It took three months for the mold to finally set.
For the first time this season, the rankings' Top 12 carried over the same teams from the previous week. Nobody jumped in. Nobody fell out. That's quite an accomplishment when you consider there has been almost routine rearranging in the bottom rungs of the group with at least two teams shuffling in or out each week.
What that tells us is we're getting close to playoff time, and it's becoming increasingly difficult for middle-of-the-pack wannabes to crack the upper reaches. Teams like Kansas City and Atlanta are bound to make one last-ditch run at the Top 12, but their places in the rankings seem to be as unstable as their playoff hopes.
THE TOP 12
1. Indianapolis Colts (11-0) – Bob Sanders is another good example of scouting evaluations that aren't quite right. He was called short, small and a player who gambled too much for highlight hits. Now he and Dwight Freeney have become the heart of the Indianapolis defense.
2. Denver Broncos (9-2) – Gary Kubiak has to get some serious looks at head coaching jobs next season. That said, if Jeb Putzier ends up with more receptions this season than Ashley Lelie, that's a crime.
3. San Diego Chargers (7-4) – Marty Schottenheimer's argument about LaDainian Tomlinson being the best running back he's ever seen isn't crazy. But Tomlinson has a long way to go to sustain that praise. After all, we heard people say some of the same things about Denver's Terrell Davis, too.
4. Seattle Seahawks (9-2) – If anyone was wondering about the NFC's elite team, Seattle has now beaten the Cowboys, Falcons and Giants. And we might be looking at a Super Bowl preview when the Seahawks face Indianapolis on Dec. 24.
5. Pittsburgh Steelers (7-4) – Antwaan Randle El has been hurt by injuries and quarterback shuffling, but he still hasn't filled the role of Plaxico Burress. For all the talk about Randle El being an explosive element, he hasn't caught a touchdown pass since the first game of the season.
6. Cincinnati Bengals (8-3) – Peyton Manning gets a massive amount of praise for his play-calling at the line of scrimmage, but after seeing Carson Palmer run the Bengals' two-minute offense, I don't think he's far behind.
7. Chicago Bears (8-3) – The rest of the league is waking up to Alex Brown, who is looking like another player scouts misjudged because he didn't have great measurables. I guess not all of Jerry Angelo's draft decisions are bad ones.
9. Dallas Cowboys (7-4) – It was unfortunate to see linebacker Dat Nguyen's season ended by a neck injury. Now his career hangs in the balance. It's too bad. When healthy, Nguyen was one of the most underrated linebackers in the NFL.
10. Carolina Panthers (8-3) – John Fox says people shouldn't read into it, but if DeShaun Foster's versatility continues to give Carolina the best chance to win, he's going to take over as the team's featured back going into the playoffs.
11. Jacksonville Jaguars (8-3) – The good news? David Garrard is one of the top five backups in the NFL and the schedule is cotton-candy soft. The bad news? It's a virtual impossibility that Byron Leftwich makes it back to the team this season.
Kansas City Chiefs (7-4) – Tony Gonzalez has rounded back into form, but he still isn't enough of a factor in the red zone. He's only scored one touchdown in 11 games, and if this team is going to hang in the playoff race, that has to change.
THE MUDDLED MIDDLE (in alphabetical order)
Atlanta Falcons (7-4) – If the Falcons don't beat Carolina this week, their playoff hopes will begin to swirl around the drain. The last thing Atlanta wants is having to sweep its final three games against Chicago, Tampa Bay and Carolina.
Baltimore Ravens (3-8) – In hindsight, it was totally absurd to think that adding receiving options like Derrick Mason and Mark Clayton was going to automatically make Kyle Boller a better quarterback. Bring Steve McNair to this team next year, and they are playoff contenders again.
Buffalo Bills (4-7) – If you were handicapping who was the frontrunner to be next season's Steve Mariucci (death by sputtering offense and poor quarterback play), Mike Mularkey would have to be at the top of the list.
Cleveland Browns (4-7) – Braylon Edwards has a great future ahead of him, but he needs to get his emotions under control. He hasn't even gotten out of his rookie year, and he's already sounding like a 10-year veteran who needs to be coddled by the organization.
Detroit Lions (4-7) – Now we get to find out if Steve Mariucci was the problem, or if the franchise's ills run deeper than just the head coach. No matter what, cornerback Dre Bly's hammering of Joey Harrington exposes the massive mistrust in the locker room.
Miami Dolphins (4-7) – Nick Saban has pushed it several times this season with his complaints about officiating. Now he may finally have to pay for it.
Minnesota Vikings (6-5) – Injuries aside, Nate Burleson has been a monumental disappointment. If the Vikings knew Jermaine Wiggins would be their biggest receiving threat at this point, Randy Moss would still be on the team.
New England Patriots (6-5) – Unless they run into an inept offense in the first round of the playoffs, the Patriots look like a first-round loss waiting to happen. And there aren't a lot of inept offenses among the AFC's elite at this point.
Oakland Raiders (4-7) – Not only is Warren Sapp's season over with the Raiders, but his career is likely finished in Oakland, too. With salary-cap issues on the horizon, the team can't afford to keep aging veterans.
Philadelphia Eagles (5-6) – As if there wasn't enough animosity between the Eagles and Cowboys, Jerry Jones poured a gallon of gasoline on the fire by making thinly veiled overtures about Terrell Owens. Nothing would eat at owner Jeffrey Lurie more than to see Jones and Owens winning together.
St. Louis Rams (5-6) – Ryan Fitzpatrick secured himself at least a few more years and opportunities in the NFL last weekend. And just when everyone thought Mike Martz was a goner in St. Louis, he says he's ready to come back. But will management let him?
Tennessee Titans (3-8) – More than likely, this is Steve McNair's last season with the Titans. But hopefully it's not his last in the league. If this year has proved anything, he still has something to offer.
Washington Redskins (5-6) – The rumblings in league circles about Joe Gibbs' retirement are starting to make the rounds again. It doesn't make much sense. This team looks a player or two from contending with anyone in the NFC.
THE BOTTOM FIVE
28. New Orleans Saints (3-8) – Don't the Saints' players have better things to worry about than whether or not Paul Tagliabue has shown them "disrespect"? Move on already and worry about saving Jim Haslett's job, if that's even possible.
29. Green Bay Packers (2-9) – Steve Mariucci to Green Bay? Those rumors will fly as long as Mariucci is available and Mike Sherman is still head coach.
30. San Francisco 49ers (2-9) – If Mike Nolan wants to salvage anything from this season, then he needs to get some kind of significant progress from Alex Smith. It's possible – just look at Eli Manning's final few games last year.
31. New York Jets (2-9) – After two men were stabbed at this weekend's game, maybe it's time to stop serving liquor to the fans. The team's woes might drive Herm Edwards to drink.
32. Houston Texans (1-10) – How Mariucci loses his job but Dom Capers has kept his is beyond me.
- Steve Mariucci