By Steve Silverman-
(CBS) The NFL season has taken shape. We have a very good idea as we head towards Week 8 who the contenders are and who are merely pretending.
There may be some changes in these evaluations as we get closer to the home stretch of the season. But with the second half of the season around the corner, here are the best 10 teams in the league.
It's obvious the power in the league is in the NFC. The Houston Texans are the best team in the AFC, but they don't have the strength or power to hang with the big dogs in the NFC.
No. 10, Green Bay Packers – The last two weeks have shown that the Packers are still capable of asserting themselves. Aaron Rodgers has suddenly found his rhythm and he is coming off two brilliant games (54-of-74 for 680 yards, 9 TDs and 0 interceptions). The offense is firing even though Greg Jennings (groin) has been out. The Packers have no running game. The defense depends on the pass rush and all-around ferocity of wild man Clay Matthews. Safety Charles Woodson's absence (collarbone – 6 weeks) hurts more from a leadership perspective than it does from actual on-field performance since he has lost a couple of steps.
No. 9, Pittsburgh Steelers – Mike Tomlin's team is under the radar this year because they didn't play a signature Steeler game until they punished Cincinnati 24-17 in Week 7. In that game, the Steelers got the running game and defensive effort that has been their signature. They also have a big-play receiver in Mike Wallace who can run down Ben Roethlisberger's long passes. When safety Troy Polamalu (calf) returns – he has only played two games this season – the Steelers will likely assert themselves in the AFC.
No. 8, Minnesota Vikings – The Vikings are a top-10 team right now, but it will be a shocker if they can remain there throughout the second half of the season. They have eliminated many of the mistakes they made last year, but Christian Ponder is not a solid NFL quarterback. He threw for 58 yards in the Week 7 win over the Cardinals and is at best a game manager. Adrian Peterson is back in top form (652 yards, 4.6 yards per carry) and the defense is fast and hard-hitting. However, the Vikings have a man's schedule in the second half of the season (two games vs. Chicago and Green Bay) and the guess is they will fall apart.
No. 7, Baltimore Ravens – The Ravens have transformed their football personality. They are an offensive machine and they have become a defensive liability. Joe Flacco is close to an elite quarterback, Ray Rice is the best all-around running back in football and Torrey Smith can stretch the field. However, the Ravens have lost their defensive presence and it's not just the injuries to Ray Lewis and Lardarius Webb. The Ravens hope the return of pass-rushing linebacker Terrell Suggs (Achilles) will bring back some of the fervor, but don't count on it.
No. 6, New England Patriots – This is a strangely different Patriots team than you are used to seeing. For one, they can run the ball with power and they can also stop their opponents from running the ball. Bill Belichick wanted improvement in both of these areas. However, Tom Brady has not been as efficient in running the team's fast-paced no-huddle offense and the passing game lacks the firepower of past years. The pass defense is one thing that has not changed. The Patriots were awful last season and they remain bottom feeders in that area this season. While Brady, Wes Welker and Rob Gronkowski are likely to pick up the passing game, the pass defense will end up killing this team.
No. 5, Houston Texans – The Texans have only lost one game, but they were taken apart by the Green Bay Packers easily in that one. They have no real weaknesses, but are their strengths decisive enough to bring them a championship? That's unlikely because at least four NFC teams are better than they are. Defensive end J.J. Watt is a defensive MVP candidate and quarterback Matt Schaub is among the smartest at his position in the league.
No. 4, San Francisco 49ers – Jim Harbaugh's team was the preseason favorite to go to the Super Bowl and win it. Don't bet on it. They got spanked by the Giants at home in Week 6 and their offense continued to play unimpressively in a Week 7 victory over Seattle. Frank Gore (601 yards, 5.8 yards per carry) is a powerful running back, but Alex Smith appears to have slipped a bit. There are no problems with the defense. Linebacker NaVorro Bowman is the 49ers' version of Lance Briggs and he may be even faster. Aldon Smith (5.5 sacks) is a pass rushing master.
No. 3, Atlanta Falcons – It's hard to downgrade the only undefeated team in the league, but the Falcons don't have the persona to rank higher until they show more power. They are skilled and efficient, but until they show the ability to overpower an opponent, they have to take a back seat to at least two teams. Matt Ryan (67.8 completion percentage, 14-6 TD-interception ratio) is playing like an MVP this year and Roddy White may be the most productive receiver in football. However, the perception is that the Falcons can be bullied by a bigger, stronger team like they were by the Giants in last year's postseason.
No. 2, Chicago Bears – There's no homerism going on here. The Bears have the best defense in football and it may be by a wide margin. They don't allow points and they score on defense. The most interesting dynamic is that the Bears' defense is playing even harder and more efficiently this year as they protect middle linebacker Brian Urlacher, who can't shed blocks and struggles to move laterally. However, he can still go downhill. Charles Tillman and Lance Briggs are dominant All-Pro players. The key to remaining at this level is the health of Jay Cutler. After absorbing a brutal hit from Ndamukong Suh, it looked like Cutler had broken his shoulder, but he took one play off and returned from his "rib" injury to finish the game. Brandon Marshall is a difference-making wide receiver and Matt Forte is the offensive glue. They may be the only team in the league who can legitimately challenge the New York Giants.
No. 1, N.Y. Giants – Tom Coughlin has become the best coach in football because he is no longer the raging militarist on the sidelines. It also helps that he has the best pass rush in football and the best clutch quarterback in the game. Jason Pierre-Paul (4.5 sacks) is unstoppable when he gets it going at full speed and Osi Umenyiora (3.0 sacks) is nearly as good. Manning is the best fourth-quarter passer in the game. This team knows how to perform under pressure and it will take a massive effort for someone to knock them out in the postseason.
Steve Silverman is an award-winning writer, covering sports since 1980. Silverman was with Pro Football Weekly for 10 years and his byline has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Playboy, NFL.com and The Sporting News. He is the author of four books, including Who's Better, Who's Best in Football -- The Top 60 Players of All-Time. Follow him on Twitter (@profootballboy) and read more of his CBS Chicago columns here.
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