Behind the Jersey: NFL division dwellers on top in 2011

There is something in the Gatorade around the NFL this year. With the exception of the always-dominant Patriots and the defending-champion Packers, all the divisions find the usual dwellers riding high. Entering Week Six of the season, the Lions, Bills and 49ers had the same combined record as the Packers, Patriots and Saints (13-2).
With early surges from San Francisco (5-1), Detroit (5-1), Buffalo (4-2), Washington (3-2), Tennessee (3-2), Oakland (4-2) and Cincinnati (4-2), most coaches and fans around the NFL have found themselves scratching their heads in amazement. What is going on?
I’m going to break down the success of these recently woeful squads. In a new edition called “Wait, what?” I separate those who are riding high and have high hopes for the remainder of the season.

Wait, what?:
They are WINNING?

Detroit Lions. Standing at 2-10 a year ago and only a couple years removed from their 0-16 winless season of 2008, the Lions went on to win their final four games of the 2010 regular season (6-10). With that momentum, Head Coach Jim Schwartz led the lowly Lions to an impressive but unimportant 4-0 2011 preseason. With all of that said, the Lions entered Week One of the NFL season with lower than low expectations. Their first-round draft pick (Nick Fairley) was sidelined and not ready to play. The Lions would shock the world by going 5-0 to start the year. That is a nine-game winning streak (13-0 if you count preseason). This is the LIONS! With a defensive battle with the 49ers in Week Six, the five-point loss brought them to a 5-1 record in second place behind the defending-champion Packers in the NFC North. Their great start has surprised everyone. It helps when Matthew Stafford is healthy and throwing for 15 TDs and only four interceptions. Also, nine of those 14 have gone to the big 6-foot-5 Calvin Johnson. He established an NFL record with nine TD receptions in the first five weeks of the season.
San Francisco 49ers. Like the Lions, the 49ers stood at 6-10 at the close of last season. In a weak division that saw the 7-9 Seahawks make the playoffs, they are sitting pretty with their 5-1 record in the early parts of 2011. They lead the division by nearly three games and no one else seems to be showing signs of life. What has happened to them? New head coach Jim Harbaugh has his team playing fundamentally sound football on both sides of the ball. Tight end Vernon Davis and QB Alex Smith are starting to mesh as the two have connected for over 270 yards so far this season. It also helps when Frank Gore can rush for over 125 yards in three consecutive games.
Buffalo Bills. The Bills have not had a winning season since 2004 (9-7). In fact, they have ended at 7-9 in three of the seasons in that span. They seemed to be on a decline after a 6-10 finish in 2009 and a 4-12 finish in 2010. Just six games into the season this year, they have equaled their total of wins from a year ago (4-2). One of those wins included a Week Three upset of the Patriots (34-31) and a Week Five upset of the “Dream Team” Eagles (31-24). Their win over the Patriots is the lone loss for the division-leading Brady Bunch. For a team that has struggled to put points on the board in recent years, the Bills have scored 30-plus points in four of their six games. Also, they only trail the Patriots by one game in the division, as the Jets and Dolphins seem to be free-falling in the opposite direction.
Oakland Raiders. Year in and year out the Oakland Raiders are criticized for their decision-making on and mostly off the field. Whether it be their selection at head coach, QB or even on defense, they can never seem to get it right. With a 6-0 record against their own division a year ago, the Raiders began to look a little more promising. The only problem was that they couldn’t beat anyone outside of their own division as they ended the year 8-8. With some stability at the QB position with the offseason acquisition of Jason Campbell, a running game marked second in the league (160 yards/game) and some added motivation to win for the late, long-time owner Al Davis, the Raiders are a renewed threat in the AFC West.

Do these teams have a legitimate chance to win? Yes they do. In recent years, I would say a resounding “HELL NO,” but with the absence of Peyton Manning in Indianapolis (0-6), the underachieving Eagles in Philly (2-4) and the Falcons already equaling their total number of losses from 2010 (3), they have opened the doors wide open for other teams such as the Bucs, Titans and Redskins as well.
Other than just flat out winning, these teams are showing they have the right mentality and winning attitude week in and week out as well. For example, after a hard-fought, nitty-gritty battle in Detroit that saw their nine-game streak fall at the hands of the visiting 49ers, there was a scuffle between head coaches Jim Schwartz and Jim Harbaugh at mid-field. These teams are showing that every week is do or die in their minds. The 49ers stormed off the field as if they had earned the Lombardi Trophy. On the other hand, the Lions dragged their feet as if they had just been eliminated from playoff contention. Truthfully, the loss may have meant more to the Lions than the win did to the 49ers. The Lions need to win as many as they can to keep up with the division-leading Packers. They can prove their worth when the two meet twice in the final six weeks of the season. That includes a matchup on Thanksgiving and the final week of the season. So after years of questioning why the Lions and Packers traditionally played on Thanksgiving, no one will be complaining this upcoming Nov. 24. I will have one eye on my plate of turkey and company and the other on Calvin Johnson and Aaron Rodgers.