By Don Banks
December 08, 2010

After watching the top four teams in the AFC square off and do battle this past weekend, with the Steelers and Patriots coming away victorious in wildly divergent statement games, I found myself formulating potential Super Bowl matchups for the first time this season. It is, after all, getting to be that time of year.

But first, a quick reminder or two: In the AFC, form usually holds. In the NFC, anything goes. You follow me? Allow me to explain. In the AFC, three teams have owned the Super Bowl the past nine seasons: The Patriots (four trips), the Steelers (two) and the Colts (two). With the lone exception of the 2002 Raiders, everyone else was just playing for pride and a little playoff money.

But in the NFC, that's where things get interesting. Nine different teams have represented the conference in the Super Bowl the past nine years, and it's that stat that makes you eye teams like Atlanta and Green Bay and start to think it's going to be the Falcons or Packers' turn this time around. And when all is said and done, I think Atlanta and Green Bay indeed wind up with the NFC's top two playoff seeds.

If you were paying attention there, I think you got my drift. It's either Patriots or Steelers in the AFC, and Falcons or Packers in the NFC. As for the other 28 teams in the NFL, thanks for playing our game. Now on to this week's rankings...

NFL Power Rankings, Week 14
1 New England <a href=Patriots" title="New England Patriots">
Last Week: 1
Given the way New England sliced up Gang Green at the Big Razor Blade on Monday night, I'm feeling pretty good about my decision to move the Patriots atop these here power rankings three weeks ago, when there were other more trendy choices out there, like the Falcons, Jets or even Packers. The stat for me that absolutely defines New England's dominance in the Belichick era is this: The Patriots still haven't lost twice to a division opponent in the same season since 2001, the year before realignment. This makes it nine consecutive years that New England will not be swept by anyone in division play. Remarkable.
2 Atlanta <a href=Falcons" title="Atlanta Falcons">
Last Week: 3
If the Falcons do make their second Super Bowl trip in franchise history, it will complete a cycle of sorts for the NFC South. Since 2002's realignment, that would be the first of the NFL's eight divisions to qualify all four of its teams for the Super Bowl. The Bucs and Panthers went in 2002 and 2003, respectively, and the Saints made it last year. No other division even has more than two Super Bowl qualifiers over that same span, and the AFC's four divisions have just one Super Bowl team each from 2002 on (see above, re: Patriots, Colts, Steelers and Raiders).
3 New Orleans <a href=Saints" title="New Orleans Saints">
Last Week: 5
So the Saints ran their "No-Brainer Freeze" play on the Bengals, and predictably, Cincinnati defensive lineman Pat Sims had a brain freeze, jumping offside to hand the game-turning first down to New Orleans in the final 34 seconds last Sunday. Most NFL coaches will tell you there are games you have to go win for yourself, and games in which you just have to hang around and wait for the other team to hand you the victory.
4 Pittsburgh <a href=Steelers" title="Pittsburgh Steelers">
Last Week: 6
Hard to not bump the resilient Steelers all the way up into the No. 3 spot after they toughed out that three-point comeback win in Baltimore, but our No. 3 team, the Saints, did just beat them head-to-head five weeks ago. Pittsburgh just knows how to make a play when the game is on line, as Troy Polamalu proved to us once again. And the Steelers will use absolutely anything to motivate themselves, as Hines Ward told us Sunday night in the postgame: "No one gave us a chance coming down here. I think everybody on (ESPN) Countdown picked them (the Ravens) to win.'' See what I mean? They'll use anything. No matter how silly.
5 Baltimore <a href=Ravens" title="Baltimore Ravens">
Last Week: 4
As much success as they've had in his first three seasons on the job, there's something about John Harbaugh's Ravens that just can't stand prosperity. I'm only half kidding when I say I'm starting to believe Baltimore prefers to go the wild-card route in the playoffs, rather than take the easier road that winning the AFC North would bring. They couldn't beat the Bengals when it mattered last season, and they couldn't finish off the Steelers on their own home field when they had the chance this season.
6 Green Bay <a href=Packers" title="Green Bay Packers">
Last Week: 7
With the Packers playing in those old, 1929-style throwback uniforms on Sunday against San Francisco, that weaving, bobbing, 61-yard touchdown catch and run by Green Bay receiver Donald Driver almost seemed like it belonged in the days of leather helmets and no face masks. Breaking a tackle or two is no rarity in today's NFL, but almost everybody but Mike Singletary had a shot at Driver and could not bring him down. Don Hutson would have been proud.
7 New York <a href=Jets" title="New York Jets">
Last Week: 2
I amused myself Monday night trying to fathom how many profanities Rex Ryan must have launched while watching ex-Jets running back Danny Woodhead -- who was clearly a favorite pet of Ryan's -- carve up his defense for 115 total yards on behalf of the hated Patriots? When Bill Belichick can take a player you decided you had no more need for and use him to beat you senseless, that's got to sting. A lot. It reminded me of the old Bum Phillips line about Don Shula's coaching prowess: "Shula can take his'n and beat your'n, or he can take your'n, and beat his'n.''
8 Chicago <a href=Bears" title="Chicago Bears">
Last Week: 8
The Bears defense is ranked third overall in yards (300.3), third in points allowed (16.0 ppg), second against the run (84.9), and has only given up as many as 20 points four times in 12 games. In other words, the Bears D is back and has a lot to be proud of these days. Still, if I were Chicago defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli, I wouldn't have my guys watching too much video of Tom Brady's surgical destruction of the Jets in preparation for Sunday's visit from the red-hot Patriots. It could be a morale killer, and not conducive to their mental health.
9 Philadelphia <a href=Eagles" title="Philadelphia Eagles">
Last Week: 9
The Eagles haven't had a losing streak yet this season, following their first three losses with at least two wins each, and they'll be trying to go four for four in that department with a victory this week at resurgent Dallas. That's the way you build a playoff season, and Andy Reid knows a little something about those. He's had eight of them in his past 10 years in Philadelphia, and there's a pretty good chance he's going to make it nine out of 11.
10 Kansas City <a href=Chiefs" title="Kansas City Chiefs">
Last Week: 11
The Chiefs can lower the boom on the Chargers in San Diego this week, sweeping the season series and ending their four-year stranglehold on the AFC West. It's a large-stage game, and Todd Haley's team would be in fantastic shape to win the franchise's first division title in seven years if it can put this one in the W column. Winning in San Diego is a lot to ask, but Oakland made it look pretty easy last week, and that should give the Chiefs even more reason to conjure up some killer instinct.
11 New York <a href=Giants" title="New York Giants">
Last Week: 14
That sure looked like the old Brandon Jacobs pounding the rock against the Redskins last Sunday, with a downhill running style and rarely being tackled by the first man to hit him. If the Giants can get that power running game cranked to life, and mix in a little of their swarming pass rush, I could see it starting to seem like late 2007 all over again. That would mean a Manning in the Super Bowl for the fourth time in five years, if you're keeping score.
12 Jacksonville <a href=Jaguars" title="Jacksonville Jaguars">
Last Week: 15
Pop quiz time: When was the last time an NFL division winner was outscored in the regular season? It was NFC West champion Seattle in 2006, which went 9-7 and tallied 335 points, allowing 341. But in this bizarro season we might have two such cases. The first-place Jaguars are looking at 257-300 scoring deficit in the AFC South through 12 games, and in the sad-sack NFC West, co-leaders St. Louis (232-237) and Seattle (240-289) have both been outscored.
13 San Diego <a href=Chargers" title="San Diego Chargers">
Last Week: 10
Losing twice to the Raiders, the team that banished him from its sideline after two losing seasons in 2004-2005, had to smart for Chargers head coach Norv Turner. Now San Diego has to chase both Oakland and Kansas City in the final four weeks of the AFC West race, and that complicates things considerably. And we all had our "Here come the Chargers in December" storylines drawn up so nice and neatly.
14 Tampa Bay <a href=Buccaneers" title="Tampa Bay Buccaneers">
Last Week: 13
I started to think the Bucs' best days in 2010 were clearly behind them with those back-to-back losses to the Ravens and Falcons in the books, but then I happened to glance at their next three games: at Washington, home against both Detroit and Seattle. They could easily be 10-5 at that point, and perhaps that Week 17 trip to New Orleans will be a meaningful affair after all.
15 Indianapolis <a href=Colts" title="Indianapolis Colts">
Last Week: 12
I see where Dominic Rhodes just returned to the Colts for a third stint, mere days after Laveranues Coles became a Jet for the fourth time. Can Junior Seau pulling on a Patriots jersey again be far behind? You'd never catch the Redskins and Albert Haynesworth having that kind of breezy, easy-come, easy-go relationship.
16 St. Louis <a href=Rams" title="St. Louis Rams">
Last Week: 17
My 12-year-old son, Micah, said something pretty smart to me the other day. We were talking about how Rams quarterback Sam Bradford and Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh were virtual locks to win the NFL's Offensive and Defensive Rookie of the Year honors, and he pointed out that when you're drafted first and second overall, that's kind of the way it's supposed to work out. But rarely does.
17 Oakland <a href=Raiders" title="Oakland Raiders">
Last Week: 21
If only the Raiders could play every game within the AFC West, where they're an unblemished 4-0 this season. The problem is, they're 0-4 in their other AFC games this season, and there's a distinct possibility they could go undefeated (6-0) in the division and still not make the playoffs if they don't find a way to win at Jacksonville this week and again at home against Indianapolis in Week 16. A very strange year, indeed, in the NFL.
18 Cleveland <a href=Browns" title="Cleveland Browns">
Last Week: 23
With winnable games at Buffalo and at Cincinnati (combined records of 4-20) the next two Sundays, the Browns could actually get to .500 after starting the season 0-3 and 1-5. Wouldn't that be something and make things interesting as Cleveland then plays host to Baltimore and Pittsburgh in the final two games of the NFL year?
19 Minnesota <a href=Vikings" title="Minnesota Vikings">
Last Week: 24
The Vikings started winning too late this season and aren't going to the playoffs. But they're about to have a say in who does make the postseason in the NFC. They have the Giants and Bears at home the next two weeks, followed by a trip to Philadelphia. If Leslie Frazier can win two of his team's final four games, I'd say he's a lock to be Minnesota's full-time head coach in 2011.
20 Dallas <a href=Cowboys" title="Dallas Cowboys">
Last Week: 25
As a kid, I grew up with an intense dislike of everything about the Cowboys, who were in their full-blown America's Team era in the '70s. But the funny thing is, I loved everything about Don Meredith, and I never held the Cowboys against him. He was the very best part of watching Monday Night Football, and I'd still take him as a color analyst (emphasis on the color) over any of today's talking heads. Come to think of it, I've never even heard of anyone not liking Don Meredith, and how many folks can you say that about? Rest in peace, Dandy Don.
21 Seattle <a href=Seahawks" title="Seattle Seahawks">
Last Week: 18
If the Seahawks can win at San Francisco this week, and at home against the Rams in Week 17, it shouldn't matter what they do in their other two games (home against Atlanta, at Tampa Bay). That'll be 8-8 overall, 5-1 in the NFC West, and 7-5 in the NFC. That should get the job done for Pete Carroll and Co.
22 Miami <a href=Dolphins" title="Miami Dolphins">
Last Week: 16
There are some teams that just seem perpetually stuck in the past, a victim of their own success in eras gone by. The Broncos are still trying to recapture the Elway years. The Redskins keep searching for another Joe Gibbs to lead them (even Joe Gibbs part II didn't work out). The 49ers">49ers haven't done much since Joe Montana and Steve Young departed. And Miami will seemingly forever be measured by -- and fall short of -- the lofty standards of Don Shula and Dan Marino.
23 Houston <a href=Texans" title="Houston Texans">
Last Week: 18
No wonder the NFL's not hip to the idea of more expansion any time in the near future. The Browns and Texans are the league's last two expansion teams, and they've made a combined one playoff trip (Cleveland in 2002) in their first 19 seasons of action. Once they both miss the postseason again this year (and they will), it'll be 1 for 21.
24 Washington <a href=Redskins" title="Washington Redskins">
Last Week: 19
Of all the blunders the Redskins have made in the Daniel Snyder era, the Albert Haynesworth signing was the one you could absolutely see coming. The questions that were being asked before Haynesworth hit the free-agent market were prescient: Would he continue to work hard after getting hugely paid, and would he ever mature into the kind of dependable, solid locker-room leader you could count on? I think we have our answers.
25 Tennessee <a href=Titans" title="Tennessee Titans">
Last Week: 20
I just can't see Jeff Fisher surviving this season in Tennessee, which has flamed out faster than that thumbtack thing on their side of the Titans' helmets. It might be a dismissal, a resignation, or a little of both in a mutual parting of the ways. But I think Fisher is wearing his cool-guy shades on a different NFL sideline in 2011.
26 49ers/">49ers_50.png" alt="San Francisco 49ers" title="San Francisco 49ers">
Last Week: 27
49ers/">San Francisco 49ers (4-8)
Speaking of head coaches who wear dark glasses on the sideline and will be unemployed before long, Mike Singletary obviously is determined to fire every last bullet in his gun and go down fighting. He's going back to Alex Smith at quarterback this week, but told Troy Smith to stay loose in the bullpen. That kind of approach at QB always works.
27 Buffalo <a href=Bills" title="Buffalo Bills">
Last Week: 26
The Bills finally played like a defeated, last-place team against the Vikings on Sunday, turning the ball over five times and failing to take advantage of four Minnesota interceptions. Maybe they just don't like the indoors. They'll probably bounce back this week at home when they get the Browns and another dose of Buffalo's frosty climate.
28 Detroit <a href=Lions" title="Detroit Lions">
Last Week: 28
Kansas City's winning again, and so are the Rams and Bucs, and there's even new hope for the Raiders and Browns. But the Lions just keep losing, and even though the improvement is obvious, and the nucleus of young talent impressive, you have to wonder what it's going to take to reverse the Curse of Bobby Layne?
29 Denver <a href=Broncos" title="Denver Broncos">
Last Week: 29
It seems like everybody is making this point this week, but it was during my training camp visit to Denver in 2009 -- Josh McDaniels' first season on the job -- when one astute Broncos observer told me: Maybe we're watching Bill Belichick in Cleveland all over again. Maybe the team that will benefit the most is the one that hires McDaniels after Denver. He'll learn from the mistakes he made, improve, and be better for the initial failure. And that was said even before McDaniels had coached his first game with the Broncos. It's a call I think has a decent shot of coming true.
30 Cincinnati <a href=Bengals" title="Cincinnati Bengals">
Last Week: 32
The Bengals played hard against the Saints, but they still found a way to lose their ninth in a row, falling to eight games under .500. It's a mind-boggling third losing streak of at least nine games in the past 20 years in Cincinnati, and no one else in the NFL has more than two such skids in that span.
31 Arizona <a href=Cardinals" title="Arizona Cardinals">
Last Week: 30
What must Matt Leinart be thinking these days? He wasn't good enough to beat out Derek Anderson, rookie Max Hall and the next guy to be thrown to the wolves in Arizona, fellow rookie John Skelton? Leinart might have struggled this season, but he wouldn't have been declared a disaster area like the current Cardinals QB depth chart.
32 Carolina <a href=Panthers" title="Carolina Panthers">
Last Week: 31
There's some symmetry going on in Carolina this season that I've been slow to pick up on. The last time the Panthers endured a one-win season was 2001, when they went 1-15 under George Seifert, then fired him and selected defensive end Julius Peppers second overall in the 2002 draft (expansion Houston was awarded the No. 1 pick and took David Carr). The Panthers just lost Peppers last offseason during free agency, they're going to again lose a head coach when John Fox departs after the season, and they're going to again choose atop the draft, or close to it. That's called coming full circle.

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