The Detroit Lions and San Francisco 49ers will do battle next weekend. At the end of last season, most of us would have predicted this matchup to be a real stinker; a game between two once proud franchises hovering around rock bottom, where all the winner would have afterwards is the bragging rights of saying “we didn’t lose to them.”
Cut ahead to now: the Lions are undefeated at 5-0, and the 49ers are at 4-1, two situations no one saw coming. I think a lot of us foresaw them being decent, but not near the top of the NFC. As a result, this battle of losers has suddenly become a battle of titans, in which the Lions will try to remain undefeated, and the Niners will try to solidify their comeback under Coach Harbaugh.
Meanwhile, across the bay, the Oakland Raiders are 3-2, which doesn’t put them at the top of the AFC, but it is a continuation of the recent trend upward for the Raiders. The Raiders, who made history last year as the first team to miss the playoffs despite sweeping their division, are showing signs that they will not let the San Diego Chargers roll over the AFC West again, as the defending AFC West champs, the Chiefs, are stinking it up this year.
Across the country, in the AFC East, the Patriots’ reign, recently challenged by the New York Jets, is coming to an end by the rise of the Buffalo Bills, who are 4-1. Amazingly, the Bills trounced the Patriots, intercepting Tom Brady four times in one game, as many times as he was picked off last year.
In the AFC South, the Houston Texans and Tennessee Titans are both 3-2. While the Texans have been near contenders for several years, they appear as though they mean it this year. The Titans, revitalized by quarterback Matt Hasselback, are poised to make a move this year.
Finally, the Washington Redskins are not letting themselves be rolled over this year, showing they mean business and standing atop the NFC East.
What do all these teams have in common? Well, for starters, expectations were pretty low, and although there was some pressure on the head coaches, they were not under the pressure that, say, Andy Reid is constantly under in Philadelphia. Perhaps the greatest element, though, is that the players there are not necessarily accustomed to having success, and now see the value of their hard work more than other players might.
You might notice I have not put the Carolina Panthers on this list, and for good reason: Cam Newton does give their offense a boost, but he can’t solve the problems plaguing their defense.