Time will tell

Charles Robinson
Yahoo Sports

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The AFC's Best Team

Maybe it's because the defense seems more anonymous than ever without linebacker Willie McGinest or the offense's most electrifying player is a rookie running back (Laurence Maroney) who is sitting behind Corey Dillon. Or perhaps we've just grown tired of seeing the Patriots beat up on the woeful AFC East.

Whatever the case, the Patriots have staged a quiet ascent into elite status in the power rankings, this time behind a steady (and somewhat boring) offense and an incognito defense. We should have a better handle on just how legitimate these Patriots are over the next two weeks when they travel to Minnesota and host Indianapolis. But beyond those games, and tilts with the Bears and the Jaguars in November and December, the fluff schedule could propel New England to a 12-4 or 13-3 season. A Super Bowl shot? Well, what else is new?

Here is a look at how the league stacks up heading into Week 8.

THE TOP 12

1. Chicago Bears (6-0) – After all the talk about the impressive starts of quarterback Rex Grossman and wide receiver Bernard Berrian, last week's close call at Arizona got the Bears focused on balancing out the offense again. This is the week the running game breaks out.

2. Indianapolis Colts (6-0) – It was good to finally see quarterback Peyton Manning break out and have another monster game. But the news regarding safety Mike Doss (out for the year with a torn ACL) and defensive tackle Montae Reagor's (hurt during a car accident prior to the game) cast a pall over Sunday's win.

3. Denver Broncos (5-1) – If the defense (allowing just 7.3 points a game) proves it can hold the mighty Colts to seven points on Sunday, that offense might not need to make any changes. We would have to start considering that this defense is truly capable of winning a Super Bowl without a lot of help.

4. New England Patriots (5-1) – The team seems very vanilla when compared to the last few years, so maybe that's why this has been such a quiet start for the Patriots. Forget the Week 9 contest against Indianapolis. The Nov. 26 game against the Bears should be epic.

5. New Orleans Saints (5-1) – Calling his team back one day early from the bye week vacation was a pretty smart move for coach Sean Payton. The Saints can't afford to slip now with a ridiculous schedule left in front of them. Seven of the schedule's final 10 games should be against playoff contending teams.

6. Seattle Seahawks (4-2) – The fact that quarterback Matt Hasselbeck isn't out for the year is a big blessing. And with a slightly soft schedule over the next five games, and the return of running back Shaun Alexander early next month, the Seahawks can stay afloat.

7. St. Louis Rams (4-2) – Do the Rams really deserve this spot? We'll find out in the next four games. The picnic schedule is over, with three (San Diego, Seattle and Carolina) of the next four. The other contest is a home date with Kansas City.

8. Cincinnati Bengals (4-2) – The Bengals needed a win like Sunday's to kick start the team in the face of controversy and mounting injuries. And it was a must with the next three on the schedule: Atlanta, at Baltimore and San Diego.

9. San Diego Chargers (4-2) – Yes, the defense is in for some hard times, but I'm not convinced that this team can't stay in the playoff hunt by outscoring teams for the next 4-6 weeks while all the defensive players get their issues sorted out.

10. New York Giants (4-2) – Considering LaVar Arrington's torn Achilles suffered on Monday and his history of knee issues, you have to wonder if he'll ever be an elite player again. As it was, there were already criticisms of him being overrated before this injury.

11. Atlanta Falcons (4-2) – Hand it to quarterback Michael Vick. He backed up his words about wishing the coaches would open up the passing game. If that performance against Pittsburgh is legitimate (and we never know from one game to the next with this team), then Atlanta might have discovered something special.

12. Baltimore Ravens (4-2) – There aren't going to be any wholesale changes on that offense, even with the ousting of coordinator Jim Fassel. That means at the end of the day, it's going to be up to the players to get this thing right.

RISING

Minnesota Vikings (4-2) – I'm still not buying that this offense is on track. The first of two third-quarter touchdowns was a gimmick halfback pass and the 95-yard run happens once in a career. The Vikings have yet to show they can score 20-plus offensive points over a span of several games.

THE MUDDLED MIDDLE (in alphabetical order)

Buffalo Bills (2-5) – With eight turnovers and three touchdown drives in the last three games, quarterback J.P. Losman's time has to be running short. Another loss will push Buffalo out of the playoff hunt, which should pave the way to finding out if the Bills have a quarterback to build around during the season's final eight games.

Carolina Panthers (4-3) – Blaming an interception on an opponent's blown coverage seems foolish, but if you watch the tape, coach John Fox is right. The bigger issue for the Panthers is injuries. Three starters have been lost for the season, and four others have serious nagging issues that will last for the rest of the year.

Dallas Cowboys (3-3) – Considering the red zone turnovers by quarterback Drew Bledsoe, it's hard to say coach Bill Parcells made the wrong decision. But he had better be correct in all of his admiration of Tony Romo or this season is going to go downhill fast.

Green Bay Packers (2-4) – It was nice to see cornerback Charles Woodson justifying a small part of that huge paycheck the Packers are paying him. It remains to be seen if it was one great game by a fading player or a sign of Woodson breaking out once again.

Houston Texans (2-4) – Getting some production out of the running game paid huge dividends. And considering his solid outing against the Jaguars, it might be time to just plug Wali Lundy in and stick with one guy the rest of the way.

Jacksonville Jaguars (3-3) – Injuries are decimating this team, but that still doesn't explain why quarterback Byron Leftwich played so poorly against the Texans. Even his biggest supporters have to start wondering if he's ever going to get over the hump and become an upper-tier quarterback.

Kansas City Chiefs (3-3) – If quarterback Trent Green returns next month and Damon Huard has gone 4-2 or 5-2 as a starter, why make a change? Ride Huard until he goes cold.

New York Jets (4-3) – There's a good chance that running back Curtis Martin could be announcing his retirement in the next 7-10 days. Considering his tireless work ethic, he would be a natural addition to Eric Mangini's coaching staff if television doesn't come calling first.

Philadelphia Eagles (4-3) – Yes, quarterback Donovan McNabb's decision before halftime not to throw into the end zone was frustrating. But the reality is sometimes you see an opening and think you have more than you really do.

Pittsburgh Steelers (2-4) – We've spent a lot of time talking about quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, but the 14 turnovers this season have killed the Steelers. All three on Sunday were converted into Atlanta touchdowns.

San Francisco 49ers (2-4) – With the return of Larry Allen and Jonas Jennings, the 49ers have their offensive line back to full health for the first time since the season opener. Just in time to get slaughtered by a motivated Bears team.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-4) – The win over Philadelphia was amazing and might be one of the top five or six games of the year. But giving up 506 yards to Philadelphia and having the defense ranked 27th in the league this week seems astonishing. How long before people start grumbling about the huge salary of defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin?

Washington Redskins (2-5) – The bye week couldn't come at a better time. This team looks like it's in a daze. Like I said last offseason, defensive coordinator Gregg Williams is going to regret not going after another head coaching gig when he had his chance. When Joe Gibbs steps aside, I don't see any of the current coaches being promoted to his spot.

FALLING

Cleveland Browns (1-5) – With the offensive backslide over the past few weeks, offensive coordinator Maurice Carthon had to go. Defensively, cornerback Gary Baxter's injuries (knee and chest) are devastating. It will be a miracle if he plays again.

THE BOTTOM FIVE

28. Miami Dolphins (1-6) – Coach Nick Saban says he's not pointing a finger at his players for the rough start, but it wouldn't be the first time if he was. Has anyone noticed that his draft classes have yet to produce a sure-fire impact player?

29. Tennessee Titans (1-5) – Getting wide receiver David Givens healthy again should give this offense a little boost. Meanwhile, the rumors of Jeff Fisher being the next guy in Dallas aren't going to go away.

30. Detroit Lions (1-6) – Well, it looks like it's going to be the Lions and the Raiders vying for position in the Brady Quinn sweepstakes. At least there's something to look forward to.

31. Oakland Raiders (1-5) – It's good to halt that talk of 0-16, but the Raiders might lose to Pittsburgh this week by 40. And why is there talk about going back to Aaron Brooks when his chest muscle is healed? The season is over. Play the kid and hope he starts to round into form by the end of the season.

32. Arizona Cardinals (1-6) – The Bidwill family says coach Dennis Green's job is safe for now. But it's looking like he's lost this team. It seems inevitable that he's done.