If you’re free on a Sunday afternoon, stop by one of the so-called sports bars in town: Jillian’s or Buffalo Wild Wings or Billy Barooz or the Esquire. You may be surprised to find that Bears jerseys don’t rein supreme. Green Bay, Pittsburgh, Minneapolis, Dallas, Denver — these cities and more have their representatives in Champaign–Urbana. But regardless of where they hail from, all fans want to know who’s good, who’s better and who’s best. And for these fans, we inaugurate the Polite Power Rankings.
1. THE NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
It’s official: If the editors at Webster’s have any sense, they’ll install a picture of Brady, Moss, and Co. beside the word “shellac.” The Pats don’t just beat the opposition; they teach them a lesson, almost as if the other team should’ve known better than to step onto the field.
2. THE DALLAS COWBOYS
Tony Romo is no Tom Brady. Terrell Owens is no Randy Moss. Blah, blah. By fantasy stats, this may be true. But Romo and Owens are a magical connection, and for the first time in his career Owens is almost a convert to the religion of team play. And let’s not forget DeMarcus Ware and that defense.
3. THE GREEN BAY PACKERS
It’s true that romantic ideals don’t always warrant a spot in the top three, but there’s more than an aging Zeus and a community-owned franchise in wind-swept Wisconsin these days. For instance: A QB that’s playing like he’s a 28-year-old at the height of his game. For instance: a spontaneously dominant running game. For instance: A defense with an occasionally-bend-but-never-break mentality.
4. THE PITTSBURGH STEELERS
Here’s a hypothetical: The Steelers play the junior-high JV squad in — you pick it — Urbana or St. Joe or Monticello. Who wins? Based on the Steelers’ talent, and based on their performance during nearly 70 percent of the season, you’d go with the Steelers against almost anyone. But they have a tendency to falter in the face of teams they should dominate, which makes this a generous — and tenuous — ranking.
5. THE INDIANAPOLIS COLTS
Was it the apostle Paul who said, “Injury is the root of all evil”? When firing on all cylinders, there’s no doubt that the Colts are a force to be reckoned with. But limping with injury — defensive end Dwight Freeney and wide receiver Marvin Harrison among the most worrisome sideliners — the Colts are suffering the reality of a superstar QB who doesn’t always know what to do when the house is not in perfect order.
6. THE NEW YORK GIANTS
Eli Manning is no leader — at least not totally, and not yet. But what’s important is that he’s at the helm while his team is picking up Ws. And with Tiki Barber merely muttering his occasional complaints from the broadcasting booth, Eli might just find a locker-room audience captive enough to charge into the NFC title game at his meek cry.
7. THE CLEVELAND BROWNS
It’s finally time to start talking about special teams not as special teams but as SPECIAL teams. Or, at least, SPECIAL CRIBBS, as Joshua Cribbs has become an elite game-changer on the Browns’ punt and kick-off return teams. And how about the near-juggernaut Derek Anderson? Maybe Brady Quinn should start shopping for a new home….
8. THE JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS
The old-new — or new-old, depending on your take — quarterback is back in the Sunshine State. It’s David Garrard, of course, and, coming off injury, he put up nearly 200 yards and two TDs. With Mike Peterson, Sammy Knight and the boys leading the defensive charge, this is a team that could challenge the deflating Colts for the AFC South title.
9. THE TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
Say what you will about the coaching style of Chucky (a.k.a. John Gruden), but the Bucs played a strong away game against the Falcons and, on both sides of the ball, they’re figuring out what it takes to remain in the W column.
10. THE DETROIT LIONS
Yes, they lost to the sixth-ranked (Polite Power Rankings, that is) Giants. But they aren’t taking it lying down. After the game, quarterback Jon Kitna calls the Giants inferior, and Giants defensive legend Michael Strahan fires back — and what matters most is not the jawing, but the proclamation by Kitna that the Lions may have had a rough game, but they’re ready for a 16-week-long battle.
11. THE TENNESSEE TITANS
Well it’s about time that Vince Young tosses a touchdown pass. The defense has been carrying the weight for this team — even with Albert Haynesworth out — but a QB who uses his arms and his legs could spell a hard time for future opponents.
12. THE SAN DIEGO CHARGERS
They’ve had their hiccups — no doubt. And if you’re in the business of pointing fingers, the sloppy quarterback and out-of-touch head coach aren’t bad places to start. But there’s simply too much talent on this ship not to expect a successful voyage in the second half of the season.
13. THE SEATTLE SEAHAWKS
Shawn Alexander sits, but Maurice Morris steps up — and all the while Matt Hasselbeck tosses for 337 yards. The defense combines for five sacks and a career performance by linebacker LeRoy Hill. The key here is replication. And next week against the suddenly resurgent Rams will tell whether the Seahawks are ready to scale the mountain.
14. THE ARIZONA CARDINALS
They’ve dropped games they shouldn’t have and won games they had no business winning and their star QB is down for the season, and none of this seems to matter to these desert dwellers. As long as the fight remains in their gut, the Cards have a decent chance of competing for the NFC West.
15. THE WASHINGTON REDSKINS
So they had the Philadelphia Eagles in a home game they could’ve won. But facing Tony Romo and the gang in Dallas the week before? That’s a tough assignment. And the task won’t be much easier as they face their next chore: the Buccaneers at home in Tampa Bay.
16. THE BUFFALO BILLS
Getting blown out by the New England Patriots has become, simply, a ceremonial rite. But the Bills, counted out by most commentators in the early days of the season, have shown fire and ability in the face of deeply distressing injury tallies.
17. THE DENVER BRONCOS
18. THE HOUSTON TEXANS
19. THE KANSAS CITY CHIEFS
20. THE NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
21. THE CHICAGO BEARS
22. THE CAROLINA PANTHERS
23. THE MINNESOTA VIKINGS
24. THE BALTIMORE RAVENS
25. THE CINCINNATI BENGALS
26. THE SAINT LOUIS RAMS
27. THE NEW YORK JETS
28. THE PHILADELPHIA EAGLES
29. THE SAN FRANCISCO FORTY-NINERS
30. THE ATLANTA FALCONS
31. THE OAKLAND RAIDERS
32. THE MIAMI DOLPHINS