New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees celebrates after the Saints’ win over the New England Patriots. (AP photo)
Wow. New Orleans and Minnesota continue to leave no room for doubt on their way to a classic NFC Championship Game on Jan. 24. The only question seems to be in whose dome it will be played.
Drew Brees and the Saints tore through Bill Belichick’s New England defense like it belonged to a bottom-feeder, not to the powerful Patriots. Brett Favre and the Vikings turned the Chicago Bears into cubs.
And Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts continued to live dangerously but remain as perfect as the Saints.
That was Week 12 at the top. At the bottom, the St. Louis Rams, Cleveland Browns and Tampa Bay Buccaneers were all within a touchdown in the fourth quarter before each sinking to 1-10.
The games to watch this week feature eighth-ranked Baltimore at No. 10 Green Bay, No. 9 Philadelphia at No. 14 Atlanta (minus injured quarterback Matt Ryan), No. 6 Dallas at the reeling 17th-ranked New York Giants and the only matchup of division leaders, the third-ranked Vikings at No. 11 Arizona.
As always, last week’s rankings are (in parentheses).
1. Saints (1): New Orleans’ cornerbacks were both hurt, but the Saints still had Drew Brees who put up a perfect game against the Patriots. Brees is averaging 283 passing yards and has a 3-1 touchdown/interception ratio (27-9). Neither he nor the rest of the New Orleans express is going to be stopped Sunday at Washington.
2. Colts (2): The Saints (21) and Vikings (26) won last week by more points than the Colts have during their past five games combined (18), but Indy was still the first team to clinch a division title. The Colts crushed Tennessee 31-9 in Week 5, but the Titans are a whole different team since so Sunday’s game should be tight.
3. Vikings (3): How come Brett Favre hasn’t made a bunch of commercials in which he says something about life being better after 40? Favre faded badly down the stretch last year with the Jets, but there’s no sign of that happening in 2009. The Vikes take the NFC North by beating the Cards and the Ravens winning at Green Bay.
4. Cowboys (6): After surviving a near-shutout at home by the Redskins, Dallas got its mojo, and its offense, back on Thanksgiving against the Raiders. The Cowboys pushed the Giants hard in Week 2 on the road. The shattered New York team that visits Sunday seems to be waiting for the Cowboys to end its misery.
5. Chargers (8): Amazing how smart Norv Turner looks with a good quarterback (Troy Aikman, Brad Johnson, Philip Rivers) running his offense. While the Saints and Colts have yet to lose, the Chargers have quietly won six straight while allowing just 10.5 points per game. Cleveland won’t stop San Diego’s streak.
6. Bengals (5): It was from pretty, but Cincinnati got back on track and finished a perfect season in the AFC North by beating Cleveland last week as newcomer Larry Johnson showed he had life in his 30-year-old legs. The Bengals will secure just their second winning record in 19 years by dispatching Detroit on Sunday.
7. Patriots (5): These nationally televised night games aren’t showing Bill Belichick at his best. If the three-time Super Bowl champion coach isn’t going for it on fourth-and-2 at his own 29, his defense is being shredded by Drew Brees. The Pats can still virtually seal another AFC East title by sweeping Miami on Sunday.
8. Ravens (10): Ozzie Newsome keeps drafting ‘em and his coaches keep pluggin’ ‘em in when needed. Pro Bowl linebacker Terrell Suggs can’t play? So little-used rookie Paul Kruger fills in and makes the game-changing interception in OT. The victory over Pittsburgh keeps the Ravens in the thick of the AFC wild card race.
9. Eagles (9): How big a threat is DeSean Jackson? The second-year receiver’s 35-yard touchdown last week was the shortest of his eight scores this year. Whether Jackson is cleared to return from his subsequent concussion in time to play Sunday at Atlanta is in doubt. And at 7-4, the Eagles are not yet a sure playoff team.
10. Packers (11): From the ashes of a loss at Tampa Bay, the Packers have risen to win three in a row and put a claim on a NFC wild card spot ahead of the sinking Falcons and Giants. Monday’s tough home test against Baltimore and trips to Chicago, Pittsburgh and Arizona remain, but it’s looking promising for the Pack.
11. Cardinals (7): Arizona almost got it done at Tennessee without the concussed Kurt Warner, but the defense allowed an unfathomable 532 yards, 99 on the drive that beat the Cards on the final play. Matt Leinart was OK in Warner’s place, but the defense better get its act in gear with the Vikings visiting on Sunday.
12. Steelers (12): It was the easiest of the three defeats to explain, facing the desperate Ravens in Baltimore with an untested third-string quarterback. But the fact remains that the 6-5 champs are in trouble. Pittsburgh should beat Oakland and Cleveland the next two weeks, but Big Ben better be back for the closing stretch.
13. Broncos (15): Josh McDaniels is having quite the rookie year as a head coach: dumping the popular quarterback, starting 6-0, losing four in a row to lose control of the AFC West and then ending the skid while uttering a major expletive on national TV. Sunday’s visit to Kansas City shouldn’t be nearly that exciting.
14. Falcons (13): Chris Redman never did much in his brief chances to play in Baltimore, but he got Atlanta through a near-upset against Tampa Bay after Matt Ryan was hurt last Sunday. Redman gets the start Sunday in a critical home game with the Eagles. Not having injured ace back Michael Turner will make it tougher.
15. Titans (17): Chris Johnson averages 128 rushing yards a game. That’s more than 22 teams. Johnson also averages a ridiculous 6.4 yards. Johnson’s speed on Indy’s turf could be the weapon that finally ends the Colts’ perfect season on Sunday. The Titans, once 0-6, would reach .500 with the upset.
16. Texans (18): No team is more glad to bid November goodbye than Houston. In losing their past three games to Indy (twice) and Tennessee by a total of 14 points, the Texans were outscored 38-14 after halftime. So instead of preparing for his first playoff spot, coach Gary Kubiak will spend December fighting for his job.
17. Giants (14): Any momentum that New York gained from ending its 4-game slide with a dramatic overtime victory over Atlanta ended with a 26-6 Turkey Day whipping at Denver. The Giants have had 10 days to recover, but they also lost defensive linchpin Antonio Pierce for the year. They’ll miss him Sunday against Dallas.
18. Dolphins (16): Last Sunday, Miami seemed like it would be a great story again in 2008, rallying from an 0-3 start to make the playoffs minus injured quarterback Chad Pennington. But then came a stunning fourth quarter at Buffalo in which the Dolphins were outscored 24-0. Suddenly, Sunday’s game with New England is a must-W.
19. 49ers (20): After losing six of eight, the Niners suddenly did everything right last week at home against Jacksonville, cruising to a 20-3 victory and moving within two games of NFC West leader Arizona. Their first road W since Week 1 Sunday at Seattle would make the following week’s visit by the Cards very interesting.
20. Jets (26): Mark Sanchez is still very much the rookie. Five weeks after gloating at Oakland, New York’s quarterback had the audacity to say, “We’re rolling now,” after a 17-6 victory ended a 3-game skid for the 5-6 Jets, who were once 3-0. This after he passed for 154 yards. Let’s see how it goes Thursday in Toronto, kid.
21. Bills (28): This is the equally enigmatic team that Sanchez and the Jets will meet north of the border. Buffalo was headed to a fourth straight loss before that amazing 24-0 fourth quarter against Miami. The matchup of volatile Bills receiver Terrell Owens and Jets ace cornerback Darrelle Revis make the game worth watching.
22. Panthers (19): Carolina owner Jerry Richardson, a former Baltimore Colts receiver, dismissed his sons from the organization before the season. With the loss to the Jets dropping the Panthers to 4-7 and the Pats, Vikes, Giants and Saints still left, coach John Fox and quarterback Jake Delhomme could soon be goners, too.
23. Jaguars (22): Jack Del Rio’s luck against equally mediocre outfits ran out in San Francisco as Jacksonville’s 3-game tear ended with a thud. Sunday’s game with AFC South rival Houston is big since both teams that badly need to win to stay in the playoff chase. The Texans’ Andre Johnson spells trouble for a weak pass D.
24. Bears (21): When they sent Brett Favre packing with a big home victory in the 2007 finale, the Bears thought they might never again see the QB who had tormented them for 16 years. Wrong. Favre torched Chicago for 392 yards last Sunday. A fourth straight loss dropped the Bears to 4-7 and just about out of contention.
25. Redskins (25): There are no moral victories, especially when your defense allows drives of 60, 90 and 66 yards in the final minutes, but the Redskins haven’t quit despite a rash of injuries and coach Jim Zorn’s likely lameduck status. The pluck they showed at Dallas and Philly won’t help much Sunday against the Saints.
26. Seahawks (27): After beating St. Louis last week, Seattle is 3-0 against teams with just one victory and 1-7 against everyone else. That should help the Seahawks beat Tampa Bay on Dec. 20, but it won’t do them much good against their other four remaining opponents, all of whom have better records than Seattle’s 4-7.
27. Chiefs (23): The party in Kansas City came to a crashing halt as San Diego jumped to a 28-7 halftime lead en route to ending the Chiefs’ first winning streak in more than two years. What’s worse is that at 3-8, KC has already matched its average number of victories from the previous two seasons.
28. Raiders (24): Maybe the Cowboys were just ready to break out of the doldrums and the Raiders just happened to be the foe. Maybe it’s because the game was on a short week on the road where the Raiders are 8-45 over the last seven seasons. Or maybe Oakland just isn’t very good as host Pittsburgh should show again on Sunday.
29. Lions (29): When there’s talk about not letting you host a Thanksgiving Day game for the first time since 1944, you know you’re product isn’t selling. That’s the case for a lot of what used to make Detroiters proud. They’re certainly not proud of the Lions, who have won just two of 33 games heading to 8-3 Cincinnati.
30. Buccaneers (30): Hopefully, the Bucs are better fishermen than they are finishers. For the second time in three weeks, they had a favored opponent in big trouble, but let it off the hook late. This time, Atlanta scored the last 10 points to win 20-17. Tampa looks to end a 6-game road losing streak Sunday at Carolina.
31. Rams (31): After being outclassed by visiting Seattle last week with backup Kyle Boller filling in for injured quarterback Marc Bulger, all that stands between the Rams and their first winless home mark since 1962 are games with Houston and San Francisco. St. Louis also needs to win a game to avoid its worst season ever.
32. Browns (32): Like the Rams, the Browns are winless at home and need to beat the Chargers, Steelers or Raiders to avoid franchise history. What’s more, at 1-10, Cleveland needs to go 2-3 just to equal the worst record of its 57 seasons. Take away the 37-point explosion at Detroit and the Browns are averaging 8.5 points.