No power teams in NFL 2010

Pretty soon the 1972 Miami Dolphins can relax, a whole lot

earlier than last year. One month into the season, there are no

threats to their perfect season.

The Colts and Saints made those Dolphins sweat until late

December in 2009. No such worries this time around. Right now, only

Kansas City has no losses, and the Chiefs easily could drop

Sunday’s game at Indianapolis.

In fact, there are no power teams.

What the NFL can brag about is a record pace of close games,

tight divisional races – although some might call the parity

mediocrity – soaring passing stats, and big plays by special

teams.

Plus there’s lots of fan interest, with TV viewership higher

than ever through four weeks.

But the strangest development has been the lack of a dominant

team, particularly with the way the Colts and Saints blew through

the league in ’09. So far, the Saints aren’t blowing out anybody –

they’ve scored 79 points and allowed 72 – and easily could be 0-4

instead of 3-1. Their offense has been anything but unstoppable,

and in their biggest matchup, they lost at home to the Falcons in

overtime after NFC championship game hero Garrett Hartley missed a

29-yard field goal.

”We’ve kind of put our B, B-minus performance out there,

unfortunately, for the most part these first four weeks, and yet,

we still are sitting in a good position at 3-1,” Saints

quarterback Drew Brees said. ”So what happens if we start putting

forth our A, A-plus performance? I think that’s obviously what

we’re striving for and we’ve set the bar high here.

”We’re a prideful bunch. So we’re not satisfied with the way

we’re playing, the fact that we’re not putting up an average of

more than 20 points a game. I mean, come on, this offense prides

itself on big plays, a lot of points, spreading the ball around and

running the ball well and all the things we haven’t quite done yet

up to this point.”

The Colts couldn’t match Houston’s emotion in the first game,

then seemed to straighten themselves as Peyton Manning got off to

the best start of his career. Their last-second loss at

Jacksonville is troubling, though, because the defense was ripped

by an offense nobody would confuse with, well, the Colts.

”We always say the division games count as two, so starting 0-2

in the division, that’s tough,” Pro Bowl safety Antoine Bethea

said. ”I’m pretty sure we’ll get better.”

Perhaps, but with a bunch of injuries on offense and defense,

maybe they won’t.

Other projected powerhouses have struggled. Dallas and Minnesota

both are 1-2, San Diego is 2-2, and no division winner from 2009

has sole possession of first place this year. Indeed, only the

Saints, New England and Arizona among last season’s division

champions have a share of the top spot, and the Cardinals might be

the worst first-place team in history, having been outscored 118-58

while going 2-2.

A record 23 teams are on top or within one game of the division

lead, a number that figures to thin out as the pretenders fall off.

Still, such a stat bodes well for the playoff races even at this

early juncture: since 1990, 87 teams have made the postseason after

starting 2-2 or worse. Just last season, four teams – Arizona,

Dallas, Green Bay and San Diego – fell into that category; three of

them won divisions.

Not only are the standings close, but the final scores are

tight. More than half the games, 33 of 62, have been decided by

seven points or less. That’s the most in the two decades and second

only to 1988 overall.

Already, there have been seven games decided by two points or

fewer, partly because closer is down by 1.8 points a game. Such

potent offenses from 2009 as the Saints, Cardinals, Ravens, Giants,

Cowboys and Vikings are far behind their paces.

Much of the dropoff in scoring comes from fewer rushing TDs,

down 13, and fewer scoop-and-score fumbles, down seven.

Oddly, touchdowns passing are up from 171 to 174, representing

the most through four weeks since 2002. And the rate of kickoff

runbacks for scores is extremely high, with eight already, five

more than at this point in 2009, when there were 18 overall.

Most telling of all the early trends might be how many eyeballs

are viewing games.

More than 150 million people – that’s almost half of all

Americans – have watched at least part of a game this season, a

record for the first month. Viewership is up for all four networks

that televise NFL games, so much so that CBS, Fox, NBC and ESPN

each are averaging their most viewers ever to this point for their

current packages.

That’s a nice recipe for the NFL, and it diverts attention away

from the possibility there won’t be any pro football at this time

next year.

AP Sports Writers Brett Martel in New Orleans and Howard

Fendrich in Washington contributed to this story.