Creeping closer

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They weren't supposed to be an elite team. Not after losing one of their biggest locker room leaders in Willie McGinest, their top two wideouts in Deion Branch and David Givens, and yet another coach in former defensive coordinator in Eric Mangini. Yet, here the Patriots are, sitting in the top three in the rankings and charging hard for the No. 1 spot. A win in this week's game against Indianapolis could conceivably vault them over Chicago, considering how the Patriots incinerated Minnesota (who the Bears struggled to beat) and the fact that Chicago needed a gaggle of miracles to beat Arizona (which is suddenly looking like the worst team in the NFL). Or we could just wait until Nov. 26 and let the two teams sort it out themselves when they meet in Foxborough, Mass.

Here is a look at how the league stacks up heading into Week 9.

THE TOP 12

Chicago
Chicago

1.Chicago Bears (7-0) – This week's game should be a nice reminder of the lopsided trade that sent defensive end Adewale Ogunleye to the Bears and wideout Marty Booker to Miami. And for all the people clamoring for cornerback/return specialist Devin Hester on offense, they should remember how he never quite fit in that role at the University of Miami.

Indianapolis
Indianapolis

2.Indianapolis Colts (7-0) – Forget the statistical comparisons, quarterback Peyton Manning is playing the best football of his life. There hasn't been a more entertaining player to watch in the fourth quarter this season.

New England
New England

3.New England Patriots (6-1) – Give the Patriots credit for acquiring wide receiver Doug Gabriel late in the preseason. It was a great move. And if rookie Chad Jackson starts contributing consistently, the Pats are a team that could go on a season ending run like the 2003 Super Bowl champions.

Denver
Denver

4.Denver Broncos (5-2) – Cornerback Darrent Williams will bounce back after giving up three touchdowns to Indianapolis' Reggie Wayne. But you can bet the Colts will be going after him again if these two teams meet in the playoffs yet again.

San Diego
San Diego

5.San Diego Chargers (5-2) – Linebacker Shawne Merriman's decision to withdraw his appeal was the right move. The most important thing for this team is going to be earning a season split against Denver. For that to happen, Merriman has to play in at least one of those games.

Atlanta
Atlanta

6.Atlanta Falcons (5-2) – The way quarterback Michael Vick has been throwing the ball, he could surpass last season's tally of 15 touchdown passes in the next two weeks. Wide receiver Ashley Lelie is finally starting to look like a viable part of the offense.

Baltimore
Baltimore

7.Baltimore Ravens (5-2) – Coach Brian Billick's commitment to the run game paid off with play action on Sunday. The best thing this team can do at this point is commit to Pittsburgh's formula from the last few years, and run to set the up the pass.

N.Y. Giants
N.Y. Giants

8.New York Giants (5-2) – An amazing stat: Tiki Barber is the only running back ranked in the top 30 in rushing yards without a touchdown. That should bode well down the stretch for an offense that has relied on a wide array of players to find the end zone.

New Orleans
New Orleans

9.New Orleans Saints (5-2) – Cheap shots taken at rookie running back Reggie Bush? In a league where many veterans take notice of the endorsement arena, it's not unthinkable that he's getting a little something extra out of jealousy.

Seattle
Seattle

10.Seattle Seahawks (4-3) – Quarterback Seneca Wallace had a lukewarm showing against Kansas City, but this is still a team that needs quarterback Matt Hasselbeck and running back Shaun Alexander to stay in the playoff race. But good news is on the way: Alexander should be back in Week 10 against St. Louis.

St. Louis
St. Louis

11.St. Louis Rams (4-3) – Merriman manipulated the system to make sure he played against the Rams, a foe better equipped to beat the Chargers than the team now at the back end of his suspension – the Raiders. The Rams have a legitimate complaint to file with the NFL now that he's dropped his appeal.

 Cincinnati
Cincinnati

12.Cincinnati Bengals (4-3) – The game against Baltimore will go a long way to sorting out whether the Bengals are still the power of the AFC North. The next three games are make or break for this team.

RISING

Kansas City
Kansas City

Kansas City Chiefs (4-3) – It should be a while before running back Larry Johnson ever complains about the lack of carries. That said, if the Chiefs want him to last longer than some of the league's other bruising backs, is should be a long time before he sees 30-plus carries in a game again.

THE MUDDLED MIDDLE (in alphabetical order)

Buffalo
Buffalo

Buffalo Bills (2-5) – Will people on the Bills (like safety Donte Whitner) please stop saying "We could easily be 5-2." No you couldn't. That is the anthem of a crummy team.

Carolina
Carolina

Carolina Panthers (4-4) – The fourth-quarter issues (three blown leads) are killing the Panthers. On the bright side, wide receiver Steve Smith is third in the NFL in receiving yardage despite missing the first two games of the season.

Cleveland
Cleveland

Cleveland Browns (2-5) – Where has wide receiver Braylon Edwards gone? After his hot start, he's got 56 yards and zero touchdowns in the last three games. Perhaps related to Edwards' disappearing act: Has anyone noticed that Kellen Winslow is putting up Pro Bowl numbers for a tight end?

Dallas
Dallas

Dallas Cowboys (4-3) – It's hard to argue about the quarterback switch after seeing the energy Tony Romo's start brought to the offense. Defensively, linebackers DeMarcus Ware and Greg Ellis are quietly having seasons that should garner some Pro Bowl attention.

Green Bay
Green Bay

Green Bay Packers (3-4) – Despite being tied with San Diego's Merriman for the league lead with 8½ sacks, Aaron Kampman remains one of the most anonymous defensive ends in the league.

Houston
Houston

Houston Texans (2-5) – Quarterback David Carr's meltdown against Tennessee was troublesome to say the least. It will be interesting to see how he responds to the first benching of his NFL career. And no, Sage Rosenfels isn't the answer.

Jacksonville
Jacksonville

Jacksonville Jaguars (4-3) – Defensive tackle Marcus Stroud should be returning soon enough, but this is still a team that needs to get better play from the linebacker spot. Failing to address the depth with quality additions in the offseason is costing them.

Minnesota
Minnesota

Minnesota Vikings (4-3) – If it wasn't clear before playing New England, it should be now: If the Vikings have to rely on the pass to win, they'll consistently lose. And that offensive line should be playing far better than it is at this point.

N.Y. Jets
N.Y. Jets

New York Jets (4-4) – The Jets were robbed on tight end's Chris Baker non-touchdown in the loss to Cleveland. But the fact that the team isn't dwelling on it a great deal says something about the mindset coach Eric Mangini has instilled.

Philadelphia
Philadelphia

Philadelphia Eagles (4-4) – The loss to Jacksonville was troubling, but talk of coach Andy Reid having lost this team is premature. The Eagles have the bye and games against Tennessee and Washington to get their affairs in order for a playoff run. And they will.

San Francisco
San Francisco

San Francisco 49ers (2-5) – It was clear last season that San Francisco's defensive transition was going to be tough. But giving up an average of 33.5 points per game this season is ridiculous. Linebacker Julian Peterson, now with Seattle, sure would look good right now in a 49ers uniform.

Tampa Bay
Tampa Bay

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-5) – Quarterback Chris Simms is expected to be placed on injured reserve soon. With unrestricted free agency on the horizon, his career in Tampa Bay is likely over.

Washington
Washington

Washington Redskins (2-5) – For a team lacking depth, the Redskins can't afford more lingering health issues. And no less than five starters missed practice Monday, including quarterback Mark Brunell, running back Clinton Portis and wide receiver Santana Moss.

FALLING

Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh Steelers (2-5) – Something is wrong with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. It's time to sit him down and go with Charlie Batch for a few games until he gets his faculties straight.

THE BOTTOM FIVE

Tennessee
Tennessee

28.Tennessee Titans (2-5) – For all the fury over what defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth did on the field, cornerback Pacman Jones has been a bigger atrocity off of it. At some point, the Titans are going to have to send a message about behavior away from the field.

Miami
Miami

29.Miami Dolphins (1-6) – Quarterback Daunte Culpepper still has soreness in his rehabbed knee. But it doesn't make sense to shut him down for the rest of the year. At the very least, he could use the last few games of the season as a jumpstart on what should be a very, very heavy offseason workload.

Oakland
Oakland

30.Oakland Raiders (2-5) – Considering the flack the Raiders got for signing him last season, defensive end Derrick Burgess and his 23½ sacks in 22 games make him look like the franchise's best move in years. Conversely, the franchise has to be looking for a way to get out from under running back LaMont Jordan's contract.

Detroit
Detroit

31.Detroit Lions (1-6) – Another day, another move from the Lions that makes no sense. Wideout Az Hakim was signed after the first game of the season and became the team's third leading wideout. Now he's been cut for "football reasons". Maybe his mistake was actually contributing.

Arizona
Arizona

32.Arizona Cardinals (1-7) – Forget the $3.75 million coach Dennis Green is owed for the remainder of his contract. He's toast. And unless something turns around quickly, this Cardinals team should be remembered as one of history's monumental coaching failures.