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Quarterly report for topsy turvy NFL season

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Alex Marvez

Alex Marvez is a Senior NFL Writer for FOXSports.com. He has covered the NFL for the past 18 seasons as a beat writer and is the former president of the Pro Football Writers of America. He also is a frequent host on Sirius XM NFL Radio.

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The defending NFL champion ranks third in its own division behind the Bengals. The Super Bowl XLIII runner-up wouldn't qualify if the playoffs began today. The team with the AFC's best record in 2008 hasn't won a game. The club considered one of the biggest train wrecks in late August stands at 4-0. Tony Dungy isn't missed based on Indianapolis' perfect start. The New York Jets are 3-1 with a rookie quarterback who will likely end the season with as many starts in the pros as he made in college. And a living legend has reinvented himself at the age of 39. We all saw this coming four weeks ago when the regular season began. Riiight. Early stumbles in Pittsburgh, Arizona and Tennessee are stunners. The same for Denver's emergence and Brett Favre's resurgence in Minnesota. Success from last season truly means nothing in 2009. At 1-2, Arizona is en route to becoming the seventh team in the past eight years that didn't qualify for the postseason one year after reaching the Super Bowl. The Giants and Vikings are the only division winners from last year still in first place. The combined record of the other six division winners from 2008 is 6-17. Here's a breakdown of those developments and more as the NFL enters the second quarter of what has been a wildly entertaining season. Which team is most ready for Super Bowl XLIV right now?: The New York Giants Of the league's five undefeated squads, the Giants are the most battle-tested. They win the clutch games like the inaugural regular-season contest at Dallas Cowboys Stadium in Week 2. They don't overlook lesser opponents like Tampa Bay and Kansas City, which were outscored by a combined 37-3 margin in the first three quarters. Injuries haven't slowed New York down either (although keep an eye on QB Eli Manning's heel problem down the stretch). The runner-up is New Orleans, which has played more consistently overall than the Colts, Vikings and Broncos. An Oct. 18 matchup against the visiting Giants will provide a true litmus test of whether the Saints are for real. Biggest storyline: Quarterbacks. Tom Brady is back. So is Michael Vick. Peyton Manning is on fire. Favre got his revenge on Green Bay before a record-setting cable television audience. Jay Cutler is doing fine in Chicago; Broncos replacement Kyle Orton hasn't lost a start. Mark Sanchez, Joe Flacco, Matt Stafford and Matt Ryan are leading a youth movement. Chad Pennington is out for the season. Jake Delhomme and Marc Bulger may be entering their final days as starters with their current clubs. Brady Quinn and Byron Leftwich already were benched. And if these storylines weren't juicy enough, there's the renewed debate about whether the position is receiving too much protection against hits from defensive players. The old adage proclaims quarterbacks receive too much of the credit and take too much of the blame. They also are hogging the spotlight through the season's first four weeks. Biggest lesson learned: Philadelphia Eagles fans don't boo everyone. In another market, Vick's NFL return would have been met with heavy protests. But the City of Brotherly Love has embraced Vick since his August signing. Of course, the main reason is a selfish one — the belief that Vick could be the missing piece to help Philadelphia finally win a Super Bowl. The jury is still out after an unimpressive debut of the "Vick-cat" attack in a Week 3 win against Kansas City. But just the willingness to give Vick a second chance after his dog-fighting past proves that the notoriously ill-tempered Philly faithful do have compassion. Vick should be forever grateful even if his stay doesn't last beyond this season. Surprise team: Denver. So much for all the one-and-done talk that surrounded new Broncos coach Josh McDaniels during the preseason. McDaniels weathered a rough initiation — the Cutler trade and August suspension of WR Brandon Marshall — while installing a team-first concept similar to mentor Bill Belichick. The defense has undergone a stunning transformation under new coordinator Mike Nolan, allowing a league-low 26 points. McDaniels gets to see how far he's come Sunday when Belichick's Patriots roll into town. Surprise players: Giants WRs Steve Smith and Mario Manningham. Plaxi-who? Smith and Manningham have alleviated preseason concerns about how the Giants would handle the loss of star wideout Plaxico Burress, who was released during the offseason and is now serving prison time on a weapons charge. Smith has blossomed in his third NFL season and currently leads the league in catches (34) and receiving yards (411). Manningham — who did almost nothing as a rookie in 2008 — has pitched in 18 catches for 308 yards and two touchdowns. "They're here every day with Eli going through progressions, watching film and taking extra reps after practice," Giants linebacker Antonio Pierce said. "They had an opportunity here to make a name for themselves and took advantage of it." Surprise coach: San Francisco's Mike Singletary. The 49ers' improvement in the second half of last season when Singletary replaced the fired Nolan was no mirage. Singletary's fiery style has clicked with his players, especially greatly improved TE Vernon Davis (17 catches for 211 yards and three touchdowns). Singletary — a Hall of Fame linebacker — also has molded Patrick Willis in his likeness. The 49ers already are 3-0 in their division and would be undefeated overall if it weren't for Favre's last-second touchdown pass in a Week 3 loss at Minnesota. Disappointing team: Tennessee. Much of the same talent is back from the same Titans team that began last season 10-0. What gives? So far, Jim Schwartz has proven a bigger loss to the Titans than star defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth. New defensive coordinator Chuck Cecil has come under fire for Tennessee ranking 31st in pass defense. The Kerry Collins-led offense also is misfiring even though RB Chris Johnson has an AFC-best 434 rushing yards. The misery — and public cries from Titans fans for QB Vince Young to get some playing time — could continue Sunday night when Indianapolis rolls into town. Disappointing player: Carolina QB Jake Delhomme. Delhomme's turnover-marred collapse in last season's playoff loss to Arizona wasn't an anomaly. He was dreadful in the season-opening blowout loss against Philadelphia and threw a game-sealing interception in a Week 3 defeat at Dallas. Delhomme isn't on the same page as his targets, which could be the result of an offensive system that gives wide receivers the chance to freelance. Carolina gave Delhomme a contract extension during the offseason, but a switch to newcomer A.J. Feeley isn't out of the question if the Panthers continue to stumble coming out of their bye. Disappointing coach: Jim Zorn. Paging Mike Shanahan, Jon Gruden, Bill Cowher, etc. The Redskins are the league's least-impressive 2-2 franchise. Both victories have come by slim margins against winless squads (St. Louis and Tampa Bay). One of the losses was to Detroit, a team that had dropped 19 straight contests. Zorn's offense has failed to score 20 points in a game this season, continuing a trend that started midway through last season. Washington's hiring of long-time assistant coach Sherman Lewis as an "offensive consultant" on Tuesday furthers the belief that Zorn will be on his way out sooner than later. Comeback player: Cincinnati QB Carson Palmer. Yes, Brady grabs the headlines and is a worthy choice coming off a serious knee injury. But Palmer has also been impressive after missing 12 games last season with a damaged elbow. Palmer led game-winning scoring drives the past two weeks against Pittsburgh and Cleveland for a team that would be 4-0 if not for a fluke opening loss to Denver. Palmer's play is going a long way in breaking the culture of losing that has enveloped the Bengals since the early 1990s. Hot-seat coach: Buffalo's Dick Jauron. The short leash placed around Jauron's neck last season has grown even tighter. After a strong performance in a Week 1 loss to New England, Buffalo has gradually gotten worse. Should the Bills fall at home Sunday to Cleveland (0-4), team owner Ralph Wilson could strongly consider canning Jauron and installing an interim replacement. Esteemed special teams coach Bobby April should be the first name on Wilson's list. Biggest diva: San Francisco WR Michael Crabtree. The tiara once worn by Terrell Owens, Chad Ochocinco and Brandon Marshall has been passed to a player yet to dress for an NFL game. Crabtree — who entered the NFL with a diva reputation — ruined his rookie season with a contract holdout that finally ended Wednesday morning. As the draft's 10th overall pick, expectations already were high. Let's see how Crabtree handles even more pressure after his signing debacle. Team with easiest route to the playoffs: Indianapolis.
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Already with a two-game lead on Jacksonville and Houston, the Colts can effectively eliminate Tennessee from the AFC South race with a Sunday night victory. Following a bye, the Colts could then improve to 6-0 with a victory at lowly St. Louis. Even if Indianapolis finishes .500 as the schedule gets tougher, 11-5 should be good enough to secure a wild card, if not the division. Team with schedule nightmare: Atlanta. Road games against San Francisco, Dallas and both New York franchises are scheduled over the next 11 weeks. Home opponents include Chicago and Philadelphia, not to mention a two-game series against New Orleans. There is some light at the end of the tunnel if Atlanta remains a viable playoff contender at the end of that stretch. The final games are home against Buffalo and at Tampa Bay.

Top five MVP candidates

1: Peyton Manning: He hasn't skipped a beat even with a new head coach (Jim Caldwell) and revamped wide receiver corps minus the departed Marvin Harrison and injured Anthony Gonzalez. Manning logged 300-yard passing outings in Indianapolis' first four games — a personal best — and has never looked more comfortable in the pocket. 2: New Orleans QB Drew Brees: As long as the Saints are rolling, Brees doesn't have to challenge Dan Marino's single-season passing record to earn strong consideration. 3: Brady: Tom is gradually becoming terrific once again as he shakes the rust off following last year's absence. No word yet on whether he'll get a skirt or a trophy if he wins MVP honors for a second time. 4: Adrian Peterson: Favre played like an MVP in Monday night's 30-23 win over Green Bay, but Peterson is the key to Minnesota's offensive success. He is tied for the NFL lead in rushing touchdowns with five and ranks second in yardage (412) behind Johnson. 5 (tie): Willis/Minnesota DE Jared Allen: A defensive player hasn't won this award since 1986, but Willis and Allen are playing well enough to change that. Willis is producing in every major defensive category — tackles (37), sacks (2.5), interceptions (2, including one returned for a touchdown) and passes defensed. Allen again demonstrated why he is the NFL's best 4-3 pass-rush end against Green Bay. He had 4.5 sacks and a safety for tackling Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers in the end zone. Allen now has 6.5 of Minnesota's league-high 16 sacks. It isn't a coincidence that Willis and Allen have done offseason MMA training under FOXSports.com NFL insider Jay Glazer.

Top five rookies:

1: Sanchez: Last Sunday's 24-10 loss to New Orleans was the first time Sanchez played like a rookie. His composure and production through the first three weeks helped put the Jets atop the AFC East. 2: St. Louis Rams MLB James Laurinaitis: One of the bright spots on an awful team, Laurinaitis leads all NFL rookies in tackles with 34. 3: Chicago WR Johnny Knox: A fifth-round steal from Abilene Christian, Knox is giving Chicago another big-play threat besides Devin Hester. Knox has scored on two of his 14 catches and returned a kickoff 102 yards for a touchdown last Sunday against Detroit. 4: Minnesota RT Phil Loadholt: The massive Loadholt (6-foot-8, 332 pounds) has formed an impressive bookend tandem with Vikings LT and fellow behemoth Bryant McKinnie. 5: Stafford: He has given the downtrodden Lions reason for hope, although Stafford's short-term future is in question because of a knee injury.

Five guys we never should have doubted

1: Favre: He skipped training camp, signed with the team he wanted and extracted revenge upon Green Bay. Favre did it his way — and the 4-0 Vikings are better off for it. 2: New Orleans S Darren Sharper: Free-agent interest in Sharper was so tepid that he could only land a modest one-year, $1.7 million contract with the Saints. This may be a bigger bargain than the Louisiana Purchase. Sharper has an NFL-high five interceptions and 10 passes defensed as the centerfielder in New Orleans' greatly improved defense. 3: Denver S Brian Dawkins: The Eagles let one of their mainstays leave in the offseason when Denver made a better contract offer. The Broncos should be thrilled. Like in Philadelphia, Dawkins has become the leader of a stingy defense and shows scant signs of slowing down at age 35. 4: Colts general manager Bill Polian: A lack of free-agent moves to shore the defense and wide receiver position — not to mention changes on the coaching staff — raised questions about whether Indianapolis could post double-digit wins for the eighth consecutive season. Polian has quieted the skeptics once again. Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie are blossoming as wideouts and low-key additions to bulk the defensive line have further enhanced Polian's reputation as a personnel mastermind. 5: Cincinnati WR Chad Ochocinco: After two years of bitterness about his contract and perennial losing in Cincinnati, it's good to have the old Ochocinco back. He's having fun and productive again (258 receiving yards, three touchdowns) while not being a distraction to his teammates.

Five stars who may be finished

1: Dallas LT Flozell Adams: The Cowboys could overlook Adams' penchant for costly penalties when he was a shutdown tackle. Those days have passed. At age 34, Adams has become a liability on an inconsistent offense. 2: Buffalo WR Terrell Owens: I'm willing to cut T.O. some slack because Buffalo's offense is vertically challenged. But with just eight catches and one touchdown through the first four games, it appears age is starting to catch up with the 35-year-old Owens. The situation will get even worse if Owens starts to blow his top as Buffalo slides toward another losing season. 3: Pennington: Pennington's already weak arm strength may get even worse following another major shoulder surgery. The Dolphins have three young quarterbacks (Chad Henne, Tyler Thigpen and Pat White) on their roster, which means Pennington could be allowed to leave when his contract expires in the offseason. Retirement isn't out of the question if the 33-year-old Pennington has had enough of what should be considered a solid career. 4: Cleveland RB Jamal Lewis: The signs of decline from last season have continued for one of the decade's best rushers. Lewis, 30, no longer has breakaway speed and missed last Sunday's game against Cincinnati with a hamstring injury. 5: San Diego RB LaDainian Tomlinson: Injuries are starting to mount for the 30-year-old Tomlinson, who has missed two games because of an ankle injury. L.T. has a meager 70 yards in the two contests he has played and isn't getting much help from a weak offensive line. Alex Marvez interviewed Antonio Pierce on Sirius NFL Radio, Channel 124. Marvez will appear with co-host Gil Brandt from 1 to 3 p.m. E.S.T. Wednesday on Sirius.
Tagged: Falcons, Bills, Bears, Bengals, Browns, Cowboys, Broncos, Lions, Packers, Titans, Colts, Raiders, Rams, Dolphins, Vikings, Patriots, Saints, Giants, Jets, Eagles, 49ers, Buccaneers, Redskins, Panthers, Ravens, Chargers, Michael Vick, Chad Johnson, Flozell Adams, Brett Favre, Darren Sharper, Peyton Manning, Marc Bulger, Jake Delhomme, Kerry Collins, Chad Pennington, A.J. Feeley, Brian Dawkins, Plaxico Burress, LaDainian Tomlinson, Drew Brees, Terrell Owens, Steve Smith Sr., Jamal Lewis, Albert Haynesworth, Adrian Peterson, Antonio Pierce, Carson Palmer, Byron Leftwich, Chris Johnson, Eli Manning, Jared Allen, Aaron Rodgers, Kyle Orton, Vince Young, Vernon Davis, Jay Cutler, Devin Hester, Brandon Marshall, Tyler Thigpen, Patrick Willis, Brady Quinn, Anthony Gonzalez, Joe Flacco, Matt Ryan, Pierre Garcon, Austin Collie, Johnny Knox, Mark Sanchez, James Laurinaitis, Pat White, Phil Loadholt

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