1. Atlanta Falcons (7-0)
Last week: 1
With a 30-17 dismantling of the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday, the Falcons moved to 7-0 for the first time in franchise history. We're only entering November and the Falcons have a four-game lead over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFC South. Everything is coming up roses for the Falcons, who appear to have dodged a bullet with linebacker Sean Weatherspoon. Carted off the field during Sunday's win over the Eagles, Weatherspoon appears to have a low right ankle sprain that did not require a walking boot or crutches after the game.
2. Houston Texans (6-1)
Last week: 2
Houston was off last week, yet J.J. Watt still managed to harass a few quarterbacks and knock down some passes. The Texans host the Buffalo Bills on Sunday before playing four road games in a five-game stretch, including tough road games against the Bears and Patriots.
3. Chicago Bears (6-1)
Last week: 4
An opportunistic defense (23 takeaways, second-most in the NFL) and quarterback Jay Cutler orchestrating a solid drive when the team needed it the most got the Bears an ugly win over the struggling Carolina Panthers in Week 8. There's no shame in winning ugly, particularly for a team that was coming off a short week and has a quarterback (Cutler) dealing with a rib injury.
4. San Francisco 49ers (6-2)
Last week: 5
Monday night's 24-3 win over the Arizona Cardinals was an example of the 49ers flawlessly executing their winning formula. With the league's No. 1-ranked defense, they limited the Cardinals to 7 yards rushing, sacked quarterback John Skelton four times, while their offense ran more than it passed (29-23) and quarterback Alex Smith completing 18 of his 19 pass attempts, taking a few sacks (four) to avoid turnovers. With a 2½-game lead in an NFC West that has arguably been one of the better divisions in football this season, the 49ers are quieting those "Jive-Turkey gobblers" and are well on their way to more January football under Jim Harbaugh.
5. New York Giants (6-2)
Last week: 3
In nine seasons under head coach Tom Coughlin, the Giants have been 6-2 at the midway point of the season six times. 2012 marks the third season in a row where the Giants have been 6-2 and it's anyone's guess where they'll be in December. Will this team be like the 2010 Giants and go 4-4 and miss out on the playoffs? With a 2½-game lead in the NFC East, that seems unlikely, but it's concerning that they let a 23-point lead over the Dallas Cowboys evaporate on Sunday.
6. New England Patriots (5-3)
Last week: 6
Despite playing without Aaron Hernandez, Pro Bowl left guard Logan Mankins and both of their starting safeties (Patrick Chung and Steve Gregory), the Patriots went over to London, England, and blew out an inferior opponent. New England's offense racked up 473 yards of offense on Sunday, surpassing 350 yards of offense in 17 straight games, an NFL record. The Buffalo Bills 31st-ranked defense awaits the Patriots after their bye week, which New England will use to get Hernandez, Mankins, Chung and Gregory back to 100 percent.
7. Green Bay Packers (5-3)
Last week: 7
The Packers' 24-15 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 8 was far from pretty, but that's going to be the case when you have no running game to speak of and the passing game is playing without its top two receivers (Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson). The Packers could improve their ground game by swinging a trade for one of the several running backs who could be available before Thursday's trade deadline and can rest up during their bye after this week's game against the Cardinals.
8. Denver Broncos (4-3)
Last week: 8
What a difference six quarters can make in a season. At halftime of their Week 6 game against the San Diego Chargers, the Broncos trailed by 24 points and were looking down the barrel at a 2-4 record heading into their bye week. Since then, the Broncos have outscored their opponents 59-14 and at 4-3 are in sole possession of first place in the AFC West. Advanced metrics loves the Broncos, too, with the team ranking first in Football Outsiders' team DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) thanks to Top 10 rankings in both offense and defense.
9. Baltimore Ravens (5-2)
Last week: 9
Coming off their bye week, the Ravens hit the road for their rematch with the Browns. Baltimore's offense has struggled on the road this season. A unit that averages 421.8 yards per game at M&T Bank Stadium has averaged just 266.3 yards in three road games this season, including 176 yards of total offense in a 43-13 loss to the Texans before the bye week.
10. Seattle Seahawks (4-4)
Last week: 10
In the last two losses, Seattle's defense allowed 175 rushing yards to the 49ers in Week 7 and the Lions converted 12-of-16 third-down conversion attempts in Week 8. The Seahawks' defense remains an elite unit, however, particularly at CenturyLink Field, where they'll host the Vikings and Jets before their bye week.
11. Pittsburgh Steelers (4-3)
Last week: 14
Jonathan Dwyer has helped reignite the Steelers running game, posting back-to-back 100-yard games as the Steelers have amassed 307 yards on the ground in the last two weeks. Pittsburgh had just 374 rushing yards over the first five weeks of the regular season. The improved running game has helped Ben Roethlisberger & Co. erase a 1-2 start to the season and are now just one game behind the Ravens in the AFC North.
12. Miami Dolphins (4-3)
Last week: 16
Aside from the final two minutes of the first half of the season-opening 30-10 loss to the Houston Texans, the Dolphins have played well this season. They've blown out the Raiders and Jets, scored hard-fought wins over the Bengals and Rams, and lost close games to the Jets and Cardinals. Miami still has to face the Seahawks, 49ers and have two games against New England on the schedule, but the Dolphins have the talent, particularly on defense, to push for a wild-card spot in Joe Philbin's first season as head coach.
13. Minnesota Vikings (5-3)
Last week: 11
The Vikings could not afford that loss to the Buccaneers last Thursday as they're about to embark on what may be the most difficult second-half schedule in the NFL this season. Minnesota has road games against the Seahawks, Bears, Packers, Rams and Texans and home games against their three NFC North rivals. With Christian Ponder struggling the last two weeks, this might be the last time we see the Vikings in our Top 15.
14. Detroit Lions (3-4)
Last week: 21
The Lions have managed to stay afloat despite multiple injuries in the secondary and opposing defenses succeeding in taking Calvin Johnson out of the offense. Detroit hits the road for winnable games against the Jaguars and Vikings before a key two-game stretch at Ford Field against the Packers and Texans.
15. Dallas Cowboys (3-4)
Last week: 18
It will not change the fact that they have now lost three of their last four games, but the Cowboys showed serious meddle in erasing a 23-point deficit before ultimately losing 29-24 to the Giants in Week 8. Injuries to Sean Lee and DeMarco Murray may get the headlines, but 19 giveaways, including 15 by a maddeningly inconsistent Tony Romo is the real story of what's gone wrong in Big D this season.
16. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-4)
Last week: 25
In our "Shutdown 50" series in the lead up to the 2012 NFL draft, Doug Farrar saw similarities between Boise State running back Doug Martin and Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, who had played for Greg Schiano at Rutgers. Through seven games this season, Martin has 767 yards from scrimmage, while Rice is just ahead of him with 769. Both running backs have over 500 yards rushing (Martin — 543; Rice — 524) and 200 yards receiving (Rice — 245; Martin — 224).
17. San Diego Chargers (3-4)
Last week: 13
Earlier we referenced how much the last six quarters have changed the fortunes of the Broncos this season. Well, the same can be said about the Chargers, only in the opposite direction. In addition to blowing a 24-point lead and a chance to take a commanding lead in the AFC West to the Broncos on Oct. 15, the Chargers have scored just six points in the last six quarters, all in a 7-6 loss to the Cleveland Browns. With losses in four of their last five games, the Chargers are in free-fall mode and could hit rock bottom with a loss at home to the Kansas City Chiefs on Thursday night.
18. Indianapolis Colts (4-3)
Last week: 26
Year 1 of the franchise rebuild is going well as the Colts have overcome the loss of head coach Chuck Pagano to a leukemia diagnosis and injuries to pass-rushers Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis to put together a 4-3 record entering Week 9. The Colts have won three of their last four games, including an emotional win over the Packers, but losses to the Jaguars and Jets have us a little nervous about putting Indianapolis in the Top 20. A win over the Dolphins would alleviate that.
19. Washington Redskins (3-5)
Last week: 15
The Redskins have committed $33.6 million in cash to the wide receiver and tight end positions in 2012 which is the sixth-highest total in the NFL. So the amount of passes this team dropped during Sunday's 27-12 loss to the Steeler is just as inexcusable as the coaching staff calling a play where rookie quarterback Robert Griffin, who has already suffered one concussion this season, is called upon to catch a pass on a gadget play.
20. New Orleans Saints (2-5)
Last week: 20
Before the start of the season, I had the New Orleans Saints (and Houston Texans) in Super Bowl XLVII. Yes, losing Sean Payton, Mickey Loomis, Joe Vitt, Jonathan Vilma and Will Smith would hurt, but I figured that as long as the team had Drew Brees, they'd be fine on offense and had enough talent on defense to keep the Falcons, Buccaneers and Panthers at bay in the NFC South. Who knew that the defense would turn out to be so bad that, midway through the season, it would be on pace to allow over 7,500 yards of total offense this season?
21. Philadelphia Eagles (3-4)
Last week: 12
With four losses in their last five games, the Andy Reid Era in Philadelphia appears to be nearing its end. After 17 seasons with the organization, offensive line coach-turned-defensive coordinator Juan Castillo has been fired and the Eagles are likely to make a change at the quarterback position, too, as Michael Vick struggles with turnovers. Signed to a five-year, $80 million contract extension in July of 2011, the Eagles are unlikely to bring Vick back at a $15.5 million base salary in 2013 and have a brief window after Super Bowl XLVII to avoid a $3 million salary guarantee. Keeping Vick at quarterback before a Monday night game against the NFL's worst defense makes sense, but the organization will eventually need to see what 2012 third-round pick Nick Foles can do.Fantasy video: Week 9 QBs to sit or start
22. New York Jets (3-5)
Last week: 19
Coming off a 30-9 loss to the Dolphins that featured another sputtering performance from the offense and multiple miscues from a special teams unit that had ranked No. 1 in Football Outsiders' DVOA entering Week 8, the Jets are taking the bye week off. To save the season and perhaps head off another locker room mutiny, head coach Rex Ryan has stuck his hand deep into the slogan bin and will ask that his players adopt an "All In" mentality for the second half of the season.
That should work out great.
23. St. Louis Rams (3-5)
Last week: 19
On Oct. 4, the Rams beat the Cardinals 17-3 on to move over .500 for the first time since the 2006 season. Since then, the Rams have lost three straight, including a 45-7 pasting at the hands of the Patriots, and get to head to San Francisco to face the 49ers on Nov. 11. The Rams are clearly heading in the right direction under general manager Les Snead and head coach Jeff Fisher, but any hopes the Rams may have had for the postseason can probably be tabled until 2013.
24 Arizona Cardinals (4-4)
Last week: 23
Remember when the Cardinals were 4-0 and had wins over Seahawks, Patriots and Dolphins, three teams in the Top 12 of these power rankings, to start the season? Seriously, that happened. Four straight losses — including two within the division where the Cardinals failed to score a touchdown — has Arizona back to .500 with road games to the Packers and Falcons next on the schedule. The offensive line, running back and quarterback positions remain problem areas that even a very good defense cannot overcome.
25. Cincinnati Bengals (3-4)
Last week: 24
With Peyton Manning & Co. coming to town on Sunday, this would be a good week to see Bengals first-round cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick make his NFL debut. The Bengals used the No. 17 overall pick on the former Alabama standout and are paying him $5.1 million this season. Might be nice to actually see the 6-foot-2, 192-pound cornerback on something other than an injury report.
26. Oakland Raiders (3-4)
Last week: 28
Despite mounting injuries, the Raiders have played surprisingly well the last three weeks. They went on the road and gave the Falcons all they could handle in Week 6 and picked up back-to-back wins over the lowly Jaguars and Chiefs. An improved run defense helps. In 2011, the Raiders ranked 27th against the run, allowing 136.1 yards per game and were 32nd with a 5.07 yards allowed per carry average. This year, the Raiders are 11th in both categories, giving up 102.1 yards per game and 3.89 yards per carry.
27. Buffalo Bills (3-4)
Last week: 27
The Bills used their bye week to get healthy. Right guard Kraig Urbik (ankle) returned to practice and defensive end Mario Williams (wrist) is expected to return later this week. At 3-4, the Bills are entering a "make or break" part of their schedule, traveling to the Texans and Patriots before hosting the surprising Dolphins in a span of 11 days.
28. Cleveland Browns (2-6)
Last week: 31
According to Jason La Canfora of CBSSports.com, Michael Lombardi of the NFL Network is viewed as "a strong candidate" for a Browns' general manager position that is widely expected to open up next offseason. We understand the need and want of new regime to install their own people, but the Browns have added some quality players in Tom Heckert's first two draft classes and, quite frankly, deserves a third. If the Browns do make a change in the front office, Heckert won't be out of a job long as another NFL team will scoop him up pretty quickly.
29. Tennessee Titans (3-5)
Last week: 22
The Titans were ranked a little too highly in previous rankings, which has more to do with their drop to No. 29 than their overtime loss to the Colts on Sunday. Make no mistake, though, the Titans are a bad team on both sides of the ball. Chris Johnson has not been nearly as effective as his raw numbers say he is, wide receiver Kenny Britt and Jared Cook, who has requested a trade, are not happy with their roles in an offense led by Matt Hasselbeck, who will remain the starter as Jake Locker, the franchise's quarterback of the future, remains out with a dislocated left (non-throwing) shoulder.
30. Carolina Panthers (1-6)
Last week: 30
Sitting six games behind the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC South, the Panthers have already fired general manager Marty Hurney, the first of many changes that are expected to take place within that organization over the next few months. Barring a miraculous turnaround, head coach Ron Rivera and his staff are likely out at the end of the season (sooner if Panthers fans had any say in the matter) and several veterans, most notably DeAngelo Williams, figure to be moved off the roster, as well.
31. Jacksonville Jaguars (1-6)
Last week: 32
Give the Jaguars credit: They went into Lambeau Field without their best player (Maurice Jones-Drew) and played tough against the heavily favored Packers. Still this is a mistake-prone team that currently lacks the talent to overcome any errors, especially on the road against one of the NFL's elite teams.
32. Kansas City Chiefs (1-6)
Last week: 29
The Chiefs have lost four straight and have not led a game in regulation at any point this season. That stat becomes less surprising when you consider that it's actually bad news that Brady Quinn won't be available to play this week against the Chargers.
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