Week 12 was highlighted by a stunningly impressive Saints' victory over the Patriots, another notch in the belt of the incredible Vince Young comeback story, and disappointing showings by three teams in the playoff hunt: the Giants, Dolphins, and Jaguars.
Before I get to the actual rankings heading into Week 13, please note the following: I am not ranking entirely upon win-loss records at this juncture in the season. That would eliminate the possibility of evaluating teams in the grand scheme. Essentially what I'm saying is that there's projection involved; some looking ahead to the future.
With that out of the way, let's get it crackin'...
32. St. Louis Rams (1-10)
OK Rams fans, what do you want first, the good news or the bad news?
Well, the good news is, whenever you're standing on the metaphorical football ledge and thinking about diving off, you can always say, "Mike Jones tackles Kevin Dyson, Mike Jones tackles Kevin Dyson" to yourself.
The bad news is, those glory days are drifting deeper and deeper into the past, and there are few signs of hope for the future. Yes the Rams have a young and energetic head coach in Steve Spagnuolo, but he hasn't been able to turn things around in his first season at the helm. That's OK though, because I don't think many of us were expecting rapid and drastic improvement from this team.
The question is, will we see that improvement within the next couple of seasons? It doesn't look that way to me right now.
31. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1-10)
Another rookie head coach situation, and I don't think Tampa's down year is at all surprising. Coach Morris did the right thing by getting the ball in the hands of youngster Josh Freeman, but I don't see explosive potential in the players around him. Cadillac Williams, Derrick Ward, Antonio Bryant, Michael Clayton -- these are average supporting pieces for the present, with little-to-no value for the future.
I think this defensive unit has a shot for the upper-third in coming years, but even that is far from a lock. This is an organization in limbo.
30. Cleveland Browns (1-10)
This was a tough call. In all honesty, I think the Browns are a slightly better overall team than the Lions, but I'm giving the Lions the edge because they have franchise pieces (Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson, Kevin Smith) that provide some hope.
As for Cleveland, they've suffered some heartbreaking defeats this season. Head coach Eric Mangini has been the subject of much malign. I hated him when he coached my Jets, but I kinda feel bad for the guy this year. The collapses against the Bengals and Lions were surely soul-crushing, and Brady Quinn failed to step up for him at the beginning of the year. Quinn seems to be settling in a little now, but it's certainly too little, too late.
29. Detroit Lions (2-9)
I've already mentioned the talented, young offensive core, but I'm also putting the Lions ahead of the Browns because of their incredible comeback against them. A team with results this poor could easily have rolled over when Cleveland stormed out to a 24-3 lead, but the Lions showed both commitment and the drive to win. Hopefully those qualities will provide a boost, because they won't be getting any sort of boost from their defense...it still stinks.
28. Oakland Raiders (3-8)
Congrats to the Raiders on being this high on the list; I thought they'd surely stay in the 30-32 range this season. To my surprise, and the surprise of nearly every other football fan in the world, Oakland managed to knock off both Philadelphia and Cincinnati. They may actually get to four wins this year, as the Redskins and Browns remain on their schedule; figure they'll win at least one of those.
Any credit that is due has to go to their defense -- led by Nnamdi Asomugha, Richard Seymour, Kirk Morrison, and Greg Ellis -- and their balanced rushing tandem of Justin Fargas and Darren McFadden. I think that duo could be quite productive in an offense that could pass the ball with consistently. That's definitely not the Raiders' offense.
27. Washington Redskins (3-8)
I know they're in a tough division, but I'm surprised at how bad this team is. Heading into the season I thought they'd play tough defense and at least protect the ball with Jason Campbell at quarterback, but it's turned out to be nothing short of a disaster. Both of their top running backs, Clinton Portis and Ladell Betts, are down for the count, leaving the rock in the hands of Rock Cartwright. That's hardly an ideal situation.
26. Kansas City Chiefs (3-8)
The Redskins might be a slightly superior all-around team, but I'm a Matt Cassel guy. I'm glad Kansas City's front office decided to bring in Chris Chambers, because he's shown that Cassel can be just fine with some better receiving talent around him. The offseason loss of Tony Gonzalez certainly hurt their offensive attack, as have the injury to Dwayne Bowe and lack of production from the since-departed Larry Johnson, but Jamaal Charles has flashed ability in the running game.
Fully healthy, I think this could be a pretty solid offensive unit in 2010. Defensively, KC has some young players with considerable skill, and the group isn't that bad overall.
25. Seattle Seahawks (4-7)
To me, this is a stagnant franchise. Matt Hasselbeck still at quarterback, surrounded by a bunch of decent players that don't allow for any type of dominance. The Seahawks can stay in games if they protect the football, but let's get real: this team isn't scaring anyone.
24. Buffalo Bills (4-7)
Who knew Ryan Fitzpatrick would make this much of a difference?
The Harvard man has pumped life into Terrell Owens, and subsequently slipped the Bills into the very back end of the playoff race. While Owens' resurgence has drawn the vast majority of the attention, much of the praise needs to go to Buffalo's defense, which has rated well throughout the year. The Bills are in a must-win situation against the division-rival Jets on Thursday night.
23. Chicago Bears (4-7)
After getting spanked by the Vikings this weekend, the TV cameras followed Jay Cutler as he shook hands with members of the opposing team. As he stepped up to each player, he had a defeated-but-accepted look on his face. It was a face that said, "This just wasn't my year, and this team is going nowhere fast."
I don't know if Cutler has the football IQ to turn things around in coming years, but he's certainly the type of quarterback that I would despise as a fan. Think those Denver Broncos fans are still pissed about his dismissal?
Something tells me that the answer to that question is "no."
22. Miami Dolphins (5-6)
First things first, I love head coach Tony Sparano. Everyone seems to enjoy the rah-rah celebratory stuff on the sidelines, but I like Sparano because of his preparation and gameplanning. The first time the Dolphins played my Jets this season, I was astonished at how precise and effective Sparano's gameplan was. He used The Wildcat to disorient a defense that was white-hot at the time, and set them up with various run designs before calling upon Chad Henne to stretch one over the top.
It worked. Teddy Ginn was the benefactor down field.
Now Dolphins fans, don't get too worked up here. I'm only putting your boys behind the Jets because of the devastating injury to Ronnie Brown. I think most analysts would agree that Brown is Miami's best player (though Ricky Williams is making a case this year), and your team looked entirely out of sorts against the Bills on Sunday.
Fully healthy, I'd definitely have the Dolphins above the Jets.
21. Carolina Panthers (4-7)
Same deal here; if the Dolphins had Ronnie Brown they'd be ahead of the Panthers. The way I look at it, both offenses are predicated on two-back production, Brown and Williams for the 'Phins, and the combination of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart for Carolina. Since Miami lost one-half of its potent duo, I have to give the advantage to the Panthers, especially with Stewart breaking out after an anemic start.
Defensively, both the Dolphins and Panthers have been inconsistent, showing flashes of greatness but general mediocrity. Wash out the defenses, give the Panthers the edge in the running game, and I have to have them one spot ahead of Miami.
20. New York Jets (5-6)
Imagine if my Jets had a quarterback like...ohh...Brett Favre?
Oh wait, they did, last year. Of course he had to have serious arm trouble for the first time in his Hall of Fame career (just my luck), successful surgery during the offseason, and a ridiculous MVP run the very next season. Rub it in my face Brett, just rub it in.
Rookie QB Mark Sanchez has spiraled out of control after a 3-0 start to his career, which is a shame because the Jets' rushing attack has been excellent again in '09. The loss of Leon Washington was a dagger, particularly on special teams, but Thomas Jones has been shifty and consistently effective. I cringe every day over the possibilities with a healthy Favre, especially considering the addition of athletic target Braylon Edwards. Oh well, it just isn't meant to be for me.
By the way, CB Darrelle Revis is a beast. He's one of the best players in the NFL, hands down. I have a sports crush on him.
19. San Francisco 49ers (5-6)
It's been a strange year in San Fran. It began with the steady-but-limited Shaun Hill behind center, and now it's back to former No. 1 selection Alex Smith. It began with Isaac Bruce, and now it's Michael Crabtree. I think I like the direction in which they are going. Smith, Crabtree, Frank Gore, Vernon Davis, and Josh Morgan -- gotta love an offensive core with youth and freakish ability.
Their defense is quite talented as well. The issue for me though, is Smith. There's little denying his natural ability, but he hasn't proven to me that he's ready to make the correct, heady plays in the midst of a desperate postseason run. He nursed this weekend's important victory over Jacksonville, but I'll have to see that again before I'm convinced.
18. Houston Texans (5-6)
Two words come to mind when I think about the Houston Texans: explosiveness and inconsistency. They have beasts on both sides of the ball, like Andre Johnson and Mario Williams, but it never comes together on a regular basis for this team. Matt Schaub is a stat rat at the quarterback position, but is he a winner? Some of the same questions I have about Alex Smith, are here with Schaub. To Schaub's credit, he's definitely proven more statistically.
17. Jacksonville Jaguars (6-5)
Has there been a more enigmatic team in the league this season?
I don't think so. From week to week, who knows what to expect from these guys? Maurice Jones-Drew is certainly one of the top rushers in the game, but he's one of their only consistent players on either side of the ball. WR Mike Sims-Walker has been a welcome and pleasant surprise, but he has to worry about the many faces of David Garrard. What kind of quarterback is he? How can we truly evaluate this team?
16. Tennessee Titans (5-6)
Vince Young, baby. Vince Young. I'm just going to leave it at that...
...oh wait, I can't. I have to mention Chris Johnson.
Chris Johnson, baby. Chris Johnson.
15. Atlanta Falcons (6-5)
From day one I haven't trusted Atlanta's defense, and now Matt Ryan's banged up on the other side of the ball? It's not looking good for the Falcons and their faithful as we move forward. Michael Turner is trying to battle through an injury as well. I expect this team to fall in the rankings in coming weeks.
14. New York Giants (6-5)
Oh how the mighty have fallen. Their laughable opening schedule allowed for them to blaze out of the gate, but the better teams have given Tom Coughlin's boys plenty of trouble. Brandon Jacobs has been a major disappointment this year, as has New York's once-vaunted defensive line. The pressure on opposing QBs hasn't been there, and the G-Men don't have the secondary to hold up during long-winded plays.
Now they've officially lost Antonio Pierce for the season. There's a reason why they're right next to the Falcons in the rankings: these two teams are in similarly dangerous waters. The one hope for the Giants is Eli Manning, who has held his emotions in check (as usual) and provided strong leadership in the midst of turmoil. I think he's right at the back end of the top 10 quarterbacks.
13. Philadelphia Eagles (7-4)
I don't know how else to say this, but I don't like them this season. Head coach Andy Reid has made some head-scratching decisions, Donovan McNabb's accuracy has been fleeting, and Brian Westbrook may be done for his career. They suffered a heartbreaking loss in the death of defensive coordinator Jim Johnson, and the unit has subsequently lost some of its aggressiveness.
I haven't been impressed by LeSean McCoy in the backfield, though the young WR combination of DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin has been impressive. I think this is a "good" team, at best.
12. Denver Broncos (7-4)
We knew the losses were coming, but has Josh McDaniels' team now weathered the storm? They looked very close to dominant in their Thanksgiving stuffing of the Giants, and rookie RB Knowshon Moreno appears to be finding his groove. Veteran Correll Buckhalter provides the receiving complement in the running game, and Brandon Marshall draws the attention in the passing attack.
This team has talent, and their defense has been one of the biggest surprises in the NFL, if not the biggest. I don't love Kyle Orton, but I think he's showing that he -- at the very least -- can get the job done. This year's Broncos remind me of the Bucs and Ravens teams that won Super Bowls in the past decade, but I think there's too much powerful competition for them to make that kind of run in '09.
11. Cincinnati Bengals (8-3)
I'm not a believer, and I'm sure you can tell by their No. 11 ranking, in spite of a strong 8-3 record. I've never been a Carson Palmer guy, and I think Ochocinco emptied his clip too early in the season. The Cedric Benson injury unquestionably hurts, and Cincy's defense, while much improved, would still worry me in a critical game. This team plays a ton of close games, and they're bound to lose one early in the postseason.
10. Arizona Cardinals (7-4)
Now here's a team that I like. During the offseason people seemed to be writing off their run to the Super Bowl, using the old, "Hot team, right time" argument. Maybe in a sense that's true, but the Cardinals are still loaded with talent. I'd like to squeeze them into the top seven or eight, but I'm holding them here because of the Kurt Warner situation.
Let's be honest, there's no way Arizona is making a serious run with Matt Leinart at the helm. Warner is expected back soon, but I have to see how he responds physically. Gotta love their receiving core with Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin, and Steve Breaston. Rookie RB Beanie Wells is showing signs of life, as well.
9. Baltimore Ravens (6-5)
This has to be one of the best 6-5 teams of the past five years. Ray-Ray (Lewis and Rice) are having outstanding seasons, and there's a quiet confidence about QB Joe Flacco. I like the kid; I think he'll be a top 10 quarterback at some point within the next two years. Good size, poise, and physical ability. Nothing seems to shake him mentally, and that's been the case since he took the reins as a rookie last season. I wish the same could be said of my hometown rookie, Mark Sanchez.
As for Baltimore, their defense isn't quite the same without Bart Scott and Rex Ryan, but it's still one of the best in the league. They have a high football IQ, and I'm a huge fan of head coach John Harbaugh. He's an X's and O's coach who can also be a motivator. Very sharp and versatile.
8. Dallas Cowboys (8-3)
I've been discussing the Cowboys all week in another article, so I don't have much to say this time around. I think this is a solid football team with a defense performing extremely well, but their lack of offensive explosiveness in games that I've witnessed tends to worry me. Marion Barber's injury is a concern of mine, and I'm not quite ready to anoint Miles Austin the Savior that all of the Cowboys fans are making him out to be. They might be better than the Patriots collectively right now, but I'm simply going with Brady over Romo, and Belichick over Wade Phillips.
7. New England Patriots (7-4)
I thought New England was on its way back to a comfortable spot in the top five, but then the mighty Saints went and embarrassed them. Bill Belichick, not surprisingly, was disappointed during his post-game interview session. What was surprising, was that he seemed totally confused. He was either shocked at how good the Saints are, or stunned at how mortal his Patriots have become.
I don't have much else to say about this team right now. They seem to have a ceiling, but then there's always Tom Brady.
6. Green Bay Packers (7-4)
This one even surprised me, and I'm writing this. Go figure. But when I evaluate things in the grand scheme, the Packers are a better all-around football team than the Patriots right now.
Aaron Rodgers is having another fantastic season as the signal caller for this franchise, and RB Ryan Grant has greatly improved upon his sorry performance in '08. WR Donald Driver continues to be a reliable option for Rodgers, though WR1 Greg Jennings is suffering through a bit of a down year. That can be attributed to Grant's improvement, and the emergence of TE Jermichael Finley. WR3 James Jones has cut into Jennings' touches as well.
Defensively, though they toss in a clunker at times, this unit has been one of the best in the game. Charles Woodson is having a Renaissance year at the cornerback position, and I think he's a sleeper candidate for some Defensive Player of the Year votes. Green Bay's secondary is extremely athletic and they finish plays, which is one of this team's great strengths. I don't trust them, but they are pretty strong at the moment.
5. Pittsburgh Steelers (6-5)
A 6-5 team in the top five? You ask.
Well, they are the defending Super Bowl champions, so I'd like to give them the benefit of the doubt. Big Ben is on his way back, and Pittsburgh's rushing attack is significantly more explosive with Rashard Mendenhall taking over for Willie Parker. Santonio Holmes and Hines Ward are a fine 1-2 receiving punch, and WR3 Mike Wallace has proven to be a sneakily dangerous weapon.
Troy Polamalu is out defensively, but James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley, James Farrior, and Casey Hampton are still very much around. This defense is still strong, but it's seen a slight decline the likes of the Ravens at the No. 8 spot.
4. San Diego Chargers (8-3)
They were my pick to win the Super Bowl prior to the year, and they've worked their way to a solid 8-3 record. I was never a believer in Philip Rivers' physical ability, but the guy continues to put up excellent numbers while performing with a very high level of efficiency. I'm sold on him now; even if he short-arms the ball and doesn't quite look the part when he's back there making his tosses.
SD's running backs have settled into a bit of a comfort zone, with LaDainian Tomlinson and Darren Sproles providing what's necessary when called upon in different roles. Antonio Gates looks slim and fresh this season, and Vincent Jackson was been a reliable WR1 for the second straight year.
The Chargers' defense has a number of big names and some legitimate talent, but it doesn't always come together for them. If I had to pinpoint a weakness for this team, it would be a lack of defensive consistency and a little too much of a gambler's mentality.
3. Minnesota Vikings (10-1)
I love this team. I think this particular Vikings' unit would have been the best in the NFL last season. That statement speaks volumes about the strength of the league's premier teams in '09.
Getting to the specifics, well...there's Favre. He has my vote for MVP right now. Adrian Peterson hasn't been a dominant force this year, but he provides a threat and the opportunity for Favre to captain a balanced attack. Sidney Rice, Percy Harvin, and Visanthe Shiancoe have really broken out, making it difficult for opposing defenses to prepare for any one aspect of Minnesota's air attack.
Defensively, the Vikings have the top line in the league. It's a no-brainer. The Williams boys, Pat and Kevin (no relation) clog the run, while monster Jared Allen (one of the favorites for Defensive Player of the Year) runs wild around the outside. As a group, they are unstoppable. Brad Childress' linebacking core has also performed well, a pleasant surprise for them, and the secondary has been adequate.
I love the balance on this team. A legitimate Super Bowl contender.
2. Indianapolis Colts (11-0)
Yes they're undefeated through 11 ballgames, but I don't feel any invincibility from these Colts. I think they should be commended for the fact that they've squeaked out a number of hair-raising victories, but this is not a supernatural team. These are mere mortals, led by one of the top three players in the world (Peyton Manning, of course) and a "new" head coach who can do no wrong at the moment.
Indianapolis is great, but this isn't an undefeated team the likes of the '07 Patriots. The team at the No. 1 spot, on the other hand...is.
1. New Orleans (11-0)
Wow. Wow. Wow.
What a team. An MVP candidate at quarterback in Drew Brees; three valuable running backs in Pierre Thomas, Reggie Bush, and Mike Bell; five viable receiving options in Marques Colston, Robert Meachem, Devery Henderson, Jeremy Shockey, and Lance Moore; a fantastic head coach, and a defense that has pulled off one of the most incredible 180's in the history of professional football.
Where are the weaknesses on this team? Is there even one, single weakness?
Well actually, PK John Carney has looked surprisingly shaky. Could he be the one to cost them in the end, or will the Saints continue to outclass the competition and cruise their way to The Promised Land?
I guess we'll have to wait and see.
(John Frascella is the author of "Theo-logy: How a Boy Wonder Led the Red Sox to the Promised Land," the first and only book centered on Boston's popular GM Theo Epstein. Follow John on Twitter @RedSoxAuthor.)