The NFL playoff picture is coming into focus, and so too is the NFL draft order. With just three weeks to go in the 2012 season, how are the power rankings looking?
Each week, we seem to generate hundreds of comments all centered around a team being ranked too low or too high based on their win/loss record. I'll kindly point you to the NFL.com standings page for that information. Power rankings aren't about records, at least not entirely.
This is a ranking of the best teams in the NFL right now. Head-to-head matchups from Week 2 have no standing in the Denver Broncos being ranked over the Atlanta Falcons (please see this, Atlanta fans). This is about today. This week.
Which team deserves to be No. 1?
When you lose to the New York Jets, it's tough to move up from the bottom spot of the weekly power rankings. When your record is 2-11, it's impossible.
The Jacksonville Jaguars are officially looking ahead to the 2013 season, and maybe they have been for a while now. A roster riddled with injuries and inconsistent play has the fans already searching for NFL draft rankings and mock drafts, and it's only early December.
There are good pieces here to build around, but the problems in Jacksonville start with general manager Gene Smith and head coach Mike Mularkey. Expect big changes coming soon.
The Arizona Cardinals don't have the NFL's second-worst record, but their nine straight losses are more than reason enough for their ranking at No. 31 overall.
The quality of play from the Cardinals has been bad enough that it is fair to wonder if head coach Ken Whisenhunt can survive the season with his job intact. He might not even survive the week following an embarrassing loss to the Seattle Seahawks.
General manager Rod Graves should also be concerned, as team ownership can't be happy with the roster talent or the play on the field. It's time for sweeping changes to the Cardinals' football franchise.
It's been a rough 10 days for the Kansas City Chiefs, but unfortunately, business had to go on as normal. That meant playing the Cleveland Browns in Week 14.
The Cleveland game represented a chance for Kansas City to pad their stats, but the team's hot start was quickly erased. With Dwayne Bowe out and Jamaal Charles limited after a red-hot first quarter, Kansas City's offense stalled and the defense couldn't keep up with Josh Gordon.
There is talent on the Kansas City roster—something I've maintained all year in spite of its underachieving. A new quarterback and a new coaching staff will have this team ready to contend for the playoffs in 2013. What's missing most is solid game-planning on both sides of the ball and discipline to prevent penalties and drive-ending mistakes.
This will be an attractive job for potential head coaching candidates once the season ends. The biggest question is if general manager Scott Pioli will be back.
It is time for head coach Dennis Allen to see what his young players can do.
With 10 losses, the Oakland Raiders should transition to planning for the 2013 season. That means getting quarterback Terrelle Pryor major minutes in an attempt to evaluate the second-year quarterback. It also means shuffling out mainstays on defense in favor of younger, hungrier players.
The Raiders face a long road of rebuilding, but general manager Reggie McKenzie is a smart, patient man. As long as he has the support of the front office, McKenzie is the right guy to turn the Raiders' fortunes around.
That will start with what looks to be a top-four pick in the 2013 NFL draft. The team needs to see if Pryor is its future under center or if that early pick should be used on a quarterback.
A win over the Atlanta Falcons gives the Carolina Panthers reason to move up in this week's rankings, and in their performance, the team showed that there is considerable talent here to build around in 2013.
The biggest question is obvious: Who replaces fired general manager Marty Hurney? The answer to that question will help in determining whether head coach Ron Rivera will be back and which of his staff members will be back with him. The Panthers underachieved this year, and unless they can find a way to win out and finish 7-9, this season has to be considered a failure.
The good news is that Cam Newton is learning valuable NFL lessons each week. Newton's struggles earlier in the year have been long forgotten, and he's established himself as the team's future. As if that were ever truly in doubt.
I'm sure a lot of readers are wondering why the Tennessee Titans move down three spots after barely losing to the Indianapolis Colts. It's because they've lost nine games and aren't a competitive team on a consistent basis.
Not one team ranked ahead of the Titans would be considered an underdog if the two teams met. While there is very good talent here, the Titans aren't a complete team by any stretch of the imagination. That could lead to tough decisions for owner Bud Adams when looking at how to shape his team for 2013.
It's unlikely that Mike Munchak will be fired, but it is possible at this point. If the team can claw its way to seven wins, Munchak and Co. should be safely in place for a full season of Jake Locker and Kenny Britt next season. If so, it must focus its offseason on improving the interior offensive line and the talent level in the secondary.
Nick Foles saved the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 14, but don't bet on him saving Andy Reid's job.
Foles was brilliant as the Eagles stormed back to beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but consider for the moment that Tampa was without starting cornerback Eric Wright (suspension). Its starting cornerbacks were E.J. Biggers and Leonard Johnson. Not to take away from Foles' late-game heroics, but he wasn't exactly tearing up a good NFL secondary.
Foles belongs as the starter for the rest of the season, and even heading into 2013 based on his play this season, but let's hold off on crowning him as anything more than a good young quarterback until he plays this well against viable starting cornerbacks.
A recent commenter on a 2013 mock draft was actually surprised to see the New York Jets only had seven losses. It does feel like they are worse than this, but alas, here they are with a 6-7 record.
The situation in New York is much worse than the Jets' record, which is why the team is ranked at No. 25 overall. The quarterback depth chart is miserable, with a head coach and general manager who are attached to Mark Sanchez even when he's not the best option on the roster. Greg McElroy won the team a game in Week 13, and yet one week later, he's inactive.
The Jets may very well win out and get to nine wins, which will do nothing but hurt this team in the long run. The Jets need a makeover, and a "winning" season won't force owner Woody Johnson to make the changes needed to turn the team around.
Have the Cleveland Browns done enough good to save the job of Pat Shurmur as head coach? Probably not.
Shurmur is essentially a lame-duck coach, as new owner Jimmy Haslam and football operations head man Joe Banner will be looking to revamp the staff to bring in their own guys. Shurmur should be credited for the team's current three-game win streak, but even if they win out and get to 8-8, that shouldn't be good enough to save the job of Shurmur.
The Browns need a new direction, and while their winning will push them to a lower draft pick in each round, it could also serve as a way to lure in better head coaching candidates. If the Browns can show enough potential down the stretch, they may not be forced to hire retread head coaches or assistants.
While Chip Kelly and Bill Cowher may not be ready to move to Cleveland, this could be an exciting opportunity for a young head coach.
There were times during the Miami Dolphins' Week 14 loss to the San Francisco 49ers when they looked like the better team. Granted, it wasn't enough to secure a victory, but you can definitely see flashes of talent here.
The job done by Joe Philbin in his first season has been tremendous. While Ryan Tannehill doesn't get the attention of Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III or Russell Wilson, he's still performing very well for a first-year quarterback. There are mistakes, but he has the talent and potential to be a longtime starting quarterback at a very high level. Getting him some help on the offensive line and at wide receiver will go a long way in seeing that potential realized.
The offseason will be an important one in Miami. Continuing to build the talent up around Tannehill could put this team in a playoff position next year, but if it misses on securing talent at wide receiver and on the offensive line, the future could be bleak.
Another loss for the Buffalo Bills pushes their total to eight and ends their playoff hopes. With three games remaining, it's very unlikely that the Bills will be able to secure a wild-card spot, even if they can get to eight wins.
The most maddening point in the Bills' season is that they have a legitimate offensive playmaker in C.J. Spiller, but too often, he's not getting the touches that other top backs see. Spiller is worthy of 20 touches per game as a running back and another 10 as a receiver. The Bills offensive coaches don't see it this way.
Spiller and wide receiver Stevie Johnson should be the cornerstones of the offense, but under Chan Gailey, Spiller has become a forgotten man. Maybe the next head coach will see things differently.
When I picked the Detroit Lions to miss the playoffs in the preseason, I was reminded to take my medication and go back to writing about the NFL draft. With nine losses, the Detroit Lions are all but eliminated from contention.
The 2012 season will be remembered as a disappointment in Detroit despite some amazing personal accolades. Calvin Johnson may break Jerry Rice's single-season receiving yards record. Matthew Stafford has had a very good year despite playing behind a bad offensive line.
But just four wins? Not good enough.
The Lions are in trouble, and with the schedule tough down the stretch, this could be a 5-11 season before you know it.
The New Orleans Saints' hopes of a late-season surge toward a wild-card berth are dead thanks to a shellacking at the hands of the New York Giants. What now?
Head coach Sean Payton still doesn't have a contract for 2013. Quarterback Drew Brees needs a much better offensive line, notably at both tackle spots, to contend in a speedy NFC South. The skill players on offense are keepers, but the defense is full of too many players who are no longer a fit in defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo's schemes.
The offseason will be full of questions. Step 1 is re-signing Payton. Step 2 is beefing up the defense with more speed. That should put the Saints in a good position to contend in 2013.
Close only counts in hand grenades and horseshoes—at least that's what I was always told. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers know this all too well after dropping a close game to the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 14.
It's tough to fault Tampa too much for the way Nick Foles and the Philadelphia offense performed in the final minutes of the game, but the Buccaneers were in control; the game should never have been this close. Instead, we're reminded of the fact that the Bucs have a long way to go before being considered as a viable contender.
With a 6-7 record, Tampa is technically still alive in the playoff race, but it'll need to win out and hope for losses by the Chicago Bears and Seattle Seahawks along the way.
Too little, too late, Norv.
The San Diego Chargers pulled off an impressive win over the Pittsburgh Steelers, but a 5-8 record heading into Week 15 won't help the team's playoff hopes. The AFC is too crowded this year for an 8-8 team to sneak in to the postseason. In the grand scheme of things, an impressive win in Week 14 means nothing when you're already out of playoff contention.
This has been the same story in San Diego for years now, and it's past time for changes to be made. The San Diego roster has too much talent to have nothing to show for it. Philip Rivers needs talent around him, and the only thing Turner and general manager A.J. Smith have done is ship away the talent or fail to re-sign them in free agency.
This is an intriguing opening—if and when it becomes open—and one that top head coaching candidates will want to consider. Rivers is a top-tier quarterback when he has talent around him, free safety Eric Weddle is the best in the game and the defense is good enough to win right now.
The St. Louis Rams pulled off a victory over the Buffalo Bills, but thanks to the teams above them winning too, there's no movement this week for a team still hanging in the playoff discussion.
Fans of the Rams are quick to criticize this team, but the Jeff Fisher-led Rams are playing much better than any national pundits expected. Sam Bradford may be a popular scapegoat in St. Louis, but he looks like a much better passer this year. Bradford's ability to mature in this offense will be key—as long as offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer is still around next season.
Fisher has this team headed in the right direction. Another strong draft class—including two first-round picks—and we'll see the Rams challenging in the NFC West.
I'm not sure if Christian Ponder is worthy of trust, but Adrian Peterson definitely is.
The All-Pro running back has been fantastic this year. He's been the catalyst for the offense all season, and his 154 yards rushing were the difference for Minnesota in a brutal 21-14 slugfest with the Chicago Bears. Now the Vikings sit just one game back from the Bears in the division, and also in the NFC Wild Card race.
Three straight wins will put the Vikings at 10 wins, and with the St. Louis Rams, Houston Texans and Green Bay Packers up on the schedule, that may be possible depending on if the Texans are resting starters in Week 16. Green Bay is a worthy competitor, but in Week 17, it may not have much to play for. That could be the breaking point for Minnesota's playoff hopes.
The Dallas Cowboys keep winning. Even when they aren't supposed to.
A rough weekend for Dallas ended with a victory that will help relieve heavy hearts following the death of teammate Jerry Brown. The Cowboys took the field with heavy hearts, but they showed up big when it counted most, squeezing out a 20-19 win over the Cincinnati Bengals.
The Cowboys are in a tough divisional fight with the Washington Redskins and New York Giants, but they are in a position to keep their playoff hopes alive by winning the next three games. Unfortunately, that schedule features the Pittsburgh Steelers, New Orleans Saints and Washington Redskins. Three tough games, but if the Cowboys win them all, they'll be well-tested for a playoff run.
Thanks to backup quarterback Kirk Cousins, the Washington Redskins are able to keep their playoff hopes alive. But now, they may be without starter Robert Griffin III after he suffered a sprained knee. With the Cleveland Browns up next, Washington's season hangs in the balance.
The Browns defense has been underrated all season, and no matter who the quarterback is for the Redskins next week, this will be a tough game. But quarterbacks aside, the biggest problem for Washington is on defense.
The play of the Redskins secondary has been terrible this season. Cornerback DeAngelo Hall may pull down interceptions, but he's bad in coverage. The Browns will likely throw Josh Gordon at Hall, and that's a battle I'd pick Gordon to win.
The Redskins face a tough test to end the season—Cleveland, at Philadelphia, home against Dallas. All the Redskins can do at this point is win and hope. Week 15 in Cleveland won't be easy.
A heartbreaking last-minute loss to the Dallas Cowboys keeps the Cincinnati Bengals from gaining on the Baltimore Ravens in the division, but with seven wins, they are still alive in the AFC Wild Card race.
The Bengals are currently the No. 7 seed in the AFC—one game back from the Pittsburgh Steelers and their 7-6 record. The Bengals just need to win out and they'll move ahead of Pittsburgh in the standings, but with a road trip to Philadelphia followed by Pittsburgh and Baltimore on the schedule, the Bengals have a tough order ahead of them if they hope to make the postseason.
With the Steelers and Ravens playing down in Week 14, it's possible that the Bengals will catch them sleeping. They'll need to if they hope to have a chance at a second straight playoff berth.
It's becoming tougher each week to trust the Baltimore Ravens, and with the Denver Broncos up on the schedule in Week 15, it's looking more and more likely that the team will drop their third straight game.
How much faith can anyone put into the Ravens after watching their play the last two weeks? Injuries are definitely taking their toll—the potential loss of Marshal Yanda doesn't make that any better—but the team has also dropped winnable games. The defense looks slow, and against a quick-strike offense like the Broncos, Baltimore will be in trouble.
A nine-win team shouldn't be in a must-win situation, but that's how Week 15 looks. The Ravens must get to win No. 10 before the Bengals and Steelers catch up.
The Chicago Bears ran into Adrian Peterson and the Minnesota Vikings, and the results weren't pretty.
It's clear that the Bears are a different team without Brian Urlacher in the middle of the defense, but injuries in Week 14 to Henry Melton and Jay Cutler also hurt the team's chances—even if the game was out of hand when Cutler went down.
The honest truth is that at 8-5, the Bears are in control of the No. 6 seed in the NFC as long as they keep winning. That might be easier said than done considering their Week 15 matchup against the Green Bay Packers, but they'll get a chance to rebound in the final two weeks of the season against the Arizona Cardinals and Detroit Lions. That should be good enough for 10-6 and a likely playoff berth.
Are the Indianapolis Colts really 9-4? Believe it or not, it's true. The team that won two games last year and "won" the first pick in the NFL draft is now a playoff team.
I've tried to give credit to Ryan Grigson, Chuck Pagano, Bruce Arians and Andrew Luck here all season, and it's warranted again this week. The job that Grigson has done as a first-year general manager is nothing short of amazing. He should be the only candidate for NFL Executive of the Year and a runaway winner for his work with free agency and the draft.
The Colts are back, and after a very short absence, considering they lost one of the greatest players to ever suit up.
One week after I move the Pittsburgh Steelers up and proclaim them ready to take over the AFC North, they lose to the San Diego Chargers.
That basically wraps up the 2012 Pittsburgh Steelers in a neat little bow. One week: brilliance. The next week: terrible. How anyone can have faith in this team as a playoff contender is beyond me, because I'm ready to write them off as a playoff team altogether.
Maybe that's rash considering the season has three weeks left, but the Steelers haven't played consistently enough to be feared heading into the playoffs. And that's assuming they even make the playoffs. With Dallas, Cincinnati and ending the season with Cleveland, it wouldn't be a surprise if the Steelers finish 8-8. Or 10-6.
The Seattle Seahawks are unbeatable at home. That's all there is to it. At least they have been through 12 games. That's been enough—including two road wins—to put them in the driver's seat for the No. 5 seed in the NFC playoff picture.
The schedule isn't too bad the rest of the way, either, as long as the Seahawks can pull off one more road win. Week 15 takes the team all the way across the country to face the Buffalo Bills in Toronto. That game will likely determine whether the Seahawks stay the favorites for a wild-card berth or if they become tangled up in the fight for the No. 6 seed.
With the 49ers and the Rams coming to Seattle to close out the year, Pete Carroll's team is in great shape to control its own destiny. Win, and the Seahawks are in.
It's odd that an 11-win team would be ranked No. 7 overall, but the Atlanta Falcons haven't given much reason for optimism lately. Even when they are on the winning side of things, the games are too close for comfort.
Dropping a game to the lowly Carolina Panthers doesn't help matters. My faith in Atlanta's postseason chances hasn't been at an all-time high after the past few games, but when the Falcons were able to win in spite of their poor play, it was fine. Now that they have lost a game to a division rival—and a rival who talked smack all week, at that—I'm moving the Falcons down even more.
Regular-season power rankings may not matter much, and I'm sure we'll see that show up in the comments, but the Falcons definitely aren't impressing anyone lately.
If the New York Giants needed a decisive win, Week 14 brought one. A big one.
Beating the New Orleans Saints 52-27 showed that the reigning Super Bowl champions are back in playoff form after a miserable November. Other than an early Eli Manning interception returned for a touchdown, the Giants were on point all game, dominating the Saints in every possible fashion.
This has to be scary for NFC opponents. When the Giants are on, few teams can match up with them, and Week 14 should be evidence that the Giants are definitely on.
You might think I'm crazy for ranking the Houston Texans, with an 11-2 record, as the No. 5 team in the NFL. Here's my logic.
The Texans haven't been able to beat teams with a top-level quarterback—unless you count a Week 3 win over Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos before Manning was fully "back" from the rust of a missed 2011 season. Even then, Houston won by six, not decisively.
Watch the Texans play against the Green Bay Packers or New England Patriots and you see a defense that cannot keep up with elite quarterbacks. Watch them against the Chicago Bears (just 13 points scored) and you see more issues with a high-level passer.
With that known, there is no way I can put the Texans head of the Packers, Broncos, 49ers or Patriots.
It hasn't been easy getting to the top spot in the NFC North, not after a rough start to the season. Add in the disheartening loss to the Seattle Seahawks and the comeback win by the Indianapolis Colts, and things looked pretty bleak for the Packers at one point.
And then they started winning. Even with injuries mounting at key positions, they kept winning. The offensive line can barely field five NFL-caliber players, but they're winning. The closer the playoffs get, the momentum being built in Green Bay is coming at the right time.
First place in the NFC North, and the Packers are back to doing Packers-like things.
The team with the NFL's longest winning streak just keeps getting it done. That's good news for the Denver Broncos as they head into the playoffs.
With the team now at eight straight wins and Peyton Manning looking like an MVP candidate, the Broncos are one of the scariest teams in all the land. As Manning and the offense gel together, there's still a damn good defense here waiting to tear teams apart.
The great thing about the way the Broncos are built is that the offense is going to score points—that's a given. That fits in perfectly with their pass-rushing skills on defense. Manning and Co. get up on you, and then Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil make it almost impossible to come back when the offense is forced to air it out.
Denver should scare a lot of people. The way the Broncos are playing right now, it wouldn't be a surprise to see Peyton back in the Super Bowl.
If it weren't for those pesky St. Louis Rams, the San Francisco 49ers would be sitting much higher in the rankings. But alas, the Rams have the 49ers figured out. Not many other teams do, though.
The Jim Harbaugh offense looks much different with Colin Kaepernick in the game, and we saw in Week 14 that it can be very effective even against an elite pass-rusher like Cameron Wake. The Miami Dolphins gave Kaepernick fits all day, but he still managed to lead the team to a decisive win, moving San Francisco one game closer to clinching the No. 2 seed in the NFC.
The 49ers don't always have the look and feel of the NFC's most dominant team, but who would you pick to beat them at a neutral site? The New York Giants can be dangerous, but their inconsistency over the last five weeks has been maddening. The Falcons lost to the Panthers, and the Packers are so banged up that they can barely field a front five on offense.
Like it or not, for now, the 49ers are the NFC's most dominant team.
Surely we can all agree on one thing—the New England Patriots are the best team in the NFL. At least for one more week.
The Patriots fully dominated the Houston Texans, giving them their second loss of the season. They did it with an explosive offense, much improved run defense and a swagger that tends to show up anytime Bill Belichick's team is playing a big game.
That'll be the case again in Week 15 as the San Francisco 49ers come to Foxborough for a showdown (again) of the two highest ranked teams in the NFL. Winner take all—at least as far as power rankings go.