The New England Patriots have been playing like the best team in the NFL for the last six weeks.
NFL power rankings aren’t an exact science. Deciding where to file 32 teams according to value or performance is a matter of objectivity for the most part.
The good thing is that it becomes exponentially easier as the season goes along as teams begin clinching divisions, securing top seeds, and capturing wild card berths.
So, with only two weeks remaining in the regular season, this should be a breeze, right?
Eh, we’ll see.
1. New England Patriots (12-2)
Since early November, no team has been as good—not to mention dominant—as the Patriots, who have won their past six by an average of nearly 19 points. In that span, Tom Brady has thrown 21 touchdown passes and zero interceptions in 292 attempts.
2. Atlanta Falcons (12-2)
The Falcons are about as close as you can get to being interchangeable with New England. Owners of the longest winning streak in the league, the Falcons need only beat New Orleans on Sunday to spend the entire NFC Playoffs at the Georgia Dome, where they’ve yet to lose this season.
3. Philadelphia Eagles (10-4)
What can you say that hasn’t already been said about that comeback at The Meadowlands? It was a game for the ages, but the scary thing is that Vick, Jackson, Maclin and the Boys made it look boorishly routine.
4. Chicago Bears (10-4)
The Bears removed all doubt from the NFC North race on Monday night with a convincing win in Minnesota. But with the No. 2 seed still without a rightful owner, don’t expect Lovie Smith to start resting players just yet.
5. San Diego Chargers (8-6)
The Chargers have that December magic going again. Nevertheless, because of a predictably slow September and October, they’ll need some outside help if they want to play well into January.
6. Baltimore Ravens (10-4)
We all know about the defense, but Joe Flacco is seventh in the NFL with 94.8 passer rating and has thrown only eight picks to his 23 touchdowns. Now, if only he could get some help from the league’s 16th-ranked running game, the Ravens could be hard to handle
7. New Orleans Saints (10-4)
The Saints have improved dramatically on defense, moving up from 25th overall in ’09 to ninth this season, which could prove invaluable considering they’ll have to be road warriors to make a return to the Super Bowl.
8. New York Jets (10-4)
The season may very well have been salvaged in Pittsburgh, but another test awaits at Soldier Field, where the Jets face a Bears team that’s already clinched a playoff berth and still has plenty to play for.
9. Pittsburgh Steelers (10-4)
The Steelers have clinched a playoff berth and right now would have a week off before hosting a divisional round game. But those rosy projections would change in a hurry with a loss to either Carolina on Thursday or in the season finale at Cleveland, which could drop Pittsburgh all the way down the No. 6 seed.
10. Kansas City Chiefs (9-5)
The reunion of former colleagues Romeo Crennel and Charlie Weis has been nothing short of spectacular in Kansas City. Crennel has resurrected a defense that ranked a woeful 30th last season, while Weis has taken advantage of a mix of youth and experience to equip the Chiefs with the league’s top-ranked rushing attack.
11. New York Giants (9-5)
Forget the collapse. The manner in which New York dominated the Eagles for three and a half quarters was impressive, and it showed that on the right day, the Giants are plenty capable of taking down anyone—barring a collapse, of course.
12. Oakland Raiders (7-7)
The Raiders would need plenty of help to sneak into the playoffs at 9-7, so let’s not get too ahead of ourselves. Oakland still has to contend with the Colts and Chiefs, two teams whose playoff dreams the Raiders could destroy while also possibly constructing their own.
13. Indianapolis Colts (8-6)
The win against Jacksonville last week cannot be overvalued, but the Colts face a menacing cross-country haul to the West Coast to face the Raiders. And the league’s No. 1 passing offense will have to do it shorthanded, having lost receiver Austin Collie to his third concussion in seven games this season against the Jaguars.
14. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-6)
There’s still a glimmer of hope in Tampa, but odds are with wins at home against Seattle and on the road at New Orleans, the Bucs are going to be looking back at that overtime loss to Detroit all offseason long.
15. Jacksonville Jaguars (8-6)
The Jags are more or less a hodge-podge of no-name players, but they get the job done, particularly on the ground. The team’s marquee name—maybe it’s only marquee name—Maurice Jones-Drew has rushed for 1,324 yards to lead the NFL’s third-most potent running game.
16. Green Bay Packers (8-6)
An update on the status of Aaron Rodgers is expected on Wednesday. If he’s unfit to play, the reins of the offense will once again be handed to Matt Flynn. As good as Flynn was against the Pats, he’ll need to be better on Sunday if the Packers want to snatch the final wild card spot away from the visiting Giants.
17. Miami Dolphins (7-7)
After beating the Jets on Dec. 12, the Fish were in good position to make a charge for the playoffs. That is until they turned in a clunker last week against the Bills to fall to 1-6 at home this season, one of the worst marks in franchise history.
18. Dallas Cowboys (5-9)
It likely won’t happen, but Jason Garrett should get strong consideration from Jerry Jones to be the head coach next season. Since taking over for Wade Phillips on Nov. 8, the Cowboys have won four of six, with the two losses coming by a combined six points.
19. Tennessee Titans (6-8)
Their season officially lost, the Titans have some decisions to make in the offseason. Which side of the Jeff Fisher-Vince Young feud will general manager Mike Reinfeldt and owner Bud Adams take? From there, the two will have to game plan on how to adequately replace either the longest-tenured coach in the league or one of the game’s most talented and enigmatic quarterbacks.
20. St. Louis Rams (6-8)
Expectations have soared in just one short season in St. Louis, which is why Sunday’s flatlining display against Kansas City was so disappointing. Still leading the worst division in football, however, the Rams need only win out to clinch a postseason berth for the first time since 2004.
21. Seattle Seahawks (6-8)
What else can you say about a team that has won two games in a row once all season? Inconsistent? Up and down? How about lucky? Despite their trials, the Seahawks could win the pathetic NFC West and earn a playoff home game with wins at Tampa Bay and against St. Louis at Qwest Field.
22. Cleveland Browns (5-9)
Peyton Hillis is blossoming into a bona-fide star at running back, and Colt McCoy has completed 65.8 percent of his passes as a rookie. Overall, the Browns are a receiver or two away from becoming a good offensive team. But, wait, these are the Browns we’re talking about.
23. Minnesota Vikings (5-9)
Held together by medical tape and determination, Brett Favre gutted out another one Monday night before being yanked with a concussion in the second quarter. From that point on, the Vikings crumbled and were outscored 30-0 en route to a 40-14 whooping that spoiled Minnesota’s first outdoor home game in three decades.
24. San Francisco 49ers (5-9)
With a 3-1 record against divisional opponents, the Niners may be the best team in the NFC West, which is like saying your girlfriend is the least fat of all her friends. San Francisco, which is 2-8 against everybody else in the league, has a chance to significantly improve its playoff chances by sweeping the season series from first-place St. Louis this weekend.
25. Detroit Lions (4-10)
Go ahead and hand the award for defensive rookie of the year to Ndamukong Suh, who has made a tremendous impact on the interior of the Lions’ defensive line. With all due respect to Kansas City’s Eric Berry and New England's Devin McCourty who have combined for nine picks, Suh has been too dominant for competition: he has recorded a rookie-high eight sacks and posting 55 tackles, one interception, and a fumble recovery for a touchdown.
26. Washington Redskins (5-9)
Does anyone really believe Mike Shanahan when he says he benched Donovan McNabb so he could get a good look at Rex Grossman? This is the same Rex Grossman who hasn’t been able to hit the broad side of a barn since he left the Florida Gators.
27. Houston Texans (5-9)
Everything seemed so great when the team jetted out to that 4-2 start, but the early success seemed to spook some people, either out of surprise or anticipation that his team may actually be a playoff contender. Nearly two months and one win later, the Texans are in absolute free-fall. And no one is really all that shocked.
28. Arizona Cardinals (4-10)
Oh, Kurt Warner, where art thou? The Cardinals need to address their quarterback situation, and do it now. Rookie Max Hall looks like a newborn deer out there, and among quarterbacks with a minimum of 200 attempts, Derek Anderson is last in completion percentage (51.7) and second-to-last in passer rating (59.1).
29. Buffalo Bills (4-10)
Buffalo was the league’s lone winless team before getting off the schnide against Detroit. Since then, however, the Bills have won four of six, and it could have been five if not for a dropped pass by Steve Johnson that would’ve sealed a win over Pittsburgh.
30. Cincinnati Bengals (3-11)
The Bengals have a lot of dead weight lying these days, but the challenge will be determining how much needs to be cut loose. My guess Marvin Lewis visits the chopping block first, but only because it’s more prudent to fire him then do away with several members of a prima donna offense that has failed miserably in living up to the hype.
31. Denver Broncos (3-11)
The Josh McDaniels Experiment didn’t exactly go according to plan. Now Broncos officials are saying whomever they hire next will not be bestowed with executive power, which is how McDaniels managed to trade away the team’s best receiver, draft a developmental quarterback in the first round, and make the defense a laughing stock.
32. Carolina Panthers (2-12)
If the Panthers can simply do for the next two weeks what they’ve done all season, they’ll be selecting the first overall pick in April. The only problem then will be choosing which of the many, many holes to fill.