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Say what you want about luck or wobbly refs or divine intervention. The fact of the matter is that even the royalty of the NFL needs, on occasion, a little help from the opponent to keep a reign going. Yes, I’m talking about the Patriots vs. the Ravens. Sure, the Pats, facing likely defeat, came back like champions. But, in the final minutes, the Ravens (some of them, at least) played like men determined to lose. An ill-advised time out? Bart Scott’s double penalty of angry passion? The NFL cherishes its brutes, but it’s the players with the smarts that prevail in the end.

1. NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (1)

The Patriots seem to be on a slide, eking out close wins against the sub-.500 Eagles and Ravens in two consecutive weeks. But is it really fair to expect the Pats to continue blowing out team after team? In fact, come January, when the Dolphins and the Jets are no longer on the schedule, these little exercises in close-game survival may prove quite handy.

2. DALLAS COWBOYS (2)

Hyped as 2007’s Ultimate NFC Shootout, the Thursday night Cowboys–Packers match up (televised on the NFL network, which meant that most of the area’s football fans had to hit the bar if they wanted to witness it) pitted the youthful Tony Romo against his hero, the veteran Brett Favre. But Favre went down early, and Romo led his boys through an impressive four quarters. Packers backup Aaron Rogers did well, but cheeseheads in Green Bay are left wondering if a victory could’ve been cinched with Favre in the saddle.

3. INDIANAPOLIS COLTS (4)

The Colts had a fired-up Jaguars squad on their hands, but they captured the lead in the first quarter and held it — despite a late-game Jacksonville threat — till the end. As the Patriots have been forced to prove these last few weeks, it’s really not the margin of victory that matters; it’s simply the victory itself.

4. GREEN BAY PACKERS (3)

Brett Favre was on the sidelines for most of the game, the green second-stringer Aaron Rogers was behind center, and you know what? — the Packers made a game of it. Favre is (according to the latest reports) ready to go against the Raiders, and he’ll be surrounded by a team, on both sides of the ball, that’s ready to charge into January.

5. PITTSBURGH STEELERS (6)

For a few weeks, sluggish play and a weakened run game made the hardnosed Steelers look like a team on running low on steam. But that angry defense and efficient offense returned Sunday night, leading the Steelers to a win over the division rival Cincinnati Bengals. Still, running back Willie Parker saw two balls slip from his grip, and for Pittsburgh to make a strong winter showing, they’re going to need dependable hands in the running game.

6. TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS (8)

It’s the time of year when teams need to make statements, and that’s exactly what the Bucs did Sunday against the under-performing Saints in New Orleans. Led by Luke “Who?” McCown, a fourth-year QB out of Louisiana Tech who’s only played in seven NFL games, Tampa Bay jumped in front of New Orleans with 17 seconds to play and solidified their spot atop the NFC South.

7. JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS (5)

8. SAN DIEGO CHARGERS (10)

No doubt it was a rough start to the season for the Chargers, but if LaDainian Tomlinson can put up 177 yards and two TDs for the next few weeks (as he did in week 13), the Bolts just may see their 2007 resurrection through to fruition.

9. SEATTLE SEAHAWKS (9)

10. CLEVELAND BROWNS (7)

11. NEW YORK GIANTS (11)

A win for the Giants doesn’t necessarily warrant a hike in the ranks. Eli Manning, who was (once again) less than impressive with two interceptions and a fumble, did manage to lead a fourth-quarter drive, but its success had as much to do with the Bears’ shortcomings as did with the Giants’ execution.

12. TENNESSEE TITANS (15)

It’s this simple: Vince Young may still be coming into his own as an NFL quarterback, but he likes to win. I mean, he really likes to win. And when his stars are aligned, he knows how to get the job done.

13. MINNESOTA VIKINGS (16)

Somebody forgot to tell the Vikings that most of us had counted them out long ago. Another dominating performance (42–10 over their division rivals from Detroit) spurred by the quick-developing quarterback Tarvaris Jackson and the back-field phenom Adrian Peterson makes you wish the Vikes had another shot at the division-leading Packers this season.

14. ARIZONA CARDINALS (17)

Arizona’s first-year head coach, Ken Whisenhunt, formerly the offensive coordinator for the Pittsburgh Steelers, has an intimate familiarity with the talents and tricks of the AFC North — and he’s used this well, lifting his Cards to 3–1 against teams from that division with a close win against the Browns in week 13. But a tough Seattle match-up on the road waits for Arizona on Sunday.

15. BUFFALO BILLS (21)

We can’t give all the credit for Sunday’s win to the Bills. Without Redskins’ head coach Joe Gibbs’ time-out gaffe, the Bills would’ve limped out of D.C. with a loss. But instead they scored a last-second field goal. And more importantly, these badly bruised Bills stood strong in the face of a deeply emotional and fired-up Washington team that was looking to the field to avenge the loss of fallen teammate Sean Taylor.

16. CAROLINA PANTHERS (24)

The Panthers showed some promise on Sunday, reminding us that, on a good day, they’re still able to compete. But let’s call this an unstable 16 ranking. After all, their QB Vinny Testaverde is almost old enough to qualify for AARP, they notched a win against the abysmal 49ers, and that win was just their first at home all season long. It’s back on the road this week against a gnarly Jacksonville squad.

17. NEW ORLEANS SAINTS (13)

18. DENVER BRONCOS (14)

19. DETROIT LIONS (12)

20. CHICAGO BEARS (18)

When there’s little left to say about a team, it’s always best to turn to song lyrics. This week, let’s borrow from Paul Simon: “Slip sliding away/ slip sliding away/ You know the nearer your destination, the more you’re slip sliding away.” Another close one squandered as the Bears’ dreams of a return to the Super Bowl slip-slides away.

21. WASHINGTON REDKSINS (19)

22. BALTIMORE RAVENS (26)

23. HOUSTON TEXANS (22)

24. PHILADELPHIA EAGLES (23)

25. OAKLAND RAIDERS (29)

Listen up, Luke: You ain’t the only McCown in town. Slinger Josh McCown may not have put up great stats in most categories, but he tossed three TDs to give his Raiders a morale-boosting V against their division foes from Denver.

26. ST. LOUIS RAMS (28)

27. CINCINNATI BENGALS (20)

28. KANSAS CITY CHIEFS (25)

29. NEW YORK JETS (30)

30. SAN FRANCISCO 49ers (27)

Early-season predictions had it that the 49ers would once again de-throne Rice-A-Roni to become the reigning San Francisco treat. I’m here to tell all pre-packaged rice and pasta meals to sleep soundly tonight.

31. ATLANTA FALCONS (31)

32. MIAMI DOLPHINS (32)