Now that every team has
played at least eight games, the midway point of the NFL season has arrived,
and only four locks to reach the postseason have emerged: Pittsburgh, New
England, Philadelphia and Atlanta. And though Ben Roethlisberger’s ascent to
the ranks of the league’s most dependable quarterbacks has been a pleasant
surprise for the Steelers faithful, perhaps the biggest shock of 2004 has been
the resurgence of San Diego field general Drew Brees. Once considered a
lame-duck QB likely to be benched -- if not released -- in favor of rookie
prospect Philip Rivers, Brees is now thriving with the Bolts, doing his best
imitation of a young Brett Favre and leading his team to an unlikely 6-3 mark.
1. Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers have not lost
since Week 2, and in successive weeks, rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger
picked apart the notoriously stingy defenses of two then-undefeated
powerhouses, the Patriots and the Eagles. But Pittsburgh needs to stop winning,
and not simply because they’re making the so-called NFL “experts” look
clueless. No, the real reason they need to stop manhandling the league’s
supposed best is because I’m sick of looking up the proper spelling of
Roethlisberger. Seriously. You’d think I’d have learned it by now, but no. And
in an NFL already overpopulated with impossible-to-spell names (Adimchinobe
Echemandu, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Kabeer Gbaja-Biamilia, to name three), it’s
just rude to be named Roethlisberger.
2. New England Patriots
Ravaged by injuries to their
secondary, the Patriots find themselves in a familiar position, forced to plug
practice-squad players (somebody named Earthwind Moreland), unheralded
journeymen and even longtime offensive weapon Troy Brown into a depleted defense.
Yet despite a 34-20 drubbing at the hands of the surging Steelers, New England
weathered the toughest stretch of its schedule -- two home contests against the
Seahawks and Jets, followed by trips to Pittsburgh and St. Louis -- with a 3-1
record. Not bad. They still face the formidable Week 11 challenge of facing the
Chiefs in Kansas City, where Priest Holmes and Trent Green will put defensive
coordinator Romeo Crennel’s tattered unit to the ultimate test, but Pats fans
can take heart. The worst is behind them, and star cornerback Ty Law, currently
sidelined with a broken bone in his left foot, will be healthy and rested for
3. Philadelphia Eagles
At the first sign of
adversity, Terrell Owens turns on his quarterback with a childish sideline
tirade. It won’t be the last time Mount Owens erupts, and if familiarity truly
breeds contempt, expect T.O. to wear out his welcome in the City of Brotherly
Love by 2006.
4. Atlanta Falcons (6-2)
The Dirty Birds have a
stranglehold on the NFC South, and that doesn’t figure to change anytime soon.
With the next four weeks bringing easy match-ups against the battered Giants,
the sad-sack Saints and the bumbling Buccaneers, Michael Vick could snooze
through the month of November and still
wake up with the division title in hand.
5. Indianapolis Colts
How can the Colts possibly
be rated higher than the Jaguars, an offensively challenged AFC South rival
that racked up 27 points against Indy’s porous defense just three weeks ago at
the RCA Dome? Peyton Manning, that’s how. Armed with two of the league’s finest
receivers in Marvelous Marvin Harrison and the oft-overlooked Reggie Wayne --
not to mention two capable running backs in Edgerrin James and Dominic Rhodes
-- Manning has the tools and the experience to guide this group deep into the
playoffs. Head coach Tony Dungy will have to whip his struggling defense into
shape, to be sure -- any unit spotting its opponents 87 points in its last
three games has to take a long look in the mirror if it wants to hoist the
Lombardi Trophy in February. But bet on Indianapolis to overtake the Byron
Leftwich-less Jags before the season draws to a close.
6. New York Jets (6-2)
No Chad Pennington? No
problem! Oh wait, no. That’s a big problem. For a second consecutive season,
head coach Herm Edwards will have to figure out a way to win without his star
quarterback, who will miss two to four weeks with a strained right rotator
cuff. Pennington will likely return by the time Houston rolls into town on Dec.
5, but the Jets, led by the very sinkable Quincy Carter, will struggle to
survive their Week 10 match-up with the Ravens.
7. San Diego Chargers
If you can look past San
Diego’s reputation as the traditional doormat of the AFC West, you’ll notice
that once-embattled quarterback Drew Brees is putting up MVP numbers (1,854
passing yards, 18 TDs, 3 INTs) to complement a superb running game featuring
the peerless LaDainian Tomlinson. With stud receiver Keenan McCardell in the
mix thanks to a shrewd trade by general manager A.J. Smith, San Diego’s offense
is clicking on all cylinders. Remember, this is a team that scored 313 points
last season; through nine games in 2004, they have already totaled 262. If
their defense can keep the pace, expect the Chargers to rein in the Broncos and
capture their first AFC West title since 1994.
8. Jacksonville Jaguars
Byron Leftwich will miss
Jacksonville’s next two contests, leaving backup David Garrard to make his
second career start in Week 10, when the Jags host the Lions. (Garrard’s first
start, a 20-13 loss to the Indianapolis Colts in 2002, was pedestrian at best.)
If Jack Del Rio’s crew can survive in the absence of their talented young QB,
they can keep things interesting in the AFC South; if not, the Colts will
stampede past them to another division title.
9. Denver Broncos (6-3)
Let’s face it -- whoever
drafted Reuben Droughns in your fantasy league is an insufferable jerk. At the
beginning of the season, there were so many fine candidates to become Mike
Shanahan’s tailback of choice: Quentin Griffin, Garrison Hearst, Tatum Bell.
But Reuben Droughns? Isn’t that the Round Mound of Karaoke who beat Clay Aiken
on American Idol two years ago?
What’s he doing racking up 150 yards a game while my keeper-league tailback is
roaming the Outback, puffin’ blunts while his lawyer is negotiating a return to
the NFL? (Yeah, I’m bitter.)
10. Minnesota Vikings
All style, no substance.
With Daunte Culpepper and Randy Moss in the fold, the Vikings will always have
the ability to amass eye-popping offensive stats, and slowly but surely, their
defense is inching toward respectability. Still, Minnesota has yet to master
the art of winning the Big Game, and until they do, they will remain little
more than NFL eye candy, leaving a sour taste come playoff time.
11. Baltimore Ravens
Yes, yes, defense wins
championships. It’s just that Kyle Boller doesn’t -- at least not when his
starting wide receivers are named Travis Taylor and Kevin Johnson.
12. Seattle Seahawks
Matt Hasselbeck and company
have proved that they can beat the San Francisco 49ers of the world, riding a
cream-puff schedule to the top of the dreadful NFC West. Until they beat a team
with a winning record -- something they haven’t done all season -- the
inconsistent Seahawks will remain a pretender to the throne.
13. Green Bay Packers
Just when you thought they
were out, they keep… OK, OK, we’re all familiar with Michael Corleone’s famous
refrain. But how lifeless did Brett Favre’s Packers look after a humiliating 48-27
loss to Tennessee on a Monday night in early October? Since then, the Pack has
rattled off three straight victories, racking up 107 points (!) in the process
and cutting Minnesota’s lead in the NFC North to a single game. The team’s
biggest test comes in Week 10, when the Vikings travel to Lambeau Field -- a
veritable House of Horrors for the onetime Purple People Eaters -- to battle
for divisional supremacy.
14. New York Giants (5-3)
Talk about adding insult to
injury: In Week 9, the Giants lost both
starting defensive ends, Michael Strahan and Keith Washington, while
blowing a 14-0 lead at home and losing to the Bears, 28-21. Should the slide
continue -- and it will -- look for the Other Manning to make his first NFL
start before Week 16.
15. St. Louis Rams (4-4)
For those of you who have
forgotten the particulars of St. Louis’ 29-23 double-overtime home loss to the
Carolina Panthers in the divisional round of last year’s NFC playoffs, let me
refresh your memory. Trailing 23-20 with 1:24 remaining and the ball on
Carolina’s 25-yard line, Rams head coach Mike Martz opted not to play for the
win, instead settling for the game-tying field goal. Pretty gutsy, no?
Fast-forward to this year. The New England Patriots arrive in St. Louis without
their top two cornerbacks, Ty Law and Tyrone Poole… and instead of exploiting
their absence with his famous aerial attack, Martz attacks an injury-riddled
secondary with a series of runs and short passes. Final score: Patriots 40,
Rams 22. Clearly, Martz still lacks faith in his young quarterback, Marc
Bulger, and for a team whose success depends on an explosive, speed-oriented
pass offense, that spells trouble.
16. Houston Texans (4-4)
The Texans defense that
surrendered 31 points to the Broncos will face the high-flying Colts in Week
Detroit Lions (4-4)
If the Lions ever find a
competent running back, watch out. Joey Harrington can finally spread the field
with the fleet-footed Az-Zahir Hakim and gifted rookie Roy Williams, and
Detroit’s offensive line has proven itself capable of protecting the
quarterback long enough to allow Big Plays to develop. To this point, however,
tailbacks Artose Pinner and Kevin Jones have been huge disappointments, and it’s
telling that Buffalo Bill cast-off Shawn Bryson led the Lions with 21 rushing
yards in Week 9. Yikes!
18. Kansas City Chiefs
Despite a 34-31 setback in
Tampa Bay, the Chiefs boast the most dangerous offense in football, and while
that alone may not be enough to vault them back into contention for a playoff
berth, don’t think for one second that the Broncos and Chargers are looking
forward to their upcoming visits to Arrowhead. If nothing else, Kansas City
remains to most entertaining team in the league, despite its
19. Cincinnati Bengals
Their 26-3 home victory over
the Cowboys was a step in the right direction, but if Marvin Lewis’ little
urban underachievers can’t beat their divisional foes -- and, to date, they are
0-3 against the AFC North -- there’s little reason for optimism. Granted, there
are 11 teams in the league with 3-5 records. At least one of them will rise up
and make the playoffs. Could it be the Bengals? Probably not.
20. Tennessee Titans
Breaking news: Steve McNair
has been discovered in the Thieves’ Forest, torn limb from limb by Rodents of
Unusual Size. He’s listed as probable for Sunday’s showdown with the Bears.
21. Cleveland Browns
A floundering, feckless
franchise that inspires fear in few foes. That’s alliteration, Holmes!
22. Buffalo Bills (3-5)
Poor Travis Henry. What has
he done to deserve an unceremonious, one-way ticket to the bench? The guess
here is that he will sever ties with the Bills during the off-season, sign on
with a team in need of a quietly effective running back (Miami? Detroit?) while
Willis McGahee continues to shine in Buffalo. For the record, McGahee, with 234
rushing yards and three TDs in his last two games, is finally regaining his
University of Miami mojo, allowing Drew Bledsoe to hand off the ball more often
and avoid the punishment he’s endured as the leader of a pass-oriented offense.
23. Chicago Bears (3-5)
Republicans and Democrats
may never coexist harmoniously in Washington, but in the Windy City, the
combination of former Ohio State quarterback/molecular biology major Craig
Krenzel and ex-Michigan running back Anthony “A-Train” Thomas has produced two
straight victories. Da Bears are still too flawed to challenge Green Bay and
Minnesota for NFC North supremacy, but this is a young team with a solid
defense. Stay tuned, because the future looks brighter now than it did four
The rebuilding project
continues in the nation’s capital, where the Redskins were rumored to have
ensured a Kerry win with a 28-14 home loss to the Packers in Week 8. Clearly,
this is a year in which curses, jinxes and assorted superstitions exist only to
be shattered by mind-blowing realities -- the Red Sox overcoming a 3-0 deficit
to the New York Yankees and ultimately winning the World Series, middle America
sentencing us to four more years of Dubya and Darth Vader. It’s just too bad
that this particular hex had to bite the dust, along with my hopes for a
country governed by sanity, common sense and compassion. Praise Jesus, Ohio!
25. Dallas Cowboys (3-5)
It would be easy and perhaps
even tempting to throw Bill Parcells under the bus and declare him Over The
Hill, but think back to the Tuna’s stint with the Patriots. In 1994, he rode
Drew Bledsoe’s very young, very live arm to the top of the AFC East, earning a
postseason berth in his second season with New England. In 1995, one year
before guiding the team to its first Super Bowl in a decade, Parcells led the
Pats to a 6-10 record, good for fourth in the East. The good news for Dallas
fans is that Parcells has never endured consecutive losing seasons, and despite
question marks at the quarterback position, the ’Boys will be back in 2005.
26. Arizona Cardinals
Under the tutelage of head
coach Dennis Green, the Cardinals have elevated themselves from God Awful to
Merely Mediocre. It’s not much, but it’s a start.
27. New Orleans Saints
Doctor! Come quickly! This
patient has kidneys, lungs, intestines both small and large… but no brains and
no heart! How’s the possible, doctor? HOW’S THAT POSSIBLE??!!
28. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Jon Gruden is back, starring
in the long-awaited sequel to 1998’s unforgettable Bride
of Chucky. Seed of Chucky, the latest installment in the darkly comic saga of a demonic doll with
a fondness for bloodshed, finds the Chuckster slashing his way to Hollywood and
shacking up with actress Jennifer Tilly. (Lucky boy!) Truth be told, it’s an
odd career move for a coach with a Super Bowl championship on his resume, but
hey, it beats coaching the Raiders. (See below.)
29. Oakland Raiders (3-6)
In a perfect world, there
would be a police officer posted outside the Oakland Coliseum box office,
waving away potential ticket-buyers, muttering, “Move along, nothing to see
here, move along.” It seems only appropriate, given that Oakland’s season is
the NFL equivalent of a car wreck, with so much free-agent talent crashing and
Miami Dolphins (1-8)
Their last four contests,
including an authoritative 31-14 win over St. Louis, have been more competitive
than the first five, save for that ugly 41-14 loss to the Jets, who have
treated the Fins like glorified punching bags in recent years. Even so, there
are not many positives to take from this fiasco of a season, billed during the
preseason as The Ricky Williams Show but now bearing a closer resemblance to The
Gong Show. (Note: Within 12 hours of
this writing, head coach Dave Wannstedt has resigned. ’Nuff said.)
31. Carolina Panthers
After their first four games
of the season, the only question surrounding last year’s NFC representative to
the Super Bowl was whether they could overcome the rash of debilitating
injuries that has left them without several key contributors (running backs
Stephen Davis and DeShaun Foster, receiver Steve Smith, defensive tackle Kris
Jenkins) to their 2003 breakthrough campaign. So far, the answer has been a
resounding no -- but with two contests scheduled against both the hapless
Buccaneers and the punchless Saints, it is possible, albeit unlikely, that the
Panthers could still finish the year with a modestly respectable record.
32. San Francisco 49ers
To paraphrase Rick Pitino,
Niners fans can stop holding their breath, because Joe Montana, Jerry Rice and
Dwight Clark are not walking through that door. (What door? Where does it lead?
Would Steve Young tag along just to annoy Joe? And if Jerry Rice were to walk
through it, would he be the Young Jerry Rice or the Not-So-Young Jerry Rice?)
Regardless, the guys who are
walking through that door -- Tim Rattay, Curtis Conway and Kevan Barlow --
could be navigating the 49ers toward their worst season in franchise history.
At this point, only the top pick in next spring’s draft could redeem this sorry