By Don Banks
December 29, 2010

Time for our last set of regular-season power rankings, and here's what we think we know as New Year's Day looms:

* There are still some projections involved here, but the AFC playoff field is going to look pretty familiar to us, with the Patriots, Steelers, Ravens, Colts and Jets fighting it out for supremacy. Unless the Titans somehow upset the Colts on Sunday and the Jaguars get in, only the upstart Chiefs will truly be a fresh face in the AFC's January tournament.

* The NFC's two best playoff teams both reside in the NFC South. Atlanta and New Orleans seem like they're a cut above the rest of the field, especially now that the Eagles look beatable. You can't discount a Bears team that continues to defy expectations, or a Packers team that can dominate any opponent, but the Falcons and Saints have fewer weaknesses than either Chicago or Green Bay. And let's not even quibble about the relative strength of the NFC West champ.

* This might be the best wild-card field ever. If it's the Saints and Packers in the NFC, and the Jets and Ravens in the AFC, would it register as a shock if any of those four ended up in Dallas? Not to me, and plenty of others.

Now on to this week's rankings...

NFL Power Rankings, Week 17
1 New England <a href=Patriots" title="New England Patriots">
Last Week: 1
Watching the NFL's 12-team playoff field come together and projecting the potential postseason matchups is a big part of the fun every year at this time. But I can't quite get over the feeling that the suspense might be short-lived this season. The Patriots just look driven. New England hasn't been just beating teams for almost two months now, it's been embarrassing them. At least most of them. During the course of the Pats' current seven-game winning streak, they've won by an average of almost three touchdowns (20.4) per game. And they're about to rack up their fourth regular season of at least 14 wins in the past eight years. Can you tell I think New England is looking rather Super once more?
2 Atlanta <a href=Falcons" title="Atlanta Falcons">
Last Week: 2
The loss at home to the Saints didn't exactly expose any Falcons weakness in a significant way, but Atlanta's inability to run much against New Orleans had to be a bit sobering as the playoffs loom. And Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan played his worst game of the season at the worst possible time. But there's still time for Atlanta to re-group and put its best foot forward in the postseason, and ironically enough, the Falcons should try to follow the blueprint of the 2009 Saints. Top-seeded New Orleans started 13-0 last regular season, then lost its final three games and seemingly all its momentum, too. And we know how that turned out.
3 Pittsburgh <a href=Steelers" title="Pittsburgh Steelers">
Last Week: 4
Even with a playoff berth in the bag, Mike Tomlin shouldn't have to say much to motivate his Steelers this week at the Browns. The last time Pittsburgh played in Cleveland, in Week 14 of last season, the Browns stunned the Steelers 13-6, dropping them to 6-7 and all but out of the AFC playoff race. That was Pittsburgh's final loss of the year, but even a three-game season-ending winning streak couldn't save the defending Super Bowl champs or un-do the damage that Cleveland had done.
4 Baltimore <a href=Ravens" title="Baltimore Ravens">
Last Week: 5
Third-year Ravens head coach John Harbaugh just accomplished something Brian Billick never did during his successful nine-year stay in Baltimore: String together three consecutive playoff seasons. And this is the best Ravens team yet of the Harbaugh era, a win at home against Cincinnati away from entering the postseason at 12-4, tied for the second best record in the franchise's 15-year history.
5 New Orleans <a href=Saints" title="New Orleans Saints">
Last Week: 6
As impressed as I was with the Saints gutting out that win in Atlanta on Monday night, I can't make a case for them climbing any higher in the top five just yet. Not when No. 4 Baltimore just beat them in Week 15, and the No. 3 Steelers just beat the Ravens in Baltimore in Week 13. I'm not ready to leap frog New Orleans over either one of those fellow 11-4 clubs. The Saints needed to beat the Falcons any way possible for their own mental health, and to secure their playoff berth. But Atlanta still gets the slight nod over New Orleans, based on its better record and the twin three-point road wins that both teams posted against one another.
6 Chicago <a href=Bears" title="Chicago Bears">
Last Week: 8
Having already locked up their playoff berth and passed out the NFC North championship hats and T-shirts in Minnesota the week before, it would have been easy for the Bears to suffer a letdown last Sunday against the Jets and not play with full intensity. But that was not the case, and that's a very good sign for a Chicago team that's obviously still hungry for more, and not just happy to be invited to the postseason party. The Bears locked up a first-round bye Tuesday night when the Vikings upset the Eagles, and Chicago's charmed season just keeps getting better all the time.
7 Philadelphia <a href=Eagles" title="Philadelphia Eagles">
Last Week: 3
So much for the notion that the Eagles are the NFC's most explosive team heading into the postseason. Philly looked out of sync and uninspired in the Tuesday night loss to the 6-9 Vikings, and if Andy Reid rests most of his starters in Sunday's home game against Dallas, the Eagles will enter the playoffs having played about a half-quarter of quality football in the final three weeks of the regular season. Could it be that Philly already has learned to lean too heavily on Michael Vick's heroics, and when they're not there, they're just an average team?
8 Green Bay <a href=Packers" title="Green Bay Packers">
Last Week: 12
If the Packers can take care of business at home against the Bears on Sunday, they'll enter the playoffs as one of the most dangerous No. 6 seeds ever. Green Bay can score with anyone in the NFC field when it's on its game, and no quarterback in the conference is playing as well right now as Aaron Rodgers. If it's the sixth-seeded Packers at the third-seeded Eagles in the opening round of the playoffs, Green Bay will enter that game with the confidence of knowing it has already won once in Philadelphia this season.
9 Kansas City <a href=Chiefs" title="Kansas City Chiefs">
Last Week: 13
I thought I detected the makings of a turnaround season in Kansas City when I visited the Chiefs in training camp, but nothing on the scale of a 10-win season and their first division title since 2003. Kansas City's consistency this year has been its most impressive accomplishment, with no losing streak longer than two games. The Chiefs never got too high or too low, and brought a pretty steady week-to-week approach to their AFC West pennant drive. Todd Haley and Scott Pioli deserve strong consideration for coach of the year and NFL executive of the year, respectively.
10 Indianapolis <a href=Colts" title="Indianapolis Colts">
Last Week: 10
It's almost refreshing for a change to not be batting around the issue of whether the Colts are wise to rest their starters in Week 17. This year, Indy has needed to keep the pedal to the metal and win out to reach the playoffs. But from the looks of it, you have to wonder if the starters for the Titans (the Colts' Week 17 opponent) have been taking it easy for the last eight weeks or so.
11 New York <a href=Jets" title="New York Jets">
Last Week: 7
Three losses in the past four weeks does not bode well for the Jets in January, but Rex Ryan's team isn't all that fond of prosperity and seems to respond only when things look bleak. If I were Ryan, I'd play it pretty straight in this week's mostly meaningless finale against the Bills. I think Mark Sanchez could use another good game to build on, and I know New York's defense needs to get a little of its swagger back before the playoffs open.
12 Tampa Bay <a href=Buccaneers" title="Tampa Bay Buccaneers">
Last Week: 15
No matter what happens to the Bucs and their long-shot playoff hopes in New Orleans this Sunday, it has been a validating season in Tampa Bay. In one year's time, how much has our perception of coach Raheem Morris, general manager Mark Dominik and even quarterback Josh Freeman changed for the better?
13 New York <a href=Giants" title="New York Giants">
Last Week: 11
That loss to Philly two weeks ago was really a microcosm of New York's past two seasons. For a second year in a row, the Giants aren't finishing a season the way they started (New York was 5-2 at one point in 2010, and 5-0 in 2009), and that inevitably reflects on the head coach. I don't know if Tom Coughlin deserves to lose his job or not, but he doesn't seem to be able to correct his team's turnover issues or get his players to sustain their level of performance in November and December. Those are two pretty damning indictments.
14 San Diego <a href=Chargers" title="San Diego Chargers">
Last Week: 9
The Chargers are the most confounding team in the NFL, and this year's underachievement ranks among the franchise's biggest disappointments. But I don't think you blow everything up and start over when you've made the playoffs in four of the past five years, and you've still got Philip Rivers at quarterback. You swallow hard, take your medicine, and hope the bitter taste of it lingers as motivation for 2011.
15 Jacksonville <a href=Jaguars" title="Jacksonville Jaguars">
Last Week: 14
Losing to an injury-depleted Redskins team at home last Sunday really dampened a lot of the enthusiasm for what the Jaguars accomplished this season, and that's a shame, because they were one of biggest surprises of 2010. But there is a pattern established in Jacksonville, and it's not an attractive one. Jack Del Rio's team out-performs expectations when expectations are low, and then stumbles when the games grow bigger and the pressure builds.
16 St. Louis <a href=Rams" title="St. Louis Rams">
Last Week: 19
I guess there was some grumbling in some quarters, but I loved the NFL's call to move the Rams-Seahawks to the NBC Sunday-night slot in Week 17. Two mediocre teams or not, it's always compelling to watch a game in which the winner goes to the playoffs and the loser goes home. You could be playing tiddlywinks, but if there's really something on the line, it's worth a look.
17 Oakland <a href=Raiders" title="Oakland Raiders">
Last Week: 17
Even if their 7-9 record won't look like much if they lose Sunday at Kansas City, the Raiders really did make significant strides in a return to relevancy this season. Tom Cable is preaching the right things in Oakland, so now's the time to stay the course, keep adding pieces to the puzzle, and see if the Raiders can take the big step into the playoffs next season.
18 Miami <a href=Dolphins" title="Miami Dolphins">
Last Week: 16
My favorite statistic of the 2010 NFL season? The Lions won more games in the state of Florida this year (two) than did the Miami Dolphins (one), the state's 45-year-old flagship franchise. I don't see how Dolphins owner Stephen Ross goes status quo into this offseason. Something significant needs changing in Miami, where the Dolphins have regressed in each of the past two years after going 11-5 with a soft schedule in 2008.
19 Detroit <a href=Lions" title="Detroit Lions">
Last Week: 22
I was tempted to put the five-win Lions ahead of the seven-win Dolphins, given the outcome of their game in Miami on Sunday. But I think climbing into the teens is reward enough for a Detroit team that has won three in a row (all against teams at .500 or better) and been competitive all season long. Though a strong finish doesn't always have a carryover effect into the next season, it usually does in the case of long downtrodden teams that are just learning how to win. That would be the Lions situation exactly.
20 Minnesota <a href=Vikings" title="Minnesota Vikings">
Last Week: 24
Well, well, well. Could the Vikings have found themselves a quarterback of the future in young Joe Webb? For a guy who Brad Childress drafted to play receiver, he certainly looked like a starting quarterback to me against the Eagles on Tuesday night. Then there's that whole 199th overall draft slot 10 years after Tom Brady thing. That's got to be worth some good karma.
21 Washington <a href=Redskins" title="Washington Redskins">
Last Week: 26
After the two-year Jim Zorn era ended so disastrously, the thinking was that Washington made a mistake by going with a novice head coach, and Mike Shanahan would bring an experienced and professional approach to this dysfunctional franchise. Uh, how'd that bit of conventional wisdom pan out? Between the Albert Haynesworth and Donovan McNabb sagas, the Skins' Shanahan era started with more turmoil than Zorn ever experienced.
22 Dallas <a href=Cowboys" title="Dallas Cowboys">
Last Week: 18
The Cowboys are now only 4-3 under interim head coach Jason Garrett, but their three losses have been by three points to the playoff-bound Saints, three points to the playoff-bound Eagles, and one point to the going-nowhere Cardinals. That's six pretty good showings in seven games, and it would seem Garrett has proven the job's not too big for him.
23 Tennessee <a href=Titans" title="Tennessee Titans">
Last Week: 20
You want to know what kind of second half of the season it has been in Tennessee? The Titans actually lost a defensive lineman (William Hayes) to a concussion last Sunday when he was hit in the side of the head with a Kerry Collins pass, while sitting on the Tennessee bench. No word on whether Hayes was the intended receiver, but that's more than the Titans throw to Randy Moss.
24 Buffalo <a href=Bills" title="Buffalo Bills">
Last Week: 21
Some day, the Bills will finally beat the Patriots again. But not any time soon. And not while Tom Brady is still throwing passes in red, white and blue, or Bill Belichick is calling the shots on the New England sideline.
25 Cleveland <a href=Browns" title="Cleveland Browns">
Last Week: 23
Colt McCoy finally looked like a rookie quarterback in that 20-10 loss against Baltimore. He threw three interceptions, completed just 51.7 percent of his passes, and had a passer rating of 27.0. But don't sweat it, kid. The Ravens defense over the years has made a lot of experienced quarterbacks look every bit as bad.
26 Seattle <a href=Seahawks" title="Seattle Seahawks">
Last Week: 25
Pretty low ranking for a team playing for a division title at home this weekend, wouldn't you say? But not so low when you consider Seattle has dropped seven of its past nine games, by margins of 23, 16, 19, 18, 15, 35 and 30 points. No close calls for the Seahawks this season. When they lose, they do it right.
27 Cincinnati <a href=Bengals" title="Cincinnati Bengals">
Last Week: 29
The Bengals made it two wins in a row after putting that 10-game losing streak behind them, and you wonder if that's going to make owner Mike Brown look at both Marvin Lewis and Carson Palmer differently when he starts to take stock of his team next week? Knowing Brown's curious ways, I wouldn't hazard a guess as to what his final verdict will be when it comes to his head coach and starting quarterback.
28 Denver <a href=Broncos" title="Denver Broncos">
Last Week: 30
The intangible quality that others always identified in Tim Tebow during his long and well-chronicled pre-draft scouting process was that he was a winner. He just finds a way to win. Tebow's mechanics issues aside, I think we began to see what all those folks were talking about with his impressive comeback victory over Houston last Sunday.
29 Arizona <a href=Cardinals" title="Arizona Cardinals">
Last Week: 32
Like the Bengals, the Cardinals have showed a little life of late, winning two of their past three games, including that Christmas night cliff-hanger against the Cowboys. It doesn't erase the sting of 2010 in the desert, but it's a little something to build on for the long hours of work to come in the offseason.
30 49ers">49ers/">49ers_50.png" alt="San Francisco 49ers" title="San Francisco 49ers">
Last Week: 27
49ers/">San Francisco 49ers (5-10)
I suppose even Mike Singletary could rehabilitate his coaching reputation in time and go on to lead another NFL team, but I really can't imagine it at this point. The Hall of Fame ex-Bears linebacker probably made the San Francisco organization pine for the days of the Mike Nolan coaching era.
31 Houston <a href=Texans" title="Houston Texans">
Last Week: 28
You're a good man, Bob McNair. Always have been, always will be. But you gotta do it. You have to pull the trigger and admit that Gary Kubiak isn't the man to get the job done in Houston. He's had his fair shot, and failed. Keeping him around for another season only sends the message to your fans that you're too patient for your own good, and willing to accept mediocrity.
32 Carolina <a href=Panthers" title="Carolina Panthers">
Last Week: 31
The John Fox era didn't end well in Carolina, but it had more than its share of highlights and successes. It's time for the Panthers to start over, but Fox set a pretty high standard in Charlotte, and it won't be easily topped.

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