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AFC landscape shifts after Steelers take down Patriots

Another NFL weekend behind us, another week of ridiculous outcomes. The Saints went marching out of St. Louis demoralized and defeated. The Cowboys laid a Wade in Philly. And the Bills pitched a shutout in a place Dave Stieb and Jimmy Key used to throw a few.

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With all of the unpredictable outcomes, the rankings become increasingly difficult, but fun. Speaking of, aren't the Bengals cool to watch, despite the awful unis? Mike Zimmer has that defense playing ball, keeping them in games so that rookie Red Dalton doesn't shoulder too much of the load. That's a big reason they've slowly climbed the charts -- especially this week.

While I'm pretty sure almost no one watched the fourth quarter of that Cincy-Seattle game, Monday night's Chargers-Chiefs slugfest was a combination of good defense, awful offense, turnover porn, and old-school divisional football. It also jumbled the rankings in the middle.

Meanwhile, we have a new-old challenger to the top-ranked Packers at the two spot. Shouldn't be a huge surprise. Let's get to it.

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RANK

1

7-0 PACKERS

Bye week in the great state of Wisconsin. I thought I had never been there before, but my Mom says we were up there when I was two. So I'm qualified to write that sentence. On Thursday, I'll be writing an article on the most plausible way to stop Aaron Rodgers and the offense. That is, if I find one before then.

RANK

2

6-2 STEELERS

4

Huge win for Steelers fandom, who've had to sit through Tom Brady breaking their hearts on their own field several times, most recently in last season's 39-26 shellacking, a game that wasn't as close as it sounds. Coming in, Brady was 4-1 as starter at Heinz Field with a 97.8 passer rating. But Dick LeBeau's defense pressed receivers, and the pass rush got to the Patriots quarterback three times, including the last gasp play from scrimmage. Pittsburgh hasn't gotten much love this year, mostly because of the Week 1 debacle in Baltimore. But this club is 6-2, and the top seed in the AFC currently.

RANK

3

6-1 49ERS

1

The 49ers don't give teams anything on the ground. They aren't turning the ball over, either. Their six turnovers are tied for second fewest in the NFL, and the run defense is best in the league. That's how you start 6-1.

RANK

4

5-2 BILLS

3

I really don't want to write anything congratulatory about the Bills, so as not to jinx this great franchise ... one of the AFL's original eight. Twelve years is too long to go without a playoff berth.

RANK

5

6-2 LIONS

3

Three very encouraging things happened for the Lions, outside of Matthew Stafford and Megatron, who command most of the attention: a) the club played its best first half of football all season, b) the running game showed some signs of life, and c) the front four consistently made life hell for Tebowmania. The latter is still this team's playoff bread and butter.

RANK

6

5-2 PATRIOTS

4

While New England has matched its 2010 loss total, there's no reason to blow that statistic out of proportion. Both defeats have come on the road, and by a grand total of 11 points. Amazingly, every team in the AFC already has at least two losses. What is of major concern to the organization is the completely shoddy play of the secondary. Releasing Leigh Bodden made no difference; Ben Roethlisberger torched them for 365 yards. The Patriots have now allowed 39 pass plays of 20-plus yards, easily the most in the league.

RANK

7

5-2 RAVENS

2

Yes, Baltimore came back Sunday, but it still drops two spots. Any honest Ravens fan has to admit this team has not played well the past couple of weeks. Joe Flacco is up and down. While he and Anquan Boldin had some nice hookups, he has to feel that pass rush that led to his fumble and ultimately the Cardinals' first touchdown. On another note, great individual performance by Terrell Suggs, who was in on a lot of plays Sunday: 13 tackles and a sack.

RANK

8

5-2 GIANTS

2

Nice rally, although one wonders how tough the Giants are to let a team with Matt Moore running the offense, and Reggie Bush as the lead runner, jump out to a 14-3 lead. Perry Fewell's defense has slipped some with the injuries, dropping from seventh last season to 16th overall.

RANK

9

5-3 SAINTS

6

What a comedown. Winning by 55 points one week only to lose to an A.J. Feeley-led team the next is like going from Charlize Theron to Kathy Bates on consecutive blind dates. Steven Jackson ran through, around, and all over the Saints. Big props to Rams defensive coordinator Ken Flajole, who must've been embarrassed after his unit gave up almost 300 yards rushing to the Cowboys in Week 7. Oh, wait. This is the Saints blurb. New Orleans hosts the Bucs, travels to Atlanta, then hosts the Giants and Lions, before travelling to Tennessee. All of those teams have a winning record.

RANK

10

5-2 BENGALS

6

Mea culpa. Even with a relatively easy schedule, I didn't think Cincy would start 5-2. Although I felt the defense would be decent, this looked to be a 6-10 team prior to the season. But you have to hand it to Marvin Lewis, who expressed appreciation at being given an opportunity to start over at the same place. Rare, indeed. Back to the defense. Much credit has to be given to Zim, whose unit is currently ranked No. 3 in points allowed. Heady stuff for one of the league's most underrated assistant coaches.

RANK

11

4-3 RAIDERS

Two areas that were being addressed during the bye week: Darren McFadden getting healthy and Carson Palmer continuing his crash course in Hue Jackson's offense. Oakland hosts Denver this week, which features a quarterback who likes to hold the ball in the pocket for 37 seconds. That's a soft pillow to land on for a front four that just lost Matt Shaughnessy for the season.

RANK

12

5-3 TEXANS

A lot of people around the country don't pay attention to the Texans, but that was a big win over Jacksonville. Had the Texans faltered, the spunky Jaguars would suddenly be only 1.5 games out of first. Instead, Gary Kubiak's squad is a half game up on Tennessee and put Jacksonville further in the rear view. Also of note: One of the best players in football, Andre Johnson, got another week of rest.

RANK

13

4-3 JETS

Yet another bye. Don't look now, but Mark Sanchez has thrown six touchdowns with only one pick while compiling a 95.3 passer rating over the last three games. Yes, that Mark Sanchez. Still, the offense isn't getting enough vertical plays to merit much appreciation for Sanchez's low completion percentage (55.8.)

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14

4-3 BEARS

This organization is taking some heat for the Matt Forte non-renegotiation, or whatever you want to call it, and deservedly so. Forte's worst game of 2011: 82 yards from scrimmage. That's better than all but one of Chris Johnson's seven games of 2011. CJ2K makes roughly $9 million per year. Forte? $600,000 this year. Great if you're like most of us working stiffs. Not so much if you're one of the best backs in pro football with a limited career life span.

RANK

15

4-3 CHARGERS

6

When Patrick Crayton is your best weapon on offense and special teams, you've got problems. But give the resilient Crayton and his team a lot of credit for hanging in on the road amidst injuries, penalties, and a crowd rabid for their Chiefs. Norv Turner has got to find a way to get his offense in sync, and a way to de-injury prone Ryan Mathews.

RANK

16

3-4 EAGLES

4

At what point do we stop talking about early season head-to-head losses as a determining factor between similar teams? Exhibit A: Philly's loss in Atlanta with Mike Kafka trying to pull an Elway. The 2011 season looked like it was slipping away a couple of weeks ago. The fat lady had Doritos in her mouth and just needed to finish chewing before singing. What a game plan by offensive coordinator Marty Morhinweg and performance by the offensive line. Complete domination of the Cowboys. Position coach Howard Mudd looks like the lovechild of Ernest Hemingway and Father Time under that Eagles beanie.

RANK

17

4-3 BUCCANEERS

Bye week blues in Tampa, especially coming off a frustrating loss across the pond. So what's next? Our Jason LaCanfora said on "NFL Fantasy Live" on Sunday that he expects LeGarrette Blount to be a big part of the offense down the stretch. If he can be a workhorse that averages five yards per carry like he did down the back half of 2010, then this could still be a playoff team, especially with the Saints crapping the bed in St. Louis. Tampa is one of those teams that needs to win with the old-school formula: Run game and defense.

RANK

18

4-3 FALCONS

For all of you brave souls who enjoy reading more than bullet points, give yourself a pat on the back, because this is the sixth bye week blurb you've had to digest. If you're a Falcons fans, then Sunday's result in St. Louis must have had you happier than Christina Hendricks' husband. Saints are coming to town in two weeks.

RANK

19

4-3 TITANS

It wasn't pretty Sunday, but it was a win. The mystery that is Chris Johnson's play has to be hard to watch for all the great Titans fans (and employees) who think this team has a shot to win the AFC South.

RANK

20

4-3 CHIEFS

3

Running the football, good defense, and playing clockball -- i.e. Bill Parcells football -- is great. But boy that win Monday night was ugly. Kansas City's lack of offense and poor clock management alleviated a lot of pressure on the struggling Chargers. For instance, the clock-burning at the end of the first half, when K.C. should've been pushing the ball down the field, was particularly frustrating. Still, with Miami and Tebowmania coming to town the next two weeks, this team could be 6-3 after being outscored 89-10 the first two weeks.

RANK

21

3-4 COWBOYS

6

Dallas got hammered for the first time since Wade Phillips' swan song in November of last year. Ironically, Jason Garrett made the Wade-face several times Sunday night. In related news, it's time for the team to cut bait with Martellus Bennett. His athletic attempt to catch a sideline route in the first half -- as in, Eli Manningesque athleticism -- led to a key first-half interception in a 14-0 game. Time to roll with Jason Witten and John Phillips at tight end.

RANK

22

3-4 BROWNS

1

For a team that expected to be able to run the football coming into this season, 23 carries for 66 yards isn't going to cut it. Not to belabor the point, but let me belabor the point. Cleveland has had 100 yards rushing as a team only twice this season, and those games were against the Colts and Seahawks -- not exactly the Steel Curtain and 2000 Ravens. Even in those games, Cleveland had to rack up tons of attempts to get there, averaging exactly 3.1 yards per carry in both games.

RANK

23

2-6 VIKINGS

5

This club doesn't deserve a five-spot leap, but what to do with the Seahawks, Broncos, and Redskins, who all suffered from general sucking in Week 8? Hard to say this about a superstar, but is it fair to qualify Adrian Peterson's season as being under the radar? The guy had 162 yards from scrimmage Sunday in Carolina. Let's see, in eight games A.D. has 923 yards from scrimmage and 10 touchdowns. That's pretty darn good for a guy on a 2-6 squad.

RANK

24

2-6 PANTHERS

2

On paper, the home game vs. the Vikings looked like a win coming in. The Panthers even had the advantage at quarterback for the second week in a row. But Vikings rookie Christian Ponder was steady, if not spectacular, while Cam Newton continues to play amazingly well for a first-year QB. Newton's startling play aside, coach Ron Rivera must be pulling his hair out over all these close losses. Carolina is 2-6, but has only been outscored by 20 points total this season.

RANK

25

2-6 JAGUARS

1

Defensive coordinator Mel Tucker's unit continues to get put behind the eight-ball by an offense that can't stay on the field. Sunday in Houston, it was 174 yards of football greatness. Blaine Gabbert and Luke McCown combined to go 10 of 32 for 97 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions. We all have to remember that Gabbert's rookie struggles are the norm, while Newton and Andy Dalton are the exceptions, historically. Rookies aren't supposed to play as good as those dudes.

RANK

26

3-4 REDSKINS

2

The non-CFL game in Toronto might have been better if the Blue Bombers played the Bills. The terrible Geico Caveman- Brian Orakpo commercials are more exciting than the Redskins' offense. Here are some numbers to take home, or rather, that hit home: 178 total yards, 36 rushing yards, 3.6 yards per pass play and nine sacks allowed. John Beck threw two picks, but the running game made up for it by averaging 2.2 yards per carry. You know it's bad when Donte' Stallworth gets a carry.

RANK

27

2-5 BRONCOS

2

Tim Tebow was pretty bad vs. the Lions. The offensive line got charged with seven sacks, but several of those could have been avoided if Tebow gets the ball out of his hands in a reasonable amount of time. If he's going to be a running quarterback, then he should tuck his head and run after all his reads are covered. Instead, he's holding the ball after his reads aren't there (or after he misses them) and creating opportunities for the defense. Oh, and by the way, Tebowmania had nothing to do with the poor play from the secondary.

RANK

28

1-6 CARDINALS

1

At 24-3, the Cardinals looked like they were destined to pull off the upset of the weekend in Baltimore. Then the secondary responded by mutating back to its ugly self, while Kevin Kolb gave the team nothing. For the game, Kolb went 10 of 21 with a touchdown and a pick. The Cardinals just aren't good enough -- defensively, or in the running game -- too overcome mediocre-to-poor performances by their quarterback.

RANK

29

1-6 RAMS

3

Where the hell did that come from? We need to see a few strong performances to move this team more than three spots. Speaking of a strong performance: So the baseball Cardinals get lucky against the Rangers in the World Series and all of a sudden A.J. Feeley has a better arm than Chris Carpenter? Steven Jackson was awesome Sunday with 191 yards and two touchdowns, and it was nice to see. What a career. Since 2006, Jackson has 8,922 yards from scrimmage, tops in the league over that span.

RANK

30

0-7 DOLPHINS

What a cruel day Sunday turned out to be. It would have almost been easier on Dolphins fans if Matt Moore threw six picks, Reggie Bush gave them nothing, and the team lost 36-0. But to lose in a game they were up 14-3, and 17-10 in the fourth quarter, hurt because it was there for the taking. The issues for Tony Sparano are the same: Creating a passing attack and stopping one. As long as the 'Fins make every opposing passer look like Roger Staubach, Joe Montana, and Kurt Warner rolled into one, this team is headed to 3-13, at best.

RANK

31

2-5 SEAHAWKS

3

First the Passion of the 'Hurst accomplished nada. Then Tarvaris Jackson played like Tarvaris Jackson. Charlie Whitehurst came back out and made a cruddy throw on fourth down in the fourth quarter. Then T-Jax was back in, just in time to throw a pick-six. Seattle fans deserve a Lucky break.

RANK

32

0-8 COLTS

1

Another loss, another Curtis Painter masterpiece: Five yards per attempt, two picks, and no touchdowns. Unlike last Monday night in New Orleans, the defense at least kind of showed up. How many Colts fans are rooting for them to drop every game and get the first overall pick? I know one. He's become a honker for the Dolphins all of a sudden, only because he thinks they're crappier than Indy and is worried they'll get the top pick. And to think some people believe there's no passion in sports anymore.

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