Sky Sports takes a look back at the first half of the NFL season and mulls over what is to come.
By Alex Williams
Last Updated: 06/11/12 1:20pm
Week nine marked the midway point of the NFL season, and the all-important play-off picture is beginning to take shape.
While the Atlanta Falcons and Houston Texans have made headline-grabbing starts, many of the more familiar Super Bowl contenders are beginning to find their feet as well.
So who has impressed the most over the first half of the season and what does it mean heading into the home stretch and the play-offs? We find out in our half-term analysis...
The last three Super Bowl champions have come from the NFC and the conference once again looks to be the stronger of the two this year.
The major headline has been the achievements of the Atlanta Falcons, who are halfway to season-long perfection after starting 8-0. Atlanta have been something of regular-season specialists and play-off disappointments in recent years, however, and the fact their opponents so far have a combined record of 24-41 will lead to doubts.
Currently second in the conference, and in control of the ultra-tough NFC North, are the Chicago Bears. Their fearsome defence has already returned seven interceptions for touchdowns, by far the most in the NFL and on course to break the single-season record of nine, on the way to compiling a 7-1 record.
The Bears' spectacular efforts mean they have surpassed the San Francisco 49ers (6-2) as the premier defence in the conference, but Jim Harbaugh's side still look set to wrap up the NFC West and book a high play-off seeding for the second straight year.
Those searching for more of a 'sure thing' may look to the last two Super Bowl winners - the New York Giants and Green Bay Packers. The pair both sit at 6-3 and, despite some shaky moments, should qualify for the play-offs. The Minnesota Vikings (5-4) and Arizona Cardinals (4-5) made hot starts but have tailed off, meaning the improving Detroit Lions (4-4) and New Orleans Saints (3-5) look best placed to emerge from the pack for a wild-card bid.
At the other end of the scale, the Carolina Panthers have the worst record in the conference at 2-6, with a host of teams one game ahead on three wins. One of those is the Philadelphia Eagles, who have seen their 'Dream Team' turn into a true nightmare and are on course to miss the play-offs again.
The Houston Texans are well on their way to securing the No. 1 play-off seeding in the conference but there are plenty of well-known names lurking behind them.
The Texans (7-1) have established themselves as possibly the most complete team in the NFL, with a dominant running game, strong passing game and top-notch defence. Like the Falcons in the NFC, however, they will have to deal with doubts over their post-season pedigree (one win in franchise history) whatever they do over the second half of the season.
The second seeding in the conference is currently held by the Baltimore Ravens (6-2), whose blowout loss to the Texans in week seven has turned many off them. Quarterback Joe Flacco seems to have lapsed back into inconsistency, while their place atop the AFC North is far from assured with two clashes against the Pittsburgh Steelers still to come.
The Steelers, along with the New England Patriots, are slightly below expectations at 5-3 but both are primed to kick on over the last eight games and secure a high play-off seeding. Despite their defensive struggles and three losses, the Patriots are either favourites or joint favourites to win the Super Bowl with most bookmakers, showing the value proven play-off quality holds.
Also at 5-3 and currently occupying a wild-card spot are the Indianapolis Colts, with Andrew Luck proving his worth as this year's top overall draft pick by compiling 2,404 passing yards in his first eight games. His predecessor in Indianapolis, Peyton Manning, has led the Denver Broncos to 5-3 and is in ominous form after a slow start, averaging a quarterback rating of 123.8 since week four.
Elsewhere, the Miami Dolphins (4-4), San Diego Chargers (4-4) and New York Jets (3-5) will hope strong second halves of the season can bring them into what could be a wide-open race for the wild-card spots, while the Jacksonville Jaguars and Kansas City Chiefs are heading for major rebuilding jobs at the top of next year's draft.