Tampa Bay Sports Day

Changing of the Guard in the NFL?

Just three weeks into the 2009 National Football League season, it’s much too soon to draw season-ending conclusions. For proof of that, look no further than just two seasons ago when the 2007 New York Giants were shredded defensively to the tune of allowing 80 points while starting 0-2, before finishing 10-6 and riding a complete defensive turnaround to shut down the NFL’s highest scoring regular offense ever, in a Super Bowl XLII victory.

Still, there are some early signs that the final 2009 NFL standings could look drastically different than they did a year ago.

Only two (the New York Giants and Minnesota Vikings) of last year’s eight division winners thus far are leading those same divisions this year.

And, three teams (Miami, Tennessee, and Carolina) that captured division titles a season ago are each still seeking their first win in 2009.

Last year’s AFC East champions, the Miami Dolphins have run the wildcat successfully enough to rank third in the league in both rushing offense and time of possession, but as we saw in their 27-23 loss to Indianapolis in which the Colts set a league record for having the ball for the least amount of time in a victory, that formula doesn’t necessarily translate to enough points (Miami is averaging just 14.3 per game) or wins (the Dolphins are 0-3). Throw in starting quarterback Chad Pennington’s latest season-ending injury, and Miami might be poised to go from the best turn-around in NFL history (from 1-15 in 2007, to 11-5 last season) right back to where it was two years ago.

The Tennessee Titans meanwhile, have been in every game they’ve played so far this year, and they’ve had some tough-luck losses, two by a field goal (one of those in overtime), and a third by a touchdown. However, last season’s AFC South champions have remarkably gone from the NFL’s best record (13-3) after a 10-0 start in 2008, to already matching last season’s loss total with an 0-3 beginning this year. Tennessee has a lot more talent and thus hope, than Miami, to turn things around, but NFL history has been unkind to 0-3 teams making the playoffs let alone winning a division.

And then there’s the Carolina Panthers, last year’s NFC South champions, also starting this season at 0-3 after going 12-4 a year ago. The Panthers were thoroughly embarrassed against Philadelphia in their 2009 season opener at home, a place where they went a perfect 8-0 in the 2008 regular season… that is until they were upset in a blowout loss to Arizona in last year’s NFC divisional playoff game –- which also marked a sharp turnaround for quarterback Jake Delhomme and the Panthers’ offense. Over Carolina’s last four games, Including last season’s playoff loss plus the Panthers’ first three games in 2009, Carolina has lost as many games (4) and Delhomme has thrown as many interceptions (12) as the Panthers and Delhomme had respectively, throughout the entire 2008 regular season. Carolina has already been outscored by 50 points (87-37), averaging a measly 12.3 point per game this season. That’s a huge departure from the team that was the number two seed in the 2008 NFC playoffs.

Meanwhile, last season’s Super Bowl participants, Pittsburgh and Arizona, the only teams to navigate through their respective divisions with perfect 6-0 records in 2008, are each just 1-2, and each has already lost its first game within its division.

Of course, if some of last year’s division winners are struggling now, there must be others which have stepped up and taken their place, and that’s been the case so far this year in nearly every division in the league.

In the AFC East, the 9-7 Jets of a year ago have begun 3-0 to lead that division on the strength of one of the NFL’s best defenses thus far in 2009.

In the AFC South, the Baltimore Ravens were already good last year, but they fell short to Pittsburgh by a game for the 2008 division title. This year however, they look to be one of the NFL’s most complete teams en route to a division-leading 3-0 record.

A similar situation for Indianapolis in the AFC South. After losing the division by one game to the Titans in 2008, the Colts have again ridden quarterback Peyton Manning’s arm to the top of the AFC South –- for now –- where they sit at 3-0.

And, to round out all AFC divisions with new leaders at 3-0, the undefeated Denver Broncos, albeit against a soft schedule to this point, have played well, allowing an NFL-low 16 points (just 5.3 points per game).

In the NFC, the only stability from last season can be found in the NFC East and in the NFC North.

But, with the Panthers and Cardinals faltering, last season’s 8-8, last place New Orleans Saints look like the NFL’s best team so far in 2009, storming their way to a 3-0 mark, crushing their opponents by a combined 120-56 so far; and the first-place San Francisco 49ers, just 7-9 a year ago, have already won at Arizona this season, and are a Minnesota Miracle pass (a Vikings’ game-winning 32-yard touchdown pass with just :02 left) from also being perfect at 3-0.

There’s a lot of football left, and November and December in the NFL often look a lot different than September. But, so far, it looks like we should be forgetting all about 2008 and possibly getting ready for a lot of new faces as either division winners or at least, playoff contenders, in 2009.