No, the Cowboys didn’t have Tony Romo on Sunday. Perhaps beating Brandon Weeden is not all that impressive. But the Cardinals still held DeMarco Murray in check, the first foe to keep him under 100 yards rushing in a game. They still went on the road and beat what was one of the NFC’s better teams in the first half of the season. And they’re lapping the field in a supposedly rugged division, with a two-game lead in the NFC West on the Seahawks and a three-game advantage on the 49ers. Bruce Arians is looking like a runaway choice for coach of the year.
2. New England Patriots (7-2) | Previous Rank: 3
Tom Brady outplayed Peyton Manning on Sunday and improved to 11-5 in their 16 career matchups. More importantly, the Patriots gained the upper hand in the race for the top seed in the AFC playoffs, with a half-game lead on the Broncos plus the head-to-head tiebreaker advantage. New England’s schedule is tough, however. The Patriots have their bye week now but then return to face the Colts, Lions and Packers.
3. Detroit Lions (6-2) | Previous Rank: 4
The Lions have been one of the league’s top teams without two of their most dynamic offensive players, WR Calvin Johnson and RB Reggie Bush returned to practice Monday following the Lions’ bye week. With Johnson and Bush back in the lineup after being hampered by ankle injuries, is it possible that Detroit will emerge as the team to beat in the entire NFC? A Cardinals-Lions matchup in the NFC championship game is a very realistic possibility at this point.
4. Denver Broncos (6-2) | Previous Rank: 1
Peyton Manning is a tough critic of himself, saying his play “stunk” after Sunday’s 438-yard passing performance at New England. Manning wasn’t great. That’s true. But he certainly wasn’t the only culprit. The Broncos got next to nothing out of their running game. The supposedly upgraded Denver defense allowed four TD passes by Tom Brady and had no answers for Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski, who had nine catches. The Broncos’ two losses are at Seattle and at New England. There’s certainly no shame in that. But winning the Super Bowl will mean having to beat some good teams along the way. And, thanks to Sunday’s loss, it might mean having to go on the road at some point during the AFC playoffs to do it.
5. Pittsburgh Steelers (6-3) | Previous Rank: 5
Ben Roethlisberger has become the first QB ever to throw 12 TD passes over a two-game span. He also has totaled 862 passing yards while throwing zero interceptions over the past two games. The emergence of young WRs Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton to complement Antonio Brown has given Roethlisberger additional options in the passing game. LB James Harrison is playing like he’s 26 rather than 36, with four sacks over the last two games. But the Steelers must worry about the injuries suffered Sunday night by S Troy Polamalu and LB Ryan Shazier.
6. Buffalo Bills (5-3) | Previous Rank: 6
It’s a bye week filled with possibilities in Buffalo, with the Bills only a game behind the Patriots in the AFC East and in the thick of the wild-card chase. It will be a time to begin separating contenders from pretenders when the Bills return from their bye. Their next two games are against the Chiefs and Dolphins.
7. Indianapolis Colts (6-3) | Previous Rank: 7
The Colts have a two-game lead in the AFC South but still trail the Patriots, Broncos and Bengals in the chase for the top seeds in the AFC playoffs. They already lost at Denver in the opener and beat Cincinnati handily last month. After a bye week they’ll get their chance against the Patriots, hosting them in Week 11.
8. Philadelphia Eagles (6-2) | Previous Rank: 9
Mark Sanchez takes over at QB after Nick Foles’s injury. Sanchez’s situation is, in some ways, the classic case of the backup QB who has come to be held in higher esteem by not playing, and the question is whether his flaws will be exposed now that he must play. But he played decently in Sunday’s win over the Texans and many observers seem convinced he’ll do just fine in Coach Chip Kelly’s offense with good players around him. The Eagles have a little extra time to get him ready to face the Panthers on Monday night.
9. Kansas City Chiefs (5-3) | Previous Rank: 10
They have replaced the fading Chargers as the primary challenger to the Broncos in the AFC West. The Chiefs have won three straight games and now they’re only a game behind first-place Denver. They lost at Denver in Week 2 and the rematch in Kansas City comes Nov. 30.
10. Seattle Seahawks (5-3) | Previous Rank: 11
Maybe this is all that the Seahawks will be this season, a good but far-from-great team that struggles to get by even against poor competition — like the Raiders in Week 9. The expectation has been they will, at some point, return to the level they reached during the most recent postseason, and seemed to be sustaining when this season began. Perhaps that’s simply more than this season’s team can manage.
11. Cincinnati Bengals (5-2-1) | Previous Rank: 12
The Bengals have steadied themselves with two straight wins following a 0-2-1 stretch to begin October. WR Mohamed Sanu has become more than a novelty player who can deliver accurate passes on trick plays. He also has become a reliable target for QB Andy Dalton, with team-leading totals of 39 catches for 628 yards and four TDs.
12. Miami Dolphins (5-3) | Previous Rank: 17
The 37-0 victory over San Diego probably said more about the current state of the Chargers than the Dolphins. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a superb performance by Miami, with three interceptions of Philip Rivers and outstanding numbers posted by Dolphins QB Ryan Tannehill. It gets tougher this weekend, however, with a road game Sunday at Detroit.
13. Cleveland Browns (5-3) | Previous Rank: 18
The schedule toughens again with a visit Thursday night to Cincinnati. Maybe that’s a good thing for the Browns. They didn’t exactly clean up during a stretch of games as far from imposing as possible, losing to the Jaguars and then struggling to beat the Raiders and Buccaneers. Every time Johnny Manziel time seems to be nearing, Brian Hoyer manages to do something to keep himself entrenched as the Browns’ QB.
14. Green Bay Packers (5-3) | Previous Rank: 14
QB Aaron Rodgers participated in an on-field workout Monday, following the Packers’ bye week, and has vowed not to miss any time from the hamstring injury he suffered during a loss at New Orleans prior to the bye. But as the Saints game showed, it’s not just about Rodgers being able to be on the field. It’s about him being able to move and being able to be the dominant player he usually is. The Packers apparently cannot afford for him to be at much less than full capacity.
15. Dallas Cowboys (6-3) | Previous Rank: 8
Tony Romo’s back is an issue again, and so is the Cowboys’ backup QB situation after Brandon Weeden’s performance in Sunday’s loss to the Cardinals. The winning formula from earlier this season unravels if the QB can’t deliver. That allows opposing defenses to stack the line of scrimmage to stop RB DeMarco Murray. It shortens drives and puts more pressure on the Dallas defense. It’s not high-alert time yet, even after two straight losses. But a defeat Sunday to the lowly Jaguars in London wouldn’t be a good sign. Romo is to be on the trip. But shouldn’t the Cowboys be able to beat Jacksonville with Weeden and allow Romo to heal?
16. Baltimore Ravens (5-4) | Previous Rank: 13
The Ravens are the NFL’s best last-place team. But to be that, you have to be a last-place team. When you’re 5-4, it’s no time to panic. But there is cause for concern. There is a 6-3 team and there are four 5-3 teams in the AFC — and none of them are in first place in their divisions, meaning they’re all in front of the Ravens in the chase for the conference’s two wild-card playoff berths.
17. New Orleans Saints (4-4) | Previous Rank: 19
Sunday’s meeting with the 49ers at the Superdome once seemed like it would be a marquee matchup with major NFC playoff implications. Instead, it’s a relatively innocuous meeting of .500 teams struggling to be relevant. It’s not even last-stand time for the Saints, given it’s practically impossible for a team to play itself out of contention in their division.
18. San Diego Chargers (5-4) | Previous Rank: 15
Things have gotten progressively worse the last three games, with three straight defeats by increasing margins: three points to the Chiefs, 14 points to the Broncos, 37 points to the Dolphins. The Philip Rivers MVP talk has quieted and the Chargers have dropped into third place in the AFC West. They have a bye week to collect themselves, and a chance to get things righted when they return with games against the Raiders and Rams.
19. San Francisco 49ers (4-4) | Previous Rank: 16
It doesn’t get much uglier or much more disappointing than the loss to the Rams, with Colin Kaepernick sacked eight times and then losing a fumble at the goal line on the last-second QB sneak that could have saved the day. If now-or-never time hasn’t arrived already, it’s getting pretty close.
20. Minnesota Vikings (4-5) | Previous Rank: 23
They’re hanging in there with two straight victories on the heels of a three-game losing streak. Perhaps wins over the Buccaneers and Redskins don’t exactly qualify as overwhelming, but the Vikings don’t seem to mind as they have their bye week to savor their recent success. They’ll return with a game at Chicago on Nov. 16 that will give them a chance to reach .500.
21. St. Louis Rams (3-5) | Previous Rank: 24
Remember all the talk during the preseason about how deep and talented the Rams’ defensive line was? That wasn’t all that evident when St. Louis was managing only six sacks in its first seven games. But the eight-sack performance against the 49ers provided a glimpse of what the Rams’ defensive front can be. The Rams remain in last place in the NFC West but have been a factor in the division race, aiding the Cardinals’ cause by beating the Seahawks and 49ers.
22. Houston Texans (4-5) | Previous Rank: 20
Jadeveon Clowney’s rookie season continues to be a stop-and-start affair. He was sick and missed Sunday’s loss to the Eagles, that after playing one game in his return from a knee injury suffered in the season opener. The Texans also must deal now with the groin injury suffered Sunday by RB Arian Foster. They’re on their bye week, which comes at a good time since there’s plenty of regrouping needed.
23. Carolina Panthers (3-5-1) | Previous Rank: 21
The Panthers have what amounts to a mini-bye after losing last Thursday night at home to the Saints, given they don’t play again until Monday night at Philadelphia. They need it, with three straight losses and a four-game winless streak that includes a tie. The Carolina defense gets the first chance to test Mark Sanchez as the Eagles’ new starter at QB.
24. New York Giants (3-5) | Previous Rank: 22
There actually was promise to the Giants’ season when they beat the Falcons on Oct. 5 to extend their winning streak to three games and up their record to 3-2. They haven’t won since, and even their bye week didn’t help them to be particularly competitive Monday night against the Colts.
25. Chicago Bears (3-5) | Previous Rank: 25
Management has expressed support for Coach Marc Trestman, and Trestman said this week he believes he has the organization’s backing. All of which could mean very little, of course, if the Bears don’t start playing better for him.
26. Washington Redskins (3-6) | Previous Rank: 26
QB Robert Griffin III returned Sunday, and the short-lived good times ended. From the pregame bus crash to the reports of dysfunction to the Redskins’ denials to a deflating defeat leading into the bye week, it was just like last season never ended and Mike Shanahan never left. Did Colt McCoy’s Monday night in Dallas really happen?
27. Atlanta Falcons (2-6) | Previous Rank: 27
Mike Smith wasn’t fired as coach during the bye week despite a five-game losing streak and a 2-6 record. The Falcons haven’t won since a Sept. 18 victory over the Buccaneers. The rematch, not exactly eagerly awaited, comes Sunday in Tampa.
28. Tennessee Titans (2-6) | Previous Rank: 29
The bye week came and went without rookie QB Zach Mettenberger being publicly scolded by anyone for his social-media activities. At this point, even that has to be considered a positive development.
29. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1-7) | Previous Rank: 28
Give the Buccaneers this much: They haven’t given up. They played the Browns tough Sunday. But it is a long, long road to respectability for Coach Lovie Smith with this group.
30. Jacksonville Jaguars (1-8) | Previous Rank: 30
They’re off to London to face the Cowboys. Would anyone really notice if they stayed there?
31. New York Jets (1-8) | Previous Rank: 31
From Geno Smith to Michael Vick to Matt Simms, does it really matter who plays QB any more? Why not just play Simms at this point? Could he really do any worse? At least Percy Harvin played well Sunday, giving some tiny hope that something could possibly go right with this team.
32. Oakland Raiders (0-8) | Previous Rank: 32
They’re halfway to 0-16 and there’s no victory in sight, with a meeting the Broncos up next and Denver coming off a loss at New England. The Raiders made it surprisingly competitive last weekend at Seattle but the bottom-line result was all too familiar.
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