For all the preseason talk about Indianapolis and San Diego rounding out the loaded AFC elite, the fact remained New England carried a 19-game regular-season winning streak into the season and took steps to actually improve its roster during the offseason.
Minus Brady, the Patriots can still compete for the AFC East title on the strength of their corps of veterans. But remember that just over two weeks ago Brady's backup, Matt Cassel, wasn't even a safe bet to make the final roster. Tests on Brady's knee hadn't even been completed before the team reportedly lined up veterans Chris Simms and Tim Rattay for workouts.
So the AFC is now ripe for the taking for the Colts, Chargers and upstart Browns, right?
It is, except all three lost in highly disappointing fashion Sunday.
Indianapolis was thoroughly beaten in its first regular-season home game at Lucas Oil Stadium by Chicago, a team predicted to battle for the NFC North cellar with Detroit. San Diego was shocked on a last-second touchdown by Carolina. Cleveland was an underdog against Dallas, but the Browns weren't even remotely competitive against one of the NFC's elite.
Meanwhile, Pittsburgh looked like an under-the-radar force in dismantling a Houston team that entered the season harboring strong dreams of reaching the postseason for the first time in franchise history.
Home-field advantage will also be much more difficult for the Patriots to secure than in recent seasons. The AFC East is far more competitive with Brett Favre leading the Jets to a win in Week 1 against an improved Dolphins squad, and the Bills physically manhandling Seattle up and down the field.
It took less than one quarter to throw the AFC on its head in 2008, and it's unlikely the fourth-year pro Cassel is equipped well enough to hold off the wolves who smell blood.