It is almost the end of Week 10 of the NFL season, and it's starting to become clear who the class of the league is. We've already determined who can make the cut and who cannot.
And then we have some teams that are still trying to break through. For awhile, we all doubted how good the 49ers actually were, but here they are at 8-1.Anyone predict that?
If you raised your hand, you're lying, and that's just bad character.
Despite some debate, these 10 teams have stepped up to prove their worth this far into 2011. You have to believe that people are truly excited for the NFL playoffs already.
These 10 teams are the best in the league right now, and are are the top teams that will compete for the Super Bowl championship.
Cincinnati Bengals: Are you a believer yet? The Cincinnati Bengals are 6-3, and they've been criticized for having only one quality victory over Buffalo (maybe two, depending on how you feel about Tennessee), but you can't argue that they made Pittsburgh sweat a little bit.
Andy Dalton wasn't great, but he made some phenomenal throws and at least five of his passes were dropped. Cincinnati gave the defending AFC Champions a game, and proved they've got plenty of potential not just going forward, but in 2011.
New York Jets: The only thing keeping them out of the Top 10 was the thrashing they took against the Patriots. Jets' fans don't need to panic—this team is built for the playoffs.
Rex Ryan is one of the best defensive coaches in the game, and his defense has gotten the Jets to the AFC title game in back-to-back seasons. New York will recover.
Dallas Cowboys: Say what you want about how clutch Tony Romo is, but he's got a Top 10 passer rating this season. He was basically flawless in Dallas' Week 10 blowout against Buffalo.
The Cowboys certainly have a lot to work with, as Romo is having a decent season and DeMarco Murray is emerging as a good running back. Lots of weapons on this team going forward, and I like Jason Garret as the team's head coach.
What in the name of God happened to this team?
After starting the year at a very dominant 5-0, they've dropped three of four games, including a slaughtering by the Chicago Bears in Week 10.
There is a reason that I think the Bears will beat out the Lions for an NFC Wild Card spot—the Lions are not a total package. They're a good passing team and pretty good on the pass rush.
When you look at the running game on both sides of the football, they're not that good. Jahvid Best is having an injury-marred season, and doesn't really have a suitable replacement. Maurice Morris can't carry himself as an NFL starter.
The Lions have a lot to build on, and they will most likely be in the 2012 playoffs, but I don't see 2011 happening for them. They've lost to most of the quality teams they've faced. I give them credit for wins at home against Chicago and in Dallas, but there's still a lot missing.
Despite what's missing, you have to be impressed with Detroit's turnaround. Good to see Calvin Johnson finally see some team success as opposed to lone success.
It appears that the once-dominant Ravens' defense is beginning to show its age. They allowed Tarvaris Jackson and Marshawn Lynch to drop 22 points on them. That's got to hurt.
After an impressive victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Ravens marched into Seattle and lost to the lowly Seahawks. Even after nine games, we can't tell what Baltimore's identity is.
Despite impressive victories and a lot of talent, they continue to drop games to questionable teams. They're 6-3 and all in all, no one on the team is having a "bad" season, but I've never seen one team be so inconsistent.
They get the Bengals at home in Week 11, and that won't be an easy game.
There is absolutely no shame in a loss to San Francisco, but it does bring down the Giants' stock just a little bit.
I'm very hesitant to put them in the top five, as this seems to be a yearly thing for the Giants—start off well, finish lousy. Nine games into the season, you can't argue with how impressive Eli Manning has been.
He's thrown for 17 touchdowns and only eight interceptions. He had a 300-yard performance against a tough Niners' defense, which speaks volumes about his season.
The team is suffering without Ahmad Bradshaw right now, but he'll be back soon enough. They're in first place, and I don't see them slowing down.
I didn't want to be a believer in the Chicago Bears, but you can't help but be impressed with their ability to win ball games in different ways.
They blew away the Lions behind two defensive scores and a Devin Hester return. The offense didn't perform that well at all, but the Bears still put up nearly 40 points.
The Bears' three losses this year have come in New Orleans, against the Packers and then in Detroit. Those are what I'll call "good victories." There is no reason to doubt that the Bears can make another deep run in the NFC.
They've got four straight games against the AFC West coming up, and that should be four straight wins for this team, or at least three out of four.
It is a feasible statement to say that Drew Brees could collect another 5,000-yard season in 2011. He's played 10 games so far, and he has over 3,300 yards. He is averaging over 300 yards per game.
Overall, the Saints are the (statistically) best offense in the NFL. As it has been for the last couple years, the defense really isn't great and is very unpredictable. Still, the Saints won in Atlanta, which is difficult to do during the Matt Ryan-Mike Smith era.
Experts and fans alike like the Saints to go back to the Super Bowl, but I don't see it. I know that Drew Brees is who he is, and aside from Aaron Rodgers, he's the best in the league (that's right, Manning and Brady, I said it). There are too many inconsistencies on this team for them to go that far.
Just ask the Rams.
The Patriots are in first place, have one of the league's best offenses and just beat their division rivals pretty handily, despite being on the road.
Still, they're lucky to be classified this high on the list. For me, it's more to do with the Belichick-Brady combination. They just win, and it's that simple.
In reality, Tom Brady has thrown 10 picks in 2011 after having only four in all of 2010. The running game isn't great, only averaging 100 yards per game.
As for the defense, that part of the team isn't getting them anywhere. There are way too many holes on the Pats' defense and that is eventually going to catch up to them. Right now, the offense is managing to be strong enough to overcome the defense, but I find that this will be the last year the Patriots remain this tough.
The defending AFC champs marched right into Cincinnati and halted the Bengals' momentum. It was impressive, but not easy.
With the victory, they took back first place in the AFC North as they head into their bye week. Their defense is playing tough, as they always do. That is winning them ball games.
The offense isn't particularly great, which I think is going to limit them when it comes time for the postseason. Ben Roethlisberger is good, but he's not great. Rashard Mendenhall is a so-so runner, at least this season.
Pittsburgh is 7-3 behind tough defensive play and they will need to continue to play that way. An inconsistent offense won't carry this team.
Wade Phillips may have failed as a head coach in Dallas, but he's certainly come through for the Houston defense. They're first in the league in terms of total yards per game. What's more impressive is that they're doing it without Mario Williams.
What has really fueled Houston this year is the running game. Arian Foster is now teamed up with Ben Tate, and the two of them form the best running duo in the NFL. Since their loss to Baltimore on October 16, the Texans have been rolling.
They're heading into the bye week with a game and a half advantage on the Titans. Adding to the Texans' fire will be Andre Johnson, who is expected to return after the bye week.
Watch out for Houston, as they could surprise the AFC with a deep run.
Who isn't a believer in the 49ers yet? You are outside of your mind if you still think that this team is a fluke.
Let's take a look at some of the wins they've collected this year: in Cincinnati, in Philadelphia (before the Eagles got really bad), in Detroit and against the Giants. Each of those are good victories that show that this team can play.
It helps the Niners even more that they're going to sweep their very poor decision. If they win less than five games in their division, I'll go back to believing they're a fluke, but that's not going to happen.
Their defense is way to dominant and their offense is too efficient. I use the word "efficient" for the offense, not so much "effective." No one on the offense is all that great, but they make enough plays to get the wins, and that is efficient.
Efficiency will take the 49ers a long way.
After the Packers steamroll the Minnesota Vikings tonight, they will be 9-0 in 2011 and will have won 15 consecutive ball games.
They're playing the best football in the game, despite a defense that has yet to show up to the field. Aaron Rodgers continues to overpower defenses all around the league.
There are only two games remaining on the Packers' schedule that could deter a 16-0 season: in Detroit on Thanksgiving and against the Giants as visitors the following week.
Those will be tough games, but you have to believe that if they win those games, they're going to be unbeaten.
Green Bay will have home-field advantage throughout the playoffs and win another Super Bowl.