Typical NFL season: smiles for some, frowns for others
Smiling or frowning.
''Woe is us'' or ''Wow for us.''
Heading into the final week of the NFL regular season, hardly anyone has a neutral feeling about the 32 teams. There are success stories and there are flops.
Here's a look at both sides.
The biggest and widest grins should be worn in Dallas, of course; everything is huge in Big D, right? No one outside of Jerry's Palace could have predicted the Cowboys (11-4) would be NFC East champs and in line for a first-round playoff bye. Not with a defense that lost its best player, linebacker Sean Lee, to preseason injury. Now with quarterback Tony Romo coming off back surgery. Not with a coach, Jason Garrett, who seemed lost in big spots.
''This team is so special because we built this thing from the ground up,'' defensive end Jeremy Mincey said. ''Guys came to work, from (training camp) all the way to now, and the results are definitely paying out. And if we keep playing the way that we're playing, anything is possible.''
Folks in the Valley of the Sun also should be thrilled by what their Cardinals (11-4) have provided. Until injuries tore apart the roster - they've used four quarterbacks and have seen offensive and defensive playmakers go down nearly every week - the Cardinals were the feel-good story of 2014.
Even as they reel a bit, their faithful should, well, keep the faith heading into the postseason.
''You have to wipe it away, get the 12th win. Use that momentum, hopefully, to go into the playoffs,'' running back Stepfan Taylor said. ''We still have football left. That's the best thing about this. We're not out of anything.''
A little more than a month into the season, their fans were shaking their heads, wondering what was wrong.
Now, those same fans are nodding pleasurably at what they see.
Seattle is hitting top speed at just the right time, its defense looking just as overpowering as last year, its quarterback, Russell Wilson, making magic on the ground and through the air.
New England has been invincible at home, which could be enough to get it to yet another Super Bowl. Tom Brady is having a vintage season despite a non-stellar surrounding cast other than tight end Rob Gronkowski and receiver Julian Edelman. The defense has found some new stars (Jamie Collins, Chandler Jones) to go with vets Rob Ninkovich and Darrelle Revis.
Two more teams few counted on to make an impact: Detroit and Buffalo.
The Lions (11-4) not only can waltz off with the NFC North by winning at Lambeau Field on Sunday - a tall task, for sure - but have a shot at the top seed in the conference.
Regardless, under new coach Jim Caldwell they have exorcised many of the disciplinary demons that plagued them under the previous regime.
As for the Bills, well, their NFL-high drought is now at 15 seasons, but they at least sniffed the playoffs this year. They also put together a defense that nearly anyone east of Seattle would envy.
We could lump together the teams that brought in new coaches and totally floundered: Washington, Tennessee, Tampa Bay. Not many people seeing the bright side there.
Instead, though, let's concentrate on the horror shows in Chicago, New Orleans, New Jersey and San Francisco.
It's a sign of how much turmoil the Bears (5-10) have experienced in 2014 that one week after benching Jay Cutler for Jimmy Clausen - yes, Jimmy Clausen - the team has to go back to the failed veteran. Clausen was concussed in his start on Sunday, and coach Marc Trestman has to go back to Cutler against Minnesota.
Regardless, things have gotten so ugly in the Windy City that the only thing capable of bringing smiles might be a total housecleaning.
Just as dysfunctional are the Saints (6-9), who lost five straight at home, can't stop anyone defensively and have lost their mojo with the ball. They've rarely looked the same since the bounty scandal and Sean Payton's year-long suspension in 2012.
At least folks aren't wearing paper bags at the Superdome as in the old days.
Instead of resorting to the paper bags, Jets fans hire airplanes to fly banners asking to fire the general manager. They could get their wish as owner Woody Johnson may show John Idzik the door, along with coach Rex Ryan.
The Jets (3-12) still play hard, particularly on defense, but the overall talent level would make any observer frown.
Not so in the Bay Area, where there is plenty of skill. When Jim Harbaugh leaves the 49ers (7-8), he will be praised for taking them to three straight NFC championship games, and one tight Super Bowl loss. His departure will be blamed on discord in the front office.
No one will be smiling.
AP Sports Writers Schuyler Dixon and Bob Baum contributed to this story.
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP-NFL