*Records include Thanksgiving Day games
1. New England Patriots (8-3) – Yes, they have two more losses than both Houston and Atlanta, and yes, they lost to Baltimore, who has only lost twice. But they have posted point totals of 49, 59, 37, 45 and 29 in their past five games and lead the AFC in turnover differential by a 2:1 margin over 2nd place Baltimore. NFL beware; Emperor Belichick has his empire striking back in full force after a 3-3 start.
2. Houston Texans (10-1) – Gary Kubiak escaped a second consecutive OT thriller to open Thursday’s Thanksgiving festivities on the road in Detroit. It’s the second straight inferior team to challenge Houston, who now looks like a far cry from the dominating squad that rolled the Ravens by 30 in week seven. But as they say, a win is a win is a win and the Texans keep winning.
3. Atlanta Falcons (9-1) – Atlanta travels to Tampa Bay on Sunday with a chance to all-but-lock-up the NFC South. Their biggest question mark remains their rush defense, which Doug “Don’t Call Me a Stalwart Marmot” Martin will put to the test. As has been the case for Atlanta since Matt Ryan’s arrival, the Falcons won’t rank this high again through the end of the season when they are inevitably knocked out of the playoffs in their first game.
4. Green Bay Packers (7-3) – Outside the Broncos, the Packers are the hottest team in the league and riding a five game winning streak into New Jersey to face the New York Giants. With Raggedy Jay (Cutler) sidelined last week and questionable this week, the Pack knows they have to put the pedal to the metal from now until they face the Bears in week 15. Don’t look now but Aaron Rodgers has quietly slipped past Peyton Manning in passer rating, touchdowns and national ad campaigns. The Pack is back.
5. Baltimore Ravens (8-2) – That they let Byron Lettuce and Tomato Leftwich almost beat them on Sunday night football should be reason enough to drop this team outside of my top-three. They continue to rank towards the bottom of the league in rushing and defense, yet they keep finding ways to win. The second-toughest remaining schedule (after Houston) should get them in to the playoffs, but never much higher in these rankings. Now, pass the mayo.
6. Denver Broncos (7-3) – The team that was poised to jump into a top-three slot in Steve Quinne’s rankings has dropped to sixth with the potential season-ending loss of running back Willis McGahee. The 31-year-old workhorse has been Denver’s most-valuable player on offense over the past two seasons and with no made men in the stable, the Broncos have some proving to do before they can climb any farther up my list.
7. Chicago Bears (7-3) – The Bears find themselves suddenly in a tie with Green Bay atop the NFC North with surprising Minnesota just one game back heading into Sunday’s showdown at Solider. Losers of two straight, Chicago hasn’t made a decision on quarterback Jay Cutler’s status as he recovers from a concussion. Even if he does play, Cutler likely won’t be at 100 percent and he won’t be playing at close to 100 percent confidence behind a shaky o-line.
8. San Francisco 49ers (7-2-1) – Is it possible that a team with seven wins has a quarterback controversy? Colin Kaepernick made a case for himself last week by dismantling what was thought to be the league’s best defense, Chicago. Alex Smith’s status remains uncertain for this week’s game against streaking New Orleans; another strong performance by Kaepernick could throw things into total disarray in the Bay.
9. Pittsburgh Steelers (6-4) – The Steelers have proven they can be competitive, even with a quarterback who hasn’t won an NFL start since Aigars Kalvitis was becoming the first Latvian prime minister to win re-election since gaining independence from the former Soviet Union. Both seemed just as irrelevant three weeks ago, yet Leftwich is now charged with keeping Pittsburgh’s playoff hopes alive until Big Ben can return (hopefully next week against Baltimore). Steeler nation is hoping Leftwich doesn’t go the way of Kalvitis and be forced to step down because of corruption and ineffectiveness.
10. New York Giants (6-4) – The G-Men have become a sideshow to the circus that is the Jets in New York, which is good news to Giants fans as the defending Super Bowl champs have once again struggled to distance themselves in what should have been a very winnable division. RGIII and Romo remain in the rear-view mirror while the Giants face a tough final six weeks against Green Bay, Washington, New Orleans, Atlanta, Baltimore and Philadelphia. Yowza.
10a. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-4) – Of the remaining teams at 6-4, Tampa Bay has the highest total point differential at +57, but they have just one win against teams with a winning record. With Atlanta on the schedule twice in the final six weeks, including Sunday, we’ll soon find out if the Bucs are for real like Bigfoot, or a myth like high fructose corn syrup.