1. New England (9-3). What a schedule over the next two months, of games scheduled and not (yet) scheduled. Tick ... tick ... tick.
2. Houston (11-1). Just seven days until Texans-Pats, Monday-nighter, Foxboro.
3. San Francisco (8-3-1). Just 13 days until Niners-Pats, Sunday-nighter, Foxboro.
4. Denver (9-3). Just 48 days until Broncos-Pats, AFC Championship Game, Foxboro.
5. Atlanta (11-1). Just 62 days until Falcons-Pats, Super Bowl XLVII, New Orleans.
(OK! I hear you! Time to stop the stupid Patriots schtick!)
6. New York Giants (7-4). If you're a Giants' fan, and you see "Jason Pierre-Paul, DNP (back),'' meaning Pierre-Paul didn't practice Saturday because his back flared up prior to a game against Robert Griffin III, all of a sudden you take back the house money you wagered on your G-Men and you think: Maybe I should watch the game tonight for entertainment reasons only.
7. Pittsburgh (7-5). In the immortal words of the most famous sportscaster in the history of Mason, Ohio, "You cannot stop Charlie Batch. You can only hope to contain him."
8. Green Bay (8-4). Randall Cobb and James Jones: 108 catches, 16 touchdowns. Did you honestly think Aaron Rodgers' fourth and fifth options in his passing game this season would be that good?
9. Baltimore (9-3). Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron wouldn't like to meet the Twitter followers of mine who are Ravens fans. Let's just say they were a tad upset that Cameron called 37 pass plays and 12 Ray Rice rushes in Sunday's loss to the Steelers.
10. Seattle (7-5). Seattle will win the sixth playoff seed in the NFC, and maybe the fifth, by winning three of four down the stretch against a schedule that has 3-1 possibilities: Arizona, at Buffalo, San Francisco, St. Louis. Three of the last four in the din of CenturyLink Field. I like the Seahawks' chances.
11. Chicago (8-4). Tied with Pack atop the NFC North, but Green Bay has an edge because of a head-to-head victory in Week 2, and because the Bears have three of the last four on the road.
12. Cincinnati (7-5). Just saying you don't want to be playing the Bengals right now. Three straight wins by an average of 21 entering the game at San Diego Sunday, then a 16-play, 99-yard drive to open that game, taking half of the first quarter. They can play defense, and they have a variety of ways to score.
13. Tampa Bay (6-6). Bucs will need a lot of help to make the playoffs because of Seattle's win at Soldier Field Sunday.
14. Indianapolis (8-4). Andrew Luck threw a 42-yard touchdown strike while being tackled from behind in Detroit -- 42 yards from where he threw the ball to where LaVon Brazil caught it in the end zone. Luck makes some bad throws sometimes, but he's resilient and cold-blooded.
15. Washington (5-6). I repeat my stat from Friday's column: Robert Griffin III has converted four of 44 3rd-and-8 or longer opportunities this season. Wonder why the Giants have stressed frustrating Griffin on first and second downs leading up to tonight's game?
Offensive Players of the Week
I'm sorry. Really. I don't mean to waffle, but there were five performances so tremendous on offense that I have to acknowledge all of them.
Charlie Batch, QB, Pittsburgh. Batch, who turns 38 Wednesday, got the biggest win of his NFL career in perhaps the last start of his NFL career, beating the Ravens in Baltimore behind a patchwork offensive line and breaking the Ravens' 15-game home winning streak. "Nobody outside our locker room thought we had a prayer of doing this,'' Batch told me from Baltimore afterward. No kidding. You lost to Cleveland last week. This week, Batch was a cool 25 of 36 for 276 chain-moving yards and led the Steelers to 10 points in the last nine minutes to win.
Adrian Peterson, RB, Minnesota. I know the Vikes lost, but this was one of the top five performances of one of the great careers of this era. Peterson ran 21 times for 210 yards at Lambeau Field, including a sprinting-then-grueling 82-yard touchdown run around and through the Green Bay defense.
Brady Quinn, QB, Kansas City. Nice guys finish first. At least on a day they should have. Quinn at one point was 14 of 16 on his way to a 19-of-23 day with two touchdowns and no picks in Kansas City's heavy-hearted 27-21 win over the Panthers.
Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle. Drove his team 94 yards in nine plays for a second-quarter touchdown. Drove his team 97 yards in 12 plays for the go-ahead touchdown near the end of regulation. Drove his team 80 yards in 12 plays for the winning touchdown in overtime. On the road, at Soldier Field, against the Bears. When's the last time an Urlacher team allowed drives as long as 94, 97 and 80 yards for touchdowns in a game? To a rookie quarterback?
Andrew Luck, QB, Indianapolis. I watched a lot of Indy 35, Detroit 33, and I feel like Jack Buck on Kirk Gibson's hamstrung World Series home run. I don't believe ... what I just saw! Down 33-21 with four minutes to play (thanks in part to two awful interceptions thrown by Luck), Luck led touchdown drives of 85 and 75 yards, scoring the winning touchdown on a frenetic, 14-yard TD pass to Donnie Avery as the clock ran out against the strangest defensive alignment in NFL history. But I digress. Luck was as clutch as his predecessor with the game on the line in a game with major playoff implications.
Defensive Player of the Week
William Moore, SS, Atlanta. With a game-high 11 tackles (two behind the line of scrimmage) and a game-high two interceptions of Drew Brees, Moore and his mates proved they can play while understaffed in the secondary (without ace cornerback Brent Grimes, and with Asante Samuel playing one-armed and sparingly). The play of the defensive backfield has been a bright spot in Atlanta's 11-1 season.
Special Teams Player of the Week
Greg Zuerlein, K, St. Louis. So Zuerlein missed a 58-yard field goal attempt early and the Legend of The Leg was getting tarnished. But he booted a 53-yarder as time expired in the fourth quarter to send the game to overtime, then nailed a 54-yarder straight down Broadway with 26 seconds left in overtime to beat the mighty Niners 16-13. "I was just trying to make that kick and not think about anything,'' said Zuerlein of his game-winner. He did a good job.
Jason Hanson, K, Detroit. The oldest player in the league (42 years, 5 months) was brilliant Sunday in a losing effort, being perfect from 48, 33, 52 and 31 yards; the 52-yarder would have been good from 60. Hanson's amazing. He's 25 of 28. He's played for eight Detroit coaches (remember the Gary Moeller Era?), and entered the league after Barry Sanders' third season. If you're this good, why quit?
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.
Donald Stephenson, LT, Kansas City. With regular left tackle Brandon Albert missing his second straight game with back issues, Stephenson played his second straight solid game. He kept the Chief backfield clean, holding right end Charles Johnson of the Panthers to one tackle and one quarterback pressure. Stephenson, a third-round pick from Oklahoma, gives the Chiefs the kind of swing tackle (for now) that all lines need, and his play the last two weeks gives the Chiefs reason to hope he'll be a good prospect to replace Albert should he leave in free agency after the season.
Coaches of the Week
Romeo Crennel, head coach, Kansas City. Anyone who can witness one of his favorite players shooting himself in the head from a few yards away, then prepare his team to play a football game, and then coach that game 28 hours after the suicide -- he doesn't deserve Coach of the Week, he deserves to go give advice to Army Rangers about the focus it takes to excel.
Mike Nolan, defensive coordinator, Atlanta. Nolan deserves credit not just for this week's stifling game plan in the Falcons' win over New Orleans, but also for how he's transformed his defense into one befitting the strong contender the team has become.
Atlanta wasn't sad to see Brian Van Gorder take a job with Auburn after the team was 12th in defense in the NFL, but 20th against the pass in 2011. The Falcons have improved from 18th in points allowed last year to fourth with four games to go, and much of it has been accomplished without ace corner Brent Grimes and now with cover man Asante Samuel hurting with a chronic shoulder issue. Nolan can walk into the defensive team meeting room and tell his team with pride today that they just forced the first five-interception game of Drew Brees' career -- and stopped at 54 his consecutive-games-with-a-TD-pass streak. Great hire by head coach Mike Smith.
Goat of the Week
|Interceptions as of Dec. 1|
Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans. The Falcons forced him into no touchdowns and five interceptions, some uncharacteristically poor decisions and a stupid mishandling of the clock at the end of the first half near the goal line that cost the Saints a chip-shot field goal. "Honestly, I thought we had more time than we did ... That's my mistake. It can't happen," he said. Amazing, too, that the statistic in the chart to the right was true concerning Brees, Blaine Gabbert and Mark Sanchez entering Sunday's games.
Prognosticator of the Week
Michael David Smith, managing editor, Pro Football Talk. In Week 11, Smith, who picks games for PFT each week, predicted the Raiders to lose to New Orleans 38-17. The Raiders lost to New Orleans 38-17.
In Week 12, Smith picked the Raiders to lose to Cincinnati 34-10. The Raiders lost to Cincinnati 34-10.
In Week 13, Smith picked the Raiders to lose to Cleveland 21-17. The Raiders lost to Cleveland 20-17.
I have just hired Smith to pick my California Lottery numbers this week, but under one condition: We have to buy them in Oakland.