There is no better illustration of how delightfully confounding and absurdly unpredictable the NFL has turned into this season than the backdrop for Sunday's Jets-Patriots game at Gillette Stadium.
Think for a minute: In the immediate aftermath of the Patriots' dazzling Week 5 win over Peyton Manning's Denver Broncos, in which Tom Brady executed the no-huddle offense as well as Manning could ever dream, could you have imagined they'd be in a position where fans are doubting whether last year's AFC champions have what it takes to get back to the Super Bowl?
Or how about the Jets: They had just lost to the Texans at home after another anemic performance from Mark Sanchez in a game that the Jets' defense at least gave him a chance to win. The loss came on the heels of a 34-0 home obliteration by the 49ers, a loss Rex Ryan called the worst of his career as a head coach. At 2-3, it seemed as if the bottom was about to fall out and that Tebow Time was nearly upon us.
Jets-Pats certainly looked a lot different then. It looked more like Sanchez's potential last stand and Brady's latest coronation as the AFC East's quarterback of the ages.
Then came Week 6, when the NFL redefined the meaning of impossible and -- voilà! -- created the scenario the two teams find themselves in Sunday. The Patriots blew a fourth-quarter lead in Seattle and re-ignited doubts about their porous secondary. The Jets grounded and pounded Andrew Luck's Colts into submission behind Shonn Greene's career day.
And here we are: Jets-Pats with first place on the line.
Welcome to NFL 2012, in which reality can -- and almost always does -- shift at a moment's notice.
Even Ryan stepped out of his new more conservative approach and served up some bombast in advance of this one, starting the week off with some bold words.
"I want them to know, and they know, that I think we're going to beat them," Ryan said. "Look, I recognize they're a great football team and [Bill] Belichick's a great coach. I've never once said he wasn't, OK, but we're not going to back down or concede anything."
And away we go, with the Jets rekindling the swagger that had been strangely absent through the early part of the season and the Patriots having to defend themselves from the barbs being thrown by a fan base accustomed to regular-season brilliance, not an early-season stagger.
"We're 3-3. We haven't earned a better record than that," Brady said. "We haven't played well enough and consistently enough to be better than that, but I don't think six games defines a season, and I think that what will define our season is what we do over the course of the next 10 weeks."
And so the stage is set for another in a series of major regular-season showdowns between two divisional rivals who have engaged in plenty of back-and-forth both on and off the field during the Ryan era. Before Ryan arrived in 2009, Belichick had beaten the Jets in 13 of his previous 16 matchups. But Ryan already has matched the combined victory total of three previous Jets' coaches, winning three of his seven matchups against Belichick.
Another win here, and this AFC East race becomes that much more compelling, especially in a season where the Patriots came in with the easiest schedule of any team in the NFL based on last year's records. But as this league has shown us time and time again, what appears on paper is rarely what occurs in reality.
The Patriots started off 1-2 this season, the first time they had been under .500 since the first week of the 2003 season. The odds are that Belichick won't dip below .500 a second time so soon, but Ryan's team will do everything in its power to deliver another body blow. The Jets must somehow solve the Patriots' increasingly effective no-huddle offense, a task made all the more daunting without the injured Darrelle Revis and a suspect pass rush.
Sanchez, meanwhile, has to take some shots down the field against a Patriots' secondary that is the Achilles' heel of the defense. Ground & pound alone won't do it against New England, whose front seven is stout against the run. For all the attention paid to the possibility that Tim Tebow might -- or might not -- work some at running back, the real key here will be whether offensive coordinator Tony Sparano lets Sanchez air it out to keep the Patriots honest. Answer: He should.
It's the best path to another shocking result in a division that already has produced a bunch of them so far. The biggest one of all: Jets-Pats for first place in late October.