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Rays are the face of the year's faceless winners

Call it what you want, "low expectations . . . flying under the radar . . . coming out of nowhere," it is gloriously in vogue for major sports in 2008.

The Tampa Bay Rays are the symbol of won-lost standings turned upside down. Who are these guys, anyway? They are on the verge of the World Series but to anyone but those who watch at least one baseball game a day they remain strangers.

Faceless or not they have the pitching, the fielding, the hitting, the power and a manager who has been pulling all the right strings. In fact they have everything but fans, who finally started showing up when the team made the playoffs.

Wake them up! They were the worst team in baseball last season, one of the worst for several seasons. They weren't supposed to make much of a leap this season, much less one of the quantum variety. But they have.

Funny thing, but form sheets have been taking a beating in a number of sports this year.

In college football we seem to have a different No. 1 team or prime contender for that honor late every Saturday night. The usual suspects -- Southern California, Oklahoma, Florida, Louisiana State and Ohio State -- have been rounded up and then released because of lack of evidence. Vanderbilt, far better known for scholars than touchdowns, is now a serious contender.

We're almost halfway through the college season, a time when potential Heisman Trophy contenders are all but partially crowned but this year that competition has barely been sorted out. There is a defending Heisman winner, Florida quarterback Tim Tebow, who won it as a mere sophomore in 2007, but he's barely a face in the crowd at this point.

The NFL has been a potluck supper so far, but at least there are some explanations, mainly injuries to key players. New England has been unmasked as so overly reliant on Tom Brady that its great quarterback may as well be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame at halftime of its next home game.

San Diego lost its best defensive player, pass rusher Shawne Merriman, but has so much talent that his absence shouldn't be used as an excuse for all the struggling the Chargers have done. Crowned as a Super Bowl team before the season began they finally looked the part last week against the Patriots and now we'll see for ourselves today in The Ralph when they meet the Bills.

As for the Bills, visions of the first playoff berth of the new millennium danced in the heads of their fans when they won their first four, but Trent Edwards lasted only three snaps before he suffered a $25,000 concussion from Cardinals safety Adrian Wilson and then the Cards' veteran quarterback, Kurt Warner, ate them alive. The loss looked less demeaning a week later when Arizona overcame a litany of bad breaks and beat the Cowboys. As for the Cowboys, when quarterback Tony Romo recovers from the broken pinkie on his throwing hand he still won't develop fully until Terrell Owens is removed from his face.

Dallas' periodic underachieving despite a roster full of talent wasn't that surprising. The Cowboys are still providing a Home for Wayward Boys. Dallas owner and self-acclaimed General Manager Jerry Jones needs an indefinite suspension.

As for the Bills, they get a chance this afternoon to lay claim to some of the Rays' sunny outlook depending upon the quality of their performance against the best talent they have faced this season.

Larry Felser, former News columnist, appears in Sunday's editions.

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