The Dolphins won, breaking a 14-game losing spree, and the Patriots also won, keeping their history-sculpting win streak alive. The local-favorite Chicago Bears made the NFL headlines this week as well, becoming one of many recent Super Bowl runner-ups to find themselves officially eliminated from the playoffs. Now is the time of year when fantasy leagues come to end and families full of football diehards abandon their holiday shopping to watch their teams complete the process of sinking or swimming. If your team’s still treading water, a telling weekend awaits.
1. NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (1)
A far-from-perfect game for the still-perfect Pats demonstrated that late-season fatigue may be settling into New England. The Pats have already clinched the AFC East, so they’ll probably stop monkeying around with this 16–0 business and let Tom and the boys rest for the final few weeks, right? No way. The ’72 Fins better get ready to share some pages in the history books.
2. GREEN BAY PACKERS (2)
When Sunday’s Rams/Packers game came to an end, Brett Favre (a quarterback that many had called “washed up” two years ago) had eclipsed Dan Marino as the most prolific passer in league history and Favre’s team (which many had written off before the season even began) had clinched a first-round bye. And now that the Cowboys have stumbled, the Packers alone sit atop the NFC.
3. INDIANAPOLIS COLTS (3)
For nearly six minutes in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s game against the Raiders, the Colts trailed. But it was during those six minutes that Peyton Manning manufactured the sort of drive that has come to define the Colts. Seven passes, five runs, one two-point conversion — and the Colts wrapped up the AFC South.
4. JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS (4)
Pittsburgh has been no easy place to get a win this season. In fact, coming into Sunday’s game, the Steelers were 7–0 at home. But the Jags were not fazed, taking a 22–7 lead into the fourth quarter. Sluggish play on both sides of the ball allowed the Steelers to storm back to tie the game, but Jacksonville refused to break, drawing on a will to win that bodes well for the Jags heading into January.
5. DALLAS COWBOYS (2)
The Cowboy’s quarterback had Dallas fans reciting Shakespeare on Sunday: O Romo, Romo. Wherefore art though, Romo? No TDs, three picks, and just 13 of 36 in the air — the exalted Tony Romo of weeks gone by was nowhere to be found. And the running game refused to bail him out, tallying a pitiful 53 yards on the ground. Next up: the Carolina Panthers, who might want to make a habit of smacking around division leaders (especially if Jessica Simpson shows up at this game, too).
6. SAN DIEGO CHARGERS (7)
If I had some extra money sitting around, I’d bet that the Chargers are going to put a hurtin’ on the Broncos and Raiders to barrel into the playoffs with a six-game winning streak behind them. The Chargers offense isn’t necessarily firing on all cylinders (meaning: another shaky performance from QB Philip Rivers), but the double threat of LaDainian Tomlinson and Darren Sproles out of the backfield keeps opposing defenses on their toes.
7. MINNESOTA VIKINGS (9)
Sometimes it’s not the pretty victories that matter most. Still in his first year behind center, Tarvaris Jackson played so poorly (three interceptions, one lost fumble, and endless balls to no one in particular) that Hall-of-Fame-QB-turned-ESPN-analyst Steve Young said he felt like he was watching a bad high-school football game. But Adrian Peterson, up against an angry Bears defense, found a way to sneak two over the goal line, and now the Vikings roll on with five straight Ws.
8. TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS (12)
9. PITTSBURGH STEELERS (8)
In their last five tries, the Steelers have only beaten the Jaguars once — and that was during the storied 15–1 season of 2004. Despite a late-game surge that made things close, Pittsburgh played mediocre ball in all phases, failing to match the Jags’ physicality. This looks like a tired club — but there’s no rest for the weary as the Cleveland Browns are poised to challenge for the top of the division heap.
10. CLEVELAND BROWNS (10)
11. SEATTLE SEAHAWKS (6)
In the spirit of the holidays, the Seattle Seahawks decided to offer a gift to their fellow conference heavyweights from Dallas: We’ll completely collapse against a pretty terrible Carolina team, which means all you guys with stars on your helmets can take it easy and still get a first-round bye. Maybe it’s just that time of the year when fatigue is too much to bear, but with big playoff implications on the line, there’s no excuse for losing an easy-win game.
12. TENNESSEE TITANS (12)
13. NEW ORLEANS SAINTS (16)
14. NEW YORK GIANTS (11)
15. HOUSTON TEXANS (20)
16. WASHINGTON REDSKINS (19)
By the numbers, the up-and-down Redskins are still technically in the playoff hunt, and knocking off the Giants Sunday was critical to keeping these hopes alive. But with former Wolverine QB Todd Collins (in for the injured Jason Campbell, who might be able to return to the field in the playoffs) completing less than 33% of his passes, the ’Skins have an uphill battle ahead of them.
17. BUFFALO BILLS (13)
18. PHILADELPHIA EAGLES (24)
Rumors are starting to swirl about the Bears bringing Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb back to his home town to run the offense. Despite the Eagles upset over the Cowboys Sunday, McNabb is going to have to do better than a 56% completion rate and one TD to prove he’s got a leg up on…Kyle Orton? Ok, never mind. Welcome to Chicago, Mr. McNabb.
19. DENVER BRONCOS (15)
20. ARIZONA CARDINALS (17)
The Ken Whisenhunt era will end its first year on Dec. 30, like all the other teams who’ve failed to make it to the playoffs. With Atlanta and St. Louis left on the schedule, though, Arizona has a strong chance of breaking even this season and, in the months following, to refine its weaponry for the Whiz’s year two. While Kurt Warner is still capable of stunning feats now and again, it’s the arm of Matt Leinart that’ll have to be most polished in the off-season.
21. CAROLINA PANTHERS (22)
22. DETROIT LIONS (18)
23. CHICAGO BEARS (23)
Everybody’s favorite sloppy drinker took the reins for Chicago Monday night, and, well, he played like a guy who’s been drinking (and not practicing much football) for the past 18 months. But Brian Urlacher, Charles Tillman and the rest of the defensive bruise crew mustered hints of that terrifying force we’ve witnessed over the previous few seasons.
24. NEW YORK JETS (28)
Sure, the Jets lost, and usually that’s no reason to move a team up in the rankings — especially when that team put up zero TDs and didn’t climb over the 100-yard mark on the ground. But they were playing the invincible Patriots and actually made the Pats look shaky. And Chad Pennington (it’s a Chicago-esque QB carousel for those Jets) threw a respectable 25/38. Honestly, there are a lot of terrible teams competing for the lowest rungs in these power rankings, and the Jets are simply not quite worthy of those barrel-bottom slots.
25. SAN FRANCISCO 49ers (30)
26. CINCINNATI BENGALS (23)
27. OAKLAND RAIDERS (26)
Oakland’s bright spot? Apparently its kicking game, as punter Shane Lechler was the only Raider elected to this year’s Pro Bowl. (The Jets and, oddly enough, the Jaguars are the only two AFC teams sending nobody to Hawaii.) Lechler has booted it an average of 49 yards an attempt, second only to Chicago’s Dirk Johnson (49.8). And with QBs Josh McCown and JaMarcus Russell teaming up for a woeful 104 yards in the air Sunday, it’s abundantly clear why Lechler has had so many opportunities to polish his skills.
28. BALTIMORE RAVENS (25)
29. ST. LOUIS RAMS (27)
30. KANSAS CITY CHIEFS (29)
31. MIAMI DOLPHINS (32)
You could simply flip a coin: Heads Miami is worse, tales Atlanta is worse. But the Dolphins finally managed to get off the schneid, and this week I’m rewarding them with ascension. And maybe this coming week the 2007 Dolphins will reward Don Shula and 1972 gang by taking down the Pats. Yeah. Maybe.
32. ATLANTA FALCONS (31)