At the fifty

ROB LONGLEY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:52 AM ET

The final assignments weren't submitted until early Tuesday morning, a crucial Monday Night Football test holding up the release of the NFL's mid-term grades.

And two stragglers to make it to the midway point of the 16-game schedule turned out to be responsible for a couple of the boldest statements of the opening semester.

The Indianapolis Colts' 40-21 win over the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots was an exclamation point.

First, at 8-0 the Colts are no longer intimidated when they travel to Foxborough and have established themselves as the emerging class of the league. As the oddsmakers concur, they are the team to beat.

Second, the Patriots are so weakened on defence that if they didn't reside in the lightweight AFC East, merely making the playoffs would be a tall order. Threepeat? Forget it.

It's a little early for out with the old and in with the new, but here's a mid-season evaluation around the NFL:

BIGGEST WEASEL

Owens anyone? No, this goes to used car salesman/New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson. Seeing opportunity in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Benson is trying to get the Saints moved from New Orleans. Benson has long been a weasel. It wasn't so many years ago that the owner floated the idea of moving the Saints to Toronto. He never had any such plans, of course, but he hoped the threat would get public money from the state of Louisiana.

COACHES CORNERED

Mike Tice is out with Minnesota, but that will likely wait till the end of the season.

How much longer can Brian Billick last in Baltimore? Looks like the players aren't buying into his act so much.

Mike Sherman should probably be chased from Green Bay but the lengthy injury report will likely save him.

BIGGEST LOSERS

It's a dead heat between the Vikings and Baltimore Ravens. Maybe the best thing to happen to the Vikes was the knee injury to quarterback Daunte Culpepper, who had 12 INTs to just four TD passes. Meanwhile, for the past three seasons, the Ravens have been hyped as a potential dark horse. Enough of that. Dishonorable mention: Patriots defence, Ravens running back Jamal Lewis, J-E-T-S, Jets, Jets, Jets.

WHAT ARE THE ODDS

With their win over the Patriots, the Colts have been established as the Super Bowl favourites. Here's the top five, according to Vegas Insider:

CURRENT OPEN

Colts Even 5-1

Steelers 6-1 8-1

Falcons 7-1 12-1

Panthers 8-1 18-1

Eagles 10-1 5-1

Bengals 10-1 40-1

(The Pats, who began as 4-1 faves, are now 12-1.)

WEIRDEST STAT

Brett Favre and the 1-7 Green Bay Packers have outscored their opponents 168-159 and in the basement of the NFC North. The Patriots, meanwhile, have been outscored 220-180 and are in first in the AFC East.

SUPER WACKY BOWL PICK

It's an extra large long shot for an extra large game (Super Bowl XL) but the storylines sure would sure warm things up in Detroit come February.

How about the Eli Manning against brother Peyton (left) ? The Giants aren't such a stretch in a wide-open NFC, while Indy is favoured to get there. For a Manning-free Super Bowl, lets go with the Broncos over the Seahawks.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

New York Giants and the development of second-year quarterback, Eli Manning. He doesn't have the flash and the career numbers of his older brother Peyton but the Giants are the league's highest scoring offence.

Honourable mention: Da Bears and Cowboys quarterback Drew Bledsoe, who is playoff bound after getting the boot from Buffalo.

MID-SEASON ROOKIE

Kyle Orton of the Bears began the season fourth on the depth chart and is now quarterbacking a first-place team.

While he hasn't been spectacular, there is a lesson in Orton's development and coach Lovie Smith's grooming of a young quarterback. The Bears are following the script the Buffalo Bills had hoped to use with J.P. Losman -- play strong defence and safe offence to let the youngster grow into the position. The Bills bailed on that plan after three weeks.Honourable mention: Miami running back Ronnie Brown, Tampa running back Cadillac Williams.

BEST TEAM NOT NAMED COLTS

Some will nitpick at the Colts schedule, which other than the Patriots, has been fairly light. In terms of quality opponents they've defeated, the Denver Broncos have been exceptional. Wins over last year's two Super Bowl combatants -- the Patriots and Eagles -- plus victories over the Chargers, Chiefs, Jaguars and Redskins make them in some ways the most accomplished team thus far. The rub, however, is that the Broncs were Doncs in losing two winnable games against the Dolphins and Giants. Honourable mention: Cincinnati Bengals.

CHAMPS TO CHUMPS I

The tendency has been to pile on over the pending demise of the Patriots. With the loss of coaches and several key defensive players, perhaps it was inevitable. Fact is, the Bill Belichick-led Patriots are weak or hurting at running back, offensive line, safety and defensive end. Even the return of linebacker Tedy Bruschi isn't enough to make up for the defensive woes. Once unbeatable at home, the Patriots have been outscored 82-37 in Gillette Stadium losses to the Chargers and Colts.

CHAMPS TO CHUMPS II

Head chump Terrell Owens has helped derail the Philadelphia Eagles, who find themselves downgraded from NFC champs to NFC East basement. The Eagles problems run much deeper though, even with the solid passing game led by quarterback (and favourite T.O. whipping boy) Donovan McNabb. At this point, it's conceivable that both the Patriots and Eagles may miss the playoffs. Of the two, New England is a safer bet, mainly because of their AFC Least address.

MID-SEASON MVP

At times, LaDainian Tomlinson has griped about not getting the ball enough, yet he still dominates. The dynamic Chargers running back leads the league with 15 touchdowns (13 rushing, two receiving) and is on pace for 26, one shy of Priest Holmes' single-season record. And that's not counting the three TD passes for LT, who is third in the league in rushing yards with 835.

Honourable mention: Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer, Seahawks running back Shaun Alexander.

BEST COMEBACK

In 2003, this guy broke his leg in the first game of the season. Now Steve Smith is threatening to get the Carolina Panthers back to the Super Bowl. Smith leads the NFL in receptions (55) and yards (903) and should he keep up this pace, would join Jerry Rice (1,845 yards in 1995) as the only receiver to top the 1,800 mark.

Honourable mention: Redskins quarterback Mark Brunell.

TEAM TURNAROUNDS

Four divisions are led by teams that didn't make the playoffs last season.

Division Team '05 '04

AFC North Bengals 7-2 8-8

NFC East Giants 6-2 6-10

NFC North Bears 5-3 5-11

NFC South Panthers 6-2 7-9

(Carolina and Atlanta are tied)


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