If you believed preseason predictions, then the NFL's Week 14 storylines illustrate just how wrong you were. Don't feel bad. No one could have expected the strange twists and numerous turns that 2010 has taken. And all of it seems to be wrapped up tidily in this week's pivotal games.
Before the season, Chiefs-Chargers was expected to be a mismatch. And it just may be, but not how you thought. Ravens-Texans could have been circled as a brawl for AFC supremacy. Instead, on paper it could be as one-sided as the last Monday Night Football massacre we saw. The same could be said for Steelers-Bengals ... what happened to those 10-6 Bengals of 2009?
Then there's the Brett Favre stretch-run story in Minnesota. It's not the ending you expected, either. There's a Broncos-Cardinals game that is surprisingly meaningful. There's a first-place team playing in Rams-Saints (Hint: It's NOT the Saints). And much more.
But we must begin in Jacksonville, where Raiders-Jaguars represents the epitome of this unlikely, unexpected season. Who would have thought these teams would be fighting for division crowns and playoff berths 15 weeks into the season? Not only that, but there would be so many intriguing storylines on the marquee. Such as:
The Jaguars' Maurice Jones-Drew could be just a few snaps away from overtaking the NFL rushing lead from Houston's Arian Foster. While Jones-Drew is working on his sixth consecutive 100-plus rushing game (averaging 134 yards per game over that stretch), Foster has been held under 85 yards in three of his last four games. Foster's lead in the rushing race has shrunk to just 53 yards over Jones-Drew. Foster and the Texans face the Ravens, Ray Lewis and one of the top rushing defenses in the league. Jones-Drew and the Jags face the 23rd-ranked rushing defense. More important than stats are wins, of course. And it is highly likely that if the Jags win here, they could be on their way to a 10-6 record and the most unlikely division championship of the year. The Colts will have something to say about it but, either way, the death of Jack Del Rio's Jaguars coaching career was greatly exaggerated.
If the Jaguars put together a playoff-caliber team with talented stars like David Garrard, Mike Williams, Jones-Drew and Marcedes Lewis, will it make a sound? Apparently, not much of one. The NFL had to extend the blackout deadline to Friday, as the Jags were 1,700 tickets short of a sellout. It's a sad state of affairs, indeed, when a playoff run barely makes noise.
As for the Raiders, support never has been a problem, but this deep into the season the question remains, are they for real? At 6-6, the Raiders have improved. But are they the team that completely dominated the Chargers last week, or the one that looked overwhelmed in losing by a combined 68-20 against the Steelers and Dolphins? Will Darren McFadden-Michael Bush be the better hyphenated ground attack in this one? Sure, we've talked about the roll Jones-Drew has been on, but the McFadden-Bush combination rushed for more than 200 yards last week. It marked the third time this season the Raiders have eclipsed the 200-plus rushing mark -- and it came against the league's best rush defense. If they can do that again here, the Raiders will remain in the playoff race.
Other Week 14 storylines in this upside-down kind of NFL season reflect more unlikely twists:
2. The Patriots clearly are the class of the AFC after Monday night's dismantling of the Jets. But could that be foreboding as the Pats head to Chicago in this season of unpredictability? With a short week, coming off an emotional win and facing a balanced and rising Bears team, the Pats can solidify their place with another winning effort. The 9-3 Bears still have their skeptics, but in this altered-universe of an NFL season, their defense may cause Tom Brady trouble and we could be watching a Super Bowl preview.
3. The more significant story is the Giants, who are locked in what should be a down-to-the-wire race in the NFC East, with the hot Cowboys a potential spoiler. But anytime Brett Favre is involved, especially with his consecutive game streak apparently a game-time decision, everything else always seems to take a back seat. What people seem to be forgetting, however: Even if Favre plays in this one, after participating in light drills at practice Friday, he IS facing a ferocious Giants pass rush. The odds are great the banged-up NFL legend will see the streak end if not this week, then certainly after the Giants are through with him.
4. It's going to be cold at The Meadowlands. It's going to be wet. It's going to be miserable. And that would lead you to believe it's going to be perfect weather and timing for the Jets to get their run-oriented offense in gear and ready for the postseason. Not so fast. The Jets were humbled on Monday Night Football and Mark Sanchez did not have one of his better games. The Dolphins have one of the league's better run defenses. This could be a case of Sanchez having to make plays via the air to get back on track. Can he under these conditions, with the playoff pressure mounting?
5. Will this be the week when the bloom comes off the Jason Garrett rose of Texas? Garrett has no doubt lifted the Cowboys to a higher level since taking over for Wade Phillips. Still, as well as Jon Kitna has played, he's a statue in the pocket and has not faced a pass rush and blitz package like what he will see from the Eagles. Especially when you consider Kitna's favorite bail-out hot-read receiver, Dez Bryant, is out for the year, if Garrett can pull this one out, he'll score big-time coaching points.
6. Who would have thought the rock of the Bengals franchise this year would be Terrell Owens? He is exactly that. But with Marvin Lewis embattled, the defense a wreck and personnel changes no doubt imminent, just how ugly will this once-great rivalry game get? Bengals fans expected much more than just a thimble-full of pride to be on the line. Ben Roethlisberger -- once-embattled himself -- has transformed his image with toughness, leadership and big plays.
7. Will the Saints be facing a team in the infantile stages of becoming exactly what the Saints are? Rest assured, the Rams quarterback is THE story when it comes to the division-leading Rams' resurgence. But key elements have gone mostly unnoticed. Steven Jackson is on another roll. The offensive line has found anchors. But more than anything, this is a rising defense that puts pressure on opposing quarterbacks, is among the leaders in points-allowed and feeds on opportunistic turnovers -- much like the world champs.
8. With respect to long-suffering fans in Cleveland, Buffalo and elsewhere, no team has been as under-achieving and frustrating to watch over the past decade as the Houston Texans. They've got one last chance to make a move in 2010. Lose to the Ravens on Monday night, and the only team in the league NEVER to make a playoff appearance will keep the streak alive. Most frustrating of all: The Texans have elite talent on both sides of the ball.
9. Like the one true love that got away, Chiefs fans probably won't miss Matt Cassel until he's gone. And, he is. Officially, the Chiefs listed Cassel as doubtful for the crucial match against the Chargers. Of all the things that could have defined the AFC West race this year, who knew it would be Cassel's appendicitis? The Chargers have been erratic, but Philip Rivers has been the one constant and it's also doubtful that Brody Croyle can put enough points on the board against the No. 1 defense in the league.
10. What's the bigger sure thing in Buffalo -- the Browns' Peyton Hillis surpassing 100-yards on the ground (and 1,000 for the year), or the Bills cratering big-time to assure themselves a better shot at Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck in the draft? You probably want to bet on Hillis. He's just 38 yards short of 1,000 and faces the horrendous Bills rushing defense, which already has given up more than 2,000 yards and averages giving up 170-plus yards per-game.