It's not a surprise, but this point needs to be stressed: The NFL is not big on continuity.
Just look at the NFC. After 10 weeks of the season, last year the top teams were clear; Dallas, Green Bay, Tampa Bay and Seattle were the class of the conference. Each was a team with enough youth among its nucleus of players to feel pretty good going forward. That feeling works fine in baseball and basketball, but in the NFL a few injuries, a couple of weird strategic maneuvers and those well-laid plans start to look like McCain electoral strategies. This year, after 10 weeks the conference leaders are the New York Giants, the Chicago Bears, the Carolina Panthers and the Arizona Cardinals, and among this bunch only the Giants finished with a winning record last season.
So what happened? Now that every team has completed half their games, let's take a closer look.
The Giants, 7-1, shocked the world last year when they won three playoff games on the road and then beat the heavily favored—and then undefeated—New England Patriots in the Super Bowl. This season, it's looking like that astonishing run was no fluke. Without either of last year's elite defensive ends (Michael Strahan retired and Osi Umenyiora suffered a season-ending injury in preseason), the team has roared on with replacements Justin Tuck and Matthias Kiwanuka in the lineup. The Giants defense has allowed the second fewest points in the conference and their offense—although anything but flashy—has scored 226 points. Their schedule is rough from here on out, (starting Sunday night in Philadelphia against the Eagles), but they are showing championship mettle again.
I'm a Bears fan, so any mention of their 5-3 record brings a smile to my face. Due to a tough slate of first-half opponents and enormous uncertainty on offense, I expected my team to be 3-5 at this point. Instead every question mark has resulted in a positive. The Chicago offense is potent. Their 223 points ranks third in the league, and their perennially good defense is near the top of many rankings.
The Panthers, 6-2, are both strange and anonymous. Ask football fans outside of the South Atlantic region to name the NFC's second best team, and it's unlikely Carolina will come up (I've tried this several times). The team has no superstars, and what makes it odd is that it is a warm weather team that plays cold-weather ball. I can't argue with success, only their rather underrated NFC South divisional opponents, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the New Orleans Saints and the Atlanta Falcons, pose a threat to a playoff bye.
The Arizona Cardinals, 5-3, moved to the desert more than 20 years ago and mostly spent that time looking lost, as if they were trying to get to Las Vegas and got bad directions. This season, the Cardinals—led by an offense that ranks as one of league's best—have figured out which way is up. With a middling defense and the luck of being in a very weak division (all three of the other NFC West teams are 2-6), the Cardinals are about as close to a lock to make the playoffs as any team in pro football.
The wild-card race should be dramatic. Tampa Bay, 6-3, Philadelphia, 5-3, the Washington Redskins, 6-3, and the Green Bay Packers, 4-4, all look like playoff teams, but only two will qualify. For years Tampa Bay has been a team with an airtight defense and a struggling offense. This year's model is no different. The defense has given up the fourth fewest points in the conference. The Packers are very good on both sides of the ball, and with better health, they could pass the Bears for NFC North title. Part of what holds them back is strange play calling. Last week against Tennessee, the team with the best pass rush in the NFL, the Pack insisted on using empty backfields; that's a good way to get your quarterback hurt—if not killed. The Redskins have only outscored their opponents by a field goal. That kind of differential doesn't usually add up to three more wins than losses.
The Eagles are the best team in this bunch. Their 220-144 point differential is much more consistent with a 7-1 or 6-2 record. They have won three in a row, but their schedule is tough from here on out. They should make the playoffs, but it is no lock.
Both New Orleans and Atlanta could push their way into the playoff picture. The Saints need to shore up a weaker than expected secondary, and Atlanta needs to improve both against the rush and pass. The major difference is that the Saints are trying to win now while the Falcons are in their first year of a major rebuilding effort.
The teams outside of the playoff conversation include teams with that started the season with reasonable Super Bowl dreams like the Minnesota Vikings, the Dallas Cowboys and the Seattle Seahawks. All three have been hampered by injuries. And the Vikings suffer from bad quarterbacking.
The true doormats of the conference are the St. Louis Rams and the San Francisco 49ers. Both are 2-6 and have been spinning their wheels for a while. The Rams look like they are biding their time until a full-scale overhaul starts in the offseason. The 49ers will be an interesting test for their fiery new coach, Mike Singletary. The Detroit Lions are winless, 0-8, but last month they fired longtime and famously incompetent Team President Matt Millen. So even if the Lions fail to win a game this season, the campaign will be a success.
Martin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root.