Who’s your pick?With the NFL rolling into its last month of the season, it’s about time to roll out our first NFL Power Rankings. With no truly elite teams rising above the others, there seem to be four teams with a legit shot at saying they should hoist the Lombardi Trophy, with five or six other teams nipping at their heels with the ability to make a legit run at the Super Bowl too. December will be about jockeying for playoff byes, figuring out the last playoff spots in the AFC and NFC, and watching to see if any team can create separation or show why they should be the favorite heading into the playoffs. Teams that were left on the outside looking in were the New York Jets, the surging Houston Texans, the Indianapolis Colts, Atlanta Falcons, and whatever team emerges from the abomination of the NFC East. Without further ado, let’s dive into the rankings.
#10 Green Bay Packers
In at the 10 spot is the Green Bay Packers, a team that has hit a lull going 1-4 in their last five games, as their offense has regressed and the defense has not been able to pick up the tremendous slack brought about by the offense.
As it currently stands, the Packers are not playing like a team that can seriously threaten for the Super Bowl, despite having the best quarterback alive when he’s rolling. This is an offense in disarray right now, one built on the talents of generational arm throwing to a receiver who can’t seem to create any separation from their defenders.
It doesn’t help that Aaron Rodgers has not been as accurate as he was in years past, therefore not being able to make up for his subpar receiver.
The defense has finally started to turn a corner, displaying some very good performances holding three straight opponents under 20 points. If they can keep up this run going, which is not a given, it should buy time for the offense and Rodgers to start playing better come playoff time.
The road to get on track starts Thursday night in Detroit, as they look to avenge a loss against the surging Lions. A loss here and true panic may start to set in the CheeseHead Nation.
#9 Minnesota Vikings
The Packers’ NFC North brethren roll in next, as the Minnesota Vikings have been coming into their own in head coach Mike Zimmer’s second season with the team. They have been riding a very old school approach, ride the workhorse in Adrian Peterson, letting their quarterback make some plays but never really be able to put the team in a bad situation and have an improving defense slowly constrict the other team’s offense as the game goes along
Adrian Peterson is back to his normal dominant self, and as it stands now, he is the only non quarterback offensive player who can drag his team into the playoffs. The Vikings aren’t as Peterson-dependent as three years ago when they rode a 2,000-yard season from the back to the playoffs, as Teddy Bridgewater is capable of making some plays.
Alex Smith and the defense led by defensive tackle Linval Joseph and linebacker Anthony Barr is playing better and better as the season progresses. The next five weeks will show us if the Vikings are real or just a psuedo-playoff team that rode a hot streak into playoff position. First up, home against Seattle on Sunday.
#8 Pittsburgh Steelers
The Pittsburgh Steelers are fully entrenched as an offensive-led team, with two of the top five players at their position in quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and wide receiver Antonio Brown. Week in and week out, the Steelers ride or die with the performance of these two and more often than not, they have delivered for their team.
However, as seen in last weeks loss against the Seattle Seahawks, the defense is sometimes incapable of cashing in on the exploits of their two stars on offense. They have been plauged by missed tackles and general lack of playmakers who can rise above and come up with a momentum-turning play that allows their offense to capitalize.
As the Steelers roll into December, they are going to have to rely on their two stars and the surprising D’Angelo Williams, who has stepped in admirably for the injured Le’Veon Bell and allowed the Steelers to continue rolling running the football.
The Steelers roll into the last month of the season with three straight games against current playoff team, before closing up what should be a few easier games against the lesser lights of the AFC North. If the Steelers defense can perk up and play a little more opportunistically, they have a chance to really make some noise in the playoffs.
#7 Kansas City Chiefs
The surging Kansas City Chiefs have looked like one of the best team in football over the last five weeks, riding a five-game win streak with four double-digit wins. They are playing boa constrictor defense while riding an interception-less streak by quarterback Alex Smith who is also supplying them with some shocking throws that travel over 15 yards.
Between Justin Houston, Derrick Johnson, Dontari Poe, and Eric Berry, the Chiefs have a defense that can carry them into the playoffs and all the way to the Super Bowl, provided everything breaks right for the offense. If they continue this trend of playing fabulously balanced, great defense, this team is going to be scary come playoff time.
Offensively, the Chiefs need to need to find a running game that has somewhat died since Jamaal Charles got injured because Alex Smith needs a running game to truly thrive and open up his play action passing game.
What has helped Smith so much this year is the play of receiver Jeremy Maclin and tight end Travis Kelce, giving the notoriously risk-averse Smith a pair of targets capable of taking Smith’s highly accurate throws and turning them into big plays. The Chiefs have a very soft schedule to close the year, meaning they should close with four or five wins and the top AFC wild card team.
#6 Seattle Seahawks
The two-time defending NFC Champs are lurking, playing somewhat erratically this season, but with a big win against the Steelers last week to stay above .500, they are sitting as the second wild card team in the NFC, just looking for a shot to defend their crown.
The defense is down this year from its three-year run of utter domination, but they are still a top 10 outfit with loads of playmakers among each tier who can win a playoff game themselves. Offensively, they seem to have found a running back in Thomas Rawls, who is more than capable of taking over for the injured Marshawn Lynch and Russell Wilson has that special ability to catch fire and rip the heart out of the opponent.
With Jimmy Graham now out for the season with a torn patella, the onus will be on Wilson even more to carry a game that features an offensive line that looks like it forgets to block sometimes and a receiving core that is steady, but not above average.
If the Seahawks want to get to their third Super Bowl in three years, they will have to ride a defense that needs to batten down the hatches and come close to the heights they were previously at. They don’t have a daunting schedule, and if everything breaks right, they could set up a winner take all for the NFC West title in week 17.
#5 Denver Broncos
After a comeback win against the previously undefeated New England Patriots last Sunday night, there is a murmur that Brock Osweiler should remain the starter even when Peyton Manning comes back from injury.
You won’t get any complaint from me, as Peyton has just not been good this year and if you bring a guy back who has played that bad, I’m not sure you can expect to win when the weather starts to get colder. Osweiler, while he has not been spectacular by any means, has been able to move the offense more effectively, and, even more importantly, hold onto the football.
The shakiness at the quarterback position is somewhat muted because the Broncos have one of, if not the top defense, in the league. They have the best pair of cornerbacks in Chris Harris Jr. and Aqib Talib, and one of the best linebackers in Von Miller.
If they can get DeMarcus Ware back and playing close to his early season level, this is another defense that has the ability to lead their team to the big game. They have a tough back-to-back stretch coming up on the road at Pittsburg followed by a Monday night home game against the Bengals, which will no doubt be the determining games for one of the two AFC byes. Win one and it better be vs the Bengals, win both and they should have a week off in January.
#4 Cincinnati Bengals
After a tough two-game stretch in mid-November, the Bengals are looking to close the season strong and secure their first playoff bye of the Marvin Lewis era. This is one of the most well-rounded teams in the league.
The Bengals boast an offense that has weapons oozing from every position, offensive line included, and a defense that sits squarely in the top 10, sporting one of the top players in the league in defensive tackle Geno Atkins. For a team at the Bengals’ stage however, the regular season is a mere formality because all anyone cares about is if this regular season success will finally transfer into playoff victories.
The Bengals still have games left vs the aforementioned Steelers and Broncos, games they have to win so they can enjoy an extra week of preparation and rest in January.
The Bengals’ remaining three games are against some of the weaker teams in the league (Ravens, Browns, 49ers), but they must take care of these games handily to keep instilling confidence in their fan base and the rest of the league’s fans. Andy Dalton and how he handles a pass rush will be the ultimate deciding factor in how far the Bengals go this year.
#3 Carolina Panthers
Blasphemy! I don’t have the only undefeated team in the league as number one in my rankings! As I look at it right now, you can put the last three teams in any order and you wouldn’t be wrong.
Remember when I said that there hasn’t been a team or two which has separated itself from the field, well this manifests it right here. The Panthers have played one of the easiest schedules in the league, doing their cross-divisional matchups with the AFC South and the NFC East, the two worst divisions in football.
Now you can never take away a team’s undefeated record, but you must be able to look at it critically and see that all records are not created equal.
The Panthers have been slowly dominating more and more games, through great play, both running and passing, by Cam Newtown, a dominating run game that can puncture a defense in multiple ways, and a defense that features some of the top players in the league.
Cornerback Josh Morgan is the best cover man in the league, linebackers Luke Kuechley and Thomas Davis form the best 1-2 punch since Patrick Willis and Novarro Bowman, and the defensive line is deep, big, and athletic.
This is a monster that seems to be building steam as the season goes on, and if they can manage to win out, very possible, they would undoubtedly go into the playoffs as the number one favorite to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.
#2 New England Patriots
The Patriots aren’t dropping so much for their loss, a tough one, in bad weather, against a top five team, as much as all the injuries that the Patriots have faced in the last month or so leaves us wondering what they are going to look like if and when they get to full strength.
If they get everyone back and rolling at 100%, they are, in my eyes, the best team in the league with the best coach, but getting everyone back healthy and rolling at the start of the playoffs is no easy task. All this is possible because Rob Gronkowski was able to escape a scary hit last week with nothing more than a bone bruise, because with no Gronk, there is no chance for Super Bowl.
The Patriots are still in the driver’s seat for the number one seed in the AFC, but they do have two tough games coming up, first on the road in two weeks against a Houston Texans defense that is playing awesome right now, and then, two weeks later on the road vs the New York Jets.
Get past these two and they should be good to go heading into week 17 to rest their key guys vs the Miami Dolphins and absorb a loss. But they must find a way to move the football and stop the run through this run, as they watch top players seemingly drop off every week.
#1 Arizona Cardinals
My top team is the Arizona Cardinals, an outfit that has a treasure chest of playmakers on offense and defense. They have an MVP candidate at quarterback, Carson Palmer, and a defensive player of the year candidate in defensive back Tyrann Mathieu, and those are just two of the studs they trot out every game.
Patrick Peterson is playing like a top cornerback after being diagnosed with diabetes in the offseason, which allowed him to get his weight under control. The wide receivers led by the ageless Larry Fitzgerald are enjoying life in head coach Bruce Arian’s high-flying offense, and the rest of the defense has fast, smart players that execute the Cardinals aggressive game plan perfectly.
The Cardinals have a very tough end of the year, taking on a St. Louis Rams team on the road this week that always give them trouble, followed by home matchups with fellow top 10 teams, Minnesota Vikings, Green Bay Packers, and Seattle Seahawks.
If the Cardinals want to prove my number one ranking and head into the playoffs with a bye, the number one seed is going to be tough to get, they are going to have to knock off the Vikings and most likely go 3-1 in their other four games. Do this, and they will stay neck-and-neck with the Panthers as the top contender for the NFC’s spot in the Super Bowl.