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: