By Don Banks
December 02, 2009

Somehow a year has passed, and pinch-hitting for my friend and colleague Paul Zimmerman on's NFL Power Rankings still reminds me a bit of attending a Broadway show and discovering you picked the lead role's understudy performance. Alas, we're all understudys when it comes to Dr. Z's decades-long coverage of pro football. So I'm in good company there.

For all you Dr. Z-philes out there, thanks for the patience and forbearance this past year as I've attempted to fill a void that can't entirely be filled. Like you, I anxiously await the good doctor's return, and hope 2010 reunites him with the weekly NFL feature he was born to write. Now on to this week's rankings...

NFL Power Rankings
1 New Orleans Saints
Last Week: 1
Sitting in the Superdome press box late Monday night, I started wondering what a Drew Brees-Brett Favre NFC title game shootout might really look (and sound) like next month. Both offenses are using all of their play-makers in almost every game, and there's not a throw that Brees and Favre can't make this season. You have to think whoever gets some pass rush probably wins that epic showdown.
2 Indianapolis Colts
Last Week: 2
I get the feeling Jim Caldwell is going to approach things a lot like Tony Dungy in terms of easing his foot off the gas as the front-running Colts prepare for the playoffs. But why? That tact largely hasn't worked for Indy, whose track record of first-round playoff defeats after huge regular seasons is painfully obvious. I say go for the undefeated season and all the hoopla that comes with it. The guys with the horseshoes on their helmets have tried it the other way and somehow the necessary intensity always escapes.
3 Minnesota Vikings
Last Week: 3
This is just a reminder, not a prediction of doom and gloom: It was exactly at this point last year, through 11 games, that things started going south for Brett Favre as the Jets quarterback. New York was 8-3, coming off back-to-back monster wins at New England and at Tennessee, and was being mentioned as a legitimate AFC Super Bowl contender. Granted, Favre is healthier this year, he's playing even better than he did in New York, and he's on a superior team. But let's just remember to let the story play out. These next five weeks could change a lot. Or maybe nothing at all.
4 San Diego Chargers
Last Week: 5
Nobody's really talking much about the Chargers, who own the AFC's second-longest winning streak at six games. But you know the 11-0 Colts are watching the developments in San Diego, because if there's one team that fears the Bolts, it's Indy. I'm beginning to think my predicted Super Bowl pairing of last season -- Saints vs. Chargers -- came one year too early.
5 Cincinnati Bengals
Last Week: 6
Looks to me like Cincinnati is the new Denver. No matter who lines up in the Bengals' backfield, they roll up some impressive rushing totals. Cedric Benson. Bernard Scott. And now, even Larry Johnson has his groove back. In Cincinnati's past four games, all three of the Bengals running backs have taken turns producing 100-yard rushing games. Can anybody else in the NFL match that kind of assembly line on the ground?
6 New England Patriots
Last Week: 7-4
There's no way to dress up the Patriots' performance at New Orleans Monday night. They got their hats handed to them by a Saints team that made Bill Belichick's guys look like the big-game novices. But all is not lost in New England. When you throw out the neutral site win over Tampa Bay in London, the Pats are 0-4 on the road this season, but all the losses have come against unbeaten teams: the 1-0 Jets, the 4-0 Broncos, the 8-0 Colts and the 10-0 Saints. And the schedule says New England still winds up with 11 or 12 wins, the AFC East title, and a first-round home playoff game.
7 Arizona Cardinals
Last Week: 7
I'm covering the Vikings-Cardinals Sunday night in Glendale and one of the players I'm most interested to see is Arizona rookie running back LaRod Stephens-Howling, the seventh-round pick out of Pitt who was spectacular on special teams in that last-second loss at Tennessee. He had a 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown and downed punts at the 1 and 2 yard line. What a game. What a name.
8 Dallas Cowboys
Last Week: 9
For a team that has won six out of seven games, losing only to Green Bay at Lambeau in the past two months, there sure seems to be a lot of doubters when it comes to Dallas. But with December having finally dawned, the Cowboys get another chance to exorcise the ghosts of what has been their cruelest month in recent years. But it won't be easy. At the Giants, home against San Diego, and at New Orleans is a brutal three-game stretch to start things out. All that hangs in the balance is the outcome in the NFC East, the only division race that has much suspense.
9 Philadelphia Eagles
Last Week: 10
Here's hoping Brian Westbrook's concussion issues don't signal the beginning of the end of his stellar NFL career, but it has become obvious that the future of the Eagles running game lies in the hands of rookie LeSean McCoy. Did you see McCoy's refusal to go down on his game-tying two-point conversion in the comeback win over Washington? You can't teach that kind of second effort and drive. You can only take advantage of it.
10 Green Bay Packers
Last Week: 12
Some week when I have some time I'm going to name an all ex-Raiders team and make cornerback Charles Woodson my defensive captain on it. What a virtuoso performance Woodson turned in on Thanksgiving in Detroit. Mirroring the tight four-man MVP race, how do you distinguish between Woodson, Darren Sharper, Jared Allen and Elvis Dumervil for the league's defensive player of the year award?
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