By Don Banks
December 22, 2010

Week 16 of the NFL schedule looms, and no one's talking about resting starters for the playoffs this year. Just 32 games are left in the regular season, and all we've got settled is one division champion (Chicago) and a third of the 12-team playoff field (the Patriots, Steelers, Falcons and Bears).

Last season through 15 weeks, there were already six playoff berths locked up, and five division champs crowned. The Colts were 14-0 but about to play their B team for the last two games against the Jets and Bills, perhaps unwisely helping New York into the playoffs as an AFC wild card.

This year, we've got playoff races galore to hold our attention during the holiday weeks. Five of the eight divisions feature either ties at the top, or teams separated by one game. Four divisions have a third team that's still alive in the playoff hunt, and no division leader has more than a two-game lead (there were four first-place clubs with three-plus game leads last year at this point).

Best of all, we should be in for a fun final two weeks of scoreboard watching with 20 of the remaining 32 games matching division opponents. Most of them will be meaningful affairs for someone. The NFL playoffs make for the football season's best month of the year, but for a change, the two weeks before the postseason begins should be just as good this time around.

Now on to this week's rankings ...

NFL Power Rankings, Week 16
1 New England <a href=Patriots" title="New England Patriots">
Last Week: 1
My absolute favorite part of Dan Connolly's jaw-dropping 71-yard kickoff return against the Packers was when the big lug nut niftily cut back inside at about the 15-yard line, rumbling for another 10 or 11 yards before being caught from behind at the 4. You can have your DeSean Jackson miracle punt return. You see a couple touchdowns a year where the returner bobbles the ball, then picks it up and takes it to the house. I'll take Connolly's one-of-a-kind play, thank you. Has a 313-pounder ever moved so well or looked so good in the open field?
2 Atlanta <a href=Falcons" title="Atlanta Falcons">
Last Week: 2
The Falcons simply haven't gotten their due this season, probably because they're just top-to-bottom solid instead of sexy. Consider these facts: Since their debacle of a 2007 season ended (see: Michael Vick dog-fighting saga and Bobby Petrino desertion), the Falcons are an NFC-best 32-14 in the regular season under the leadership of general manager Thomas Dimitroff and head coach Mike Smith. Only two teams have been better in that span: Indianapolis at 34-12, and New England at 33-13. Not a bad neighborhood to be in. All that's missing for Atlanta is the playoff success.
3 Philadelphia <a href=Eagles" title="Philadelphia Eagles">
Last Week: 6
There's a cluster of six 10-4 teams to choose from in the No. 3 spot, but how do you not give the nod to the Eagles after that fourth quarter for the ages at the New Meadowlands? The next time somebody starts whining about running up the score in the NFL, let's just pop in a tape of what Philly did to the Giants in those final eight minutes and tell everyone to shut up and keep playing. That's the kind of game that can convince the winner it's a season of destiny, and crush the spirit of the losing side in one fell swoop.
4 Pittsburgh <a href=Steelers" title="Pittsburgh Steelers">
Last Week: 4
They'll never admit it, but I think the Steelers have had their fill of the AFC East this season and want no part of that division in the playoffs. The Patriots and the Jets both came into Heinz Field this season and won, and Pittsburgh had to fight hard just to squeak by at Miami (23-22, with the help of that disputed recovery of a Ben Roethlisberger fumble in the end zone) and at Buffalo (19-16 in overtime, thanks to Bills receiver Stevie Johnson's drop of a game-winning touchdown pass).
5 Baltimore <a href=Ravens" title="Baltimore Ravens">
Last Week: 5
The natives were getting restless in Baltimore, but Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron got the message and fed talented running back Ray Rice the ball 36 times in the win over the Saints. Rice's 233 total yards and two touchdowns should be closer to the norm than the aberration in Baltimore, especially now that the winter weather is here and the passing game becomes more problematic. Joe Flacco still has to throw in order for the Ravens to win, but throwing it to Rice is a pretty good idea in and of itself.
6 New Orleans <a href=Saints" title="New Orleans Saints">
Last Week: 3
So you want to do the NFL power rankings, do you? Untangle this particular knot when it comes to our half-dozen 10-4 teams near the top: The Steelers just beat the Ravens a couple weeks ago, and the Ravens just beat the Saints last Sunday. But the Jets just won at Pittsburgh, and the Eagles lost at Chicago in Week 12. And did we mention the Saints handled the Steelers at home in the dome, and the Ravens beat the Jets on the road way back in Week 1? It's almost like having the NFL adopt the BCS.
7 New York <a href=Jets" title="New York Jets">
Last Week: 10
Two things really struck me in the wake of New York's big win at frosty Pittsburgh on Sunday: Kudos to Jets coach Rex Ryan for making it the whole game with just long sleeves and that black sweater vest he likes to wear. No parka or hoodie for Sexy Rexy. He toughed it out. And the other thing? I didn't know quite what to make of Mark Sanchez's ultra-subdued post-game news conference. He looked like he was trying very, very hard to appear nonchalant about the team's season-saving win, maybe because he still had bruised feelings from the criticism he endured the previous two weeks. The body language issues with Sanchez are real, and they're not near fixed yet.
8 Chicago <a href=Bears" title="Chicago Bears">
Last Week: 11
You have to give Mike Martz and Mike Tice a big share of the credit for this unexpected playoff season in Chicago. The Bears' two new big-name offensive coaches simply refused to let the team's early offensive line issues sink the season. They adapted to the realities at hand, game-planned to hide their weaknesses as best they could, and put their players into the best possible position to have success. When you add in they're both pretty good motivators who players want to play for, what more is there in terms of quality coaching?
9 San Diego <a href=Chargers" title="San Diego Chargers">
Last Week: 12
No one in the rest of the AFC playoff field is going to shed a tear for them, but it's remarkable that the Chargers could finish their season on an 8-1 run, piece together two separate four-game winning streaks, and still manage to miss the playoffs. San Diego is in the strange position of needing division rival Oakland to help it out with a win at Kansas City in Week 17. Then again, if the Chargers hadn't lost twice to the Raiders this season, they wouldn't need Oakland's charity.
10 Indianapolis <a href=Colts" title="Indianapolis Colts">
Last Week: 13
The Colts and Peyton Manning came up big at home against the Jaguars, but their work doesn't get any easier with this week's trip to the rollercoaster-like 7-7 Raiders. Oakland is 5-2 at home this season, and the Colts are just 3-4 on the road. Indy needs to keep the offensive balance it has shown the past two weeks, and not let the Raiders' Darren McFadden-led running game take over the game and control the clock.
11 New York <a href=Giants" title="New York Giants">
Last Week: 7
Good idea of Eli Manning to go against his soft-spoken nature and speak to his shell-shocked teammates on Monday in a players only meeting. From the sound of it, Manning hit just the right notes, telling the Giants to get Sunday's mind-boggling defeat by the Eagles out of their system by any means necessary, and then show up ready to go back to work on Tuesday morning. I'm guessing Joe Pisarcik didn't opt to go the same route in 1978, and he's always regretted it.
12 Green Bay <a href=Packers" title="Green Bay Packers">
Last Week: 12
OK, so it's not a perfect analogy, but when I was watching the Aaron Rodgers-less Packers push the vaunted Patriots all the way to the wall Sunday night, I couldn't help but think of the 2007 Giants taking undefeated New England to the max in Week 17 of that season, in a loss that strangely became the springboard to New York's upstart Super Bowl championship run. Am I predicting a Packers-Patriots rematch in the Super Bowl in about 6½ weeks? Not really, but if it comes true I'll try to claim I did.
13 Kansas City <a href=Chiefs" title="Kansas City Chiefs">
Last Week: 15
After that gutsy performance in a win at St. Louis on Sunday, I would have given Chiefs game balls to Matt Cassel and his surgically removed appendix. Cassel found out he could live without his appendix at about the same time the Chiefs were finding out they couldn't live without Cassel.
14 Jacksonville <a href=Jaguars" title="Jacksonville Jaguars">
Last Week: 8
The Jaguars can't get their dauber down and feel sorry for themselves this week at home against reeling Washington, because they'll play the Redskins before Indy takes the field in Oakland in the other pivotal game involving the AFC South co-leaders. Jacksonville looked a little tight to me last week against the Colts, and I thought the fourth-and-1 gamble that backfired on the Jaguars early in the second half was a sign of a team that started to press before it was time to press. The Jags simply didn't play like the Jags team that had earned its first-place standing.
15 Tampa Bay <a href=Buccaneers" title="Tampa Bay Buccaneers">
Last Week: 14
The Bucs finally let one get away against an opponent in their weight class, but losing to the Lions can't feel worse to Tampa Bay than it did for Green Bay the week before. Tampa Bay probably isn't going to sneak into the playoffs after all, but there are positives everywhere you look. Like receiver Mike Williams and running back LeGarrette Blount leading all rookies in receiving and rushing, respectively, putting Tampa Bay in line to become the first team since the 1968 expansion Bengals (tight end Bob Trumpy and running back Paul Robinson) with two different players pacing those rookie categories.
16 Miami <a href=Dolphins" title="Miami Dolphins">
Last Week: 16
Acquiring a big-name free-agent receiver rarely translates into difference-making production. The Dolphins found that out this season with their headline move for Brandon Marshall. He's a skilled play-maker and has decent numbers, but Miami still finished in third place with him in the lineup. Seattle can tell you how much adding T.J. Houshmandzadeh helped in 2009, and even Terrell Owens' big season in Cincy didn't boost the Bengals' win total this season. I suspect there's a lesson in there somewhere.
17 Oakland <a href=Raiders" title="Oakland Raiders">
Last Week: 18
Kind of a head-scratching season for the Raiders. Conventional wisdom in the NFL says if you take care of business in your division, you're going to be playing in January. Three teams in the league are undefeated in division play going into Week 16: The Bears are 5-0 in the NFC North, the Falcons are 4-0 in the NFC South, and Oakland is 5-0 in the AFC West. Chicago and Atlanta have already clinched playoff berths. But the Raiders are postseason longshots. They need two more wins and for both the Chargers and Chiefs to lose at least once.
18 Dallas <a href=Cowboys" title="Dallas Cowboys">
Last Week: 20
I bet the NFL Network wishes it had that flex scheduling option this week. They get to televise Carolina at Pittsburgh on Thursday night, and Dallas at Arizona on Christmas night. That's a heaping dose of holiday-week football, losers style. Watching bad teams playing out the string is where the notion of an 18-game regular season really starts to lose its allure.
19 St. Louis <a href=Rams" title="St. Louis Rams">
Last Week: 17
The Rams are the NFC West's best hope to save a little face and avoid becoming the first division in NFL history to have a champion with a losing record. St. Louis has San Francisco at home this week and travels to Seattle in Week 17, and both are winnable games if St. Louis plays its best. If the Rams can get it done in that fashion, that 8-8 will feel pretty good to a Rams team that hasn't been relevant since 2004.
20 Tennessee <a href=Titans" title="Tennessee Titans">
Last Week: 26
The whole Vince Young saga gets curiouser and curiouser by the week in Tennessee. He shows up on the sideline last week, but only stays for a little more than a quarter? Titans head coach Jeff Fisher said he didn't even know Young was there. Then again, he could have easily said the same thing about Randy Moss, who's been all but invisible in Tennessee's offense.
21 Buffalo <a href=Bills" title="Buffalo Bills">
Last Week: 27
I'm giving the Bills a big bump this week, because they went down to South Florida and showed those Dolphins how to play hard even with nothing but pride on the line. Miami has mailed in a few efforts this season, but Buffalo? None that I've seen. And the Bills might just make some trouble for the Patriots and Jets if they're not on their A games the next two weeks.
22 Detroit <a href=Lions" title="Detroit Lions">
Last Week: 28
Ditto for the scrappy Lions, who are winning games with their third-team quarterback in Drew Stanton. With a trip to Miami and a home game against Minnesota left, a four-game winning streak to close out the season and provide momentum into 2011 is a distinct possibility.
23 Cleveland <a href=Browns" title="Cleveland Browns">
Last Week: 19
It seems to me that Browns football czar Mike Holmgren is right back where he found himself at this point last year: Contemplating whether head coach Eric Mangini is the right man for the job in Cleveland. Losing at Buffalo is one thing, because the Bills haven't quit. Losing at Cincinnati is quite another.
24 Minnesota <a href=Vikings" title="Minnesota Vikings">
Last Week: 21
If you look closely, you'll see there's been nothing fluky about Minnesota's pathetic showing this season. The Vikings have yet to beat a team that owns more than five wins at this point, so it's pretty clear they've consistently found their level in 2010. In even worse news, this is not a team poised for a big bounce-back year next season.
25 Seattle <a href=Seahawks" title="Seattle Seahawks">
Last Week: 24
I wonder how Seattle's eight losses are weighing on head coach Pete Carroll these days? From 2002-07 at Southern Cal, Carroll went a combined 69-8 (.896), meaning he's already lost as many times in the NFL as he did in a six-season span with the Trojans. And if the Seahawks don't find a way to win at Tampa Bay this week, I fear their hopes of going to a bowl game are in serious jeopardy.
26 Washington <a href=Redskins" title="Washington Redskins">
Last Week: 25
The whole Donovan McNabb mess reminds me of this theory I have, and I'm going to keep trotting it out once a year until someone picks up on it. I say the Redskins have been cursed at quarterback for 10 years now, ever since new owner Daniel Snyder fell for Jeff George's rocket arm in 2000 and signed him to compete with starter Brad Johnson. In 1999, Johnson had made the Pro Bowl, throwing for 4,005 yards and leading the Redskins to a 10-6 season, their most recent NFC East title, and a playoff win. Washington wound up benching Johnson for George late during that doomed 2000 season, and nothing really has gone right for the Redskins ever since.
27 49ers">49ers/">49ers_50.png" alt="San Francisco 49ers" title="San Francisco 49ers">
Last Week: 22
49ers/">San Francisco 49ers (5-9)
I would love to know what it feels like to be on a 5-9 team that's still legitimately in playoff contention? Are you embarrassed by it? At least chagrined? Or do you just feel fortunate to take a .357 winning percentage into Christmas week and still be playing meaningful games? It unchartered territory that Mike Singletary's team is traversing these days.
28 Houston <a href=Texans" title="Houston Texans">
Last Week: 23
Was Bob McNair wearing a straight face when he said his Texans were "on the right track" the other day? If McNair actually thinks Houston fans should be encouraged that other NFL owners have told him they're impressed with his Texans, he's more tone deaf and out of touch than anyone ever imagined. When fans start believing that they care about winning much more than the team's owner does, nothing good comes of it.
29 Cincinnati <a href=Bengals" title="Cincinnati Bengals">
Last Week: 29
The worst-to-first storyline is so common. The trajectory the Bengals have taken these past three years has to be much rarer. It's almost worst to first to worst. True, the 2008 Bengals just squeaked out of the cellar in the AFC North, going 4-11-1 to best the 4-12 last-place Browns. But following up on last year's 10-6 first-place showing with this year's 3-11 return-to-earth has made for a dizzying three-year ride in Cincy.
30 Denver <a href=Broncos" title="Denver Broncos">
Last Week: 30
When the Broncos went a maddening 32-32 over the four-season span of 2006-09 -- with records of 9-7, 7-9, 8-8, and 8-8 -- their fans probably thought there was nothing worse than being stuck in the wretched state of mediocrity year after year. Now they know better. Things can get much worse.
31 Carolina <a href=Panthers" title="Carolina Panthers">
Last Week: 32
I think the most damning argument I could make about the sorry state of affairs in this year's NFC West is this: The Panthers, as woeful as they are, own two wins this season. Both of them came against NFC West teams: San Francisco and Arizona. Case closed.
32 Arizona <a href=Cardinals" title="Arizona Cardinals">
Last Week: 29
Lose to the Panthers and you pay the ultimate price in our power rankings. You could almost make a case for Kurt Warner being the league's MVP this year, because without him, look what happened to the two-time defending division champion Cardinals.

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