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August's assumptions give way to December's surprising reality

The end of the year is traditionally a time for reflection, but the NFL is a hard sport to reflect upon: While we've seen the majority of the season, the most important stories lie ahead. So let's concentrate on this moment in time, the final week of December, and sort out what surprised us this year. We think we know a lot at the beginning of an NFL season, then four months later we find out we didn't know anything at all. What plot lines have altered themselves since August?

Sanchez still struggling

Early August thought:Mark Sanchez is going to become the Jets' best offensive player in Year 3. He's poised to break out after two straight lights-out playoffs. The third year is the year for quarterbacks to explode, and Sanchez is handling the pressures of New York pretty well.

Late December thought: To quote Marv Albert, "Not exactly what Mark Sanchez had in mind." He's pretty much been the same quarterback he was the first two seasons. Up and down, still turning the ball over way too much. Rex Ryan has publicly stated his support for Sanchez, but this is borrowed from the "I'm behind him until I don't have to be behind him" playbook. The Jets have to move on from Sanchez for numerous reasons. One, after three years, this is who you are as an NFL player. Two, to win the Super Bowl you have to have an elite quarterback, and Sanchez isn't nearly in the category of the other great signal-callers. Say the Jets decided to waive Sanchez tomorrow. They eat all his salary and Sanchez is free to sign with any other team. Who would actually want him? The only interest would come from Washington, Seattle or Cleveland. None of them are anything close to title contenders, and none of them would give Sanchez a five-year, $50 million contract. He'd be a caretaker who would get a season or so to see if he could succeed outside of New York. If 31 other teams don't see him as a franchise QB, why do the Jets?

Newton, Tebow silence the critics

Early August thought:Cam Newton and Tim Tebow will be busts. Newton couldn't remember any Auburn plays when Jon Gruden asked about them. He wanted to be an entertainer and icon. How could you succeed as a quarterback with that attitude? He'd be out of the league in five years. Tebow was never going to gain enough confidence from the new coaching staff to get an extended look at QB.

Late December thought:Cam Newton is going to take over the NFL, and Tim Tebow has become a rock star. I freely admit there was no way I thought Newton was going to be this good. Everything coming into the season told you otherwise. But this goes to show you have no idea how a quarterback will do until you put him in a game. More importantly, it's about being put in a position to succeed. Rookie QBs are playing so well now because teams aren't just throwing them in the deep end and asking them to swim. They're making sure the offensive lines aren't leaky, they have weapons to throw and hand off to. Gone are the days when David Carr is put behind an offensive line best equipped with toreador capes and his career (or his body, for that matter) never gets off the ground. And you've got to be in the right system, too. Rob Chudzinski has always been an underrated offensive coordinator and what he's done with Newton in tailoring the offense to fit his strengths has made a big difference. John Fox and company turning the Broncos offense into Florida West to take advantage of Tebow's strengths has them one win from the AFC West crown, which must still make Bill Maher unhappy. The great offensive coordinators don't make their square pupils fit into round holes anymore. Even Mike Martz had to come to terms with the fact that his scheme in Chicago wasn't helping Jay Cutler, and once he started keeping tight ends and running backs in to protect Cutler more, the Bears took off -- until Cutler got hurt.

Eagles flop

Early August thought: The Eagles will be in the Super Bowl. All the additions -- Nnamdi Asomugha, Jason Babin, Cullen Jenkins, Ronnie Brown, Vince Young -- mean they will likely dethrone the Packers as NFC champions.

Late December thought: The Eagles have been eliminated from playoff contention. What became official last Sunday was inevitable following the stretch from Sept. 18 to Oct. 9, when the Eagles lost four straight games. You've heard plenty of theories about how the defense didn't gel, Vick was hurt and not as good as he was last year, DeSean Jackson mailed it in, they weren't using Asomugha right, Andy Reid was playing against LeSean McCoy in fantasy every week so he refused to give him the ball as much as he should, etc. But there's one consistent theme in those games that tells you why the Eagles will be home for the postseason:

Week 2: Philadelphia led Atlanta 31-21 after three quarters. The Falcons outscored Philadelphia 14-0 in the fourth quarter to win 35-31.

Week 3: Philadelphia led the Giants 16-14 after three quarters. The Giants outscored Philadelphia 15-0 in the fourth quarter to win 29-16.

Week 4: Philadelphia led the 49ers 23-17 after three quarters. The 49ers outscored the Eagles 7-0 in the fourth quarter to win 24-23.

Yes, the Eagles went on to lose to Buffalo in Week 5, but this three-game stretch was heartbreaking. Being outscored 36-0 in the fourth quarter is unacceptable, but it's not dire, it's not a failure. It's fixable. Those weeks came down to being able to finish games, which means being able to run the ball when you absolutely, positively have to. How many times did we see Michael Vick get hit so hard we had to turn away from our television screen? New additions on the offensive line didn't pan out, they started guys off the waiver wire and kept changing personnel. How you give Michael Vick $100 million and handle the line like that is beyond me. That's like buying the most expensive HD/LCD/Plasma/3-D TV you can find but not paying for cable. As a result, Vick wasn't nearly as comfortable in the pocket as he was a year ago, and McCoy couldn't close out games on the ground. This is the scary part -- if Philadelphia makes the correct moves in the offseason, they'll be in the Super Bowl in 2013.

Kolb was overrated

Early August thought: The former Eagles QBs will revitalize their new teams. Donovan McNabb will have the Vikings challenging for the division and Kevin Kolb will win the NFC West for the Cardinals. McNabb was the Vikings' No. 1 post-Favre choice -- in fact, he was their choice before Favre decided he was coming back for 2010. Kolb was supposed to be the best QB available after the lockout.

Late December thought: Donovan McNabb has played his last down, and Kevin Kolb may not even be a starter next season. For all the criticism Reid has gotten this season, it looks like he made the right choice in Vick. Think about it: When is the last time Reid was wrong about a QB? He drafted McNabb when he was an unpopular choice, and McNabb took Philly to five NFC title games and a Super Bowl. When McNabb got hurt, A.J. Feeley filled in admirably, but Reid let him go. Feeley never made it as a starter. When McNabb got hurt a few years later, Jeff Garcia took the Eagles to the playoffs when no other team wanted him. Reid let McNabb go to a division rival and he was done as a QB. He had drafted Kolb but then sat him in favor of Vick. Kolb proceeded to get hurt and never settle in with the Cardinals in 2011. We talk a lot about Bill Belichick's interest in players -- if he calls you looking for someone, you sign them to a contract extension rather than trade them to New England. Well, if Reid is OK with turning the page on a QB, then said QB is probably not your guy.

Packers pounce

Early August thought: The Packers are vulnerable. Aaron Rodgers was criticized for not organizing team activities during the lockout. Green Bay made no real free-agent moves. They'd be a one-and-done Super Bowl champion.

Late December thought: No one's going to beat the Packers in the playoffs. Rodgers and Co. knew something that plenty of people didn't: Familiarity was going to be the key to the 2011 season. With the lockout throwing the offseason into chaos, the best way to win was to keep a good team intact, providing an advantage over all the teams that thought free-agency salvation was around the corner. The Packers were the best, they were already deep, and their philosophy of home-growing the roster and not splashing into free agency served them greatly. That they're running through the schedule isn't surprising at all.

See Jason Smith on "NFL Fantasy Live," airing Sundays at 11:30 a.m. ET on the NFL RedZone channel, and Tuesday-Friday on NFL Network at 2 p.m. ET and 12 a.m. ET/9 p.m. PT. He writes Fantasy and other NFL pith on daily. Talk to him on Twitter @howaboutafresca. He only asks you never bring up when the Jets play poorly.

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