1.) Indianapolis Colts (14-0): Have to give the devil their due. Some folks will say the Colts have been lucky, since seven of their wins have been close calls. But, I believe that winning close games is the mark of a great team. The Colts have the best "closer" in the game in Peyton Manning. But, there is hope. Manning has yet to get his hair messed up in a game, let alone take a beating. You-all saw what happened when Drew Brees and Brett Favre got pressured.
1. INDIANAPOLIS (14-0): Last week: 35-31 win at Jacksonville. Over the last seven games, the Colts have been out gained 2,688 to 2,541, and have committed 13 turnovers while forcing 14. How they've gone 7-0 over that stretch will be the focus of the "CSI: Indianapolis" series premiere.
2.) San Diego Chargers (11-3): Playing great football, and may be peaking at the right time. Philip Rivers is the most underrated QB in the NFL. His set of tall receivers, Vincent Jackson, Malcolm Floyd, and Antonio Gates, are a nightmare match-up for secondaries.
2. NEW ORLEANS (13-1): Last week: 24-17 loss vs. Dallas. Speaking of yards allowed, the Saints have allowed 400+ five times this year. The last four Super Bowl champs allowed just three 400-plus games between them in 64 regular season outings.
3.) New Orleans Saints (13-1): Importance of a pass rush was on full display in the Saints' loss to the Cowboys. After watching OLB/DEs Demarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer wreak havoc on Brees, one has to wonder whether the Saints' OTs are good enough to give him the time to work his magic in the play-offs?
3. SAN DIEGO (11-3): Last week: 27-24 win vs. Cincinnati. If a quarterback “Quality Start” is defined as one where the QB has a passer rating of 80+, Philip Rivers has had an incredible 18 Quality Starts in a row. The only quarterback to go 16-for-16 in Quality Starts was Steve Young in 1992.
4.) Minnesota Vikings (11-3): This was a tough choice, as the Vikings appear to be slipping fast. Forty year old Brett Farve seems to be breaking down again, as he did with the Jets. Rookie WR Percy Harvin can't stay on the field. Whats' happening with Adrian Peterson? Could it be that his OL is failing him? Judging from their embarrassing losses to Arizona and Carolina, their OL may be failing Brett Farve, too.
4. MINNESOTA (11-3): Last week: 26-7 loss at Carolina. Another Brett Favre controversy? Here’s the real issue: the Favrkings have been outrushed 356-245 over their last three games, and MLB E.J. Henderson isn’t making a miraculous recovery in time for the playoffs.
5.) Green Bay Packers (9-5): The Packers should have beaten the Steelers in Pittsburgh last week. But, since they were swept by the Vikings, they weren't going to bypass them and win their division anyway...so, does it really matter? What matters is that their OL is finally giving QB Aaron Rodgers time to throw. As a result, he's having a pro-bowl season. Though their defense allowed 37 points to the Steelers, the unit is playing better, now that they're a bit more familiar with Dom Capers' 3-4 defensive scheme. The Packers are a dark horse SB threat in the NFC.
5. PHILADELPHIA(10-4). Last week: 27-13 win vs. San Francisco. Donovan McNabb joined an exclusive group of 25 quarterbacks with 4,500+ career pass attempts earlier this year. He’s third among them in passer rating (86.5), behind only Peyton Manning (95.3) and Joe Montana (92.3).
6.) Philadelphia Eagles (10-4): Have the most dangerous home-run hitter in the game in WR Desean Jackson, and perhaps the best deep passer in the game, in Donovan McNabb. Solid OL gives McNabb time to go deep, or work underneath to underrated TE Tom Selleck, or drop-off passes to his RBs. Good on special teams. Loss of RB Michael Westbrook really hurts. How far they go will depend upon whether their front seven can generate pressure against the better QBs.
6. GREEN BAY (9-5). Last week: 37-36 loss at Pittsburgh. The Packers are now 0-1 all time when allowing 500+ passing yards to a quarterback with 14 or more characters in his surname. The Pittsburgh loss was a classic example this year of Green Bay’s Achilles’ heel. They're a good team that can’t make critical plays.
7.) New England Patriots (9-5): At the beginning of the season, I predicted that the Patriots would go as far as their defense could take them. But, after watching their offense consistently disappear in the second half of games, it may not matter how well their defense plays. The Pats need a strong performance this Sunday against Jacksonville to establish momentum, and build confidence, as they head into the play-offs.
7. NEW ENGLAND (9-5). Last week: 17-10 win at Buffalo. Last week’s game was the least appealing event at Ralph Wilson Stadium since back in 1994, when our Uncle Phil broke out of the Orchard Park fat farm, scored a ticket and watched the entire game wearing nothing but Buffalo wing sauce.
8.) Cincinnati Bengals (9-5): Gave the San Diego Chargers all they could handle in a 27-24 loss. Have a great set of young CBs and LBs...who will get nothing but better over time. Underrated. This team can give any of the above a go.
8. DALLAS(9-5). Last week: 24-17 win at New Orleans. The Cowboys’ sub par Scoreability (No. 23) is balanced nicely by their excellent Bendability (No. 3).
9.) NY Giants (8-6): Regained their mojo in smashing the Redskins. But, is it too late? They own the tie-breaker over the Cowboys (beat them twice)...but not the Eagles (lost twice). Need to sweep their final two games, and a loss by either Green Bay or Dallas, to get in the tournament.
9. BALTIMORE(8-6). Last week: 31-7 win vs. Chicago. The Ravens finished 6-2 at home, now let’s see if they can get to .500 on the road and make the play-offs (at Pittsburgh and Oakland).
10.) Arizona Cardinals (9-5): Though the Cards are wildly inconsistent, isn't that the way things were last year, when they came within a play of winning the SB? The key to the Cards is their OL. If their big uglies can protect Kurt Warner, anything can happen.
10. CINCINNATI (9-5). Last week: 27-24 loss at San Diego. The Bengals currently rank No. 3 ranking in scoring defense (17.4 PPG), tied with New England. It’s not only the highest rank in franchise history, but would represent the first top-10 finish in scoring defense since 1989. Cincy’s highest rated defensive united finish No. 5 in scoring D – under head coach Paul Brown way back in 1972.
11.) Dallas Cowboys (9-5): After their impressive win in New Orleans, how can I keep the 'Boys out of the top 10? I question the leadership on their team. The 'Boys always seem to be "a day late and a dollar short". But, if they keep getting a pass-rush like they did against Drew Brees, they can beat anybody. In any event, they'll get their chance to prove me wrong. If they can win their next two against Washington and Philly, they'll win the NFC East. If that happens, they'll have to face the Eagles, once again.
11. ARIZONA (9-5). Last week: 31-24 win at Detroit. The Cardinals suddenly have a stout bend-but-don’t-break defense this year. They rank No. 6 in Bendabilityafter finishing dead last in 2008. Considering the fact that the 2008 team made the Super Bowl, perhaps the rest of the NFC should be concerned.
12.) Pittsburgh Steelers (7-7): Have never recovered from the loss of SS Troy Polamalu. Secondary is a mess. But, Ben Roethlisburger is an elite QB, which always gives them a punchers' chance.
12. N.Y. GIANTS(8-6). Last week: 45-12 win at Washington. The Giants are a splendid 6-0 against losing teams this year with an average victory margin of 19 PPG. Against Quality Opponents? They’re just 2-6 and have been outscored by 8.8 PPG.
13.) Baltimore Ravens (8-6): The Ravens have a good young QB in Joe Flacco, but he needs someone to throw to. RB Ray Rice would be even better than he is, if the Ravens had a more lethal passing attack. On the other side of the ball, the Ravens have a grossly overrated defense, anchored by aging veterans.
14.) Tennessee Titans (7-7): Really like the way that the Titans are playing. The return of Vince Young has clearly rejuvenated the team. Chris Johnson is the best RB in the NFL...and has a shot at a 2000 yard season. But, injuries on their "D" will make it tough for them to finish any better than 8-8.
15.) Denver Broncos (8-6): After a torrid start, are in danger of missing the play-offs. This Sunday, they must play the Eagles in Philadelphia...a tall order for any team. Just don't have the fire-power to compete with the elite teams.
16.) Miami Dolphins (7-7): No coach has gotten more out of his talent than Tony Sparano has in Miami. Congratulations to Bill Parcells and Sparano for returning this franchise to respectability.
17.) Jacksonville Jaguars (7-7): Jack Del Rio is one of the most underrated coaches in the NFL. Its' amazing that he's been able to lead this offensively challenged team to a .500 record, especially when you consider that he has a rather pedestrian defense. If his team can upset the Patriots in New England, they'll have a great chance of earning a playoff spot.
17. HOUSTON(7-7). Last week: 16-13 win at St. Louis. How rare was Andre Johnson turning in back-to-back games with 190+ yards receiving? It’s been done in the same season only 12 times, four times since the 1970 merger (Henry Ellard, Isaac Bruce, Chad Ochocinco, Johnson).
18.) Houston Texans (7-7): One never knows what to expect from week to week from this Jeckyl and Hyde team. They have some outstanding young players on defense, and perhaps the best WR in the game, in Andre Johnson. If they fail to make the play-offs again, it wouldn't surprise me if they brought in a new coach.
19.) Atlanta Falcons (7-7): Despite beating the Jets in NY last week, they've been eliminated from the play-offs. Their defense must improve before they become a true contender.
20.) NY Jets (7-7): Injuries may have prevented them from truly challenging the Patriots for the AFC East crown. Rookie QB Mark Sanchez has shown signs of being a good NFL QB. But, one must wonder whether his knees will hold up. Despite losing their best defensive lineman, Kris Jenkins, the Jets have one of the best defenses in the NFL.
21.) San Francisco 49ers (6-8): Are on their way to becoming a very good team. Still need to solve their QB problems. Own two first round picks in 2010...theirs and the one they got in an April 2009 draft day trade with the Carolina Panthers.
21. CAROLINA(6-8). Last week: 26-7 win vs. Minnesota. The Panthers are just 4-4 in their last eight games despite a +13 turnover differential (23 to 10).
22.) Carolina Panthers (6-8): Must decide to jettison star DE Julius Peppers, or be prepared to pay him $20mil. for next season. Have to find themselves a QB, as Jake DelHomme clearly is no longer the answer. Also must provide Steve Smith with some help at WR...who gets' blanketed even worse than Randy Moss. But, because they foolishly traded their 2010 first round pick, the rebuilding task may take a bit longer than expected.
22. JACKSONVILLE(7-7). Last week: 35-31 loss vs. Indianapolis. The Jaguars are the least penalized team in the league. So there’s that. Some of the worst pass defenders in football keep the team from being a contender (93.0 Defensive Passer Rating, 27th).
23.) Oakland Raiders (5-9): Have shown some life this season. Hopefully, there will be no carryover to that in 2010, as the Patriots own their #1 pick in 2011.
23. OAKLAND (5-9). Last week: 20-19 win at Denver. Finally, the Raiders have taken on the character of their owner, Al Davis: unpredictable but spunky. They have a shocking three Quality Wins this year, more than likely playoff teams New England, Philly, Dallas, Green Bay and Arizona.
24.) Buffalo Bills (5-9): Must find an answer at QB, and must rebuild their OL. Lots' of work to do here for the new coach.
24. CHICAGO (5-9). Last week: 31-7 loss at Baltimore. How did the Bears go from a contender shipping away a second-round pick at the trade deadline (for the useless Gaines Adams) to looking up at Oakland?
25.) Cleveland Browns (3-11): Playing better of late, Can Joshua Cribbs save Eric Mangini's job? Lets' hope not.
26.) Washington Redskins (4-10): Should be banned from the league after that disgraceful performance against the Giants. But, there may be a silver lining to that debacle for 'Skins' fans...as owner Danny Snyder has vowed to turn over the football operations (including all personnel decisions) to his GM. Time will tell.
27.) Seattle Seahawks (5-9): Need to move away from injury prone QB, Matt Hasselbeck...and develop a new leader. Deion Branch may be released, clearing the way for a possible return to the Patriots.
27. SEATTLE(5-9). Last week: 24-7 loss vs. Tampa Bay. Easily No. 1 on the Forgettability Index. The only memory of note for the 2009 Seahawks will be those terrible green uniforms they wore early in the season.
28.) Chicago Bears (5-9): The wheels have completely come off in Chicago. Dumb, desperate trade for Jay Cutler was a disaster. Cutler appears to be the second coming of Jeff George.
28. TAMPA BAY (2-12). Last week: 24-7 win at Seattle. The Bucs’ secondary has responded after major early struggles, and ranks a respectable 18th in Defensive Passer Rating (85.7).
29.) Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-12): From what I've read, this team has shown improvement, particularly on defense. The Green Bay Packers are still kicking themselves for losing to these guys:
29. CLEVELAND(3-11). Last week: 41-34 win at Kansas City. Welcome to Cleveland, Mike Holmgren. If he can help lead a fourth franchise to the Super Bowl (assistant in San Fran, head coach in Green Bay and Seattle), it’ll be impressive. If it happens in Cleveland, we want the rights to “He Is The Walrus: The Mike Holmgren Story.”
30.) Kansas City Chiefs (3-11): Matt Cassel needs lots of help...particularly on the OL. On defense, the Chiefs can't stop the run...which is a recipe for disaster in the National Football League.
30. KANSAS CITY(3-11). Last week: 41-34 loss vs. Cleveland. Yes, the Chiefs have allowed 796 rushing yards over the last three games. No humorous comment needed.
31.) Detroit Lions (2-12): The Lions can't seem to do anything right. They've let the St. Louis Rams beat them out of the #1 overall draft choice in 2010...sure to be Mr. Suh, from Nebraska.
31. DETROIT(2-12). Last week: 31-24 loss vs. Arizona. How desperate are Lions fans? They are 2-12, yet coach Jim Schwartz’s “Approval Rating” on ESPN.com was 75 percent as of Tuesday morning and it hasn’t dipped below 50 percent all year.
32.) St. Louis Rams (1-13): Truly painful to watch this bunch. Badly need a QB...and everything else you can think of. Should try to trade star RB Stephen Jackson for additional help, and for Jackson's well being.
32. ST. LOUIS(1-13). Last week: 16-13 loss vs. Houston. Looks like it’ll be the No. 1 pick this year for the Rammies after two straight No. 2 overall picks. Too bad that DE Chris Long and T Jason Smith haven’t been as good as the franchise’s previous No. 2 overall selections: Eric Dickerson in 1983 and Tom Mack in 1978. Both are Hall of Famers.
Heres' an article on playoff projections and chances: http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2009/writers/dom_bonvissuto/
Merry Christmas, You-all!!