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After big win over Bucs, 49ers crack top 10 in Week 5 power rankings

ESPN has enlightened us on it being the Year of the Quarterback -- whatever that means -- but don't you believe it. It's actually shaping up as the Year of the Turnaround Team in the NFL. And I didn't even have to contrive anything to come up with that title. Just check out the standings through the season's first five weeks.

At the moment, the following clubs are all at or within a game of first place in their divisions: Detroit and Buffalo, which haven't been to the playoffs since 1999; Houston, which has never qualified for the postseason in its 10 year existence; San Francisco and Oakland, both of whom haven't had winning records and playoff runs since 2002; and Washington, which last made the postseason in 2007 and has just two playoff trips from 2000 on. And then there's Tennessee's current worst-to-first trajectory (the Titans are working on a three-year playoff drought) and Tampa Bay trying to return to the Super Bowl tournament for the first time since 2007.

So much new blood would really infuse the playoff field with great storylines, but there is the little matter of 12 weeks remaining on the regular season schedule. That's enough time for all those turnaround teams to turn around and begin losing again, wasting their strong starts. As much as optimism abounds in so many different NFL locales this season, it's good to remember that January is still a long ways away. Now onto this week's rankings....

Week 5 NFL Power Rankings
1Green Bay Packers
Last Week: 1
Speaking of premature, all the talk about the Packers' shot of going undefeated strikes me as a tad early. But then I checked the Green Bay schedule, and I can see why the chatter is starting in mid-October. It's not what you would call a brutal final 11 games. From my vantage point, at San Diego in Week 9, at Detroit in Week 12 and at the Giants in Week 13 look like the toughest remaining tests, and who knows what you're going to get from week to week from the Chargers and Giants? So crank up the 16-0 hype. Let's make those '72 Dolphins squirm again.
 
2New Orleans Saints
Last Week: 2
The good news for the Saints is that after this week's trip to Tampa Bay -- the third leg of an already successful three-game road swing -- half of this season's away schedule is done and in the books. The even better news? If New Orleans can get past the Bucs and improve to 5-1, a 7-1 mark at midseason looks like a virtual cinch, with Indianapolis at home and St. Louis on the road to close out October.
 
3New England Patriots
Last Week: 3
It was pretty impressive to see the pass-happy Patriots run the ball straight down the Jets' throats on Sunday's game-icing fourth-quarter drive. New York simply couldn't stop New England running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who gouged the Jets 10 times for 59 of the 69 yards the Patriots gained on their final and fateful field-goal drive. It was just the sort of imposition of will that Rex Ryan wants his running game to feature. But it doesn't. This time, it was the Jets who got grounded and pounded.
 
4Detroit Lions
Last Week: 4
I think it's finally time to remind folks of my prescience last Nov. 30, when the Lions were 2-9 and going nowhere. I wrote: "There's always at least one losing team that finishes strong and builds momentum for bigger and better things to come next year, and that team this season will be the ... Detroit Lions. That's right, the Lions, winners of a combined four games in the past three seasons. It takes a bit of projection, but I foresee a similar storyline emerging late this season in Detroit. Two or three Detroit wins between now and the end of the season will provide the boost the Lions need to make 2011 that long-awaited turnaround season." Since that brilliant piece of analysis, the Lions are 9-1. If anything, I underestimated the Leos.
 
5Baltimore Ravens
Last Week: 5
Hey, hey, look at what we're in store for when the happy Harbaughs get together on Thanksgiving night in Baltimore: Maybe a first-place, interconference showdown between the 49er-men of Jim Harbaugh and the Raven-men of John Harbaugh. Between that family fued and the clash of titans that will be Green Bay at Detroit earlier in the day, I can't remember when I ever looked forward to football on Turkey Day quite as much as I will this year.
 
6Buffalo Bills
Last Week: 7
These Bills defenders are interception machines. Buffalo already has two four-pick games this season, turning that trick against both Tom Brady and Michael Vick in wins at home. The Bills have 10 interceptions in their past three games, and their season total of 12 is already one more than they had all of last season. And they know what to do with them too, returning one pick per game for a touchdown the past three weeks: Nick Barnett, 31 yards against the Eagles; Bryan Scott, 43 yards at the Bengals; and Drayton Florence, 27 yards against the Patriots.
 
7San Diego Chargers
Last Week: 8
Running back Ryan Mathews has produced five consecutive games of at least 100 yards combined rushing and receiving this season, after managing that just once as a rookie in 2010 -- with that coming in Week 17. He ran for a career-best 125 yards in Sunday's win at Denver, and this is the weapon San Diego envisioned when it spent a first-round pick on Mathews.
 
8Pittsburgh Steelers
Last Week: 12
Starter Rashard Mendenhall is averaging 3.0 yards per carry for the Steelers, while backup running backs Isaac Redman, Jonathan Dwyer and Melwelde Moore check in at 4.2, 9.7, and 7.2 yards per rush, respectively. Just an observation, but I might keep spreading the ball around in the backfield if I'm Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians.
 
9San Francisco 49ers
Last Week: 16
You're going to think I'm making this up, but it checks out. In his last 10 starts, dating back as far as Week 6 of 2010, 49ers quarterback Alex Smith has thrown for 15 touchdowns and just two interceptions, and San Francisco has gone 7-3 in those games. OK, so he's never going to be Aaron Rodgers, but can we all allow for the possibility that maybe it was partly the coaching and the talent level around Smith that held him back in San Francisco?
 
10Washington Redskins
Last Week: 10
There's going to be a fight among Redskins rushers to see who gets the lead role this week against the porous Philadelphia run defense. If I'm the Shanahans, I run Tim Hightower, Ryan Torain and Roy Helu all at the Eagles, all game long. I wouldn't make Rex Grossman win this game unless it becomes absolutely necessary. If Washington has to throw more than 20 times on Sunday, something went wrong with the game plan.
 
11Oakland Raiders
Last Week: 14
Here's another reason for renewed hope in Oakland: That Raiders receiving corps is young, but talented, deep and explosive. Darrius Heyward-Bey had himself a breakout game in Houston, and then there's Denarius Moore, Jacoby Ford, and Chaz Schilens who are capable playmakers as well. Quarterback Jason Campbell has himself some downfield options.
 
12Houston Texans
Last Week: 6
The Texans should have beaten the Saints on the road, but didn't. They should have beaten the Raiders at home, but didn't. When will the shoulda's, woulda's and coulda's ever end for Gary Kubiak's club? Not to mention the key injuries? First Arian Foster, then Andre Johnson, and now Mario Williams. Three of Houston's best four players have been hurt early this season, and all I can say to that is, "Watch yourself, Matt Schaub."
 
13Tennessee Titans
Last Week: 9
Funny how we're not hearing much big talk from Chris "2K" Johnson these days. Johnson didn't mind speaking up when he was underpaid -- and he was -- but now that he's not remotely earning his big-money contract, mum's the word. Five games don't make a season, but averaging 50 rushing yards per game is going to leave CJ about 1,200 yards shy of his career benchmark.
 
14New York Giants
Last Week: 11
And so it goes with the Giants, who seem to take us on the same ride year after year. Start to like them, and they'll disappoint you. Start to bury them, and they'll surprise you. And with those three picks in Sunday's startling loss to the visiting Seahawks, New York quarterback Eli Manning jumped on the down-bound elevator as well.
 
15Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Last Week: 13
After looking sloppy in that narrow home win over the winless Colts, the Bucs went to San Francisco and got their pirate hats handed to them by the resurgent 49ers. That had to be a long flight home to Tampa. I suppose the only longer trip home would be in the wake of a 45-point-plus loss to the Bears in London in Week 7.
 
16Dallas Cowboys
Last Week: 19
The Patriots just took care of one of those big-talking Ryan coaching brothers in Foxboro, and now they've got another coming to town this week with the Cowboys. Rob Ryan used to draw a check from the Krafts, so there aren't many secrets between him and Bill Belichick. But it does make for another nice challenge for Tom Brady, who didn't fare so well the last time he faced a Rob Ryan-coached defense (see: 34-14 loss at Cleveland, Week 9, 2010).
 
17New York Jets
Last Week: 15
The Jets didn't waste any time shipping Derrick Mason's whiny butt out of town. There had to be a few snickers heard in Baltimore over that development. Let's just say the Ravens didn't always think Mason was worth the trouble, even when he was one of their most productive receivers. I do believe New York just took the less-is-more approach to problem solving.
 
18Cincinnati Bengals
Last Week: 22
Credit to the plucky Bengals for climbing over .500. Three fourth-quarter comeback victories tell me the Bengals don't know (and don't care) that people like me sentenced them to lousiness this season. They're just young enough in key spots to not pay any attention to the low expectation level that surrounded them. And with the Colts visiting Cincinnati this week, a heady 4-2 record is entirely possible for Marvin Lewis and Co.
 
19Chicago Bears
Last Week: 17
Jay Cutler's wish list for Christmas: "Dear Santa, I'd like to be able to set my feet and step into a pass just once this season. Just once." But for that to come true, you'd have to suspend a lot of disbelief. Not in Santa, mind you. Just the Bears offensive line.
 
20Atlanta Falcons
Last Week: 18
"Matty Ice" really isn't all that cool under pressure any more. Matt Ryan threw two fourth-quarter interceptions on Atlanta's final two possessions in the home loss to Green Bay, and the Falcons quarterback is struggling through the toughest stretch yet in his four-year NFL career. Atlanta tried to close the gap on the Packers this offseason, but the Falcons clearly didn't get that job done.
 
21Philadelphia Eagles
Last Week: 20
Blaming Juan Castillo for all that's wrong in Philadelphia is scape-goating to the highest degree. But you can't make the case that Andy Reid's big gamble on his new defensive coordinator hasn't been part of the problem. The Eagles play soft on defense, have next to no identity and little intensity, and the Philly secondary apparently believes it's against league rules to tackle.
 
22Cleveland Browns
Last Week: 21
All in all, it's not a great year in the NFL to be named Peyton. Manning hasn't played a snap in Indy, and "Blood and Guts" Hillis missing a Week 3 Browns game with strep throat -- his agent made him do it -- is one of those stories that will follow a player from now until heck freezes over.
 
23Seattle Seahawks
Last Week: 27
The Seahawks started picking up their pace of scoring rather dramatically when they started picking up the pace on offense, going to the no-huddle. In the past two games, Seattle's offense has scored 55 points, after posting just 30 in the season's opening three games. The Seahawks' young offensive line has adapted particularly well to the no-huddle, with center Max Unger leading the way and coach Tom Cable getting solid play from rookies John Moffitt and James Carpenter at right guard and right tackle, respectively.
 
24Kansas City Chiefs
Last Week: 28
Who's Jackie Battle? Glad you asked. It wasn't exactly a fluke to see Battle churn for a career-best 119 yards on 19 carries in the Chiefs' big comeback win at Indianapolis last Sunday. Battle has led Kansas City in rushing in each of the past two preseasons, totaling almost 300 yards in those eight games. But he was stuck behind Jamaal Charles, Thomas Jones and Dexter McCluster on the depth chart, so he played mostly special teams. But now the Chiefs need him, and Battle is tested. (Did you get that? Battle-tested?)
 
25Carolina Panthers
Last Week: 23
I know this much: I'm not messing with Steve Smith. Bad things happen to people who do. Did you see the veteran Panthers receiver pick up Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins by the face mask in Sunday's end-zone brawl? Sometimes it's teammates, and sometimes it's opponents, but eventually everyone has to be aware of where Smith is at all times.
 
26Minnesota Vikings
Last Week: 29
Jared Allen may be on his way to a career year in the sack department, with seven in his past three games and a league-leading 8.5 overall. But the veteran defensive end probably picked the wrong season to make his greatest impact, because last-place Minnesota isn't likely to warrant much attention this year in the top-heavy NFC North.
 
27Denver Broncos
Last Week: 26
Of course it's Tebow time. You can't keep running Kyle Orton out there under the premise that he gives your team the best chance to win, except for the fact that Denver keeps losing. Wind him up and let him go, Broncos. It'll at least be fun to see where Tebow takes you.
 
28Jacksonville Jaguars
Last Week: 25
The big news in Jaguar-land this week is that the team cut ties with punter Matt Turk, who struggled after signing a one-year, $2 million deal with Jacksonville in free agency. Turk, whose age is officially listed as ancient, seems to be the lucky one here. He doesn't have to watch any more Jaguars games this season.
 
29Arizona Cardinals
Last Week: 24
It's not a classic second guess, because I didn't think Kevin Kolb was all that to begin with. But Kolb's early season struggles with the Cardinals is the latest reminder that making a long-term judgment on a quarterback who has limited playing experience is a risky proposition. See Rob Johnson, A.J. Feeley and Scott Mitchell.
 
30St. Louis Rams
Last Week: 30
By now, Josh McDaniels has got to be wondering if it's him? The Rams' new offensive coordinator has been on the losing end of 21 of the past 26 games he's been involved in. That's 0-4 for this year's Rams, after losing 17 of his last 22 games as Denver's head coach in 2009-10. And you can probably make that 5-22 with the defending Super Bowl champion Packers on the opposite sideline this weekend.
 
31Miami Dolphins
Last Week: 31
The publicity-starved Dolphins decided to honor the 2008 University of Florida Gators national championship team before their Week 7 game against Denver, and as luck would have it, Tim Tebow now will be the Broncos' starter in that one. But it remains to be seen how far Miami goes to "honor" the most popular ex-Gator of all. If they let Tebow don a red jersey and promise not to tackle him, I'd say the Dolphins are going overboard again.
 
32Indianapolis Colts
Last Week: 32
All those seasons filled with big wins and good news and playoff trips, and then this in Indy: the Colts' first 0-5 start since 1997, their first five-game losing streak since 2001, and occupying last place in one of the weaker divisions in the league. Has there ever been a contending team fall off a cliff quite like this? To say the Colts are finding out how the other half lives in the NFL is putting it way too mildly.