NFL midseason report: NFC is not up to par

The NFL always catches me off-guard. After baseball’s postseason and the necessary weeklong (maybe longer this year) recovery period, suddenly we’re mid-way through the football season.

And really, that’s pretty exciting. Until you realize that the Giants could be 7-1 if they had managed to win home games against the Lions and Bears.

Last Sunday’s 28-21 loss to Chicago was a crushing, yet highly predictable defeat for Giants’ fans. Everyone who follows the team knows that the worst matchup you can give the Giants, especially following an impressive victory, is an easy home game against an awful team. So, after a dominant 34-13 victory over the Vikings, did the Giants have a chance on Sunday? No way. Yet, somebody in Vegas was dumb enough to make the G-men nine-point favorites.

Honestly, this game was one of the worst I’ve ever seen (and remember, I am a Giants fan). It was one of those classics where each side desperately wanted to lose. To keep the game close, the teams traded inexplicable turnovers and dumb personal fouls. Then, as the Giants failed to muster any offense in the waning moments of the fourth quarter, the Bears refused to accept victory because they couldn’t resist the impulse to hit Kurt Warner on the head after every errant pass he threw. Really, I appreciate the sentiment.

Speaking of Warner, does anybody go down easier? On several of the Bears’ seven sacks, I thought Warner had just fallen down, only to see a defensive player 10 yards away from the play celebrate. Basically, if somebody breathes too hard, Warner is hitting the turf. If the Giants are in the red zone, he’ll put the ball on the ground too. The Giants have serious problems inside the 20-yard line. For some reason, they think calling it the “green zone” is the answer. I have a different proposal: Eli Manning.

Manning is going to have to take the reins one of these days. Warner has already taken more crushing blows than Stallone in “Rocky IV,” and the Giants have upcoming games against Atlanta, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Pittsburgh. How much more punishment can he take? The odds on Warner’s making it through the rest of the season are worse than Dave Wannstedt’s.

Other thoughts about the midpoint of the NFL regular season:

Mid-season MVP candidates: Tiki Barber, Drew Brees and Ben Roethlisberger are all unlikely heroes. Tiki (I’m not biased, right?) has nine TDs and is averaging over 150 total yards per game. Brees has 18 TDs and only three INTs for a surprising 6-3 Chargers team. Meanwhile, Big Ben is managing the NFL’s best team despite the burdens imposed by rookie status and a 14-letter last name.

Realistic MVP candidates: By the end of the season, Donovan McNabb should emerge as the top candidate after he finishes tearing apart the NFC. Peyton Manning has a shot because he might toss 50 TDs.

Most likely to have something bad happen to him: Terrell Owens. Mocking Ray Lewis is a bad idea. A close runner-up would be anyone on the Giants.

Team that plays in Giants Stadium that will choke first: This one is too close to call.

AFC Picks:

Current playoff team most likely to choke: Jets. They have no impressive victories, and they’re finishing schedule — Houston, Pittsburgh, Seattle, New England, St. Louis — is brutal. It’s weird, but I just heard that Chad Pennington is going to miss 2-4 weeks, and I think that might help the Jets.

Most likely to get hot: Colts. The Colts need to win some games so Peyton Manning can choke in the playoffs.

Most likely to be a sleeper: Texans. Houston could steal the AFC South because the Colts don’t play defense and Jaguars’ quarterback Byron Leftwich is going to miss some time with a sprained knee.

Playoff teams: The Patriots and Steelers are easy picks to win their divisions. The Chargers and Broncos are 6-3 and have favorable schedules. I like the Colts over the Jaguars and Texans in the AFC South. That leaves Jacksonville and Houston to fight it out with the Ravens and Jets for the final Wild Card spot. Until someone proves that you need offense to win, I’ll stick with Baltimore.

Final playoff picks: Steelers, Patriots, Broncos, Colts, Chargers, and Ravens.

NFC Picks:

Current playoff team (other than the Giants) most likely to choke: Vikings. I’m going with Minnesota because they blew it last year, and they look terrible without Randy Moss. Also, how can I respect any team who got smoked at home by the Giants?

Most likely to get hot: Falcons. Yes, two weeks ago they lost 56-10 to the Chiefs, but most playoff teams will have losses like that on their resumes. The bottom line is that Michael Vick has pretty terrible passing numbers, and the team is still 6-2. It’s only a matter of time before the new system clicks for him. Vick’s most recent effort against Denver — 18-for-24 for 275 yards and 2 TDs with 115 yards rushing — might be a sign of things to come.

Most likely to be a sleeper: Packers. If the Vikings choke, which quarterback will claim the NFC North crown — Joey Harrington or Brett Favre?

Actual playoff teams: Eagles. Really, the NFC doesn’t deserve any other playoff teams. Okay, maybe the Falcons. Still, it’s bizarre that either the Seahawks or Rams will have to win the NFC West. The team that loses out will be fighting the likes of Detroit, Minnesota or Green Bay and — of course — the G-Men for two Wild Card spots. None of these teams should make the playoffs, but two will. I was just about to take the Giants until I saw that Michael Strahan and Keith Washington are done for the season. Yikes.

Final playoff picks: Eagles, Falcons, Packers, Rams, Seahawks and, by default, Vikings.

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