What's the worst that could happen?
The Green Bay Packers found out Sunday in one of the wildest sequences of Week 3.
Protecting a three-point lead and hoping to get another score — and run out the clock with four minutes left — the Packers thought they had a first down at the Cincinnati 29. The Bengals challenged, however, and replays showed Green Bay was just short.
So on fourth and inches at the 30, Packers rookie Johnathan Franklin took a handoff up the middle but was stopped and stripped of the ball. Bengals safety Reggie Nelson recovered the fumble and ran a couple strides in the opposite direction before he too fumbled.
In a head-spinning reminder of just how quickly fortunes can turn in pro football, Cincinnati's Terence Newman scooped up the rolling ball and ran 58 yards for a touchdown, ultimately the winning score in a 34-30 thriller between two legitimate Super Bowl contenders.
"I saw Reggie pick it up. . . . I was screaming, 'Pitch it! Pitch it!'" Newman said. "Next thing I know, I saw the ball pop loose. It took a nice little bounce where I could just grab it and run."
Just another example of how America's biggest sports league has the turning radius of a Smart Car. Fortunes can flip in an instant. On a day when it was difficult to tell who was coming and who was going, Cleveland's Jordan Cameron had three touchdowns, and New Orleans' Cameron Jordan had two sacks.
"It was all just pressure everywhere," said Jordan, part of a unit that had four sacks and two interceptions. "We're you're part of a D-line like that, I mean, it's a party."
"We have to find ways to slow down the pass rush," said Giants quarterback Eli Manning, who was sacked five times in the first quarter of a 38-0 loss at Carolina. The Panthers finished with a franchise-high seven sacks, and, Giants Coach Tom Coughlin said, "Our quarterback must have gotten hit 20 times."
San Francisco was knocked around too. The 49ers, who looked so good after beating Green Bay in the opener, lost at home to Indianapolis, 27-7. In consecutive losses to the Seahawks and Colts, the defending NFC champions have been outscored, 56-10, and for the first time 49ers Coach Jim Harbaugh has lost consecutive games.
The NFL is about redemption. For a league-record 10 years in a row, at least one franchise has gone from worst to first in its division in consecutive seasons. The Kansas City Chiefs are on track to continue that trend, following their 2-14 year by winning their first three games. Of course, they would have to get past mighty division rival Denver, and the undefeated Broncos play host to Oakland on Monday night.
Whereas the Chiefs have whipped a U-turn, another AFC West team is driving in circles. The San Diego Chargers blew a fourth-quarter lead to Houston in the opener, found new hope with an upset victory at Philadelphia, then Sunday melted down again by giving up the winning touchdown with 15 seconds left at Tennessee.
Finally, the Browns didn't win until they traded their most acclaimed offensive player. Four days after shipping running back Trent Richardson to Indianapolis, and promoting third-stringer Brian Hoyer to starting quarterback, Cleveland won at Minnesota, 31-27. The Browns had scored 10 and six points in their first two games.
Said Browns tackle Joe Thomas: "If you let the distractions that are outside of the locker room affect the way you play, then you are tanking the season and you will have no chance."
Then again, if the first three weeks have taught us anything, it's that everybody's got a chance. And another, and another.