Remember when the NFL was a simpler place, when the big worry was the rest-or-rust debate — whether the best teams should play hard through the end of the season or save their starters for the playoffs?
That was so 2009.
Now, no one has the luxury to coast.
The Indianapolis Colts certainly don't. Less than a year after flirting with a perfect season, they have lost four of five games and are in serious peril of not reaching the playoffs for the first time in nine years.
Peyton Manning, the league's only four-time most valuable player, has 11 interceptions in the last three games, with four being returned for touchdowns. He had four picks in a 38-35 overtime loss to Dallas on Sunday, two of which the Cowboys ran back for scores.
The Colts trail Jacksonville by a game in the AFC South, and they've already lost to the Jaguars once this season.
Things are even more bleak in San Diego, where the Chargers had their recent surge come to an abrupt end with a 28-13 home loss to Oakland. Not only did the Raiders pull off the season sweep, but they also ended at 18 the Chargers' streak of consecutive December victories.
Just more evidence that nothing can be taken for granted this season.
The first-place Kansas City Chiefs and Chicago Bears, and the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints, were reminded of that too. They all nearly lost to last-place teams before hanging on for four-point victories.
The Chiefs beat Denver, 10-6. The Bears beat Detroit, 24-20. The Saints beat Cincinnati, 34-30.
This season, there's no relaxing. Well, maybe a little. Brett Favre might get a chance to cool his heels — albeit wincingly — after being knocked out of Sunday's game against Buffalo with a severely sprained throwing shoulder.
The Vikings rolled to a 38-14 victory without him, getting two touchdown passes (and three interceptions) from Tarvaris Jackson, and three rushing touchdowns from Adrian Peterson.
The Favre injury happened on the third play, when the 41-year-old quarterback was tackled from behind by linebacker Arthur Moats. Favre suffered a sprained sternoclavicular joint in his shoulder, and it's unclear whether he will be able to make his 298th consecutive regular-season start, against the New York Giants on Sunday, an ongoing league record.
"If we were talking ankles or elbows, thumbs or something like that, I would probably be a little more up to date on how to deal with it," Favre said. "First time in 20 years I have ever done anything like that, so it is kind of surprising."
Just one more in a season of surprises.
While the Colts are fading in the AFC South, the Jaguars are hitting their stride. Or, specifically, Maurice Jones-Drew is.
The former UCLA standout has rushed for at least 100 yards in five consecutive games, and Sunday ran for 186 against Tennessee. It was the league's second-best rushing effort of the season (behind Arian Foster's 231 yards for Houston in Week 1).
With four games to play — including a game at Indianapolis in two weeks — the Jaguars have what amounts to a 1½-game lead over the Colts, having already beaten them once.
Last-place Tennessee hasn't scored an offensive touchdown in 13 quarters.
"We have to play perfect right now, and we're not doing that," Coach Jeff Fisher said. "We're going to continue to work on it. We've gone quarters and quarters without scoring a touchdown. That's got to change."
At home or away, Atlanta's Matt Ryan keeps coming through. The Falcons quarterback led his sixth fourth-quarter, game-winning drive of the season Sunday in a 28-24 victory at Tampa Bay.
Ryan threw a nine-yard touchdown pass to Michael Jenkins with 4 minutes 31 seconds to play, capping a decisive drive that included a 25-yard completion to Roddy White on third and 20.
The Falcons became the first team to reach double-digit victories, something that — barring a tie — New England or the New York Jets will do Monday night.
More D.C. drama
Washington defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth was a surprise addition to the inactive list before the Redskins' 31-7 loss to the Giants on Sunday.
Haynesworth and Mike Shanahan have butted heads all season, and the coach was vague when asked about the deactivation.
"Well, he didn't practice on Friday. He was sick," Shanahan said. "On Thursday, he didn't have one of his better practices and we weren't sure what the reason was. I'm guessing it's because he was sick because he didn't practice on Friday. Without practicing Friday and with Thursday not having one of his better practices, we kept him inactive."
Haynesworth confirmed to reporters that he was sick and showed up "a minute late" to a meeting, adding, "But I don't think that's a reason to sit out."
Asked whether he was surprised about the choice, Haynesworth said: "I thought it was a do-or-die situation that we needed to do everything to win, so yeah."