The Washington Times - November 12, 2009, 12:34PM


New Orleans coach Sean Payton has the unbeaten Saints sitting pretty.


The top four stayed put from Week 9’s rankings, helped in part by Minnesota’s bye, but there was turbulence just below the first tier.

Dallas moved into the top five for the first time after taking the NFC East lead with a victory at Philadelphia. Pittsburgh rose four spots and dropped Denver as many with its road triumph over the Broncos. The New York Giants, who began the season No. 1, fell out of the top 10 with a third straight defeat while Atlanta regained its place in that elite group by thumping woeful Washington.

As for the rest, Arizona and San Diego both jumped four spots while Green Bay fell five. And Tennessee escaped the bottom seven with a second straight victory.

This week, Chicago and San Francisco, coached by Bears Hall of Famer Mike Singletary, meet in the season’s first Thursday game. However, the ones to watch come Sunday when No. 4 New England and No. 2 Indianapolis renew the NFL’s best rivalry of the decade, No. 6 Cincinnati and No. 7 Pittsburgh square off for AFC North supremacy and No. 8 Philadelphia visits No. 16 San Diego.

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

1. Saints (1): For the second time in three weeks, New Orleans trailed by double digits. And for the second time, the 8-0 Saints prevailed by double digits. This one was tougher as it was 20-20 with Carolina with 4:37 left. Punchless St. Louis shouldn’t be any challenge for the Saints unless Mark Brunell replaces Drew Brees at quarterback.

2. Colts (2): Indianapolis’ game last week was decided by four or fewer points for the fourth time this season and for the fourth time, the Colts won to make Jim Caldwell (8-0) the hottest rookie coach since the Hoover Administration. Peyton Manning, who had just one touchdown pass the past two weeks, will need more to beat the Patriots on Sunday.

3. Vikings (3): Minnesota entered last week’s bye with a satisfying 12-point victory at archrival Green Bay. The 7-1 Vikings returned on Monday to find their control of the NFC North even more entrenched as the Packers, Bears and Lions all lost last Sunday. Detroit, 0-12 on the road the last two years, visits for Sunday’s whipping.

4. Patriots (4): All is back to normal for the Pats. At 6-2, they have a two-game cushion in the AFC East, Tom Brady’s passer rating is 99.2 and Wes Welker and Randy Moss have teamed for 104 catches, 1,280 yards and nine touchdowns. Of course, the defense will have to play well for Brady to improve to 8-3 vs. Peyton Manning this week.

5. Cowboys (7): Go figure Jerry’s boys. Considered pretenders for the first time since 2003, Dallas is 6-2 and leads NFC East favorites Philadelphia and the Giants by a game at midseason. If the Cowboys are to win the division for the second time in a decade, they’ll need to continue the better play of late by their 20th-ranked defense.

6. Bengals (8): To quote Neil Diamond, “I’m A Believer.” The Bengals, a disaster when Carson Palmer missed the final 12 games of 2008, completed a sweep of Baltimore last week and go for the AFC North’s jugular and a sweep of Pittsburgh on Sunday. Amazingly, the 6-2 Bengals have been better on defense than on offense, a great sign for postseason.

7. Steelers (11): Make it five in a row for the 6-2 defending champs after they shook off an impotent first half Monday night in Denver. That was Pittsburgh’s second straight victory over a division leader. If Ben Roethlisberger and Co. avenge their Week 3 loss at Cincinnati on Sunday, they could be en route to a third consective AFC North crown.

8. Eagles (6): No one expected a repeat of last year’s 44-6 rout of Dallas, but Philly didn’t expect to lose at home to the Cowboys either after pounding the Giants. Donovan McNabb’s two interceptions led to 10 Dallas points. The rough November slate continues at San Diego for the 5-3 Eagles, who haven’t lost two in a row since Weeks 4-5 of 2008.

9. Broncos (5): After six weeks of bliss, Denver scored just 17 points the past two weeks in losses to Baltimore and Pittsburgh. Washington’s defense won’t likely be as effective against the 6-2 Broncos, but they also seem to be reaching their proper average level. The following week’s game with San Diego could be for the AFC West title.

10. Falcons (13): Atlanta (5-3) handled the short week with aplomb, jumping to a 24-3 halftime lead en route and whipping the Redskins to stay in the thick of the NFC wild card race. The best news was the monster day by Michael Turner, who broke three runs of at least 30 yards heading into a matchup with Carolina’s struggling run defense.

11. Cardinals (17): Team Schizophrenia was at it again last week, blowing out Chicago to improve to 4-0 on the road while the rest of the NFC West lost. The Cards (5-3) can just about clinch a second NFC West title by beating Seattle and St. Louis the next two weeks. It’s also weird that Arizona’s defense is stingier than its offense is productive.

12. Giants (9): The stunning collapse of the 2007 Super Bowl champions/NFC’s top team during the 2008 regular season, continued with a late home loss to San Diego. Not only has New York (5-4) lost four in a row, but after this week’s badly-needed bye come tough tests from Atlanta, Denver, Dallas and Philadelphia. Call it swamped in the Swamp.

13. Ravens (12): The high-flying offense was grounded last week by ex-defensive boss Marvin Lewis and the Bengals, managing just 215 yards and a touchdown. The Ravens will get healthier against Cleveland’s last-ranked defense. And with the Steelers and Bengals facing each other, the Ravens (4-4) should gain ground on one of them in the AFC North.

14. Texans (14): After pushing unbeaten Indianapolis hard last week, Houston, 4-0 against losing teams, get a break with their bye this week and then a date with 2-6 Tennessee. However, the Texans squeaked by the Titans in Week 2 and need the victory to stay above .500, especially with the rematch with the Colts on tap after that.

15. Packers (10): Its Week 7 record of 4-2 must seem like a long time ago to Green Bay after a 12-point home loss to archrival Minnesota followed by an ugly 10-point loss to previously winless Tampa Bay. It doesn’t get any easier Sunday for quarterback Aaron Rodgers (37 sacks) against red-hot Dallas, which beat the Packers 27-16 last year.

16. Chargers (22): Getting off the mat following three losses in four games by beating AFC West lightweights Kansas City and Oakland is one thing. Rallying to beat the Giants in New York is a whole other matter. At 5-3, San Diego is suddenly just a game back of Denver with a visit from the Eagles preceded by the following showdown with the Broncos.

17. Bears (15): Since beating Pittsburgh in Week 2, Chicago has faced three winning teams and gone 0-3 with an average defeat margin of 21. As the Ol’ Ballcoach would say, not too good. Jay Cutler is back in the risk-taking mode he displayed in Denver with 12 interceptions to go with his 14 touchdowns. The Bears (4-4) visit the 49ers on Thursday.

18. 49ers (16): Poor Alex Smith. The No. 1 pick in the 2005 draft has been solid since finally getting the starting quarterback job back, leading the 49ers to 62 points in 10 quarters. However, San Francisco (3-6) has yet to win with Smith, losing to Tennessee (then 1-6) last week. Thursday’s foe is coach Mike Singletary’s old team, Chicago.

19. Dolphins (18): When they had last visited New England in Week 3 of 2007, the Dolphins unveiled the Wildcat in a 38-13 romp that eventually cost the Patriots a playoff spot. Miami (3-5) led 17-16 late in the third quarter in Foxborough last week, but as was the case against all five winning teams it has faced, couldn’t hang on.

20. Jets (20): When your only victory since Week 3 came against Oakland, you needed a bye and the 4-4 Jets got theirs last week. Rookie coach Rex Ryan needs to get more out of rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez and the passing attack, starting Sunday against Jacksonville, because the running game and defense are playoff-caliber.

21. Panthers (21): Carolina’s revival from an 0-3 start, which took a Week 7 detour against Buffalo, was headed to a high point with a 17-6 halftime lead at New Orleans. However, the second half was all Saints, leaving the Panthers at 3-5 going into Sunday’s critical NFC South rematch with the Falcons. Not scoring and giving up points are issues.

22. Bills (19): Buffalo is back from its bye and quarterback Trent Edwards is back after missing 2-1/2 games with a concussion. That should help an offense which has just 10 touchdowns in eight games. But Edwards doesn’t play defense where the Bills (3-5) are last against the run. That’s scary for a team about to face rushing leader Chris Johnson.

23. Seahawks (23): Sunday’s date at Arizona is the first of three straight road games for Seattle which is 0-3 away from home this year, 2-9 the last two years. The Hawks are 3-1 at home this year, but at 3-5 and with the division-leading Cards and Vikings up next, by the time they play next in Seattle it will likely already be time to plan for 2010.

24. Jaguars (24): After five straight games against losing teams, Jacksonville (4-4) finally meets another .500 team in the Jets. Since the Jags are 22nd against the run and New York leads the league in rushing, it doesn’t seem be a very favorable matchup for the home team. Maybe Maurice Jones-Drew (11 touchdowns) can outscore Gang Green by himself.

25. Titans (29): In 2006 with Tennessee 0-5, coach Jeff Fisher installed rookie Vince Young at quarterback. The Titans went 8-3 the rest of the way. But Young became a virtual non-person the past two years. With the Titans 0-6 this year, Fisher called on Young again and they’re 2-0 since heading into Sunday’s visit by Buffalo. Is history repeating?

26. Raiders (25): It was a quiet bye week in Oakland. Amazingly, the 2-6 Raiders have more or as many victories as seven teams despite having scored just 78 points. One of the victories came in Week 2 at Kansas City. Recording the sweep on Sunday at home would give Oakland a big leg up in avoiding the AFC West basement for a second year in a row.

27. Chiefs (26): Ranking in the bottom six in 17 of 20 critical offensive and defensive stats means you’re a bad team. The Chiefs were bad with former linchpin Larry Johnson and they’ll be bad, but less distracted, now that he’s been cut. If Kansas City (1-7) is swept by Oakland on Sunday, it will almost certainly won’t win again before Hannukah.

28. Lions (27): Matthew Stafford earned early kudos, but the No. 1 overall pick has fallen on hard times. Despite the return of ace receiver Calvin Johnson, Stafford threw five picks in last week’s loss at Seattle that dropped Detroit to 1-7. The Lions lost 27-13 to Minnesota in Week 2. Sunday’s visit to the Metrodome likely won’t be that close.

29. Redskins (28): As has become their habit, the Redskins fell behind by double digits last week at Atlanta before rallying to make the score look respectable. Since the offense can’t score more than 17 points, the defense will have to play better against Denver than it has against good teams so far for Washington to end its 4-game slide.

30. Browns (30): Brady Quinn will be at quarterback when Cleveland returns from its bye Monday against Baltimore, but with a 62.1 passer rating, the former first-rounder has been merely lousy compared to the benched Derek Anderson, who has been horrendous. The latter describes the 1-7 Browns, who are last in defense and second to last in offense.

31. Buccaneers (32): If I’m Raheem Morris, I stick with the ugly creamsicle uniforms until my team loses again. The Bucs might have won the Super Bowl seven years ago in their red threads, but the rookie coach is 1-0 in orange and 0-7 in the more modern look. Or maybe it just took playing rookie Josh Freeman at quarterback last week.

32. Rams (31): At least St. Louis got to enjoy two weeks of happiness, having ended its 18-game losing streak heading into last week’s bye, because Sunday’s visit from unbeaten New Orleans isn’t going to go well. The Saints have scored more points in the second and fourth quarters individually than the 1-7 Rams have scored total, 77.