The 2012 regular season is now in its final month, and the best teams in the league must make their moves to establish their dominance for the postseason, or make a playoff push. With that in mind, lets take a look at where the elite (and not-so-elite) rank in this week’s Power Rankings:
1. New England Patriots (9-3) – Last Week: 1
It wasn’t pretty, and it wasn’t flashy – but when the victory seals a fourth straight AFC East title, it’s hard to imagine anyone on the Patriots really care. While head coach Bill Belichick continually says stats don’t matter for his team, these are hard to ignore – QB Tom Brady threw an INT for the first time in 203 passing attempts, and WR Wes Welker’s 12 receptions for 103 yards tied the great Jerry Rice for most 10-plus-reception games in NFL history (17). Despite all that, they will face a real test in Houston next Monday night.
2. Atlanta Falcons (11-1) – Last Week: 4
Apparently, a ho-hum Thursday night from QB Matt Ryan (165 yards, 1 TD) and RB Michael Turner (83 rushing yards, 1 TD) were all the Falcons needed to dispatch the Saints. That, of course, and five interceptions off of Saints QB Drew Brees – two by S William Moore. Despite taking the foot of the gas, they cruised to a relatively easy victory – their sixth at home (6-0) – but will face another division foe in the Carolina Panthers next week. Can they stay interested enough for a fourth straight victory?
3. Denver Broncos (9-3) – Last Week: 3
Clinch AFC West with four games left to go? Check. Apparently, the Broncos didn’t even celebrate after their victory over the Buccaneers. With four games to go, and currently on a seven-game winning streak, there is no reason to believe that they can’t win out for a possible shot at home-field advantage: three of their final four games are against teams under .500, and QB Peyton Manning is playing at the top of his game (242 yds, 3 TDs vs. TB). And, don’t look now – WR Demaryius Thomas is on a tear, with 15 catches for 223 yards and 4 TDs in his last three games.
4. Houston Texans (11-1) – Last Week: 6
For the second straight year, the Texans clinched a playoff berth – and they did it in understated fashion. They dominated the Titans over the course of the game, not allowing a touchdown until the final two minutes, when the game was out of reach. With the win, they set a franchise record for wins in a season, and improved their record on the road to 6-0. With the postseason clinched, the Texans will likely eye home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs – starting with a marquis matchup against the dangerous and battle-tested Patriots next Monday night.
5. Indianapolis Colts (8-4) – Last Week: 9
Not too shabby for a number 1 overall draft pick – QB Andrew Luck threw the game-winning TD pass with no time left to give his Colts their eighth victory of the season, over Detroit – the most wins in a season by said draft pick in NFL history. Despite throwing 3 INTs, Luck threw for two TDs in the game’s final three minutes – the game-winner to WR Donnie Avery (91 receiving yards, 2 TDs). They are now 7-1 in their last eight games and, despite two meetings with Houston to end the year, have a good shot at the postseason.
6. Green Bay Packers (8-4) – Last Week: 10
Despite being unable to shut down Vikings RB Adrian Peterson, the Pack managed to get past their division rivals at Lambeau Field. Even with Minnesota’s strong running game, the Packers managed to emphatically win the possession battle by a whopping 17 minutes. They also used two INTs by S Morgan Burnett to slow down the Vikings’ offensive attack. However, with the loss of RB James Starks to an already weak running game, the team went out to get an old familiar face: cast-out RB Ryan Grant. We’ll see how that fares going forward.
7. San Francisco 49ers (8-3-1) – Last Week: 2
The 49ers had their chances, and, for the second time this season, came down to the final minutes of overtime. Ultimately, the 49ers could not overcome key mistakes in their loss to the Rams. K David Akers missed a FG late in the overtime period, allowing the Rams to capitalize. It didn’t help that QB Colin Kaepernick, despite his 84 yards on the ground and 208 yards through the air, failed to score a TD, and gave the Rams a safety early in the third quarter. Can they bounce back against a similar Miami offense?
8. Seattle Seahawks (7-5) – Last Week: 11
Well, that was an interesting turn of events. Walking into Soldier Field and staring virtual playoff elimination in the face, QB Russell Wilson didn’t flinch, and threw a game-ending TD pass to WR Sidney Rice in OT. That was before a TD pass to take the lead late in the fourth quarter was negated by a game-tying FG by Chicago K Robbie Gould to send the game into overtime. Next up is good news all around for Seattle – a struggling Arizona team at CenturyLink Field, where they haven’t lost yet this season.
9. Baltimore Ravens (9-3) – Last Week: 5
Well, that was mildly unexpected. After all, a loss at the hands of a team that struggled against the Browns in the final seconds probably shouldn’t be happening to a previously 2-loss team. Then again, when the Ravens fail to score a single point in the fourth quarter, with QB Joe Flacco failing to hit the 200-yard mark for the fourth time in six games (though to be fair, he did hit over 300 yards in the two games he did). In any case, they will have to deal with a Redskins squad currently on a three-game winning streak.
10. Chicago Bears (8-4) – Last Week: 7
The Bears were handed only their second loss at home to a Seattle team fighting for a playoff spot late in the season. And, with that, their lead in the NFC North has evaporated. On the bright side, WR Brandon Marshall (165 yards on 10 receptions) looks back to form, and they got back RB Matt Forte from injury the week before. The team will need all the help they can get, with division rival Minnesota in their sights for the second time in three weeks.
11. Pittsburgh Steelers (7-5) – Last Week: 13
Talk about a turnaround – after an embarrassing loss to Cleveland, the Steelers managed to bounce back on the arm of QB Charlie Batch (276 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT), scoring 10 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to take out their arch-rivals on the road. It goes to show that a strong defensive team (currently ranked in the top 3 in total defense) can keep you in key games. Now, they will need that defensive prowess and momentum to take into their next game against the Chargers.
12. New York Giants (7-5) – Last Week: 8
A week after an impressive blowout against Green Bay, this may have been one of the last things the Giants needed in their quest to reach the playoffs and defend their Super Bowl crown. Despite QB Eli Manning’s 280 yards through the air, and RB Ahmad Bradshaw’s 103-yard day on the ground, New York failed to get a consistent offense going, allowing the go-ahead touchdown by Washington early in the fourth quarter and never recovering. Now they will face a Saints team looking to bounce back from a two-game losing streak.
13. Cincinnati Bengals (7-5) – Last Week: 15
The Bengals managed to keep up in the slugfest that is the AFC North playoff race, scoring 10 straight points in the fourth quarter to top San Diego. RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis recorded his third straight 100-yard game (25 carries, 118 yards) in the win – their fourth straight after suffering through a midseason four-game losing streak. With their last two games of the season pivotal divisional matchups (@ PIT, vs. BAL), they cannot overlook the Cowboys next week.
14. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-6) – Last Week: 12
Things were looking good for the Bucs two weeks ago, but with a second straight loss – this time to the red-hot Broncos – Tampa Bay finds itself back at .500. While RB Doug Martin struggled against Denver’s top-5 rushing defense, QB Josh Freeman kept them in the game (242 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT). Ultimately, however, they could not catch up. If they want any chance at making a playoff push, it will have to begin with a must-win against the struggling Eagles.
15. Dallas Cowboys (6-6) – Last Week: 18
Good news: Betcha didn’t know QB Tony Romo, with his 303 passing yard, 3-TD performance on Sunday, passed the great Troy Aikman for the franchise record in career TDs. Better news: their win over lowly Philly kept them in a razor-thin close NFC East race. It wasn’t a good sign that the defense gave up 33 points to an Eagles team that failed to score over 24 points all season, but two Dez Bryant TD catches and a 50-yard fumble return by CB Morris Claiborne turned out to make the difference. Should they continue their winning ways in their next two games, they will be in the driver’s seat for the division.
16. Washington Redskins (6-6) – Last Week: 20
It was a victory the Redskins definitely needed to keep their playoff hopes alive. A poised Robert Griffin III (163 passing yards, 1 TD; 72 rushing yards), another strong showing from rookie RB Alfred Morris (22 carries, 124 yards), and a defensive team that kept them in contention the entire game helped win the day. Now winners of three straight, the ‘Skins threw the entire NFC East race into a mad dash for the finish, with three teams a mere game within the division lead.
17. St. Louis Rams (5-6-1) – Last Week: 21
If there is one thing about these Rams, they do know how to play the 49ers tough. Holding their offense to 13 points, it took another overtime period to vanquish their division foes once and for all. CB Janoris Jenkins came up big again, scoring on a 2-yard fumble return for the team’s only touchdown. Riding a still-undefeated record against a tough NFC West (4-0-1), the Rams can only hope to carry this momentum next week into Buffalo, facing a team that has not beaten an NFC West squad all season.
18. New Orleans Saints (5-7) – Last Week: 14
After their loss to San Francisco, the Saints could ill-afford another one – even to the 11-1 Falcons, on a short week of preparation. Unfortunately, QB Drew Brees threw an uncharacteristic 5 interceptions (despite 341 yards passing) in a ten-point defeat at the hands of their division rivals on Thursday. Now, with their playoff hopes on life support, New Orleans will have to rely on Brees’ albeit sputtering arm against the Giants in Week 14.
19. Miami Dolphins (5-7) – Last Week: 16
Mistakes proved costly for the Dolphins and their slim chances at a playoff berth, as they let a low-scoring game against arch-rival New England slip away – a game, however, in which they never led. They did manage to hold the Patriots to a season-low in total yards (321), though without any punch from offensive weapons like RB Reggie Bush (64 yds, 0 TDs) – going along with five total turnovers – they could not break through for the victory. Next week proves no easier, as they are set to face an angry 49ers team, coming off of a division loss.
20. Minnesota Vikings (6-6) – Last Week: 17
Unless they can get their act together, the Vikings may only be playing for RB Adrian Peterson’s race for the single-season rushing record (1,526 yds through 12 gms). Despite AD’s 212-yard performance, their disappointing loss to division rival Green Bay was a huge blow to their postseason hopes, and they may need to win out (plus a little help) in order to get there. How much they will rely on Peterson’s feet, as opposed to QB Christian Ponder’s arm, will say a lot in the coming weeks – especially with games vs. Chicago and Houston looming.
21. Buffalo Bills (5-7) – Last Week: 22
With their faint playoff hopes on the line, the Bills were not about to lay an egg to the two-win Jaguars. With that, they relied on their running game (232 total yards on the ground on 46 carries), with heavy doses of C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson, to control the clock (35:09 on time of possession) and choke out Jacksonville throughout the second half. QB Ryan Fitzpatrick’s 2 TD passes didn’t hurt matters, either. With a dangerous St. Louis team on the docket, they will need more from their defense, led by DE Mario Williams (sack, fumble recovery) to keep their playoff hopes alive.
22. Cleveland Browns (4-8) – Last Week: 23
Congratulations to the Browns for accomplishing their first winning streak of the season – this, coming in the form of a 20-17 road victory vs. the Raiders, their first road win in 2012. QB Brandon Weeden’s career-high 364 passing yards contributed greatly to the win, as Cleveland jumped out to a ten-point lead in the first in which they never relinquished. With a date with the Chiefs next week, perhaps they could extend their rare winning streak to three?
23. Detroit Lions (4-8) – Last Week: 19
Despite knocking around QB Andrew Luck for most of the day, and leading for nearly the entire game, the defense simply could not prevent a game-winning TD pass with no time left on the clock. It was their seventh loss by a 8 points or less, indicative by how close they have played their opponents all season. However, the loss all but mathematically knocked them out of postseason contention – even with WR Calvin Johnson continuing his pace to the record books (171 yards, 1 TD – 1,428 yards this season). Can they put up a fight in Lambeau against the Packers next week?
24. San Diego Chargers (4-8) – Last Week: 25
Another week, another disappointing loss for the Chargers. Despite holding a lead late in the fourth quarter, they couldn’t close the deal in the final minutes, giving up 10 straight points to the Bengals. And with another poor performance by QB Philip Rivers (280 yards, 0 TDs, 1 INT), people have started to call for his head – on the bench, that is. Then again, he may not be the problem – one need only look at the day’s rushing numbers (43 total yards on the ground) and their bottom-third ranking in the NFL in rushing.
25. New York Jets (5-7) – Last Week: 28
Your starting QB throws under 100 yards to go along with 3 INTs, and is pulled for the backup in the second half. You end up with 7 points in an ugly game. 99% of the time, that’s a loss – luckily for the Jets, however, they were playing an even sorrier Cardinals squad, and pulled out the win. Meanwhile, the drama continues – will Mark Sanchez be pulled for the long-awaited Tim Tebow at starting signal-caller? Is it possible that they could still make the playoffs? Will the coaching staff keep their jobs if they don’t? Stay tuned.
26. Arizona Cardinals (4-8) – Last Week: 24
It’s hard to believe that a team can hold their opponent to a mere 7 points the entire game, and still lose. Then again, that’s been the story of the Arizona Cardinals this season – ever since their 4-0 start, they have nose-dived into the doldrums of the NFL with their eighth straight loss – this time, at the hands of the struggling Jets, who have, themselves, been an unadulterated mess in 2012. In third-string QB, and SDSU alum, Ryan Lindley’s third start, he only managed 72 yards and an INT. With three of their next four games against teams in the playoff hunt, it’s hard to say if they will win a game again this season.
27. Tennessee Titans (4-8) – Last Week: 26
On the bright side? They fell to a superior team who had only lost once all season, and QB Jake Locker threw for over 300 yards in the losing effort. Then again, their rushing offense once again failed to crack the 100 mark (RB Chris Johnson: 51 yards on 13 carries), and Locker threw 3 INTs to essentially knock them out of postseason contention. With a date against a hot Colts team, they will try to avoid their first sub-.500 season since 2010.
28. Philadelphia Eagles (3-9) – Last Week: 30
It started well – a 10-yard TD run by RB Bryce Brown to take a first-quarter lead – and had made it a game well into the fourth quarter against a Cowboys team fighting for their playoff lives. Ultimately, Brown’s two TD runs and QB Nick Foles’ day through the air (251 yards, 1 TD) weren’t enough. Brown’s showing lately, and the potential starting RB controversy that could loom in the future, is unfortunately second-fiddle to the team’s continued mediocrity. With their eighth straight loss behind them, the Iggles can only hope to salvage whatever is left of the season with a win in the any of their last four games, starting with Tampa Bay.
29. Kansas City Chiefs (2-10) – Last Week: 32
It’s been one of the worst weeks for the Chiefs off the field, in the wake of the tragedy surrounding LB Jovan Belcher, and the murder-suicide that occurred the day before their game with Carolina, and a lot for the team to deal with. To their tremendous credit, the Chiefs not only agreed to play on, but they won behind QB Brady Quinn’s 2 TDs, RB Jamaal Charles’ 127 yards on the ground, and a ton of emotion and team unity. It was a hell of a way to win only their second game of the season, and the game is only secondary to the healing process they will face moving forward.
30. Oakland Raiders (3-9) – Last Week: 31
And now that’s five straight losses for the silver-and-black – the most since the Lane Kiffin-led team that went 4-12 with JaMarcus Russell at QB. Trailing the entire game, the lone highlights came from both of QB Carson Palmer’s TD passes – including a meaningless 17-yard strike to TE Brandon Myers in the closing seconds. Despite ranking in the top-10 in passing yards, they have little else to stay competitive, and will likely see another 10-loss season when all is said and done – especially with Denver coming to the Black Hole next week.
31. Carolina Panthers (3-9) – Last Week: 27
Despite another impressive performance by QB Cam Newton (232 passing yards, 3 TDs, 0 INTs), the Panthers could not overcome an emotional Chiefs squad, playing in the wake of tragedy. WR Steve Smith had his best game thus far in 2012 (5 receptions, 120 yards, TD) in the loss. In what may have been their worst loss of the season behind them, they are now forced to play one of the best teams in the league, in the form of the Atlanta Falcons, in Week 14.
32. Jacksonville Jaguars (2-10) – Last Week: 29
So much for riding their second victory last week. Despite QB Chad Henne’s second productive game in a row (202 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT; 1 rushing TD), the Jags were outscored 27-8 after a 10-7 lead in the second quarter. Rushing for only 50 yards can’t help a team that is averaging under 79 yards on the ground per game this season. Adding insult to injury, the Jags’ defense allowed a franchise-worst 46 carries and 232 yards to the Bills running game. At this point, with Tim Tebow not playing for the Jets next week, their matchup won’t even have that to hang their hat on.