The win over the lowly Raiders wasn’t particularly impressive, but Philip Rivers did his best to put a positive spin on it, talking about how important it was for the Chargers to persevere and emerge with a victory after trailing by 21-14 and 28-21 in the second half. Undrafted rookie RB Branden Oliver continued to be a major contributor by rushing for 101 yards and the game-winning TD. But the defense surrendering four passing TDs by Oakland rookie Derek Carr is a concern.
2. Denver Broncos (4-1) | Previous Rank: 3
Peyton Manning threw three TD passes in Sunday’s win over the Jets and is now two away from Brett Favre’s NFL career record of 508. He could tie or break the mark Sunday night at home against the 49ers. Games against the Chargers and Patriots loom after that, so the Broncos are entering a difficult stretch of the schedule. Manning isn’t getting all that much help from the league’s 26th-ranked rushing offense but Ronnie Hillman ran for 100 yards against the Jets in his first NFL start.
3. Indianapolis Colts (4-2) | Previous Rank: 4
Owner Jim Irsay’s six-game suspension by the NFL ended after last Thursday night’s triumph at Houston and he returns to a first-place team with four straight wins and a 4-2 record. The Colts have had a mini-bye to rest and recuperate since sprinting to an early lead and then holding on to prevail against the Texans. QB Andrew Luck leads the league in passing yards and TD passes and has emerged as a top MVP candidate early in the season alongside Philip Rivers, Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, DeMarco Murray and J.J. Watt. The Colts host the Bengals on Sunday in their lone home game in a four-game stretch, which began with the Houston game.
4. Dallas Cowboys (5-1) | Previous Rank: 6
There is no denying now that this team is a legitimate contender, not after Sunday’s performance in Seattle. The offense can win a game in different ways and the defense held Russell Wilson and the Seahawks totally in check. Clearly this is a two-team race in the NFC East, with the Eagles also off to a 5-1 start. The Cowboys lost their season finale the previous three seasons with trips to the playoffs at stake. The way they’re playing now, they could avoid such a scenario and have a postseason berth wrapped up well before Week 17.
5. Green Bay Packers (4-2) | Previous Rank: 5
Aaron Rodgers worked his late-game magic Sunday at Miami and suddenly the Packers have things going, with wins in three straight and four of five games. Rodgers has elevated the Packers to contender status in the past when they had shortcomings in their running game, along the offensive line and on defense. That might have to be the case again this season, with Green Bay ranked 24th in the league in rushing offense, last in rushing defense and 19th in total defense.
6. San Francisco 49ers (4-2) | Previous Rank: 7
The 49ers started slowly but finished fast to win Monday night in St. Louis. They are finding ways to stay in the thick of the playoff race even with all the turmoil about Coach Jim Harbaugh’s relationship with his players, and with more and more defensive standouts not in the lineup. Patrick Willis exited Monday night’s game with a toe injury. The defense already was without the injured NaVorro Bowman and the suspended Aldon Smith.
7. Philadelphia Eagles (5-1) | Previous Rank: 8
The defense totally shut down Eli Manning and the Giants in Sunday night’s shutout victory. It might be nitpicking after a 27-point win, but QB Nick Foles continues to make some questionable decisions and is throwing too many interceptions. The bye week comes at a good time with RB Darren Sproles needing at least a couple weeks to heal from a sprained MCL in his left knee.
8. Arizona Cardinals (4-1) | Previous Rank: 9
Carson Palmer returned to make his first start since the season opener after dealing with a nerve issue and an ailing right shoulder. He perhaps wasn’t at his sharpest Sunday, but it was only the Redskins that the Cardinals were playing. They’re in first place in a rugged division even while being without their starting QB for three-fifths of their season. Drew Stanton deserves credit for keeping the Cardinals winning in Palmer’s absence. The Seahawks’ early-season vulnerabilities leave an opening for the Cardinals and 49ers to make a competitive race of it.
9. New England Patriots (4-2) | Previous Rank: 10
Was it really only a couple weeks ago that Tom Brady was playing like an old man, the Patriots were searching for answers and the QB job supposedly was about to be handed to Jimmy Garoppolo sooner rather than later? The Patriots’ world is back in order now. Brady looks like himself again and the Patriots are back in sole possession of first place in the AFC East. But the losses of LB Jerod Mayo and RB Stevan Ridley to season-ending knee injuries will hurt.
10. Baltimore Ravens (4-2) | Previous Rank: 12
Steve Smith continues to have a tremendous first season with the Ravens but fellow WR Torrey Smith finally got going Sunday with a pair of TD catches. There were plenty to go around as QB Joe Flacco threw four TD passes in the opening quarter and five in all. The Ravens had no problems despite playing two rookies on the left side of their offensive line. It didn’t hurt that the Buccaneers left receivers running free in the secondary repeatedly in the game’s early going. The Ravens won a game they were supposed to win in Tampa and now must do the same Sunday at home against the Falcons.
11. Seattle Seahawks (3-2) | Previous Rank: 2
Were those really the Seahawks out there Sunday? The same Seahawks who were practically unbeatable at home the previous two seasons and who looked like they had a defense for the ages in claiming the Super Bowl? That defense was pushed around by the Cowboys’ offensive line. The offense couldn’t get much going against the Dallas defense except when the Cowboys handed the Seahawks points with special-teams gaffes. Perhaps this was the Seahawks’ wake-up call. But the other possibility is that they’re simply not the same team they were last season. Their play has been uneven on the road and now the rest of the league knows they can be beaten at home, too.
12. Detroit Lions (4-2) | Previous Rank: 17
The kicking issues persist, with Matt Prater missing two FG attempts in his debut to fit right in with predecessors Nate Freese and Alex Henery. The Lions can only cross their fingers and hope that Prater works out his problems and recaptures last season’s Pro Bowl form. Changing kickers on a virtual weekly basis hasn’t been the answer. But the performance against the Vikings was otherwise promising. The defense shut down Teddy Bridgewater and the offense found a way to win minus Calvin Johnson and Reggie Bush. This is a very good, but not great, team in a conference that seems filled with them.
13. Cincinnati Bengals (3-1-1) | Previous Rank: 11
Things have stalled with a loss and a tie since a 3-0 start. A missed field goal by Mike Nugent at the end of OT Sunday against the Panthers was one obvious culprit. The offense certainly needs WR A.J. Green to return as soon as possible from his toe injury. But beyond that, the defense needs to improve its level of play. The Bengals have allowed 80 points in the last two games and are ranked 28th in the NFL in total defense.
14. Carolina Panthers (3-2-1) | Previous Rank: 14
Carolina was fortunate to escape with the tie against the Bengals. Cincinnati scored first in OT — the Panthers responded with a tying FG — which set the stage for the Nugent miss at the end of the extra session. Carolina QB Cam Newton was brilliant by throwing for 284 yards and running for 107 more. But the Panthers have only one win, plus the tie, in their past four games and now must face the Packers, Seahawks, Saints and Eagles over the next four weeks.
15. Cleveland Browns (3-2) | Previous Rank: 20
Yes, the Browns are for real. Coach Mike Pettine and QB Brian Hoyer have seen to that. They’ve been competitive in every game and they completely outplayed the Steelers on Sunday. Hoyer is thriving even without suspended WR Josh Gordon. Can the Browns be a legitimate playoff contender? That might be a bit of a stretch. But it cannot be completely ruled out at this point, and they already have taken several significant steps back toward respectability.
16. Chicago Bears (3-3) | Previous Rank: 23
The Bears are 3-1 on the road after winning Sunday at Atlanta. They need to play better at home, where they’re 0-2 entering Sunday’s meeting with the Dolphins. QB Jay Cutler is coming off a 381-yard passing performance against the Falcons, and WRs Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall each topped 110 receiving yards. It was the first 100-yard receiving game of the season for Marshall.
17. New York Giants (3-3) | Previous Rank: 13
The Giants had their three-game winning streak ended and looked overmatched while being shut out Sunday night in Philadelphia. The pass protection broke down, surrendering eight sacks, and the Giants lost WR Victor Cruz for the rest of the season due to a torn patellar tendon in his right knee. Rookie WR Odell Beckham Jr. must contribute more now. And there’s no time to sulk, with a second straight road game against an NFC East co-leader coming this Sunday, this time at Dallas.
18. Pittsburgh Steelers (3-3) | Previous Rank: 15
Something is seriously wrong when Ben Roethlisberger can’t even beat the Browns. He’d been 18-1 against them until Sunday’s loss in Cleveland. The Steelers now have suffered defeats to the Buccaneers and Browns this season and find themselves in last place in the AFC North despite being a respectable 3-3.
19. Buffalo Bills (3-3) | Previous Rank: 16
The Bills had their chance Sunday to make a bold statement by beating the Patriots at home in the Pegulas’ first game as owners and take over sole possession of first place in the AFC East. It didn’t happen, as Kyle Orton’s second start since taking over for EJ Manuel at QB wasn’t as productive as his first. If another season unravels from here, that day will go down as a major missed opportunity.
20. New Orleans Saints (2-3) | Previous Rank: 18
The bye week ends for the Saints but Jimmy Graham may not see any action this Sunday at Detroit. He reportedly is to be sidelined by a shoulder injury. The pre-bye OT win over the Buccaneers kept the Saints’ season from falling apart completely but they need to play far better than they played in the early stages if they’re going to be a factor in the NFC playoff chase.
21. Kansas City Chiefs (2-3) | Previous Rank: 21
The Chiefs return from their bye with a tough game Sunday at San Diego. The Rams and Jets are on the schedule after that. So if Kansas City could somehow find a way to beat the Chargers, the Chiefs could make it a three-team race in the AFC West.
22. Miami Dolphins (2-3) | Previous Rank: 19
The Miami defense couldn’t stop Aaron Rodgers and the Packers in crunch time Sunday and the season seems to be slipping away from the Dolphins. The opening win over the Patriots was promising but they’ve gone 1-3 since.
23. Houston Texans (3-3) | Previous Rank: 22
J.J. Watt is doing it all on defense, even scoring three TDs (one on offense) this season. He is among the league’s best players on either side of the ball. The Texans rallied to make it close Thursday night against the Colts but couldn’t quite do enough down the stretch to get a win. They are, oddly, ranked 27th in the league in total defense but fourth in scoring defense. Rookie LB Jadeveon Clowney could return to the lineup for Monday night’s game at Pittsburgh. He has been sidelined since hurting his knee in the season opener.
24. Minnesota Vikings (2-4) | Previous Rank: 24
Teddy Bridgewater’s second NFL start was far less successful than his first. But that’s the way it goes with rookie QBs. The Vikings will have to live with the ups and downs. Coach Mike Zimmer is showing far less patience with his players’ tardiness and lack of performance, now threatening to cut playing time for those who fail to meet his expectations. It’s too bad that Zimmer’s head coaching chance comes under these circumstances because he is an excellent coach.
25. Tennessee Titans (2-4) | Previous Rank: 30
Okay, so the Titans are better than the Jaguars. Barely. That isn’t saying much. Tennessee just managed to hold on at home to beat winless Jacksonville. The Titans-Redskins matchup Sunday at FedEx Field makes for another virtually unwatchable game.
26. Atlanta Falcons (2-4) | Previous Rank: 25
The hopes for a bounce-back season have been dimmed by three straight losses. Each has been by a margin of at least 10 points. Things don’t get any easier this Sunday with a trip to Baltimore.
27. St. Louis Rams (1-4) | Previous Rank: 27
QB Austin Davis and the Rams got off to a quick first-quarter start Monday night against the 49ers but couldn’t sustain it. St. Louis was done in by a defensive blunder in allowing San Francisco’s long TD pass at the end of the first half, plus a lack of pressure on Niners QB Colin Kaepernick and an offense that disappeared. So much for all that building with the draft picks obtained in the Robert Griffin III trade. Davis has had some good moments since the Rams settled on him to replace the injured Sam Bradford, but is it enough for him to be regarded as the long-term solution at QB?
28. Washington Redskins (1-5) | Previous Rank: 28
Remember when the issue was that the Redskins might have one too many capable QBs, in Robert Griffin III and Kirk Cousins? That seems like a long, long time ago now. The current question is whether the Redskins even have one legitimate NFL starter at the position. Cousins has failed to do enough so far to be a candidate to keep the starting job when Griffin returns from his dislocated ankle. The coaches may have changed but the problems remain the same. LB Ryan Kerrigan is having a productive season but he’s had far too little help from the Redskins’ other would-be top pass rushers, LB Brian Orakpo and DE Jason Hatcher.
29. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1-5) | Previous Rank: 26
The defense had no answers Sunday for Joe Flacco and the Ravens. The Buccaneers didn’t quit but they’re simply not very good. Second-year QB Mike Glennon was hit often by the Ravens but managed to throw for 314 yards and two TDs. It will be a long, long first season for Coach Lovie Smith in Tampa.
30. New York Jets (1-5) | Previous Rank: 29
Rex Ryan is saying that the effort is there and vowing that the Jets won’t give up on their season. But there is a feeling of inevitability to everything now. Ryan’s job clearly is on the line and he isn’t finding a way to get any results. It will be interesting to see if he can coax a better performance out of his players Thursday night against the Patriots, in a season in which most of the NFL’s Thursday night games have been ridiculously one-sided.
31. Oakland Raiders (0-5) | Previous Rank: 32
The Raiders squandered their second-half lead and lost to the Chargers but move up a spot in the rankings thanks to the improved performance under interim coach Tony Sparano. Rookie QB Derek Carr didn’t miss a game, thanks to the bye week, after suffering knee and ankle injuries two weeks earlier and was a standout against San Diego by throwing for 282 yards and four TDs. But he also threw a late interception to seal the Raiders’ fate.
32. Jacksonville Jaguars (0-6) | Previous Rank: 31
Is a winless season now in play? If the Jaguars can’t beat the Titans, who are they going to beat? It now seems that it will take a fluke for them to get a victory. They get the Titans, next time at home, in the second-to-last game of the season. Rookie QB Blake Bortles played well in Tennessee but it wasn’t enough.
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