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Crunch time

Elite teams look solid down the stretch, although Patriots have an issue

Posted: Wednesday December 15, 2004 11:59AM; Updated: Wednesday December 15, 2004 12:25PM
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I defy anyone to question this week's rankings. Not only were they easy to do, since only one of last week's top 10 lost, and that was to a higher ranked top tenner, but I gave them the most careful look I've given them all season. Which is what happens toward the end of the year, when these things get serious.

The Redskins mess from last week has been cleared up, and I can give you a logical and well presented argument for each of the 31 picks. What's that, Linda? Oh, thank you. For each of the 32 picks. This is serious and there will be none of those usual innuendos or humorous asides or banter with the Flaming Redhead. Just straight football.

NFL Power Rankings
Rank LW Team
1 1 Pittsburgh Steelers (12-1)
I have a quick way of judging a person's football IQ and deciding whether or not I would wish to continue the conversation. I ask him or her, "Who's your all-pro middle linebacker?" If the answer is the Steelers' James Farrior, then we can talk some football. If it's Ray Lewis I say thank you and move on to the next stiff ... uh, expert.
2 2 New England Patriots (12-1)
Charlie Weis to Notre Dame. There's a precedent, only this one involves a head coach. In 1978, a season filled with U. of Colorado boosters hanging around the Patriots facilities, Chuck Fairbanks finally announced he was taking the head coaching job in Boulder. The Pats were playoff bound. The players were upset. I remember the quote I got from inside LB Steve Nelson. "You'd think that he'd care more about helping us win than signing some 17-year old kid to a letter of intent." Billy Sullivan, the owner, was furious. He wanted to fire Fairbanks, but that would mean having to pay him for 1979, the last year of his contract, so he suspended him for the final game, a 23-3 loss to Miami. But he brought him back to coach the divisional playoff against Houston, the first home postseason contest in the team's history. And what a team this was. Some call it, man for man, the greatest collection of talent the Patriots ever had. Steve Grogan and Sam Bam Cunningham, Hall of Famers John Hannah and Mike Haynes, Leon Gray and receivers such as Harold Jackson, Stanley Morgan and Russ Francis. Fairbanks showed up to resume coaching on a Wednesday. The Oilers led 21-0 at the half and won going away, 31-14.
3 3 Philadelphia Eagles (12-1)
The Rams and Bengals are lucky. They'll play Philly in the last two. The Eagles will clinch home field forever this Sunday against Dallas and then they'll just be getting people healthy for the rest of the season.
4 5 Indianapolis Colts (10-3)
I have been informed that Peyton just broke Dan Marino's record, the one no one's talking about. Thirteen straight multi-touchdown pass games. My informant's right. I'm not talking about it, either.
5 4 San Diego Chargers (10-3)
Vaulting near the top of my all-pro check list is LB Donnie Edwards, who played a blinder against Tampa Bay. Sixteen tackles, two picks, one for a TD, a sack, four passes knocked down. The only problem is where to put him, inside or out, since he plays a hybrid position, and you know who my MLB will be. Don't worry, I'll work it out.
6 7 Atlanta Falcons (10-3)
Let's hear it for a light, effective O-line, with at least two sleeper All-Pro candidates. From left to right, Kevin Shaffer, Roberto Garza, Todd McClure, Kynan Forney and Todd Weiner. Only one is over 300, Forney and not by much (307). Reminds you off the old Bronco lines, does it? Well it should. The Falcons' line coach is Alex Gibbs, who ran the mobile express in Denver.
7 6 New York Jets (9-4)
Played some great defense against the Steelers until that Bettis option pass finally cracked 'em. Here's the guy who shocked me: end Bryan Thomas, filling in for the injured John Abraham. Terrific against both run and pass. Here's what I'd do when Abraham returns. Keep Thomas in the base, bring in Abraham for the pass rush. It sounds nuts, I know, but I'm telling you, Thomas is that good.
8 8 Green Bay Packers (8-5)
I'm intrigued by right cornerback Al Harris. Sometimes they give him one-on-one responsibility against a serious receiver and he performs nobly -- i.e., holding the Lions' Roy Williams to one catch for 13 yards. Sometimes he's just another guy flying around aimlessly back there -- i.e., the slaughter by the Eagles. I guess it goes with being a cornerback these days.
9 9 Denver Broncos (8-5)
The difference between two sports. Jake the Snake gives an obnoxious fan a salute with one fifth of the hand and apologizes all over the place. In the NBA they go after people in the stands without a hint of sorrow. My advice to fans. Don't ever heckle a competitor during a darts competition.
10 10 Baltimore Ravens (8-5)
Now Ed Reed is miked for sound and Ray Lewis is merely a spectator during all that yah yah yah inspirational stuff. But they have one thing in common. The other players greet it with the same response, which is indifference. This is a sophisticated group that knows the ways of show biz.
11 12 Jacksonville Jaguars (7-6)
During the win over the Bears, when Bernie Kukar's crew called 21 penalties, total, Fred Taylor approached Bernie at one point and said, "C'mon, man, let us play." I can just hear Bernie 's reply now, in that Minnesota accent of his, "First don. Chicago boll."
12 14 Buffalo Bills (7-6)
They held Cleveland to 17 total yards, fifth lowest of all time. "The only time you see a game like that is in college," Drew Bledsoe said. Gee, I didn't know he came to the Columbia games.
13 13 Cincinnati Bengals (6-7)
I read that Carson Palmer is iffy with a sprained knee. Memo to Marvin Lewis: The guy's just starting to get real good. Let him sit. Don't use to him just to boost a 7-9 record to 8-8. Don't worry about Kitna, he's doing just fine.
14 16 Seattle Seahawks (7-6)
This is what shocks me. It took them 12 weeks of sitting on the bench to find out that Michael Boulware, No. 28, is their best DB. Then when they finally start him, all he does is win the game for them. Amazing.
15 11 Minnesota Vikings (7-6)
I hear all this whining, "Well Bettis threw an option pass and got a TD out of it, so why's everyone yelling at us for trying it with Moss?" Here's the deal. Bettis had run three straight times, so when they pitched to him, it looked like run No. 4, and besides, he didn't throw it until the DB had been suckered. The Vikes have run Moss on an end around, but he also has been known to throw off it. And on Sunday he threw it across his body into a mob of wrong colored jerseys.
16 17 Carolina Panthers (6-7)
Playoff bound, unless Jake Delhomme's hand really is as bad as it looked at the end of the Rams game.