By Don Banks
December 14, 2011

It's 208 games down, and 48 to go in the NFL's regular season, and we've only got four teams having punched their ticket to the playoffs with three weeks remaining (Green Bay, San Francisco, New Orleans and Houston).

Most of the remaining drama will be in the AFC, starting with Sunday's fascinating New England at Denver game highlighting the Week 15 schedule. What could be better than Tom Brady and Tim Tebow sharing the same stage, putting their very different styles to the test?

New England, Baltimore, Houston and Pittsburgh are all 10-3, and in a dogfight for the top three seeds in the AFC playoffs, with the Ravens and Steelers facing the possibility of winding up anywhere from No. 1 to No. 5. The comeback Broncos are in great shape in the AFC West, and the Jets have rallied themselves and look like they're revving up for yet another wild-card run.

While the perfect season continues in Green Bay, fairly quietly we might add, the 49ers and Saints now have a nice little battle brewing for the No. 2 seed in the NFC. Atlanta and Detroit have wild-card entry written all over them, and the NFC East is a three-team race so ugly it's almost beautiful.

Now on to this week's rankings...

Week 14 NFL Power Rankings
1 Green Bay Packers
Last Week: 1
The Packers got the benefit of a tuck rule call last Sunday, against the Raiders no less, not that they needed it in the 30-point rout. But Green Bay cornerback Charles Woodson didn't even like being on the happy side of things in regards to that always controversial call. Woodson, the ex-Raider, still remembers a certain snowy night in Foxboro in the 2001 AFC playoffs, ruined by the tuck rule. "Me being on the other side of it (this time), it still made me kind of sick to my stomach in the time that it took to make the call," Woodson said. "I'm still not a fan of the old tuck rule."
2 New Orleans Saints
Last Week: 2
The Saints clinched a playoff spot last Sunday but still need to pick up one more game on the suddenly vulnerable 49ers to move into position to claim the NFC's No. 2 seed and a first-round bye, which would be hugely beneficial to their postseason hopes. Lo and behold, 10-3 San Francisco has a tough game against visiting Pittsburgh Monday night, so fans of the New Orleans version of the black and gold are temporarily fans of the Steelers' version of the black and gold, too.
3 Baltimore Ravens
Last Week: 3
In training camp, Terrell Suggs told me "this is all or nothing this year" in Baltimore, for both him and the Ravens' Super Bowl quest. "I'm in my ninth year, so I feel like a window of opportunity is closing," Suggs said. I think he meant it. Suggs might have to get my NFL Defensive Player of the Year vote. He's got 13 sacks and six forced fumbles, and he just won the AFC's Defensive Player of the Week award for the third time this season. Who needs Ray Lewis?
4 Pittsburgh Steelers
Last Week: 5
Between James Harrison's hits that bring league discipline and Ben Roethlisberger injury reports, doesn't it seem like we just cycle through the same storylines in Pittsburgh year after year? But there's a comfortable redundancy to it all, including those double-digit win seasons the Steelers keep racking up.
5 New England Patriots
Last Week: 6
Nothing much to chew on in this week's Patriots at Broncos game, other than the two hottest stories in the NFL: The continued phenomena of Tebow-mania and the monster scoring/receiving machine that is 22-year-old New England tight end Rob Gronkowski. I imagine they're both selling a few jerseys this Christmas, and that's not all they've got in common. I haven't seen anyone yet tackle them one-on-one in the open field.
6 San Francisco 49ers
Last Week: 4
Alex Smith just played his worst game of the season in the loss at Arizona, the 49ers have dropped two out of three, and San Francisco's offense is suddenly looking limited, to say the least. You have to wonder if that's going to dampen the 49ers' sense of urgency to get Smith's contract extended before the year ends? San Francisco might have noticed what happened in Buffalo once the Bills re-signed Ryan Fitzpatrick in October, and maybe there's some sort of correlation when it comes to the late-season struggles of the two brainy QBs.
7 Houston Texans
Last Week: 7
In the spirit of the season, I would like to take a moment, clear my throat, and say Texans owner Bob McNair was right and I was wrong. He stuck with head coach Gary Kubiak longer than I would have, and his patience has been rewarded this season with a division title in Houston. Kubiak's teams underachieved in 2009-10, but this year has been a remarkably different story, with the Texans displaying as much resiliency as they did mediocrity and passivity in the past. What a difference the addition of Wade Phillips and the subtraction of Peyton Manning has made.
8 Atlanta Falcons
Last Week: 8
Between Mike Smith's health scare Sunday night in Charlotte and Sean Payton's knee injury on the sideline in Tampa Bay earlier this season, it's been a tough year for coaches in the NFC South. Then again, I suppose once you add in the mental toll inflicted on Jacksonville's Jack Del Rio and Miami's Tony Sparano, with Tampa Bay's Raheem Morris potentially joining the list, southern-based NFL coaches in general have had their difficulties in 2011.
9 Denver Broncos
Last Week: 9
The Patriots had better build themselves a healthy lead through the first three quarters Sunday in Denver, otherwise, they'll be at risk of getting Tebowed. According to ESPN's stat mavens, Tebow in the first three quarters this season is completing just 38.7 percent of his pass attempts, at an average of 4.7 per throw. But in the fourth quarter and overtime, those numbers jump to 60.9 on the completion front, and 8.9 per attempt. Can anyone, anywhere explain that particular discrepancy?
10 New York Jets
Last Week: 10
Gang Green travels this week to Philly for a game against "Gag Green," but the Eagles could be dangerous if the same team that just dismantled Miami on the road shows up at Lincoln Financial Field. I know, the Eagles have won two in a row only once this season, and they're 1-5 at home, so there's no reason to believe they'll show some consistency now. But still, the Jets should be wary of the team that beat them out once already this year, in the free-agent battle for cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha.
11 Detroit Lions
Last Week: 12
If the Lions make the playoffs, and I've said since the preseason that an NFC wild-card berth is their destiny, they might be able to look back on that non-call of the game-ending Joe Webb facemask play last Sunday as the early Christmas gift they needed to get over the hump. Karmic payback perhaps for the Calvin Johnson "process" non-catch last year in Chicago?
12 New York Giants
Last Week: 16
Plenty of draft experts and league personnel types thought Jason Pierre-Paul was too much of a project to risk a pick in the top half of the first round on him in 2010, but the Giants look smart now for taking him 15th overall. JP-P might have just saved New York's season, and Tom Coughlin's job, with that last-second field goal block in Dallas. (Did I mention Pierre-Paul and I both attended the University of South Florida, many, many years apart?)
13 Dallas Cowboys
Last Week: 11
During former Cowboys coach Wade Phillips' health-related hiatus that just came to light on Wednesday, I hope he gets to smile and enjoy a little laugh of satisfaction. He's in the playoffs as defensive coordinator of the Houston Texans,while Jason Garrett's and Jerry's team in Dallas is doing the old December swoon again. Looks like Texas just isn't big enough for two playoff-bound teams.
14 Tennessee Titans
Last Week: 13
That rookie quarterback for the Titans looked pretty impressive against the Saints, and the kid is unquestionably tough. But if he keeps diving in the direction of end zone pylons, eventually he's going to be known as Hurt Locker, instead of Jake Locker.
15 San Diego Chargers
Last Week: 18
Sorry Philip Rivers and your fellow Norv-men. You woke up at least one week too late this time. Looks like you've all been Tebowed. But join the crowd. And hey, it's almost a status symbol at this point.
16 Cincinnati Bengals
Last Week: 15
The Bengals' attendance of 41,000-plus last Sunday against Houston was the second smallest in the history of Paul Brown Stadium, and that's with a young, exciting team currently operating in Cincinnati. Let the Bengals suffer through one of their 4-12 seasons and it'll be down to Mike Brown Friends and Family Day at the ballpark.
17 Arizona Cardinals
Last Week: 21
John Skelton wins again and Kevin Kolb's hurt again. Hmmm. That might just be the theme of the season's second half in Arizona. That's the epitome of a good news-bad news scenario in Cardinal-ville.
18 Seattle Seahawks
Last Week: 20
Look, I was eating Skittles before Marshawn Lynch was playing Pop Warner, but I had never imagined what a Skittles shower would look like -- especially in slow-motion -- until ESPN captured that historic moment in the end zone after Lynch's game-clinching touchdown Monday night against the Rams. Talk about your free advertising. The Skittles folks must be positively on a sugar high.
19 Oakland Raiders
Last Week: 14
I have to think Hue Jackson and Carson Palmer are both being looked at in a little different light these days in Oakland. When the Raiders needed their best, they laid two consecutive eggs on the road against Miami and Green Bay. If Oakland limps home to 8-8 and misses the playoffs, can't Tom Cable rightfully claim he did the same thing last year -- without mortgaging the team's draft future -- and lost his job for it?
20 Chicago Bears
Last Week: 17
What a double whammy the Bears have endured the past two games: Beaten at home by the punch-less Chiefs on a Hail Mary touchdown pass that Brian Urlacher batted to the wrong color uniform, and then the debacle in Denver, with Marion Barber playing the role of Santa to the entire Broncos roster. Those kind of defeats are soul-sapping, and I don't see Chicago fighting its way back into the playoffs after three straight losses in the AFC West.
21 Philadelphia Eagles
Last Week: 23
Where's that defense been all season in Philly? The Eagles made the Dolphins look like their 0-7 selves at Sun Life Stadium, knocking red-hot quarterback Matt Moore out of the game and putting the clamps on an offense that had scored at least 31 points in three of its previous five games. For a week at least, embattled Eagles defensive coordinator Juan Castillo can breathe a little easier.
22 Miami Dolphins
Last Week: 19
So Miami team owner Stephen Ross says he's looking for "a young Don Shula" to replace the fired Tony Sparano. That's funny, because I'd think about now the Dolphins would be willing to even consider a soon to be 82-year-old Don Shula, 16 years gone from Miami's sideline. If you're going to go chasing Super Bowl coaches, you might as well chase the one you know the best.
23 Buffalo Bills
Last Week: 22
I know it sounds a little strange, but I sometimes think about how a team's highlight film is going to look before the season's even over, and how NFL Films will handle a situation like this year's Bills? That is going to be one first-half dominated collection of highlights for Buffalo in 2011, because once you get to Week 9, there's not a single moment you'd care to spotlight.
24 Carolina Panthers
Last Week: 25
Good for Ron Rivera, coming out and telling his young team that jobs will be on the line in the last three weeks, in an effort to ensure that no one is feeling satisfied with the Panthers' four wins and holding leads in 12 out of 13 games this season. It has been a hopeful first year for Rivera, but this is a team that can take a significant step up in weight class next season, and there's still time to make progress toward that goal in 2011.
25 Washington Redskins
Last Week: 26
Just watch Redskins cornerback DeAngelo Hall on that long Rob Gronkowski catch and run in the first half last Sunday. Hall stands around and watches the play like, well, a sports writer. And he's one of Washington's co-captains. You can have the guy. I know he can cover when he feels like it, but I wouldn't want Hall on my team. He's not worth the headaches.
26 Kansas City Chiefs
Last Week: 24
I hope the Chiefs give Romeo Crennel a fair shot at their vacant head coaching job, and not just interim-tag lip service. He's a good coach who has done very solid work with Kansas City's defense the past two years. And I think the Chiefs players will respond to his steady-as-she-goes approach about now.
27 Jacksonville Jaguars
Last Week: 29
If the NFL had an annual "Best Player on a Bad Team Award" (remember when LaDainian Tomlinson used to routinely win that distinction early in his San Diego career?), I do believe Jacksonville running back Maurice Jones-Drew would be a unanimous selection this year.
28 Cleveland Browns
Last Week: 28
One play from the Browns-Steelers game last Thursday night managed to set off controversy in both Cleveland and Pittsburgh. In retrospect, I think both teams would agree they could have done without James Harrison's helmet-to-helmet hit on Colt McCoy.
29 Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Last Week: 27
With the level of fan discontent that has now coalesced against Raheem Morris, I'd be surprised if the Glazer family opted to run him back out there in 2012 and hope for the best. This is an ownership that canned both Tony Dungy and Jon Gruden after winning seasons, and Morris won't be finishing even a country mile within .500.
30 Minnesota Vikings
Last Week: 30
Pretty intriguing performance by backup quarterback Joe Webb against the Lions, but with the team trying to develop Christian Ponder, it will need to be creative in finding ways to get Webb's play-making skills involved. But at least now I see why Donovan McNabb was headed for third-team status in Minnesota.
31 St. Louis Rams
Last Week: 31
That was both mind-boggling and absolutely painful watching the Rams repeatedly try to score from the Seattle 1 on Monday night. What exactly was Rams offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels thinking, calling all those pass plays when he has a Steven Jackson at his disposal? At one point, McDaniels didn't even have Jackson on the field in the goal-line offense. Sometimes coaches simply out-think themselves.
32 Indianapolis Colts
Last Week: 32
Colts president Bill Polian this week on the status of head coach Jim Caldwell: "My fervent hope is that Jim's job is not in jeopardy." Uh-oh, Jim. That's not even your usual full-blown but worthless vote of confidence. That's just Polian saying I hope Colts owner Jim Irsay doesn't decide to fire Caldwell, if he hasn't already.

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