The Fine Fifteen
1. Pittsburgh (11-3). A change at the top. To beat the Pats on the road, the Cowboys at home and the Ravens in Baltimore in 15 days -- no matter how bizarre the circumstances -- is the mark of a very good team. By the way, Pittsburgh has six lives left, having used three of them to beat Baltimore, Dallas and San Diego.
2. New York Giants (11-3). They might be fifth right now. The offense looks like it did last year around this time in ugly losses to the Vikes and Redskins. In the past two games, covering 19 drives, New York has one meaningless garbage-time TD drive and two field goals. And if Kareem McKenzie, the right tackle, is hurt, there goes the chemistry of a line that's played together since Mastodons roamed the earth. And one last piece of good news: Eli Manning's a 50-percent passer in the past two weeks.
3. Carolina (11-3). The reborn DeAngelo Williams in Carolina's 6-1 run: 814 rushing yards, 12 touchdowns.
4. Baltimore (9-5). There are tears all over downtown Baltimore this morning. But the loss, disputed though it was, doesn't altogether dim the Ravens' playoff hopes. Baltimore would win a tiebreaker with New England for the wild-card spot if they both finish 11-5 or 10-6 behind Indianapolis.
5. Tennessee (12-2). "You've got to peak at the right time in the NFL,'' said our NBC stats maven, Elliott Kalb, last night. Truer words were never spoken about December football, and when Kyle Vanden Bosch didn't suit up yesterday in Houston, and when Kerry Collins started to look his age, and when Albert Haynesworth walked off the field gingerly with what appeared to be a knee sprain in the fourth quarter, you started to get the feeling that the Tennessee team that so dominated through 11 weeks might be getting too beat up to do the same in January.
6. Philadelphia (7-5-1). I'll bet you $1,000 that Donovan McNabb howled uproariously over the T.O. hijinks last week. Several times.
7. Dallas (9-5). Great win by some proud men. I don't expect the Terrell Owens unhappiness to stay under the surface long, however. It never does.
8. Indianapolis (10-4). Tony Dungy's such a good person, and so nice to his former protégés. He can even make Rod Marinelli look good.
9. New England (9-5). The Patriots scored 35 points in the first 18 minutes at Oakland, in a driving rainstorm. Football is a funny game.
10. Minnesota (9-5). Personal note here: I'm so happy for Tarvaris Jackson, who threw four touchdown passes with no interceptions in Arizona. His story is so good. Last year, at 6 a.m. the day after the Super Bowl, he and two buddies were working out and throwing the football because he was so excited about preparing to be the Vikings' starting quarterback. He went out the day after The Big Game because the Vikings had crushed the Giants two months earlier, and the Giants had just won the world championship, and if the Giants won the title, Jackson figured, why not us?
11. Atlanta (9-5). I love football. How great is it that we could well look back at the Justin Blalock fumble recovery/thievery-at-the-bottom-of-the-pile at the end of this year as the biggest play of the Falcons' season.
12. Tampa Bay (9-5). Not time to bury the Bucs, but you've got to be extremely worried about their ability to stop the run if they make the playoffs. Last two games versus the run: 37 carries for 299 yards for Carolina, 43 carries for 175 yards Sunday in Atlanta. The Bucs have the proverbial must win coming up Sunday at home against San Diego, and they'd better wear their big-boy pads for that one because the Chargers will come in rushing.
13. Chicago (8-6). All of a sudden the Bears' final two games aren't the pieces of cake they appeared two or three weeks ago. Green Bay should be a manageable tilt this week at Soldier Field. But in 13 days the Bears travel to Houston for the season-finale, and the Texans could come in riding a five-game winning streak .
14. Miami (9-5). Last three weeks: 16-12 over the Rams (now 2-12), 16-3 over the Bills (now 6-8) , 14-9 over the 49ers (now 5-9). Just survive, baby.
15. Houston (7-7). "We're feeling very positive,'' Andre Johnson told me after the 13-12 win at home over Tennessee. "We've never won four in a row here. We'll get a chance to show everyone who we are over the next two weeks, then have a pretty positive mindset entering next year.''
What? The Texans at No. 15 over the Jets and Cards, two division leaders? No question.
Quote of the Week I
"All game they didn't make plays. One drive they did.''
Quote of the Week II
"Could the Bengals be accused of running up the score?''
Quote of the Week III
"To lay a larger egg, you'd have to be a brontosaurus.''