Around the NFL: Plenty of surprises this season

Steve Doerschuk

No one is saying, “Who knew the Patriots would be so good?” Just as no one says, “Gee, Cadillacs are expensive.”

Yet there have been plenty of surprises as the NFL winds into its final quarter of 2007:

Terrell Owens hasn’t acted like a meathead yet.

Coming off a 13-3 Super Bowl year, it didn’t figure the Bears would have no shot at .500.

Just as Eric Mangini wasn’t supposed to be 10-6 as a first-year Jets coach, he isn’t supposed to be 3-9 now.

The Bucs went from 4-12 to 8-4. Jon Gruden apparently isn’t washed up at 44. Neither is Carolina quarterback Vinny Testaverde, born three months after Gruden.

The Browns were 19-45 in the four years after reaching the 2002 playoffs. They’re a surprise at 7-5.

Of course, no one imagined a star leaving the league the way Sean Taylor did.

The snow flies in the North. Super Bowl XLII awaits in the desert. With three quarters in the books, here’s our view of how the league stacks up, first to worst:

1. Patriots (12-0). Sure, they’re capable of 19-0, but when you have to dodge back-to-back bullets against A.J. Feeley and Kyle Boller, you’re capable of much less.

2. Cowboys (11-1). The arrogance is back. In a shallow NFC, they seem to have the players and the mojo to reach Phoenix in February.

3. Colts (10-2). Not only do they have Peyton Manning, they don’t have to play against him. Nine Colts have at least one interception against the league’s mish-mish of QBs.

4. Packers (10-2). With Brett Favre iffy and Aaron Rodgers limping, Craig Nall is warming up. The Packers are fortunate their remaining schedule (Raiders, Rams, Bears, Lions) is more marshmallow than meat grinder.

5. Steelers (9-3). The defense is good enough to ruin New England’s run today. But could someone refer the Rooney family to a landscaper?

6. Seahawks (8-4). Four straight wins and finishing against four lukewarm opponents (Cardinals, Panthers, Ravens, Falcons) could lead to a first-round bye if the Packers falter.

7. Chargers (7-5). What separates the league’s three 7-5 teams? The Chargers have outscored foes, 285-233. The Browns have been outscored, 338-336. The Titans have been outscored, 241-232. Plus, only one in that threesome has a hot LaDainain Tomlinson.

8. Jaguars (8-4). Losing a 28-25 dogfight at Indianapolis but outgaining the Colts, 411-342, says these cats mean business.

9. Giants (8-4). When the grumpy old man is losing, fans don’t want him to coach five more minutes. When the 60-year-old Tom Coughlin gets a flawed team like this to the playoffs, you suspect he’ll coach five more years. Somewhere.

10. Buccaneers (8-4). Jeff Garcia pouted in Cleveland in 2004 when he sat while then-rookie Luke McCown got an extended test drive. Now they’re Tampa Bay teammates. You can bet Captain Jeff would get snippy again if McCown, coming off an outstanding start, was allowed to play again while Garcia wants to return from his back injury.

11. Browns (7-5). Just when they were starting to look like a team with a fist, Derek Anderson had a cold hand at Arizona.

12. Titans (7-5). Before Vince Young got going against Houston, the Titans had milked just 12 TDs out of 40 trips to the red zone. San Diego can hand them their fourth loss in five games.

13. Vikings (6-6). Tarvaris Jackson isn’t so bad as long as Adrian Peterson stays on the field. They’ve won three straight. Antoine Winfield is back from a month off. Listen closely. It’s the call of the wild card.

14. Bills (6-6). They’d have a much better chance at their first playoff berth since 1999 if they had a better quarterback.

15. Cardinals (6-6). They lose Anquan Boldin to a toe injury but get Larry Fitzgerald back. That trade gives them a chance in today’s season-bending game at Seattle.

16. Redskins (6-7). Stories of tragedy galvanizing a team go back at least as far as the 1920 Cleveland Indians winning a World Series not long after Ray Chapman was killed by a pitch. Beating the Bears on Thursday kept them alive in the wild-card hunt

17. Eagles (5-7). How does A.J. Feeley look like John Elway against New England and like John Clayton in a four-interception loss to Seattle? With Donovan McNabb back from an injury, it’s a moot question.

18. Saints (5-7). Is Reggie Bush too small for stardom? His 3.7 per-carry average is puny for a guy with a $62 million contract. His eight fumbles in 12 games call for a rebate.

19. Ravens (4-8). They didn’t exactly bow out with class, but they gave the Patriots quite a clash.

20. Bears (5-8). After Rex Grossman got hurt Thursday, Brian Griese threw two interceptions to Washington’s Shawn Springs within 18 seconds. When do the Derek Anderson trade talks begin?

21. Bengals (4-8). A defense that was criminally bad in an early 51-45 loss at Cleveland has allowed 277.3 yards during the last four games. Not bad when you consider New England’s defense allows 289.4 yards a game.

22. Panthers (5-7). Jaguars Coach Jack Del Rio, 44, is slightly amazed he is game-planning for Vinny Testaverde. In the last of Del Rio’s 11 years as an NFL linebacker, he played against Testaverde and the 1995 Browns.

23. Lions (6-6). In 2006, Rod Marinelli became the Lions’ sixth head coach in the 10 years following Wayne Fontes’ (in retrospect wildly successful) 67-71 run. After four straight losses, including 42-10 at Minnesota last Sunday, Rod doesn’t look so hot, either.

24. Raiders (4-8). Oakland at Green Bay. Black Hole at North Pole. JaMarcus Russell vs. Brett Favre? “It’s not going to be real warm there,” is how Head Coach Lane Kiffin addressed the question of The Franchise making his first NFL start today.

25. Broncos (5-7). They were roughed up by the Raiders. Jay Cutler isn’t cutting it. Intending to tweak it into a Super Bowl team after a 13-3 2005, they wrecked it.

26. Chiefs (4-8). Brave Brodie Croyle wants to play with an aching back. No point in that. The Chiefs’ best shot at a comeback is drafting high and picking the right QB. Given their five-game losing streak, they’re on the right track.

27. Texans (5-7). Guard Fred Weary was strapped to an injury cart as he left the field Sunday at Nashville. QB Matt Schaub dislocated a shoulder. Their season was already hurting.

28. Jets (3-9). Two of their wins were against Miami. Throw those out. The other win was against Pittsburgh. Don’t throw out Eric Mangini just yet.

29. Rams (3-9). The league is supposed to have gotten serious about protecting players coming off concussions. Other than saving a coach’s butt, what possibly could be the reason for throwing Marc Bulger to the Bengals today, two weeks removed from a bell-ringer against Seattle?

30. Falcons (3-9). Headline in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: “Milloy tries to keep teammates motivated.” Who on Earth wants to read that story?

31. 49ers (3-9). Reports out of San Francisco indicate Alex Smith won’t play again in 2007. The trouble with Smith having been a No. 1 overall pick: They’re stuck with him in 2008.

32. Dolphins (0-12). Losing 40-13 at home ... to the Jets? Yes, the dolphin is a mammal, but you’ve gotta say this anyway: Man, do these fish stink.

Reach Repository sports writer Steve Doerschuk at (330) 580-8347 or e-mail