Just one week remains in the 2012 NFL season, but it seems we know just as little as we did in the preseason about who will be playing in February. Just one team (the Atlanta Falcons) has locked up a first-round bye in the playoffs, meaning Week 17 will mean more to teams than just about any time in recent memory.
As it's wont to do, that constant fluctuation among top teams leaves the NFL power rankings a shuffling state as well. Just last week everyone had anointed the San Francisco 49ers as the top dog before that status came crashing down with a loss to the Seattle Seahawks.
Was the Seahawks' victory enough to put them in the top spot? Let's find out. Here is a look at the latest batch of power rankings before Sunday's slate of games.
1. New England Patriots (11-4)
To put it simply, I'm not going to penalize the Patriots for coming out flat last week against the Jaguars after playing two of the six best teams in the NFL in consecutive games. New England still has far and away the league's most complete offense and a defense that has given up 20 points once in the past five weeks.
2. Denver Broncos (12-3)
On the other hand, I am going to keep the Broncos out of the top spot due to their schedule. Yes, it's not their fault and they've gotten the job done, but Denver's toughest contests in its past 10 games have been against Cincinnati and Baltimore.
Peyton Manning's crew isn't exactly what you would call battle-tested heading into the postseason.
3. Atlanta Falcons (13-2)
With dominant wins over the Giants and Lions, Atlanta finally seems to be putting it back together on both sides of the ball. If Matt Ryan and his trio of pass-catchers can keep firing on all cylinders and the Falcons can continue generating turnovers, the least-respected 13-2 team in recent memory could do real damage in January.
4. Seattle Seahawks (10-5)
The ascent of this Seahawks team has been absolutely beautiful to watch. Russell Wilson deserves far more Rookie of the Year consideration than he's getting and Marshawn Lynch has quietly put up nearly 1,500 yards on the ground this season.
With Brandon Browner returning for the playoffs and Richard Sherman winning his drug appeal, Seattle seems to be the proverbial team that's "peaking at the right time." Last week's drubbing of the 49ers was a culmination of that ascent and the Seahawks have become the team no one wants to play in the playoffs.
To put it mildly, the entire NFC will be rooting for San Francisco to capture the NFC West on Sunday. A trip to Seattle's CenturyLink Field looks like nothing short of a death knell, a fact the 49ers found out the hard way on Sunday.
5. San Francisco 49ers (10-4-1)
Oh, how people just adore overreacting to one bad defeat. Truth be told, the 49ers just joined a group of teams that includes the Patriots, Packers (with an asterisk), Cowboys and Vikings as teams that have lost at CenturyLink Field.
Let's stop making more out of last Sunday night than it truly meant, people.
6. Green Bay Packers (11-4)
More than just about any team in the playoff hunt, the Packers need to have a reprieve from Wild Card Weekend. Just about every positional unit has at least one player hampered by an injury or still awaiting clearance to return to the lineup.
If Green Bay can get that win on Sunday, it would go a long way toward making the team a Super Bowl contender.
7. Houston Texans (12-3)
People have been desperately trying to escape the Texans' bandwagon for weeks and they haven't done much to restore faith. Last week's 23-6 loss to the Vikings was particularly embarrassing, as fans booed throughout the contest and AFC Pro Bowler Matt Schaub was benched for T.J. Yates.
8. Washington Redskins (9-6)
The Cowboys may be "America's team," but I have a feeling most of the contiguous United States will be Redskins fans Sunday night. With Robert Griffin III leading the charge, it seems likely that a ton of casual fans will be rooting for one of the most exciting young stars in recent memory to play in January.
While all eyes will be on RGIII and the Redskins' offense, it's their defense that will be most integral to their playoff livelihood. Washington will need a huge game from DeAngelo Hall against Dez Bryant to curtail the red-hot Dallas pass defense on Sunday.
Based on what we've seen this season, that may be too tall of an order for the 29-year-old cornerback.
9. Baltimore Ravens (10-5)
Say what you will about this Ravens team, but they seem to have found a gem in Bernard Pierce and could be dangerous if inclement weather plays a factor.
Joe Flacco, meanwhile, had a pretty uninspired contract year based on just about any criteria. Maybe it's time Baltimore fans to realize he is who he is and stop trying to force him into the elite-quarterback conversation.
10. Cincinnati Bengals (9-6)
Cincinnati hasn't beaten much of anybody and its offense is pretty A.J. Green-centric, but is there any contender who would rather play the Bengals than the Colts? Didn't think so.
11. Dallas Cowboys (8-7)
For all of the somewhat-deserved criticism he gets, Tony Romo should be getting far more praise for his brilliance down the stretch.
After reaching the season's midway point with 10 touchdowns against 13 interceptions, Romo has cut down on the turnovers and Dallas has soared back into playoff contention.
Over the Cowboys' past seven games, their signal-caller has averaged 327.3 passing yards per game and thrown for 16 touchdowns against only three picks.
Not bad for a guy that many wanted to run out of town early on.
12. Chicago Bears (9-6)
Lovie Smith's squad may be playing for its coach's job security on Sunday. The clamoring to replace the long-tenured coach has increased in recent weeks and it seems the only surefire way to save Smith's job is to make the playoffs.
Luckily, the Bears have the easiest matchup of any wild-card contender this weekend and should beat the lowly Lions.
13. New York Giants (8-7)
Grantland's Bill Barnwell puts the Giants' chances of making the postseason at exactly 8.5 percent. They need to beat the Eagles and have three other games to go their way in order to sneak in as the No. 6 seed. Washington has to dispose of Dallas, Green Bay of Minnesota and Detroit of Chicago, which seems by far the least plausible outcome.
Nevertheless, I have a sneaking feeling that the defending champs will somehow pull it off. Call me crazy, I guess.
14. Indianapolis Colts (10-5)
This is unquestionably one of the most heartwarming stories of 2012, but don't expect the Colts' magical run to continue through January. They've exceeded their Pythagorean Expectation by a minimum of three wins and rank 28th in Football Outsiders' overall team DVOA metric.
I'm not saying Indianapolis is the fifth-worst team in the NFL, but Chuck Pagano's scrappy squad will easily be the worst playoff team.
15. Minnesota Vikings (9-6)
If the Vikings make the playoffs and Adrian Peterson does not win the 2012 NFL MVP award, every voter who didn't put AD atop their ballot should lose their vote. Heading into Week 17, he's a mere 208 yards away from breaking Eric Dickerson's all-time rushing record (2,106 yards) and is doing so with Christian Ponder as his quarterback.
If that's not the definition of "most valuable," then I'm at a loss.
16. New Orleans Saints (7-8)
This season, the Saints proved once and for all how much a good coach matters. Sean Payton's absence undoubtedly cost New Orleans a few games and is the overarching reason the team can book vacation plans for January.
17. St. Louis Rams (7-7-1)
Win or lose, the 2012 campaign will be the eighth time in Jeff Fisher's 17 seasons as a head coach where his team has finished with either eight or seven wins. All hail the king of mediocrity, I guess.
18. Pittsburgh Steelers (7-8)
If Steelers fans want a silver lining to this disappointing season, they could always point to the fact that only two of Pittsburgh's eight losses came by more than one score. Then again, the same exact thing can be said of the Steelers' seven wins as well.
Truth be told, this was a very middling team from opening week on, and the team's record reflects that.
19. Carolina Panthers (6-9)
A late-season winning streak may not exactly help the Panthers' draft-day plans, but it has helped answer lingering questions about Cam Newton. Though his running splits are negligible, the Carolina signal-caller has returned to his 2011 form passing the ball.
Just for reference, here's a look at the Carolina star's splits from the first half and second half of the season:
First Half: 237.8 YPG, 6 TDs, 8 INT, 77.7 QB Rating
Second Half: 245.6 YPG, 13 TDs, 3 INT, 99.2 QB Rating
Panthers fans everywhere are hoping that Newton is much more like the second-half guy than the player who showed up the first eight games next season.
20. Miami Dolphins (7-8)
Remember when the Dolphins dealt Brandon Marshall for a bag of beans and a breakfast burrito at Taco Bell? After having Brian Hartline as his top receiver all year, I bet Ryan Tannehill does.
21. San Diego Chargers (6-9)
In what will likely be Norv Turner's last game as Chargers head coach, they are heavy favorites against the Raiders. Wouldn't it just be the perfect cherry on the Turner sundae if San Diego won and it took them out of Taylor Lewan contention in April?
Yes, yes it would.
22. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-9)
Undoubtedly the streakiest team in the NFL this season, the Bucs will need to decide the fate of quarterback Josh Freeman this offseason. It's likely that he comes back as the incumbent starter, but one has to wonder whether he's more like the guy who struggled early and late in 2012, rather than the player who dominated the season's middle.
23. New York Jets (6-9)
I think even the Jets are sick of the incessant coverage of their team this season. From beginning to end, this has been nothing but a circus and just about all of our lives will be better when the final whistle sounds for Rex Ryan's squad on Sunday.
24. Detroit Lions (4-11)
Whether you subscribe to the "junk time" yardage theory with Calvin Johnson or not, it's undeniable that his performance this season is jaw-droppingly impressive.
On a weekly basis, teams know Johnson is Matthew Stafford's only reliable target and scheme accordingly. He gets teams' best cornerbacks and bracket coverage, but still heads into Week 17 with the possibility of being the first 2,000-yard receiver in NFL history.
25. Cleveland Browns (5-10)
Someone named Thaddeus Lewis will start at quarterback for the Browns on Sunday. Don't worry folks, I had to look him up for you and apparently Duke has a football team. (I kid.)
26. Buffalo Bills (5-10)
One has to wonder whether the Bills would have won one or two more games had C.J. Spiller gotten a heavier workload. The scintillating third-year back has rushed for 1,183 yards and six touchdowns coming into this week despite carrying the ball just 183 times.
He reached the 1,000-yard mark in the second-fewest carries in NFL history and has averaged 6.48 yards per carry this season. If the season ended today, that figure would break Jim Brown's yards per carry record among players with an equal amount of carries.
27. Philadelphia Eagles (4-11)
Nick Foles broke the Eagles' franchise record for most passing yards by a rookie last week against the Redskins. For some reason, that's amused me all week.
28. Arizona Cardinals (5-10)
Brian Hoyer will get the start on Sunday for the Cardinals, making him the fourth starting quarterback in 2012. Or, as it will be known after this season in Arizona, the pre-Matt Barkley era.
29. Tennessee Titans (5-10)
Since coming back from injury, Jake Locker has completed only 52.3 percent of his passes, thrown six touchdowns against nine interceptions and taken 20 sacks in six games.
His NFL sample size isn't enough to make it worth giving up on the second-year quarterback, but one has to wonder whether the Titans will consider their bringing in another young signal caller this offseason.
30. Oakland Raiders (4-11)
Speaking of young signal callers, Terrelle Pryor will finally get his first NFL start on Sunday. Of course, that came just one week after Raiders head coach Dennis Allen said the former Ohio State star wasn't even ready to be the team's backup.
So I'm unsure whether you should be happy or scared to death, Oakland fans. Nevertheless, Pryor's presence makes the Raiders one of Week 17's most intriguing teams, something that certainly wouldn't have been the case with Carson Palmer under center.
31. Jacksonville Jaguars (2-13)
Theory: Maurice Jones-Drew avoided going on injured reserve all season just so fantasy owners would keep him on their rosters and hope beyond hope that he would come back. There's obviously no proof of this, but it's my theory and I'm sticking to it.
32. Kansas City Chiefs (2-13)
Jamaal Charles has to be one of the five most upset players in the NFL. Not only does he have to play on this paltry Chiefs team, but he's been completely overlooked in the Comeback Player of the Year Award race.
Any other season Charles would have run away with the award. It just so happens that 2012 saw Peyton Manning and Adrian Peterson put together two of the greatest comeback seasons in league history.
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