The competitive terrain of the NFL just keeps getting flatter and flatter.
In a trend that established itself from the opening weekend of the season, the NFL gave us more examples in Week 5 of just how close most of its teams truly are.
» The Cardinals put a resounding end to Buffalo's remarkable perfect start with a 41-17 pounding of the Bills at University of Phoenix Stadium.
» And the Colts had to stage a miraculous rally from a 27-10 deficit to beat the winless Texans in Houston.
What we saw in Week 5 is no different than what we saw in Week 1, when the Bears destroyed the Colts' regular-season debut in their new digs, Lucas Oil Stadium. Or in Week 2, when the Bills rallied in the fourth quarter to beat the Jaguars at Jacksonville. Or in Week 3, when the Dolphins overwhelmed the Patriots and the Raiders gave the Bills a serious scare at Ralph Wilson Stadium, and the winless Bengals managed to take the unbeaten Giants to overtime. Or in Week 4, when the Chiefs got their lone win of the season against the Broncos and the Bears hung tough to pull off a victory against the Eagles.
So far, things are very different this season, beginning with the fact the Patriots don't have the primary ingredient of their historic run -- injured quarterback Tom Brady. (Of course, it must be noted that they are 3-1 behind their no-name replacement, Matt Cassel. This can't possibly be Tom Brady, Part II, can it?)
The argument can be made that the Giants, with a 4-0 record to go along with being the defending Super Bowl champs, provide a reasonably clear top. After the way they handled the Seahawks, that seems like a fairly strong argument. But only the lowly Rams haven't been able to handle this year's Seahawks.
Sure, the bottom is littered with winless and one-win teams. But the middle seems extremely close, and there really doesn't seem to be a whole lot of distance separating the middle and the top.
Hope over Miami
That's two wins in a row for the Dolphins over AFC contenders, so perhaps we shouldn't be totally shocked about what they did against the Chargers. Having already doubled their 2007 victory total, the Dolphins just might be deserving of a little more respect. Still, the Chargers presumably were the better team and had righted themselves after a 0-2 start.
Clearly, their "Wildcat" offensive package, featuring direct snaps to running back Ronnie Brown, is much more than a cheap gimmick that caught the Patriots off-guard. The strategy also was effective against San Diego's defense, which couldn't figure out how to deal with Brown taking 11 snaps (five more times than he did against New England). Miami, which continues to benefit from the stability that Chad Pennington provides at quarterback, just might have enough momentum to make it three wins in a row at Houston.
Ryan time again
Instead, Ryan has helped lead the Falcons to a 3-2 start. He has been mostly solid and effective. Lambeau Field is no place for a young quarterback to expect success, least of all in his fifth NFL start. But Ryan showed the poise necessary to throw a pair of touchdowns while his supporting cast (highlighted by Michael Turner's 121 rushing yards and Roddy White's 132 receiving yards) did its part to leave the Packers wondering where they go from a disappointing 2-3 start.
The question already is being asked: Were the Bills ever really a legitimate powerhouse in the first place? Given that they had to rally to win their three previous games (including two against NFL bottom-dwellers), maybe not.
But it is important to note that the Bills lost quarterback Trent Edwards on Sunday to a concussion on the third play from scrimmage. His replacement, J.P. Losman, continued to show the mostly poor pocket awareness that led to his being replaced by Edwards in '07. It's also important to note that the Bills' defense had no answers for the Cardinals' shift from a long-ball passing game to a quick-throwing scheme that kept Buffalo on its heels and limited the unit's ability to substitute.
Tension for Tennessee
And what about the Titans? How are we supposed to feel about their 5-0 record when they looked like anything but an upper-tier team in Baltimore?
Granted, the Ravens have an outstanding defense. Ray Lewis has rediscovered his youth and is performing as he did at the height of his Hall of Fame-bound career. But like the Falcons, the Ravens are supposed to be dealing with their share of rookie-quarterback growing pains from Joe Flacco, who looked every bit like the kid that he is in throwing two interceptions.
The Titans have a pretty good defense of their own, and that is what allowed them to ultimately overcome two interceptions by Kerry Collins and an offense that produced just 47 rushing yards. On the other hand, some of their defenders showed exceptionally poor judgment in drawing personal fouls for losing their cool in a hard-hitting game.
A Week 6 bye gives them a chance to regain their composure. The better news for the Titans is that they'll probably be 6-0 after facing Kansas City in Week 7.
The 'Skins are for real
When you win back-to-back games in the league's best division, you are genuinely a good team.
After two straight losses, it might be time to question whether the Eagles are going to end up having a whole lot to say about the NFC East crown after all. Don't assume that things will get a whole lot easier for them at San Francisco in Week 6.
The Colts' comeback win at Houston, which came after they managed to score 21 points in a little more than a two-minute span in the fourth quarter, might very well have saved their season. How would Peyton Manning be able to explain/live with what was shaping up as a humiliating loss to a winless opponent missing its starting quarterback (Matt Schaub's illness gave Sage Rosenfels the start)?
Still, it's hard to say whether the Colts were/are that good or the Texans were/are that bad. For now, the vote goes to the Texans being that bad. The jury remains out on whether the Colts are truly going to assume the look of a contender. There's no guarantee we'll see it in Week 6 when they face the Ravens.