Nine weeks of the 2012 NFL season are in the books, and most teams are now at their midway points of the year. Some perennial powerhouses are struggling, while some are still looking strong.
We've got some potential playoff teams led by a handful of rookies and one led by a guy who was on the brink of retirement.
Who are the contenders, and who are just pretenders?
There is still a lot of football to be played in the second half, and losing records can become winning records very quickly.
Here are the Week 10 power rankings, based on overall record, strength of schedule, remaining games and the general ability to both make the playoffs and succeed there.
The Kansas City Chiefs are 1-7 and out of contention. What is worse is that their only win came in overtime.
We could talk about the quarterback controversy between Brady Quinn and Matt Cassell, but it really does not matter. The Chiefs quarterback in 2013 should be a rookie.
Despite having the No. 3 rushing attack in the NFL, the Chiefs have been able to do nothing on offense. They have scored 17 points or less five times in their first eight games. Their defense has hardly been any better, allowing 126 yards per game on the ground and giving up 35 points or more four times.
The only thing the Chiefs are contending for is the No. 1 overall draft pick.
The 10th overall pick in 2011, quarterback Blaine Gabbert has not been that bad. He has a 78.4 quarterback rating and nine touchdowns to only five interceptions. It is the rest of his team that has let him down.
Jacksonville ranks in the bottom quarter of the league on defense against both the pass and the run. They are also in the bottom quarter on offense, both passing and running. That is quite a combination.
At 1-7, the Jaguars are in the running for the top overall draft pick. With games still to play against the New England Patriots and Houston Texans, there are not many wins left on their schedule.
The Tennessee Titans offense is built around Chris Johnson and the running game, a running game that has been non-existent. With few yards, a lot of fumbles and most of his yards coming in garbage time, the highest paid running back in the league has also been one of the worst.
Despite leaning heavily on their running attack, the Titans are 24th in the league in rushing yards per game. At 3-6 and coming off a 51-20 embarrassment against the Chicago Bears, the Titans are safely out of the playoffs.
No 3-6 team has ever made the playoffs in the current playoff format.
The heavily-maligned Cleveland Browns are not as bad as their 2-7 record indicates. They are merely the worst team in a rough AFC North dealing with a very hard schedule. They have lost games by a touchdown or less to the Philadelphia Eagles, Indianapolis Colts, Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals.
At this point, the season is a loss, but there is talent there to give hope for the future.
The Panthers linebacking unit was decimated by injuries in 2011. With the group back this season, they were supposed to be improved. Three-time Pro Bowler Jon Beason and former first-round pick Thomas Davis were supposed to transform this defense into an adequate unit.
That has not happened.
The talent is there, and second-year quarterback Cam Newton is still growing into an elite quarterback despite some setbacks. Nonetheless, the Panthers are out of contention this season.
They are 2-6 despite Sunday's win in Washington against the Redskins. More likely than not, they will be 2-7 in a week after facing the AFC West-leading Denver Broncos.
After an exciting rookie season for quarterback Sam Bradford—the highest paid rookie in NFL history—the Rams have had a disappointing year and a half. The Rams are in the middle of yet another losing streak, losing their third straight in Week 8 before their bye week.
They next travel to San Francisco to face the NFC West-leading 49ers. On the road against a dominant team is a formula for a fourth straight loss. New offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer—best known for his years in New York grooming Mark Sanchez—is getting nothing done with the Rams offense. They are bottom 10 in the league in passing and below average at running.
The Rams hit what they would hope is rock bottom in their last game, a 45-7 loss at the hands of the New England Patriots.
Only a season ago, the Oakland Raiders were tied for first place in the AFC West, missing the playoffs only due to tiebreak. Now they find themselves well in the shadow the division-leading Denver Broncos.
Despite the presence of star running back Darren McFadden, the Raiders are doing nothing on offense. They are running for only 77.3 yards per game, and their passing game is ineffective. McFadden is getting 3.3 yards per carry, down from 5.4 yards per carry a year ago. At the same time, the lack of chemistry and communication in the passing game continues to kill the Oakland Raiders on offense.
The Raiders path gets no easier next week. They travel to Baltimore to face the 6-2 Ravens.
The Buffalo Bills offense—led by Ryan Fitzpatrick, Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller—has played well through the first half. It is the defense that should be embarrassed.
Despite the addition of former All-Pro defensive end Mario Williams, the Bills defense has been shockingly bad. They rank 31st against the run and 24th against the pass. They gave up 45 points or more three times in their first eight games.
They next play two rivals—the New England Patriots and Miami Dolphins—in a five-day stretch. Those two games will determine whether or not the Bills have a glimmer of hope for a wild-card spot.
The Bills end their season against the rival New York Jets, who have beaten them six times in a row, mostly by wide margins. That will be an interesting game if either of the two teams are still in the playoff hunt.
Much like the Carolina Panthers a year ago, the Washington Redskins have a sensational rookie quarterback in Robert Griffin III but not a lot of wins to show for it. No team has ever made the playoffs in the current format after a 3-6 start, which is exactly where the Redskins now find themselves.
After their bye week, they will face all three of their divisional rivals in a row. The biggest problem thus far for the Redskins has been their porous secondary, which has yielded more than 300 yards per game through the air. With the exception of free safety Madieu Williams, the whole team has been a train wreck in pass coverage.
Griffin has been phenomenal and deserves Rookie of the Year consideration. However, not much positive can be said for the team assembled around him, especially when it comes to the defensive side of the ball.
The Cardinals got off to a hot 4-0 start due in large part to some nice performances from quarterback Kevin Kolb. The injury to Kevin Kolb is part of the problem they face now. However, the bigger problem and cause for their five-game losing streak has been offensive line play.
Currently ranked dead last in the NFL in total offensive performance, the Cardinals (amazingly enough) also rank last in both pass blocking and run blocking.
The Arizona offense has given up 40 sacks, the worst offenders being Bobby Massie and D'Anthony Batiste.
The 4-0 start was fun, but the Cardinals have little hope left of making the playoffs out of the tough NFC West. Their road does not get any easier any time soon. They next travel to Atlanta to face the currently undefeated Falcons.
Nothing epitomizes the Michael Vick era in Philadelphia more than the 99-yard interception he threw in Monday night's 28-13 loss to the New Orleans Saints. The Eagles had four 1st-and-goal situations in the game. They netted a total of one point in the wrong direction on those four possessions—two field goals, a fumble and a pick-six. Vick has thrown 10 touchdown passes this season but also nine interceptions.
Just like a year ago, the Eagles cannot seem to turn talent and athleticism into good team play or wins, and they now find themselves amidst a four-game losing streak.
New defensive coordinator Todd Bowles—hired midseason—has not yet been able to make an improvement. Changing coaches midseason rarely has that effect. The Eagles continued to show Monday night that they have no run defense to speak of. It did not matter who ran the ball for New Orleans; big gains were assured.
The Cincinnati Bengals—though 3-5—are by no means a bad team. They have a solid defense, an average running game and an average passing attack, led by second-year quarterback Andy Dalton.
Their schedule is what is going to kill them. They still have to face the Baltimore Ravens, Pittsburgh Steelers, Denver Broncos and New York Giants. Even in the AFC, 7-9 is not going to make the playoffs, and that may be what the Bengals are headed for.
The four-game losing streak the Bengals are currently on has put them in too big of a hole for them to dig their way out.
The New York Jets are so crippled by injuries at this point that it is hard to imagine them making the playoffs. Their best player on defense—cornerback Darrelle Revis—and best playmaker on offense—wide receiver Santonio Holmes—are gone for the year.
Sione Pouha, Kenrick Ellis and Bart Scott—all core defensive players—have been missing games with various injuries. Stephen Hill and Dustin Keller, who should be the next two most popular targets after Holmes, are both slowed by hamstring problems.
The Jets have a soft second-half schedule and could still reach 8-8, maybe 9-7, but their playoffs hopes are becoming slim.
The Miami Dolphins have exceeded expectations by going 4-4 in the first half of the year. The question now is whether or not they will survive their much tougher second half.
The most crucial stretch to keep an eye on is the three-week stretch from Weeks 12 through 14—the Seattle Seahawks, the rival New England Patriots and the San Francisco 49ers.
Miami has two games remaining against the AFC East-leading Patriots, both in December. The Patriots have won the last four meetings by an average of 19 points per game. If the Dolphins can pull off an upset in one of those games, that will give them some playoff hope.
This season is a success for the Dolphins already, because they have found a quarterback who they can put some trust in, something that has not happened for them since Dan Marino.
In terms of this year, however, the playoffs are not likely. With four games remaining against teams that will be heavily favored, 8-8 is likely the ceiling for this team.
The Dallas Cowboys did a pretty good job of shooting themselves in the foot in close losses against the New York Giants, Atlanta Falcons and and Baltimore Ravens. The talent is there, but the Cowboys find themselves effectively in last place in the NFC East (ahead by a half-game by virtue of a bye).
The Cowboys next travel to Philadelphia to face the division-rival Eagles in an attempt to maintain their slim playoff hopes.
The New Orleans Saints have been a team of extremes this season. After a terrible 0-4 start, they are climbing their way back.
They rank first in the NFL in passing but dead last in passing defense. They also rank last in running and last in run defense, giving up almost 100 more yards per game on the ground than they earn themselves. Having star quarterback Drew Brees is nice but not as much when the offense is completely one-dimensional.
At 3-5 now, the Saints still have a long way to go if they want to contend for a wild-card spot. Their next game against the undefeated Atlanta Falcons will be a good test. If they fall to 3-6, their chances are almost certainly gone.
The Saints are now 1-1 under interim head coach Joe Vitt.
The Detroit Lions suffer the misfortune of playing in the toughest division in the NFL, the NFC North. Despite being 4-4, they are alone in last place and have a nasty second-half schedule.
They play the Green Bay Packers twice, the Chicago Bears, the Houston Texans and the Atlanta Falcons. It would take a miracle to even reach 8-8 with that schedule.
The Lions may end up being the best last-place team in recent memory, but playoff contenders they are not.
The Minnesota Vikings have one of the hardest—if not the hardest—schedules in the NFL this year. They got off to a nice start this year at 4-1, but their schedule will prove too much for them.
Their rushing attack—led by Adrian Peterson—is phenomenal, fifth in the NFL. Their top 10 pass defense is also impressive. In another division they would have a real shot at the playoffs, but the NFC North is just too good.
The Vikings have two games remaining each against the Chicago Bears and the Green Bay Packers. They also have to travel to Houston in Week 16. The Vikings still have holes in their passing game and along their defensive front seven, and that schedule would be a nightmare for any team.
The Buccaneers have renewed hope now because of the muscle hamster—running back Doug Martin. They are looking like the second-best team in the NFC South and might have some shot at the playoffs.
The Buccaneers playoff hopes and Martin's Offensive Rookie of the Year chances might be one and the same. After two astounding performances over the past two weeks, the Buccaneers will need more of the same to make up for their lousy pass defense, ranked worst in the NFL.
One lucky break for them is that the Atlanta Falcons may not care about their Week 17 contest.
For all the criticism they take, the San Diego Chargers are only a game out in the AFC West and have playoff hopes that are very much alive.
Someone has to take those two wild-card spots in the AFC, and it might as well be the 4-4 Chargers. The upcoming stretch of games is critical. They travel to Tampa Bay to play the Buccaneers and then to Denver to play the rival Broncos.
They follow that up by hosting the Baltimore Ravens. This three-game stretch will determine whether or not the Chargers have a real chance at the playoffs this year. If they come out of it 4-7, they are done.
Sure, the Seahawks are really 4-5, not 5-4 as the record book says. But that win still counts for official purposes, and it counts toward the wild-card race.
For that reason, the Seahawks are in a better position than anyone else to grab the sixth spot in the NFC playoff hunt. With the exception of the Chicago Bears and the San Francisco 49ers, the rest of the games they have left on their schedule are games they are in a position to win. A 10-6 record is not out of the question.
Between a quality defense and rookie sensation Russell Wilson, the Seahawks can make a game of it against anybody. They have not yet lost a game this year by more than a touchdown.
The Indianapolis Colts have put together a gritty three-game winning streak since being crushed by the New York Jets and are now 5-3. They go to Jacksonville next to play the Jaguars and might very well go to 6-3.
The Colts can no longer be ignored and are in better wild-card position than anyone else in the AFC right now. Andrew Luck set an all-time rookie record on Sunday with 433 passing yards.
One thing to keep an eye on is the tail end of their schedule. They face the Houston Texans twice in the last three weeks. That is a rough way to finish the season, so they will want to have that playoff bid locked up before they hit that stretch.
The Pittsburgh Steelers notched an impressive 24-20 win over the New York Giants on Sunday. They have a shot at the AFC North title and will likely make the playoffs as the Wild Card otherwise.
Nevertheless, I cannot call them true contenders right now. The Steelers are fortunate to avoid the Patriots and the Texans in the regular season this year, but they will not be able to avoid them in the playoffs. They lost to the Denver Broncos in Week 1, a game in which their defense was manhandled by Peyton Manning and the rest of the Broncos offense.
The Steelers defense ranks well against both the pass and the run so far this year. However, they have not yet faced any impressive offenses other than that of the Broncos.
With two games remaining against the rival Baltimore Ravens, those will determine who wins the AFC North this year.
The Baltimore Ravens are 6-2 and will probably win the AFC North. However, they are not Super Bowl contenders this year, not with all the injuries.
The Ravens pieced together a nice four-game winning streak in Weeks 6 through 9 but against weak opponents. Their blowout at the hands of the Texans and near loss to the Cleveland Browns showed that the Ravens are good pretenders, but still pretenders.
Ray Lewis and Lardarius Webb are gone for the year. Terrell Suggs is still not 100 percent. This defense is simple not that fearsome right now. They are currently 22nd in opposing passing and 28th in opposing rushing.
The first contender spot goes to the defending AFC champion New England Patriots. With the weakest strength of schedule in the NFL this year, you had to figure they were taking the AFC East yet again and making the playoffs.
Despite a 5-3 start, they have a legitimate shot at a playoff bye in the AFC.
Depth is perhaps the biggest concern for the Patriots. They lack it at several key positions. However, as long as they stay healthy, there is no reason they cannot repeat as AFC champions.
The Denver Broncos are only ahead by a game in the AFC West at 5-3, but the way they are playing it is hard to imagine them not wrapping up the division and contending for a playoff bye.
Peyton Manning looks like anything but a 36-year-old quarterback coming off neck surgery. The Broncos wide receiving corps is getting better every day under his tutelage, and the communication between them is getting better.
With losses to the Houston Texans, Atlanta Falcons and New England Patriots, it is hard to fault the Broncos for not being off to a quicker start. With a very soft schedule remaining, it is not out of the question for the Broncos to go 13-3.
First of all, let us remember that the Green Bay Packers are actually 7-2, not 6-3.
That aside, the Packers are looking fantastic in the strength of schedule department. They have already beaten the 7-1 Chicago Bears and the 7-1 Houston Texans. One loss came to the San Francisco 49ers and another by only a field goal to the Indianapolis Colts.
Nine games into the season, the Packers have yet to play a bad one.
Stuck in the fierce NFC North, the Packers still have a lot ahead of them if they want to take the division. However, either way they will be in the playoffs. We saw in 2010 what the Packers are capable of doing from the wild-card position.
My sincerest apologies to fans of the Atlanta Falcons, but I simply could not find a place higher than fifth for this team. At 8-0, they are first place in the NFL by record, but they have more flaws than the teams ranked ahead of them.
Consider this. When watching the Falcons beat the Dallas Cowboys Sunday night, was anyone thinking: This is some Super Bowl-caliber football.
I didn't think so.
With squeakers over the Cowboys and the Carolina Panthers, as well as a near fourth-quarter collapse against the Denver Broncos, the Falcons could easily be 5-3 right now. In fact, they have a worse differential than the 5-3 New England Patriots.
Nevertheless, the Falcons have the NFC South pretty much wrapped up and are a sure thing to make the playoffs. They have a good shot at a bye and that home-field advantage in the dome they need so badly. The real question is whether or not they can finally win a playoff game with this core of players, something that has not happened yet.
The Falcons are clearly contenders. This year they need to prove that they deserve that title.
Okay, so they have three losses. You know what? I do not care.
The 6-3 New York Giants have been less consistent than the other teams in the top four but have all of the pieces needed to make a playoff run. When comparing them to the undefeated Atlanta Falcons, the real question is: Who do you expect to win in the playoffs?
I cannot rank the Falcons ahead of a team that I expect they would lose to again if another playoff matchup happens.
The Giants—despite a 24-20 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers at home—are in great shape to win the NFC East and possibly contend for a bye. The offense looks as good as ever, and the defense is coming together. If Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora can get back to their 2011 forms, the pass rush will be top notch again too.
It is definitely worth mentioning that the Green Bay Packers have beaten both of the 7-1 teams in the NFL.
That aside, the Chicago Bears are having a tremendous season. Excepting the loss to the Packers and a weak performance against the Carolina Panthers, their games have not even been close. The defense is playing exceptionally well and scoring a lot of points off turnovers.
Other than the offensive line being shaky at times, the offense is also doing very well. Matt Forte has them in the top 10 in rushing yards per game, and quarterback Jay Cutler continues to be underrated.
There are no real holes on this team. If they can clinch the very strong NFC North, they will be in great shape for the playoffs. There is no team in the NFC they cannot beat in the playoffs.
There are several teams in the NFC with legitimate claims to the No. 2 spot, but I have to go with the San Francisco 49ers.
Criticisms of quarterback Alex Smith are out of date at this point. With a 69.4 completion percentage on the year, a 102.1 quarterback rating and only five interceptions, why is anyone still bashing this guy?
The 49ers came an overtime away from winning the NFC last year, and they have the strongest chance of anyone to do it this year. With the No. 1 rushing attack in the NFL, an efficient passing game and a dominant defense, the 49ers are as complete of a team as there is to be found.
With the division-rival Arizona Cardinals and Seattle Seahawks starting to falter, look for the 49ers to pull away in the NFC West and clinch the division with games to spare.
Did you forget about the AFC? Me too, almost. After five straight NFC powers, we are finally back to the AFC.
If the season ended today, the best record in the NFL would go to the undefeated Atlanta Falcons. But the season does not end today, and the best team in football is the Houston Texans.
If having one bad game in early October determined Super Bowl winners, this would be a very different league. The Texans are 7-1, including dominating wins over the Baltimore Ravens and Miami Dolphins, as well as gutsy wins over the Denver Broncos and New York Jets.
They have arguably the best defense in the NFL, one of the best rushing attacks and a great passing game, led by 2009 passing yards leader Matt Schaub. Running back Arian Foster continues to be himself. There is almost nothing one can complain about when it comes to these Texans.
Playing in a relatively weak AFC and having already beaten the Ravens and Broncos, the Texans have easily the best chance to make the Super Bowl of any team in the NFL right now.
They have earned the No. 1 spot and are definitely contenders.