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Trying to make sense of season's surprises -- good and bad

Here's how crazy this NFL season has gone so far:

Another MVP run for Tomlinson?

No stranger to MVP consideration, LaDainian Tomlinson -- in his 10th season in the NFL -- has entered the conversation on Bucky Brooks' awards watch. **More ...**

» Wasn't Jason Campbell supposed to be the next Jim Plunkett?
» Who was Arian Foster?
» The Jets are who they said they were.
» The Chargers aren't who they believed they were.
» The Steelers might be the best team in the NFL.
» Real football does exist in Missouri.
» Violent hits are no longer celebrated.

In just six weeks of play, so much of what we thought would happen hasn't (Carolina would win a game; Green Bay wouldn't lose one). Players we thought were done have shown plenty of life (John Abraham, LaDainian Tomlinson, Thomas Jones). And guys we didn't know much about then, we know about now (Foster, Brandon Lloyd, Peyton Hillis).

Then again, so much of what we thought would happen has: Buffalo stinks, Wade Phillips is back on the hot seat, Albert Haynesworth hasn't helped the Redskins, and both West divisions are, ahem, not strong.

There is a lot of football to go, but let's take a gander at some trends, highs and lows, and other developments that have left us scratching our heads, patting ourselves on the back and, basically, figuring out what to make of things.

Those who have emerged

Kansas City Chiefs: Coach Todd Haley told me this summer that adding defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel, offensive coordinator Charlie Weis and Jones to the backfield made the team's overall structure more sound and the squad easier to coach. Players are buying in, and there is no reason this competitive team won't contend for the AFC West title. They have to learn to win against good opponents on the road but, as crazy as this sounds, the Chiefs have a relatively easy schedule the rest of the way.

LaRon Landry: In most 3-4 defenses, there is a multi-dimensional safety that can flourish if he remains disciplined and is athletic and has enough awareness to clean up his teammates' breakdowns. Landry has turned into That Guy for the Redskins. He leads the NFL with 63 tackles and is making plays all over the field.

Arian Foster: Houston's former practice squader leads the NFL in rushing (635 yards), which is saying something since he plays on such a pass-oriented team. His numbers could begin to fade if the defense keeps forcing the offense to make big plays to rally. However, Foster's ability to close out runs, as well as how he starts them, and his ideal running style for this scheme should keep him among the league leaders.

Osi Umenyiora: The defensive end has regained his form for the Giants, registering eight sacks to rank second in the NFL. It wasn't long ago that Umenyiora wanted to be traded after injuries diminished his production, and his relationship with the coaching staff wasn't harmonious. He's really stepped up his game with the loss of end Mathias Kiwanuka to injury.

Chuck Cecil: Ok, so the Titans' defensive coordinator flipped the bird to game officials. That was dumb. However, has any coach made as many gains as this former helmet-to-helmet tackling safety who'd probably be banned from today's NFL? This time last season, Tennessee's defense was floundering, Cecil was facing heavy criticism after taking over for Jim Schwartz, and coach Jeff Fisher was getting more involved in the defense. Now the Titans have an NFL-high 24 sacks, and they've forced 14 turnovers. They allow just 16.3 points a game, and they have a reputation as one of the nastiest units in the league.

Those who have delivered

Kyle Orton: The Broncos quarterback seemed to be keeping the seat warm for Tim Tebow. But then he turned all Philip Rivers on that scenario and rendered Tebow -- and most of the NFL's other passers -- into an afterthought. He's thrown for 1,942 yards, nine touchdowns and three interceptions. Orton has matured as a leader and erased much of the doubt that hovered over him. His efforts haven't translated to enough wins, but if Orton keeps playing like he has, Denver will always have a chance.

New England Patriots: There were questions about how the reliance on young players would translate and how the defense would hold up. At 4-1, we have our answers. New England looks as potent as ever, with coach Bill Belichick showing he is fearless in how he runs his team (trading Randy Moss) and his players showing faith in a system that works. The Patriots have displayed some ingenious offensive flexibility, incorporating the tight ends into the passing game, showing no signs of missing holdout guard Logan Mankins, and getting some nice production out of tailback BenJarvus Green-Ellis.

Steelers' defense: Safety Troy Polamalu might be my MVP selection right now, but linebacker Lawrence Timmons is pushing his way closer to the top of the list. Timmons has evolved as a major playmaker on a unit featuring outside linebackers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley. Several NFL personnel guys and coaches also have told me that the return of end Aaron Smith has seriously bolstered the defense. This side of the ball has really showed itself and, if players stay healthy, the Steelers could be the toughest team to beat by the end of the season.

Carolina Panthers and Buffalo Bills: Both teams entered the season with glaring weaknesses at quarterback, questions on defense and a diminishing faith as to what the short- and long-term plans were organizationally. It's hard to tell if these teams are rebuilding (or what?) based on their roster construction. Their combined record: 0-10. No surprises here.

Those who have disappointed

Carson Palmer/Cincinnati Bengals: Palmer's yardage totals are respectable (1,287) but his 7-to-6 touchdown-to-interception mark and inconsistency are hamstringing an offense that should be averaging more than 20 points a game. The offensive line hasn't improved from last season, either. They needed to do better than their 2-3 start, too. Their next four games are Atlanta, Miami, Pittsburgh and Indianapolis.

Mike Jenkins: Coming off a strong 2009 season with the Cowboys, everything seemed headed upward. Not so, as the cornerback has struggled and is not playing with the confidence he did last season. He is frequently targeted, and he has been called for four pass interference penalties the past two games.

Vikings' offense: Minnesota is averaging 17.4 points per game -- or, the same total as Buffalo. With just 10 offensive touchdowns, things definitely aren't the same as they were last season when the Vikings averaged 29.4 points per game. That is a radical decline. Wide receiver Percy Harvin told me this week that the offense has got to start giving the defense some help, and he's right. Quarterback Brett Favre hasn't been the same, and Minnesota is missing the protection and receiving option running back Chester Taylor provided in passing situations. After games with Green Bay and New England, Minnesota's schedule sets up nicely. Randy Moss should be incorporated by then, and Sidney Rice could be back, although his potential contribution is questionable coming off his hip surgery. If things don't get better in the next month, the Vikings might not be playoff bound.

Jason Campbell: I consistently made the argument that we never really knew what kind of quarterback Campbell was after an inconsistent five-season stint with the Washington Redskins. I never really got the hype about how a change to Oakland would allow him to emerge as a top-flight starter. Even so, I had no idea Campbell would be this ineffective (51 of 91, 509 yards, two TDs, four INTs, and a 61 passer rating) and get outplayed by Bruce Gradkowski. Now we can see why Josh McDaniels, who could have traded Jay Cutler for him, and Mike Shanahan, who dealt him to Oakland, opted not to have him as their starter.

San Diego Chargers: Sure, it's been said before, but it's amazing how a team with this much potential has let poor special teams be its undoing. So often we hear coaches talk about the importance of all three phases, and personnel men lay claim to finding two or three unknowns that flourish as special teams players. San Diego has failed in both areas so far. The Chargers also better learn to win on the road.

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