By Don Banks
November 16, 2011

Thanks to the Patriots, Steelers and Colts, the AFC really dominated the elite level of the league for most of the decade of the 2000s. But that worm may have turned. Not only have the NFC's Saints and Packers won the past two Super Bowls, the NFC is where it's at again this year.

Undefeated Green Bay has been entrenched atop our power rankings all season long, of course, but with the rise of San Francisco and the continued excellence of New Orleans, our top three teams all hail from the NFC. In fact, four of our top six teams, and six of the top 10 clubs are NFC-based.

Why is that? Well, quarterbacks have a huge role in determining who wins in the NFL, and right now more of the really good ones work in the NFC. With no Peyton Manning, a sub-par Philip Rivers and a shaky Mark Sanchez in New York, the AFC's quarterback contingent is down a bit. The NFC seems better off in that department for the most part, with Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Eli Manning and Tony Romo leading the way.

Seven weeks of the regular season remain, but so far, the NFC looks deeper and stronger. The Patriots, Ravens, Steelers and Texans may all still make us change that opinion, but the AFC is playing catch-up at the moment. Now on to this week's rankings ...

Week 10 NFL Power Rankings
1 Green Bay Packers
Last Week: 1
Watching the Packers defense rise up and completely dominate the Vikings Monday night at Lambeau couldn't have been comforting to the rest of the league's Super Bowl dreamers. It felt a little like skipping to the back of the book to find out how the story comes out, with Green Bay winning it all once again and everyone in Wisconsin living happily ever after. We already know there's no offense that can consistently match the Packers' firepower, and now defensive coordinator Dom Capers might just have roused his guys from what had been an uneven first-half-of-the-season performance. So much for suspense.
2 San Francisco 49ers
Last Week: 2
Once upon a time, it was fairly common for 49ers head coaches to start 8-1 in their first seasons on the job. The underrated George Seifert did it in 1989, and won a Super Bowl as a rookie. Steve Mariucci followed suit, going 13-3 in 1997 and making the NFC title game in his first crack at it. But between Mariucci and Jim Harbaugh this year, there was a little slump there for first-year 49ers head coaches. As Dennis Erickson, Mike Nolan and Mike Singletary can readily attest.
3 New Orleans Saints
Last Week: 4
We should be making a bigger deal out of it, because as football records go, Drew Brees' pursuit of Johnny Unitas' streak of throwing a touchdown pass in 47 consecutive games is starting to get interesting. Brees passed Brett Favre and moved into second place at 37 games last Sunday against Atlanta, and what's remarkable is that the Unitas mark already has stood for 51 years in an era when passing records are seemingly re-written on a weekly basis. No one in New Orleans may ever admit it, but I'm pretty sure the Saints' play-calling will reflect the growing importance of that record chase once the gap drops below double digits.
4 Baltimore Ravens
Last Week: 3
No one seems to know why it is, but the Ravens consistently struggle to match up on offense against 4-3 teams, but thrive against 3-4 teams. All three of the Ravens' losses this season have come thanks to subpar offensive showings against 4-3 defenses: at Tennessee, at Jacksonville and at Seattle. The Rams, who were winless at the time, are the only 4-3 team Baltimore has beaten this year. By comparison, the Ravens are 5-0 against 3-4 teams, including two wins against Pittsburgh and one each over the Jets and Houston. And now here come the Bengals, a 4-3 team that always plays the Ravens tough and has whipped Baltimore in three of their past four meetings.
5 Pittsburgh Steelers
Last Week: 6
As Ben Roethlisberger injuries go, a broken thumb on his throwing hand, with a week off to heal it during the bye, barely registers on the concern meter. We've seen Big Ben play through a myriad maladies over the years, and it'll probably take an amputation of some sort to get him into the questionable category on the injury list. I can't prove this without further research, but I actually think Roethlisberger tends to play better when he has some body part in a sleeve, protective wrap or heavily taped.
6 New York Giants
Last Week: 5
Eli Manning couldn't rescue the Giants in San Francisco with more fourth-quarter magic, but the 49ers had to work for their win. Still, let New York fall prey to an upset this week at home against the reeling Eagles and I promise you'll start hearing plenty about how the Giants have gone a sterling 47-17 (.734) in the first half of the season in coach Tom Coughlin's eight years in New York, but a lousy 24-33 (.421) in the second half.
7 New England Patriots
Last Week: 8
I'm not sure what got into Patriots defensive end Andre Carter the other night against the Jets -- he had a franchise-record 4.5 sacks -- but I do know New York's offensive line can't blame it all on an injury to Pro Bowl center Nick Mangold this time, because Mangold played. The Patriots have been waiting for that kind of jail break to the quarterback for years now, and it's remarkable how much better the pass defense looks when the heat is on the opposing passer. Simple game, this football.
8 Houston Texans
Last Week: 10
You can't tell the quarterbacks without a scorecard these days in the AFC South. There's no Peyton Manning in Indy, no David Garrard in Jacksonville, no Kerry Collins or Vince Young in Tennessee, and now, for a while at least, no Matt Schaub in Houston. I happen to think Matt Leinart is going to keep the train rolling smoothly enough in Houston, but then I've always believed Leinart was a little better as a young starter in Arizona than he was given credit for. Getting to 10 wins will get the job done for the Texans in the division, and even limping home to a 9-7 finish might be good enough to clinch a playoff berth. Leinart can handle that.
9 Chicago Bears
Last Week: 12
I don't know if it's because of the Bears-obsessed media market they play in or their penchant for inconsistent play, but the Bears seem to inspire wild mood swings in terms of public opinion. We either underestimate Chicago, tending to bury its chances prematurely, or we go overboard on the Bears, seeing potential greatness when they get it going with their blend of rock-solid defense, special teams impact and ball-control offense. At the moment, Chicago looks formidable, with a four-game winning streak and a formula that looks playoff-worthy. But I bet there's another twist or two still to come this season.
10 Detroit Lions
Last Week: 7
The Lions are definitely at the low point of their season thus far, but a little perspective is in order. Yes, Detroit has lost three of four after that sizzling 5-0 start, and looked particularly ragged in Sunday's blowout defeat at Chicago. But the Lions have lost to the 49ers, Falcons and Bears, three quality teams. It's vital that Jim Schwartz's club regains its footing this week at home against 2-7 Carolina, and if it does, Detroit will still be set up nicely for a 10-6 finish and a wild-card playoff berth. The Lions' goals are still well within reach, so everybody take a breath in Motown.
11 Cincinnati Bengals
Last Week: 9
I don't think the loss to the Steelers signals the end of Cincinnati's relevance this season, because the Bengals actually showed me something against Pittsburgh. After trailing 14-0 early against a team that plays well with the lead, the Bengals fought back and fell just short of tying it up in the fourth quarter. The loss of cornerback Leon Hall was significant, and the absence of receiver A.J. Green after a first-quarter knee injury robbed quarterback Andy Dalton of his go-to target. Still, the Bengals had their moments, sacking Ben Roethlisberger five times and forcing the issue until fourth-quarter turnovers decided the game.
12 New York Jets
Last Week: 11
That was quite the eventful halftime for Jets coach Rex Ryan, who first called out his starting quarterback on national TV -- maybe the best coach-leaving-the-field interview ever -- and then found time to mix it up verbally with a mouthy fan in the stands. I'll bet Rexy was in a sweet mood by the time he hit the locker room. I can't predict if Ryan is ever going to win his much-discussed Super Bowl ring as a head coach, but from an entertainment standpoint, we absolutely need the guy to remain the news-making machine that he is.
13 Dallas Cowboys
Last Week: 17
I do believe I feel a run coming on for the Cowboys, who face games at Washington, home against Miami on Thanksgiving and at Arizona in the next three weeks. That should equal an 8-4 record and a five-game winning streak heading into Dallas' Week 14 showdown at home against the first-place Giants. Getcha popcorn ready for that one.
14 Atlanta Falcons
Last Week: 14
Maybe Mike Smith picked the wrong 4th-and-1 to go for, and maybe Atlanta called the wrong, slow-developing play, but every NFL head coach should have the moxie to roll the dice on fourth-and-short many times a season because the odds are in your favor. I like that Smith was willing to take a chance rather playing it safe and sorry. Even with this week's backlash, coaches need to try it more, not less. Maybe if they did, there would eventually be less reaction to those types of calls, make it or miss it.
15 Oakland Raiders
Last Week: 20
Never has a one-game division lead looked so commanding. It's all there for the taking now in the AFC West for Oakland. The Chargers are a mess, the Chiefs just lost their starting quarterback and the Broncos are winning with an offensive approach stolen from the 1940s. The Raiders may have to win it with an 8-8 or 9-7 record, but win the West they will.
16 Tennessee Titans
Last Week: 21
The Titans went into Charlotte last week and played their most complete game since their Week 2 upset of Baltimore at home. With the Matt Schaub injury in Houston, Tennessee has reason to believe there's an opportunity to be had in the AFC South. I'm not convinced the Titans are good enough and have the time to overcome a two-game deficit in the division, but if they can steal a win this week at Atlanta, they might force us to revisit the topic.
17 Buffalo Bills
Last Week: 13
Not all 5-4s are created equal, and I think Bills fans know what I mean by that. This team has reverted to its depressing form of 2000-2010 in the past two weeks, and that makes this week's trip to Miami a crossroad moment for Chan Gailey and Co. Lose to the resurgent Dolphins and I think all the air comes out of the balloon for the Bills at that point. Win and they will have stopped the bleeding and given new life to their flickering playoff hopes.
18 San Diego Chargers
Last Week: 15
What a train wreck the banged-up Chargers offensive line endured in the loss to visiting Oakland. San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers, with that southern drawl of his, couldn't even count to two Mississippis before the Raiders pass rush was on him. I'm going to be covering the Chargers at Bears on Sunday, and I'm going to be watching a very desperate football team in the uniforms with the lightning bolt motif.
19 Denver Broncos
Last Week: 24
Credit to Broncos head coach John Fox for not trying to make it about him and sticking with the offensive scheme that best suits his option quarterback. No square peg being forced into a round hole in Denver. Winning buys you time to figure stuff out, and right now the Broncos are staying focused on the bottom line, and nothing else.
20 Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Last Week: 18
Josh Freeman isn't the only member of the Bucs offense whose statistics suffer by comparison to last season. Tampa Bay's quarterback isn't responsible for the lack of production turned in by second-year running back LeGarrette Blount or second-year receiver Mike Williams. If you're going to point fingers at Tampa Bay's underachieving offense, you need at least three of them to get the job done.
21 Kansas City Chiefs
Last Week: 19
Let's just say I'm not expecting Tyler Palko to do for the Chiefs and Matt Cassel what Cassel did for the Patriots and Tom Brady in 2008, namely keep the chains moving in the starter's absence. Ironically, the Palko-led Chiefs will face off with Brady and Co. Monday night in Foxboro. From what I've seen of Palko's left arm in training camp and the preseason, K.C. will not force defenses to defend every inch of the field.
22 Arizona Cardinals
Last Week: 28
John Skelton looks surprisingly strong in a win at Philadelphia, putting the Cardinals on a little two-game streak, and now head coach Ken Whisenhunt gives it the old "I'll have to look at the film," which is code for "I need more time to think about this before I name my backup the starter and demote my highly-paid starter to backup." Just go with the hot hand, Coach, because you can always defend that kind of decision these days. Winning explains all.
23 Seattle Seahawks
Last Week: 29
People may not think kickers are really football players, but they've got feelings, too. So it probably was pretty sweet for Seattle's Steven Hauschka to tie a franchise record with five field goals in that Seahawks upset of Baltimore, the team he kicked for in 2008 and part of 2009. And speaking of revenge, Seattle's Pete Carroll finally beat a Harbaugh last week, and at this point, any Harbaugh will do.
24 Philadelphia Eagles
Last Week: 16
DeSean Jackson is an electrifying and game-breaking talent when he wants to be. But in all honesty, I wouldn't want him on my team (you know, if I had one). I haven't really liked his act ever since I saw him showboat away that touchdown catch against Dallas on a Monday night during his rookie year, tossing the ball to the turf for look-at-me effect before he crossed the goal line. He doesn't get it, and I doubt he ever will.
25 Jacksonville Jaguars
Last Week: 27
You've got to learn to punch in your own weight class before you do much else in the NFL, and this week at Cleveland offers Jags rookie quarterback Blaine Gabbert another chance to take a baby step. Gabbert earlier this season lost head to head against rookie QBs Cam Newton and Andy Dalton, but last week beat the lightly experienced Curtis Painter of Indy. Knocking off second-year quarterback Colt McCoy and the Browns would pass for solid progress.
26 Miami Dolphins
Last Week: 30
The Dolphins are one of the better 2-7 teams you'll ever see, and I know that qualifies as damning them with the faintest of praise. But nobody will be thrilled to see Miami on their schedule in the season's second half, because the Dolphins can give you trouble and are playing their best ball of the year. If they didn't quit at 0-7, they're not going to quit now that they've tasted a little success.
27 Minnesota Vikings
Last Week: 22
There are no silver linings for the Vikings in the wake of their 45-7 humiliation at the hands of the Packers Monday night at Lambeau Field, the worst loss Minnesota has ever absorbed in the 102-game series history with Green Bay. The Vikings hung tough with the Packers three weeks earlier at the Metrodome and lost by just six. But somehow I think Week 10's outcome was more indicative of the talent gap between these two division rivals.
28 Carolina Panthers
Last Week: 23
It's important to remember that Cam Newton hasn't played a ton of football in his career, so was last Sunday's uninspiring peformance in a 30-3 home loss to Tennessee the first indication that the long NFL season is starting to wear on the first overall pick? Tune in this week when Carolina travels to Detroit to see if our hypothesis has legs, or was a one-week aberration.
29 Washington Redskins
Last Week: 25
Not only have the Redskins lost five in a row to saddle Mike Shanahan with the longest skid of his long NFL head coaching career, but also Washington hasn't even led in a game since winning ugly at St. Louis in Week 4. And yet another Super Bowl-winning head coach looks like he'll fail to recreate whatever magic worked for him in his previous NFL venue.
30 St. Louis Rams
Last Week: 31
Midseason trades don't usually amount to all that much in the NFL, but the Rams' pickup of receiver Brandon Lloyd has been the exception to the rule. Lloyd scored the only St. Louis touchdown in last week's 13-12 win at Cleveland, and he has 21 catches for 255 yards and a pair of touchdowns in his first four games as a Ram. Had Lloyd stayed in Denver, he wouldn't have been even targeted that many times in the Broncos' run-first option offense.
31 Cleveland Browns
Last Week: 26
The Browns, bless their losing souls, have always found some amazing and agonizing ways to secure defeat. But bouncing a center snap on a potential game-winning, chip-shot, 22-yard field goal with 2:09 remaining is excruciatingly creative.
32 Indianapolis Colts
Last Week: 32
Looks like the Colts are doing everything in their power to go 0-16 and assure themselves of drafting Andrew Luck. Why else would you bring back quarterback Dan Orlovsky, who also played some for the 2008 Lions, the only team in league history to turn the 0-16 trick? The former UConn passer is six losses away from being the answer to one heck of a trivia question.

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