1. Patriots - I’m still dumbfounded at how this team and Tom Brady specifically are somehow playing even better this season than when they had Randy Moss. The Pats have scored in every single quarter of every game except for the first quarter of the first game and all it really took for the Pats to seal up this week’s win over Washington was that initial 14-0 lead they piled on the Redskins. It’s unbelievable how consistently dominant this team has been for nearly 15 years now, no matter how many asterisks they’ve accumulated along the way.
2. Cardinals - Arizona finds themselves in a similar situation to what they had last year - the unlikely NFC West leaders that no one’s buying into. Only this year they have Carson Palmer and Chris Johnson leading the offense. The Cards are one of the most balanced teams in the league and hammering the underachieving, defending NFC champion Seahawks in week 10 would go a long way in making believers out of those questioning this Arizona team.
3. Bengals - The Bengals are clearly having their best season of the Marvin Lewis / Andy Dalton era, although beating up on a Johnny Manziel lead Browns team doesn’t do much to instill confidence in those still weary of trusting the often one and done playoff contender. But having a healthy Tyler Eiffert in the offense has finally given this passing game more than A.J. Green to carry it and the defense is somehow aging like wine, lead by Adam “How is Pacman still even in the league?” Jones. With an 8-0 start they’ve essentially already stamped their ticket to the playoffs and I’m anxious to see what they do with it this time around.
4. Broncos - Coming off of their most impressive win of the season, Denver was handed their first loss of the season at the hands of Peyton’s former team in Indianapolis. And while the Broncos have done a decent job of surviving without a surging offense and relying heavily on their defense to win games, Manning stood shocked on the sideline as he watched an eye poking penalty cost him an opportunity at not only winning the game but making history by passing Brett Favre’s record for career yardage. Aqib Talib’s jaw-dropping, idiotic play in the closing seconds of Sunday’s loss prove what can happen when you’re putting your team’s fate in the defense’s hands instead of Peyton’s.
5. Panthers - Carolina’s won seven straight home games dating back to last year and despite a 360 yard / 4 touchdown effort from Aaron Rogers, the Panthers kept that streak along with their undefeated 2015 campaign in tack. And while Cam Newton seems to be garnering a lot of the attention for the Panthers’ success, it’s the defense that’s been the biggest difference for this year’s Carolina squad. Newton’s statistically having one of his worst seasons and yet the team seems to be winning in spite of that.
6. Packers - Green Bay had a hell of a comeback bid against the Panthers this week but Rogers just couldn’t quite push past the Panthers’ stingy pass defense. The team’s defense seems to be imploding a bit as well, despite their strong early opening. But without the lead, the team struggles to hold any opposing offenses.
7. Falcons - Atlanta’s a pretty puzzling team at this point in the season. After their red hot 5-0 start, the offense has stalled and the supposedly rebuilt defense has been exposed time and time again. Running back DaVonta Freeman had a great start to the year but has struggled greatly recently, limiting the offense once again to living and dying with Julio Jones. Which is still good enough to win a majority of the time but then you’ll still have the occasional head scratcher like this one against the Blane Gabbert lead 49ers.
8. Steelers - Pittsburgh may have the best combination of wide receiver, running back, and quarterback of any team in the league. Sadly though, we haven’t gotten a chance to see them all on the field at the same time this season. And while the Steelers have been able to stay afloat in AFC wildcard hunt thus far, it’s hard to imagine how much longer this team can survive with Rothlisberger suffering yet another injury. Not to mention the four game lead Cinci has on the AFC North race, I think this may be the last high point of Pittsburgh’s season. But who knows, Tomlin has done a hell of a job managing the team’s injuries thus far.
9. Vikings - Minnesota has proven they’re defense is good enough to win them games on their own. Heading into overtime without their starting quarterback, Mike Zimmer won the coin toss and elected to trust his defense and the unconventional approach paid off forcing an early 3 and out for the Rams and another game winner from Blair Walsh. The Vikings’ offense isn’t pretty but with their defense playing this well under Zimmer, they really don’t have to. The Vikings have now won 4 straight but they’re headed into an incredibly tough stretch of their schedule, so we’ll quickly discover how this team stacks up against playoff caliber opponents.
10. Bills - Buffalo bounced back in a huge way with the return of their prodigal quarterback Tyrod Taylor to re-ignite the slumping offense against the regressing Miami Dolphins. After being embarrassed by the Chiefs in London two weeks ago, Buffalo looked more like the team we saw in the season’s opening coming out of their bye without having to depend on EJ Manuel at quarterback. And the inept Miami offense certainly did a lot to bolster the confidence of the shaken defensive unit as well. Buffalo’s been an up and down team but when they’re at their best, their amongst the best in the league and if Taylor can continue to improve throughout the season, as he has so far, this team could be a sleeper pick to make some noise in the postseason.
11. Rams - Toddy Gurley appears to be on his way to becoming the best running back in the league but in their head to head matchup, Adrian Peterson deemed he’s not quite ready to pass the torch just yet. Good defenses will force St.Louis to pass just like Minnesota did and for some reason, Nick Foles still hasn’t looked the same since leaving Philly.
12. Seahawks - Seattle enters their bye week right at .500 and looking to prove they’re still the team to beat in their upcoming matchup with the Cardinals. But I don’t believe them. The sluggish offense has never been what’s gotten this team to it’s championship status, it’s the defense and right now they’re slipping. And the offensive line isn’t allowing any leeway for Wilson or Lynch to take advantage of when the defense is finally clicking. The window may not have slammed shut on Seattle like it did with the 9ers but it’s hard to say it doesn’t feel like it’s not closing on them as well.
13. Jets - New York broke their two game losing skid this week but it’s hard to really feel good about a victory this narrow against the Jaguars. Especially since Jacksonville hasn’t won a road game since 2013 against the Browns. But New York found a way to win, taking advantage of Jacksonville’s late game mistakes and getting some offensive production out of their banged up quarterback, with Chris Ivory being held to 26 yards on 23 carries. The Jets are still technically next in line behind the Pats in the East but I think they may be in for a surprise when Rex Ryan faces off against his former squared on Thursday night.
14. Raiders - Oakland had a hell of a time keeping up with Antonio Brown but ultimately, the all-pro receiver kept the Steelers on top, setting up the game winning field goal at the end of regulation. While Oakland’s offense is good enough to keep them from the bottom of the AFC, their lackluster and aging defense is still going to keep them from competing with playoff contenders like the Steelers.
15. Eagles - Philly pushed their way back to the top of the NFC East playoff picture with a narrow win over Dallas in overtime this week, with Sam Bradford finally showing us a glimpse of why Chip Kelly decided to gamble on the #1 draft pick of yesteryear. But what could really be most significant for this Eagles offense is if the running game can finally remain consistent. Murray had a huge game in his return to Dallas and Ryan Matthews has been a phenomenal complement in both the run and passing game. While Chip’s experiment hasn’t been a huge success thus far, it may be too early to call it a failure just yet.
16. Saints - While the Saints looked to have corrected a lot of mistakes with the offense during their 3 game winning streak, the defense still has a lot of holes. A LOT. Giving up a career game to rookie Marcus Mariota and a comeback win in overtime to a sloppy one win Titans team makes it seem like this Saints are still that unbalanced and unreliable squad we’ve gotten used to seeing in New Orleans the past several years.
17. Giants - Jason Pierre-Paul’s return to the Giants was huge, regardless of how many fingers he brought with him. The defensive front did a phenomenal job of limiting the Tampa running attack and even forced a game deciding turnover in the closing minutes of the game. But despite how well Beckham plays, I think this team will continue to be limited without a viable running attack.
18. Colts - Headed into week 9, the Colts hadn’t beaten a single team outside of their dumpster fire of a division. But yet again, Indianapolis stunned the heavily favored Broncos, handing Denver their first loss of the year and playing their best game since beating the Broncos last January. The Colts’ defense kept the Broncos incredibly limited while Andrew Luck played his first mistake free game in what feels like forever. The Colts wanted this game much more than Denver did though, so I don’t imagine this leading to some huge season turnaround for the Colts. They’re still a long way from competing with the team that embarrassed them in the AFC title game last season.
19. Cowboys - Dallas still hasn’t won a single game without Tony Romo, losing their sixth straight game in a row without their starting QB. And while Matt Cassel played fairly well against the Eagles’ defense, the team is going to have to try and piece together at least one more week without Romo. Luckily though, as bad as the NFC East has been, they still might have a shot at making the playoffs even with this horrible midseason stretch.
20. Dolphins - After a re-invigorated effort under interim coach Dan Campbell got the Dolphins back into the playoff hunt against teams underachieving even more so than they were, Miami’s back down where they belong at the bottom of the AFC East. They’re 0-4 against division opponents and the injury plagued defense seems to have lost it’s edge. Miami should be thankful though, saddling up with Campbell for the long-term due to beating up on the Texans and Titans would have set this back even further.
21. Chiefs - Kansas City played their best game of the season last week in London and now headed into the bye week, they’ll get some extra time to prepare for their second showdown with the Broncos. Denver didn’t blow them out last time by any means but it’s still quite clear who the cream of the AFC West crop is at this point and all the Chiefs are trying to do is prove they’re not the division’s worst.
22. Redskins - Washington dug themselves into a hole incredibly quickly against the unbeaten Patriots and really, never had a chance. Washington got ravaged by New England who almost seems like they’re sleepwalking through the regular season at this point while the Redskins are clinging to any semblance of hope with a death grip. And even playing in the disappointing NFC East, the Skins still can’t maintain relevancy, especially when their running game is in a slump.
23. Bears - John Fox is in for a hell of a rebuilding process in Chicago but Jay Cutler and Alshon Jeffrey have given him a firm foundation to build around. Especially if Matt Forte sticks around. After coughing up a number of their own turnovers in the first half, the Bears found themselves on the other end of the turnover battle in the second half and hung in just long enough for the rest of the Chargers to blow another Phillip Rivers win. And while the Bears aren’t post-season bound anytime soon, at least there’s always the Lions down in last place to make themselves feel better. Even if Detroit’s only win is against Chicago…
24. Browns - Cleveland has still yet to play a full quarters of football. They’ve hung in there with some of the best in the league but they just can’t finish, especially with Johnny Manziel under center. Ok, he looks a lot better than he did last year but he doesn’t give the offense the same potential Josh McCown does. I get planning for the future and seeing what you have in your second year draft pick but since he started last season 7-4, I’m not sure Mike Pettine can afford to continue his 2-14 losing streak much longer.
25. Ravens - Baltimore’s season has been one train wreck after another and now that they’ve lost Steve Smith for the season (or possibly his career), the team’s stalled offense will likely struggle even more. Passing on Torey Smith was probably a good move but relying entirely on a dude as old as Steve Smith to carry your receiving corps? Not such a smart choice. Not as dumb as throwing all that money at Flacco but I’ll try not to harp on that for a week…
26. Chargers - In a sloppy, uneven game San Diego lost their fifth straight thanks to some boneheaded mistakes and their injury plagued defense. Without Keenan Allen, Rivers seems to be even more alone in his herculean effort to carry a deflated franchise with almost literally no help whatsoever. It’s a little surprising that right now L.A. would probably be way more excited about welcoming the Rams or Raiders to town than the Chargers right now.
27. Buccaneers - Tampa nearly snuck past the sleeping New York Giants but late turnovers and a revitalized defensive effort ended their chances of winning back to back games. Winston played another mistake free game but this time it was the Tampa Bay running game that coughed up crucial fumbles that sealed the Bucccccccccccs’ fate.
28. 49ers - No Anquan Boldin, No Michael Crabtree, No Carlos Hyde, No Vernon Davis, No Frank Gore, No Jim Harbaugh, No Aldon Smith, No Patrick Willis, No Reggie Bush, No Colin Kaepernick, No freaking Problem! The revitalized 49ers, lead by their franchise saving backup Blane Gabbert, look to have completely salvaged what was once though to be a lost season with a win over the Falcons and are back in the playoff hunt! Just kidding, this team still sucks and Seattle can’t wait to prove that yet again next week.
29. Lions - Stafford and Caldwell can bitch about the negative press in Detroit all they want but you know what cures all that? Winning. Stafford’s been given an incredibly long leash considering the weapons at his disposal. If anything, I feel like we’ve been under-critical of his role as the Lions’ future. The dude has been in a 2 year slump now with some of the best receivers in the game. And tossing out the offensive coordinator was frivolous, we all know it’s Caldwell’s head that’s gonna roll at season’s end anyways.
30. Texans - Houston enters their bye week, somehow in contention for the AFC South division lead at 3-5 with the playoffs still feasibly in their reach. Hoyer should have been the starter from the beginning in Houston and he’s proving why each and every week, even without Arian Foster. And while the defense looked much better against the Titans, I can’t imagine they’re entirely “fixed”. We’ll find out shortly when they take on one of the league’s best offensive lines in Cinci in week 10.
31. Titans - Tennessee got a much needed win under interim coach Mike Mularkey after falling behind to the Saints early. The team showed a lot of heart putting together an overtime win with their decimated defensive unit and inexperienced quarterback. I’m still not sold on any of this team though, including their newly drafted franchise QB. Although, he looks a hell of a lot better than Zach Mettenberger at this point.
32. Jaguars - Jacksonville nearly got a huge upset win in New York this week but like a gun-shy reserve player coming off the bench with a chance to win the game, the Jags crumbled and practically handed the Jets what should have been a very winnable game. The Jags can’t seem to put anyone away and it’s becoming increasingly hard to ignore Bortles’ inability to win games, regardless of how bad the rest of his team is.