In the blink of an eye, the NFL is now more than half over. Although it’s hard to say exactly how the season will turn out, we do know more than we did at the start of the season. Some teams have clearly differentiated themselves from the competition and some trends have clearly formed.One huge trend has been the great play of the rookie quarterbacks in the league. We’ve heard gushing reviews of Robert Griffin III and Andrew Luck, but even the quarterbacks taken later in the draft have played well all season. Russell Wilson has kept free agent signee Matt Flynn glued to the bench and has his Seahawks sitting at 5-4. Ryan Tannehill has kept the 4-4 Dolphins in the playoff hunt with a mediocre team. And even Brandon Weeden is playing as well as humanly possible in the city of Cleveland. In the past, the common convention was to let quarterbacks develop on the bench, but we have seen a complete shift recently. Teams now throw rookie quarterbacks out there and see what they can do and I don’t see this mentality changing the future.Another trend I’ve recently noticed has to deal with torn ACLs. It has long been known as a rare, terrifying injury that had career-altering implications; however, now, it has become a very common injury that will knock a player out for a year, but beyond that, have no lasting effects. This may sound strange but there’s information to back up that claim. Wes Welker, Adrian Peterson and Jamaal Charles have all torn their ACLs, but have all returned to play at All-Pro levels, despite all three having their games revolve around speed and sharp cuts, exactly what a ACL tear should affect. As for the commonness of the injury, Darrelle Revis, Brian Cushing and Lardarius Webb are all Pro Bowl-caliber players who have suffered from torn ACLs this year and I’m sure there will be more and the season goes on. This trend is worth noting and we should remove the stigma of ACL tears affecting a player’s career.As for the contenders, the one team that has risen to the top is the Chicago Bears. They are dominating teams in all facets of the game: defense, offense and special teams. Chicago’s defense is far and away the best in the NFL. They have given up the second least amount of points (just 15 points allowed per game), but where they really shine is their ability to force teams into turnovers. Sometimes, teams will get lucky fumbles and interceptions, but the sheer volume of turnovers the Bears get is no accident; they have, for years, taught how to force fumbles and ball hawk and this year is the result of their work. They lead the league with 17 interceptions (and have somehow returned seven (!) for touchdowns) and 17 forced fumbles in eight games. Factoring in their points allowed and dominance in both turnover categories, we may be looking at one of the best defenses of all-time. As for the offense, Matt Forte remains a top-tier running back and the Cutler-Marshall connection picked up exactly where they left off in Denver, when they put together two straight 100-reception seasons. On special teams, they still have Devin Hester, one of the most dangerous returners in league history. The Bears are the perfect example of a complete team; they do everything well and if they face no significant injuries, it’s hard to see them not making the Super Bowl.Speaking of the Super Bowl, everything is pointing to the Broncos representing the AFC this year. After starting 2-3 with a terrifyingly hard schedule (they lost to the Falcons, Texans and Patriots, a ridiculous combined 20-4), they have won their last three games convincingly (including one absurd 24-point comeback). During this streak, Peyton Manning looks to be getting more and more comfortable with his young receiving corps led by Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker. Although at this point Manning’s arm could be mistaken for Chad Pennington’s, he still hits his targets and his incredible football IQ compensates for the loss in arm strength. I honestly feel like I could be a starting quarterback with my arm and Manning’s football IQ; it’s that incredible. As for their defense, it may not be elite, but they cause enormous problems when they have the lead. They have two of the top pass rushers in the league in Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller and feature ballhawks Champ Bailey and Tracy Porter; it’s hard to find a defense better built to hold a lead than the Broncos’. Don’t be surprised to see them make a serious run in the playoffs this year.The other two teams I see challenging for a title are not performing at the level of the Bears or Broncos, but their past success makes them dangerous; I am speaking about the last two Super Bowl Champions, the Packers and Giants. This season is oddly reminiscent of both teams’ runs to the Super Bowl. When the Packers won, they were ravaged by injuries, but did just enough to get into the postseason to make a run. This season, they are again struggling with injuries (Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, Charles Woodson and Cedric Benson have all missed games), but still finding ways to win games. The Giants situation is even more familiar; last year, the Giants started 6-2 and proceeded to look terrible for the next 4 games, losing them all, before putting it together at the very end to make a run. This season, they started 6-2 and proceeded to look just as terrible against the Steelers this weekend. Neither team looks great right now, but just keep them in mind when the playoffs approach; you’ve been warned.
Original Author: Albert Liao