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Riding The Nfl-evator

Teams go up and down, expectations are raised and lowered, careers stop and restart ... and there's still plenty of time for more movement

November 27, 2009|SAM FARMER

If there were a GPS device mapping the road to the Super Bowl, it would be stuck on the same message:

Recalculating . . .

Recalculating . . .

Recalculating . . .

The New York Giants won their first five games . . . then lost four in a row.

The Denver Broncos started 6-0 and built a 3 1/2 -game lead in the AFC West . . . and squandered it in a month.

The San Diego Chargers stumbled to a 2-3 start . . . then won their next five to reclaim a spot among the NFL's most dangerous teams.

Brett Favre became a punch line with his off-season waffling . . . yet now the Vikings' No. 4 could be in line for MVP No. 4.

One of the things that makes the league so appealing is its unpredictability. Any team can surge to the top in any season -- or zoom to a certain spot, then throw it in reverse.

"I really think we're getting back to a dose of reality," NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth said. "At the beginning of the season, if you'd have told me that Jacksonville and Tennessee and San Diego would have started the way that they did, I wouldn't have believed it. To me, they're good teams that are getting back to what they were. And then there are teams that got off to great starts that are getting back to where most people thought they should be.

"It's hard to hide in a 16-game schedule."

Think about some of the big stories leading up to this season: Michael Vick in Philadelphia, Terrell Owens in Buffalo, the low-hanging video board in Dallas. All of those are non-issues now.

We weren't focused on the resurgence of the Cincinnati Bengals, the notion that the Arizona Cardinals just might sidestep the classic hangover that afflicts Super Bowl losers, and the blinding speed of Chris Johnson.

Jay Cutler was supposed to be the quarterback who gave his team the boost it was searching for, not a dusted-off Vince Young.

Albert Haynesworth, Washington's $100-million defensive tackle, was supposed to be the menace causing offenses all those problems, not Jairus Byrd, the rookie safety in Buffalo who leads the league with eight interceptions.

Many people thought that, after the rookie season he had, Atlanta's Matt Ryan would build on that this fall, taking the next step up to join the NFL's elite quarterbacks. Instead, Ryan has stepped back a bit with 11 interceptions in his last six games (matching his rookie total). That's not to say he won't one day be a superstar, but it underscores how difficult it is to predict who will rise and who will fall in a given season.

Back to Favre for a moment. What he has done has been somewhat overshadowed by the hubbub surrounding the 10-0 Indianapolis Colts and New Orleans Saints. But Favre, at 40, has 21 touchdowns and three interceptions -- never more than one pick in a game. He's the league's all-time interceptions leader, and he has never thrown fewer than 13 in a season as a starting quarterback. This could be the first time in history a team has brought in a hired gun at quarterback and gone on to win a Super Bowl in the same season.

Favre completed a career-high 88% of his passes in Sunday's 35-9 win over Seattle, assembling his second four-touchdown performance in three games.

"I'm feeling more confident," Favre said. "I'm more of a realist at this age, but that doesn't mean you can't go out there and turn it loose."

There's a long way to go before that happens, of course, and trying to predict that now is ignoring the inevitable twists and turns the NFL road takes.

But Favre belongs in the MVP discussion, along with Peyton Manning and Drew Brees. Of course, it's also hard to ignore what Tom Brady, Philip Rivers and Kurt Warner have done.

The element of surprise is huge in football, and while most of the attention has been focused on the usual Super Bowl suspects -- New England, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, the New York Giants -- several teams have quietly assembled impressive runs.

Jacksonville, for instance, which can't even sell out its home stadium with the help of thousands of tarped-over seats, has won six of eight. Maurice Jones-Drew, underestimated and overlooked throughout his football career, leads the league with 13 rushing touchdowns.

Then, there was the collapse of the Titans, who were 13-3 last season. They dropped their first six games -- the last of those a 59-0 humiliation at New England -- and tumbled into irrelevance. That cleared the way for replacing Kerry Collins with Young, a move Titans owner Bud Adams had been pushing for since training camp.

A month of games later, and Recalculating . . .

"The NFL season really starts at Thanksgiving," Collinsworth said. "Because the game completely changes now. The weather turns, quarterbacks that have looked brilliant all year all of a sudden don't look quite as good in the bad weather, the wind, the snow and the cold. Now you start to figure out who the men in the league are."

The Titans have a chance, albeit a slim one, of muscling their way back into the playoff picture, and certainly could be a spoiler that could complicate things for upcoming opponents Arizona (Sunday), Indianapolis (Dec. 6) and San Diego (Christmas).

"We've got a lot of confidence going with this team right now," Titans linebacker Keith Bulluck said. "We're just going to keep playing and taking it one by one."

They can play and hope, praying that somehow in the end the recalculation works out in their favor.


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