Broncos stay on top, Pats push up

Just in case you live under a rock, you know the NFL’s must-watch matchup of the season is upon us.

Denver is the best team in the league at midseason, but as for who’s the best of the rest, that remains in flux with a half-schedule yet to play.

New England, right before hosting the Broncos, is starting to build another strong case, but there still is one impressive team in between.

1. Denver Broncos (6-1)

Last week: 1

Why they’re here: Emmanuel Sanders has been another great addition to further boost Peyton Manning’s cause to raise a second Lombardi Trophy. He’s made sure to put all of his talented receivers on shiny display in an even better season.

What’s next: at New England, Manning vs. Tom Brady again

2. Arizona Cardinals (6-1)

Last week: 5

Why they’re here: Rookie wide receiver John Brown turned into the Brown Bomb, knocking out the Eagles with a deep, explosive roundhouse. Bruce Arians has his team humming, and look at that, their only acceptable blemish came in Denver.

What’s next: at Dallas, an old NFC East matchup.

 

3. New England Patriots (6-2)

Last week: 7

Why they’re here: Rob Gronkowski has gone back to full Gronk, and the Bears just felt the wrath of his troika of spikes. He’s back to being the best all-around receiving tight end in the game, just in time for the big shootout ahead.

What’s next: vs. Denver, an AFC title rematch.

4. Detroit Lions (6-2)

Last week: 10

Why they’re here: Let’s start calling Golden Tate “Starscream,” shall we? No longer just second fiddle to Calvin Johnson, he’s been their dominant, cocky, speedy, big-play receiver while Johnson’s been out.

What’s next: vs. Miami, after a bye to get Megatron healed.

5. Dallas Cowboys (6-2)

Last week: 2

Why they’re here: Dez Bryant had the touchdown against the Redskins, but should have done a lot more after Tony Romo was rocked and Dallas was shocked on Monday night.  The game just showed what happens to the Cowboys’ defense when they lose the turnover battle and get out time-of-possessed.

What’s next: vs. Cardinals, an early battle for the NFC’s top seed.

6. Indianapolis Colts (5-3)

Last week: 3

Why they’re here: Andrew Luck keeps throwing for monster yardage and lighting up the scoreboard, but he needs to shake off some of those critical mistakes he’s still making — see the pick six in Pittsburgh. It’s worrisome that their usually good pass defense fell apart, too.

What’s next: at Giants, Luck vs. Eli on Monday night.

7. Philadelphia Eagles (5-2)

Last week: 4

Why they’re here: Jeremy Maclin is doing his best to help out struggling Nick Foles. Not running at the high level they expect, there’s more on the quarterback, and he’s not being efficient enough. Foles has to be better for Philly to remain a playoff team.

What’s next: at Houston, their electric offense vs. J.J. Watt.

8. Green Bay Packers (5-3)

Last week: 6

Why they’re here: Eddie Lacy has shown a lot more juice as a runner and receiver of late, but neither he nor a hamstrung Aaron Rodgers can overcome a defense that sometimes wilts against the run and breaks down vs. the pass. They’ll have a bye to work on that D, beyond the “NASCAR package.”

What’s next: vs. Chicago, after a needed bye to rest Rodgers.

9. San Francisco 49ers (4-3)

Last week: 11

Why they’re here: They’ve done their best to turn Colin Kaepernick loose, and with some good results, but to be better against a more favorable second-half schedule, they must get the running game and soon-to-be- healthier defense re-established after a bye.

What’s next: vs. St. Louis, a team Kaep just rolled three weeks ago.

10. Seattle Seahawks (4-3)

Last week: 12

Why they’re here: Michael Bennett and the pass rush showed some signs of life to awaken their dormant overall defense in Carolina. It came just in time, because they couldn’t run again and Russell Wilson had mostly an off game. They’re still not the 2013 Seahawks yet.

What’s next: vs. Oakland, a chance to re-establish home dominance.

11. San Diego Chargers (5-3)

Last week: 8

Why they’re here: Antonio Gates still has got plenty of game, balling like he did earlier in his career with Philip Rivers. They are playing well in the passing game, but when they can’t play ball control, it really exposes their pass defense.

What’s next: at Miami, a 2,268-mile road trip from SoCal to South Florida.

12. Cincinnati Bengals (4-2-1)

Last week: 14

Why they’re here: Mohamed Sanu has been outstanding while A.J. Green is on the shelf, the spark to their offense as they’re not running the ball the way they expected with Giovani Bernard. They’ve also fought through a key defensive injury to Rey Maualuga.

What’s next: vs. Jacksonville, a home breather after a tough stretch.

13. Pittsburgh Steelers (5-3)

Last week: 13

Why they’re here: Ben Roethlisberger dropped a 500 burger on the Colts with a half-dozen touchdowns on the side. Throw in some extra Le’Veon Bell, and it was the offensive explosion everyone wanted from this team under Todd Haley.

What’s next: vs. Baltimore, a rivalry gone prime time a second time.

14. Baltimore Ravens (5-3)

Last week: 12

Why they’re here: Joe Flacco keeps having those road hiccups, and their offense is hurt without the threat of either Dennis Pitta or now Owen Daniels at tight end. They need their line, backs and wide receivers to all raise their games for their QB to rebound.

What’s next: at Pittsburgh, a second tough division road test on Sunday night.

15. Kansas City Chiefs (4-3)

Last week: 15

Why they’re here: Knile Davis is still very valuable while Jamaal Charles is up and running well, as evidenced by his brilliant kickoff return TD in the rout over St. Louis. With their passing game still struggling to make big plays, they need to lean on Davis and Charles to keep making them.

What’s next: vs. New York Jets, as the schedule remains kind at home.

16. Buffalo Bills (5-3)

Last week: 19

Why they’re here: Mario Williams and that defensive front continues to be nasty under Jim Schwartz, as the Jets’ pair of awful quarterbacks had no chance to do much against the pressure with Buffalo also still stuffing the run.

What’s next: vs. Kansas City, Kyle Orton’s former team, after a bye.

17. Carolina Panthers (3-4-1)

Last week: 16

Why they’re here: Luke Kuechly remains a tackling machine, and the defense played a lot more inspired around him to slow down Seattle. The rub was that their offense was out of sync, despite some good things in the running game. Inconsistency city.

What’s next: vs. New Orleans, with first place on the line Thursday.

18. New Orleans Saints (3-4)

Last week: 23

Why they’re here: Mark Ingram showed off why he was a Heisman Trophy winner and first-round draft pick with some powerful, shifty running when the Saints needed it most. It’s funny how that balance got Drew Brees rolling again, too.

What’s next: at Carolina, where they can take the NFC South lead on Thursday.

19. Houston Texans (4-4)

Last week: 18

Why they’re here: Arian Foster is staying healthy, and is looking smoother than ever in gliding for big yardage as a rusher and receiver. He’s their offense, really, at the moment, and it’s good, because other than one guy, their defense hasn’t been good.

What’s next: vs. Philadelphia, Foster vs. Shady in a tough game for their run D.

20. Miami Dolphins (4-3)

Last week: 20

Why they’re here: Brent Grimes delivered one of two pick sixes in Jacksonville, and they were both needed as the offense cooled off in what should have been a great matchup. Still, a win is a win, and they’re right in the thick of the AFC wild-card hunt again.

What’s next: vs. San Diego, a sun on sun matchup in November.

21. Cleveland Browns (4-3)

Last week: 22

Why they’re here: Ben Tate and the running game is going in neutral, and there isn’t much passing pop. They weren’t impressive vs. Oakland after losing to Jacksonville, but escaped with a win. For now, they’re treading water.

What’s next: vs. Tampa Bay, a one-loss rather than winless team.

22. New York Giants (3-4)

Last week: 21

Why they’re here: Eli Manning had another week to get comfortable in their quick-strike passing offense, and with Rashad Jennings set to miss another game, it’s critical Manning comes out firing with efficiency out of the bye.

What’s next: vs. Indianapolis, No. 1 QB in ’04 vs. No. 1 QB in ‘12

23. Chicago Bears (3-5)

Last week: 17

Why they’re here: Matt Forte is doing everything he can — running, catching passes, blocking, you name it — to keep their offense going. But it keeps getting dragged down to huge disappointment from Jay Cutler and his wide receivers.

What’s next: at Green Bay, not the best stop after a bye.

24. Washington Redskins (3-5)

Last week: 27

Why they’re here: DeSean Jackson and the offense made enough things happen in Dallas, and the defense, thanks to blitzing and gritty secondary play behind it, facilitated the upset.

What’s next: at Minnesota, to face some early November wind.

25. Minnesota Vikings (3-5)

Last week: 25

Why they’re here: Anthony Barr has made his presence felt as a disruptive, versatile rookie linebacker, and now has a “walkoff” overtime fumble return touchdown to go on his early resume.  Credit Mike Zimmer for having his defense hang in there with the offense still rediscovering its way.

What’s next: vs. Washington, another winnable interdivision game.

26. St. Louis Rams (2-5)

Last week: 24

Why they’re here: Austin Davis now has lost his left tackle, Jake Long, and his best wide receiver, Brian Quick. He has done well enough in his audition to get some QB of the future consideration, but he’s set up to be rattled a lot in the second half.

What’s next: at San Francisco, a much shorter trip when they were in L.A.

27. Atlanta Falcons (2-6)

Last week: 26

Why they’re here: Roddy White, Matt Ryan and the core veterans of their recent high level of success have to be frustrated how things have crumbled around them on both sides of the ball. It’s tied to limited talent with little depth. There are no easy answers, especially with injuries piling up again.

What’s next: at Tampa Bay, a reminder of their last big win, after a bye.

28. Tennessee Titans (2-6)

Last week: 29

Why they’re here: Zach Mettenberger might have the goods with his big arm. He was confident and not rattled much in his first start as maybe their next franchise quarterback. He has the right guy, Ken Whisenhunt, from whom to learn.

What’s next: at Baltimore, a tough matchup for Mettenberger, after a bye

29. Jacksonville Jaguars (1-7)

Last week: 30

Why they’re here: There’s still plenty to love about Blake Bortles’ arm and athleticism, but he needs to learn how to simply protect the ball. The Robinsons, rookie wide receiver Allen and hybrid running back Denard, remain bright spots.

What’s next: at Cincinnati, where they take on some scarier cats.

30. New York Jets (1-7)

Last week: 28

Why they’re here: Michael Vick is their new starting quarterback, but he doesn’t feel like an upgrade (at all) over Geno Smith. Just maybe, he’ll actually prepare to play this week and give them some respectability on the road.

What’s next: at Kansas City, where it could get even worse.

31. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1-6)

Last week: 31

Why they’re here: Austin Seferian-Jenkins made a big scoring catch, but the rookie tight end made a much bigger blunder that turned into the game-winning score for the Vikings. That pretty much sums up how things are going in Lovie Smith’s first year with the Bucs.

What’s next: at Cleveland, where it’s beautiful in November.

32. Oakland Raiders (0-7)

Last week: 32

Why they’re here: Derek Carr continues to take a lot of dents, but he always seems to do something positive to make you think they might have hit on their quarterback. Now only if they could help win a game before his rookie season ends.

What’s next: at Seattle, where they won’t be winning an old AFC West matchup.