The 49ers ascend to the top spot in our Power Rankings (Getty Images)
1 San Francisco 49ers (10-3-1)
Last week: 2
Going into Foxboro and building a 31-3 lead en route to a 41-34 upset of a Patriots team that rarely loses at home in December warrants moving the 49ers up to the top spot in our weekly "Power Rankings." The 49ers are one win away from clinching the NFC West and can make another powerful statement in front of a national audience by beating the red-hot Seahawks in CenturyLink Field on Sunday night.
2. New England Patriots (10-4)
Last week: 1
Disappointing loss to the 49ers on Sunday, but the Patriots remain an elite team that will be a force to be reckoned with come January, even if they're likely to have to take their act on the road to Denver or Houston in order to advance to New Orleans and make a return trip to the Super Bowl.
3. Denver Broncos (11-3)
Last week: 3
After losses to the Falcons, Texans and Patriots, the Broncos got their signature win of the season when they went into Baltimore and trounced the Ravens 34-17 on Sunday. With their offense and defense both ranked in the Top 5, the Broncos have positioned themselves for a first-round bye. With back-to-back home games with the Browns and Chiefs remaining, Peyton Manning & Co. won't have to leave the Mile High City until mid-to-late January.
4. Houston Texans (12-2)
Last week: 4
The Texans bounced back from their 42-14 loss to the Patriots on Dec. 10 to clinch the AFC South with a 29-17 win over the Colts in Week 15. The Texans can clinch home-field advantage throughout the playoffs with a win over the visiting Vikings this Sunday.
5. Green Bay Packers (10-4)
Last week: 5
Despite a mountain of injuries, the Packers clinched the NFC North with their 21-13 road win over the Bears on Sunday. Speaking of injuries, between the injuries to Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson, sixth-year receiver James Jones has started all 14 games this season and has responded with a career-high 51 receptions and an NFL-leading 12 touchdown receptions. Not bad for a player who has spent considerable time on the trade block the last few seasons.
6. Atlanta Falcons (12-2)
Last week: 6
OK Falcons, we can trust you. With the 34-0 dismantling of the Giants on Sunday, the Falcons showed that they should be taken seriously in January. Atlanta can clinch home-field advantage throughout the playoffs with a win over the struggling Lions on Saturday night. In the NFC, the road to Super Bowl XLVII very well could go through Atlanta.
7. Seattle Seahawks (9-5)
Last week: 7
By outscoring their opponents by a combined 91 points over the last two games, the Seahawks are now 9-5 and have put themselves in position to clinch a playoff spot with a win over the 49ers, at home, on Sunday night. The Seahawks are also assured of its first winning season with Pete Carroll as head coach which, with Russell Wilson and that defense, will not be the last.
8. Washington Redskins (8-6)
Last week: 10
Five straight wins, including a 38-21 blowout of the Browns with fourth-round pick Kirk Cousins starting for the injured Robert Griffin, have catapulted the Redskins into first place of the NFC East via their tiebreaker advantages over the similarly 8-6 Giants and Cowboys. With Cousins coming up big in his first NFL start, the Redskins may be able to take a smart, cautious approach with Griffin, whose injured right knee is unlikely to be 100 percent by this Sunday's game against the Eagles.
9. New York Giants (8-6)
Last week: 8
The Giants have lost four of their last six games and, after scoring 52 points against the Saints in Week 14, could not make any changes to the initial scoreboard reading against the Falcons in Week 15. Despite their recent skid, the Giants remain in control of their destiny. Win out and they're in the tournament. They could also be bounced from the playoffs with a loss on the road to the Ravens, wins by the Redskins and Cowboys, and a win or tie by the Seahawks in Week 16.
10. Baltimore Ravens (9-5)
Last week: 9
Speaking of teams in a free fall, the formerly 9-2 Ravens have lost three straight, including two games at home, but managed to back their way into a playoff spot when the Steelers lost to the Cowboys on Sunday. However, all is not well on the Ravens, who are clearly searching for answers. It might be time for the Ravens to do something completely radical and give the ball to Ray Rice more.
11. Indianapolis Colts (9-5)
Last week: 11
The Colts' hopes of an AFC South title were dashed with Sunday's 29-17 loss to the Texans, but the Colts remain in control of their playoff destiny. A win on the road this Sunday against the two-win Chiefs would stamp the Colts' ticket to the postseason and Chuck Pagano could return to the sidelines on Dec. 30.
12. Dallas Cowboys (8-6)
Last week: 13
A three-game winning streak, and wins in five of their last six games, has the Cowboys in control of their own playoff destiny. A loss to the Saints on Sunday would damage their playoff hopes and lessen Jason Garrett's job security.
13. Cincinnati Bengals (8-6)
Last week: 14
With the Titans beating the Jets on Monday night, the Bengals are now in complete control of their playoff destiny. Beat the Steelers in Pittsburgh on Sunday and the Bengals will get another opportunity to win their first playoff game of the Marvin Lewis Era, which for the record, began in 2003.
14. Minnesota Vikings (8-6)
Last week: 15
I've got a seat on the "If the Vikings make the playoffs, Adrian Peterson deserves the MVP Award" bandwagon. Less than a year after tearing his ACL, Peterson leads the NFL and has set a career-high with 1,812 yards through 14 games and is now 188 yards away from 2,000 and 294 yards away from breaking Eric Dickerson's single-season record (2,105). Here's another scary number: Over his last eight games, Peterson has rushed for 1,313 yards on 176 carries, the same exact number of rushing yards that Texans running back Arian Foster has accumulated in 325 carries in 14 games this season. Foster is fourth in the NFL in rushing, by the way.
15. Chicago Bears (8-6)
Last week: 12
It's not how you start it's how you finish. No team is more aware of that than the Bears, who have gone from 7-1 and possibly running away with the NFC North to 8-6 following Sunday's loss to the Packers, which allowed their bitter rivals to clinch the division on Chicago's home turf. Even if the Bears (somehow) beat the Cardinals and Lions on the road to finish 10-6, they'll need help to make the tournament. That fact alone should increase the heat under Lovie Smith's seat.
16. New Orleans Saints (6-8)
Last week: 19
They won't make the playoffs, but a 41-0 win over the Buccaneers — their first shutout since 1995 — ended a three-game losing streak and has the Saints in position to end the season on a high note. Drew Brees is closing in on 40 touchdowns, one for each million dollars he'll earn this season ($3 million base salary, $37 million signing bonus) and the Saints can derail the playoff hopes of the Cowboys this Sunday. The Saints can do even more damage to the Cowboys organization if they reach a contract agreement with Sean Payton.
17. Pittsburgh Steelers (7-7)
Last week: 17
Injuries, turnovers and a struggling pass defense — both in the secondary and a non-existent pass rush — has the Steelers at .500 and in need of winning out against the Bengals and Browns to make the postseason. The Steelers have 26 of their last 30 games against their Ohio-based rivals and, fortunately for them, both games are at home. That said, the Steelers have lost two straight at home, including a 34-24 loss to the Chargers on Dec. 9.
18. St. Louis Rams (6-7-1)
Last week: 18
Regardless of how convoluted and unlikely the scenarios are, that the Rams remain mathematically alive for a spot in the NFC playoffs this late in the season is a great sign for a franchise that, in recent seasons, has been eliminated long before Thanksgiving turkeys are being bought, let alone carved.
19. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-8)
Last week: 16
The Buccaneers can't sink low as they did in 2011, but not only has a four-game losing streak has ended their hopes of making the playoffs, there's potential for a full-on mutiny. Buccaneers linebacker Adam Hayward and "front seven" coach Bryan Cox got into a physical altercation during Sunday's 41-0 loss to the Saints on Sunday and players in the locker room are grumbling about "college coaches."
20. Carolina Panthers (5-9)
Last week: 28
None of the teams in the 20-32 range of the "Power Rankings" will be playing in January, so I'm bumping the Panthers way up the list based on the club winning three of the last four, scoring 30-plus points in each of the three wins, and the presence of Cam Newton. Over this four-game stretch, Newton is 75 of 123 (60.9 percent) for 1,056 yards with nine touchdowns, zero interceptions and 253 yards and three touchdowns on the ground.
21. Miami Dolphins (6-8)
Last week: 25
Like the Panthers, the Dolphins are at the top of the non-playoff team list, largely due to the presence of quarterback Ryan Tannehill. The No. 8 overall pick of the 2012 NFL draft bounced off the rookie wall to go 22 of 28 for 220 yards and two touchdowns in a 24-3 win over the Jaguars. It's also worth noting that during an impossible three-game stretch late in the season, the Dolphins beat the Seahawks and were not blown out in losses to the 49ers and Patriots, three of the top teams in the NFL. There's a lot of work to be done, but the Phins are headed in the right direction under Joe Philbin.
22. Cleveland Browns (5-9)
Last week: 23
Head coach Pat Shurmur could not afford many losses at the end of this season and a win over the Redskins last week would have improved his job security. Instead, it's possible that Shurmur and GM Tom Heckert could be replaced by Josh McDaniels as head coach and Michael Lombardi as GM. Yikes.
23. New York Jets (6-8)
Last week: 22
No butt fumbles, but quarterback Mark Sanchez turned the ball over five times as the Jets lost to the Titans on Monday night, ending whatever hope Rex Ryan & Co. had of making the postseason. Expect major changes in the offseason, with Mike Tannenbaum likely out as GM and Woody Johnson forking over a large, $8.25 million check to Mark Sanchez to go play elsewhere next season. Sanchez's contract is immovable and with the No. 5 overall pick of the 2009 NFL draft accounting for 50 turnovers over the last 30 games, the Jets need to cut bait in the offseason.
24. Buffalo Bills (5-9)
Last week: 20
The Bills looked completely unprepared to face the Seahawks on Sunday, losing 50-17 while allowing 270 rushing yards, a total that nearly matched the 275 rushing yards the Bills defense had allowed in the previous four games combined. Count the Bills among the NFL teams that could be looking for a new head coach, and a new quarterback, in the 2013 offseason.
25. Detroit Lions (4-10)
Last week: 24
There are understatements and then there's what Lions head coach Jim Schwartz had to say about his team's six-game losing streak that has assured the franchise of 10-plus losses for the fourth time in the last five seasons:
"But we have, I don't want to say set back, but we have been sidetracked this year. We have gone off the rails a little bit, sidetracked. Got to get back on track," Schwartz said according to Anwar Richardson of MLive.com
26. Tennessee Titans (5-9)
Last week: 27
Owner Bud Adams will be making a decision on whether or not to retain Mike Munchak this offseason. Hopefully he already made his decision, because I'm not sure what anyone can get out of the final three games of the season. The offensive line is a mess, placing four projected starters on injured reserve and seeing center Kevin Matthews go down with an injury during Monday night's 14-10 win over the Jets. How can you properly evaluate Jake Locker, or even Chris Johnson (who the Titans will need to make a $9 million decision on after Super Bowl XLVII), based on what happens behind this line? How do you evaluate a defense that will face an explosive Packers offense in Lambeau Field, a game that is sandwiched between matchups against dueling dumpster fire offenses that the Jets and Jaguars will bring to Nashville?
27. San Diego Chargers (5-9)
Last week: 21
The Chargers responded to reports that both head coach Norv Turner and GM A.J. Smith would be fired after the season by going into Heinz Field and delivering a blow to the Steelers' playoff hopes with a 34-24 win. Of course the maddeningly inconsistent Chargers would follow that up with a 31-7 loss at home to a four-win Panthers team. Memo to the next Chargers coach/GM: Philip Rivers has turned the ball over 47 times the last two seasons and none of the $41.55 million that remains on the final three years of his contract is guaranteed. Parting ways with Rivers would clear $12 million in cash and $10.8 million in cap space in 2013.
28. Arizona Cardinals (5-9)
Last week: 30
Sunday's 38-10 win over the Lions was nice, but it's impossible to overlook Larry Fitzgerald's numbers over the five games. While playing in 296 of 304 offensive snaps (97.4 percent), Fitzgerald has 10 receptions for 89 yards and zero touchdowns. This franchise needs a quarterback in the worst way, and possibly a change in offensive direction, i.e., head coach.
29. Philadelphia Eagles (4-10)
Last week: 28
Somehow, Michael Vick's future with the Eagles is still an issue this week. Cleared medically to play following a Nov. 11 concussion, the Eagles will keep Vick in street clothes for the final two games of the season. The 32-year-old currently has $3 million of his $15.5 million base salary in 2013 guaranteed for injury only. "Skill and Cap" guarantees kick in two days after Super Bowl XLVII, but the Eagles can avoid those by releasing Vick before that date. No way do the Eagles risk that $3 million by exposing Vick to contact.
30. Jacksonville Jaguars (2-12)
Last week: 29
First-year head coach Mike Mularkey is not sure if he'll get a second season at the helm of the Jaguars, and with good reason. The Jaguars have not shown much progress this season and there are too many good head-coaching candidates on the market for Shad Khan to allow the franchise to remain in neutral while other teams in the AFC South are getting better.
31. Oakland Raiders (4-10)
Last week: 32
The 15-0 win over the Chiefs was great, but couldn't we have seen a little more from Terrelle Pryor? The 2011 supplemental draft choice made his highly anticipated NFL debut in Week 15, logging three plays — two handoffs to Darren McFadden and an incomplete pass attempt to Darrius Heyward-Bey — before returning to the sidelines. Hopefully Pryor's playing time increases in the final two weeks of the season.
32. Kansas City Chiefs (2-12)
Last week: 31
Why the Chiefs are likely to pick first or second in April: In Sunday's 15-0 loss to the Raiders, who had the NFL's worst run defense entering Week 15, according to Football Outsiders' DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average), the Chiefs had just 10 rushing yards on 10 rushing attempts. In two games against the Raiders this season, Jamaal Charles had just 14 rushing attempts for 14 yards, including all 10 of the Chiefs' rushing yardage total from Sunday.
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