In the NFL, things rarely go how they're "supposed to" before the season.
I wrote 1,300 words on this in the summer, and the 2012 season has done nothing but vindicate my assertion.
It's tempting to predict little turnover from season to season. Especially when good teams are usually smart enough to keep most of their roster intact. But every season, teams that struggled the year before rise from the ashes and ascend the power rankings.
Couple that with fringe contenders and regression candidates who play up to (and past) their potential, and you always get a number of teams who exceed expectations.
Let's take a look at the Week 16 rankings with an emphasis on teams who did just that.
Note: Highlighted teams will be pictured.
1. San Francisco 49ers (10-3-1)
After a breakout season in 2011, many thought the Niners were due for a letdown in 2012. The reasons for this predicted regression were many and laid out beautifully by Grantland.com's Bill Barnwell.
But none of them were proven true.
They might have been lucky to win as many games as they did in 2011, but they've improved across the board this year. According to Football Outsiders, they are the only team that ranks top-three in the league in both offensive and defensive efficiency.
In his preseason article, Barnwell likened the Niners to the New England Patriots after head Coach Bill Belichick's first Super Bowl and the New Orleans Saints after head coach Sean Payton's Super Bowl. Both of those teams went on the miss the playoffs the following year.
San Francisco won't just buck that trend by making the playoffs in 2012—they'll be favorites to win it all.
2. Denver Broncos ((11-3)
I'm not sure the team has exceeded expectations so much as the quarterback has. Everyone else was supposed to be more-or-less this good. Either way, they'll roll into the playoffs as one of the league's hottest teams and most undesirable opponents.
3. New England Patriots (10-4)
A home loss against San Francisco is nothing to be ashamed about. Especially considering the comeback they nearly mounted. If they get another chance in a less-slippery environment (the Superdome, perhaps?) it could be a different story.
4. Seattle Seahawks (9-5)
They've exceeded everyone's expectations except for Grantland.com's Bill Simmons, who famously (and contentiously) predicted they'd make the Super Bowl this year.
At the time it seemed ludicrous. But now? It seems sage-like.
The Seahawks rank second in Football Outsiders' team efficiency rankings, placing top-six in all three facets of the game. Football Outsiders also gives them an 11.4 percent chance of winning the Super Bowl—higher than the likes of the Atlanta Falcons and Houston Texans.
Even with a win this week, they're unlikely to pass San Francisco and get a home playoff game. But their newfound adeptness on the road gives Seahawks fans reason to be optimistic.
In Russell we trust!
5. Green Bay Packers (10-4)
The Packers haven't been blowing people out, but they have been plodding along efficiently with eight wins in nine games. They won't be favorites like last year, but as they proved in 2010, they're more than capable of sneaking up on people.
6. Atlanta Falcons (12-2)
Huge win against the New York Giants should silence a lot of the backlash they'd been facing. There are still massive problems that need to be addressed—most notably a defense that only shows up when they feel like it—but they won't be an easy out in Atlanta.
7. Houston Texans (12-2)
The 12-point margin over the Indianapolis Colts was misleading—Houston pounded the Colts into submission. The Texans need to do better in the red zone, but aesthetically, that was the type of performance they need following their no-show in New England.
8. New York Giants (8-6)
The Giants will turn it around at some point....right? After another underwhelming performance, the G-Men face what's essentially a must-win game at Baltimore this week. New York plays best with their backs against the wall, so expect them to show up on Sunday.
9. Cincinnati Bengals (8-6)
Even with the loss to Dallas two weeks ago, Cincinnati has been one of the hottest teams in football. The Bengals can clinch a playoff berth by beating the reeling Steelers in Pittsburgh this weekend. But for Andy Dalton, who's never beaten Pittsburgh or Baltimore, that chore is easier said than done.
10. Washington Redskins (8-6)
The Redskins exceeded expectations with their play of late, but over the totality of the season, this is about where many thought they would be. Rookie backup quarterback Kirk Cousins came up huge against the Cleveland Browns, but this team loses a lot of cache if Robert Griffin III can't play like himself anymore.
11. Chicago Bears (8-6)
It's deja vu in Chicago, where the Bears are squandering a fast start for the second consecutive year. They looked hapless in Minnesota last week, and a road game at Arizona has trap written all over it. Cutler and Co. need to get it together fast.
12. Baltimore Ravens (9-5)
Speaking of hapless. Last weeks game against Denver was supposed to be a statement game. And the statement they made was "we aren't any good." No one will be scared to play this team in January.
13. Minnesota Vikings (8-6)
After a 3-13 season in 2011, the Vikings were ranked 31st in ESPN.com's preseason power rankings.
So much for that, right?
Granted, a lot of that had to do with the belief that Adrian Peterson wouldn't be himself and Toby Gerhart would shoulder the rushing load. So it was kind of justified. But the Vikings have excelled in other areas besides the rushing game.
Most notably, the defense has far outperformed its projections. The secondary is still a weakness, but not a historic weakness as many had them touted to be. Rookie safety Harrison Smith was a starter from Day one and looks like he could be a cornerstone of this franchise for years to come.
Minnesota has waxed and waned through this season, but are currently in the midst of a wax. And although their schedule is brutal, they do technically control their own playoff fate.
At the beginning of the season, that would have been unthinkable.
14. Indianapolis Colts (9-5)
As alluded to above, the Vikings were ranked 31st in ESPN.com's preseason power rankings. Well, the Colts were ranked 32nd—dead last.
Again: So much for that, right?
Nobody could have predicted how good Andrew Luck would be this year, except, you know, anyone who watched him play in college. The precocious rookie has looked poised in late-game situations, shouldering the load when necessary and leading his team to a number of victories.
The Colts are fatally flawed. Even if they make the playoffs—which looks likely—they probably won't stick around for very long.
But the fact that Indianapolis is in this position at all is equal parts shocking and impressive.
15. Pittsburgh Steelers (7-7)
Another week, another un-Steeler loss. Pittsburgh snatched defeat from the jaws of victory against the Dallas Cowboys, and now the Steelers need to win out if they want to make the playoffs.
16. Dallas Cowboys (8-6)
Dallas is playing in a potential trap-game against New Orleans this week. The Saints looked powerful against the Bucs last week, and Dallas is surely looking ahead to Week 17 in Washington. If the Cowboys are not careful, they could be dealt a pivotal loss.
17. Miami Dolphins (6-8)
The Dolphins are alive in the AFC, but just technically. Regardless, they've shown scintillas of promise in 2012 and have a lot to look forward to next season. Miami needs to give rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill some real weapons or they run the risk of stunting his development.
18. Carolina Panthers (5-9)
Does anybody want to play this team right now? Just like last season, Carolina found their stride a little too late. They'll be trendy sleepers, again, in 2013. But if the Panthers don't learn how to get off the blocks, they'll never be taken seriously.
19. New Orleans Saints (6-8)
Even with the 0-4 start, New Orleans has played better than anyone could have expected after the bounty suspensions. Most teams couldn't overcome the last-minute departure of a head coach like that. The fact that they're even functional is a testament to quarterback Drew Brees' leadership (even if his arm has looked a little over the hill at times).
20. St. Louis Rams (6-7-1)
St. Louis had a legitimate chance to challenge for a playoff berth last week and blew it. The Rams never got into against the Vikings, and made it clear that they're a year or two away from serious contention. Like Tannehill, quarterback Sam Bradford needs some real weapons if the Rams want him to develop. On a positive note, the defense has been and will be a dominant force.
21. Cleveland Browns (5-9)
Maybe rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden isn't the answer? I mean, that's the only conceivable explanation, right? This team plays well in every other facet of the game, yet they're a meager 5-9. Weeden's leash is shorter than most rookies because of his age, so look for Cleveland to add a competitive backup next season.
22. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-8)
Talk about a complete 180. The Bucs were serious playoff threats two weeks ago, but embarrassing losses to the Philadelphia Eagles and New Orleans have drastically changed the narrative of their season. Still, if head coach Greg Schiano can regain control of his team and add some secondary help, they'll be a threat next season.
23. Detroit Lions (4-10)
The loss at Arizona was brutal, but you could see it coming from a mile away. The Lions have all but quit on this season, but they played well enough in stretches to inspire hope for next year. They have all the talent in the world, but need a serious attitude adjustment—especially on defense.
24. Buffalo Bills (5-9)
Even after getting drilled by Seattle, the Bills have still had a moderately successful year. Many had them pegged as a playoff contender, which was premature, but there are pieces they can feel good about going forward.
25. San Diego Chargers (5-9)
The Chargers got back to their losing ways against Carolina last week, and are stumbling to the finish line of the Norv Turner era. Expect significant changes to be made in the off-season, including a potential switch at quarterback.
26. New York Jets (6-8)
There are no words to describe the implosion that was seen on Monday night. Literally none. The resolution of their quarterback saga will be one of the premier stories of the off-season, which is unfortunate, but probably justified. What a mess.
27. Arizona Cardinals (5-9)
The Cards got their first win last week since starting 4-0. That's the good news. The bad news is they still have one of the worst offenses in the league. The defense is a unit they can build around, and maybe with the addition of a veteran quarterback, they'll be able to field a formidable team in 2013.
28. Philadelphia Eagles (4-10)
Speaking of train-wrecks. The Eagles strung together seven straight quarters of competence before the fourth frame against the Bengals. But then things...well...went the way things have been going all season in Philly. This team could be gutted in the offseason.
29. Tennessee Titans (5-9)
It's hard to give Tennessee too much credit for playing spoiler to the Jets. I mean, New York was trying to give that game away and the Titans refused to take it until late in the fourth. This isn't a terribly untalented team, but they have some serious consistency issues.
30. Jacksonville Jaguars (2-12)
Chad Henne's triumphant return to Miami was, well, not-so-triumphant. There are pieces to feel good about here, especially on offense, but none of it matters without a quarterback. And no, Tim Tebow will not solve any of their problems.
31. Oakland Raiders (4-10)
The Raiders' only three wins since September have come against the two teams they're sandwiched between in these rankings. After a respectable 2011 campaign, this year has been a harrowing step in the wrong direction.
32. Kansas City Chiefs (2-12)
Things aren't as grim as Romeo Crennel's stoic face make them look in Kansas City. There's enough talent here to compete, they just have deficiencies at the two most important positions—quarterback and head coach. Fix those, and there's a shot they can compete in 2013.
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