Sunday, November 12, 2006

Seahawks Bucking Post Super Bowl Blues Trend

Had the defending NFC champion Seattle Seahawks spent the offseason immersed in NFL history, they could have buckled up for the bumpy ride they've had so far.

Not since the Rams won Super Bowl XXXIV - a victory that put former grocery store clerk Kurt Warner on cereal boxes - has the NFC champion even made it to the NFL playoffs the next season.

The Giants (2000), Rams ('01), Bucs ('02), Panthers ('03) and Eagles ('04) all watched the next postseason from their sofas.

The 5-3 Seahawks cling to a one-game lead over the Rams in the West. But what they have in their favor is a comparatively easy schedule, with the biggest challenges a road game at Denver and a home game against the Chargers.

The Seahawks also will get MVP halfback Shaun Alexander (foot) and quarterback Matt Hasselbeck (knee) back from their injuries and should lock up the weak division and perhaps even home-field advantage for the playoffs. Still, they should've understood it wouldn't be as easy as everyone expected. A look at the NFC at the season's midpoint:

Best Team

The Bears: It retrospect, it was ludicrous to even compare this group to the immortal 1985 team that went 15-1 on the way to the Super Bowl XX title.

Rex Grossman is no Jim McMahon. Cedric Benson and Thomas Jones combined don't match the sweetness of Walter Payton. Tommie Harris is a dozen pizzas shy of William Perry. Only the similarities of Brian Urlacher and Mike Singletary merit conversation.

Still, it's hard to argue with a 7-1 team that ranks second in the NFL in scoring and first in total defense, outscoring its opponents by 134 points.

Most Disappointing Team

The Lions: The good news is they've won two of three. Still, this team was capable of so much more than 2-6 and the discontent will triple if they don't sweep the 49ers, Cardinals and Dolphins before heading to Foxborough, Mass., Dec. 3.

New coach Rod Marinelli, the former defensive line coach of the Bucs, was expected to change the culture of a lazy team, but it's still ranked 26th in defense.

Jon Kitna has thrown as many interceptions (10) as touchdowns. And not even Roy Williams' emergence as a game-breaking receiver (44 catches) has can compensate for the disappointment of receivers Charles Rogers (released) and Mike Williams, their first-round picks in 2003 and 2005.

Don't Count Them Out

The Panthers: A popular preseason choice to win the Super Bowl, they're treading water at 4-4 and blew a 14-point first-quarter lead to the Cowboys two weeks ago.

Still, with home wins the next two weeks over the Bucs and Rams, they might build enough momentum to challenge the Saints and Falcons for at least a wild card. And if that happens a struggling defense, led by sack-master Julius Peppers (eight), will get a second chance to prove itself.

First Half MVP

Tiki Barber: Where would the Giants be without their indestructible halfback? He says this is his final season and what a way to go out: Barber leads the NFL in rushing (830) and first downs (60); his 185-yard game in Atlanta Oct. 15 is the league's best; he has five 100-yard performances; he is first in the NFC in yards from scrimmage (1,112).

Last week against the Texans, he joined Marcus Allen and Marshall Faulk as the only players with 9,000 rushing and 5,000 receiving yards.

First Half Disappointment

Terrell Owens: Perhaps it's wrong to categorize the petulant Cowboys receiver as a disappointment since those who've watched him destroy the 49ers and Eagles anticipated he'd wear Dallas down, too.

Still, this distinction is for those who picked the Cowboys to win the Super Bowl; those foolish enough to believe Owens could fine tune his basic instinct to self-serve for the greater good of team.

Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has no one to blame but himself for the lingering injuries, drug overdoses, sideline arguments, dropped passes, meeting-room naps and end zone histrionics.

Top Rookie

Mark Anderson: Raise your hand if you knew that the Bears rookie defensive end, a fifth-round pick from Alabama, would have 71/2 sacks, just a half-sack short Giants Pro Bowl ends Osi Umenyiora and Michael Strahan combined?

If sacks don't thrill you, Saints rookies Reggie Bush and Marques Colston, a seventh-round pick out of Hofstra, might. They have combined for 90 receptions and only Roy Williams has more receiving yards than Colston in the NFC.

Best Free Agent

Drew Brees: The Saints needed a lot of things after last season's disastrous road through Hurricane Katrina to Baton Rouge, La., and San Antonio. But what they needed most was a quarterback to bring them some stability.

Displaced in San Diego by Philip Rivers, Brees has led the Saints to the NFL's third-ranked passing offense. Brees has completed an NFC-best 65.5 percent, thrown for 2,206 yards, 14 touchdowns and just seven interceptions.

Worst Free Agent

Edgerrin James: For $30 million over four years the pitiful Cardinals figured they'd bought themselves the final piece to their puzzle. But where is James?

The four-time Pro Bowl selection, the two-time NFL rushing leader who gained 9,226 rushing yards and scored 56 touchdowns in seven seasons with the Colts, has just 518 yards and three touchdowns in Arizona. He's averaging only 2.8 yards and doesn't have a carry longer than 14.

Best Coaching Job

Sean Payton: One of the most unfortunate aspects of Jim Fassel's firing as offensive coordinator in Baltimore in October was that Payton, who Fassel deposed as offensive coordinator with the Giants in 2003, didn't get a chance to get the last laugh when the teams played on Oct. 29. The Saints didn't win that one, but they're 6-2 and lead the NFC South.

Worst Coaching Job

Dennis Green: Somewhere on a set at ESPN or the NFL Network a seat is being kept warm for the re-entry of Green into the world of second-guessing. Green (12-28 in 21/2 seasons) has been abysmal in the desert. The Cards are in a new stadium but the same old rut.