Another week closer to the end of the season, and many of the great teams in the league continue to separate themselves from the pack, while late-season surprises (see: Seattle, Washington) are making some noise. With three weeks left in the regular season, here’s where the teams stand in the MSR’s latest NFL Power Rankings:
1. New England Patriots (10-3) – Last Week: 1
For a Patriots team to hand the Texans only their second loss in emphatic fashion is impressive by any stretch. The way they have been playing lately, it’s hard to believe that any team can slow them down. QB Tom Brady put on yet another offensive show on Monday night, with nearly 300 yards and 4 passing TDs – two to TE Aaron Hernandez as they continue without injured weapon Rob Gronkowski. Will they continue to roll when the 49ers come to town?
2. Denver Broncos (10-3) – Last Week: 3
Another week, another relatively easy win for the Broncos under Peyton Manning. Then again, when the ten opponents Denver has beaten thus far have a combined record of 39-65, it’s bound to be relatively easy. Though, despite another 300-yard performance by Manning, and RB Knowshon Moreno’s first 100-yard day this season (32 carries, 119 yds), they were not satisfied with their play – which is exactly what you would expect for a squad that, as the playoffs approach, are playing in “Super Bowl or Bust” mode.
3. Green Bay Packers (9-4) – Last Week: 6
Despite a 14-0 deficit in the second quarter against rival Detroit, the Packers relied on timely defensive plays (43-yd fumble return TD by DE Mike Daniels) and an uncharacteristically solid running game (140 total rushing yards, 2 TDs) to put themselves in position to win the NFC North next week against Chicago. Don’t expect another so-so game from QB Aaron Rodgers (173 pass yds, 0 TDs) with the division on the line.
4. Atlanta Falcons (11-2) – Last Week: 2
For a team that had been rolling to be halted by a 9-loss team like the Panthers, it was anything but expected – maybe it was that they had already clinched the division, and gotten complacent, or that the “Any Given Sunday” rule applied, and ran into a motivated division rival. In any case, the ATL was dominated on the ground, allowing 195 rushing yards in the loss. And with an equally motivated Giants team that thrive in “backs-against-the-wall” situations, they better be careful that they don’t lose their edge on home-field advantage.
5. Indianapolis Colts (9-4) – Last Week: 5
You have to hand it to rookie QB Andrew Luck, who helped the Colts came back from a 13-point deficit to beat the Titans on Sunday. Granted, his stat line wasn’t impressive by any means (196 yds, 1 TD, 2 INTs), and a Cassius Vaughn INT return for a TD was key in the comeback, but his leadership still accounted for the win. With their league-high eighth one-possession win, it could be indicative going forward, as to whether they will be successful – perhaps in the postseason.
6. Seattle Seahawks (8-5) – Last Week: 8
Tough to say whether the Seahawks have all of a sudden gotten that good, or the Cardinals are really that bad – in any case, Seattle blew out Arizona at home for their second win in a row, and for the fourth-largest shutout win in the NFL since 1940. In any case, RB Marshawn Lynch truly went Beast Mode (128 yards, 3 TDs), while the defense contributed with two defensive TDs (fumble recovery; interception return). Buffalo better be careful, or the same fate may befall them.
7. San Francisco 49ers (9-3-1) – Last Week: 7
In a game that they needed, the 49ers went back to a heavy dose of a running game (155 total rushing yards, 3 TDs) and defense (DE Aldon Smith: 2 sacks to break franchise record at 19.5) to stave off the Dolphins. RB Frank Gore reached 1,000 yards for the sixth time in his career, in the process, and put themselves back in a prime position for a first-round bye. Up next, however, is a daunting challenge: the Patriots at Foxborough, in which they haven’t lost in December for nearly a decade.
8. Houston Texans (11-2) – Last Week: 4
The only explanation for a Texans team on a six-game winning streak to lay an egg vs. the Pats was that they were playing in New England, against an even hotter Patriots team. The lone bright spot came with RB Arian Foster’s TD run in the third quarter. Now, with two of their next three games against division rival Indianapolis, they will need to get back to what got them to this position in the first place – a balanced attack and a swarming defensive line led by J.J. Watt.
9. New York Giants (8-5) – Last Week: 12
After a disappointing loss to Washington, the Giants needed a bounce-back game – and they got one with the Saints, scoring a season-high 52 points against New Orleans’ struggling defensive backfield. QB Eli Manning’s 4 TDs (despite his 2 INTs) were just what the team needed to propel them forward to another possible playoff spot. RB David Wilson’s 3 total TDs (2 rush, 1 receiving) and special-teams play aided their blowout win – aid they will need against Atlanta next week.
10. Washington Redskins (7-6) – Last Week: 16
The good news for the Redskins? They kept themselves in the playoff hunt, getting themselves above .500 in a much-needed win over the Ravens. The bad news? Look no further than RGIII’s knee injury, which the team isn’t calling serious at this time. However, with the Browns coming up next week, they may be able to afford starting backup Kirk Cousins. Coupled with RB Alfred Morris’ three straight 100-yard games, there’s no reason to rush Griffin out just yet.
11. Dallas Cowboys (7-6) – Last Week: 15
Down 9 in the fourth quarter and staring virtual playoff elimination in the face, you have to hand it to the ‘Boys for keeping their poise, especially with the tragic death of LB Jerry Brown (and subsequent charge of DL Josh Brent for his death) fresh in their minds. They kept the Bengals scoreless, and a TD pass from Tony Romo to Dez Bryant – along with a last-second Dan Bailey FG with no time left – kept them in the NFC East race. With heavy hearts, they must continue on to a playoff push vs. Pittsburgh.
12. Baltimore Ravens (9-4) – Last Week: 9
With their second straight loss in the books, and the Broncos coming up, it isn’t the best time in the world to be slumping, especially for a team that was thought to be one of the best in the league in Week 12. Allowing 179 yards on the ground – the majority to a rookie running back in Alfred Morris – can’t be good, either. Perhaps they can lean on workhorse RB Ray Rice, if they expect to stop the bleeding against a team that won eight straight games.
13. Chicago Bears (8-5) – Last Week: 10
Uh-oh. In a divisional game they really could have used in their playoff push, they failed to stop Vikings RB Adrian Peterson on the ground, and were particularly sloppy (10 penalties for 80 yards) in a disappointing loss in Minnesota. Adding injury to insult: QB Jay Cutler went down with a neck injury, leaving the Bears potentially without their franchise signal-caller for the stretch run. Having lost 4 of 5 games since starting 7-1, and with streaking Green Bay coming up, things aren’t looking too good in Chi-town.
14. Cincinnati Bengals (6-7) – Last Week: 13
For a team that needed a win to stay above .500 and keep their playoff hopes alive, they could not hold the Cowboys down in the final minutes with a 9-point lead in the fourth quarter. Then again, it’s always difficult playing a team dealing with tragedy, as the Bengals were forced to do on Sunday. In any case, the team will now have to win out in order to give themselves a shot at the postseason.
15. Pittsburgh Steelers (7-6) – Last Week: 11
Despite QB Ben Roethlisberger’s impressive return (245 pass yds, 3 TDs), and WR Mike Wallace’s 2 TDs, they simply could not overcome a 24-point deficit in the fourth quarter. The defense was essentially punched in the mouth – while winning the total yards battle (340 to 294), the Steelers were annihilated on time of possession (23:14 to 36:46). A running game where the leading rusher (RB Jonathan Dwyer) gains only 32 yards isn’t going to help things, either. With their season on the brink, they must win in Dallas next week.
16. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-7) – Last Week: 14
In a game they needed to tread water in the NFC playoff race, they came back from a 10-point halftime deficit to take the lead by 11, on the back of RB Doug Martin (128 rush yds, 1 TD) and the arm of QB Josh Freeman (189 pass yds, 2 TD). Then, the darnedest thing happened: they let the game slip away to a team that was on an 8-game losing streak, for the Bucs’ third straight loss. Can they pick up the pieces against a Saints team that had just suffered a huge blow of their own to their playoff hopes?
17. St. Louis Rams (6-6-1) – Last Week: 17
Coming off their win against division-leading San Francisco, the Rams needed a last-minute TD pass from QB Sam Bradford to beat the Bills in Buffalo. That’s an impressive three straight wins for a team that is surprisingly still in the playoff chase. One of the reasons could be their defense, who forced two turnovers in the win, including a last-second INT by LB Jo-Lonn Dunbar to seal it. They now have a showdown with Minnesota on the horizon, that could decide which team will be heading to the playoffs.
18. Minnesota Vikings (7-6) – Last Week: 20
Another week, another stellar performance from RB Adrian Peterson (154 yards, 2 TDs). Despite another awful outing by QB Christian Ponder (91 passing yds, 0 TDs, 1 INT), the Vikings got a defensive score from S Harrison Smith to help seal a much-needed victory against the Bears. Just over .500 with three games remaining, Minnesota is literally riding on Peterson’s back to keep their postseason hopes alive. Now, on to streaky St. Louis, who have won three straight.
19. Miami Dolphins (5-8) – Last Week: 19
It was a daunting task for a young, struggling team to walk into San Francisco for a victory – especially the way the 49ers have been performing on defense. Their solid rushing attack could not hit the century mark (94 total rushing yards), and they could not stop their opponent on the ground, allowing three rushing TDs. Now, with a playoff berth all but shot, they still have a shot at a .500 season, starting with a home meeting with the Jaguars.
20. New Orleans Saints (5-8) – Last Week: 18
Whatever slim postseason hopes the Saints may have had were stamped out by the defending Super Bowl champs on Sunday. QB Drew Brees threw 2 INTs despite another 300-yard performance through the air (354 yds), and RB Darren Sproles had a good performance in the blowout loss. With that, however, the Saints received some good news: former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue overturned player suspensions levied as a result of Bountygate. Better late than never, huh?
21. Cleveland Browns (5-8) – Last Week: 22
While they gave up an early TD run to the Chiefs in the first quarter, Cleveland managed to hold them scoreless for the rest of the game, and score 30 points in the process. It was a record day for RB Trent Richardson, who, with 2 TD runs, tied the great Jim Brown for most rookie TDs (9) in franchise history. They were further aided by rookie WR Travis Benjamin’s 93-yard return TD early in the second quarter. With three straight wins, can the “tired of losing” Browns keep it going vs. the Redskins?
22. San Diego Chargers (5-8) – Last Week: 24
What a way to snap a four-game losing streak – punching the Steelers in the mouth on offense for a 24-point lead in the fourth quarter. QB Philip Rivers had flashes of his early career, with a 200-yard, 3-score game. WR Danario Alexander caught two of those TD passes to go along with 88 yards receiving to help snap the Chargers’ four-game losing streak. With their final three games vs. Carolina (4-9), the Jets (6-7), and Oakland (3-10), they have a good shot of getting to .500 by season’s end.
23. New York Jets (6-7) – Last Week: 25
While the Jets kept themselves grounded, it was the perfect gameplan in their win over the Jaguars. RBs Shonn Greene and Bilal Powell each had a TD run while the defense kept the stagnant Jacksonville offense at bay, in order to keep their slim playoff hopes alive. QB Tim Tebow, however, continued to be unused, despite the optimum gameplan for his talents, and doesn’t look to be used in a significant role for the rest of the season. That may prove faulty in their Monday night game vs. Tennessee next week.
24. Buffalo Bills (5-8) – Last Week: 21
For a team to lose the lead in the final minutes at home once must be frustrating for the Bills (34-35 loss vs. TEN, Week 7) – but they did it again against the Rams on Sunday, allowing the game-winning score with 48 seconds left in the game. RB Fred Jackson’s apparent leg injury in-game obviously didn’t help their cause. Now having unable to score over 20 points on offense since November 11, they are now forced to face a Seattle offense that just annihilated the Cardinals for 58 points.
25. Detroit Lions (4-9) – Last Week: 23
While they held Packers QB Aaron Rodgers scoreless, and got another 100-yard performance from WR Calvin Johnson (10 receptions for 118 yards), the Lions could not avoid their fifth straight loss. On the bright side, they face an Arizona team next week, that had just been annihilated. Plus, they have a good outlook on the defensive line, as rookie DT Nick Fairley recorded his sixth sack of the season. Unfortunately, touted DE Ndamukong Suh reportedly was ripped, anonymously, by a teammate. Dysfunctional much?
26. Carolina Panthers (4-9) – Last Week: 31
You have to give it up to the Panthers and QB Cam Newton, who gave the first-place Falcons a rude welcome into Carolina, and only their second loss of the season. Newton’s 287 yards passing and 2 TDs (with 0 INTs) were perhaps his best winning stats of the season, but his running game (116 rush yds, 1 TD) were key to controlling the clock (35:47 in time of possession) and getting the victory over their division rivals. With their second win in three games, can this be a turning point in the Panthers’ season?
27. Philadelphia Eagles (4-9) – Last Week: 28
Congratulations to the Eagles for finally ending their eight-game losing streak – and they needed a last-second TD pass from QB Nick Foles to do it. For all intents and purposes, they could have easily lost their ninth straight, down 11 with a little over eight minutes left in the game. Luckily, Foles (381 yds passing, 2 TDs; 1 rush TD) set a rookie franchise record for completions in the win. For a franchise looking at big changes in 2013, perhaps they may have their QB in Foles.
28. Tennessee Titans (4-9) – Last Week: 27
While QB Jake Locker outdueled his counterpart on the Colts (262 yds, 1 TD, 2 INTs) – though, not by much – the Titans could not avoid their third straight loss. It probably had to do with the fact that they could not answer to Indy’s comeback in the second half (outscored 20-3), and they were mistake-prone (9 penalties for 70 yards) against their division rivals. With nothing left to play for but pride, they will need to show up against the flailing Jets next Monday night.
29. Arizona Cardinals (4-9) – Last Week: 26
You would think that a loss to the struggling Jets last week would have been the Cardinals’ low point of the season. A trip to Qwest Field to face the Seahawks, however, emphatically disproved that theory. It doesn’t get much worse than a team allowing nearly 500 yards of offense and 58 points while getting shut out. Nothing went right for Arizona on Sunday, but perhaps one final saving grace – that is, a chance at a victory – could come next week, with the struggling Lions coming to town.
30. Oakland Raiders (3-10) – Last Week: 30
While the headlines focused on the Broncos’ current winning streak and QB Peyton Manning, the Raiders were unceremoniously sent to their sixth straight loss. QB Carson Palmer technically outplayed Manning in the loss (273 pass yds, 2 TDs, 1 INT), while WR Rod Streater was the only receiver to crack the century mark (4 rec, 100 yds). But getting pummeled in total yards (428 to 324) and time of possession (37:19 to 22:41) is rarely ever a formula for winning. A respite may be coming, however, in the form of two-win KC.
31. Kansas City Chiefs (2-11) – Last Week: 29
Another game that started well for the Chiefs – an 80-yard TD run by RB Jamaal Charles contributed to a 165-yard day. Unfortunately, losing WR Dwayne Bowe early in the second half left the offense without a main target, and essentially without a chance of scoring again. With three games left, it’s only possible that their next matchup against the Raiders is the only feasible win on their schedule left – the Colts and Broncos loom at the end of the season.
32. Jacksonville Jaguars (2-11) – Last Week: 32
Other than a Montell Owens TD catch late in the fourth quarter in Sunday’s game vs. the Jets, the Jaguars couldn’t do much against a struggling New York defense. QB Chad Henne may have out-thrown counterpart Mark Sanchez, utilizing targets like Justin Blackmon and Jordan Shipley, but threw the game-clinching INT in the final seconds. It’s been a long season for the Jags, and it doesn’t look like it will be any easier, with games vs. Miami and New England on the horizon.