There's no room for tabbies or Siamese around here. This space is reserved for the kind of cat that will tear you apart and devour you faster than a CHFF staffer at the all-you-can-eat carving station.
It's the Panthers, specifically the Carolina breed, who have caught our cat fancy. They began the season as wayward strays
, a mere No. 18 in our preseason Power Rankings
. They have strutted into the No. 1 spot as likely winners of the NFC South and, with a win over the Giants this Sunday night, will play all of their postseason games at home, where they're 8-0 this year.
Carolina has done it by traditional smash-mouth means, riding an explosive running game (146.1 YPG) and a stingy defense (18.9 PPG) that features one of the league's premier pass rushers in Julius Peppers (12 sacks). Running back DeAngelo Williams has broken out, rushing for 1,229 yards and 14 touchdowns, 12 of which have come in his last seven games. He was been complemented by rookie power back Jonathan Stewart, who has added nine more TDs and 751 yards on 158 carries. Star receiver Steve Smith is putting up his usual big stats, carrying the air attack with 70 catches for 1,240 yards and six TDs despite missing the team's first two games due to suspension.
Along the way, the Panthers have survived two brutal division losses to Tampa Bay and Atlanta, as well as a two-game November stretch against doormats Oakland and Detroit in which quarterback Jake Delhomme threw four INTs and totaled just 174 passing yards. But they are peaking at the right time, having won seven of eight games, including three straight in which they've scored at least 30 points.
So while you cat fanciers are knitting Christmas booties for your pets, you'd be wise to keep one eye on these fearsome football felines from Carolina.
THE DOMINANT DOZEN
1. CAROLINA (11-3, previous rank: 3)
Last week: The Panthers got another big rushing performance from the tandem of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart (140 yards, two TDs) and a huge game from Steve Smith (9 catches, 165 yards and a TD) to roll the trick-or-treat Broncos, 30-10, in Charlotte.
Cold, Hard Football Facts: Carolina did the job on both sides of the ball, gaining 400 yards of offense on 7.1 yards per play while holding the Broncos attack to just 279 yards on 4.7 yards per play.
Week 16 matchup: at N.Y. Giants on Sunday night. The No. 1 seed and home-field advantage in the NFC playoffs is up for grabs in the Meadowlands, where the Panthers are 2-0 all-time against the G-Men, including a shutout win in the 2005 postseason.
2. PITTSBURGH (11-3, previous rank: 5)
Last week: Trailing late once again, the Steelers went 92 yards in 12 plays – capped by a controversial 4-yard TD pass from Ben Roethlisberger to Santonio Holmes with 43 seconds left – to secure a 13-9 victory, the AFC North title and their first win in Baltimore in six years.
Cold, Hard Football Facts: The Steelers have outscored their last three foes 37-0 in the fourth quarter, and they hold a 47-6 advantage in the final frame during their five-game win streak.
Week 16 matchup: at Tennessee. It could be another low-scoring, field-position game for Pittsburgh this week against a Titans team that will be without half of its vaunted defensive line.
3. N.Y. GIANTS (11-3, previous rank: 2)
Last week: The Giants offense managed just 218 total yards and two field goals in an ugly 20-8 loss at division-rival Dallas.
Cold, Hard Football Facts: The offensive line allowed eight sacks to the Cowboys, more than half of what it had given up through its first 13 games (15).
Week 15 matchup: vs. Carolina. Two weeks after looking like Super Bowl locks, the Giants could be in danger of missing out on a first-round bye if they lose to the red-hot Panthers.
4. INDIANAPOLIS (10-4, previous rank: same)
Last week: The Colts recorded their seventh consecutive win by holding off the winless Lions at home, 31-21, thanks to a 300-yard passing effort by Peyton Manning and 100-yard receiving games from both Dallas Clark and Reggie Wayne.
Cold, Hard Football Facts: Catching 12 passes for 142 yards and a touchdown, Clark turned in the most productive game of his six-year career.
Week 16 matchup: at Jacksonville on Thursday night. When they met in Week 3, a 23-21 Indy loss, Manning was just 15 of 29 for 216 yards, with one TD, two INTs and a passer rating of 59.0.
5. TENNESSEE (12-2, previous rank: 1)
Last week: With a chance to clinch home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, the Titans made a curious decision and went for it on 4th-and-3 instead of trying a 49-yard field goal and lost at Houston, 13-12.
Cold, Hard Football Facts: Known for its running game and defense, Tennessee managed only 100 total yards on the ground and couldn't get off the field, allowing the Texans to keep the ball for 36:22.
Week 16 matchup: vs. Pittsburgh. The Titans rank fourth in total defense (281.0 YPG), but they allow over 40 yards more per game than the top-ranked Steelers (239.1 YPG).
6. DALLAS (9-5, previous rank: 9)
Last week: The Cowboys overcame the off-field distractions and dominated the division-leading Giants to earn a crucial 20-8 home win.
Cold, Hard Football Facts: With three sacks against the Giants, Dallas defensive end DeMarcus Ware boasts a league-leading 19 on the season, giving him a realistic shot to break Michael Strahan's single-season record of 22.5.
Week 16 matchup: vs. Baltimore on Saturday night. No matter who has private meetings with Tony Romo, Cowboys pass catchers aren't likely to do a lot of damage against Baltimore's top-ranked pass defense (60.6 Defensive Passer Rating).
7. PHILADELPHIA (8-5-1, previous rank: 8)
Last week: The Eagles stayed in the thick of the NFC playoff hunt by crushing the abhorrent Browns at home, 30-10, for their third straight win since Donovan McNabb's benching in Baltimore.
Cold, Hard Football Facts: While rolling up 418 total yards against Cleveland, the Eagles got multiple-catch games from six different receivers and didn't punt until the fourth quarter.
Week 16 matchup: at Washington. In their Week 5 loss, the Eagles blew a 14-0 first-quarter lead and surrendered 388 yards, the second-highest offensive output for the Redskins this year.
8. ATLANTA (9-5, previous rank: 11)
Last week: Continuing the season-long pattern of NFC South teams winning divisional home games, the Falcons beat the Buccaneers 13-10 in overtime.
Cold, Hard Football Facts: Despite playing only about half of his team's defensive snaps, John Abraham recorded three sacks, giving him a career-high 15.5 on the year.
Week 16 matchup: at Minnesota. It will be strength against strength as the Falcons' top-ranked running game (148.7 YPG) takes on the Vikings' top-ranked run defense (71.2 YPG).
9. TAMPA BAY (9-5, previous rank: 6)
Last week: The Buccaneers run defense was gashed for the second time in a week, allowing 175 yards to the Falcons in a 13-10 overtime loss.
Cold, Hard Football Facts: Tampa has allowed 474 rushing yards in its last two games, which explains its first two-game losing streak of the season.
Week 16 matchup: vs. San Diego. The Bucs must be breathing a collective sigh of relief that Chargers running back LaDanian Tomlinson is having the worst year of his career and that San Diego averages only 96.2 YPG on the ground.
10. BALTIMORE (9-5, previous rank: 7)
Last week: The Ravens led the Steelers for 59:17 of their game but still lost, 13-9, getting swept in the season series for the first time since 2002.
Cold, Hard Football Facts: Baltimore averaged a miniscule 3.3 yards per offensive play and managed a season-low 202 total yards, 109 less than its season average.
Week 16 matchup: at Dallas on Saturday night. The Ravens have played the Cowboys only twice since relocating from Cleveland, and have won both (but both were at home).
11. NEW ENGLAND (9-5, previous rank: 10)
Last week: The Patriots scored five first-half touchdowns, rolled up 277 yards on the ground – their best rushing performance in 23 years – and took another must-win game with a 49-26 rout of the awful Raiders.
Cold, Hard Football Facts: Each New England running back – Sammy Morris, LaMont Jordan and Kevin Faulk – averaged at least 7.5 YPA, and Matt Cassel threw a career-high four TD passes.
Week 16 matchup: vs. Arizona. The Cardinals are 0-4 on the East Coast this season, losing the four games by an average margin of 39-24.
12. MINNESOTA (9-5, previous rank: same)
Last week: Vikings quarterback Tarvaris Jackson made like Fran Tarkenton, throwing four TD passes to double his season total in a 35-14 blowout at Arizona.
Cold, Hard Football Facts: Over their current four-game win streak, the Vikings haven't allowed an opponent to score more than 16 points.
Week 16 matchup: vs. Atlanta. The cumulative record of the Vikings' next two opponents is 20-8, and they will have to face the Falcons' No. 1 rushing attack without stalwart defensive tackle Pat Williams, who has a broken scapula.
THE TEPID TWENTY
13. MIAMI (9-5, previous rank: 16) — Continuing their stunning turnaround from last season's 1-15 debacle, the Dolphins have committed just 10 turnovers and have not allowed a touchdown in their last three games.
14. N.Y. JETS (9-5, previous rank: same) — The Jets, on the verge of losing their third straight game, got their sixth return touchdown of the season, taking back a J.P. Losman fumble for a score to remain in control of the AFC East.
15. CHICAGO (8-6, previous rank: 18) — The Bears gained just 226 yards of offense, committed three turnovers and held the ball for 10 fewer minutes than New Orleans...but still won, keeping their playoff hopes alive while eliminating the Saints.
16. HOUSTON (7-7, previous rank: 20) The Texans have recorded four straight victories for the first time in team history, thanks in no small part to Andre Johnson, who added 11 catches and 207 yards to his league-leading totals in both categories (103 receptions for 1,408 yards).
17. ARIZONA (8-6, previous rank: 13) — Headed into the playoffs, the Cardinals have pretty much completely abandoned the running game, posting just seven carries in their loss to Minnesota.
18. DENVER (8-6, previous rank: 17) — It's hard to believe that the AFC West-leading Broncos are still in the driver's seat for a playoff spot.
19. NEW ORLEANS (7-7, previous rank: 15) — The Saints got another big performance from undrafted running back Pierre Thomas, who has amassed over 100 total yards and scored a pair of TDs in two straight games.
20. SAN DIEGO (6-8, previous rank: 23) — The underachieving Chargers came back from a 21-3 deficit and stayed in remote playoff contention by scoring two TDs in the final 1:12 of their 22-21 win over Kansas City.
21. WASHINGTON (7-7, previous rank: 19) — All you need to know, dear readers, is that with their season on the line, the Redskins lost to the Bengals.
22. SAN FRANCISCO (5-9, previous rank: same) — Here's to moral victories: In a losing effort, the 49ers outgained Miami 318-248, held the ball for nearly 17 more minutes and committed zero turnovers.
23. BUFFALO (6-8, previous rank: 21) — Despite having gashed the Jets for 187 yards on the ground, the Bills inexplicably had J.P. Losman (24 of 39, 148 yards, one TD, three INTs) rolling out and looking to throw while holding a lead with under two minutes left to play.
24. JACKSONVILLE (5-9, previous rank: 26) —In the Jaguars' 20-16 win over Green Bay, receiver Dennis Northcutt scored his first touchdown of the season and recorded as many yards (127) as he had in his previous six games combined.
25. GREEN BAY (5-9, previous rank: 24) — The Packers, eliminated from playoff contention and assured of a losing record, have lost their last three games by a total of 11 points.
26. SEATTLE (3-11, previous rank: 27) — Seneca Wallace has a TD-INT ratio of 8-1, with his lone pick coming way back in Week 7.
27. CINCINNATI (2-11-1, previous rank: 30) — Boating enthusiast Cedric Benson had 161 total yards, including a 79-yard reception – the longest play of his career by a whopping 36 yards – in the Bengals' 20-13 win over the reeling Redskins.
28. CLEVELAND (4-10, previous rank: 25) — A microcosm of the Browns this season: Brandon McDonald returned an interception 98 yards against the Eagles and didn't score, the longest such play in league history.
29. KANSAS CITY (2-12, previous rank: 28) — After blowing a double-digit lead with just over a minute left against the Chargers, the Chiefs suffered their 21st loss in the last 23 games, leading GM Carl Peterson to resign after 20 years on the job.
30. OAKLAND (3-11, previous rank: 29) — Over their last two games, the Raiders have given up 62 first-half points.
31. ST. LOUIS (2-12, previous rank: same) — The Rams have lost eight in a row, and QB Marc Bulger has just one 300-yard passing game all season.
32. DETROIT (0-14, previous rank: same) — The Lions are the first team to start 0-14 since 1980 and the third since 1970.