NFL Power Poll with a BCS Twist: Week 3

Alan Zlotorzynski@@zlotsportsCorrespondent IIINovember 6, 2011

NFL Power Poll with a BCS Twist: Week 3

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    With each passing Sunday and Monday in the NFL, we learn that we know nothing about which two teams will be playing in Indianapolis on the first Sunday in February.

    I know the Packers are undefeated, and have the best offense this side of the 2007 Patriots, but that's my point. Anyone remember what happened to the undefeated New England Patriots that season?

    Today promises to be another anomaly with a slate of great games scheduled. The headliner is Sunday night's AFC North showdown between the red-hot Pittsburgh Steelers, who are looking to win their fifth in a row as well as to extract revenge on their opponents, the Baltimore Ravens.

    In a game that feels like it was 10 years ago, the Ravens beat up the Steelers 35-7 on opening weekend, and embarrassed Pittsburgh in the process. The Ravens seem to run up the score, by faking an extra point and running the ball in for two points, as well as forcing Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger into three interceptions and two lost fumbles.

    Pittsburgh gets the purple birds at home this time, and is looking to avoid being swept by Baltimore for the first time since 2006. This Sunday also brings us the Buffalo Bills and the New York Jets, as well as the San Diego Chargers hosting the Green Bay Packers.

    Who would have thought that the Bills would be looking to take control of the AFC East with a victory over New York? Sunday will also give us a rematch of Super Bowl XLII between the New England Patriots and the New York Giants. 

    Will the Patriots recover from their loss to the Steelers last week, or will the Giants, who are once again playing good first-half football, buck the trend of recent years, and continue playing good football heading into the second half of the season?

    Here is week three of my BCS style power poll rankings. If you are unfamiliar with how this works, then simply click here for a review of the point structure.

    So, if you're looking for something to read before the games start today, give this a try, and as always, please be sure to leave your comments.

No. 19 Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    Last Week: 17 of 17

    Points This Week: 188.5

    Despite missing running back LeGarrette Blount, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers still managed to defeat their division rivals, the New Orleans Saints a few weeks back. They did it with a balanced attack of rushing and passing the ball.

    Blount’s replacement, Florida native Earnest Graham, rushed for 109 yards, and helped soften up the Saints defense for a turnover free, 300-plus-yard passing day from Bucs QB Josh Freeman.

    However, two weeks ago, across the pond in London, Graham was lost for the year in the first quarter with a ruptured Achilles and the Bucs offense, most notably Freeman, looked horrible. With Graham and Blount out, head coach Raheem Morris was forced to turn to something named Kregg Lumpkin.

    This meant the game was now squarely on the shoulders of Freeman, and he failed to deliver, promptly throwing four costly interceptions, including one late in the game to end the Bucs' comeback bid.

    After throwing just six picks during the 2010 season, Freeman has already thrown 10 this year. With their next three games against teams that have a combined record of 17-6 (at Saints, vs. Texans, at Packers), and the Falcons also playing solid football once again, Tampa could be in trouble if they don't become a more consistent team, and that must begin with Freeman.

    Coming out of their much needed bye week, and despite having already beaten the Saints and Falcons, Tampa still appears to be the team on the outside, looking in. They will face the pissed off Saints on Sunday, who lost to the winless Rams last week. I'm not sure a perfect game from Freeman and the rest of the Bucs is going to matter in this one.

    Tampa is 4-1 coming off their bye week over the last five seasons. That lone loss came back in 2006, to the New Orleans Saints—not a good omen Bucs fans.

No. 18 Kansas City Chiefs

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    Last Week: Not Ranked

    Points This Week: 195.5

    The Kansas City Chiefs enter the poll after four consecutive wins, including a big divisional victory last Monday over the San Diego Chargers. Kansas City has re-emerged on the strength of their defense. The Chiefs allowed 36 points per game during the three losses to open the season, but just 15.2 points over the four-game winning streak.

    Despite the loss of Pro Bowl safety Eric Berry to a season-ending knee injury in the first game of the season, the Chiefs secondary has stepped up and are tied for second in the NFL with 13 interceptions. This is due to the great play of Brandon Flowers, Brandon Carr, and Kendrick Lewis. 

    Lewis, who was the 136th overall pick in the 2010 draft, has picked off a pass in each of the past two weeks, returning one of them 59 yards for a touchdown against the Oakland Raiders. He also recovered a fumble during Monday night’s 23-20 overtime win over the San Diego Chargers, which tied the Chiefs with the Bolts and Raiders for first place in the AFC West.

    The play of the Chiefs' front seven has also been a big key, and one defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel was counting on this season. Linebacker Derrick Johnson had 94 tackles last season, and this past Monday night picked off Phillip Rivers at the goal line to stop a Chargers drive.

    Tamba Hali has 20.5 sacks (six in '11) since the start of last season, and is a big reason why the Chiefs have only allowed four touchdowns on 11 red-zone possessions by the opposition during their four-game winning streak.

    Kansas City cannot let down even with the winless Dolphins and the two-win Tim Tebows on the two-week horizon. They must continue to hone their game plan and prepare to play the first-place schedule they earned by winning the AFC West last year.

    KC plays six straight games against teams (Patriots, Steelers, Bears, Jets, Packers, and Raiders) that have a combined record of 30-13.

No.17 Tennessee Titans

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    Last Week: Not Ranked 

    Points This Week: 242.5

    Rookie head coach Mike Munchak must wake up every day and thank his lucky stars for the Indianapolis Colts (0-8), Denver Broncos (2-5), Cleveland Browns (3-4), and Ravens QB Joe Flacco. Without having played those teams, and a suddenly struggling QB, you would need binoculars to find the Titans in the standings.

    Aside from beating the Ravens in their home opener this year, the Titans have not played well against teams that appear headed for the postseason. Tennessee recently lost to the Steelers and Texans by a combined 79-24 score. 

    One major reason for Tennessee’s up-and-down season is the play, or lack of play from their once scary rushing attack. The Titans are dead last in the NFL running the ball this season. 

    Running back Chris Johnson, who led the NFL in rushing in 2008, is struggling mightily. That may be putting it too mildly, as the Titans and Johnson show no signs of breaking out of their slump.

    Tennessee thought their running game would get a jump-start last week hosting the winless Colts. Aside from not owning a victory, Indy also has the second worst run defense in the NFL. Instead, Johnson could muster just 34 yards, as Michigan State product Javon Ringer led all Tennessee rushers with 60 yards. Johnson, who held out of training camp until the Titans gave the fourth year back to a new contract through 2016 worth $53.5 million, including $30 million guaranteed, is averaging less than three yards per carry this season.

    Johnson has averaged almost 1900 yards from scrimmage during his first three seasons, but is only on pace to finish with almost 900 less yards this year. He is only averaging three fewer touches per game than his career average of 22. 

    So while the Nashville faithful hope Johnson can return to form, it is hard for me to believe that Tennessee can make any noise in trying to win the AFC South with such a porous rushing attack, and a defense that is average (18th) at best.

    Unless the Titans' rushing attack improves with the colder months coming, winning eight games will be a big accomplishment this season. They face a stiff test this week at home, as the upstart Cincinnati Bengals (5-2) visit the Music City. With the way Tennessee struggled against the Colts' bad run defense, fans and coaches alike are crossing their fingers that Johnson finds his old form against a Bengals team that is second best at stopping the run in the league.

    Starting with Sunday’s game, times may start to get very tough in Nashville. Following this week’s home game, the Titans play three of their next five on the road, including stops in Atlanta, and Buffalo.

No. 16 Oakland Raiders

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    Last Week: 16 of 17

    Points This week: 260

    The Raiders had some work to do during their bye week. October was an emotional roller coaster for all of Raiders Nation. It began with the passing of owner Al Davis, peaked when they acquired disgruntled quarterback Carson Palmer from the Bengals, and ended on a horrendous note, as the Raiders were trounced 28-0 at home by one of their division rivals, the Kansas City Chiefs.

    The Raiders have not won following a bye week since their Super Bowl season of 2002.

    During a Week 4 contest, in what proved to be a preview of that season's AFC Championship game, QB Rich Gannon threw four touchdowns as the Raiders crushed the Tennessee Titans 52-25. Last season following the bye, Oakland was manhandled 35-3 in Pittsburgh.

    Hosting the Tim Tebows this week may be the perfect medicine for what ails the Raiders. They should beat Denver, and in the process allow Palmer to become more comfortable in the offense before they travel to San Diego for what could be a first-place showdown next week.

    Running back Darren McFadden, who has three consecutive 100-yard games against Denver, is very questionable with a foot sprain, and could sit this one out with probably no effect on the outcome. Michael Bush is a very capable backup, and behind an offensive line once thought to be iffy, the Raiders are averaging 159 rushing yards per game, second best in the NFL.

    Carson Palmer needs the Broncos' 20th-ranked defense as well. If the former Heisman winner's play against  the Chiefs (three interceptions) is any indication of how far away he is from being ready to lead the Raiders offense, then head coach Hue Jackson should consider allowing Jason Campbell to play with one arm, as he probably could get better results.

    The Raiders should win the West if McFadden’s injury heals (don’t all midseason foot or ankle injuries heal right up), and if their 31-year-old QB, who had a horrible season last year, sat out the entire offseason watching TV, and missed the first half of this season, can perform at a high level.

    Anyone detect sarcasm? The Raiders really need to beat the Broncos and look good doing so. They play four of their next five on the road, and even though they will play the Vikings and Dolphins (Miami beat Oakland last year) during that span, they will also play the Packers, and Chargers. 

    The good news is, 8-8 can, and probably will win the AFC West this season. The bad news: the Raiders may be 7-9 once the season ends.

No. 15 Atlanta Falcons

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    Last Week: 15 of 17

    Points This Week: 292

    When you compare this season and last season in Atlanta, the Falcons have been an average football team. With an offense ranked No. 17 and a defense ranked two spots lower, the Falcons are entering a critical stretch of their season that they must take advantage of if they want to win the division once again this year.

    Luckily for them, they will do it with their franchise quarterback Matt Ryan, who looked to be lost for the year two weeks ago.  During the Falcons' 23-16 win over the Detroit Lions, Ryan went down with an ankle injury in the third quarter. Atlanta offensive lineman Will Svitek stepped on Ryan's left ankle, and how Ryan was able to finish the game, and this season for that matter, is nothing short of an early Christmas miracle.

    In fact, Ryan returned on the Falcons' next possession.

    During the victory, Atlanta got back to what made them a 13-3 team last season: their running game. Michael "Burner" Turner rushed for 122 yards, as the Falcons held an almost 10-minute advantage in time of possession. Atlanta faces the winless Colts this Sunday in Indianapolis coming off their bye week, which they entered winning three of their last four games.

    They should be 5-3 heading into their Nov. 13 showdown with the New Orleans Saints at the Georgia Dome. Battle tested this season, the Falcons have played the third toughest schedule in this poll to open the season, and will be rewarded with three consecutive home games starting next week.

No. 14 New York Jets

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    Last Week: 14 of 17

    Points This Week: 313.5

    Impressed with the Jets this year? Well, you are not alone if your answer is no. Why would you be? Rex Ryan's defense continues to rank among the 10 best in the league, but not as decisively as they have over the past two seasons.

    One major staple of a Ryan-built defense is stopping the run, and so far this season, the Jets have allowed opponents to run right through them. Thanks to all-world defensive back Darrell Reavis, the Jets secondary carries the No. 8 ranking they currently own as a defense in the NFL.

    They are 25th stopping the run and seventh against the pass. They have one victory over a winning team, and that was a classic San Diego Chargers, or more notably, Norv "my team wasn't prepared" Turner mid-season gift.

    Their offense is dead last amongst the teams in this poll, garnering just five points this week, and ranks 29th overall in the NFL. Quarterback Mark Sanchez continues to struggle with accuracy, and has thrown for just 1,45 yards while completing only 55 percent of his passes.

    Although he has improved his touchdown-to-interception ratio (12:6), it is important to note that most of his passes are thrown for fewer than 15 yards. Sanchez ranks last amongst every NFL QB that has taken a snap this season with one completed pass over 40 yards. At 6.7 yards per completion, the former USC standout ranks in the bottom third of the league.

    The Jets rushing attack, which was fourth best in the NFL last season, is currently ranked 29th, seven spots lower than their aerial attack.

    If the Jets cannot stop the run, and they cannot run the ball themselves, do not expect Rex and his Jets to be back in the playoffs this year. In fact, I would not look for them to beat the high-flying Buffalo Bills on Sunday.

    The Jets are returning from their bye week this Sunday, and have never won under Rex Ryan following a bye week. Remember the egg New York laid last two seasons at home after the week off? Last season they lost 9-0 to the eventual Super Bowl Champs, and the year before lost 24-22 to the Jacksonville Jaguars.

    So maybe it is a good thing the Jets are traveling to Orchard Park to play the Bills. However, with major inconsistencies on both sides of the ball, and taking a good hard look at the Jets' schedule, I think you would struggle to find five more wins this season. Even if you did, do you think nine gets the J-E-T-S, Jets-Jets-Jets back in the playoffs in the tough AFC? That’s what I thought.

No. 13 San Diego Chargers

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    Last Week: 10 of 17

    Points This Week: 348.5

    How can the Chargers be ranked ahead of the Jets if they just beat them, and lost again on Monday night, you ask? It is simple really: the Chargers are still a better team than KC, and the Jets. Despite giving games away like a rehabbed Grinch gave away Christmas presents, the Chargers are once again saved by the fact that they have an offense and defense that keeps them ranked a little higher than both New York and KC. In this poll, those intangibles are factored in.

    In this poll, the Chargers have the fourth-ranked offense (80 points) and the fifth-ranked defense (75 points). In the NFL, they are sixth in both categories.

    Let’s face it: even though the Chargers have lost the last two games, they didn’t struggle the way they usually have under Norv Turner to start the year. Prior to Nov. 1 during the Turner era, the Bolts are 13-16. After Nov. 1, San Diego is amongst the best in the NFL. They are 28-7, with a 17-2 mark in December and January.

    This Sunday they host the world champion Green Bay Packers. The biggest concern for SD as the best QB in the league comes to town is the rebuilt secondary.

    Phillip Rivers, who has struggled this season, must have a big game to match Super Bowl MVP Aaron Rodgers pass for pass. Since Week 1, the Chargers secondary has seen a dramatic change, with Bob Sanders surprisingly out for the year with an injury, and Antoine Cason demoted. 

    Their replacements are Steve Gregory and rookie Marcus Gilchrist. The Chargers must get heat on Rogers, and that could be tough as San Diego has just 13 sacks through seven games.

    The Chargers have played three straight road games and now return home to play five of their next seven games at Qualcomm Stadium. Phillips Rivers will not play this inconsistently all season, as he seems to rise to the occasion when he squares off with another big time QB, and Aaron Rogers is as big as they come right now.

    The Chargers are capable of beating the Packers on Sunday, and do not be surprised if they do. It has been that kind of a year in the NFL.

No. 12 Chicago Bears

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    Last Week: 12 of 17

    Points This Week: 360

    At four wins and three losses, the Bears are exactly where they were after seven games last season.

    The Bears' offensive line seems to be getting better at protecting quarterback Jay Cutler. He has been sacked six fewer times through seven games this season than he was last season. Chicago has allowed just seven total sacks in the four games prior to the bye after allowing 14 in the first three games this season.

    Matt Forte continues to lead the NFL in total yards from scrimmage with 1,091, and has accounted for more than half of the Bears' offense. However, the tension is beginning to build as the fourth year back seeks a new contract. The Bears seem to have paid everyone else of consequence on the team, and now many believe it's time to ante up and pay Forte. Julius Peppers, Jay Cutler, and even Chester Taylor have all cashed in on Chicago’s desire to stay among the top teams in the NFC. 

    Even with teammates verbalizing their disapproval over the fact that Forte has not received an extension, the Bears continue to play hardball. This week, linebacker Brian Urlacher termed it "so disappointing" that the Bears have not agreed to terms on a contract extension for Forte, who is having an MVP-type season.

    The Bears have clearly taken note of Tennessee running back Chris Johnson, as well as of the fact that even with 2000-plus yards from scrimmage in 2009, the Titans still failed to make the playoffs. And, most notably, the Bears have noticed how Johnson has performed since signing his $53 million extension in September.

    It will be interesting to see how Forte performs on the national stage this Monday in Philadelphia. The former Tulane star enters Week 9 having rushed for 100 yards in three of his last four games.

    The Eagles rank 19th in the league in run defense, giving up over 118 yards per game, and last season could not keep Forte under the century mark as he rushed for 117 yards on 14 carries during the Bears' 31-26 home win.

No. 11 New York Giants

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    Last Week: 13 of 17

    Points This Week: 368

    Like death and taxes in life, you can count on two things when the clocks are turned back. It will get darker sooner, and under Tom Coughlin, the New York Giants are headed for a collapse. However, with big brother sidelined for what appears to be the entire 2011 season, Eli is playing like Peyton, and regardless of their schedule, may not be headed for disaster after all.

    Manning is seventh or better in every major stat on which QBs are ranked in the NFL. He is third in the league with a 102.1 passer rating, and his touchdown-to-interception ratio (13:15) is much better than it has been at any time during his career.

    He's averaging over 300 yards passing per game and is completing almost 65 percent of his passes.

    However, the Giants are at the proverbial eight-game mark, and every true blue New York fan knows what comes next. For those of you that do not, here is the good, the bad, and most definitely the ugly of the New York Giants during the Tom Coughlin era.

    Last season, the Giants were 6-2 after eight games, and during the Coughlin (2004-present) era, have a combined 41-15 record over the first eight games of the season.

    For whatever reason, and there have been many over the past several seasons, the Giants have a knack for falling apart during the second half with a combined 24-32 record since 2004. This year’s schedule is brutal, as the G-Men travel to New England for a Super Bowl XLII rematch, and then to San Francisco to play the 6-1 49ers. From there it’s home to host the Eagles, whom the Giants beat earlier this year in Philly.

    The Giants then travel to play the Saints, and then come back home to host last year's Super Bowl champions, the Green Bay Packers.

    If the Giants can come through this stretch winning at least two of the next four games, then they will be the hands-down favorite to win the NFC East. Even with two games remaining with the Cowboys, the Giants will simply have too much confidence and swagger for the “Boys” to handle.

No. 10 Cincinnati Bengals

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    Last Week: 11 of 17

    Points This Week: 425 Points

    How good are the Bengals? Last week during a win over the Seahawks in Seattle, Cincinnati scored touchdowns on offense, defense, and special teams.

    The defensive touchdown was their third in the last three weeks, as potential Coach of the Year Marvin Lewis has his defense ranked fourth in the NFL.

    Rookie receiver AJ Green continues to lead all rookies in receiving. He ranks first in yards (516), touchdowns (five), and receptions (33). The man throwing the ball to Green, rookie QB Andy Dalton, continues to manage games perfectly for his team.

    While not setting the world on fire, Dalton has thrown two more touchdowns (nine) than interceptions (seven).

    The Bengals still have a lot to prove as they have played the third easiest schedule of the teams in this poll. They have yet to play the Ravens or Steelers.

    However, if they win Sunday in Tennessee, the Bengals will guarantee themselves to be higher in the standings than the loser of the Sunday night contest between Baltimore and Pittsburgh. The AFC North could potentially see two first-place showdowns in back-to-back weeks, as Cincy hosts Pittsburgh next week.

No. 9 New England Patriots

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    Last Week: 2 of 17

    Points This Week: 500 

    Last week in Pittsburgh, the Steelers avenged last season’s 39-26 loss to New England by exposing even more holes in the Patriots' poor defense, and while it is not hard to expose a defense that is ranked last in the NFL, one could make the case that slowing down Tom Brady and the New England offense to a standstill is.

    Pittsburgh held the third-ranked New England offense to just 213 total yards, and Brady to under 200 yards passing (198), and after beating the Jets and Cowboys heading into their bye week at 5-1, the Patriots came crashing back to earth with a 25-17 loss in Pittsburgh last Sunday.

    The loss was just the third time, and first since 2002, the Patriots lost following a bye week under Bill Belichick. The game was not as close as the 12-point difference in the score would indicate, as the Patriots looked lethargic on offense, and like Houdini on defense.

    They just disappeared, as their 32nd-ranked pass defense continues to struggle mightily. Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger became the sixth QB in seven games to throw for more than 300 yards against them.

    The defensive problems are nothing new in New England during the past two seasons, but what the Steelers defense did to their offense most certainly is. The Steelers, who have struggled to rush the passer this season because of injuries, have 20 sacks. However, last week they got to Brady three times and applied pressure all day long.

    This week’s opponent has not struggled rushing the passer this season and Brady struggles under pressure. Sure, he can make a defense pay, but he didn’t last week. The Giants will most assuredly apply constant heat, as they are first in the NFL with 26 sacks. The Patriots appear to be vulnerable at home this week, and could, for the first time since Nov. 30, 2008, lose at Gillette Stadium.

    Eli Manning, who is having his best season as a pro statistically, could have a great game against the Pats defense, and while the Patriots have not lost since '08 at home, Brady's unbeaten streak at Gillette runs all the way back to Nov. 12, 2006. Matt Cassel was the QB back in '08, as Brady sat out the year with a knee injury.

    While many see this game as the beginning of the Giants' second half collapse, one has to wonder if indeed it's not the Patriots heading south. However, it’s hard to bet against a Bill Belichick-coached team following a loss. Since the 2003 season, the Patriots have lost back-to-back games only two times. 

No. 8 Houston Texans

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    Last Week: 9 of 17

    Points This Week: 518.5

    The Texans are ranked this high due mostly to their consistency on defense, as they have been on offense over the past few seasons.

    With QB Matt Schaub, and All-Pro wide receiver Andre Johnson, Houston is consistently in the NFL's top 10 in total yards. Head coach Gary Kubiak is one of the better offensive coaches in the league, and when you toss in last season's leading rusher in the NFL, you have the makings of what could be a very formidable Super Bowl type of offense.

    However, with a bad defense, it is tough for any great offense to claim the Lombardi trophy, or even play for it; just ask Tom Brady. 

    Since 2006, while Kubiak's offenses have been ranked in the top 10, the Texans defense has never finished higher than 13th in the league, and last season, with the worst pass defense, finished with their lowest ranking yet at 29th.

    Enter the former embattled head coach of Texas' other NFL team, Wade Phillips. The son of the former Houston Oilers head coach was hired by Gary Kubiak as the Texans' new defensive coordinator.

    Phillips brought his knowledge of the 3-4 defense, as well as his good karma to Houston. As a coordinator or head coach, his defenses have finished in the league's top 10 on 12 occasions. He's also reached the playoffs in the first season with the last seven teams he has taken over as coordinator or head coach. 

    Phillips' defense is currently ranked third in the NFL, and last year’s horrible secondary is now eighth against the pass. The Texans D has done this without the service of their best player, linebacker Mario Williams, who was lost for the year with a torn pectoral muscle back in Week 5.

    Many players have more than stepped up in his absence. It doesn't hurt that every new face has been a major contributor. 

    After signing Phillips, Houston used their top five picks in April's draft on defensive players, as defensive end J.J. Watt and linebacker Brooks Reed were their top two picks. Following the lockout, the Texans attacked the free agent market, signing cornerback Johnathan Joseph and free safety Daniel Manning. They have combined for five interceptions this season. The rookies are also making an impact, as Reed replaced the injured Williams.

    It appears the Texans will finally get their shot at playing in the postseason this year. Nothing, not even No. 18 from Indianapolis is standing in the way of the Texans' first playoff game in Houston since Jan. 16, 1993. 

    Anything is possible, so the Texans cannot take anything for granted. They must continue to stick with the horses that can get them there. A few of those horses are in the Texans' running game, Even with a great QB and wide receiver, Kubiak—whose six-year playoff drought is the longest among active NFL head coaches—must remember his team is 28-2 under his direction when they run the ball at least 30 times in a game. 

No. 7 New Orleans Saints

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    Last Week: 3 of 17

    Points This Week: 527.5

    Some Cajun cooking at home this week against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for first place in the NFC South is what the Saints to need to get back on track. By now, everyone is aware that New Orleans became the Rams' first win this season, just one week after a 55-point victory over Indianapolis colts.

    Head coach Sean Peyton was correct in the video accompanying this slide; a sequence of two costly mistakes allowed for the circumstances surrounding the victory by St. Louis. However, serious playoff teams do not make mistakes like that at the end of a half.

    The Saints had a punt blocked, and threw an interception in the final two minutes of the first half, which led to 14 St. Louis points. Another interception off Saints QB Drew Brees was returned for a touchdown, giving the Rams 21 points off New Orleans mistakes.

    Those mistakes seem to be plaguing the Saints this season. They are a minus-five on the year, and turned the ball over four times during their 26-29 loss to the Buccaneers back on Oct. 16. Having said that, Drew Brees is still Drew Brees, as he is completing an NFL-best 70.6 percent of his passes, with 2746 passing yards.

    The Saints can ill afford to play mistake-prone football over the next two weeks, as they host Tampa Bay this week and next week travel to Atlanta. Both games could potentially be showdowns for first place in the division.

    The Saints will need to play better run defense if they are going to win both games. Both teams have formidable No. 1 running backs that can open up the secondary for above average quarterbacks.

    Currentl,y the Saints are ranked in the bottom third of the league in stopping the run, and surrendered 159 yards and two touchdowns to the Rams' big back, Steven Jackson, last Sunday. Not stopping the run, and turning the ball over, is a bad formula for success in the NFL. Not even their former Super Bowl MVP quarterback could rescue his team from those two bad intangibles.

No. 6 Buffalo Bills

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    Last Week: 7 of 17

    Points This Week: 558

    A win at home this week over the New York Jets would go a long way in turning the Bills from better-than-average pretenders to real AFC contenders.  We all love the story, and Buffalo looks for real this season, but who is really buying it just yet? Despite playing the toughest schedule of any team in this poll, many fans are still in a wait-and-see mode with Buffalo.

    The Bills' opponents have a combined record of 29-20 this season. Ironically, only the Dream Team owns a losing record on Buffalo's schedule thus far.

    While I am a Ravens fan and want no part of another team’s bandwagon, I would be a big believer in Buffalo if they win this week. Let’s face it, the Bills should beat an average and aging Jets team at home this week, and if they are for real, bury them.

    Buffalo’s pre-bye defensive concerns seemed to be put to bed last week in Toronto, as Buffalo shut out the Redskins 23-0. Buffalo must be patient against the Jets, as New York’s secondary can contain the Buffalo passing game. They must continue to take shots, and not abandon the NFL's second leading rusher in Fred Jackson at any point.

    The Jets offense is simply not good enough to get ahead by such a margin that Buffalo would be forced to pass on every down. The Bills take to the road for three straight games after tomorrow to play the Cowboys, Dolphins, and Jets again. They'll want to avoid a loss tomorrow at all costs, as it is conceivable that a 1-2 road trip looms soon thereafter.

    The NFL is a game of inches, and that means so are winning and losing. With a win over the Jets tomorrow, the Bills could be 10-2 headed to San Diego in December. 

No. 5 Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Last Week: 8 of 17

    Points This Week: 579.5

    All that needs to be written about the next two teams in this poll will occur tomorrow night at about 11:30 p.m.

    The Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens will square off in the rematch of the Sept. 11 game in which the Ravens destroyed the Steelers 35-7, and rubbed their noses in the loss.

    The Ravens faked an extra point into a two-point conversion, and were still throwing deep down the field while leading by four touchdowns late. It is entirely possible that tomorrow night's game could be another blowout, but it's highly unlikely.

    Highly unlikely, especially when you consider that prior to the Wee k1 contest, the Ravens and Steelers have been separated by an average of four points in their last eight games including the playoffs.

    The good news for Steelers fans is that the Pittsburgh offense is flying on all cylinders. Ben Roethlisberger has thrown for over 300 yards in back-to-back games for only the second time in his career.

    The defense also gets back linebacker James Harrison, who has missed the last four games with an eye injury.

    The bad news is, the Patriots were the first winning team the Steelers beat all season, and Big Ben was the sixth passer in the last seven games to throw for 300 or more yards on the Patriots defense. Granted, the Pats were just the third winning team they played, but that is all about to change for head coach Mike Tomlin and his team.

    The Steelers host the Ravens tomorrow, and then travel to Cincinnati and Kansas City before returning home to play the Bengals again. They then host the Browns before heading off to play the 49ers.

    On defense, the bad news is that while the Steelers get Harrison back, they will be without 35 percent of their sack total (20) this year, as linebacker LaMarr Woodley (seven sacks) has been ruled out with a hamstring injury.

    Pittsburgh will be ready, and the Ravens would be wise to try to take their shots early, as the Steelers could be caught over-pursuing with intensity.

    The disappointing aspect of this game is that it is too early in the season for this to be the second contest between these two teams; however, with the way both teams are playing, a third game in January is almost a given.

No. 4 Baltimore Ravens

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    Last Week: 6 of 17

    Points This Week: 589.5

    The Ravens are coming off the worst six offensive quarters in franchise history. This  includes a stretch of games during their Super Bowl wining season of 2000 when Baltimore failed to score a touchdown for  five consecutive games, and still managed to win three of them.

    Two weeks ago in Jacksonville, the Ravens had 16 first-half yards, and 146 for the game. They did not get their first 1st down until there were five minutes remaining in the third quarter.

    At home last week against Arizona, the Ravens trailed by 18 points at the half, and appeared headed to their second straight loss to a one-win team. However, something happened in the locker room, and it is rumored that Joe Flacco gave an inspirational halftime speech; whatever happened, it worked, as the Ravens woke up and outscored the Cardinals 24-3 in the second half to complete their biggest comeback in franchise history.

    Like in every Ravens-Steelers game during the John Harbaugh era, quarterback Joe Flacco will be key. If he plays well, the Ravens will probably win. If he does not, look out, because the Steelers do have a little payback in mind if you saw the game in September.

    Joe Cool, or Joe Cold as he’s been called recently, is completing just 53.8 percent of his passes, and has a career-worst 75.4 passer rating. Flacco did break through last year in the Steele city with a last-minutes touchdown pass to  T.J. Houshmandzadeh to lead the Ravens over the Steelers in a come-from-behind win.

    During the fourth quarter of the rematch in December at home, with the lead and the division on the line, Flacco failed to secure the football on a strip-sack-fumble by Troy Polamalu, and after another victory over Flacco and the Ravens in the playoffs, the Steelers went on to play in the Super Bowl.

    The Ravens' No. 1-ranked defense will most assuredly be up to the task, and as they always do, will hurry Big Ben in the pocket. They must wrap him as they did in Week 1, when they dropped him four times and forced him into five turnovers.

    For the Ravens and their fans, tomorrow’s game is as simple, or complex as Flacco's success, as well as whether the Ravens can get running back Ray Rice heavily involved in the offense. The numbers indicate a rough night ahead for the New Jersey native, as Flacco has struggled in his career against the black and gold. Including the playoffs, he is 3-6 with 10 touchdowns and eight interceptions.

    Flacco has leveled out in recent meetings.  Over the past four games against Pittsburgh, he is 2-2 with six touchdowns and two interceptions. If the Ravens want  to sweep the Steelers for the first time since 2006, they must once again win the turnover battle as they did back in Week 1, and again, that will depend on their fourth-year signal caller and his ability to protect the football.

No. 3 Detroit Lions

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    Last Week: 4 of 17

    Points This Week: 596.5

    I am not sure what to make of the Lions mocking Tim Tebow last Sunday during their 45-10 win. The Lions have obviously forgotten what it feels like to be the ass that gets kicked week in and week out in the NFL. Not so long ago (early last season), everyone with an average offense scored 45 points on Detroit, and they were the laughing stock of the NFL.

    I am just as tired as the next sports fanatic about all the Tebow talk, but I would sure as hell let my daughter marry the guy. Stephen Tulloch, and any other Lion that engaged in the taunting of Tebow's giving thanks, is classless, pure and simple. If the NFL is not careful, Commissioner Roger Goodell will have some serious issues on his hands if this kind of taunting is allowed to continue. 

    What would the league or fans say if Tebow were anything other than a 24-year-old white American male? I'm sure the NFL would be issuing fines and possibly suspensions much quicker than Tebow’s release if he were not.

    Anyway, the Lions recovered in Denver, and put a halt to their two-game losing streak against the mighty Broncos.

    They rank this high in the poll with some very solid and consistent play on both sides of the ball. They are first in the league in point differential, as they remain one of the most balanced teams in the league. The Lions are a solid playoff-looking team with four of their six wins coming on the road.

    The bye week came at just the right time, as Matthew Stafford continues to nurse a very sore ankle sprain. The Lions' acquisition of former Bears safety Chris Harris is the kind of move that will pay many dividends a tad bit later this season.

    Harris, who was claimed off waivers after being cut by the Bears, was a second-team All Pro selection last year. Detroit should be healthy, and ready to fire on all cylinders following their bye week.

    The Lions are more than likely the first wild card from the NFC. While it is probably a long shot, the Lions do have a chance to win the division with two late-season games against the undefeated Packers.

No. 2 San Francisco 49ers

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    Last Week: 5 of 17

    Points This Week: 633

    The San Francisco 49ers are one of only two teams to eclipse the 600-point mark in the poll this week, and are firmly entrenched as the No. 2 in the NFL these days.

    Their success comes from running the ball, and stopping the run. While most NFL teams average four runs out of every 10 offensive plays, the Niners are doing it almost 54 percent if the time.

    San Francisco’s rushing attack, led by the NFL's fourth-leading ground gainer, Frank Gore, is averaging 188.5 rushing yards and 5.8 yards a carry over the past four games. Over that same stretch, Gore is averaging 131.8 yards rushing and 6.5 yards per carry.

    Today, they face a Washington Redskins team that has allowed an average of 168.3 rushing yards in its past three games, all losses. The Niners are good at stopping the run as well. The defense allows 73 yards per game, which is best in the NFL.

    San Francisco is the only team not to allow a rushing touchdown this season and has a chance to break or tie the NFL record for fewest rushing touchdowns allowed in a season (two), a mark shared by four teams.

    The Niners have been dominant this season in stopping the run, especially when you consider that today’s opponents, the Washington Redskins, have allowed 505 rushing yards during their past three games. That’s nine yards fewer than San Fran has allowed this season.

    In fact, according to Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle, the 49ers are the first team since the 1920 Columbus Panhandles to score a rushing touchdown and not allow a rushing touchdown in each of the first seven games.

    The 49ers are already four games ahead of the second-place, 2-5 Seattle Seahawks, and it is a very real possibility that head coach Jim Harbaugh’s team could have the division wrapped up before his team travels back to the Chesapeake area on Thanksgiving night to face his brother’s team, the Baltimore Ravens.

No. 1 Green Bay Packers

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    Last Week: 1 of 17

    Points This Week: 648

    So far this season, the Green Bay Packers' defensive issues do not seem to matter, and they may not with an offense this ridiculously great.

    To put it plain and simple, the Green Bay Packers offense, led by Aaron Rodgers, is disgusting. Rodgers is almost certain to win the MVP as the league’s best player. His poise in the pocket this season is Joe Montana-esque, and with a plethora of weapons, he shows no sign of letting down.

    What makes this offense so good is they have weapons everywhere you look. Rodgers relies on all of them, and not just any one of them.

    Jermichael Finley, who did not finish the year last season, is healthy and catching touchdowns. That is good news for Rodgers, who did not need him to win a Super Bowl last season, but having him makes the Pack an even better unit. Rodgers spreads the ball around like no other QB in the league.

    Jordy Nelson is on pace for 1,000 yards. Greg Jennings and James Jones seemingly never fail Rodgers, as the three of them have 1,468 combined receiving yards.

    It is scary to think, but this offense is better than the one that beat the Steelers in the Super Bowl. Only the Saints have scored more points, and the Packers can thank the Colts for that. Almost all the receivers are in their prime and know Mike McCarthy’s system well. 

    There are two issues that should raise an eyebrow, and one of them could become a major issue in December, and during the playoffs. First is the fact that Green Bay has played the second easiest schedule of any team in this poll. The combined record of the Packs' opponents so far this season is 20-32.

    Secondly, Green Bay’s defense gives up a lot of yards, but they rank 10th in points allowed.

    Now while you might say that allowing points is all that matters, keep in mind that the 28th-ranked Packers defense have not played a good offense since the Saints in Week 1, and the Panthers in Week 2.

    Green Bay’s defense started slow last season and surged at the end to make the Super Bowl run complete. and their schedule is going to get a lot tougher. Staying unbeaten is highly unlikely.

    That begins today with a trip to the west coast to play the San Diego Chargers. The Packers are coming off their bye week, and they are 2-1 in these situations over the last three seasons. The Chargers are capable of beating the Packers in San Diego, as this could actually be the game of the day.