Hansel: What has happened to the NFL this season?
The 2012 National Football League season has defined itself already, and the word is "odd."
Clubs who were strong last year, like New England, New Orleans, Pittsburgh, Green Bay, Detroit and Philadelphia, are struggling. Weak ones like Buffalo, Indianapolis, Miami and Washington are pulling off some surprises. Halfway through the season, 23 of the league's 32 teams have three victories or more.
Injuries are responsible for a lot of the chaos, but there can be no denying that the gap between worst and first is not what it used to be a couple decades ago.
We can also blame some of the confusion on the replacement officials. They drew plenty of heat in September. When Green Bay lost to Seattle Sept. 24 on a last-ditch and very controversial touchdown call, the worldwide gambling payout was reportedly in the $200-250 million range. Small wonder the NFL settled their differences with their regular officials the same week and the replacement refs disappeared.
I thought the Minnesota Vikings drew a fairly soft schedule before the season started. Five of their first seven games were with clubs that did not make the playoffs last year. Now I am starting to wonder. The revitalized Vikings have to play at Seattle Sunday. Right after they host Detroit, a team still smarting from a Sept. 30 loss to Minnesota on their home field. The Vikings still have not faced Chicago or Green Bay, and there is a trip to Houston coming up Dec. 23.
It all makes the second half of the season a fairly interesting proposition. You could make a good case that teams like Chicago, Minnesota and Seattle have a decent shot at crashing the NFL playoffs in January.
There are others who may not make the playoffs but will certainly have a lot to say about who does. Shockers are the rule this year. How did the Redskins beat the Saints? How did the Vikings beat the 49ers? How did the Raiders beat the Steelers? How did the Rams beat the Cardinals? How did the Titans beat the Steelers? How did a struggling Green Bay team beat an undefeated Houston team in Texas?
Along with these nasty shocks are the nice surprises. Did anyone realize Robert Griffin III was going to be this good? The guy suffers a concussion and the next week has a superb game against the Vikes. Peyton Manning was being told last year his career was over. Manning is currently one of the league's top-rated passers. How about those Falcons? They have not dominated lately, but no one has been able to figure out a way to beat them. The Vikings have also been a nice surprise.
Who is going to be on top when the regular season is over? Do not be surprised to see a couple of longshots join the playoff pack in January. Remember, the defending world champions are the New York Giants, a team that gave up more points than they scored during the 2011 regular season.