Two of the five elite teams from last week went down to upsets and two teams joined the top tier for the first time this season. Despite that there isn't much of a shakeup in this week's list. At this point in the season, it's pretty clear who has a shot and who doesn't.
There's one team climbing the charts with a bullet this week. Can you guess who it is?
1. San Diego Chargers, 10-2 (last week, No. 1): Another week, another victory, and at a time when other teams are having their weakness exposed, the Chargers are cruising. Fifth in total offense, 8th in total defense. They've got the second-best rushing attack in the league, the 13th best passing total, and they're No. 1 in scoring. Over on defense they're solid (13th v. the pass, 6th v. the run, 12th in scoring defense) and might be getting better. Plus they've got the best football player on the planet wearing their uniform. What's not to like?
2. Indianapolis Colts, 10-2 (last week, No. 2): The Colts lost on a 60-yard field goal against the streaking Titans in Nashville, proving once again that this is an imperfect team. It's also a very good team, with the mental toughness to go deep in the playoffs. I'm not worried, and neither are they.
3. Baltimore Ravens, 9-3 (Last week, No. 3): There are two ways to look at a loss like the one the Ravens suffered to the Bengals on Thursday night. Either it's a sign of a fundamental problem or it's a wild anomaly. I'm betting that it was just an off, low-energy night, and you get that sometimes when you're a veteran team. There are days when old guys like me just feel the weather coming on. I didn't drop them below the Bears on this list because their defenses are basically equal and I've got to give Steve McNair the matchup edge over Rex Grossman.
4. Chicago Bears, 10-2 (last week, No. 4): Chicago became the first team to win its division this year and its next four opponents have a combined record of 14-34. That's good news for Grossman, who could use a playoff tune-up. The passing offense was so weak against the Vikings on Sunday that the Bears didn't even celebrate their second-consecutive division title and spent their post-game press conferences explaining themselves. This team has higher goals, anyway.
5. New England Patriots, 9-3 (last week, No. 5):
Pulling out a close victory against the Lions is not the kind of performance you want to see from a team with this kind of leadership, even when the game is played in Michigan. Grossman isn't the only quarterback who has struggled with turnovers lately, either. Mr. Golden Boy Tom Brady has been prone to giving it away recently, throwing eight interceptions against six touchdowns in the past five weeks.
6. Dallas Cowboys, 8-4 (Last week, No. 6): As predicted, The Tony Romo Project cooled off a bit statistically against the Giants, but that isn't the point. Dallas went into Giants Stadium and drove a stake through the heart of the undead gridiron vampire that is Tom Coughlin. In the 4th quarter, when it really mattered, Romo was magic. During the off-season, Bill Parcells and Jerry Jones agreed that this group could be "special." Turns out they're right. If there's a team in the NFC that could march up to Soldier Field in January and derail the Bears in the playoffs, this is it.
7. New Orleans Saints, 8-4 (Last week, No. 8): When the Saints fell out of the undefeated ranks in October, the media spotlight wandered elsewhere. Well, it's December, and ... Surprise! In the past couple of months they've quietly been playing solid football, maintaining their lead in the NFC South and -- most importantly -- getting their act together for a stretch run. Their running back tandem is now the hottest in the NFL, they've got the NFC's best quarterback, and their defense is getting the job done. They're really quite comparable to the Colts (Saints No. 1 in offense and 12th in defense; Colts No. 3 in offense and 17th in defense), but I give the Colts a better ranking based on their experience.
8. Seattle Seahawks, 8-4 (Last week, No. 7). Winning at Mile High is tough for any team. The Seahawks didn't look great, but they looked solid and they sealed the deal with a clutch last-minute drive.
9. Cincinnati Bengals, 7-5 (Last week, No. 12): Wow. The Bengals made an enormous statement in the way they physically dominated the Ravens.
10. New York Jets, 7-5 (Last week, No. 10): Another week, another noticeable improvement in Jets football. There's really not much difference between the Jets and the Packers on paper, but there were 28 points separating them on the scoreboard.
11. Kansas City Chiefs, 7-5 (Last week, No. 9): As much as I like what the Chiefs have done this year, I picked them to lose to the Brownies last week because I had a sense that they had mentally over-extended themselves and were vulnerable. OK then: that's over. They've got a tough schedule, but they'll show up sharp the rest of the way.
12. Denver Broncos, 7-5 (last week, No. 11): Denver is the biggest enigma among the playoff-hunt teams, since nobody really knows what Jay Cutler is going to be. He looked OK in the loss to Seattle, but you know how it is with the young signal callers.
The Middle Muddle
14. Jacksonville Jaguars, 7-5 (Last week, No. 14): The longest winning streak for the Jags this year is two games. Ditto their longest losing streak. This week they play the Colts, who are coming off a loss. You'd think that a win would make their season, but color me skeptical. This team seems destined to finish within a game of .500.
15. Atlanta Falcons, 6-6 (Last week, No. 17): They really needed that one against the woeful Redskins, and Michael Vick delivered. There's potential to be better here, and an above .500 finish now seems a reasonable expectation.
16. Pittsburgh Steelers, 5-7 (Last week: No. 21): The luster is gone from their 2006 season and they're far from what they were last year, but they're the archetypal spoiler team right now.
17. Carolina Panthers, 6-6 (Last week, No. 13): How can this team be so bad? They blew another 4th-quarter lead in Philadelphia, and that was a very beatable Eagles team. Shame on them, and shame on Jake Delhomme for throwing those two incredibly ill-advised interceptions late.
18. Buffalo Bills, 5-7 (Last week, No. 16): Losing a close one to the best team in football is no dishonor. The Bills are still progressing along with their young QB, J.P. Losman.
19. San Francisco 49ers, 5-7 (Last week, No. 18): New Orleans' offensive explosion behind Reggie Bush would have smoked a lot of defenses last week, so don't put too much book on that one. The 49ers have a chance to be respectable, but they're far from a finished or complete product. Can you believe that journeyman CB Walt Harris actually has six interceptions so far this year?
20. Miami Dolphins, 5-7 (Last week, No. 15):
Their run was fun while it lasted, and it wouldn't shock me to see this team finish at or near .500. The defense is No. 6 in the league.
Upward to Mediocrity!
21. New York Giants, 6-6 (Last week, No. 20): I'll be shocked if the G-Men rally to make the playoffs after their latest humiliation, but all streaks have to end sooner or later. They've got an enormous opportunity to improve their situation this week when they travel to wild-card competitor Carolina.
23. St. Louis Rams, 5-7 (Last week, No. 19): They haven't really looked good all season, and the problems here aren't simply talent or scheme. Their 23rd ranked defense isn't scaring people and their 10th-ranked offense is under-achieving at No. 15 in scoring. Marc Bulger called his teammates out this week after their embarrassing loss to the Cardinals. Honestly, Bulger strikes me more as a pocket passer than as an emotional leader, so I don't know how much freight his words will carry in the locker room. They get the Bears at home on Monday night, so they've got a chance to turn things around on national television.
24. Minnesota Vikings, 5-7 (Last week, No. 23): The Vikings remain the 5th best defense in the NFL, and they're trying to rediscover their old identity as a smash-mouth, black-and-blue division power. Why is it that this never seems to work out well for dome teams? Time to bench Brad Johnson and get on with rebuilding of the offense.
25. Cleveland Browns, 4-8 (Last week, No. 25): A week after getting drubbed by the Ravens, the Browns scrapped their way to a memorable overtime victory against the no-slouch Chiefs. This doesn't make them a good team -- not by a long shot -- but they've got heart and courage.
26. Green Bay Packers, 4-8 (Last week, No. 24): Brett Favre didn't know where to begin explaining what happened to the Packers against the Jets. Let me help him: They got outplayed and outcoached.
Their mothers are embarrassed
27. Washington Redskins, 4-8 (Last week, No. 27): Jason Campbell is worth building around. Thing is, what good coach in his right mind would want to go through the looking glass into Dan Snyderworld? The Redskins are an insane, arrogant franchise that will ruin a guy like Campbell. Run Jason! Run!
28. Houston Texans, 4-8 (Last week, No. 28): They beat the Raiders on the road, which would be an accomplishment if it weren't for the fact that John Shoop was calling the plays for Oakland. The Raiders would have done better if they'd asked some pimple-faced gamer with Madden 2007 installed on his X-Box to phone in the plays from his apartment in Gary, Indiana. But I digress.
29. Arizona Cardinals, 3-9 (Last week, No. 30): Matt Leinart is going to be a good quarterback for the Cardinals' next coach. Here's hoping the GM gets them both a better set of offensive linemen in the off-season.
30. Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 3-9 (Last week, No. 28): It's getting painful to watch this team, and at some point you have to ask: Wasn't Chucky supposed to be a coaching genius? Shouldn't he at least be getting better execution out of these players? They aren't as pathetic as the teams below them, but there's just not much hope for them most weeks.31. Oakland Raiders, 2-10 (Last week, No. 31): The Houston Texans are a totally beatable team, particularly for a defense like the one the Raiders are fielding this season (third in the league overall, first in the NFL against the pass). For those of you keeping track at home, Randy Moss is already en route to his worst-ever statistical season (40 catches, 525 yards, 3 touchdowns), and the promotion of Shoop to OC means Moss will be lobbying for trade any minute now.
32. Detroit Lions, 2-10 (Last week, No. 32): They looked better in their loss to the Patriots. They didn't win, of course, but they played them at least as tough as the Bears did the week before. After the game, QB Jon Kitna tried to suggest all the blame for the loss was on him, which has got to be the dumbest thing I've ever heard. Other franchises would see that kind of sacrifice as leadership; this one might just use it as an excuse not to fire Matt Millen.