Two months ago, when the Chargers were sitting at 2-3 and staring at arguably the toughest schedule in the NFL, it looked like their season had ended almost as quickly as it began.
San Diego had plenty of reasons to roll over: disappointing early losses, the tough AFC West and a schedule that featured 10 games against opponents who were either playoff locks or contending for the postseason. But the Chargers found the offensive rhythm that carried them to the playoffs last season, and they have gotten a sudden defensive lift from rookies Shawne Merriman and Luis Castillo.
In turn, they've spent the last six weeks slowly ascending the rankings – from the depths of the Muddled Middle to this week's perch at No. 2. It's San Diego's highest ranking of the season. Now the Chargers must prove what five past holders (Denver, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, New England and Kansas City) haven't been able to do.
THE TOP 12
1. Indianapolis Colts (12-0) – People rarely talk about it, but one of the biggest reasons for this season's perfection is injuries. Unlike last year, and unlike most other teams, the Colts haven't suffered a single significant injury this season.
2. San Diego Chargers (8-4) – The Chargers have made the long climb back, and the playoffs are within their grasp. But only a 3-1 finish will get San Diego in. That means winning two of three against Indianapolis, Kansas City and Denver.
3. Seattle Seahawks (10-2) – The Eagles may be mediocre, but Seattle made them look like a jayvee team. There shouldn't be any lingering doubt about whom the NFC's Super Bowl favorite should be.
4. Denver Broncos (9-3) – Mike Shanahan made a valiant video presentation to show that safety John Lynch's helmet-to-helmet hit on Chiefs receiver Eddie Kennison wasn't illegal. But considering Lynch's reputation, sneezing on a receiver has become a fineable hit.
5. Cincinnati Bengals (9-3) – Boasting about his play is one thing, but Chad Johnson went way, way too far when he predicted a win over the Colts in the AFC championship game. Predicting a Super Bowl appearance with four games left in the regular season is just foolish.
6. Chicago Bears (9-3) – If this is a team that truly has Super Bowl aspirations, then Kyle Orton has to start playing better. Getting to the playoffs with a stellar defense and subpar quarterback play is one thing. Winning a championship is another.
7. Carolina Panthers (9-3) – The Panthers have been trying to get over the Michael Vick hump for ages, so Sunday's dominant win over Atlanta could be a tremendous momentum builder. And if the offense has finally found another consistent spark in DeShaun Foster, then people have to once again consider this team in the mix for the Super Bowl.
8. New York Giants (8-4) – The win over Dallas was pivotal, but there are lingering questions about the offense's consistency. That didn't stop some stupid hype from one New York reporter, who asked Michael Strahan if the Giants' defense was as good as Chicago's and if Tiki Barber was the NFL's best running back. Let's not get carried away, folks.
9. Pittsburgh Steelers (7-5) – It's still a little early to panic, but the Steelers are in some serious trouble. With San Diego and Kansas City gaining steam, it looks like Pittsburgh has to run the table to make the playoffs.
10. Kansas City Chiefs (8-4) – Having those two staring tackles in place sure made a huge difference against the Broncos the second time around. Not to mention the instant replay booth. Who would have thought the run defense could make so many huge stops?
12. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-4) – Derrick Brooks, Anthony McFarland and Ronde Barber get all the attention, but Shelton Quarles has become one of the most consistent middle linebackers in the NFL this season. He deserves a Pro Bowl spot just as much as any of his more celebrated teammates.
Minnesota Vikings (7-5) – On Sunday, Koren Robinson flashed some of the skills that made him such a dangerous player for Seattle. A free agent this offseason, he'll spend the next four games auditioning for a solid, long-term contract.
THE MUDDLED MIDDLE (in alphabetical order)
Arizona Cardinals (4-8) – The return of Antrel Rolle will give the defense a little shot in the arm and provide the rookie cornerback more experience to build on in the offseason. You take the good news wherever you can get it these days.
Atlanta Falcons (7-5) – Coach Jim Mora's nonchalance after the loss to Carolina was stunning. As Mora put it, "People tend to get too worked up about one game." OK. But what about three losses in the last four?
Baltimore Ravens (4-8) – Jamal Lewis essentially told reporters the Ravens are splitting carries with Chester Taylor to torpedo his leverage as a free agent. Maybe someone should show him the film from the season's first 10 games. That's what has destroyed his leverage.
Buffalo Bills (4-8) – The play-calling has been questionable at times and the loss at Miami was an embarrassing meltdown, but Mike Mularkey's job shouldn't be in jeopardy after only 28 games, especially after a game in which J.P. Losman showed some progress.
Cleveland Browns (4-8) – Reuben Droughns became the first Cleveland rusher to hit the 1,000-yard mark since 1985. For those keeping score, that's 12 running backs plucked in the draft since 1985 (including three first-round picks) who couldn't accomplish the feat.
Detroit Lions (4-8) – Confiscating "fire Matt Millen" signs is one thing, but ejecting a fan for pulling one out during the home loss to Minnesota was an absolutely classless move by this organization. You can't oppress the opinion of a fan base that has continued to fill the Ford Field seats when the franchise hasn't earned it.
New England Patriots (7-5) – Richard Seymour ripped Patriots fans for being lethargic and called them "spoiled" after a win over the Jets. It was a bit of a harsh assessment, but Patriots fans really have gotten a little high and mighty with all the recent success.
Oakland Raiders (4-8) – Norv Turner's job being on the line isn't any newsflash. And while he has plenty of injury and youth excuses, it's hard to see this being a playoff team next season. The talent is going to take a hit, unless the Raiders find some way to avoid the serious salary cap issues that are looming.
St. Louis Rams (5-7) – Dexter Coakley's career may be over after suffering a broken leg. With this team in a downward spiral, interim coach Joe Vitt suspects some of his players may be cashing the season in.
Washington Redskins (6-6) – The defense is a different unit with a healthy Cornelius Griffin. But it's too little, too late. The three losses to end November, by a total of 10 points, ran their season aground.
Tennessee Titans (3-9) – Allegations against the Colts about illegal hits and unsportsmanlike conduct … the Titans are complaining once again. Has any loss this season passed without some kind of whining?
THE BOTTOM FIVE
29. Green Bay Packers (2-10) – Javon Walker dumped Drew Rosenhaus last week. The city of Green Bay is still working the details of the forthcoming tickertape parade.
30. San Francisco 49ers (2-10) – The season finale against Houston could be the Reggie Bush sweepstakes. Mike Nolan should find a way to send Julian Peterson, Kevan Barlow, Brandon Lloyd and any other key starter to an early offseason vacation.
31. New York Jets (2-10) – Curtis Martin needs 265 yards in his final four games to become the first NFL player to rush for 1,000 yards in his first 11 seasons. With the porous run defenses of Oakland, Miami and Buffalo still on the schedule, it's a lock to happen.
32. Houston Texans (1-11) – The Texans may not win another game this season. But if you've seen Reggie Bush lately, that might be fantastic news for Houston fans.