1. EAST: PATRIOTS (9--0). The countdown to perfection is on. They lead the league in scoring, and the remaining schedule is favorable. Still, coach Bill Belichick and his company men want us to believe his team is fallible. SCOUT'S TAKE "There are weaknesses. The running game is inconsistent, the defense has some age on it, and the linebackers are vulnerable in pass coverage. But bottom line, as long as Tom Brady stays healthy, I don't see them losing."
2. SOUTH: COLTS (7--1). The defending champs can't afford to stumble with Tennessee only a game back in the division. And the schedule is daunting, including dates with San Diego (road) and Kansas City (home) in the next two weeks, plus divisional showdowns at home against Jacksonville and Tennessee. SCOUT'S TAKE "They better hope Marvin Harrison gets healthy, and they have to do a better job of protecting Peyton Manning than they did against New England."
3. NORTH: STEELERS (6--2). Pittsburgh is a well-balanced team that could challenge for another title. Willie Parker and Ben Roethlisberger are mixing it up on offense, and the defense has allowed a league-low 12.3 points a game. They can take a two-game division lead with a win at home on Sunday against the surprising Browns. SCOUT'S TAKE "They're suspect on the corners but bring enough pressure to make up for it. Offensively, they're going to lean on Parker when the weather turns."
4. WEST: CHIEFS (4--4). K.C. has stayed atop the West thanks to a stingy defense and a mediocre division. Three of its four remaining division games are at home. SCOUT'S TAKE "This team astounds me. The offensive line isn't very good, and they have only one established receiving threat in [tight end Tony] Gonzalez; but they still get it done. The defense gets after you, though you can have success running the ball because their linebackers aren't downhill guys."
5. WILD CARD: TITANS (6--2). Casual fans probably can't name one of Tennessee's starting wide receivers, and Vince Young has just three touchdown passes. But running back LenDale White is coming into his own, and the kicking game is strong. Of the remaining opponents only Jacksonville and Indianapolis have winning records. SCOUT'S TAKE "This is the team that scares me. Young is a matchup nightmare, and the defense is a terror with tackle Albert Haynesworth inside."
6. WILD CARD: BROWNS (5--3). Yes, they're last in total defense, but Derek Anderson has been outstanding, and Braylon Edwards, Kellen Winslow and Jamal Lewis are healthy and performing. After games at Pittsburgh and Baltimore, their final six foes are an aggregate 16--34. SCOUT'S TAKE " Anderson is making good decisions and fitting the ball in tight spaces. The defense could be the undoing of this team. The secondary isn't very good, and at times it's exposed because of a lack of pressure on the quarterback."
TWO MORE TO WATCH: The Ravens (4--4) could improve if they ever get healthy quarterback play, but age is catching up with them. Talent says the Chargers (4--4) can make a run, but the next six games—Indy, Jacksonville, Baltimore, K.C., Tennessee, Detroit—say otherwise.