With Week 12 of the 2012 NFL regular season in the books, it’s time to break out the power rankings and separate the contenders from the pretenders as we head into the final stretch of the season.
Every NFL team either falls into the category of “contender” or “pretender,” and while this doesn’t ensure a playoff berth or doom the possibility of making the postseason, this is a great gauge of where every NFL team sits after Week 12.
1. San Francisco 49ers (8-2-1): Contender
With another win over a quality opponent in the New Orleans Saints, and the further emergence of young quarterback Colin Kaepernick, the San Francisco 49ers have started to find their rhythm heading into the final weeks of the regular season.
2. Houston Texans (10-1): Contender
Two straight overtime wins will build the character of a team, and these tough situations are preparing the Houston Texans for the close battles they will face in the playoffs. As the best team in the AFC, Houston is expected to go deep this postseason.
3. New England Patriots (8-3): Contender
Despite the injury to star tight end Rob Gronkowski, the New England Patriots continue to roll offensively and have improved defensively. When The Gronk does return, the Patriots will be Super Bowl contenders once again—what a shocker!
4. Atlanta Falcons (10-1): Pretender
While there is little doubt that the Atlanta Falcons are a great football team, they are flawed in a few key areas. With a rushing attack that has disappeared, and a porous defensive unit destroyed by injuries, this postseason could be another one-and-done for the Falcons.
5. New York Giants (7-4): Contender
It doesn’t matter how the New York Giants play during the majority of the regular season, as long as they get hot leading into the playoffs, the team is a Super Bowl contender. You can never count the Giants out.
6. Denver Broncos (8-3): Contender
While there were legitimate questions surrounding the signing of Peyton Manning, the return to elite form for the future Hall of Fame QB will catapult the Broncos deep into the playoffs. Add in the team’s stellar defense, and the Broncos are a dark-horse Super Bowl contender.
7. Baltimore Ravens (9-2): Pretender
The Baltimore Ravens may have a great 9-2 record on the season, but they are not as good as their place in the standings suggests. With an easy schedule masking the team’s glaring weaknesses, the Ravens will be exposed when they face real competition.
8. Green Bay Packers (7-4): Pretenders
As great as Aaron Rodgers is as a quarterback—top three in the NFL—the injuries on both sides of the ball and the lack of a rushing attack will doom all hope for a playoff run. Unless Green Bay finds a back that can help Rodgers out of trouble, they will make the playoffs but lose early.
9. Chicago Bears (8-3): Contender
Despite the lack of an offensive line, the Chicago Bears’ defensive unit will dominate teams in the postseason. The only question left now is whether or not the Bears can stay healthy enough on both sides of the ball to take advantage of their defensive prowess.
10. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-5): Pretender
As good as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have looked at times this season, they have looked equally terrible at other times. With a rookie head coach in Greg Schiano and a secondary that is the worst in the NFL (315.5 yards per game), Tampa Bay isn’t going anywhere.
11. Cincinnati Bengals (6-5): Pretender
As great as the offensive unit led by second-year stars QB Andy Dalton and WR A.J. Green has looked this season, the Bengals' defense hasn’t lived up to the hype and will cost the team down the stretch. In a tough AFC North, the Bengals are just pretenders.
12. New Orleans Saints (5-6): Contender
After a horrible start to the season, the New Orleans Saints and star quarterback Drew Brees have started the low climb back to the top of the NFC. There is no question the offensive unit is playing well enough to make a run, but New Orleans needs better play from its defense to make the postseason.
13. Indianapolis Colts (7-4): Contender
The emergence of rookie QB Andrew Luck as a serious star in the NFL already has the Indianapolis Colts playing amazing. As long as the defense can start to play up to its talent level, the Colts offense will put the team in a good position to win each week.
14. Pittsburgh Steelers (6-5): Pretender
Unless Ben Roethlisberger not only returns to the lineup, but returns healthy enough to carry the offense, the Pittsburgh Steelers will be in serious trouble. The team will make the playoffs, but how far they go will depend on Big Ben’s health.
15. Seattle Seahawks (6-5): Pretender
Despite having a stellar defensive unit, the Seattle Seahawks are not the same team on the road, and will kill their own chances with the lackluster play of the team’s passing attack. Seattle will miss the playoffs.
16. Minnesota Vikings (6-5): Pretender
Another team that has a strong running game and a solid defense, the Minnesota Vikings just don’t have enough in the passing attack to keep drives alive and capitalize on their opponent’s mistakes.
17. Washington Redskins (5-6): Pretender
Rookie Robert Griffin III has played well this season, but the Washington Redskins are not a contender quite yet. With glaring weaknesses on the defensive side of the ball, the team will not be a true playoff team until they can get off the field after three downs.
18. San Diego Chargers (4-7): Pretender
No one really knows what kind of team the San Diego Chargers are right now, and Philip Rivers continues to fuel the speculation that he isn’t the right QB for this team. With so much pressure coming down on this team’s shoulders, they will fold and miss the playoffs.
19. St. Louis Rams (4-6-1): Contender
The St. Louis Rams are predicated on a strong run-first offense and stellar defensive play, and as long as they take advantage of their remaining schedule, the team could be contenders. With Jeff Fisher at the helm, never count the Rams out.
20. Miami Dolphins (5-6): Pretender
While the Miami Dolphins offensive unit has been questionable all season, the stellar run defense and better-than-expected secondary have been pleasant surprises. If the offensive unit can’t find their rhythm in the run game once again, though, the Dolphins are done.
21. Detroit Lions (4-7): Contender
Detroit Lions stars Calvin Johnson and Matthew Stafford are starting to play at the level they did in 2011, and the team will need that if the Lions want to sneak into the postseason. With the NFC North not looking as tough as it once did, Detroit is still a contender.
22. Dallas Cowboys (5-6): Contender
With Dallas Cowboys star QB Tony Romo rounding into postseason shape, and if the Cowboys can take advantage of a ridiculously easy NFC East, there is little doubt that they could go into the playoffs via a wild-card spot.
23. Buffalo Bills (4-7): Pretender
The Buffalo Bills offensive unit is very talented, but a knack for turning the ball over, and a defense that has a hard time stopping even the worst teams in the league, makes the team nothing but a pretender this season.
24. Tennessee Titans (4-7): Contender
With quarterback Jake Locker starting to round into shape, an offensive line that is starting to build a rapport with each other, and RB Chris Johnson starting to play well once again, the Tennessee Titans could make some noise in the final weeks of the regular season.
25. Cleveland Browns (3-8): Pretender
The Cleveland Browns fans may not have much to celebrate this season, but there are a lot of great pieces already in place for this team. With two more solid drafts, the Browns could be serious playoff contenders.
26. Arizona Cardinals (4-7): Pretender
After starting the season with four-straight victories, the seven-straight losses prove exactly what kind of team the Arizona Cardinals really are. If Beanie Wells can get healthy, though, the Cardinals could play spoiler for the other teams in the NFC West.
27. New York Jets (4-7): Pretender
As long as the quarterback controversy continues to embroil the New York Jets, there is no way they can ever be considered contenders. The team must hit the rest button after 2012 and pretend the whole season never happened.
28. Carolina Panthers (3-8): Pretender
While a win over the Eagles on Monday night will put the Carolina Panthers over Philadelphia in the power rankings, the win will get the team little else. With Cam Newton just starting to play efficient football, the only hope for Carolina is that the young QB learns from all this.
29. Philadelphia Eagles (3-8): Pretender
Many experts claimed the Philadelphia Eagles were Super Bowl contenders to start the season, but as we head towards Week 13, the team is 3-8. With QB Michael Vick and RB LeSean McCoy injured (concussions), all hope for 2012 is lost.
30. Jacksonville Jaguars (2-9): Pretender
With injuries destroying the Jacksonville Jaguars, the lack of elite talent and depth across the roster doomed the team from day one. This franchise needs yet another complete overhaul.
31. Oakland Raiders (3-8): Pretender
Veteran QB Carson Palmer should get credit for helping keep the putrid Oakland Raiders’ offense going despite the porous play of the offensive line and the defensive unit. The Raiders are flat-out awful.
32. Kansas City Chiefs (1-10): Pretender
While the Kansas City Chiefs have some of the best young talent in the league on both sides of the ball, they can’t put it together at all. Kansas City needs a real quarterback, and fast!
Check back for more on the National Football League as it comes, and don’t miss Bleacher Report’s NFL page to get your fill of all things football.