Here is proof that the luster has come off the AFC in 2008: I almost picked the Panthers-Bucs game to lead First-and-10. What a difference a year makes.
It seems like only yesterday the Patriots and Chargers were meeting for the AFC Championship. Few gave the Chargers much of a chance. Philip Rivers had a torn ACL, Antonio Gates had major foot problems, and LaDainian Tomlinson was hurt. The Chargers gave the Patriots a good battle, but New England carried its perfect season into the Super Bowl by winning the AFC title game 21-12.
When the 2008 schedule was released, Sunday night's Patriots-Chargers showdown was considered one of the marquee games of the season. Now, with Tom Brady injured and the Chargers scuffling at 2-3, it doesn't look quite the same. How did it get to this point?
Both teams entered the season with great expectations and easy schedules. The Patriots opened with four games against opponents with a combined 2007 record of 14-50. The Chargers opened with games against opponents with a combined 23-57 record. Had each team carried over its success and confidence from last season, Sunday night's game would have been two unbeaten teams meeting in a potential AFC Championship preview.
Now, both teams are scrambling to win their divisions and could fall short. The Patriots have done well under the circumstances. Matt Cassel has been efficient filling in for Brady, who underwent successful knee reconstruction Tuesday and should be ready for the 2009 campaign. Cassel is a lot like the Bears' Kyle Orton: He's not flashy, and he doesn't have the strongest arm, but he doesn't screw things up too badly.
Cassel has completed 67.3 percent of his passes and had a breakthrough in Week 5, getting a few downfield passes to Randy Moss, who had been a missing part of New England's offense because of double coverage. With Cassel in charge, coach Bill Belichick must manage a different game. The Patriots have accepted they must win games with an offense that is going to score fewer than 20 points in most weeks.
Belichick realizes he doesn't have a Brady-like quarterback to lead the Patriots if they need a frantic fourth-quarter comeback. At 3-1, the Patriots are in a dogfight to win the AFC East.
The Chargers? Face it, they have been a major disappointment. At 2-3 against an easy schedule, they have clearly underachieved. Tomlinson and Gates are playing at less than 100 percent, and the defense isn't the same without LB Shawne Merriman, who is out for the season following knee surgery.
The Chargers are giving up a staggering 25.8 points a game. Antonio Cromartie is struggling at cornerback -- he's committing too many penalties and giving up big plays -- and has dropped three potential interceptions he could have returned for touchdowns. Jyles Tucker, Merriman's replacement, is hurt and may miss this game, while San Diego's other linebackers have been inconsistent.
Here's the biggest sign that this matchup isn't what it once was: The Dolphins, who started 0-2, have beaten both of these teams in back-to-back games. Yeah, the luster is definitely wearing off.
1. Carolina Panthers at Tampa Bay Buccaneers: It was easy to predict the Panthers would rise in the NFC South this year. They headed into the season with the easiest schedule in the division, and they had Jake Delhomme back at quarterback after he missed the final 13 games last season. Tommy John surgery gave Delhomme a better fastball, and the Panthers have gotten out to a strong 4-1 start. The next two weeks will determine if the Panthers are the team to beat in the division; Carolina plays Tampa Bay and New Orleans in that time. Over the past five years, the Panthers are 8-2 against the Bucs. In Week 7, the Panthers host the Saints, who trail them by two games. If the Panthers sweep the next two, they could run away with the NFC South, something no one thought could happen this early.
The Bucs seem to be leaning toward Jeff Garcia at quarterback, which could be bad news for the Panthers. Garcia, who led the Bucs to the division title last season, will have fresh legs and a chip on his shoulder after temporarily losing the starting job to Brian Griese.
2. Dallas Cowboys at Arizona Cardinals: Suddenly, the Cowboys look vulnerable. The Tony Romo-led offense is getting too loose with the football and its minus-four turnover ratio is tied for third worst in the league. There could be turnover coming on defense, as cornerback Terence Newman has a sports hernia and will be out two weeks if he doesn't get surgery or six to eight weeks if he does. Adam Jones is back to being Pacman Jones, getting into a scuffle with his bodyguard at a hotel. He could face yet another suspension by commissioner Roger Goodell.
In Week 5, the Cowboys jumped to a 17-0 lead on a winless Bengals team but had to scramble at the end to win. The Cardinals are dangerous because Kurt Warner is capable of putting up 40 points on good defenses. If the Cowboys turn the ball over and have holes in their secondary, this could be a long day for Dallas.
3. Jacksonville Jaguars at Denver Broncos: Which defense will show up for the Broncos this week? The Broncos are the NFL version of Extreme Makeover: A couple of weeks ago, coach Mike Shanahan started experimenting with some 3-4 defensive looks. In Week 5 against the Bucs, he had his secondary play more safe, Cover 2 schemes than the man-to-man formations that favor the styles of CBs Champ Bailey and Dre' Bly.
This is an important game for the Jaguars, who are 2-3 against a tough starting schedule. Broncos QB Jay Cutler can take advantage of Jacksonville's secondary with his strong arm and the receiving skills of Brandon Marshall and Eddie Royal. Even though the Jaguars' running offense has been inconsistent, coach Jack Del Rio can't afford to get one-dimensional and get into a passing shootout with the Broncos because the Jags don't have the receiving weapons Denver does.
4. Green Bay Packers at Seattle Seahawks: The Seahawks suffered more than a loss to the Packers in last year's divisional playoffs in Green Bay; they also lost their top receiver when Deion Branch blew out a knee on the frozen tundra. The injury to Branch had carry-over effects this season, as the receiving corps has been a disaster. Now, Branch, who has a heel injury, probably won't play in this one.
The Packers aren't the same on defense because of injuries and poor play. They traded Corey Williams and now are getting thinner along the defensive line. Without cornerback Al Harris (spleen injury), they're not as effective playing man coverages. The Seahawks don't have any excuses for their defense. They have everyone back, but they just aren't playing well.
5. Baltimore Ravens at Indianapolis Colts: The Ravens have lost heartbreakers to the Steelers and Titans -- two hard-hitting defensive teams -- in tough, hard-fought games. Going against the Colts could be tougher because the Ravens' offense isn't equipped for a shootout. Joe Flacco, the Ravens' rookie quarterback, must manage a play-action running offense that is heavy on the run and only mixes in a few passes. The Ravens should be able to run the ball against the Colts, but if they can't convert drives into touchdowns, they will be in trouble.
Peyton Manning is slowly getting the Indy offense on track. The offensive line isn't settled because of injuries, and the receivers are dropping too many passes. Manning proved the team can scramble for wins at the end of games, so they won't give up even if they are down 17 in the fourth quarter -- as they proved against the Texans last week.
6. Chicago Bears at Atlanta Falcons: Were it not for the Falcons' victory over the Packers, this game would have found itself on the First and 10 cutting room floor. In fact, I'm still stunned the Falcons have crept into this column, but they've earned the trip. At 3-2, they have been one of the surprise teams in the league and the win at Lambeau has been the biggest surprise of the season. Credit Falcons management for getting Michael Turner at halfback to take the pressure off rookie QB Matt Ryan, and credit it with settling on an offensive line that plays well together. Still, this game will be tough. The Bears have the type of defense that can drive a rookie quarterback crazy and force him into making mistakes.
7. New York Giants at Cleveland Browns: The season officially starts for the Browns, who used a Week 5 bye to reflect on their 1-3 start. Romeo Crennel kept things together during the bye without making changes in the starting lineup, but a couple of losses could lead to the benching of Derek Anderson and others. The Giants are the worst possible team for the Browns to face because they are aggressive on defense and they can sack the quarterback. Anderson has had trouble when pressured, and because he's a gunslinger, he's willing for throw into tight coverages. That may not work well against New York, because the Giants play man-to-man and have a great pass rush.
There will be a lot of pressure on the Browns' talented offensive line, but the toughest assignment will be at right tackle. Kevin Shaffer, who has struggled and is banged up, goes against defensive end Justin Tuck, who has been unstoppable coming from left end.
8. Philadelphia Eagles at San Francisco 49ers: The Eagles are angry. Donovan McNabb had to hold a team meeting and then go on his Web site to say how embarrassed he is over the past two Eagles losses. That's bad news for the 49ers. They are playing the Eagles at the wrong time. McNabb is asking Andy Reid to be more aggressive downfield, and last week the 49ers were burned for long plays by, of all people, Matt Cassel. In some ways, the 49ers' defense is getting too tricky, trying to rely more on schemes than just talent. Expect them to be more basic in their plan this week -- they will need to be basic because the Eagles will be overly aggressive.
9. Miami Dolphins at Houston Texans: Do you think Gary Kubiak might have had his defense work on stopping the Dolphins "Wildcat" running play in which Ronnie Brown takes direct snaps? The Dolphins had 48 yards rushing on 10 Wildcat plays in beating the Chargers in Week 5. It's time for somebody to stop this rapidly expanding trick scheme. The Dolphins are coming off stunning upsets of the Patriots and Chargers. The Texans, however, have had their best success against the Dolphins. Even though the Texans are an expansion team and the newest team to the league, they are 3-0 against the Dolphins. At 0-4, though, Kubiak could start losing the confidence of his team if he loses this home game.
10. Oakland Raiders at New Orleans Saints: The Tom Cable Era starts in a tough setting. The Saints are fuming about their Monday night loss to the Vikings: Too many penalties, too many turnovers. That sounds like a usual Raiders effort. The Saints have to use the Raiders to bounce back and get set up for the Week 7 showdown against the Panthers.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.