NFL Power Rankings Week 17: Hottest Teams Entering Regular-Season Finale

Stephen Sheehan@@StephenPSheehanCorrespondent IDecember 26, 2012

Russell Wilson has the Seahawks as the most dangerous team in the NFC right now.
Russell Wilson has the Seahawks as the most dangerous team in the NFC right now.Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

NFC teams beware: The Seattle Seahawks are the hottest team in the league. 

Over the last three weeks, the 'Hawks have dropped 150 points and surrendered just 30, most recently making the San Francisco 49ers look like a JV team in a 42-13 beatdown. 

Led by rookie sensation Russell Wilson at quarterback, hard-charging veteran Marshawn Lynch at running back and trash-talking ball hawk Richard Sherman at cornerback, the Seahawks are the most dangerous team entering Week 17 and a legitimate Super Bowl contender. 

Pete Carroll's team has turned on the jets at the right time and could end up winning the division if the 49ers manage to stink it up against the hapless Arizona Cardinals. 

Elsewhere around the league, the Denver Broncos and Green Bay Packers are both clicking on all cylinders offensively and appear poised to make serious noise as the No. 2 seeds in their respective conferences. 

With just one more week left, let's take a look at the hottest teams entering Week 17. 

*Note: Hottest teams are italicized.

1. Denver Broncos (12-3) 

The difference from Tim Tebow to Peyton Manning has been night and day, as the Broncos have transformed from a run-first team into one of the league's most proficient passing offenses. The move out west has been an easy transition for Manning, who is stringing together one of his finest seasons of his illustrious career. 

While New England and Houston garner most of the attention in the AFC, it's Manning's Broncos that are the hottest team, not only in the conference, but in the entire league. Riding a 10-game winning streak, the Broncos look to be the biggest challengers to keeping the Patriots from a Super Bowl return. 

Von Miller is the best overall defensive player in the NFL, and a truly rare talent who will look to wreck havoc on opposing quarterbacks as the Broncos march into the playoffs. 

2. Seattle Seahawks (10-5)

Don't let their record fool you; Seattle is the real deal. 

Until recently, the Seahawks appeared to be an overachieving team benefiting from playing in one of the weaker divisions in the league. Fast forward to Sunday night, and it's clear their combination of aggressive defense and offensive prowess makes them a legit title contender.

Blowout victories over Arizona and Buffalo are to be expected, but Seattle's 42-13 trouncing of the top-seeded 49ers was totally unexpected. 

No team has the total package of defense and offense that Seattle brings to the table, although that could take a hit if star cornerback Richard Sherman's four-game suspension is upheld

3. Green Bay Packers (11-4) 

Besides the Washington Redskins and Seahawks, no team is riding a longer winning streak than the Green Bay Packers. 

Led by MVP candidate Aaron Rodgers' 3,930 passing yards and 35 touchdowns, the Packers have recovered from a 38-10 beating by the Giants to reel off four straight wins. After winning their last three games by just nine, seven and eight points, respectively, Green Bay made mincemeat of the Tennessee Titans last week, dropping 55 points on Mike Munchack's squad. 

With their team finally getting healthy, the Packers are one team that could simply outscore you on any day. Rodgers' cast of weapons includes breakout star Randall Cobb, steady veteran Greg Jennings and big-play threat Jordy Nelson.

Oh, and don't forget James Jones and his league-leading 13 receiving touchdowns. 

4. Atlanta Falcons (13-2)

For a six-week stretch, the Atlanta Falcons' supposedly explosive offense was tamed. 

During their last two outings, however, Roddy White and Julio Jones have spread their wings and reminded everyone why they're the best wide receiver duo in the NFL. 

Both receivers have topped the 1,100-yard mark, and Matt Ryan has posted career highs in yards (4,481), touchdowns (31), quarterback rating (100.2) and completion percentage (69). 

While Atlanta's defense struggles to get to the quarterback, the unit can be bailed out by the far superior offense. Like Green Bay, Atlanta's offense can make up for other deficiencies, but Ryan has a lot to prove in the playoffs. 

5. New England Patriots (11-4) 

The second half of the season has been uncharacteristically inconsistent for New England. 

For a team that never loses in the home stretch, the Patriots have been an enigma over the past few weeks. A resounding win against the Texans led everyone to believe New England was the top dog, but a Jekyll and Hyde performance against the 49ers and a pathetically narrow win against the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars has left Tom Brady unhappy

The road back to the Super Bowl is there for New England to take, but can the Patriots overcome injuries and an inconsistent defense? Only time will tell. 

6. Washington Redskins (9-6) 

Robert Griffin III is proof of why there's no price too high for a franchise quarterback. Washington's savior has turned the Redskins from a laughable franchise into a playoff contender. 

In just his first year in the league, RGIII has dazzled with his Michael Vick-esque running ability, Brady-like accuracy and Peyton-like command of the offense. 

After starting just 3-6, the Redskins have reeled off six straight wins and are in the driver's seat for the NFC East title. 

7. Baltimore Ravens (10-5)

The Baltimore Ravens are AFC North champions, but with just one week left, it's still tough to tell who they really are. 

Missing their emotional leader in Ray Lewis, the Ravens defense has taken a considerable step backward after being the top unit in the NFL for the past decade-plus. Also missing top cornerback Lardarius Webb (ACL) and playing with a less than 100 percent Terrell Suggs, the Ravens have surrendered 21.4 points per game, good for just 12th in the league. 

Offensively, Baltimore remains an enigma. Joe Flacco has proven he's not elite, but Ray Rice has picked up the slack. The problem is Rice doesn't always get the workload a guy of his caliber should, leaving fans and analysts perplexed about his usage. 

John Harbaugh's team is battle-tested and should still be a top contender in the AFC. 

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

Boy, how the mighty have fallen. 

Ever since the second half of the Patriots game, San Francisco has been extremely vulnerable, especially on defense. 

The team's emotional and physical leader, Justin Smith, has been out of the lineup with an elbow injury, and the defense has suffered. New England nearly made a comeback for the ages in the second half before Seattle dropped 42 points on Patrick Willis and Co. 

With Mario Manningham out for the year after shredding his knee, the wheels appear to be slowly falling off for the NFL's toughest team.

9. Houston Texans (12-3) 

Despite their 12 wins, the Texans aren't playing like the No. 1 seed.

Outside of superstar J.J. Watt, Houston's defense no longer looks as formidable as it was in the first half of the year. Teams have also figured out a way to stop Arian Foster, holding the star tailback to 38, 46, 165 and 15 yards rushing in his last four outings. 

Houston still has its share of studs in Andre Johnson, Foster and Watt, but they look like a team who could be knocked off early in the playoffs. 

10. Cincinnati Bengals (9-6) 

It's official: The Bengals are for real. 

Andy Dalton and A.J. Green have created magic in Cincinnati, taking down the Pittsburgh Steelers for the first time since 2009 and earning a playoff berth in the process. 

Cincinnati has won six of its last seven games, blowing out bad teams like Kansas City, Oakland and Philadelphia along the way. 

Their defense is a top-10 unit that can get after the quarterback with the best of them. 

11. Indianapolis Colts (10-5)

Is there anyone upset about the Colts replacing Peyton Manning with Andrew Luck? 

After enduring the worst season since before the Manning era, the Colts have done a complete 180 in 2012, winning eight more games than in 2011.

Luck has been prone to turnovers, but the No. 1 overall pick has also made a ton of big plays for the playoff-bound Colts. His leadership and energy has revitalized the career of Reggie Wayne, and has been a great story in a year of adversity for head coach Chuck Pagano and the Colts organization. 

12. Minnesota Vikings (9-6) 

Adrian Peterson has single-handedly put the Vikings in a position to earn a wild-card spot in Week 17. 

With Christian Ponder making the term game manager look difficult, Peterson—who is less than a year removed from shredding his knee—has taken the league by storm and is just 207 yards away from breaking Eric Dickerson's single-season rushing record. 

Do you really think an abdominal injury is going to keep AP out of the lineup? 

13. New Orleans Saints (7-8)

The first team with a losing record to make the list, the New Orleans Saints are still one of the most dangerous teams in the NFL. Anytime you have Drew Brees, Marques Colston and Jimmy Graham, that has to be the case. 

Unfortunately, New Orleans can't play defense or run the ball effectively, rendering them a .500 team at best in 2012. 

14. Dallas Cowboys (8-7) 

After all the chaos in Dallas this year, it's pretty amazing the Cowboys could make the playoffs with a Week 17 win against the Redskins. 

In a battle for the NFC East crown, Tony Romo will have to put on his best performance of the year, but you can bet he'll take all the criticism if he's anything less than perfect. Romo has actually been sensational during the second half, throwing 16 touchdowns and just three interceptions in his last seven games. 

The Cowboys are 5-2 in that stretch. 

15. Carolina Panthers (6-9)

Cam Newton won't be leading the Panthers to the playoffs, but last year's No. 1 overall pick is finally playing like we expected. 

In leading the Panthers to a 4-1 record during their last five games, Newton has accounted for 14 total touchdowns and just one turnover. 

Greg Hardy (11 sacks) and Charles Johnson (10.5 sacks) have provided a steady pass rush for a Carolina defense that also features the league's leading tackler in rookie Luke Kuechly. 

16. St. Louis Rams (7-7-1) 

It's a case of too little, too late for St. Louis, but Jeff Fisher certainly has reason to believe in next season. 

Operating behind one of the league's worst offensive lines and lacking playmakers at the receiver position, Sam Bradford has managed to put the Rams in a position to finish the season with a winning record. 

Steven Jackson and Daryl Richardson anchor a solid rushing attack, while rookie cornerback Janoris Jenkins' four return touchdowns have been a bright spark for a young defense. 

17. New York Giants (8-7)

We've grown accustom to seeing the Giants just edge their way into the playoffs, but this year it's too close for comfort. 

New York is one of the most talented teams in the league, yet Tom Coughlin's squad needs some serious help to find their way back in the postseason. 

Eli Manning hasn't been sharp in the second half, and Hakeem Nicks' leg injuries have limited his effectiveness.

As for that ferocious defensive line? Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora and Jason Pierre-Paul have accounted for just 15.5 sacks.

18. Chicago Bears (9-6)

 At one point it looked like the Chicago Bears were going to ride their defense straight to the playoffs. Now it looks like Lovie Smith's team will be watching the playoffs from the couch.

While Charles "Peanut" Tillman and Julius Peppers have held up their end of the bargain, Brian Urlacher's play has fallen off a cliff in 2012. The former great linebacker has just 68 tackles and no sacks to his name.

19. Miami Dolphins (7-8)

 It's a shame the Dolphins couldn't surround first-round pick Ryan Tannehill with better weapons because he looks like a gamer.

The eighth overall pick of the 2012 NFL draft has the Fins in position to finish the season at .500, a pretty remarkable feat considering he is throwing to guys like Brian Hartline and Anthony Fasano.

Miami's defense has the pieces in place, but it'll take a big upgrade at the skill positions for the Dolphins to take the next step.

20. San Diego Chargers (6-9) 

What a fall from grace it has been for the Chargers. Philip Rivers is no longer an elite quarterback, Antonio Gates is no longer the league's best tight end and the days of LaDainian Tomlinson scoring touchdowns seems like a lifetime ago. 

San Diego's problems begin with the offensive line and trickle down. This team lacks toughness and the defense isn't dominant enough to make up for an average offense. 

21. Pittsburgh Steelers (7-8)

Mike Tomlin's teams always finish strong, but not in 2012. 

Ben Roethlisberger cost the Steelers two potential wins and a spot in the playoffs, throwing critical interceptions against the Cowboys and Bengals. 

An aging defense that has been missing Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor doesn't help, either. 

22. Philadelphia Eagles (4-11) 

Considering they have been playing with a bunch of rookies on the field, the results haven't been so bad the past few weeks for Philly. 

But for a team that has star talent, a 4-11 record is an incredible disappointment. 

Nick Foles is out for the final game, leaving Michael Vick as the starter in the season finale against the Giants. This one is just a mess.

23. Cleveland Browns (5-10)

Another franchise in need of better leadership, Cleveland's rookie class made big contributions this year, but it wasn't enough. 

Brandon Weeden, Trent Richardson and Josh Gordon formed a pretty solid trio, yet the Browns are once again in position to be drafting near the top 10 in 2013. 

24. New York Jets (6-9)

The fact the Jets were still in a position to go to the playoffs a few weeks ago is a joke.

This team has become the laughing stock of the league, with Mark Sanchez's butt-fumble epitomizing how inept the Jets franchise has become. 

25. Detroit Lions (4-11)

Calvin Johnson may have broken Jerry Rice's single-season receiving record, but his team had little to celebrate about this season. 

Matthew Stafford took a big step back in 2012, posting an ugly 17-to-16 touchdown-to-interception ratio. 

Detroit's defense failed to stop anybody, surrendering 27.4 points per game. 

26. Buffalo Bills (5-10)

A lack of consistent quarterback play and a horrid start by their defense did the Bills in this season. 

Buffalo should cut ties with Ryan Fitzpatrick and restart at the position. 

The cupboard isn't totally bare, however, as running back C.J. Spiller proved he's one of the most exciting players in the NFL. 

27. Tennessee Titans (5-10) 

Injuries along the offensive line doomed the Titans season. Chris Johnson managed to break the 1,000-yard mark for the fifth straight season, but he had little room to work with. 

Oh, and defense? The Titans didn't play any. 

28. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-9)

Greg Schiano's team peaked at the halfway point and did a complete flop in the second half of the season. 

Losers of their last five games, the Bucs couldn't even stop the pedestrian Rams offense last week, surrendering 28 points to Sam Bradford and Co. 

29. Oakland Raiders (4-11)

The Raiders find themselves in the familiar territory of drafting in the top 10. Carson Palmer played well at times, but he got no help from Darren McFadden and the running game. 

Speaking of McFadden, he has officially earned the injury-prone tag from yours truly. 

Without him in the lineup, the Raiders never had a chance. 

30. Arizona Cardinals (5-10)

You have to feel bad for Larry Fitzgerald. The league's most professional receiver has had to endure historically atrocious quarterback play for the past two seasons out west. 

After a hot start to the season, the Cardinals' awful offense did them in. 

31. Jacksonville Jaguars (2-13)

A close game against the Patriots opened some eyes, but Chad Henne made sure to throw those dreams away. 

Jacksonville desperately needs a franchise quarterback.

Paging Tim Tebow

32. Kansas City Chiefs (2-13)

Once again, the Chiefs are among the worst teams in the league, and once again, it all has to deal with the quarterback position.

Matt Cassel's reign as starting QB looks to be at its end, and Brady Quinn shouldn't ever be in a starting lineup. 

Jamaal Charles is the only saving grace for the Chiefs offense, but not even he could salvage the season in K.C. 


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