By Don Banks
October 24, 2012

For all the week-to-week surprises and twists of fate that roil the NFL standings these days, there have always been some big sweeping cycles to league history. And if you stand back far enough, you can see it happening again.

Since the 1970 merger, one conference or another has dominated, depending upon the decade. The powerful AFC ruled the 1970s (think Dolphins, Steelers and Raiders) and the 2000s (Patriots, Steelers and Colts). The rugged NFC reigned in the 1980s (San Francisco, Washington, Chicago) and 1990s (Dallas, San Francisco and Green Bay). So far this decade, it's back to the NFC as the re-emerging power base in the league, with the Packers and Giants winning the past two Super Bowls and the NFC head and shoulders stronger than the AFC this season.

Five of our top six teams in this week's rankings hail from the NFC, and seven of our top 10. Houston has distanced itself from the pack in the AFC at the moment, but after the Texans, it's a drop-off in terms of excellence. Not so in the NFC, where the Falcons, Giants, 49ers">49ers, Bears, Packers, Vikings and Seahawks all have at least four wins in the bank and look like playoff material. With 10 weeks to go in the regular season, nothing's set in stone just yet, but the NFC has returned to prominence in one of those cyclical shifts for which the NFL has become known.

Now onto this week's rankings....

NFL Power Rankings
1 Atlanta <a href=Falcons" title="Atlanta Falcons">
Last Week: 1
Good stiff test this week for the Falcons, who put their unblemished record up against a desperate Eagles team on the road. Michael Vick gets what may be his last shot to prove his worth as a starter in Philly -- against his old team -- but don't overlook the motivation provided by Matt Ryan's homecoming. Atlanta's quarterback grew up in the Philadelphia area and is 0-2 so far in his career playing at Lincoln Financial Field (losing in 2008 and 2010). If the league has an MVP front-runner so far, Ryan is probably it. Let's see what he can do in his third crack at this homecoming stuff.
2 New York <a href=Giants" title="New York Giants">
Last Week: 3
The Giants absolutely love playing in Jerry World, where they get to write on the walls after beating the Cowboys every year ("Eli was here, 2009, 2010, 2011!"). But New York does have a score to settle with Dallas dating from September, when Jason Garrett's team ruined their Super Bowl banner hanging party at MetLife Stadium in Week 1. That already seems like four months ago, doesn't it?
3 Houston <a href=Texans" title="Houston Texans">
Last Week: 4
The Texans are now in virgin territory for the 11-year-old franchise, out ahead of the pack in the AFC and taking aim at the conference's No. 1 seed and homefield advantage in the playoffs. It's a different dynamic to deal with, and let's see how Gary Kubiak's guys handle the lead-dog role once they return from their bye next week. A visit from the underachieving Bills looms in Week 9, and Houston would love to show Mario Williams what he's missing this season, deep in the heart of Texas.
4 49ers/">49ers_50.png" alt="San Francisco 49ers" title="San Francisco 49ers">
Last Week: 5
49ers/">San Francisco 49ers (5-2)
The Jim Harbaugh era in San Francisco is now 25 games old including playoffs, and the 49ers still haven't lost consecutive games under his watch. That's a coach who knows how to motivate players, and motivating players seems to me to be about 77 percent of what a head coach has to master in today's NFL. Not to say the rest of the job is a piece of cake, but getting your players to consistently produce is by far the biggest piece of the puzzle.
5 Chicago <a href=Bears" title="Chicago Bears">
Last Week: 6
Funny how everybody seems to get sloppy with the football when they're facing the Bears. Chicago's defense has that crazy takeaway spree thing going again this season, and that can carry a team a long way. Remember back in 2001, when Dick Jauron's Bears had a surprise 13-3 season, largely on the strength of a turnover-creating defensive unit? Chicago free safety Mike Brown had about 47 takeaways and 23 touchdown returns that season. Or is that just the way it seems through the haze of memory?
6 Green Bay <a href=Packers" title="Green Bay Packers">
Last Week: 7
The better Aaron Rodgers plays, the quieter the doubters grow in Green Bay. Losing Charles Woodson is a blow to the Packers defense, but this Casey Hayward is no typical rookie replacement in the secondary. Hayward has an NFL-leading four interceptions, all in the past three games, and he's been turning heads in Green Bay since training camp. The second-round pick from Vandy is ready for his close-up, and then some.
7 Baltimore <a href=Ravens" title="Baltimore Ravens">
Last Week: 2
The Ravens desperately need their bye week to figure out a few things. Like why they're such a different team on the road compared to home, and how they stop the bleeding in terms of their horrible run defense. The good news for Baltimore is it still has a 1 1/2-game cushion in the AFC North. The bad news is there's still nine games to go this season, so you can't just kill the clock.
8 New England <a href=Patriots" title="New England Patriots">
Last Week: 9
I know there must be plenty of you out there who miss Dr. Z and his weekly power ranking missives from "The Flaming Redhead," aka, his wife, Linda. As do I. I can't really compete with that, of course. My wife is a curly-haired brunette, but she does offer some NFL insights from time to time. She's convinced her Patriots never play all that well in those red-white-and-blue throwback uniforms, a point I try to counter by noting they have a winning record wearing the retro-cool Mr. Pat Patriot on their helmets. No matter. She knows what she knows. And she prefers the Flying Elvis look and logo. Case closed.
9 Seattle <a href=Seahawks" title="Seattle Seahawks">
Last Week: 8
Russell Wilson's night in San Francisco could have had a much happier ending if his intended Seahawks receivers could have held on to a few of his passes, especially early on in the game. I like these Seahawks, but they're now 0-3 in the division, with all the losses on the road. They don't get back into the NFC West until Week 14, and Seattle's only hope is that those three late-season home games in December still carry division-title possibilities.
10 Minnesota <a href=Vikings" title="Minnesota Vikings">
Last Week: 10
The schedule gets extremely challenging in the second half of the season, so the Vikings' playoff dreams really require them getting to 6-2 in facing struggling Tampa Bay at home Thursday night. But what an accomplishment that would be for a Minnesota team that nose-dived to 3-13 a year ago. I don't want to add to the pressure the Vikings are facing this week, but the Coach of the Year nod on my upcoming NFL midseason review is there for the taking, Leslie Frazier.
11 Denver <a href=Broncos" title="Denver Broncos">
Last Week: 11
Denver's 3-3 mark sure doesn't feel like San Diego's 3-3 record in the AFC West. That's what that second half in Qualcomm Stadium a week ago Monday night wrought. But here come the resurgent Saints and yet another night game, Denver's fourth in seven outings this season. Might as well call them the Denver Bats, because they only come out after dark. (I know, but it was there for the taking, so I took it).
12 Pittsburgh <a href=Steelers" title="Pittsburgh Steelers">
Last Week: 15
Ben Roethlisberger is known for keeping plays alive in his own inimitable style, and so too is Robert Griffin III. They meet for the first time this week at Heinz Field, and it should make for an exciting contrast of quarterbacking talent. The Steelers haven't won two in a row since last season, and the Redskins are hoping to fight their way back to .500 for the third time this year.
13 Philadelphia <a href=Eagles" title="Philadelphia Eagles">
Last Week: 13
We all know Andy Reid's Eagles are 13-0 coming off byes in his tenure, but this was no ordinary vacation. There was little rest and positively no relaxation in Philly, with defensive coordinator Juan Castillo fired, Todd Bowles promoted and intrigue continuing to swirl around Michael Vick, Nick Foles and the starting quarterback question. And to top it off, the Eagles are at home Sunday against the 6-0 Falcons, Vick's former team. Enough storylines for you? I thought so.
14 Miami <a href=Dolphins" title="Miami Dolphins">
Last Week: 14
I couldn't really justify moving the Dolphins below the 3-4 Jets based on Miami's bye week, but Week 8's schedule should take care of the question. The Dolphins play division rival New York in the Meadowlands, and the Jets will either leap-frog them in the standings (and our rankings) with a win, or sink further below Miami with a loss. Sometimes these things just sort themselves out.
15 New York <a href=Jets" title="New York Jets">
Last Week: 17
I actually give Rex's guys quite a bit of credit for the way they lost in New England. That at least looked like the Jets team that put the fear of God into the Patriots in 2009-10. New York made Tom Brady and Co. scratch and claw for the victory, and Mark Sanchez showed some moxie and resiliency after starting the game in horrible fashion.
16 Washington <a href=Redskins" title="Washington Redskins">
Last Week: 16
We're not even at midseason yet and we're already starting to repeat ourselves in trying to describe Robert Griffin III's exciting brand of play-making as a rookie. He's clearly not a finished product, but he's obviously the real deal, and he leaves every opponent feeling a bit like they escaped, rather than vanquished him.
17 Dallas <a href=Cowboys" title="Dallas Cowboys">
Last Week: 23
Either the Cowboys are going to come out of their home-field showdown with the Giants energized, trailing New York by just half a game and owning a 2-0 series sweep against their division rivals this season, or they're going to be just another team in the NFC East pack and reeling once again from their inability to win the games that matter most. That makes this the game of the year for Dallas in my eyes.
18 Arizona <a href=Cardinals" title="Arizona Cardinals">
Last Week: 12
Everything I just wrote about the Cowboys, you could repeat about the Cardinals: Beat San Francisco at home on Monday night, and Arizona is right back to being neck-and-neck with the division leader and looking like a viable playoff contender once again. Lose and the Cardinals slide to .500 after that surprise 4-0 start, and take on the label of pretenders. So, that makes this the game of the year for Arizona, as well.
19 New Orleans <a href=Saints" title="New Orleans Saints">
Last Week: 26
The Saints are alive, but for how long with at Denver, Philadelphia and Atlanta on the schedule the next three weeks? If Joe Vitt's return to coaching does anything, it should help steady a defense that has been reeling and retreating for most of the season. Let New Orleans build on last week's comeback at Tampa Bay with a win at Denver on Sunday night, and we'll have a legitimate renaissance story well underway in the Big Easy.
20 San Diego <a href=Chargers" title="San Diego Chargers">
Last Week: 19
Throwing in the towel in San Diego suddenly means something quite different than it has in the past. But either way, losing streaks are part of the discussion, and that's never a good development for Norv Turner and his floundering Chargers.
21 St. Louis <a href=Rams" title="St. Louis Rams">
Last Week: 18
The encouraging thing is the effort is there every week with Jeff Fisher's plucky Rams, and that's a good sign for the future. They're just trying to win gun fights with knives at the moment, generally a losing proposition. St. Louis flew to London early this week to get ready for the Patriots at Wembley on Sunday, and any way you score it in the NFC West travel wars, that beats practicing all week in Youngstown, Ohio.
22 Tennessee <a href=Titans" title="Tennessee Titans">
Last Week: 27
The more Matt Hasselbeck wins, the more Titans head coach Mike Munchak might be tempted to keep finding Jake Locker's shoulder injury not quite healed just yet. "I'm okay, Coach. Ready to go," Locker will say. "No, no you're not. You look quite pasty, and a bit unsteady," Munchak will answer. "Better take another week off. I'll let you know when you're 100 percent."
23 Indianapolis <a href=Colts" title="Indianapolis Colts">
Last Week: 24
If you're the Colts, you've got absolutely no regrets with Andrew Luck, and ditto for the Redskins with RGIII. That's honestly the way I saw it playing out this season -- a win-win situation, with both quarterbacks being rookie sensations -- and that's the way it has unfolded. Happily so, if you're a fan of Indy or Washington. There's no shouldas, wouldas or couldas to be heard here.
24 Cincinnati <a href=Bengals" title="Cincinnati Bengals">
Last Week: 21
I might be too harsh on the Bengals, but they're losing air rapidly after that 3-1 start. Looks like the can't-win-in-consecutive-seasons thing might again be the reality in Cincinnati. Andy Dalton had a rough night against the Steelers, and the Bengals defense once again gave up too much ground and too many key plays in the game's critical juncture. Time to regroup during the bye week.
25 Detroit <a href=Lions" title="Detroit Lions">
Last Week: 22
Well, at least the Tigers making the World Series keeps a little heat off the underachieving Lions for another week or so. Distraction is a good thing if you're Detroit head coach Jim Schwartz about now. The offense looks lost with Matthew Stafford forcing passes into spots he shouldn't, and those windows aren't going to grow larger this week with Seattle and its stellar secondary coming to Motown.
26 Buffalo <a href=Bills" title="Buffalo Bills">
Last Week: 20
We're paid to offer a lot of opinions in this job, sometimes without the benefit of much time to formulate our thoughts. So I get my share of picks, predictions and projections wrong. But I don't think I've gotten anything quite as wrong this season as believing that Buffalo's defense would live up to the hype and be the strength of a playoff-bound team. Mea culpa. Mea dead wrong.
27 Tampa Bay <a href=Buccaneers" title="Tampa Bay Buccaneers">
Last Week: 25
Kudos to Malcolm Jenkins of the Saints for going all Don Beebe and never giving up on the play, but, man, was Vincent Jackson running out of gas on last week's memorable near-touchdown in Tampa Bay. He was moving like Leon Lett. Doesn't an NFL receiver have to score with that kind of head start? What were Jackson's 40 times at the combine? Anybody?
28 Oakland <a href=Raiders" title="Oakland Raiders">
Last Week: 30
I actually thought Sebastian Janikowski would quite handily hit that 64-yard field goal attempt, breaking the NFL record for long-distance three-pointers in the process. Didn't you? Isn't that just the way things are going for NFL kickers this season? I could see him hooking it, but coming up short wasn't a possibility I really considered. I'm sure he's had kicks before where he didn't have quite enough leg, but I really don't remember any.
29 Cleveland <a href=Browns" title="Cleveland Browns">
Last Week: 28
So Mike Holmgren misses "the coaching part," does he? Anyone else sensing a certain Brett Favre-ness to the former Green Bay and Seattle coach's vacillating career path? Or is this just Holmgren finally realizing he has always been a better coach than personnel executive, and tacking back to the impressive part of his long NFL resume? I can't blame him for that.
30 Carolina <a href=Panthers" title="Carolina Panthers">
Last Week: 29
Got a lot of good feedback from some NFL club executives this week after I wrote about the growing pressures on the general manager position in league circles, a story prompted by Marty Hurney's firing in Carolina on Monday. I think they just appreciated that someone tried to feel their pain, and I suppose that cast me somewhat in the Bill Clinton role in this particular instance. I'm biting my lower lip in empathy at this very moment.
31 Kansas City <a href=Chiefs" title="Kansas City Chiefs">
Last Week: 32
The Chiefs two years ago surprisingly started 5-2 and held first place in the AFC West after seven games. Since then, they've gone 13-19, including a playoff loss that season, which goes a long way toward explaining the general state of crankiness and dissatisfaction in Kansas City. It's always dangerous in the NFL to win big early, at the risk of creating unmet expectations later.
32 Jacksonville <a href=Jaguars" title="Jacksonville Jaguars">
Last Week: 31
The Jaguars let a pretty good first-half performance in Oakland go to waste, and now face life for a while without their best weapon in Maurice Jones-Drew, not to mention dealing with Blaine Gabbert's bum left shoulder. From all appearances, Jacksonville is headed for a very high draft pick and the prospect of deciding whether to take another first-round quarterback next April.

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