1. Houston Texans (11-1)
Last week: 1
This may be the last week the Texans hold the top spot as their banged-up secondary, which lost Brice McCain to a foot injury on Sunday, travels to face the Patriots next Monday night. That said, the Texans have managed to overcome injuries and find ways to win in close road games against the Broncos, Bears and Lions.
2. Atlanta Falcons (11-1)
Last week: 2
One week after limiting Buccaneers first-round running back Doug Martin to 50 yards on 21 carries, the Falcons defense intercepted Drew Brees five times in a 23-13 win that allowed them to clinch the NFC South when the Buccaneers lost to the Broncos on Sunday. It may not be a coincidence that the defense is coming together just as Sean Weatherspoon returned from an ankle injury. The Falcons can clinch a first-round bye in the NFC with a win over the Panthers and a combination of losses and/or ties from the Bears, Packers and 49ers.
3. New England Patriots (9-3)
Last week: 3
They may not have lit up the scoreboard at Sun Life Stadium, but going on the road and doing just enough to win is all that matters in December. New England is the No.1-ranked team in Football Outsiders total DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) metric and have the ninth-highest offensive DVOA since 1991.
4. Denver Broncos (9-3)
Last week: 5
Ah, that's better. After scoring just 17 points in a win over the Chiefs in Week 12, the Broncos scored 31 points in last week's win over the Buccaneers. With four games remaining on the schedule, the Broncos have scored 349 points this season, one more point than the 2011 Broncos scored in 18 regular and postseason games.
5. San Francisco 49ers (8-3-1)
Last week: 4
Three-quarters of the way through the 2012 season, the 49ers rank in the Top 3 in Football Outsiders' offensive and defensive DVOA and are likely going to win the NFC West. If they have to go on the road at any point in the postseason, though, they'll sure lament the 149 minutes and 34 seconds they spent this season battling the Rams to an 0-1-1 record.
6. Green Bay Packers (8-4)
Last week: 8
Greg Jennings finally returns after missing half the season with a groin injury, and Jordy Nelson goes down with a hamstring. The offensive line is already playing without recent first-round picks Bryan Bulaga and Derek Sherrod when fill-in right tackle T.J. Lang went down with an ankle injury. Undrafted rookie Don Barclay stepped in and played well, providing yet another example of the ridiculous depth Ted Thompson has assembled.
7. Baltimore Ravens (9-3)
Last week: 6
Is it time to panic in Baltimore? The Ravens weren't winning convincingly until their 55-20 thumping of the Raiders in Week 10. Since then, the Ravens beat a mostly Roethlisberger-less Steelers by just three points and needed a miraculous fourth-and-29 conversion (and help from a bad spot and a block of questionable legality from Anquan Boldin on Eric Weddle) to get by the reeling Chargers before losing to a Charlie Batch-led Steelers team at home last Sunday. Baltimore's schedule doesn't get much easier with the Redskins, Broncos, Giants and Bengals on the docket.
8. Seattle Seahawks (7-5)
Last week: 10
If the Seahawks were wondering what their secondary would look like without Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner, they got a pretty good glimpse in last Sunday's 23-17 overtime win over the Bears as Brandon Marshall had a 10-catch, 165-yard performance against the pair of likely-to-be suspended cornerbacks. Fortunately, the Seahawks have Russell Wilson, who appears fully capable of putting the team on his back and getting them into the playoffs.
9. New York Giants (7-5)
Last week: 7
Remember when the Giants were 6-2 and cruising to an NFC East title? Neither do we. Losing three of their last four has allowed both the Redskins and Cowboys to creep back into the divisional race just as the schedule stiffens with games against the Saints, Falcons and Ravens.
10. Chicago Bears (8-4)
Last week: 9
An already banged up defense got more bad news on Tuesday when an MRI revealed that middle linebacker Brian Urlacher has a "Grade 2" strain of his right hamstring that could sideline him for the remainder of the 2012 regular season, which could be his last in Chicago as he'll be an unrestricted free agent in 2013.
11. Indianapolis Colts (8-4)
Last week: 12
The Colts have a long ways to go in their rebuild, particularly with a defense that ranks 31st in Football Outsiders' DVOA metric, but there's little doubt that the future is very bright with Andrew Luck, who shook off another three-interception performance to drive the offense into the end zone for an eighth win on the season. In even better news, head coach Chuck Pagano has completed his final round of chemotherapy and could rejoin the team for the regular-season finale on Dec. 30.
12. Washington Redskins (6-6)
Last week: 14
Thanks to a pair of rookies — quarterback Robert Griffin and running back Alfred Morris — the Redskins offense ranks seventh in Football Outsiders' DVOA metric and has put the team within striking distance of the NFC East title or a spot in the NFC playoffs entering the final quarter of the regular season. Griffin is third in the NFL in passer rating (104.4) and is 21st in the NFL with 714 rushing yards. Morris is tied for third in the NFL with 1,106 rushing yards.
13. Cincinnati Bengals (7-5)
Last week: 16
The Bengals are one of the hottest teams in the NFL as the defense is allowing 297.3 yards and 10.5 points per game during a four-game winning streak that has them in the hunt for a spot in the AFC playoffs. Running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis has sprung to life, too, with the free-agent addition last offseason running for 348 yards and two touchdowns over the last three games.
14. Pittsburgh Steelers (7-5)
Last week: 15
After steering the Steelers to a 23-20 win over the Ravens on Sunday, 37-year-old quarterback Charlie Batch used the term "we" 15 times in a very brief on-field interview. With three of their last four regular-season games at Heinz Field, the Steelers should be playing in January, provided they can keep Ben Roethlisberger upright.
15. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-6)
Last week: 11
The Buccaneers' playoff hopes have taken a hit with back-to-back losses to the Falcons and Broncos, but Greg Schiano's squad is not completely out of it. Road games against the Saints and Falcons in the final four weeks could sink the Bucs' ship, but home games against the Eagles and Rams make .500 a realistic possibility, which would be a solid turnaround from a season ago and a remarkable record for a team that has $35.5 million of its payroll currently on injured reserve, with another $7.25 million on the "Reserve/Suspended" list.
16. Dallas Cowboys (6-6)
Last week: 18
Like the Redskins, the Cowboys are in position to make a run at the NFC East title or a wild-card playoff spot. After struggling with the struggling Eagles on Sunday night, it's hard to get too excited about this team when it has to face the Bengals, Steelers, Saints and RGIII and the Redskins to make it to the postseason.
17. New Orleans Saints (5-7)
Last week: 13
A defense that ranks 30th in Football Outsiders' defensive DVOA entering Week 14 is the biggest culprit for why the Saints are unlikely to make the playoffs this season, but Drew Brees deserves a large share of the blame for the last two losses. Over the last two weeks, the defense has held the 49ers and Falcons to under 400 yards of total offense, but seven interceptions by Drew Brees has led to back-to-back losses after the team had miraculously clawed back to .500.
18. Minnesota Vikings (6-6)
Last week: 17
Christian Ponder has four games to restore confidence in the Vikings' front office that he is their long-term option at the quarterback position. The Vikings' next four opponents — the Bears, Texans, Rams and Packers — rank in the Top 11 in Football Outsiders' pass defense DVOA metric through 12 games this season and Percy Harvin is coming back from a torn ligament in his left ankle.
19. St. Louis Rams (5-6-1)
Last week: 21
Kudos to Jeff Fisher & Co. for proving that their 24-24 tie with the 49ers in Week 10 was no aberration by upsetting the 49ers with a 16-13 overtime win on Sunday. There is still much work to be done in the rebuilding process, but the Rams are armed with draft picks, have a smart GM in Les Snead, who will use those picks to put this team in contention for the playoffs real soon.
20. Buffalo Bills (5-7)
Last week: 23
The Bills have won two of their last three and have a favorable schedule to close out the season. Buffalo will host the Rams in Buffalo and the Seahawks in Toronto before wrapping up the season against the Dolphins (in Miami) and at home against the Jets; 9-7 is possible.
21. Detroit Lions (4-8)
Last week: 19
The Lions can put up points — their offense ranks eighth in Football Outsiders' DVOA metric — just not enough to compensate for a defense that has given up an average of 420 yards and 30 points per game during their current four-game losing skid.
22. Miami Dolphins (5-7)
Last week: 20
First-round quarterback Ryan Tannehill has appeared to hit the rookie wall. Over his last four games, Tannehill has completed 68 of 122 pass attempts for 797 yards with two touchdowns and six interceptions for a passer rating of 60.7. Those numbers would be even worse had a red zone interception against the Seahawks wasn't negated by a roughing the passer penalty.
23. San Diego Chargers (4-8)
Last week: 22
The Chargers have lost eight of their last 10 games and could play the toughest game remaining on their schedule — at the Steelers — without three-fifths of their current starting offensive line as undrafted rookie left tackle Mike Harris (ankle), left guard Tyronne Green (hamstring) and right tackle Jeromey Clary (knee) are questionable as the team returns to practice on Wednesday.
24. Cleveland Browns (4-8)
Last week: 26
After an 0-5 start, the Browns have won four of their last seven games. That may not be enough to save the jobs of head coach Pat Shurmur and GM Tom Heckert, but the organization will feel the imprint those two men have left on a franchise as running back Trent Richardson (95.8 yards per game with three touchdowns and 20 receptions the last five games), wide receiver Josh Gordon (third in the NFL with a 19.0-yard per catch average) and right tackle Mitchell Schwartz develop after solid rookie seasons.
25. New York Jets (5-7)
Last week: 25
Three days after pulling Mark Sanchez, head coach Rex Ryan has named Sanchez the starter for this Sunday's game against the Jaguars. Wednesday's announcement should not come as too much of a surprise since I'm not so sure Sanchez would have been benched had Tim Tebow been healthy enough to dress for Sunday's 7-6 win over the Cardinals.
26. Arizona Cardinals (4-8)
Last week: 24
Speaking of quarterback quagmires, the Cardinals are wasting yet another season of Larry Fitzgerald's career and a spectacular defensive effort by putting Kevin Kolb, John Skelton and Ryan Lindley under center this season. Ray Horton's defense ranks fourth in Football Outsiders' DVOA, have snared the second-most interceptions (18) in the league and have sacked opposing quarterbacks 33 times. Yet, this team has lost eight straight games and could easily pull a "2011 Buccaneers" by losing out. Horton will get looks as a head coach this offseason and we wouldn't be surprised if the Bidwell family replaced the the Rod Graves/Ken Whisenhunt duo with Horton and Jason Licht, a former Patriots personnel executive who interviewed for GM opportunities in 2012 before joining the Cardinals' front office after the 2012 NFL draft.
27. Tennessee Titans (4-8)
Last week: 27
Back-to-back losses coming out of the bye has the Titans focused on developing Jake Locker over the final four games of the regular season. Though it's fair to wonder how effective Locker can be playing behind an offensive line with three starters — David Stewart, Eugene Amano and Leroy Harris — on injured reserve and the two remaining linemen — Michael Roos, Steve Hutchinson — battling knee injuries.
28. Carolina Panthers (3-9)
Last week: 28
Losing four of their six games since the firing of GM Marty Hurney may ultimately seal Ron Rivera's fate as the Panthers have been officially eliminated from postseason play and are now focused on playing their younger players. It's worth noting that, according to Football Outsiders, the Panthers' offense and defense is in the middle of the pack in terms of FO's DVOA metric, but rank dead last on special teams, the area Hurney had focused his attention on improving last offseason.
29. Jacksonville Jaguars (2-10)
Last week: 29
Chad Henne crashed back to Earth in last Sunday's 34-18 loss to the Bills. After posting solid numbers in an overtime loss to the Texans, and an upset win over the Titans, Henne completed just 43.9 percent of 41 pass attempts for 208 yards for a passer rating of 57.8 against the Bills.
30. Philadelphia Eagles (3-9)
Last week: 30
It's far too early to know if Nick Foles is going to be a viable long-term option at quarterback, but one positive development from this calamitous season is that the Eagles discovered they have a solid No. 2 running back in Bryce Brown. The seventh-round pick out of Kansas State has rushed for 347 yards and a team-high four touchdowns in two games in place of LeSean McCoy, who has been sidelined by a concussion.
31. Kansas City Chiefs (2-10)
Last week: 32
The Chiefs showed remarkable character in overcoming the tragic events of last Saturday to get their second win of the season on Sunday. If quarterback Brady Quinn's efficient performance — 19 of 23 for 201 yards and two touchdowns against the Panthers — continues, he could earn himself a multi-year contract and an opportunity to compete for the starting job in 2013.
32. Oakland Raiders (3-9)
Last week: 31
A fifth straight loss, in which they allowed nearly 500 yards of total offense, at home, to a three-win Browns team, makes the Raiders worthy of the final spot in the power rankings. The Raiders remain the only team in the NFL to rank 30th or below in Football Outsiders' DVOA in two of the three phases of the game.
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