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A RUNNING START
YOUNG QUARTERBACKS MAKING THEIR MARK, BUT WINNERS BUILD FROM THE GROUND UP

NFL rule changes have made it easier to move the ball through the air, but games are still won on the ground.

Defenses are being overrun, literally, by strong rushing attacks this season. There have been 84 rushing performances of 100 yards or more. That total is on pace to break the league record of 151 set last season.

Teams with 100-yard rushers have a combined record of 70-14, a winning percentage of .833. Those teams were 9-0 last week and are 32-1 over the last four.

Teams are 26-4 when a rusher surpasses 130 yards. They're 20-3 with a 140-yard rusher, 12-2 with a 150-yard rusher and 10-0 with a 160-yard rusher.

"I think a lot of that is you're controlling the clock if you're running the ball," said Buffalo Bills coach Mike Mularkey, who has seen running back Willis McGahee run for more than 100 yards in the team's three wins.

"We've been very productive with time of possession," Mularkey said. "That may be the biggest part of it. I know there's a theory based on (the more) runs a ball carrier gets, your odds of winning go up. If you're in a situation where you can do that and you don't have to play catch-up, you're playing good odds."

The odds have been pretty good for a lot of teams this season. Seven of the NFL's top 10 rushers are on teams that are .500 or better.

The New York Jets (6-2) are 5-0 when Curtis Martin gains 100 yards. The Pittsburgh Steelers (7-1) are 5-0 when Duce Staley or Jerome Bettis hits the century mark. The New England Patriots (7-1) are perfect in Corey Dillon's four 100-yard games.
Top story

Rookie QB Ben Roethlisberger leading the Pittsburgh Steelers to a 7-1 start. The Steelers thought the kid was good, but they couldn't have imagined he'd be the second coming of Terry Bradshaw. Roethlisberger is 6-0 as a starter while ending New England's NFL-record 21-game winning streak and knocking off unbeaten Philadelphia in consecutive weeks.
Midseason MVP

Terrell Owens, Philadelphia. There are several strong candidates here, but no one has had an impact on his team more than T.O. Sure he's a head case, but the Eagles wouldn't be nearly as good without him. He's added a dimension the Eagles' offense has lacked under coach Andy Reid. Runner-up: QB Daunte Culpepper, Minnesota.

Top Offensive Player

QB Peyton Manning, Indianapolis. Manning is on pace to break Dan Marino's 20-year-old NFL records for passing yards (5,084) and touchdowns (48) in a season. As bad as the Colts' defense is, Manning might have to shatter both marks to keep the team in contention. Runner-up: RB Priest Holmes, Kansas City.

Top defensive player

DE John Abraham, N.Y. Jets. Would be a much stronger pick before the Bills shut him down Sunday. But the award is based on his body of work (NFL-high 8 1/2 sacks) over the entire first half. Besides, picking Baltimore LB Ray Lewis would be too easy. Runner-up: Lewis.

Top rookie

Roethlisberger. An easy choice. His 105.2 passer rating is fifth best in the NFL. He also outplayed two of the league's premier quarterbacks (New England's Tom Brady and Philadelphia's Donovan McNabb). Runner-up: WR Michael Clayton, Tampa Bay.

Comeback player

QB Drew Brees, San Diego. He was supposed to be riding the bench. Instead, the Chargers have ridden him to first place in the AFC West. With 1,854 yards, 18 TDs and just three interceptions, Brees has kept first-round draft pick Philip Rivers off the field. Runner-up: QB Kurt Warner, N.Y. Giants.

Midseason coach of year

Bill Cowher, Pittsburgh. The NFL's longest-tenured coach has the Steelers back among the league's elite. Drafting Roethlisberger was a master stroke. So was signing RB Staley and giving Dick LeBeau control of the defense. The Steelers dominated the NFL's last two unbeaten teams, New England and Philadelphia, in consecutive weeks. Runner-up: Marty Schottenheimer, Chargers.

Surprise team

San Diego Chargers. If the season ended today, the Bolts would be in the playoffs. Who would have ever thought Brees would turn into Dan Fouts or that a four-win team from a year ago would be among the AFC's best? Runner-up: Steelers.

Disappointing team

Kansas City Chiefs. After going 13-3 last season, the Chiefs were supposed to be a Super Bowl contender. But they are 3-5 and in jeopardy of missing the playoffs thanks mainly to their failure to address a weak defense in the offseason. Runner-up: New Orleans.

Breakout player

TE Antonio Gates, San Diego. The former Kent State basketball star, who hadn't played football since high school, leads the NFL with 54 catches and has scored eight touchdowns in just his second year in the league. Runner-up: WR Javon Walker, Green Bay.

Best offseason trade

Philadelphia trading for Owens. The Eagles' record should tell you how well this has worked out. Honorable mention goes to New England for fleecing Cincinnati for rights to RB Dillon.

Top free agent signing

Staley, Pittsburgh. Former Eagle has been the perfect fit in Cowher's power running game. Runner-up: DE Jevon Kearse, Philadelphia.

Things to watch

Dave Wannstedt is done in Miami, and other coaches may follow him out the door. Jim Haslett's seat is hotter than ever in New Orleans as the underachieving Saints head toward another nonplayoff season. Minnesota's Mike Tice, who is in the final year of his contract, must avoid another late-season collapse.

With 17 of the 32 teams at .500 or better, the playoff picture won't be resolved until the last week of the regular season.

The Eagles will wrap up home-field advantage in the NFC playoffs before Christmas. They won't run the table, but only one team with a winning record remains on their schedule.

Will the Patriots' reign continue? An injury-depleted secondary is troublesome, but with the league's best coaching staff and a favorable schedule (last eight opponents are a combined 25-40), the Pats are still the team to beat in the AFC.

Who will be this year's Carolina Panthers? San Diego, Atlanta, N.Y. Giants, N.Y. Jets and Detroit finished last in their divisions last year. All are in the playoff hunt. Atlanta (6-2) has a commanding three-game lead in the NFC South.

Don't be surprised if . . .

The Chargers falter. A tough second-half schedule includes Kansas City (twice), Indianapolis and Denver.

Green Bay (4-4) and Tennessee (3-5) make late-season pushes for the playoffs. Both teams usually play their best football after the midway point. If their quarterbacks (Brett Favre and Steve McNair) can stay on the field, they will be tough to beat.

Bills' midseason report

Three plays that might keep Bills out of playoffs

1. Jacksonville WR Ernest Wilford makes game-winning TD catch in final seconds of season-opener. Of course, the play never happens if Bills CB Nate Clements bats down the fourth-down pass caught by WR Jimmy Smith.

2. RB Travis Henry was stopped on fourth down at the 1-yard line in the fourth quarter of 13-10 Week Two loss at Oakland. A touchdown would have tied score at 10-all and given the Bills momentum in a tight game.

3. Henry trips and falls on third-and-1 against New England. You know what happened next: A botched play on fourth down resulted in a fumble and the game-clinching touchdown for the Patriots.

Three reasons Bills will miss playoffs

1. Despite recent improvements, combination of QB Drew Bledsoe and offensive line have Bills ranked 25th in sacks allowed.

2. As good as defense is, it has just nine takeaways (tied for eighth-fewest in the NFL).

3. The Bills aren't exactly road warriors. They have lost 11 of their last 15 away games and are 0-3 this season.

Three reasons the future looks bright for the Bills

1. RB McGahee's steady emergence as one of the elite backs in the NFL.

2. The Eric Moulds-Lee Evans wide receiving combo could be dynamite for years to come.

3. Aside from DT Pat Williams and FS Izell Reese, the rest of the defense is under contract through next season.
e-mail: awilson@buffnews.com

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