Just a fortnight ago, it seemed the NFL universe was preparing for the imminent dawning of The Philip Rivers Era. The Jacksonville Jaguars were being hailed as a young, emerging team perhaps good enough to dethrone the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC South. The New York Giants were still an anomaly and the Green Bay Packers were only in a mini-slump.
Fast forward two weeks on the league TiVo, however, and the image which comes across, as has been the case for the past few seasons, is a grand illusion and a ball of confusion. Perception, it seems, is never quite reality in the league anymore. Unless, of course, you are the New England Patriots, as consistent as death and taxes, and the one constant upon which the league can rely.
Indeed, through the first five weeks of the 2004 schedule, The Big Picture is actually more a series of Polaroid prints strung together in a crazy-quilt collage that includes some moments of brilliance and others of butchery. Every time you think you've got a handle on things, you turn into Ahman Green.
Some examples: In the opening week of the season, the Giants were pasted by Philadelphia and Green Bay powered its way past Carolina. So the early perception was that New York, with some mutineers already turning on coach Tom Coughlin, was headed for disaster, and that the Packers had been grossly underestimated. When the Jaguars opened the season with three straight wins, all in the final minute, and a seemingly impenetrable run defense, they suddenly became the chic surprise team. As Drew Brees struggled, it seemed only a matter of time until San Diego changed quarterbacks and possibly its head coach.
Heading into this weekend, though, all those early assessments have turned around. Two weeks from now, they could be reversed once again. It has become the nature of the NFL beast that things are never precisely what they appear to be at a given moment.
"You want to be, at different times, something people think you're not," suggested Giants center Shaun O'Hara, following his team's victory at Dallas last Sunday afternoon.
Well, roughly one-third of the way through the season, mission accomplished.
Do a quick mental inventory and categorize the things upon which you know you can probably rely every weekend: The Patriots will prevail and extend their string of what coach Bill Belichick prefers to call a series of one-game winning streaks. Peyton Manning and Daunte Culpepper will each throw four or five touchdown passes. The Miami Dolphins will lose a game, a quarterback, a tailback, respect. Defensive coordinators will blitz and eight or nine running backs will ring up 100-yard performances. Erstwhile tailback Ricky Williams or one of his high-priced mouthpieces will say something stupid. Joe Gibbs will appear befuddled.
Beyond those components of consistency, folks, there aren't a lot of constants. But then, again, why should there be? We live, after all, in a society where a late-night television host grabs the headlines by giving notice of his retirement five years in advance. Heck, in the NFL, a guy like Jerry Rice, who probably should have retired five years ago (OK, two or three) is still around, pouting about not getting the ball and wondering if, at age 41, he might be traded. Hey, to some extent, insanity rules all.
The biggest plus for the NFL is that we all embrace, most of us heartily, its very unique mix of insanity and uncertainty. The league is, for sure, a 32-franchise universe in perpetual flux. But it is that very quality which makes the NFL -- and, by extension, the 2004 season -- so compelling.
Sure, there is the usual subset of "haves," the teams that everyone knows, after only five weeks, are going to the playoffs. And there is already a fairly well-defined subset of abject "have nots," who are destined for ignominy and, in all likelihood, regime changes.
And then, as if grading on the old Bell Curve, there are a ton of teams bunched in the middle. They are the "C" students of the league, teetering at various times on the brink of disaster or on the cusp of success.
As one NFC personnel director suggested rather cleverly last weekend, even after five weeks of empirical evidence, the league is just, in his words, "mostly one big state of Missouri."
Explained the personnel man, with some prodding: "You know, there's kind of this 'show me' quality to it. Do you believe, for instance, that teams like the two New York franchises, Atlanta, Detroit, are as good as their records? Do you think Kansas City is as lousy as its record, or that Tennessee is really that bad? Hey, there are a dozen weeks left in the season. That's a lot of time for teams to show me, you, everyone else, they're as good or bad as perceived right now. Let's see what transpires in the next three months when the season plays itself out. I mean, there's only so much that you can say with any degree of certainty after only five games."
So what are those certainties at the mid-October juncture of the season?
Well, the Patriots are every bit as good as a year ago, possibly even deeper and more skilled than the New England rosters that won two of the last three NFL championships. Despite the gaudy numbers posted by Manning and Culpepper, the latter of whom is currently on pace to surpass Dan Marino's single-season record for touchdown passes, it is actually the running game which is most in vogue right now. There have been 49 individual 100-yard rushing performances, the most ever at the five-week juncture. On defense, the blitz is back, as coordinators league wide attempt to compensate for rules emphasis affecting the secondary by bringing more pressure upfront.
But if you need any evidence of how disjointed and discombobulated the NFL remains at this point, think about this: In the AFC East, arguably the league's most competitive division for most of the past two decades, there are two undefeated teams and two winless franchises. That kind of disparity is rare, certainly unpredictable, but part of the crazy patchwork of the first five weeks.
"I've played my entire career (in the division) and never seen anything like it," acknowledged Jets wide receiver Wayne Chrebet. "But I guess that, if you stick around long enough, you might see just about everything."
Chances are that, after just five weeks of the schedule, we ain't seen nothin' yet in terms of what will play out for the 2004 season.
That said, we probably have seen enough to realize that New England, Philadelphia, Seattle (yeah, even with last week's meltdown), Indianapolis and maybe Denver are viable Super Bowl contenders. And that franchises such as Minnesota, Atlanta, Pittsburgh, the Jets and Giants are good enough that they might be more than pretenders.
Miami is miserable. New Orleans is underachieving. Tampa Bay is old and slow. Buffalo can't score on offense and the Packers can't stop anyone on defense.
Mostly what is discernable at the five-week mark, though, is that the NFL picture remains just as characteristically fuzzy as it usually is at the mid-October measuring stick.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here.