By Mark Gaughan
Rookie quarterbacks have been the story of the season through the first half of the 2012 NFL campaign.
First overall pick Andrew Luck has the Indianapolis Colts at 6-3 and in position for a playoff berth. Luck ranks third in the league in passing yards. He already has four 300-yard passing games and needs just one more to set the rookie record. Most prognosticators had the Colts going 4-12 or worse.
“That's why he was the first player taken in the draft,” said Colts receiver Reggie Wayne. “He's special.”
Third-round pick Russell Wilson is 5-4 for Seattle and already has directed wins over New England, Green Bay and Dallas. Wilson has 13 TDs and eight interceptions.
Second overall pick Robert Griffin III has looked dynamic for 3-6 Washington. He has produced 14 TDs and has thrown three interceptions. He has the second lowest interception rate in the league. He has 529 rushing yards and six rushing TDs.
Miami's Ryan Tannehill, the eighth overall pick, is 4-4 for a Dolphins team that was predicted to be awful. Tannehill's statistics aren't wonderful - his passer rating ranks 27th - but he isn't just dinking and dunking in a straight-jacket offense. His yards per attempt average of 7.31 is 15th. Last of the rookie starters is Cleveland's Brandon Weeden, who is operating in a weapon-deficient offense for the 1-7 Browns. Weeden ranks last in the league among starters in numerous categories. But as he showed in the Browns' loss to Buffalo, he passes the “eyeball test.” He's big, with a good arm. He offers the Browns a glimmer of hope.
The best quarterback class in the last 20 years came in 2004, which produced Eli Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Philip Rivers and Matt Schaub. The 2012 class looks like it will be second to that one over the past 20 years - at worst.
Here's a look at the rest of the NFL at midseason:
• Super Bowl favorites: The top seeds for the Super Bowl at midseason are Atlanta (8-0) in the NFC and Houston (7-1) in the AFC. Both are far from prohibitive favorites, making the race to New Orleans wide open.
Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan is having a great season and is an elite talent. He's making better use of his downfield weapons under first-year coordinator Dirk Koetter. The question is, how legitimate is Atlanta's defense? The Falcons are 19th in yards allowed and 24th against the run. Chicago, San Francisco, Green Bay and the defending champion New York Giants all loom as major challengers to the Falcons.
Houston looks dominant on both offense and defense. But the Texans' schedule is not that tough, and they face fewer tests from elite foes. Is quarterback Schaub good enough to outduel New England's Tom Brady or Pittsburgh's Roethlisberger in the playoffs?
Take your pick. The forecast here is Pittsburgh vs. San Francisco for the title on Feb. 3.
• MVP race: 1. Atlanta's Ryan. 2. Houston defensive end J.J. Watt. 3. New England's Brady. 4. Denver's Peyton Manning. 5. Pittsburgh's Roethlisberger.
• Defensive player of the year: 1. Houston's Watt. 2. Chicago cornerback Charles Tillman. 3. Denver pass rusher Von Miller. 4. Dallas pass rusher DeMarcus Ware. Watt leads the league with 10.5 sacks and has 10 passes defended. Tillman leads the league with seven forced fumbles and has two interceptions.
• Coach of the year: 1. Atlanta's Mike Smith. 2. Chicago's Lovie Smith. 3. Bruce Arians and Chuck Pagano of Indianapolis. This will go down to the wire. Chicago leads the league in takeaways with 28 and is plus-16 in turnover differential. The Bears have seven defensive touchdowns.
• Offensive rookie of the year: 1. Luck. 2. Griffin. 3. Tampa running back Doug Martin.
• Defensive rookie of the year: 1. New England defensive end Chandler Jones. 2. Seattle cornerback Bobby Wagner. 3. Carolina LB Luke Kuechly.
• Comeback player of the year: 1. Manning. 2. Minnesota's Adrian Peterson.
• Most disappointing team: 1. Philadelphia. 2. Dallas. 3. Kansas City. Dallas is the most confounding team in the league. The Cowboys rank sixth in yards gained and fifth in yards allowed yet stand 3-5. QB Tony Romo threw for 437 yards in the 29-24 loss to the Giants, yet had a passer rating of only 58. There's a long line of teams that could be on this list, including Buffalo. Kansas City (1-7) was picked by numerous outlets, including Sports Illustrated, to make the playoffs.
• Big games: Bears at 49ers, Nov. 19; Packers at Giants, Nov. 25; Texans at Pats, Dec. 10; Packers at Bears, Giants at Falcons and 49ers at Patriots, Dec. 16.
Atlanta's Tony Gonzalez continues to dominate Father Time. Gonzalez, 36, has 50 catches at midseason for 495 yards. The 100-catch mark has been achieved 70 times in league history. Gonzalez did it once, catching 102 passes as a 28-year-old in 2004. The oldest player to catch 100 was Jerry Rice, who had 108 catches at age 34 in 1996.
• Over the past five seasons, only two teams have been 3-5 at midseason and have made the playoffs. They were the Denver Broncos last season and the 2008 Chargers. Both finished 8-8 to win weak divisions. Since 2000, 29 teams have reached the halfway point of the season with a .500 or below winning percentage and made the playoffs, including at least one in every season.
• With a win over New Orleans, Atlanta would become the ninth team since realignment in '02 to start 9-0.
• Denver's Manning is third in TD passes all-time at 419. Second is Dan Marino with 420. No. 1 is Brett Favre at 508.
• Manning has the fourth most wins as a starter with a record of 146-70. Favre is first at 186-112. John Elway is second at 148-82-1. Marino is third at 147-93. Tom Brady is fifth at 129-38 (and he has by far the best win percentage at .772.)