By Don Banks
October 03, 2012

If you like fresh blood and a little variety with your pro football, the NFC is the place for you this season. Through the first four weeks of 2012, the NFC's first-place teams are all clubs that didn't finish atop their divisions last year: Philadelphia (3-1) in the East, Atlanta (4-0) in the South, Minnesota and Chicago (both 3-1) in the North, and Arizona (4-0) in the West. Of those five clubs, only the Falcons made the playoffs in 2011, and were a quick one-and-done in the first round.

The AFC so far is a little truer to form, with three teams holding a least a share of first place after winning division titles a year ago: New England (2-2) in the East, Baltimore (3-1) in the North, and Houston (4-0) in the South. Only the West bucks that trend, where San Diego (3-1) holds a one-game lead over defending division champion Denver (2-2).

And we're right on track for another 12-team playoff field that's at least half new, with seven teams that missed the postseason last year currently holding at least a share of first place, and five of 2011's eight division winners sitting .500 or worse through the season's first month: New Orleans (0-4), Green Bay, New York Giants, Denver, New England (all 2-2).

But that's the NFL, where change often is the only constant. Now on to this week's rankings...

NFL Power Rankings
1 Houston <a href=Texans" title="Houston Texans">
Last Week: 1
Houston's magic carpet ride continues, with the Texans becoming the first team this season to actually remain in our top spot for longer than a week. Gary Kubiak's club really hasn't broken a sweat yet, winning by a league-high average of 17.5 points per game and becoming the first team since the 2007 Patriots to win three of its first four games by at least 20 points. The division race already looks over in the AFC South -- Houston owns four wins, the rest of the division owns three combined -- so Kubiak has three months to manage the somewhat tricky job of keeping his guys sharp and ready for the playoffs.
2 Atlanta <a href=Falcons" title="Atlanta Falcons">
Last Week: 2
Desperation or no desperation, you're not supposed to be able to do what Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan did last Sunday against Carolina in the Georgia Dome. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Ryan's 59-yard bomb to Roddy White keyed the first game-winning drive in 20 years that started inside a team's 5-yard line with less than a minute to go and no timeouts. Things are going well for the Falcons so far in 2012, and if you wanted to arrange a Texans-Falcons Super Bowl for next February, wouldn't the roughly halfway point between Houston and Atlanta be the New Orleans Superdome?
3 Baltimore <a href=Ravens" title="Baltimore Ravens">
Last Week: 3
Do you realize the happy Harbaugh brothers are a combined 33-11, including the playoffs, since Jim joined the 49ers">49ers in 2011 and started hanging up Ws to match his older brother John in Baltimore? That's a gaudy winning percentage of .750, and they're both keeping pace again this season, with identical 3-1 starts on their respective coasts. Some day, inevitably, a Harbaugh vs. Harbaugh Super Bowl awaits us.
4 49ers/">49ers_50.png" alt="San Francisco 49ers" title="San Francisco 49ers">
Last Week: 4
49ers/">San Francisco 49ers (3-1)
Having gone east to embarrass one team from New York last week (the Jets), the 49ers stay home this week to entertain a different embarrassed New York team (Buffalo). If you combined the debacles the Jets and Bills produced in Week 4, you'd get an 86-28 butt-kicking that probably wasn't as close as the score seemed to indicate. And did we mention the Giants lost last week, too? The 49ers get a crack at them in Week 6 at home, completing a New York tripleheader of sorts.
5 Arizona <a href=Cardinals" title="Arizona Cardinals">
Last Week: 6
Who does Ken Whisenhunt think he's kidding? I don't believe John Skelton is getting his starting job back once his Week 1 ankle injury is 100 percent healed, not as long as Kevin Kolb keeps his mojo going for the undefeated Cardinals. This is more like what Arizona paid for when it went after Kolb in 2011, so why would it change horses now? A player can lose his starting job to injury in this league, and those are the cold, cruel facts. Isn't that right, Drew Bledsoe?
6 New England <a href=Patriots" title="New England Patriots">
Last Week: 8
The Patriots scored 31 points in the fourth quarter at Buffalo on Sunday, becoming just the fifth team in NFL history to rack up at least that many in the game's final 15 minutes. Even if Aaron Hernandez is hurt, and Wes Welker bounces in and out of Bill Belichick's doghouse and New England uses 27 different running backs, the Patriots can flat light it up when they start feeling it on offense. It's a sight to behold. Unless you're a Bills fan.
7 Green Bay <a href=Packers" title="Green Bay Packers">
Last Week: 7
Got some grief from a couple readers last week for keeping both the 1-2 Packers and the 1-2 Patriots in my top 10. To that I say, too bad. They're power rankings, not record rankings, and that means you might have to show a little patience until the cream rises to the top in the case of a sub-.500 start in Green Bay or New England. And I believe with Week 4's results, the ascent has begun.
8 Philadelphia <a href=Eagles" title="Philadelphia Eagles">
Last Week: 10
Three fourth-quarter comeback wins, and three victories by a combined four points. The Eagles are the first team to ever manage those twin feats in the first four games of a season. I'm quite sure that's not a formula Philly can sustain all year, but it has worked well enough to relieve some of the early-season pressure on Michael Vick and Andy Reid. Now comes the anticipated Battle of Pennsylvania, with the Eagles visiting Pittsburgh just as a bevy of key Steelers make their expected return to the lineup.
9 Chicago <a href=Bears" title="Chicago Bears">
Last Week: 12
Those were the "good Bears" that showed up in Dallas on Monday night, and they always look capable of beating anybody. Jay Cutler may not have his sideline demeanor down just yet -- and it's seven years and counting now on that front for him -- but it rarely matters when Chicago wins. Cutler is right about this much: New offensive coordinator Mike Tice did call a good game against the Cowboys, and might be getting the hang of his gig.
10 New York <a href=Giants" title="New York Giants">
Last Week: 5
For a guy who has a well-deserved great reputation for making late-game magic, that was a pretty ghastly end zone interception Eli Manning threw in the fourth quarter at Philadelphia the other night. And I still don't get the Giants' disjointed and overly-aggressive playcalling on their final drive, leading up to Lawrence Tynes' field goal miss(es). Already at the Eagles' 26, New York was well within Tynes' range. Losing yardage was about the only way the Giants could lose the game, and they did one, and then the other.
11 Minnesota <a href=Vikings" title="Minnesota Vikings">
Last Week: 14
Christian Ponder can tie Fran Tarkenton's team record of five consecutive games without an interception if he goes pick-less at home against the shell-shocked Tennessee defense this week. But it's not just solid quarterbacking that has gotten Minnesota a share of first place in the NFC North. Nobody is getting much done against the eighth-ranked Vikings defense so far in 2012, and a little credit belongs to new defensive coordinator Alan Williams.
12 Cincinnati <a href=Bengals" title="Cincinnati Bengals">
Last Week: 13
The Bengals have learned how to beat the teams they should beat, and that'll get you pretty far in today's NFL. With a visit from the Dolphins on Sunday and a trip to Cleveland on tap next week, Cincinnati should be 5-1 heading into its Week 7 showdown with Pittsburgh. The Bengals rode last year's 6-2 start all the way to the playoffs, and they might be following that same trusty blueprint again this season.
13 San Diego <a href=Chargers" title="San Diego Chargers">
Last Week: 17
So far, so good in San Diego. But Chargers fans know they can't get comfortable with their first-place team. San Diego started last season 4-1, but looked up and was 4-7 and in deep trouble by Thanksgiving weekend. This week's trip to New Orleans is dangerous, because you know the frustrated Saints have to break out and make someone pay at some point. But the Drew Brees and Philip Rivers reunion makes the Sunday nighter worth watching, especially since Brees can break that Johnny Unitas record of 47 consecutive games with at least one touchdown pass.
14 Denver <a href=Broncos" title="Denver Broncos">
Last Week: 15
I'll be at the Broncos-Patriots matchup in Foxboro because, who knows, this could be the last time Peyton Manning and Tom Brady go head-to-head in their storied rivalry. We're not guaranteed anything with Manning hitting 36 and Brady 35. As for New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, formerly the head coach at Denver, he says this is just another game. But I don't believe him. Not for a minute.
15 St. Louis <a href=Rams" title="St. Louis Rams">
Last Week: 24
A big jump up our board for the Rams this week, but they did just beat the Seahawks head to head, so it's only fair to have them higher than Seattle. But the Seahawks a few weeks back thrashed Dallas head to head, so they need to be at least one rung better than the Cowboys. See? There's a lot to keep track of and consider with these power rankings, and it gets tougher to keep it all straight and equitable the longer the season goes. And when I screw up, my faithful readers out there have a way of letting me know about it.
16 Seattle <a href=Seahawks" title="Seattle Seahawks">
Last Week: 11
Uh, oh. Pete Carroll said he's going with Russell Wilson as his quarterback "right now," and whenever coaches say "right now," it means stand by for news. We could see backup Matt Flynn inserted into the lineup as early as mid-game this week at Carolina, should Wilson start slow or dig the Seahawks a hole with an interception or two. And by today's NFL standards, it wouldn't be a quick or unfair hook if Carroll goes that route. Five games is a relatively long look when it comes to rookie quarterbacks.
17 Dallas <a href=Cowboys" title="Dallas Cowboys">
Last Week: 9
Jerry Jones says he "couldn't be more disappointed" in his 2-2 team after its lackluster loss to the Bears on Monday night, and he has a lot to be bumming about. Like Dez Bryant's hands and route running. And the offensive line's continued protection issues. And rookie cornerback Morris Claiborne getting exposed in coverage by Devin Hester. And Tony Romo's meltdown after his receivers let him down early on against Chicago. Seems like a good time for a bye week in Big D.
18 Pittsburgh <a href=Steelers" title="Pittsburgh Steelers">
Last Week: 16
If the Steelers are going to be the Steelers again this year, this would be the week they snap back into familiar form. The return of James Harrison and Troy Polamalu has to give the defense a spark, and Rashard Mendenhall's presence should help the running game to some degree. Pittsburgh at home is always a handful, and the next three months will look a lot more manageable if Mike Tomlin's team can steady the ship and climb back to .500 this week.
19 Washington <a href=Redskins" title="Washington Redskins">
Last Week: 22
There is a reason Billy Cundiff was available this preseason. Now Redskins fans understand why. Washington wouldn't have needed him to squeak through his game-winner at Tampa Bay if he hadn't missed repeatedly earlier in the game.
20 New York <a href=Jets" title="New York Jets">
Last Week: 18
I'd like to drop the Jets further than this, but they did rout the No. 21 Bills in Week 1, so they can't fall below Buffalo at the moment. New York's plan this season was quite faulty, and it's bearing fruit. A return to the Ground and Pound running game hasn't transpired, the Jets' offensive weapons weren't sufficient and couldn't stay healthy, and the Tebow experiment has added little in the way of challenging defenses. Predicting a 7-9, third-place finish for New York might wind up looking overly optimistic.
21 Buffalo <a href=Bills" title="Buffalo Bills">
Last Week: 19
The thought was that Buffalo finally had enough team leaders on its roster to avoid an in-game collapse the likes of what we saw Sunday at home in the second half against New England. But 45 Patriots points later, that theory has been blown to bits. Kind of like Dave Wannstedt's defense.
22 Detroit <a href=Lions" title="Detroit Lions">
Last Week: 20
It does seem like part of the Lions' problem this season is a team-wide mentality that last year meant Detroit had arrived and wouldn't have to work as hard to win in 2012. But you don't get that kind of carryover effect in the NFL, and the Lions' grievous errors on special teams could be a tell-tale sign of a lack of commitment so far this season.
23 Tampa Bay <a href=Buccaneers" title="Tampa Bay Buccaneers">
Last Week: 21
The Bucs aren't getting the bottom-line results they want, but they are playing hard for new coach Greg Schiano and making opponents earn their wins. And you couldn't say that for much of last season under the departed Raheem Morris.
24 Carolina <a href=Panthers" title="Carolina Panthers">
Last Week: 27
That could have been a triumphant bounce-back performance for Cam Newton in Atlanta last Sunday, but his critical fumble wound up giving the Falcons just enough life to mount a comeback. It's not exactly a sophomore slump Newton is going through this season, but he is enduring some puzzling growing pains in year two of his NFL career.
25 Miami <a href=Dolphins" title="Miami Dolphins">
Last Week: 30
The Dolphins couldn't close the deal in Arizona, but Ryan Tannehill and Brian Hartline did their part to put Miami in the position to win. Miami's 1-3 feels far from hopeless, and after getting handled Week 1 in Houston, the Dolphins have been competitive every week.
26 Kansas City <a href=Chiefs" title="Kansas City Chiefs">
Last Week: 23
This has to be a little deja vu-ish for Chiefs head coach Romeo Crennel. A losing team with quarterback issues, and the fans calling for the backup. Can you blame him if he's not eager to toss the keys to Brady Quinn? Crennel has been there and done that, without great results in Cleveland.
27 New Orleans <a href=Saints" title="New Orleans Saints">
Last Week: 29
Sean Payton made it clear this week he has no intention of petitioning the league to attend a Saints game, the way Gregg Williams did in St. Louis last week. At this point, I think I know why.
28 Jacksonville <a href=Jaguars" title="Jacksonville Jaguars">
Last Week: 28
You can't win in the NFL if you can't consistently crack 200 yards passing per game, and that's kind of where things stand with Blaine Gabbert's development this season. The Jaguars are showing patience, but the pressure will continue to mount on the second-year quarterback.
29 Indianapolis <a href=Colts" title="Indianapolis Colts">
Last Week: 31
His services were no longer required in Pittsburgh as the Steelers offensive coordinator, but now Bruce Arians has a very big job on his hands in Indy. The Colts could be staggered by the Chuck Pagano news, but no matter what, the train always keeps moving in the NFL.
30 Tennessee <a href=Titans" title="Tennessee Titans">
Last Week: 25
The hurt (Jake) Locker is the headline, but the Titans defense has had multiple rough showings already this young season. And now Tennessee has to venture into the Metrodome and face the resurgent Vikings, who drafted Christian Ponder 12th overall in 2011, shortly after the Titans passed on him to select Locker at No. 8.
31 Oakland <a href=Raiders" title="Oakland Raiders">
Last Week: 26
That couldn't have been how rookie Oakland head coach Dennis Allen envisioned his return to Denver: The most-lopsided Raiders loss to their AFC West rivals since 1962. Not to say the Broncos were dominant, but they didn't punt all game and outscored Oakland 27-0 in the second half.
32 Cleveland <a href=Browns" title="Cleveland Browns">
Last Week: 32
I really like a lot of what I saw out of Brandon Weeden last Thursday night in Cleveland's narrow loss at Baltimore. He was gutsy, resilient and made some fine throws under pressure. And then he inexplicably sailed the ball five yards out of the end zone on the game's final play, looking all the world like a Browns quarterback.

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