By Don Banks
December 28, 2011

Can you imagine an 18-game regular-season schedule being in place about now? Three more games to struggle through for the likes of the Rams, Colts, Vikings and Bucs? How about the teams that are signing guys left and right just to fill out their roster and finish the season? Would Drew Brees' big moment Monday night in the Superdome have seemed quite so magical if we knew he had three more games to break the NFL's single-season passing yardage record and catching Dan Marino was a fait accompli? Yawn.

Sixteen games, I've decided, is enough. I'll inform commissioner Goodell as soon as I file this. I'm ready to get on to the playoffs and be done with the 8-7 Cowboys against the 8-7 Giants, or the 8-7 Broncos trying to hold off the 8-7 Raiders. Let's get to the good stuff. January is the best month of the year in the NFL, and the league has the stage virtually to itself for the entire five-week ride that every postseason takes us on.

So it's time for Week 17, the final playoff positioning, and then the coaching purge of Black Monday. After that, the elite teams will surface and the mediocre will head home. One more regular-season game day, and then the rewards for the long four-month grind will start unfolding. Let the best games of the year begin.

Now on to this week's final regular-season rankings...

NFL Power Rankings
1 Green Bay Packers
Last Week: 1
The best regular-season record in Green Bay history has been secured, and yet I know what Packers fans must be thinking: If we struggle for even the first half-plus to put away Josh McCown and the Bears' injury-depleted offense, what could Drew Brees and the Saints do to us in a potential NFC title game setting? Fair enough question, but football doesn't always work that way. The Packers aren't a flip-the-switch kind of team, but Chicago always plays them tough, no matter what the circumstances. Don't assume Sunday night's slow start portends a playoff meltdown in Titletown.
2 New Orleans Saints
Last Week: 2
Saints second-year tight end Jimmy Graham, no doubt swept away in the emotion of the moment Monday night at the Superdome, got up in the post-game and said there's no quarterback he would want to play with other than Drew Brees and promised to retire once Brees retired. Seriously. Straight face and all. Graham is 25, and Brees is about to turn 33 in mid-January. Yeah, I don't see that happening, Jimbo. Call me a cynic. Brees might be a great guy and the ultimate teammate, but I predict you'll find a way to continue your NFL career post-Drew.
3 New England Patriots
Last Week: 3
Every year we get caught up in the late-season race for homefield advantage in the playoffs, like it's some guarantee of January success. Not so much. New England and Atlanta earned the No. 1 seeds last season, and neither won a single playoff game. The same scenario unfolded in 2008, when the Titans and Giants were top-seeded, but winless in the tournament. True, form held in 2009, with both the Colts and Saints using their top seeds to get to the Super Bowl, but that was the first time both No. 1s made it since 1993. Just sayin'.
4 San Francisco 49ers
Last Week: 4
I don't tend to be too impressed with Pro Bowl selections, because the game has become more a of a joke than ever in recent years, but raise your hand if you foresaw Carlos Rogers putting together a starting Pro Bowl-level season in San Francisco this year while Philadelphia's Nnamdi Asomugha settles for second-team alternate status? Anyone? And I'm not knocking those picks. They got them right.
5 Baltimore Ravens
Last Week: 5
Sixteen weeks, 15 games, two wins over Pittsburgh, and still the Ravens haven't accomplished anything really yet this season. It'll take one more victory, at Cincinnati on Sunday, to give the Ravens their first division title, home playoff game and first-round bye since 2006. Those were the goals that mattered this year in Baltimore, and they haven't been met yet.
6 Pittsburgh Steelers
Last Week: 6
The Steelers are 11-1 against most of the NFL and 0-3 against the Harbaughs this season, and I think their only concern this week at Cleveland will be that Jack Harbaugh (father of John and Jim) was born in Ohio, played at Bowling Green collegiately, and coached a couple high school teams in the Buckeye State. Other than that, Pittsburgh should be in good shape against the Browns.
7 Detroit Lions
Last Week: 9
I'm convinced the Lions are going to see the Packers' B team and plenty of Matt Flynn in Green Bay on Sunday, and if I'm Detroit's Jim Schwartz I'm going all out for victory and that No. 5 seed in the NFC. The difference between heading to either New York or Dallas for the first round of the playoffs, and packing off to New Orleans as the No. 6 seed could be the difference between a real playoff run and a one-and-done appearance.
8 Houston Texans
Last Week: 7
Wow, without Wade Phillips around for a couple weeks, the Texans turned back into the Texans of 2002-10. No playoff qualifier needs a pick-me-up on the momentum front quite like Houston, which should play it straight this week at home against Tennessee and try to regain its confidence. Otherwise the league will have some lovely parting gifts prepared for the Texans after they quickly exit the postseason stage in round one.
9 Atlanta Falcons
Last Week: 8
If you picked the Falcons to win the NFC South again this year based on their 13-3 season of a year ago, you really haven't been paying attention. With New Orleans taking the division title, the 10-year-old NFC South has still never been won by any team consecutively, a feat no other division can match. New Orleans and Tampa Bay are three-time NFC South winners, with Atlanta and Carolina owning two division crowns each.
10 Cincinnati Bengals
Last Week: 13
Buy-one, get-one-free ticket offers in Cincinnati? For a game that could get the Bengals to the playoffs and a 10-win season? What is this, Groupon comes to the NFL? Maybe it'd be worth it for Steelers fans to invade Paul Brown Stadium for the second time this season and root the guys in the hometown tiger stripes on to victory against Baltimore, thus aiding Pittsburgh's playoff cause. That's really not as crazy as it sounds.
11 New York Giants
Last Week: 18
How about this little travel factoid: If the Giants win Sunday against Dallas and earn the NFC East title and a first-round playoff home game, they will wind up playing four consecutive games, and five out of six, at MetLife Stadium. That couldn't have happened too many times in league history, what amounts to a four-game homestand (yes, I know the Giants were the "visitors" last week against the Jets). In that scenario, New York will have packed a suitcase once since Thanksgiving weekend (Week 14 at Dallas).
12 Denver Broncos
Last Week: 10
It seems to help a team in the playoffs if it played and won what amounted to a playoff game in Week 17, as Denver faces this week at home against Kansas City. Green Bay and Seattle both faced those situations last year at this point, and the Packers and Seahawks made some noise in January. The Broncos have been a great story in the season's second half, but if they don't close the deal against the Chiefs and make the playoffs, it will be remembered as one of the bigger teases in recent league history.
13 Dallas Cowboys
Last Week: 11
It's almost comical (and maybe criminal) that it has come to this in Dallas, needing to win at the Giants in order to claim the NFC East at a worst-champion-in-the-division's-history 9-7. I don't like the Cowboys' chances, and they have only themselves to blame. Late leads against the Jets, Lions, Patriots, Cardinals and Giants all slipped away, and Dallas would be in the postseason already if it had only nailed down its Week 14 home game against New York. Wasteful, wasteful, wasteful.
14 Philadelphia Eagles
Last Week: 17
Give him credit, that Andy Reid is a survivor. He's not going anywhere, and most mere mortal coaches would have paid for the level of underachievement in Philly this year with their job. The Eagles have work to do this offseason, but it will again be the dean of NFL head coaches (in terms of continuous service) overseeing that work.
15 New York Jets
Last Week: 12
A comeuppance has been served. You don't get to use the word comeuppance in too many instances, but what the Giants imposed on the smack-talking Jets last Saturday at Metlife certainly qualifies. Rex Ryan looks brilliant when his team backs up his bold words, and he looks like a buffoon when it doesn't. Welcome to Buffoon Week.
16 Oakland Raiders
Last Week: 19
If only the Raiders were on the road this week, where they're 5-3 this season and seem to play with more confidence and daring. New Year's Day at the Oakland Coliseum could be a little rough if the hometown team doesn't start fast against San Diego. The rowdies may not have gone to bed yet after their revelry of the night before, so a general state of increased crankiness could be in the air if Oakland sputters early.
17 Seattle Seahawks
Last Week: 15
No one ever said it would be like 2010 all over again. Last year, the Seahawks were 6-9 entering Week 17, but still faced a winner-take-all showdown at home against the Rams for the NFC West title. This year, Seattle is 7-8 as it prepares to play at Arizona in the regular-season finale, but not better off. The Seahawks are five games out in the division, and saw their scant wild-card hopes eliminated with last week's near-miss against the 49ers.
18 San Diego Chargers
Last Week: 14
I would have to think we'll be looking at Norv Turner's last game as an NFL head coach Sunday in Oakland, and he can't say he got cheated, landing three different gigs and lasting almost 14 full seasons, despite going just 110-117-1. He coached seven years in the NFC East (Washington) and seven years in the AFC West (Oakland and San Diego), and his record is decidedly middle of the pack material.
19 Tennessee Titans
Last Week: 20
As if the game does not have enough eye-opening young talent at tight end, here comes Tennessee's Jared Cook, fresh off his 169-yard showing against Jacksonville, the biggest game ever turned in by an Oilers/Titans tight end. Cook has receiver-like hands and speed, and tight end size, and Tennessee is just now starting to figure out ways to best utilize him and win the matchup game.
20 Arizona Cardinals
Last Week: 16
How'd you like to be the guy Jerome Simpson used like a prop last Saturday in Cincinnati, jumping over you to stick his play-of-the-year flag into the ground on that ridiculous 360-degree touchdown leap? That's the lot of Cardinals linebacker Daryl Washington this week, playing the foil on a continuous highlight clip that seemed to be captured from 47 different angles.
21 Chicago Bears
Last Week: 22
If you're a backup quarterback in the NFL, you eventually want your chance to play and prove yourself to be starting material. But be careful what you wish for, because what do you think the market for Caleb Hanie's services is about now? When he was mostly about projected potential, Hanie had a future. But then he played extensively, played horribly, and proved himself all right. He won't be Chicago's No. 2 next season. Count on it. It's an NFL variation on the old saying: Better to keep your mouth shut and be presumed a fool, then to open it and remove all doubt.
22 Kansas City Chiefs
Last Week: 21
Big game for Romeo Crennel's chances to remain as the head coach in Kansas City. Beat the Broncos in Denver and I'd say Crennel approaches lock territory. He's not out of the running with a loss by any means, but Crennel's case gets a lot stronger in the eyes of K.C. general manager Scott Pioli if he goes 2-1 with wins over Green Bay and Denver in his three-game stint.
23 Carolina Panthers
Last Week: 24
Forget about any debate regarding a unanimous MVP vote for Aaron Rodgers. The bigger lock should be Cam Newton for Offensive Rookie of the Year. Newton needs just 107 yards passing at New Orleans this week to become the first rookie to hit the 4,000-yard mark. He would also be the first 4,000-yard passing, 500-yard rushing rookie QB, and to that you can add his league record for most rushing touchdowns in a season (14), most TDs by a rookie QB (34, 20 passing, 14 rushing), and most passing yards by a rookie in one game (432, Week 2 against Green Bay).
24 Miami Dolphins
Last Week: 23
Jason Taylor reportedly plans to retire after Sunday's game against the Jets, making it 15 years in the NFL. He's been a great pro, and a three-time Dolphin, but his trip to the AFC title game last year with the Jets was the closest sniff he ever got to making a Super Bowl. I suppose he'll now get on with that acting career he kept putting off in favor of football the past few years.
25 Buffalo Bills
Last Week: 26
The Bills play at the Patriots this week, and my, how the worm has turned since the division rivals last met, in Week 3 in Orchard Park. Kind of reminds you a bit of 2003, when Buffalo won its opener at home against New England 31-0, and lost its regular-season finale 31-0 at New England. That's not necessarily a predicted score for this week, but the outcome will be the same.
26 Washington Redskins
Last Week: 25
Mike Shanahan says turning the Redskins into winners has taken a lot longer than he anticipated. I imagine Daniel Snyder could second that emotion. This is the close of Year 13 in the team's Snyder era, and Washington doesn't look any closer to winning the franchise's fourth Super Bowl trophy than it ever has from 1999-on.
27 Jacksonville Jaguars
Last Week: 27
Job one in Jacksonville is to build up an offense that features one of the game's premier players in running back Maurice Jones-Drew. MJD is the real deal, and the only thing the Jaguars really have going for themselves at the moment.
28 Cleveland Browns
Last Week: 28
One of my readers out there, and you know who you are, says I use the word "desultory" too often in my stories. He's probably right, and I've tried to curb my enthusiasm in that regard. I think he and his friends have turned it into a drinking game, every time I drop it into a sentence. But it's the holidays, so here goes: It has been a very desultory season, once again, in Cleveland.
29 Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Last Week: 29
The more Raheem Morris talks, and the more he defends himself against the critics of his job performance this season, the worse he sounds. This is the NFL. The only thing that really speaks with any resonance and impact is your won-loss record. And Morris doesn't have a lot to defend on that front.
30 Minnesota Vikings
Last Week: 30
It was beyond sad watching Adrian Peterson being carried off the field with what everyone knew was a serious knee injury last Saturday in Washington. I have to admit, it reminded me of those scenes from "Brian's Song," showing the actual footage of Gale Sayers' devastating knee injury in 1968. Sayers never really ran with the same explosion after that injury, but thanks to modern knee surgery, I hope that's anything but the case with Peterson.
31 Indianapolis Colts
Last Week: 31
I kind of called the Colts' upset of Houston in last week's power rankings. Kind of. And even if you're not willing to give me credit for it, I did have the foresight to bump Indy up to No. 31 last week, one notch ahead of two-win St. Louis. So there's that.
32 St. Louis Rams
Last Week: 32
You get the feeling the wheels are about to start turning in St. Louis. Furiously. Big changes are inevitable when a head coach goes 10-37 and a franchise regresses to the point the Rams have this season.

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