The Eagles took a big leap this week, from 10th to seventh, after winning their third straight game to improve to 5-3.
Also, keep an eye on the Saints and Jets, who both took big leaps with big wins. As always, last week’s rankings are (in parentheses).
(Associated Press photo of Kerry Collins from the Titans’ latest win)
1. Titans (1): The Nashville Express keeps rolling towards Super Bowl 43 in Tampa with a four-game lead in the AFC South and a two-game lead in the conference at midseason. Jim Schwartz’s defense is 10th against the run and 12th against the pass but allows the fewest points which is all that matters. Don’t see the Bears derailing the Titans even in Chicago.
2. Giants (2): New York has Dallas’ number after stunning the Cowboys on the road in the 2007 playoffs and crushing them last Sunday at home. But now comes a date in Philadelphia where the Giants’ three victories the last seven years came by a total of 12 points. If New York wins it will be 3-0 in the NFC East and have a 2-game lead in the division.
3. Steelers (3): That was some hurting the Steelers put on the Redskins. If not for two early gifts that set up field goals, the NFL’s top defense might have pitched a shutout. Imagine how good the Steelers could be if QB Ben Roethlisberger and RB Willie Parker get untracked. Peyton Manning comes to the ‘Burgh Sunday for the first time since 2002.
4. Panthers (5): This isn’t the Carolina team that went to the Super Bowl five years ago thanks to a power running game and a fierce pass rush. These Panthers are 6-2 and atop the tough NFC South because of Jake Delhomme, Steve Smith and a deep passing attack and a solid defense that allows the NFC’s fewest points despite having just 13 sacks.
5. Redskins (4): A banged-up, tired team was no match for the physical Steelers on Monday. The bye week should help, but rookie coach Jim Zorn has to figure out how to produce more points from an offense that is 10th in yards but 25th in scoring. The excellent defense and should be even better if Shawn Springs and Jason Taylor return from injuries after the bye.
6. Cardinals (6): Arizona Senator John McCain lost the election, but his favorite NFL team could just about cinch the first division title of its 21 years in the desert by beating struggling San Francisco and Seattle the next two weeks. At 5-3 overall, 2-0 in the division, Kurt Warner and the pass-happy Cards already hold a 2-game lead in the NFC Worst.
7. Eagles (10): While Philly fans were phocusing on their Phillies winning the World Series and NFC East observers were watching the champion Giants, the rising Redskins and the falling Cowboys, the Eagles have won three straight and are very much back in the race at 5-3. If Brian Westbrook can run on New York’s No. 2 run defense, Philly can win at home.
8. Buccaneers (7): Edging Kansas City 30-27 in overtime was less impressive than pushing Dallas to the limit the previous week. But Jon Gruden has a week off to gameplan for Minnesota’s No. 2 run defense. The emergence of castoff Antonio Bryant as a legitimate No. 1 wideout has eased the weekly pressure on Tampa’s running game and its long-reliable defense.
9. Falcons (11): With all due respect to Jim Zorn, Jim Harbaugh and Tony Sparano, Mike Smith is the most surprising rookie coach. With a rookie QB, a first-time starting RB and a new defensive scheme, the 5-3 Falcons have topped last year’s four victories heading into home games with the Saints, Broncos and Panthers. WR Roddy White is becoming a star.
10. Bears (9): Five of Chicago’s eight games have been decided by fewer than five points. The Bears are just 2-3 in the nail-biters, 3-0 otherwise. Sunday’s visit by the unbeaten Titans will only be close if QB Kyle Orton can rapidly recover from a sprained ankle suffered last Sunday. Three straight follow on the road making Orton’s absence even tougher.
11. Ravens (13): That was a heck of a comeback in Cleveland by rookie QB Joe Flacco and Co. That’s three in a row for the kid from Delaware, and now the Ravens are heading to Houston, whose defense has allowed 21 or more points in all but one game. The Ravens, in contrast, have held six of their eight opponents under 14 points. Make it advantage, Baltimore.
12. Dolphins (16):Miami could’ve folded after getting nipped at Houston and pounded by Baltimore, but after beating AFC East rival Buffalo, the Dolphins got back to .500 by winning at Denver behind QB Chad Pennington and sacks leader Joey Porter. With cupcakes Seattle and Oakland on tap next at home, Miami should remain a surprising contender.
13. Saints (18): Despite having the top-ranked offense, New Orleans has been on a lose one, win one pattern since Week 3. Maybe last week’s bye will disrupt that rhythm Sunday in Atlanta. The loss of sacks leader Charles Grant for the season won’t help, but the Saints are 4-0 against the Falcons since Brees’ arrival in 2006.
14. Jets (20): Only two QBs have more TDs than Brett Favre, but only one has more INTs. That’s probably driving conservative coach Eric Mangini nuts, but at 5-3, the Jets have already topped last year’s four victories. St. Louis’ porous defense shouldn’t be a big hurdle for Favre. DE Shaun Ellis could feast on the Rams’ poor pass protection.
15. Bills (8): Buffalo’s 8-year playoff drought seemed over with a 5-1 record and a 16-7 second-half lead at Miami, but the Bills were outscored 42-17 since by the Dolphins and Jets as their running game has ground to a halt. Buffalo could be in the AFC East cellar after Sunday’s game at New England where it’s 0-7 since 2000 losing by an average of 16 points.
16. Cowboys (12): The defensive renaissance that occurred two weeks ago against Tampa Bay didn’t last long. The Giants trampled the vaunted Dallas defense while Marion Barber had no room to run with the Tony-Romo passing game providing no threat. Romo should be back after this week’s bye and all the pressure will be on him to restore Dallas’ supposed dominance.
17. Patriots (14): How much do the 5-3 Pats miss Tom Brady? A year after he threw a record 50 TD passes, New England has seven at midseason and has allowed 29 sacks. The injury-ravaged running game is somehow still ranked seventh. And yet, another AFC East title is there for the taking with the next three games against the Bills, Jets and Dolphins.
18. Packers (17):Green Bay is 0-4 against winners and 4-0 against teams that are .500 or worse. More important, the Packers are 2-0 in the NFC North heading into games against division rivals Minnesota (4-4) and Chicago (5-3). QB Aaron Rodgers figured to be the big question mark, but he has been super and since the Vikes struggle against the pass …
19. Colts (21): It didn’t have nearly the oomph of beating New England with Tom Brady, but Peyton Manning and Co. will take the 18-15 victory over the Matt Cassel-led Pats after losing to the Titans and Packers. Trouble is the Colts now have to face the Steelers’ No. 1 defense. With no ground game, that’s big trouble for even an elite QB like Manning.
20. Browns (15): Cleveland was headed towards a fourth ‘W’ in five games before Baltimore rallied to win last Sunday. The loss prompted coach Romeo Crennel to finally pull the plug on struggling QB Derek Anderson and go with 2007 first-rounder Brady Quinn. A home game against Denver’s horrid defense is a nice way for the new man under center to get started.
21. Chargers (19): LaDainian Tomlinson has had two weeks to rest his ailing toe. The underachieving defense has a new coordinator, Ron Rivera. League-leading passer Philip Rivers gets to face a lousy Kansas City defense at home. There are simply no excuses for the AFC’s biggest first-half disappointment and coach Norv Turner.
22. Vikings (24): It’s good that Gus Frerotte has seen it all because the last four games could have driven a young QB crazy: Win by three, win by two, lose by seven, win by seven. At 1-2 in the NFC North, Minnesota can’t afford to lose at home to Green Bay this week. So Frerotte should hand off to Adrian Peterson all day against the Pack’s poor run defense.
23. Rams (22): The renaissance under interim coach Jim Haslett that began to evaporate in the fourth quarter at New England two weeks ago melted in last Sunday’s 21-point home loss to Arizona. St. Louis just isn’t competitive without a healthy Steven Jackson and the RB remains less than 100 percent for this week’s game at the Jets.
24. Jaguars (23): Losing consecutive games to the Bengals and Browns last November helped get Brian Billick fired in Baltimore. Billick’s former defensive coordinator, Jack Del Rio, just turned the same deadly double with a loss to the previously winless Bengals. Del Rio was a winner three of the past four years, but if the Jags lose Sunday at Detroit …
25. Broncos (25): Denver was 86-27 at home under coach Mike Shanahan through Oct. 5. But consecutive home losses to Jacksonville and Miami sandwiched around a blowout defeat at New England have the Broncos reeling. The defense was a mess even before ace CB Champ Bailey was hurt while the offense produces plenty of yards but not enough points.
26. Texans (26): After four straight home games that ended with the first 3-game winning streak in the franchise’s 7-year history, the Texans fell behind early at Minnesota and fell to 4-24 on the road over the last four years. The good news is that Houston is home again on Sunday. The bad news is that QB Matt Schaub won’t play against the fierce Ravens defense.
27. Seahawks (27): Any momentum from the 34-13 romp over the 49ers that ended a 3-game slide vanished as the Eagles scored 26 straight points on the beleaguered Seattle defense last Sunday. The once-formidable Seahawks have no passing game and at 2-6, no hope of a sixth straight playoff berth. What a way for Mike Holmgren to end 17 years as a head coach.
28. Bengals (30):Cincinnati tried to blow a 21-3 home lead against Jacksonville, but they stopped the late 2-point conversion try to avoid possibly becoming the NFL’s first 0-16 team. Given this week’s bye, that’ll be two weeks between losses for the team with the league’s worst offense. The rest of November bodes ill: Eagles, Steelers, Ravens.
29. Chiefs (31): After losing to Carolina and Tennessee by a combined 68-10 to fall to 1-5 and virtual oblivion, Kansas City had the guts to hang in there against coach Herm Edwards’ former teams, Tampa Bay and the New York Jets, the past two weeks. But the Chiefs lost both by a combined seven points and have lost eight straight on the road heading to San Diego.
30. Raiders (28): A week after rushing for just 47 yards against the Ravens, the Raiders were outgained by an incredible 453-77 in a 24-0 home loss to Atlanta. Owner Al Davis, who fired coach Lane Kiffin in October, reacted by cutting CB DeAngelo Hall, his prized offseason acquisition. The Raiders are 21-67 the last six years and getting worse.
31. 49ers (29): Mike Singletary was famous for his nose-flaring glare when he prepared to attack foes after the snap as the Bears’ middle linebacker. Maybe last week’s bye was calming for the Hall of Famer who went nuts after his debut as the 49ers’ head coach two weeks ago. It would help if he also figured a way to slow Arizona’s superb passing attack.
32. Lions (32): They led at halftime for the second straight week but couldn’t hold on yet again. Given that Jacksonville has already lost to Cleveland and Cincinnati, Detroit should have hope at home on Sunday, but after going 1-15 over the past year, it’s hard to have much faith in better days. The NFL’s worst defense might cure the Jags’ offensive doldrums.