1. Seattle (10-1). Tough call for No. 1. Seattle, New England, Carolina, Denver and New Orleans in contention. There is no runaway. This week it’s Seattle. Could be the most rested Monday night game ever in a week. Saints (11 days off) at ’Hawks (14 days off). With the suspension of Walter Thurmond keeping him out the next four games, and the groin injury to Brandon Browner keeping him out at least that long, Seattle will need Byron Maxwell, a third-year dime back from Clemson, to step up in the next four weeks. No problem! ’Hawks just have Drew Brees, Colin Kaepernick, Eli Manning and Carson Palmer on the horizon.
2. New England (8-3). I like a team that, in a short week, can forget the bitter, focus on the now, have an absolutely pathetic half of football, believe a win is still in reach, and reach it. Having Tom Brady helps.
3. Denver (9-2). Trent Dilfer came up with a good stat about Brady having more passing yards into the wind Sunday night than Peyton Manning had in all four quarters. Let’s see. Manning has three straight potential cold and/or windy games coming up (at Kansas City, Tennessee and San Diego at home), and could have playoff games in January in Denver, Foxboro, Kansas City or Cincinnati, and the Super Bowl is on the first Sunday of February in New Jersey. Manning might have to go 6-0 or 5-1 in cold weather to win his second Super Bowl.
4. New Orleans (9-2). No team has it tougher over 21 December days starting next Monday: at 10-1 Seattle, 7-3 Carolina at home, at 5-6 St. Louis, at 7-3 Carolina.
5. Carolina (8-3). Seriously: The Panthers could be No. 2. Seven-game winning streak. Nobody wants to play them now. Pretty mysterious game coming Sunday: Bucs, with their three-game streak, coming to Charlotte.
6. San Francisco (6-4). Talk about a lucky break. When Seattle travels to Candlestick for a game the Niners have to have in two weeks, the Seahawks will be without their second and third corners, and, presumably, San Francisco will have Michael Crabtree back.
7. Arizona (7-4). Cards 5-2 in their last seven. Niners 5-2 in their last seven. Look it up: Arizona’s playing more consistent football on both sides of the ball in the last month.
8. Kansas City (9-2). Denver coming to town Sunday. Division on the line. Tamba Hali and Justin Houston in MRI tubes today. Remember the optimism of three weeks ago? Vanished.
9. Indianapolis (7-4). Talked to an influential Colts guy a few days ago. “The guy we really miss is Dwayne Allen,” he said. That’s the tight end who was one of the best rookies in football last year, drafted to pair with Coby Fleener in two-tight-end sets and star individually. Bruising blocker and sure-handed receiver. That, plus the loss of Reggie Wayne, is killing this offense.
10. Philadelphia (6-5). Kudos to Mike Vick for saying the other day he couldn’t justify pulling Nick Foles to return himself to the starting lineup. Everybody can see that, and often the incumbent quarterback can’t.
11. Cincinnati (7-4). The bye week’s a time to re-adjust the load for the running backs, Jay Gruden. Gio Bernard has 4.4 per rush, BenJarvus Green-Ellis 3.3. Bernard’s a true threat, and I’d like to see him get more than 9.5 carries a game.
12. Pittsburgh (5-6). All the defensive players interviewed post-game said things like they wanted to make Dick LeBeau proud, or they felt like LeBeau was a father figure they’d been disappointing this year. Not over the last three weeks. Steelers 3-0. Steelers 87, Foes 48. Pittsburgh’s 5-2 since the dreadful 0-4 start.
13. Detroit (6-5). Lions make too many mistakes for a team that talks like it can be a January impact player.
14. Baltimore (5-6). Pretty sure Geno Smith learned how to spell “embarrass” Sunday.
15. (tie) San Diego (5-6). Hat tip to Antonio Gates. Here’s a basketball player at Kent State who took a flyer on football because he was the size-speed type of athlete to be a good tight end. Good call. Sunday in Kansas City, Gates became the fourth tight end in NFL history to pass the 700-catch and 9,000-yard plateaus. He now has 701 receptions and 9,006 yards. Don’t want to bum him out, but Gates needs only 600 catches to pass Tony Gonzalez.
Dallas (6-5). Cowboys come off the canvas to save their season in New Jersey, thanks to a late Tony Romo drive and big days from Dez Bryant and Jason Witten. Biggest stat on the Cowboys’ side: Dallas is 4-0 in the division. That’s a huge potential edge heading into the final five games.
The Awards Section
Offensive Players of the Week
Tom Brady, quarterback, New England. The wind became a prominent part of last night’s game when the Patriots chose to defend in overtime, but Brady looked as if he was playing in a light breeze in the Patriots’ incredible second-half and overtime comeback. Brady managed a respectable 6.9 yards per passing attempt despite the elements (4.2 for Manning), and had 274 of his 344 yards after the half. His experience kept the team composed when it looked like all was falling apart, and the Patriots came back from the break to embark on five straight Brady-led scoring drives.
Knowshon Moreno, running back, Denver. Rarely has a 200-plus-yard rushing game been this overshadowed, but Moreno’s efforts Sunday night shouldn’t be overlooked. The Broncos fed Moreno 37 times for those 224 yards, and why not when it seemed as if every Moreno carry was good for an automatic six yards at least? Moreno’s day wasn’t padded by one or two monster runs; he had a long of 18, which just shows how consistently the revived rusher gashed a Patriots front missing Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo for solid gains.
Josh Gordon, wide receiver, Cleveland. He had the best individual day in the league—14 catches, 237 yards, one touchdown—in a 27-11 loss to Pittsburgh (but I won’t penalize him for a coverage off-day by Joe Haden). The Browns have to be thrilled they didn’t get serious with any of the teams that inquired about Gordon before the trade deadline.
Adrian Peterson, running back, Minnesota. A classic Peterson-carries-the-Vikings game (32 carries, 146 yards, one touchdown) in the first tie of the season.
Defensive Players of the Week
Von Miller, outside linebacker, Denver. He was player of the week in the first half alone at New England as the Broncos built a 24-0 lead in Foxboro after 30 minutes. He ran a fumble back 60 yards for the first points of the game. Two plays later, Miller strip-sacked Tom Brady, leading to the second touchdown two plays later. For the half, he had two sacks, four tackles and the TD. And now everyone can stop asking, “What’s wrong with Von Miller?”
Troy Polamalu, strong safety, Pittsburgh. One of the best individual plays by a defender all season helped keep the Steelers in the AFC playoff race Sunday. The Steelers were nursing a 10-3 lead late in the first half on a gusty, frigid day in Cleveland, and Polamalu smashed into the center of the Cleveland line on a run blitz. He bounced off two linemen, and running back Chris Ogbonnaya came through a gap with the ball. Polamalu tackled Ogbonnaya, ripped the ball away while he was doing it, and then recovered the strip. Amazing. Classic Polamalu. Pittsburgh’s Shaun Suisham kicked a field goal before the half, and the Steelers were in command.
Special Teams Players of the Week
Ben Roethlisberger, quarterback/quick-kick punter. Pittsburgh. Play of the day. Fourth-and-18, Cleveland 29, midway through the fourth quarter. Roethlisberger in the shotgun. Takes the snap. Pooch-punts the ball toward the left pylon on the goal line. It bounces. Emmanuel Sanders sprints down. Downs it at the Cleveland 1-yard line. The fifth punt of Roethlisberger’s NFL career was a thing of beauty. In his other job Sunday, he threw two touchdown passes.
Justin Tucker, kicker, Baltimore. On a frigid day (20 degrees wind chill) kicking in a 26-mph crosswind, Tucker, the most efficient kicker in NFL history (minimum 50 made field goals) converted on field goals from 30, 26, 33 and 53 yards in the 19-3 rout of the woeful Jets. For his career, the University of Texas kicker is 54 of 59, a conversion rate of 91.5%. A generation or so ago that was a good kicker’s PAT percentage. (Think I’m kidding? Chris Bahr of the Raiders was 27 of 33 in extra points in 1981.)
Coach of the Week
Todd Bowles, defensive coordinator, Arizona. The Cards were in mourning when defensive coordinator Ray Horton left in the offseason to take the same role in Cleveland, but Bowles has done a terrific job molding his beliefs to the talent in-house … and to new acquisitions John Abraham, Matt Shaughnessy, Yeremiah Bell, Jerraud Powers and Tyrann Mathieu. In the Cards’ four-game winning streak, the defense has allowed 239, 274, 235 and 292 yards. Arizona’s a force, and the defense and special teams are very big reasons.
Goat of the Week
Matthew Stafford, quarterback, Detroit. Four interceptions against the Bucs, the third with the Lions driving for a potential 11-point lead. Detroit lost to the previously 2-8 Bucs. A bad day for the young gunslinger.