By Don Banks
December 05, 2012

December in the NFL makes for plenty of drama and suspense, but I really want to skip ahead to January and the first round of the playoffs right now. If we could keep everything exactly the way it stands at the moment, the postseason would open with a spectacular quadruple-header straight out of the league's wildest TV-ratings fantasy:

In the AFC, we'd have No. 6-seeded Pittsburgh at No. 3 Baltimore, the rubber match between the two bitter AFC North rivals, and their third meeting in the span of eight weeks; and No. 5 Indianapolis at No. 4 Denver, with Peyton Manning vs. Andrew Luck and all the multi-layered history that surrounds that particular pairing. Nothing to chew on there.

In the NFC, it'd be the Karma Bowl, No. 6 Seattle at No. 3 Green Bay, in a Lambeau Field rematch of that replacement-ref-inspired Week 3 Monday night fiasco of a finish; and No. 5 Chicago at the No. 4 Giants, in a showdown of traditional NFL rivals and two of the league's monster TV markets. Where do we sign?

How much fun would that first round be? Then we'd get coast-to-coast divisional-round games hosted by New England and San Francisco, with Houston and Atlanta also kick-starting their playoff drives to meet in the middle, meaning in New Orleans' Superdome in early February.

December is fun, but the playoffs this season could be fantastic. Waiting another four weeks might be the hardest part. Now on to this week's rankings...

NFL Power Rankings
1 Houston <a href=Texans" title="Houston Texans">
Last Week: 1
The Texans' business-like playoff-clinching in Week 13 felt almost anti-climatic this year, as if they've already become a postseason perennial. Which is strange given that before Houston's breakthrough 2011 season, this football-mad city hadn't tasted the NFL playoffs since 1993. But a true playoff perennial awaits this week in Foxboro on Monday night. The Patriots will be the litmus test that tells us how far the Texans have come in the franchise's first era of excellence.
2 New England <a href=Patriots" title="New England Patriots">
Last Week: 4
Like the Texans, the Patriots enter their showdown with Houston on a six-game winning streak, second in the league behind Denver's seven-gamer. I'm bumping New England up into the No. 2 spot this week for two reasons: I think the Pats are playing better than anybody in the league except for the Texans, and I really wanted to create one of those over-hyped No. 1 vs. No. 2 mega-showdowns that college football treats us to every once in a while. Sorry, Falcons fans. I hear you.
3 Atlanta <a href=Falcons" title="Atlanta Falcons">
Last Week: 2
It's not Atlanta's fault, but the Falcons just haven't played the kind of schedule this season that commands respect. The only team they've faced that currently has a winning record was Denver, way back in Week 2, before the Broncos became a Manning-led machine. Atlanta's opponents haven't even won 40 percent of their games this year, and that makes it difficult to accurately gauge the Falcons' strength. But the playoffs will serve that purpose quite nicely.
4 Denver <a href=Broncos" title="Denver Broncos">
Last Week: 6
The John Fox hiring in Denver in early 2011 didn't exactly move the needle for a lot of folks, but the guy is 2 for 2 in winning the AFC West as the Broncos head coach. I was surprised to read this week that it was Denver's first consecutive division titles since Dan Reeves managed it in 1986-87, which skips over the entire Mike Shanahan coaching era. Since starting last season 2-5, Fox's Broncos have gone 16-7 (.696) including the playoffs. Not too shabby.
5 49ers">49ers/">49ers_50.png" alt="San Francisco 49ers" title="San Francisco 49ers">
Last Week: 3
49ers/">San Francisco 49ers (8-3-1)
There were those who thought Jim Harbaugh might reverse field and turn back to Alex Smith at quarterback after Colin Kaepernick made a couple costly mistakes in San Francisco's overtime loss at St. Louis. But I would submit those folks weren't really paying attention. Harbaugh has chosen his horse, and he's riding him. The 49ers' ultra-confident head coach is not one to go all wobbly or second-guess the wisdom of his own choices.
6 Green Bay <a href=Packers" title="Green Bay Packers">
Last Week: 9
It has been a non-stop war of attrition this season in Green Bay, and now running back James Starks is on the injury list and maybe done for the year with a knee issue. He'd be the 10th Packer to go on IR this season, and you know what that means: Yep, another one of those mini-controversies about whether to take all the injured guys down to the Super Bowl city for the team picture. There are worse problems to have.
7 Baltimore <a href=Ravens" title="Baltimore Ravens">
Last Week: 5
That Charlie Batch-led upset by the Steelers really left a mark on the Ravens' somewhat sensitive hide. To see Batch come up big and Joe Flacco come up small -- at home, no less -- really opens up a late-season can of worms Baltimore could have done without. And if the Ravens defense had trouble stopping the ancient Batch, how's it going to fair this week at FedEx Field against the youthful and energetic RGIII?
8 New York <a href=Giants" title="New York Giants">
Last Week: 8
What, you thought the Giants would take the easy road and cruise to their third division title in five years? That's not the New York way. Tom Coughlin and Co. like the death-defying ride they go on every December. They're hooked on the adrenaline rush of it all.
9 Seattle <a href=Seahawks" title="Seattle Seahawks">
Last Week: 13
I didn't know Russell Wilson was capable of this kind of rookie season, but I was high on him in the pre-draft process, after watching him take Wisconsin to the Rose Bowl last season. I remember talking to one draft analyst this spring who told me he'd probably last until the fifth or sixth round, and be somebody's No. 3 developmental guy as a rookie. "Just too short," the analyst said. "He won't be able to throw well enough in the NFL." Gotta love the draft.
10 Indianapolis <a href=Colts" title="Indianapolis Colts">
Last Week: 10
From 2-14 to the playoffs doesn't happen every day, but that's the kind of history the Colts are headed for. According to the New York Times, only the 2008 Dolphins and 1982 Patriots made the playoffs after finishing 2-14 or worse the year before. So there are turnaround teams, and then there are this year's too-improbable-to-be-true Colts.
11 Pittsburgh <a href=Steelers" title="Pittsburgh Steelers">
Last Week: 15
I say we all just get a bit of a grip when it comes to trying to make a controversial issue out the coaches' postgame handshake. It's like re-attending junior high, without the acne. Whatever "tension" might have existed between Mike Tomlin and John Harbaugh the other day in Baltimore, it didn't really rise to "Missiles of October" status. I surmise if there wasn't a Harbaugh involved, we might not have even noticed.
12 Chicago <a href=Bears" title="Chicago Bears">
Last Week: 7
I hear plenty from Bears fans every time they win that I don't show Chicago enough love in the rankings, but not a peep from those same folks when the Men of Lovie go down to defeat. Not a peep. But there is one guy in Chicago making plenty of noise this season, and that's receiver Brandon Marshall. With 91 catches for 1,182 receiving yards, he has been everything the Bears could have dreamed, and more. The problem is, he's the only real receiving weapon Chicago has.
13 Cincinnati <a href=Bengals" title="Cincinnati Bengals">
Last Week: 11
I love the playoff-contending run the Bengals are on, and yet I somehow found a way to drop them two spots after their comeback win at San Diego. No offense, Cincinnati. It's just that Seattle and Pittsburgh vaulted over you with momentous road wins themselves. Strange year for Marvin Lewis' team: A 3-1 start, followed by a four-game losing streak, and now a four-game winning streak. If a playoff berth isn't on the line in Pittsburgh in Week 16, I'll be very surprised.
14 Washington <a href=Redskins" title="Washington Redskins">
Last Week: 14
Gauging the remaining schedules and the all-important mojo factor, I think I'd have to put my buck down on the Redskins right now to win the three-team NFC East scrum. Washington just has that playing-with-house-money look to it, and Mike Shanahan's team believes anything is possible with Robert Griffin III at quarterback. And after watching that first-quarter Griffin fumble pop straight into Joshua Morgan's arms for an easy touchdown on Monday night against the Giants, who can argue?
15 Tampa Bay <a href=Buccaneers" title="Tampa Bay Buccaneers">
Last Week: 12
After back-to-back losses to Atlanta and Denver, the Bucs appear not quite ready to punch in the league's heavyweight division. But a seventh win looks on the way this week, because Andy Reid's traveling dysfunction show (aka the Eagles) is coming to town. The Eagles haven't allowed a 100-yard rusher since Week 17 of last season, but I say Doug Martin is about to put an end to that streak.
16 Dallas <a href=Cowboys" title="Dallas Cowboys">
Last Week: 19
Jerry Jones said he's hopeful, but trying to stay realistic about the Cowboys' playoff chances. Good move, J.J., because realistically I don't see Dallas topping eight wins, and that may be overly generous with at Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, New Orleans, at Washington remaining on the schedule.
17 St. Louis <a href=Rams" title="St. Louis Rams">
Last Week: 21
I know one team that prays St. Louis doesn't somehow scratch and claw its way into the NFC playoff field: The 49ers of San Francisco. Jim Harbaugh's team, like Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, has to be looking back over its shoulder at the Rams, muttering "Who are those guys?" With games at Buffalo and home against Minnesota in the coming two weeks, St. Louis could still be a factor in the race all the way until the end.
18 Minnesota <a href=Vikings" title="Minnesota Vikings">
Last Week: 17
At his current average of 120.5 rushing yards per game, Adrian Peterson will total 1,928 this season, or just 72 shy of hitting the magic 2,000 mark. Give him the ball, Minnesota, and let him go for it. What do the Vikings have to lose? He's their one and only weapon anyway.
19 New Orleans <a href=Saints" title="New Orleans Saints">
Last Week: 16
The Saints made a bit of a midseason move, but they didn't play their best against the best in the league. New Orleans is 1-4 this season against teams that currently own a playoff seed, and that's not good enough to earn you an invitation yourself. Losses to the Packers, Broncos, 49ers and Falcons were too much to overcome.
20 Buffalo <a href=Bills" title="Buffalo Bills">
Last Week: 22
With three home games remaining, the Bills could still get to .500 and make this season look better than it really felt in Buffalo. Even if they do finish strong, the Bills shouldn't fall into the trap of thinking they almost closed the gap between them and New England this year. They didn't, and plenty of work remains to be done on that front. Quarterback seems like the logical place to start upgrading.
21 Miami <a href=Dolphins" title="Miami Dolphins">
Last Week: 18
With games remaining at San Francisco and New England, the Dolphins seem headed for their fourth consecutive losing season. Somewhat remarkably, that has only happened one other time in franchise history, in the first four years of this one-time AFL expansion team (1966-69) -- otherwise known as Miami's pre-Shula era.
22 Cleveland <a href=Browns" title="Cleveland Browns">
Last Week: 23
It's not just that the Browns are 4-3 after their 0-5 start, it's that they also had Baltimore and Dallas beaten in recent weeks and found a way to lose late leads. Imagine if Cleveland had won six of seven and was sitting at 6-6 and on the edge of playoff contention as the season's final quarter began? Pat Shurmur's case for progress having been made would be open and shut. As is, the Browns have some talented pieces and may be a chic pick for team on the rise in 2013.
23 New York <a href=Jets" title="New York Jets">
Last Week: 25
Follow the money, they say, and that's as good a reason as any for the Jets having turned back to Mark Sanchez to start at quarterback this week against Jacksonville. The big-dollar contract extension New York unwisely awarded Sanchez back in March, overcome as the Jets were in Tebow-induced guilt, means they might be stuck with him for the foreseeable future. Gang Green, indeed. It might have been the money that made this decision.
24 Detroit <a href=Lions" title="Detroit Lions">
Last Week: 20
Calvin Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald are the two most dominant receivers in the NFL. And they both toil for 4-8 teams that really don't deserve them.
25 San Diego <a href=Chargers" title="San Diego Chargers">
Last Week: 27
The definition of descent? Norv Turner's 2009 Chargers went 13-3. His 2010 club was 9-7. In 2011, the Chargers were 8-8. This year? They're 4-8, losers of seven out of eight, and headed downward still.
26 Tennessee <a href=Titans" title="Tennessee Titans">
Last Week: 24
It's got to hurt a little in Titans-world that Jeff Fisher has his Rams winning some big games and on the upward curve in St. Louis, while Tennessee is mired in the same old mediocrity that has prevailed for quite some time now. Come to think of it, at 4-8, mediocrity is a decent goal in Nashville about now.
27 Arizona <a href=Cardinals" title="Arizona Cardinals">
Last Week: 28
Can't see the Cardinals winning another game this season, and you have to think that would be an NFL first: 4-0 start, 0-12 finish. Between the Eagles and Cardinals (again with the Curse of Kevin Kolb?), the two clubs could realistically go from a combined 7-1 after Week 4, to 0-24 thereafter.
28 Carolina <a href=Panthers" title="Carolina Panthers">
Last Week: 26
It's hard to defend Ron Rivera's 9-19 record in his two seasons in Carolina, but unless Panthers owner Jerry Richardson is absolutely certain he has a better coaching candidate ready to hire, I'd give Rivera another chance to get things right in Charlotte. Their record aside, the Panthers aren't that far away from being a playoff contender.
29 Philadelphia <a href=Eagles" title="Philadelphia Eagles">
Last Week: 29
Seems pretty obvious at this point that Andy Reid knows he fired the wrong defensive coach back in October. Juan Castillo wasn't the problem. But perhaps the class-less Jim Washburn was. Good riddance to that guy's weak act.
30 Kansas City <a href=Chiefs" title="Kansas City Chiefs">
Last Week: 32
Neither Romeo Crennel or Brady Quinn are very likely to return to Kansas City in 2013, but they both earned quite a bit of respect and admiration with their work and their words amid the sadness of last Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium.
31 Oakland <a href=Raiders" title="Oakland Raiders">
Last Week: 31
It has now been an entire decade since the Raiders logged a winning season, and that Super Bowl team of 2002 must seem like it played centuries ago if you bleed silver and black. Before its current malaise, Oakland had never gone more than five years in a row (1995-99) without fielding a winner. And from 1965-1985, in their glory era, the Raiders were better than .500 an astounding 20 times in 21 tries.
32 Jacksonville <a href=Jaguars" title="Jacksonville Jaguars">
Last Week: 30
With both the Jets and Jaguars going nowhere this season, I think New York should be forced by the league to play Tim Tebow at least a half in Jacksonville on Sunday. You know, just to show the locals what they missed out on this season when the Jaguars failed to trade for the hometown hero. It couldn't be worse than watching a succession of Blaine Gabbert starts.

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