Here's one way to look at the upside-down NFL at the midway point: There are more good teams in the AFC East than there are in the entire NFC.
"If you had asked me if this team would be 6-2, I'd say it would be really tough," said coach Jim Mora of the Indianapolis Colts, who have their best halfway record since the 1977 team began 9-1 in Baltimore. "I think 6-2 would really be beyond anyone's expectations but I'll take it."
That 6-2 mark doesn't even put the Colts in first place in the AFC East, just ties them for second with New England. Miami (7-1) leads and Buffalo (6-3) is a half game behind the Colts and Patriots coming off a 34-17 win in Washington.
That's the perfect measuring stick. Going into Sunday's game, the Redskins looked like one of the NFC's better teams despite the fact that that they've allowed 27 points a game.
Overall? There are nine legitimate playoff contenders (perhaps 10 if you count Oakland) in the AFC.
Six teams will make it in the NFC, probably all with winning records. But it's hard to say all six will belong there.
A look at the conference races at the midway point:
Jacksonville (7-1) seems the class of the league, the favorite now to win the Super Bowl.
With Fred Taylor healthy, its offense is back in form and its allowed only 76 points, 9.5 a game, by far the best in the NFL. That kind of balance is rare in a league where most teams are good on offense or defense but rarely both.
One reason is an easy schedule -- Cincinnati, Cleveland and Baltimore basically provide six automatic wins. And San Francisco, Denver and Atlanta aren't what they were a year ago. In the second half, the Jaguars play only two teams with winning records -- Pittsburgh at home and Tennessee on the road.
Figure Jacksonville for no fewer than 13 wins, which should get them the home field in the playoffs.
Miami (7-1) could make it an all-Florida AFC title game, but the Dolphins have to get out of their division. Damon Huard's been fine at quarterback, but they probably need Dan Marino back to get to the Super Bowl.
Two new X-factors: the Colts and Seahawks (6-2)
Indianapolis seems to be the favorite among the trendy, largely because of the youthful duo of Peyton Manning and Edgerrin James. But the Colts have won four games indoors at home and have been relatively unimpressive on the road.
This week they face the Giants at the Meadowlands, where they barely escaped 16-13 over the Jets on Oct. 17. In that game, Bill Parcells had Ray Lucas, his favorite option QB, throw an out pattern that was intercepted at the goal line, turning the game around in the closing minutes. It gets very windy there this time of year. It can also get windy in Miami, where the Colts play Dec. 5, and who knows what it will be in Buffalo on Jan. 2, the final week of the regular season.
Seattle may be more dangerous, partly because the AFC West is lest rigorous than the East.
Mike Holmgren has Jon Kitna playing well, Cortez Kennedy is having his best season in five years on a defense that's full of past and future Pro Bowlers. The running game (Ricky Watters) is getting better and Joey Galloway's about to return.
Tennessee (6-2) has the same easy AFC Central schedule as Jacksonville, although the Titans rarely make anything easy. New England's probably a wild-card team. Pittsburgh (5-3) has to learn how to win at home. Doug Flutie will keep Buffalo (6-3) in games. And Kansas City (5-3) is the same under Gunther Cunningham as Marty Schottenheimer, a team that stays in games and wins more than it loses.
The problem is simple.
The 49ers and Packers are on the downswing. So, seemingly, are the Cowboys, meaning the teams that dominated the '90s aren't dominating anything or anybody.
On paper, Minnesota still seems like the class of the conference. But Cris Carter has two jobs -- catching passes and watching Jeff George and Randy Moss to make sure they keep team goals ahead of individual ones.
St. Louis and Detroit (both 6-2) are the surprises.
The Rams could be unbeaten if not for two plays -- Jeff Wilkins' missed field goal in Tennessee and a 4th-and-26 converted by the Lions in their 31-27 win on Sunday. Still, there's really nobody in the West to bother them and they have a good shot at home field for the NFC playoffs.
Bobby Ross won't say it, but the Lions are better off without Barry Sanders. But they're a bit like the Colts with their home dome. They beat the Vikings, Packers and Bucs there, but they still have to play them on the road. Tampa Bay and Green Bay (both 4-4) still have shots at the playoffs.
The Redskins and Giants are tied for first in the East at 5-3. Both are typical of NFL '99.
Washington can score and can't stop anyone. The Giants can stop almost everyone, but can't score. Dallas remains in the chase, and it's not inconceivable all three teams at the top could make the playoffs at 9-7 or even 8-8.
"We know we have to play better if we're going to go anywhere," New York's Jason Sehorn says.
He could be speaking for the entire NFC.
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