— New England and the New York Jets were expected to be at the top of the AFC East. Same with Pittsburgh and Baltimore in the AFC North. Philadelphia and the New York Giants are not too surprising to see atop the NFC East.
But Jacksonville tied with Indianapolis for first in the AFC South? Kansas City leading the AFC West? Chicago in first place in the NFC North? St. Louis and Seattle sniffing first place in the NFC West, even with sub-.500 records, and San Francisco just one game back?
Only the diehard-est of the diehards — those who sit shirtless in sub-freezing temperatures or the face-painters — thought their teams would be in contention for a playoff spot entering the first week of December.
Jacksonville seemed to be out of it with back-to-back losses to Tennessee and Kansas City by a combined score of 72-23 in October, but then the Jaguars won three straight before Sunday's tough loss to the Giants.
Kansas City looked like it might free-fall after Todd Haley refused to shake the hand of Denver's Josh McDaniels, but Matt Cassel has caught fire with 10 touchdown passes in the past three games to complement one of the best running games in the NFL.
The marriage of offensive coordinator Mike Martz and Jay Cutler in Chicago looked dysfunctional at best as the quarterback took early beatings because of Martz's aversion to pass protection. Cutler is still taking a beating, but the impetuousness has come out of the quarterback's game.
Rookie quarterbacks are not supposed to do what Sam Bradford has accomplished this season. He has one interception in his past six games to go with 11 touchdown passes. The Rams are 5-6, but Steve Spagnuolo has to be in the mix for coach-of-the-year votes since this is a franchise that had won six games (against 42 losses) from 2007-09.
Pete Carroll is not winning with the Seahawks like he did at Southern Cal, but he has brought a spirit to the Seahawks and has again made Qwest Field a difficult place to play. Maybe not as difficult as it was when Seattle would have all but clinched the division title by late November under Mike Holmgren, but still difficult enough.
after a 27-6 shellacking of the Arizona Cardinals, are improbably still in the hunt, even after an 0-5 start.
And yet, any number of these teams could still stumble at the finish line and miss the postseason.
The Packers are just one game back of the Bears, and Chicago closes the season at Lambeau Field. The Chargers are closing fast on the Chiefs, and San Diego not lost in December under Norv Turner. The Colts still have Peyton Manning, which makes them the favorite over the Jags. The Rams have more road games than home games over the final five weeks, including the finale at Seattle.
Of these teams, the Chiefs might have the best path because they have three games left at Arrowhead Stadium, where they are 5-0 on the season. And the last time Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel were coordinating offenses and defenses together in the NFL, they won a Super Bowl in New England. In December, coaching matters.
Chicago's defense is approaching 2006 levels under Rod Marinelli, but the Bears have three division road tests and visits to Soldier Field by New England and the Jets, the best two teams in the AFC.
Jacksonville doesn't have a division game at home the rest of the way, but it does have division trips to Tennessee, Indianapolis and Houston. Which David Garrard will show up: the quarterback that lit up Dallas (four touchdowns) or threw three picks versus Cleveland even in a win?
St. Louis, Seattle and San Francisco have only two games each left against winning teams. The Rams' games come against New Orleans (at the Superdome) and Kansas City. The Seahawks' are against Atlanta (though at Qwest) and at Tampa Bay. There's no real edge there, although Seattle's cross-country trip to Florida will not be easy. The 49ers play at Green Bay and San Francisco, but they have a home game against the Seahawks.
So who do you got?
The shirtless and face-painters need not answer.