By Don Banks
September 26, 2012

Word to the over-excited in Houston, Atlanta and Arizona: Starting 3-0 has translated to earning a playoff berth more than 75 percent of the time since the postseason expanded in 1990, but it doesn't mean you've got it made. Three teams were 3-0 after three weeks last season -- Green Bay, Detroit and Buffalo -- and they combined for exactly zero playoff wins. The Bills, of course, didn't even make the dance.

So, temper that enthusiasm, Texans, Falcons and Cardinals fans. Things are looking good now, but we may not even remember a strong September come December (I majored in rhyming in college). Even our power rankings should serve as a reminder of how ephemeral success can be in the NFL. We've already had Green Bay, New England and San Francisco occupy our top spot, and all three teams immediately lost and fell. It's your turn, Houston. Try to withstand the G-force pressures that have now been placed on your Texas-sized shoulders.

Now on to this week's rankings...

NFL Power Rankings
1 Houston <a href=Texans" title="Houston Texans">
Last Week: 1
We don't really need ear lobes, but I'm sure it still hurt like heck for Matt Schaub to leave a piece of his left one on the field Sunday in Denver. As a nickname, he could do worse than Matt Van Gogh, which has a nice double meaning if you happen to be leading a high-octane offense like Houston's. I can't wait to see if the Texans list him on this week's injury report, because I don't recall ever seeing the words "ear" or "lobe" chronicled in that must-read piece.
2 Atlanta <a href=Falcons" title="Atlanta Falcons">
Last Week: 6
For quite a while now we've been used to seeing the Falcons capable of beating anyone at home in the dome, where they play fast and feed off the energy and noise of their crowd. But now Matt Ryan-led Atlanta is going on the road and looking like the same dominant team it is under the big top, and that formula should produce an NFC South title and a top seed for the Falcons this season.
3 Baltimore <a href=Ravens" title="Baltimore Ravens">
Last Week: 4
Torrey Smith's memorable night against the Patriots neatly obscured the defensive issues that Baltimore struggled with in its win against New England. I really didn't see new, slimmed-down Ray Lewis do much of anything after his contrived pregame, made-for-TV dance/convulsion was over, and Ravens cornerback Cary Williams was picked on mercilessly all night by Tom Brady. It does appear that a prediction some of us made in the preseason is coming true: The Ravens offense will have to carry the Ravens defense more than we've seen in recent years.
4 49ers">49ers/">49ers_50.png" alt="San Francisco 49ers" title="San Francisco 49ers">
Last Week: 1
49ers/">San Francisco 49ers (2-1)
I wouldn't want to be the Jets this week, playing host to a 49ers team that was just embarrassed by its underachievement in Minnesota. My hunch is that San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh is one of the best in the business at using an upset loss as smelling salts under the nose of his team, getting his players' attention with a whiff of the stench of defeat. Sometimes a setback can be instructive and help a team learn how to consistently bring it each and every week. Plus, the 49ers are doing that stay-in-Ohio-thing again this week, and that worked out pretty well for them heading east to Philadelphia last year.
5 New York <a href=Giants" title="New York Giants">
Last Week: 8
There they go again. Back them into a corner and tell the Giants not much is expected of them, and they almost always respond, as they did in that dismantling of Carolina last Thursday night. Tom Coughlin's team is just fundamentally and psychologically ill-suited to the favorite's role, but it loves proving the critics wrong. It seems simplistic, but nobody ever said professional athletes were all that complicated. The tired and repetitive us-versus-the-world theme works every season, in many different ways and venues.
6 Arizona <a href=Cardinals" title="Arizona Cardinals">
Last Week: 11
The Cardinals are the surprise of the young NFL season, and they might just ride a favorable schedule to six or even seven wins between now and the end of October. But the trick at the moment is trying to figure out whether their unexpected 3-0 start reminds us more of the 2011 Bills (3-0 start, disappointing 6-10 finish) or the 2010 Chiefs (3-0 start, playoff-qualifying 10-6 finish)? Tune in next week, and 13 more after that, to see where this developing story goes.
7 Green Bay <a href=Packers" title="Green Bay Packers">
Last Week: 3
Maybe he knew the rest of us would do the whining (and then some) for him, but Packers coach Mike McCarthy won a lot of fans within the league with his refusal to go ballistic over Monday night's miscarriage of justice in Seattle. And for the most part, his team followed suit (excepting T.J. Lang and one or two others). Can you imagine what might have been spewed from other locker rooms? Say, the Jets' for instance? Bart Scott might have needed to be tranquilized.
8 New England <a href=Patriots" title="New England Patriots">
Last Week: 5
What are two 1-2 teams doing in our top 8, you say? Relax. We all know the Packers are really 2-1 in a cosmic sense (even you, Pete Carroll), and the Patriots are a couple plays away from being 3-0. New England may be under .500 for the first time since the 2003 opener (a truly astounding statistic), but Bill Belichick's team isn't in any real trouble yet. Let the Pats lose in Buffalo this week -- as they did last September -- and we'll reconsider.
9 Dallas <a href=Cowboys" title="Dallas Cowboys">
Last Week: 15
I'm not sure how I managed to jump the Cowboys six spots to the better based on their ho-hum win over Tampa Bay in Week 3, but that's how the fortune cookie crumbled in this case. Love the way Dallas' defense stiffened repeatedly against the Bucs, but the Cowboys offensive line remains worthy of being classified a crime scene, complete with yellow tape surrounding it. And what's up with Jason Witten's hands? One of the game's best pass-catching tight ends is suddenly the game's busiest pass-dropping tight end.
10 Philadelphia <a href=Eagles" title="Philadelphia Eagles">
Last Week: 7
When Nick Foles was catching fire late in the preseason, I posed that the rookie replacing Michael Vick at some point was only implausible to the degree that once upon a time we thought Tom Brady could never unseat Drew Bledsoe in New England. But now Eagles coach Andy Reid is sounding like he's thinking the same thing, and promising to evaluate the turnover-prone Vick as we go. That makes Sunday night's NFC East first-place showdown with the visiting Giants all the more crucial for No. 7, who has yet to resemble the focused and driven Vick we wrote about this offseason.
11 Seattle <a href=Seahawks" title="Seattle Seahawks">
Last Week: 13
The call was blown and the Seahawks won a game they should have lost. It was in all the papers. But it would be wrong to classify Seattle's victory as a fluke, given how well the punishing Seahawks defense bottled up Aaron Rodgers and Co. for most of the night. As I expected, Seattle took a page out of San Francisco's defensive playbook and kept the Packers on their heels with a near-constant pass rush and a physical, jamming style of pass coverage against Green Bay receivers.
12 Chicago <a href=Bears" title="Chicago Bears">
Last Week: 14
Six sacks, a pick-6, and limiting the Rams to two field goals and 160 yards of offense made it a banner day for the rugged Bears defense at home against St. Louis. It's kind of remarkable in this age of offense in the NFL, but many of the clubs in our top 12 are there because they're playing superior defense. Look out, Tony Romo. Chicago is headed your way next, on Monday night.
13 Cincinnati <a href=Bengals" title="Cincinnati Bengals">
Last Week: 20
Enjoy the Jay Gruden era while it lasts, Bengals fans. It's not going to be a long one. The Cincinnati offensive coordinator is building an impressive reputation for play-calling and innovation and I'd be shocked if he's not someone's head coach by 2013. The Bengals offense has been big-play-centric the past two games, scoring 34 against Cleveland and 38 at Washington, and Gruden is the man calling those shots.
14 Minnesota <a href=Vikings" title="Minnesota Vikings">
Last Week: 26
Other than Cam Newton's primetime stinker, Week 3 was very, very good to the quarterback class of 2011. Minnesota's Christian Ponder, Tennessee's Jake Locker, Jacksonville's Blaine Gabbert and Cincinnati's Andy Dalton all logged victories. But none were more unexpected than the Vikings' statement-game upset of the 49ers, with the vastly improved Ponder having a hand in all three of his team's touchdowns. And now Minnesota gets receiver Jerome Simpson back from his three-game suspension, adding a target Ponder really likes in the passing game.
15 Denver <a href=Broncos" title="Denver Broncos">
Last Week: 9
Losing at Atlanta and home against Houston -- the top two teams in this week's power rankings -- is no disgrace. But the pattern of falling behind big and then rallying to make a game of it before losing is nothing Peyton Manning and the Broncos want to continue. With trips to New England and San Diego looming in Weeks 5-6 for Denver, Sunday's home game against the Raiders looks like must-win territory to me.
16 Pittsburgh <a href=Steelers" title="Pittsburgh Steelers">
Last Week: 10
It hasn't been pretty so far for the Steelers, but the good news is they have a bye week to try and get healthy on defense and they don't have to venture further west than the Central time zone for the rest of the regular season. As remarkable as it sounds, the Steelers, Ravens and Bengals are all relying on their offenses more than their struggling defenses in the AFC North, and that's not how 2011 went at all.
17 San Diego <a href=Chargers" title="San Diego Chargers">
Last Week: 12
Given the way their schedule unfolds, with just two home games in the next eight weeks, the Chargers could have really used a second home win last Sunday against Atlanta. But they didn't even look like they belonged on the same field as the powerful Falcons, and now trips to Kansas City and New Orleans await the next two weeks. Time for Philip Rivers and the offense to re-assert themselves.
18 New York <a href=Jets" title="New York Jets">
Last Week: 22
You could have cued up the Benny Hill theme song after the Jets saw Tim Tebow take that sack on 2nd-and-goal, only to have Mark Sanchez re-enter the game and throw a pick in the end zone on the following snap. It was exactly what the naysayers envisioned for New York's Tebow experiment. But somehow, the Jets persevered and didn't let that sequence become the story of the day, winning in overtime at Miami. Unfortunately for New York, the season-ending injury to Darrelle Revis really was the story of the day against the Dolphins, and there's no way to sugarcoat that devastating loss.
19 Buffalo <a href=Bills" title="Buffalo Bills">
Last Week: 24
The Bills have picked up the pieces after their debacle against the Jets in Week 1 and now at least resemble the team I predicted would earn an AFC wild-card berth. The much-ballyhooed defensive line still isn't showing up to the degree it must, but for once Buffalo has stopped the bleeding and is winning the games it has to win. But the schedule is about to get brutal: New England visits this week, and then the Bills travel to San Francisco and Arizona. How Buffalo navigates that stretch should tell the story of its season.
20 Detroit <a href=Lions" title="Detroit Lions">
Last Week: 17
The Lions so far have looked like the take-a-step-back team I thought they'd be, and were it not for that superb two-minute drive to save the day against St. Louis in Week 1, they'd be winless and desperate by now. The miraculous comeback in Nashville was evidence that Detroit remains dangerous on offense, but a defense that averages 31.3 points allowed per game isn't playoff material.
21 Tampa Bay <a href=Buccaneers" title="Tampa Bay Buccaneers">
Last Week: 18
The Bucs offense has to start doing its share of the heavy lifting, and this week's home game against Washington is a good place to start. The Redskins have allowed 101 points already, the fourth-most in the league. With a third consecutive game against NFC East foes, Tampa Bay can get to .500 with a win over the reeling Redskins and steady itself entering its Week 5 bye.
22 Washington <a href=Redskins" title="Washington Redskins">
Last Week: 16
It happens this way every year to someone, but suddenly Washington's mammoth upset at New Orleans in Week 1 doesn't look all that special any more. The Redskins need to retire that triple option call from their playbook right now. The upside of it just doesn't outweigh the downside of all but assuring Robert Griffin III will get hit on the play. Keeping No. 10 in the lineup every week is mandatory, and already the hits are piling up.
23 Kansas City <a href=Chiefs" title="Kansas City Chiefs">
Last Week: 30
Romeo Crennel is right. It is hard to get that first pickle out of the jar. Sometimes it takes a fork and spearing that sucker. And sometimes it takes running Jamaal Charles a whopping 33 times for 233 yards to overcome an 18-point third-quarter deficit. With the pressure off a bit and the Chiefs returning home to face division rival San Diego this week, let's see how the rest of the pickle-removing goes in Kansas City.
24 St. Louis <a href=Rams" title="St. Louis Rams">
Last Week: 19
That kind of looked like last year's Rams in Chicago on Sunday, trying to stay alive in a gun fight packing nothing more than a Swiss Army knife. The offensive line got Sam Bradford pounded, the running game went nowhere, and St. Louis never sniffed the end zone. And the offense gets no breather this week at home against Seattle. That Seahawks defense is for real, and as Tony Romo and Aaron Rodgers found out the past two weeks, Seattle will hit you hard, fast and repeatedly.
25 Tennessee <a href=Titans" title="Tennessee Titans">
Last Week: 31
A few days after I call them boring in last week's rankings, the Titans win one of the most exciting, dramatic and big-play strewn games in NFL history. It's a skill I have. I see the future. Occasionally even accurately.
26 Oakland <a href=Raiders" title="Oakland Raiders">
Last Week: 32
Nice win for the Raiders at home against Pittsburgh. Oakland showed resolve and resiliency and Dennis Allen's team didn't beat itself for a change. Darren McFadden makes a critical difference for this offense when he gets some running room, but now comes a big road test at Denver. The Raiders failed miserably at Miami in Week 2, but a win against the Broncos and all arrows will be pointing upwards.
27 Carolina <a href=Panthers" title="Carolina Panthers">
Last Week: 21
I could be wrong about this, but the part of Cam Newton's makeup that still can't seem to handle defeat with a sense of maturity and perspective is the same part of him that prompted the "icon and entertainer" quote in the spring of 2011. He wants so badly to command center stage and be the "it" guy, knowing that winning allows him that platform, that he can't cope with having defeat block his path. At least that's my nickel's worth of pop psychology.
28 Jacksonville <a href=Jaguars" title="Jacksonville Jaguars">
Last Week: 28
Great money throw by Blaine Gabbert with the game on the line in Indy. That wasn't an easy window to hit on the game-winning touchdown pass to Cecil Shorts, and Gabbert put it on his hands with room to run. But it's still a case of how Maurice Jones-Drew goes, so go the Jaguars. And that will only get you so far in the NFL. As Jacksonville well knows.
29 New Orleans <a href=Saints" title="New Orleans Saints">
Last Week: 23
The Saints simply aren't this bad, but they have richly deserved their winless start. It has to be killing Sean Payton to sit back and watch this season swirl down the drain, although I suppose it serves to also underline his value like nothing else would. This is how things are going for New Orleans in 2012: A trip to Lambeau and the justifiably ticked off Packers awaits this week.
30 Miami <a href=Dolphins" title="Miami Dolphins">
Last Week: 27
The Dolphins don't have enough winnable games to squander any opportunities, like they did last week at home against the sloppy Jets. Okay, so here's the new rule, Joe Philbin: I know it's hot in Miami, but you're not allowed to ice anything except your drinks for the rest of the season. Save those timeouts to ponder possible challenges and replay reviews.
31 Indianapolis <a href=Colts" title="Indianapolis Colts">
Last Week: 25
Football fans are almost reflexively inclined to hate the prevent defense, but maybe the Colts should have been in it in the game's final minute against Jacksonville. Giving up an 80-yard touchdown pass with 45 seconds remaining is an agony maybe worse than the drip-drip-drip of death by prevent.
32 Cleveland <a href=Browns" title="Cleveland Browns">
Last Week: 29
Did I hear that right, prospective Browns owner Jimmy Haslam wants to investigate putting a retractable roof on the team's stadium? What in the name of Brian Sipe is he thinking? You can't have the Dawg Pound covered by a roof. This is Cleveland we're talking about. Let's just put a lid on that idea right now, Jimmy.

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