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NFL Power Rankings, Week 16: Patriots take control of AFC

12.20.11 at 10:12 am ET
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A wild Week 15 in the NFL concluded with many underdogs on top. The Chiefs knocked off the Packers; the Chargers clobbered the Ravens; the Redskins upset the Giants; and the Colts prevailed over the Titans, all proving how unpredictable the NFL is with each given week. The most surprising outcome was the Chiefs victory over the Packers. Aaron Rodgers and the defending champs saw their quest for a perfect season go up in smoke. The Pack had rattled off 19 straight wins before falling to Kansas City.

The race for the No. 1 seed in the AFC took a dramatic turn as the Texans, Ravens and Steelers all fell. The Patriots now boast the best record in the AFC and are classified as the best team in the conference in the WEEI NFL Power Rankings. Tom Brady and the Pats now have sole control of home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

AFC Playoff picture: Patriots, Ravens, Steelers, Texans have all clinched.

NFC Playoff picture: Packers, Saints, 49ers have all clinched. The Lions and Falcons have a commanding lead in the wild card race.

1. (1) Packers (13-1) ‘€” One loss won’t do anything to hurt the Packers’ chances of winning the Super Bowl but losses to offensive linemen might. Injuries are piling up on Aaron Rodgers‘ line. Center Scott Wells and guard Josh Sitton are the only two Week 1 starters who are healthy. Brian Bulaga, Chad Clifton and Derek Sherod are all injured. The Chiefs laid out the blueprint on how to beat the Packers: Relentlessly rush Aaron Rodgers and disrupt the Packers receivers’ routes.

2. (3) Saints (11-3) ‘€” The Saints will be a very dangerous team when the playoffs begin. Stopping Drew Brees and the Saints offense looks like an impossible task. Brees is on pace to shatter Dan Marino‘s single season passing yards record. He also has a career high 37 touchdown passes.

3. (5) Patriots (11-3) ‘€” The Patriots offense once again showed how versatile it is. Aaron Hernandez stepped up as the go-to receiver for Tom Brady since the Broncos decided to take Rob Gronkowski out of the game as best they could. There certainly is no shortage of weapons on the offensive side of the ball. The defense is a different story. The loss of Andre Carter, the team’s best pass rusher, is a devastating blow for the Patriots. The pass defense needs all the help it can get and a lack of rush on the quarterback is only going to make it more difficult on the secondary.

4. (6) 49ers (11-3) ‘€” Capitalizing on red zone opportunities is one thing the 49ers know they have to do better. They took a step in the right direction Monday night when they scored touchdowns on two of their three trips inside the Steelers’ 20. However, on one of those occasions, they were helped out by a Steelers personal foul penalty on fourth down. Entering the playoffs, they’ll have one of the worst offenses in the NFC but one of the best defenses. If they can improve in the red zone, the Niners will be a dangerous team.

5. (2) Ravens (10-4) ‘€” Joe Flacco could be a reason why the Ravens fail to make it to the Super Bowl. He has been terribly inconsistent this year and very rarely do we see teams with mediocre quarterbacks win the Super Bowl. The fourth-year QB isn’t fooling any defenses with his throws. At times, he’s predetermining where he is going to throw the football and that has led to interceptions. Ray Rice also had just 10 carries in the loss. In the Ravens’ four losses, Rice has had 13, 8, 5 and 10 carries. See the trend?

6. (4) Steelers (10-4) ‘€” It might be time for the Steelers to seriously consider shutting down Ben Roethlisberger for the rest of the regular season. The chances of winning the division and clinching the No. 1 seed went out the window with the loss to the Niners. The Ravens’ two remaining games are against the Browns and Bengals. The Steelers will have a much better shot in the playoffs with a healthy Roethlisberger. It’s not worth the risk of playing “Big Ben” and having him further aggravate his ankle injury.

7. (8) Falcons (9-5) ‘€” The much anticipated rematch between the Falcons and Saints will finally arrive this Monday night. Running the ball and setting the tempo with Michael Turner is an obvious key to Atlanta’s success but Julio Jones is a major factor as well. The last time these two teams met, rookie WR Julio Jones missed most of the game with a hamstring injury. Jones, along with Roddy White, will make it extremely difficult for the Saints defense to stop the Falcons offense.

8. (11) Lions (9-5) ‘€”For the fourth time this season, the Lions have come back from a double digit deficit. Matthew Stafford and the Lions are now in a prime position to clinch a playoff spot. For a city that has watched their team average 12 losses per season since 2001, postseason football would come as quite a welcome gift under the tree.

9. (7) Texans (10-4) ‘€” Turnovers are becoming a growing concern for Gary Kubiak. The Texans coach has watched his team give away the football nine times over the past four games. Arian Foster is responsible for four of those nine. The dynamic running back must shoulder the load for the offense with Matt Schaub out.

10. (10) Giants (7-7) ‘€” For the second time this year, the Giants lost to the Redskins. Eli Manning had his worst game of the season on Sunday but the Giants defense should shoulder a lot of the blame as well. The pass rush is ineffective and the secondary continues to give up big plays. They couldn’t get off the field on third down against Rex Grossman. The Redskins possessed the ball for 35 of the 60 minutes.

11. (12) Cowboys (8-6) ‘€” It’s amazing how fast a team’s fortunes can change in the NFL. After a demoralizing loss to the Giants last week, the Cowboys are back in the driver’s seat in the NFC East race because of the Redskins’ upset victory over New York. Felix Jones will be key to the Cowboys success. Tony Romo needs a strong run game to balance the offense and keep opposing teams on their toes. The division title is on the line the next two weeks. If the Cowboys can beat the Eagles and Giants, they’ll be division champs.

12. (15) Chargers (7-7) ‘€” Undefeated in December but winless in November; the Chargers are finally playing great football but the possibility of the postseason is slim. Right now, no team wants to play San Diego. The Chargers are winning by an average of 23 points-per-game in December. Look no further than Philip Rivers for the main reason for the recent success. Rivers has not thrown an interception during the current winning streak but threw 17 leading up to it.

13. (9) Jets (8-6) ‘€” The Jets D was torched for 420 total yards. It was obvious the absence of Jim Leonhard had an adverse effect on the defense. Tight end Brent Celek had a career game with 156 yards and a touchdown and running back LeSean McCoy averaged over five yards-per-carry. Offensively, it’s beginning to become clear that Mark Sanchez is incapable of leading the Jets to the Super Bowl. He now has thrown 13 interceptions and his 57.9 completion percentage is one of the worst in the league.

14. (13) Broncos (8-6) ‘€” Tim Tebow helped win games for the Broncos because he protected the football and didn’t turn it over. That didn’t happen Sunday against the Patriots. Tebow and two of his teammates were responsible for three fumbles, all of which resulted in points for the opposition. The good news for the Broncos is that they face the Bills in Week 16 and still are in a great position to win the division.

15. (21) Eagles (6-8) ‘€” The Eagles have won two straight games for the first time this season. This talented team is finally starting to show signs of why many predicted them to reach the Super Bowl. The defense has made a huge difference over the last two games. The Eagles D has a total of 13 sacks and seven turnovers in that span.

16. (18) Bengals (8-6) ‘€” Thanks to some great drafting, rookies Andy Dalton and A.J. Green are becoming a lethal quarterback-wide receiver duo with loads of potential for the future. Dalton has already surpassed 3,000 yards for the year and Green has surpassed 1,000.

17. (16) Raiders (7-7) ‘€” Simply put, the Raiders are not a playoff caliber team. The potential and talent is there, but they shoot themselves in the foot week after week with penalties, turnovers and mistakes. The defense constantly let up big plays to the Lions. Matthew Stafford connected on 51- and 39-yard touchdown passes. He also drove his team down the field on a game-winning 98 yard touchdown drive with 1:35 left to play.

18. (14) Titans (7-7) ‘€” The opportunity was there but the Titans squandered away a great chance to take control of the one wild card spot remaining in the AFC. Matt Hasselbeck threw two costly interceptions; one was returned for a touchdown and another was in the red zone. Chris Johnson was stifled once again as well. The Titans are 4-0 when Johnson reaches 100 yards but he turned in a subpar performance against the winless Colts. The offensive line can also be blamed for failing to open holes for the run game.

19. (19) Cardinals (7-7) ‘€” Unfortunately for the Cardinals, numbers don’t lie and John Skelton is 5-1 as the starter. Meanwhile, Kevin Kolb has a $63 million contract but a 2-6 record. Quietly, Skelton has become the “Tim Tebow” of the Cardinals. The second year QB struggles to pass the ball but somehow finds a way to win consistently in the fourth quarter.

20. (20) Seahawks (7-7) ‘€” The soaring Seahawks have won five of their last six games. Marshawn Lynch went over 1,000 yards rushing for the first time since 2008. He’s been the leading force in the Seahawks offense but now will have to do even more. Wide receiver Mike Williams joined fellow receiver Sidney Rice on IR.

21. (17) Bears (7-7) ‘€” The Bears have lost four straight games since Jay Cutler went down. Caleb Hanie has thrown three interceptions in three out of his four games he’s started. It’s extremely difficult to win in the NFL when a team loses its turnover battle and the Bears continue to do just that. They’ve turned the ball over 12 times since the Cutler injury.

22. (22) Dolphins (5-9) ‘€” The Reggie Bush pickup has added a great weapon on the Dolphins offense. The team is using Bush as the featured running back and it is paying off. His touches have increased as the season has progressed and it’s one of the reasons the Dolphins have won five of their last seven.

23. (25) Chiefs (6-8) ‘€” Romeo Crennel is doing his best to convince Scott Pioli that he is the right man for the head coaching vacancy in Kansas City. The Chiefs had a tremendous defensive game plan against the Packers. Kyle Orton‘s performance should also be noted. Orton threw for 299 yards and no interceptions.

24. (26) Panthers (5-9) ‘€” Cam Newton and the Panthers enjoyed their first win against a team over .500 on Sunday. Against one of the best defensive teams in the league, the Panthers put up 28 points on the Texans. The Texans haven’t allowed that many points since Week 6.

25. (27) Redskins (5-9) ‘€” The Redskins can go into the offseason knowing they beat the Giants twice and played some very competitive games against quality opponents in 2011. Rookies Roy Helu and Ryan Kerrigan have  made significant contributions to the team and both will be major pieces for the Redskins going forward.

26. (24) Bills (5-9) ‘€”Ryan Fitzpatrick has been one of the main reasons the Bills are amid a seven-game losing streak. He has a league-high 19 interceptions. Twelve of those picks have come during the current losing streak. The defense has been horrendous as well. The Bills D has allowed an average of 32 points-per-game during the losing streak.

27. (23) Buccaneers (4-10) ‘€” The longest losing streak in the NFL now belongs to the Bucs. The eight straight losses have made it clear that Raheem Morris‘ team is not responding to his coaching. Penalties, mental breakdowns and turnovers continue to hurt the Bucs week after week. Josh Freeman has regressed in 2011 and LeGarrette Blount has failed to establish any type of run game in the offense. In the latest lost, the Bucs defense allowed 28 first downs while converting only seven on offense.

28. (28) Browns (4-10) ‘€” The Browns will end another dismal season against the Ravens and Steelers. Finishing the year anything but 4-12 will be a major shock. Cleveland currently has a total of 44 loses since 2008.

29. (29) Jaguars (4-10) ‘€” Blaine Gabbert looked like a boy playing against men in the Jaguars’ latest lost. Gabbert has been a disappointment compared to his fellow starting rookie quarterbacks in the league. The uncertainty at head coach could be a factor. Even when Jack Del Rio was there it seemed like only a matter of time until he would get his walking papers and Mel Tucker is a defensive-minded coach.

30. (30) Vikings (2-12) ‘€” The Vikings are allowing an average of 29 points-per-game. For the third straight week, the defense allowed 30 or more points. Christan Ponder has also struggled lately. The rookie has thrown at least one interception in three consecutive games.

31. (31) Rams (2-12) ‘€” The beleaguered Rams offense is one of the worst in the league, averaging just 11.9 points-per-game. They rank 31st in third-down conversions and went just 2-13 in their latest loss.

32. (32) Colts (1-13) ‘€” The players and coaches are relieved they finally put a W in the win column, but now the Colts’ chances of getting the No. 1 pick in the 2012 draft are in jeopardy. Indy has games against the Texans and Jaguars remaining. The Jaguars game is a very winnable matchup. Meanwhile, the Rams play the Steelers and 49ers.

Which NFL teams are in your top 10? Leave your opinions/comments below or e-mail them to powerrankings@weei.com. You also can send comments via Twitter to @JoeytheFishWEEI.

Read More: aaron rodgers, Drew Brees, NFL Power Rankings, Tim Tebow
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