They were the beneficiary of a controversial replay ruling that helped to put them on their way to Thursday night’s win over the Chargers. But the Broncos took it from there and won by two TDs. They have played five home games and only two road games so far, and their OT loss at Seattle in September doesn’t look as impressive as it did at the time with the Seahawks’ subsequent struggles. Now it’s three straight road games beginning with Sunday’s latest Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady showdown at New England.
2. Arizona Cardinals (6-1) | Previous Rank: 6
QB Carson Palmer turned 20 completions into 329 passing yards in the win over the Eagles, largely thanks to big plays by WRs Larry Fitzgerald and John Brown. The Cardinals continue to erase any doubts and reinforce that they are among the NFL’s top teams. The notion that they are merely keeping the first-place seat warm in the NFC West for either the Seahawks or the 49ers to settle into it later this season just might be misguided. It’s looking increasingly likely that the Cardinals are the division’s best team. Certainly there are few coaches that you’d rather have at the moment than Bruce Arians.
3. New England Patriots (6-2) | Previous Rank: 7
If TE Rob Gronkowski stays healthy and in the lineup, he’s a difference-maker on offense and the Patriots are a contender to win the Super Bowl title that has eluded them since QB Tom Brady and Coach Bill Belichick won their third in the 2004 season. Gronkowski’s re-emergence has coincided with Brady’s four-game revival since the ugly Monday night loss in Kansas City. Sunday’s game against the Broncos could be a significant factor in determining the top seed in the AFC playoffs.
4. Detroit Lions (6-2) | Previous Rank: 9
The Lions relatively quietly have positioned themselves as a serious NFC contender. They got lucky Sunday in London with the delay-of-game penalty that gave PK Matt Prater a do-over on his game-winning FG. But they had to fight back from a 21-0 deficit against the Falcons for that kick to matter. They’re on their bye week now and that could give WR Calvin Johnson time to heal fully after being inactive for three straight games because of his ankle sprain.
5. Pittsburgh Steelers (5-3) | Previous Rank: 11
Ben Roethlisberger’s 522-yard passing performance vs. the Colts was even more impressive because it came against a defense that has played well this season. The Steelers finally have a two-game winning streak after alternating victories and defeats in the season’s first six games. They lost in Week 2 at Baltimore and now must hold serve when they host the Ravens on Sunday night.
6. Buffalo Bills (5-3) | Previous Rank: 12
The Bills aren’t going away. They’re hanging in there as they try to reach the playoffs for the first time since the 1999 season and end the league’s longest postseason drought. They enter their bye week having won two straight and three of four games, and they’re only a game in back of the first-place Patriots in the AFC East. The injury-depleted running game didn’t produce much in the win over the Jets but it didn’t matter. Rookie WR Sammy Watkins lost a TD with a too-early celebration but otherwise continues to prosper with three catches for 157 yards against the Jets, his second straight 100-yard receiving game.
7. Indianapolis Colts (5-3) | Previous Rank: 2
Andrew Luck couldn’t quite keep up with Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh. What should be more alarming to the Colts is that they couldn’t sack Roethlisberger even once nor manage an interception. The defense will have to perform far better against Eli Manning and the Giants on Monday night at the Meadowlands. Luck has topped 300 passing yards in six straight games after throwing for 400 yards against the Steelers.
8. Dallas Cowboys (6-2) | Previous Rank: 3
Tony Romo showed great toughness Monday night. But he and the Dallas offense looked completely clueless against the Redskins’ blitzes. Were the Cowboys exposed? The offense actually functioned better with backup QB Brandon Weeden in the game. But the Cowboys at least said Romo escaped with nothing more than a back contusion.
9. Philadelphia Eagles (5-2) | Previous Rank: 5
The Eagles played reasonably well in Arizona but lost to a team playing extremely well. QB Nick Foles was one of the league’s four 400-yard passers Sunday but he threw two more interceptions. His turnovers continue to be an issue. The Eagles have another road game, this time in Houston, as they attempt to bounce back this weekend.
10. Kansas City Chiefs (4-3) | Previous Rank: 13
QB Alex Smith has a sprained throwing shoulder but the Chiefs hope that he’ll practice Wednesday and play Sunday. Is he really needed? The Chiefs have a virtual bye, facing the Jets at home.
11. Seattle Seahawks (4-3) | Previous Rank: 15
The drama continues with widespread speculation over the weekend that RB Marshawn Lynch will not be back with the team beyond this season because the organization has grown weary of dealing with him. No one ever said trying to defend the Super Bowl title would be easy. The offense continued to struggle Sunday at Carolina but QB Russell Wilson delivered the go-ahead TD pass late and the defense finished off the victory. No one in the league should be intimidated by the Seahawks at the moment but they do get to play at home against the winless Raiders this weekend.
12. Cincinnati Bengals (4-2-1) | Previous Rank: 16
They righted themselves Sunday by beating the Ravens for their first and only October win following a 0-2-1 stretch. But even with their struggles, the Bengals have two victories over the Ravens this season and get to face the Jaguars this weekend. WR A.J. Green is pledging to return to the lineup Sunday after missing three games with a toe injury.
13. Baltimore Ravens (5-3) | Previous Rank: 8
The Ravens have no legitimate complaint about the offensive pass interference penalty on WR Steve Smith that negated a go-ahead TD in the final minute in Cincinnati. Smith clearly pushed off to make the catch. The Ravens have no time to sulk, with a Sunday night game at Pittsburgh this weekend and Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger coming off his second career 500-yard passing game. They must face Roethlisberger without CB Jimmy Smith, who is to be sidelined for a few weeks by a foot sprain.
14. Green Bay Packers (5-3) | Previous Rank: 4
Green Bay has its bye and QB Aaron Rodgers vows that he won’t miss any playing time after grabbing his left hamstring following a scramble out of bounds during Sunday night’s loss at New Orleans. That’s good news for the Packers but what happened after Rodgers got hurt shows how reliant this team is on him to be a transcendent player who covers for flaws elsewhere. Green Bay wasn’t particularly competitive in the game once it was clear that Rodgers was slowed. He appeared virtually unstoppable before the injury occurred but threw two interceptions, after going interception-free since the season opener, thereafter.
15. San Diego Chargers (5-3) | Previous Rank: 10
Rookie RB Branden Oliver couldn’t find any running room during Thursday night’s loss at Denver after being productive earlier in the season. The Chargers need to be able to run the ball effectively to give QB Philip Rivers some help. They’re on their first two-game losing streak of the season and face a cross-country trip to play a challenging road game Sunday at Miami.
16. San Francisco 49ers (4-3) | Previous Rank: 14
There have been reports that Aldon Smith’s nine-game suspension by the NFL could be shortened. Fellow LB NaVorro Bowman continues to work his way back from the knee injury that he suffered during last season’s NFC title game. DT Glenn Dorsey has started practicing. Those reinforcements should be returning to the lineup in the coming weeks, and the 49ers badly need the help.
17. Miami Dolphins (4-3) | Previous Rank: 17
They grabbed the win that Jaguars rookie QB Blake Bortles gift-wrapped for them Sunday and now the Dolphins are back above .500. Philip Rivers is unlikely to be as generous when the Chargers visit Miami this weekend.
18. Cleveland Browns (4-3) | Previous Rank: 20
The Browns flirted with the possibility of losing to previously winless teams in consecutive weeks. But after the defeat to the Jaguars, the Browns regrouped late to beat the Raiders. Many of the team’s fans seem increasingly eager to see rookie QB Johnny Manziel but the job remains Brian Hoyer’s, at least for now.
19. New Orleans Saints (3-4) | Previous Rank: 23
Some seem ready to pronounce the Saints’ ills cured now that they’ve beaten the Packers at home. But the fact remains that they’re still below .500 and they’re yet to win a game away from the Superdome this season. Even if they make the playoffs thanks to the sorry state of the NFC South, the Saints aren’t headed to being the NFC’s top postseason seed and they’re going to have to show at some point they can win on the road. TE Jimmy Graham’s improved performance Sunday night might be an indication that his shoulder is feeling better.
20. Washington Redskins (3-5) | Previous Rank: 25
There is no reason to rush back Robert Griffin III. Colt McCoy, until recently the No. 3 QB, should keep the job for at least one more week. The Redskins played with passion and intensity in Monday night’s victory at Dallas. Griffin will have his chance soon enough to come back and try to show he’s the franchise’s long-term answer at QB. For now, the Redskins should see what McCoy can give them in the short term. Defensive coordinator Jim Haslett called a brilliant game against the Cowboys, who didn’t have answers for the Redskins’ blitzes and pass-rushing stunts.
21. Houston Texans (4-4) | Previous Rank: 24
The Texans ended a three-game losing streak with Sunday’s road win over the Titans and rookie QB Zach Mettenberger. The Texans return home this weekend but the task gets far tougher, with the Eagles coming to town. Rookie LB Jadeveon Clowney played 32 snaps in Tennessee in his return from knee surgery, and had what Coach Bill O’Brien called a decent game. Clowney’s workload is expected to increase gradually.
22. Carolina Panthers (3-4-1) | Previous Rank: 19
The Panthers gave the Seahawks a tough game but couldn’t get in the end zone and lost on a late Seattle TD. The Saints come to town next for a Thursday night game that, barring a tie, at least will give the pitiable NFC South a first-place team with a .500 record.
23. New York Giants (3-4) | Previous Rank: 22
The Giants return from their bye with two straight losses and a difficult upcoming schedule. The next four games are against the Colts, Seahawks, 49ers and Cowboys. There is a run of seemingly winnable games following that. But the Giants must jump-start their play right now for their December games to matter.
24. Minnesota Vikings (3-5) | Previous Rank: 26
It was quite a day Sunday for the Vikings’ first-round draft picks in May, LB Anthony Barr and QB Teddy Bridgewater. Bridgewater threw for 241 yards and a TD against the Buccaneers, and Barr won the game with a TD in OT on a return of a fumble recovery. That makes an entire organization look good.
25. St. Louis Rams (2-5) | Previous Rank: 18
The injuries continue to pile up and now Greg Robinson, the second overall selection in the NFL draft in May, takes over at left tackle midway through his rookie season. He is potentially the most significant player chosen by the Rams with the picks obtained from the Redskins in the Robert Griffin III trade. So his progress at the high-profile position, after he began his NFL career at guard, is worth watching closely.
26. Chicago Bears (3-5) | Previous Rank: 21
The Bears showed their versatility Sunday: They can be just as awful on the road as they have been at home. They had been 3-1 on the road before being overwhelmed at New England. Things seem to be unraveling rather quickly now. The Bears have a bye week to try to regroup. But is it too late?
27. Atlanta Falcons (2-6) | Previous Rank: 28
The Falcons’ downward spiral since reaching the NFC championship game in the 2012 season has led to increasing speculation that owner Arthur Blank could dismiss Mike Smith as coach. The Falcons are 6-18 since the start of last season and they’re on a bye week. The squandered three-TD lead in Sunday’s defeat to the Lions in London came with some misfortune, as in the delay-of-game penalty that enabled Detroit to re-do the game-winning FG it initially had missed, but there also were some questionable clock-management moves by the Falcons down the stretch.
28. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1-6) | Previous Rank: 29
With the Jets’ Geno Smith and the Bills’ EJ Manuel both having been benched in recent weeks, Tampa’s Mike Glennon is the lone QB in the 2013 NFL draft class still starting. The Buccaneers overcame a 10-0 deficit to take a 13-10 lead Sunday over the Vikings. That only served to increase the disappointment when Minnesota got a tying FG at the end of regulation and won in OT on LB Anthony Barr’s TD on a return of a fumble recovery.
29. Tennessee Titans (2-6) | Previous Rank: 30
Rookie QB Zach Mettenberger received a public scolding by Texans DE J.J. Watt for the “selfies” that he posted of himself leading up to his first NFL start. Watt’s point was that he takes his job seriously and thinks Mettenberger should do the same. But, really, nothing that Mettenberger did was all that awful. He settled down after a bad beginning to play well after halftime in the loss to Houston as he inherits the Titans’ QB-of-the-future role from Jake Locker.
30. Jacksonville Jaguars (1-7) | Previous Rank: 27
Rookie QB Blake Bortles had two interceptions returned for TDs by the Dolphins in Sunday’s loss. He’s had four interceptions returned for TDs this season. Bortles also lost a fumble and committed three turnovers Sunday. It’s six turnovers in the last two games and 13 turnovers in six games this season. It’s the painful-to-endure part of the development process.
31. New York Jets (1-7) | Previous Rank: 31
GM John Idzik announced Monday that the Jets won’t evaluate or publicly discuss Coach Rex Ryan’s job status until after the season. But is there really much doubt any longer about how it’s going to turn out? And does it really matter any longer who starts at QB? Michael Vick gets the starting nod this week but he and Geno Smith had three turnovers apiece in Sunday’s loss to the Bills.
32. Oakland Raiders (0-7) | Previous Rank: 32
They’re 0-7 and their next three games are at Seattle, at home against the Broncos and at San Diego. That means 0-10 is likely. Look at the remaining schedule and try to find a win somewhere on it for the Raiders. It’s not easy. Maybe a Nov. 30 game at St. Louis is the one to circle.
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