Peyton's return, Saints sinking and those remarkable rookie QBs among our picksReuters
Peyton Manning's return to form in 2012 after missing all of 2011 counts as the biggest surprise of the season.
NFL MIDSEASON REPORT
By Scott Kacsmar
updated 3:54 a.m. ET Nov. 7, 2012
While the 2012 NFL season has offered many surprises from the rise of the NFC West, treatment of the replacement referees, and decline of the Baltimore defense, only a few continue to astound us halfway through the season.
Here is a look at the top five, and we can promise there will be no mention of the New York Jets? overblown trade for Tim Tebow.
Peyton Manning?s comeback in Denver
In less than half a season, Peyton Manning has returned from four neck surgeries and a year off at age 36 to transform the league?s most run-heavy offense into the Denver Colts, and a major contender in the AFC as he campaigns for his fifth league MVP award.
Sure, it is easy to give the Denver Broncos credit for going after Manning, and to laugh at teams like Arizona and Kansas City for not pursuing him harder.
But no one knew in March if Manning would have zip on his passes. Could he take a hit and get back up? No one at this stage of their career has ever tried to come back to the NFL from such serious surgery on their neck. This was not a torn ACL that players come back from all the time. The concerns were legit.
After 13 seasons in the same city and offensive system, how would Manning react to so much change with mostly all new teammates, an outdoor team in the high altitude of Denver, a new division, and retooling things from the stone-age offense the team won with using Tim Tebow last year?
Manning let Denver adapt to his offense instead of the other way around.
It was not the fastest process and you can see even in Week 1 when things did not start well, Manning went to his comfort zone. That means using the no-huddle offense, the checks at the line, the bubble screen, the sprint-right option, the seam passes, the end zone fade and the pick plays.
Manning and the offense has improved each week, leading Denver to a 5-3 record and is putting up some of the most prolific numbers in a prolific career. His completion percentage (69.5 percent), 20 touchdown passes and 108.6 passer rating are each the second highest he has ever had through the first eight games.
In each of Manning?s last five games, he has completed at least 70.0 percent of his passes and thrown three touchdowns. No quarterback in NFL history can match that, and Manning came up nine yards short in Cincinnati of tying the record for five straight games with over 300 yards passing and three touchdowns as well.Manning has also produced three comeback wins for Denver, including the wildest game of the season in San Diego when Denver trailed 24-0 at halftime before exploding for a 35-24 victory to take lead of the AFC West.
While correctly predicting in the preseason that Manning?s efficiency would increase both individually and for the Broncos in areas like third down and the red zone, the expectations of high-volume production were not there for his pace of 4,800 yards and 40 touchdown passes as well.
With a favorable second-half schedule and continued rehab and progress, look for Manning to make a serious push for being named the league?s most valuable player again.
You should not be surprised Peyton Manning is having success, but no one should pretend they knew he would adjust this well this quickly in Denver.
Quick turnaround for the Indianapolis Colts
Directly related to Peyton Manning?s comeback, the other side of the story is what has become of the Indianapolis Colts after the face of their franchise?s dramatic departure to Denver.
Well, insert Andrew Luck as the new face, and stunningly the Colts have the same record as Denver (5-3), and with a rookie quarterback who has thrown for exactly the same number of yards (2,404) as Manning this season.
The Colts are a Thursday-night win in Jacksonville away from going to 6-3, which not even the most biased of fans could have predicted for the team in 2012.
After a 2-14 season, the Colts cleaned house, replacing GM Bill Polian and coach Jim Caldwell with GM Ryan Grigson and rookie coach Chuck Pagano. Other big names besides Manning were released, and the team did not have the cap room to bring in many high-caliber free agents. The rebuild was expected to take a few seasons.
But Colts fans were excited because of the luck they had on their side. With the No. 1 overall pick in the draft, there just so happened to be a highly-touted quarterback prospect available: Stanford?s Luck.
He has been the real deal, providing the Colts the big-time drives late in the game they sorely missed in 2011 when they were 1-7 at fourth-quarter comeback opportunities.
Luck has already led four game-winning drives in his first eight games, which no other rookie quarterback in NFL history has ever accomplished.
He led an 18-point comeback in the second half against Green Bay, and passed for a rookie record 433 yards against Miami in a battle of 4-3 teams in Week 9. Luck converted 12 out of 17 third-down plays in a stunning performance against a Miami defense that led the league in third-down defense coming into the game.
With plenty of records and accolades to come, Luck?s season has been nothing short of brilliant so far.
But not all luck has been good for the Colts this year, as coach Pagano was diagnosed with leukemia during the team?s bye week, moving offensive coordinator Bruce Arians to interim head coach.The emotional punch has been a rallying cry for the underdog Colts as they have ground out their two most impressive wins on days when their coach was nearest to their minds (Green Bay after the diagnosis) and their hearts (Miami with Pagano in attendance).
The Colts have needed that ?Chuck Strong? mentality, as it has not been an easy path to 5-3 by any means. With just three takeaways on the season, the Colts tie the 2011 Steelers for the fewest takeaways through eight games. Bruce Arians was there in Pittsburgh and learned how to deal with that disadvantage last season.
Registering zero takeaways during this three-game winning streak, the Colts are only the second team in NFL history (1992 San Francisco 49ers) to win three straight games without the benefit of a single takeaway.
But timely clutch play from Luck and the defense has led to this 5-3 start, which is big in an AFC not at its best this season. The Colts are 4-1 under Arians, getting better every week, and they provide us with this season?s underdog you love to root for.
Midseason report on all 32 teams
Kacsmar: With 132 games in the books, we've crossed the midpoint. How has your team done? Where are they headed? Let?s review.Getty Images