By Jeremy Gottlieb
Cold, Hard Football Facts lord of the dance
We have a fondness for nostalgia here at the CHFF cardboard-box world headquarters, especially around the holidays. We get a little misty-eyed listening to old Christmas songs, recalling childhood gifts, or even pondering old Power Rankings.
In fact, it seems like only yesterday that the Giants and Titans were our alpha dogs week after week. Tennessee didn't lose until its 11th game of the season, while the Giants entered December with just one loss and were crushing every team in their path in whatever way they deemed appropriate.
But then the Titans were embarrassed by the Jets in a game that seems so long ago, the NFL Network should rebroadcast it in black & white. For an encore, they outsmarted themselves in a 13-12 loss to the forever-below-.500 Texans.
The Giants slipped up about the same time, too, losing two in a row to division foes while Eli Manning looked less like a Super Bowl MVP and more like Peyton's little brother.
But now? The Giants and Titans are back with a vengeance following big-time statement victories this past week that reminded us of the halcyon days of October and November when both looked unbeatable.
New York returned to basics, bullying the previously No. 1-ranked Panthers in an absolute classic, while Tennessee shook off a torrent of injuries on defense to dispatch the mighty Steelers and earn itself home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs.
Just like that, the two best teams all year long are back at the top ... and we're feeling a little nostalgic. Sniff, sniff.
1. N.Y. GIANTS (12-3, previous rank: 3)
Record vs. Quality Opponents: 8-2 (+7.4 PPG)
Last week: The Giants overcame an 8-point fourth-quarter deficit to avoid their third straight loss, powered by Derrick Ward (15 carries for 215 yards) and Brandon Jacobs (3TDs), who piled up 302 yards and led the way to a 34-28 overtime win.
Cold, Hard Football Facts: Ward's 14.3 YPA against Carolina was the highest in team history. He, Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw have combined to rush for 2,364 yards this season (5.3 YPA).
Week 17 matchup: at Minnesota. Having locked up the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs, the Giants face a Vikings team that may need to win to make the postseason.
2. TENNESSEE (13-2, previous rank: 5)
Record vs. Quality Opponents: 5-1 (+4.9 PPG)
Last week: In a battle with the smoking-hot Steelers for the AFC's No. 1 seed, the Titans defense dominated the Pittsburgh offensive front and forced four Ben Roethlisberger turnovers, becoming the first team all year to gain 300 yards on the Steelers D in a 31-14 home win.
Cold, Hard Football Facts: Tennessee rookie Jason Jones, starting in place of injured MVP-candidate Albert Haynesworth, forced three fumbles and piled up 3.5 sacks.
Week 17 matchup: at Indianapolis. For the second consecutive year, the Titans will close out the season visiting the Colts in a game that is meaningless to both teams.
3. INDIANAPOLIS (11-4, previous rank: 4)
Record vs. Quality Opponents: 4-2 (+2.0 PPG)
Last week: The Colts came from behind to beat Jacksonville, 31-24, and clinch a playoff spot behind a great performance from Peyton Manning (29 of 34, 364 yards, 3 TDs, 0 picks, 140.7 passer rating).
Cold, Hard Football Facts: Manning completed his first 17 passes, and his completion percentage of 85.3 was officially the best of his career (official records require a minimum of 20 attempts).
Week 17 matchup: vs. Tennessee. Who wants to take bets on whether Jim Sorgi has a better game than Vince Young?
4. CAROLINA (11-4, previous rank: 1)
Record vs. Quality Opponents: 6-4 (+2.3 PPG)
Last week: DeAngelo Williams had another huge game (24 carries, 108 yards, 4 TDs), and the Panthers led late in the fourth quarter before losing to the Giants in overtime, 34-28, at the Meadowlands.
Cold, Hard Football Facts: The Panthers defense allowed 459 total yards, including 301 on the ground, against the Giants, and was whistled for its first pass interference penalty of the season – in the end zone, no less – on New York's game-tying drive in the fourth.
Week 17 matchup: at New Orleans. The road team still hasn't won an NFC South game all year, a stat that doesn't bode well for the Panthers, who could fall all the way to the No. 5 seed with a loss and an Atlanta win.
5. PITTSBURGH (11-4, previous rank: 2)
Record vs. Quality Opponents: 5-4 (+1.8 PPG)
Last week: Against Tennessee, the Steelers lost the turnover battle (4-0), the game (31-14) and their chance at the AFC's No. 1 seed, suffering their first defeat since Nov. 9.
Cold, Hard Football Facts: Ben Roethlisberger has fumbled six times in his last three games, losing four of them. His 21 turnovers this year (14 INTs, 7 lost fumbles) tie him atop the league with Brett Favre (19 and 2).
Week 17 matchup: vs. Cleveland. The Steelers, who haven't had a runner top 47 yards in three weeks, have a great chance to work on their running game against the gallingly bad Browns.
6. ATLANTA (10-5, previous rank: 8)
Record vs. Quality Opponents: 5-5 (-0.8 PPG)
Last week: Not even a full year removed from the debacles that were Michael Vick and Bobby Petrino, the Falcons got four turnovers from their defense and Michael Turner's 16th touchdown to clinch their first playoff spot since 2004 in a 24-17 win at Minnesota.
Cold, Hard Football Facts: Atlanta's D forced seven Vikings fumbles, four more than it had forced all season.
Week 17 matchup: vs. St. Louis. The Falcons can clinch the NFC South title with a Carolina loss and a victory over the Rams, who they've beaten just twice in the last 10 years.
7. BALTIMORE (10-5, previous rank: 10)
Record vs. Quality Opponents: 4-5 (+0.9 PPG)
Last week: Clinging to a two-point lead with just under four minutes to play, the Ravens got two huge touchdown runs from Willis McGahee (77 yards) and Le'Ron McClain (82) and held off the host Cowboys, 33-24. McGahee and McClain became the first tandem in history to each run for more than 100 yards in a game against the Cowboys.
Cold, Hard Football Facts: Ed Reed posted his third two-interception game in the last five weeks and tied Pittsburgh's Troy Polamalu and Tennessee's Michael Griffin for the league lead with seven.
Week 17 matchup: vs. Jacksonville. The Ravens rank second in rushing (149.9 YPG) and have a must-win game on tap against Jacksonville's 14th-ranked run defense (105.5 YPG).
8. NEW ENGLAND (10-5, previous rank: 11)
Record vs. Quality Opponents: 4-4 (+6.1 PPG)
Last week: The Patriots absolutely rolled the hideous Cardinals in a snowstorm, racking up 514 yards and scoring 40+ points for the fourth time this season in a 47-7 rout.
Cold, Hard Football Facts: The Patriots are 10-0 in Foxboro when it's snowing and 17-1 since 1993 when the temperature is 30 degrees or below. New England has outscored Quality Opponents by 6.1 PPG; only the Giants (+7.4 PPG) are better.
Week 17 matchup: at Buffalo. In a game that the Patriots have to win to reach the playoffs, they face a team they've beaten 10 straight times and in 15 of their last 16 meetings.
9. MIAMI (10-5, previous rank: 13)
Record vs. Quality Opponents: 2-4 (-4.5 PPG)
Last week: The Dolphins allowed 492 total yards but earned a 38-31 win at icy Kansas City behind a 3-TD performance from Chad Pennington, giving them control of their own destiny in the AFC East.
Cold, Hard Football Facts: Pennington's 3,453 yards passing is a career high, and his 65.9 career completion percentage makes him the most accurate passer in NFL history. The Dolphins haven't been five games over .500 since 2001.
Week 17 matchup: vs. N.Y. Jets. Pennington could truly get the last laugh against the team that eschewed him in favor of Brett Favre; Pennington has more passing yards, a higher YPA, a better passer rating and 12 fewer INTs.
10. DALLAS (9-6, previous rank: 6)
Record vs. Quality Opponents: 4-5 (-2.3 PPG)
Last week: Amid the pageantry of the final game in Texas Stadium, the Cowboys dropped another crucial December game, surrendering more than 200 yards rushing for the first time all year in a 33-24 loss to Baltimore.
Cold, Hard Football Facts: Dallas had five sacks in the first half and none in the second half, while Sunshine Superman Tony Romo's December/January record fell to 5-9.
Week 17 matchup: at Philadelphia. The Cowboys can still make the playoffs with a win at the Linc, where Romo completed 20 of 25 passes for 325 yards and 3 TDs last season.
11. TAMPA BAY (9-6, previous rank: 9)
Record vs. Quality Opponents: 5-5 (+2.2 PPG)
Last week: Tampa's late-season downward spiral continued thanks to three turnovers on offense and a defense that surrendered 21 fourth-quarter points in a 41-24 loss to the surging Chargers.
Cold, Hard Football Facts: Tampa is 0-3 in December, and the loss to San Diego was its first defeat at home this season.
Week 17 matchup: vs. Oakland. Even if the Bucs make the postseason, they haven't won a playoff game since beating Oakland in the Super Bowl six years ago.
12. PHILADELPHIA (8-6-1, previous rank: 7)
Record vs. Quality Opponents: 4-6 (+0.1 PPG)
Last week: Philly's three-game winning streak (and likely playoff hopes) came to an end in a listless 10-3 loss at Washington in which the potential game-winning touchdown pass from Donovan McNabb to Reggie Brown was stopped on Washington's 1-yard line.
Cold, Hard Football Facts: During their three straight wins, the Eagles averaged 38 runs and 36 passes; in the loss to Washington, they attempted 16 runs and 46 passes.
Week 17 matchup: vs. Dallas. McNabb has been sacked only 22 times all season but may have a hard time staying upright against the Cowboys, who lead the league with 58 sacks.
13. CHICAGO (9-6, previous rank: 15) — The Bears got their second straight game-winning field goal in overtime, as well as Kyle Orton's sixth consecutive home win in December, to beat the Packers 20-17 and stay alive in the NFC playoff hunt.
14. MINNESOTA (9-6, previous rank: 12) — Despite outgaining the Falcons 350-222, the Vikings fumbled seven times, losing four of them and the game.
15. SAN DIEGO (7-8, previous rank: 20) — After passing for 287 yards and four TDs against the Bucs, Philip Rivers is 65 of 101 for 847 yards, 9 TDs, 1 INT and a 116.2 passer rating in the Chargers' unbeaten December.
16. NEW ORLEANS (8-7, previous rank: 19) — Against Detroit, the Saints got four rushing touchdowns from four different backs and finished the game with 181 yards on the ground, 79 more than their season average.
17. WASHINGTON (8-7, previous rank: 21) — Clinton Portis, who rushed for seven touchdowns in the Redskins' first seven games, registered his eighth in Washington's win over Philadelphia last week.
18. N.Y. JETS (9-6, previous rank: 14) — Pro Bowl quarterback Brett Favre was outplayed by receiver-turned-quarterback Seneca Wallace in a must-win game that his team lost, but at least he was having fun out there.
19. ARIZONA (8-7, previous rank: 17) — Arizona had 45 total yards and four first downs through three quarters, and MVP candidate Kurt Warner was 6 of 18 for 30 yards, in a 47-7 loss to the Patriots that wasn't that close.
20. DENVER (8-7, previous rank: 18) — The who-the-hell-knows Broncos gained 532 yards against Buffalo but still lost, rendering their one-time three-game lead over San Diego in the AFC West moot.
21. HOUSTON (7-8, previous rank: 16) — The most productive stretch in Texans history came to a screeching halt with a loss to the Raiders in which Houston allowed the league's 29th-ranked offense to put up 362 yards and 27 points.
22. BUFFALO (7-8, previous rank: 23) — After Marshawn Lynch left with a shoulder injury, backup Fred Jackson piled up a season-high 113 total yards, and his third touchdown of the season was the eventual game-winner at Denver.
23. SAN FRANCISCO (6-9, previous rank: 22) — Wide Receiver Isaac Bruce went over the 1,000-catch threshold, moved into second place in all-time receiving yards and led the 49ers in receiving in their fourth-quarter comeback win over the Rams.
24. SEATTLE (4-11, previous rank: 26) — The Seahawks defense forced two turnovers, recorded four sacks and held the Jets to three points and less than 300 total yards, posting its best performance of the season in Mike Holmgren's swan song.
25. JACKSONVILLE (5-10, previous rank: 24) — After scoring three touchdowns and a field goal while punting just once in the first three quarters against Indy, the Jaguars had a turnover, punted twice and saw the clock run out on them in the fourth quarter.
26. GREEN BAY (5-10, previous rank: 27) — Green Bay lost its fifth game of the season on an opponent's final possession and has suffered five straight losses for the first time in 18 years.
27. CINCINNATI (3-11-1, previous rank: same) — We'd love to give the Bengals more credit for their spirited win, but really – it was against the dismal Browns.
28. OAKLAND (4-11, previous rank: 30) — In the win over Houston, JaMarcus Russell completed 72 percent of his passes and posted a 128.1 passer rating, with two TDs and zero INTs.
29. KANSAS CITY (2-13, previous rank: same) — With 64 receiving yards against Miami, Tony Gonzalez registered his second consecutive 1,000-yard season for the first time in his career.
30. CLEVELAND (4-11, previous rank: 28) — The last offensive touchdown by the Browns happened on Nov. 17.
31. ST. LOUIS (2-13, previous rank: same) — With their first win since Week 6 just over four minutes away, the Rams allowed San Francisco to score two touchdowns, giving them 13 losses for the second straight season.
32. DETROIT (0-15, previous rank: same) — The Lions are the first team in NFL history to lose their first 15 games.