The Washington Times - December 24, 2009, 10:23AM

David Elfin’s rankings (Last week’s rankings in parentheses).

Week 15 began Thursday night with Indianapolis edging Jacksonville to remain unbeaten. It continued Saturday night with Dallas’ stirring performance that ended New Orleans’ hopes of a perfect season. It ended Monday night with the New York Giants’ near-flawless destruction of Washington to stay alive in the NFC race.


On Sunday, Cleveland’s Jerome Harrison and Joshua Cribbs lit up Kansas City while Ben Roethlisberger played like a two-time Super Bowl winning quarterback in Pittsburgh and Brett Favre didn’t play like a three-time MVP for Minnesota.

The Cardinals won a second straight division title for the first time since All-American center Gerald Ford was calling signals in the White House and the Eagles reached the playoffs for the eighth time in the 11 years of the Andy Reid-Donovan McNabb partnership.

Atlanta, Carolina, Dallas and Tampa Bay all moved up three spots in the rankings while Denver dropped five spots and Chicago and Seattle fell three apiece.

This week’s only game that matches winning teams has the Broncos (8-6) visiting the Eagles (10-4), but Friday’s visit by San Diego (11-3) to Tennessee (7-7 after an 0-6 start) should be fun to watch as should the AFC North death match between Baltimore (8-6) and archrival/defending champion Pittsburgh (7-7). And the Colts look to move to 15-0 against the desperate New York Jets (7-7).

1. Colts (2) — They had to sweat it out against the Jaguars, but Peyton Manning and Co. head into Christmas with only the unpredictable Jets and unimpressive Bills standing between them and a perfect regular seasonn. How badly does Indy want to match archrival New England (circa 2007) as the NFL’s only 16-0 teams?

2. Saints (1) — We could all see this coming when New Orleans had to go to heroics to beat the Redskins and the Falcons the previous two weeks. Even Drew Brees can only go to the rally from behind well so many times in one season. While disappointed at not being able to go 16-0, at least the pressure’s off for a while.

3. Chargers (4) — For a coach who couldn’t win in December in Washington, Norv Turner does a heck of a job down the stretch in San Diego. The Chargers can move to 13-0 in the final month under Turner and clinch a first-round AFC bye by winning Friday at Tennessee in their first game since San Diego’s 2007 playoff victory.

4. Eagles (5) — No one in the NFC is playing better than Philadelphia which has won five in a row, the last three by double digits. The prime mover for the NFC East leaders remains DeSean Jackson, who has 11 touchdowns: eight on catches, two on returns and one on a rush. Denver visits Sunday before the finale vs. Dallas.

5. Vikings (3) — Is there something about Sunday nights that doesn’t agree with Minnesota? Last week’s ugly loss at Carolina dropped the Vikings to 1-3 on that stage under Brad Childress. As for Monday’s game with Chicago, Brett Favre is just 2-6 on the last five years in the spotlight that he used to dominate.

6. Cowboys (9) — Losses by a combined 10 points to the Giants and Chargers could’ve killed the Boys. Instead, like DeMarcus Ware returning from being carted off to play six days later, Dallas roared back to life by beating New Orleans. A victory at Washington sets up a Week 17 showdown with Philly for the NFC East.

7. Bengals (7) — Not only did the Bengals have to fly across the country to play the NFL’s hottest team, San Diego, they had to do so between the death and the funeral of teammate Chris Henry. That they pushed the Chargers to the wall before losing 27-24 is a testament to the chemistry Marvin Lewis has created this season.

8. Packers (6) — Green Bay was one last defensive stop from a sixth straight victory, but it couldn’t stop Mike Wallace from catching a 19-yard touchdown pass from Ben Roethlisberger on the final play in Pittsburgh. The Pack can still clinch a wild card berth by beating sinking Seattle and the Giants losing to Carolina.

9. Ravens (11) — After losing three of five to fall to 6-6, Baltimore has turned on the jets, crushing Detroit and Chicago by a combined 79-10. All of a sudden, the Ravens control their playoff destiny: win at Pittsburgh (where they’re 2-8 the last nine years) and Oakland and they’ll make postseason for a third time in four years.

10. Cardinals (10) — They made in interesting, blowing a 17-0 halftime lead and needing a late touchdown drive to win at Detroit, but the Cardinals have won consecutive division titles for the first time since 1975. Only four current Cards were even born back then. This week’s goal: the first 10-win season since 1975.

11. Patriots (12) — It wasn’t a pretty victory at Buffalo, but New England still opened a 2-game lead in the AFC East so a followup against Jacksonville Sunday at home or a loss by Miami to Houston will give the Patriots their seventh division title in Tom Brady’s eight seasons as their starting quarterback.

12. Giants (13) — New York came to Washington having lost six of eight largely because of a defense that had allowed an average of 32.4 points during the swoon. The Giants did a 180 against the Redskins in a dominant 45-12 victory that keeps the defending NFC East champs in the playoff race at least one more week.

13. Broncos (8) — Just when you think you have Josh McDaniels’ team figured out, Denver gets swept by Oakland, losing on a last-minute touchdown. Fortunately for the Broncos, who’ve lost six of eight, they’re still clinging to an AFC wild card spot. That might not be the case after Sunday’s game at red-hot Philadelphia.

14. Titans (15) — Tennessee’s incredible rally from an 0-5 start seemed in big trouble when a 14-point fourth quarter lead vanished against visiting Miami. But Michael Griffin’s overtime interception and Rob Bironas’ accurate leg moved the Titans to .500. Chris Johnson goes for a 10th straight 100-yard game vs. San Diego.

15. Dolphins (14) — Talk about heartbreak. Miami fights back from a 24-6 deficit with two touchdowns in the final 2:41 and gets the ball first in overtime only to have Chad Henne throw an interception. The loss, that dropped coach Tony Sparano to 6-1 in December, wasn’t quite fatal. Miami stays alive by beating Houston at home.

16. Falcons (19) — Matt Ryan returned, but Michael Turner went down again on his first carry. Still, the Falcons had enough heart despite having been eliminated from contention the night before to get back to .500 by beating the host Jets on a fourth-down touchdown pass from Ryan to Tony Gonzalez with 98 seconds left.

17. 49ers (16) — San Francisco scored 10 points in less than four minutes in the third quarter to pull within a touchdown, but couldn’t get any closer. The Niners will miss the playoffs for a seventh straight season, but they can still finish .500 for the first time since 2002 by beating lightweights Detroit and St. Louis.

18. Texans (18) — Matt Schaub went over the 4,000 yard mark. Andre Johnson racked up 196 receiving yards. But Houston still needed Kris Brown’s third field goal to edge the lowly Rams. The 8-year-old Texans won’t earn their first playoff berth but they can still record their first winning season by beating Miami and New England.

19. Jets (17) — New York’s top-ranked defense allowed fewer than 14 points for a fourth straight week. Trouble is, it’s 21st-ranked offense managed just seven against an Atlanta defense that had been giving up points in bunches. Stick a fork in the Jets, who still face the perfect Colts and the AFC North-leading Bengals.

20. Jaguars (20) — Give Jack Del Rio’s offense props for playing even with the unbeaten Colts all night before losing 35-31. The Jaguars can still make the playoffs, but so many things have to break right, starting with a victory Sunday at New England where Tom Brady is 25-2 in December and January and the Jags are 0-5.

21. Steelers (21) — Pittsburghers will celebrate Christmas with warm thoughts of Ben Roethlisberger’s last-second touchdown pass that finished an 86-yard march and finished off the Packers. However, the Steelers blew a 10-point fourth quarter lead and almost lost a sixth in a rown. The champs aren’t going to come near repeating.

22. Panthers (25) — When Carolina trailed Minnesota 7-6 in the fourth quarter, it seemed this would be another moral victory, like playing New Orleans toe to toe before faltering late in Week 9. However, the Panthers outscored the Vikes 20-0 the rest of the way and can still finish .500 and maybe save coach John Fox’s job.

23. Bills (23) — Buffalo outgained New England and took a lead into the second quarter, but depite holding Tom Brady to just 115 yards, the Bills were never really in the game once they trailed 14-3 at halftime. The 7-9 Bills have missed the playoffs an NFL-high 10 straight years and had five straight losing seasons.

24. Raiders (27) — A week after getting booed seemingly every time he took a breath, JaMarcus Russell is the toast of the Black Hole after beating the hated Broncos with a last-minute touchdown pass. If Oakland can win Sunday at Cleveland it will have six victories, its most in seven seasons. Some goal, huh?

25. Bears (22) — Chicago tends to be a conservative franchise in both its smashmouth style on the field and its reluctance to make big moves off the field. But GM Jerry Angelo made a splash in trading for Jay Cutler in April. So Angelo’s refusal to say Lovie Smith will be back with the 5-9 Bears has to worry the coach.

26. Redskins (24) — All the positive vibes that Washington had generated from stringing together five solid games (victories over Denver and Oakland and close shaves with Dallas, Philadelphia and New Orleans) were gone by the time the Giants led 24-0 at halftime on Monday. Does this 4-10 team have anything left vs. Dallas?

27. Browns (29) — Jerome Harrison and Joshua Cribbs were a 2-man wrecking crew in Kansas City. The former made like Jim Brown with 286 yards and three touchdowns while the latter made like Gale Sayers with a pair of 100-yard kickoff return scores. After a 5-23 tailspin, the Browns go for three in a row Sunday at Oakland.

28. Buccaneers (31) — After scoring just 36 points in their previous 4.5 games, the Bucs exploded for 17 in the final 22 minutes in Seattle to end a 5-game slide. Tampa Bay’s defense, which had forced just 20 turnovers in 13 games, took the ball away five times. But now the Bucs have to visit the angry Saints on Sunday.

29. Seahawks (26) — GM Tim Ruskell resigned three weeks earlier. Coach Jim Mora should walk the plank, too, after his team’s atrocious effort in being pummeled by the Texans and Bucs by a combined 58-14 the past two weeks. Seattle is 5-9, but three of its victories have come against the Rams (two) and Lions.

30. Chiefs (28) — That 3-2 era of good feelings of a month ago must seem ages ago for Kansas City, which finished 1-7 at home for a second straight year after rallying to tie Cleveland with just 2:20 left only to give up a touchdown just 1:36 later. The Chiefs will be the Bengals’ AFC North-clincing victim on Sunday.

31. Lions (30) — A week after getting ravaed at Baltimore, Detroit showed spunk in overcoming a 17-0 deficit and deadlocking Arizona with just 3:48 to go. But the NFL’s worst defense couldn’t hold the Cards when a stop was required and the Lions fell to 2-12 this season. They try avoid going 0-8 on the road at San Francisco.

32. Rams (32) — St. Louis was tied with Houston with 5:00 left, but couldn’t answer the Texans’ final field goal in losing a 12th straight home game and a 23rd in 24 games overall. Having won the NFC West, the Cards might take it easy on the Rams Sunday, but St. Louis is headed towards the top pick in April’s draft.

— David Elfin

— 30 —