The Fine Fifteen
1. New Orleans (9-0). No Darren Sharper. No Jabari Greer. And a road game, from the start, that was tougher than it looked. This is the fourth straight game the Saints were in trouble, but there's something special about teams that survive games like these.
2. Indianapolis (9-0). I am reminded of a Jack Buckism. I don't believe what I just saw. Amazing comeback win by the Colts.
3. New England (6-3). Bill Belichick won't sleep for the next five days, or maybe five weeks. No time for the coach or the 53 men on the roster to wallow, with the Jets, Saints, Dolphins and Panthers coming up.
4. Minnesota (8-1). Good news for the Vikes: The best physical cornerback in football, Antoine Winfield, rehabbing a badly sprained foot he injured 29 days ago, practiced without pain late last week and hopes to be ready for Seattle this week. Good thing. Starting Sunday, Vikes face four teams that will throw it: Seattle, Chicago, Arizona, Cincinnati.
5. Cincinnati (7-2). Wow: 5-0 in the division, 5-0 in its past five road games, home-and-home wins over the AFC Championship Game contestants last season. This is a team I swung on and missed badly. The Bengals will be a tough out in the playoffs.
6. Pittsburgh (6-3). The Steelers kayoed Cedric Benson early and still couldn't beat the Bengals. This was no fluke, folks. The Steelers have some major protection issues to fix if/when they face the Bengals in the playoffs this year. Plus, as Tony Dungy said last night: "Cincinnati out-defensed Pittsburgh in Pittsburgh.''
7. San Diego (6-3). Just when you want to fall in love with the Chargers for winning their fourth in a row, Donovan McNabb throws for 450 yards as San Diego allows the Eagles to parade up and down the field. But a win's a win. Now the Chargers travel to Denver on Sunday, with the two teams tied atop the AFC West. The division title likely hangs in the balance.
8. Dallas (6-3). In the category of feeble losses, Sunday's in Green Bay ranks very, very high.
9. Arizona (6-3). Eight touchdowns in the past eight quarters. The Cards are starting to resemble the January Cards.
10. Denver (6-3). In the past 15 days, Broncos have lost by 23, 18 and 10 points. They're lucky to be number 10 in these rankings, and I'm darned sure it really matters to Josh McDaniels.
11. Houston (5-4). Texans will have to make hay, with three of the next four at home (Tennessee, Indianapolis, at Jacksonville, Seattle), to have a good shot at a Wild Card in what will be a very competitive AFC race.
12. Carolina (4-5). The most interesting thing John Fox said to me Sunday? "In 2006, we won on the last day of the season and finished 8-8, and we just barely missed out on the playoffs. I think this might be one of those kind of years in the NFC, where eight wins could get you a Wild Card.''
13. Green Bay (5-4). Quite a comeback: The Pack allowed 38 two weeks ago against the Vikings, 38 last week against the Bucs ... and seven against Dallas.
14. Tennessee (3-6). In the latest chapter of the star-crossed (but compelling) Vince Young Era, the Titans have won three straight, scored 30, 34 and 41 points in those wins, and unleashed the most explosive runner in football in Chris Johnson. This listing of the best teams every week is designed to be a ranking of the best teams every week. And in my mind, Tennessee is clearly one of the best 15 right now.
15. Baltimore (4-4). The Ravens have lots of proving to do, and lots of winning too, to get in the playoff race.
1. Peyton Manning, QB, Indianapolis. The win Sunday night all but eliminated Manning from some of these records he'll be chasing in the second half. It's expected that coach Jim Caldwell will agree with how Tony Dungy did things -- that is, when there's nothing to play for, prominent starters get a break.
2. Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans. Sixteen minutes left at woeful but fired-up St. Louis, Saints up 21-17, crowd imploring for one more defensive stand by the Rams, first-and-10 at the New Orleans 23. Brees threw five strikes on the next seven plays, totaling 69 yards, and getting the Saints into the end zone on a 27-yard TD pass to Robert Meachem. They needed those points. The final: Saints 28, Rams 23.
3. Brett Favre, QB, Minnesota. This is getting ridiculous. Is the old man ever going to play a bad game? With a 20-of-29, 344-yard, one-TD, no-pick game in a win over Detroit, Favre's got a 17-to-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
4. Tom Brady, QB, New England. He can't make the coaching decisions.
5. Chris Johnson, RB, Tennessee. Titans have won three in a row. Johnson's numbers in those three games: 75 carries, 495 yards, six touchdowns, 6.6 yards per rush.
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