1. New England (8-3). Pats have averaged 47.5 points per game the last four weeks. Tom Brady's on pace for 35 touchdowns and four interceptions. Occasionally they show signs of being defensively competent. And Thursday, they won by 30 without their two best offensive linemen, best tight end and best defensive end. How they have three losses, I have no idea.
2. San Francisco (8-2-1). We will never question you again, Jim Harbaugh. Well, at least maybe not until next week.
3. Houston (10-1). I appreciate the fact that their defensive leaders -- Connor Barwin, to me on Thursday -- says they're ticked off about giving up 983 yards in five days. They should be. But to play 10 quarters in five days and win both games deep in overtime ... that erases any negative in my mind.
4. Denver (8-3). Romeo Crennel always has a good game plan for Peyton Manning. One problem. Denver's defense is for real.
5. Atlanta (10-1). At the risk of sounding like a broken record: Michael Turner's output Sunday in the 24-23 win at Tampa: 16 touches, 30 yards; Jacquizz Rodgers' output: 12 touches, 79 yards. I keep thinking I'm watching a different game than the Atlanta coaches.
6. Baltimore (9-2). Ravens down 10 with six minutes to play in San Diego. Win in overtime. Something to be said for winning late on the road, ugly though it was.
7. New York Giants (7-4). The best performance in the league after a bye this year, and it's not close. What a strange team this is, struggling as much as it was, then battering a strong offensive Packers' team that came in with a five-game winning streak.
8. Chicago (8-3). It's vital the Bears somehow find a way to keep Jay Cutler from getting mashed to pieces behind that line, because he's the only quarterback who can get chased and whacked around and still find a way to complete 74 percent of his throws.
9. Tampa Bay (6-5). The more I see the Bucs, the more I think they might do what the Giants of 2007 or 2011 did -- get hot late and get on a January run that could take them very far. Not saying I think this will happen. Just saying it wouldn't surprise me if the Bucs were the NFC's sixth seed and made some big noise.
10. Green Bay (7-4). Giants beat Packers 38-10. Packers beat Texans 42-24. That means, of course, if the Giants and Texans played, the final would be New York 46, Houston 0.
11. Cincinnati (6-5). Won three in a row by a combined score of 93-29. At this time of the year, that qualifies as a team worthy of being in the Fine Fifteen.
12. Washington (5-6). I don't have to take a poll to tell you that no team in its right mind wants to play Washington right now, not after Robert Griffin III put up 69 points in the last two weeks with his arm (mostly) and legs. And teams might feel that way about the Redskins for a long time, which wasn't the case before he arrived.
13. New Orleans (5-6). Never thought I'd see the 2012 Saints conjure up memories of the bygone days of September. Good thing they don't play the 49ers very often.
14. Indianapolis (7-4). If the Colts go 2-3 in December, they're likely a playoff team.
15. Seattle (6-5). I liked Seattle's upstart playoff chances until Sunday, when they looked nothing like a playoff team.
Offensive Players of the Week
T.Y. Hilton, WR/PR, Indianapolis. Hilton's 75-yard punt return started the scoring for the Colts in their 20-14 win over Buffalo at home Sunday, and his 8-yard touchdown pass from Andrew Luck finished it. In between, he got knocked into next week by a hit on his second punt return that certainly should have finished him for the day, but Hilton returned to return three more punts and make the catch that allowed the Colts to escape with their seventh win. After the game, I asked him how he felt. "Fine. Perfect,'' he said. I said to him: "What hurts right now?'' And he said, "Nothing. I am fine.'' Well, if that were true Sunday night, I doubt it'll be true this morning, unless Hilton's made of Silly Putty.
Defensive Players of the Week
J.J. Watt, DE, Houston. Another week, another great game in the insane season of J.J. Watt. In the 34-31 overtime win at Detroit, Watt had three sacks, two passes deflected (he now has 13), one tackle for loss and two quarterback pressures. Amazing for a player who started his career as a tight end at Central Michigan and continued it at Wisconsin to return to Michigan as the best 3-4 defensive end in the NFL ... at age 23.
Janoris Jenkins, CB, St. Louis. His 39- and 36-yard interception returns for touchdown made him the first rookie to return two picks for scores in 52 years, and made coach Jeff Fisher a genius for benching him two weeks ago at San Francisco for violating team rules and having to run the stadium stairs before the game at Candlestick Park. Watch how he baited quarterback Ryan Lindley of the Cardinals, especially on the first pick-6, and you'll see why the Rams took a chance on the troubled college star in the second round of the draft.
Special Teams Player of the Week
Justin Tucker, K, Baltimore. Big deal. A 38-yard field goal. Or two. Well, I say it is a big deal. The Ravens trailed 13-10 in San Diego with four seconds left when Tucker, the rookie free agent from the University of Texas, came on and kicked a 38-yard field goal to send the game to overtime. Then, with 67 seconds left in overtime, he trotted out for another 38-yarder. Drilled the game-winner too. No doubt about either one, both straight down Broadway. The Ravens, who will be playing in January, look to have a playoff-caliber kicker they won't have to worry about in the big spots.
Leon Washington, KR, Seattle. His 98-yard touchdown return on the kickoff after Miami tied the game at 14 gave the Seahawks a 21-14 lead midway through the fourth quarter. The eighth kickoff-return touchdown in his career was among the most electrifying, and should have given Seattle an edge for the sixth playoff seed in the NFC, but Miami rebounded to win 24-21.
Rafael Bush, SS, New Orleans. How about this? An "R. Bush'' for New Orleans who wears number 25? Reggie, however, wouldn't be playing on the punt team, which Rafael was midway through the second quarter of a 7-7 game with the 49ers. Bush sprinted downfield to cover a Thomas Morestead punt, and as Ted Ginn Jr. muffed it (sound familiar, Niner fans?) Bush reached in and grabbed it, setting up a short, 11-yard touchdown drive. Bush and Courtney Roby have been terrific on punts this year, and are big reasons Morestead is having such a great net-punting season.
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 in November 2008. Zim, a former collegiate offensive lineman himself, loved watching offensive line play.
Will Montgomery, C, Washington. A standout all season for Washington, he's the No. 2 rated center in the game this year, according to ProFootballFocus.com rankings. Montgomery kept Robert Griffin III clean all game Thursday and was a force in the running game as well. The Redskins did a very smart thing in the offseason when they knew they were in cap jail but also knew they wanted to keep this promising 29-year-old center as the centerpiece for a rebuilt line to protect RGIII. They signed him to an extension through the 2016 season, guaranteeing only $2.5 million of his deal; Montgomery will earn $12 million over the next four years, a good deal for a center who earned it, and a good deal for the team paying him.
Coaches of the Week
Jim Harbaugh, head coach, San Francisco. Harbaugh proved last week he's got some Bill Belichick in him. As a coach, you have to be able to tune out the majority of the public and the media and even some in your own organization who think you're making a mistake if you firmly believe you're doing the right thing and you trust in your players to know you're doing the right thing. Such was the case when he chose Colin Kaepernick as his starting quarterback over Alex Smith, who was playing at a Pro Bowl level.
Kaepernick went out and played better than Drew Brees at the Superdome Sunday, and Harbaugh was proven correct, for the week, anyway. Harbaugh's brash, and rubs some people the wrong way. He's also the brightest star, by far, of all the young coaches in the game today. Who would have imagined, approaching the last month of the regular season of his second season in the league, that he'd have but five career regular season losses?
Bruce Arians, interim coach, Indianapolis. Arians raised his eye-popping record to 6-2 with the victory over Buffalo. What I liked was his message to the team following the 59-24 drubbing by the Patriots last week: "Your job is to play well enough to earn the right to go back to Foxboro and show you can beat this team." Arians has a good grip on a team he was never supposed to coach in the first place, and he's showing a cadre of owners and general managers who will be in search of a new coach in January that he deserves their attention.
Goat of the Week
Ron Winter, referee, Pittsburgh-Cleveland game. As horrible as the Steelers were Sunday -- and turning the ball over eight times is sufficient to lose 100 percent of the time -- Winter made an incredible non-call with two minutes left in the fourth quarter and Cleveland trying to run out a 20-14 lead. Cleveland running back Trent Richardson ran into a clogged line, got stoned and stripped at the same time, and the Steelers jumped on the fumble. Though no whistle was audible, and Winter was staring at the play as it happened, no fumble was ruled, and the Steelers lost a last legitimate chance to catch up. You just can't miss those calls.
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