By Don Banks
November 02, 2011

It's difficult to detect when you're in the middle of it, but we've made a circle of sorts so far in the NFL's 2011 season, winding up right back where we started from. That would be with Green Bay and Pittsburgh, last year's Super Bowl teams, atop their respective conferences, and the other 30 teams giving chase.

As we reach November, it's the Packers and Steelers setting a familiar pace, but with a bevy of intriguing turnaround-team stories to watch unfold over the course of the final two months. Here's a bit of a midseason reset as the NFL pennant races begin in earnest. Now onto this week's rankings...

NFL Week 8 Power Rankings
1 Green Bay Packers
Last Week: 1
All that stands in the way of a perfect half-season in Green Bay is this week's trip to San Diego, where the Chargers are again in the process of losing their way. It has been four years since a defending Super Bowl champion started this well, with the 2007 Colts racing to a 7-0 getaway, en route to a 13-3 record and a divisional-round playoff exit. The last defending champ to do better than 7-0 were the 1998 Broncos, who made it all the way to 13-0 before finishing 14-2 and winning a second consecutive Super Bowl ring. Now there's a decent model to follow if you're the Packers.
2 Pittsburgh Steelers
Last Week: 6
The Steelers are on the rise after their thoroughly impressive win over the Patriots, and their record at the season's midpoint puts them right on schedule for another 12-4, first-place showing in the AFC North, which was good enough last season to produce a Super Bowl run. But the glass-half-empty view would be this: the victory over New England was Pittsburgh's first quality win of the season, and the Steelers now must look equally sharp at home against Baltimore this week to completely erase the stench of their 28-point Week 1 loss at the Ravens.
3 San Francisco 49ers
Last Week: 4
The 49ers have won the close ones, going 3-1 in games decided by six points or fewer, and they've won the easy ones, going 3-0 in games with final margins of 10 or more points. The bulk of their division schedule still awaits them -- with five of their last seven games being division games -- but when you're in the NFC West, and the other three teams are a combined 4-17, that might be the best piece of news you could possibly get.
4 Baltimore Ravens
Last Week: 5
The Ravens team that dismantled the Steelers, Jets and Texans looked Super Bowl-ready to me. But the Baltimore club that lost at Tennessee and at Jacksonville, and struggled mightily to win at home against Arizona isn't going anywhere of note in January. And so it goes for John Harbaugh's up-and-down team, but an upset win this week at Pittsburgh and the first half will be judged a definitive success.
5 New England Patriots
Last Week: 2
Even when they win, the Patriots give up gobs of passing yardage and it must be galling for a defensive guru like Bill Belichick to field a team that ranks last in overall defense (424.1 yards per game) and passing defense (323.1). Tom Brady and the New England offense helps you out-gun most of your opponents, but when was the last time the Patriots defense really stopped anyone? The Ty Law era?
6 Buffalo Bills
Last Week: 7
Meaningful Novembers have been scarce in Bills-dom for a long while now, but Buffalo has the division lead and can put another brick in the wall this week at home against the Jets. The Bills have to have this one, because a three-game road trip to Dallas, Miami and the Jets looms at the start of the second half.
7 Detroit Lions
Last Week: 8
The Lions have had an eventful, and at times frenetic, first half of the season, but they managed to take care of business while staying in the headlines. I still see Detroit getting to 10 wins, earning an NFC wild card berth, and ending the conference's longest active playoff drought at 11 years. Restore the roar, indeed.
8 New Orleans Saints
Last Week: 3
The loss at St. Louis sent the Saints tumbling down our top 10, but there's time to recover and the next two weeks should tell us plenty about where Sean Payton's team rates in the NFC South. New Orleans needs to get past its Bucs problem this week at home against Tampa Bay, and then send a message of superiority at Atlanta next week. If they can do both, the Saints are really going to go into their Week 11 bye riding high.
9 New York Giants
Last Week: 10
The Giants are about to embark on a season-defining six-game stretch that includes four road games and four opponents who currently hold at least a share of first place in their division. If they somehow find a way to play .500 ball through those six, they should be thrilled. But I think it's more likely New York exits 7-6 and once again fighting for its playoff life come mid-December.
10 Cincinnati Bengals
Last Week: 11
There's no better feeling in the NFL for a team and its fanbase than unexpected success, and this season has been a gift so far in Cincinnati. But not a fluke. The Bengals are earning their wins, and ever-increasing respect. But after this week's trip to Tennessee, the schedule gets serious, with all four of Cincinnati's games against division powers Pittsburgh and Baltimore falling in the final eight games of the season.
11 Houston Texans
Last Week: 12
The Texans are halfway home, and this is the year they finish the deal and finally reward owner Bob McNair's patience with a trip to the playoffs. Houston's the only team in the league that already owns three division wins (3-0), and the Texans have beaten the Colts, Titans and Jaguars by an average margin of 23.7 points per game. That's the blueprint they've always been seeking in the AFC South.
12 Philadelphia Eagles
Last Week: 19
Though they're still under .500, the Eagles are moving way up this week, because Andy Reid's guys are finally who we thought they were. And they're just starting to get on a roll that I expect will eventually earn them the NFC East title. The next step comes Monday night at home against the Bears, and I wouldn't be surprised in the least if Michael Vick turns it into one of his personal showcase games.
13 Kansas City Chiefs
Last Week: 20
If there were an award for turnaround teams based solely on their play from September to October, the Chiefs would pick up the hardware without any competition. From 0-3 and overmatched in the season's first month, to 4-0 and tied for first place in the AFC West after the season's second month. And with 0-7 Miami and 2-5 Denver both heading to Arrowhead in the coming two weeks, the Chiefs' climb may continue well into November.
14 Oakland Raiders
Last Week: 13
It's a big week for the Raiders, who need to re-establish their division dominance with a resounding victory at home against the last-place Broncos. Carson Palmer has to look better than he did two weeks ago against the Chiefs, and having the Broncos stick with Tim Tebow at quarterback for at least one more start figures to be a blessing for the Oakland defense.
15 New York Jets
Last Week: 14
It has been a fitful first half of the season in New York, but November should tell us the story of these Jets. There are bookend matchups with the Bills in Weeks 9 and 12, and a Week 10 homefield rematch with the hated Patriots on the Sunday night stage. New York can reinvent itself this year with a strong month, climbing over Buffalo and New England in pursuit of a division title that will bring the promise of those long-awaited home playoff games.
16 San Diego Chargers
Last Week: 9
If the Chargers thought the fourth-quarter meltdown at the Jets was painful, how to describe the late-game self-destruction in Kansas City Monday night? The Halloween cliches must have been flying fast and furiously in the press box. San Diego's lack of killer instinct is still readily apparent, and now here come back-to-back short-week games against the powerful Packers and the talented Raiders. The Chargers' season is officially on the brink.
17 Chicago Bears
Last Week: 15
OK, Bears fans, here's how your club has to navigate its final nine games to make the playoffs: The Bears win out in their remaining four home games, which gets them to eight victories, and then take care of business in their two most winnable road games, at Denver and Minnesota. That would equal 10-6, and then it would be a matter of whether Chicago would win a potential tiebreaker with Detroit or some other wild-card contender.
18 Atlanta Falcons
Last Week: 16
Given how the Falcons matched their entire total of 2010 regular season losses after just five games this year (at 2-3), the first half can still end very encouragingly if Atlanta wins at 0-8 Indy this week. The Falcons would then face a three-game homestand, and they're always a better, more formidable club in the Georgia Dome. The key game is easy to spot: Week 10 at home against the first-place Saints.
19 Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Last Week: 17
Throw out that 45-point debacle at San Francisco -- a notion Tampa Bay would quickly endorse -- and the Bucs do nothing but play close games. Their other six games have been decided by an average margin of 5.5 points, and for the most part they've been on the right side of those, winning by four, three, seven and six points. Knowing how to win the tight ones is a good sign, as is Tampa Bay's 2-0 start in the division. But this week's trip to New Orleans is big in terms of staying in the top half of the NFC playoff pack.
20 Tennessee Titans
Last Week: 21
The Titans have pieced things together with wins over the Ravens, Broncos, Browns and Colts, but only that Week 2 upset of Baltimore made anyone sit up and take notice. This week's home game against the surprising 5-2 Bengals offers another chance for Tennessee to garner some respect, but I'm nowhere near a Titans believer just yet.
21 Dallas Cowboys
Last Week: 18
The last two weeks have given you the perfect feel for the maddening reality that exists in Dallas: A 34-7 win over St. Louis, followed by a 34-7 loss at Philadelphia. I thought the Cowboys wouldn't be on that ride quite so much with Jason Garrett and Rob Ryan in charge, but so far, nothing much has really changed from the underachieving Wade Phillips coaching era.
22 Minnesota Vikings
Last Week: 28
The record obscures them, but there are some reasons for hope in the Twin Cities. For a team that lost its first four games by a combined 19 points, blowing leads like crazy, the Vikings have stayed together and amassed three solid efforts in the past four weeks. The schedule remains daunting in the second half, but don't lose sight of the fact some important foundational work is being done by first-year head coach Leslie Frazier.
23 Carolina Panthers
Last Week: 24
You can go ahead and make Carolina one of your chic picks for turnaround team of the year in 2012, because it's obvious how much better it has been this season and how close the Panthers are to winning consistently. Five of their six losses have been by seven points or fewer, and they're somehow four games under .500 despite being outscored by a mere 20 points. Ron Rivera deserves a lot of credit, and Cam Newton has been the catalyst.
24 Washington Redskins
Last Week: 22
The Redskins had better hope rock bottom has been reached, because their shutout loss to the Bills in Toronto was like something out of the Spurrier era. Injuries have played a part in the three-game losing streak, but if Mike Shanahan is to be any different from any of the other failed Redskins coaches before him, he had best find a way to stop the bleeding, work with what he has on hand, and steal another three or four wins.
25 Cleveland Browns
Last Week: 23
Speaking of teams where the basic plot never really changes, I just didn't see much first-half impact from the hiring of head coach Pat Shurmur. The Browns offense doesn't do anything particularly well, and I don't see improvement from second-year quarterback Colt McCoy. Unlike Jim Harbaugh in San Francisco or Ron Rivera in Carolina, Shurmur hasn't come in and changed the mentality and losing culture that exists in Cleveland.
26 Jacksonville Jaguars
Last Week: 25
It must be difficult for the Jaguars and their fans to see the play of Cam Newton, Andy Dalton and Christian Ponder and wonder why their rookie quarterback, Blaine Gabbert, hasn't been able to produce anywhere near the level of those three? Gabbert doesn't have the best supporting cast, but he's also the only one in that group who has looked every bit the rookie quarterback this season, with a 45.7 completion percentage, a 5.2-yard average attempt, a 62.0 passer rating and 19 sacks.
27 St. Louis Rams
Last Week: 31
I'm not predicting the Rams climb all the way out of the hole they dug for themselves, but at least you saw a glimpse of their potential in that 31-21 upset of the Saints last Sunday. And don't forget that St. Louis has yet to play a division game, so there's that. Five of the Rams' coming six games are against the Cardinals (two), the Seahawks (two) and the 49ers (one).
28 Arizona Cardinals
Last Week: 29
In four of their six losses, the Cardinals have been right there, losing by one at Washington, by three in Seattle, by four at home against the Giants and by three at Baltimore. Sometimes hanging around in games like that is a sign that you're close to turning the corner. But in this case, Arizona looks more like a bad team that finds a new way to lose each week, no matter how long it takes.
29 Seattle Seahawks
Last Week: 26
The Seahawks have scored 17 points or fewer in five of their seven games, and it comes back to their questionable decision-making at quarterback the past two offseasons. I have to believe Pete Carroll is hoping Southern Cal junior quarterback Matt Barkley is waiting there for him in the first round next April.
30 Denver Broncos
Last Week: 27
At this point, after the disaster against Detroit, it might be better for everyone's sake in Denver to play on the road. The Broncos are at Oakland and Kansas City in the coming two weeks, and as difficult as it might be for head coach John Fox to resist making another move, he should stick with Tim Tebow at quarterback in those games and let him have at least a month-long starting audition. At that point, he will have had a chance to pass or fail on his own merits.
31 Miami Dolphins
Last Week: 30
It's not all that rare to see losing teams play well enough to win in the first three quarters, but then fail to close out the game in the fourth quarter. It happens that way every year, and it's happening to the 2011 Dolphins. Just watch the fourth quarters against the Broncos and Giants, and they serve as a clear microcosm of Miami's problems. When the game is on the line, no one steps forward and makes the plays that matter.
32 Indianapolis Colts
Last Week: 32
With five Indy home games remaining, I can still see the Colts winning a couple times before they're put out of their misery. But the irony of these Colts going for perfection in reverse, after the controversy that Indy created by not chasing 16-0 in 2009, is almost too rich to believe.

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