Week 8 is in the books, and as we near the season's midway point, there are five teams in the AFC with winning records and six in the NFC. The NFL's elite have continued to separate themselves from the pack while the rest beat up on each other in hopes for that elusive postseason berth.
Still clearly on top are the New England Patriots, who systematically dispatched what had looked to be a formidable opponent on Thursday Night Football in a red-hot Miami Dolphins team. Tom Brady continues to play the quarterback position on another level, mixing surgical accuracy with savvy efficiency and a zen-like understanding of what is going on in front of him. When Brady drops back, all I can picture is that moment when Neo realizes he can perceive and manipulate the Matrix to do his bidding. It's become almost easy for Brady right now as he lazily swats away anything and everything defensive coordinators (agents) throw at him.
We can save the "best ever" discussion for another day but regardless of how you feel about Brady, his ability to seamlessly switch styles, adapt to different game-plans and evolve with changing weaponry with artful proficiency is truly impressive. As long as Brady continues to play at this high level, the Patriots will easily be the favorites for a return trip to the Super Bowl this year. And I haven't even talked about their defense, which is playing really well this season, too, despite losing some key players. Anyway, the Patriots are No. 1 in these rankings, that's my point.
Following close behind are the Bengals, who passed a big test by beating their division rival Steelers in their place in Ben Roethlisberger's return to action. Cincy's defense was the star in this game, picking off Big Ben three times while making the statement that they are the owners of the AFC North. The Bengals might be the deepest and most talented team in the NFL right now, not to mention the most balanced.
Moving on up:
Prior to this week, the Broncos, on the other hand, had probably been the least balanced team in the league. Going into their big Sunday night matchup with the Packers, Denver was sporting the league's best defense but also had probably the worst offense in the NFL, which is a weird concept to consider when Peyton Manning is playing quarterback. There's been talk that Manning's arm is shot, that his decision making has diminished. There's been discussion that he just hasn't adapted to Gary Kubiak's offense. I don't know which factor is most to blame, but Manning did look good against the very good Packers defense in throwing for 340 yards on 21-of-29 passing (though he did throw a pick). Maybe more importantly, though, the Broncos' run game caught fire finally, with C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman combining for 160 yards and three touchdowns to give Denver the kind of balance it wants on that side of the ball.
I don't think there is any question right now that the Broncos' defense can carry the team pretty far. Holding Aaron Rodgers to 77 yards passing is absurdly, ridiculously impressive. The Broncos have the best pass rush in the NFL and three legit shutdown cornerbacks, but I do think they'll need more from their offense to take this thing all the way. The spark from that side of the ball this week is a great sign, and with the trade for Vernon Davis, it might get even better going forward.
In the NFC, the Panthers and Cardinals look like the top dogs following the Packers' beatdown at the hands of the Broncos. Arizona got 109 rushing yards and four touchdown passes from Carson Palmer to take out the Browns on the road, while Cam Newton and the Panthers survived a Colts comeback to win in overtime and stay unbeaten.
Meanwhile, the Vikings are living up to their preseason hype and moved to 5-2 with a win over the Bears in Chicago. That doesn't sound super impressive on the surface but road division games are always tough and Minnesota had only beaten Chicago on the road in two of their last 15 matchups. The Vikings are balanced with a strong defense, a good run game and an emerging star in Stefon Diggs in the pass game. They're quietly positioning themselves well to challenge the Packers.
The same could be said for the Rams, who won again to improve to 4-3, putting them alone in second place in the NFC West. They've got a defense that loves to fly around, one of the most dominant players in the NFL in Aaron Donald and an emerging superstar at running back. They're dangerous.
Behind them in the West, the Seahawks snuck by the Cowboys on the road to improve to 4-4. The team that had so much trouble finishing earlier in the season has now held consecutive opponents to a whopping seven total yards of offense in the fourth quarter, combined. Seattle will see bigger challenges than Colin Kaepernick and Matt Cassel going forward, of course, but they've survived a tough first half and are poised for a strong finish. Pete Carroll is 22-4 in November and December as the Seahawks' head coach.
SB Nation presents: Every Sunday game, disrespected in minutes
Surprisingly still in the hunt
The Saints won maybe the craziest game of the season by outlasting the Giants in a 13-touchdown barn burner to improve to 4-4 on the year. They might not have the defense to contend in the NFC South, but with a wide-open field in the NFC so far, we can't count them out. Drew Brees looks like a man possessed.
Staying in the NFC South, don't look now but the Buccaneers are 3-4 and probably (really) should be 4-3 after blowing a big lead last week to Washington. Regardless, their record puts them in the hunt and Jameis Winston is 50-of-77 (64.9 percent) with 683 yards passing, four touchdowns (plus one rushing) and zero turnovers over his last three games. If he can keep that up and limit turnovers, Tampa Bay could spice things up.
The AFC South looks pretty interesting as well, and with the Texans' win and the Colts' loss, Houston is surprisingly still right in the thick of things despite a slow start. Same could be said of the Raiders, who improved to 4-3 with an impressive win over the Jets and look like they're real contenders for a wild card spot in the AFC. Even the Chiefs, at 3-5, aren't out of the game.
I'm guessing this slip down the rankings won't last terribly long, but after a dud against the Broncos, Green Bay falls slightly in our rankings. Aaron Rodgers is the guy giving Tom Brady a run for his money as "best quarterback alive" right now, but 77 yards passing is really, really bad, even against a great defense like Denver's.
The Falcons lost at home to the Bucs to drop in our rankings, the Jets lost to the Raiders and the Dolphins looked punchless against the Patriots.
As for the Cowboys? They are just waiting for the day that Tony Romo gets back onto the field.
Jockeying for that first pick:
Wow, so uh, the firing of offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi and two offensive line coaches didn't seem to do much for the Lions. Jim Bob Cooter failed to inspire an underachieving group in London and Detroit got blown out by the Chiefs.
Meanwhile, the Titans couldn't muster much fight against the Texans.
|RANK||WEEK 9||SB NATION BLOG|
|1||New England Patriots, 7-0 (Last Week: 1)||Pats Pulpit|
|2||Cincinnati Bengals, 7-0 (Last Week: 2)||Cincy Jungle|
|3||Denver Broncos, 7-0 (Last Week: 5)||Mile High Report|
|4||Carolina Panthers, 7-0 (Last Week: 4)||Cat Scratch Reader|
|5||Arizona Cardinals, 6-2 (Last Week: 7)||Revenge of the Birds|
|6||Green Bay Packers, 6-1 (Last Week: 3)||Acme Packing Company|
|7||Minnesota Vikings, 5-2 (Last Week: 8)||Daily Norseman|
|8||Atlanta Falcons, 6-2 (Last Week: 6)||The Falcoholic|
|9||St. Louis Rams, 4-3 (Last Week: 12)||Turf Show Times|
|10||Seattle Seahawks, 4-4 (Last Week: 13)||Field Gulls|
|11||Oakland Raiders, 4-3 (Last Week: 18)||Silver and Black Pride|
|12||New York Jets, 4-3 (Last Week: 9)||Gang Green Nation|
|13||Pittsburgh Steelers, 4-4 (Last Week: 10)||Behind the Steel Curtain|
|14||New Orleans Saints, 4-4 (Last Week: 17)||Canal Street Chronicles|
|15||New York Giants, 4-4 (Last Week: 11)||Big Blue View|
|16||Philadelphia Eagles, 3-4 (Last Week: 14)||Bleeding Green Nation|
|17||Buffalo Bills, 3-4 (Last Week: 15)||Buffalo Rumblings|
|18||Kansas City Chiefs, 3-5 (Last Week: 23)||Arrowhead Pride|
|19||Miami Dolphins, 3-4 (Last Week: 16)||The Phinsider|
|20||Indianapolis Colts, 3-5 (Last Week: 19)||Stampede Blue|
|21||Washington, 3-4 (Last Week: 23)||Hogs Haven|
|22||Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 3-4 (Last Week: 28)||Bucs Nation|
|23||Cleveland Browns, 2-6 (Last Week: 18)||Dawgs by Nature|
|24||San Diego Chargers, 2-5 (Last Week: 16)||Bolts from the Blue|
|25||Houston Texans, 3-5 (Last Week: 29)||Battle Red Blog|
|26||Baltimore Ravens, 2-6 (Last Week: 21)||Baltimore Beatdown|
|27||Jacksonville Jaguars, 2-5 (Last Week: 27)||Big Cat Country|
|28||Dallas Cowboys, 2-5 (Last Week: 24)||Blogging the Boys|
|29||Chicago Bears, 2-6 (Last Week: 25)||Windy City Gridiron|
|30||San Francisco 49ers, 2-6 (Last Week: 26)||Niners Nation|
|31||Tennessee Titans, 1-6 (Last Week: 31)||Music City Miracles|
|32||Detroit Lions, 1-6 (Last Week: 32)||Pride of Detroit|