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Muddying the Waters

Week 8 in the NFL was one of shocks, both big and small, as we came no closer to finding out how things might pan out in the remainder of the 2011 regular season. It only succeeded in complicating matters significantly.

Saints at Rams

Just one short week ago it was a no-brainer. The Patriots would carry the flag for the AFC, whilst Green Bay’s closest rivals in the NFC would be the New Orleans Saints. The Philadelphia Eagles were well out of the equation and the early pace-setters from Detroit and Buffalo had already faded into the background. Very clear cut.

Scrap all that.

The biggest shock this weekend came in St. Louis, where the previously winless Rams stormed to a 31-21 victory over the Saints. That the win came despite the absence of quarterback Sam Bradford made this result all the more surprising. And it must have been a real hammer blow for the Saints. They still hold a 5-3 record, but division foes Tampa Bay (4-3) and Atlanta (4-3) are closing in.

The road to the playoffs has now become a much more difficult and treacherous one for Sean Payton’s men.

Meanwhile, in Pittsburgh – where no home victory will ever be classified as a major shock – we had a minor upset. But a very significant one. The Steelers defense came up big in a solid 25-17 victory. It was the Patriots second defeat of the season. Ben Roethlisberger was at his clinical best, throwing for 365 yards, whilst Tom Brady was limited to 198 yards.

The Patriots’ postseason appearance is not under threat, but the Steelers are emerging as the AFC’s best. Again.

Then there’s the Eagles. If Sunday night’s win over rivals Dallas was predictable, the manner in which they achieved it certainly wasn’t. A rout from start to finish, Michael Vick was back to something approaching his best as his side romped to a 34-7 victory. Vick threw for 279 yards and ran for 50, signalling an awakening in Philadelphia from their early-season slumber.

Now 3-4, the Eagles are hitting form just in time to launch an assault at the playoffs.

As are the Detroit Lions and the Buffalo Bills. Two teams that surprised everyone with their form through the first five weeks, regained some momentum in Week 8. Detroit hammered a hapless Denver 45-10, whilst Buffalo shutout the Redskins 23-0, in Toronto. With these important wins to get their respective seasons back on track, don’t rule out the Lions or the Bills just yet.

If the two conferences are difficult to predict, then the individual divisions are downright problematic. None more so than the AFC West, where Kansas City’s overtime victory against San Diego on Monday night threw the division wide open. Two weeks ago the Chargers were cruising at 4-1, but they now find themselves tied with both the Chiefs and the Oakland Raiders at 4-3. Only the Denver Broncos (2-5) can be safely ruled out of the playoff equation.

Some things are as predictable as ever.

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