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NFL Power Rankings, Week 12

I don't really get the annual complaints about Detroit and Dallas always getting the host team duties on Thanksgiving Day. It doesn't bother me a bit. There has to be a place for tradition somewhere in the ever-changing world of the NFL -- where even the league's rules and penalty codes can be re-configured in the middle of a season -- and Thanksgiving seems as good a place as any to hold fast to doing things the same way they've been done in the past.

In a season in which we've been able to count on precious little, it's kind of comforting to know that we'll be watching the Lions and Cowboys suit up and take the field on Thursday, just like always. Thanksgiving football for me means Chicago's Dave Williams returning the opening kickoff of overtime in Detroit for a game-winner, Leon Lett fumbling away the day for the Cowboys in the snow against Miami, and O.J. Simpson running wild for the Bills against the Lions. And Clint Longley, always Clint Longley, bombing the daylights out of the Redskins in Dallas.

The Lions and Cowboys are just part of the tapestry of the day, but they don't own all of the highlights or create all the Thanksgiving NFL memories. But I like that there's a thread that ties it all together in the mind. Detroit to start off, and then to Dallas. Don't try fixing something that's not broken, NFL. There's plenty of change in the game already. Like those two sets of overtime rules we have in 2010.

And now on to this week's rankings ...

NFL Power Rankings, Week 12
1New England <a href=Patriots" title="New England Patriots">
Last Week: 1
Sunday's outcome had to be pretty familiar for both of the game's superstar quarterbacks: Peyton Manning hung up the gaudy statistics, and Tom Brady hung up another W. New England is the class of the AFC at the moment, but it'll be by a narrow margin until the Patriots prove they can beat the Jets in Week 13 and seize control of the AFC East. I can't see New England getting where it wants to go this season via the wild-card route, so it best win the division and claim one of the conference's top two seeds.
 
2New York <a href=Jets" title="New York Jets">
Last Week: 2
All the late-game, Mark Sanchez-to-Santonio Holmes heroics has served to slightly obscure the fact that New York's fearsome defense isn't quite as fearsome as anticipated. The Jets have allowed their opponents to score 20 or more points in five of the past six games, but they're 5-0 in that situation. With the showdown in New England looming in Week 13, the Jets need a dominating defensive performance against Cincinnati on Thursday night to re-set the tone that Rex Ryan prefers.
 
3Atlanta <a href=Falcons" title="Atlanta Falcons">
Last Week: 3
The Falcons and Packers are tied for the longest active winning streak in the NFL (four in a row), and they meet Sunday in the Georgia Dome in the glamour matchup of the week. If Atlanta can improve to 6-0 at home this season, and clinch a third consecutive winning season under head coach Mike Smith, it should be able to ride that momentum through its upcoming three-game road trip to Tampa Bay, Carolina and Seattle.
 
4Pittsburgh <a href=Steelers" title="Pittsburgh Steelers">
Last Week: 4
After the humbling at the hands of the Patriots, the Steelers defense really needed the ego boost that came with that dominant performance at home against Oakland. Holding the Raiders' Darren McFadden-led running game to 61 yards was the kind of muscle-flexing that reminds us how much the tone is, and will always be set on defense in Pittsburgh.
 
5Green Bay <a href=Packers" title="Green Bay Packers">
Last Week: 10
I wanted to wait and see how the Packers dealt with the Metrodome last Sunday before bumping them up into the elite class of our power rankings, because the Vikings' plastic-roof palace has been a house of horrors for Green Bay over the years. But the Packers are rolling now, and they're getting it done on both sides of the ball. It might only be late November, but this week's trip to Atlanta could wind up deciding who gets to host whom in the NFC title game eight weeks from now.
 
6Philadelphia <a href=Eagles" title="Philadelphia Eagles">
Last Week: 7
Some coaches just always seem to have their team peaking in the season's second half, and Andy Reid can put his November and December work up against anyone in the NFL this side of San Diego's Norv Turner. Given the step back the Giants have taken in the past two weeks, the NFC East is now Philadelphia's to win. But facing three out of their next four on the road means the Eagles will have to earn it. Even if Philly can split the next four -- at Bears, home against the Texans, at Dallas and at the Giants -- it'll be in great shape to close out Reid's sixth division title in a 10-season span.
 
7Baltimore <a href=Ravens" title="Baltimore Ravens">
Last Week: 6
The Ravens don't seem to have developed their killer instinct yet this season, losing at Cincinnati and struggling to beat the likes of Buffalo and Carolina. Baltimore seems to play up to the level of its competition, having won at the Jets and at Pittsburgh, with a narrow loss at New England. Those are the top three teams in the AFC, and the Ravens have already proved they belong on the same field with them. Keep your eyes on the prize, Baltimore fans. The playoffs are the thing.
 
8New Orleans <a href=Saints" title="New Orleans Saints">
Last Week: 9
Uh-oh. Though it was somewhat lost in the shuffle of the Saints' rout of Seattle, New Orleans kicker Garrett Hartley missed a 27-yard field goal attempt wide left in the fourth quarter against the Seahawks, and that's his fifth wide-left effort of the season already. Hartley's shank of a 29-yard attempt in overtime against Atlanta in Week 4 is the reason the Falcons, and not the Saints, lead the NFC South by one game with six weeks left. Sean Payton better get John Carney warming up in the bullpen again.
 
9Indianapolis <a href=Colts" title="Indianapolis Colts">
Last Week: 8
Throw in the Super Bowl loss and the Colts are just 6-5 in their 11 most recent meaningful games, which passes for an extended streak of mediocrity in Indianapolis. With a fourth loss already secured, the Colts would have to run the table in the regular season to keep alive their NFL-record streak of seven consecutive 12-win seasons (2003-2009). That's a long shot, but I still believe Indy finds a way to make it nine straight trips to the playoffs.
 
10Tampa Bay <a href=Buccaneers" title="Tampa Bay Buccaneers">
Last Week: 11
After throwing a shutout in San Francisco to jack their winning percentage to a fat .700, the Bucs deserve to crack the top 10. And try this stat on for size: Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman has now attempted 290 passes this season, the same number he threw last year as a rookie. But while he threw 18 picks in 2009 (6.2 interception percentage), he has just five this season (1.7). In the last 30 years, he's the first QB to go from an INT percentage of higher than 6.0 to less than 2.0 in a single season.
 
11New York <a href=Giants" title="New York Giants">
Last Week: 5
What is it with New York quarterbacks and knowing how to slide? The Jets brought in Yankee skipper Joe Girardi to help Mark Sanchez last season, with very mixed results. Now Eli Manning might well have cost his team that pivotal game at Philadelphia Sunday night because he didn't go feet first on that fourth-quarter scramble and wound up fumbling. Speaking of sliding, the Giants suddenly are with back-to-back division losses.
 
12Chicago <a href=Bears" title="Chicago Bears">
Last Week: 14
I'm not sure I've ever seen a team fix a problem mid-season quite like the Bears offense has with its third-down issues. In its four October games, Chicago was 5 of 50 on third downs (10 percent), and ranked last overall in the league in that category. But since November dawned, the Bears are 28 of 49 (57.1) on third downs, with three consecutive games at 55 percent or higher. In a related development, Chicago's on a three-game winning streak.
 
13Kansas City <a href=Chiefs" title="Kansas City Chiefs">
Last Week: 16
Dwayne Bowe is becoming the AFC's version of Roddy White in Atlanta -- a one-man receiving corps. Kansas City quarterback Matt Cassel has thrown 18 touchdown passes this season, and 11 of them have gone to Bowe. No other Chiefs pass-catcher has more than two. So triple cover Bowe and you've wiped out the K.C. passing game, right? File that one under easier said than done.
 
14San Diego <a href=Chargers" title="San Diego Chargers">
Last Week: 17
You could easily put Tom Brady, Philip Rivers and Peyton Manning 1-2-3 in the MVP race right now, and one thing that all three star quarterbacks have in common this season is they're getting it done despite not having big-name weapons at their disposal. And that's exactly the quality that makes them, you know, valuable.
 
15Jacksonville <a href=Jaguars" title="Jacksonville Jaguars">
Last Week: 20
All those turnovers (six) against the Browns and the Jaguars still found a way to get past Cleveland and nudge their way into first place in the AFC South. Jacksonville is making the most of its opportunities this season, but then, Jack Del Rio's team did the same thing through the first three-fourths of 2009. Not to rain on the Jaguars' parade in the least, but they were 7-5 through 12 games last year, only to swoon to a 7-9, last-place finish in the division.
 
16Tennessee <a href=Titans" title="Tennessee Titans">
Last Week: 12
Bud Adams may hope Jeff Fisher and Vince Young can kiss and make up after Sunday's nasty post-game showdown, but I don't see any way this doesn't boil down to a case of either Young goes or Fisher does. As for Young's contention that he was merely throwing souvenirs to fans in the stands, the plausibility of that explanation broke down somewhat when he admitted he chucked his shoulder pads over the wall, too.
 
17Oakland <a href=Raiders" title="Oakland Raiders">
Last Week: 13
Clearly the Raiders weren't ready to step up in weight class last week and beat a Steelers team that was eager to put a beating on someone after its home-field blowout loss to New England. Oakland can still stay in the thick of things in the AFC West with a win at home this week against quarterback-challenged Miami, but the showing at Pittsburgh told us where the Raiders stand in terms of the conference's elite.
 
18Washington <a href=Redskins" title="Washington Redskins">
Last Week: 24
The Redskins have been a better team on the road than at home this season, and the improbable win last week at Tennessee ended three weeks of melodrama and kept them alive for now in the NFC East. But the Redskins some how lost nine starters to injury in Nashville, and now face the Leslie Frazier-led Vikings with an injury list that goes 10 names deep. I wonder how Mike Shanahan and Co. are feeling about the potential 18-game regular-season schedule these days?
 
19Miami <a href=Dolphins" title="Miami Dolphins">
Last Week: 15
I had the Dolphins finishing third in the AFC East this season no matter what, but they should have been better than this, even with their recent run of injuries. Miami's season basically turned on how third-year quarterback Chad Henne fared in the Dolphins' biggest games, and he didn't step up and produce. Simple as that.
 
20Seattle <a href=Seahawks" title="Seattle Seahawks">
Last Week: 19
The Seahawks lead the division at .500, but they can take some heart in having four of their final six games at home, where they're a solid 3-1 this season. I was wrong about the NFL's two West divisions this season. I thought they were ready to sit at the big-people table. But they're not. Kansas City is the only one of the eight teams in the West that features a winning record.
 
21Dallas <a href=Cowboys" title="Dallas Cowboys">
Last Week: 25
Let the Cowboys pull the upset against the Saints on Thanksgiving afternoon and Jason Garrett's chances of winning the fulltime gig in Dallas will soar. The Cowboys are playing with discipline and some level of confidence for the first time all season, and that has to reflect well on Garrett. Last December, Dallas went to New Orleans and ended the Saints' 13-0 perfect season. But can 38-year-old Jon Kitna keep this up and actually out-duel Drew Brees?
 
22Cleveland <a href=Browns" title="Cleveland Browns">
Last Week: 18
After losing at Jacksonville despite six Jaguars turnovers -- including five in a row on consecutive second-half drives -- the Browns should be in the mood to take it out on the lowly Panthers this week at home. But Cleveland's best efforts have come against the best teams, so maybe Browns fans should be prepared for the ugly-win variety. Especially if Jake Delhomme replaces the injured Colt McCoy (ankle) against his former Carolina teammates.
 
23St. Louis <a href=Rams" title="St. Louis Rams">
Last Week: 21
How the Rams' fare on the three-game road trip that starts in Denver on Sunday should determine the outcome of their season. St. Louis is 0-4 on the road, but faces winnable games at the Broncos and Cardinals in the coming two weeks. If the Rams can get back to .500, they might be able to make their Week 17 trip to Seattle a showdown for the NFC West title.
 
24Houston <a href=Texans" title="Houston Texans">
Last Week: 22
I suppose you could make a case for Cincinnati or even San Diego as the AFC's biggest underachiever so far this season, but my money would be on the Texans. Sitting 4-2 entering November, Houston has dropped four in a row, each one more excruciating than the last. Which late-season 2009 contract extension looks worse in retrospect: The one Zygi Wilf handed Brad Childress in Minnesota, or the one Bob McNair rewarded Gary Kubiak with in Houston? At least Childress got his club to overtime of the NFC title game.
 
25Buffalo <a href=Bills" title="Buffalo Bills">
Last Week: 31
If it's possible to dread seeing a 2-8 team show up on your schedule, the Bills might be engendering that kind of respect, courtesy of their modest two-game winning streak and string of competitive losses. In retrospect, I don't know how Chan Gailey ever decided to start the season with Trent Edwards over Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback, but at least he quickly corrected that mistake.
 
26Minnesota <a href=Vikings" title="Minnesota Vikings">
Last Week: 23
Elevating Leslie Frazier to interim head coach was the only logical move for Vikings owner Zygi Wilf, and I believe the team's respected ex-defensive coordinator will bring a sense of calm and focus to this season's most dysfunctional franchise in the league. If he can get the talented Vikings playing with a sense of cohesion in a seemingly hopeless situation like this, it'll be a ringing testament to what he could do with a team he did more than inherit.
 
2749ers">49ers/">49ers_50.png" alt="San Francisco 49ers" title="San Francisco 49ers">
Last Week: 26
49ers/">San Francisco 49ers (3-7)
Mike Singletary talked endlessly the last couple years about building a tough-minded football team, but there was no evidence of one on the San Francisco sideline in last week's 21-0 loss to visiting Tampa Bay. Sorry to break the news, Jed York, but even in this sad-sack division, your 49ers are not making the playoffs again this season.
 
28Denver <a href=Broncos" title="Denver Broncos">
Last Week: 27
After that hope-inspiring first-possession touchdown drive on Monday night at San Diego, it was a 35-7 slaughter by the guys wearing the lightning bolts on their helmets. The Broncos, coming off a 49-point outburst at home against the Chiefs, punted nine times and were 1 of 12 on third down in San Diego. Whether they admit it or, the Broncos are out of the race in the AFC West.
 
29Detroit <a href=Lions" title="Detroit Lions">
Last Week: 28
Knocking off the Patriots on Thanksgiving Day with the entire football nation watching would make up for a lot of the agonizing near-misses suffered by Detroit this season. I think the Lions will make it competitive in Thursday's first game, but then suffer yet another near miss.
 
30Arizona <a href=Cardinals" title="Arizona Cardinals">
Last Week: 29
It kind of slipped past me in recent weeks, but the Cardinals can not improve their regular-season record for a fourth consecutive season under head coach Ken Whisenhunt. Arizona went 8-8 in Whisenhunt's first season of 2007 (a three-game jump from 2006's 5-11), 9-7 in the Super Bowl season of 2008, and 10-6 with another playoff trip in 2009. Anything north of 5-11 this season would now rate as a surprise.
 
31Cincinnati <a href=Bengals" title="Cincinnati Bengals">
Last Week: 30
It's not easy to be up by 17 at halftime and still lose by 18 points, but giving up 35 unanswered points in the second half gets the job done. It can't possibly get any worse than last week against Buffalo for a former defensive coordinator like Marvin Lewis. And here come the Jets, the team that started all of Cincinnati's miseries with those back-to-back decisive defeats in January.
 
32Carolina <a href=Panthers" title="Carolina Panthers">
Last Week: 32
Carolina's quarterbacking has been so dreadful this season that Panthers fans would probably even take back Jake Delhomme, circa the 2008 playoffs and 2009 regular season. Repeat, probably.
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