1. Atlanta Falcons (8-0)
Last week: 1
We may have to wait until Jan. 20, the scheduled date of the 2012 NFC championship game, to see if the Falcons are better than the Bears on the field, but entering Week 10 with a perfect record means the Falcons get to remain at the top of our Power Rankings.
2. Chicago Bears (7-1)
Last week: 3
In the first quarter of their 51-20 win over the Tennessee Titans, the Bears scored a touchdown on a blocked punt, an interception, a running play and a passing play. That was the first time in NFL history that had happened. The Bears also have seven interception returns for touchdowns through eight games, which is also an NFL first. This defense is pretty special, folks, and will give the Houston Texans all they can handle on Sunday night.
3. Houston Texans (7-1)
Last week: 2
The Texans started slow and weren't dominant in their 21-9 win over the Buffalo Bills, but the defense came through in the red zone and they got the "W." In the end, that's all that matters, but they'll need to be much better to beat the Bears in Soldier Field.
4. San Francisco 49ers (6-2)
Last week: 4
The 49ers were off last week, which could be bad news for the Rams. According to Matthew Barrows of The Sacramento Bee, under Jim Harbaugh, the 49ers are 8-1 in games where they had at least one extra day to prepare for their opponent.
5. Green Bay Packers (6-3)
Last week: 7
Green Bay has endured shoddy officiating, injuries and a 2-3 start to enter their bye week on a four-game winning streak that has them at 6-3 on the season. Outside linebacker Clay Matthews may be out a while with a hamstring injury, but this is a deep, resilient team that should be able to account for absences by anyone other than Aaron Rodgers.
6. New England Patriots (5-3)
Last week: 6
The Patriots picked up cornerback Aqib Talib in a bye week trade with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. New England dealt a 2013 fourth-round pick for Talib, who will have to sit out one more game of a four-game suspension for violating the league's policy against performance-enhancing drugs (Adderall). Talib is a low-risk, high-reward acquisition for the Patriots, and his addition, along with a healthy Steve Gregory, should help their struggling pass defense.
7. New York Giants (6-3)
Last week: 5
It was only one loss to one of the league's hottest teams, and it came at the end of a tragic week for the New York/New Jersey area, but it's hard to ignore how out of sync the Giants' passing offense has been lately. Eli Manning has as many touchdowns (four) as interceptions over the last four weeks, where his passer rating has slipped to 68.4. For a team known for its second-half-of-the-season swoons, this may not be good. Fortunately for the Giants, no one else in the NFC East seems ready or willing to threaten their 2 ½-game lead in the standings.
8. Denver Broncos (5-3)
Last week: 8
The Broncos showed their resolve in Sunday's 31-23 win over the Cincinnati Bengals. After a pair of Peyton Manning interceptions allowed the Bengals to take a 20-17 lead early in the fourth quarter, Manning led the offense on an 80-yard touchdown drive in two minutes and, after Champ Bailey intercepted Andy Dalton three minutes later, a quick, 46-yard drive to extend the lead to 11 points with less than four minutes to play. A shaky showing against an inferior opponent could give John Fox an extra edge this week as he prepares to face his former team, the Carolina Panthers.
9. Baltimore Ravens (6-2)
Last week: 9
The Ravens have not been themselves for the last month. Sunday's game against the Raiders will be a good opportunity for the Ravens to right the ship as they hit a critical three-game stretch of the schedule — two of their next three games are against the Steelers — that could decide the AFC North.
10. Seattle Seahawks (5-4)
Last week: 10
The weakest link on the Seahawks recently has been their run defense, which had been the strongest part of the team at the beginning of the season. That run defense will be tested by a Jets offense that has averaged 154.3 yards on the ground over the last three weeks.
11. Pittsburgh Steelers (5-3)
Last week: 11
The Steelers have battled through injuries along the offensive line, at the running back position and to key players on defense (Troy Polamalu, James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley) to claw back to 5-3 and are now positioned to move ahead of the Ravens in the AFC North. An improved running game, which has thrived regardless of who is in the backfield, is a major reason behind the Steelers' current three-game winning streak.
12. Detroit Lions (4-4)
Last week: 14
After dominating the Jaguars on Sunday, the Lions go back on the road to face the reeling Vikings in what may be a must-win game before their schedule turns brutal. Two games against the Packers and home games against the Texans, Colts, Falcons and Bears will be a tough road for the Lions to navigate.
13. Indianapolis Colts (5-3)
Last week: 18
The Colts haven't blown the doors off anyone during their 5-3 start, but they've rallied around one another in the wake of head coach Chuck Pagano's leukemia and are playing really solid football during their current three-game winning streak. One key to the recent success is that an offense led by rookies Andrew Luck and Vick Ballard has just two turnovers in the last three games and has averaged over 34 minutes in time of possession.
14. San Diego Chargers (4-4)
Last week: 17
From a talent standpoint, the Chargers are not a 4-4 football team. This team should be 6-2 or perhaps 7-1 at the midway point of the season. But as Bill Parcells says, "you are what your record says you are," which is why Norv Turner and A.J. Smith are still performing their tasks with the sword of Damocles above their heads.
15. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-4)
Last week: 16
As impressive as rookie running back Doug Martin was against the Raiders, let's hear it for a reshuffled Buccaneers offensive line that lost All-Pro left guard Carl Nicks to a season-ending toe injury, prompting the team to move Jeremy Zuttah from center to left guard and Ted Larsen to center. That new alignment opened up holes for Martin to run for 251 yards on Sunday, 197 of which came before contact.
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16. New Orleans Saints (3-5)
Last week: 20
Only seven teams since 1990 have been 3-5 and made the playoffs. If the eighth team to do so is going to happen in 2012, the Saints have the talent, particularly on offense, to pull it off.
17. Miami Dolphins (4-4)
Last week: 12
Brutal loss to the Colts on Sunday, but the 'Phins have a good opportunity to rebound with games against the Titans and Bills before their post-Thanksgiving hell ride of a schedule that includes home games against the Seahawks, Patriots and a cross-country trip to face the 49ers.
18. Minnesota Vikings (5-4)
Last week: 13
The Vikings have lost three of their last four, including a 30-20 defeat at the hands of the Seahawks on Sunday where running back Adrian Peterson had just five rushing attempts in the second half. Peterson had gashed the 'Hawks for 144 yards on 12 carries in the first half, yet for some reason, offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave inexplicably wanted the ball in Christian Ponder's hands, on the road, in the final 30 minutes.
19. Dallas Cowboys (3-5)
Last week: 15
Dallas played tough in recent losses to the Ravens, Giants and Falcons, but near wins won't help Jason Garrett this offseason. Not when Sean Payton is potentially available to Jerry Jones.
20. Washington Redskins (3-6)
Last week: 19
"When you lose a game like that, now you're playing to see who, obviously, is going to be on your football team for years to come," Shanahan said on Sunday. "Now we get a chance to evaluate players and see where we're at. Obviously we're not out of it statistically. But now we find out what type of character we've got and how guys keep on fighting through the rest of the season."
A day later, Shanahan said those comments were misinterpreted, but the math remains intact. Only three teams that were 3-6 during a season since 1990 have made the playoffs. It's unlikely that the Redskins will be the fourth.
21. New York Jets (3-5)
Last week: 22
Jets head coach Rex Ryan promises changes coming out of the bye week, but uncharacteristically said on Monday that he wouldn't be divulging them for "competitive advantage" reasons.
"We will be doing some different things," Ryan said via Jane McManus of ESPN New York. "I don't want to get into the specifics of it; I hope you understand. If there's an advantage to be gained, then I want to gain that advantage without letting our opponent know."
With the Jets' next two games against teams employing Mark Sanchez's college head coach (Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll) and his offensive coordinator from 2009-11 (Rams offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer), there's very little that the Jets' opponents won't know about Sanchez. So that must mean more Tim Tebow, right?
22. Philadelphia Eagles (3-5)
Last week: 21
Good thing the Eagles got rid of Juan Castillo, huh? Even a decision-maker on the Eagles disclosed that was a "miscalculation" following Monday night's 28-13 loss to the Saints.
23. St. Louis Rams (3-5)
Last week: 23
The biggest news of the Rams' bye week was that they did not trade veteran running back Steven Jackson, who has the option to void his contract after Super Bowl XLVII. Jackson may not be in the team's long-term plans, which will be shaped by first-year general manager Les Snead. Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch provided an in-depth look at Snead, including how he began implementing his way of doing things this summer.
24 Arizona Cardinals (4-5)
Last week: 24
A five-game losing streak heading into the bye has completely erased the Cardinals' 4-0 start. After the bye, the road doesn't get any easier for the Cardinals. Road games against the Falcons, Seahawks and 49ers, plus home games against the Lions and Bears paint a picture of what is likely to be a 10-plus loss season in the desert.
25. Cincinnati Bengals (3-5)
Last week: 25
Once 3-1 and on the road to a return to the trip to postseason, the Bengals have lost four straight, going 0-for-October before beginning November with a 31-23 loss to Peyton Manning and the Broncos on Sunday. This week, the Bengals host Eli Manning and the defending Super Bowl Champion New York Giants. We've already touched on how rare it is for 3-5 or 3-6 teams to make the postseason and do not foresee the Bengals pulling the playoff rabbit out of the hat this season.
26. Buffalo Bills (3-5)
Last week: 27
In the first two weeks of the season, C.J. Spiller had 29 rushing attempts for 292 yards with three touchdowns. Spiller averaged 40 snaps per game in those games, but was hurt in Week 3. Is is possible that Spiller may not be fully healthy? In the last five games, Spiller has been productive, running for 254 yards on 45 attempts with one touchdown, but his playing-time has decreased sharply. Over the last five weeks, Spiller is averaging just 28.2 snaps per game and hasn't logged more than 31 snaps since Week 4.
27. Oakland Raiders (3-5)
Last week: 26
According to ESPN Stats & Information, of the 251 rushing yards the Raiders allowed to Buccaneers rookie Doug Martin on Sunday, 197 of them came before contact. The Raiders deserve credit for clawing back into what was ultimately a 42-32 loss to the Buccaneers, but a leaky run defense and an injured Darren McFadden is not good for a team preparing for a cross-country trip to face Ray Rice and the Ravens.
28. Cleveland Browns (2-7)
Last week: 28
The Browns hung tough with the Ravens, leading the game with less than five minutes to play in the fourth quarter before ultimately losing, 25-15. It's hard enough to win in the National Football League, even harder when you're your own worst enemy. An 18-yard touchdown pass from Brandon Weeden-to-Josh Gordon gets nullified by an illegal formation penalty and the Browns burned three timeouts because they couldn't get the play into the quarterback in time. In November, those kind of mistakes are unacceptable.
29. Carolina Panthers (2-6)
Last week: 30
The Panthers stopped a five-game losing streak and picked up their first road win of the season with a 21-13 win over the Redskins on Sunday. Head coach Ron Rivera felt the team has turned a corner, which may be a bit overoptimistic, particularly with Peyton Manning and former Panthers head coach John Fox coming to town this Sunday. Hard to not root for Rivera, though, who is a solid coach and deserves a chance with a GM who will actually acquire talent to fit with the systems of the coaching staff. Sadly, he probably does need to rally to a .500 finish just to save his job.
30. Tennessee Titans (3-6)
Last week: 29
After a 51-20 loss to the Bears gave the Titans their third two-game losing streak of the season, owner Bud Adams will now begin evaluating every aspect of the organization, which has the coaching staff concerned. And if things couldn't get any worse in Nashville, Bears fans drained local bars of their beer!
31. Jacksonville Jaguars (1-7)
Last week: 31
Following a 31-17 home loss to the Lions that extended the Jaguars' losing streak to five games, Shad Khan is "embarrassed" by the team he's owned for 11 months.
"Whether it's a football team or an auto parts company, you need three things: Right people in the right spots, processing and decision making that's right and you need support from fans, sponsors or owners," Khan said on Action News 47 (via Ryan O'Halloran of the Florida Times-Union. "We have to finish the season. You can't be rushing to judgment. I wish life was that simple, that you could hire and fire people and things would change. I am committed to building a sustainable, winning organization."
32. Kansas City Chiefs (1-7)
Last week: 32
Chiefs head coach Romeo Crennel stripped himself of defensive coordinator duties, handing those off to linebackers coach Gary Gibbs, and the front office placed cornerback Stanford Routt, whom it had signed to a three-year, $18 million contract in February, on waivers. The deck chairs of the Titanic have officially been rearranged.
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