The Steelers defense quieted its critics with a shutdown performance against the Vikings on Sunday, while the Patriots offense has looked like the 2007 version while ringing up blowout victories on both sides of the Atlantic. They're still looking up at the Colts and Broncos, of course, but if those are the top four when we get to January it should be a pretty spectacular fight for the AFC Championship.
- 1. Saints (6-0) Last Week: 1
Prior to Week 7, the whispered question around the NFL revolved around whether or not New Orleans could play effectively without a big lead. After coming back from 21 points down to thump Miami we know they can. -- Knox Bardeen
- 2. Colts (6-0) Last Week: 3
You get the feeling that the Colts like all of the attention being paid to the league's other remaining unbeaten teams as they stealthily fly under the radar all season. Attention will be paid at some point, if only because Peyton Manning might be having his best season ever.
- 3. Broncos (6-0) Last Week: 4
Denver returns from its bye with a trip to Baltimore that has the potential to end any further questions about the team. A win in Charm City will almost certainly punch their playoff ticket and prove that they can win anywhere and anytime.
- 4. Steelers (5-2) Last Week: 8
The best thing about their victory over the Vikings was the way that the defense stepped up and made plays in the fourth quarter. It's hard to put much faith in a team that doesn't finish games with a flourish, and that was the biggest question mark about Pittsburgh.
- 5. Patriots (5-2) Last Week: 7
Yes, the Titans and Bucs stink. But a 94-7 scoring edge over two games is something that knocks your socks off no matter the opposition. There are some niggling questions about the offensive line, but two weeks between games gives Bill Belichick plenty of time to come up with answers.
- 6. Vikings (6-1) Last Week: 2
They lost, but it's hard to really hold it against them. They weren't going undefeated, and losing in Pittsburgh is hardly anything over which to start hanging heads (especially with that funky fourth quarter). On the plus-side, Sidney Rice is emerging as a star wideout. On the minus-side, Brad Childress cannot justify throwing 50 passes and giving Adrian Peterson only 18 carries. That's absurd play-calling. -- Matt Snyder
- 7. Bengals (5-2) Last Week: 9
They continued their baffling trend of playing their best against good competition (although the Bears may not actually be any good), and they'll seal a playoff invite if they can keep up the good work against the remaining cupcakes on their schedule.
- 8. Packers (4-2) Last Week: 10
In the past five weeks, the Packers have defeated three of the worst teams in football and lost to two of the best. They squeaked out an opener against the Bears at home. It's hard to be down on them for playing this schedule, but it's also difficult to get overly excited just yet. Getting the Vikings at home, in addition to Favre-mania, will be a good measuring stick for the prospects of this team. -- MS
- 9. Cardinals (4-2) Last Week: 16
After a slow start, it's pretty safe to say the defending NFC Champs are back. The best news? They may have found a workhorse. Beanie Wells was their first round draft pick last April, and he looked the part Sunday night against the Giants. If he provides balance, the offense gets even more dangerous. -- MS
- 10. Eagles (4-2) Last Week: 12
They don't have a quality win yet and haven't looked good on offense at all over the last two weeks, but a good defense and the playmaking of DeSean Jackson are getting the job done. A win over the struggling Giants would give them the stamp of approval that they need.
- 11. Cowboys (4-2) Last Week: 15
Miles Austin has seven fewer yards in the last two games than Roy Williams has in his entire Cowboys career. Now that Austin's in the starting lineup and Patrick Crayton is also producing, the calls to bench Williams and admit trading for him was a mistake should get louder.
- 12. Falcons (4-2) Last Week: 6
Atlanta is now two games behind the Saints and play much better at home than on the road. They travel to New Orleans this week and must find a way to win if they have any hope of a home playoff game. -- KB
- 13. Giants (5-2) Last Week: 5
How can the Giants be below a Cowboys team they beat in Week 2? The Cowboys looked like a team with a future against the Falcons last week, while the Giants are only living on past reputation based on their last two outings. Serious problems on both sides of the ball plague the team on their way into a must-win game with the Eagles.
- 14. Ravens (3-3) Last Week: 14
This is the perfect spot for a team that will either shoot up the rankings in the next two weeks or drop like a Mafia victim in a bodybag loaded with rocks. If the defense has repaired itself over the bye week, bet on the former.
- 15. Jets (4-3) Last Week: 20
Reading much into the win over the Raiders is difficult, but it's hard not to like a team that's run for more than 600 yards over the last two weeks. If Shonn Greene remains a suitable replacement for Leon Washington, the Jets have found a formula that works because it limits the risk that Mark Sanchez will kill them with mistakes.
- 16. Jaguars (3-3) Last Week: 17
Things are setting up well for the Jaguars to remain in the thick of the AFC playoff hunt. The Titans and Chiefs are the next two opponents, they've got games against the Jets and Texans and confidence is on the rise in northern Florida.
- 17. Texans (4-3) Last Week: 18
Just when you think it's safe to believe in the Texans, they give up 21 second-half points to a quarterback who hasn't played in years. Focus on the good and the Texans should be higher on the list, but they've got to start showing it for 60 minutes at a time. Steve Slaton holding onto the ball is a good place to start.
- 18. Chargers (3-3) Last Week: 22
There was lots to like about the way the Bolts played on Sunday, especially in the resurgent ground game, but Norv Turner's bunch needs to show they can come up with these efforts every week before they get rewarded in these rankings.
- 19. Bears (3-3) Last Week: 11
That was a disgraceful showing in Cincy this past weekend. The Bears have a chance to get things right against the Browns at home, but will that simply be window dressing? There are serious issues with the offensive line and the secondary and minor ones almost everywhere else. -- MS
- 20. 49ers (3-3) Last Week: 13
The change from Shaun Hill to Alex Smith was probably the right move, but it's nothing Earth-shattering. The Texans are awful against the pass. It's going to be a different story for Smith in Indianapolis this Sunday. On the other hand, Vernon Davis is definitely for real. -- MS
- 21. Dolphins (2-4) Last Week: 19
If you're an optimist, you'll look at Sunday's loss and see a game Dolphins team that nearly knocked off the NFL's best team to this point in the season. If you're a pessimist, you saw a team that choked away a victory on their home field. Either way, the Dolphins need to beat the Jets this weekend or they'll stop mattering.
- 22. Bills (3-4) Last Week: 25
Ryan Fitzpatrick may never be on the cover of a video game, but you can't deny that he's got something going for him. His teams have won the last five regular season games he's played, which makes you wonder if Trent Edwards's eventual return to the lineup really makes sense.
- 23. Seahawks (2-4) Last Week: 23
They had a chance to lick their wounds with the bye, but things aren't going to be easy for their defense against the reinvigorated Cowboys this coming weekend. The 'Hawks have been awful on the road this year, 0-2, outscored 57-27, and the 'Boys are looking better than ever. -- MS
- 24. Panthers (2-4) Last Week: 21
Jake Delhomme reverted back to his interception prone ways on Sunday and could be in danger of losing his job. The Panthers have a brutal schedule over the next five weeks, so it may get worse in Charlotte before it gets better. -- KB
- 25. Raiders (2-5) Last Week: 24
Richard Seymour said that the Raiders couldn't have beaten a high school team on Sunday. The only way to prove him wrong would be if the high schoolers started JaMarcus Russell.
- 26. Chiefs (1-6) Last Week: 26
Jason Whitlock made a very good point in the Kansas City Star Tuesday when he argued that Larry Johnson being a raving lunatic was a good thing for the Chiefs. Anything that takes eyes off games like the one K.C. turned in on Sunday can't be a bad thing, after all.
- 27. Lions (1-5) Last Week: 29
Hopefully they were able to get a bit healthier during that bye week, because the rebuilding Lions have a shot at a confidence-building victory this coming week against the hapless Rams. They'll need to put their trust in the running game and make sure Steven Jackson doesn't single-handedly beat them. -- MS
- 28. Redskins (2-5) Last Week: 27
Note to Redskins: It doesn't much matter who calls the plays or what plays you call when your offensive line fears contact with opposing players. Lost in all of the offensive mess is that the defense isn't half-bad, but that's not enough lipstick for this pig.
- 29. Browns (1-6) Last Week: 28
The Browns were hit with several cases of swine flu last week. The bad news is that their players healed in time to play on Sunday.
- 30. Titans (0-6) Last Week: 30
Too much was probably made of Jeff Fisher wearing a Peyton Manning jersey last week, but it does open the door to questions about how much damage this lost season will do to his job security. If he keeps resisting ownership calls for Vince Young, there could be a new moustache in town when the season ends.
- 31. Rams (0-7) Last Week: 31
We're going to have 17 weeks worth of negative things to say about the Rams, so let's mix it up and be nice. Steven Jackson is an absolute stud. For a team who has been outscored 211-60, it's incredible that Jackson is third in the NFL in rushing. And he's getting all the attention. Imagine him on a team like the Colts. Man, he'd be out of this world. -- MS
- 32. Buccaneers (0-7) Last Week: 32
The Bucs enter their bye week with a huge decision looming over their heads. The season is lost and Josh Johnson is floundering. Is it time to hand the quarterback job to the future of the franchise, Josh Freeman? Whoever is throwing the ball in Tampa, don't expect too many wins from here on out. -- KB