By Don Banks
December 12, 2012

Week 14 in the NFL was a sobering one for Super Bowl contenders, serving to significantly winnow the field with the start of the playoffs still three weeks away. Losses by Houston, Baltimore and Pittsburgh in the AFC, and Atlanta and Chicago in the NFC diminished the prospects of nearly half of the league's 12-team playoff bracket, at least as it is currently constituted.

By my clear-eyed assessment of the situation -- I'll pause here for my readers' punchlines -- only four teams escaped Week 14 looking built for the long haul that awaits in January and the first weekend of February: New England and Denver in the AFC, Green Bay and San Francisco in the NFC.

I guarantee the Super Bowl matchup comes out of that four-team pool, so write it down, chuck it in the vault, and seal it until the close of conference championship Sunday, when you are then free to remove it and reflect on my prescience. Or not. Either way, those are my new top four teams in this week's power rankings, and for good reason. They're potentially Super, and the other 28 teams are not.

Alas, things do have a habit of changing rapidly in the NFL pennant races. Although I think I see the way forward quite clearly now, I'm reminded that last year at this same point, the Giants were 7-6 and fighting for their playoff-contending lives, and the 2010 Packers were 8-5 through 13 games, trying to merely grab the last rung on the NFC playoff-field ladder. And honesty compels me to point out that New York and Green Bay each had another loss coming in Week 15, making their situations even more desperate.

But as I recall, circumstances worked out very nicely for both of those stragglers. So perhaps my 2012 final four isn't quite so final after all. Projections or not, we have three more weeks to see where this story goes next. Now on to this week's rankings...

NFL Power Rankings
1 New England <a href=Patriots" title="New England Patriots">
Last Week: 2
We really should have seen the 28-point beatdown of Houston coming. The Pats absolutely hate playing second fiddle to anyone -- especially their easily slighted veteran quarterback -- and the on-their-way-up Texans qualified as the NFL's flavor of the month. And besides that, New England hasn't lost a December home game since 2002, is 21-0 in the second half of the regular season the past three years, and is now 7-0 since being nipped on the road in Seattle in Week 6. It was all there. Supreme motivation. Check. Historical patterns. Check. Prime time butt-kicking of potential AFC title game opponent. Check.
2 Denver <a href=Broncos" title="Denver Broncos">
Last Week: 4
I'm sure it doesn't feel this way for him, but to the rest of us, it's as if Peyton Manning's whole 2011 nightmare never really happened. I mean, you look up and it's December and there's Manning with another 10-win season, division title and playoff berth locked up. Only the uniform colors and opponents changed. Perhaps the NFL should experiment with the idea of moving Manning around on a yearly basis from one postseason-starved market to another, injecting playoff hopes everywhere he goes. Don't fight, Buffalo and Cleveland, you'll both get your turn.
3 49ers">49ers/">49ers_50.png" alt="San Francisco 49ers" title="San Francisco 49ers">
Last Week: 5
49ers/">San Francisco 49ers (9-3-1)
First Brandon Jacobs, now Rashard Mendenhall. It's been a tough week for the disgruntled veteran running back set. Suspensions all around. Sometimes I wonder what old-school head coaches like Tom Landry or Don Shula would have done if their players would have had Twitter to air their grievances. But I suppose the newspapers served roughly the same purpose back in the day. Duane Thomas, John Riggins and Mercury Morris were never known to hold their tongues. Although I have no firsthand knowledge of their typing skills.
4 Green Bay <a href=Packers" title="Green Bay Packers">
Last Week: 6
The Packers and Bears will decide the NFC North title this week at Soldier Field, but it kind of already feels decided to me. Green Bay and Chicago are two elevators passing on the same shaft, headed for different floors. Not to say the Bears couldn't win this Sunday and make things interesting, but Chicago appears to have played its best ball of the season some time in October. Which is at least six weeks back. And that's not what you want.
5 Houston <a href=Texans" title="Houston Texans">
Last Week: 1
Looking back, I don't know how many times you could really convince yourself to like Gary Kubiak and Matt Schaub to out-coach and out-play Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, respectively. And they didn't. For that matter, I'm not sure the Texans donning those letterman jackets is such a good idea. I got a look at them up close in Houston's losing locker room Monday night at Gillette, where the rah-rah, go-team-go effect didn't quite come off as planned given the four-touchdown defeat. Oh, and for you Texans fans wondering how you fell behind the 9-4 Packers this week? See Week 6. Thanks for asking.
6 Atlanta <a href=Falcons" title="Atlanta Falcons">
Last Week: 3
When I wrote the other day that Atlanta and Houston could wind up being the least scary No. 1 seeds in recent NFL history, someone on Twitter immediately fired back with the example of the 2008 Titans and Giants earning the top seeds and then both going one-and-done in the playoffs. (I get it. That's what Twitter is for. Refuting anything and everything: "No, the sky's not blue, you idiot sportswriter. Not at night. Or sunset.") But I would at least point out that New York was the defending Super Bowl champ that season. The Falcons' last playoff win came in 2004, and the Texans own one postseason victory in franchise history. So there.
7 New York <a href=Giants" title="New York Giants">
Last Week: 8
The Giants play at Atlanta this week, and at Baltimore next week, and those are the two teams they're currently sandwiched between in our power rankings. So there's a lot of potential for movement here. I'm sure Tom Coughlin will point all this out in the course of his team's game preparations.
8 Baltimore <a href=Ravens" title="Baltimore Ravens">
Last Week: 7
As anyone who has been paying attention knows, this Cam Cameron divorce has been coming for a while now in Baltimore. The real upset was that Cameron made it back to the Ravens sideline at all in 2012. This isn't a Juan Castillo move by John Harbaugh. Cameron could never consistently get the best out of Joe Flacco, but Jim Caldwell and the Ravens QB are said to be much more on the same wave length. And it's a nice little twist that Caldwell's first game as the play-caller will come against his old Indy quarterback, Peyton Manning.
9 Seattle <a href=Seahawks" title="Seattle Seahawks">
Last Week: 9
The Seahawks' issues on the road have been well chronicled this year, but that's nothing compared to the problems they'll have this week if they forget to pack their passports. The trip to Toronto to face the Bills gives Seattle a chance to finish 3-5 away from home, and that will be just enough to secure a playoff berth once the Seahawks post a 7-1 or 8-0 home mark. The NFC West could well be on the line in Week 16 against visiting San Francisco.
10 Indianapolis <a href=Colts" title="Indianapolis Colts">
Last Week: 10
A wild-card slot all but assured, the Colts have every right to dream about winning the division at this point. With two games left against Houston, and the third at Kansas City, Indy can claim the AFC South by running the table. A long shot? Maybe. But any longer than the notion the Colts were playoff-bound and 10- or 11-win material at the beginning of the season?
11 Washington <a href=Redskins" title="Washington Redskins">
Last Week: 14
So it's an LCL, not an ACL or an MCL or even a PCL for RGIII. And that's good news for D.C., not to mention both the NFL and the NFLPA. But I think the Redskins do still sell PSLs as part of their ticket packages, so you have to factor that in.
12 Chicago <a href=Bears" title="Chicago Bears">
Last Week: 12
All Jay Cutler has is a sore neck after that brutal hit last week in the Metrodome? I'm surprised he still has a neck. The Bears are just trying to hang on to their postseason hopes, but at this point Chicago is in favor of the 14-game regular season schedule, which hasn't been in use since 1977. But I remember it served the Bears quite well that year, as Bob Avellini and Walter Payton led Chicago to a 9-5 record and a wild-card berth, the team's first playoff trip since 1963. You can look it up.
13 Pittsburgh <a href=Steelers" title="Pittsburgh Steelers">
Last Week: 11
The Steelers are really struggling, but it never sounds quite so bad because Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin has such a unique way of taking responsibility for the failures with his pithy proclamations of accountability. "We're going to own that performance," he likes to say after a loss. Then again, he doesn't promise to "unleash hell in December" much any more. That one fell kind of flat in 2009, when the Steelers last missed the playoffs.
14 Minnesota <a href=Vikings" title="Minnesota Vikings">
Last Week: 18
How cool is it that the NFC North has two different chases for 2,000-yard seasons going on in the final weeks of the regular season? Adrian Peterson needs 400 yards to become the seventh rusher to hit that magical mark, but Detroit receiver Calvin Johnson has an even rarer historical quest under way. Johnson has 1,546 receiving yards, the most ever through 13 games. He's 303 yards shy of breaking Jerry Rice's single-season record, and 554 (151.3 per game) away from becoming the first pass-catcher to reach 2K.
15 Dallas <a href=Cowboys" title="Dallas Cowboys">
Last Week: 16
Big win in Cincinnati, but big wins have routinely been followed by tough losses this season in Dallas. If the Cowboys can put away a reeling Steelers team at home this week, Jerry Jones will allow a little more excitement to bubble to the surface when it comes to his team's playoff drive. But I can't see Dallas getting to the postseason without its big-play threat, Dez Bryant.
16 Cincinnati <a href=Bengals" title="Cincinnati Bengals">
Last Week: 13
The Bengals have been a better road team this year (4-2) than home team (3-4), and that bodes well for Thursday night's game at Philadelphia. If Cincinnati can take care of business against the Eagles, the Week 16 showdown at Pittsburgh should be for the AFC's final playoff spot.
17 St. Louis <a href=Rams" title="St. Louis Rams">
Last Week: 17
A .500 record in December. Going unbeaten in the division. And now a three-game winning streak for the first time since 2006. The signs of progress are everywhere in St. Louis this season.
18 Tampa Bay <a href=Buccaneers" title="Tampa Bay Buccaneers">
Last Week: 15
The heartbreaker against the Eagles was the kind of loss that says wait 'til next year in Tampa Bay. But at least it doesn't feel like false hope with Greg Schiano's program off to a strong start.
19 New Orleans <a href=Saints" title="New Orleans Saints">
Last Week: 19
I never thought I'd say this, but thank you, Paul Tagliabue. Anything that moves the long and painful Saints' saga nearer to its overdue conclusion is owed a word of gratitude. You have to love how both sides cherry-picked the "evidence" that supported their vindication, without mentioning what Tagliabue wrote about their own culpability. But whatever. When locked in an endless stalemate, it's always best for both sides to declare victory and get out.
20 Cleveland <a href=Browns" title="Cleveland Browns">
Last Week: 22
I suppose the cynical Browns fan hoping for a coaching change sees Cleveland's late-season improvement as just another version of 2009, when Eric Mangini went 4-0 down the stretch and kept his job under in-coming football czar Mike Holmgren. But this Browns team isn't a mirage. It's talented and developing on defense, and rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden has made strides. Keeping this staff together for another season makes solid sense to me.
21 Miami <a href=Dolphins" title="Miami Dolphins">
Last Week: 21
Stop me if you've heard this, but the Dolphins simply need more playmakers on offense. Miami lacks the weapons to compete with the offenses of the Patriots and Bills in the AFC East. The Jets offense? The Dolphins can keep up with that.
22 New York <a href=Jets" title="New York Jets">
Last Week: 23
After two of the uglier wins in franchise history, the Jets have some people talking about the P word. Wisely, the Jets aren't taking part in that discussion. They know how silly it would sound.
23 San Diego <a href=Chargers" title="San Diego Chargers">
Last Week: 25
What the Chargers did in Pittsburgh, I've seen that happen before. A report breaks saying the coach (and/or general manager) will be fired after the season, and that very week the team goes out and plays its best game of the season, appearing to rally around the embattled figure. But the fire usually burns out pretty quickly, and the boom is eventually lowered. I have to believe that will be the scenario in San Diego.
24 Detroit <a href=Lions" title="Detroit Lions">
Last Week: 24
The 4-9 Lions, losers of five in a row, are at the 4-9 Cardinals, losers of nine in a row, on Sunday. And I would just like to be the fly on the University of Phoenix Stadium wall when Larry Fitzgerald and Calvin Johnson meet at midfield during the pre-game to commiserate.
25 Carolina <a href=Panthers" title="Carolina Panthers">
Last Week: 28
The Panthers still have games against three losing teams (at Chargers, Raiders, at Saints), and thus a 7-9 record and a four-game season-ending winning streak remains in play. The season did not go as expected in Carolina, but 7-9 would at least register as a one-game improvement over 2011.
26 Buffalo <a href=Bills" title="Buffalo Bills">
Last Week: 20
To repeat myself, I don't think I was wrong about any team this preseason as much as I was wrong about the Bills. They underwhelmed us. Again. It's a tough case to make that this team's coaching and personnel regime deserves another year. They might get it, but I don't know how you say they deserve it.
27 Philadelphia <a href=Eagles" title="Philadelphia Eagles">
Last Week: 29
Nice, confidence-building win for rookie quarterback Nick Foles. One game is not a revelation. But at least there's the possibility that 2012's trials and tribulations have not all been for naught in Philadelphia.
28 Tennessee <a href=Titans" title="Tennessee Titans">
Last Week: 26
Jake Locker threw the NFL's worst interception of the season last Sunday in Indianapolis. From his own end zone. You know the one. Not even Mark Sanchez has been that kind of bad.
29 Arizona <a href=Cardinals" title="Arizona Cardinals">
Last Week: 27
If the Cardinals played soccer, or more accurately the international version of football, they would have started the season in the Premier League, but been scheduled to be relegated down a level or two by now. If the NFL could swing it, they'd probably like to hide Arizona in a lower league these days.
30 Kansas City <a href=Chiefs" title="Kansas City Chiefs">
Last Week: 30
The Chiefs have to believe earning one of the top two spots in the 2013 NFL draft will be a turning point. It worked pretty well for Indianapolis and Washington this season.
31 Oakland <a href=Raiders" title="Oakland Raiders">
Last Week: 31
Carson Palmer hasn't played for a winning team since 2009, in Cincinnati. At what point does he become part of the reason for all that losing?
32 Jacksonville <a href=Jaguars" title="Jacksonville Jaguars">
Last Week: 32
From what I'm hearing, Shahid Kahn will not invite Jaguars general manager Gene Smith back in 2013. And if he's gone, head coach Mike Mularkey could very well be one and done as well. Change is on the way in Jacksonville.'s NFL Blog -- Audibles               GALLERY: BEST SINGLE-SEASON WIN STREAK BY TEAM

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