1. Green Bay (11-0). "I still don't think there's a specific recipe to beat us,'' said Aaron Rodgers after the Pack manhandled Detroit. Baltimore's a good model, but I question the Ravens being able to get into a scoring contest -- if need be -- with the great Rodgers.
2. Baltimore (8-3). Holding Alex Smith to 96 net yards passing ... priceless.
3. New England (8-3). A tour de force performance that Tom Brady should put in his personal time capsule: 361 yards passing, three touchdowns, no picks. Two wideouts with 100-yard games. Two tight ends combine for 121. Looked pretty unstoppable in Philadelphia in a 466-yard offensive show.
4. San Francisco (9-2). The Niners play sub-.500 teams in four of their last five games, so they'll probably not blow the second seed in the NFC playoffs. But I can't wait for Dec. 19, the Monday-nighter against Pittsburgh. If the Steelers are healthy, they'll draw a bull's-eye on the right side of the San Francisco offensive line, which was abused by the Ravens.
5. New Orleans (7-3). For the first time all season -- since training camp, actually -- the Saints will roll out four healthy backs tonight: Mark Ingram, Pierre Thomas, Chris Ivory, Darren Sproles. Hard to be better than that in the backfield.
6. Pittsburgh (8-3). I know the win at Kansas City was too close for comfort, but Ben Roethlisberger's such a special player. His lofted first-half touchdown toss to backup tight end Weslye Saunders at the back of the end zone was gorgeous, and I'm glad Cris Collinsworth fawned over it.
7. Atlanta (7-4). There is no way you're retiring, Tony Gonzalez (nine catches, 69 yards in the 24-14 win over Minnesota). Not now. And not after this season. You're only 421 catches behind Jerry Rice. You can do it.
8. Dallas (7-4). No contender has been as helped by the schedule as Dallas, which has won the first four of a five-game underbelly of a slate (Seattle, Buffalo, at Washington, Miami, at Arizona). Many ways to look at the Cowboys' four-game streak. I'm not a total buyer yet, not after the 'Boys needed OT to beat Washington and a botched center snap to nip Miami.
9. Oakland (7-4). Hard to lose when your quarterback throws for 300, your kicker makes six field goals out of six tries, and your punter averages 55 a kick. That's what the Raiders had Sunday.
10. Houston (8-3). I hate downgrading the Texans here, because what they did with a third-string quarterback was admirable in Jacksonville. But until I see "C" quarterback play out of T.J. Yates or whoever the quarterback's going to be, I'm not going to trust them to win in January.
11. New York Giants (6-4). Tom Coughlin put David Diehl back where he belongs, at left tackle, after the Thursday surgery of Will Beatty for a detached retina.
12. Chicago (7-4). The Bears will be endangered species if Caleb Hanie duplicates that performance a couple more times.
13. Cincinnati (7-4). "Andy Dalton amazes me every day I see him,'' coach Marvin Lewis said after win number seven, and after Dalton had led a touchdown drive and two field goal drives in the last 18 minutes to erase a 10-point Cleveland lead.
14. Detroit (7-4). The Lions have enough problems without throwing another log onto the fire, given that they've lost four of six and might not make the playoffs after their 5-0 start. But Matthew Stafford has thrown seven interceptions in his last eight quarters, and he's got the raucous Superdome next week, Jared Allen the week after that, and the Raiders rush the week after that.
15. (tie) Denver (6-5). I don't want to be a Doubter. At some point, when a team wins five out of six, and the quarterback is money in the fourth quarter every single week of that stretch, you've got to say, "Who cares how it's happening. It's happening.''
15. (tie) New York Jets (6-5). Four of their last five are against teams with losing records. They'll have no one to blame but themselves if they don't salvage the season and make the playoffs. Or no one except Andy Dalton, if I'm reading the AFC playoff picture right.
Offensive Players of the Week
Tennessee RB Chris Johnson. This is what the real Chris Johnson looks like. In eight of his first 10 games this season, Johnson was held under 65 yards, and he played as if the 2,000-yard Johnson had been kidnapped and replaced by a free agent from Ohio Northern. But his running Sunday allowed Tennessee to win its sixth game and stay in the murky AFC wild-card race. Johnson opened with a pedestrian 46-yard first half, then burst out with a 79-yard third quarter and ran for 65 yards of insurance in the fourth: 23 carries, a season-high 190 yards in all. That's his best rushing game since Week 8 2009 -- his 2,006-yard rushing season.
New England QB Tom Brady. The Eagles were disadvantaged in the secondary, but Brady's day in the 38-20 rout of the Eagles -- 24 of 34, 361 yards, three touchdowns, no picks, only two punts in the first 10 New England possessions, on the road -- is proof the Patriots will be in the pennant race well into January if their defense doesn't collapse.
Defensive Players of the Week
Houston linebacker Connor Barwin. You know why the Texans aren't in the toilet right now? Because of guys like this third-year pass-rusher from Cincinnati. In his best day as a pro, Barwin sacked Jacksonville quarterbacks four times, had two additional quarterback pressures and one tackle for loss. As long as Houston's defense keeps getting performances like Barwin's in Jacksonville, they'll be in the race for the top seed in the conference.
Baltimore pass-rusher Terrell Suggs. "I love playing on Thursday nights,'' Suggs told me postgame. "I love the national games.'' So we saw. Suggs' three-sack, three-tackle, one-forced-fumble night in the 16-6 Thanksgiving night win over San Francisco showed why any offensive game plan against the Ravens has to start with the question, "How are we going to stop Suggs from wrecking this game?''
Suggs' 10-yard sack of Alex Smith on the Niners' first drive of the third quarter stunted their best scoring chance of the night and forced them to settle for a field goal. On his second sack, Suggs sloughed off right tackle Anthony Davis, chased Smith down and strip-sacked the quarterback; the Ravens got the insurance field goal on the ensuing short-field drive. And his last sack, the Ravens' ninth of the night, gave the desperate 49ers a second-and-17, ensuring they'd get nothing going down the stretch. Virtuoso night, one of the best of Suggs' career -- and there have been many.
Special Teams Players of the Week
Oakland K Sebastian Janikowski. Three quarters, six field goals: from 40, 47, 42, 19, 37 and 44 yards. Seabass has made 17 of his last 18 field goals, and I do believe he's going to make a case for Canton before his career is over.
Arizona CB/PR Patrick Peterson. How valuable has Peterson been to a Cardinal team struggling so mightily to score? His fourth punt return for touchdown in his 11th NFL game tied an NFL record for punt-return touchdowns in a season -- and he's just the second rookie in NFL history (Detroit's Jack Christiansen, 1951) to do it. The 80-yard winding return gave the Cardinals a 20-10 lead in a game they'd go on to win 23-20, on a day that quarterback John Skelton struggled mightily all day.
Coach of the Week
Baltimore defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano. Nothing against Greg Mattison, who kept the defensive coordinator seat warm for a couple of post-Rex Ryan years, but the Ravens have the right defensive brain to choreograph their defensive plan in Pagano.
The Ravens Thursday night threw the same kind of unbalanced blitzes at San Francisco that made Ryan so hard to figure out over the years, and it resulted in those nine sacks that had a very good team, San Francisco, reeling all night. The key to the Ravens' blitz was taking big, fast and mobile guys like Suggs and Jarret Johnson, overloading one side of the field on one play and looking regular the next, and then never giving the offense a read about where the rush was coming from.
It helps to have a rusher with the strength and greatness of Suggs, but Pagano has tried to build a well-rounded rush that doesn't feature just one guy. This year, he's moved rookie fifth-rounder Pernell McPhee into a prominent position rushing, and McPhee's produced five sacks playing about a third of the snaps. Not bad for a guy who had been a secondary coach for 20 of his 22 years as a coach -- he really gets how to rush the passer.
Goats of the Week
Detroit DT Ndamukong Suh. You need an explanation?
Buffalo WR Stevie Johnson. The game against the Jets -- a must-win job for both teams, 5-5, heading into Sunday -- started swimmingly for Johnson, who caught four balls against Darrelle Revis in coverage before scoring late in the first half to give the Bills a 14-7 lead. He then did a ridiculous end-zone demonstration, pretending to shoot himself in the leg (mocking Plaxico Burress) and then cruising around with his arms spread (a la Santonio Holmes, flying like a Jet), then fell to the ground on purpose, getting flagged for a 15-yard excessive celebration penalty that was enforced on the kickoff.
Then, when the Bills flubbed the kick, the Jets had a short field and tied the game on a Mark Sanchez TD pass to, fittingly, Burress, to tie the game at halftime. "It was a bad decision and it hurt our team,'' Johnson said. "I need to be more mature than that.'' Oh really? Then, in the fourth quarter, Johnson dropped what would have been a sure touchdown pass. Jets 28, Bills 24. Bills out of it now, thanks largely to Johnson.
Jacksonville TE Marcedes Lewis. Tie game with Houston, second quarter, 11 minutes left. Lewis wide open in the end zone. I mean, WIDE open, no one within six yards. Every point counts when you're playing the explosive Texans (even with a sub quarterback). Drop. As easy a catch as Lewis will ever have in his career. And the Jags lost by seven. Killer drop.
Employee of the Week
Anthony Hardwick, Target, Omaha, Neb. James B. Stewart's column in the Saturday New York Times on the excess of the Thanksgiving business season, and the 29-year-old Hardwick's place in it, should be required reading.
Hardwick earns about $25,000 a year as a shopping-cart attendant at Target and a printing supervisor at OfficeMax. He was told last month he'd have to report to work at Target at 11 p.m. on Thanksgiving night, and work until 4:30, with him needing to report to his OfficeMax job at 5 a.m. on Black Friday. Hardwick took to Change.org to post an online petition to see if other Americans shared his distaste for the holiday shopping season cutting into family time on Thanksgiving.
"A full holiday with family is not just for the elite of this nation -- all Americans should be able to break bread with their loved ones and get a good night's rest on Thanksgiving!'' Hardwick wrote.
He is clearly thankful for his jobs in such a poor economy, but he said that doesn't mean he should be forced to work when common sense says Thanksgiving should be a family day. The argument that he should be thankful for any job and should be willing to work any time, he told Stewart, is "the same argument that was used when 7-year-olds were working in coal mines.''
The mania of consumerism has now spread in many stores to being open on Thanksgiving, with some stores open all day. Why does Consumer America whittle away at it more every year? What's next? Black Veterans Day? I understand Black Friday and the mania of getting good deals, particularly for families who need to watch every nickel. But Black Thanksgiving? A black mark on our society. Good for Hardwick for calling an end to the madness -- in his own little but effective way -- and for Stewart for writing about it.
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