1. New England (12-2). One win -- either at Buffalo or home with Miami -- stands in the way of the Patriots clinching home-field through the AFC playoffs and not playing a meaningful game until Jan. 15-16.
2. Atlanta (12-2). Ditto ... except there's one slightly more difficult game in the final two for the Falcons -- at home with New Orleans next Monday, followed by Carolina at home.
3. Philadelphia (10-4). There is no question whatsoever that Sunday's win was the biggest, the most dramatic, in Philadelphia since the Phillies won the World Series.
4. Baltimore (10-4). Even though the Saints went up and down the field more than Ray Lewis and his friends would have liked, beating New Orleans and frustrating Drew Brees on key fourth-quarter plays show this D isn't dead yet.
5. Pittsburgh (10-4). Well, look on the bright side. The Panthers are coming to town Thursday. And the Steelers have clinched at least a wild-card spot because of the strength-of-victory tiebreaker.
6. New Orleans (10-4). Speaking of looking on the bright side: the Saints are now on course to be the fifth seed in the NFC playoffs. If that happens, they play the worst division winner, arguably, in NFL history, because the NFC West winner (which could be a 7-9 team) will be the fourth seed.
7. New York Jets (10-4). Disaster. Disaster. Euphoria.
8. San Diego (8-6). After San Diego's 34-7 annihilation of the Niners on Thursday, I can tell you what one very strong AFC team that plays in Massachusetts must be thinking, "That could be the toughest team we'd have to play in January.'' Here come the Chargers. Problem is, they're more likely than not to be sitting out the playoffs in January. That's what the Jets' upset of the Steelers and K.C.'s win did to the Chargers' chances.
9. Chicago (9-4). Great job on the NFL Matchup show Sunday morning, detailing how offensive coordinator Mike Martz is building solid pockets and quick throws for Jay Cutler to prosper in. He'll have to do that tonight, with wind-chill temps around zero, to beat the Vikes.
10. Kansas City (9-5). Wins over 6-8 Tennessee and 7-7 Oakland, both at home, and the Chiefs will win the AFC West for the first time since 2003.
11. Green Bay (8-6). Should have Aaron Rodgers back for essentially a playoff game Sunday at Lambeau against the crestfallen Giants.
12. Indianapolis (8-6). When they really needed it, the Colts had it -- thanks to Donald Brown.
13. Jacksonville (8-6). Amazing that the team that won five of six going into Sunday's game at Indy now has to have a ton of things go its way to make the playoffs.
14. New York Giants (9-5). Yeah, they're better than 14th in the NFL. But any team that gives up 28 points in eight minutes in what was essentially an NFC East title game ... sorry. That team falls way down the ladder in the Fine Fifteen and makes its head coach roll ball-bearings around in his hands 'til all hours, Queeg-like.
15. Tampa Bay (8-6). It was fun while it lasted. It might not be over, but the Bucs will need some help from the Giants and Packers to keep the playoff dream alive.
1. Tom Brady, QB, New England. He's had better games than his pedestrian win over the Packers, but with two weeks to go, riding a 21-touchdown, no-interception streak, I don't see how he can lose the MVP.
2. Michael Vick, QB, Philadelphia. Though he's missed 17 of 52 Eagle quarters, his fourth quarter Sunday convinced me he belongs on this list, and second only to Brady. Leading his adopted offense to three touchdowns in the final eight minutes of the most important game of the year ... simply phenomenal.
3. Matt Ryan, QB, Atlanta. The Falcons' eight-game winning streak is the longest in football, and even though Ryan doesn't have the numbers of other quarterbacks, he's played intelligently, turned it over only five times in the winning streak and played well in the fourth quarter. He just wins.
4. Philip Rivers, QB, San Diego. Last seven games: San Diego's 6-1, Rivers has six 100-plus-rating games and five 70-percent passing games. Playing great when it matters most.
5. Matt Cassel, QB, Kansas City. This is value: Cassel-less Chiefs go to playoff-contending Chargers, lose by 31; Cassel plays with Chiefs at playoff-contending Rams and win by 14.
"That's about as empty a feeling as you get to have in this business.''
-- Giants coach Tom Coughlin, after an unspeakable loss.
"I don't mind getting beat. But I hate being robbed.''
-- Green Bay cornerback Charles Woodson, to Bob Costas on NBC's Football Night in America show, referring to the playoff game nine years ago when, as a member of the Raiders, he stripped New England quarterback Tom Brady of the ball and the Raiders recovered it. But the officials ruled Brady actually threw an incomplete pass on the play.
"It's a gut punch, but not a death blow.''
-- Tampa Bay coach Raheem Morris, on the Bucs' stunning home loss to Detroit, and the effect it had on the playoff race in the NFC.
"Disrespectful is probably not strong enough of a word. Donovan has handled himself with nothing but class, not just in Washington but as an ambassador for the league. To treat him this way ... it's beyond disrespectful."
-- Fletcher Smith, the agent for Washington quarterback Donovan McNabb, to Jason Reid of the Washington Post, after McNabb was benched for the remainder of the season by coach Mike Shanahan.
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