Simon Veness expects to see some real Super Bowl contenders emerge from the pack this week.
Last Updated: 05/10/12 11:04am
You'll have to excuse me if I seem a little out of breath this week. I took the View from America column over for a little drive in golf territory last week and ended up with a severe case of Ryder Cup fever (symptoms: high blood pressure, difficulty in breathing, sore throat and frequent cries of "I don't be-LIEVE it!").
Thankfully, back in NFL-land, things have pretty much reverted to normal. We have the proper refs on the field again, New England are scoring points for fun and the New York Jets are in complete disarray (as are Dallas, whose offensive line have done a disappearing act that David Blaine would be proud of).
More importantly, after the first month of the season, we can make some fairly concrete judgments on who will - and will not - be playing meaningful football in January, with Week Five serving up a packed line-up of our favourite game, Contenders Or Pretenders.
Look through all 14 games and each one has the possibility of genuine play-off material, with some of the Usual Suspects (the Patriots, Giants, Steelers, Packers, et al) as well as the Surprise Packages (including the Vikings, Bengals, Seahawks and Chargers).
It is that delicious stage of the year when, with the first bloom of fall foliage, we get to see the true colours of the NFL's finest, and whether they have post-season potential written in their New Year forecasts.
For some, notably Houston, Green Bay, Baltimore and San Francisco, we can already do without the crystal ball and predict fairly confidently they can brush up on their play-off repertoires. Indeed, with the woeful state of the AFC South, the Texans can almost start resting key players this month in readiness for the knockout stages.
But, for the majority, this week sees the beginning of the all-important middle phase of the campaign, and Sky's three live games are all firmly steeped in this essence of For Real - Or Not?
It all starts with possibly the most surprising team of the lot, Arizona, at St Louis (live on Sky Sports 1 HD at 1am on Friday).
If there was anyone in pre-season predicting a rosy future for the Cardinals, I certainly didn't see or hear them. In fact, it was hard to find anyone NOT forecasting another dismal year for Ken Whisenhunt's men.
With a quarterback 'contest' that was more Last Man Standing than Best Foot Forward and a running game that could barely be called plodding, it was hard to see how they would score ANY points, let alone enough to back up a promising defence.
But a funny thing happened on the way to a 4-0 start. An injury to starter John Skelton put Kevin Kolb back under center by default, and the former Eagle has finally turned out to be at least half the quarterback the Cardinals gave up a second-round pick and Dominic Rodgers-Cromartie for.
Now, suddenly, they are the favoured team against the hapless Rams, and anything other than a convincing win against an outfit that has scraped together just 25 points in their last two games - one of them actually a victory - will push Arizona back into Pretenders territory.
Kolb still has his critics, despite seven touchdowns and just two interceptions in four games, and this is the kind of game that should establish his long-term credentials as someone to count on.
Come Sunday, things start to get serious for all four teams in the Sky spotlight.
It starts with the Battle of Pennsylvania, a potential defensive slugfest between Philadelphia - owners of a less-than-solid 3-1 record - and bye-week fresh Pittsburgh (live on Sky Sports 3 HD from 5.30pm), who urgently need to get back in the 'W' column to avoid seeing their deadly rivals the Ravens disappearing off into the AFC North distance.
Eagles head coach Andy Reid has been typically phlegmatic about his team's stuttering start, which consists of an absolute nightmare in Arizona and three heart-stopping last-gasp wins when Michael Vick somehow managed to do his own magic act and turn a pile of rubbish into an appetising morsel.
You get the feeling with the impassive Reid that, even if aliens landed in the middle of the field and declared their undying love for Philly, he would still only raise an eyebrow.
But the trip to the Steel City is sure to test his stoicism to the limit as a defeat will rekindle the questions over Vick's future while also threatening to undermine the fragile sense of unity in a team that has played great defence and less than stellar offence.
At the same time, the Steelers have their own issues following a week's much-needed R 'n R. The last time we saw Mike Tomlin's injury-hit men they were collapsing to a dismal defeat in Oakland that is still the Raiders' only bright point in a dark collection of mis-fires and misgivings about new head coach Dennis Allen.
And then we have the latest edition of the NFL's greatest quarterback duel, the long-running contest between Tom Brady and Peyton Manning (live on Sky Sports 3 HD from 9.15pm).
New England remain the beasts of the AFC East, with none of the Bills, Jets or Dolphins looking like they can stage any kind of challenge, so the Pats will be judged mainly by what they do against non-divisional opponents. Like the Broncos.
So far, Denver have veered wildly between Colt-like brilliance and dolt-like incompetence, mainly thanks to Peyton's early-season struggles to prove he IS still the main Mann. There will be no place to hide on Sunday night, though, hence most observers reckon that what we will see is definitely what we will get for the remainder of the year.
Bronco fans can only hold their breath, Ryder Cup-like, and hope that the player their team has been re-built around can now stick his re-constructed neck far enough above the parapet to serve up a meaningful duel against his old foe - while New England fans wonder if they will see last week's first-half horror show against the Bills or the mighty second-half machine that dialled up 45 points.
Spirit of Seve
It's an intriguing prospect, but somehow I'm still pulled back to last Sunday and the events of Medinah Country Club. It's a rare day when any of my predictions come even close to being right, but my pre-Cup forecast of a 14½-13½ European victory, fuelled by the Spirit of Seve, will linger long in the memory.
Now, if I can just call on the Spirit of Steve (Van Buren) to get my Eagles flying high at Pittsburgh, that will be a rare win double indeed!