We're going to go with the Saints, simply because their penchant for turning the ball over is the kind of thing that can catch up to you at exactly the wrong time. The Colts, by virtue of Bill Belichick's aversion to punting, have a two game edge on homefield in the playoffs. That gives them more margin for error than New Orleans enjoys with the Vikings breathing down their necks.
Beyond the top of the ladder, the most interesting two teams at present are the Titans and Panthers, whose early struggles have faded behind recent runs of good play. There's probably going to be one team that makes the playoffs on the back of a late season surge, and those two are looking like real contenders despite their dismal starts.
- 1. Saints (9-0) Last Week: 1
It's been since a Week 5 victory over the Giants that New Orleans has won convincingly. They're still 9-0, but offenses are starting to figure out how to move the ball against the Saints. In each of the past four games, the Saints have given up over 100 yards rushing, three times to a single back..-- Knox Bardeen
- 2. Colts (9-0) Last Week: 2
Witchcraft or not, Peyton Manning just finds a way to continue winning games. The Colts have now won 18 consecutive regular season games. Home field advantage throughout the playoffs is on the horizon and it could pave the path to their second Super Bowl championship. -- Matt Snyder
- 3. Vikings (8-1) Last Week: 4
It didn't even seem like they had to exert any energy in the home win over the Lions. Expect more of the same against Seattle this week. This team is playing for home field throughout the playoffs right now. -- MS
- 4. Bengals (7-2) Last Week: 6
The huge win in Pittsburgh has them sitting pretty as they enter a stretch of three games against teams with four combined wins. Cedric Benson's injury is troubling, but more troubling is their habit of playing down to the opposition.
- 5. Steelers (6-3) Last Week: 3
There's clearly no shame in losing to the Bengals this season, but the Steelers have to be concerned about the way they were outmuscled by the Cincy defense. Offensive line issues have long been this team's Achilles heel, and that's going to make it all the more difficult for them to hold onto the Lombardi Trophy.
- 6. Patriots (6-3) Last Week: 5
I'm of the group that didn't hate Bill Belichick going for it on Sunday night, but there's no doubt that the team lost big on their gamble. Homefield in the playoffs is out of the question and they're going to have to fight like hell to get a bye. On the flip side, they were a Lawrence Maroney fumble and end zone pick away from blowing out the Colts so it's not like there's any justification for all the panic we've seen the last couple of days.
- 7. Cardinals (6-3) Last Week: 11
Seattle may have choked away the game on Sunday, but that doesn't matter in the bigger picture, because Arizona is the odds-on-favorite to take the NFC West now. Yes, it's like finding out your dober-hound mutt-mix is the leading contestant at a three-legged dog beauty show. -- Will Brinson
- 8. Chargers (6-3) Last Week: 9
My, my, my, how the butter has churned. Er, whatever -- San Diego and Denver are tied at the top of the division, but everything about their seasons is going in opposite directions; Philip Rivers is coming on really strong, LaDainian Tomlinson is improving quickly and the Chargers have won four straight. Meanwhile, the Denver offense is fading and they've lost three in row, including a total stinkbomb of an L to the 'Skins. -- WB
- 9. Cowboys (6-3) Last Week: 7
Was Sunday's disaster in Green Bay a case of meeting a desperate team in their house or a sign that the Cowboys may be hitting a wall? The play of Doug Free, the young tackle replacing Marc Colombo, will have a lot to do with it. It would also help if Roy Williams stopped sucking so completely, but the ship may have already sailed on that front.
- 10. Broncos (6-3) Last Week: 8
I already summed up how quickly Josh McDaniels (a.k.a. Capt. Icarus) has fallen back to Earth -- so in lieu of that, I'll point out how unfair it is for all of us who hated the Broncos at the beginning of the year to sit here and say, "Bwahahahahaha." But you know what? He did it to himself with that whole "6-0" and "beating his old boss" stuff, so he should have seen this coming once his team started to inevitably tank. Missing the playoffs would be uber-awkward, but is a very real possibility. -- WB
- 11. Ravens (5-4) Last Week: 14
A win is a win, but Monday night didn't exactly fill you with confidence about the Ravens over the long haul. The defensive resurgence was great, but let's see what happens against NFL-caliber quarterbacks, and the entire offensive strategy seemed predicated on making winners out of everyone who bet the under. They'll need to be much better against the Colts.
- 12. Jaguars (5-4) Last Week: 15
Well, look who decided to join the playoff discussion. They haven't exactly been impressive in doing so -- they've been outscored by 39 points and barely survived the Chiefs and Rams at home -- but the Jags are 5-4 and right in the wild card mix. -- MS
- 13. Packers (5-4) Last Week: 16
Huge bounce-back win at home against the Cowboys. Unless they suffer a letdown -- as they did against the Bucs -- the Packers should get wins the next two weeks (vs. Niners and at Lions). That would make them 7-4 and probably the top Wild Card in the NFC. Guess the fans should put away those shovels, because it's not time to bury Mike McCarthy just yet. -- MS
- 14. Texans (5-4) Last Week: 13
Three huge divisional matchups in the next three weeks: They'll deal with a hot Titans team who surely wants revenge for Week 2, their nemesis Colts and a road outing in Jacksonville. How they come out of these three will show if the Texans are ready to take the step forward as a playoff team or remain mediocre. -- MS
- 15. Falcons (5-4) Last Week: 10
The Falcons has lost three of their last four and have only won on the road once this season in five attempts. Matt Ryan is in a funk and, to make matters worse, Michael Turner suffered a high-ankle sprain and will likely sit out for a few games. Three of the falcons next four games are against playoff-caliber teams. Atlanta needs to right the ship quickly or playoff hopes will diminish.-- KB
- 16. Eagles (5-4) Last Week: 12
You would have had a tough time convincing an uninformed observer of their loss to the Chargers that Norv Turner was the coach consistently on the hot seat. Andy Reid's unwillingness to try to win a game on the road is far more offensive than anything Belichick did on Sunday, but only the uninformed would think that the Eagles were going to win a close game with the Big Moustache calling the shots.
- 17. Giants (5-4) Last Week: 17
The Giants had their best week in quite some time, which might have some around Big Blue wondering if they should bother getting back on the field. For all of the bad things that have happened during four straight losses, the Giants control their own destiny with the Falcons, Broncos, Cowboys and Eagles coming up. Win three and their playoff chances are still looking good.
- 18. Dolphins (4-5) Last Week: 18
The game with the Bucs may have been closer than it needed to be, but Chad Henne leading a game-winning drive had to be a confidence boost to South Florida. With three roadies in the next four games and an ailing Ronnie Brown, that boost will have to have some staying power for the Fins to stay in the playoff conversation.
- 19. Panthers (4-5) Last Week: 22
Jake Delhomme has gone three straight games without an interception and is starting to resemble the gunslinger of old. But, this Panthers team will win with their pair of running backs -- who have their team ranked third in rushing in the NFL. A shot at the playoffs isn't out of the question, but a tough schedule looms ahead. -- KB
- 20. Titans (3-6) Last Week: 21
The bye week, Vince Young, Chris Johnson turning into Walter Payton and a ball-hawking defense (eight takeaways in the last three games) have the Titans playing as hot as anyone right now. They'll have a chance to play spoiler down the stretch. -- MS
- 21. 49ers (4-5) Last Week: 23
Would someone at the NFL scheduling office care to explain how in the world bookending Week 10 with SF/CHI and CLE/BAL got greenlit? I guess you could argue that the first game had some upside to it before the season, making it an attractive NFLN game, but really, throw us a bone here. Anyway, the Niners are still alive in the NFC West. And still boring. We need less pants. Er, um. Right.-- WB
- 22. Jets (4-5) Last Week: 19
Remember when Rex Ryan was Mr. Tough Guy? He cried in front of his team on Sunday, which may actually be a good thing if he's humbled enough to actually fix what's wrong with a team that delights in shooting themselves in the foot. Their season is on life support and Belichick gets the chance to pull the plug this Sunday.
- 23. Bears (4-5) Last Week: 20
You could argue they should be 7-2, 2-7 or anywhere in between. There's talent in here, but it's being wasted by lackluster coaching, awful turnovers, a sieve of an offensive line or a sieve of a defense. All at different times, too. When something is going well, another aspect is terrible. If they put it all together, there's a real shot here (after all, they're only a game out of the Wild Card). If they don't, they could easily go 5-11. -- MS
- 24. Seahawks (3-6) Last Week: 24
A really bittersweet day for Seattle on Sunday -- they lost (bitter), Julius Jones was hospitalized (bitter, but I don't mean to trivialize it) and yet, Justin Forsett emerged (sweet) and T.J. Houshmandzadeh had a monster game (also sweet). Of course, since I doubt they care about the whole "fantasy football scoring" thing, so all-in-all a pretty devastating day, since they're donecakes in the West now. -- WB
- 25. Chiefs (2-6) Last Week: 27
Having finally rid themselves of Larry Johnson, the Chiefs are quickly en route to winning out, making the playoffs, netting Todd Haley and Scott Pioli Coach and GM of the Year Awards and turning the economy around in the process. Alright, maybe that's a little over-excitement following a win against the Raiders, but hey, a win is a win! Ammaright?? In fairness, I actually see at least three more wins -- one of the Denver games, Cleveland and Buffalo; when you consider they could conceivably be 5-4 right now, that's not a horrible season. -- WB
- 26. Bills (3-6) Last Week: 25
The most baffling thing about Titans owner Bud Adams flipping the bird on Sunday was that it was a win over the Bills that elicited such a reaction. What about watching a terrible football team lay down with little to no fight could make a man so hostile?
- 27. Redskins (3-6) Last Week: 31
The best part about their victory on Sunday was the outsize role that second-year receiver Devin Thomas and rookie linebacker Brian Orakpo played in making it happen. Any sign of promise is welcome amid the wreckage of this season.
- 28. Raiders (2-7) Last Week: 26
Things are so bad in Raider-land that Jamarcus Russell might be benched for Bruce Gradkowski and somehow doesn't understand why -- it's like Cleveland but everyone's much more angry and much less numb to the embarrassing quarterback play. On the bright side of things, it doesn't look like their head coach is getting charged for assault and Al Davis
doesn't have the arm strength tois too classy to give opposing fans the double-bird treatment. -- WB
- 29. Buccaneers (1-8) Last Week: 28
Josh Freeman is showing signs of brilliance and the Buccaneers -- who lost a heart-breaker in Miami last week -- are slowly pulling themselves out of the cellar in the standings. They have no hope for 2009, but if the final seven games go like the last two, the Bucs can be taken off of life-support.-- KB
- 30. Rams (1-8) Last Week: 29
The season is such a nightmare for the Rams that when I thought back to their near-win at New Orleans, I actually said, "Wow. That was like a moral victory but way better!" That's not necessarily a good thing. Of course, the ultimate sadness is that Steven Jackson's amazing season (think about what he's doing in relation to the team he's on) is being totally wasted. -- WB
- 31. Lions (1-8) Last Week: 30
Matthew Stafford threw for 224 yards and a touchdown against a solid defense. He didn't turn it over. He had to deal with Jared Allen and company all day in addition to receivers dropping passes -- including one Bryant Johnson should have had in the end zone. They need to give him a line and there is hope. -- MS
- 32. Browns (1-8) Last Week: 32
Here's some good news about the Browns: Their defense wasn't half-bad against the Ravens on Monday night. Shaun Rogers looked particularly spry and he's the kind of player that can make offenses miserable. Unfortunately, we've yet to find a defensive player who doesn't make the Browns offense miserable.