1. Kansas City (8-0). I debated putting the Chiefs here, after they struggled to beat Houston and Cleveland at home in the last eight days while others up top—the Niners in particular—have been strafing the league mercilessly. There are no style points in football, though, and the Chiefs are undefeated halfway through the season.
2. Indianapolis (5-2). A solid number two, with wins over three, four and five.
3. San Francisco (6-2). Five straight wins by an average of 22.6 points. This team’s getting scary. Think of the room to grow for this offense entering the bye: In the last two weeks, the Niners have scored 73 points in two road wins a total of 10 time zones from home … and gotten only 363 yards and one passing touchdown in the process.
4. Denver (7-1). Why San Francisco over the Broncos? Because I trust the Niners defense right now. I don’t trust Denver’s nearly as much.
5. Seattle (6-1). Russell Wilson was playing minor-league baseball 28 months ago. I wonder if he was tempted to pull a hat over his forehead Sunday night and walk from his hotel in St. Louis over to World Series Game 4.
6. New Orleans (6-1). The more I watch this team, the more I think about 2009. Only with Jimmy Graham, Kenny Stills and Darren Sproles as upgrades over their peers of four years ago.
7. Cincinnati (6-2). The win over the Jets was one of the most surprising results of this season—not the win or loss, but the 40-point margin against one of the surprise teams of the season.
8. Green Bay (5-2). Seventy-five points the last two weeks in two resounding wins … and a favorable schedule over the next four: Cutler-less Chicago and Vick-less Philly at home, at the 2-6 Giants, then the 1-6 Vikings at home. The Pack will force the Lions (a half-game behind) to be perfect to keep up before their Thanksgiving showdown at Ford Field.
9. New England (6-2). So flawed. So hard to read. So hard to think this is an impact team in January—but the defense, even without Wilfork/Mayo/Talib, is a competitive group with players like Logan Ryan who don’t know they’re not supposed to be making game-deciding plays.
10. Detroit (5-3). One premier team with one premier quarterback (Green Bay, Aaron Rodgers) left in the final eight games—unless you count Baltimore, which, right now, you can’t call a premier team. That’s why I like the Lions’ chances to be the NFC North champ or the sixth seed in the NFC tournament.
11. Carolina (4-3). You can talk about the maturation and improvement of Cam Newton, which is good and true. But this is a pretty stingy team. Panthers have allowed 12 per game in the last five.
12. San Diego (4-3). The defense is coming around—read Greg A. Bedard’s pass-rush rankings from last Thursday—as the 15 points allowed in the last eight quarters will attest. But the Chargers, coming off the bye, are about to embark on a very tough 29-day stretch: at Washington, Denver at home, at Miami, at Kansas City, Cincinnati at home.
13. Dallas (4-4). Dallasites will say no, no, no. But until proven otherwise, I say: Same Old Cowboys.
14. Chicago (4-3). Just not sure the Bears survive a month without Jay Cutler.
15. Houston (2-5). Call me crazy as I rank the Texans over Arizona, Tennessee and Baltimore (which owns a 21-point win over Houston). I say Case Keenum and that defense constitute a playoff threat still … even though Indy (twice) and Denver (once) remain to be played.
The Award Section
Offensive Players of the Week
(There are so many. I’ve picked three, but there could be 19.)
Calvin Johnson, wide receiver, Detroit. Rarely does a player elevate himself above his peers the way Johnson does. He was dominant from the first minute to the last (14 catches, 329 yards—seven yards shy of Flipper Anderson’s NFL record for receiving yards in a game—one touchdown, and setting up Matthew Stafford for the game-winning TD leap with a stretch that landed the ball at the one-foot line) against Dallas. Afterward, the way Stafford talked about him, I thought he might be genuflecting over the phone.
Andy Dalton, quarterback, Cincinnati. Understand that before this season, he had doubters (not disbelievers, mind you, but doubters) everywhere—inside his organization, in his own locker room, and all around Cincinnati. He went a very long way toward dispelling them Sunday against a professional defense run by Rex Ryan and the playoff-threatening Jets. He completed 19 of 30 passes for 325 yards and five touchdowns. Four went to the uber-confident Marvin Jones, proving this isn’t a one-wideout team.
Andre Ellington, running back, Arizona. I never thought the 187th pick in the 2013 draft would put the final nail in the Atlanta Falcons’ season—and make no mistake about it, the Falcons, with games against Seattle, New Orleans, Green Bay and San Francisco, would likely have to go 8-1 to sneak into a wild card spot at this point, at 2-5. But Ellington, a 5-9, 200-pound shifty back from Moncks Corner, S.C., ran through and around Atlanta for a Week-8-high 154 yards on 15 carries. Great pick, Steve Keim.
Defensive Player of the Week
Antrel Rolle, safety, New York Giants. Maybe it’s not the greatest accomplishment anymore, holding the Eagles to 200 yards. But the Giants did, and Rolle was a huge reason why. The Giants’ defensive leader had five tackles, a sack of Mike Vick, an interception of Mike Vick, and a forced fumble. His two biggest plays of the day came in succession in the first quarter, and both led to Josh Brown field goals. He intercepted a Vick pass three minutes into the game and, after Brown’s first of five boots made it 3-0, strip-sacked Vick on the first snap of the next series. Ten plays later, Brown’s second field goal made it 6-0. When you’re struggling as much as the New York offense is, it’s important for the defense to win some games. Which this one is doing.
Special Teams Player of the Week
Cordarrelle Patterson, wide receiver/kick returner, Minnesota. His 109-yard kickoff return—not to blow smoke or anything—was one of the best of this or any other season. Watch it. Look how often he makes just the slightest move to either make a defender miss or to shake off a glancing tackle attempt. His speed and slithery return ability make him a dangerous and instinctive return man.
Josh Brown, kicker, New York Giants. Not a great fan of the field goal per se (see Stat of the Week), but in the first 55 minutes at Philadelphia, these were the only points: Brown, 40-yard field goal; Brown, 44-yard field goal; Brown, 33-yard field goal; Brown, 46-yard field goal; Brown, 27-yard field goal. Those would have been the game’s lone points if Zak DeOssie hadn’t fired a snap to Harrisburg with 4:11 to play, allowing the Eagles to score a touchdown on a strange play.
Coach of the Week
Mike Zimmer, defensive coordinator, Cincinnati. The Jets had the ball 13 times Sunday. On nine drives, they were held to 15 yards or less. Any owner out there listening? It’s long overdue that Zimmer get a legitimate interview for a head-coaching job. With another stifling defensive performance in Cincinnati’s 49-9 win over New York, maybe he’ll get his shot after the season in one of those places with a coach having a bad year.
Goat of the Week
Shaun Suisham, kicker, Pittsburgh. Kickers this season are making 94 percent of their kicks from inside the 40-yard line. Suisham missed 34- and 32-yard field goals, veritable extra points in today’s games. The Steelers lost by three. Pretty easy call.