This week's edition of NFL power rankings has us looking towards the future. Specifically, it's time to start looking at the outlook for contenders and pretenders in the playoff mix.
Week 9 gave us a look towards those theories. The Atlanta Falcons continued to look like the league's best team in a win over the Dallas Cowboys, while the Houston Texans and Chicago Bears looked downright scary at times on Sunday.
Elsewhere, bottom feeders that were supposed to be in position for another bountiful NFL draft are now fighting for their playoff lives.
With that in mind, here's a look at all 32 NFL teams, where they stand in relation to each other and which ones are most likely to make an improbable Cinderella playoff run towards the Super Bowl in February 2013.
1. Atlanta Falcons (8-0)
Atlanta has looked very good in close wins this season. That's one of the marks of a good team, as is a potent offense and a QB in the lead in the MVP race.
Matt Ryan and the Falcons are battle-tested so far with close wins, but only one team (Denver) has a winning record through eight games. The rest of the schedule also lends this team some hands, as pointed about by the team's rapid report Twitter feed by CBS Sports.
The New York Giants are the only team remaining on the #Falcons schedule with a winning record.— Falcons RapidReports (@CBSFalcons) November 5, 2012
The verdict is still out on the Falcons, but as a 16-0 team with a first-round playoff bye, it would be hard to bet against them in the big dance.
2. Houston Texans (7-1)
The Texans are a great team, but run into some of the same problems the Falcons do on credibility. They share a win over Denver with the Falcons, but ran into trouble against the Green Bay Packers at home.
Without much playoff experience, it's hard to make Houston the postseason favorite. The loss of Brian Cushing at linebacker hasn't affected the team yet, but it could start to rear its ugly head with games against Chicago and New England looming.
3. San Fransisco 49ers (6-2)
The Niners get the nod over the Bears in these rankings because of their experience in the NFC Championship game last season. Coach Jim Harbaugh's team is on a mission, and any regular season blemishes pale in comparison to the end game of getting to the Super Bowl.
Of the teams in the NFC, San Fransisco has the greatest shot at making a deep playoff run, aside from the Green Bay Packers. Alex Smith has come back to earth, but that will help the running game get back on track and Smith to regain his form from last season.
Although the schedule lends them no favors the rest of the way, they'll be primed to perform in the playoffs at the end of it. The Niners will be in position to represent the NFC in 2013's Super Bowl.
4. Chicago Bears (7-1)
Is there a better defense in football right now? Of the 51 points put up against the Tennessee Titans, 14 came from defense/special teams while forcing five turnovers.
Chicago needs Jay Cutler to be the man if they want to go to the promised land. He has two chances to do so against the Texans and 49ers the next two weeks, and we'll know more about this Chicago team after Week 11 than at any other point this season.
5. Green Bay Packers (6-3)
Despite the disastrous start to the season that included a home loss and the Seattle referee debacle, the Packers are still a playoff team that already holds the tiebreaker over the Bears for the NFC North.
QB Aaron Rodgers is one of the best in the biz, and this team seems to have figured it out after a slow start on offense. It's nearly impossible to decipher what the offense is doing from play-to-play, and even then Rodgers can make things happen when they aren't there.
The magic is alive in Green Bay, and the Packers are most certainly a team that can go the distance come playoff time.
6. Baltimore Ravens (6-2)
Baltimore may have six wins and an inside track at the AFC North title, but Pittsburgh is back with a vengeance and two of Baltimore's six wins have come against the Cleveland Browns.
Additionally, the Ravens were in trouble at home against Dallas and Ray Lewis isn't walking back inside that door anytime soon. Still, the Ravens are a good football team with a tough, physical defense and quality head coach. They could be the team headed for a fall, though, with two games against the Steelers still to come.
7. Pittsburgh Steelers (5-3)
Pittsburgh won an impressive road game at the New York Giants on Sunday, and move way up in the rankings. Being without a true starter at running back and the defense still missing All-Pro safety Troy Polamalu didn't matter against the Giants.
But those injuries will certainly hurt this team's chances if they continue to persist. Coach Mike Tomlin has the defense rocking right now and this team looks like a legitimate threat to the bad boys of the AFC, but we'll see if an expanded running game can sustain itself going forward before crowning them in the AFC North.
8. New England Patriots (5-3)
The Patriots have looked vulnerable on defense in recent weeks, and not even Tom Brady can overcome a secondary that struggles in big moments.
Still, two straight wins have this team riding high, and it's hard to bet against Belichick and Brady when they get things rolling. With eight games in the books, this team needs to find a consistent defense to go with an expanded running game, and they'll be right there in the conversation.
Until then, they aren't poised for a deep run. But if we've learned anything about New England in this era of success, it's to never underestimate them when things are low.
9. New York Giants (6-3)
Same can be said for the Giants, who now have losses to Pittsburgh, Dallas and San Fransisco on their ledger. The offense hasn't looked good the past two weeks, and the secondary is allowing 284 yards per game through the air, good for 26th in the league.
Eli Manning gets the slot above his brother because he's still the fourth-quarter madman we've all come to know and love, even if he couldn't do it on Sunday. The Giants turned a 9-7 team into Super Bowl contenders, so they aren't even close to being considered out yet.
10. Denver Broncos (5-3)
Peyton Manning is nothing if he's not a winner. His three losses have all come to legitimate contenders, and the Broncos seem to be hitting their stride on offense after a rough start that called Manning's arm strength into question.
The verdict is still out on Denver, but if they win the AFC West there's a real possibility they'll have a shot at a first-round bye. Then the real fun begins.
11. Indianapolis Colts (5-3)
Yes, I know the Colts haven't had the rough part of their schedule, and that the big wins have come against inferior opponents. But there's something about this Colts team that deserves more recognition.
Andrew Luck is matching Peyton Manning's rookie season, yet winning in the process. The defense is holding its own, and the emotional toll of Chuck Pagano hasn't derailed this team's success; it's inspired them for greater heights.
They've even got their own Twitter slogan: #ChuckStrong.
With Luck leading the way and a relatively murky picture at the bottom of the AFC, it's not crazy to think this team could get a favorable first-round road matchup, maybe even against old friend Peyton Manning. Wouldn't that be something.
12. Seattle Seahawks (5-3)
They have one of the league's most vaunted defenses and even marquee wins over the Dallas Cowboys and New England Patriots.
But the offense is still somewhat suspect, and it would take another improbable-type string of games over this final part of the season to turn Seattle into a contender. Minnesota and Tampa Bay, among others, are nipping at their heels, so the Seahawks have much to prove over the final eight weeks.
13. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-4)
The running game is clicking, and Doug Martin is breaking records behind Greg Schiano's new philosophy. Very winnable conference games await, and if the Bucs can somehow split with the Falcons, they could be in playoff business.
14. San Diego Chargers (4-4)
Norv Turner has the hottest seat in football. It would be an amazing story if he could somehow save his job by leading an improbable run, but that kind of run just isn't in the cards for San Diego.
Without a consistent running game, the Chargers are forced to live and die by the hand of Philip Rivers. It's a strategy that hasn't worked all that well, and it would be foolish to pick the Chargers to emerge from the AFC at this point.
15. Minnesota Vikings (5-3)
Mathematically ahead of two teams ahead of them, the Vikings are trending in the wrong direction. Christian Ponder has thrown an interception in the last five games, and the defense looks far less formidable than in early games against Detroit and San Francisco.
With Percy Harvin now facing injury, things could get ugly for Minnesota really quickly. Of course, they still have the game's best running back in Adrian Peterson.
16. Miami Dolphins (4-4)
If the Dolphins were going to make a run, they needed to do so with a statement road win at Indianapolis. Now, they're going to struggle to make a dent with games against conference foes still looming and teams with more film on Ryan Tannehill.
Miami is dangerous and could still make the postseason, but it seems unlikely with a brutal stretch of Seattle-San Francisco-New England still in play.
17. Dallas Cowboys (3-5)
Dallas is a lost team, but it's evident after close road games at both Baltimore and Atlanta that they can beat any team in the NFL at any given point.
Will they stick with Jason Garrett if he can't lead them to an improbable 6-2 or 7-1 mark to make the playoffs?
18. Detroit Lions (4-4)
Detroit finally got a good game from Calvin Johnson, yet still is sitting on the outside looking in of the NFC North picture. Their schedule is brutal from here on out, and it looks like a slow start will doom Detroit in 2012.
19. Cincinnati Bengals (3-5)
Cincinnati is one of the league’s biggest disappointments. Finally poised to step out of the shadow of Baltimore and Pittsburgh, they’ve faltered yet again on two big stages (Sunday Night, Monday Night Football). They’ll have another chance to turn it around, but chances are fleeting after those two rematches.
20. St. Louis Rams (3-5)
The Rams have had a completely unfair schedule, yet have been competitive in almost every game this season. Jeff Fisher is going to turn things around, given time, but this isn’t the season for a complete 180.
21. Arizona Cardinals (4-5)
With John Skelton now at QB, things are looking worse than ever for a team that started the year 4-0. Losers of five straight, things haven’t been the same since Kevin Kolb went down with an injury. The promising start is now wasted, and Arizona looks like the pedestrian team we once thought when the season began.
22. Philadelphia Eagles (3-6)
There’s too much talent to drop this Eagles team any further down the list. Michael Vick has to be a better QB than what he’s shown, right? Was LeSean McCoy’s great season last year a fluke, or is the offense not calling the right plays? When is Andy Reid done?
Too many questions, not enough answers in Philly.
23. New York Jets (3-5)
The Jets were on bye this week, but are still an average NFL team. No doubt they’ve had chances to win big games. A win against New England would have them as the talk of the town, but following up that loss with an embarrassing one to the Dolphins has put the Jets in a real bind going forward.
24. New Orleans Saints (3-5)
Can the Saints continue their epic climb out of the basement? Conventional wisdom says no, but this is an unconventional team. They have a defensive leader in Jonathan Vilma back from suspension (for now) and have strung together some nice wins.
The Saints are a popular and explosive team. The offense can score at any point, and this is a playoff-caliber team on both sides of the ball as assembled. It will be up to the coaching staff to will this team to some late wins, but anything seems possible with Drew Brees at the helm.
The Saints aren’t done yet.
25. Washington Redskins (3-6)
Robert Griffin III is learning just how hard NFL life can be. He’s done everything short of play multiple positions for the Redskins, yet he finds his team with six losses and the season all but over.
Never fear, RG3. That old phrase, “there’s always next year,” will ring true for you and the Skins. This team is as dangerous as any with another solid draft and another year of Griffin and Alfred Morris.
26. Oakland Raiders (3-5)
It’s been a season of what-ifs for the Raiders, who are now looking at another big loss if Darren McFadden is forced to miss extended time.
Back to the drawing board in Oakland, as this team just can’t seem to catch a break at the right time.
27. Tennessee Titans (3-6)
If you thought Tennessee was a fringe wild-card contender, the game against Chicago this weekend should have calmed your excitement.
Surrendering 50 points is bad enough, but it’s not the first time this season that they’ve approached that mark. In a near-loss to the Lions, the defense was exposed, and they’ll continue to struggle with a rough schedule the rest of the way.
28. Buffalo Bills (3-5)
Buffalo, like Oakland, can’t catch a break. Surrounding a team full of talent with defensive end Mario Williams was one of the highest-covered stories of the offseason, yet he hasn’t made much of an impact.
The bright side seems to be the emergence of C.J. Spiller, a true big play threat when healthy going forward.
29. Carolina Panthers (2-6)
Cam Newton finally silenced some critics with a big win over the Redskins this weekend, but he’ll need many more to silence them for good.
The Panthers have had chances to win games against Dallas, Atlanta and Chicago, yet have fallen short. Even with their injuries, the team expects to win games, which is a good sign going forward, if they can get Cam out of this current funk.
30. Cleveland Browns (2-7)
Much of what we’re used to seeing from Cleveland. Blown leads, poor turnovers and the inability to compete in the AFC North. QB Brandon Weeden and RB Trent Richardson figure to be around for a while, though, so buckle up in Ohio for that duo.
31. Jacksonville Jaguars (1-7)
When Maurice Jones-Drew went down, so did this team’s chances. Not much you can say about Jacksonville, other than pondering their direction at QB with a shot at Matt Barkley or Geno Smith among their options in the 2012 NFL draft.
32. Kansas City Chiefs (1-7)
The league doormat sealed its fate when fans booed QB Matt Cassel after an apparent head injury. They’ll have a shot at a new QB too, and would be wise to use this year as a motivational tool going forward.
Ethan Grant is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report's Breaking News Team.
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