One week after another, even into December, you expect the Ravens to slip.
We thought we saw permanent cracks in the Week 13 loss to Cincinnati. We thought the midseason firing of offensive coordinator Jim Fassel was a panic attack that spelled doom. We've even watched quarterback Kyle Boller finish games twice this season, thinking each time the Ravens were on the cusp of falling apart. And yet, here they are, having locked up the AFC North and heading to the playoffs with impressive wins over San Diego, New Orleans and the aforementioned Bengals.
If there is any team in the AFC that should strike fear into the other elites, like the Chargers and Colts, it's Baltimore, which has the running game and defense to control tempo. Not to mention the quarterback (or maybe it's quarterbacks) to efficiently manage games. The combination has delivered the Ravens to unprecedented heights in the rankings: the No. 2 spot, a hammer-lock the Ravens should maintain with Pittsburgh and Buffalo remaining on the schedule.
As for the rest of the NFL, here is a look at how the league stacks up heading into Week 16.
THE TOP 12
1. San Diego Chargers (12-2) – With all due respect to the other quality left tackles in the AFC, rookie Marcus McNeill might be the best of the bunch this season. If the NFL draft were held again today, he'd be a top 5 pick and go ahead of the Jets' D'Brickashaw Ferguson.
2. Baltimore Ravens (11-3) – It's still a harrowing sight to see Kyle Boller stepping in and taking over a game, but you have to give the kid credit. He's done an impressive job in spot duty this season in place of Steve McNair. The question is: What are the Ravens going to do with Boller long term? His deal is up after 2007, and he still looks like he deserves a crack at the starting job when McNair hangs it up.
3. Chicago Bears (12-2) – Of all the stupid things that have happened this season (and there were about a million), defensive tackle Tank Johnson's arrest on misdemeanor weapons charges last week was the dumbest of all. Though the Bears won't cut Johnson, they should.
4. Indianapolis Colts (11-3) – That spin move defensive end Dwight Freeney put on Bengals guard Andrew Whitworth was the single sickest pass-rushing move we've seen all season. With all due respect to quarterback Peyton Manning and wide receiver Marvin Harrison, nobody played better than Freeney Monday night.
5. New England Patriots (10-4) – The red zone sputtering (2-for-6 on Sunday) is a concern and the Patriots are getting almost nothing out of their second-tier wideouts. However, running back Corey Dillon still looks relatively fresh as a result of the shared workload this season with Laurence Maroney and Kevin Faulk.
6. New Orleans Saints (9-5) – In the long run, the loss to Washington will help this team. Better to come out flat and uninspired now, and turn the loss into a wakeup call.
7. Dallas Cowboys (9-5) – That secondary looked terrible against Atlanta, but it's not likely you'll see this team playing man-to-man again as much as it did against the Falcons. And wide receiver Terrell Owens comes off like a disingenuous loser after listening to him deny intentionally spitting on cornerback DeAngelo Hall two days after he admitted doing it in a television interview.
8. Cincinnati Bengals (8-6) – The defense's struggles during Monday's loss to Indy werent shocking since we knew the defense was playing over its head. More important right now though is the offensive line's health. If the Bengals are going to outscore teams in the playoffs (which is exactly what they will have to do), tackles Levi Jones and Willie Anderson have to be healthy.
9. Jacksonville Jaguars (8-6) – The three defensive touchdowns allowed in the loss to Tennessee were an aberration. What's not an isolated circumstance is Jacksonville's need to find a playmaker at receiver. No Jacksonville wideout is in the NFL's top 50 in receptions this year.
10. Philadelphia Eagles (8-6) – Quarterback Jeff Garcia may never have had a better four-game stretch in his career. Perhaps just as impressive has been the offensive play-calling. After some chaos following Donovan McNabb's season-ending injury, Marty Mornhinweg and Andy Reid have this scheme balanced perfectly.
11. Denver Broncos (8-6) – Rookie quarterback Jay Cutler's 54-yard touchdown pass to Javon Walker in the win over Arizona was a ridiculous show of arm strength. What's most impressive about him: he's gotten better every start since taking over for Jake Plummer.
12. Seattle Seahawks (8-6) – The upcoming San Diego game is scary. On one hand, it has the ability to give this team a shot in the arm going into the playoffs. On the other, it has the potential to be the kind of embarrassing defeat (think: worse than the Chicago loss) that parlays into Seattle losing every game the rest of the season.
New York Jets (8-6) – Offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer isn't a "name" guy when it comes to fans, but he's done a great job this season. There won't be many opportunities this offseason, but unless he drastically regresses, this is a guy who should land on head coaching lists after next season.
THE MUDDLED MIDDLE (in alphabetical order)
Atlanta Falcons (7-7) – Coach Jim Mora sure sounded serious in that interview where he gushed about possibly coaching at the University of Washington. And he'll probably get his chance soon enough. Quarterback Michael Vick and general manager Rich McKay have the most secure relationships in the organization with owner Arthur Blank, and neither seems to be going out of his way to lobby for Mora right now.
Buffalo Bills (7-7) – This looked like a four- or five-win team when the season started. They won't show up on many coach or executive of the year ballots, but coach Dick Jauron and general manager Marv Levy have done a very good job. And it's nice to see defensive end Aaron Schobel (13½ sacks) make the Pro Bowl.
Carolina Panthers (6-8) – Jake Delhomme is still the No. 1 quarterback in the heart of John Fox, but even if this is a speed bump, something should be done in the offseason to start the process for a successor down the road. Even if Chris Weinke wasn't too old, he wouldn't be the answer. It sure would have been nice if Stephen LeFors had panned out.
Green Bay Packers (6-8) – He won't get much attention for defensive rookie of the year because of Houston's DeMeco Ryans, but A.J. Hawk deserves some votes. He's lived up to the pre-draft hype, and should be a cornerstone on that defense for the next decade.
Kansas City Chiefs (7-7) – My, how the momentum has changed. Only a few weeks ago, Larry Johnson was basking in Herm Edwards' offensive scheme that made the running back option No. 1, 2 and 3. Now he's complaining that things need to change. Which is it?
Miami Dolphins (6-8) – The more you watch this team, the more you can see why it's driving coach Nick Saban crazy. Above all else, he wants consistency, and there isn't a unit on the team that displays it for more than two or three games at a time.
Minnesota Vikings (6-8) – Even with what's happening to Rod Marinelli in Detroit, Brad Childress might be the biggest disappointment as a first-year coach. For the reputation he earned in Philadelphia, Childress has surprisingly lacked innovation and has been extremely slow to adjust with the Vikings this season.
New York Giants (7-7) – Coach Tom Coughlin might be putting himself in jeopardy for criticizing quarterback Eli Manning consistently this season, but it's deserved. The two interceptions against Philadelphia were killers. Manning has lost no fewer than four games this season all by himself.
Pittsburgh Steelers (7-7) – It looks like Pittsburgh is coming around, but amassing a three-game winning streak against Tampa Bay, Cleveland and Carolina is merely proof that the Steelers are one of the best mediocre teams in the league. A win against Baltimore this weekend? Then we'd be talking about Pittsburgh being a playoff team had it not been for that 1-6 stretch from Sept. 18 to Nov. 5.
St. Louis Rams (6-8) – Guard Adam Timmerman's career in St. Louis is likely over after his scratch against the Raiders. And one off-topic question: Why the hell hasn't tight end Dominique Byrd been suspended after smashing a bar glass across a man's face?
San Francisco 49ers (6-8) – With nearly $40 million in cap room this offseason, this team has some flexibility to add a lot of talent. First on the agenda, extend running back Frank Gore's contract. Second, make a run for Baltimore linebacker Adalius Thomas, who would fit perfectly in coach Mike Nolan's 3-4 defense.
Tennessee Titans (7-7) – Tennessee's defensive contributions are getting lost in quarterback Vince Young's tidal wave. A league source said that was what sparked defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz's little flare up with offensive coordinator Norm Chow after last week's win over Jacksonville.
Washington Redskins (5-9) – I'm still scratching my head over Ladell Betts signing a solid but not spectacular contract extension. It's a shallow free agent class at the running back spot, and after watching him rush for 549 yards in his last four starts, he looks like he could have gotten LaMont Jordan money (and opportunity) in the offseason.
THE BOTTOM FIVE
28. Cleveland Browns (4-10) – The Browns are probably going to return to Charlie Frye at quarterback, but why? Derek Anderson has been solid in one of the toughest three-game stretches in Cleveland's schedule. Why not let him play out the season and see if you can jumpstart an open race for the starting quarterback spot in the offseason?
29. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-11) – It's a little surprising to see this team going with quarterback Tim Rattay after Jon Gruden buried him in the preseason. Any of Rattay's success can only make Gruden look even worse this season.
30. Houston Texans (4-10) – Defensive end Mario Williams looks like he's regressing. He looked like he was running into a brick wall against New England offensive tackle Nick Kaczur in the loss to the Patriots. And what the heck happened to Eric Moulds? He hasn't scored a touchdown since the first game of the season, and he's got six receptions for 36 yards in the last three games.
31. Oakland Raiders (2-12) – You keep thinking Oakland has sunken as low as it can go. Then quarterback Aaron Brooks – Aaron Brooks! – steps in front of the media and admits that he's looked at the team and thought to himself "What have I got into?"
32. Detroit Lions (2-12) – This supposed fan uprising set for this Sunday – when fans are going to get up and leave in the middle of the second half – is foolish. Think ownership cares when you leave if you've already paid to get in? Try not paying for tickets at all. That gets an owner's attention.