Wednesday October 5th, 2011

How bad has the Chiefs' season been? Matt Cassel and Todd Haley got into a shouting match last Sunday. (AP)

The first four weeks of the NFL season have set the table for a slew of unexpectedly huge showdowns between now and the season's midway point.

But the knife cuts both ways. Some of the teams we thought were definite playoff contenders have flopped out of the gate, while a few middle-of-the-road clubs have turned out to be even worse than anticipated.

And because of that, there are a handful of games over the season's next four weeks that no longer look as entertaining as they once did:

• Kansas City at Indianapolis, Week 5

When the schedule came out, this matchup of defending division winners seemed like it might be a big one in the AFC. Then Peyton Manning couldn't overcome his offseason surgeries, the Chiefs stumbled out of the gate, and we're left with two teams sporting a combined 1-7 record.

The biggest impact this game might have is what it does to the race for the No. 1 pick in the 2012 NFL Draft.

• Seattle at New York Giants, Week 5

OK, so it's unlikely this was anyone's "Must-See Game" of the year. Still, the Seahawks won the NFC West last season and rolled New Orleans in the playoffs, which should have given them some momentum to compete this season. And the Giants are always thinking playoffs, even heading into the 2011 season as a banged-up mess of a team.

New York has held up its end of the bargain, fighting its way to a 3-1 record. But Seattle is 1-3 and its last trip near the East Coast -- in Week 2 against Pittsburgh -- resulted in a 24-0 loss.

This one once had the potential to be a decent NFC tilt. Now, it could be the worst game of the week.

• St. Louis at Green Bay, Week 6

The Rams gave the impression in 2010 that they were an up-and-coming team. With Sam Bradford running the offense, St. Louis fell just a Week 17 win away from taking the NFC West and making the playoffs.

But Bradford's boys have taken a major step back in 2011 -- hammered by injuries and a difficult schedule, the Rams are 0-4 with a Week 5 bye.

Green Bay, meanwhile, is rolling through its Super Bowl defense so far. Even if the Packers slip up at Atlanta in Week 5, it's hard to see this Week 6 game being anything but a blowout.

• Miami at New York Jets, Week 6

The Jets still have enough talent to make some noise in the AFC, but a 2-2 start -- with a trip to New England this week -- isn't what Rex Ryan had in mind. He's still lapping Tony Sparano, whose already-tenuous hold on the Miami job has slipped further with an 0-4 start.

The Patriots are, to no one's surprise, a force to be reckoned with again. But Buffalo's emergence put the onus on the Jets and Dolphins to step it up a notch. So far, neither's heeded the call.

• Pittsburgh at Arizona, Week 7

In February of 2009, these two franchises met in arguably the most exciting Super Bowl ever. Less than three years later, both the Steelers and Cardinals appear to be in turmoil.

Pittsburgh made another Super Bowl trip last February but, sometime between then and now, lost its mojo. The Steelers are getting outmuscled just about every week and are dealing with injury issues all over the field.

Arizona, meanwhile, underwent an Extreme Team Makeover this offseason, sending Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to Philly for QB Kevin Kolb. After starting with a Week 1 win, though, the Cardinals have fallen on hard times, losing three in a row. Worse yet, San Francisco's out to a 3-1 start in the NFC West, putting Arizona in a big hole.

• Indianapolis at New Orleans/Baltimore at Jacksonville, Week 7

Those are your national-TV games for Week 7, with Indy visiting the Big Easy on Sunday night, and the Ravens and Jaguars meeting on Monday.

The Sunday nighter probably seemed like a great idea when Manning was expected to return this year. Now, it's got about as much appeal as an early-September college football cupcake nonconference game.

Baltimore at Jacksonville makes a little less sense from a national perspective -- the Jags have trouble drawing at home, so their appeal for a "Monday Night Football" audience cannot be that great. But put rookie QB Blaine Gabbert against that ferocious Ravens defense, and you have a recipe for a 31-0 snoozefest.

• Dallas at Philadelphia, Week 8

Chances are, by the time Week 8 actually rolls around, this one will be pretty significant in the NFC East race. As it stands right now, it's a battle for last place.

The Eagles find themselves a disappointing -- and, given Week 4's collapse against the 49ers, downright baffling -- 1-3. America's Team is 2-2 but didn't fare any better in Week 4, blowing a 24-point home lead to lose to the Lions. There are 12 games left on the schedule for each of these supposed contenders, so the tables could still turn. That said, heading into Week 5, both Dallas and Philadelphia have more questions than answers.

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