By Don Banks
December 15, 2010

The NFL loves to brag about having six or seven new teams in the 12-team playoff field every season, and maybe it'll work out that way again in 2010. The recent history is pretty compelling in that regard.

But consider this: There's a very plausible scenario in which five of the six playoff teams in the AFC will be repeat qualifiers, with only the Steelers representing the new blood. That would be Pittsburgh, the 2008 Super Bowl champion and a playoff team in six of the past nine years. Some new blood.

As for the rest of the AFC field, New England is already in the playoffs, while the Ravens and Jets would qualify if the season ended today. Then there are the Colts and Chargers. They're on the outside looking in at the moment, but both have a doable path to the postseason, and frankly, I like their chances. Jacksonville and Kansas City, of course, hope they have something to say about this.

In the NFC, there is more variety this season. We can't have more than three repeat playoff qualifiers in the NFC, because the Vikings and Cowboys have been eliminated, and the Cardinals soon will be. But New Orleans and Philadelphia look like solid bets to return to the postseason, and Green Bay is still alive and could get back into the playoffs as well.

The Falcons and Giants would be "new'' teams that have made the playoffs as recently as 2008, while the Bears, Rams, Bucs or Seahawks would qualify as legitimate newcomers (no playoff berths at least the past two years) should they make it.

With three weeks to go, only nine teams have been eliminated, and there's still probably some playoff-race surprises in store. But then again, maybe not. Maybe eight of the 12 teams in the NFL playoffs will be repeaters, the highest total in years. Would that fall under the heading of unpredictable predictability?

Now on to this week's rankings...

NFL Power Rankings, Week 15
1 New England <a href=Patriots" title="New England Patriots">
Last Week: 1
Not only did the Patriots just run through a pretty difficult five-game game gauntlet with remarkable precision and production, but also they seemingly only play in nationally televised games these days: The Sunday night win in Pittsburgh, the Thanksgiving Day opener in Detroit, the Monday-night showdown with the Jets, and now this week, another Sunday nighter at home against Green Bay. And that's not even including their high-profile wins over the Colts and Bears, which were shown to most of the country in the late Sunday afternoon time slot. The Pats have definitely proved ready for their close-up.
2 Atlanta <a href=Falcons" title="Atlanta Falcons">
Last Week: 2
Mike Smith's team has been virtually letdown-proof this season, exhibiting a steady, taking-care-of-business approach and winning all the games it was supposed to, and then some. Let's see how the Falcons handle the long trip to Seattle this week, especially with next Monday night's NFC South-deciding game against New Orleans looming. Atlanta can win No. 12 against the Seahawks, a victory total the franchise has only reached twice before (12-4 in 1980, 14-2 in 1998) in its 44-year history.
3 New Orleans <a href=Saints" title="New Orleans Saints">
Last Week: 3
The Saints keep winning, but Drew Brees has now thrown an interception in nine straight games, and his season total of 18 ties a career high (set in 2007). Cause for concern? Probably not. Interceptions seem to be plentiful this season in a lot of unexpected places, like those NFL cities where Eli Manning, Peyton Manning, Brett Favre, Donovan McNabb and Carson Palmer do business. Then again, those last three quarterbacks won't be in the playoffs this season, and the Manning brothers are still fighting for postseason spots, too.
4 Pittsburgh <a href=Steelers" title="Pittsburgh Steelers">
Last Week: 4
It has turned into Polamalu time in Pittsburgh of late, and now the Steelers have a season-high four-game winning streak to take into the final three-week sprint to the finish line. The Steelers safety has as much to do with the past two Pittsburgh victories, both within the division, as anybody in black and gold. It's the right time of the year to be impressing the folks who vote on the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year award.
5 Baltimore <a href=Ravens" title="Baltimore Ravens">
Last Week: 5
There seems to be something amiss in Baltimore this season, and it's only becoming more pronounced. Both the Ravens offense and defense disappear at different times in most every game, and it makes for some nasty stress tests for John Harbaurgh's club, like the one it endured (barely) in Houston on Monday night. Baltimore's offense took the entire second half off, and its defense did its level best to ruin a reputation for dominance that it no longer truly deserves. Good thing Ray "Rah-rah'' Lewis reminded all his teammates to "finish'' in one his patented made-for-television pregame displays.
6 Philadelphia <a href=Eagles" title="Philadelphia Eagles">
Last Week: 9
The Eagles finally got over the hump against the Cowboys, who beat them three times last season. Now here come the Giants, whom Philly has owned of late, winning five in a row against New York. A win and the NFC East virtually belongs to the Vick-men. But I can't help but remember last year at this time, when the Eagles went into Giants Stadium and won 45-38 in Week 14, looking like the most explosive team in the league. But all that offense disappeared shortly thereafter, as Dallas held Philadelphia to 14 points in back-to-back losses in Week 17 and the first round of the playoffs. Just a cautionary note, Eagles fans.
7 New York <a href=Giants" title="New York Giants">
Last Week: 11
Getting the Brandon Jacobs of 2007-08 back in time for the stretch run is a huge plus for the Giants. The big guy is running north and south again -- with an attitude. I have to admit I didn't think there was any way Jacobs was going to be able to put the Genie back in the bottle in New York after his Week 2 helmet-throwing tantrum in a blowout loss at Indianapolis. But the G-Men are running downhill once more, and rushing the passer, and that's the winning 2007 formula to a T.
8 Jacksonville <a href=Jaguars" title="Jacksonville Jaguars">
Last Week: 12
A win at Indy this week and the upstart Jaguars would clinch the AFC South and be in line for their first home playoff game since getting mauled by the Titans in the 1999 AFC title game. But Jacksonville has won just twice in nine tries in Indiana and will be facing a desperate Colts team that, in essence, started its playoff season last week at Tennessee. The Jags' path to victory seems simple: Get that ball-control ground game rolling and keep a glum-faced Peyton Manning glued to the Colts sideline for much of the afternoon.
9 Green Bay <a href=Packers" title="Green Bay Packers">
Last Week: 6
If the Packers don't rally and make the playoffs, it's going to be a tortured offseason in Green Bay. The Packers have lost their five games this season by a combined 16 points, and that's how close they've come to doing something special in 2010. But they'll be fortunate if they're only looking at a narrow margin this week in Foxboro, because the Patriots have shown no mercy in destroying recent opponents. This game should have conjured up talk of the teams' 14-year-old Super Bowl pairing, won by Green Bay (Bill Belichick coached in that one, too). Instead, the Packers are in survival mode.
10 New York <a href=Jets" title="New York Jets">
Last Week: 7
Anybody else thinking it's beginning to look a lot like 2008's unraveling in New York? That's the season the Jets started 8-3 with Brett Favre at quarterback, then somehow lost four of their last five games and missed the playoffs. Even if New York loses its next two games, at Pittsburgh this week and at Chicago next week, I bet Rex Ryan won't come out and declare his team's playoff chances finished. He'll do his homework this time.
11 Chicago <a href=Bears" title="Chicago Bears">
Last Week: 8
The Bears did just run into the New England buzzsaw at the worse possible time, but you can't say Chicago hasn't lived a charmed existence this season. The Bears are getting the Vikings outdoors and maybe Favre-less this Monday night in Minnesota. And that's after the Week 1 Calvin Johnson non-catch call, facing Carolina the week Chicago was without Jay Cutler, drawing the winless Bills on a neutral field in Toronto, and lucking into Tyler Thigpen's start at quarterback in Miami. If Chicago earns the NFC's No. 2 seed and a bye in the first round of the playoffs, Lovie Smith should take his entire team to Vegas for the break.
12 San Diego <a href=Chargers" title="San Diego Chargers">
Last Week: 13
There was a lot of surprising stuff that happened in Week 14 (Sal Alosi will tell you the same thing), but the Chargers defense holding the Matt Cassel-less Chiefs to just 16 yards and one first down on their 19 second-half snaps might have been the most remarkable occurrence of all. Where was that kind of effort the week before against Oakland, when the Raiders shredded San Diego for 368 yards of offense, including a fat 251 on the ground? Maybe the Chargers really can turn it on and off whenever they feel like it.
13 Indianapolis <a href=Colts" title="Indianapolis Colts">
Last Week: 15
The Colts finish the season against three teams that love to run the ball: in Jacksonville, Oakland and Tennessee. Somehow Indy's 29th-ranked rush defense has to find a way to limit the damage on the ground, then rack up some takeaways and short fields for Peyton Manning and Co. to work with.
14 Tampa Bay <a href=Buccaneers" title="Tampa Bay Buccaneers">
Last Week: 14
Josh Freeman notched his fifth fourth-quarter comeback of the season at Washington, and the more you see of the Bucs' second-year quarterback, the more you realize how much better he is right now than either of the two more highly drafted 2009 first-round QBs: Detroit's injury-prone Matthew Stafford or the Jets' inconsistent Mark Sanchez.
15 Kansas City <a href=Chiefs" title="Kansas City Chiefs">
Last Week: 10
The Chiefs plummet a bit in this week's rankings, but that's what happens when you play a divisional showdown and produce just four first downs and 67 yards of offense in a 31-0 rout. So much for the next-man-up mantra in K.C. Absolutely no one stepped up in Matt Cassel's absence last Sunday in San Diego, and I think the Chiefs could be in for another punch to the gut when they make the cross-state trek to St. Louis this week.
16 Miami <a href=Dolphins" title="Miami Dolphins">
Last Week: 22
What a maddening team the Dolphins are. Starting with that Week 4 special teams meltdown at home against the Patriots, Miami has gone loss, win, loss, win, loss, win, loss, win, loss, win. The Dolphins can break that streak this week against the visiting Bills, but nothing about Miami's 1-5 home record inspires confidence that it will.
17 St. Louis <a href=Rams" title="St. Louis Rams">
Last Week: 16
The Rams, Chiefs and Jaguars are all in position to be worst-to-first turnaround teams this season, but no one has come further than St. Louis, which won just six games over the course of its three consecutive last-place finishes in the NFC West from 2007 to 2009. No matter what they wind up with for a record, the Rams will have every right to celebrate a division title and a playoff trip.
18 Oakland <a href=Raiders" title="Oakland Raiders">
Last Week: 17
The Raiders weren't ready to take that next step up in weight class this season, and it never got any better than being 5-4 and tied with Kansas City for first place at their Week 10 bye. But Oakland now should at least focus like a laser on ending its seven-year streak of double-digit loss seasons, and getting to at least .500. Baby steps, to be sure, but they might help lay the groundwork for bigger things in 2011.
19 Cleveland <a href=Browns" title="Cleveland Browns">
Last Week: 18
The Browns have been eliminated from the AFC playoff picture, but these next three weeks are still important ones for Cleveland and the fate of head coach Eric Mangini. The Browns get to play all three of their division opponents from here on out, and how they measure up to the Bengals, Ravens and Steelers could help determine which direction the arrow ends up pointing.
20 Dallas <a href=Cowboys" title="Dallas Cowboys">
Last Week: 20
Dallas hasn't finished in sole possession of last place in the NFC East since the end of the dismal Dave Campo era in 2002, and it can take a step toward making sure it stays that way with a win at home against third-place Washington (5-8) this week. The Redskins know all about last place, having finished with at least a share of it in four of the past six seasons.
21 Minnesota <a href=Vikings" title="Minnesota Vikings">
Last Week: 19
The Vikings playing outdoors again in Minnesota is probably going to look and feel even stranger than seeing them play the role of faux home team in Detroit's Ford Field. But given that the franchise is naming its 50th anniversary team this weekend, what better way to celebrate its Super Bowl glory era than in a cold-weather game against the Bears, where everyone can see their breath?
22 49ers">49ers/">49ers_50.png" alt="San Francisco 49ers" title="San Francisco 49ers">
Last Week: 26
49ers/">San Francisco 49ers (5-8)
I've lost count of how many "final chances'' Alex Smith has gotten in San Francisco, but he certainly made the most of whatever kind of opportunity last week's game against Seattle represented. Has Smith ever looked better than his three-touchdown, 130.9-rating performance against the Seahawks? Let's see if he can build on that in Thursday night's challenging game in San Diego.
23 Houston <a href=Texans" title="Houston Texans">
Last Week: 23
What a heartache of a season in Houston. The defense finally rears up and plays spectacular football against Baltimore in the second half Monday night, and this time it's Matt Schaub who gives the game away with an inexcusable interception in overtime. How long ago do those "over the hump'' wins against Indianapolis and at Washington seem now?
24 Seattle <a href=Seahawks" title="Seattle Seahawks">
Last Week: 21
I'll have to sort through Dr. Z's archives, but this may be the first time a team tied for first place in its division in December has ever sunk as low as No. 24 in the NFL Power Rankings. But with five losses in their past seven games, and wins only against woeful Arizona and Carolina, it's not like the Seahawks are undeserving of this distinction.
25 Washington <a href=Redskins" title="Washington Redskins">
Last Week: 24
Personally, I would have cut both holder Hunter Smith and kicker Graham Gano in the wake of Washington's excruciating one-point loss at home to Tampa Bay, but Mike Shanahan decided only Smith had to be sacrificed on the altar of accountability. Bet you any amount of money the Tampa Bay game doesn't make the Redskins 2010 highlight film. No mention whatsoever.
26 Tennessee <a href=Titans" title="Tennessee Titans">
Last Week: 25
For a team that was 5-2 and had defeated the Giants, Jaguars and Eagles earlier this season (combined current record of 26-13), the Titans are limping home in embarrassing fashion. Last year, Tennessee started 0-6. This year, the Titans have dropped their last six. You don't endure losing streaks of that length in the NFL and still have a season survive.
27 Buffalo <a href=Bills" title="Buffalo Bills">
Last Week: 27
Football's not an easy game to figure at times. Last season, Bills rookie safety Jairus Byrd got his hands on the ball constantly, with an NFL-best nine interceptions, and 11 passes defensed. This year? Byrd has played in every game, and has exactly one pass defense, and zero interceptions. Sophomore jinx? Maybe. But the ball is clearly not bouncing his way.
28 Detroit <a href=Lions" title="Detroit Lions">
Last Week: 28
I think it's interesting to note that if Brett Favre does indeed heal and play again this season, the last game of his 20-year career could be right back at Detroit's Ford Field, where he just had his starting streak snapped Monday night in that loss to the Giants. I can't think of any other reason to watch the Vikings at the Lions on Jan. 2.
29 Arizona <a href=Cardinals" title="Arizona Cardinals">
Last Week: 31
Big, comfortable win for the Cardinals last week at home against a Denver team that's in disarray. But Arizona is still the last-place team in the NFL's worst division. So there's that.
30 Denver <a href=Broncos" title="Denver Broncos">
Last Week: 29
Kyle Orton's past two games: 28 of 69 (40.6 percent), for 283 yards, no touchdowns, three interceptions, two fumbles lost, and five sacks. No wonder everyone got all excited when Tim Tebow loosened up his arm on the sideline the other day.
31 Cincinnati <a href=Bengals" title="Cincinnati Bengals">
Last Week: 30
I'd love to watch that goofy Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens training camp interview on the ESPN bus just one more time before this desultory season in Cincinnati is through. I believe the message that comes through loud and clear is: Be careful what you wish for.
32 Carolina <a href=Panthers" title="Carolina Panthers">
Last Week: 32
"He ain't at Notre Dame anymore, that's for sure,'' said Steve Smith of Panthers rookie quarterback Jimmy Clausen. Don't you think Clausen knows that by now? I mean, the Fighting Irish were good for six or seven wins a year with Clausen.

You May Like