The Washington Times - November 19, 2009, 12:47PM

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Cincinnati Bengals’ Bobbie Williams celebrated a win over the Steelers last weekend at Heinz Field (AP Photo)

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Welcome, Cincinnati, to the big time.

The Bengals, known as the Bungles as recently as last December, have cracked the top four in the rankings in the wake of their incredible sweep of defending Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh and fellow AFC North powerhouse Baltimore in the span of just seven games.

If the Bengals are the new big dog, the teams from the Big Apple continue to swoon. The Giants were idle last week, but the Jets lost again, dropping New York’s teams, which were 6-0 in September, to 3-9 since.

New Orleans and Indianapolis remained perfect last week despite close calls and remain atop the rankings followed by one-loss Minnesota, which toyed with Detroit. New England and Dallas only fell one spot apiece after losing.

San Diego made the biggest jump this week, rising from 16 to 10 after a fourth straight victory tied the AFC West race with slumping Denver. Baltimore, Tennessee, Arizona and Washington also moved up at least three places while Buffalo, which lost five rungs and coach Dick Jauron, Atlanta, Philadelphia and Chicago joined the New Yorkers in dropping at least three spots in the rankings.

The rankings follow; as always, last week’s rankings are (in parentheses).

1. Saints (1): It was tied at halftime in st. Louis, but surely even the Rams didn’t think they’d be the team to end New Orleans’ perfect season. NFC South cellar-dweller Tampa Bay won’t be that team this Sunday either as the Saints will go to 10-0. New Orleans has only won 10 games six times during its 42 full seasons.

2. Colts (2): His defense was struggling to slow Tom Brady and Randy Moss. He had thrown a couple of picks. But give Peyton Manning a chance to beat you in the final minutes and you’re living dangerously as Bill Belichick and the Pats learned again last Sunday. Indy puts its perfect year on the line Sunday against angry Baltimore.

3. Vikings (3): As if Detroit had any shot of keeping Minnesota from improving to 4-0 in the NFC North last Sunday in the Metrodome. The 27-10 victory kept the Vikings a game behind the Saints in the race for homefield advantage in the NFC. Seattle, 0-4 on the road, visits Minnesota Sunday. Make the Vikes 9-1 after that.

4. Bengals (6): Marvin Lewis was hired by Cincinnati in 2002 because of his skill as a defensive coordinator. Seven years later, Lewis finally has a defense and the Bengals rule the AFC North at 7-2, 5-0 in the division after holding host Pittsnurgh to four field goals and 226 yards for a sweep of the defending champs.

5. Patriots (4): Apparently even dour geniuses who don’t brag on themselves think they’re smarter than everyone else. At least dour geniuses in hoodies. Darth Belichick outsmarted himself and was beaten by Luke Skywalker Manning and the Colts to fall into fourth in the AFC race. The Jets will likely pay the price on Sunday.

6. Cowboys (5): Just when it looked like they were going to win the NFC East for just the second time in a decade, the Cowboys fell as flat as day-old beer in Green Bay. Getting blanked for 59 minutes by a so-so Packers defense is worrisome so Tony Romo and Co. need to get back on track Sunday against the visiting Redskins.

7. Steelers (7): Talk about having the good times come to a crashing halt. The champs were on a five-game roll before they got rolled over for the second time by the Bengals last Sunday. However, at 6-3, Pittsburgh still leads the AFC wild card chase and won’t lose that edge this week at Kansas City.

8. Cardinals (11): When it was 10-0 Seattle late in the second quarter, it seemed that Arizona was having another ugly day at home. But old man Kurt Warner and rookie Beanie Wells took care of business and the Cardinals maintained their grip on the NFC West. But giving up 472 yards to the Seahawks is a concern, long-term.

9. Ravens (13): Has there been an uglier half of football this year than Ravens 0, Browns 0? Did anybody outside of Baltimore and Cleveland stay awake on Monday for the second half? The Ravens, who won’t have ailing passrusher Terrell Suggs, have to be better this week if they’re going to end Indy’s unbeaten season.

10. Chargers (16): Maybe L.T. still has something left in his aging legs after all. He was critical in the 31-23 upset of the Eagles that tied the Bolts, left for dead after a 2-3 start, for the AFC West lead with the slipping Broncos heading into Sunday’s rematch at Denver. The Chargers lost the Week 6 game 34-23 at home.

11. Eagles (8): After putting up 67 points in consecutive thrashings of the Redskins and Giants, the Eagles scored just 39 in consecutive losses to the Cowboys and Chargers. So who knows which team shows up Sunday at Chicago? But makr my words, Andy Reid’s don’t lose three in a row very often.

12. Broncos (9): Speaking of losing three in a row, that’s what Denver has done to turn a perfect season and control of the AFC West into a showdown with San Diego for the division lead. The offense was awful after losing quarterback Kyle Orton at halftime and the run defense didn’t get it done. A quick reversal is necessary.

13. Packers (15): Give Mike McCarthy credit for keeping the Pack together after bad losses to Minnesota and Tampa Bay could’ve caused his players to quit. Green Bay delivered its best performance against a good team since last October in dominating Dallas. That’s great momentum for Sunday’s visit by San Francisco.

14. Falcons (10): It wasn’t just losing Michael Turner. Atlanta was already losing when it lost its ace running back in the second quarter. The defense was overrun by Carolina’s ground attack while Matt Ryan looked like the young quarterback he is. Sunday’s visit by the Giants is now a huge game for the Birds.

15. Giants (12): The last time the Giants won, the Yankees had yet to win the American League title. Make that Oct. 11. What’s more, New York hasn’t beaten a winning team since Week 2. Up next are four straight against winning teams: Atlanta, Denver, Dallas and Philadelphia. Time to see if they really are Giants.

16. Texans (14): It wasn’t a good bye week for Houston since AFC South rivals Tennessee, Indianapolis and Jacksonville all won. Coincidentally, those are the 5-4 Texans’ next three foes. If they win two, they could very well make the playoffs for the first time since the following three games look much easier.

17. Panthers (21): The Panthers remain unpredictable. A week after blowing a 17-6 halftime lead against the unbeaten Saints, they jumped on top of Atlanta, 21-10, en route to moving to 4-5 and staying in the NFC race after an 0-3 start. Thursday, their No. 3 running game clashes with Miami’s No. 7 rush defense.

18. 49ers (18): San Francisco will have had 10 days to prepare for Green Bay. The extra time can only help since the Niners only scored 10 points last game against Chicago despite forcing five turnovers and the Packers just came within 39 seconds of blanking the more potent Cowboys. This isn’t a good matchup for the Niners.

19. Dolphins (19): Miami’s victory over lowly Tampa Bay last week was not one for the ages. The Dolphins lost all of a 19-6 halftime lead and needed to drive 77 yards in the final 74 seconds for the field goal that made it 25-23. And now top weapon Ronnie Brown is done for the year. It could be a tough Thursday at Carolina.

20. Bears (17): Jay Cutler needs to shake off his five picks against the Niners because Sunday’s game with Philadelphia and the following one with Minnesota could well decide whether Chicago (4-5) continues to have any postseason hope. Ranked 30th in rushing and 21st against the run, the Bears just don’t seem like the Bears.

21. Titans (25): Forgive the Titans if they seem in a mini-time warp. After an 0-6 start, they’re 3-0 since Vince Young replaced Kerry Collins at quarterback. The same switch turned 0-5 to 8-8 in 2006. Now if only someone could send Titans owner Bud Adams somewhere so he doesn’t embarass himself back in Houston on Monday night.

22. Jaguars (24): Gotta love Maurice Jones-Drew (unless he’s on your fantasy team). Instead of scoring the winning touchdown, he went down at the 1 to keep the ball away from the Jets. After two kneeldowns, Jacksonville won on a field goal as time expired. The 5-4 Jags shouldn’t need as much drama to beat Buffalo at home.

23. Jets (20): Wasn’t Gang Green 3-0 in September? Hard to remember since the J-E-T-S have been P-O-O-R ever since. Last week’s home loss to Jacksonville made New York 1-5 since that hot start with the only W over Oakland. Hardly the right vibe for visiting the angry Pats. The Jets’ hope lies with their running game.

24. Seahawks (23): They overcame the loss of No. 1 back Julius Jones, racked up 472 yards on the road against the defending NFC champs and still lost by 11 points. It’s been that kind of year for Seattle, whose defense was shredded by Arizona for 462 yards. It won’t be any prettier for the 3-6 Hawks Sunday at Minnesota.

25. Chiefs (27): Here’s how bad Kansas City has become. Beating Oakland to make go 2-2 in its last four games is a major achievement. The Chiefs avenged a Week 2 loss behind new No. 1 back Jamaal Charles and a defense which held the Raiders to a field goal after an opening touchdown drive. Pittsburgh won’t be so kind on Sunday.

26. Redskins (29): Sure, it took a fake field goal and some heroic performances by usual backups Ladell Betts and Levi Jones, but the Redskins ended more than a month of misery by beating the Broncos. Then-hot Washington won its last game at Texas Stadium last October. Winning its debut at Cowboys Stadium will be tougher.

27. Bills (22): Who is Perry Fewell, you ask? A former assistant for the Jags, Rams and Bears, he’s now the first interim coach this year, having moved up from defensive coordinator when Dick Jauron was fired on Tuesday. Seeing how the Bills are 26th on defense (compared to 29th on offense), don’t expect much of a change.

28. Raiders (26): They forced three turnovers and only allowed one touchdown, but when you can’t score, it’s near-impossible to beat even the worst teams as Oakland learned again in losing 16-10 to Kansas City. Quarterback JaMarcus Russell was benched for the second home game in a row for the Raiders, who average 9.8 points.

29. Lions (28): They’ve joined the 1982-84 Houston Oilers as the only teams to endure a 1-31 stretch, but some good came out of last week’s 27-10 loss to the powerful Vikings. After throwing five picks the previous week, rookie quarterback was 29 of 51 without an interception. And by 1987, the Oilers were a playoff team.

30. Buccaneers (31): Told you, Raheem. Should’ve stuck with the ugly creamsicle unis. After losing in the final seconds at Miami, your boys are now 0-12 dating to last December in your hip red and pewter look, 1-0 in the retro orange. Of course, the Bucs could wear armor Sunday against the unbeaten Saints and it won’t matter.

31. Rams (32): They didn’t win last week — they’re 1-18 in the last 13 months with the one over Detroit — but the Rams earned some respect by pushing the Saints hard. They outgained them, had the higher-scoring offense and had the ball at the New Orleans 32 when time expired in a 28-23 loss. And now they’re no longer No. 32.

32. Browns (30): That dishonor belong to the Clowns, er, Browns, who played an atrocious game on national TV on Monday complete with quarterback Brady Quinn’s fine-drawing illegal block that injured Baltimore’s Terrell Suggs. Last on offense, last on defense and last in the rankings. Pretty hard to top (?) that trifecta.