The Bengals are in the weekly rankings' top five and the champion Patriots aren't. Which means that somewhere, Lucifer is snacking on a pint of Haagen-Dazs.
We're only a month into the season, and we're starting to see the unimaginable come to life. The Bills – who were expected to have a historic defense this year (by yours truly) – dropped into the Bottom Five this week after a third straight pitiful performance on offense. The Vikings, thought to be a Super Bowl contender by some, are plummeting fast. Meanwhile, surprising teams like the Bengals and Buccaneers methodically have established a foothold on the upper reaches of the rankings.
Some bad teams are even living down to expectations, in places such as San Francisco, Tennessee and even Green Bay, where the Packers just can't seem to get over the hump in close games. Speaking of the Packers, it's about time those crummy NFC North teams started playing each other, before they all end up in the Bottom Five.
THE TOP 12
1. Indianapolis Colts (4-0) – If you think Indy's offense heated up Sunday, the next three games should be a lesson in nuclear fission: at San Francisco, vs. St. Louis and at Houston. Peyton Manning will triple his touchdown total by the end of October.
3. Pittsburgh Steelers (2-1) – The Monday night game in San Diego suddenly is looking like Pittsburgh's biggest test so far this season. Ben Roethlisberger could have a field day against the Chargers' average secondary.
4. Cincinnati Bengals (4-0) – Dating to last season, Carson Palmer now has seven straight starts with a passer rating of 100-plus. Cincinnati showed us something we hadn't seen this season by dealing with a lot of adversity against Houston and responding in the fourth quarter.
5. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-0) – The nail biter over Detroit at home might give some pause about Tampa's fast start, but the Bucs still won despite four turnovers. Expanding Michael Pittman's role as a receiver could add a huge dimension to the offense.
6. Atlanta Falcons (3-1) – The Falcons lead the league with 17 sacks in four games. Five of those belong to defensive tackle Rod Coleman, who is looking like a lighter, quicker version of Warren Sapp.
7. Denver Broncos (3-1) – The defensive turnaround has been huge, but establishing the running game has been just as vital for the Broncos. After a slow start, Denver has rushed for 409 yards in the last two games.
8. San Diego Chargers (2-2) – After getting knocked around in the first two games of the season, Drew Brees barely has been touched the last two weeks. LaDainian Tomlinson and Keenan McCardell rank first and fourth in the NFL in touchdowns.
9. New England Patriots (2-2) – Now we see the injuries starting to drag on this team. And it doesn't help that a handful of the Patriots' offseason acquisitions (particularly Duane Starks and Chad Scott) have been disappointments.
10. New York Giants (3-1) – Plaxico Burress' four touchdown catches are twice as many as the entire receiving corps had in all of 2004. It's hard to believe Eli Manning has more touchdowns (nine) than his brother Peyton (six).
11. Washington Redskins (3-0) – Still waiting for the wheels to fall off with Mark Brunell at the helm? He was huge under pressure in the win over Seattle, completing 11 of 15 passes on third down for 138 yards.
12. Kansas City Chiefs (2-2) – The Chiefs' defense is slumping, but Sunday's loss had just as much to do with four offensive turnovers that led to 24 Philadelphia points. Tony Gonzalez has no touchdowns and is averaging a career-low 8.1 yards per catch.
Miami Dolphins (2-1) – The Dolphins are holding teams to 2.9 yards per carry – tops in the NFL. You have to love the way Nick Saban stood up for his guys when the league levied some fines last week.
THE MUDDLED MIDDLE (in alphabetical order)
Baltimore Ravens (1-2) – With defense and a grinding ball-possession offense, Baltimore has found a way to protect Anthony Wright from himself. Now the schedule turns to mush, with the next three opponents having a combined record of 3-6.
Carolina Panthers (2-2) – Even without Kris Jenkins, the defense has been surprisingly porous. This was supposed to be the season when Julius Peppers had a Reggie White-type impact, yet he's sackless in four games.
Chicago Bears (1-2) – Now is the time to seize the NFC North, with the Bears entering a ridiculously soft portion of the schedule. Five of Chicago's next six opponents are worse than .500. Those five teams have a combined record of 5-12.
Cleveland Browns (1-2) – Trent Dilfer has a passer rating of 95.1 and has completed better than 66 percent of his passes. But if he's going to lead this team anywhere this season, he has to make hay in the next five games before the schedule gets a lot tougher.
Detroit Lions (1-2) – The vaunted receiving corps has been a disappointment. Charles Rogers is on the verge of a substance abuse suspension, Roy Williams has been average and Mike Williams still is mired near the bottom of the depth chart.
Jacksonville Jaguars (2-2) – Jimmy Smith is on a pace to enjoy the best season of what is starting to look like a Hall of Fame career. Too bad Jacksonville can't find a No. 2 receiver to complement him.
New Orleans Saints (2-2) – Sunday was Deuce McAllister at his toughest. After wearing Buffalo's defense down for three quarters, he iced the game late in the fourth by helping run out the clock with consecutive runs of 10, 15, 12 and 26 yards.
New York Jets (1-3) – After the offense put up only 152 yards against Baltimore, you can say goodbye to the Brooks Bollinger era. It's still early, but Laveranues Coles is on pace for his worst season since he was a rookie in 2000.
Oakland Raiders (1-3) – The defense has had its moments this season, but none was more impressive than stopping Dallas inside the five-yard line to seal Sunday's win. The high-powered offense is averaging only 19 points per game.
St. Louis Rams (2-2) – Everyone thank Mike Martz for another simple lesson: When you're down by 10 points in the third quarter and sitting at your opponent's six-yard line, don't call a play that requires two pitches.
Seattle Seahawks (2-2) – Josh Brown? Meet the world's fastest-acting field-goal karma. The defense's inability to get off the field on third down is one of those red flags that always seem to pop up with the Seahawks.
Tennessee Titans (1-3) – Sticking to the base defense against Indianapolis rather than playing a consistent two-deep zone was a mistake. Pac Man Jones got his first start Sunday, and soon after, his first taunting penalty.
Minnesota Vikings (1-3) – Daunte Culpepper has been bad, but his offensive line is downright shameful. With the injuries piling up on both sides of the ball, this might be a 5-11 season in the making.
THE BOTTOM FIVE
30. San Francisco 49ers (1-3) – The pair of defensive touchdowns this weekend won't fool anyone. The 49ers are surrendering an absurd average of almost 474 yards per game – nearly 50 more than the next worst defensive unit in the league.
31. Green Bay Packers (0-4) – The last three losses have come by a total of six points. If the Packers lose to the Saints this week, it might be time to see what they've got for the future, and that means getting Aaron Rodgers some snaps in garbage time.
32. Houston Texans (0-3) – Even with the attention he gets from defenses, Andre Johnson's disappearance is troubling. And before investing another dime anywhere else, the Texans need to blow up an offensive line that has given up 20 sacks in three games.