A glance at standings leaves plenty to ponder

ON THE NFL

October 03, 2005|By KEN MURRAY

One quarter through a season that gets more tantalizing - if not bizarre - by the week, we are left with more questions than answers today.

Is this how it ends for the New England Patriots - with a laundry list of casualties and a lineup of unknowns?

Is there anything that can bring down the unflappable Philadelphia Eagles, who already have persevered through a season's worth of misery?

Are the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as good as they seem to be lucky?

Most shockingly, do we really see the making of Air Coughlin? How in the world did that happen?

What a week Week 4 was. When the dust settled last night, six of the NFL's eight divisions were led by a team other than the defending champion. Three of those upstarts are unbeaten, no less. Two new leaders - the Detroit Lions and Chicago Bears - have losing records and share first place in the sorry, sorry NFC North.

The new bad boys in the AFC are the Miami Dolphins, who were idle; the Cincinnati Bengals, who were fortuitous in a 16-10 win over the Houston Texans; and the Denver Broncos, who turned the heat up on the Jacksonville Jaguars, 20-7.

In the NFC, the Bucs were sitting pretty after beating the Lions, 17-13; the Washington Redskins were still perfect after nosing the Seattle Seahawks, 20-17 in overtime; and then there is that mess in the North, where 8-8 will probably earn a home playoff game.

Can this anarchy really hold up for a whole season? Let's take a closer look.

AFC East: Even with a bye, the Dolphins (2-1) skated into sole possession of first in the AFC East when the Patriots (2-2) were throttled by the San Diego Chargers. Is new coach Nick Saban a miracle worker? We think not.

The Dolphins have to make road trips to Tampa, San Diego and New England yet, and they've got home games against the Kansas City Chiefs, Atlanta Falcons and Patriots. This looks like a temporary rental. Next year, though, watch out.

AFC North: The Bengals have taken advantage of a soft opening schedule to go 4-0. How soft? The four teams Cincinnati has beaten so far have a cumulative record of 3-10.

Yesterday, the Bengals got the benefit of a bad replay decision that should have turned a David Carr fumble into an incompletion but didn't. Curiously, the Bengals won with defense again, collecting seven sacks and their 17th takeaway. But 4-0 is 4-0, and while they still have to contend with the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Bengals should make the playoffs.

AFC West: If Denver (3-1) is for real in the AFC West, we should know by the end of October. The Broncos have the Redskins on deck, followed by the Patriots, Giants and Eagles - a formidable lineup.

Assuming quarterback Jake Plummer doesn't give away the store and the defense continues to improve, the Broncos should make the playoffs. Having already beaten San Diego gives them a leg up.

NFC East: The last two victories have vindicated coach Joe Gibbs for his controversial decision to sack Patrick Ramsey and promote Mark Brunell at quarterback. The 3-0 Redskins are on the road in Denver and Kansas City the next two weeks. Beyond that, there is Philadelphia.

We should get a clearer indication if this is legitimate when the Redskins host the Eagles in a Sunday night game Nov. 6.

NFC North: This might be the worst division since the league adopted the current eight-division format three years ago. The Lions will be hard pressed to finish 8-8 with Joey Harrington at quarterback. The playoffs are a pipe dream in Detroit.

The Bears are an intriguing possibility if quarterback Kyle Orton can stay out of five-interception debacles. Their defense is salty enough and the running game strong enough to keep them in games. Right now, they're the best team in the North.

NFC South: The Bucs got a correct replay reversal of a potential game-winning touchdown pass to hold off Harrington and the Lions, but it's too early to verify their credentials. Their four victims are a combined 3-11. Their schedule is favorable for a run at the Atlanta Falcons.

Bucs quarterback Brian Griese threw three interceptions and lost a fumble yesterday. Coach Jon Gruden is intent on overworking running back Carnell Williams. For those reasons, the Bucs are iffy.

Hot reads

Without safety Rodney Harrison, or linebackers Tedy Bruschi and Ted Johnson, the Patriots are going to be vulnerable to the inside run game. LaDainian Tomlinson ran for 134 of the Chargers' 183 rush yards to expose that weakness, once carrying Monty Beisel into the end zone with him. Injuries in the offensive line are going to put quarterback Tom Brady in jeopardy soon, too, if the Patriots can't handle the blitzes.

The Eagles spotted the Chiefs a 24-6 lead, then scored the next 31 points to win, 37-31, in Kansas City. Even with Donovan McNabb hurting, they ran the ball only 17 times, and three of those were McNabb kneel-downs at the end. They are resilient and stubborn.

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