Asked how it was that his Patriots team could look so dominated one week in Cleveland and so dominant the next in Pittsburgh, Belichick tossed off one of his trademark shrugs and said: "That's the NFL. That's the NFL. You never know. If you knew what was going to happen in this league, you could make a lot of money.''
If only. Ten weeks into the 17-week drama that is the NFL's regular season, we still don't know much, if anything, about how the story will end. Not when there's so much conflicting and confounding information streaming in on a near-weekly basis.
Last week at this time, there was a healthy amount of projection starting to build that the Steelers and Giants were sturdy, well-grounded teams that wore the sheen of Super Bowl favorites in their respective conferences. Even my colleague and SI.com's astute NFL contributor, Kerry Byrne, had recently thrown his usually reliable "Defensive Hog Index'' behind the notion that Pittsburgh and New York had the right kind of Super Bowl stuff this season.
I was starting to agree with that assessment, and the Steelers and Giants were No. 1 and 2, respectively, in my weekly SI.com NFL power rankings last Wednesday. Then both teams promptly went out Sunday and got humiliated by 13 points at home -- the Giants by the one-win Cowboys, 33-20, and the Steelers by their longtime nemesis in New England, 39-26.
There were other examples of the misdirection play this season has been from Kickoff Weekend on, of course.
• Last-place Denver hanging 49 points on the first-place Chiefs at Invesco Field, just three weeks after the Broncos allowed Oakland to score 59 in their most recent home game. So much for a sense of order in the AFC West.
• Once 5-2, Kansas City tumbling on the road within the division for a second consecutive week, slipping back into that 5-4 morass that seems to represent about half the league. The Raiders (5-4), praise be, are actually in first place through 10 weeks.
• Ditto for Tennessee, which lost 29-17 at Miami despite its new toy, Randy Moss, and the Dolphins going through every quarterback in town this side of Earl Morrall. Just the other day, I was writing about the surprising 5-2 Titans, with their high-powered offense. They're now 5-4 and have lost two in a row to teams that were at .500 or below.
• On Monday night, we witnessed the Michael Vick-led Eagles' demolition of the Redskins -- to the tune of 59-28 -- just six weeks after Washington had handled Philadelphia 17-12 at Lincoln Financial Field. Get ready for a wave of breathless Eagles-are-Super-Bowl-bound coverage, which will somehow still manage to be out of date the moment it's generated.
But enough about what we don't know when it comes to the NFL's 2010. Let's embrace what we do have this season. True excellence is in short supply, but we may be in store for the mother of all playoff races. With 10 weeks down and seven to go, here's a look at what we've got so far, and what the 12-team postseason field would be if the playoffs opened today:
1. Atlanta (7-2)2. Philadelphia (6-3)3. Chicago (6-3)4. Seattle (5-4)5. New York Giants (6-3)6. New Orleans (6-3)
Out of the money: Green Bay (6-3) and Tampa Bay (6-3) are the only NFC teams with winning records that would miss the playoffs today. But keep in mind that St. Louis (4-5) and San Francisco (3-6) are very much still in the hunt in the NFC West. (Sorry, I can't take 3-6 Arizona seriously). For the record, four of the six teams in the NFC field would be new to the postseason this year (Atlanta, Chicago, Seattle and the Giants).
Tiebreakers: There are plenty of tiebreaker permutations that will be changed by further matchups, but the important ones to keep track of in the NFC at the moment are:
-- Philadelphia beats the Giants out for the NFC East based on their 2-1 record against common opponents (New York is 1-2 in that department).
-- Chicago wins the NFC North because it beat Green Bay head-to-head.
-- The Giants get the No. 5 seed based on their superior conference record (5-1), compared to New Orleans (5-2), Green Bay (4-2) and Tampa Bay (4-2).
-- New Orleans beats out Tampa Bay for a wild-card berth because the Saints defeated the Bucs head-to-head, and the Saints have the edge over Green Bay for the sixth seed because of their 5-2 conference record is better than Green Bay's 4-2.
Key upcoming games: This is where the NFL's push to backload the regular-season schedule with divisional games could really come in handy in terms of creating late-season playoff-race drama.
-- NFC East: We're lucky in that the top two teams, the Eagles and Giants, have both of their matchups left. They play next Sunday night in Philly, then have their rematch in New Jersey in Week 15. Another key game in the potential wild-card chase is Giants at Packers in Week 16.
-- NFC North: If we get that far, Chicago at Green Bay in Week 17 is the showdown that could decide the division title. Philadelphia at Chicago in Week 12 could be significant in the wild-card picture.
-- NFC South: With three teams very much alive for what's likely to be two playoff spots, three games stand out as pivotal: Atlanta at Tampa Bay in Week 13, New Orleans at Atlanta in Week 16, and Tampa Bay at New Orleans in Week 17.
-- NFC West: Somebody's going to win this puppy and get the No. 4 playoff seed that annually goes to both West Division champs. St. Louis at Seattle in Week 17 looms the biggest of the big games, but don't overlook San Francisco at St. Louis in Week 16 if the 49ers">49ers make a charge.
Team most likely to fade: Chicago -- The Bears have got miles and miles to go before they have anything to truly celebrate this season. Five of Chicago's final seven games are against winning teams, including trips to Miami and Green Bay, and there are tough home games looming against Philadelphia, New England and the Jets.
Team most likely to surge: Green Bay -- The Packers' three-game winning streak means the surge has already begun. Green Bay's Dom Capers-coordinated defense is becoming a factor again, and only trips to Atlanta and New England look like games that might be beyond the Packers' reach in the final seven weeks.
1. New York Jets (7-2)2. Baltimore (6-3)3. Indianapolis (6-3)4. Oakland (5-4)5. New England (7-2)6. Pittsburgh (6-3)
Out of the money: Four teams are clumped at 5-4 and still fighting to be in position to get a playoff chair when the music stops: Kansas City, Miami, Tennessee and Jacksonville. Worth noting is that in terms of head-to-head play, the Titans beat the Jaguars, and the Dolphins beat the Titans. Compared to the 2009 AFC playoff field, just two new teams would qualify: Oakland and Pittsburgh.
Tiebreakers: There's nothing too messy about the AFC tiebreaker situation so far. But that won't hold as further head-to-head matchups ensue. The important tiebreakers to keep track of in the AFC at the moment are:
-- Oakland (5-4) is in first place in the AFC West because the Raiders beat Kansas City (5-4) head-to-head in overtime in Week 9.
Key upcoming games: The AFC is where it's at in the coming seven weeks. With 10 of the conference's 16 teams boasting winning records, and still-dangerous 4-5 San Diego and Houston within range in their divisions, the AFC playoff picture is going to be a scrambled mess on a weekly basis. Which is exactly the way we like it.
-- AFC East: With the Jets and Patriots being two of the NFL's three 7-2 teams, it's not a stretch to bill New York at New England in Week 13 as the league's game of the year. But there's plenty more showdowns to come involving this division, including this week's Colts at Patriots annual grudge match, Miami at the Jets in Week 14, the Jets at Pittsburgh in Week 15, or Miami at New England in Week 17.
-- AFC North: What a blast Week 13 should be. Before we get Jets-Patriots on Monday night, we get Steelers at Ravens on Sunday night. If Baltimore can win at home and sweep Pittsburgh, that likely will be the game that decides the AFC North champion. But games like Jets at Steelers in Week 15, Ravens at Browns in Week 16, and Steelers at Browns in Week 17 should make for compelling theater as well.
-- AFC South: In terms of who wins the division that Indianapolis has dominated since the 2002 realignment, the two games that figure to mean the most will be Colts at Titans in Week 14, and Titans at Colts in Week 17. But if the Jaguars keep hanging around, they'll be going for a sweep of the Colts in Indy in Week 15. And playoff implications will also be in play this week when the Colts face the Patriots, and next week, when the resurgent Chargers visit the Colts (who they own).
-- AFC West: Wouldn't it be fun if the Oakland at Kansas City game in Week 17 was for all the marbles? The two former AFL rivals have already played one overtime thriller this season. Do I hear two? But the Raiders (Week 13) and Chiefs (Week 14) still have to play at San Diego, and if the Chargers keep winning, maybe their game at Denver in Week 17 will have more meaning than even the Oakland at Kansas City showdown.
Team most likely to fade: Pittsburgh -- The injuries incurred by both Steelers lines suddenly look like they could be fatal weaknesses. Pittsburgh couldn't run the ball or protect Ben Roethlisberger against New England, and if Hines Ward misses any significant time with his concussion, the passing game will suffer too. With the Raiders, Ravens, Jets and Browns still to play, the Steelers' margin for error is fairly slight.
Team most likely to surge: San Diego -- Isn't it written into the NFL's bylaws the Chargers have to go streaking through late November and December? For all its missteps and special teams breakdowns, San Diego is just a game out of first in the AFC West with seven to play, and four of them are division games. San Diego also still has four home games remaining, where it's 3-1 this season.