By Don Banks
October 31, 2012

Well that's a first. Hurricane Sandy had such a wide-ranging effect on the nation this week that the impact was even felt in's NFL power rankings. Imagine trying to produce the power rankings without, you know, power, which is what we've been dealing with at our house in suburban Philadelphia since the lights went out just before the 49ers">49ers-Cardinals Monday Night Football game kicked off.

But the show always goes on in the NFL, even if the lights don't. So here's our Halloween version of the NFL power rankings, which ironically enough were written largely in the dark. (And more so than usual, with a nod toward those fans who disagree with our logic and judgment). The order of things at the very top didn't change much this week, but teams like the Broncos, Steelers, Dolphins and Colts are on the move, playing their way into our line of vision and beginning to resemble legitimate playoff contenders in the AFC. That much we can tell even without illumination.

Now onto this week's rankings...

NFL Power Rankings
1 Atlanta <a href=Falcons" title="Atlanta Falcons">
Last Week: 1
Love the level of domination I saw from these Falcons last week in Philadelphia, but with only one game remaining on their schedule against a team with a winning record -- Week 15 vs. the Giants -- will they be able to stay sharp and hungry with a huge division lead and an early playoff clinching? In recent seasons we've seen that it doesn't really serve a Super Bowl contender's purpose to coast in to the postseason. It's under the heading of a good problem to have, but it bears watching how Atlanta self-motivates in the season's second half.
2 New York <a href=Giants" title="New York Giants">
Last Week: 2
The Giants found a way to hang on for dear life and get a win in Dallas, but they have to give the save to instant replay review. Before instant replay ruled the NFL and allowed scrutiny of every inch of the field, I wonder how many game-changing calls like that Dez Bryant-knuckle-out-of-bounds ruling were never made and never seen? Technology has brought a level of incredible exactitude to officiating, and rarely has it ever made the difference between winning and losing as dramatically as it did in Dallas last Sunday.
3 Houston <a href=Texans" title="Houston Texans">
Last Week: 3
With a big-stage Sunday night game at Chicago looming in Week 10, the rested and hopefully healed up Texans must be wary of a trap game this week at home against the 3-4 Bills. The Mario Williams homecoming will be a nice sub-plot to the game, but Buffalo's defense has been a punching bag so far this season, allowing 32.4 points per game. Having quickly dismantled Baltimore in its most recent home game, the Texans need to show a similar killer instinct against a Buffalo team that has been prone to blowout losses.
4 49ers/">49ers_50.png" alt="San Francisco 49ers" title="San Francisco 49ers">
Last Week: 4
49ers/">San Francisco 49ers (6-2)
What was that noise about Alex Smith's starting job being up for discussion and debate in San Francisco? Perhaps not. Smith was a ridiculous 18 of 19 for 232 yards and three touchdowns in that dissection of the Cardinals Monday night, and he even got Randy Moss involved in the scoring with a 47-yard third-quarter touchdown catch. Pretty good week for the 49ers to take their bye, too, because now they can take in the Giants' World Series victory parade and see how it might be done next February.
5 Chicago <a href=Bears" title="Chicago Bears">
Last Week: 5
The Bears improved to a cool 4-0 at home this season with that escape job against Carolina, but their next four games at Soldier Field ultimately will tell the story of their season: against Houston in Week 10, Minnesota in Week 12, Seattle in Week 13 and Green Bay in Week 15. That's a clear-cut step up in competition in the second half of their schedule, and it'll take more offensive rhythm and consistency from Chicago to run that gauntlet and match its success rate of September and October.
6 Green Bay <a href=Packers" title="Green Bay Packers">
Last Week: 6
It wasn't pretty for even a second against the Jaguars at Lambeau on Sunday, but the Packers have shown a penchant to play down to the level of their opponent at times this season. They've got another opportunity to correct that issue with the floundering Cardinals headed for Green Bay this week, four-game losing streak intact.
7 New England <a href=Patriots" title="New England Patriots">
Last Week: 8
If the NFL ever had a real shot at establishing a team in London, it would have to be the only one with "England" in its name, and we know that's not happening. The Patriots do play like they're at home over there, humiliating the Bucs (2009) and Rams (last Sunday) by a combined 80-14 over the span of four seasons. And as ambassadors of American football go, you can't do better than Rob Gronkowski with his quirky end zone dances against St. Louis.
8 Denver <a href=Broncos" title="Denver Broncos">
Last Week: 11
We looked it up and an NFL team technically has never clinched its division with a one-game lead and nine games remaining, but that's how the state of the AFC West race feels about now. The Broncos are on a 69-14 roll in their past six quarters, and I don't see it cresting any time soon with the schedule Denver faces from here on out. Eight of the Broncos' final nine opponents are currently under .500, with only a Week 15 trip to Baltimore bucking that trend.
9 Baltimore <a href=Ravens" title="Baltimore Ravens">
Last Week: 7
We've dropped the Ravens to try to get their full attention after that disaster in Houston two weeks back. Let's see if Baltimore used its bye week to re-focus and figure out what the problem is when it takes to the road. This week's trip to Cleveland is no piece of cake. The Browns have won two in a row at home and are playing sound defense, and a Trent Richardson-led ground game could pose trouble for a Ravens team that has been gashed by the run.
10 Pittsburgh <a href=Steelers" title="Pittsburgh Steelers">
Last Week: 12
With Ben Roethlisberger starting to do his whatever-it-takes-to-win thing on a weekly basis, and Jonathan Dwyer cranking out 100-yard rushing games, the Steelers are getting positively Pittsburgh-like as we hit midseason. This week's showdown against the Giants at MetLife Stadium is a glamor matchup that should tell us how far Mike Tomlin's team has come since its grasping 1-2 start.
11 Miami <a href=Dolphins" title="Miami Dolphins">
Last Week: 14
The ascending Dolphins are building some mojo for themselves, and things like last week's special teams triple crown against the Jets (blocked punt, blocked field goal, successful onside kick) help make believers out of everyone in the locker room. Miami at Indianapolis this week pits the two biggest surprises in the AFC this season against each other, but win or lose, both teams will remain in the thick of the wild-card chase.
12 Indianapolis <a href=Colts" title="Indianapolis Colts">
Last Week: 23
After all those years of their Colts playing the heavy in the AFC South, it probably feels pretty refreshing for Indy fans to be on the other side of the dynamic. The underdog role is always more fun, and getting results without the burden of big expectations makes a team play loose and aggressive. The meaningful Chuck Pagano storyline just adds to the feeling that this is a young team on a mission.
13 Minnesota <a href=Vikings" title="Minnesota Vikings">
Last Week: 10
The Christian Ponder questions are back, and now we don't know which was the aberration: Ponder starting the season without an interception in his first four games, or throwing seven over the course of his next four? But the Vikings defense owns a chunk of the blame too after being carved up at home by Doug Martin and the Tampa Bay offense. And don't look now Minnesota fans, but this week's trip to Seattle's CenturyLink Field has become one of the toughest road assignments in the NFL.
14 Seattle <a href=Seahawks" title="Seattle Seahawks">
Last Week: 9
Close, frustrating losses on the road have become the Seahawks' calling card this season, but with the struggling Vikings and punch-less Jets headed to Seattle in the coming two weeks -- before a Week 11 bye -- Pete Carroll's club has the chance to steady itself and climb back into NFC playoff contention.
15 Dallas <a href=Cowboys" title="Dallas Cowboys">
Last Week: 17
The Cowboys are annually one of the most exasperating teams in the NFL, and they put their fans through rollercoaster rides aplenty every season. But last week's gut-wrenching failure against the Giants might have been the worst yet. You absolutely can't lose a game after you've managed to erase a 23-0 lead by the defending Super Bowl champions. You just can't. Not at home. Not on the road. Not ever. And Dallas did. By the length of a Dez Bryant finger tip or two.
16 Philadelphia <a href=Eagles" title="Philadelphia Eagles">
Last Week: 13
The Eagles' problems at offensive line create so many ripple effects, but one of them is a passing game that doesn't seem to challenge anyone vertically any more. Most of what Michael Vick has time to complete is underneath these days, and that means it takes Philly going on long and methodical drives to score. And given Vick's penchant for mistakes in the season's first seven games, long, methodical drives are in short supply.
17 Detroit <a href=Lions" title="Detroit Lions">
Last Week: 25
With two wins in their past three games, the Lions are alive, and this week's trip to Jacksonville presents an opportunity to climb to the break-even mark and go from there. Matthew Stafford's fourth-quarter work has been superb this season, with comeback wins over the Rams, Eagles and Seahawks. But why can't he feel the same sense of urgency in the game's first three quarters?
18 Washington <a href=Redskins" title="Washington Redskins">
Last Week: 16
The dropped passes in Pittsburgh killed any chance the Redskins had of staying in the game and pulling the upset against the Steelers. DeAngelo Hall's late-game outburst drew some of the attention away from the fact the Redskins are a familiar 3-5, halfway to roughly the same record Mike Shanahan had in each of his first two seasons in D.C. (6-10 in 2010, 5-11 in 2011). The Redskins are a hopeful 3-5, but last place is still last place.
19 Arizona <a href=Cardinals" title="Arizona Cardinals">
Last Week: 18
The Cardinals, in the mind-blowing stat of the year, had seven yards rushing on nine attempts against San Francisco on Monday night. Seven. When you mix in another four sacks allowed by Arizona, it can't possibly matter much who plays quarterback for the Cardinals if their offensive line continues to be almost historically bad.
20 Tampa Bay <a href=Buccaneers" title="Tampa Bay Buccaneers">
Last Week: 27
The Bucs' offense has looked more than legit now for three consecutive games (averaging 34 points), and Doug Martin's breakout showing at Minnesota gives Tampa Bay a blueprint to victory it can follow certain weeks, against certain opponents. I would think this week's trip to Oakland is one of those.
21 San Diego <a href=Chargers" title="San Diego Chargers">
Last Week: 20
Chargers receiver Robert Meachem didn't catch a single pass at Cleveland, but the one he dropped when he was way in the clear would have gone for a 51-yard touchdown pass and likely won the game for San Diego. It reminded me of when I covered Sam Wyche's Bucs teams in the early '90s, and Alvin Harper had a key drop that cost Tampa Bay a game. Wyche made it a point to hand out the paychecks in the locker room the next day, and not-too-gently reminded Harper not to drop it. I'm guessing that's not Norv Turner's style.
22 St. Louis <a href=Rams" title="St. Louis Rams">
Last Week: 21
That was a trans-Atlantic butt-kicking the Rams endured at the hands of the Patriots on Sunday in London, and I'm sure it made for a long flight home and a tough way to start the bye week. But three wins in the season's first half already represents progress in St. Louis, and the Rams just don't have the talent yet to match up with the league's upper tier teams.
23 Cincinnati <a href=Bengals" title="Cincinnati Bengals">
Last Week: 24
If the Bengals are to climb back into the AFC North race and the playoff chase, they're going to have to do it against two of the hottest teams in the league: Denver this week, the Giants next week. Both are at Paul Brown Stadium, but Cincinnati has dropped two in a row at home and hasn't won there since Week 2 against Cleveland.
24 New York <a href=Jets" title="New York Jets">
Last Week: 15
It's almost a little unsettling to see Rex Ryan stripped of the bravado he has brought to the job for the past three-plus years in New York. He can still talk big and bold at times, but his team rarely backs him up any more, the way it did in 2009-2010. I'm still convinced Ryan is a quality head coach and he'll work in the league for a long time. But some schticks have a relatively short shelf life, and that might be the case here.
25 Oakland <a href=Raiders" title="Oakland Raiders">
Last Week: 28
The Raiders are at least giving their fans a little reason to stay interested, mounting a modest two-game winning streak against the one-win wonders from Jacksonville and Kansas City. This week's home date against Tampa Bay will be a tougher task, but if Oakland gets to .500 at midseason, rookie coach Dennis Allen's first half-season in black and silver will have been a success.
26 New Orleans <a href=Saints" title="New Orleans Saints">
Last Week: 19
So much for the theory Joe Vitt's return will make a difference. I don't think that logic should apply when Peyton Manning is the opposing quarterback. Manning made all the difference in Denver's beat-down of New Orleans, and now the Saints draw a Monday night visit from the desperate Eagles, losers of three in a row.
27 Tennessee <a href=Titans" title="Tennessee Titans">
Last Week: 22
Looks like the Titans are a tease again. After two straight wins raised expectations, Tennessee dashed them once again with that overtime home loss against Indianapolis. Now it won't be easy to get the bleeding stopped, because games against Chicago and at Miami await before the Titans take their Week 11 bye.
28 Buffalo <a href=Bills" title="Buffalo Bills">
Last Week: 26
Let's hope the surgery to Mario Williams' wrist fixes the problem and he emerges as the dominant pass rusher the Bills paid for this offseason. With Buffalo traveling to Houston this week, what better time for Williams to start looking like his old self?
29 Cleveland <a href=Browns" title="Cleveland Browns">
Last Week: 29
The Haslam era in Cleveland is at least off to a hopeful start in recent weeks, with a pair of home wins to build on. But while beating the Bengals and Chargers says one thing, an upset of the first-place 5-2 Ravens would register on a whole new scale.
30 Carolina <a href=Panthers" title="Carolina Panthers">
Last Week: 30
The Panthers have invented new, excruciating ways to lose since that Week 4 fourth-quarter collapse in Atlanta, and their past four defeats have been by a combined 12 points. This week, it's Cam Newton against Robert Griffin III at FedEx Field, and maybe that particular matchup will bring out the best in last year's rookie phenom quarterback.
31 Jacksonville <a href=Jaguars" title="Jacksonville Jaguars">
Last Week: 32
With Jacksonville scoring a league-low 103 points, I'm starting to think Jaguars first-year head coach Mike Mularkey made some sort of typo and banned touchdowns, not just touchdown end-zone celebrations.
32 Kansas City <a href=Chiefs" title="Kansas City Chiefs">
Last Week: 31
I'm confident the Chiefs will again some day take the lead in a regular season NFL game. It might even happen Thursday night, at San Diego, in a game the football nation can't wait to see. If there's a team that looks as lifeless as Kansas City, it would have to be Norv Turner's swooning Chargers.

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