Thinking back hard now, because August was such a long time ago. But that's when roles were assigned for the 2011 NFL season. Roles like: Dream Team. That's when clubs were categorized as contenders for the Super Bowl or contenders for Andrew Luck. Or something in between. That's when story lines were framed that supposedly would last the season, so that franchises could be neatly defined as surprises or disappointments (based on predictions made before any games were played), and squeezed into a weekly narrative that allows any matchup to be distilled into a single sentence or a quick television tease.
There's a problem with this tradition. The public and media order up sustainable hype, but the NFL dishes out only week-to-week servings of cold-blooded reality. Games that look like upsets (another buzzword) are in fact just this week's measure of the new normal, and teams that appear to be rushing in one direction (toward Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis, like the Bills three weeks ago) or another (toward old age and irrelevance, like the Steelers after Week 4) can turn abruptly. The Bills have lost two of three, and the Steelers have won two in a row. Outsiders demand order of the NFL, and the NFL vigorously resists it. Expectations is a one-word punch line.
Hence you could find Eagles guard Evan Mathis towering over a pile of dirty laundry in the visitors' locker room at FedEx Field in suburban Washington on Sunday afternoon, explaining the difference between presumed greatness and actual football success. The Eagles had inartistically beaten the Redskins 20--13, for their second win of the season and their first since a Week 1 victory over the woeful Rams. The four consecutive losses that followed had produced panic in the streets of Philadelphia. Or so it was rumored.
"We were aware that nobody was going to give us the Lombardi Trophy in September," said Mathis. "This happens all the time. Somebody gets all the hype and they don't live up to it. All it did was put a target on us."
The Eagles owned the postlockout summer with a flurry of big acquisitions that included defensive linemen Jason Babin and Cullen Jenkins, cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and, the coup de grâce, All-Pro corner Nnamdi Asomugha. Quarterback Michael Vick would be in his second full season postprison and surely could only get better. Babin tweeted, "we are the Miami Heat of the NFL," and Vince Young, signed in career free fall to back up Vick, used the "dream team" phrase to reporters.
Coronation swiftly followed. (Cue clip of coach Dennis Green in 2006, chastising reporters for famously "crowning" the Bears after his Cardinals had handed them a Week 6 Monday-night win.) The Eagles were indeed football's Miami Heat—all they needed was a superstar predicting multiple titles, LeBron-style.
But of course it wasn't just the Eagles who were put in a box. The Lions were a year away, and the 49ers many years away. Now both are 5--1, and their coaches spent Sunday evening, following San Francisco's 25--19 victory in Detroit, explaining why they nearly wound up wrestling on the Ford Field turf in the aftermath. Nutshell: because Lions coach Jim Schwartz didn't like San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh's aggressive handshake and backslap and probably liked blowing a fourth-quarter lead and losing his first game of the year even less. But at least Harbaugh and Schwartz are relevant; two years ago the teams' coaches could have jousted at midfield and not trended.
The Bills, meanwhile, were just the Bills, consigned to battle the Dolphins for third place in the AFC East. Instead, behind Harvard-bred quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick they won three straight, knocking off the Patriots after trailing by three touchdowns. But just as NFL Nation began believing, Buffalo lost to the hapless Bengals, who let franchise quarterback Carson Palmer retire and now might not get anything for him. But wait—that victory started a three-game streak for Cincinnati, which on Sunday beat the winless, Peyton Manning-less Colts to go to 4--2. The Bengals are tied with the Steelers in the AFC North, just behind the 4--1 Ravens.
All of which means that the Bills exceeded expectations, creating new expectations that they have failed to meet. And that the public will need at least two more wins from Cincinnati before getting on board, though the bandwagon will have to wait because the Bengals have a bye this week.
Two of last year's playoff teams, the purportedly ascendant Chiefs and the very fortunate Seahawks, are 2--3. Cam Newton, the No. 1 pick in April's draft, wasn't supposed to be ready to play quarterback in the NFL. He most definitely was, but his Panthers are 1--5. Donovan McNabb was supposed to get new life in Minnesota. He hasn't, and might soon lose his starting job to rookie Christian Ponder. The Raiders, so bad for so long, are 4--2 and fighting the Chargers at the top of the AFC West. But on Sunday they lost quarterback Jason Campbell for the season, and by that night they were rumored to be pushing for—Carson Palmer.