If you count the guys on each team’s eight-man practice squad, there are currently more than 1,950 players in the NFL — and 19 of these saw their college action at the University of Illinois. Among them, Kelvin Hayden and Aaron Moorehead (both with the Indianapolis Colts) picked up Super Bowl rings in last year’s big show, and Jameel Cook (now a Houston Texan, but a former Tampa Bay Buccaneer) got his own hardware in early 2003. But only one active Illinois alum has two rings, and that’s New England Patriots free safety Eugene Wilson. Following an unflinching defeat Sunday over the Pittsburgh Steelers — viewed by many as the last hope to take down the Pats — the Patriots look well on their way to putting Wilson and his teammates in the history books as the first franchise to go undefeated in the regular season in nearly 35 years. And if all goes according to Bill Belichick’s plan, Wilson will have another ring to add to his collection.
1. NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (1)
If you’re even a mild fan of sports programming, then you heard a similar refrain all last week: If the Pats are gonna fall, it’s gonna be the Steelers to bring ’em down. Well, the Steelers hung in there for a couple of quarters. Remaining opponents should note two important lessons. 1). Don’t talk trash against the Patriots — it only makes them mad. And 2). When you’re playing an offensive powerhouse like New England, field goals are about as effective as, well, midweek jawing from a second-year defensive back. The ’72 Dolphins now turn their trepidant eyes to the week 16 match-up against the Giants.
2. DALLAS COWBOYS (2)
The Cowboys were surging and the Lions were weak — but someone forgot to tell the Lions. Detroit running back Kevin Jones defied expectations with two TDs (matching Dallas pounder Marion Barber) and 92 yards (nearly doubling Barber’s output). But Lone Star State wonder boy Tony Romo hit six receivers — two in the end zone — for more than 300 yards. And one of those shots, to tight end Jason Witten with 18 seconds to play, made clear that Dallas knows how to handle itself when it’s on the ropes.
3. INDIANAPOLIS COLTS (3)
The old saying stands true: Those teams that can bend but not break are the teams that, you know, aren’t broken. Forceful words, there, and words perfectly applied to the Colts. A November skid (let’s apply “skid” liberally; the Indy boys are now 11–2) seemed to expose some weaknesses, but with the pulse of the defense (Dwight Freeney) on IR and offensive juggernaut Marvin Harrison continuing to sit, the Colts easily beat the suddenly competitive Ravens squad into submission.
4. GREEN BAY PACKERS (4)
Let’s flash back to week 13: Old Man Favre goes down hard and the soaring Packers seem ready for a fall. But though he didn’t bring a win, back-up QB Aaron Rogers helped the team leave Dallas with plenty to feel good about. And a week later, Favre — as he’s done so many times before — shirked his aches and pains, leading the Pack to a trouncing of the Raiders, another division title, and a reinvigorated momentum heading toward the post-season.
5. JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS (7)
A week after not quite cutting the mustard against the Colts, the Jags bounced back with a force that any AFC team with post-season hopes should take note of. On both sides of the ball, Jacksonville dominated. And they also proved what many of us already knew: The Panthers really aren’t very good.
6. SEATTLE SEAHAWKS (9)
In the NFC, we’ve known for a while now who would likely sit atop the North and the South at season’s end — and we’ve known this, in part, because of the media’s high-school crush of Tony Romo and tingly infatuation with the tale of the Combeack Kid. But out west, the often overlooked Seahawks have the ridden the arm of Matt Hasselbeck to 9–4 and a division title. But to pound through the playoffs, they’ll need their running game to put some spin in those wheels.
7. SAN DIEGO CHARGERS (8)
8. PITTSBURGH STEELERS (5)
9. MINNESOTA VIKINGS (13)
Chicago Bears (5–8). Washington Redskins (6–7). Denver Broncos (6–7). What’s my point? With not a winning team among them, the Vikes’ final three opponents give Minnesota a strong chance of finishing the season 10–6. Even with slim performances from QB Tarvaris Jackson and backfield wunderkind Adrian Peterson, the Vikings rolled over the 49ers Sunday, looking nothing like the sloppy 2–5 team from early November.
10. CLEVELAND BROWNS (10)
The Browns win over the Jets Sunday wasn’t pretty, but you know what? The good people of Cleveland don’t give a damn. They’ve been waiting for a winning season since 2002 and with a home win this week over Buffalo, the Browns could be sitting at 9–5. Depending on how Pittsburgh collects itself after its implosion in New England, the Browns may have a chance to sneak into first in the AFC North.
11. NEW YORK GIANTS (11)
Time is running out (this season, at least) for Eli Manning to show the world that he’s capable of a human emotion other than disgust or boredom. To be fair, he’s exhibited a little life in his post-game interviews lately. And that’s good, because this team needs a spark if it wants to be competitive against the big dogs in January.
12. TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS (6)
Quarterback Luke McCown put up 266 yards and lineman Greg White posted three sacks, but these are the only stats really worth mentioning from the Bucs’ underwhelming performance Sunday. (The Texans won 28–14.) Fortunately for Tampa Bay, a crumbling Falcons franchise comes to town this weekend, giving the Bucs a chance to turn that ship right back around.
13. BUFFALO BILLS (15)
14. TENNESSEE TITANS (12)
15. DENVER BRONCOS (18)
Riding on the shoulders of a young quarterback, Denver is bound to have its ups and downs. But you can bet it’s an “up week” when that QB hits 20 of 27 for 244 yards and (yes, count ’em) four TDs. And a five-sack day on the other side of the ball didn’t hurt either.
16. NEW ORLEANS SAINTS (17)
Every time the Saints put up a big win, I nod and say, “Yep, now they’re starting to get their groove back on.” And inevitably, they find a way to spoil one the following week. I expect the Saints to be able to eke one out against the Cardinals this week, but, for this season, I’d say the groove is gone.
17. ARIZONA CARDINALS (14)
18. DETROIT LIONS (19)
19. WASHINGTON REDSKINS (21)
20. HOUSTON TEXANS (23)
Former number one pick Mario Williams played a big part in Sunday’s upset over the Bucs, putting pressure on QB Luke McCown all day long. And on offense, backup Sage Rosenfels held a clinic in quality quarterbacking — excepting those slippery fingers, of course. With the Broncos, Colts and Jaguars ahead, I sure hope the Texans took the time to enjoy that win.
21. CHICAGO BEARS (21)
Grossman back down means Griese back up? Not so fast. Kyle Orton gets the nod this week after two years of calling plays from the sidelines and watching not one but two quarterbacks take live snaps over him. Will he be able to lead the Bears back to their winning ways? Doubtful. After all, the Bears have proven that they can attain gridiron mediocrity no matter who’s at the helm.
22. CAROLINA PANTHERS (16)
23. CINCINNATI BENGALS (27)
24. PHILADELPHIA EAGLES (24)
25. BALTIMORE RAVENS (22)
26. OAKLAND RAIDERS (25)
27. ST. LOUIS RAMS (26)
At this time of year, you have plenty of teams duking it out for a playoff spot, or home-field advantage, or a division title. But you also have teams that are simply trying to dig up a few healthy bodies to take the field. To wit, the St. Louis Rams, who slapped a helmet on third-string QB Brock Berlin and told him to run the show. And all eyes in St. Louis turned to the 2008 draft….
28. NEW YORK JETS (29)
29. KANSAS CITY CHIEFS (28)
30. SAN FRANCISCO 49ers (30)
31. ATLANTA FALCONS (31)
Just quit the team with three games left? Don’t even have the guts to tell your team face-to-face? Head coach Bobby Petrino’s sudden exodus from a Falcons franchise riddled this year by bad news does nothing for morale in Hotlanta. But — just flee? I have to believe the Falcons have just taken a large step forward.
32. MIAMI DOLPHINS (32)