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Week 4: Steelers claim No. 1 spot behind ball-hawking defense

An NFL season never follows the script we expect, and Week 3 fairly well shredded the one I was working from. The top three teams in last week's SI.com NFL Power Rankings all lost: No. 1 New Orleans, No. 2 Green Bay and No. 3 Houston. The reshuffling leaves the Pittsburgh Steelers atop our new world order, and who can quibble with that?

Mike Tomlin's 3-0 club has been the eye-opening development of the young season, putting the lie to the belief that front-line quarterbacking is and will always be the greatest determiner of NFL success. No offense to Charlie Batch and Dennis Dixon, but they are mere spokes in the wheel of the machine that keeps churning out wins in the Steel City. And to think we all questioned the survivability factor of Ben Roethlisberger's four-game suspension in Pittsburgh this year.

Now on to this week's rankings ...

(As always, send comments to siwriters@simail.com.)

NFL Power Rankings
1Pittsburgh Steelers
Last Week: 4
If the Steelers are going to start with the offense, too, then it's really not fair to the rest of the NFL. Pittsburgh's defense has been enough of an advantage through three games, creating 10 takeaways, almost half of its total for the entire 2009 season (22). But the Steelers' final game without Ben Roethlisberger should be their toughest test yet, a visit from the 2-1 Ravens, who have lost nine of their past 10 games in Pittsburgh despite usually playing the Black and Gold very close at Heinz Field.
 
2Indianapolis Colts
Last Week: 5
Has anyone noticed how Austin Collie has morphed into Peyton Manning's pet receiver in the season's first three weeks, leading the NFL in receptions (27), yards (359) and touchdown catches (four)? Nice dilemma for opposing defenses, deciding where to concentrate your coverage, on Collie, Reggie Wayne or Dallas Clark? Jacksonville's best strategy this week might be praying for a driving rainstorm.
 
3Atlanta Falcons
Last Week: 12
There's no one in the NFC playing a better brand of ball than Mike Smith's Falcons, who have already lost in overtime at Pittsburgh in Week 1 and beaten the defending Super Bowl champion Saints in overtime last Sunday. Atlanta is a tough-minded club with a physical style of play that wears out opponents. The Falcons impose their will as the game unfolds. Did anyone out there pick a Super Bowl pairing of the Steelers and Falcons? At the end of September, that looks like a real possibility.
 
4New Orleans Saints
Last Week: 1
Every game has been an exhausting battle so far for the Saints, and that's usually the way it goes the year after the big confetti shower. Every team hits you with its best shot, and even when you win, it takes a chunk out of you. New Orleans should get a bit of a breather this week, with struggling Carolina in town. The Saints have more to worry about than just the Garrett Hartley field goal drama. New Orleans is last in rushing (57.3 yards), third-to-last in rushing defense (145 yards allowed), and opponents are converting almost half of their third downs (47.5 percent).
 
5Green Bay Packers
Last Week: 2
I really thought the Packers should have surrendered the go-ahead touchdown late in regulation at Chicago on Monday night, rather than let the Bears bleed the clock down to almost nothing and then kick a game-winning 19-yard field goal. I would have wanted the ball back in Aaron Rodgers' hands with at least a chance to tie, but I seem to remember Mike Holmgren tried that outside-the-box strategy once in Green Bay (in the Super Bowl loss to Denver) and it wasn't entirely well-reviewed.
 
6New York Jets
Last Week: 7
The Jets can complete a three-game sweep through their division rivals this week with a win at Buffalo, but then they don't play another AFC East game until December. The back-to-back wins over the Patriots and Dolphins were ultra significant, because New York went just 2-4 in the division last season, losing at least once to all three rivals.
 
7Chicago Bears
Last Week: 13
Let me pre-empt the howls of protest by Bears fans that are sure to come from the sight of Chicago being ranked two notches below the just-vanquished Packers: As well as Chicago's defense played in the key moments Monday night, that was mostly a case of the Packers self-destructing. All those penalties and dropped interceptions decided the outcome. Now, I did bump the undefeated Bears up six spots and knocked 2-1 Green Bay down from second to fifth. So there's that.
 
8Houston Texans
Last Week: 3
That convincing home loss to Dallas took the steam out of the Texans' Super Bowl Express, but maybe it'll serve the useful purpose of reminding Houston that it's not yet good enough to win on reputation alone. Now here comes a trip to Oakland, and if even Bruce Gradkowski and the Raiders can exploit that porous Texans secondary, then Houston will have itself a problem.
 
9New England Patriots
Last Week: 8
The good news is that no one in the NFL has scored more than the Patriots, who are averaging 30 points per game. The bad news is that the four teams that have given up more than New England's total of 82 points allowed all reside in last place in their respective divisions. It's probably going to be that kind of year in Foxboro. Plenty of points all around.
 
10Cincinnati Bengals
Last Week: 9
I don't see the explosive offense that Batman and Robin were so giddy about this preseason, and you just know that's eventually going to cause friction in Bengal-dom. Maybe for now, ugly wins and the Reds returning to the playoffs is enough to keep the folks in Cincinnati happy.
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