Week 14 was pretty much a snoozefest after Cleveland’s shocking triumph in Thursday over Pittsburgh — whose 5-place drop was the biggest in the rankings — until Monday’s upset of Arizona by San Francisco, whose 5-place jump was the biggest.
New Orleans and Indianapolis rolled on, becoming the first pair of 13-0 teams in NFL history. Fellow division leaders San Diego, New England, Minnesota and Philadelphia — in a 45-38 thriller over the Giants — all won, too while Cincinnati and Dallas fell, but to the powerful Vikings and Chargers, respectively.
On the other end of the spectrum, the dregs, other than the Browns, played like, well, dregs. St. Louis (1-12), Tampa Bay (1-12) and Detroit (2-11) lost by a combined 108 points to teams that came in with a combined 17-19 record.
So we head into the final three weeks with only the AFC East — where New England leads Miami and the New York Jets by a game — and the NFC East — where the Eagles lead the Cowboys by a game — looking like they could remain undecided until the final day.
This week, we get to watch the Colts (at Jacksonville on Thursday) and Saints (against Dallas on Saturday) on national television before the Chargers and Bengals square off in what should be Sunday’s best game.
As always, last week’s rankings are (in parentheses).
1. Saints (1): Drew Brees is so good that he can go 31-for-40 for 296 yards and three touchdowns and everyone yawns. Good thing for Brees that Jonathan Vilma made a game-changing tackle on the opponent’s last play for a second straight week, too. Were the close shaves vs. Washington and Atlanta wakeup calls or harbingers?
2. Colts (2): Let’s see: a record 22 straight victories, a record 114 victories in a decade, homefield advantage clinched. The only goal left before the playoffs is a perfect season. The question is how much that means to rookie coach Jim Caldwell and whether he rests his regulars starting Thursday at Jacksonville.
3. Vikings (3): After Arizona made them look very vulnerable the previous week, the Vikings needed to restore their aura against Cincinnati. Mission accomplished despite a ho-hum outing by Brett Favre. Minnesota can clinch a second straight NFC North title by winning at Carolina on Sunday but Favre’s downturn is a concern.
4. Chargers (4): Make it eight straight for San Diego, which would be getting a lot more attention if New Orleans and Indianapolis weren’t both still unbeaten. Sunday’s visit from Cincinnati is huge. If the Chargers prevail, they’ll win the AFC West and secure a first-round bye. If not, the Bengals will have the edge.
5. Eagles (8): DeSean Jackson returned from his concussion just in time because his latest two long touchdowns were pivotal in Philly outlasting the Giants 45-38 to take the NFC East lead. However, allowing at least 24 points for a third game in five is worrisome for the 9-4 Eagles who play host to the 49ers on Sunday.
6. Packers (9): It’s not easy to win five straight games and fly under the radar, but that’s what Green Bay, aka the NFL’s best second-place team, has done. Sunday’s foe, Pittsburgh, has lost five in a row. Charles Woodson has eight interceptions for the surging defense which has allowed just 14.2 points a game during the run.
7. Bengals (5): After getting thumped at Minnesota while being held ot just 210 yards, Cincinnati heads to San Diego for a monster matchup. If the Bengals win, they would only have to beat Kansas City and the Jets to gain a first-round bye for the first time since 1981. They would also clinch the AFC North.
8. Broncos (10): Denver lost to Indianapolis for the fourth straight time last week, but falling to the unbeaten Colts is no disgrace. And don’t blame Brandon Marshall, who had a record 21 catches for 200 yards and two touchdowns. Beating the Chiefs on Sunday will keep the Broncos in command of the AFC’s fifth seed.
9. Cowboys (7): Maybe it’s playing every year on Thanksgiving that turns the Cowboys into mere boys after November. Last week’s home loss to the Bolts dropped Dallas to 3-8 in December and January under Wade Phillips, 5-12 with Tony Romo at quarterback. And now the Boys might have to face the Saints without DeMarcus Ware.
10. Cardinals (6): A second straight NFC West title was in their grasp but the Cards laid an egg in a 24-9 loss at San Francisco. Arizona should still take the division by beating awful Detroit and St. Louis the next two weeks, but it will likely have to take to the road for two playoff games to return to the Super Bowl.
11. Ravens (11): John Harbaugh must have really taken those three losses to the Titans hard when he was an Eagles assistant because his Ravens never let up against the Lions and former Tennessee assistant Jim Schwartz during last week’s 48-3 rout. Baltimore (7-6) still has a shot at the playoffs and consecutive 10-win seasons.
12. Patriots (12): They still lead the AFC East, but the Pats aren’t playing well. They’ve lost three of five and seem to be going through the motions which is scary for a team with a 1-game lead. But with the Bills, Jaguars and Texans left, New England can still finish 11-5 by simply doing what it’s supposed to.
13. Giants (13): Down 14-0 to Philly at home after just 5:20, it seemed time to kick dirt on New York. But 35 minutes later, the Giants led 31-30 and were heading to a 3-way tie with the Cowboys and Eagles atop the NFC East. But then the defense faltered again. Losers of six of eight, the 7-6 Giants are grasping for answers.
14. Dolphins (14): Miami is 6-0 in December under coach Tony Sparano after winning 14-10 last week at Jacksonville. The Dolphins are also 7-3 since an 0-3 start and just a game behind the division-leading Patriots in the AFC East. The run defense that shut down Maurice Jones-Drew gets a bigger test Sunday: Chris Johnson.
15. Titans (15): After its magical 5-game ride derailed the previous week against Indy, Tennessee got back on track in a big way at St. Louis as Chris Johnson went over 2,000 yards from scrimmage in a 47-7 romp. The Titans need to make it five in a row at home Sunday at Miami to keep hanging in the AFC wild card race.
16. 49ers (21): Go figure the Niners. A week after losing at sorry Seattle, they turn around and sweep defending NFC champion Arizona to stay alive in the NFC West. If San Francisco can end Philadelphia’s 4-game winning streak on Sunday, its first winning season and playoff berth since 2002 could well be in the offing.
17. Jets (19): With a defense coached by Rex Ryan and led by cornerback Darrelle Revis, who needs an offense? Kellen Clemens, replacing the ailing Mark Sanchez, passed for just 111 yards but New York still dominated Tampa Bay. That formula could work again if Michael Turner and Matt Ryan don’t play Sunday for Atlanta.
18. Texans (20): After having their dreams of finally making the playoffs quashed by losing four straight close games in the AFC South, the Texans took out their frustrations on Seattle last week. Houston should have similar fun Sunday at St. Louis as it tries to for its first winning season and to save Gary Kubiak’s job.
19. Falcons (17): Minus Michael Turner and Matt Ryan, Atlanta certainly gave it a go last Sunday, rallying from a 23-9 deficit to tie New Orleans in the fourth quarter only to lose 26-23. But it was still a sixth loss in eight weeks for the Falcons, who need to beat the host Jets Sunday to keep their playoff hopes alive.
20. Jaguars (18): Yeah, yeah, I know Jacksonville has a better record than San Francisco, Houston, Tennessee and Atlanta, but the Jags haven’t really beaten anybody. They fell behind Miami 14-0 after less than 22 minutes in losing at home last week. Maybe the visiting Colts will do them a favor and sleepwalk this week.
21. Steelers (16): How low can the champs go? Six spots this week after looking so impotent in a loss to lowly Cleveland. That’s five straight defeats for Pittsburgh which didn’t average that many losses in a season from 2004-08. The Steelers will be the 10th champ in 11 years to fail to get back to the Super Bowl.
22. Bears (23): The Bears pushed the red-hot Packers hard but still lost 21-14 at home when they couldn’t score over the final 24:35. Lovie Smith shouldn’t be in trouble after a Super Bowl berth, two NFC North titles and three winning seasons in the previous four years, but offensive coordinator Ron Turner might be.
23. Bills (24): Imagine passing for just 86 yards, 73 net, and winning on the road. That’s what Buffalo did at Kansas City as the defense held a third opponent to 10 points or less and a fourth straight foe under 20. At 5-8, the Bills can still hope to finish .500 for the first time in five years.
24. Redskins (25): It took starting a left tackle (Levi Jones) and a running back (Quinton Ganther) who were on the street in October for coach Jim Zorn to win his most one-sided victory, end his 9-game road losing streak and score 34 points, the most of his 2-year reign. The Redskins have outscored their last five foes by 24.
25. Panthers (22): Chris Gamble totally shut down Randy Moss. DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart averaged 5.6 yards per carry. But the Panthers managed just a field goal the rest of the way after leading New England 7-0 early. Coach John Fox’s team has to beat Minnesota or New Orleans to avoid his first 10-loss season.
26. Seahawks (27): Seattle had won two in a row heading to Houston. The Texans had lost four straight. So naturally, the Seahawks fell behind 24-0 after less than 18 minutes en route to their sixth double-digit drubbing of the year. At least the defense that got torched for 450 yards should rebound Sunday against Tampa Bay.
27. Raiders (26): Wonder why the Silver and Black faithful, the few that remain after seven straight losing seasons, abhor JaMarcus Russell? Oakland was in a tight game with Washington last week until he replaced the injured Bruce Gradkowski. It was 17-3 Redskins the rest of the way as the top pick in the 2007 draft was sacked six times in 22 dropbacks while throwing for 74 yards and adding an interception.
28. Chiefs (28): Kansas City outgained visiting Buffalo by 81 yards — 76 on a Jamaal Charles touchdown run — but lost because Matt Cassel threw four interceptions and was sacked four times. A repeat performance Sunday against Cleveland would match the franchise-worst 1-7 home record set just last season.
29. Browns (32): Whether it was the chill in Cleveland, the national TV audience or the desire to ruin Pittsburgh’s season, the Browns played superb defense in last week’s upset, following a string of three relatively narrow defeats. Cleveland can continue this roll of sorts the next two weeks against the Chiefs and Raiders.
30. Lions (29): This time, Detroit wasn’t even in the game. The Lions were embarassed in Baltimore, losing 48-3 while being outgained by 319 yards. The Ravens ran for more yards and passed for more than the Lions produced in total. Detroit can clinch another last place finish in the NFC North with a home loss to Arizona.
31. Buccaneers (30): The Jets were using backup quarterback Kellen Clemens. The Bucs were at home. So much for the upset hopes. Tampa Bay gave up as many sacks and interceptions, six, as it managed first downs in a 26-3 defeat. After scoring 61 points in Weeks 9-10, the Bucs have scored 33 in four games since. Yawn.
32. Rams (31): Of the three bottom-feeders who were strafed last week by so-so teams, St. Louis suffered the worst beating. It was 33-0 Tennessee before the Rams finally scored. At least St. Louis finally started an appropriately named quarterback for the void that is its offense: Keith Null.