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2004 Power Rankings

The 16-game NFL season is best reviewed in quarters, and now that Week Five has come and gone, with every team in the league having played at least four games, we're finally ready to look back and review what has transpired to date. Shockingly, the Patriots, owners of an unprecedented 19-game winning streak, top this list, though the surging Eagles appear strong enough to unseat the Sons of Belichick as champions. On the other end of spectrum, the Niners' rousing overtime slaying of the dreaded Cardinals was inspiring enough to bump San Francisco up a notch in the rankings, all the way up to the 29-spot.

1. New England Patriots (4-0)
Granted, the Donovan McNabb-Terrell Owens show is glitzier, and the Patriots came within an Edgerrin James fumble of losing to the high-flying Colts, but until the defending world champions lose a regular-season game -- something that hasn't happened in 382 days, as of Oct. 15 -- they will remain tops on this list. A cynic might point out that the team has yet to put together a single game in which both the offense and defense came with their best stuff, but their next four games, against the Seahawks, Jets, Steelers and Rams, should be a fine test of this unit's collective mettle.

2. Philadelphia Eagles (4-0)
Clearly the class of the NFC -- and, possibly, the NFL -- the Eagles looked unbeatable in the first quarter of this young season, and that's not likely to change unless TO rolls an ankle or McNabb is forced to compete with a fractured leg. (Don't tell me it's not possible, he's done it before.) But then, the regular season never has been the problem for Philadelphia, has it? Like the Oakland A's, who never fail to blow a two-game lead in the best-of-five American League Division Series, the Eagles have an alarming habit of losing the NFC Championship in the City of Brotherly Love, home of the league's most vociferous boo birds. Expect a reversal of fortune in 2004.

3. New York Jets (4-0)
These Jets sure can soar, can't they? Well, yes, but that's not why they're 4-0. Chad Pennington, the Big Apple's answer to Tom Brady, dinks and dunks his team toward the end zone with relative ease, rarely tossing an errant pass in the direction of an oncoming defender. It is, however, the dramatic resurgence of 31-year-old running back Curtis Martin, the league's fourth-best rusher with 502 yards on 107 carries, that's elevated New York to the top of the AFC East alongside New England. Can they overtake their rivals to the north after a 6-10 campaign in 2003? The guess here is no, but stay tuned.

4. Indianapolis Colts (4-1)
What more can be said about the Colts that hasn't been said before? The league's most feared triumvirate of offensive weapons (Peyton Manning, Marvin Harrison, Edgerrin James) is putting points on the board at a typically dizzying pace, thanks in part to one of the most competent offensive lines in the game. Meanwhile, head coach Tony Dungy will continue to improve the once-laughable Indianapolis defense more with each successive season. But problems remain. Can the Colts beat the Pats? Yes. Will the Colts beat the Pats? As a snide New York Yankees fan might say, "Who's your daddy?"

5. Atlanta Falcons (4-1)
Scoring six points against the Cardinals wasn't particularly impressive, but they got the win. Michael Vick needs time to acclimate himself to head coach Jim Mora, Jr.'s West Coast offense, but that will happen more and more with each passing week. Expect a quick return to the playoffs after a forgettable 2003.

6. Denver Broncos (4-1)
Rumor has it that head coach Mike Shanahan's job security rests on his ability to return Denver to the postseason after last year's abrupt first-round exit -- a 41-10 humiliation courtesy of the Colts. Rest easy, Mike. The Broncos should have no problem wrapping up a pillow-soft AFC West, but they're not yet ready to contend with the Indys and New Englands of the world.

7. Seattle Seahawks (3-1)
Last Sunday was supposed to mark the symbolic passing of the torch in the NFC West, with the struggling Rams limping into Seattle for a showdown with the up-and-coming 'Hawks, fresh off a 34-0 thrashing of the 49ers and a relaxing bye. What transpired was head coach Mike Holmgren's worst nightmare -- a come-from-behind, 33-28 win for the Rams. It doesn't shift the balance of power in that division back to St. Louis, but it was an embarrassing setback that could loom large if the Rams use it as a springboard to success.

8. New York Giants (4-1)
Despite off-season rumors of spats in the locker room, head coach Tom Coughlin has New Yorkers believing that the Big Blue machine is headed for postseason success. I remain unconvinced, but a healthy Kurt Warner could go a long way toward rejuvenating a team that was utterly listless in 2003 under then-coach Jim Fassel.

9. Pittsburgh Steelers (4-1)
Big Ben Roethlisberger has been more than competent since being thrust into the spotlight by an injury to Tommy Maddox. Yes, he'll stumble at times, most likely during an upcoming stretch of contests against Dallas, Philadelphia and New England. But there's no reason why the Steelers can't steal the AFC North away from the Ravens, whose star running back has all season to look forward to an upcoming stint in federal prison.

10. Minnesota Vikings (3-1)
Mobile quarterback capable of throwing the long ball? Check. Flashy receiver capable of out running even the swiftest cornerbacks in the league? Check. A solid, albeit unspectacular running back corps? Check. An improved defense? Check. Enough heart, talent and dedication up and down the roster to nab that elusive Lombardi Trophy? Whoops! Back to the drawing board.

11. Detroit Lions (3-1)
The resurgent Lions have all the ingredients for a quick return to prominence, with strong performers at key offensive positions -- QB (Joey Harrington -- finally!), RB (Kevin Jones, Artose Pinner) and WR (Roy Williams). Meanwhile, the defense is flourishing under savvy head coach Steve Mariucci, and while a second fracture to wideout Charles Rogers' collarbone is a disappointing blow to a young team that will be hard-pressed to challenge the Vikings in this year's NFC North, the future for this franchise remains so bright that CEO Matt Millen will have to wear shades.

12. Jacksonville Jaguars (3-2)
Byron Leftwich doesn't always look like a franchise quarterback, but Jacksonville's exceptional defense will keep them in most games. Expect a bumpy, entertaining ride ahead.

13. St. Louis Rams (3-2)
Was letting Kurt Warner depart via free agency the right move? His one-time protégé, Marc Bulger, is only leading the NFL in passing yardage, with 1,426 yards and seven TDs against five picks. Granted, that's not the most sterling TD-INT ratio in the land, but any rocket-armed quarterback is bound to commit turnovers in Mike Martz's primarily aerial offense, which relies on a stable of fleet-footed receivers and Marshall Faulk to leave opposing defenses wanting for oxygen. Yes, the Greatest Show on Turf is back, but don't be too concerned -- this, after all, is a Martz production, so just sit back, crack open a cold Newcastle and wait for the monumental screw-ups and feather-brained decisions that are sure to come.

14. Houston Texans (2-3)
Here's a not-so-fearless prediction: As the Texans mature into a feared franchise, building a stingier defense to support its prolific young offense, you will hear the phrase "Carr… Johnson… touchdown" often enough that it will become obnoxiously played out, like that "Yeah!" song by Usher. That's because QB David Carr is beginning to justify that top overall draft pick, and WR Andre Johnson has the look of a young TO. Not a bad combo, and when they're ready to compete for a Super Bowl in 2007, the world will take notice.

15. San Diego Chargers (3-2)
Not a bad start for a team buoyed by unexpected offensive contributions from formerly maligned quarterback Drew Brees, whose tenure as a first-stringer was thought to have ended when the Chargers drafted ex-North Carolina State phenom Philip Rivers. If Brees can keep connecting with tight end Antonio Gates and receiver Reche Caldwell, San Diego should continue to run up eye-popping point totals. LaDainian Tomlinson will see to it.

16. Baltimore Ravens (3-2)
With stud running back/former would-be drug lord Jamal Lewis sitting for two games, the second quarter will be tough for the already sputtering Ravens. Isn't it amusing to think that head coach Brian Billick was once known as an offensive guru?

17. Tennessee Titans (2-3)
Don't look now, but a slumbering giant just may have arisen during Monday night's 48-27 drubbing of the Packers on Lambeau's not-so-frozen tundra. Consider it The Shot Heard 'Round the AFC South. But another trip to the playoffs? It's a long shot.

18. Kansas City Chiefs (1-3)
Forget the idea that defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham could still mold K.C.'s defense into something resembling an NFL-caliber unit. That's not going to happen, at least not before the off-season. Instead, Chiefs fans and frustrated fantasy GMs (gulp!) can only pray that Trent Green reverts to his 2003 form, since Priest Holmes (six TDs) is more than holding up his end of the bargain. Green's 223 yards against a fearsome Ravens defense in Week Four give cause for extremely cautious optimism.

19. Carolina Panthers (1-3)
Injuries make this team somewhat difficult to judge by its first quarter alone. Watching its starters steamroll the competition in limited action during the preseason, it was all too tempting to think that the Panthers could actually improve on last year's 11-5 record, winning the NFC South again in '04 en route to a second straight Super Bowl berth. It still could happen; Michael Vick's tendency to scramble leaves him open to countless open-field hits, and he's always one punishing tackle away from the injury report. But the Panthers need to get healthy before they can challenge Atlanta for the division, and that might not happen until the 11th hour.

20. Dallas Cowboys (2-2)
While America's Team has a chance to overtake the Giants, should Coughlin's mercurial crew pull its annual disappearing act, Philadelphia is out of sight. The Tuna will miss the playoffs for the first time since the 1997-98 season, his inaugural campaign with the Jets. On the bright side, if this is indeed a bright side, Vinny Testaverde, who will be 41 by season's end, could become the oldest passer to throw for 4,000 yards.

21. New Orleans Saints (2-3)
This is probably too charitable a spot for a team that, in the past two weeks, gift-wrapped their early Christmas presents ("It's a W! Thank you, Jim Haslett!") to winless squads in Arizona and Tampa Bay. But there is simply too much talent on this roster, and with Deuce McAllister's Week Five return from a sprained right ankle, there is nowhere to go but up. Outside of their Week Eight bye, the second quarter of the schedule isn't exactly a cakewalk, with road affairs against Oakland and San Diego and a Sunday night home shootout with the dangerous Vikings. Look for the Saints to take two of three.

22. Cleveland Browns (2-3)
When one has nothing nice to say, it's generally advisable not to say anything at all. Trite? Cliched? Guilty as charged. Maybe I'll think of something by the time the second quarter rolls around.

23. Oakland Raiders (2-3)
Hmm. So, Kerry Collins fits better into head coach Norv Turner's offense than Rich Gannon, as was reported by so many experts prior to the season? Not based on the early returns, but that's of little to no consequence, because Gannon is almost certainly done for the year. (Rather than undergoing an aggressive rehabilitation program in hopes of returning in time for the playoffs, Gannon is openly mulling retirement, which should make the Black Hole that much more blue.) That's OK, because the Raiders have no business planning for the playoffs, anyway. The team's two victories have come against the lowly Bills -- a 13-10 affair that Oakland had no business winning -- and the thoroughly inept Bucs. Against stronger competition (Pittsburgh, Houston, Indianapolis) they've looked nothing short of dreadful, allowing 30+ points to the Texans and Colts. Expect more of the same as the 2004 death march continues.

24. Cincinnati Bengals (1-3)
Have you ever had a nice mutton, lettuce and tomato sandwich, when the mutton is nice and lean and the lettuce crisp? I just love that. That's good. The Bengals? Not so good. But if I simply must weigh in on the Jon Kitna vs. Carson Palmer debate… stick with Palmer. Yes, he's been brutal, but it's too early to pull the plug and risk shattering the kid's confidence.

25. Green Bay Packers (1-4)
Brett Favre, the Greatest Quarterback in the History of Recorded Time, sinking the Pack by wildly hurling pass after inaccurate pass into the hands of grateful defenders? Ahman Green, one of the league's elite backs, repeatedly coughing up the football, looking up to see his gaffe turning into an opposition touchdown? Wow. That hasn't happened since… last year.

26. Washington Redskins (1-4)
Homecoming hero Joe Gibbs was hired by Daniel Snyder to turn around this mess of a flagship franchise, and instantly the talk of the league turned to the battle royale that would ensue in the NFC East: Parcells vs. Gibbs! Gibbs vs. Reid! Reid vs. Coughlin! (OK, that last one's a stretch, but somebody's got to coach the Giants, right? Besides, the stringent taskmaster has Big Blue looking playoff-worthy.) But back to Gibbs. Give him time. This reclamation job was never going to take place overnight, even with the splashy acquisition of fantasy-stud RB Clinton Portis. This season will be a bumpy ride, but Gibbs still has what it takes to lead them to the promised land.

27. Arizona Cardinals (1-4)
They played the world champions close enough that New England head coach Bill Belichick must have wondered if his winning streak would come to an unlikely end in the scorching heat of Sun Devil Stadium. They held the vaunted, Vick-led Falcons to six measly points in Atlanta. Yes, they had the misfortune of losing to an inferior squad in San Francisco on the road, but cut McCown's Mafia some slack. The Cards are getting there… just very, very slowly.

28. Chicago Bears (1-3)
Week Five brought a merciful break in the action, as a team plagued by injuries faced that most forgiving of opponents, BYE. Rest up. There are lots of games left to lose. (Note: Discerning Sports Illustrated readers will note that football expert Dr. Z, whose column idea I've shamelessly stolen, wrote roughly the same thing about the Bears. And yes, I read it -- after I wrote this nugget of a paragraph. The similarities are wholly coincidental. And to Z… as Ali G might say, "Respec!")

29. Buffalo Bills (0-4)
How can a winless team possibly appear ahead of not one but two NFL teams? (Sorry, Miami fans, the Dolphins don't count.) Well, check their schedule: In four early contests, the bumbling Bills have faced teams (the Jaguars, Raiders, Patriots and Jets) with a collective win-loss record of 13-5. Only their dogfight against New England was decided by more than a field goal, and only the champs posted more than 14 against a defensive unit that was one of the NFL's most miserly in 2003. The wins will come.

30. San Francisco 49ers (1-4)
Where have you gone, Joe Montana? The Bay Area turns its lonely eyes to you, woo woo woo…(You get the idea.) Having parted ways with a trio of Pro Bowlers (WR Terrell Owens, QB Jeff Garcia and RB Garrison Hearst), the youthful Niners are stumbling their way through the 2004 campaign, their offense entrusted to two inexperienced field generals in Tim Rattay and Ken Dorsey. (It's not helping matters that both are recovering from recent injuries.) The bad news? Kevan Barlow, the bruising back thought to be the natural heir apparent to Hearst, has rushed for just 288 yards in five games, while the franchise's stud linebacker, Julian Peterson, will be sidelined with a torn tendon for the remainder of the season. The good news? The long-term potential of a young roster bolstered by a pair of promising wideouts (Brandon Lloyd, Rashaun Woods) and Dorsey, a former Heisman Trophy winner who's won the endorsement of somebody named Bill Walsh.

31. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1-4)
Keyshawn Johnson? Pack your bags. Warren Sapp, John Lynch? Been a pleasure knowing you. Keenan McCardell, the team's most accomplished receiver in 2003 with 1,174 yards and eight TDs? Thanks, but no thanks. The Bucs added dozens of veteran free agents in the off-season to replace their departed stars, including a handful of exiles from the Black Hole (Tim Brown, Charlie Garner) and one-time Brett Favre-favorite Bill Schroeder. The result? A ragtag crew with a porous o-line that's already gone through three quarterbacks. The fourth, journeyman Brian Griese, gets the nod this Monday against the Rams.

32. Miami Dolphins (0-5)
Ricky Williams could return to the Fins, saving Miami's 2004 season and head coach Dave Wannstedt's job in the process! Seriously! And if you believe that, could I interest you in an owner's share of the Golden Gate Bridge?