With much to celebrate and lament, here's a look at the NFL halfway through the 2013 season.
Start out West with the league's two best divisions.
What Kansas City has achieved after going 2-14 and getting the top draft pick a season ago is remarkable and historic. Yes, the Chiefs' superb defense is carrying a mediocre offense, but to criticize anything Andy Reid and his staff have done in going 9-0 is misguided.
"We're not going to apologize for any wins," Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith said. "You keep your nose down, you do what you've been doing."
Denver (7-1) was expected to be dominant and, in stark contrast to KC, it has been on offense. Peyton Manning's record-tying seven-touchdown explosion in the opener — matched, incredibly, by Philadelphia's Nick Foles, on Sunday — put the league on notice when it comes to the capabilities of a healthy Manning and his minions. Even with coach John Fox now sidelined for a heart procedure, the Broncos will be formidable.
"I'm truly jealous of the weapons that Peyton gets to throw to," said his boss, Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway.
San Diego (4-4) and Oakland (3-5) have been more competitive than predicted.
Residing in the NFC West are the conference's top two teams thus far, the Seahawks and 49ers. All anyone needs to know about Seattle is how it responded after falling behind winless Tampa Bay 21-0 Sunday. Clearly, the Seahawks (7-1) weren't ready. Just as clearly, they were good enough and resourceful enough to rally.
And no team has a bigger home-field edge; Seattle has won 12 straight home games.
The 49ers (6-2), winners of five straight, are beginning to find the balance that got them to last season's Super Bowl.
Arizona (4-4) has shown marked improvement, particularly on defense, under first-year coach Bruce Arians, the 2012 Coach of the Year as an interim in Indianapolis.
Ah, Indianapolis. Its comeback Sunday night can, in part, be contributed to Texans coach Gary Kubiak's collapse at halftime, prompting his hospitalization and leaving Houston distracted and uninspired. Still, the Colts (6-2) are making a habit of such rallies and are beating the big boys, with wins over Seattle, San Francisco and Denver.
Individual kudos on offense go to Manning as he challenges all kinds of passing records; Philip Rivers for his revival in San Diego; Saints tight end Jimmy Graham, whose 10 TD receptions, built on speed, power and guile, make him a nearly unstoppable force; and wideouts Calvin Johnson, Wes Welker and A.J. Green. Plus some love for the behemoths in the trenches, who have stood out so far: the not-so-regular Joes, tackles Staley in San Francisco, Thomas in Cleveland; guards Evan Mathis in Philadelphia and Chris Myers in Houston; center Manny Ramirez in Denver; and all those fill-ins on Seattle's O-line.
On defense, we must recognize sackmasters Robert Mathis in Indianapolis, Mario Williams in Buffalo, Tamba Hali and Justin Houston in KC, Robert Quinn in St. Louis, and Mo Wilkerson with the Jets. The versatility of DE J.J. Watt of the Texans is matched by Hali and Houston and the work of their fellow linebackers Sean Lee in Dallas, NaVorro Bowman in San Francisco, Bobby Wagner in Seattle, Vontaze Burfict in Cincinnati and Luke Kuechly in Carolina.
Unquestionably the toughest job in today's wide-open, throw-it-all-over-the-lot NFL is cover cornerback and safety. Outstanding so far have been Joe Haden in Cleveland, Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas in Seattle, Alterraun Verner in Tennessee, Antonio Cromartie with the Jets, Aqib Talib in New England, rookie Eric Reid in San Francisco, and Mike Mitchell in Carolina.
Start with 2012 playoff qualifiers who have flopped, several of them spectacularly: Atlanta, Houston and Minnesota. Maybe the Vikings wouldn't have made many Super Bowl lists, but the Falcons — so close last January — and Texans would have.
Now, they are in the mix for top-10 draft picks.
Baltimore was projected to take a step back from its Super Bowl form with so many defections on the field and leadership-wise. It's been more like a pratfall.
Pittsburgh's once-proud defense is, well, nothing to be proud of, a Steel Curtain torn asunder. The Giants lost their first six games — yet still are a quasi-contender (more below) — as Eli Manning turned into a turnover machine and the defense became a sieve.
Past top performers struggling this season range from Ravens QB Joe Flacco and New York's Manning to running backs Ray Rice in Baltimore and Rashard Mendenhall in Arizona to receivers Mike Wallace in Miami, Hakeem Nicks with the Giants and Dwayne Bowe in Kansas City.
Even Adrian Peterson, last season's MVP, has been mediocre, but he's surrounded by — what's worse than mediocre?
Saved this category for the 0-fers, the Buccaneers and Jaguars.
At least Jacksonville doesn't seem dysfunctional like its Florida neighbor, even with WR Justin Blackmon's recent suspension. It's simply a lack of talent throughout the roster plaguing the Jags.
As for the Bucs, they were seconds away from winning their opener before a ludicrous penalty handed the Jets a win. They were up by three touchdowns against Seattle in Game 8 and blew it. There is turmoil in Tampa, with coach Greg Schiano's job security virtually nonexistent.
The race is on for homeliest teams. First one to 16 losses, uh, wins.
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org