Are they for real? We're getting to the portion of the season where that's the most pressing question in the NFL. Unexpected teams have unexpected records. The Cardinals, Bengals and Vikings are a combined 10-2. Which of them are real? Which are going to fold like origami swans?
And which of the unexpectedly bad teams are really that bad? The Saints, Steelers and Lions are a combined 2-9. Which of those teams will pull themselves out of the muck, and which will keep wallowing in it like drunken swine? The power rankings hold the answers.
1. Atlanta Falcons (4-0)
Last week: 3
The Panthers came at the Falcons with their best punch on Sunday. That wasn't the same Panthers team that did everything for the Giants but give them neck massages two Thursday nights ago. They fought like they needed that one, and still the Falcons were better. Checking in with Matt Ryan's MVP campaign, he added 369 yards and three touchdowns to his resume. His QB rating is best in the league, he's second in touchdown passes, tied for sixth in yards and tied for second in completion percentage.
2. Houston Texans (4-0)
Last week: 2
The 11th week of the season is the earliest anyone has ever clinched a division title. It's time to start keeping an eye on that record. If you're not yet a believer in the Texans, you're about to get a double dose of them in prime time: this coming week on Monday night against the Jets, and the next week on Sunday night against Green Bay.
3. Arizona Cardinals (4-0)
Last week: 1
I have to throw some respect Kevin Kolb's way. I wasn't tremendously nice to him last week, but he did hit the Dolphins with 324 yards and three touchdowns this week (two interceptions, too, but they only get a parenthetical because this is supposed to be something nice). Maybe more importantly, he captained a tremendous last-minute touchdown drive and forced overtime with a 15-yard touchdown pass to Andre Roberts that kept the dream of 16-0 alive. I almost typed that with a straight face.
4. San Francisco 49ers (3-1)
Last week: 6
Against all odds, Patrick Willis and the 49ers defense were able to stand up to the threat of Mark Sanchez and Tim Tebow and eek out a win. The Colin Kaepernick plays were an interesting twist for the Niners. I wonder if we'll continue to see him get a decent amount of snaps in the coming weeks. Is a short-term offensive boost in the form of gimmick plays worth messing with Alex Smith's psyche?
5. Philadelphia Eagles (3-1)
Last week: 7
When they've won, it's been by just a point or two, and when they've lost, they've been blown out. It's not a pretty 3-1, but there's no "pretty" column in the standings table (though I think there should be, because who doesn't like pretty things?). There's no bad way to get yourself atop the NFC East. The Eagles are legit if they don't turn the ball over, and they didn't against the Giants. It was, in fact, their first game of the season with fewer than three turnovers.
6. New York Giants (2-2)
Last week: 4
A narrow early season loss in Philly doesn't kill anyone ‒ in fact, it's pretty much the norm for the Giants. The Kenny Phillips sprained MCL is a concern, though. Being without Hakeem Nicks is one thing. He's a weapon, and they miss him, but Eli Manning is good enough to compensate with lesser receivers. Phillips, the glue of the secondary, isn't as easily replaced.
Last week: 5
Ravens fans might've liked to see something a little more convincing than a one-touchdown victory over the Browns, but cut them some slack. It was a short week after an emotional Sunday night game, and the Browns might not be the poor little weaklings you think they are.
8. Denver Broncos (2-2)
Last week: 8
Peyton Manning threw the football 38 times this week, which doesn't seem like a huge number until you consider that the Broncos won 37-6 and probably didn't need to throw the ball more than 15 times. I know it's not John Fox's style, but I think the sooner the Broncos embrace a no-huddle, pass-first, wing-it-around offense, the better off they'll be. You've got Peyton Manning. Turn him loose. You don't buy a Maserati and then calmly drive the speed limit on your way to work every day.
9. New England Patriots (2-2)
Last week: 9
Here's the relevant question: How much of that second half against Buffalo was the Patriots finding their offensive stride, and how much of it was Buffalo, for whatever reason, just deciding to lay down like recess was over and it was nap time? Also, I never thought I'd say this, but I'm looking forward to some meaningless Manning vs. Brady hype this week. It's been too long.
[Michael Silver: Refs' reign of error not enough to hold Packers down]
10. Green Bay Packers (2-2)
Last week: 10
Things haven't gone great for the Packers this season. The 49ers bloodied their noses in Week 1, and of course, there was the thievery in Seattle. But they're only one game back in the division, and you couldn't blame them if they felt like they were better than both of the teams ahead of them. I certainly feel that way.
11. San Diego Chargers (3-1)
Last week: 13
This felt like an important week for the Bolts, after being completely outclassed by the Falcons in Week 3. They just couldn't afford a loss to the Chiefs, even if playing in Arrowhead is no gimme. And to their credit, they went out and got the win by a healthy margin, but I remain unsold on the Chargers. The Chiefs served that one up like a stack of pancakes. Maybe the Chargers took their foot off the gas, but winning by 17 almost felt like a disappointment.
12. Chicago Bears (3-1)
Last week: 12
That was more like what I had envisioned the Cutler-to-Marshall connection looking like. On just eight targets, they hooked up seven times for 138 yards and a touchdown. Perhaps willfully ignoring Mike Tice is the key to this offense.
13. Cincinnati Bengals (3-1)
Last week: 17
Look at this: The Bengals top the Steelers. It's not because they beat Jacksonville (obviously), but it's how they beat Jacksonville ‒ thoroughly, and in every phase. This is, at the very least, a quality team. If they truly want to contend for an AFC North title, though, they'll have to win the ones they're supposed to win. For example, the next two against the Dolphins and Browns.
14. Pittsburgh Steelers (1-2)
Last week: 14
Troy Polamalu, James Harrison and Rashard Mendenhall all aim to come back this week for a big one against the Eagles. Why is it so big? Baltimore and Cincinnati both figure to be favorites in their games (against the Dolphins and Chiefs, respectively), and should the Steelers lose, they'll be two games behind both of them.
15. Minnesota Vikings (3-1)
Last week: 18
Are the Vikings so good now that they can show up and win games without scoring an offensive touchdown? The evidence says yes. That's what they did against Detroit, and at 3-1, they sit atop of the NFC North, tied with the Bears. The upcoming schedule isn't that rough, either: Tennessee, at Washington, Arizona, Tampa Bay, at Seattle, and Detroit again. Ragnar sleeps well tonight.
Last week: 11
I don't know if it was an emotional letdown after last week, but the Seahawks are a better football team than they showed on Sunday. I'm not entertaining thoughts that the Rams are better than the Seahawks. There's no way. Every team is prone to throwing up a brick every now and then. Already this season, the Giants have done it (against Dallas), the 49ers have done it (against Minnesota) and the Steelers have done it (against Oakland). Bricks happen.
17. Buffalo Bills (2-2)
Last week: 15
Coming off of two straight wins and leading the Patriots 21-7 in the third quarter, the Bills were staring at being the big dogs in the AFC East. I don't know why Chan Gailey decided to turn head coaching duties over to Davis Love III at halftime, but the Pats went on a 45-7 run with Tom Brady in the Ian Poulter role. I knew Buffalo wasn't a defensive powerhouse, but I honestly don't think they could've done worse in the second half if they were forced to play with nine men. And they were all American golfers.
18. Miami Dolphins (1-3)
Last week: 20
I'd love to credit Ryan Tannehill for his 431-yard day, but at least some of that is canceled out by the two crucial turnovers. The first one, with about three minutes to play, was maybe unavoidable as he fumbled while being sacked. On the second, he tried to force a throw as Paris Lenon was busy trying to crush his spleen, and the throw wobbled out helplessly and was picked off. Still, the Dolphins are my highest-ranked 1-3 team and are just a couple of plays away from being 3-1.
19. Dallas Cowboys (2-2)
Last week: 16
You know who adds tremendous entertainment value to the NFL? Quarterbacks who can be spectacular, but are also prone to colossal, confounding, brain-melting mistakes. Jay Cutler and Tony Romo are probably the two best examples of that in today's game, so when they went head-to-head, you knew someone was going to go full Jake Plummer. Unfortunately for the Cowboys, it was Romo.
20. Carolina Panthers (1-3)
Last week: 27
I said last week that they needed to turn in a good performance against Atlanta to avoid the feeling that the season was getting away from them, and they did that. They didn't win, but they gave the mighty Falcons their stiffest challenge of the season, so they can take on Seattle at home next week with some confidence.
21. St. Louis Rams (2-2)
Last week: 28
It's probably not a good thing when you have players openly saying that the placekicker is their team's MVP through four games. These are the Rams, though, and it's not often that they're .500, so they wouldn't even care if their punter manufactured their only touchdown of the day ... which he did.
22. Washington Redskins (2-2)
Last week: 29
The Redskins came perilously close to blowing an 18-point lead, but it was worth it to see RGIII lead his first game-winning drive. Starting at his own 20-yard line, down by a point, he completed passes of 15 yards to Santana Moss, 20 yards to Fred Davis, 4 yards to Evan Royster, and 7 yards again to Moss. He added a 15-yard run, and his lone incompletion was a spike.
23. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1-3)
Last week: 21
I was starting to fear that Josh Freeman was headed for Mark Sanchez territory, but he turned in a solid bounce-back performance this week: 24-of-39 for 299 yards and a touchdown, with one interception. The defense dug him too big a hole, though. It was almost like they were getting revenge for the Dallas game, where the defense was great, but Freeman was a mess.
[Video: Lions looking for answers]
24. Detroit Lions (1-3)
Last week: 22
In the last two games, the Lions have given up four special teams touchdowns ‒ two on kickoff returns and two on punt returns. Quarterback Matthew Stafford, meanwhile, has just three touchdown passes on the season, and thus, Detroit's franchise quarterback is being outscored by opposing special teams alone.
25. Kansas City Chiefs (1-3)
Last week: 23
How bad has Matt Cassel been? In this poll at the Kansas City Star's website, fans can vote on who they want to start for the Chiefs against the Ravens this week. As of Monday night, Brady Quinn is in the lead with 80 percent. Eighty percent! Brady Quinn! I wonder what the results would have been if the choices had been "Matt Cassel" and "Find Elvis Grbac, hose him off, and put him under center."
[Video: Tebow time in New York?]
Last week: 19
If a team is 26th in the league in passing, 24th in the league in rushing, and 31st in the league at stopping the run, what do they need to become a good football team? Supernatural intervention. Fortunately, the one proven miracle-worker in the league is on the Jets' roster. Let's see him. It's Tebow time. Let's squeeze as much entertainment out of this train wreck as possible.
27. Indianapolis Colts (1-2)
Last week: 30
The news of Chuck Pagano's leukemia diagnosis is so brutally devastating that I hate to even include it here among so much frivolity. But football, and the Colts, will go on as he recovers. My hope is that the Colts will play well enough to help Pagano keep positive thoughts in his mind while he endures treatment.
28. Tennessee Titans (1-3)
Last week: 24
The good news? Chris Johnson had his first good game of this calendar year. The bad news? With or without Chris Johnson gaining yards, the Titans aren't very good. Fortunately, the injury to Jake Locker doesn't appear to be serious, so Titans fans can still cling to the small, moral victories that come with a rebuilding year.
29. Oakland Raiders (1-3)
Last week: 25
Way to build on that big win over the Steelers. Peyton Manning had his way with the Oakland secondary, but that's going to happen to a lot of teams. The real concern here is that Darren McFadden reverted to his sub-3.0 yards per carry form. That's looking more like the norm for McFadden, and not the exception. It's probably not what Raiders fans envisioned when McFadden was drafted and they thought he'd be the next Chris Johnson.
30. Cleveland Browns (0-4)
Last week: 31
If Greg Little didn't actively hate footballs and have a strong desire to never hold them in his hands, the Browns would've beaten the Ravens in the Thursday nighter. That didn't look like a No. 30 team ‒ they had some fight, and they flashed some legit NFL talent. But as long as they're winless, they're at the bottom of the ladder, looking up most everyone else's skirt.
31. New Orleans Saints (0-4)
Last week: 32
The performance in Green Bay was clearly their best of the season, but 0-4 is 0-4, and the Saints are still last in the league in total defense. If a record of 10-6 will be required to get in the playoffs, the Saints can only lose two more games. Do you like those odds when every single team that's played the Saints so far has had its highest-scoring output of the season?
32. Jacksonville Jaguars (1-3)
Last week: 26
Welcome, Jaguars, to the Kotite Hole, which is what we're calling the dead last spot in the power rankings. I know you have a better record than the Browns or Saints, but you know what those teams had on Sunday that you didn't? The slightest indication that they enjoy or have some aptitude for playing football. I just don't know what there is to like about the Jaguars right now.
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