Posted October 04, 2011

Upside-down NFL puts unexpected games in the spotlight

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San Francisco's surprising 24-23 win over the Eagles helped the team to a 3-1 start to the season. (Chris Szagola/Cal Sport Media)

To say it’s been a fascinating first quarter of the NFL season might be underselling it a bit.

Look around the standings: Buffalo, Houston, Washington, San Francisco and Detroit all sit atop their respective divisions, with the Lions joining NFC North rival Green Bay as the lone remaining undefeated teams. There’s a long way to go, but the 2011 playoff race may be one of the best ones we’ve seen, thanks to the early shake-up around the league.

The topsy-turvy start to the season also means that some remaining contests that looked like duds prior to Week 1, now carry huge importance. A look at some games over the next four weeks that are bigger than they first appeared

Tampa Bay at San Francisco, Week 5

Hard to imagine anyone had this circled on the calendar before the season started, but it could wind up playing a huge role in how the NFC shakes out.

San Francisco’s 3-1 after a shocking win in Philadelphia and two games up in the NFC West. The Bucs share that same record but also share first place in the NFC South with New Orleans. Every game feels bigger for Tampa Bay, given its intra-division competition — the 49ers  might be able to go 8-8 and still run away with the West.

Buffalo at New York Giants, Week 6

Before the season began, the Giants looked like they were a team in shambles, bereft with injuries and question marks all over the field. Buffalo was barely a blip on the radar — the Patriots and Jets stealing all of the AFC East headlines, like usual.

But New York’s weathered the early storm en route to a 3-1 start, and the Bills are a controversial replay decision from 4-0. Both squads sit tied for first heading into Week 5.

The Giants host Seattle Sunday, so they should move to 4-1. They also should be rooting for the Bills this weekend — Buffalo hosts the Eagles.

San Francisco at Detroit, Week 6

Both the 49ers and Lions appear on this list twice, and Detroit’s Week 5 Monday nighter with the Bears isn’t even included. Such a weird year …

The storyline before the season on this one was Jim Harbaugh’s return to the state of Michigan, where he no doubt made some enemies by spurning his alma mater, the University of Michigan, to take the 49ers’ job. Brady Hoke’s hire and subsequent 5-0 start probably quelled some of the Harbaugh disdain.

Either way, there’s plenty to be concerned about on the field in this one. The Lions’ second-half schedule is brutal, so even with San Francisco out to a 3-1 start, they don’t want to let this game get away.

Cleveland at Oakland, Week 6

The Browns’ wins have come over Miami and Indianapolis, a combined 0-8, so we should probably pump the brakes on any Cleveland love right now. Still, the Browns are 2-2 and have a favorable upcoming schedule. They visit Oakland after a Week 5 bye, then play Seattle, St. Louis and Jacksonville over a five-week stretch — three teams sitting with two totals wins.

Oakland’s yet to really decide if it’ll be a contender. The Raiders lost to Buffalo and New England, but beat Denver and the Jets. It seems like the pieces are in place for Oakland to stay competitive in the AFC West, but this one goes in the “Must-win” column.

Atlanta at Detroit, Week 7

Anyone have this as a possible NFC title game preview before the season started? Better yet, anyone have the Lions as a very likely favorite against the Falcons?

That’s life in the 2011 NFL world, where Detroit looks like a legit contender. It’s almost unfathomable to say this, but the Motor City Kitties could be playing for a 7-0 start in this one, against an Atlanta team that already has two losses and could have three following a Week 5 game with Green Bay.

Houston at Tennessee, Week 7

Peyton Manning’s injury opened the door for the Texans to take the AFC South — or at least, that’s how it seemed with Jacksonville rebuilding and Tennessee coming off a 6-10 season.

But the Titans have been unexpectedly solid through four weeks, going 3-1, despite almost no contribution from Chris Johnson until last Sunday. All of a sudden, this game and the Week 17 rematch in Houston look like they could decide the division. And, as it stands right now, the second-place team in the South could stay in the wild-card hunt, too, adding even more importance.

Washington at Buffalo, Week 8

Yeah, it’s those Bills again. This time, though, the opponent is a Redskins team that is absolutely desperate to produce a winner for their success-starved fans.

Washington has a Week 5 bye, then plays against Philly in Week 6 and visits Carolina in Week 7. The Redskins could be anywhere from 5-1 to 3-3 when they visit Buffalo, with each scenario looking as probable as the next.

Cincinnati at Seattle, Week 8

OK, so the Bengals aren’t exactly world-beaters at 2-2, and the Seahawks have looked miserable at times while starting 1-3. But this could be the fork in the road for both teams.

Seattle won the NFC West last season, if you’ll recall, and was expected to compete again. The Seahawks play at the Giants in Week 5, then at Cleveland in Week 7, following a bye. If they’re at 2-4 or 1-5, this game will mark their last chance to turn 2011 around.

Cincinnati, on the other hand, just knocked off previously unbeaten Buffalo and plays Jacksonville and Indianapolis before traveling to Seattle. Could the Bengals be 4-2? At worst, they’ll want to be 3-3, which means a win in Seattle could give them some playoff life.

Got any other under-the-radar games you’re looking forward to in the coming weeks? Let us know about ‘em in the comments …

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