By Don Banks
December 21, 2011

Like it or not, for the next two weeks the holidays and the NFL will arrive almost simultaneously, with the league playing 14 of its 16 games in Week 16 on Christmas Eve day, and all of its Week 17 games on New Year's Day.

And there should be plenty to hold our interest, even amidst the festivities and family time. Having 20 teams still at .500 or better, and 22 teams still in the playoff chase with two weeks remaining takes the NFL's time-honored notion of parity and competitive balance to almost ridiculous heights.

Nowhere is there more fun to be had than the AFC West and NFC East, where seven of the eight teams (sorry, Redskins fans) can still win the division, or miss the playoffs entirely. The perfect seasons of a different sort are over in Green Bay and Indianapolis, but the fight for the playoffs always makes for some of the year's best drama and must-see TV.

'Tis the season. Playoff berths are at stake. No wonder it's called the best time of the year. Now on to this week's rankings...

Week 15 NFL Power Rankings
1 Green Bay Packers
Last Week: 1
The Packers offensive line was definitely exposed in Kansas City and its health issues represent a real concern as the playoffs loom. But I always find it amusing how fast everyone wants to claim a "blueprint" has been established after a team's first loss of the season. A relentless pass rush and good coverage in the secondary has always been the "blueprint" for beating an opponent with an elite passing game, and it probably always will. The Chiefs brought both of those to bear on Green Bay last week, but that doesn't necessarily mean everyone else is capable of creating the same dynamic against the Packers.
2 New Orleans Saints
Last Week: 2
For a while there early on in Minnesota, I thought the Saints looked a little like they did in their lethargic Week 8 loss at St. Louis. But then Drew Brees and Co. flipped a switch and scored 28 unanswered points, and that was that, a sixth consecutive win. With Brees now within 305 of breaking Dan Marino's 1984 single-season passing yardage record, I'm starting to think this is one of those rare situations where a split vote of Aaron Rodgers for MVP and Brees for Offensive Player of the Year sounds like a way to honor both of their stellar seasons.
3 New England Patriots
Last Week: 5
Hard to imagine a better turn of events for the Patriots than Week 15. New England wins a showdown at Denver, then watches as Houston, Baltimore, Pittsburgh and the Jets all lose big, clinching the AFC East title and vaulting the Pats back into the AFC's No. 1 seed with two weeks remaining. The defensive issues are still there in New England, but a couple home playoff games might go a long way toward helping out in that department.
4 San Francisco 49ers
Last Week: 6
It is remarkable that the 49ers defense is throwing a shutout this season when it comes to rushing touchdowns, but the teams San Francisco will probably have to beat at some point the NFC playoffs -- Green Bay and New Orleans -- are more likely to throw the ball than run the ball inside an opponent's 10 yard line. Stopping all those weapons in the Packers and Saints passing attacks will be the challenge for the 49ers, not the run game.
5 Baltimore Ravens
Last Week: 3
I get the angst level in Baltimore, but losing on the road to the Chargers at this point is not the same thing as dropping one at Tennessee, Jacksonville or Seattle. Granted, a blowout loss can't be sugar-coated, but the Steelers' loss at San Francisco means the AFC North title and no playoff road trip until the conference title game is within reach. Only Cleveland and a visit to Cincinnati stand in the way of where Baltimore has targeted all season long.
6 Pittsburgh Steelers
Last Week: 4
The Steelers haven't exactly come up stout against the league's elite this season. Yes, Pittsburgh took New England apart at Heinz Field in Week 8. But the Steelers have lost twice to Baltimore, and were defeated in Houston and San Francisco. That's a 1-4 record against teams that currently have at least 10 wins, and that's a sobering statistic to consider as the playoffs approach.
7 Houston Texans
Last Week: 7
It's a good thing the Texans get to play another game right away after getting handled at home by Carolina, because how they look Thursday night at Indianapolis will tell us if Gary Kubiak's team has the potential to fall into the just-happy-to-make-the-playoffs mindset, or if it's going to make some noise in January. That's always the concern when it comes to first-time playoff qualifiers.
8 Atlanta Falcons
Last Week: 8
The Falcons defense has started to come together in recent weeks, and now Atlanta is hoping to get cornerbacks Brent Grimes (knee) and Kelvin Hayden (toe) back in time for Monday night's showdown at the Superdome. No one can stop the Saints passing game these days, especially at home on the rug, but if Atlanta can limit the big plays and make New Orleans earn their yards, the Falcons have a shot to pull off the upset and make the NFC South race interesting.
9 Detroit Lions
Last Week: 11
The Lions' playoff hopes were saved by that memorable 98-yard touchdown drive in the final two minutes at Oakland, and Detroit's Matthew Stafford this season has repeatedly shown the ability to handle the pressure of such situations. Mark Sanchez and Josh Freeman got most of the early plaudits, but which first-round Class of 2009 quarterback would you rather have now?
10 Denver Broncos
Last Week: 9
The Broncos led New England 16-7 early in the second quarter last Sunday, and I bet they won't make that mistake again. Denver's a fourth-quarter comeback team, and it threw off their mojo to have a lead to protect at that stage of the game. The comeback routine is going to be a difficult formula to follow this week at Buffalo, however. The Bills haven't had a lead against anyone since October or so.
11 Dallas Cowboys
Last Week: 13
I agree the Cowboys could be dangerous in the playoffs, but I'm not convinced they're going to make it. Dallas plays an Eagles team this week that routed Jerry's guys 34-7 in Week 8, and is now playing with house money, having been written off and left for dead at 4-8. That's the definition of dangerous. The Cowboys are home this week, but they're anything but home free.
12 New York Jets
Last Week: 10
Having not yet accomplished his goal of gaining supremacy in the NFL or even the AFC East, Jets head coach Rex Ryan set his sights on the city of New York this week, saying his team has no intention of playing "second fiddle" to the Giants. A loss to the G-Men in this week's NY-NY showdown, and what's left for Ryan and his underachieving bunch? A challenge match with Rutgers?
13 Cincinnati Bengals
Last Week: 16
One of the more stunning statistics of the season is the Bengals being 5-3 on the road, with only Green Bay (7-1) and New England (6-2) earning more away wins this year. Playoff trip or no playoff trip, there's a lot to build on from the surprising developments of 2011 in Cincinnati.
14 San Diego Chargers
Last Week: 15
This Chargers late-season run should only underline how much San Diego underachieved during the course of its six-game losing streak, not serve to put a happy face on a 9-7 near-miss and protect the status quo. This is the Chargers team that should have shown up all season, not just at the beginning and the end.
15 Seattle Seahawks
Last Week: 18
San Francisco comes to town this week, and it's one of the most intriguing games of Week 16. In the season opener, the visiting Seahawks were within two points of the 49ers, but then Ted Ginn scored twice on returns and San Francisco's magical season was off and running. But Seattle's the hot team now, winning five out of six games and running the ball with authority (almost 1,400 yards in the past 13 games). The Seahawks are feeling it, and will be tough to beat at home.
16 Arizona Cardinals
Last Week: 17
The Cardinals need to win out and get plenty of help to make the playoffs (either the Falcons or Lions would have to lose twice, and the Bears would have to lose once). But that's really not the point. To even be talking playoff possibilities and the Cardinals in the same sentence, after Arizona's 1-6 start, is the good news. A season that looked disastrous has been saved, and it's a reminder that sometimes you have to let things play out and save the conclusions for later.
17 Philadelphia Eagles
Last Week: 21
The Eagles face another Ryan brother this week, and that has been no problem so far in 2011. Philly beat Dallas defensive coordinator Rob Ryan and the Cowboys 34-7 in Week 8, and embarrassed Rex Ryan and his Jets 45-19 last week in Philadelphia. We've seen this late-season magic from the Eagles before, in 2006 and 2008, and if they win at Dallas this week, I'd go so far as say they're the favorites to take the NFC East and earn a home playoff game in the first round.
18 New York Giants
Last Week: 12
So maybe that hope-inspiring, moral victory of a loss against Green Bay in Week 13 wasn't exactly a springboard after all. New York's season will be on the line against the Jets on Saturday, and that usually brings the best out in the inconsistent Giants. But New York loves to make it difficult on itself, and I wouldn't be surprised if Tom Coughlin's team can't even find the visitor's locker room at MetLife Stadium.
19 Oakland Raiders
Last Week: 19
Hey, whatever happened to Win One for Al? This isn't the season-long tribute to Al Davis that some thought was in store once Oakland started off 4-2 and grabbed a share of first place in the AFC West. The Raiders are reeling to the finish line once more, and a loss at K.C. on Saturday will all but extinguish their hopes.
20 Tennessee Titans
Last Week: 14
The Titans are the very definition of average. It reminds me of one of the more remarkable runs in this franchise's history, when the 1996-98 Oilers (first year in Houston, last two in Tennessee) went 8-8 for three consecutive seasons, running in place like nobody's business.
21 Kansas City Chiefs
Last Week: 26
I don't think Romeo Crennel nailed down the Chiefs' full-time head coaching job based on the upset of Green Bay alone, but what an opening statement. If the Chiefs can beat Oakland this week, I'd say his chances of being elevated rise to very strong, and perhaps approach a lock.
22 Chicago Bears
Last Week: 20
If nothing else, the sad ending to this season in Chicago is going to make Bears fans embrace Jay Cutler like never before. And you can go ahead and disband the once-burgeoning Caleb Hanie fan club already, too.
23 Miami Dolphins
Last Week: 22
Reggie Bush has shut a lot of people up with his boffo rushing season, including me. I didn't think he could stay healthy and produce, but he has done both. A career-best 203-yard rushing day in the snow showers in Buffalo puts Bush on the cusp of a 1,000-yard season, and that's with an impressive 5.0 average carry.
24 Carolina Panthers
Last Week: 24
That was a meaningful win at Houston for the Panthers, who needed to go on the road and beat a good team in order to take the next step in their development under rookie head coach Ron Rivera. Carolina has a three-game road winning streak, and this week against Tampa Bay, it figures to earn its third home win of the season, tripling the Panthers' 2010 overall win total.
25 Washington Redskins
Last Week: 25
Last place in the NFC East has become almost sole property of the Redskins. If they wind up there again this season, it'll be the sixth time in the past eight years they've had a least a share of fourth place in the division. But Washington fans don't need me to tell them that. They've lived the team's Snyder era.
26 Buffalo Bills
Last Week: 23
Speaking of last place, the Bills dropped into it with their home loss to Miami last week, and that would make four years in a row in the AFC East basement if it stands. Was it really only two months ago that Buffalo was 5-2, with wins over New England and Philadelphia, and a newly-signed franchise quarterback?
27 Jacksonville Jaguars
Last Week: 27
At least we don't have to suffer through any more Jaguars games in prime time this season. Twice in the past three weeks was plenty for a team in desperate need of the new energy and new direction that new ownership should bring.
28 Cleveland Browns
Last Week: 28
This is not the first time that Seneca Wallace has played well enough to muddle Cleveland's decision at starting quarterback. Isn't that right, Jake Delhomme?
29 Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Last Week: 29
With games at Carolina and at Atlanta to close out the season, there's no end to the misery in Tampa Bay. A 10-game losing streak, with many of those not being competitive, should earn Raheem Morris his walking papers.
30 Minnesota Vikings
Last Week: 30
Here's to Jimmy Kleinsasser, the 13th-year Vikings tight end who is reportedly ready to retire after this season. As a rookie in 1999, he's the last remaining Vikings player who was on the team when I covered it as a beat writer for two Twin Cities newspapers. For 13 years, he has been a reliable and unsung cog in the Vikings offense, and the epitome of a professional.
31 Indianapolis Colts
Last Week: 32
It's the holidays, so in the spirit of giving I'm moving the Colts out of cellar for the first time in months after their big first victory last week against Tennessee. The Colts defense showed up against the Titans, and they'll get another test Thursday night against the first-place Texans. Dare we predict an upset is not out of the question?
32 St. Louis Rams
Last Week: 31
The Rams need to score at least 34 points in their last two games (at Pittsburgh and home against San Francisco) to avoid becoming just the 15th team with fewer than 200 points since the 16-game schedule was adopted in 1978. Steelers and 49ers, huh? I don't like their chances.

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