BARRY WILNER, AP Pro Football Writer
The NFL has separation at the top, thanks to the Packers and 49ers. At the bottom, too, thanks to the woeful, Manningless Colts.
Otherwise, well, go figure.
From week to week, it’s been almost impossible to figure out most teams. The Bills, Lions and Chargers have plummeted back to Earth. The pitiful Dolphins and Rams suddenly are winning. The Jets had a three-game winning string and lots of matchup advantages against the Patriots, who were on a two-game slide. So New England wins in a rout.
As Vince Lombardi once shouted from the sideline: “What the hell is going on out there?”
Of course, one of the reasons for the NFL’s unparalleled popularity is the old mantra, ever-so-true this year, that on any given Sunday …
So, the championship-contender Saints can lose to a winless St. Louis. The Ravens, looking like the best team in the AFC, can flop at weak Seattle, their third road loss to a sub-.500 team this season. Denver, with Tim Tebow doing a fine imitation of a backup high school passer, runs all over Kansas City even as Tebow completes two passes.
If college hoops has March Madness, the NFL has November Nuttiness. This weekend emphasized that.
“We had a long trip out here, feeling confident and to come in here and not be able to get that game separation from everyone else in your division when you really had a good shot to do that, it doesn’t feel good,” Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco said.
His sentiments were echoed by Jets coach Rex Ryan, who pretty much labeled Sunday night’s meeting with the archrival Patriots a must win.
“I thought we’d play better,” Ryan said. “I thought we had really improved. You make that many mistakes against that team, there’s no chance.”
Yet the Jets have a chance to still do something special this year. So do the Patriots, the Ravens, the nose-diving Lions, Bills and Chargers. Such is the nature of the NFL, which is part of its charm.
The constants of 2011 include two shockers — did anyone project San Francisco (8-1) to be this good under a rookie coach and coming off a lockout; or for Indy, even without four-time MVP Peyton Manning, to be so bad? — and one easy enough prediction. The Packers were so strong in last year’s playoffs and Super Bowl and got back so many key injured players eager to contribute to another championship that their dominance of the first half of the schedule is no surprise.
As for the rest, nothing much could have been anticipated.
—Houston having the league’s top-rated defense — yes, defense — and getting there without star DE-LB Mario Williams and with DeMeco Ryans not having a great season. The offense was expected to click and pretty much has even with brilliant receiver Andre Johnson sidelined the past six games.
“We have some playmakers on this offense,” said quarterback Matt Schaub, whose injured right foot could add more unpredictability. “Defensively, we’re playing really well. They’re holding teams, making them turn the ball over. They’re just playing exceptional football.”
The Texans are tied for the AFC’s best record as they head into their bye.
—Philadelphia phlopping despite its cast of all-stars. The Eagles can’t put teams away (five blown fourth-quarter leads), can’t win at home (1-4), have dissension in the ranks (DeSean Jackson) and are headed not for a first-round playoff bye but for a high first-round draft pick.
Andy Reid’s seat in Philly never has been hotter.
“The obvious is we didn’t play very well yesterday and that’s my responsibility as a head football coach of this team,” Reid said Monday. “And I have to make sure that I do a better job and let the guys around me do a better job. I’d like to be able to point at one area, but that’s not what this is; it’s a combination of things, all of us doing our jobs better (and) particularly in the fourth quarter as things go on; we have to make sure that we finish games.”
—The entire AFC West. Oakland, as up-and-down a team as any this year, is on top at 5-4. The other three are at 4-5. All have had their moments, both memorable and forgettable.
Don’t expect that to change the rest of the way.
San Diego, for example, finally got off to a strong start under coach Norv Turner and was 4-1 when it had its bye. Since: four straight losses marked by penalties, mental and physical errors and poor coaching decisions.
Denver, on the other hand, was a bottom-dweller until Tim Tebow was inserted at quarterback. His passing stats have been abominable, but the results have been phenomenal, with three wins in four games. Yep, the Broncos are in the playoff mix.
“You do have to have balance, and that’s where we’re a little bit behind at this point, but I think we’ll just get better,” coach John Fox said.
“We’ve got a young quarterback that’s doing a terrific job, in my estimation, who will just get better with time. He’s got one of the better fourth-quarter ratings there are, even in passing the ball. I think he’s got a pretty good record thus far. He has proven the ability to bring his team back. All those things are good things that I think any coach can build on.”
If he can figure it all out, not an easy task in this year’s NFL.
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