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Midseason awards: Epic race for bye ahead in AFC

Denver's destruction of Green Bay felt like the most important result of this young NFL season. It confirmed that the Denver defense could look historically dominant even against the top-shelf quarterbacks. It showed the Broncos offense, especially Peyton Manning, has plenty of potential to improve down the stretch.

Manning dropped 500 yards of offense and 29 points against the NFL's top scoring defense. The running game looked like a Gary Kubiak-led group for the first time all year. The offensive line protected Manning exceptionally well and created big holes on the ground. Aaron Rodgers has started 110 games and his Packers have never gained fewer yards than the 140 they had Sunday night in Denver. The defense can be as special as the Seahawks in 2013 and 2014.

If there was any doubt about Denver's championship potential, the Broncos erased it Sunday night. That's why it felt like the biggest single game outcome of the entire season, even on a day when the Steelers were knocked out of the AFC North race.

For the rest of this week, we'll unpack the best and worst from the first half of this season on Around the NFL. The rest of this column will be spent looking at what we've learned over the last eight weeks, with a few random awards presented to the deserving few.

What we've learned about the playoff races

  1. The Patriots, Bengals and Broncos are the AFC superpowers. They are all capable of true dominance and essentially have already made the playoffs barring catastrophic injuries. This could turn into one of the most fascinating races for a bye we've ever seen. A division winner with a 13-3 or even a 14-2 record could get stuck playing on Wild Card Weekend.
  1. The AFC is so strange. There are three undefeated teams and every other team has at least three losses. The Chiefs are only 1.5 games behind a wild-card spot. The Texans could be in first place Monday night with a 3-5 record. The Bills and Dolphins aren't in that bad shape despite deeply disappointing starts to the year. My No. 3- and No. 5-ranked quarterbacks in the AFC (Philip Rivers and Joe Flacco) have combined to win four games.
  1. The NFC is even more muddled. It would be stunning if the Panthers, Packers, and Cardinals didn't make the playoffs. But they aren't even locks to win their division yet and there is a healthy group of second-tier contenders including Seattle, Minnesota, Atlanta, New Orleans and St. Louis. Only two of those five teams can make the playoffs because the NFC East winner should get one spot. Speaking of which ...

Most embarrassing division

There are only two candidates: The AFC South and the NFC East. Chris Wesseling ranked the AFC South last recently, and it's hard to argue. The AFC South is 4-16 playing out of the division and could easily provide us a playoff team with a losing record.

Yet the NFC East still wins this crucial award because we are subjected to watching this exercise in vanilla attention-grabbing every week. At least the humble AFC South doesn't have delusions of grandeur. It also has three young quarterbacks that are interesting to watch (Andrew Luck, Marcus Mariota and Blake Bortles), even if they aren't consistent. The NFC East's most watchable team is Philadelphia, if only because its offense is such a confusing experiment. We all need less NFC East in our lives.

Weirdest individual season

  1. Did you know that Brian Hoyer ranks among the top 10 NFL quarterbacks in passing touchdowns despite missing three starts? He's also in the top 10 in passer rating, adjusted yards-per-pass, and yards-per-completion. He has 13 touchdowns and three picks. This is the same Hoyer that was benched after three quarters for Ryan Mallett, a habitually tardy player who is no longer on the team. When things go wrong for Hoyer and the Texans, they go really wrong. (Think the season opener and trailing 41-0 at halftime against the Dolphins.)

Add it all up and you have a 3-5 Texans team that should be tied for first place heading into midseason.

  1. Adrian Peterson's return to the NFL has surprisingly slipped under the radar. It's also been difficult to assess how well he's playing. He led the league in negative runs entering Week 8. Peterson's best six runs accounted for 235 yards before Sunday's game. His other 114 carries averaged less than three yards-per-carry, totaling 295 yards. His 103-yard performance against Chicago was more indicative of how he well he's playing. The Vikings have struggled to run block and miss right tackle Phil Loadholt, and Peterson is running hard. He remains the best bet to lead the league in scoring.
  1. Philip Rivers is playing well. Philip Rivers is covering up for an unholy amount of injuries all around him. Rivers leads the NFL in yards by more than 300 yards, and has thrown for at least 300 yards six times. Philip Rivers is tied with Alex Smith for the fewest "air-yards-per-attempt" of any quarterback in the league. Philip Rivers' team is 2-6.

Best defense

Denver's group could be historically good. Ron Rivera, meanwhile, is helping to make Kawann Shortt and Josh Norman into stars. The Panthers are almost always better than the sum of their parts, especially in the secondary. That's a credit to the coaching. The Rams are now fourth in points allowed, sixth in yards allowed, third in rushing yards, and dead last in passing yards. It's Jeff Fisher's dream team. ... The Seahawks' defense has struggled at times in the fourth quarter, but it really doesn't look far off from its previous form overall. ... The Cardinals hasn't lost anything on defense despite Todd Bowles, Antonio Cromartie and others leaving town. The secondary rivals Seattle.

Most surprising resurgence

  1. Nothing will surprise me more all season than seeing Chris Johnson break tackles weekly. The NFL's second leading rusher isn't turning back the clock because he was never this kind of runner in Tennessee. He wasn't this tough or consistent. The long speed is diminished, but Johnson makes up for it by picking up five yards at a clip far more reliably instead of looking for the big play. Coming off his 30-carry game, we just hope he can keep it up. It's as if Bruce Arians knows this is a one-year miracle and is squeezing all the juice out of Johnson while he can.
  1. Charles Woodson is getting Defensive Player of the Year buzz. While we wouldn't go that far, he's certainly playing like a Pro Bowler at age 39. This is virtually unprecedented for a player in the secondary his age. When he chose to return to Oakland in 2013 over signing with the Broncos, it was viewed as a sentimental story of a player that wanted to come home. He could start for a bad team during the final season of his career. Three seasons later, Woodson is headed to Hawaii for a Raiders team over .500.
  1. James Harrison providing quality snaps should no longer be a surprise, but it is. On a team with first-round picks invested in Jarvis Jones and Bud Dupree, Harrison remains the team's best pass rusher at outside linebacker -- at age 37.
  1. Adam Jones is one of the best nickel cornerbacks and punt returners in the NFL. The year is 2015.
  1. Score one for offseason puff pieces when it comes to Doug Martin. The slippery Bucs running back has been turning two-yard losses into six-yard gains all season by escaping would-be tacklers. He hits the midseason fourth in the NFL in yards.
  1. Malcolm Jenkins was a fine player for Philadelphia last season. This year he's playing like an All Pro. It wasn't that long ago when Jenkins was considered a big part of the problem in New Orleans' shaky secondary. This will go down as one of Howie Roseman's better signings before Chip Kelly fully took over the controls. Speaking of which ...

Sneaky good defense

  1. The shame of this Eagles season: The defense is doing its job and them some. Fletcher Cox and Bennie Logan dominate together each week. The linebacker group has survived well considering the insane amount of injuries. Chip Kelly's secondary extreme makeover is mostly working. If Sam Bradford can just get his act together, this team could be dangerous.
  1. The Patriots' defense is a little better despite losing Darrelle Revis. Malcolm Butler is anything but a one-game wonder. Jamie Collins, Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower are all versatile threats that are peaking at the same time. It's amazing that a team with so little clear cornerback and defensive tackle talent can be a top ten unit, but this group qualfies.
  1. I wouldn't rule out Kansas City from making a run back over .500, even without Jamaal Charles. That's because of a defense that is slowly turning into a difference maker at all three levels.
  1. The recipe in Pittsburgh this year: Top-three offense and an improved defense built around young players. The second part of the equation is quietly working in large part due to Stephon Tuitt and Cameron Heyward.
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