It struck me as I mostly ignored the NFL action Sunday in favor of baseball playoffs that we've reached the point in the season when we should drop the assumptions we brought with us at kickoff a month ago.
It may have been when I got a load of the in-progress Atlanta-Green Bay score, which would eventually become a Falcons win that dropped the Packers to 2-3 and improved the Falcons to 3-2, one win shy of their 2007 total. The Packers were supposed to be the main challengers for the Dallas Cowboys to win the NFC, remember? Maybe it was when I saw Washington winning again, beating the Philadelphia Eagles to improve to 4-1.
Whenever it was, it happens at some point, right around here, every year. In my head, I mean. The dawning that I have to stop thinking of this year's Insert Team Heres as some kind of continuation of last year's version of the Heres. Can't do that. The NFL changes too much.
Based on a proprietary concoction of my ridiculous preseason hunches and the general consensus as I understood it, here are the teams I think are better than we all thought they'd be.
Unless it was just me.
NFC: Washington, Atlanta
AFC: Tennessee, Denver, Baltimore, Buffalo, Miami
The Falcons might not be much, but they've won three and they've been at least competitive every week. That's a big step up from the 2007 version.
I was more optimistic than most about the Bills, but even I didn't think they'd be as good as they looked right until they got drilled by the Arizona Cardinals Sunday. The Bills are still outperforming the consensus preseason opinion of them, though, as are the others, including the Dolphins, who all of a sudden aren't just not pathetic, they're beating up on the teams that were supposed to vie for the conference title.
I'd put the Oakland Raiders in this category too, but I have a "Who knows yet?" category that I'll get to in a second, and the Raiders would go there no matter what they were doing.
Here are the teams that have underperformed expectations:
NFC: Green Bay, Seattle, Minnesota
AFC: New England, Cleveland, San Diego, Cincinnati
The Patriots are kind of a special case. It's easier to drop those preseason preconceptions when the star quarterback goes out for the year in the first quarter of the first game.
Keep in mind, sensitive Packers fans, that there are 11 games left for most teams, and five weeks from now all the impressions we've gathered in the first five weeks could very well be moot. Especially my impressions, which are stupid, and in the case of this week, based on not having watched the games. Yet. A dozen "Short Cuts" await.
This is a snapshot. But if the Packers are going to contend for the Super Bowl like they were supposed to, they're going to need to turn things around.
The Browns, a chic pick to contend for the Super Bowl, are the stars of the AFC side of this category. The Chargers would have gone in "Who knows yet?" before losing to the Dolphins Sunday. They could get there in a few weeks. The Bengals are here only because nobody thought they'd be so, so bad, but they seem to be coming out of that lately. They could end up going the rest of the way as the almost-good team they were supposed to be.
So who does it look like the consensus more or less got right so far?
NFC: N.Y. Giants, Dallas, Detroit, Arizona, San Francisco, St. Louis
AFC: Pittsburgh, Kansas City
That's a pretty diverse NFC list. Arizona could go in any category, so maybe the Cardinals really belong in "Who knows yet?" But I think the consensus view of them was that they might be good, they might be awful. And sure enough: They have been. The Giants might have slightly outperformed the low preseason expectations, but I think the consensus and the performance have been similar: Good team.
All right, then: Who knows yet?
NFC: Carolina, Chicago, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Tampa Bay
AFC: Indianapolis, Jacksonville, N.Y. Jets, Jacksonville, Oakland
This is the most interesting group, except for the Raiders. They're interesting, but in a different, train-wreck kind of way.
These are teams that have been inconsistent, that have looked pretty good while losing or pretty bad while winning, that have beaten teams they should have lost to and lost to teams they should have beaten. There's only one thing I can say with some certainty about every team in the "Who knows yet?" group: