2. Denver Broncos (7-0) | Last Week: 5
That was the Peyton Manning of old, not an old Peyton Manning, that was on display Sunday night. He completely outplayed Aaron Rodgers. If Manning can be anything close to that player for the remainder of the season, the Denver defense will have the help that it needs for this team to be a formidable challenger to the Patriots and Bengals for AFC supremacy. Veteran TE Vernon Davis, obtained in a trade Monday with the 49ers, is not the player he once was, with 18 catches this season and 44 catches since the start of last season. But he fills a need and might help.
3. Cincinnati Bengals (7-0) | Last Week: 3
QB Andy Dalton wasn’t at his best in Pittsburgh but still managed to make the plays late necessary to pull out the win. The victory all but sealed the AFC North title less than halfway through the Bengals’ season. But there should be no loss of focus or intensity on their part. Their goals for this season should be considerably bigger, and their competition now is with the Patriots and Broncos for playoff seeding.
4. Carolina Panthers (7-0) | Last Week: 4
It didn’t have to be a thriller Monday night as a sudden loss of intensity and mistakes by the Panthers, including Graham Gano’s missed extra point, helped the Colts get even in the fourth quarter. But Gano redeemed himself with two field goals in OT, including the 52-yard game-winner. The Panthers continue to find a way.
5. Minnesota Vikings (5-2) | Last Week: 6
The Vikings cut it close in Chicago but managed to do what was necessary to prevail. With the Packers’ misstep in Denver, the division title is not out of the question for Minnesota.
6. Green Bay Packers (6-1) | Last Week: 2
It was a shockingly poor performance not only by Aaron Rodgers but by the entire Green Bay team Sunday night in Denver. There is no major cause for alarm after only one poor game. But this weekend brings another tough matchup at Carolina. If the Packers don’t get things together, there will be reason to wonder if they can compete with the NFL’s elite teams.
7. Arizona Cardinals (6-2) | Last Week: 7
Carson Palmer carved up the Cleveland defense and remains very much in the league MVP conversation. The Cardinals now have their bye week to rest and begin to prepare for a Sunday night game at Seattle on Nov. 15 that could tilt the division race heavily in their favor.
8. Seattle Seahawks (4-4) | Last Week: 13
Nothing is easy for the Seahawks these days, not even beating the Matt Cassel-led Cowboys. The Seahawks continue to benefit from officiating gaffes. On Sunday, the officials should have ignored Pete Carroll attempting to call a second consecutive timeout. If they’d done so, Seattle would have been penalized for having too many players on the field on a FG by Dallas and the Cowboys would have had a first down and a chance to score a TD in what ended up being a one-point game. Earlier this season, the NFL admitted that the officials missed an illegal batting of the football by the Seahawks in the end zone to cost the Lions a late chance to win in Seattle.
9. St. Louis Rams (4-3) | Last Week: 14
Rookie RB Todd Gurley quite obviously is the real deal. He is a game-changing player and the Rams have every reason to believe they finally can break through and be a legitimate playoff contender.
10. New Orleans Saints (4-4) | Last Week: 15
Drew Brees’s seven TD passes Sunday were as many as Peyton Manning has this season.
11. Oakland Raiders (4-3) | Last Week: 16
How about a Raiders-Rams Super Bowl? The winner gets the L.A. market.
12. Atlanta Falcons (6-2) | Last Week: 8
Okay, maybe beginning to believe in the Falcons wasn’t the right thing to do. Six wins at the season’s halfway point still is a significant accomplishment, especially with a first-year coach in Dan Quinn. But a true contender does not lose at home to a rookie QB and a team like the Buccaneers.
13. New York Jets (4-3) | Last Week: 9
The Jets are back to being the Jets. So much for that un-Jets-like beginning to the season. Reality has set back in with a couple losses and major issues again at QB.
14. New York Giants (4-4) | Last Week: 10
If Jason Pierre-Paul can simultaneously rush the passer and cover receivers down the field, his return—whenever it happens—will fix all the problems on the Giants’ defense.
15. Pittsburgh Steelers (4-4) | Last Week: 11
QB Ben Roethlisberger returned Sunday but the Steelers lost RB Le’Veon Bell to a season-ending knee injury. It is just one of those years when the offense never will be at anything resembling full strength. If the Steelers are to compete, DeAngelo Williams must be as productive as a runner as he was in the first two games while Bell was suspended. The division race is essentially over. The Steelers now must vie for a wild-card spot.
16. Miami Dolphins (3-4) | Last Week: 12
So Dan Campbell isn’t an interim-coach miracle worker, after all. The lopsided defeat Thursday night in Foxborough, Mass., showed that the Dolphins still have a long way to go. And now they must try to get it done without standout pass rusher Cameron Wake, who was lost for the season with a torn Achilles’ tendon.
17. Washington Redskins (3-4) | Last Week: 17
Yes, NFL rules require the Redskins actually to make the trip to Foxborough to play the Patriots this weekend. And that comes just when everyone was feeling so good again about Kirk Cousins and this under-.500 NFC East contender.
18. Philadelphia Eagles (3-4) | Last Week: 18
The Eagles return from their bye with the chance to be the latest team to take advantage of the Tony Romo-less Cowboys. It’s tempting to say that this is practically an elimination game. But with the NFC East race so forgiving, it’s next to impossible to be out of the running.
19. Kansas City Chiefs (3-5) | Last Week: 21
The Chiefs found their offense. It was in London, waiting for them to show up.
20. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-4) | Last Week: 25
Another big lead dissipated Sunday, this time against the Falcons. But at least the Buccaneers regrouped this time and won in overtime. All in all, going 3-4 in rookie QB Jameis Winston’s first seven NFL games is a nice accomplishment. But it’s difficult to get over the nagging feeling that things should be even better if only the Buccaneers had not found a way to come from so far ahead to lose to the Redskins the previous week.
21. Houston Texans (3-5) | Last Week: 27
J.J. Watt’s exploits have not received quite as much attention this year. But he is having another excellent season. He is tied for the league lead with 8.5 sacks and he has 40 tackles, five passes defensed and a forced fumble.
22. Indianapolis Colts (3-5) | Last Week: 19
If Andrew Luck is healthy enough to play like he did in the fourth quarter Monday, what is the explanation for his play earlier Monday and, really, the entire season? It’s actually more troubling for the Colts if Luck isn’t hurt. If he’s healthy and playing this way, that’s problematic. At least the Colts still have a share of first place in an AFC South race that has become downright embarrassing.
23. Jacksonville Jaguars (2-5) | Last Week: 22
The Jaguars, half a game out of first place, begin their playoff push Sunday at the Meadowlands against the no-QB Jets. It should be electric.
24. Buffalo Bills (3-4) | Last Week: 23
Tyrod Taylor could return to the lineup this weekend at QB. The Bills desperately need him.
25. Chicago Bears (2-5) | Last Week: 20
The Bears are not far at all from being a decent team. Coach John Fox deserves credit for that in his first season in Chicago. But, unfortunately, that is a familiar lament for losing NFL teams. The good teams find ways to win the games that the Bears are losing.
26. Baltimore Ravens (2-6) | Last Week: 31
Could WR Steve Smith Sr.’s season-ending torn Achilles’ tendon actually open the door for him playing another season? He has announced his plans to retire. But some wonder if Smith will want his career to end this way. Coach John Harbaugh already has said he suspects Smith might play again.
27. Dallas Cowboys (2-5) | Last Week: 24
Tony Romo’s absence has reinforced that he truly is one of the league’s most indispensable players. Brandon Weeden, Matt Cassel—it doesn’t really matter. It’s clear that the Cowboys simply cannot win without Romo.
28. San Diego Chargers (2-6) | Last Week: 26
It has gotten so bad for the Chargers that, by the end of the game Sunday in Baltimore, they weren’t even the best 2-6 team on the field.
29. San Francisco 49ers (2-6) | Last Week: 28
Sure, Colin Kaepernick has struggled and his benching, as reported Monday night by the league-owned NFL Network, probably is warranted. But does anyone really think that things will get better for the 49ers by playing Blaine Gabbert at QB?
30. Cleveland Browns (2-6) | Last Week: 29
What about having a team headed nowhere does this set of football decision-makers not understand? Yes, Josh McCown has been productive at times this season. Even with that, the Browns are not winning anything and are not going to the playoffs. There is no future with McCown as your QB. If this franchise gets to the end of the season and doesn’t know anything more than it does now about whether Johnny Manziel is the answer at QB, that is inexcusable mismanagement.
31. Detroit Lions (1-7) | Last Week: 30
Jim Caldwell is a good coach who has demonstrated he can get a capable team to the playoffs. He isn’t the problem. But that doesn’t mean he won’t get the blame. That’s simply how the NFL works.
32. Tennessee Titans (1-6) | Last Week: 32
Marcus Mariota is scheduled to practice Wednesday and could return to the lineup this weekend after missing two games with his knee injury.