By Don Banks
November 30, 2011

The Packers' dominance has taken some of the intrigue out of the NFL's elite class this season, but the playoffs still figure to contain those five or six new entries that somehow make the 12-team field each and every year. Count on it.

Sure, we've seen plenty of Green Bay, New Orleans, Baltimore, New England, Pittsburgh and Atlanta in recent Januarys, and they're all headed for playoff repeats. But it's been so long since we've seen San Francisco and Oakland in the postseason that we can't really remember what that looks and feels like. Same for Detroit if the Lions fight their way in, and even saying Houston Texans and playoffs in the same sentence is foreign to the tongue. Denver, Dallas and Cincinnati also would represent fresh blood of varying levels in the postseason.

The next five weeks will tell the whole story, but January is going to have plenty of sizzle. It always does. Green Bay may be the best for now, but the rest is still worth paying close attention to in the final month of the season.

Now on to this week's rankings...

Week 12 NFL Power Rankings
1 Green Bay Packers
Last Week: 1
With the help of the self-destructing Lions, the Packers dispatched Detroit fairly easily on Thanksgiving, and many, me included, had seen that game as potentially Green Bay's toughest test of the season. Having just watched the Saints shred the Giants defense on Monday night, I can't see New York offering a stern challenge this week, unless the pass rush gets to Aaron Rodgers early and often. The Packers started their current 17-game winning streak with a 45-17 dismantling of these same Giants last Dec. 26 in Green Bay, and that 28-point gap has not been closed in the ensuing 11-plus months.
2 New Orleans Saints
Last Week: 3
If anything, Drew Brees went for understatement when he said this year's Saints offense had a chance to be better than 2009's top-ranked and Super Bowl-winning offense. With tight end Jimmy Graham and running backs Darren Sproles and Mark Ingram added to the mix, New Orleans' attack is now significantly more potent and deeper than it was two years ago. The rematch of the season opener, Saints at Packers for the NFC title game, might be the real Super Bowl this season.
3 Baltimore Ravens
Last Week: 4
The Ravens might have one fewer win than the 49ers, but I can't rank them below San Francisco after Baltimore won the HarBowl and ended the 49ers' eight-game winning streak on Thanksgiving night. Now let's see if the Ravens have fixed their letdown problems with this week's trip to 4-7 and last-place Cleveland. The Browns play people tough, and they draw Baltimore twice in the coming four games. But if the Ravens offense remembers to keep Ray Rice involved from start to finish, win No. 9 is in store.
4 San Francisco 49ers
Last Week: 2
The 49ers have done a good job of keeping Alex Smith healthy this season, and you've seen the results the former No. 1 overall pick is capable of. But Smith took a pounding against Baltimore, absorbing a season-worst nine sacks, two more than he had endured in the previous six games combined. With starting quarterbacks dropping like flies around the league, San Francisco can't be flirting with disaster like that. For this week's game against the visiting Rams, the 49ers may need to insert that new guy into the game plan. You know his name: Max Protection.
5 Pittsburgh Steelers
Last Week: 5
They all count the same, but the Steelers have specialized in ugly wins this season: by three points over the winless Colts, by four over the struggling Jaguars, and by four over the reeling Chiefs. If this were the BCS, that would hurt Pittsburgh. But our power rankings are derived much more intuitively and bring to mind only two-thirds of the BCS formula. I'll let you figure out what that sly reference infers, but dropping a letter might help.
6 New England Patriots
Last Week: 6
It's kind of sad, really. It's Colts-Patriots week, and nobody really cares. Yet another casualty of the Manning-less season in Indianapolis. Has any injury in the history of the NFL had this kind of ripple effect in so many different directions? Of course not. Tom Brady vs. Dan Orlovsky just doesn't have the same cachet, but the game must go on.
7 Houston Texans
Last Week: 7
As it turns out, the Texans were interested in bringing out of retirement a southern-bred veteran quarterback with a penchant for throwing costly interceptions in the playoffs, but his name is Jake Delhomme, not Brett Favre. Not a bad move, though. For the most part in his career in Carolina, Delhomme was a decent game manager QB, and he could keep the Texans' drive to the playoffs running smoothly if need be.
8 Dallas Cowboys
Last Week: 10
Suddenly the Cowboys cheerleaders are the real newsmakers in Dallas. Bills receiver David Nelson gives a ball and a hug to one of them in mid-game one week, and then Cowboys tight end Jason Witten runs over another of them in the Thanksgiving win over Miami. All this 15-minutes-of-fame stuff could breed jealousy on the squad, and who knows where that's going to lead as the drive to the playoffs unfold? Somehow I don't think Jerry Jones minds in the least. I'm not sure there are too many examples of bad publicity in Jerry's mind.
9 Atlanta Falcons
Last Week: 13
The Falcons are apparently living right. They've already beaten rookie quarterbacks Cam Newton and Christian Ponder this season, and survived a two-touchdown relief appearance by Jake Locker a couple weeks back. Now here comes a trip to Houston and the first career start by Texans rookie QB T.J. Yates. Next week a trip to Carolina and the rematch with Newton looms, then a home game against Jacksonville and rookie Blaine Gabbert awaits in Week 15. That could make for five rookie passers faced in five weeks, and maybe five straight wins.
10 Oakland Raiders
Last Week: 14
I'd rather be the Raiders than the Broncos right now, with Oakland leading the AFC West by a game, but this race is far from over. The Raiders have to play at Miami and at Green Bay in the coming two weeks, and those could easily be two losses given how well the Dolphins and Packers are playing. Meanwhile, Denver goes to Minnesota and is home against the Jay Cutler-less Bears. See what I mean? It could be the Broncos who hold a one-game lead with three to play, and wouldn't that be fun given the current state of Tebow hysteria?
11 Chicago Bears
Last Week: 8
NFL head coaches probably think they've prepared their players for everything that can happen in a game, and then your starting quarterback forgets how to spike the ball to stop the clock, picking up a game-ending intentional grounding penalty instead. I wonder if Lovie Smith forced Caleb Hanie to practice that particular maneuver this week, or if it just went unsaid and was filed under the heading of never-again?
12 Detroit Lions
Last Week: 9
If the Lions make the playoffs, and I still think they will, they're going to earn it. In the final six weeks of the season, they will have faced Aaron Rodgers twice, and Drew Brees once. They're already 0-1 running that particular gauntlet and it doesn't get tougher than that on defense these days. Especially if you're playing without Ndamukong Suh for a while.
13 Cincinnati Bengals
Last Week: 12
I'm giving the Bengals a decent shot to pull the upset this week at Pittsburgh, but a loss won't kill Cincinnati's playoff chances in the least. The Bengals could go 0-4 against the Steelers and Ravens this season and still get to 10-6 and make the postseason if they can win remaining home games against Houston and Arizona, and handle the Rams in St. Louis in Week 15. With 10 wins by the Bengals, I don't think the Jets, Broncos or Titans can catch Cincinnati in the wild-card chase.
14 Denver Broncos
Last Week: 15
I don't often consider Deion Sanders to be a fount of sage counsel, but I do like what he said Sunday night after Denver's latest win. To paraphrase, Sanders observed that everyone is so caught up in what Tim Tebow can't do at quarterback that they're missing what he is doing. In other words, stop trying to project the future and enjoy the now, because the now is kind of special and shouldn't be missed. I think that perfectly gets to the crux of the Tebow saga.
15 New York Jets
Last Week: 16
Here's the tricky part about figuring out how this Jekyll and Hyde-like season will end for the Jets: I look at their remaining schedule -- Washington, Kansas City and the Giants at home, with trips to Philly and Miami -- and I don't see a game they can't win. But I also don't see a game they can't lose. Especially if Kyle Orton takes over at quarterback for the Chiefs.
16 New York Giants
Last Week: 11
New York's defense just got strafed by Drew Brees and the Saints on the road Monday night, and now the downtrodden Giants drag themselves into the film room Wednesday morning and start watching tape of this week's challenge: Aaron Rodgers and the Packers' pass-happy offense. That's not really fair, but the schedule has already been published and the NFL is not going to change it now. If you're the Giants, you have to somehow convince yourself that this Sunday will be more like Week 9 in New England than Week 12 in New Orleans.
17 Tennessee Titans
Last Week: 17
Compared to the rest of the doings in the AFC South, the Titans represent tranquility base in the division. No new quarterbacks. No new head coach or defensive coordinator. No new team owner. Besides, the Titans went through most of those type of blockbuster moves last offseason. It was somebody else's turn.
18 Buffalo Bills
Last Week: 20
The Bills have to be glad to see the calendar flip. They just went 0-for-November, and haven't won a game in Buffalo since Week 5 against Philadelphia. Now they get a visit from the Titans on Sunday, and even that has to sting a little for Bills fans, because it was that Music City Miracle loss in Tennessee in the 1999 playoffs that started this whole 12-year Buffalo swoon.
19 Philadelphia Eagles
Last Week: 18
Speaking of swoons, your 2011 Philadelphia Eagles, ladies and gentlemen. In the case of DeSean Jackson's recent antics, I'm always amazed when players who clearly are aiming for a fat, new contract think the way to get one is to loaf, draw attention to yourself for all the wrong reasons, or start breaking team rules. Brilliant strategy, DeSean. The very things you're doing will ensure you don't get what you want. But I'm guessing that hasn't occurred to you yet.
20 San Diego Chargers
Last Week: 21
Under the heading of stuff you just can't make up, I'm sure there are a thousand lines that flood to mind when you think of the sideline bathroom break taken by Chargers kicker Nick Novak and the state of San Diego's down-the-toilet season, but I'm going to take the high road and resist them all. Or most of them.
21 Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Last Week: 22
In and of itself, the news that Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman cut the thumb on his throwing hand while shooting a gun at a range on Halloween night is not a major story. Especially since Freeman had sprained the thumb in the team's previous game, and that injury is more relevant than the cut that required five stitches to close. But when you've lost five games in a row after harboring playoff aspirations this season, anything and everything becomes a major story. Just ask the Eagles about the connection between defeat and controversy.
22 Miami Dolphins
Last Week: 23
I still think it's highly likely and necessary for Miami to spend its first-round pick on a quarterback next April, but that said, Matt Moore has at least earned the chance to stick around and potentially compete for the starting job. I'm not sure where that leaves Chad Henne at the moment, but Moore has been too good to completely disregard since taking over for the injured Henne.
23 Washington Redskins
Last Week: 28
A week after saying the Redskins should cut him because he's not earning his keep, cornerback DeAngelo Hall won the NFC Defensive Player of the Week honor for his six passes defensed, five tackles and fourth-quarter, game-clinching interception in a win at Seattle. Good thing nobody really listens to Hall in Washington.
24 Seattle Seahawks
Last Week: 19
The Seahawks and Eagles get to kick off the league's December schedule on Thursday night, and I'm sure the NFL Network was more excited about this battle of defending division champions before both teams skidded to 4-7 records. Still, Seattle has some young defensive talent to get excited about, and I can't wait to see that kick-blocking machine, Seattle defensive end Red Bryant. Alex Henery, consider yourself warned.
25 Arizona Cardinals
Last Week: 26
If only the Cardinals could play the Rams every week. If only Patrick Peterson touched the ball 30 times a game for Arizona. If only Kurt Warner hadn't retired. (Cardinals fans, feel free to keep this going and take it in whatever direction you see fit...)
26 Kansas City Chiefs
Last Week: 25
Dwayne Bowe didn't just get a case of alligator arms on that fourth-down, last-chance pass from Tyler Palko the other night against the Steelers, he pulled the full turtle-shell routine, actually going into protect the ribs mode. That won't play well in the locker room, and his teammates will suspect it had something to do with Bowe's impending free agency. Blood and Guts Bowe, he's not.
27 Cleveland Browns
Last Week: 24
The Browns finally shook things up this week, cutting the long-snapper that has kept them out of the playoffs for all but one season since they returned to the league in 1999. OK, that's an overstatement, but in reality, Ryan Pontbriand has contributed pretty glaringly to two recent Cleveland losses, and this isn't a team with much of a margin for error. The rule in the NFL is that if your long-snapper is having trouble snapping, which is usually his only job, it's time to get a new long-snapper.
28 Carolina Panthers
Last Week: 30
Forget about all the fuss over Drew Brees and maybe two other quarterbacks zeroing in on Dan Marino's one-season record of 5,084 yards passing in 1984. There's another quarterback record out there that's in danger of being broken, and it's eight years older than Marino's mark. With three more rushing touchdowns this season, Cam Newton will erase Steve Grogan's record of 12, set in 1976 by the second-year Patriots quarterback. Newton has 10 in 11 games, so at that pace, he'll wind up with at least 14.
29 Jacksonville Jaguars
Last Week: 27
Nice, quiet Tuesday in Jacksonville. Head coach of nine years fired. Only owner in franchise history sells the team. Too bad the Jaguars didn't see fit to unveil a new logo and remodeled uniforms, or break ground on a new stadium. Something to create a few headlines in another boring, lackluster season in northern Florida.
30 Minnesota Vikings
Last Week: 29
The Vikings coaching staff didn't bathe itself in glory in the fourth quarter of the loss at Atlanta last Sunday. Head coach Leslie Frazier's game management skills have been shaky at best this year, and he admitted this week that he should have gone for the chip-shot field goal rather than a fourth-and-short near the goal line. Offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave said he erred as well, and wishes he would have called a play with more imagination than Toby Gerhart's up-the-middle run. The Vikings don't need any help losing this season, and the coaching staff definitely contributed to that defeat.
31 St. Louis Rams
Last Week: 31
If you think things can't get worse in St. Louis, you haven't peeked at the Rams' remaining schedule. In the season's last five games, St. Louis plays first-place San Francisco twice, goes to Pittsburgh (8-3), gets a visit from Cincinnati (7-4), and plays at Seattle, against a Seahawks team that already thumped the Rams in the dome. Happy holidays.
32 Indianapolis Colts
Last Week: 32
Here's the good news, Dan Orlovsky: You're the Colts new starting quarterback. Congrats. Now here's the bad news, D.O.: Indy plays at New England and at Baltimore the next two weeks. So was this a reward or a punishment, and is Curtis Painter the real winner in this scenario?

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