1. New England (11-2). In the past 29 days, the Pats have won at Pittsburgh, Chicago and Detroit, and beaten Indianapolis and the Jets at home. I'd say that's satisfactory to name them the best team in football. That plus the fact they've beaten two nine-win teams in the past week by a combined 81 points. Whoa.
2. New Orleans (10-3). Tough call, leapfrogging them over three very good teams. But their offense looks back to 2009 levels, at least in terms of diversity and production. Remember when the Saints were dying to get Reggie Bush and Pierre Thomas back? Well, they've got them back now -- and New Orleans scored four touchdowns Sunday against the Rams, with zero coming from their two rehabbed offensive spark plugs.
3. Atlanta (11-2). Not sure the Saints are better. I think it's a coin-flip game right now; I can't say for sure who would win on a neutral field, but I'd probably give the Saints a field-goal edge right now. I wouldn't think it'd be hard for Mike Smith to get his troops' attention, even after a 21-point win in Charlotte. Carolina running game: 28 carries, 212 yards, 7.6 yards per rush.
4. Pittsburgh (10-3). Look at the catch Antwaan Randle El made in the second half. Leaping one-handed bullet throw from Roethlisberger. A thing of beauty that sometimes gets lost in the bigger stories of the day. But that's one of the top five catches in the NFL this year, easily.
5. Philadelphia (9-4). Well, maybe they catch a break with the Giants not landing in Newark 'til 3ish Tuesday morning. I doubt that will be a factor Sunday in the Meadowlands.
6. Baltimore (8-4). Ravens get back to their complex around 4:45 tomorrow morning from the Monday-nighter in Houston, and Greg Mattison and staff will continue preparations for the Saints. [When teams play on Monday night, coaches spend some time over the weekend and during the day Monday gameplanning for the following week, though they wouldn't want you to know that lest you think their "focus'' is diluted.] All New Orleans has done in the last five games is put up 34, 34, 30, 34 and 31 points.
7. New York Giants (8-4). Biggest break for the Giants? This won't be a home game for the Vikings tonight. Detroit coach Jim Schwartz told me he'd probably show up to watch tonight, in part to scout for the Week 17 rematch with Minnesota, and in part -- I hope -- to have a cold beer to celebrate the 7-3 win over the Pack on the same field Sunday.
8. Green Bay (8-5). I would expect Aaron Rodgers to be sufficiently recovered from his second concussion of the year to be able to play Sunday night at New England. If not, pull the plug on the Pack; they'd have zero chance playing Matt Flynn against the hottest team in football.
9. San Diego (7-6). The offense, even with a beat-up and non-playing Antonio Gates, is pretty darned good right now. The Chargers have won five of six, and scored an average of 33 points a game in those five wins. "Every game's a playoff game for us now,'' said Philip Rivers, and they beat up the Chiefs 31-0 to illustrate that.
10. Chicago (9-4). I don't know how a team could look worse in four quarters in its own weather. But there are a few teams -- maybe about 29 others -- that would have been pathetic against the Patriots on Sunday too.
11. Jacksonville (8-5). Terrific, fun, old AFL-type football game, the 38-31 win over Oakland with 31 second-half points. Now the Jags play for most of the marbles Sunday at Indianapolis.
12. New York Jets (9-4). I say New York should have -- as Rex Ryan admitted he was thinking of doing -- benched Mark Sanchez in the third quarter of the 10-6 loss to Miami. Sanchez has thrown interceptions in eight straight games. He's in a Broadway-sized funk. I mean, he's a 44-percent passer the past two weeks.
13. Tampa Bay (8-5). Josh Freeman won this game, not just by his final scoring drive, but by his muscle-bound bulling for the two-point conversion. The final: Tampa 17, Washington 16.
14. Kansas City (8-5). Heal, Matt Cassel. Fast.
15. Indianapolis (7-6). I guess I'm on a sideboard of the Colts' bandwagon. I'm teetering on getting back on. But they still are 2-4 in the past six weeks. I need to see more, and I don't know if more is in the offing.
1. Tom Brady, QB, New England. I don't know how a quarterback plays better than he's playing. In minus-4-degree wind-chill at Soldier Field, he completed 27 of 40, and he's now thrown 268 straight passes without an interception. Hard for me to imagine him losing my MVP vote in the next three weeks, but let's see what happens.
2. Matt Ryan, QB, Atlanta. Not a big game for Ryan -- it was a three-touchdown day for Michael Turner in the rout of the Panthers -- but Ryan did what a good quarterback does. He managed the game, made a few plays and won. He's one of two 11-2 quarterbacks in football, and it's no coincidence those two quarterbacks are 1-2 here.
3. Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay. Saw his value pretty well when he was concussed and the Pack had to try to limp through a bad day with Matt Flynn. And couldn't.
4. Maurice Jones-Drew, RB, Jacksonville. Six straight 100-yard games in the Jags' 5-1 run. Hard to move him out.
5. Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans. Edges Troy Polamalu for number five. Saints are on a six-game win streak, and none of that would be possible without the most productive (numerically) quarterback over the past five years in the NFL.
"The signs this morning should scream 'danger.' ''
-- Les Carpenter of the Washington Post, writing on the February 2009 morning the Redskins signed Albert Haynesworth.
There have been some historically bad signings in the 17-year history of free agency, but I challenge you to think of a guy who's been more of a waste of good money than Haynesworth.
"I thought about it and I was like, 'Nah, it's not the kid's fault.' ''
-- Jets coach Rex Ryan, on the fact that he thought of benching second-year quarterback Mark Sanchez in the third quarter of a 10-6 loss to Miami.
"Disconcerting signals. Indianapolis number 99 trying to draw a false start by calling the count. That 15-yard penalty has been accepted on the ensuing kickoff.''
-- Referee John Parry, on Colts defensive tackle Al Johnson simulating the snap count by Tennessee quarterback Kerry Collins Thursday night.
Why is that here? The words "disconcerting signals.'' Have you ever heard a ref say that New York Times Thursday crossword word over a microphone?
"If we have to pay eight coaches, too bad for us.''
-- Denver chief operating officer Joe Ellis, on the specter of paying two coaches no longer with the team, Mike Shanahan and Josh McDaniels, as well as a new shiny head coach and staff in 2011.
Penguins squeak past Ducks in shootout
Johan Franzen scores two as Red Wings pound Devils in Detroit