The halfway point of the NFL season has arrived, shattering the illusions of August and offering a preview of January. On Wednesday, SB Nation took a spin through both the AFC and NFC for an early look at team fortunes and the playoff races. On Thursday, a look back at the biggest stars of the season's first half tops the agenda. Through eight weeks of NFL action, there are plenty of stories to tell, but only a few players and a few teams are worthy of special recognition and a few fake trophies. Presented for your comment trolling and reading pleasure, SB Nation's 2011 NFL midseason awards.
Offensive MVP - Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay Packers
Was the really any doubt? The nerdosphere gets bent out of shape when you put wins above all other measures of a player's success, but Green Bay's 7-0 start to the season has much to do with Rodgers' statistical dominance. Rodgers' league-best 125.7 QB rating is more than 20 points better than Tom Brady in second place. He leads the league with 20 touchdowns, and has been picked off just twice. Rodgers has a 61.4 percent DVOA, Football Outsiders' measurement of the per play value a player has above a league-average player (more on DVOA here). That's 20 percent better than Tom Brady, second with a 39.8 percent DVOA.
Defensive MVP - Jason Pierre-Paul, DE, New York Giants
Before you finish your angry tirade, hear me out. Injuries hit the Giants hard before the season even started, and they continued once the season did start. Their defense really took it on the chin too. Without their starting middle linebacker, top cornerback, first-round pick and thinned depth at defensive tackle, nobody gave this team much chance of competing. Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora have been limited and missing time because of their own injuries. Yet, Tom Coughlin's team sits atop the competitive NFC East. Pierre-Paul is second in the NFL with 10 sacks, behind only Jared Allen whose Vikings have not been competitive. JPP, a second-year player, is also second in quarterback hits, 14, and tackles for a loss, 11, among defensive ends. For guy who plays in New York, his absence in the media is curious.
Rookie of the Year - Cam Newton, QB, Carolina Panthers
Another easy one. Even in a league where 400 passing yards per game has become the norm, Cam Newton's rookie season is impressive. Icon and entertainer, Newton's 2,393 passing yards surpass any other rookie quarterback through the first eight games of his career. Newton has 520 more passing yards than Peyton Manning did in his first eight games. Like Manning, Newton has 11 touchdown passes over the same span, but just nine interceptions versus Manning's 16, with just five fewer attempts than the Colts' rookie. The media nearly crucified him for his "entertainer" remark prior to the Combine, but only a fool would question that now. He has single-handedly revived the moribund Carolina Panthers, and promises to entertain football fans for years.
Coach of the Year - Jim Harbaugh, San Francisco 49ers
The joke at draft time was that Jim Harbaugh would be reunited with Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck in April 2012. Instead, Harbaugh's 49ers are 6-1, the second-best record in the NFC. And what's he done that's so special? He reinvigorated former first-overall pick Alex Smith into a highly competent, if unexciting game manager. San Francisco's defense, a talented bunch in need of direction, ranks among the league's best, in the conversation with the vaunted Baltimore Ravens' defense for the best in the NFL.
Consolation prizes: Mike McCarthy, Todd Haley, Mike Tomlin
Best Team - Green Bay Packers
Anything can happen, but at this point, it looks like nothing short of a bad bounce or a freak injury can prevent the Green Bay Packers from wrapping up the season undefeated. They get their next biggest challenge on Thanksgiving against Detroit. Even with a blemish on their record, anything short of a Super Bowl repeat represents a tremendous disappointment.
Consolation prizes: Pittsburgh, Detroit, San Francisco
Worst Team - Miami Dolphins
There's plenty of room for debate here, but the sheer catastrophe that the Miami Dolphins' 2011 season has become represents one of the more inexplicable disasters in recent NFL history. When the Detroit Lions lost all 16 games in 2008, it was entirely predictable, the ultimate result of the Millen era. So what happened in Miami? Was the loss of Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams really the difference between being competitive and the current mess you see on the field? And why are so few people talking about Bill Parcells, who retired as Executive Vice President of Football Operations after last season? A threadbare roster, key injuries and poor leadership have put Miami on the fast track to nowhere. I makes you wonder if Andrew Luck might pull an Eli Manning come April, rather than play for such a dysfunctional organization. Ownership can't even follow through with not-so-veiled threats to fire head coach Tony Sparano.
Consolation prizes: Indianapolis, Arizona, Denver
Most Surprising Team - San Francisco 49ers
Raise your hand if you thought the San Francisco 49ers would own the second-best record in the NFC at the halfway point of the season. What accounts for the Bay Area miracle? Old school football. With the best teams regularly passing for more than 400 yards, the 49ers use a more traditional approach, a power running game combined with a tough defense, one that allows the fewest points in the league. The offense is a bigger surprise, especially when it became apparent that Alex Smith would be the quarterback. A healthy, hungry Frank Gore and a careful game plan that reduces the likelihood for turnovers changed the script, and the 49ers are scoring more than 26 points per game while averaging just 171 passing yards per game. Barring significant injuries, they should finish the season no worse than 11-5. As for just how far this team can go in the playoffs, a week 12 trip to Baltimore and a week 15 game at Candlestick against Pittsburgh offer a preview.
Consolation prizes: Buffalo, Detroit, Cincinnati
Most Disappointing Team - Indianapolis Colts
Indianapolis has missed the playoffs only twice in the last 13 years, since drafting Peyton Manning in 1998. That includes a nine-year streak of double-digit wins and playoff appearances, a streak that will end this season. Obviously, losing Manning - out after neck surgery - hurt the Colts. Arguably the best quarterback ever to play the game, Manning proved more than capable time and time again of carrying this team on his shoulders. Even without Manning, nobody predicted this mess, this 0-8 pile of radioactive waste. A poor offensive line, masked by Manning's ability to get the ball out so quickly and accurately, and a leaky defense threw up red flags last year. The front office tried to address the line in the draft this year, but it could not make up for several years of poor drafting and letting key free agents walk. Ironically enough, Indy may end up with Andrew Luck next year; they would be better served trading the pick and finding players for the multitude of other problems on the roster.
Consolation prizes: St. Louis, Dallas, Chicago
Best Draft Class - Cincinnati Bengals, San Francisco 49ers
Teams usually do not realize the full impact of a draft class for at least a couple years after making the picks. Players take time to develop, especially the players picked in the middle and later rounds of the draft. To gauge the impact of a draft class from this year, focus on the instant impact of the group. Cincinnati got the perfect package with their top two picks, first-round wide receiver A.J. Green and second-round quarterback Andy Dalton. Combined with an impressive defense, the one-two punch of Dalton and Green have helped the Bengals to a 5-2 start and in the thick of the race in the tough AFC North.
San Franciso added a powerful pass rusher in first-round pick Aldon Smith. More impressive is that they have a bevvy of middle- and late-round picks contributing this year. Fourth-round pick Kendall Hunter has been an important part of a power run game, along with seventh-round pick Bruce Miller, a defensive lineman converted to fullback. Chris Culliver, a third-round pick, has emerged as the Niners' nickle corner, shoring up a secondary that many saw as a soft underbelly on an otherwise solid defense.
Consolation prizes: Cleveland, Houston, Buffalo