The Jets, Cardinals and finally the Redskins take a step back this week after losses, while the Super Bowl champs maintain their hold on the top spot — Plaxico or no Plaxico. They obviously didn’t need in Landover this past weekend.
A West coast slapfight gets us started on Thursday night on the NFL Network, as Norv and the Chargers play host to the Raiders. As always, last week’s rankings (in parentheses).
1. Giants (1): The receivers who made the Super Bowl’s biggest catches, Plaxico Burress and David Tyree, were not on hand. Neither were the ends who led the sack-happy defense, Michael Strahan and Osi Umeniyora. But like the true champions they are, the Giants still steamrollered the Redskins. New York can clinch the NFC East by sweeping Philly on Sunday.
2. Titans (2): Some punishment for having your perfect season ruined by the Jets: a laugher in Detroit in Thanksigiving followed by a weekend of relaxation. Tennessee can wrap up the AFC South by beating lowly Cleveland on Sunday at home and then start planning for the Week 16 showdown with Pittsburgh for conference supremacy.
3. Steelers (3): It wasn’t pretty, but Pittsburgh pulled away to win big at New England, giving pause to anyone prepared to hand the AFC title to Tennessee or perhaps surging Baltimore or Indianapolis. The Steelers rushed for 161 yards and forced five turnovers, good preparation for what should be a tough game this week against visiting Dallas.
4. Buccaneers (5):Tampa Bay has quietly risen to second in the NFC thanks to its usual defensive excellence and ageless quarterback Jeff Garcia. The Bucs’ three losses came on the road by a total of just 11 points. Now comes the battle for the NFC South lead at Carolina. The Bucs beat the visiting Panthers 27-3 in Week 6 and won 20-7 last year at Carolina.
5. Panthers (7): Jake Delhomme, the quarterback who likes to live dangerously, pulled off another high-wire act last week at Green Bay, rallying Carolina from two fourth quarter deficits to keep the NFC South race tied heading into Sunday’s visit by co-leader Tampa Bay. The Panthers need to rev up a defense which allowed 98 points the past three weeks.
6. Falcons (8): How sweet was Michael Turner’s return to San Diego? The 4-year caddy to LaDainian Tomlinson outrushed him 120-24 and helped lead Atlanta to a 22-16 victory that kept the surprising Falcons in the thick of the NFC playoff race while ensuring the Chargers can’t top .500. The onus will be on Atlanta’s pass defense this Sunday at New Orleans.
7. Ravens (9): Talk about surging at the right time. Not only have the Ravens won six of seven, they outscored Philadelphia and Cincinnati 70-10 in the last two games. Coach John Harbaugh and quarterback Joe Flacco, both rookies, have performed like veterans and the defense remains very scary as the Redskins will discover on Sunday night in Baltimore.
8. Cowboys (12): Part III of Dallas’ season improved to 3-0 on Thanksgiving with a rout of Seattle improving the Cowboys to 7-2 with Tony Romo at quarterback. Dallas enters the tough stretch drive (at Pittsburgh, Giants, Baltimore, at Philly) holding onto an NFC wild-card spot. With the Giants at 11-1, that;s the only way the Cowboys will make the playoffs.
9. Jets (4): Just when the Jets on a superb 5-game roll capped by a rout of previously perfect Tennessee, they came crashing back to Earth with a equally one-sided home loss to Denver. Such is life with the talented but mercurial Brett Favre at quarterback. A visit to San Francisco figures to get New York back on track, but with Favre, one never knows.
10. Cardinals (6): Arizona will win the NFC Worst by beating hapless St. Louis on Sunday, but the defense allowing 85 points rhe past two weeks to the powerful Giants and so-so Eagles doesn’t bode well for postseason. And the Cards’ only quality victories came in Week 2 against Miami and Week 6 in overtime over Dallas. This bubble will burst in early January.
11. Colts (11): It was ugly, but Indy overcame three turnovers to survive in Cleveland and extend its winning streak to five. That the Colts won with defense was a positive. So are the next two games, Cincinnati and Detroit at home. That gives coach Tony Dungy and Peyton Manning time to fix an offense that has topped 24 points just once in its last seven games.
12. Redskins (10): It was an ugly November in Washington. The Redskins scored just 43 points in losing three of four to fall from serious contenders to on the outside looking in at postseason. It won’t get easier Sunday in Baltimore especially if linchpin Clinton Portis rest his sore body. Rookie coach Jim Zorn is no longer everyone’s darling in D.C.
13. Patriots (13): Quarterback Matt Cassel’s recent brilliance was no match for Pittsburgh’s top-ranked defense which sacked the first-year starter five times and picked him off twice. The good news for the Pats was that the AFC East-leading Jets lost, too. New England’s a game out with four winnable games (Seattle, Oakland, Arizona, Buffalo) left.
14. Vikings (14): The good feelings from the rout of the Bears that moved the Vikes into undisputed possession of the NFC North lead were erased by Tuesday’s suspension of stud defensive tackles Kevin Williams and Pat Williams for the final four games of the season. Minnesota can beat Detroit without the, but Arizona, Atlanta and the Giants?
15. Eagles (18): Hear that? No. Right. That lack of noise is what has been emanating from Philadelphia’s previously frothing at the mouth talk show callers since Donovan McNabb passed for four TDs in a Thanksgiving night rout of Arizona. A loss at the Giants Sunday will bring the critics back, but McNabb and coach Andy Reid must have enjoyed the respite.
16. Saints (15): Not only did the Saints come up just short in Tampa, 23-20, as red-hot quarterback Drew Brees looked human with three interceptions, but on Tuesday, defensive ends Charles Grant and Will Smith and running back Deuce McAllister were suspended by the NFL for the rest of the season. And so ends New Orleans’ playoff hopes.
17. Broncos (21): The NFL’s most inexplicable team returns home for what should be an easy W over the 2-10 Chiefs, who are 1-5 on the road. However after winning big last week at the Jets, the Broncos have won three in a row on the road and have lost three straight at home. Even weirder is that Denver can clinch the AFC Worst with a victory and a San Diego loss.
18. Dolphins (16): No credit given here for eking out a 16-12 victory at awful St. Louis. But at 7-5, Miami is remarkably just a game out of the AFC East lead and a game out of a playoff spot, a year removed from a 1-15 disgrace. And the Dolphins get a break by playing Buffalo inside Toronto’s toasty Rogers Centre instead of at frigid Wilson Stadium.
19. Bears (17): Chicago’s once dominant-defense was toasted for 71 points in one-sided road division losses in two of the past three weeks. The 34-14 loss to Minnesota means the Bears need someone to beat the Vikings to have a chance to win the NFC North. At least this week’s foe is Jacksonville, which is having more trouble than Chicago.
20. Packers (19): Whatever hopes the Packers had of defending their NFC North title might have disappeared when Charles Woodson was whipped by Steve Smith for the 54-yard bomb that set up visiting Carolina’s late, winning TD last week. At 5-7, Green Bay has lost four of five and trails Minnesota by two games in a division which will have just one playoff team.
21. Chargers (20): Remember 2007 in San Diego? L.T. had 18 TDs and 1,939 yards. The defense had 42 sacks and 30 interceptions and the 11-5 Chargers reached the AFC title game. That seems like another lifetime now for Norv Turner and Co., who’ve lost three in a row to sink to 4-8. L.T. has 7 TDs and 1,163 yards. The defense has 23 sacks and 7 interceptions.
22. Texans (23): It hasn’t been a fun season in Houston, but Monday’s victory over Jacksonville — avenging a Week 3 overtime road defeat — leaves the Texans with hope of matching last year’s franchise-record 8-8 record. And coach Gary Kubiak can point to a 5-3 record since an 0-4 start. Maybe Houston can steal one at sinking Green Bay this Sunday.
23. Browns (25): Cleveland lost last Sunday to Indianapolis, but credit the defense for holding the Colts without an offensive touchdown and forcing three turnovers. Trouble is, the Browns’ offense, which has now lost its top two quarterbacks for the year, managed just two field goals for the second straight week and now visits defensively robust Tennessee.
24. 49ers (29): San Francisco is just 2-3 under coach Mike Singletary and has been outscored by 13 points during those five games, but that’s progress compared to the 2-5 start with a 38-point deficit under predecessor Mike Nolan. At 4-8 after winning last week in Buffalo, the Niners are actually on the verge of clinching second place in the NFC Worst.
25. Bills (22): Yes, the Bills have six victories, two more than the teams just ahead of them in the rankings. But Buffalo is the definition of reeling, having lost six of eight since a 4-0 start. Among those losses were home embarassments against the Browns and 49ers. A ninth straight season out of the playoffs will make for an extra-chilly Buffalo winter.
26. Jaguars (24): Jacksonville was a great story in 2007, making postseason and winning a playoff game at Pittsburgh before losing a hard-fought game at New England. All the fight is out of the Jags, who were listless again in Monday’s loss at Houston, their fifth in six games. High-profile new receivers Jerry Porter and Troy Williamson have 12 catches combined.
27. Seahawks (26): Seattle had shown some signs of life late in quarterback Matt Hasselbeck’s return at Arizona and the following week at home against Washington, but on Thanksgiving in Dallas, the Seahawks turned back into the turkeys they’ve been all year. Mike Holmgren, a borderline Hall of Fame coach, is going out with his worst season.
28. Chiefs (30): They didn’t break out the champagne on the plane ride home from Oakland, but Kansas City still had to feel terrific about winning for just the second time in 21 games dating to last Oct. 21 when Barack Obama was just a first-term Senator with an offbeat name. Given Denver’s bizarre home woes, could the Chiefs make it two in a row on Sunday?
29. Raiders (27): So much for the momentum from the romp in Denver. Interim coach Tom Cable strengthened the interim part of his title with a home loss to the Chiefs, whose last road victory had come 58 weeks earlier in the same stadium. Other than the Denver game, the Raiders are averaging just 12.8 points. That won’t be enough to win Sunday at San Diego.
30. Bengals (28): How uncompetitive is Cincinnati in the AFC North? Last week’s 34-3 loss to Baltimore dropped the Bungles to 0-5 in the division with a scoring deficit of 136-45. T.J. Housmandazeh still has 81 catches, but apparently Carson Palmer made Chad Johnson since Ocho Stinko has just 45 grabs. At 1-10-1, Cincy is headed to its worst record in a decade.
31. Rams (31): Top threat Steven Jackson returned from a month’s absence, but he couldn’t score despite 110 yards, leaving the Lambs with just four touchdowns in their six games since they exploded for four scores in Week 7 at Dallas. Hard to believe that this is the same franchise that started this decade as the Greatest Show on Turf.
32. Lions (32): Detroit has yet to score 26 points in a game. Minnesota, which the Lions host on Sunday, has averaged 27 points during the past eight games. Want to take a guess at who wins this matchup between the NFC North leader and the league’s only winless team? Miami went to Week 15 before finally winning last year. Can Detroit take it all the way?