NFL Power Rankings Week 13: Chicago Bears Roar Toward the Front of the NFC
Julius Peppers and the Chicago Bears found the antivenom to the lethal Michael Vick and beat the Philadelphia Eagles handily on Sunday, straining the eyes of fortune-tellers even further when it comes to the NFC playoff picture.
Even as some teams find solid footholds and begin posturing for top seeds, others (like the Eagles and Green Bay Packers) who had looked comfortable just a week ago suddenly find their playoff lives in danger.
Who are the real class teams of the NFC? Which contenders are only pretending? Who wins the race (a highly competitive one) for worst team in football?
Read on for the answers to these questions and more, and be sure to check out the AFC power rankings too.
16. Carolina Panthers
Okay, I lied. As bad as the Arizona Cardinals and company are, there really is no contest here. The Panthers are just awful.
They have won only one game all season, and that came against lowly San Francisco. Their running game was supposed to be a strength, but DeAngelo Williams was ineffective even before he got hurt, and Jonathan Stewart has been no better.
Meanwhile, the absence of an NFL-caliber quarterback anywhere on their roster is painfully apparent, and the miserable offensive struggles have strained an otherwise middling defense to its breaking point.
15. Arizona Cardinals
The Cardinals sneaked in a trio of early-season wins over ill-prepared opponents, but it has been nothing but ugly losses since their Week 6 bye.
San Francisco lowered the boom on them on Monday night, winning 27-6 in Arizona to put an end to any stray thoughts of a Cardinals comeback in the NFC West hunt.
If these rankings were based solely on the past six weeks, it would be hard not to rank Arizona dead last.
14. Dallas Cowboys
They managed to look like they belonged on the same field as the Saints this Sunday after two straight wins, but reality will drag Dallas back down over the remainder of a long season.
The Cowboys played so badly out of the gate that a hangover effect follows them even as they have begun to win in the post-Wade Phillips Jason Garrett era.
Dez Bryant and Miles Austin offer big-play excitement in the passing game, but that is about all the Cowboys do well.
13. Washington Redskins
The defense has been remarkably good at minimizing points, given the inordinate number of yards they allow.
Unfortunately, part of the reason they have been able to do so is that opponents do not need that many points to beat the punchless Redskins.
Donovan McNabb's debut season in the nation's capital has been a capital disaster, and injuries to Clinton Portis and Ryan Torain have stifled any hope of a consistent ground attack that might have kept the offense viable.
12. Minnesota Vikings
Brett Favre has had a truly miserable season, not because the Vikings have struggled so badly, but because of all the things that have happened along the way.
The firing of Brad Childress and the promotion of Leslie Frazier seem to have buoyed Favre a bit, and if he didn't look like the same ol' Brett in Sunday's win over Washington, at least he looked a little more youthful.
The Vikings are still a decent and dangerous team, but the turmoil that has torn them apart this year will keep them from realizing their potential even down the stretch.
11. Detroit Lions
Detroit cannot catch a break. They certainly are not among the NFC's legitimate playoff contenders, but they probably deserve to be 5-6, not 2-9.
They have played three great teams to tough losses at home this year, and Detroit looks like a team on the brink of success for the first time since the Barry Sanders era.
The defense, especially the tackling, must improve, but the Lions do not deserve their record, and their fans do not deserve the constant harassment from which no Lions fan can escape.
10. Seattle Seahawks
Pete Carroll has done a whale of a job coaching this team to a 5-6 record, but the aging Matt Hasselbeck and company should by no means begin punching playoff tickets.
The Rams are tied with Seattle atop the division and possess the early tiebreakers, and the 49ers are suddenly just a game back and hot enough to overtake the struggling Seahawks.
Kansas City exposed a pass defense that, other than rookie safety Earl Thomas, lacks discipline and speed, and the result was a 42-24 beatdown at home for Seattle.
9. San Francisco 49ers
Speak of the devil: The 49ers have come alive since their dreadful 0-5 start, saving their coach's job and suddenly looking like a threat to the division-leading Rams and Seahawks.
They were so convincing in their 27-6 domination of Arizona Monday night that it would be easy to forget they remain an afterthought if they cannot win the division.
They have games remaining against both of the teams ahead of them, though, so San Francisco is not to be counted out just yet.
8. St. Louis Rams
The Wild Card system has become a fixture in American sports, something we take for granted. It is not so much an idea as an axiom; we do not debate its merits, only its results.
Well, here I am saying it: The Wild Card system sucks.
If anyone needs proof, they need look no further than this year's NFC West, where all four teams are below .500 and all four are among the second vision of the NFC. A special dispensation ought to be made so that none of these also-rans are allowed to soil the reputation of the NFL playoffs.
As it is, though, the Rams are the most likely and most deserving representatives of the West. They, at least, are young and have the potential to bloom into a more legitimate contender. Sam Bradford, a rookie who also had to sit out the enormous majority of his final collegiate season, has conducted the offense with rhythm and poise that belie those two facts.
7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
You have to love the brash bunch under Raheem Morris in Tampa, especially emerging stud quarterback Josh Freeman. They even looked pretty good against Baltimore on Sunday, though they ultimately lost 17-10.
Still, this team is not among the NFC elite quite yet, and they may well find themselves sitting at home when the playoffs start. Look out for this team in 2011, though, if indeed 2011 ever comes to the NFL.
6. New York Giants
New York recovered nicely from a stunning loss to Dallas and a hard-fought one to Philadelphia by upending the Jaguars on Sunday, and they still have a good chance at sneaking into the NFC playoffs.
They have been exposed a bit, though, by the absences of Steve Smith and Hakeem Nicks from the lineup, and the offense is not its former explosive self.
The pass rush, always critical to success for this team under Tom Coughlin, remains strong.
5. New Orleans Saints
Yes, they are one of the NFL's two hottest teams, and yes, getting Reggie Bush back seemed to help the offense find its proper gear on Thursday against Dallas. Still, the Saints have holes, and the target on their backs will not make this final stretch any easier.
Their final three games will determine a lot, most notably their playoff seeding: at Baltimore, at Atlanta and then home against Tampa Bay to close out the year. Drew Brees and company may be more vulnerable than they have appeared lately.
4. Green Bay Packers
The Packers played high-flying Hotlanta almost to a draw, and though the Falcons got a win that set back Green Bay's playoff hopes considerably, the Packers remain a very real contender for the title of the NFC's best.
They are the most talented team in the NFC North, for sure, though the Bears continue to prove themselves a resilient and gritty bunch.
It's a tough road ahead for the Packers, who still have Chicago, New England and the Giants on their schedule, but Aaron Rodgers and the excellent defense are equal to the task.
3. Philadelphia Eagles
Lance Briggs and company stared down the Eagles and won on Sunday, but Philadelphia remains the class of the NFC East and arguably the NFC's most explosive offense.
Michael Vick has been relatively well-contained for two straight weeks, but teams without elite front seven groups (like Chicago's and New York's) will not find slowing Vick down to be so easy.
The Eagles should eventually earn the NFC East crown, though a first-round bye looks a lot less likely after Sunday's loss.
2. Chicago Bears
It seems to happen every few years: The Bears, buoyed by an excellent defense and a turnover-prone but big play-oriented offense, defy expectations and win 10 to 12 games, with pundits laughing them off all along.
The team reaches the playoffs and begins to intimidate the entire NFC, and there is usually a signature win mixed in against an elite team in November or December to announce the true arrival of those pesky Bears, again.
This year, that win came Sunday against Philly, when Jay Cutler had a terrific game and the Bears showed Michael Vick just why they paid Julius Peppers $91 million to come play for their side.
Chicago has some tough games left on its schedule, but this team is playoff-bound and may be tough to beat at Soldier Field in January.
1. Atlanta Falcons
Until they came into the Georgia Dome on Sunday, the Packers were the NFC's hottest team, having won their three previous games by a combined score of 85-10.
Their defense had become one of the most feared in the NFL, and Aaron Rodgers seemed poised to take his place atop the NFC quarterback hierarchy.
Not so fast, said Matt Ryan and the Falcons. Atlanta moved to 9-2 with their win over the Pack, though it was a hard-fought battle that might well have to be rehashed at some point in the near future.
The Falcons have taken down some tough customers over the past six weeks, and it is time to give them their due as the best, by far, in the NFC.