Throw away the season previews, burn the annuals. Tom Brady is lost for the season. Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun.
A single hit in the first quarter of the first game of the year and you can forget everything you thought you knew about the AFC and most of what you thought you knew about the NFL. The New England Patriots quarterback, the league's reigning MVP, took a clean shot to his left knee from Kansas City Chiefs safety Bernard Pollard, and pending an MRI Monday, the reports are that he has a torn anterior cruciate ligament and will miss the entire year.
Matt Cassel, a fourth-year reserve who backed up Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart and played a little wide receiver and tight end at USC, came in to manage the game and help the Patriots to a 17-10 win. Unless the Patriots turn to one of the free agents floating around -- the names Chris Simms and Tim Rattay came up late Sunday -- Cassel will make his first start at quarterback since high school when the Pats visit the New York Jets.
That brings up a question: Why would a guy who's good enough to play in the NFL waste his college years as a backup? There were literally hundreds of colleges, probably including a solid majority of the BCS schools, where Cassel could have been the starting quarterback.
Wait, that's not the question. The question is: Now what?
The salient fact about the AFC is that the Patriots, with Brady at quarterback, are the team to beat. Every year. There are always other contenders, of course. Twice in the last five seasons, someone other than the Patriots actually won the conference. But you start from there: Brady and the Patriots are the ones standing in the way of a Super Bowl run. For NFC teams, they're the likeliest opponent in February.
This season, that was true for about eight minutes. One should never put anything past Bill Belichick and the Pats, who are much more than Tom Brady. It's unlikely but not impossible that with Cassel or Simms or Rattay -- or you don't think Vinny Testaverde's cell is set to ring and vibrate? -- under center, the Patriots could still play enough defense and ride Randy Moss and Laurence Maroney to the title. But it isn't anything like probable.
So step right up, Indianapolis Colts. Only the Colts got manhandled by the Chicago Bears Sunday night.
Step right up, San Diego Chargers. Only the Chargers struggled at home against the Carolina Panthers and got beat on the play of the day, a fourth-down 14-yard touchdown pass from Jake Delhomme to Dante Rosario with triple zeroes on the clock.
Step right up, Cleveland Browns. Only the Browns got drilled by the Dallas Cowboys, a leading Super Bowl contender, but one from that other, lesser conference.
Step right up, Jacksonville Jaguars. Only the Jaguars looked terrible on offense and lost to the Tennessee Titans. Step right up, Tennessee Titans?
Or Buffalo Bills, who took the Seattle Seahawks' lunch money.
It's a dangerous thing to try to read too much into a single NFL game, particularly a single game in Week 1. Maybe the Bears defense is back to the elite level it reached in the first half of 2006 and maybe Peyton Manning was rusty after missing the entire practice season following knee surgery. Maybe the Colts haven't figured out how to replace injured center Jeff Saturday but they will. Maybe it was just one of those nights for both teams and the season previews were right.
That's the least likely possibility.
Maybe the Chargers aren't as good as everybody thought, maybe the Panthers have turned themselves back into Super Bowl contenders or maybe it was just one of those games that don't make sense.
Maybe the Jaguars offense took a big step backward and maybe the Titans defense is good enough to carry them deep into the playoffs. Maybe the Bills are better than even the optimistic predictions about them and maybe the Seahawks are fading faster than anyone expected. Maybe the Browns aren't ready for prime time and maybe they just stumbled.
The only thing we can be sure of now is that everything's different. One play, and it's a whole new season.