Saying that an NFL team is a contender or pretender is tricky, especially in October. Unlike other sports, where there are a lot of games played, you only have 16 in football. That is a small sample size in baseball or basketball, yet it defines everything we know in the NFL.
What works about power rankings in the NFL that doesn't in MLB is the constant shifting you will see on a weekly basis. With less games to work with, it's more likely that there will be surprises along the way.
We are five full weeks into the season, and now is the time where we can start making accurate assessments of contenders and pretenders.
Here is the latest edition of the NFL Power Rankings, highlighting some of the contenders and pretenders.
No. 1 Houston Texans (5-0)
No matter how you slice it, the Texans look like the best team in the NFL right now. They are dominating teams they should dominate and doing all the little things right.
As long as they get through the regular season healthy, there is no reason to think the Texans won't be the No. 1 seed in the AFC and the favorites to play in the Super Bowl.
Of course, there is a very long way to go before then.
No. 2 Atlanta Falcons (5-0)
Week 5 against Washington was exactly the kind of game this team has to start winning. It wasn't a flawless performance—far from it—but when it had to make plays on both sides of the ball, it was able to do it.
No. 3 San Francisco 49ers (4-1)
What I love about Jim Harbaugh and the 49ers is the way they zero in on an opponent's biggest weakness and exploit it to no end.
Look at the four games they have won: Green Bay has a soft defensive front, so they establish the pass before running the ball; Detroit is mentally weak, so they hit them in the mouth; New York and Buffalo can't stop, well, anything, so you just pound them into submission.
The one game they lost, to Minnesota, was when they were unable to latch on to a weakness. But they are so fundamentally sound and disciplined that a rematch would be a different story.
No. 4 Baltimore Ravens (4-1)
We just have to accept that Joe Flacco is going to lay a few eggs every year. As long as they come against teams like Cleveland and Kansas City in the regular season, everything will be fine.
No. 5 New England Patriots (3-2)
Remember two weeks ago when the Patriots were in trouble, Wes Welker wasn't a part of the offense and we had no idea how this team was going to manage to compete against better teams in the AFC?
We don't either.
No. 6 New York Giants (3-2)
It's time we stop expecting the Giants to be a dominant regular season team. They are what they are, which is essentially a team with a lot of talent that has a few glaring holes, mostly in the secondary, who can turn things on in a hurry.
No. 7 Chicago Bears (4-1)
If I were to tell you that San Francisco has the best point differential (plus-81) in the NFC, you would not be surprised. But the Bears are sitting pretty with the second-best differential in the conference (plus-78).
Almost all of that comes from wins over Indianapolis and Jacksonville (plus-58), but at least the Bears are taking care of business against teams they are superior to.
No. 8 Minnesota Vikings (4-1)
I still believe there will come a point when the other shoe drops with the Vikings, but when you can run the ball and defend the run, you will at least have a chance to win a lot more than you lose.
No. 9 Pittsburgh Steelers (2-2)
The boost that Rashard Mendenhall gives the offense can't be understated. He isn't always sexy, but with him, they should get back to being their old, dominant self.
No. 10 San Diego Chargers (3-2)
In their first showcase game of the season, the Chargers actually didn't embarrass themselves. At least the offense looked like it was figuring some things out, though we can't overlook just how much the Saints' inability to make plays factored into that.
We should still give the Chargers some credit, though I think my respect for them comes more from the lack of competition in the AFC West than anything specific they have done.
No. 11 Cincinnati Bengals (3-2)
The Bengals still have the talent of a playoff team, but if you are going to lay an egg against a bad Miami team, we might have to re-think just how high they can climb.
No. 12 Philadelphia Eagles (3-2)
Every year, there is one team that seems to just give games away. The Eagles are clearly that team, at least right now. But for all their problems, they are still 3-2 and in the thick of things in a very mediocre NFC East.
No. 13 Arizona Cardinals (4-1)
Watching the Cardinals on Thursday against St. Louis, you have to wonder how they even made it to 4-0. We knew they were getting by on a wing and prayer for a few weeks, but this was the game where it all fell apart.
The final score was close because the Rams are not very good, but this defense isn't going to be good enough to bail Kevin Kolb and the rest of the offense out forever.
No. 14 Washington Redskins (2-3)
Defense is what will hold the Redskins back this season, though they are far more exciting to watch now than they have been in years.
No. 15 Green Bay Packers (2-3)
When do you stop expecting a team to do something and just accept what they are? The Packers don't have the speed or power on defense to be among the NFL's elite anymore.
No. 16 Dallas Cowboys (2-2)
Since no one knows what the Cowboys are, I think putting them right in the middle of the power rankings is very apropos.
No. 17 Denver Broncos (2-3)
Perhaps we are underselling the Broncos. After all, their three losses have come to Atlanta, Houston and New England.
Still, at some point, you would like to see the defense step up and make a few plays to get this offense more opportunities to play from ahead. Until it does that, this team is never going to get above the .500 mark.
No. 18 New Orleans Saints (1-4)
If the Broncos are being undersold, the Saints are getting oversold. Of course, everyone loves what the offense can do. It's just the NFC-worst 154 points allowed that scares you.
No. 19 Miami Dolphins (2-3)
Give the Dolphins credit: They may not have a lot of talent, but they are playing really hard and creating problems for teams that we thought would blow them out of the water.
No. 20 Indianapolis Colts (2-2)
The emotional scene in Indianapolis on Sunday distracted from what was a really great performance from a young team that is starting to find itself.
Andrew Luck still has a long way to go to get where we all expect him to be, but the fact that he is already so comfortable and calm in the NFL makes him well worth the hype.
No. 21 Seattle Seahawks (3-2)
The Russell Wilson experiment has not worked out the way Pete Carroll was hoping, yet the Seahawks are still over .500 thanks to a defense that has allowed the second-fewest points in the NFC, just behind San Francisco.
Until Wilson or Matt Flynn gets things going on offense, it is hard to put them in the playoffs with so much depth in the NFC.
No. 22 New York Jets
No. 23 Buffalo Bills (2-3)
Honestly, the Bills should be lower than this. They look like they have just given up already, but I do like enough talent on the team to give them the benefit of the doubt for at least a few more weeks.
No. 24 St. Louis Rams (3-2)
If the Rams had any kind of offensive line, they would be far more entertaining to watch. Instead, they have to settle for being physical on defense and hope they can score enough to win more than they lose.
No. 25 Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1-3)
The best thing you can say about the Buccaneers is that they didn't subject their fans to the torture of watching them play in Week 5 thanks to a bye week.
No. 26 Detroit Lions (1-3)
Here is how deceiving stats can be: The Lions rank first in the NFL in pass yards, 10th in pass yards allowed and 13th in rushing yards allowed. The numbers do, apparently, lie, because this team is constantly shooting itself in the foot week after week.
We could be looking at a situation where the playoff appearance last year was an aberration, not a sign of things to come.
No. 27 Oakland Raiders (1-3)
There is no doubt in my mind that we will look back on that comeback win against Pittsburgh as the high-water mark of the season for the Raiders.
No. 28 Tennessee Titans (1-4)
All four of the Titans' losses have come by at least 21 points. They have scored more than 14 points once. They have yet to hold an opponent under 30 points.
Other than that, the Titans are doing just fine in 2012.
No. 29 Jacksonville Jaguars (1-4)
The Jaguars get a much-needed bye after letting the Bears have their way with them this past week.
No. 30 Carolina Panthers (1-4)
Things were bad last year when the Panthers couldn't stop anyone from scoring, but at least they had Cam Newton and an exciting offense to keep things interesting.
This year, the Panthers have taken about 12 steps back from where they were in 2011. Newton has moments where he looks like he has things figured out, then it all falls apart in the blink of an eye.
No. 31 Kansas City Chiefs (1-4)
Matt Cassel or Brady Quinn, it doesn't really matter, because the Chiefs aren't going to be throwing the ball much. If it wasn't for Jamaal Charles, you shudder to think what the offense would look like.
Even if the defense was respectable, it would have to play out of its mind for this team to compete.
No. 32 Cleveland Browns (0-5)
And finally, there are the Browns. Give them credit: Unlike a lot of bad teams, we have seen so far this season, at least they keep playing the whole game. They may not win a lot—we know they won't—but at least they will compete.
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