Roughly halfway through a regular season in which the usual redistribution of NFL wealth has taken place, many people in my business nonetheless appear shocked by the fact that up is down and down is up.
The reality is that, in the NFL of the 21st century, a reshuffling of perceived powers on an annual basis is the norm. Recent history has shown that we can expect half of the 12 playoff spots to change hands every season, which is something I tried to keep in mind when I made my "expert" predictions back in August.
I had some good instincts (Bills and Cardinals as playoff teams; Colts and Seahawks to struggle) and some regrettable ones (Bengals and Jags as division champs; Falcons and Ravens as cellar-dwellers), and I'm not too proud to admit that more than two months later, I still don't have it all figured out.
Here are a few things I have learned:
• Old Logic: The NFC East and AFC South are football's best divisions, and they'll each send three teams to the playoffs for the second consecutive year.
• New Logic: You can still make a case for the NFC East, but the odds of three postseason participants coming out of any division aren't great – and there's a better chance of the AFC East turning that trick. In the NFC, all four South teams are .500 or better, and three North teams (Bears, Packers, Vikings) are positioned to make a run. In the AFC, while the Titans have run away with the South, only Indy (4-4) seems to have a prayer of making the playoffs. The action is in the East, where three teams are 5-3 and the 4-4 Dolphins remain in the mix. Right now, if I had to guess, I'd say the NFC wild cards are likely to come out of the East and South, while both AFC wild cards will come out of the East.
• Old Logic: Starting a rookie at quarterback means you're a team in a rebuilding cycle.
• New Logic: Go ahead and hand the kid the ball, because he might just give you the best chance of winning now. At least that's what the Falcons and Ravens, both 5-3, are thinking after watching No. 1 picks Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco display uncanny polish and composure in the pocket. I'm still not sure this is the best thing for every young quarterback's long-term development – Vince Young, now on the bench two years after his offensive rookie of the year season, would be an argument against employing this approach – but if either Atlanta or Baltimore sneaks into the playoffs, it will change a lot of people's thinking on this subject.
• Old Logic: The Packers will defeat the Chargers in Super Bowl XLIII. OK, that was my logic.
• New Logic: Well, let's see: The Chargers are 3-5 and just fired their defensive coordinator in the middle of the season, and the 4-4 Packers are about to play what could turn out to be a must-win game at Minnesota. It's tempting to claim temporary insanity, cut my losses and come up with two new teams. In my heart, however, I'm only halfway there. San Diego, scarily, still has a very good chance of winning the AFC West, if only because the first-place Broncos are approximating the trajectory of the U.S. economy. Yet I've seen enough of the Chargers' flaws exposed to conclude that a dramatic playoff run would be highly unlikely. Given that I spent all of last season extolling the Titans' virtues, long before they emerged as a surprising playoff team, I don't feel all that sheepish about jumping on 8-0 Tennessee as my revised choice to win the AFC.
As for the Pack – well, I'm not quite ready to let go. Certainly, the 7-1 Giants are the class of the NFC at this point, and they will be very tough to beat as they attempt to defend their championship. Green Bay, conversely, might not even make it to the postseason. But I still have this suspicion that the Packers, coming off an overtime defeat to the Titans, are getting it together and have a run in them. Halfback Ryan Grant is finally starting to show flashes of last season's form, and Aaron Rodgers is getting more and more comfortable as he fights through a painful shoulder injury. So I'm sticking with my Packers pick – at least for another week – and looking forward to a Green Bay-Tennessee rematch in Tampa come February.
Now that I've provided you with all of these answers, here are this week's inquisitive offerings, from the NFL's elite to the masters of defeat:
4. Carolina Panthers: With no game last weekend and a visit to Oakland this coming Sunday, which is really the Panthers' bye week?
5. Washington Redskins: Did Jim Zorn's play-calling get a little, you know, red state on the night before the election?
6. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Is there any doubt that this team has a lot of heart?
7. Green Bay Packers: Am I the only one who thinks this team is about to turn it on?
9. Chicago Bears: Are y'all ready for Sexy Rexy: The Sequel?
11. Philadelphia Eagles: If I agree publicly to declare that I've underestimated the Eagles, how many of you will pledge to vote for the presidential candidate I support?
18. New Orleans Saints: As good as they've looked at times, how sobering is it that the Saints have yet to win two straight games this season?
22. San Diego Chargers: Can Ron Rivera work his magic, and if so, will he finally get a head coaching gig?
25. Cleveland Browns: In a perfect world, wouldn't you give Quinn more than one legitimate practice to prepare for his first NFL start?
26. St. Louis Rams: When Dick Vermeil shed his obligatory tears during his halftime induction into the Rams' Ring of Honor, was he being sentimental – or just reflecting on his old team's first-half performance?
27. Kansas City Chiefs: At the very least, shouldn't we give Herm Edwards and his players some credit for continuing to compete?
30. San Francisco 49ers: Instead of obsessing over the identity of the locker room leak, wouldn't Mike Singletary be better served by not behaving during his halftime speech as though he's about to take one?