Wednesday December 16th, 2009

Mid-December should be about as good as it gets in the NFL, but instead of being treated to plentiful playoff-race drama, we've got all the chatter about the wisdom of resting starters with the postseason vs. perfection argument, the exercise of putting Randy Moss either on trial or on the couch, and the deflating realization that six of the eight division races are effectively over.

You'd think with two teams at 13-0 for the first time ever, there'd be no shortage of excitement as we stare down the final three weeks, but it doesn't quite feel that way to me. Maybe a little downer of a December leads to a juicier January, and 2010 enters with a bang in the NFL. I'd take that trade off. Wouldn't you?

And now on to this week's rankings...

NFL Power Rankings
1New Orleans Saints
Last Week: 1
It's easy to get lost in all the Saints' offensive firepower, but middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma is having a Pro Bowl-caliber season, making big plays at critical moments. Just two years ago, Vilma was in Eric Mangini's doghouse with the Jets, because he was deemed a bad fit for the 3-4 inside linebacker role and couldn't shed blockers well enough. But he's been in the right place for the Saints for most of the past two seasons, and he has become one of their most indispensable players.
2Indianapolis Colts
Last Week: 2
It's only been three days since the Colts wrapped up everything they can wrap up in the regular season and I'm already sick of the "to rest or not to rest" debate. It always seems to be Indy inspiring that familiar discussion, and there isn't a point that hasn't already been made over and over again when it comes to the pros and cons of the Colts' approach. Let's just see what plays out, shall we? This isn't an American Idol election. We don't get a vote in the decision.
3Minnesota Vikings
Last Week: 3
You could really tell a difference in the physicality of the Vikings defense with Antoine Winfield back in the lineup last Sunday against the Bengals. The little guy knows how to hit, and if his foot sprain keeps progressing, Minnesota will be in much better shape when it faces the high-power passing games of New Orleans, Philadelphia, Arizona or Green Bay in the playoffs.
4San Diego Chargers
Last Week: 4
Can't help but wonder how many variations on "" have quietly gone dormant in the past two months, as the Chargers rebounded from their 2-3 start and ripped off eight wins in a row. An early-round playoff loss probably gets a few springing back to life, but Turner is now 32-18 in his first 50 games in San Diego, and that includes a 3-2 postseason mark. He's about to win his third AFC West title in three years, marking San Diego's first back-to-back-to-back playoff appearances since it went four years in a row (1979-82) in the hey day of the Don Coryell era. Anybody still want "MartyBall" back?
5Philadelphia Eagles
Last Week: 7
Remember when Bill Parcells and Joe Gibbs ruled the NFC East with New York and Washington and the conventional wisdom was that a team had to win the time of possession battle to win late in the year in that rugged, cold-weather division? Not so much any more. The Eagles held the ball for a scant 25 minutes against the Giants on Sunday night, but they still found time to hang up 45 points on their shell-shocked hosts. Best I can figure, Philly's favorite play call the other night was Donovan McNabb to DeSean Jackson: "Go deep."
6Green Bay Packers
Last Week: 9
Tricky game for the Packers at Pittsburgh this week, because they're getting a Steelers team that has been humiliated the past two weeks, losing to the Raiders and Browns, two longstanding members of the league's steerage class. If Pittsburgh has an ounce of pride left to muster this season, it'll expend everything it has against Green Bay in an effort to redeem itself in front of the hometown fans. But if these Packers are as good as I think they are, they'll handle that little burst of emotion and find a way to hang loss No. 8 on the defending champs, thereby assuring them a non-winning season a year after winning it all.
7Cincinnati Bengals
Last Week: 5
The Bengals have no chance of hanging with the big dogs in the AFC playoffs if they don't get their moribund passing game fixed, preferably starting with this week's trip to San Diego, where the No. 2 seed in the postseason will be on the line. Cincy has scored just seven offensive touchdowns in its past six games, and its defense isn't that good. Shockingly, Carson Palmer hasn't thrown for 300 yards all season, and he hasn't cracked 200 yards in three of his past six games. Don't blame it all on Palmer, though. Bengals receivers aren't getting very open these days, so there's not much margin for error.
8Arizona Cardinals
Last Week: 6
Well it looks like the Cardinals haven't grown up quite as much as we thought last week at this time. That was an egg-laying Monday night in San Francisco, and it conjures up the label of inconsistency that Arizona has been tagged with in recent years. A trip to Detroit this week should restore some balance to the Cardinals' universe, but we're going to remember the two losses to the 49ers the next time we feel like touting Arizona's Super Bowl chances.
9Denver Broncos
Last Week: 10
I wouldn't blame Broncos fans if they're a bit nervous, even though the only thing standing between Denver and 10 wins and a trip to the playoffs are home games against Oakland and Kansas City. In 2006, the Broncos only needed to beat 11-point underdog San Francisco at home in Week 17 to make the postseason, and lost. In 2008, they only needed to win one of their last three games to salt away the division, and, well, you know what happened. So you take nothing for granted at this time of year if you bleed orange and blue. But I'll say this: Drawing JaMarcus Russell rather than Bruce Gradkowski this week at home against the Raiders sounds like a break to me.
10New England Patriots
Last Week: 11
OK, time for us to all take a breath and step back from the round-the-clock Randy Moss analysis. I haven't liked the looks of his effort the past two weeks, but let's give him the benefit of the doubt because it's the holidays. We're all pretty quick to assign motives and assume we know what's going on in somebody's head, when obviously we don't. If Moss goes into the cold of Buffalo this week and has himself a big game -- no easy feat at this time of year -- all can still be forgiven in Pats-land. As I recall, Moss usually finds sufficient motivation when T.O. is lining up for the other team.
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