By Don Banks
October 10, 2012

The NFL regular season is a long grind, but it's that four-month timeline that allows for so many unexpected plot twists to develop and surprise us. The Packers, my pick to win the Super Bowl, look like they're in trouble at the moment. They're 2-3, heading to face undefeated Houston this Sunday night, and have yet to come close to resembling the methodical and highly productive team that steamrolled to a 15-1 record a year ago.

But it is still early, even though we ignore that reality for the sake of taking our weekly ride on the NFL rollercoaster. Last year at this time, Denver was 1-4 and in last place in the AFC West. Atlanta was 2-3, and in third place in the NFC South. Both clubs rebounded and made the 12-team playoff field, with the Tebow-led Broncos even winning a postseason game.

So try to remember that in Green Bay, Detroit, Carolina, New Orleans and Buffalo, where desperation is starting to set in. Your stories aren't starting out well in 2012, to be sure, but there are plenty of chapters remaining before the ending unfolds. Now on to this week's rankings...

NFL Power Rankings
1 Houston <a href=Texans" title="Houston Texans">
Last Week: 1
The Brian Cushing season-ending ACL injury is indeed a solar-plexus blow to the Texans defense, but Houston learned last year how to persevere through key losses, winning despite the absence of Mario Williams, Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson for long stretches of time. It won't take us long to find out how the Texans respond, because challenging home games against Green Bay and their AFC nemesis Baltimore await in Weeks 6-7.
2 Atlanta <a href=Falcons" title="Atlanta Falcons">
Last Week: 2
That makes its two narrow escapes in a row for the Falcons (against Carolina and at Washington), but good teams usually find a way to hang around and win even without their "A" game. And I like how Atlanta seems unfazed by any game-day environment it encounters. That's one important way to use the regular season as prep work for the playoffs.
3 49ers">49ers/">49ers_50.png" alt="San Francisco 49ers" title="San Francisco 49ers">
Last Week: 4
49ers/">San Francisco 49ers (4-1)
The 49ers hung 621 yards of offense on the Bills, and that used to pass as a pretty productive three-game stretch in San Francisco, circa the Mike Nolan and Mike Singletary eras. The Jets and Bills have been vanquished quite easily the past two weeks, but now comes the trickiest portion of this New York triple-header: Those nettlesome Giants, who went and ruined everything for Jim Harbaugh and his 49ers last January. I bet they remember.
4 Baltimore <a href=Ravens" title="Baltimore Ravens">
Last Week: 3
Now that looked like the old Ravens defense in Kansas City, forcing four turnovers to go with four sacks. The Chiefs did gouge Baltimore for 214 yards rushing, but K.C. had to run it 50 times to post that two-spot, so it was hard-earned real estate. The Ravens draw a visit from Dallas this week, and who can forget the way Baltimore ruined Jerry Jones' big farewell to Texas Stadium in December 2008? Time for some way-back payback.
5 New England <a href=Patriots" title="New England Patriots">
Last Week: 6
Whenever you conjure up memories of the 1978 Patriots -- the most productive rushing team in NFL history with 3,165 yards -- you know you've done something significant in the ground game. New England just ran for 247 yards against the Bills and 251 more against the Broncos, its first back-to-back 200-yard rushing games since the days of Chuck Fairbanks, Sam "Bam" Cunningham and Horace Ivory. And I'm pretty sure the Patriots can still do a little damage in the passing game, too.
6 Chicago <a href=Bears" title="Chicago Bears">
Last Week: 9
The pick-6-fest in Chicago is getting contagious. The Bears and their fans always love it when they win with defense, and Chicago has scored five defensive touchdowns over the course of its three-game winning streak, which neatly cancels out the five touchdowns the Bears defense has allowed this season. Chicago is off this week, but with Detroit, Carolina and at Tennessee just ahead -- all one-win teams at the moment -- a 7-1 start for Lovie Smith's guys is well within reach. These non-hibernating Bears had better store up every win they can for the long winter ahead, because the second-half schedule is much tougher.
7 Minnesota <a href=Vikings" title="Minnesota Vikings">
Last Week: 11
You know the Vikings have it rolling when they entice Fran Tarkenton to stop making infomercials long enough to sit up and take notice. Minnesota heads to Washington this weekend, where Adrian Peterson's knee injury occurred last Dec. 24. But the Vikings can balance that bad memory with the fact they won that game against the Redskins, their third and final victory in 2011. They already have topped that figure this season, and Leslie Frazier deserves the early Coach of the Year nod in the NFL.
8 Arizona <a href=Cardinals" title="Arizona Cardinals">
Last Week: 5
The Cardinals defense was already leading the way for Ken Whisenhunt's team, but now it has to be that much better with Arizona's running game losing Ryan Williams for the season with a shoulder injury. Getting the jail break stopped in terms of the opposing pass rush has to be job one for the Cardinals. Russ Grimm's offensive line has been atrocious, and enough of quarterback Kevin Kolb's blood has been spilled already. Even if it's hard to see on those red jerseys.
9 New York <a href=Giants" title="New York Giants">
Last Week: 10
The Giants just like creating a little trouble for themselves, because that's how they self-motivate. The 14-0 early deficit against Cleveland looked problematic, but turns out it was akin to a shot of a 5-hour Energy drink for Tom Coughlin's team, waking it up and getting it going. And now we get the resumption of the best non-division rivalry in the NFC these days: Giants at 49ers, for the third time in 11 months.
10 Pittsburgh <a href=Steelers" title="Pittsburgh Steelers">
Last Week: 18
First Adrian Peterson, and now Rashard Mendenhall. Running backs cannot only make it back from ACL surgery in record time these days, but also can make it back with instant impact. Mendenhall went down on New Year's Day in Week 17 of the 2011 season, and there he was in early October looking like his old playmaking self against the Eagles. His 101 yards of offense seemed to make the Steelers resemble the Steelers once again.
11 Philadelphia <a href=Eagles" title="Philadelphia Eagles">
Last Week: 8
I'm not qualified to coach the Eagles, but if I were I wouldn't let Michael Vick carry near the goal line any more when fumbling has been his issue so far in 2012. If LeSean McCoy doesn't get the call in that situation from here on out, I'm asking Marty Mornhinweg and Andy Reid for their definition of insanity.
12 Green Bay <a href=Packers" title="Green Bay Packers">
Last Week: 7
The Packers refuse to put four quality quarters of football together this season, and that's one of the stunning developments of the 2012 season. But maybe this year in Green Bay is going to resemble 2010 in that way, with the Packers having to scrap just to make the playoffs in late December. We all know how that turned out for Green Bay, and it was a lot more enjoyable than last year's 15-1 magic-carpet ride in the regular season, one-and-done playoff ejection. It's just a theory, mind you.
13 San Diego <a href=Chargers" title="San Diego Chargers">
Last Week: 13
With Oakland and Kansas City going nowhere this season, the winner of Monday night's Denver at San Diego game should tell us plenty about the outcome of the AFC West race this year. The Chargers can really take command with a win, putting themselves two games up on the Broncos, plus the tiebreaker, as San Diego enters its Week 7 bye week. But it's not like Norv Turner's club to make things easy on itself, is it? The Chargers like challenges, especially ones they could have easily avoided with a bit more consistent performance.
14 St. Louis <a href=Rams" title="St. Louis Rams">
Last Week: 15
Life over .500 has to feel pretty good in St. Louis, but don't get too used to it, Rams fans. This week's trip to Miami is no gimme, because the Dolphins are playing everyone tough, but a win in South Florida could really help St. Louis weather the storm ahead. After the Rams face Miami, they draw a visit from Green Bay, the trip to London to take on the Patriots, and then a road game in San Francisco following their Week 9 bye. I can't see the offensively challenged Rams having enough to win any of those games.
15 Denver <a href=Broncos" title="Denver Broncos">
Last Week: 14
Losing to Atlanta, Houston and New England isn't any cause for embarrassment this season, but the Broncos have followed the same pattern in each defeat: Big deficit, then furious comeback that falls under the heading of too little, too late. If Denver can get a win this Monday night in San Diego, a 3-3 record and a tie for first place in the AFC West will rate a pretty good accomplishment as the Broncos head into their Week 7 bye. A loss to the Chargers and Denver has digging out to do in the season's final 10 weeks.
16 Seattle <a href=Seahawks" title="Seattle Seahawks">
Last Week: 16
Hail, hail the NFC West, where everyone's above .500 and plays some really mean defense. I'm intrigued by this week's matchup against visiting New England, because while the Patriots are a machine on offense right now, the punishing Seahawks defense absolutely thrives on the noise and energy at "The Clink" (as they call CenturyLink Field). Plus, let's not forget that Pete Carroll and Bill Belichick are the only two Patriots head coaches since Bill Parcells left town in early 1997.
17 Cincinnati <a href=Bengals" title="Cincinnati Bengals">
Last Week: 12
It wasn't a surprise to see BenJarvus Green-Ellis get his workload seriously reduced in the loss to Miami. The guy who never fumbled once in his four seasons in New England (over 500 touches) had recently fumbled three times in a span of 28 touches (losing two). But with the Bengals placing Bernard Scott on IR this week with a knee injury, they probably have to turn back to Green-Ellis and hope for the best on the ball security front.
18 Dallas <a href=Cowboys" title="Dallas Cowboys">
Last Week: 17
Nobody needs to get back on the field and wipe out the stench of that Monday-night disaster against Chicago more than Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, he of the five interceptions versus the Bears. But a trip to Baltimore is about as tough as it gets in today's NFL, with the Ravens being 31-5 at home (including playoffs) in the five-season John Harbaugh era. If Dallas pulls the upset, it might ride that momentum into a midseason hot streak.
19 Indianapolis <a href=Colts" title="Indianapolis Colts">
Last Week: 29
Have to admit, I was very, very wrong about Reggie Wayne. For starters, I kind of thought he was almost done as a No. 1 receiver at 33, and didn't understand why he would re-sign with the Colts and hang around for the rebuilding project after living through the glory years in Indy. But Wayne's game against the Packers was one for the ages, and the Colts are lucky to still have him around, helping Andrew Luck look like anything but a rookie at quarterback.
20 Miami <a href=Dolphins" title="Miami Dolphins">
Last Week: 25
This just in: Joe Philbin can coach a little bit, Ryan Tannehill is good enough to win with at quarterback, and Miami's defensive front seven is not to be taken lightly. The Dolphins might have looked a little like a circus act on Hard Knocks," but who's laughing now?
21 Washington <a href=Redskins" title="Washington Redskins">
Last Week: 19
I was at the Redskins' first day of training camp this year, and had someone tell me to keep an eye on rookie running back Alfred Morris, because he was in the backfield mix along with Tim Hightower, Roy Helu and Evan Royster. He's in the mix all right. He's got back-to-back 100-yard rushing games, and according to the Washington Post, he and Eric Dickerson are the only two rookie runners in NFL history to rush for at least 75 yards in each of their first five games. He's averaging 4.9 yards per carry and has yet to fumble. Other than that, he's nothing special.
22 New York <a href=Jets" title="New York Jets">
Last Week: 20
With apologies to Dennis Green, the Jets are who we thought they were. They're who we thought they were. At least, you know, who we thought they were in the preseason. That 48-point Week 1 extravaganza against Buffalo? I think we can now chalk that up to an aberration created by playing against the Bills defense. Somebody tell Bart Scott he might have launched his "I told you so"s a bit too early this year.
23 Detroit <a href=Lions" title="Detroit Lions">
Last Week: 22
The Lions have had a chance to steady themselves during their bye week, but now it's time to prove the doubters (like me) wrong. They play four of their next five games on the road, with four of those games against teams that currently have winning records. This week's trip to Philadelphia opens the crucial portion of Detroit's season. You have our full attention, Matthew Stafford and Co.
24 Buffalo <a href=Bills" title="Buffalo Bills">
Last Week: 21
After losing big in San Francisco, the Bills took a page out of the 49ers playbook, reversed it, and stayed west this week to prepare for Sunday's game at Arizona. I think getting out of Buffalo right now is the wise move. If Buffalo's supposedly improved defensive line can't generate any pass rush against the porous Cardinals offensive line, which has allowed 17 sacks in the past two games, there's no hope whatsoever for these beleaguered Bills.
25 Tampa Bay <a href=Buccaneers" title="Tampa Bay Buccaneers">
Last Week: 23
The Bucs come out of their bye to face the staggering Chiefs at home this week, and that reminds me of one of the most indelible games I watched growing up a Tampa Bay fan in the late '70s: That division-clinching Bucs' 3-0 win over Kansas City in the final week of the 1979 season, which was played in an absolute monsoon at Tampa Stadium. By the time NFL Films got done putting the images from that slop-fest together, it played like a documentary on a South American rain forest. Those Bucs fans still haven't completely dried out.
26 New Orleans <a href=Saints" title="New Orleans Saints">
Last Week: 27
The Saints finally had something to celebrate in 2012 on Sunday night at the Superdome. Another landmark NFL record for Drew Brees, and that elusive first victory of the season. Now comes their bye week, and then a trip to division rival Tampa Bay in Week 7. It's all about taking baby steps at this point for New Orleans. I don't think the Saints can get back into the NFC playoff picture with so many defensive issues, but it might be fun to be wrong this time.
27 Carolina <a href=Panthers" title="Carolina Panthers">
Last Week: 24
In time I think Cam Newton makes the needed adjustments and dazzles us again with his passing and running abilities. But he's clearly a little lost right now, and this week's bye seems like a good opportunity for him to rediscover the parts of Carolina's offense that he does best. In his favor, the Panthers organization won't panic. It's not the way Ron Rivera or Marty Hurney do business.
28 Oakland <a href=Raiders" title="Oakland Raiders">
Last Week: 31
The last time the Raiders ventured into the Eastern time zone, they got embarrassed in Miami. I don't foresee an outcome vastly different with this week's trip to Atlanta, where the undefeated Falcons rarely lose in the Mike Smith/Matt Ryan era.
29 Kansas City <a href=Chiefs" title="Kansas City Chiefs">
Last Week: 26
Your turn, Brady Quinn. The Chiefs need some sort of spark at quarterback, and maybe the one-time Browns savior can rescue a season that appears to be swirling down the drain in Kansas City. But I doubt it. This week's opponent, Tampa Bay, has enough defense to keep the frustration level high on the Chiefs sideline.
30 Cleveland <a href=Browns" title="Cleveland Browns">
Last Week: 32
The Browns are better, but have nothing to show for it so far this season. Plenty of folks knocked the Trent Richardson pick, because of the declining value of running backs in the NFL. But the former Alabama star is doing his job plenty well enough. Suffice to say nobody in Cleveland pines for Peyton Hillis.
31 Tennessee <a href=Titans" title="Tennessee Titans">
Last Week: 30
Were the Titans really a 9-7, just miss-the-playoffs kind of team in 2011, or did I dream that? This Tennessee club doesn't look remotely close to making a run at the postseason.
32 Jacksonville <a href=Jaguars" title="Jacksonville Jaguars">
Last Week: 28
Tell me again how much Blaine Gabbert has improved in his second NFL season, because I don't see the reasons for optimism that were expressed earlier this year. If the Jaguars can't be competitive at home, there are going to be significant changes made at some point.

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