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Power Rankings, Take Two

Now that every team has played at least eight games, the midway point of the NFL season has arrived, and only four locks to reach the postseason have emerged: Pittsburgh, New England, Philadelphia and Atlanta. And though Ben Roethlisberger's ascent to the ranks of the league's most dependable quarterbacks has been a pleasant surprise for the Steelers' faithful, perhaps the biggest shock of 2004 has been the resurgence of San Diego field general Drew Brees. Once considered a lame-duck QB likely to be benched -- if not released -- in favor of rookie prospect Philip Rivers, Brees is now thriving with the Bolts, doing his best imitation of a young Brett Favre and leading his team to an unlikely 6-3 mark.

1. Pittsburgh Steelers (7-1)
The Steelers have not lost since Week 2, and in successive weeks, rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger picked apart the notoriously stingy defenses of two then-undefeated powerhouses, the Patriots and the Eagles. But Pittsburgh needs to stop winning, and not simply because they're making the so-called NFL "experts" look clueless. No, the real reason they need to stop manhandling the league's supposed best is because I'm sick of looking up the proper spelling of Roethlisberger. Seriously. You'd think I'd have learned it by now, but no.

2. New England Patriots (7-1)
Ravaged by injuries to their secondary, the Patriots find themselves in a familiar position, forced to plug practice-squad players (somebody named Earthwind Moreland), unheralded journeymen and even longtime offensive weapon Troy Brown into a depleted defense. Yet despite a 34-20 drubbing at the hands of the surging Steelers, New England weathered the toughest stretch of its schedule -- two home contests against the Seahawks and Jets, followed by trips to Pittsburgh and St. Louis -- with a 3-1 record. Not bad. They still face the formidable Week 11 challenge of facing the Chiefs in Kansas City, where Priest Holmes and Trent Green will put defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel's tattered unit to the ultimate test, but Pats fans can take heart. The worst is behind them, and star cornerback Ty Law, currently sidelined with a broken bone in his left foot, will be healthy and rested for the postseason.

3. Philadelphia Eagles (7-1)
At the first sign of adversity, Terrell Owens turns on his quarterback with a childish sideline tirade. It won't be the last time Mount Owens erupts, and if familiarity truly breeds contempt, expect T.O. to wear out his welcome in the City of Brotherly Love by 2006.

4. Atlanta Falcons (6-2)
The Dirty Birds have a stranglehold on the NFC South, and that doesn't figure to change anytime soon. With the next four weeks bringing easy match-ups against the battered Giants, the sad-sack Saints and the bumbling Buccaneers, Michael Vick could snooze through the month of November and still wake up with the division title in hand.

5. Indianapolis Colts (5-3)
How can the Colts possibly be rated higher than the Jaguars, an offensively challenged AFC South rival that racked up 27 points against Indy's porous defense just three weeks ago at the RCA Dome? Peyton Manning, that's how. Armed with two of the league's finest receivers in Marvelous Marvin Harrison and the oft-overlooked Reggie Wayne -- not to mention two capable running backs in Edgerrin James and Dominic Rhodes -- Manning has the tools and the experience to guide this group deep into the playoffs. Head coach Tony Dungy will have to whip his struggling defense into shape, to be sure; any unit spotting its opponents 87 points in its last three games has to take a long look in the mirror if it wants to hoist the Lombardi Trophy in February. But bet on Indianapolis to overtake the Byron Leftwich-less Jags before the season draws to a close.

6. New York Jets (6-2)
No Chad Pennington? No problem! Oh wait, no. That's a big problem. For a second consecutive season, head coach Herm Edwards will have to figure out a way to win without his star quarterback, who will miss two to four weeks with a strained right rotator cuff. Pennington will likely return by the time Houston rolls into town on Dec. 5, but the Jets, led by the very sinkable Quincy Carter, will struggle to survive their Week 10 match-up with the Ravens.

7. San Diego Chargers (6-3)
If you can look past San Diego's reputation as the traditional doormat of the AFC West, you'll notice that once-embattled quarterback Drew Brees is putting up MVP numbers (1,854 passing yards, 18 TDs, 3 INTs) to complement a superb running game featuring the peerless LaDainian Tomlinson. With stud receiver Keenan McCardell in the mix thanks to a shrewd trade by general manager A.J. Smith, San Diego's offense is clicking on all cylinders. Remember, this is a team that scored 313 points last season; through nine games in 2004, they have already totaled 262. If their defense can keep the pace, expect the Chargers to rein in the Broncos and capture their first AFC West title since 1994.

8. Jacksonville Jaguars (6-3)
Byron Leftwich will miss Jacksonville's next two contests, leaving backup David Garrard to make his second career start in Week 10, when the Jags host the Lions. (Garrard's first start, a 20-13 loss to the Indianapolis Colts in 2002, was pedestrian at best.) If Jack Del Rio's crew can survive in the absence of their talented young QB, they can keep things interesting in the AFC South; if not, the Colts will stampede past them to another division title.

9. Denver Broncos (6-3)
Let's face it -- whoever drafted Reuben Droughns in your fantasy league is an insufferable jerk. At the beginning of the season, there were so many fine candidates to become Mike Shanahan's tailback of choice: Quentin Griffin, Garrison Hearst, Tatum Bell. But Reuben Droughns? Isn't that the Round Mound of Karaoke who beat Clay Aiken on American Idol two years ago? What's he doing racking up 150 yards a game while my keeper-league tailback is roaming the Outback, puffin' blunts while his lawyer is negotiating a return to the NFL? (Yeah, I'm bitter.)

10. Minnesota Vikings (5-3)
All style, no substance. With Daunte Culpepper and Randy Moss in the fold, the Vikings will always have the ability to amass eye-popping offensive stats, and slowly but surely, their defense is inching toward respectability. Still, Minnesota has yet to master the art of winning the Big Game, and until they do, they will remain little more than NFL eye candy, leaving a sour taste come playoff time.

11. Baltimore Ravens (5-3)
Yes, yes, defense wins championships. It's just that Kyle Boller doesn't -- at least not when his starting wide receivers are named Travis Taylor and Kevin Johnson.

12. Seattle Seahawks (5-3)
Matt Hasselbeck and company have proved that they can beat the San Francisco 49ers of the world, riding a cream-puff schedule to the top of the dreadful NFC West. Until they beat a team with a winning record -- something they haven't done all season -- the inconsistent Seahawks will remain a pretender to the throne.

13. Green Bay Packers (4-4)
Just when you thought they were out, they keep… OK, OK, we're all familiar with Michael Corleone's famous rant. But how lifeless did Brett Favre's Packers look after a humiliating 48-27 loss to Tennessee on a Monday night in early October? Since then, the Pack has rattled off three straight victories, racking up 107 points (!) in the process and cutting Minnesota's lead in the NFC North to a single game. The team's biggest test comes in Week 10, when the Vikings travel to Lambeau Field -- a veritable House of Horrors for the onetime Purple People Eaters -- to battle for divisional supremacy.

14. New York Giants (5-3)
Talk about adding insult to injury: In Week 9, the Giants lost both starting defensive ends, Michael Strahan and Keith Washington, while blowing a 14-0 lead at home and losing to the Bears, 28-21. Should the slide continue -- and it will -- look for the Other Manning to make his first NFL start before Week 16.

15. St. Louis Rams (4-4)
For those of you who have forgotten the particulars of St. Louis' 29-23 double-overtime home loss to the Carolina Panthers in the divisional round of last year's NFC playoffs, let me refresh your memory. Trailing 23-20 with 1:24 remaining and the ball on Carolina's 25-yard line, Rams head coach Mike Martz opted not to play for the win, instead settling for the game-tying field goal. Pretty gutsy, no? Fast-forward to this year. The New England Patriots arrive in St. Louis without their top two cornerbacks, Ty Law and Tyrone Poole… and instead of exploiting their absence with his famous aerial attack, Martz attacks an injury-riddled secondary with a series of runs and short passes. Final score: Patriots 40, Rams 22. Clearly, Martz still lacks faith in his young quarterback, Marc Bulger, and for a team whose success depends on an explosive, speed-oriented pass offense, that spells trouble.

16. Houston Texans (4-4)
The Texans defense that surrendered 31 points to the Broncos will face the high-flying Colts in Week 10. Ouch.

17. Detroit Lions (4-4)
If the Lions ever find a competent running back, watch out. Joey Harrington can finally spread the field with the fleet-footed Az-Zahir Hakim and gifted rookie Roy Williams, and Detroit's offensive line has proven itself capable of protecting the quarterback long enough to allow Big Plays to develop. To this point, however, tailbacks Artose Pinner and Kevin Jones have been huge disappointments, and it's telling that Buffalo Bill cast-off Shawn Bryson led the Lions with 21 rushing yards in Week 9. Yikes!

18. Kansas City Chiefs (3-5)
Despite a 34-31 setback in Tampa Bay, the Chiefs boast the most dangerous offense in football, and while that alone may not be enough to vault them back into contention for a playoff berth, don't think for one second that the Broncos and Chargers are looking forward to their upcoming visits to Arrowhead. If nothing else, Kansas City remains to most entertaining team in the league, despite its soft-as-melted-butter defense.

19. Cincinnati Bengals (3-5)
Their 26-3 home victory over the Cowboys was a step in the right direction, but if Marvin Lewis' little urban underachievers can't beat their divisional foes -- and, to date, they are 0-3 against the AFC North -- there's little reason for optimism. Granted, there are 11 teams in the league with 3-5 records. At least one of them will rise up and make the playoffs. Could it be the Bengals? Probably not.

20. Tennessee Titans (3-5)
Breaking news: Steve McNair has been discovered in the Thieves' Forest, torn limb from limb by Rodents of Unusual Size. He's listed as probable for Sunday's showdown with the Bears.

21. Cleveland Browns (3-5)
A floundering, feckless franchise that inspires fear in few foes. That's alliteration, Holmes!

22. Buffalo Bills (3-5)
Poor Travis Henry. What has he done to deserve an unceremonious, one-way ticket to the bench? The guess here is that he will sever ties with the Bills during the off-season, sign on with a team in need of a quietly effective running back (Miami? Detroit?) while Willis McGahee continues to shine in Buffalo. For the record, McGahee, with 234 rushing yards and three TDs in his last two games, is finally regaining his University of Miami mojo, allowing Drew Bledsoe to hand off the ball more often and avoid the punishment he's endured as the leader of a pass-oriented offense.

23. Chicago Bears (3-5)
Republicans and Democrats may never coexist harmoniously in Washington, but in the Windy City, the combination of former Ohio State quarterback/molecular biology major Craig Krenzel and ex-Michigan running back Anthony "A-Train" Thomas has produced two straight victories. Da Bears are still too flawed to challenge Green Bay and Minnesota for NFC North supremacy, but this is a young team with a solid defense. Stay tuned, because the future looks brighter now than it did four weeks ago.

24. Washington Redskins (3-5)
The rebuilding project continues in the nation's capital, where the Redskins were rumored to have ensured a Kerry win with a 28-14 home loss to the Packers in Week 8. Clearly, this is a year in which curses, jinxes and assorted superstitions exist only to be shattered by mind-blowing realities -- the Red Sox overcoming a 3-0 deficit to the New York Yankees and ultimately winning the World Series, middle America sentencing us to four more years of Dubya and Darth Vader. It's just too bad that this particular hex had to bite the dust, along with my hopes for a country governed by sanity, common sense and compassion. Praise Jesus, Ohio!

25. Dallas Cowboys (3-5)
It would be easy and perhaps even tempting to throw Bill Parcells under the bus and declare him Over The Hill, but think back to the Tuna's stint with the Patriots. In 1994, he rode Drew Bledsoe's very young, very live arm to the top of the AFC East, earning a postseason berth in his second season with New England. In 1995, one year before guiding the team to its first Super Bowl in a decade, Parcells led the Pats to a 6-10 record, good for fourth in the East. The good news for Dallas fans is that Parcells has never endured consecutive losing seasons, and despite question marks at the quarterback position, the 'Boys will be back in 2005.

26. Arizona Cardinals (3-5)
Under the tutelage of head coach Dennis Green, the Cardinals have elevated themselves from God Awful to Merely Mediocre. It's not much, but it's a start.

27. New Orleans Saints (3-5)
Doctor! Come quickly! This patient has kidneys, lungs, intestines both small and large… but no brains and no heart! How's the possible, doctor? HOW'S THAT POSSIBLE??!!

28. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-5)
Jon Gruden is back, starring in the long-awaited sequel to 1998's unforgettable Bride of Chucky. Seed of Chucky, the latest installment in the darkly comic saga of a demonic doll with a fondness for bloodshed, finds the Chuckster slashing his way to Hollywood and shacking up with actress Jennifer Tilly. (Lucky boy!) Truth be told, it's an odd career move for a coach with a Super Bowl championship on his resume, but hey, it beats coaching the Raiders. (See below.)


29. Oakland Raiders (3-6)
In a perfect world, there would be a police officer posted outside the Oakland Coliseum box office, waving away potential ticket-buyers, muttering, "Move along, nothing to see here, move along." It seems only appropriate, given that Oakland's season is the NFL equivalent of a car wreck, with so much free-agent talent crashing and burning.

30. Miami Dolphins (1-8)
Their last four contests, including an authoritative 31-14 win over St. Louis, have been more competitive than the first five, save for that ugly 41-14 loss to the Jets, who have treated the Fins like glorified punching bags in recent years. Even so, there are not many positives to take from this fiasco of a season, billed during the preseason as The Ricky Williams Show but now bearing a closer resemblance to The Gong Show. (Note: Within 12 hours of this writing, head coach Dave Wannstedt has resigned. 'Nuff said.)

31. Carolina Panthers (1-7)
After their first four games of the season, the only question surrounding last year's NFC representative to the Super Bowl was whether they could overcome the rash of debilitating injuries that has left them without several key contributors (running backs Stephen Davis and DeShaun Foster, receiver Steve Smith, defensive tackle Kris Jenkins) to their 2003 breakthrough campaign. So far, the answer has been a resounding no -- but with two contests scheduled against both the hapless Buccaneers and the punchless Saints, it is possible, albeit unlikely, that the Panthers could still finish the year with a modestly respectable record.

32. San Francisco 49ers (1-7)
To paraphrase Rick Pitino, Niners fans can stop holding their breath, because Joe Montana, Jerry Rice and Dwight Clark are not walking through that door. Regardless, the guys who are walking through that door -- Tim Rattay, Curtis Conway and Kevan Barlow -- could be navigating the 49ers toward their worst season in franchise history. At this point, only the top pick in next spring's draft could redeem this sorry season.