1) Philadelphia Eagles
Carson Wentz is special. The second-year quarterback gives Philadelphia a sensational opportunity to win the franchise's first Lombardi Trophy. Still just 24, this cat gets better with each passing start. And he's the comfortable front-runner to receive my AP vote for MVP. The Eagles were on a bye this past week, but I'm still buzzing about Wentz's four-touchdown masterpiece in Week 9. During the Eagles' seven-game win streak, Wentz owns a 19:3 touchdown-to-interception ratio and 110.1 passer rating. Ajayi's presence (and increased comfort in the offense) going forward will only help Philly's young signal caller. As will the continued growth of Nelson Agholor.
Philadelphia's heading toward home-field advantage. I love this team. And I love thinking about a potential Super Bowl title for this rabid fanbase.
2) Jacksonville Jaguars
Now, let me be clear: I think the problem with Blake Bortles is he's not very good at football. The end of regulation against the Chargers this past weekend was a microcosm of everything. Bortles threw two -- TWO!!! -- gruesome picks in the final two minutes. And the defense bailed him out, allowing the Jags to improve to 6-3.
That defense -- specifically, that defense's ability to overcome horrendous quarterback play -- is the reason Jacksonville sits at No. 2 here. The unit is special, allowing a league-low 14.9 points per game. And it's no wonder the Jags boast the NFL's No. 1 pass defense. Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye not only comprise the best cornerback duo in the league -- I'd argue they're the two best cornerbacks in the game this season. Combining those two cover men with Jacksonville's front seven is almost unfair. The D-line -- headlined by Calais Campbell, a free agency masterstroke by Jags brass -- is nightmare fuel for opposing offensive coordinators. With an NFL-best 35 sacks, the Jaguars have already eclipsed their total from last season (33).
With that kind of defense, Jacksonville just needs a smidgen of offense to have a chance in most games. And hey, rookie Leonard Fournette is a fine running back, last week (17 carries for 33 yards) notwithstanding. Also, Marqise Lee is developing into a fine playmaker -- when Bortles can get him the ball.
3) Tennessee Titans
Don't worry: I remembered the Titans. Despite all the Jags love just above, Tennessee is vastly superior at quarterback with Marcus Mariota. Yeah, his performance on Sunday was a bit uneven. But did you see what the third-year signal caller did when the Titans absolutely needed a scoring drive? He produced a scoring drive. This is something Mariota does with increasing frequency.
The Titans (6-3) are a pretty solid all-around team. As I've written before, I like both AFC South clubs to make the playoffs. And both are capable of doing some damage in the postseason. I just think that the Jags' defense -- the best single unit on either team -- gives Jacksonville more upside. But the Titans are a complete team, even if they don't always win in the most attractive manner.
4) Minnesota Vikings
I love Teddy Bridgewater and respect the hell out of him for the grueling rehab it took to get back on the active roster. He's an extremely likable guy, as you can tell from how highly all of his teammates speak of him.
That said, Mike Zimmer cannot mess with success. Case Keenum needs to keep his job. The Vikings are 7-2. Keenum is playing well, having just thrown four touchdown passes in an inspired road win over the Redskins. Zimmer should infuse the quarterback with confidence, not look to send him back to the bench. I wondered about the offense after the injury to running back Dalvin Cook, but Jerick McKinnon and Latavius Murray have provided something in relief. And it sure doesn't hurt that Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen have emerged as an unstoppable receiving duo.
I haven't even mentioned Minnesota's defense yet. This is clearly the Vikings' strength -- a playmaking, run-stuffing, game-changing unit. It's this side of the ball that could really carry Minnesota when the season truly shifts to winter.
Oh, and does anyone happen to know where this season's Super Bowl will be played? Ah, yes: U.S. Bank Stadium. You know, the one in Minneapolis.
5) Carolina Panthers
Now, in general, I'd love if the receivers were more consistent. I'd love it if the offensive line and the offensive coordinator were better. But overall, Carolina has the tools to forge a playoff run.
6) Atlanta Falcons
Atlanta (5-4) showed heart and toughness for the first time all season, pouncing on the wounded Cowboys with a 27-7 beatdown. Goes without saying that Adrian Clayborn enjoyed the game of his life with six sacks. (Not a typo.) Don't think we'll see that again, but it spoke to Atlanta's sudden liveliness. Now it's time for the Falcons to carry that over into this week's trip to Seattle ...
Yes, the Monday nighter's a spotlight game in the NFL's most hostile road environment. So what? These Falcons ooze talent. Time to live up to the billing. The Seahawks just lost Richard Sherman for the season, and their offensive line's a sieve. Seattle's vulnerable. It's time for Atlanta to really kick things into gear. Tevin Coleman filled in nicely for Devonta Freeman on Sunday. Now do it again. The Falcons told us they wouldn't suffer from a Super Bowl hangover. Prove it.
7) Buffalo Bills
My guy Tyrod Taylor was awful on Sunday. But I'm not completely giving up hope. Buffalo (5-4) still has a great coach in Sean McDermott. And this is currently a playoff team. Sweeping Miami, beating the Chargers in L.A. and taking care of business against the Colts would put the Bills at nine wins. It's possible.
8) Detroit Lions
Do you view Detroit as the underdog in any of those games? Maybe at Baltimore?
Matthew Stafford is playing at a fantastic level of late. But do you trust the offensive line? The run game? Red-zone offense? Defense? Jim Caldwell? Me neither.
Playoffs are likely, given the quarterback and the schedule. A deep January run is not.
9) Arizona Cardinals
My last name rhymes with nine, not eight.