There are only two weeks left for NFL power rankings. Then we play the real game with the NFL Playoffs, and watch our favorite teams duke it out for supremacy of the league.
Some teams are falling apart down the stretch, while others are making their final push. So who is rising up the rankings and who is falling down? Here are the power rankings heading into Week 16.
No, one win does not save the Indianapolis Colts from a season's worth of embarrassments. It really is hard to believe that a core of players that just made the Super Bowl two seasons ago was that dependent on one man.
The New England Patriots finished a game out of the playoffs without Tom Brady. The Chicago Bulls finished a blown call from the Eastern Conference finals without Michael Jordan. We now know that Peyton Manning is the most valuable player in the NFL (and maybe all of sports), and it is not even close.
The St. Louis Rams need to get it together, or Steven Jackson needs to get out of town. He is too good and too professional to tolerate losing for his entire career.
Once thought of as the favorite in the NFC West, this team stinks from top to bottom. The only facet of the game they have ranked above 26th is their eighth-ranked pass defense, and that ranking is merely a result of being so easy to run against.
It is not just that they have lost (five straight and counting), it is how they have lost. For the year, they lost one in overtime and one by a field goal. The rest have been by at least a touchdown, the majority of them blowouts.
The Minnesota Vikings may be in the midst of a longer losing streak than the Rams, but at least the majority of their games have been competitive. Seven of their losses have come by a touchdown or less.
Christian Ponder may not be in Cam Newton's class as a rookie, but he has at least given the Vikings reason to hope for the future. Ponder has been game against some very good teams. Like most rookie quarterbacks, he has had a lot of mistakes, but I like his moxie and the way the team responds to his passion.
I think Ponder will be a very good—not great—quarterback. When you have Adrian Peterson, that is all you need to contend.
The Tampa Bay Bucs have to be one of the three most disappointing teams in the NFL. Most expected them to contend for a wild-card spot, with some even picking them as an upset winner of the NFC South crown.
Instead, Josh Freeman has slammed the brakes on us anointing him the next great quarterback, and his team has followed suit. Freeman followed a 25-touchdown, six-interception sophomore season with a 13-touchdown, 18-interception stinker.
The Bucs have lost eight straight and nine of 10. Seven of those losses have been of the blowout variety.
I am usually one to preach patience with a rookie quarterback, but the Jacksonville Jaguars should save some time and give up on Blaine Gabbert.
It is not Gabbert's statistics that bother me, even though they are horrid. It is his pocket presence, more specifically his lack of it. Gabbert looks afraid to get hit before the rush even gets to him. He falls back on the majority of his throws, which leads to ugly incompletions.
Granted Gabbert has a terrible receiving corps, but I do not think being scared in the pocket can be fixed with experience or better receivers.
The Cleveland Browns were a trendy pick to compete in the AFC North. Instead, that distinction has gone to the other Ohio team, the Cincinnati Bengals.
Now they are in the midst of a five-game losing streak, and are working their way up the draft board. The question is, what do they do if a premier quarterback prospect is there? Colt McCoy has not played well enough to be a guarantee, nor has he he been bad enough to give up on.
Peyton Hillis was supposed to be the focal point of the offense, and bailed on this team, and the Browns have a terrible receiving corps. For those reasons, I say the Browns give McCoy one more year, draft him some playmakers and see what he can do with some weapons.
I hate to say it Buffalo Bills fans, but I saw this coming. When the Bills were lighting up the league for the first quarter of the season, I was just waiting for the collapse. One seven-game losing streak later, and I think my pessimistic thoughts have been justified.
The Bills have to think seriously about releasing Ryan Fitzpatrick this offseason. If they don't they are stuck paying him $60 million. Would you bet that much that the first half of the season is the real Fitzpatrick and the second half is the aberration? I wouldn't.
The Washington Redskins' biggest mistake of the season? Benching Rex Grossman in the middle of the year. If the 'Skins won two out of the three while they were spinning their tires with John Beck, they would be right in the thick of the NFC East race.
As it stands, they are the only ones out of it. They have been more competitive with Grossman back under center, going 2-4 with two close losses to the Dallas Cowboys and New England Patriots. If they can get some consistent quarterback play this team could contend, as they are pretty solid elsewhere.
If Peyton Manning becomes available, I expect the Redskins to be the first ones to pick up the phone and dial (or tweet?) Bill Polian.
So maybe Reggie Bush really is a feature back. He certainly has been for the Miami Dolphins, racking up 973 yards on five yards per carry, anchoring the seventh-best rushing attack in the NFL.
The Dolphins are 5-2 in their last seven games, including blowout victories over the Chiefs, Redskins, Bills and Raiders. With Bush, Brandon Marshall and an improving defense, they have some intriguing pieces to build on for the future. Matt Moore has been a revelation, but if Matt Barkley or Robert Griffin III are available, I expect the 'Fins to snatch him.
The late-season push was not enough to save Tony Sparano's job, but could it be enough to knock the "interim" off head coach Todd Bowles' title?
Cam Newton's explosive play has not led to many victories yet, but that will come with time. For now, he will have to settle for rewriting the majority of the rookie passing records.
Newton has turned the NFL's worst offense into one of its best. The next step of the rebuilding process is to overhaul that defense, and there are plenty of playmakers in the draft. The Panthers are 3-1 in their last four games, and with a solid finish could (as cheesy as it sounds) build a winning attitude for next season. Look out for Newton and the Panthers in 2012.
What a season of ups and downs for the Kansas City Chiefs. First they lose three straight to kick off the season. Then they win four straight to jump back in contention. Then they drop right back out with a four-game losing streak.
So how do they follow that up? By beating the team we are all just waiting to crown the best of all time, the Green Bay Packers. The only logical thing for the Chiefs to do is win their last two games and finish 8-8.
In hindsight, maybe the Chicago Bears should have given Brett Favre that phone call. At least now Lovie Smith knows they need to upgrade at backup quarterback.
Caleb Hanie has been awful, turning a promising Bears season into a disaster. They would need to win their final two games to even think about making the playoffs. With Josh McCown making his first start since 2007 against the Green Bay Packers, don't bet on it.
The Oakland Raiders are done and no one should be surprised. You cannot pick a quarterback up off the couch in the middle of a playoff race and expect good things to happen.
The Raiders have lost three straight, and Carson Palmer has thrown five interceptions in that span. One thing I do not understand: Palmer and his limited knowledge of the playbook has thrown at least 35 passes in all but one of his seven starts. Jason Campbell and his extensive knowledge of the playbook eclipsed that mark just once.
I know Darren McFadden was out for the majority of Palmer's run, but Michael Bush has proven more than capable of carrying the load.
Just when the Philadelphia Eagles' playoff window seemed to slam shut, it has been propped back open courtesy of the Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants.
It seems like a long shot, but is it really? They need to win out, the New York Jets must knock off the Giants and the G-Men have to return the favor and beat the Cowboys in the last game of the season. Given what I know about all four teams, I like the Eagles' chances.
If they make it, do they become that team no one wants to play in the playoffs?
Yes, the Tennessee Titans overachieved in most people's eyes this season. Still, you are going to go all that way and have your playoff hopes dashed by the winless Indianapolis Colts? Sad.
With only an outside shot of making the playoffs, I would like to see them throw rookie Jake Locker in there for the last two games. He has played well in limited time, including filling in for Hasselbeck against the Colts and throwing for their only touchdown.
The Arizona Cardinals have snuck up as a team that, had things gone differently earlier in the season, would be right in the thick of the playoff chase.
Their winning ways (six in the last seven games) have come just a bit too late. Four of the Cardinals' seven early losses were by four points or fewer. What is interesting is that five of the team's seven wins have come with John Skelton at the helm.
Could there be a quarterback controversy in Arizona next season? Probably not, but there certainly could be if the team struggles under Kevin Kolb again. If Kolb is worth the price they paid to acquire him, the Cardinals will be a dangerous team in 2012.
A mirror image of their NFC West-rival Arizona Cardinals, the Seattle Seahawks made a run just a tad too late as a serious playoff contender.
Seattle has rattled off three straight wins and five of six to storm back to .500. During the streak, Marshawn Lynch has emerged as the most feared runner in the league. Lynch has gone through, over and around defenders for eight touchdowns and over 600 yards in that span.
They may be too late for 2011, but at least they know the game plan for 2012: Give Lynch the ball and get out of his way.
The Cincinnati Bengals have hung tough all year, and are still alive for a wild-card spot. Whether or not they get it, this is a scrappy bunch and a true team on the rise.
The Bengals would have to win out, which would include a victory over the Baltimore Ravens. Cincinnati is 0-for-3 against the Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers this season. They also need to hope the Jets drop one of their final two games.
With Andy Dalton, A.J. Green and the king's ransom they received from the Oakland Raiders, the don't-call-us-bungles-Bengals might have the brightest future in football.
The San Diego Chargers' script was slightly different this season, but the result was still the same: Throw games away early, make a mad scramble to the finish line and try and sneak into the playoffs.
Philip Rivers has turned it around and is playing like the MVP candidate he was expected to be, throwing 11 touchdowns with zero interceptions in his last four games. The Chargers will have to win out and hope the Broncos drop one to win the NFC West and make the tournament.
Just like in previous seasons, if the Chargers make it they will be dangerous, and no one will want to play them.
The New York Giants are the most frustrating team in the NFL. On any given week, they can play like a Super Bowl contender, or they can lose to the Washington Redskins. Twice.
Due to the rest of the division's reluctance to make the playoffs, the Giants still control their own destiny and will have to win both games to win the division and make the playoffs. If they make it, they will be the dangerous underdog no NFC favorite wants to face.
The rest of the division has gift-wrapped the NFC East and handed it to the Dallas Cowboys. Will they accept the present, or regift to the New York Giants or Philadelphia Eagles?
The Cowboys have found new ways to lose games this season, and recent history points to Dallas dropping the final two games for another epic late-season failure. If I am a Dallas fan, I am worried.
The New York Jets were in the midst of their typical late-season revival when a beatdown by the Philadelphia Eagles threw a wrench in the process. Now they are in a must-win against another desperate New York team, the Giants.
The Jets had played well until Sunday, so I expect them to sneak in the playoffs again. Mark Sanchez has received a lot of flak for not taking the next step in his development, but has actually had the best season of his career. His experience and big-game moxie could give the Jets another postseason run, as long as they get there.
Tom Brady did not beat the Denver Broncos and Tim Tebow did not blow the game. Denver needs to look no further than three second-quarter fumbles to see how they lost.
Denver was following the game plan and Tebow was playing the best early game football I had seen from him all season. Then the fumbles erased an early lead and put the Patriots in the driver's seat. If Denver wins their final two games (or San Diego and Oakland lose one), they will take the division and deliver the Tebow to the playoffs.
Congratulations to the Houston Texans for making the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. Pending their matchup in the first round, that is probably where the good times end for this scrappy bunch.
The Texans had their seven-game losing streak snapped in ugly fashion by the Carolina Panthers. T.J. Yates' two-interception performance is more likely what we will see against playoff defenses than the 300 yards and two touchdowns he threw for against the Cincinnati Bengals.
The Texans have a dominant defense and running game, so do not completely count them out. Still, a third-string rookie quarterback taking his team to the playoffs is the stuff of movies, not NFL lore.
The Detroit Lions are young, hungry and dangerous. Their five losses have come to the top-five seeds in the NFC playoffs.
You can read whatever you want into that. On the one hand, they have beaten the teams they should beat. On the other, they have not beat any of the elite NFC teams they will face in January. With their firepower, they should provide one of the most exciting playoff games, win or lose.
With four wins in their last five games, the Atlanta Falcons are playing their best football at the most important time of year.
Matt Ryan has been the catalyst of their recent strong play, with a quarterback rating over 110 in four of those five games. They will need Ryan to be at his best come playoff time, something he has not been in two attempts. Ryan has four interceptions in two career playoff games.
Ater winning nine of their first 10 games, the San Francisco 49ers are 2-2 in their last four games.
Sure they beat one of the AFC's best in the Pittsburgh Steelers, but that was with Ben Roethlisberger playing on one foot. I cannot see the 49ers making it any further than the second round of the playoffs. Every other team has an elite quarterback. Alex Smith has been a revelation, but he his far from the likes of Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Matt Stafford.
The New England Patriots followed a rare two-game losing streak by rattling off six straight wins. That should be enough for the Patriots to once again be one of the AFC's top two seeds and secure a first-round bye.
Will that be enough for Tom Brady to win his first playoff game since 2008? Defense wins championships, and the Patriots have been one of the league's worst. Unless that changes in the playoffs, the Brady Bunch will come up short again.
The Pittsburgh Steelers likely blew their shot at a first-round bye with their loss to the San Francisco 49ers. That was their first loss since Week 9 and the defending AFC champs still have to be considered Super Bowl favorites.
The bye is gone, so it is time for Plan B: Rest the key starters and gear up for a playoff run on the road.
The Baltimore Ravens only lost their first-round bye for about 24 hours, but that loss to the San Diego Chargers was ugly. Unless they drop one of their last two games, I will chalk up that up to an aberration against a desperate team.
The Ravens are desperate to win a Super Bowl for Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. They have a dangerous defense and an offense good enough to get the job done. How far they go in the playoffs will come down to Joe Flacco's performance in the playoffs.
The New Orleans Saints have not lost since Week 8 and are poised for another Super Bowl run.
Drew Brees in prime form and the defense is starting to hold up its end of the bargain. I see a matchup between the last two Super Bowl winners to determine the NFC champs.
In the most shocking week of the NFL season, the Indianapolis Colts won and the Green Bay Packers lost.
Still, the Green Bay Packers are by far the best team in the NFL and should be considered the favorites to win the Super Bowl. As long as the line holds up long enough for Aaron Rodgers to do his work, they will be playing for the Lombardi Trophy in February.