Guess who’s in first place today

By Dan Ankeles

With just six weeks remaining in the regular season the NFL’s elite teams have now clearly emerged, but thankfully the league is still full of puzzles and developing plots.

OK, everyone, take a deep breath, because what I’m about to say will send shivers down your spines. The Cincinnati Bengals are first in their division. No, I’m serious—if the regular season ended today, the once sorry “Bungles” would likely square off against the likes of Tennessee, Indianapolis, or New England for-get this-the right to play in the Super Bowl.

No, pigs aren’t flying, and the underworld is still plenty warm. Since the recent division realignment and the inevitable decline of the Pittsburgh Steelers, the AFC North has become the league’s latest power vacuum. Initially it appeared as if Baltimore would step up to the plate, but the Ravens’ offense has recently sputtered without quarterback Kyle Boller. Hence a division of four mediocre teams in which Cincinnati has somehow emerged on top.

Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis has managed to squeeze the most out of a relatively talented team with a long history of underperforming. The franchise had been brutally mismanaged for about a decade, and it seemed as if years and years of early first round picks would amount to absolutely nothing. But now this one-time cellar dweller is finally hitting its stride.

Over in the NFC North, the Minnesota Vikings are quickly establishing themselves as the league’s biggest false alarm. Head coach Mike Tice is once again getting used to scratching his head as his team settles back into its customary collapse mode. Meanwhile Bret Favre and his Packers reminded fans around the country that they are in fact a really good football team when they beat the defending Super Bowl champs in Tampa. This week’s results ensure that the NFC North will likely be one of the better division races down the stretch.

With the Dallas loss to New England on Sunday night, the Cowboys have dropped into a virtual tie with Philadelphia for first in the NFC East despite a Parcells defense that is first in the NFL in points allowed. The more the Eagles succeed, the more I am reminded of America’s favorite conservative pill popper, Rush Limbaugh, who tried to convince ESPN’s viewers that the media had overrated Donovan McNabb because it wanted a black quarterback to succeed.

Unbelievable. Apparently Limbaugh has never heard of Steve McNair, a quarterback who can dominate a game while hurt and still be called “nimble” by the television announcers. He and his Titans are no strangers to the postseason and are currently in contention for a first round bye in January. A December showdown with Peyton Manning and the Colts will likely decide which team will wear the AFC North crown. Both teams have an excellent receiving corps and play with the kind of attitude that wins championships.

The final mystery in the league is the race for the AFC’s final wild card playoff spot. The two frontrunners are Miami and Denvcr, both with 6-4 records. While both teams won this week, it will ultimately be Denver that makes the postseason. The Broncos are the team with a healthy quarterback and an explosive offense that can more than make up for its porous secondary. Miami is approaching its traditional December meltdown and has had a nasty habit of shooting itself in the foot. Head coach Dave Wannstedt has been unable to muster a proper offense, and his team has committed penalties in critical situations. Even kicker Olindo Mare has had his troubles.

In closing, I would like to make an outrageous claim about this year’s Super Bowl: The Patriots will win it, but only if something terrible happens to Peyton Manning in the next six weeks. In case people hadn’t noticed, Payton Manning is really good at football and is one of those guys who always finds a way to win. The state of Indiana doesn’t have much, but it might have an NFL team with some big rings at the end of the winter.