1. New England Patriots (11-2) – What’s higher than number one? If anyone can figure that out, it’s got to be Bill Belichick.
2. Atlanta Falcons (11-2) – I’m leaving them number two in principle, because they’re the hottest team in the league with seven straight wins. I like the Saints’ chances to knock them off on the Monday after Christmas.
3. New Orleans Saints (10-3) (+2) – Six straight wins have given the defending champions a real shot at knocking off the Falcons for the NFC South and homefield advantage throughout the playoffs..
4. Pittsburgh Steelers (10-3) (+2) – Pittsburgh has a two-game lead for a bye with three games left: the floundering Jets, the hapless Panthers and the Browns.
5. Philadelphia Eagles (9-4) (-1) – The defense still needs to improve, and getting Asante Samuel back will help. Losing Stewart Bradley, on the other hand, did not. Their 9-4 record will be meaningless if they don’t beat the Giants next week, though.
6. New York Giants (9-4) (+1) – Not rain, nor sleet, nor snow, nor Metrodome roofs could stop the Giants from delivering a win. Their big test comes this week against Philadelphia.
7. Baltimore Ravens (9-4) (+2) – Remember when the Ravens were known for their dominant defense? Call them opportunistic at best now. They didn’t move up so much as the Packers and Jets moved down.
8. Green Bay Packers (8-5) (-5) – No Aaron Rodgers? A trip to Foxboro? No problem. Big problem.
9. New York Jets (9-4) (-1) – The good news is New York closes the season by hosting Buffalo, the bad news is trips to Pittsburgh and Chicago come first.
10. Chicago Bears (9-4) – Brian Urlacher put it best after a 36-7 loss to the Patriots: “They came in here on our field, our weather, and just pounded us.” He put it well yesterday, too: “The reality is, we got our butts kicked and we’re still in first place.”