1. Atlanta (10-2). Falcons have 1-11 Carolina twice in the final four weeks. Can't imagine them losing the South or the top seed in the NFC -- the Saints would have to sweep a tough last four games to have a good shot to win the division. Beating the Bucs sure helped Matty ice home-field.
2. New England (9-2). Hate to be so bottom-line here, but what a break the Patriots got when the Jets lost Jim Leonhard to a broken leg in practice Friday for tonight's veritable AFC East title game. Leonhard was the kind of smart safety who wouldn't buy what Tom Brady will be selling with his pre-snap reads, and he was also the kind of safety to be able to knock heads with the three-headed tight-end monster (Hernandez-Gronkowski-Crumpler) the Pats will throw at the Jets all night.
3. New York Jets (9-2). Not that I don't like a team unafraid of talking a little bit before a big game. I actually love a team that talks. (This just in: Woody Johnson is on Twitter and he commented on practice Saturday; can you imagine Bob Kraft tweeting about practice -- and Bill Belichick not going nuts?) But the Jets had 261 hours between the end of the last game (beating Cincinnati on Thanksgiving) and the start of this one, and I think Rex Ryan was talking for about 259 of them. Let's play this thing.
4. Green Bay (8-4). I don't care how close Niners-Pack was for a half or so. No way Green Bay was losing to San Francisco in the icehouse Sunday.
5. Pittsburgh (9-3). I don't know how you ...
6. Baltimore (8-4). ... separate these two teams.
7. Chicago (9-3). Jay Cutler is now officially dangerous. Last three games, even under attack behind a line that can't protect him, Cutler's a 77-percent passer with six touchdowns and no picks. Playing smart, choreographed by a smart offensive coordinator who's not being too greedy.
8. New Orleans (9-3). Saints have gotten back in the race while feasting on the pudgy middle of the schedule (Carolina, Seattle, Dallas, Cincinnati). Now comes the tough last four weeks, and the very difficult task of making up ground on the hottest team in the NFC, Atlanta. Saints close with this playoff-contender slate: St. Louis, at Baltimore, at Atlanta, Tampa Bay.
9. Philadelphia (8-4). Michael Vick on the succession of hits he's taken (which, by the way, I don't see the same way he does), to WIP radio: "I'm getting hit after I throw the ball, repeatedly. I'm getting my facemask pulled, I'm getting hit in the head. The calls are not being made. I see other quarterbacks standing in the pocket, and the minute they get touched, there's a flag on the field. This has been happening [to me] the last four or five weeks. I haven't complained, but it's getting to the point where I'm tired of getting off the canvas.''
I watched the Thursday-nighter, and I didn't see an obvious late hit after he'd released the ball. A couple of borderline ones, yes, but nothing to make me sit back and say Vick's getting a raw deal.
10. New York Giants (8-4). First half in a cold, windy Meadowlands: Giants, 20 carries, 140 yards. That's how these Giants have to win down the stretch, with a depleted receiver corps. Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw combined for 33 rushes, 200 yards and four touchdowns on the day.
11. Kansas City (8-4). Many thoughts. The Chiefs are two games up with four to play, but with K.C. playing San Diego and St. Louis on the road in the next two weeks, this division's not over ... Tamba Hali is the real deal ... As is Jamaal Charles ... What a bush-league play by tackle Barry Richardson, shoving special-teams coach Steve Hoffman on the sidelines after getting yanked for committing a key penalty.
12. Tampa Bay (7-5). I don't care that they're 0-5 against winning teams now. This Tampa team is feisty, well-drilled, on the verge of being very good, and totally unafraid. I like the Bucs.
13. Oakland (6-6). Versus San Diego: 2-0. Versus the AFC West: 4-0. Versus foes out of division: 2-6.
14. Jacksonville (7-5). Strange but true: If the Colts win out, they'd overtake the Jags and win the AFC South on a tiebreaker.
15. San Diego (6-6). Hey: I thought Philip Rivers didn't lose in December.
Very hard, and probably wrong, to keep Philip Rivers off the list this week. He's a close six to Drew Brees, and sure to be on this list sometime this month, but not after a bad day for the Chargers against Oakland.
1. Tom Brady, QB, New England. Tonight's a big game in the Rivers-Brady MVP battle. In Brady's three games against the Jets since Rex Ryan took over, the changing schemes of Ryan have obviously had the desired effect of neutralizing Brady. In those three games, he's a 57-percent passer, with three touchdown passes and three interceptions.
2. Matt Ryan, QB, Atlanta. His team's on a six-game winning streak, staying ahead of the defending Super Bowl champs week after week in the NFC South, and Ryan is strafing defenses. He had thrown 185 passes without an interception until Tampa Bay broke the streak. Can't ask much more out of your quarterback than that.
3. Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay. Another three-TD, no-interception game in one the Pack had to have against San Francisco.
4. Maurice Jones-Drew, RB, Jacksonville. The Jags have taken the AFC South lead by going 4-1 in the last five weeks, and no one's more responsible than this remarkable back. Here's the five-game tote board for Jones-Drew: 27 carries for 135 yards, 24 for 100, 23 for 133, 21 for 113 and 31 for 186 ... with 136 receiving yards in those five games as well. He made a run against Tennessee that just embarrassed the Titans, stiff-arming Pro Bowl safety Michael Griffin and leaving other Titans in his wake on a 37-yard jaunt.
5. Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans. Hard to imagine a man with 16 interceptions being in play for the MVP. But Brees, if he stays healthy, should end up with something like 4,500 yards and 35 touchdown passes. Last year, in his Super season, he was 4,388 and 34.
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