NFL Power Rankings: Breaking Down Realistic Super Bowl Contenders

Matt Fitzgerald@@MattFitz_geraldCorrespondent IIIDecember 24, 2012

DENVER, CO - DECEMBER 23:  Long snapper Aaron Brewer #46 and running back Lance Ball #35 of the Denver Broncos celebrates recovering a fumble by the Cleveland Browns on a punt at Sports Authority Field Field at Mile High on December 23, 2012 in Denver, Colorado. The Broncos defeated the Browns 34-12. (Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images)
Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

The NFL power rankings experienced quite a shuffle after Week 16's action, and now it is becoming apparent which teams are realistic Super Bowl contenders.

Some early favorites are declining down the stretch, while other resilient teams who were nearly forgotten in the middle of the season have suddenly shot to the forefront of the discussion for who might raise the Lombardi Trophy in February.

Here are breakdowns of the teams most likely to make a serious run at a championship.

1. Denver Broncos (12-3)

Peyton Manning was once again Peyton Manning in a routine blowout of the Cleveland Browns at home on Sunday. This man does not let his teams lose to teams they aren't supposed to. Denver was a heavy favorite in this one, which could have easily been a trap game scenario.

Not with Manning at the helm. Oh, and the defense is pretty fantastic too, with new defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio continuing the progression of second-year pass-rushing specialist Von Miller.

This is now a winning streak of 10 for the Broncos, and they don't appear to be letting up anytime soon. With home-field advantage still a possibility in the season finale, expect that run to extend to 11.

After enduring a rough start to the schedule, Denver has righted the ship, and looks to be headed for a championship run under Manning's guidance. Having RB Willis McGahee would be ideal for a postseason run, but it hasn't seemed to matter.

Few teams look as strong as the Broncos, who have to be the prohibitive favorite to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl.

2. Seattle Seahawks (10-5)

So maybe moving the Seahawks up to No. 2 is a bit of a knee-jerk reaction, but is it really?

I may be a little biased since I picked Seattle to win the Super Bowl before the season began. That being said, this young, athletic, exciting bunch of incredibly talented players absolutely pounded the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday night.

This is impressive on multiple levels: it was the second time the Seahawks had faced the Niners, who handed them their worst loss of the season—by seven points.

Didn't everyone consider San Francisco the best team in the league after last week's triumph over the Patriots in Foxboro?

Okay, so the Seahawks have the biggest home-field advantage in pro football. That's a point few would argue over. It was clear who the better team was, though, and when the annual, "Oh man, who wants to play THOSE guys in the playoffs!" discussion comes up, the Seahawks will be the team everyone now talks about.

Thus the well-deserved bump, which would be to No. 1 if not for the Broncos' win streak.

Seattle has taken their act on the road and played just as well lately, so while a home playoff game may not happen, it won't matter. This has to be considered a legitimate Super Bowl contender after such a thrashing of an elite divisional foe.

3. Atlanta Falcons (13-2)

I have been a Matt Ryan skeptic for quite some time, but what he did in Detroit on Saturday night was special. With a supporting cast consisting of TE Tony Gonzalez and a receiving duo of Roddy White and Julio Jones, it doesn't matter that Michael Turner's production is declining in the backfield.

Here's the only caveat: Ryan has imploded in his three one-and-done playoff appearances. However, the Falcons have clinched the No. 1 seed in the NFC, which is no small task no matter who they've played or how they have won 13 games to this point.

The defense has adopted a bend-but-don't-break style under defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, and it's working.

Everyone on this Atlanta team is well disciplined, and it looks like the Falcons have taken a big step forward, much of it due to a substantial improvement by Ryan and the growth of Jones in his second year.

These Falcons are going to be scary at home, and Ryan should overcome past disappointments to make this team competitive for the Lombardi Trophy in the coming weeks.

4. Green Bay Packers (11-4)

No matter what the circumstances are, as long as Aaron Rodgers and his receiving corps are healthy, the Packers can't be counted out.

With the grand exception of a 38-10 loss to the New York Giants, Green Bay has been a consistent juggernaut after a rough start to the year that featured, yes, the "Fail Mary" game at Seattle.

The return of Clay Matthews from injury has helped the defense, and Rodgers was his typical brilliant self, throwing three more touchdowns and running for another in a 55-7 demolishing of the Tennessee Titans at Lambeau.

After going 15-1 and bowing out in the playoff opener at home in 2011, the Packers are out for revenge. The NFC is going to be tight, but this team has fought through adversity that carried over from the playoff loss against the Giants to the beginning of this season.

That should make the Pack as dangerous as any to come out of the NFC, especially with a victory in Week 17 likely resulting in a first-round bye as the second seed.

5. New England Patriots (11-4)

Unusual balance from the running game led by RB Stevan Ridley has made the Pats' offense more dangerous than ever. The return of offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels has definitely helped in that regard for the league's No. 1 scoring offense.

The narrow 23-16 escape at Jacksonville on Sunday was definitely a letdown, but New England found a way to get the "W" on a bad day, which all great teams do.

Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are gunning for another chance at Super Bowl No. 4, and there's little reason to believe they won't be a major factor. After the Jags game, Brady was very upset with the team's execution despite scraping out a victory (h/t ESPN Boston):

We played pretty terribly out there. It came down to the wire, our defense made some plays, but that was a bad 60 minutes of football. We got out-competed out there, out-fought. We were lucky to win.

We started slow. [We] couldn't do anything offensively... [We were] lucky to be in it at halftime, didn't really do anything in the second half in the run game or the pass game. Just a poor effort overall.

That is the exact mentality that drives championship teams, and why Brady is so consistently good every year.

The defensive backfield has been a huge question mark, but the acquisition of Aquib Talib from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers finally give the Pats a lockdown corner to match up with the opposition's No. 1 receiver.

All those factors make the perennially contending Pats a threat once again.

6. San Francisco 49ers (10-4-1)

Injuries to Vernon Davis and Mario Manningham in Seattle made the stunning blowout loss even more painful. The biggest factor, though, was the absence of Justin Smith on the defensive line, which allowed the Seahawks' offense to roll all night long.

In spite of all the injuries, it's hard to count out the Niners. Other than a loss to the Giants earlier in the year, there have been no instances under Jim Harbaugh when San Francisco has been thoroughly blown out.

It's been ugly since they took a 31-3 lead at New England in Week 15, as the Niners have been outscored 72-23.

But with a defense as typically dominant as this one and such an explosive athlete at QB like Colin Kaepernick, it's hard to count the Niners out. Like the Packers, this bunch wants to avenge their great chance to go to a Super Bowl from a year ago. Two Kyle Williams mishaps on punt returns essentially cost San Fran that golden opportunity.

Look for the Niners to bounce back in Week 17 against the lowly Arizona Cardinals to take care of business and win their second straight NFC West title to enter the playoffs with some momentum.

7. Houston Texans (12-3)

Against the pass, Houston has struggled, which was on display against one of the statistically worst starting QBs in the league in the Vikings' Christian Ponder.

Not to mention, the Texans' running game has been very inconsistent down the stretch, and Minnesota completely shut it down on Sunday. Week 16's struggles may have been a result of Arian Foster's illness, though.

Foster was struggling before then, however, and other than a 165-yard performance against Indianapolis, his other three most recent starts have resulted in a combined 99 rushing yards.

Laying such a big egg at home with home-field advantage throughout the conference playoffs at stake raises plenty of concerns about this team. It's a very good team, but not a great team.

But who in the AFC is going to stop the Texans, short of the Broncos and Patriots? There really aren't many other formidable foes. That makes Houston a Super Bowl contender almost by default rather than their play in Week 16.

8. Washington Redskins (9-6)

The road NFC East clash at Philadelphia should be considered a quality win. As much of a wreck as the Eagles have been, it was the second divisional matchup where the opposition had a better idea of how to shut down Robert Griffin III and the Redskins' dynamic offense.

Washington's defense continues to improve, and Griffin played extremely well despite gingerly running on a bum knee, which took away his typical capability to run.

If not for the great play of Griffin and other rookie QBs, Redskins running back Alfred Morris would be garnering serious consideration for Rookie of the Year. If a team can run the ball and stop the run in the playoffs, that usually translates to a deep playoff run.

Assuming the Redskins can take care of business against the Dallas Cowboys at home in Week 17, they will likely host a playoff game against the Seattle Seahawks.

That could be a problem. However, this Redskins team definitely has championship qualities, and have had a miraculous resurgence after being apparently dead in the water at 3-6.

9. Baltimore Ravens (10-5)

Sorry, still not sold on Joe Flacco as a Super Bowl quarterback. But look what happened when the Ravens handed the ball to the tandem of Bernard Pearce and Ray Rice. That was pretty explosive.

Then again, the defending Super Bowl champion Giants are absolutely imploding right now, and Flacco is much better at home than he is on the road. The Ravens will only get one playoff game in M&T Bank Stadium.

10. Cincinnati Bengals (9-6)

What a big breakthrough victory in Heinz Field on Sunday for the Bengals, who haven't quite been able to get over the hump against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

As far as Super Bowl hopes go, though, Cincinnati isn't quite ready for that. This is a strong young team, but the Bengals can't stack up with the NFL's elite just yet. They will likely face either New England or Baltimore in Round 1.

While they could pull an upset against their AFC North rival, it would be shocking if they got any further.

11. Minnesota Vikings (9-6)

It was a big-time win for the Vikings in Houston. Beating the AFC's No. 1 team entering the day on the road is no small feat, and it was in dominating fashion by a score of 23-6.

Ponder showed signs of life under center, which is a great sign for the team moving forward. However, the team benefited heavily from an ailing Arian Foster, which made the Texans' typically balanced attack one-dimensional.

The defense continues to improve, and Adrian Peterson is a straight up beast. But the QB play isn't good enough for Minnesota to be thinking, "Super Bowl!" in 2012.

12. Indianapolis Colts (10-5)

You can't give up 352 rushing yards and be a Super Bowl contender. That's what Indy did in Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday against the lowly Kansas City Chiefs.

The Colts' season has been the best storyline of the year in the NFL, but there is just no way the team stacks up favorably with the best in the AFC.

That's not to say the new regime hasn't built a team capable of competing for multiple Lombardi Trophies in the future, though. Because they have, and it will be scary to see what Indianapolis can do once No. 1 pick Andrew Luck cuts down on the turnovers and inevitably becomes more accurate.

13. Chicago Bears (9-6)

Playing the Arizona Cardinals is a great way to cure what's ailed the Bears as of late. But an injury to Matt Forte is a critical blow, and Chicago still needs to win on the road against division rival Detroit.

The Bears barely beat the Lions at home earlier in the year, and even if they do win, they have definitely been a declining team as of late. Especially with LB Brian Urlacher absent, this team isn't built to make a deep playoff run.

14. Dallas Cowboys (8-7)

Another big, winnable game and another disappointment in Dallas. The New Orleans Saints have a great offense but a historically putrid defense, and if the Cowboys were legitimate contenders, they would have taken care of business.

QB Tony Romo may continue to get blame, but this one was on the defense. There is still a chance to win the NFC East next week in Washington incredibly.

Based on Sunday's defeat and the Redskins' hot streak, it's hard to imagine a road win happening for the Cowboys.

15. St. Louis Rams (7-7-1)

Suddenly that loss to the Vikings doesn't look so bad, and the Rams stuck it to the reeling Buccaneers on the road.

Jeff Fisher is building a promising team in St. Louis, featuring a slew of playmakers on defense and an improving offense led by QB Sam Bradford. In a tough NFC West division, though, it may be another year or two before the Rams can consistently contend for the playoffs.

16. New York Giants (8-7)

If they can't beat the Eagles next week and the Cowboys don't win against the Redskins, the G-Men won't get a chance to defend their Super Bowl title. This has been one of the more shocking implosions in what seemed like a very weak division.

The tandem of Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks were nowhere to be found in Week 16 against Baltimore, and Eli Manning looks like a different quarterback in a bad way and the defense is awful.

Not much potential for a Super Bowl repeat here.

17. Pittsburgh Steelers (7-8)

It's somewhat shocking to see the Steelers out of the playoff picture. It's even more shocking to know that it was because of two extremely costly interceptions thrown by Ben Roethlisberger in consecutive weeks that led to game-winning field goals for the other team.

Usually, Big Ben is leading his team to victory in the clutch.

Injuries had to have played a factor in his play down the stretch, and even the stalwart Pittsburgh defense couldn't overcome the offensive shortcomings under first-year coordinator Todd Haley.

18. New Orleans Saints (7-8)

An 0-4 start was a bit too big of a hole to climb out of, but don't blame Drew Brees. He has done an incredible job without his head coach and led another prolific passing attack in 2012.

In order to reinsert itself into the Super Bowl vernacular, New Orleans must improve on defense. Immensely. That will likely start by firing coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, and the Saints have to find a gem in April's draft to help the cause.

19. Carolina Panthers (6-9)

Who would want to play the Panthers right now? Oh wait, they aren't going to the playoffs. Despite a Super Bowl prediction ad taken out by C Ryan Kahlil in the preseason, Carolina couldn't even approach those massive expectations.

But an improved defense is reason for hope in 2013. So is the progress of Cam Newton, who entered the game against the Raiders with the longest streak of attempts in the league without an interception.

The Panthers hit their stride a bit too late, but will be a force to be reckoned with next season.

20. Miami Dolphins (7-8)

With a Steelers victory, the Dolphins would have been in the playoff hunt entering Week 17. Unfortunately, it was not to be.

There are positive signs on both sides of the ball. Rookie QB Ryan Tannehill has shown improvement, and the defensive front seven is very strong. A couple of playmakers at receiver and defensive back is all that will prevent Miami from contending for the playoffs in the near future.

21. San Diego Chargers (6-9)

Norv Turner has become accustomed to having to win out in the last month of the season to keep his job. Typically, though, the Chargers are in the playoff hunt.

That's not the case this time around.

GM A.J. Smith and Turner will be lucky to retain their jobs at year's end. Philip Rivers needs to cut down on his turnovers that have become more of a trend than a habit based on the past two years.

22. Detroit Lions (4-11)

This may seem way too high for a team with such a worse record than the other teams in discussion here, but I believe the Lions could beat any of the teams below them.

The combination of Calvin Johnson and Matthew Stafford and emergence of RB Mikel Leshoure gives Detroit a more balanced offense, and the defense has quietly improved after a disastrous 2011 campaign.

The Lions have blown a lot of close games due to discipline in terms of turnovers, penalties and mental errors.

23. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-9)

At around midseason, it looked like Greg Schiano was going to be a potential coach of the year candidate, and the Bucs one of the most surprising turnaround teams in the NFL.

That changed drastically. Breakout rookie RB Doug Martin has suddenly been a non-factor, and the apparently resurgent QB Josh Freeman has collapsed. That's putting it lightly, really, because he's thrown eight interceptions in his past two starts.

Tampa has lost five straight, and something must be done about that slew of poor QBs and lack of pass rush.

24. New York Jets (6-9)

Well, the Greg McElroy experience actually wasn't an unmitigated disaster. Sure, the Jets lost 27-17 at home to the dysfunctional Chargers, but McElroy showed at least something. The former Alabama QB went 14-of-24 for 185 yards and an interception, also scampering for 25 yards on four carries.

But the Jets are still unsettled at the game's most important position—that's a trend amongst these lackluster teams—and that needs to be addressed to complement its defense, which is still strong.

25. Cleveland Browns (5-10)

Eight turnovers gained translated to only a six-point win over the Pittsburgh Steelers. Subsequent victories over Oakland and Kansas City put the Browns on a three-game winning streak and suddenly looking like a respectable football team.

That perception has changed swiftly, with a poor showing at home in a loss to Washington and a blowout loss in Denver on Sunday. A coaching staff overhaul is likely once again for the Browns, setting up another year of uncertainty in Cleveland.

26. Philadelphia Eagles (4-11)

Give Nick Foles credit for playing in front of a horrific offensive line as he tries to audition as the franchise QB of the future. He's done pretty darn well so far.

CB Nnamdi Asomugha has had to be one of the most disastrous free-agent signings in recent memory, and the Eagles' defense is suddenly not what it once was.

27. Tennessee Titans (5-10)

Is Jake Locker a bust? Hard to say, but it certainly looked like it against the Packers on Sunday. Concerns over accuracy continue to linger, and the Titans looked totally lost as a whole.

However, the defense has been awful as well this season, and Tennessee needs to get some serious help on that side of the ball. With the Texans maintaining a stranglehold on the division and the shocking Colts rising, the Titans must step up quickly.

28. Buffalo Bills (5-10)

Something needs to happen in Buffalo. Two talented running backs in Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller occupy the backfield—when both are healthy, that is. The defense has plenty of talent, too, and should improve with a presumptive new coordinator other than Dave Wannstedt in 2013.

What's missing? Oh, right. A quarterback. Ryan Fitzpatrick's massive contract extension continues to plague the Bills, and will continue to do so unless a solution is found.

29. Arizona Cardinals (5-10)

Please get my uncle (kidding) Larry Fitzgerald a quarterback. The Cardinals have won just one of their past 11 games, and it's mostly due to poor offensive line play and incompetence under center.

Arizona has a talented defense and a slew of skill players on the outside headlined by Fitzgerald that could really make this team competitive. A coaching change, QB change and lots of general change is coming this offseason, that's for sure.

30. Oakland Raiders (4-11)

Carson Palmer was knocked out of the game, which inserted first-round bust Matt Leinart at quarterback. With no production from Darren McFadden in the running game, Leinart went 16-of-32 for 115 yards—3.6 yards per attempt—and an interception.


Perhaps the beginning of the Terrelle Pryor era will commence in the season finale. Regardless, this Raiders team is a wreck.

31. Jacksonville Jaguars (2-13)

Give the Jags credit: they showed some fight at home in a game where they could have easily laid down against the heavily favored Patriots.

However, with three more interceptions by QB Chad Henne and the likely departure of the current coaching staff, let the Tim Tebow hype begin!

32. Kansas City Chiefs (2-13)

This was touched on earlier: how does a team run for 352 yards and lose? Answer: Brady Quinn starts at quarterback.

The Chiefs are badly in need of a long-term answer under center, and it will be interesting to see whether they take a chance on West Virginia QB Geno Smith at No. 1 overall in the draft.


    Players Trying to Avoid Bust Status

    NFL logo

    Players Trying to Avoid Bust Status

    Gary Davenport
    via Bleacher Report

    Brady Hints at Retiring at 45 with IG Comment

    NFL logo

    Brady Hints at Retiring at 45 with IG Comment

    Joseph Zucker
    via Bleacher Report

    Betting Odds on 1st NFL Coach to Be Fired

    NFL logo

    Betting Odds on 1st NFL Coach to Be Fired

    Scott Polacek
    via Bleacher Report

    Report: NFL Invited to Congressional Hearing on Betting

    NFL logo

    Report: NFL Invited to Congressional Hearing on Betting

    Joseph Zucker
    via Bleacher Report