By Don Banks
December 19, 2012

Long term, who knows? But this has been the greatest rookie class of quarterbacks in terms of instant impact in NFL history. When the playoffs open in a couple weeks, there's a more than decent chance Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson will all be there, with the valuable Kirk Cousins backing up Griffin in Washington.

Wouldn't that be something? Something unprecedented. Joe Flacco and Matt Ryan both led their teams to the playoffs as rookies in 2008. And in that famed Class of '83, both Dan Marino's Dolphins and John Elway's Broncos made the postseason dance, albeit with both quarterbacks as their team's part-time starters. But three rookie full-time starters in the playoffs? That's ridiculous.

And now, entirely plausible. Indianapolis, Seattle and Washington all have work left to do, but they're all in the driver's seat with two weeks remaining in the regular season. And that alone makes the promise of this year's postseason kind of special. And that's not even counting second-year quarterbacks Colin Kaepernick, Andy Dalton and Christian Ponder, who could all get involved in January's fun.

We don't have much longer to wait until the playoffs unfold. Now on to this week's rankings....

1 Denver <a href=Broncos" title="Denver Broncos">
Last Week: 2
Time to give Denver its due. Despite those three early losses -- to Atlanta, Houston and New England, clubs with a combined record of 34-8 so far -- the Broncos are clearly Super Bowl ready. Denver has been almost flawless during the course of its NFL-high nine-game winning streak, and with two winnable home games remaining (Browns and Chiefs), nobody will be hotter entering January than Peyton Manning and his new friends.
2 49ers">49ers/">49ers_50.png" alt="San Francisco 49ers" title="San Francisco 49ers">
Last Week: 3
49ers/">San Francisco 49ers (10-3-1)
Other than the Rams, nobody has made Colin Kaepernick look all that defensible in his first five games as a starter, and the debate over whether Jim Harbaugh should have benched a healthy Alex Smith is looking a little sillier all the time. I have a feeling if we asked the Patriots who they would have rather faced Sunday night in Foxboro, Smith would have resoundingly gotten the nod. And that says it all.
3 New England <a href=Patriots" title="New England Patriots">
Last Week: 1
The uncharacteristic turnover spree was the most alarming facet of the home loss to San Francisco, because if you have that kind of sloppy game in the playoffs, you're throwing stuff in garbage bags at your locker the next day. The Patriots will win their final two games and finish 12-4, but that defeat Sunday night probably means New England faces playing in the first round of the playoffs and then having to win two road games to get to the Super Bowl.
4 Green Bay <a href=Packers" title="Green Bay Packers">
Last Week: 4
In one of those weird twists, the Seahawks this week can help out Green Bay, the team they stole one from way back in Week 3's replacement ref debacle. By beating the 49ers at home, Seattle can pave the way for the Packers to move into the No. 2 seed in the NFC, earning a first-round bye and a divisional home game in the process. I'd say the Seahawks would be all square with Green Bay at that point, but I would understand if I'm in the minority on that one in Cheesehead Nation.
5 Houston <a href=Texans" title="Houston Texans">
Last Week: 5
The Texans steadied themselves nicely with the division-clinching win over the Colts, but they need one more win to ensure they stay home (or in a dome) throughout the postseason. But it won't be easy this week against the visiting Vikings, because running into a determined Adrian Peterson about now is one of the larger misfortunes a defense can suffer. Especially since Houston's run defense has been anything but air-tight of late.
6 Atlanta <a href=Falcons" title="Atlanta Falcons">
Last Week: 6
No disrespect intended, but I think even Falcons fans know their team isn't quite that good, and the Giants aren't quite that bad. But the 34-0 mauling of the defending Super Bowl champs had to feel pretty cathartic for an Atlanta team that got embarrassed by New York in last year's playoffs, and was coming off a no-show performance at Carolina. If there were a coordinator of the year award handed out by the league, Falcons DC Mike Nolan might win it.
7 Seattle <a href=Seahawks" title="Seattle Seahawks">
Last Week: 9
The Seahawks are playing fast-break football in December, and they don't seem to know they're not supposed to be hanging a Hawaii 5-0 on opponents. But this week is the ultimate test. If Seattle can put up a stupid number against the 49ers' stout defense (kind of the way the Patriots did in the second half), then a case of legitimate Super Bowl fever may break out in the Pacific Northwest.
8 Washington <a href=Redskins" title="Washington Redskins">
Last Week: 11
Every other division leader in the NFL has at least nine victories already, but that's meaningless, because the Giants were 7-7 at this point last season and the 2010 Packers were 8-6 through 14 games. Washington's five-game winning streak makes it the hottest team in the NFC, and the franchise's first division title in 13 years is tantalizingly close to coming to fruition. That makes this week's game against the wounded and beaten down Eagles quite dangerous.
9 New York <a href=Giants" title="New York Giants">
Last Week: 7
The Giants usually don't do their best work until they absolutely have to, but that moment has now arrived with this week's trip to struggling Baltimore. Two wins still gets at least a wild-card berth locked down, so it's no time to panic in Gotham. I didn't foresee that egg-laying in Atlanta coming, but then again, I didn't have New York making the playoffs either this season, so I suppose I was expecting trouble of some sort in December.
10 Indianapolis <a href=Colts" title="Indianapolis Colts">
Last Week: 10
The Colts have looked playoff-bound for weeks now, but they have to keep their heads down and take care of business this week at 2-12 Kansas City. Then they deserve to celebrate and take what could amount to a Week 17 bye at home against Houston, getting healthy and ready for a first-round postseason date against the AFC North champion.
11 Baltimore <a href=Ravens" title="Baltimore Ravens">
Last Week: 8
Forget the drama about Mark Sanchez's future in New York, is Joe Flacco one more bad game away from having the Ravens rethink the width and breadth of their commitment level to the impending free agent? Has a team ever made the playoffs with the same starting quarterback for all five years of his NFL career and then said goodbye? Intriguing topics, sure to be debated, if Baltimore falls again at home in ugly fashion, this week against the desperate Giants.
12 Minnesota <a href=Vikings" title="Minnesota Vikings">
Last Week: 14
The MVP race is daunting to figure out this season, but I don't know how one player could do more to make a team relevant and keep it in the playoff race than what Adrian Peterson has done in Minnesota. He has almost literally carried the eight-win Vikings on his back, and if they somehow reach the postseason, I think you're going to see the MVP momentum swing firmly his way.
13 Dallas <a href=Cowboys" title="Dallas Cowboys">
Last Week: 15
There's no team in the NFL that keeps both teams in the game, the whole way, like these Cowboys. You simply can't turn away from their almost mesmerizing habit of riding that four-quarter rollercoaster. The Saints pose another difficult hurdle for Dallas this week, but the Cowboys have won three out of their last four home games and at least finally have some JerryWorld mojo going for themselves.
14 Chicago <a href=Bears" title="Chicago Bears">
Last Week: 12
You know what, Brian Urlacher? We don't really care what you have to say either. You're not even playing all that much or all that well these days. And if you and your Bears teammates won a game or two, maybe you wouldn't feel the need to rush to Lovie Smith's defense quite so forcefully. That said, at Arizona and at Detroit to end the season should make for a 10-6 finish in Chicago, right? But will it be enough to reach the playoffs?
15 Cincinnati <a href=Bengals" title="Cincinnati Bengals">
Last Week: 16
It's at Pittsburgh and home against Baltimore the next two weeks, and that means the Bengals have to figure out a way to beat one of their two division rivals in order to reach the playoffs. Andy Dalton is 0-6 against the twin beasts of the AFC North, and this week's trip to Heinz Field is a virtual playoff game for Marvin Lewis' team. If not now, Bengals, when? You'll never find the Steelers and Ravens more vulnerable.
16 Pittsburgh <a href=Steelers" title="Pittsburgh Steelers">
Last Week: 13
One clutch win this week at home against Cincinnati can quiet a lot of the noise that has sprung up the past two weeks in Steel Town. But the bigger picture is Pittsburgh has lost four out of five after starting 6-3, and that leads to everything being questioned, from Todd Haley's play-calling to Mike Tomlin's job status. Which, in the case of Tomlin, is ridiculous. The guy has led Pittsburgh to two Super Bowls and four playoff trips in his first five full seasons. And he still has a good chance to make it five out of six.
17 New Orleans <a href=Saints" title="New Orleans Saints">
Last Week: 19
Just supposing, but if Sean Payton petitioned the league office to attend this week's Saints game at Dallas, I'm pretty sure it would make headlines. He could say it was just something he wanted to do, in the spirit of Christmas and all, but no one would believe him. Especially if he sat and watched the game in Jerry Jones' luxury suite.
18 St. Louis <a href=Rams" title="St. Louis Rams">
Last Week: 17
Why can't the Rams play everyone as tough as they do the 49ers? Just think where St. Louis would be if it had won its home games against the Jets and Vikings in the season's second half.
19 Miami <a href=Dolphins" title="Miami Dolphins">
Last Week: 21
Other than the Patriots, whose future would you rather have than Miami's in the AFC East? I'll take where the Dolphins are headed over where New York and Buffalo stand as the 2012 season draws to a close.
20 Tampa Bay <a href=Buccaneers" title="Tampa Bay Buccaneers">
Last Week: 18
When the Bucs win, it's Greg Schiano's discipline and all-business approach that gets the credit. And when the Bucs lose, especially badly, it's Schiano's task-master ways that get the blame. Predictable.
21 Carolina <a href=Panthers" title="Carolina Panthers">
Last Week: 25
I finally figured out who that kid is with Cam Newton on the great Play 60 commercial. It's a greatly diminished Jimmy Clausen. That's why all those lines about taking Cam's job make sense now.
22 Cleveland <a href=Browns" title="Cleveland Browns">
Last Week: 20
Brandon Weeden was 28 at the start of the season, but he's 33 now because he has aged considerably in Browns years. You know, like dog years, the Dawg Pound, Cleveland. It all ties together. Just go with it.
23 Tennessee <a href=Titans" title="Tennessee Titans">
Last Week: 28
It was at least fun to see Chris Johnson run away from people again in Monday night's less-than-stirring win. And yes, Jets are people, too. Green people.
24 New York <a href=Jets" title="New York Jets">
Last Week: 22
I suppose the Jets quarterback situation has been creating needless headlines all season to some degree, but why the full-scale media over-reaction to the benching of Mark Sanchez on Tuesday? Um, the Jets are out of the playoffs, he committed five horrible turnovers at Tennessee, it's Greg McElroy not Tim Tebow, so what exactly is the big deal? Other than it's in New York?
25 San Diego <a href=Chargers" title="San Diego Chargers">
Last Week: 23
Just in case any of you thought the Chargers might be making a late statement on Norv Turner's behalf, the embarrassment at home against Carolina ought to dismiss that notion. San Diego plays the Jets this week, the same team that beat the then-13-3 Chargers in the 2009 AFC divisional round, which is where the unraveling all began for Turner as the head Bolt.
26 Arizona <a href=Cardinals" title="Arizona Cardinals">
Last Week: 29
I'm not sure what level of significance to attach to the Cardinals' sudden spasm of execution against the visiting Lions in Week 15. But I don't think there's much.
27 Buffalo <a href=Bills" title="Buffalo Bills">
Last Week: 26
Why would Toronto or the rest of Canada want to claim this Bills team, if they should some day reach the market? After all, the Argonauts are the defending Grey Cup champs.
28 Detroit <a href=Lions" title="Detroit Lions">
Last Week: 24
From a 10-win season to a 10-loss season is a pretty neat trick, and one the disappointing Lions just deftly turned. Of the 12 teams that made the 2011 playoffs, all but the Lions and Saints have at least seven wins and remain in strong playoff contention.
29 Philadelphia <a href=Eagles" title="Philadelphia Eagles">
Last Week: 27
They get the Redskins and the Giants in the season's last two games, but I don't think they even have what it takes to play the spoiler role after watching that second-half self-destruction last Thursday night against Cincinnati. Did I really pick the Eagles to win the NFC East?
30 Oakland <a href=Raiders" title="Oakland Raiders">
Last Week: 31
I don't know about you, but I found the most surprising piece of news to come out of Week 15 to be that Raiders quarterback Terrelle Pryor had never thrown up in his life until he did so on game day last Sunday? A thousand punch lines flood to mind when I type "Raiders" and "thrown up" in the same sentence. Wait, 1,001. Just thought of another one.
31 Kansas City <a href=Chiefs" title="Kansas City Chiefs">
Last Week: 30
The Chiefs offense is beyond anemic, and that means it's time to start over entirely at quarterback. When the 2013 season kicks off in Kansas City, there should be no remaining vestiges of this QB depth chart.
32 Jacksonville <a href=Jaguars" title="Jacksonville Jaguars">
Last Week: 32
The 1995 expansion Jaguars were not only better than this year's club, they were way, way better. Jacksonville went to the AFC title game in 1996, after the '95 club finished 4-12. I'm fairly confident Jacksonville won't be reprising that kind of dramatic turnaround in 2013. This team is in need of a major talent infusion.


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