slightly now: at Giants and at New England in the next three weeks (they should not lose to the Jets). The rest of their division is a mess.
Here's the most surprising stat of the first half: the Giants are 8th in the league in points allowed. This is after coughing up 92 in their first three games. The punditocracy wailed and moaned about how tough the Giants first seven games were -- all against teams in the top 11 in total defense in 2005, five against playoff teams -- and how the Giants would be respectable at 3-4, happy at 4-3. They ran that gamut at 5-2 -- how about them apples? The Monk never worried about the offense (only the Cowboys held the Jints under 20 in the '05 regular season), but once the defense smartened up in the bye week, the Giants turned from team-in-trouble to possible contender. A big game for them is Sunday against the Bears . . . but the remaining schedule is still tough: roadies at Washington, Jacksonville and Carolina, homers against Philly, Dallas and New Orleans. No gimmes -- if Big Blue can repeat as NFC East champs for the first time since 1989-90 or get a bye, it will certainly have earned it.
The rest of the NFC East is a mess -- the Cowboys are kicking themselves for losing yesterday, the Eagles are kicking themselves over at least two losses (Giants, Bucs), and the Redskins are an enigma. I just get the feeling that Gibbs will coax another six wins out of that team, and that might be enough to eek out a playoff spot -- the 'Skins have a manageable schedule in the second half. That said, considering that Dallas has games with Indy and Atlanta, Philly has Indy, Carolina and roadies against the whole division, and the 'Skins have three conference losses, it will be hard for any team that does not win the division to get a playoff spot.
The NFC South is the most interesting division -- you didn't predict a 6-2 Saints team at the break and neither did The Monk. Kudos to Brees and the Aints for coming together. Atlanta's bad loss to the Lions may be either: (a) the game that tips the division to New Orleans; (b) the game that ultimately knocks them out of the playoffs; (c) both. Carolina is a puzzle -- that team has too much talent to honk at home to the Cowboys after taking a two-TD lead.
Out west, the Shaun Alexander injury has turned a cakewalk into a dogfight for the Seahawks, and with the addition of Matt Hasslebeck's injury, may put the S'hawks in either a battle for the playoffs, or a non-bye playoff spot. I'm guessing the latter -- a #3-#6 seed in the NFC playoffs. Then again, they have the tiebreaker over the Giants and an easy schedule (four of their remaining nine are against San Fran, Oakland and Zona). As for the rest of that division: San Fran stinks, 'Zona is putrid. But the Rams have a decent defense and a QB who is a Pro Bowl contender. They can contend . . . but not if they remain consistently inconsistent.