1. Houston (7-1). The 14-2 Showdown next Sunday night at Soldier Field: Twin 7-1 teams, the Texans and Bears.
2. Atlanta (8-0). Falcs are 4-0 at home, 4-0 on the road, 4-0 against the NFC, 4-0 against the AFC, 4-0 in games decided by six points or fewer, 4-0 in games decided by a touchdown or more, 4-0 when Matt Ryan's completion percentage is in the 60s, 4-0 when his completion rate is in the 70s.
3. Chicago (7-1). The two most impressive individual games in the league this year: 1. Giants 26, Niners 3 ... 2. Bears 51, Titans 20. How about this: Chicago ran for 160. Jay Cutler threw three touchdown passes. Chicago forced six fumbles. Brian Urlacher returned an interception for a touchdown. Chicago's a fearsome-looking team right now.
4. San Francisco (6-2). Bye week note: I had to do a double-take when I saw Alex Smith, Patrick Willis and Jim Harbaugh in that Visa commercial. Not so much about Smith and Willis; the commercial got shot at Candlestick in the day off between the final preseason game and the start of prep week for the first game of the year. But Harbaugh ... didn't know he had the levity in him.
Then I come to find out Harbaugh, as part of something called the Visa NFL Fan Offers, is going to allow one fan the chance to sit in on a pregame speech to the team. Those, I'm told, can get rather fiery. I always viewed Harbaugh as a clannish, insulated coach who would want his locker room a sanctum. "Coach is an outside-the-box guy, full of surprises,'' Smith told me. For me, this is one.
5. Pittsburgh (5-3). In the last month the Steelers are 4-1, including wins over every team in the NFC East save Dallas. I was down on this team after its losses to the Raiders and Titans -- well, duh! -- but Pittsburgh's a dangerous team on both sides of the ball.
6. New York Giants (6-3). Tough loss for a hurting region, and Eli Manning put it best after the game when he said the Giants haven't been playing well on offense, and it finally caught up to them.
7. Green Bay (6-3). The Packers need a bye like America needs to be rid of political ads. Green Bay needs to get Charles Woodson, Jordy Nelson, Jermichael Finley and about 16 other guys healthy. Heal, men. Lions in Detroit in 13 days, Giants in Jersey in 20.
8. New England (5-3). The problem with setting the bar where Tom Brady has set it is the shades of greatness. Brady is on pace for 32 touchdowns, six interceptions, 4,818 passing yards, 65.3 percent completions and a 100.6 rating. Every one of those five statistical categories but the interceptions (he had 12 last year) would be worse than last year. Incredible.
9. Denver (5-3). Denver 100, Foes 37 in the last two-and-a-half games.
10. Baltimore (6-2). Another unimpressive day -- for 50 minutes -- from quarterback Joe Flacco, who will be needed by Baltimore if it hopes to win big in January. Now: Raiders next week, then what that football-mad corridor between western Pennsylvania and the eastern shore of Maryland has been waiting for -- two Baltimore-Pittsburgh games in a 15-day span.
11. Seattle (5-4). Russell Wilson at home: 4-0, nine touchdowns, no interceptions.
12. Indianapolis (5-3). Don't try to explain. Just sit back and enjoy the story of the year through nine weeks. Chuck on three! One-two-three CHUCK!!!!!!!
13. Miami (4-4). No .500 team with eight games left is out of it when the schedule includes Tennessee, Buffalo twice and Jacksonville, particularly in this year's AFC.
14. Tampa Bay (4-4). Doug Martin is making a horse race out of the Offensive Rookie of the Year competition. He has 386 rushing yards in the last two games, at 7.1 yards per rush. He's an incredible inside- and outside-the-tackles back.
15. Detroit (4-4). Weirdest stat of the year (reiterated on the Red Zone Channel Sunday): Calvin Johnson hasn't caught a touchdown pass from Matthew Stafford this season, through eight games. His one TD catch was from Shaun Hill. Not that Stafford hasn't hit Megatron in the hands a couple of times.
Offensive Players of the Week
Doug Martin, RB, Tampa Bay. The greatest day a Buccaneers running back has ever had -- 25 carries, 251 yards, four touchdowns -- carried the red-hot Bucs over the Raiders in Oakland. Martin, who is from northern California, scored all four touchdownS in the second half.
Andrew Luck, QB, Indianapolis. Not just the numbers (30 of 48, 433 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions), but time after time, play after play in the 23-20 win over Miami, you had to wonder how a rookie quarterback could be so composed, so nonplussed in the face of a heavy rush.
Defensive Players of the Week
Charles Tillman, CB, Chicago. In the 51-20 rout of the Titans in Nashville, Tillman had the kind of day his turnover-happy coach, Lovie Smith, and defensive coordinator, Rod Marinelli, live for: nine tackles and four forced fumbles. Chicago recovered three of the fumbles and turned two into touchdowns.
Terence Newman, CB, Cincinnati. He hit the lottery against Peyton Manning Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium. Imagine intercepting Peyton Manning on consecutive throws, in the process turning what appeared to be a Denver rout into a close game late. "Terence is an old savvy veteran,'' Manning said on CBS afterward. But, as Manning noted, "[Wide receiver Eric] Decker and I kind of got him back on that last one,'' connecting on a touchdown pass with Newman in coverage. But Newman's two picks got the Bengals back in a game they weren't going to be in without him.
Special Teams Players of the Week
Olivier Vernon, DL, Miami. Miami 17, Indy 10, late second quarter. Adam Vinatieri lines up for a 54-yard field goal attempt. Vernon, a rookie third-round defensive end from The U, leapt over the offensive line -- an incredibly athletic play -- and blocked the field goal try straight up in the air.
Sherrick McManis, CB, and Nick Roach, LB, Chicago. Roach and McManis combined to make a great play, a touchdown-producing play to start the Bears' rout at Tennessee. As the two men on the far right of the Bears punt-rush team, Roach engaged the Titans left tackle while McManis sprinted around him and leapt in the air to block the Titans punt. Corey Wootton recovered and took it into the end zone for the first score of Chicago's 51-20 win. This was a notable play, I thought, because it doesn't happen without the teamwork of the two men. If Roach doesn't take the tackle out of the play, McManis would have gotten knocked off his path to the block. And McManis made a terrific block, enabling the touchdown.
Phil Dawson, K, Cleveland. Twenty-three straight field goals, 21 of them this year, and his consecutive kicks of 32, 28, 29, 33 and 41 in a 32-minute span between the second and fourth quarters gave the Browns a 15-14 lead late against Baltimore. Dawson's an unsung player, in part because so often his kicks are in losing causes. But a kick's a kick, and he did his part Sunday against a division rival that owns the Browns.
Dr. Z Unsung Man in the Trenches of the Week
The award for the offensive lineman who was the biggest factor for his team in the weekend's games, named for my friend Paul Zimmerman, the longtime SI football writer struggling in New Jersey to recover from three strokes suffered in November 2008. Zim, a former collegiate offensive lineman himself, loved watching offensive line play.
Kyle Rudolph, TE, Minnesota. Adrian Peterson got great support from center John Sullivan in his 182-yard rushing day, but I thought the unsung Rudolph helped get Peterson's day off to a superb start on his 74-yard run on the first drive of the day. Rudolph, matched against 323-pound defensive end Red Bryant on the right side of the Vikings line, walled off Bryant as Peterson ran around right end and upfield. On Peterson's subsequent touchdown run, Rudolph neutralized a quicker defensive end, Chris Clemons. Rudolph's not the best blocking tight end in football, but he's a willing one, and on Sunday performed like a sixth offensive lineman when Peterson needed it.
Coach of the Week
Greg Schiano, head coach, Tampa Bay. At 1-3 in the first quarter of the season, and then having Aqib Talib, his best cover corner, suspended on the eve of the Bucs' fifth game, Schiano faced the prospect of an embarrassing first season as he tried to transform a soft team into a competitive one. But in the next four weeks, Schiano, with an assist from GM Mark Dominik, continued to remake the team, dumping Talib and a seventh-round pick on New England for a fourth-rounder in 2013 and winning three of four games.
The 42-32 victory in Oakland continued to show that Schiano's way on offense can work. He's determined to be able to run the ball for big chunks in a league where offense seems to be increasingly measured by how gaudy their passing numbers can be. After half a season, Schiano has made his mark in a way the Bucs could have only dreamed of when they made him their surprising hire to replace Raheem Morris last winter.
Goat of the Week
Carson Palmer, QB, Oakland. Hue Jackson traded for Palmer 55 weeks ago -- but not to do what he did late in the fourth quarter Sunday against Tampa Bay. With the Raiders coming back to within 35-32 and the crowd in the Black Hole going nuts, Palmer lofted up a duck to no one in particular that first-year Buc safety Ahmad Black picked off to ice the game. Can't do that, Carson.