The Washington Times - October 7, 2009, 12:27PM


New York Giants coach Tom Coughlin may give his starting quarterback a week off against the weak Raiders / AP Photo


Well, well. After years of AFC dominance, there’s serious change at the top of the rankings this week. For the first time in memory, the top four teams are all from the traditional weak sister conference, the NFC.

That’s right. While the New York Giants remain in first, the New Orleans Saints, Minnesota Vikings and idle Philadelphia Eagles all climbed past the Baltimore Ravens and New York Jets, who fell from the ranks of the undefeated last week.

The Ravens and Jets didn’t fall too far, however. They come right after the fifth-ranked New England Patriots to round out a pretty impressive top seven.

The week’s big gainers were the Denver Broncos, who zoomed from No. 18 to No. 11 after holding off the Dallas Cowboys in the closing seconds, and the Miami Dolphins jumped from No. 27 to No. 22 by getting off the schneid with a rout of Buffalo. The Bills took the biggest plunge by switching spots with the Dolphins.

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

1. Giants (1): Eli Manning has plantar fasciitis in his right foot. Fortunately for New York, this week’s foe, the Raiders, play like Mr. Peanut from Planters Peanuts. With a date on New Orleans’ artificial turf up next Sunday, Tom Coughlin should let his quarterback rest up and let his running game and defense dispense with Oakland.

2. Saints (4): Looks like the second G (for genius) is back in Gregg Williams’ name. After getting fired by Washington and enduring a down year in Jacksonville, Williams has New Orleans’ defense on track after a tough first two games. And Williams has two weeks to prepare even more packages for the epic matchup with the Giants after Sunday’s bye.

3. Vikings (6): Could the past couple of weeks gone any better for Brett Favre? The quarterback concluded his 30s with a last-second touchdown to give San Francisco its first loss and by throwing three touchdowns to whip Green Bay, his longtime team and now bitter rival. There shouldn’t be nearly so much drama Sunday at winless St. Louis.

4. Eagles (8): Quarterback Donovan McNabb is back from the fractured rib he suffered in the opener and the Eagles are back from the bye that followed their laugher against the Chiefs. More of the same should follow the next two weeks against winless Tampa Bay and laughable Oakland. The NFC East showdown with the Giants is still four weeks away.

5. Patriots (7): The questions about the Pats that erupted after their close shave with Buffalo and their loss to the Jets are in the rear view mirror after they survived the visit from Baltimore. This week, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are out to prove that they don’t miss ex-offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels much when they visit his Broncos.

6. Ravens (2): The Ravens have no reason to hang their heads after their 27-21 loss at New England. Joe Flacco dueled evenly with 3-time Super Bowl champion quarterback Tom Brady. Knowing Ray Lewis and Co., they’ll use the controversial calls and the narrow defeat as fuel to smack the visiting Bengals and take command of the AFC North.

7. Jets (3): Having only started one year at USC, Mark Sanchez was due for a tough day or two as a rookie starting quarterback. The first one came last week at New Orleans. So Sunday’s visit to Miami is Sanchez’ first chance to show cynical Jets fans, who’ve been waiting 41 years for a second Super Bowl title, how he can handle adversity.

8. 49ers (9): So much for missing injured running back Frank Gore. San Francisco scored two defensive touchdowns and another on special teams in shutting out St. Louis 35-0. The Niners are just 28th in yards and passing, but only Denver gives up fewer points. More important, San Francisco will be 3-0 in the NFC West heading into December.

9. Colts (11): Marvin who? Anthony who? Indy isn’t missing Hall of Fame lock Marvin Harrison or replacement receiver Anthony Gonzalez because Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie have combined for 22 catches, 338 yards and three touchdowns, showing again just how special Peyton Manning (114.5 rating) is. The Colts now visit desperate rival Tennessee.

10. Falcons (8): Coach Mike Smith’s background is on defense, but you can’t tell by his defense which is the NFC’s worst on third down and has allowed its second-most yards. But look again. Only three NFC teams have given up fewer points. Now if Matt Ryan, Michael Turner and Roddy White can get the offense going, Atlanta should be fine.

11. Broncos (18): Yes, Mile High maniacs, I said that if if Denver beat Dallas, I would start to believe. And I do, sort of. But look at what lies ahead for the Broncos: Pats, at Bolts, at Ravens, Steelers. That’s the AFC’s Murderers Row minus the Colts, whom Denver visits in December. If the Broncos make the playoffs, they’ll deserve it.

12. Bears (13): Chicago isn’t shutting down opponents the way it did when Brian Urlacher was patrolling the middle of its defense, but with new quarterback Jay Cutler on track for 32 touchdowns, who cares? And running back Matt Forte came alive last week vs. Detroit. The next two games at Atlanta and Cincinnati could easily go either way.

13. Bengals (12): I said it last week, but it bears updating: is Cincinnati really a fluke, last-minute 87-yard touchdown by Denver away from 4-0? Instead of folding, as usual, the Bengals rallied to win in OT in Cleveland last week. If they can play toe to toe with the Ravens in Baltimore on Sunday, the Bengals will prove contender-worthy.

14. Cowboys (11): There shouldn’t be any despair in Jerryland. The Cowboys’ losses have come by a total of six points on the road to the unbeaten Giants and Broncos. Dallas has pounded Carolina and Tampa Bay and should crush Kansas City on the road on Sunday. But T.O. is definitely missed. No Dallas receiver has more than 11 catches or one touchdown.

15. Packers (15): At least that’s over with. After losing the much-hyped first battle with Brett Favre, Green Bay should return from this week’s bye to beat Detroit and Cleveland before the once-beloved quarterback returns to Lambeau Field. But by then, the O-line (20 sacks!) had better learn how to pass-block to preserve Aaron Rodgers’ health.

16. Jaguars (17): Say this for Jack Del Rio’s crew: they’re playing their best in the games that mean the most. Last week’s 37-17 shellacking of Tennessee moved the Jaguars to 2-1 in the AFC South. And their next four foes (Seahawks, Rams, Titans, Chiefs) are a combined 1-15. Maybe Jacksonville might have to stop blacking out its home games.

17. Steelers (18): Go figure. Other than the impotent St. Louis Lambs, the two worst fourth quarter teams so far are the two who played a dynamic fourth quarter in Super Bowl XLIII: Arizona and Pittsburgh. The Steelers have been outscored 48-13 in the final 15 as they head to Detroit for the first time since they won the Super Bowl there in Jan. 2006.

18. Texans (19): Houston: we have a problem. It’s called consistency. The Texans have lost by 10 and 17 points and won by 23. Houston is struggling to run and stop the run and the pass rush has just four sacks. But don’t blame quarterback Matt Schaub, who has eight touchdowns and a 98.6 rating heading into a date with Arizona’s poor pass defense.

19. Chargers (16): A 38-28 loss at Pittsburgh doesn’t look so bad, but the Bolts were battered during the first three quarters. What was supposed to be a waltz to a fourth straight AFC West title could be permanently derailed if San Diego loses to visiting Denver after its bye and falls even further behind the Broncos in the division race. Where’s the defense?

20. Cardinals (23): Did Ken Whisenhunt and Co. rediscover their mojo during the bye week? An offense that struck fear in opposing defenses right through their final drive of Super Bowl XLIII scored fewer than 17 points in two of its first three games. The blah running attack isn’t a surprise, but just three scores between Fitzgerald and Boldin?

21. Seahawks (21): Jim Mora Jr. coached Atlanta to a surprising playoff berth in his Falcons debut in 2004. Don’t look for history to repeat in Seattle. The Hawks are about as dreary as the usual weather alongside Puget Sound. Their receivers only have one touchdown. Maybe the home dates with the Jags and Cardinals will energize this team.

22. Dolphins (27): Miami started 0-3 while losing quarterback Chad Pennington for the season. Backup Chad Henne had virtually no experience. So naturally, the Dolphins pummeled the Bills 38-10 last Sunday. If Miami’s thriving pass rush (11 sacks) can get to New York Jets rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez, the turnaround could continue this week.

23. Panthers (27): Carolina can’t score (last in the NFC in points), stop anyone (only Detroit allows more points) and has the NFL’s worst coverage units. That was a heck of a lot for John Fox to fix during last week’s bye. The good news is that the impotent Redskins visit on Sunday with shaky confidence and a coach and quarterback in trouble.

24. Titans (20): Jeff Fisher’s team has had suprising starts lately. The Titans began 0-5 in 2006, 10-0 in 2008 and now 0-4. Just as surprising is that after losing its first three by just 13 total points, Tennessee was pounded by 20 at Jacksonville. And now come Indy, New England, the Jags again and the Niners. It’s time to play Vince Young.

25. Lions (24): The good times lasted for all of a week in Motown. Not only did the Bears double up the Lions, 48-24, but they injured exciting rookie quarterback Matthew Stafford’s knee in the process. Don’t expect the Lions to beat Pittsburgh or Green Bay if retread Daunte Culpepper is under center. At least St. Louis is on tap after that.

26. Redskins (26): Rallying from a 10-0 halftime deficit to beat the Bucs 16-13 relieved some of the pressure in D.C. on coach Jim Zorn, but quarterback Jason Campbell has five interceptions after throwing six all last year. Winning at Carolina Sunday would keep hope alive. The hiring of consultant Sherm Lewis is another bad sign for Zorn.

27. Bills (22): So much for beating up on the winless Dolphins while welcoming back top runner Marshawn Lynch from his suspension. Lynch ran eight times for four yards and Buffalo sank back into the AFC East basement with the rout by Miami. If the Bills can’t beat the visiting Browns on Sunday, they and coach Dick Jauron are done.

28. Buccaneers (29): When your only touchdown against the staggering Redskins comes on a 10-yard drive and your kicker fails on his first four field goal tries of the season, you’re the definition of bumbling. Whether it’s second-year man Josh Johnson or rookie Josh Freeman at quarterback, the Bucs are already playing for the future.

29. Browns (31): Eric Mangenius almost stole his first victory last week after benching quarterback Brady Quinn for 2008 starter Derek Anderson. However, the Brownies bumbled their way to a 23-20 home loss to Cincinnati. Cleveland allows the most yards and the second-most points. So even slumping Buffalo should be able to beat the Browns this week.

30. Raiders (28): Since edging the Chiefs in Week 2, the Raiders have been outscored 52-9. Their offense is last in total yards, passing yards and first downs and only the Rams score less. But at least the Chiefs and the Rams don’t have a head coach who might be arrested for punching one of his assistants in the face. Nice team, Al.

31. Rams (30): Anyone who wondered why the Ravens benched and then got rid of Kyle Boller can stop wondering after the backup quarterback’s dreadful game in place of the ailing Marc Bulger last week against the Niners. The average score of a St. Louis game so far is 27-6 for the opposition, That won’t change much Sunday against the visiting Vikes.

32. Chiefs (32): Kansas City scored 40 points the past three games. Former stud running back Larry Johnson is averaging 2.6 a carry. No one has more than 120 receiving yards. The defense has allowed 27 or more points in three of four games. Everything’s definitely not up to date in Kansas City where the Chiefs will fall to 0-5 Sunday against Dallas.