Now that the NFL schedule has reached the quarter mark, it's time to look at some developing storylines through the remainder of the season.
Here is a top five that are worth watching:
1. Coaching changes. It seems as if Dick Jauron and Jim Zorn are as close as any head coach could be to getting fired. However, despite being extremely frustrated with their teams' performances, the Buffalo Bills' Ralph Wilson and Washington Redskins' Daniel Snyder have resisted the obvious temptation to pull the trigger.
Ironically, Wilson and Snyder represent opposite ends of league ownership. Wilson is the oldest of the old guard, while Snyder is the epitome of a young maverick. Yet, it seems as if both recognize that going with an interim replacement now likely will do little to make their teams better and would only serve to appease fans that want someone to pay for their frustration.
The bigger question is this: What is the long-term plan? There are some high-profile coaches available, such as Mike Shanahan and Mike Holmgren, and one is likely to end up being hired by Snyder, who believes in throwing big money at his team's big problems. Wilson has never held that belief. He will probably look at an impressive crop of coordinators, although two (Gregg Williams, who runs New Orleans' defense, and Mike Mularkey, who runs Atlanta's offense) have already been Bills head coaches. Maybe Wilson goes with Denver Broncos defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, who flopped as a head coach in San Francisco. Of course, the Bills have an equally large problem at quarterback. Trent Edwards is not the answer.
2. The Denver Broncos. Are they a fluke? Not at all. Can they sustain their success? Absolutely. Here's why: They have an outstanding defense, a dynamic playmaker in wide receiver Brandon Marshall, and a pair of rising stars in coach Josh McDaniels and quarterback Kyle Orton.
3. The Cincinnati Bengals. Are they a fluke? Not at all. Can they sustain their success? Absolutely. They, too, have an outstanding defense. They also have a quarterback, Carson Palmer, who has the ability and the receivers to prove that he can consistently be an elite talent. And the Bengals have a superb coach of their own in Marvin Lewis.
4. Brett Favre. A year ago, he got off to a strong start with the New York Jets. Then his body fell apart, along with his performance. At 40, and with a torn rotator cuff in his throwing shoulder, Favre could very well experience a similar collapse with the Minnesota Vikings. But it seems less likely because he is looking stronger and sharper than he did in 2008. He also has a stronger supporting cast and an offensive scheme that fits him perfectly. But Father Time could have other ideas.
5. League MVP. At one point, it looked as if there might be some spirited competition between Peyton Manning and Drew Brees. Right now, however, it looks as if Manning is going to run away with this award while leading the Indianapolis Colts on another Super Bowl run. Brees certainly is good enough to get back in the race, while making the New Orleans Saints a serious contender as well. But Manning's consistency, especially with a revamped receiving corps, is astonishing.
» I was in the Orange Bowl on that early October Sunday afternoon in 1983 when a rookie quarterback, making his first start for the Miami Dolphins, had his coming-out party. The Dolphins lost in overtime to the Buffalo Bills, but they found the man who would become their greatest player in franchise history -- Dan Marino. I am not suggesting that the same thing happened with Chad Henne's impressive fourth-quarter performance against the New York Jets Monday night. But I also wouldn't rule out that we might very well have witnessed the beginning of something very special from the second-year quarterback making his second start in place of injured Chad Pennington. Henne has a big arm, nice touch, shows excellent poise, and makes good decisions. He can make pinpoint throws standing in the pocket or on the move.
» You can talk all you want about the impact of the Dolphins' "Wildcat" offense. Running backs Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams are extremely impressive when working in tandem in the backfield and there's no quarterback behind the center (unless that quarterback is rookie "Wildcat" specialist Pat White). But most of the credit for the success of that gadgetry goes to the Dolphins' offensive line, which is big and physical and able to overpower a strong defensive front such as the one it faced Monday night.
» I'm getting a little tired of all of the ultra-close monitoring that goes on regarding post-game handshakes, especially where New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick is involved. Do we really need to see head coaches shake hands or hug to confirm they are good sports? At their best, they almost always look awkward and staged, with the coaches struggling to find each other through a forest of players, stadium/team staffers, photographers, and reporters for an exchange that hardly seems worth the trouble. Here's a suggestion: If it really is that important, then each team should be responsible for cordoning off a specific spot where the coaches can get together to have a brief chit-chat, whether they want to or not. Something tells me the winning coach isn't any more in love with the idea than the loser. I was in the Broncos' locker room Sunday when Belichick stopped by for a private congratulatory moment with McDaniels, the former Patriots offensive coordinator, after the Broncos' OT win against New England. Although there were no cameras around, it really should have sufficed as a satisfactory display of sportsmanship.
» Who (other than the Dolphins and their fans) didn't love seeing Jets coach Rex Ryan twice use fake punts to pick up first downs Monday night? I know it's easy to applaud such daring when it works, but the fact he is willing to take such chances separates him from the majority of the league's coaches, who prefer to do the safe thing under those circumstances.
They've got answers â¦
» The New York Jets, because they needed another difference-making wide receiver besides Jerricho Cotchery, and it looks as if they got one from the Cleveland Browns in the trade that put Braylon Edwards and his electric personality right where they belong -- on Broadway.
» The Indianapolis Colts, because they aren't just a team that piles up yards and points courtesy of Peyton Manning's magical passing arm. They also play pretty good defense, as evidenced by the way they thoroughly shut down the Tennessee Titans.
» The Minnesota Vikings because with starting right offensive tackle Phil Loadholt injured they had a strong replacement in Artis Hicks, who prevented St. Louis Rams defensive end Leonard Little from registering a sack or a hurry.
They've got questions â¦
» The Washington Redskins, because they have no adequate depth on their offensive line, which they ignored in the offseason while spending heavily on defense. After left tackle Chris Samuels exited the loss to Carolina early with a stinger, he was replaced by D'Anthony Batiste, who was predictably over his head as someone whose only starting experience in the NFL was four games at guard. The 'Skins also were on their second replacement for injured guard Randy Thomas -- ex-tackle and first-round bust Mike Williams.
» The Baltimore Ravens, because, despite their well-earned reputation for defensive prowess, their cornerbacks look extremely vulnerable to big plays. Palmer made the Ravens pay for that in the Cincinnati Bengals' surprising victory at Baltimore.
Four intriguing games for Week 6
» N.Y. Giants at New Orleans: An early NFC Championship Game preview? Could be. These teams have plenty in common. Besides their perfect records, they both are well coached, have offenses that can beat you with quick-strike passing attacks and power running, and they both play strong defense.
» Arizona at Seattle: Once again, the NFC West looks as if it could be the division that nobody wants to win. The 49ers had a rude awakening against the Falcons. The Cardinals held tough in beating the Houston Texans and the Seahawks pounded the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Niners might be the strongest team in the division, but this game should reveal plenty about the Cards and Seahawks.
» Chicago at Atlanta: Or is this an early preview of the NFC title game? These are two of the more solid teams in the league. They might not be as good in as many areas as the Giants and Saints are. But the winner of this game will certainly do plenty to enhance its status as a serious contender.
» Denver at San Diego: The Broncos are threatening to run away with the AFC West. The Chargers would figure to have the offense to make life difficult for Denver's smothering defense, but Denver's offense could do plenty of damage to a San Diego defense hurting in key spots.
Top five teams
1. N.Y. Giants: The cupcake portion of the schedule gives way to a mammoth test at New Orleans.
2. Indianapolis: Can we just crown the Colts champions of the AFC South now?
3. New Orleans: The Saints are rested and look to have the defense, as well as the offense, to make it two wins in a row vs. New York teams.
4. Minnesota: The Vikings have everything they need to be a serious contender, and that includes their 40-year-old quarterback.
5. Denver: Orton is providing a nice complement to a championship-level defense.
Top five offensive players
1. Peyton Manning, QB, Indianapolis: He continues to reside in his own universe, well on the way to yet another MVP award.
2. Roddy White, WR, Atlanta: He's a game-breaker that allows the Falcons to take full advantage of Matt Ryan's exceptional arm. He's also a pretty good defensive player, as he demonstrated with his heads-up strip of Dre Bly when the 49ers cornerback left the ball unprotected while striking a Deion Sanders-inspired pose after an interception.
3. Cedric Benson, RB, Cincinnati: His big rushing day vs. what had been the NFL's top-ranked run defense was a tremendous achievement.
4. Miles Austin, WR, Dallas: His monster game vs. Kansas City might have saved the Cowboys' season â¦ and perhaps done wonders for the job security of his head coach and/or offensive coordinator.
5. Kyle Orton, QB, Denver: McDaniels, Tom Brady's former offensive coordinator, is doing a nice job of helping to mold another a highly effective passer.
Top five defensive players
1. James Harrison, LB, Pittsburgh: Sure, it was against the Lions, but he was long overdue for a breakout game.
2. Jared Allen, DE, Minnesota: Although he didn't register a sack, Allen still turned in a highly impressive performance vs. the Rams.
3. Julius Peppers, DE, Carolina: Remember this guy? After being invisible for so long, Peppers came up with a monster game vs. Washington, getting two sacks and forcing a play that ended with Thomas Davis tackling Clinton Portis for a safety.
4. Terrell Thomas, CB, N.Y. Giants: Sure, it was against the Raiders, and singling out one player in a dominant defensive showing isn't the easiest thing to do. But what Thomas did was special: He broke up a long JaMarcus Russell pass for Louis Murphy, had a pair of third-down tackles that forced Raider punts, and had a strip sack that set up the Giants' fourth touchdown.
5. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, CB, Arizona: Despite having a cast on his right hand to protect a fractured index finger, he was able to intercept a Matt Schaub pass and return it 49 yards for the go-ahead score in the Cardinals' victory against Houston.
Top five coaches
1. Josh McDaniels, Denver: Not only did the student beat the teacher, he also has his players wanting to win for him, something that seemed questionable in the offseason.
2. Tom Coughlin, N.Y. Giants: You have to be impressed with his ability to keep his team focused vs. bad teams. That won't be a problem this week.
3. Marvin Lewis, Cincinnati: He had his team well prepared to knock off the Ravens, who are supposed to own the Bengals, and helped properly channel the raw emotions emanating from the death of the wife of his defensive coordinator only days before the game.
4. Mike Smith, Atlanta: He did a wonderful job of using a bye week to get his team back from a crushing Week 3 loss at New England and ready to put a pounding on the 49ers.
5. Brad Childress, Minnesota: After the massive hype surrounding the huge win over Green Bay, he didn't allow his team to lose its edge against lowly St. Louis.