NFL Power Rankings Week 9: Rating All 32 Teams Based on Remaining Schedule

Miles YimCorrespondent IOctober 31, 2011

NFL Power Rankings Week 9: Rating All 32 Teams Based on Remaining Schedule

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    Halfway through the NFL season, it's time to take a look at where things stand.

    Which teams are up? Which are down? Which teams simply stayed the same? These are questions for a normal NFL Power Rankings article, but for this week's edition there's a small twist. Instead of ranking teams simply based on past performances, we're going to take the future into account. 

    Here are your Week 8 NFL Power Rankings with placement influenced by a team's future schedule. The tougher the remaining schedule, the higher a team will be ranked when their play fails to separate them.

    Let's begin at the bottom with No. 32. I have a feeling you already know which team this is.

    Note: All records current as of 9:00 EST 10/31/2011

No. 32 Indianapolis Colts (0-8)

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    Yes, you guessed it, the winless Indianapolis Colts are still the NFL's worst team.

    Charged with hounding division-foe Tennessee this week, Indianapolis promptly rolled over and played dead, trailing 20-0 by halftime. The homesteading Titans blocked a punt and recovered the ball in the end zone for their first touchdown and never looked back. 

    The thoroughly depressing Colts ended up losing 27-10, with Curtis Painter throwing two picks that weren't entirely his fault—one deflected at the line and one bobbled by Pierre Garcon.

    Peyton Manning could only grimace painfully on the sideline.

    Indy still has New England, Baltimore, Houston and Atlanta next week on the schedule, but faces Jacksonville twice. Barring an unlikely major upset, expect the Colts to get their first win against the Jags in Week 10.

    The season cannot end fast enough for Jim Caldwell's side.

No. 31 Miami Dolphins (0-7)

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    For the second straight week, the Miami Dolphins were able to snatch defeat from the clutches of victory. While not as gut-wrenching as their come-from-ahead 15-point choke against Tim Tebow's Broncos, Miami's Week 8 collapse against the New York Giants ended with the same result.

    Despite leading 17-10 going into the fourth quarter, the Dolphins could only watch as Eli Manning brought his team all the way back for a 20-17 win. Even a rare 100-yard rushing game from Reggie Bush (only his second ever in the NFL) couldn't propel the Fins to their first victory.

    Miami will get Kansas City on a short week, followed by games at home against Washington and Buffalo. The Dolphins have the rest of the NFC East on tap, as well as another meeting with the Bills and Patriots.

    While I think they won't finish the season winless, Miami's chances are starting to run out.  

No. 30 Arizona Cardinals (1-6)

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    While Miami set the letdown bar high last Sunday, the Arizona Cardinals cleared it with room to spare.

    Up 24-6 at intermission with Baltimore on the ropes, the Cards gave up 21 unanswered points in the second half before equalizing at 27-27. Former Cardinal Anquan Boldin was particularly cruel to his old team, catching seven balls in increasingly spectacular fashion for 145 yards That set up Ravens' kicker Billy Cundiff to complete the comeback from 25 yards out, giving Baltimore a 30-27 win. It was the largest come-from-behind win for the Ravens in franchise history.

    The Cardinals have a chance to improve their record with games against St. Louis next week and in Week 12, but it's there that the easy chances end.

    Arizona will have to play Philadelphia, Dallas and Cincinnati in the coming weeks, as well as division rival San Francisco twice. Kevin Kolb will need to improve if the Cardinals hope to have a shot in any of those games.  

No. 29 St. Louis Rams (1-6)

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    St. Louis climbed from the ranks of the winless Sunday with a stunning 31-21 win over New Orleans. Blame Tony La Russa and the rest of his World Champion St. Louis Cardinals for sharing their thirst for glory with the struggling Rams.

    In a game between the leagues best and worst offenses, it was difficult at first to tell which team was which. The Rams stormed out to a 17-0 halftime lead keyed by a remarkable 14 point spurt in the closing minutes of the second quarter. From there the home team never looked back, just like their star tailback Steven Jackson. The Oregon State product went for 159 yards and two touchdowns, exposing the Saint's run defense in the process.

    Despite having a better week than Arizona, the Rams get my nod over the Cards not because of a tougher future schedule (they're shockingly similar) but because of a tougher previous set of games. While the Cardinals only had to deal with three good teams in the Giants, Steelers and Ravens, St. Louis went up against the likes of Green Bay, Dallas, Philadelphia and New Orleans on top of also playing the Giants and Ravens. 

    Both Arizona and St. Louis are 1-6 and face each other next week for the first of two 2011 meetings.  

No. 28 Jacksonville Jaguars (2-6)

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    Coming off a surprising 12-7 win over Baltimore on Monday night, the Jacksonville Jaguars couldn't keep the momentum going against fellow AFC south foe Houston, losing 24-14 to the Texans.

    While young Blaine Gabbert did manage to throw a touchdown pass this week, the work-in-progress QB finished with only 97 yards through the air. Maurice Jones-Drew scored a TD too, but it was too late to make any difference. Jones-Drew finished with another disappointing 63 yards on 18 carries.

    Jacksonville will hit the road for two weeks to visit Indy and Cleveland before a rematch with the Texans at home. Their remaining strength of schedule is fairly weak, with only San Diego and Atlanta posing playoff-caliber challenges. Despite their anemic offense, the Jaguars should finish with at least five wins before the season ends.

No. 27 Denver Broncos (2-5)

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    While the Bronco's inspired comeback win over the Dolphins a week ago gave both Tim Tebow lovers and haters something to talk about, Sunday's performance against Detroit was only for the haters. 

    Tebow couldn't produce his manic fourth quarter magic this time, finishing 18-of-39 for 172 yards and a late TD pass when the result was no longer in question. The Lions rolled up Denver in Mile High Stadium without seemingly breaking a sweat, snapping a two-game skid with a 45-10 win.

    The former Gator was under pressure from his first snap, with Detroit forcing both a fumble and 100-yard pick six at Tebow's expense. After an injury scare last week, Matthew Stafford looked no worse for wear, going 21-of-30 for 267 yards and three touchdowns.

    As for Denver, the schedule doesn't seem to ease up as the Tebow experiment rolls on. After visiting an Oakland squad coming off a bye, the Broncos have New England, Buffalo, San Diego and the Jets on deck.

    If their young quarterback doesn't grow up fast, expect more blowouts like Sunday's in the future.

No. 26 Seattle Seahawks (2-5)

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    While they were only down 17-12 in the fourth quarter, the Seattle Seahawks accumulated too many little mistakes to win Sunday's affair with the Bengals, losing 34-12. Cincinnati was able to reel off 17 unanswered fourth-quarter points, including a sensational 56-yard punt return for a touchdown by Brandon Tate. 

    While head coach Pete Carroll said after the game that he had wanted to rest Tarvaris Jackson another week, it became clear early that Charlie Whitehurst couldn't cut it under center. Jackson was then forced on to the field and threw for a solid 323 yard on 21-of-40 passing against one of the league's best defenses.

    While he didn't throw a touchdown pass, Jackson arguably out-dueled the rookie Andy Dalton (who threw for only 168 yards and two touchdowns), yet it was Seattle who lost by 22. 

    Mistakes on offense, defense and special teams all contributed to the loss, but some of the blame has to fallen on Carroll. His poor clock management at times ultimately cost the Seahawks points in what was a winnable game. If Seattle can learn to execute better, look for them to surprise some teams going forward.

    While they have Dallas, Philadelphia, Chicago and San Francisco still to play, the Seahawks also get St. Louis twice along with the season finale at Arizona. It's not the easiest stretch of games, but there are opportunities to play spoiler as the playoffs approach.  

No. 25 Carolina Panthers (2-6)

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    Cam Newton's Carolina Panthers are coming off a heartbreaking loss to Minnesota in a game they seemed more than capable of winning.

    If not for Olindo Mare's miss wide left at the end of regulation, we could be talking about a Panther squad just two games back from .500. 

    Unfortunately, Carolina couldn't seal the deal and lost 24-21, but the positives were there. Newton himself finished with 290 passing yards and all three of Carolina's touchdowns, posting another impressive performance in his Rookie of the Year campaign.

    Looking at the schedule, the Panthers could be worse off. They do have Detroit, Houston, Atlanta and New Orleans still to play, but the way Newton is throwing the ball no team is unbeatable.

    If Carolina's defense can tighten up, the Panthers will start to beat good teams, or at the very least beat the Vikings of the world.  

No. 24 Minnesota Vikings (2-6)

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    The Vikings secured only their second win Saturday over an underrated Carolina side, but they should be encouraged by the play of rookie QB Christian Ponder. The Seminole Sensation threw for 236 yards and a touchdown on 18-of-28 passing, and did not surrender an interception.

    Ponder gives Minnesota the missing passing game it always lacked this year with Donovan McNabb. Now that Ponder is a becoming a threat through the air, expect to see more big games out of Adrian Peterson.

    While Peterson's numbers weren't flashy Sunday (21 carries for 86 yards and one TD), the quantification of his sheer explosiveness defies any stat sheet.

    Coming up, the Vikings will get another shot at the champs next week, this time at Lambeau. Other than the Packers, Minnesota has the Raiders, Lions, Falcons, Saints and Bears highlighting the rest of their season.

    Look for Ponder's play in a decidedly-hostile Green Bay environment to signal how well the Vikes will approach the coming tests.   

No. 23 Cleveland Browns (3-4)

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    While they did challenge the division-leading 49ers at Candlestick Park, the Cleveland Browns fell short in the end 20-10.

    Colt McCoy's play in the regular season has yet to live up to the promise of his preseason performances, yet the Browns are only one game under .500.

    Still, without Madden cover model Peyton Hillis, Cleveland's rushing attack ranks 29th out of 32 teams, averaging 87.6 yards per game. Without a reliable running game, McCoy hasn't had the offensive balance required to be successful in the NFL.

    He has shown flashes of brilliance at times, but defense sits on the pass too often for him to string positive plays together on a consistent basis.

    The Browns have gotten by on the backs of a stingy defense ranked eighth in the NFL in points given up per game (20), but that won't be the case every time out. While they only average 171.9 passing yards allowed per game, Cleveland is still allowing an unsettling 127.3 rushing yards per game. 

    Looking at the schedule, the Browns have to play the Steelers and Ravens twice along with the Texans next week, but other than that their schedule is favorable.

    I see them taking one from both Pittsburgh and Baltimore when those teams meet in the coming weeks.  

No. 22 Kansas City Chiefs (3-3)

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    With a win over San Diego tonight, the Kansas City Chiefs could gain sole possession of first place in the AFC West. Already with a win over Oakland, the Chiefs could very well control their own destiny as the second half of the season rolls on. 

    To continue nursing playoff dreams, QB Matt Cassel will need to improve a passing attack that currently ranks 30th in the NFL, averaging 173.7 yards per game.

    The rushing combo of Jackie Battle and Dexter McCluster has kept Kansas City competitive offensively, but against good run defenses it won't last. Cassel needs to make defenses respect his arm—like they did when he was in New England—to take the strain off the running game.

    Looking forward, the Chiefs have the Patriots, Packers, Steelers and Bears to contend with, but face the Broncos twice along with Miami.

    If Kansas City can beat the teams it's supposed to and steal one or two from the higher-tier teams, they should be well positioned for a playoff run.

    It all starts tonight with gaining that key tie-breaker over the Chargers.

No. 21 Washington Redskins (3-4)

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    The Washington Redskins found themselves shutdown and shutout in a 23-0 loss to the Bills, in which starting QB John Beck was largely ineffective.

    The new man under center didn't have a TD completion, going 20-of-33 for 208 yards and two interceptions. In 24 years of coaching, Sunday was the first time a Mike Shanahan team was shutout.

    While the offense was missing key players at running back and wide receiver, there really is no excuse for only managing 178 yards of total offense. Once 3-1, the Redskins now look like a shadow of that team.

    Washington is ranked this high among the four-loss teams because of the strength of their impending schedule. The Skins have games against all three of their NFC East rivals, plus contests with San Francisco, New England, Minnesota and the Jets.

    Now last in their division, Washington will need to find answers offensively fast if they still hope to make a playoff run.  

No. 20 Dallas Cowboys (3-4)

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    After a humiliating 34-7 loss to Philadelphia on Sunday Night Football, the Cowboys are in search of answers.

    Tony Romo looked at a loss for any in the post game presser, constantly insisting that they needed to 'look at the tape' before they could understand what went wrong.

    While there will be a more thorough dissection of the game itself as the week goes by, the bottom line is that the Eagles finally showed up. They played a complete game and Dallas simply couldn't match them down for down.

    Philadelphia was incredibly balanced offensively and simply outplayed them. DeMarco Murray showed his youth with a mortal game on the ground, and Romo wasn't consistent enough to stay with a Michael Vick in rare form. 

    Dallas has an incredibly favorable schedule going forward, playing the Giants twice and Philadelphia one more time. Other than those games, they'll face the likes of Seattle, Arizona and Miami. If they can take at least one from New York and count on Philly stumbling down the stretch, the Boys could sneak in as a Wild Card team.

No. 19 Philadelphia Eagles (3-4)

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    When the Philadelphia Eagles play like they did Sunday night, it's easy to remember why they were projected to contend for a Super Bowl. In their 34-7 win over Dallas, everything came together, be it the passing attack, running game or defense in general.

    LeSean McCoy had a career-high 185 yards rushing and a pair of touchdowns on 30 carries. With that kind of success on the ground, Michael Vick and the passing game couldn't help but flourish. Vick was an efficient 21-of-28 for 279 yards, and had a pair of touchdowns as well.

    The Cowboys never had a chance, trailing 24-0 by halftime. 

    Can Philly build on this quality home win? They'll get a Chicago team on the upswing next week, as well as another round robin with divisional foes on the horizon, but overall the schedule should allow the Eagles to continue to improve.

    They do have a game against New England, but contests with Miami and Arizona will even things out.   

No. 18 Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-3)

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    Now we enter the section of the rankings where, for the most part, the teams are all very similar at this point in the season. In that spirit, how about some quick hits? 

    Tampa Bay had a bye this week, which should do them good. QB Josh Freeman has been inconsistent this season, so for him to get some time off should do wonders for his continuing development. It will also allow the Bucs to bring LeGarrette Blount back into the team after injuring himself earlier in the year. 

    In terms of scheduling, Tampa Bay has a tough one, heading to New Orleans next week. They'll face the Packers, Cowboys, Texans and Carolina twice before the season ends.

No. 17 Tennessee Titans (4-3)

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    Tennessee has sorely benefited from the Matt Hasselbeck renaissance, with the Seattle refugee turning back the clock on a weekly basis.

    Their 27-10 win over Indy this week was a given, but the Titans should be concerned without how little they were able to run the ball with Chris Johnson against a poor rushing defense. Johnson finished with only 34 yards on 14 carries, and was largely replaced by Javon Ringer in the second half.

    The schedule seems tolerable for the Titans, as next week they host Cincinnati at home. Beyond Week 9, Tennessee should only have trouble with Houston, New Orleans and Atlanta.

    A Wild Card berth could be in order.  

No. 16 Houston Texans (5-3)

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    Another member of the AFC South, the Houston Texans have rode Arian Foster for the past few weeks with injuries keeping Andre Johnson out.

    Matt Schaub has continued his stellar play for the Texans, and with Indy self-combusting the division is now finally open for the taking.

    Of the three remaining teams, Houston seems the most effective offensively, while both Jacksonville and Tennessee have struggled with at least one offensive aspect.

    The Texans have enough flexibility to deal with most teams out there, but they face no real heavy hitters for the rest of the season. Their battles with Atlanta and Carolina should be interesting, but if they keep winning, especially inside the division, the Texans should be well poised for a playoff berth.  

No. 15 Oakland Raiders (4-3)

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    Perhaps no team needed a bye week more than the Oakland Raiders. The squad had just lost Jason Campbell and was starting two new faces at QB including recent addition Carson Palmer.

    Palmer, along with Kyle Boller, threw three picks in his debut, but the man can be forgiven—he only knew about 15 plays going into the game.

    As long as Darren McFadden stays healthy, the Raiders should compete for a divisional title.

    Schedule wise, Oakland has some tough games ahead in Green Bay, Detroit, Chicago and San Diego twice. If they can consistently execute, and Palmer brings his vintage arm, the Raiders should get through it relatively unscathed.

No. 14 Atlanta Falcons (4-3)

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    With Matt Ryan at the helm, the Falcons should always be in good hands. Atlanta is currently third in the NFC South, but has plenty of upward momentum with the Colts on tap in Week 9.

    The Falcons have a bye this week, so not much movement for them up or down the rankings. Atlanta has also stayed relatively healthy, with that Ryan scare in Detroit their only real brush with injuries in 2011. 

    Going back to the schedule, the Falcons will play New Orleans twice, and should look closely at the Rams/Saints game for ideas.

    They will have a battle on their hands when visiting Houston, but overall the schedule is rather light, giving Atlanta a chance at a playoff spot.  

No. 13 New York Jets (4-3)

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    The real question for the New York Jets is the play of Mark Sanchez.

    The former Trojan star has seemingly regressed in 2011 from his championship form, missing open receivers and misreading routes. Shonn Greene has struggled for consistency on the ground as well, with the Jets averaging only 92.4 yards per game on the ground.

    Rex Ryan needs to feed his backs more to take the pressure off Sanchez. In rebounding from a slow start, New York has tried to do just that. 

    The Jets had a bye during Week 8, but Buffalo and New England await in their next two games. They should be able to handle Washington and Miami, but the rest of the schedule might be too difficult for a team still searching for an identity offensively.  

No. 12 Chicago Bears (4-3)

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    After a slow start, the Chicago Bears have begun to reestablish the defensive identity that has been their calling card for years. Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs have tightened up the rushing defense, but the secondary still needs work.

    Jay Cutler is still operating under center without much of an offensive line, but luckily with the production of Matt Forte, the Bears haven't needed to pass too often. Forte is having a big-money contract kind of year, which Chicago absolutely needs to start negotiating.

    Marion Barber and Dez Bryant showed flashes of their old Dallas talent in their trip to London, which is a positive in terms of Chicago's depth.

    The Bears do play in the NFC North, which means dates with the Packers and Lions. It will be tough for Chicago to get into the playoffs this year with the division almost out of reach, but they have to keep winning regardless of what happens if a playoff spot is on their minds.

No. 11 New Orleans Saints (5-3)

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    While the nation was shocked when the lowly St. Louis Rams recorded their first win against the Saints, don't expect New Orleans to dwell on the humiliation. In fact, it may turn into a positive that their run defense needed so much work, for with half the season to go there will be time to correct it.

    Drew Brees has been accurate as always, and should use Sunday's loss as fuel for his competitive fire going into next week's Tampa Bay game.

    It's a shame Mark Ingram is hurt, as the rookie was just coming into his own. This should give Darren Sproles and newcomer Chris Ivory a chance to get more snaps.

    Apart from the Buccaneer encounter next week, the Saints have a tough defense of their first place spot in the NFC South ahead. Games against Detroit, Atlanta, New York (Giants) and Carolina will not be easily won.   

No. 10 Buffalo Bills (5-2)

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    After starting off 4-0, the Buffalo Bills are beginning to learn what it means to be a contender. With New England losing to Pittsburgh this weekend, the Bills are right back in first place in the AFC East after they handled Washington in Toronto.

    Harvard-educated Ryan Fitzpatrick has continued to impress, as has veteran RB Fred Jackson, who is among the league's leading rushers.

    The defense has been very opportunistic, racking up a plus-nine turnover ratio.

    If the Bills can win their season finale in New England, they should be well positioned to win the division. Few other teams look to challenge them between now and then, but of course it's within that space where a team can slip up, especially with a hungry Dallas team looming. 

No. 9 Baltimore Ravens (5-2)

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    Few would argue that the Baltimore Ravens' defense ranks as one of the best in the league, and it's that defense which gives them the ability to stay in games when QB Joe Flacco has an off day.

    Ray Rice needs to get more touches if the offense is going to be truly balanced. They survived a scare against Arizona on Sunday, but better teams will be able to finish the deal. That's two weeks in a row now that the Ravens have underperformed after putting up huge scoring numbers in previous weeks.

    Schedule-wise, there will be classic rematch between the Ravens and the Steelers in Week 9. Pittsburgh is playing well and looking for vengeance for their opening-season embarrassment. Beyond that, Baltimore has the Niners, Chargers and Bengals all ready for their shot.

    If the Ravens can play consistently on the offensive side, look for them to contend for the AFC North. 

No. 8 Cincinnati Bengals (5-2)

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    The AFC North seems to be a haven for expert defenses, with the Cincinnati Bengals boasting one of the NFL's best. Few teams have been able to run the ball successfully against a surprisingly good front seven, and that's kept the Bengals in games.

    If Andy Dalton can keep his freshman mistakes at bay, Cincinnati should give the Ravens and Steelers a hard time. While they didn't play as well as they could have against Seattle, it's hard to take negatives from a 34-12 win.

    Cincinnati has a difficult schedule going forward, with all of its tough AFC North foes plus Houston and Tennessee on the horizon. Despite Cincy's high ranking here, they may very well take the role of spoiler as the weeks role by.

    Barring a collapse by either the Steelers or Ravens, the Bengals will likely be on the outside looking in come the playoffs.

No. 7 Detroit Lions (6-2)

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    After snapping their two game skid, the Lions broke Tim Tebow and the Broncos in taunting fashion. While 45-10 is a taunt in and of itself, the fact that Detroit went out of their way whenever possible to kick the Broncos when they were down further establishes their thug credentials.

    Matthew Stafford seemed almost 100 percent to the naked eye—he finished with 267 yards and three touchdowns.

    Who needs a running game when you have numbers through the air like those?

    If the Lions can bring the same kind of mistake-free football to every game, they will be a prominent Wild Card contender. However, it is more likely that Detroit won't always have that kind of success through the air and will need the running game. With the talented Jahvid Best still out, Maurice Morris will need to continue to step up.

    Looking at the schedule, the Thanksgiving showdown with Green Bay will be a feature of many family's festivities over the holiday.

    It will be the first of two meetings that will probably decide the division. Apart from Green Bay, the Lions have Oakland, San Diego and New Orleans to contend with as well.

No. 6 San Diego Chargers (4-2)

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    The San Diego Chargers have often said that the only team capable of beating them is themselves, especially after the Jets beat them last week.

    Philip Rivers was guilty of a pair of turnovers towards the end of that game, so that point is taken. However, that mentality will be put to the test tonight when the Chiefs battle San Diego for first place in the AFC West.

    While the passing attack has been there in 2011, the rushing attack has sometimes been missing. With Mike Tolbert out due to an injury (via SB Nation), more of the load will be placed on Ryan Matthews to get it done on the ground. 

    After the Chiefs tonight, the Chargers will eventually face Green Bay, Buffalo, Detroit and Chicago as the season goes on. Their duel with the Packers has been labeled by some as Green Bay's last hurdle in going undefeated.

No. 5 New York Giants (5-2)

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    Quietly moving to the top of the NFC East, the New York Football Giants have all the makings of a contender. Despite their injuries on defense, Eli Manning has this team primed for a division crown and a playoff run.

    The Eagles, Redskins and Cowboys are all sitting at 3-4 after Week 8. New York is sitting pretty atop the standings. They did have some trouble with Miami, but they got the win in the end.

    While the Giants have the bulk of their division schedule still to go, their tough brand of football should be enough to outlast Dallas and Washington. It will come down to how they fair against the Eagles, a team they've already beaten, a second time.

    Marquee games against San Francisco, Green Bay, New Orleans and the Jets fill out a brutal second half for the Giants.

No. 4 New England Patriots (5-2)

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    Few teams inspire the kind of apprehension that Tom Brady's Patriots have over the years. His side looked mortal Sunday against the Steelers, but expect nothing but a full rebound from a Bill Belichick team.

    The defense was exposed to a certain extent by Big Ben and Co., specifically in the secondary. 

    In terms of future games, New England won't have too difficult a time of it. The Patriots will take on the Eagles and Giants, but the game which could decide the AFC East will be the season finale against the Buffalo Bills.

No. 3 Pittsburgh Steelers (6-2)

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    The Steelers looked good dispatching New England 25-17 last night, but it remains to be seen if they can play consistently enough to make a deep playoff run.

    Ben Roethlisberger has his squad playing at a very high level, but their game next week against Baltimore will be very telling as to how far they've come since the beginning of the season.

    The AFC North is always difficult to win, but once again the Steelers seem to be its top side, making wins over Cleveland and Cincinnati seem likely.

    If Pittsburgh can beat the Ravens in the rematch and secure a win against red-hot San Francisco, the rest of the schedule is child's play. 

No. 2 San Francisco 49ers (6-1)

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    One of the biggest surprises of the season, the San Francisco 49ers, have taken the league by storm.

    With the Seahawks, Rams and Cardinals all having subpar seasons, San Fran is a virtual lock for the NFC West crown and the playoff spot that goes with it. Alex Smith hasn't had to do much at quarterback, with Frank Gore chewing up rushing yards on every down.

    All Smith has had to do is make the throws he's asked to make within the offense, not win the game himself.

    The Niners defense should propel them to the NFC title game, specifically their rushing defense which is best in the league. Few teams will be able to run on their front seven, and the Niners have skilled enough corners to combat most passing attacks.

    They passed a small test against Cleveland on Sunday, and should be looking forward to a winnable Washington game next week. 

No. 1 Green Bay Packers (7-0)

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    Heavy lies the crown, unless you're Aaron Rodgers: You wear a belt instead. The Green Bay star man has been nothing short of magnificent over the first eight weeks, and should only get better after the bye.

    Rodgers has proven he can make all the throws under any type of pressure, and has put on a quarterbacking masterclass seemingly every week. When you have weapons like Donald Driver, Greg Jennings and Jermichael Finley, it's hard to lose.

    Could the Pack go undefeated during the 2011 regular season? The teams that have the best shot at stopping them are San Diego (Week 9), the New York Giants (Week 13) and Detroit (Weeks 12 and 17).

    They will almost surely win the NFC North regardless of an undefeated season, but Green Bay is playing well enough now to earn one.

    Here's to another great half of football.