By Don Banks
December 26, 2012

Winning streaks and Peyton Manning have gone together for years and years in the NFL, but even Nate Silver couldn't have predicted how well things would go for No. 18 in Denver this season. With a visit from last-place Kansas City this week, the Broncos can win their 11th game in a row and maybe even snatch away the AFC's No. 1 playoff seed that looked to be in Houston's pocket for most of the past two months.

The Broncos haven't lost since the first weekend in October, and the only three teams to beat them -- the Falcons, Texans and Patriots -- take a combined record of 36-9 into Week 17 and will all be playing in January. It's a remarkable run Manning and Co. are on, made all the more memorable by his absence from the stage in 2011. Calling it a comeback doesn't even quite do it justice.

If Peyton and the Broncos make it all the way to New Orleans, a Manning in the Super Bowl will have become an almost annual event. He went with the 2006 and 2009 Colts, and Eli Manning was there in 2007 and 2011 with the Giants. It'd be five times in seven seasons for the Manning clan if Peyton takes his new team to the Super Bowl.

We're not quite there yet, but the start of the playoffs is just a handful of days away. Now onto our final rankings of the regular season...

1 Denver <a href=Broncos" title="Denver Broncos">
Last Week: 1
This is how good things are going for Peyton Manning these days: His old friends in Indianapolis could do him a huge solid this Sunday by beating the visiting Texans, thereby allowing the Broncos to wrap up the AFC's top seed with a home win over lowly Kansas City. That's when you know you're on a roll. The old Colt/new Bronco is absolutely pulling for the horseshoe heads this week.
2 Green Bay <a href=Packers" title="Green Bay Packers">
Last Week: 4
While everyone has been marveling at Denver's 10-game winning streak, the Packers have quietly won nine out of 10, with only that ugly Week 12 loss at the Giants marring their run. If the Packers can win at Minnesota and hang onto their No. 2 seed, meaning they'd be perhaps only an NFC title game trip to Atlanta away from reaching New Orleans, watch out for the Men of McCarthy.
3 Atlanta <a href=Falcons" title="Atlanta Falcons">
Last Week: 6
The best thing that came out of the impressive win at Detroit was the re-appearance of the Matt Ryan-Roddy White connection. The Falcons have to have that to rely on against the likes of Green Bay, San Francisco or Seattle in the playoffs.
4 New England <a href=Patriots" title="New England Patriots">
Last Week: 3
Pats fans shouldn't get too worked up over the max effort it took to log a measly seven-point win in Jacksonville. New England has often struggled for motivation against bad teams late in the season, once the playoffs have been secured. In the end, the Patriots got it done and logged the W. Another ragged offensive day at home against Miami this week would set off a few alarm bells in Foxboro, but I still think the AFC is headed for a Patriots-Broncos, Brady-Manning title game in three-plus weeks.
5 Seattle <a href=Seahawks" title="Seattle Seahawks">
Last Week: 7
As I said last week, let the Seahawks hang up a stupid number against the stout 49ers">49ers defense, and a legitimate case of Super Bowl Fever will break out in the Pacific Northwest. All systems go on that front. Seattle's only fear might be peaking before the playoffs arrive.
6 49ers/">49ers_50.png" alt="San Francisco 49ers" title="San Francisco 49ers">
Last Week: 2
49ers/">San Francisco 49ers (10-4-1)
As it turns out, the 49ers can thank that baffling Week 10 tie against St. Louis for being the slight edge that will likely decide the NFC West in their favor. But the beatdown in the rain in Seattle has definitely removed any air of invincibility from Jim Harbaugh's club. Not to mention a potential first-round bye.
7 Houston <a href=Texans" title="Houston Texans">
Last Week: 5
With two decisive losses in their past three games, the Texans, my preseason AFC Super Bowl pick, are looking decidedly paper tigerish. A franchise-record 12 wins and another division title won't mean much if Houston doesn't pull itself out of its stupor and kick-start things this week at Indianapolis. Another loss and everyone will be forecasting a shorter than expected playoff run for the once high-flying Texans.
8 Washington <a href=Redskins" title="Washington Redskins">
Last Week: 8
The Redskins have come too far now to not finish this remarkable late-season resurgence with a win at home against Dallas and the franchise's first division title since 1999. But even winning six in a row for the first time since 1996, when Norv Turner was still early in his tenure as head coach, is a mind-boggling turn of events in Washington.
9 Indianapolis <a href=Colts" title="Indianapolis Colts">
Last Week: 10
And all along we thought Week 17's Houston at Indy game might only hold meaning for the Colts and not the Texans. Turns out, Indianapolis is locked into the No. 5 seed no matter what, and it's Houston that desperately needs a victory in order to wrap up a first-round bye. Week 17 always holds a few surprising plot twists like that.
10 Baltimore <a href=Ravens" title="Baltimore Ravens">
Last Week: 11
Given their injuries on defense, the inconsistency of quarterback Joe Flacco's game at times, and the competitive state of this year's AFC playoff field -- Denver, Houston and New England all with at least 11 wins -- another AFC North title and the No. 4 seed is a pretty significant accomplishment for the Ravens. They're not a great team, but they'll be in the playoffs for a fifth consecutive season under John Harbaugh, and no one else in the NFL can match that part of Baltimore's track record.
11 Minnesota <a href=Vikings" title="Minnesota Vikings">
Last Week: 12
Here's hoping Minnesota's calm and cool Leslie Frazier doesn't get over-looked in the very competitive NFL Coach of the Year discussion. The Vikings have already tripled their win total of 2011, and to be playing for a playoff berth in Week 17 is a development that absolutely no one saw coming in August. It's good to see Frazier's low-key, respect-based coaching style succeed, because he's one of the most well-liked men in the game.
12 Cincinnati <a href=Bengals" title="Cincinnati Bengals">
Last Week: 15
Alas, the Bengals don't have enough offense to make much noise in the AFC playoffs, but that defense is legit, especially up front. Cincinnati's physical and aggressive defensive line is fun to watch, especially when the NFL's best pass-rushing defensive tackle, Geno Atkins, is doing his thing like he did on Sunday in Pittsburgh.
13 Chicago <a href=Bears" title="Chicago Bears">
Last Week: 14
The Bears needing to pull with all their hearts for the Packers? Is nothing sacred? It's like the entire Chicago franchise and fan base are playing fantasy football, dividing their loyalties in dangerous ways. But it'll probably end up working, and getting the Bears into the playoffs for the second time in three years, so I suppose in Chicago they're holding their noses and wearing the cheese.
14 Dallas <a href=Cowboys" title="Dallas Cowboys">
Last Week: 13
It's almost freaky. For the third time in five years, the Cowboys enter Week 17 with a win-and-you're-in-scenario, on the road against a third different division opponent. They lost at Philadelphia in 2008. They lost at the Giants in 2011. And now they travel to Washington, where I expect them to lose and set off a Redskins celebration. But with Tony Romo playing lights out in the season's second half, maybe the third time will be the charm for Dallas in a do-or-die situation.
15 New York <a href=Giants" title="New York Giants">
Last Week: 9
We've seen stranger Week 17 long-shots come in, so don't bury the Giants just yet. They will likely beat the Eagles, and the Cowboys and Vikings are decent bets to lose. But New York's playoff hopes would then rest on the Lions rising up at home to beat the Bears. And counting on Detroit this year is usually a losing proposition. But you have to admit, with Matthew Stafford throwing to Calvin Johnson, there's still a plausible way the defending Super Bowl champs could stay alive into January.
16 New Orleans <a href=Saints" title="New Orleans Saints">
Last Week: 17
I can't really find anyone within the league who thinks the Saints will let Sean Payton get away this offseason, and I suppose that's the Christmas present a New Orleans fan wants most of all this year.
17 St. Louis <a href=Rams" title="St. Louis Rams">
Last Week: 18
Even if St. Louis gets steam-rolled at Seattle this week (like everyone else), it has been a return to relevance for the Rams in 2012. After their two-win debacle of last year, St. Louis decision makers did very well for themselves with the Jeff Fisher-Les Snead coup.
18 Pittsburgh <a href=Steelers" title="Pittsburgh Steelers">
Last Week: 16
After his ragged 0-3 showing upon returning to the lineup from injury, Ben Roethlisberger is going to inspire an offseason of questions in Pittsburgh. The Steelers, of course, will stand by their man, and well they should. But he single-handedly threw away the Steelers' playoff chances last Sunday against Cincinnati, and that memory will linger a bit into 2013.
19 Miami <a href=Dolphins" title="Miami Dolphins">
Last Week: 19
The Dolphins didn't get spectacular play from rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill, a'la Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson. But after where Miami has been on the quarterback front in the post-Marino era, Tannehill's first-year efforts provided plenty to build on and hope for the future.
20 Carolina <a href=Panthers" title="Carolina Panthers">
Last Week: 21
Unless the Panthers get humiliated in New Orleans, putting a sour ending on their late season upswing (4-1 in their past five games), I'm thinking head coach Ron Rivera gets a third year in Carolina. A new general manager might change that course, but I think the Panthers did just enough to earn Rivera another chance.
21 San Diego <a href=Chargers" title="San Diego Chargers">
Last Week: 25
The Chargers will beat the Raiders, win three of their last four games, and climb to within sniffing distance of a .500 finish. But no one will be deceived about this San Diego team this year. The Chargers weren't really in the AFC West race after that Week 6 Monday night meltdown at home against Denver.
22 Tampa Bay <a href=Buccaneers" title="Tampa Bay Buccaneers">
Last Week: 20
The enigma that is Josh Freeman has returned, and solving that particular puzzle will now become one of the Bucs' foremost offseason priorities. He's not exactly a Mark Sanchez-level problem, but he was taken in the same first round of the 2009 draft.
23 Cleveland <a href=Browns" title="Cleveland Browns">
Last Week: 22
So much for the Browns making a late-season bid for respectability and 2013 momentum. Losses to the playoff-caliber Redskins and Broncos have reminded Cleveland of how much work remains to be done.
24 Tennessee <a href=Titans" title="Tennessee Titans">
Last Week: 23
Bud Adams likes to rant and rave after embarrassing losses, and his Titans tend to give him way too many reasons to vent his spleen. But if Mike Munchak can get his guys to play hard and win at home against Jacksonville in Week 17, my hunch is Munch is retained in Tennessee and Adams puts away the pink slip.
25 New York <a href=Jets" title="New York Jets">
Last Week: 24
I suppose starting Greg McElroy last Sunday against San Diego constituted giving him an opportunity, but he never really had a chance behind the Jets offensive line, in the face of all that pass rush.
26 Arizona <a href=Cardinals" title="Arizona Cardinals">
Last Week: 26
At least the Cardinals' misery ends after this week's trip to NFC West-leading San Francisco. Arizona led the division at the end of September. But were it not for that Week 15 home defeat of the reeling Lions, the Cardinals would have gone 0-for-October-November-December.
27 Buffalo <a href=Bills" title="Buffalo Bills">
Last Week: 27
With a double-digit loss season and last place in the division currently in the Bills' possession, the status quo won't fly this time around in Buffalo. Have to think we're about to see the last of Ryan Fitzpatrick and Chan Gailey in Bills colors.
28 Detroit <a href=Lions" title="Detroit Lions">
Last Week: 28
I have to agree with the sentiments I lip-read from Lions coach Jim Schwartz: The sight of Stefan Logan downing that late Falcons punt after a safety at the Detroit 4 was one of the dumbest things I've ever seen on a football field.
29 Philadelphia <a href=Eagles" title="Philadelphia Eagles">
Last Week: 29
It's kind of fitting. Andy Reid and Michael Vick are both making their last stand as Eagles, and they're doing it together against the Giants, in a game New York has to have. Looking back, Reid and Vick had their high point together in that miraculous 21-point Week 15 comeback against the Giants at MetLife Stadium in 2010.
30 Oakland <a href=Raiders" title="Oakland Raiders">
Last Week: 30
It's hard to find the silver linings in this disaster of a Raiders season. Lots of black. But very little silver.
31 Jacksonville <a href=Jaguars" title="Jacksonville Jaguars">
Last Week: 32
The Jaguars gave the Patriots all they wanted, but a loss is still a loss in the NFL. And Jacksonville has had a franchise-record 13 of them this season. General manager Gene Smith will likely pay with his job, and head coach Mike Mularkey can't be feeling real safe either.
32 Kansas City <a href=Chiefs" title="Kansas City Chiefs">
Last Week: 31
The Chiefs have scored a league-low 208 points, are 0-11 in the AFC, 0-5 in the division, and will lock up the No. 1 overall pick in the draft with a loss at Denver on Sunday. When it comes to defeat, they have been dominant in 2012.


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