At the start of the 2010 NFL season, the power ranking landscape had a very different feel then it does now. A mere three weeks later, many of last years power house teams have faltered and left the door open for some surprising upstarts and teams battling internal turmoil to slip in with some big wins early.
Here's a rundown of the top five surprising successes going into the first NFL bye week.
Can you feel the love?
2010 was supposed to be the year that the San Francisco 49ers would finally put it all together and get to the playoffs by winning the NFC West. Former USC coach Pete Carroll apparently had plans of his own, though.
In week one the Seattle Seahawks defense stunned the 49ers by beating them relentlessly for four quarters in a lopsided 31-6 victory. 49ers QB Alex Smith looked as bad as any professional QB I've ever seen. Carroll won his Seahawks debut but would fall to the Denver Broncos the next week 31-14.
Still, the Seahawks bounced back in week three as special teams led them to a victory against the San Diego Chargers 27-20. It wasn't a pretty victory, but it was a victory that got the team to a 2-1 record and the division lead. RB Leon Washington had two kickoff returns for TDs in the contest.
The Seahawks are ranked 8th in points scored (72) and are fifth in the league in rushing defense (203 yards allowed.) Seahawks QB Matt Hasselbeck is playing solid enough, and the team is finding ways to win. The NFC West may be the weakest division in the league, and the Seahawks look to be the early favorites to win it.
The Dolphins Dynamic Duo
The AFC West was supposed to be a two horse race between the New England Patriots and the New York Jets this season, but as it turns out there is a third contender that has sneaked it's way into the race.
The Miami Dolphins are in a three way tie for the division lead with the two aforementioned teams at 2-1. They beat the Buffalo Bills in a close week one contest by a score of 15-10. They did it with a two-headed running game and a strong defensive performance.
In week two, it was more of the same when they beat the Minnesota Vikings 14-10. Dolphins RBs Ricky Williams and Ronnie Brown amassed 100 yards for the second straight week, and the defense shut down the Viking's passing game allowing only 208 net yards through the air and corralling three interceptions.
In week three the running game stumbled against the Jets, but Dolphins QB Chad Henne had a great game (352 yards, 2 TDs, 1 interception) and led the team into the red zone on the games last drive for a chance to tie things up. They fell short in the contest 31-23, but they showed that they can hang with the best of defenses.
The Dolphins boast the league's tenth ranked defense against scoring and ninth ranked against the pass. The offense is fifth in turnovers given up, and with the exception of the game against the Jets, they have ran the ball very well so far this season.
The addition of LB Karlos Dansby has solidified the defensive front seven. This team plays an old school brand of football that could keep them in the hunt for a playoff birth in 2010.
The Minnesota Vikings were supposed to lock horns with the Green Bay Packers for the NFC North crown. Three weeks into the 2010 season, it's the Chicago Bears who surprisingly stand above them both at 3-0.
In week one the Bears almost let a win slip away by giving up a controversial no-TD catch to Lions WR Calvin Johnson. Bears QB Jay Cutler had a great game the contest (372 yards, 2 TDs, 1 interception) and the Bears hung on to win 19-14.
The next week they played a disheveled Dallas Cowboys team and won 27-20. Jay Cutler led the way again with 227 yards and 3 TDs in the game. The Bears defense forced three turnovers in the contest, and the Cowboys only had the lead once in the contest. That was in the first Quarter.
In the Bears' third game of the year, they beat the division rival Green Bay Packers in a stunner on Monday night. The Packers actually outplayed the Bears, but 18 Packer penalties led to a 20-17 Bears victory on a Robbie Gould field goal with five seconds remaining in the game. Jay Cutler looked like his turnover-producing old self, but a win is a win.
The Bears are winning behind Cutlers cannon arm, RB Matt Forte doing everything humanly possible to gain yards, and solid play from their defense led by LBs Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs. The Bears defense is ranked tenth in points allowed and first in rushing yards allowed.
The Bears are also rank fifth in the NFL in passing offense. Their winning sloppy, hard fought games, but they're running ahead of the pack in the NFC North right now.
In year two of sophomore head coach Todd Haley's rebuilding process the Kansas City Chiefs were poised for improvement, but very few people (present company excluded) predicted their amazing turnaround in 2010. The Chiefs are 3-0 going into their bye week, and they lead all other teams in the division by two full games.
In week one, the Chiefs were home town underdogs against the AFC West champion San Diego Chargers. After letting the Chargers march down the field and score a TD early in the contest, the Chiefs defense suddenly stiffened and gave up only one more score in the game, winning 21-14 largely because of two big plays.
Many viewed the game as nothing more than a fluke, and after the first half of the Chiefs week two contest on the road against the Cleveland Browns it appeared that the critics may have been right. However, the Chiefs defense stiffened again and allowed no points in the second half of the game. The Chiefs basically ran up and down the field after that and won the game 16-14 on the legs of RBs Thomas Jones and Jamaal Charles.
In week three the Chiefs were again underdogs at home. This time it was the San Francisco 49ers who were favored, but their would be no drama in this contest. The Chiefs absolutely throttled the 49ers, seemingly scoring at will and giving up only three points until the last play of the game. They won this game easily to the tune of 31-10.
Neither Jones nor Charles have had a 100 yard game, but the two of them combined have racked up an astonishing 455 yards in three game and are leading the leagues best rushing offense (160.1 yards per game.) The team has also given up the second least amount of points in the NFL (38.) Their rushing defense is ranked sixth and they're second best in first downs allowed.
If QB Matt Cassel can manage to keep from turning the ball over, this team should run away with the division crown. This would be their first playoff birth since 2005. The NFL's loudest "12th man" seems to be back.
The Pittsburgh Steelers are the easy choice for the top spot on this list. In the off-season, the optimism of getting back defensive captains Troy Polamalu and DE Aaron Smith was cut down by the untimely suspension of QB Ben Roethlisberger for off-field indiscretions. Fans and critics alike were left wondering just how the Steelers would fare without their Pro-bowl signal caller under center.
The Steelers opted to start second year QB Dennis Dixon in Ben's absence. It wouldn't take long to see that with a traditional Steelers game-plan, the sky is the limit.
Week one pitted the Steelers against the offensively explosive Atlanta Falcons. The Steelers held them to a mere nine points and never let them into the end zone. Polamalu got a huge interception to stop the Falcons' last drive before they could get into field goal range for a chance to win in regulation, and Steelers RB Rashard Mendenhall busted off a 50 yard TD run to win in overtime 15-9
The Steelers would have to battle the Tennessee Titans next, who had looked very impressive in rolling over the Oakland Raiders the week before. Titans star RB Chris Johnson was held to 34 rushing yards in the contest, and the Titans only made it into the end zone once in the contest. The Steelers won another close one 19-11.
Dennis Dixon was injured in the Titans game, and long time backup QB Charlie Batch would have to start in the Steelers' week three contest against the then undefeated Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The offense had been called into question already, and many feared this may be the week that the Steelers' luck would run out. Many were wrong.
The Steelers routed the Bucs in the most lopsided contest of the week, drumming them to the beat of 38-13. Batch only threw the ball 17 times, but he made them count completing 12 of them for 186 yards and three TDs. Mendenhall got in on the action with 143 yards and a TD of his own. Steelers WR Mike Wallace had his breakout game catching two of Batch's TD passes, and the Steelers defense put the icing on the cake by giving up a total of 303 yards and creating two turnovers.
The Steelers have one more game to play without Roethlisberger, and it's against their division rival Baltimore Ravens. At the very least, they'll be 3-1 going into the bye week when they get Ben back for their game against the Cleveland Browns—and there's no indication that they won't be 4-0.
The Steelers defense is ranked first in points allowed, third in rushing yards allowed, and first in turnovers created. Their looking like the team to beat in the AFC North if not in the entire NFL. Soon they'll be getting back one of the toughest QBs in the league. If everyone stays healthy, there's no reason to believe that they won't be in the thick of things come January.
Be on the lookout
I always like to close with a little food for thought. Amidst all of these over achievers is the possibility of seeing some playoff match-ups thought unlikely if not impossible three weeks ago. We could see two teams who weren't even in the playoffs last year battling for the AFC Championship.
I give to you Steelers vs. Chiefs. Two young head coaches with experienced coaching staffs behind them, playing football the way it was intended—stop your opponent from scoring and run it down their throats. This is a match-up to be on the lookout for in January.
It's a long way away, and there are a lot of games to be played in the meantime, but I for one would love to see this game shaping up in my Christmas stocking. One thing is for sure though; With two quality franchises like these going at it for something more than just a regular season win, everyone would have a happy New Year.