1. New York Giants (6-3)
The Giants started 5-2 or better for the NFL record-tying ninth straight season. Eli Manning has led three more fourth-quarter comeback wins after seven last season, giving him 24 for his career; the most by any quarterback through nine seasons in NFL history. Though Manning already has 2,426 yards passing, he only has 12 touchdowns, including just two in his last four games.
Elsa / Getty Images
Defensively, the Giants rank 25th in yards per game, but rank 10th in points per game with 26 takeaways (second most in NFL). Their 25 sacks are tied for third most. Every season the Giants usually go on a slump in November, and they just lost to Pittsburgh after a rough week with Hurricane Sandy.
The schedule will be getting tougher, but the Giants have a solid lead in the division and in a one-and-done playoff game, few teams are more feared.
2. Philadelphia Eagles (3-5)
Turnovers will kill you, and the Eagles have 19, giving them a -9 turnover differential on the season. After starting 3-1 with the wins by a combined four points, the Eagles have lost four straight, putting the future of Andy Reid and Michael Vick in Philadelphia in jeopardy.
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They barely scraped by for those close victories, lost two such games, and have now been outclassed by the Falcons and Saints the last two weeks. Defensive coordinator Juan Castillo was fired, but the defense has hardly performed any better with their lack of takeaways and sacks.
The Eagles have failed to score more than 24 points in any game this season, which is the longest streak for the team since the 2005 season. That was the last time Philadelphia finished with a losing record (6-10), and this could be the end of the road for Reid’s tenure after 14 seasons.
3. Dallas Cowboys (3-5)
Dallas is third in the division, but first in drama. After upsetting the Giants in New York on opening night, the Cowboys are just 2-5 since that strong performance. Tony Romo is usually a lock for a mid-90’s passer rating, but this season he has 10 touchdowns, 13 interceptions and an 82.2 passer rating.
Mike Stone / Reuters
Coach Jason Garrett and quarterback Tony Romo.
Dallas’ problems are not finishing drives on both sides of the ball. The offense ranks sixth in yards, but 26th in points. The defense ranks fifth in yards, but 18th in points. The coaching and play-calling has been very suspect late in close games against Baltimore and the Giants, while the defense could not get off the field quick enough against undefeated Atlanta in what was a winnable game.
A 3-5 hole is a tough one to climb out of in the NFC, but the Steelers are the only team with a winning record left on the schedule. For Dallas to recover, it has to start in Week 10, or else Jason Garrett may be hitting the unemployment line.
4. Washington Redskins (3-6)
The excitement has been provided from rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III. He has completed 65.6 percent of his passes with a 93.9 passer rating. Griffin may only have eight touchdown passes, but he has six rushing scores and 529 yards rushing, which is the fifth-highest rushing total through nine games by a quarterback in NFL history.
Gene J. Puskar / AP
Robert Griffin III
But the offense has been grounded the last three weeks during a losing streak where they have struggled with turnovers (Giants), dropped passes (Steelers), and in the red zone (Panthers). Washington is last in the league on third down, converting 28.6 of their plays. The defense has struggled all season, allowing a gross of 325.6 passing yards per game, and four game-winning drives against a unit missing Brian Orakpo, Adam Carriker, and with London Fletcher playing hurt.
Mike Shanahan may get a pass for what they have done with Griffin and all the injuries on both sides of the ball, but with a 14-26 (.350) record in three seasons, he could find himself on the hot seat should the losses continue. Five of the last seven games for Washington are against the NFC East.
1. Chicago Bears (7-1)
This is the best defense in football. They may not officially be No. 1 in points allowed, but when you factor in Chicago’s ability to score on defense, then there is no comparison.
Joe Howell / AP
From left, Bears defensive players Julius Peppers, Brian Urlacher and Tim Jennings.
Chicago has allowed 120 points, but only 104 should be charged to the defense, which has scored an incredible 48 points. That is a net of 56 points allowed, or 7.0 points per game. That does not even include a blocked punt returned for a touchdown. Chicago’s seven interceptions returned for touchdowns are a NFL record for eight games of a season.
Oh, and the offense has been solid as well with Jay Cutler reuniting with Brandon Marshall. They also do well on special teams annually. About the only thing this team does poorly is play in Green Bay, and that’s mostly on Cutler.
For now, the Bears are one of the elite teams this season and do not have to worry about playing in Green Bay as long as they win the division.
2. Green Bay Packers (6-3)
It was a surprising 2-3 start with Green Bay’s offense not looking so elite, but things have turned around with a four-game winning streak in which Aaron Rodgers has thrown 15 touchdowns to one interception.
Doug Pensinger / Getty Images
Receiver Jordy Nelson and quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
The defense is improved from last season, but Green Bay’s not getting all the takeaways they used to. The team has battled injuries in recent weeks to some of their big-name players, but they have a bye week to improve their health.
Road games in Detroit and New York (Giants) will offer better gauges of where the Packers are than the last few weeks have. They also have their second big meeting with Chicago in Week 15. Last year the Packers ran out of steam for the playoffs, but this year they have the chance to get stronger later in the season.
3. Minnesota Vikings (5-4)
The Vikings had one of the great upsets of the season when they handled San Francisco 24-13 in Week 3, but in the last four weeks (1-3) they have looked more like the team we expected. Adrian Peterson has returned phenomenally from his torn ACL injury, leading the league in rushing with 957 yards. Percy Harvin has had a great all-purpose season, but is dealing with an ankle injury.
Hannah Foslien / Getty Images
The defense has improved after last season’s disastrous performance, but they are still not in the top 10.
The team’s biggest problem is Christian Ponder, who actually started the season completing 68.2 percent of his passes. But in the last three weeks Ponder has completed 51.4 percent, and was held to 58 and 63 yards in two of the games. This should never happen in 1982, let alone 2012. Ponder’s downward spiral mixed with a brutal schedule — they have yet to play Chicago, Green Bay and Houston — likely means a top 10 draft pick for the Vikings.
4. Detroit Lions (4-4)
The Lions are 9-11 since their 5-0 start last season. With their first three wins requiring fourth-quarter comebacks from Matthew Stafford, the Lions finally had an easy win in Week 9, albeit the opponent was Jacksonville. After throwing 41 touchdowns last season, Stafford has eight this year, and none have been to Calvin Johnson, even though he has 48 catches for 767 yards.
Jonathan Daniel / Getty Images
The Lions have been slow starters, scoring 104 points in the fourth quarter, which is the second most in NFL history through eight games (2002 Chiefs scored 109 points). The defense is seventh in yards per game allowed, but just 22nd in points per game.
The schedule is tough, they have to leapfrog from last place, but the offense should always give them a chance to come back against anyone. Detroit’s best players just have to play more consistently for them.
CSN: The Super Bowl's golden anniversary will be held in the Golden State. The new stadium, which opens in 2014, in Santa Clara will host Super Bowl L two years later, the NFL announced Tuesday.
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