Halfway Through The NFL Season And The Championship Could Still Be Anybody’s …Well Almost Anybody’s

“We’re halfway through the season,” says New Orleans Saints head coach SEAN PAYTON. “I think it’s a very competitive league right now when you watch the games unfold. We’re seeing a lot of good football teams that are going to be playing well here in November. I think our emphasis is to play well in this month and in December and to get better.”

The games have been close – 28.2 percent (33 of 117) have been decided by three points of fewer – and the margin for error between wins and losses has been slim. Entering Week 9, there are 21 teams with a .500+ record, the most in NFL history through the first eight weeks. The previous high was 20 in 1989.

“Every week you have to go out and prove yourself,” says head coach JIM CALDWELL of the 5-2 Indianapolis Colts. “It’s tough in this league.”

And there’s plenty of football still left to be played, so don’t count anyone out. Since 2000, 27 teams have reached the halfway point of the season with a .500 or below winning percentage and proceeded to the playoffs, including at least one in each season. Last year, three teams – Baltimore (4-4), Green Bay (4-4) and the New York Jets (4-4) – accomplished the feat.

Of those 27 clubs, five have advanced to their Championship Game, including the 2001 New England Patriots, who won Super Bowl XXXVI. So as the season’s midpoint approaches, it’s all still to be decided.

Some of the key games this week:

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS (5-2) at ATLANTA FALCONS (5-2) (Sunday, FOX, 1:00 PM ET)

First place in the NFC South will be on the line when two 5-2 squads meet at the Georgia Dome.

“This is a division game and we need to make sure we’re ready for it,” says Atlanta Falcons head coach MIKE SMITH. “They’re 5-2 and playing as well as anybody right now. We look forward to the challenge on Sunday.”

The Buccaneers won 38-35 last week at Arizona as quarterback JOSH FREEMAN led the team to yet another fourth-quarter comeback victory.

“He’s resilient and wise beyond his years,” says Tampa Bay head coach RAHEEM MORRIS about Freeman, his 22-year old QB who has six fourth-quarter comeback wins in 16 career starts.

The Falcons, who had a bye last week, look to continue their success at home. Quarterback MATT RYAN is 16-1 (.941) as a starter at home in his career.

“The big thing for us is to try to be consistent,” says Smith about the team coming off a bye. “It’s important for us to start fast.”

“It’s a race to 10 wins,” says Morris. “Ten wins usually provide you with a great opportunity to qualify for the playoffs.”

CHICAGO BEARS (4-3) at BUFFALO BILLS (0-7) in TORONTO (Sunday, FOX, 1:00 PM ET)

One week after 83,941 fans packed Wembley Stadium in London, England to see the San Francisco 49ers defeat the Denver Broncos, the NFL’s international reach continues when the Bills host the Bears at Toronto’s Rogers Centre.

The Bears, who will look to end a two-game losing streak after a fast 4-1 start, are coming off a bye.

“This next stretch in November will determine quite a bit,” says Chicago head coach LOVIE SMITH. “We feel like we’re in great shape to make our run.”

Chicago will have to stop a Buffalo offense led by quarterback RYAN FITZPATRICK, who tied for the NFL lead in October with 10 touchdown passes.

“Buffalo’s played well and really deserved to win a couple of games lately,” says Smith. “It’ll be a big challenge for us.”

INDIANAPOLIS COLTS (5-2) at PHILADELPHIA EAGLES (4-3) (Sunday, CBS, 4:15 PM ET)

The streaking Colts, who have won three in a row, visit Lincoln Financial Field on Sunday to face the Eagles.

“We feel good right now,” says Philadelphia running back LE SEAN MC COY about the team coming off the bye week. “Right now, everybody is just focusing on coming in this week and getting a win. We have to continue to play our game and get better each week.”

“We’re just taking it one game at a time,” adds Eagles quarterback MICHAEL VICK. “We want to win as many games as we can throughout the next nine and just play good football.”

Indianapolis knocked off Houston 30-17 on Monday night to improve to 5-2 and take sole possession of first place in the AFC South.

“It was a great team effort and a great team win,” says Colts quarterback PEYTON MANNING, who passed for two touchdowns in the victory. “It’s not always going to be pretty or perfect, but you have to keep grinding.”

“Our team is fighting back and getting ourselves in position to once again be close to the top,” says Indianapolis head coach JIM CALDWELL. “It’s a long season, seven down and nine to go, and we have a tough battle ahead of us.”

DALLAS COWBOYS (1-6) at GREEN BAY PACKERS (5-3) (Sunday, NBC, 8:20 PM ET)

The Cowboys will travel to Green Bay’s Lambeau Field on Sunday night to face the Packers.

“We’re fully anticipating a very motivated Dallas team coming in here Sunday night,” says Green Bay head coach MIKE MC CARTHY. “We need to get this one here at home and get to the bye. That’s our focus.”

The Packers, who aim to take a three-game winning streak into their bye week, defeated the New York Jets last week at New Meadowlands Stadium 9-0.

“It’s a significant win for our football team,” says McCarthy about the victory in New York. “It’s definitely something we can build on. It’s an excellent, excellent win for us.”

“We wanted to come in and prove to everybody what we’re all about,” says Packers linebacker CLAY MATTHEWS, who leads the NFL with 9.5 sacks.

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NFL FACTOID

There have been 342 passing touchdowns in the NFL this year. That is the most through a season’s first eight weeks in 23 years and the second-most in NFL history (346 in 1987).

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