It is time for the defending Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers (backup quarterback Dennis Dixon pictured) to rise from .500 into the playoff picture or get out of the way.
With the third quarter of the 2009 NFL Season completed, there is not much time left for teams to either join the New Orleans Saints and Indianapolis Colts in the playoffs or step aside.
I love this time of the year, as desperation is in the air for everyone in the NFL, with jobs and playoff berths both on the line in equal numbers.
After 13 weeks of NFL play, there are still the “Haves” (10 teams with eight wins or more, including the league’s two undefeated teams—Colts and Saints, both 12-0) and the “Have Nots” (eight teams with four or less wins, who are now basically spoilers).
But a good portion of the league (14 teams) is still caught in the parity-laden middle with records ranging from 7-5 to 5-7, including these 2008 playoff teams—New York Giants (7-5), Pittsburgh Steelers (6-6), Baltimore Ravens (6-6), Atlanta Falcons (6-6), Tennessee Titans (5-7), and Carolina Panthers (5-7).
So with only four games remaining for teams, there is little time left for the “Contenders” and “Pretenders” to sort themselves out—10 playoff berths remaining.
In looking at the current NFL standings, here’s the breakdown...
The “Elite”: Saints (12-0), Colts (12-0), Vikings (10-2), Bengals (9-3), Chargers (9-3), and Cardinals (8-4).
“Strong Playoff Contenders”: Broncos (8-4), Eagles (8-4), Packers (8-4), Cowboys (8-4), Patriots (7-5), Giants (7-5), and Jaguars (7-5).
“Middle of the Road,” teams that will soon be either in or out (eight losses or more) of the playoff hunt: Jets (6-6), Ravens (6-6), Steelers (6-6), Falcons (6-6), Dolphins (6-6), Texans (5-7), Titans (5-7), Panthers (5-7), Bears (5-7), Seahawks (5-7), and Niners (5-7).
The “Ugly” (See you at the 2010 NFL Draft): Bills (4-8), Raiders (4-8), Redskins (3-9), Chiefs (3-9), Lions (2-10), Browns (1-11), Rams (1-11), and Buccaneers (1-11).
Now, on to the rankings for this week.
1. Colts (12-0)
In a dominating win over the upstart Tennessee Titans, Jim Caldwell’s team pulled a hat trick. The Colts tied the Patriots' (2006-2007) NFL record for consecutive regular season wins (21), won their 12th game for an NFL record seven seasons in a row, and claimed the AFC South Crown.
You have to wonder if Caldwell will follow in Tony Dungy’s footsteps by resting players rather than going for an undefeated season. Look for all the Colts to play this week, including quarterback Peyton Manning, as a potential playoff foe, the Denver Broncos, come to Indy.
2. Saints (12-0)
Somebody up there likes the Saints, as the Washington Redskins were one shanked field goal, by now-departed kicker Shaun Suisham, from winning in regulation. However, the Saints, led by wide receiver Robert Meachem, took advantage of Redskins’ mistakes on their way to a thrilling overtime win. The Saints undefeated express heads south to face the very injured Atlanta Falcons in the Georgia Dome.
3. Chargers (9-3)
Led by running back LaDainian Tomlinson, who ran his way into the NFL record books, the Chargers won their eighth straight game over the tougher than expected one-win Cleveland Browns. Very quietly, quarterback Philip Rivers is having an MVP-type season and the Chargers are strong playoff contenders again (15-0 in December since 2005). In a “respect” game, the Chargers will travel to Dallas in hopes of continuing the Cowboys’ December swoon.
4. Vikings (10-2)
Sunday Night Football was not so magical for Vikings' quarterback Brett Favre (two interceptions) and his crew as the Arizona Cardinals sprinted past Minnesota. In a great matchup of two potential division winners, the Vikings will host the Cincinnati Bengals, who are primed to claim the AFC North Crown.
5. Bengals (9-3)
Marvin Lewis’ team gladly feasted on the haphazard Detroit Lions, where Chad Ochocinco’s sideline antics were more entertaining than the game. In a true test that will show the NFL where the Bengals stand in the league’s pecking order, Cincy will hit the road to the Metrodome to face the angry Vikings.
6. Cardinals (8-4)
With veteran quarterback Kurt Warner back under center, the Cards' offensive firepower was hitting on all cylinders as they rolled over the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday Night Football. In a game that will definitely settle the NFC West, the Cardinals will travel to the Bay on Monday Night to face the inconsistent Niners, who are trying to keep their flickering playoff hopes alive.
7. Eagles (8-4)
The Birds are making their usual December playoff push (three consecutive wins) despite not having running back Brian Westbrook. The Eagles had no problems hammering the beat-up Atlanta Falcons in quarterback Michael Vick’s triumphant return to the Georgia Dome. In a highly anticipated NFC East black-and-blue game, the Eagles will travel up the turnpike to face the rejuvenated Giants on NBC's Sunday Night Football.
8. Cowboys (8-4)
You hate to bring it up, but something about the end of the season brings out the worst in the Cowboys. In a December Swoon Special, bonehead left tackle Flozell Adams woke up the sleeping Giants in a tough NFC East divisional loss.
The Cowboys’ on-the-hot-seat trio of head coach Wade Phillips, quarterback Tony Romo, and offensive coordinator Jason Garrett better turn desperation into a win when the surging San Diego Chargers come to town.
9. Packers (8-4)
The penalty flags were flying everywhere at Lambeau Field on Monday Night Football, but the Packers gladly accepted an easier-than-expected win over the reeling Baltimore Ravens. The Packers and their highly rated defense cannot rest on their laurels when they travel to Chi-town to face their bitter longtime rival the Bears.
10. Broncos (8-4)
In a true laugher, the Broncos, led by their new one-two running back tandem, thumped the lowly Chiefs. It is time for the Broncos to show if they are truly a playoff contender as they travel to Indy to face the undefeated Colts.
11. Patriots (7-5)
What the “bleep” is going on with the Patriots? They lost two consecutive games for the first time since 2006 after watching the Miami Dolphins throw the ball all over the place in taking a big AFC East win. With the Dolphins and Jets getting dangerously close, the Patriots will need to find their playoff pedigree when they host the Carolina Panthers this week.
12. Jaguars (7-5)
In a physical win that may propel them to a wild card berth, the Jaguars dug deep for a tough win over desperate division rival Houston Texans. In a “Battle for Florida” special, the Jaguars will host the Dolphins, and it should be a good one as both teams are making their playoff push.
13. Giants (7-5)
The G-Men rebounded from being the Denver Broncos’ Thanksgiving turkey by protecting their home turf in a tough win over the Dallas Cowboys. For the second week in a row, the Meadowlands will be the place to be in the NFC East, as the rebounding G-Men host the hard-charging Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday Night Football.
14. Dolphins (6-6)
The 'Phins decided that going to the air was the best way to beat the Patriots and they were right, as quarterback Chad Henne had a career game in a big AFC East win that kept Miami’s playoff hopes alive. In a huge game with AFC playoff implications, the Dolphins will travel north to face the tough Jaguars.
15. Ravens (6-6)
I am sure that Baltimore is still complaining about the officiating in their Monday night massacre at the hands of the Packers, but where was quarterback Joe Flacco in the loss? With their season basically on the line, the Ravens must thump the pathetic two-win Detroit Lions, who come to the Charm City this week.
16. Steelers (6-6)
In a game that really showed a ton of cracks in the former Super Bowl champion’s armor, the Oakland Raiders continually got off the mat in a huge road win over the Steelers. On NFL Network Thursday Night Football, it is no excuses time for the Steelers, as they dearly need a win over the lagging Cleveland Browns to get back on track.
17. Jets (6-6)
The J-E-T-S continued their inconsistent ways, this time winning over the scrappy Buffalo Bills on Thursday Night Football. With some extra rest this week, everyone is expecting another “W” as the Jets head south to face the young Tampa Bay Bucs.
18. Falcons (6-6)
Mike Smith’s team is so injured, it looks like the end of the Falcons' playoff hopes is near. The Philadelphia Eagles took advantage of the Falcons’ depleted roster to cruise to an easy win. With their season on the line, the Falcons may be facing “Mission Impossible” when the high-flying undefeated New Orleans Saints come to town for a huge NFC South game.
19. Titans (5-7)
You knew that after five straight wins, V.Y. and the Titans had a loss coming their way and the undefeated Colts were very glad to put it on them. After a brief derailment, the Tennessee .500 express should be back on track, as the Titans play host to the struggling St. Louis Rams.
20. Texans (5-7)
How come every year seems to turn up 8-8 or worse for the Texans? The Jaguars won a tough AFC South playoff type game and unfortunately for the reeling Texans, injured quarterback Matt Schaub was on the sidelines once again.
With their season on the line, it may be time for backup quarterback Rex Grossman to come to the rescue when the desperate Texans host the Seattle Seahawks in a 5-7 team special.
21. Seahawks (5-7)
The Hawks made it two wins in a row as they pulled off a narrow victory over the Niners. Veteran quarterback Matt Hasselbeck hopes to continue the Seahawks' tiny resurgence as Seattle travels to Houston to play the desperate Texans in a game that will virtually end one team’s season.
22. 49ers (5-7)
Mike Singlegtary’s team showed once again that they are probably a year away from contending as the Seahawks pulled a minor upset to stay even with the Niners. San Francisco’s season will be on the line as they host the NFC West Division leading Arizona Cardinals on Monday Night Football.
23. Panthers (5-7)
With head coach John Fox’s future hanging in the balance, the Panthers, led by backup quarterback Matt Moore, saved their coach for another week by disposing of the struggling Tampa Bay Bucs. The Panthers better figure out a way to add some passing to their vaunted running attack when they travel to New England to face a Patriots' defense that has allowed a ton of big passing plays.
24. Bears (5-7)
It wasn’t a masterpiece, but the Bears kept their waning playoff hopes alive by beating the one-win St. Louis Rams. It is time for Bears quarterback Jay Cutler to earn his huge contract and trade promise by stepping up this Sunday when Chicago hosts the wildcard leading Green Bay Packers in a traditional Midwest black-and-blue game.
25. Bills (4-8)
Not even interim head coach Perry Fewell and scrappy quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick could pull the Bills past the NY Jets, who made it a point to shutdown receiver Terrell Owens in a big AFC East win on Thursday Night Football.
In Week 14’s “Toilet Bowl,” the Bills will be playing for pride when they travel to KC to face the finishing-out-the-string Chiefs.
26. Raiders (4-8)
What a game for Pittsburgh homeboy and Raiders' quarterback Bruce Gradkowski. The gritty former Bucs starter willed the Raiders to a tough road win over the Steelers after there were several opportunities for Oakland to quit.
In a game of two of the NFL’s biggest spoilers, the Raiders will attempt to equal their highest season win total in the last seven years (five games in both ’04 and ’08) when they host the Redskins.
27. Redskins (3-9)
The ‘Skins deserved a win for their never-say-die effort against the undefeated Saints, but kicker Shaun Suisham—since cut—was their undoing in a tough overtime loss.
With their season basically over and only a matter of time before beleaguered head coach Jim Zorn can hit the unemployment line, the Redskins will travel across the country for a showdown against the tougher-than-their-record Raiders.
28. Chiefs (3-9)
The Broncos ran up and down the field on the reeling Chiefs and it looks like some big changes to head coach Todd Haley’s team and staff are coming this off-season.
The Chiefs will host the Bills in this week’s Toilet Bowl, but I will be interested in seeing who gets more receiving yards: KC’s Chris Chambers or the Bills’ Terrell Owens.
29. Lions (2-10
Detroit showed some fight in a loss to the Bengals, but with the losses mounting everyone needs to remember that this team set an NFL-low of going 0-16 in 2008.
Playing without injured starter Matthew Stafford, the Lions led by retread quarterback Daunte Culpepper will hope to spoil the host Baltimore Ravens' playoff plans.
30. Browns (1-11)
Too bad Browns' quarterback Brady Quinn waited until the end of the season to look competent as the hapless Dawgs didn’t have enough for the surging San Diego Chargers.
On NFL Network's Thursday Night Football, the Browns will hope to end their futility against the hated Pittsburgh Steelers (have lost 12 games in a row to P-Burgh) plus push Big Ben and the rest of the Steelers from the playoff picture.
31. Rams (1-11)
Another ugly loss for the rebuilding Rams as the Bears found a way to not lose. Strike up the band as the Tennessee Titans, fresh off a tough loss to the Colts, will be looking to barbecue the struggling young Rams.
32. Buccaneers (1-11)
The Carolina Panthers badly needed a win and the lowly Bucs were more than happy to provide them one. In a game that could prove to be an upset special, the Bucs will host the inconsistent NY Jets, who will have QB Kellen Clemens under center.
Lloyd Vance is a Senior NFL Writer for Taking It to the House and an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA).