It had to happen. As unlikely as it seemed with all the Super Bowls, the great coach and the clutch quarterback, the Patriots couldn't hang on as a member of the rankings' elite forever.
So the day has come. For the first time since the rankings debuted, the Patriots aren't Top-12 material.
Due to a secondary in critical disrepair and two blowout losses at Gillette Stadium, mighty New England has dropped into the Muddled Middle. And the Patriots are joined by last season's Super Bowl partner, the Eagles. Once thought to be contenders for a rematch of last February's classic title game, New England and Philadelphia could rise into the league's upper echelon again. But it's worth noting that not a single team in this week's Top 12 lost, and most appear to be getting stronger heading into the second half.
Conversely, the NFL's basement has remained pretty reliable this season. Other than a few teams that swap in and out every few weeks – San Francisco, Arizona, Cleveland, Tennessee, etc. – two clubs have held hammer-locks on the bottom rungs. That would be Green Bay and Houston, which have been dragging the anchor since the Sept. 20 rankings.
THE TOP 12
4. New York Giants (6-2) – Give Ernie Accorsi and Tom Coughlin a tip of the cap for what looks like a tremendous offseason. Plaxico Burress, Antonio Pierce, Brandon Jacobs and Kareem McKenzie have given this team a huge lift.
5. Seattle Seahawks (6-2) – Shaun Alexander has 84 touchdowns in the last 4½ seasons. By the end of his sixth season, his career scoring numbers could already rank among Hall of Famers Jim Taylor, Franco Harris and Eric Dickerson.
6. Atlanta Falcons (6-2) – It's been a long time since a Falcons wide receiver flashed the explosiveness that Roddy White showed Sunday. Does anyone else think it's funny that Michael Vick is lashing out at his critics when he's one game removed from posting a 16.3 quarterback rating against the Jets?
7. Cincinnati Bengals (7-2) – Cincinnati has two weeks to study up for Indianapolis. But if the Bengals simply win the games they are going to be favored to win, they'll finish at least 11-5 this season.
8. Carolina Panthers (6-2) – The defense is coming around and the running game is producing touchdowns. What's even scarier is that the Panthers are supposed to be a team that gets better in the season's second half.
10. San Diego Chargers (5-4) – His interceptions might be up a tad, but Drew Brees has done more than enough to prove last year wasn't an aberration. It's time the Chargers rewarded him with a long-term deal.
Jacksonville Jaguars (5-3) – Quietly, Byron Leftwich is on pace for the best year of his young career, and now the tough part of the Jaguars' schedule is over. Seven of their final eight opponents have a combined record of 14-44.
THE MUDDLED MIDDLE (in alphabetical order)
Chicago Bears (5-3) – The Bears are playing good football, but they have yet to beat a team with a winning record. The Nov. 20 game against Carolina will tell us whether Chicago can actually make some noise in the playoffs.
Cleveland Browns (3-5) – Even though he's faced poor teams, Reuben Droughns has 315 rushing yards in the last three games. With Droughns, Braylon Edwards and Charlie Frye, the Browns have found an offensive nucleus to build around.
Detroit Lions (3-5) – Charles Rogers returned from suspension, then was deactivated for Sunday's game because of a nonchalant week of practice. Unfortunately for Lions fans, this is a team that looks like it needs a new coach, new general manager and a new plan.
Miami Dolphins (3-5) – Don't put all the blame on Gus Frerotte for his late interception against Atlanta. With Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams churning out yardage, it made absolutely no sense to pass on third-and-2 when you're driving to tie the game.
Minnesota Vikings (3-5) – Does anyone else think it's odd that Daunte Culpepper hasn't made a single public statement since suffering the most severe injury of his career?
Oakland Raiders (3-5) – It's been lost in a disappointing season, but Kerry Collins is having the best year of his career. And while LaMont Jordan is only averaging 3.8 yards-per-carry, he has 931 yards from scrimmage and nine total touchdowns.
St. Louis Rams (4-4) – A win in Seattle on Sunday will put the Rams back into the thick of the NFC playoff race. He doesn't get the buzz, but Kevin Curtis is the most exciting little wideout not named Steve Smith or Santana Moss.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-3) – It's crazy how quickly this team has begun to spiral. But before you rip Chris Simms and the running game, take a close look at the offensive line. That unit has crumbled after a strong start.
New York Jets (2-6) – The season is officially over, so the Jets might as well get some looks at younger players like Brooks Bollinger. Considering how much criticism is heaped on John Abraham, has anyone noticed the struggles of Shaun Ellis?
THE BOTTOM FIVE
29. Arizona Cardinals (2-6) – It wasn't a great unit to begin with, but the loss of Bertrand Berry will turn Arizona's defense to mush. And in case anyone is still wondering, Kurt Warner will never be better than a No. 2 quarterback for the rest of his career.
30. New Orleans Saints (2-7) – Sunday's crowd in Baton Rouge was unbelievably sparse. It's too bad the players and coaching staff have to suffer from the fan apathy created by Tom Benson.
31. Green Bay Packers (1-7) – One more injury, and Jim Taylor will be starting in Green Bay's backfield.