Collins has helped position the Titans to a four-game lead in the AFC South and three-game lead in the AFC.
No expected Peyton Manning to have to lift the Colts off the endangered species list because few expected them to be on it.
And no one expected Tennessee to be unbeaten after nine games, having all but clinched home- field advantage in the AFC, especially with 35-year-old Kerry Collins at quarterback.
It's an odd mixture of QBs leading teams toward the playoffs this season - throw Miami's Chad Pennington and New England's Matt Cassel into the mix, too. It's what makes the NFL so much fun as it turns into November for fans who still root for teams over the random assemblage of fantasy players they've assembled in attempts to be their own general managers.
This week's highlights:
-Ryan and Flacco continued to do what rookies aren't supposed to, leading the Falcons and Ravens to wins that left them at 6-3. Atlanta is tied with Tampa Bay a game behind Carolina in the NFC South, and Baltimore moved into a tie with Pittsburgh for the AFC North lead.
"He doesn't get flustered,'' Ravens coach John Harbaugh said of Flacco, the first-round pick from Division I-AA Delaware, who was supposed to sit and watch this season behind either Troy Smith or Kyle Boller. "Momentum swings don't affect him too much. He comes out and plays the next series and takes care of business.''
-Manning, seemingly recovered from two procedures on his left knee that took him out of almost all of preseason, led Indianapolis back from a 17-7 deficit to win in Pittsburgh 24-20 and get to 5-4, in decent position for a wild-card spot. OK, the Colts are usually 9-0 or 8-1, but the way the season started for them, they're not complaining.
-And Collins, a "game manager,'' in the current parlance, was forced to throw for the unbeaten Titans when Chicago brought eight and nine men up to shut down Tennessee's running game. So he threw: 30-of-41 for 289 yards and two TDs, his fourth and fifth of the season, and Tennessee won 21-14 to improve to 9-0.
Unless a contender or two suffers key injuries at key positions or some non-competitive team suddenly wakes up, this week's standings seem to dictate the potential playoff possibilities as games start getting serious.
A capsule look:
Everyone but Tennessee has at least three losses, which means that with seven games left and a middling schedule, the Titans are almost sure to get home-field advantage for the playoffs. The Titans don't win big and don't win pretty, but their defense is stifling. Unbeaten? Let's wait a while.
In the East, the Bills (5-4) are hurt and slipping fast - three straight losses within the division and four of five, making them the least likely winner there among four teams with winning records. Something will give Thursday night when the Jets (6-3) visit the Patriots (6-3), with New England getting the bigger edge if it wins because it took the first meeting.
The Brett Favre trade has helped two contenders: the Jets, obviously, and also Miami because the Jets released Chad Pennington to make room for him. Without Pennington, Miami wouldn't be 5-4, gimmick offense or no gimmick offense.
The Tom Brady injury?
New England is no longer merely staying afloat with Cassel, who is playing well enough that Bill Belichick is gradually opening up his offense. As usual, Belichick is one of the few coaches in the NFL who can simply plug in a backup and keep winning. Cassel and sixth-string RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis (plus the always dependable Wes Welker) led the offense over Buffalo on Sunday.
The Steelers (6-3) filled one injury-created hole with Mewelde Moore for Willie Parker at running back. It might not be a bad idea to sit the banged-up Ben Roethlisberger for Byron Leftwich, who did fine in relief in Washington, then watched Ben throw three costly interceptions against the Colts .
"You'll never hear me say 'I' anything, but I lost this game,'' Roethlisberger said. "I take it on myself. I let the guys down on offense and defense. It hurts, but we'll learn from it.''
Still, the Steelers get the edge over the Ravens in the division because Baltimore still has to play the entire NFC East, starting this week with the Giants at the Meadowlands. Pittsburgh, which beat the Redskins and lost to the Giants and Eagles, only has Dallas left. Assuming that division remains the best in football, do the math - especially when Flacco has to face the complex New York and Philadelphia defensive schemes.
Give Tennessee the South and ...
Give either Denver (5-4) or San Diego (4-5) the West. The Broncos may have to test the theory that in Mike Shanahan's system, you can plug in anyone at running back and he can gain 1,000 yards. Right now, everyone is hurt, so "anyone'' has to be the next option.
Wild cards? Too early to predict. The second-place team in the North (Steelers or Ravens); the Colts; and the non-winner in the East, most likely omitting the Bills. Maybe the Jaguars (4-5), although they have internal problems that a victory over Detroit doesn't cure.
When the Giants upset the Patriots in the Super Bowl last February, they were thought to be a decent team on a hot streak.
Wrong. They were a young team that had not yet peaked. The run to a title provided confidence they've used this season to win rough road games in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and jump on top of both the NFC and the East at 8-1.
They are a better team now than last season despite the retirement of Michael Strahan and the injury to Osi Umenyiora because they know how to win. Chase Blackburn, who made the fourth-down stop of Brian Westbrook that clinched Sunday night's game, is a fourth-year utility linebacker who's never done anything but excel - except when he was caught trying to run off the field on a punt as the 12th man during the Super Bowl.
So despite a very difficult closing schedule that continues next week against the Ravens, New York is the team to beat in the NFC and probably in the league. The Giants have a two-game lead over Washington in the East and are 3-0 within the division to 2-1 for Washington, 1-2 for Dallas and 0-3 for Philadelphia, tiebreakers that could play a big role.
Carolina (7-2) looks like the best team in the South. The Bucs certainly look legitimate and the Falcons seem to be legit, barring a swoon by Ryan, who seems less likely than Flacco to encounter rookie problems late in the season.
But it's not just Ryan for Atlanta. It's WR Roddy White coming into his own; RBs Michael Turner and Jerious Norwood; and DE John Abraham, who is having a standout season because coach Mike Smith is smart enough to rest him to keep him healthy, something he's rarely been for much of his career.
Nov. 23 could be the key in this division. The Falcons will be favored to get by Denver at home this week and then play host to Carolina, who beat them 24-9 in Charlotte on Sept. 28. If they win that, who knows.
The North remains a three-team jumble among the Bears (5-4), Vikings (5-4) and Packers (4-5). The Vikings, who might have an edge, close at home against the Giants, a team that off last season, when they almost handed the Patriots their first loss in the finale, might not rest anyone even if they have clinched everything.
The West? Arizona was already three or more games ahead of three awful teams heading into Monday night's game with San Francisco. Mark in the Cardinals but hold the "Kurt Warner for MVP'' talk.
The wild-card teams will come from the East and/or the South. Assuming the Giants and Panthers win the divisions and get first-round byes, figure the Redskins, Eagles, Bucs, Falcons and, last, the Cowboys to have a shot.
Nothing against Dallas, but with everyone from Jerry Jones to the folks in Bristol sending them to the Super Bowl before they played a game, it might be nice to see them home for the playoffs.