The first half of the NFL season should've left us all giddy about how the final eight weeks of this year will play out. We knew the Denver Broncos would be good -- until injuries, a suspension and a heart operation for their coach made them look vulnerable.
The NFC also was supposed to be brimming with talented teams -- until the NFC East became a running joke and Atlanta, last year's conference runner-up, fell on hard times.
Then there's the first-year success of Andy Reid in Kansas City. We knew he could coach, but nobody saw him taking a 2-14 team on a nine-game winning streak to start this year.
All of this has been prelude to what should be a fascinating second half. The league has never been filled with more parity or so much anticipation over how the standings will look in early January.
What makes these final two months even more interesting are all the wild cards that will be thrown into the mix.
Just as we're eager to see how some stars will affect their teams after being nonfactors earlier this year (San Francisco's Aldon Smith, Seattle's Percy Harvin and Denver's Von Miller), we'll also be wondering how the absence of other key players will affect the playoff hopes of other franchises (Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers, Cincinnati's Geno Atkins and Indianapolis' Reggie Wayne).
What we do know is that the NFL has seen its last stretch of mediocre play this year (only one game this past weekend matched winning teams). From here on out, every week will produce major implications for the near future.
And these are 10 things you can expect to happen in the second half:
1. The Kansas City Chiefs will win the AFC West
The Chiefs aren't undefeated solely because of a dominant defense and a soft schedule. They also happen to have the league's best karma. In their past five games alone -- including Sunday's 23-13 win over Buffalo -- they've had the luxury of playing four teams that were using backup quarterbacks. They've also watched their main AFC West rival, the Broncos, suffer through a number of setbacks, including injuries to two starting offensive linemen and the recent heart operation that could keep coach John Fox off the sideline until the playoffs.
In other words, until now, there's never been a time this season when Kansas City has seemed likely to surpass the Broncos. The Chiefs already have been the most resourceful team in the NFL. Now they're about to look like its most fortunate, especially if they can weather a second half that includes two games each against Denver and San Diego and a regular-season home finale with Indianapolis.
2. The Broncos will struggle without John Fox
The people who think the Broncos can get along just fine without Fox -- who could miss the rest of the regular season after heart surgery -- are underestimating his value to that team. Quarterback Peyton Manning might be dominating the headlines with his MVP-worthy play so far (2,919 passing yards, 29 touchdowns, 6 interceptions), but Fox has done a few things to help their cause, as well. Given the state of Denver's team in recent weeks, Fox's absence should cause more concern.
The defense ranks tied for 25th in points allowed (27.3 per game). The offense struggled with protection issues in an upset loss to Indianapolis. This isn't the same team that was running wild in the first few weeks of this season. Tougher games lie ahead (including divisional matchups with Kansas City and San Diego), and Fox's absence will be felt, even with experienced Jack Del Rio filling in as interim head coach.
3. The New York Jets will earn a wild-card spot
The AFC is so wide open at the moment that this once laughable notion now has legitimacy. As inconsistent as the Jets have been, there has been plenty to like about them. They've already beaten New England and New Orleans. They've found ways to maximize rookie quarterback Geno Smith and a defense that was supposed to be hindered by the loss of star cornerback Darrelle Revis. They've also pushed through the tougher part of their schedule.
At 5-4 and sitting in second place in the AFC East, the Jets will play only one team currently over .500 (Carolina) in their final seven games. Coach Rex Ryan already has answered plenty of questions about whether he deserves to keep his job after this season. The next step is for him to use a familiar formula -- an underdog squad with a young quarterback and a tough defense -- as a means of taking his team to places few thought it could go.
4. Aldon Smith will have a major impact on the 49ers' defense
Right now, it's difficult to know how quickly San Francisco will work its Pro Bowl outside linebacker back into the mix after his recent stint at a substance-abuse rehabilitation facility. What isn't in question, at least to those who have seen Smith lately, is the noteworthy change in him in the past few weeks. One team source said Smith seems more mature and "clearly has been humbled" by his treatment and the arrests that led him into rehab in the first place. That also should equate to a player who is more focused than ever once he returns to his primary role (as long as the NFL doesn't suspend him for his legal problems).
Many football players acknowledge that actually playing the game is the best way for them to cope with whatever problems they have in their personal lives. For somebody as talented as Smith, a player who already has amassed 38 sacks in three NFL seasons, it will be the perfect opportunity to prove to his teammates that he really wants to help this team return to the Super Bowl.
5. Andrew Luck is in trouble without Reggie Wayne
Luck has earned all the hype that has been thrust upon him since his arrival in Indianapolis last year, but Wayne has been a huge part of his success. Before Wayne suffered a season-ending knee injury in a win over Denver on Oct. 20, he had produced 144 receptions for Luck over 23 regular-season games together. Along with being targeted more than any other receiver in that offense, Wayne provided invaluable leadership for Luck and every other player on that unit.
The Colts now have to figure out who will be that clutch target when they need a big play. Luck also will have to ask more of younger targets such as Coby Fleener, T.Y. Hilton and Darrius Heyward-Bey. The Colts managed to escape Houston with a 27-24 win Sunday night by using that approach, with Hilton catching three touchdown passes in the second half. But, given Luck's performance -- he completed only 45 percent of his passes in a game Indy trailed 24-6 in the third quarter -- there might be more rough statistical days in the coming weeks.
6. The Dallas Cowboys will win the NFC East
Somebody has to win this division, so it might as well be the team with the most talent. The Washington Redskins aren't going to close this season with seven straight wins, as they did in 2012. Their defense remains too shoddy, and the schedule isn't working in their favor. Washington played six teams that didn't make the playoffs in that seven-game win streak last year. This year, it will host San Francisco and Kansas City and play at Philadelphia in the second half. As for the Eagles, their defense actually gives up more yards than the Redskins do, and it's hard to have complete faith in quarterback Nick Foles just yet. Although he threw seven touchdown passes against Oakland, in his previous game, he went 11-for-29 with only 80 passing yards in a 17-3 loss to Dallas.
And let's not even broach the notion of the New York Giants somehow using two straight victories as a means of gaining momentum after six consecutive losses to start the season. They've been done for weeks. That leaves the Cowboys, a 5-4 team that has been the most consistent of anybody in that division.
Dallas has three losses by three or fewer points, and it hung 48 on Denver in a losing effort in the most exciting game of the first half. Yes, the Cowboys have defensive questions of their own (they rank 31st in yards allowed, better than only the Eagles), but they play with more heart than anybody else in that division. That will mean plenty in the next couple of months.
7. Cam Newton will continue to quiet his critics
Newton came into this season with plenty of people wondering whether he actually belonged in the same class as other young star quarterbacks, namely Luck, Seattle's Russell Wilson, San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick and Washington's Robert Griffin III. All he has done in the past four weeks is prove why he had so many fans envisioning how he might revolutionize the quarterback position after his stellar play as a rookie in 2011.
Newton has been playing the best football of his career. In the three games before Sunday's 34-10 win over Atlanta, he had completed 77.3 percent of his passes for 667 yards, 6 touchdowns and no interceptions. Even with a shaky start against the Falcons -- he threw two interceptions in that contest -- he helped lead the Panthers to their fourth straight victory. First-year Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman had said it was time for Newton to win more games. So far, everybody should be thrilled with a quarterback who has Carolina sitting at 5-3 and in great position for a playoff run.
8. The Packers will need to rethink Eddie Lacy's workload
Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy had been so concerned about overworking rookie running back Lacy -- who has 596 rushing yards in seven games this season -- that the Packers had planned to cut back on his touches in the second half of the season. That strategy might go out the window after Rodgers injured his left collarbone in a Monday night loss to Chicago. With Rodgers expected to miss at least three weeks, the Packers will be scrambling to keep pace in the NFC North.
They don't have a great backup quarterback (Seneca Wallace); their offense already was banged-up (including injuries to wide receiver Randall Cobb and tight end Jermichael Finley); and they're now stuck in a three-way tie for the division lead. What the Packers do have is a running game that hasn't been seen in those parts in years. Lacy ran for a career-high 150 yards against the Bears, and, with Rodgers down, he just became the Packers' best offensive weapon. Green Bay had hoped to limit Lacy's workload after he had at least 24 touches in his previous four games. Now, the Packers might have to use him and backfield mate James Starks more than ever if they want to secure a playoff spot.
9. Percy Harvin won't be nearly as dynamic as some might think
As much as the Seattle Seahawks need a lift offensively, it's crazy to assume Harvin is going to provide that immediately once he returns to the field. The fifth-year wide receiver underwent surgery to repair a torn labrum in his hip in late July, and the length of that absence alone suggests there will be plenty of rust.
Harvin didn't get valuable reps with Wilson in training camp, and he's in his first season with the Seahawks. Let's not forget the pressure he likely will put on himself to live up to that blockbuster trade (Seattle traded three draft picks to Minnesota to acquire Harvin, including its 2013 first-round selection) and the fat contract he received after joining the Seahawks (six years, $67 million).
It would be one thing if Seattle hadn't lost another wide receiver, Sidney Rice, to a torn ACL. But the Seahawks are going through the kinds of growing pains offensively that will make it hard for one man -- even one as talented as Harvin -- to remedy their ailments quickly.
10. The Baltimore Ravens won't be returning to the playoffs
Even in a season when the AFC is fairly mediocre, the Ravens don't have the look of a team that can elevate its game in the second half. Quarterback Joe Flacco (whose current 79.3 passer rating is the worst of his career) is proving to his critics that he's not worth the $120 million contract he signed after leading Baltimore to a Super Bowl victory. The offense has missed departed wide receiver Anquan Boldin and injured tight end Dennis Pitta and has barely found ways to use running back Ray Rice (who is averaging 2.7 yards per carry).
The defense was supposed to be helped by free-agent acquisitions such as safety Michael Huff and defensive lineman Marcus Spears, but neither of those players remains with the team. The Ravens also couldn't do what they usually do best under coach John Harbaugh, which is win games after a bye. Harbaugh was 5-0 in those situations until Baltimore lost to Cleveland on Sunday. Look, only the most die-hard fans were expecting the Ravens to be a serious contender after this team suffered so many offseason hits to its championship roster. Right now, it's fair to say Baltimore is exactly where most people thought it would be.