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NFL enjoys topsy-turvy first half of 2010 season

| Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2010

In St. Louis, the head coach cautioned his players against dwelling on their success. In Dallas, the head coach was left to dwell on what went wrong.

In Oakland, the Raiders and Kansas City Chiefs played an important mid-season game against each other for the first time in years. In Cincinnati, the Bengals' season has pretty much ended. There is hope in Tampa Bay. In Minnesota, fans are hoping the coach gets fired.

So far, at the NFL's halfway mark, a few of the mighty are falling and several of the downtrodden have risen. Some of the latter might soon experience that familiar sinking feeling, but right now it is a fun ride over unexplored terrain.

"It's a totally different atmosphere in here," said Oakland linebacker Sam Williams, an eight-year veteran who has played on no winning Raiders teams but will gladly take a 5-4 record into his bye week.

"We're not the old Raiders," safety Mike Mitchell said.

The old Buccaneers appear to be gone, too, or at least in hiding. The Bucs were 3-13 last season. After a tough loss to Atlanta last week, they are 5-3 under second-year coach Raheem Morris and an exciting, young quarterback, Josh Freeman.

"When you're at the midway point and playing meaningful games rather than worrying about draft status, you're feeling much better about where you are, what you're trying to do and how you want to improve your team every week," Morris said.

The Rams, meanwhile, are 4-4 and tied for first place in the NFC West after winning a combined three games in the past two seasons. The players are aware of the "stats and standings," second-year coach Steve Spagnuolo said, "but we don't focus on them. We just kind of move on. These guys know we've got a pretty tough game on Sunday."

It's against disappointing San Francisco on the road. Picked by many to win the division and beat last year's 8-8 record, the 49ers are 2-6. On the other hand, the Rams are winless away from home, and the division is shaky enough (every team has been outscored) that a win puts the Niners in contention.

The Raiders, Bucs and Rams already have matched or exceeded last year's win totals. So have the Chiefs, Detroit Lions and even the Washington Redskins, whose inconsistencies and the Donovan McNabb benching controversy have obscured the fact they are 4-4 after last year's 4-12 debacle.

Cleveland (5-11 last season) is a modest 3-5, but the Browns and rookie quarterback Colt McCoy have won two in a row over defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans and then 6-1 New England. The Lions (2-14 in 2009) are 2-6 but outplayed the New York Jets before losing in overtime and have scored more points than their opponents.

Even Seattle, maybe one of the weakest 4-4 teams in history, is just one win from last year's total.

At this time last year, the clubs that finished with the seven worst records were a combined 12-52. This season, those teams are 34-33. One reason is that some are finally seeing young players mature after paying a price that resulted in horrendous seasons and fired coaches.

"My last year we had 20 rookies and started nine of them," said ESPN analyst and former Chiefs coach Herm Edwards, who was let go after the 2008 season. "The problem is when you're young, you have too many errors. You get your lessons first and experience later."

On the flip side, five playoff teams in 2009 - Dallas, Minnesota, Arizona, San Diego and Cincinnati - plus San Francisco, Carolina and Denver (all 8-8 last year), are 18-47.

The biggest losers, of course, are the Cowboys, who yearned to become the first "home" team to play in a Super Bowl, Instead, they fell to 1-7 after their 45-7 humiliation in Green Bay. The game had several ramifications, including owner Jerry Jones dumping beleaguered coach Wade Phillips, as many expected if not demanded.

The Vikings, who have tried mightily to bring the soap opera back to daily television, escaped with an overtime win against Arizona (another down team) that swelled their record to 3-5 amid signs and chants for the removal of coach Brad Childress.

"I think it's the natural result of a league with a draft and a salary cap," former Redskins and Houston Texans general manager Charley Casserly said of the extreme parity. "The natural evolution of teams getting better."

And teams getting worse, although Casserly warned Vikings bashers that "the season is not over," and called what happened to Dallas a "freak-type thing."

"A lot of things went wrong," he said. "Sometimes you get into ruts like that. But it's a very balanced league. This year might be more, because you don't have that one team that dominates."

At the halfway mark in 2009, New Orleans and Indianapolis were unbeaten and the Vikings 7-1. This year there are no unbeaten or one-loss teams, but plenty are doing better than before and a whole bunch are doing worse.

Additional Information:

Halfway home

Tampa Bay : 1-7 at halfway point in 2009 (finished 3-13); 5-3 at halfway point in 2010

Kansas City : 1-7 (4-12); 5-3

Oakland : 2-6 (5-11); 5-4

St. Louis : 1-7 (1-15); 4-4

Washington : 2-6 (4-12); 4-4

Cleveland : 1-7 (5-11); 3-5

Detroit : 1-7 (2-14); 2-6

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