- Associated Press - Saturday, October 11, 2014

What was supposed to be the NFC Least has three winning teams.

The NFC South was pegged as a division for outsiders to avoid for fear of getting swallowed up, yet it’s been mediocre.

Same for the NFC North.

Just some early season machinations or a trend that will continue into the colder months?

It’s ludicrous to make long-range judgments about the entire NFL season in early October. The way things have gone in recent years, such assessments often don’t fit even in early December.

Still, the way the NFC divisions have shaped up through five weeks ranges from predictable to stunning.

Here’s a breakdown of the NFC, division by division:

NFC EAST

Nothing is more surprising than this sector, where Dallas (4-1) heads to Seattle on Sunday with a chance to establish itself as a true contender. And later that night, the Giants (3-2) visit the Eagles (4-1) in a tantalizing, albeit early, showdown.

Tony Romo doesn’t want to put too much emphasis on one week in early fall, but the Dallas quarterback also sees a proving ground for his team.

“I think we’ve seen plenty of times one game isn’t going to define your season at this point,” says Romo, off to a strong start following back surgery. “However, there are very important games and you know this game is a game that is a great test for us. It’s going to be good to see our team come out with great energy and great enthusiasm and really see how we stack up. Normally no one stacks up very well there against them. So I’m anxious to see how we do.”

The only losing team in this division so far is Washington, even though most prognostications saw the Eagles as the only likely playoff squad. Some thought the Cowboys would be down where the 1-4 Redskins are.

The keys to success - and failure - are pretty obvious:

-Cowboys RB DeMarco Murray is making like Emmitt Smith, with at least 100 yards rushing in each of the first five games. And a defense with no stars has allowed the fewest points in the division.

-Philadelphia’s special teams have been, well, special. The Eagles have scored TDs on a kick return, punt return and two blocked punts. They also have three defensive TDs.

The Eagles also don’t panic when down; they’re the first team to rally from at least 10 points behind to win their first three games. Twice, they were down by 17.

-After an 0-2 start, the Giants, especially Eli Manning, began finding comfort with their new, West Coast-style offense. They stopped committing a bunch of turnovers and began forcing them. Mostly, while their public was panicking, Tom Coughlin and his staff and players remained calm.

-In Washington, a slew of injuries hasn’t helped - starting with quarterback Robert Griffin III being sidelined in Week 2. The Redskins can make big plays, but they give up many more such plays. They also are minus-5 in turnovers, with growing pains under new coach Jay Gruden.

NFC NORTH

Projections of a three-team race between Green Bay, Chicago and Detroit might still pan out. If it does, it won’t be because all three are dominating opponents.

The Packers (3-2) have come on the past two weeks, or since QB Aaron Rodgers told everyone to “relax.” They have the playmakers on offense - Jordy Nelson has been the league’s best receiver so far - and that could be enough to overcome a spotty defense.

Detroit (3-2) and Chicago (2-3) are the teams that need to settle down. Statistically, the Lions are among the league’s best. Yet they really aren’t consistent and few expect their defense to remain staunch.

The Bears win or play it close when the Good Jay Cutler shows up. They have little chance when Bad Jay is behind center, and their defense, despite all those offseason moves, remains so-so.

Minnesota (2-3) has had turmoil with the Adrian Peterson case, and lots of injuries.

NFC SOUTH

Give Carolina’s coaching staff tons of credit. The Panthers (3-2) seemingly lost the offseason, their talent base appeared diminished, and they’ve had a major distraction, too, in the Greg Hardy case. Other than having 10 takeaways, the stats don’t look like much.

Yet they appear steadier than the Saints (2-3), Falcons (2-3) and Bucs (1-4).

New Orleans has blown too many close games and is unreliable away from the Superdome. Atlanta is 0-3 on the road and can’t stop the run, offsetting a good offense. Tampa Bay has gone the other way from Carolina, aggressively adding free agents, but then going bust.

NFC WEST

While not as potent as last year, this remains the best division and, barring injuries, should be the rest of the way.

Neither the defending Super Bowl champion Seahawks (3-1) nor their archrivals - fair to say archenemies considering the dislike in both camps? - the 49ers (3-2), have been consistently at their best yet. Still, they are winning even though Seattle knows it certainly can cause more turnovers (only three so far) and San Francisco recognizes its passing game hasn’t been on-target.

The Cardinals (3-1) are more injury-plagued than any contender, but like the Seahawks and Niners, they are well coached, with an effective scheme on both sides of the ball.

St. Louis (1-3) is the biggest disappointment in this sector. Like Arizona, it’s been ravaged by injuries, but the guys on the field have underperformed.

Then again, the Rams were 1-3 a year ago and wound up 7-9, the best last-place team in football.

Remember, it’s early.

___

AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP_NFL

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