Brady's injury shifts balance of power in AFC

In only one day the NFL that we thought we knew at the end of the 2007 season suddenly seems a lot less recognizable.

All it took was an apparent season-ending injury to Tom Brady ... and some impressive performances by teams that consistently brought up the rear behind Brady's New England Patriots in the AFC East as well as the rest of the conference ... and some surprising losses by the Indianapolis Colts, San Diego Chargers, and other presumptive challengers to the Pats' throne.

True, it was only Week 1. Season-opening surprises are nothing new and a whole lot could change by Week 2, let alone by Week 17. But there were so many developments on the first Sunday of the 2008 season worth noting.

Most notable was the injury to Brady's left knee. If the reigning MVP truly is out for the season (and given the Patriots' ultra-secrecy with injuries, the true nature of it might not be known for sure until sometime in the spring), the conversation about the Patriots returning to the Super Bowl comes to a screeching halt.

I don't care if the Pats won their opener against Kansas City with Matt Cassel playing quarterback most of the way. Without Brady, the Patriots no longer are the Patriots. They don't dominate. They don't intimidate. They don't score at will or do the things that demand comparisons to the greatest teams in league history.

The first glimpse of life without Brady came when New England barely was able to beat the much weaker Chiefs at home. Cassel is, at best, a solid offensive manager. But it wasn't a solid offensive manager that led the Patriots to an 18-1 record or won NFL and Super Bowl MVP honors.

And there is no reason to think the Patriots would make themselves appreciably better by coaxing Daunte Culpepper out of retirement; his bombs-away style is not a good fit for their scheme even if he would be reunited with former Minnesota Viking teammate Randy Moss. Nor would they improve all that much if they were to sign free agent Chris Simms, who has not been the same since suffering a serious injury to his spleen when he was with Tampa Bay.

If Brady is out for the rest of the season -- or even for most of the season -- the power of the AFC East and the AFC takes a dramatic shift.

Start with the division.

The Buffalo Bills promptly confirmed their preseason status as a playoff contender with a dominant performance against the Seattle Seahawks. And with the Pats presumably out of the way, Buffalo can be much more. The Bills' defensive upgrades, especially the addition of tackle Marcus Stroud, provided immediate benefits as the Seahawks' offense was stifled at every turn. Their special teams performed at their typically high level. Marshawn Lynch ran with every bit as much power and explosiveness as he demonstrated as a rookie last year. And although second-year quarterback Trent Edwards wasn't spectacular, he made significant strides over where he was at the end of last season and looks as if he will only get better as the season progresses.

Brett Favre wasted no time displaying the big-play capability he was expected to bring to the New York Jets. Favre still needs to get comfortable with the Jets' offense and his surrounding cast, but he still has the uncanny improvisational skills that have long defined his legendary career. With the Pats presumably stepping aside, the Jets could easily be in the hunt for the division crown. They probably struggled a bit too much against the Miami Dolphins, but there is reason to think they -- and especially Favre -- can play better.

The Jets' defense stepped up as it needed to in shutting down the Dolphins' presumed offensive strength in holding Ricky Williams and Ronnie Brown to a combined 47 yards on 16 carries. They forced their former quarterback, Chad Pennington, to try and beat them with his arm, and he came up short, throwing two touchdowns for the team's only points.

What about the rest of the AFC?

You can talk about the fact Peyton Manning missed the entire preseason while recovering from knee surgery. You can talk about the fact his center, Jeff Saturday, was out of the lineup with a knee injury of his own. And you can talk about the injuries that tight end Dallas Clark and Joseph Addai suffered during the game.

The fact is the Colts did not look sharp or inspired in their loss to the Chicago Bears. Manning looked uncomfortable the entire game, and most of that was because of the Bears' defense. Indianapolis' defense was equally out of sorts. Not to discredit Kyle Orton ... but Kyle Orton? The Colts tackled poorly and seemed to go through the motions for much of the night.

Maybe it was a case of opening-night jitters. Maybe it was a case of something more. Either way, the Colts need to resolve it soon if they are to take advantage of what could very well be a wide-open conference.

The San Diego Chargers are better than they showed against the Carolina Panthers. They suffered a heartbreaking loss, to be certain, but they still have the talent and explosiveness that should allow them to win the soft AFC West and still make a strong run to the Super Bowl.

How can the Chargers not be encouraged with the performance of Philip Rivers (17-of-27 for 217 yards and three touchdowns and no interceptions) after he underwent offseason knee surgery? He looked as poised and as confident as ever, showing clear strides that he is emerging as a top quarterback. LaDainian Tomlinson remains the gold standard among NFL running backs and Antonio Gates, despite leaving the game in the first half with a bruised hip, still caught a touchdown pass as did San Diego's other big-play target, Vincent Jackson.

Losing in the final two seconds to a strong Panther team that can go places with a healthy Jake Delhomme under center is no disgrace.

The Jacksonville Jaguars might, however, have something to worry about after their loss to the Tennessee Titans. The Jags were widely seen as a strong challenger to the Colts' perch in the AFC South, first and foremost, because of the efficiency and effectiveness of their quarterback. David Garrard didn't show much of either trait in throwing a pair of interceptions, fumbling once and getting sacked seven times. Another reason to like the Jaguars is their running game. But the Titans didn't allow Fred Taylor or Maurice Jones-Drew to get anywhere on the ground. Jacksonville's defense managed to intercept Vince Young twice, but its run-stopping was a disappointment, even against a Titans squad that does have an effective running game.

Is it a shock that the Cleveland Browns lost to the Dallas Cowboys? No. The Cowboys are the presumptive Super Bowl pick from the NFC. They are loaded with talent. But the Browns should have been able to put up a better fight, especially playing at home. As outstanding a quarterback as Tony Romo might be, he should not have been able to move the offense as freely as he did against a listless Browns defense. Meanwhile, Cleveland's offense never came remotely close to showing the firepower that nearly got the Browns into the playoffs last year. And what was Romeo Crennel thinking when he had his team kick a field goal while trailing by 21 points in the fourth quarter?

Perhaps we'll have to rethink that fierce battle on Sunday night between the Browns and the Pittsburgh Steelers for AFC North supremacy. The Steelers looked like the only team ready to win the division -- again -- with their pounding of the Houston Texans.

So much for the concern that the Steelers' running game was going to become too finesse-oriented by switching from power-oriented blocking to a zone-blocking scheme. Willie Parker trampled the Texans for 138 yards and three scores, providing that familiar ball-control power Ben Roethlisberger was able to complement by throwing for 137 yards and a couple of touchdowns, while compiling a near-perfect quarterback rating.

It wouldn't be crazy to project the Steelers as the team to beat in the AFC.

Then again, that might all change after Week 2.

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