Ultimately, the decision came down to the choice the Colts made in the second half of their game against the Jets. It would have been a lot easier to swallow the Colts deciding to go with second-stringers from the opening kickoff than it was to watch them give up on a game the way they did. Not to get all Herman Edwards on you, but you play to win the game. That's true in the first quarter and it's even more true when you're up 15-10 in the third quarter of a game that will move you one win closer to a perfect season.
- 1. Chargers (12-3) Last Week: 2
Philip Rivers ain't winning the MVP this year -- Curtis Painter's performance on Sunday afternoon took care of Peyton Manning and his fourth award -- but he can at least take solace in the fact that the Chargers, STILL arguably the best team in the NFL, own the Colts in the postseason. Oh, and that Indy seems irrationally deflated after falling to an embarrassing 14-1. -- Will Brinson
- 2. Colts (14-1) Last Week: 2
Like we said at the top, this was a really tough call and one that was ultimately swung by the personnel choices the Colts made on Sunday. They'll have a chance to get the last laugh, but it can't make them feel too hot to notice that the Patriots and Chargers, two teams that have won in Indy before, could be the road they need to travel to get to the Super Bowl.
- 3. Eagles (11-4) Last Week: 4
The Eagles are flying high with six straight wins, though the win against Denver was made bittersweet with the loss of Jamaal Jackson, the anchor of the offensive line. Not even an 11-4 record is enough to wrap up the NFC East, as the Eagles will need a win in Dallas next week to win the division. A win also leaves open the possibility of a first-round bye. A loss puts the Eagles on the road for the playoffs. -- R.J. White
- 4. Patriots (10-5) Last Week: 6
The Patriots appear to be peaking at the right time, and a 35-7 demolition of playoff contender Jacksonville potentially sets them up for a Giant-like run in the playoffs this year. With an 8-0 record at home, a first-round win seems likely, but when you look at their 2-5 road record, which includes losses to Indy, New Orleans, Denver, Miami and the Jets, you get the feeling that this team may be one-and-done in January. -- RJW
- 5. Cowboys (10-5) Last Week: 7
Known for their offensive prowess, the Cowboys actually have the defensive side of the ball to thank for their playoff berth, as Dallas has allowed the fewest amount of points in the NFC. Even if they don't pull off a win at home against the Eagles, they've proven they have what it takes to win on the road in a hostile environment (haven't they, New Orleans?). Jason Witten's re-emergence as a top tight end couldn't have come at a better time. -- RJW
- 6. Saints (13-2) Last Week: 3
The last two weeks have done a lot to make you think there should be quotation marks around "home-field advantage" for Sean Payton's merry men in the postseason. They haven't played well in more than a month and don't appear to be making the adjustments they need to make to turn things around. There's still time, but it's gonna take more than a goofy Drew Brees pregame speech to get the Saints back on track.
- 7. Cardinals (10-5) Last Week: 8
Peter King reports that the Cardinals may be the Cardinals again this year. And while it's easy to mock him for such a statement, it's quite true; the Cardinals are a dangerous, underrated team -- not to mention that they're better than last year's rendition -- who are peaking at the right time. Added bonus: they won 10 games in a single season for the first time since 1976. -- WB
- 8. Vikings (11-4) Last Week: 5
What's more worrisome to the Vikings -- the fact that Adrian Peterson is no longer otherworldly, the fact that the secondary can't stop anyone or the fact that Jared Allen only has one sack in the last four games? Your choice, but things are going the wrong direction in Minneapolis.
- 9. Packers (10-5) Last Week: 10
They leapfrog the Bengals this week because they did a better job in their game against an opponent with nothing to play for on Sunday. You've got to like the offense, but the likelihood of facing the Cardinals' passing attack two weeks in a row is troubling for a team that is eight days removed from allowing 503 yards to the Steelers.
- 10. Bengals (10-5) Last Week: 9
They might not be frauds, as Rodney Harrison contended on Sunday night, but they hardly fill you with much hope of a deep playoff run. If resting the starters this week guarantees them a back-to-back with the Jets, they should probably sign up for it. Weak offensive opponents are the surest route to success for this outfit.
- 11. Steelers (8-7) Last Week: 16
Deeply, perhaps fatally, flawed? Absolutely, and that's why they'll probably miss out on a chance to defend their title in the playoffs. They've been highly entertaining, though, and the victory over the Ravens showed that they still have a little fight in them.
- 12. Ravens (8-7) Last Week: 12
Baltimore has long contended that they are unfairly targeted by referees around the league. Penalties certainly helped cost them a victory against the Steelers, but one wonders if that's become a self-fulfilling prophecy for a team that continually finds a way to shoot itself in the foot when it comes to infractions.
- 13. Jets (8-7) Last Week: 20
A week after giving up on the playoffs, Rex Ryan and the Jets are right back in the thick of the playoff hunt. They'll face the Bengals this weekend, and a win could mean a rematch with Cincinnati in the first round of the playoffs. Ryan, a first-year coach, has led this defense to the No. 1 position on the points scored list, thanks in large part to the magnificent Darrelle Revis, who has become the league's best man-coverage cornerback, in my opinion. -- RJW
- 14. Texans (8-7) Last Week: 19
If they can find a way past the Patriots on Sunday, they'll finally have that winning record they've been chasing since entering the league. That will likely mean another season at the helm for Gary Kubiak, something that must be greeted with mixed feelings and a gnawing suspicion that a different coach would have found a way to win a few more games along the way.
- 15. Broncos (8-7) Last Week: 12
Despite a flurry of late-game Kyle Orton touchdowns against Philly, it appears that Josh McDaniels is going to put together the most improbable first year coaching performance of all-time, from taking his team to 6-0 (with upsets of the Pats and Bolts along the way) to out of the playoffs. If you drew up Denver's momentum curve for the season it would be a perfectly shaped bell. -- WB
- 16. Panthers (7-8) Last Week: 21
We've only got one argument with the Panthers announcing that John Fox's job is safe after big wins against the Vikings and Giants: what in the world was he thinking by sticking with Jake Delhomme for so long? The man needs to be less averse to taking risks when the season lies in the balance.
- 17. Giants (8-7) Last Week: 13
The Giants become only the fifth team of the Super Bowl era to start 5-0 and miss the playoffs. The embarrassing Week 16 loss to the Panthers drew apologies from quarterback Eli Manning and coach Tom Coughlin. Would the Giants be bold enough to fire Coughlin after this devastating loss? They almost certainly won't, but the fact that we're asking the question indicates how wrong the final season in Giants Stadium went for Big Blue. -- RJW
- 18. Falcons (8-7) Last Week: 18
Back-to-back winning records are swell, but the Falcons can't sit back and feel like they merely missed out on the playoffs because of a few injuries or a couple of bad breaks. The defense needs a lot of work to put the Falcons back into the postseason come 2010.
- 19. Dolphins (7-8) Last Week: 15
For a team that lost their offensive catalyst midway through the season, the Dolphins showed a lot of heart in November and December. They won three of their first four games after Ronnie Brown's injury, but close losses to Tennessee and Houston have knocked Miami out of the playoff race. Still, Chad Henne looks like a keeper, and once the team adds a legitimate No. 1 WR and stops the wideout merry-go-round, they should compete for the division title. -- RJW
- 20. Titans (7-8) Last Week: 14
We're left to wonder what would have transpired if the Titans had pulled the plug on Kerry Collins a few weeks earlier, but perhaps it takes the kind of woodshed beating they took in New England to truly foster the change we saw over the second half of the season. A few judicious tweaks should have the Titans looking strong come September.
- 21. 49ers (7-8) Last Week: 22
Beating Detroit by 14 wouldn't be horrible if Drew Stanton wasn't quarterbacking -- what does it say about a team when the opposing signal caller goes 11-for-21 for 130 yards and three interceptions (not to mention two of those receptions which were fumbled by Calvin Johnson) and they only win by two touchdowns? It says this: not ready to compete in the NFC West. Just remind me next year not to think they're some super-sexy sleeper pick please. -- WB
- 22. Jaguars (7-8) Last Week: 17
We've got a feeling Sunday's game with the Browns is going to loom large for Jack Del Rio's future in Jacksonville. Four straight losses to close out the season would not speak well of his ability to inspire the troops nor does it send the message that the team is heading in the right direction.
- 23. Bears (6-9) Last Week: 26
The notoriously thrifty Bears were probably dying for a reason to avoid paying Lovie Smith and a new head coach next season. Monday night's victory may have given them the out they were looking for, but they'd be better off making their judgment based on the other 31 games over the last two seasons.
- 24. Browns (4-11) Last Week: 27
You could argue that three straight wins makes a case for Eric Mangini getting another year running the Browns. You could also argue that Jerome Harrison's last two games make a stronger case that someone else should be making the decisions about who plays and who sits on the bench after making midseason proclamations that they don't want to play football anymore.
- 25. Raiders (5-10) Last Week: 23
John Madden is apparently angling for a job as "a football czar" in Oakland (they're all the rage with shoddily run organizations these days) even though he thinks Al Davis won't admit that he needs help. Which is true, although you think losing by two touchdowns against the Browns (see the symmetry here?) would be enough to brush the metaphorical cobwebs off even the most senile of corpses. -- WB
- 26. Seahawks (5-10) Last Week: 25
How on Earth is it possible that Mike Holmgren is sitting in his office in Cleveland (CLEVELAND, MAN!) and looking out west and thinking, "Hmmm. I may have improved my situation"? Because, honestly, he is. The Browns are a nightmare but this disaster of a Seattle season, coupled with Matt Hasselbeck's horrible experiences in Lambeau, continued with what has to be the most embarrassing blowout on a Sunday that had quite a few. -- WB
- 27. Bills (5-10) Last Week: 24
Do you want to know what's wrong with this team? They've scored more than 20 points just three times this year, and only once since Week 2 (a 31-14 win over Miami). You can't win ballgames if you don't score points, as John Madden probably has said. The defense has actually been quite good, allowing fewer than 20 points in eight of their last 11 games. If the Bills bring in an offensive-minded head coach and some talent at QB, they could start winning ballgames. -- RJW
- 28. Buccaneers (3-12) Last Week: 30
It's my opinion that Tampa would be making a very foolish decision if they jettisoned Raheem Morris to take a shot at Bill Cowher. They had to expect some growing pains with a first-time head coach taking over a team without a quarterback and they got them, but that's how you build toward long-term success. The Bucs have made progress, Morris has made progress and running in the other direction because Cowher's a bigger name seems foolhardy.
- 29. Redskins (4-11) Last Week: 28
The Redskins opened this season with six games in row against winless teams, and only managed two victories in that slate. Unfortunately, the rest of the season hasn't gone much better. Jim Zorn's bunch can only boast about a win over Denver seven weeks ago, a win that looks a lot less impressive today. While they've been competitive at times, they're 0-6 against the division and it's time to start all over again. -- RJW
- 30. Chiefs (3-12) Last Week: 29
Five straight losses although they haven't ALL been embarrassing -- KC played well enough on Sunday that they inspired Rodney Harrison to call the Bengals "frauds." Of course, since they managed to sneak out three wins this year, they're all but eliminated from the "Suh Sweepstakes" so let's not do anything silly like feeling optimistic. -- WB
- 31. Lions (2-13) Last Week: 31
The Lions get one more week to bellyache about Matt Millen and then it's time for them to start standing on their own two feet. Yes, he was awful but the page has been turned and the new regime is accountable for everything that happens from this point forward.
- 32. Rams (1-14) Last Week: 32
No one expected them to win on Sunday, it was just a matter of whether or not the Rams could muster enough of an effort to cover whatever the double-digit spread was. The only thing more depressing than that? I could have been using that generic -- albeit quite accurate -- sentence for the past 16 weeks and saved us all some time -- WB