Are the Times a Changin’?

The first full, juicy Sunday of the NFL season began for me like several other Sundays throughout the year, as I was awake at 6:30 in the morning to watch Formula One.

The 2008 Belgian Grand Prix was a very good race, until lap 40 of 44, probably ranking in the top three as far as the top races of the season go. Then it became a beautiful, thrilling, anarchic mess as the common conclusion on who would win the race and occupy the all-important points paying positions changed an infinite number of times within a two-minute span, as rained pounded the Ardenne forest circuit, making the cars zamboni machines on their dry tires.

Two hours after the checkered flag, the driver thought to have won actually came in third after a penalty, making the World Driver's Championship an essential dead-heat with five races to go.

The morning's events would be a precursor of sorts for the afternoon and night's proceedings in the NFL, as conventional thought was turned on its head and a season whose clarity was limited before it even began somehow became more confusing.

In Week 1 last season, the dual hegemony of the Patriots and Colts won games by a combined score of 79-24, which was nearly the score of New England's one game against Washington last year.

After this Week 1, the AFC East that was to have been a cakewalk of late-'90s Florida State ACC proportions suddenly now looks like a three-way horse race, with Miami, if things fall into place, also having a chance.

To a lesser extent, the same could be said about the NFC West, as Seattle got thoroughly dominated by a Buffalo team that could be the poor man's AFC version of the 2005 and 2006 Bears. As in awesome return man plus excellent defense plus timely takeaways equals wins. With the Seahawks, an offense that had its passing game as its major strength now has a quarterback with a bad back, its fastest receiver out for the season, and the other two reliable receivers out indefinitely.

As for the Colts, Peyton Manning looked to have adopted his brother's old passing habits of back-foot throwing for a night, as his bursa sac-free knee looked anything but 100%. Of course, the fact that the elder Manning saw more pressure against the Bears than he ever has against a team not named Patriots or Steelers didn't help.

In fact, a strong case could be made that each of the two rookies starting their first NFL games in Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco were more impressive than Manning.

Four teams that were definitively in the league's upper half a year ago did take care of business without trouble in Dallas, Green Bay, Pittsburgh, and the Giants.

It's important not to think that some shift in power between the conferences has taken place considering the former statement and Carolina's upset of the Chargers. After all, the only quarterback that completed a better percentage of his passes in his first start than Aaron Rodgers was Rob Johnson.

For 2008, the bottom still likely remains safe from newcomers, with the Rams, Raiders, and Lions all fairly hopeless. But the very top of the league looks as wide-open as it has in years.


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