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Surprise, surprise


Who knew? Not me, probably not you. Just when we've got things all figured out, the NFL throws a Reuben Droughns at us. Or a Mewelde Moore, followed by a B.J. Sams.

Through seven weeks, the Jets, Chargers, Giants and Lions are winners, and the Panthers, Chiefs, Titans, and Cowboys are losers. We have no Eli Manning sighting, but Big Ben Roethlisberger is suddenly everywhere.

Surprise, surprise. That's what this league loves to do. Thank goodness we can still rely on the Patriots. And the Eagles. But with 10 more weeks until the playoffs open, there's another couple dozen twists in store. Count on it.

Not quite at mid-season, here are 10 of the most surprising developments so far in 2004:

1. Curtis Martin is headed for a career year. At an age when most running backs are slowing down or even all done, Martin, 31, is playing the best football of his underrated 10-year NFL career. With 683 yards rushing in six games, Martin is on pace for a 1,821-yard season, which would top his career high by 334 yards (he had 1,487 yards as a rookie with New England in 1995). His 4.5-yard average carry would also be a career best, tying his 2001 showing.

Martin last week passed Jim Brown for seventh on the NFL's career rushing list, and he has six rushing touchdowns on 152 carries this season, after totaling just two on 323 attempts last year. His four 100-yard rushing games this season equal his 2003 total, and he has a streak of 397 consecutive touches without losing a fumble.

Both Martin and the NFL's current rushing leader, Kansas City's Priest Holmes, are trying to become the first running back to lead the league in rushing after turning 30 since Cleveland's Marion Motley did it at age 30 in 1950. Holmes, who has 690 yards this season, is also 31, but was born five months after Martin.

2. The NFC stinks. The evidence, as they say, is overwhelming. Even the bad AFC teams beat some of the best the NFC has to offer. The Rams lose at winless Miami 31-17, but remain in first place in the weak NFC West at 4-3, barely over .500. The first-place Falcons were 4-0, but they've slipped to 5-2 after getting hammered 56-10 on the road by one-game winner Kansas City.

If the playoffs started today, the NFC's postseason field would be easy to decipher. Only six teams in the conference have winning records, as opposed to eight in the AFC. Philadelphia and Minnesota look like the class of the NFC, at 6-0 and 5-1 respectively. After that, it's a sea of mediocrity.

Last year's NFC champion, Carolina, is 1-5 and ridiculously wounded. The most recent NFC Super Bowl champion, Tampa Bay, is 2-5 and looking old and slow (maybe they really are the Raiders East). Four of the conference's six playoff teams from a year ago are .500 or worse: Seattle 3-3, Green Bay 3-4, Dallas 2-4 and Carolina 1-5.

3. Dominating home teams aren't dominating any more. Tennessee was 7-1 at home last year, but is winless in three games at The Coliseum in 2004. Kansas City went unbeaten at Arrowhead in the regular season last year, but is 1-2 there and didn't win its first until Week 7. Green Bay had its first three-game home losing streak of the Brett Favre era, and also waited until Week 7 for its first victory of 2004 at Lambeau Field.

Carolina and Dallas both went 6-2 last season at home, riding those strong records to the playoffs. The Panthers are 0-3 at home this year, and the Cowboys are 1-2, having lost their past two home games to the Giants and Steelers.

4. Ben Roethlisberger is starring while Eli Manning sits. The two quarterbacks everyone was fixated on during the first day of the draft -- Manning and Philip Rivers -- haven't been able to bump Kurt Warner and Drew Brees out of the lineup in New York and San Diego, respectively. But the guy who lasted until the 11th pick of the first round already has a cult following in Pittsburgh.

Roethlisberger has won his first four starts, been christened the best rookie since Dan Marino by none other than Bill Parcells, and already has Pittsburgh-area restaurants naming menu items after him. Let the Steelers beat the mighty Patriots this week at home and Roethlisberger will get votes in Tuesday's presidential election.

5. The Redskins have the NFL's top-ranked defense. Okay, so Washington's only 2-4 and still in last place in the NFC East. But that ain't Gregg Williams' fault. The Redskins new assistant head coach/defense is the sixth different guy running things on that side of the ball in Washington in the past six years, but he's already brought sanity to the chaos. No one has scored more than 21 points against Washington, and the Redskins have held four of their six opponents to 17 points or less.

Not bad considering Pro Bowl linebacker LaVar Arrington has missed the past four games with a knee injury, ditto for right end Phillip Daniels and a groin injury, and strong safety Matt Bowen was lost for the year in Week 5 when he blew out his knee. Washington hasn't surrendered more than 280 yards of offense to anyone, but will have its toughest test yet on Sunday when Green Bay visits FedEx Field.

6. Seattle isn't looking so Super. When they were 3-0 and up 27-10 in the fourth quarter of a Week 5 home game with their division rival Rams, all that preseason Super Bowl hype looked right. But now it looks like so much hot air, like the kind that went out of Seattle's balloon when St. Louis stormed back to tie the game and win 33-27 in overtime. Losses at New England and Arizona followed, and the Seahawks now find themselves 3-3 and at a bit of a crossroads this week at home against Carolina.

The real trouble is that Seattle already is 1-2 in the NFC West, and no team has won its division with more than two division losses since realignment in 2002. Only one team, the Browns in 2002, has made the playoffs as a wild card with three division losses. St. Louis is 4-3 overall, but 3-0 in the division. Seattle was 5-1 in the NFC West last year, when they made the postseason as a wild-card entry.

7. The vaunted Dallas defense is getting shredded. The Cowboys were No. 1 overall on defense last year, a big part of the reason they went 10-6 and had a winning season for the first time since 1998. But Dallas, a loser of three in a row, has slipped to 25th on defense thus far in 2004, and into a 29th-place tie against the run (139.3). The Cowboys were pummeled 41-20 at Green Bay last week, allowing the Packers to score on their first seven possessions, a franchise first for Green Bay.

Cornerback Terence Newman's poor play has been the most baffling. Newman was the fifth overall pick in 2003 and was billed as a shut-down corner in the Deion Sanders mode. This season he has one interception, two passes defensed, and has been beaten for six touchdown passes. Newman picked off four passes as a rookie, earned all-rookie honors and was a Pro Bowl alternate. Now he's the secondary member that opposing quarterbacks pick on.

8. The Jaguars are last-minute miracle workers. Jacksonville has scored the winning points in the final minute of four of its five victories, three times in come-from-behind style. In their other victory, a 7-6 home defeat of Denver, the Jaguars saw Broncos running back Quentin Griffin fumble in the final minute, with his team in easy range of a game-winning field goal.

Just keep sprinkling that magic fairy dust, Jack Del Rio. Something's working. If the Jags' Byron Leftwich can rally his team to one more win in the final minute, he'll become the first quarterback since the 1970 merger to post four such victories. Jacksonville also finished 0-8 on the road last season, but is already 3-1 away from home this year, with wins at division rivals Tennessee and Indianapolis.

9. Mark Brunell looks all washed up in Washington. Speaking of onetime Jaguars quarterbacks, I can't really say I'm surprised that Brunell has struggled so mightily in his fresh start with the Redskins, but some folks are. Brunell has passed for less than 100 yards in each of his past two games, and Washington even won one of those. The Redskins offense has yet to score more than 18 points in any game, and Brunell is completing just 51.2 percent, with a 69.8 quarterback rating.

If the Redskins had any better options, Brunell probably would already be benched. But backup Patrick Ramsey actually has looked worse from the start of preseason on, and Redskins head coach Joe Gibbs has no real alternative but to try to hang with the veteran a little while longer.

10. It's beginning to look a lot like Denver in Minnesota. And by that we mean the Vikings seem to run the ball no matter who they stick in the backfield, a la the Broncos' Reuben Droughns. No Michael Bennett? No Onterrio Smith? No problem. There's rookie fourth-round pick Mewelde Moore in Minnesota. With 138 yards rushing and 30 more on receptions in a win over Tennessee last week, Moore set a team record for net yards from scrimmage in three consecutive games (610). That broke Chuck Foreman's record of 573 in 1976.

Moore's 138-yard game against the Titans was the third-best by a rookie in Vikings history. Who was better? Smith, last year's fourth-round running back discovery, who had games of 148 and 146 yards in place of Bennett. Interestingly, Bennett is now drawing practice time at kickoff returner and won't bump Moore to the bench any time soon.