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WEEI NFL Power Rankings, Week 15: Patriots charge to No. 1

The mighty have fallen. After seven straight weeks occupying the top two spots, the Texans (4) and Falcons (5) no longer can be called the two best teams in the league. The Patriots surge all the way to the No. 1 spot for the first time this season after a dominating Monday night performance. The 49ers [1] (2) and Broncos [2] (3) round out the new top three.

The Seahawks [3] (9) finally break into the top 10 after winning four of their last five games. Their impressive play of late has catapulted them in front of both the Bears (10) and Steelers (12). The Colts are another team that continues to inch closer into the league’s elite. Andrew Luck [4] has Indy (11) poised to make a playoff appearance after the team won just two games last year.

The top two teams in the WEEI NFL Power Rankings rarely play each other, not to mention in December, but we’ll get to watch the regular-season version of the Super Bowl [5] this Sunday night. That’s not the only top-10 matchup we’ll see in Week 15. The Broncos (3) play the Ravens (8), and the Giants [6] (7) will take on the Falcons (5). We’re in for another interesting week of pro football.

Click here to listen to Mut, Merloni, and Zarbano discuss this edition of the WEEI NFL Power Rankings. [7]

1. (3) Patriots (10-3) ‘€” The Patriots defense [8] did what it had to do: improve. Bill Belichick [9]‘s D held the Texans to just 14 points. The only other team in the league that was able to hold Houston to fewer points was the Bears. Under Tom Brady [10], the Pats [11] have won a remarkable 20 straight home games in the month of December. Super Bowl-caliber teams get better in December and that’s just what New England is doing once again.

2. (4) 49ers (9-3-1) ‘€” The relentless 49ers defense is at the top of the league in pass defense, run defense and points allowed. Sunday night’s matchup pits the best defense in the league against the best offense. Football fans are in for a treat.

3. (5) Broncos (10-3) ‘€” The way Knowshon Moreno has been able to step up and fill Willis McGahee [12]‘s shoes is very encouraging for Broncos fans. With Peyton Manning [13] at the helm, an effective run game makes the Broncos offense extremely difficult to defend against.

4. (1) Texans (11-2) ‘€” Are the Texans good enough to rebound from a loss like this? Their pass defense has officially been exposed. On a big stage, the Texans crumbled. Stupid penalties, turnovers and an overall lack of competitiveness has many across the NFL questioning if this team is as good as its record indicates.

5. (2) Falcons (11-2) ‘€” The Falcons have a tremendous opportunity this Sunday to prove to the NFC that they are an elite team. The defending Super Bowl champion Giants will be in Atlanta and both teams have a lot on the line.

6. (7) Packers (9-4) ‘€” Green Bay has won seven of its last eight and has come storming back to take control of the NFC North. Aaron Rodgers [14] has been terrific, though it has been production from the run game over the last two weeks that has made a huge difference on offense for Green Bay.

7. (8) Giants (8-5) ‘€” Keep an eye on the NFC East race and the Giants. New York travels to Atlanta and Baltimore the next two weeks while the Redskins and Cowboys are just one game back and hold a better divisional record.

8. (6) Ravens (9-4) ‘€” It’s never a good sign for a playoff team to fire its offensive coordinator in December. Unlike the Patriots and Broncos, the Ravens have played worse as the season has progressed. If recent play is any sign, the Ravens look to be on track for falling just short of the Super Bowl once again.

9. (11) Seahawks (8-5) ‘€” There have to be many organizations out there that are extremely jealous of the Seahawks’ recent success. This is a team that not only drafted a quarterback in the third round but started him over Matt Flynn [15] after signing the former backup to a three-year deal. Teams struggling to find a quarterback like the Cardinals, Jets and Bills must be envious. Russell Wilson has played outstanding of late. In his last five games, he’s thrown 10 touchdowns and just one interception.

10. (9) Bears (8-5) ‘€” Jay Cutler [16]‘s health is imperative to the Bears’ success. Everyone watched the Bears go 1-5 last year at the end of the season when Cutler was injured. The starting QB has been sacked 31 times this year and already has suffered a concussion. The offensive line has to get better if this team is going to be successful. Chicago has dropped four of its last five.

11. (12) Colts (9-4) ‘€” Not enough can be said about the tremendous job Bruce Arians has done this year filling in for Chuck Pagano. It’s extremely difficult to go from the worst team in the league one year to a playoff team the next. The Colts have managed to do just that.

12. (10) Steelers (7-6) ‘€” Turnover ratio is a major indicator of how good a team really is. The Steelers are a minus-10 in their last three games alone. They’ve also racked up 21 penalties during that time.

13. (13) Redskins (7-6) ‘€” Mike Shanahan [17] has an extremely difficult decision this week to either play or rest the injured Robert Griffin III. He doesn’t want to risk further injury to the young QB, but the Redskins’ playoff hopes also hang in the balance. With the Browns coming up, the safe play will be to sit the starter and hope Kirk Cousins can get the job done.

14. (17) Cowboys (7-6) ‘€” The Cowboys have won four of their last five and have propelled themselves back in the playoff race, but a possible season-ending injury to Dez Bryant [18] could curb Dallas’ chances at postseason play.
15. (14) Bengals (7-6) ‘€” Inconsistency has prevented the Bengals from taking that next step. They’ve been unable to play mistake-free football on a week-to-week basis and it’s why they’ve remained a mediocre team. Losing a nine-point fourth-quarter lead at home in December in the midst of a playoff hunt proves that the Bengals aren’t on the same level as the contenders in the league.

16. (19) Vikings (7-6) ‘€” Adrian Peterson [19] has rushed for 643 yards in the four games since Percy Harvin‘s season-ending injury on Nov. 4. He’s also been given 97 carries. The Vikings were forced to rely heavily on the All-Pro running back once Harvin went down, and he’s single-handedly kept his team in the playoff hunt.

17. (15) Buccaneers [20] (6-7) ‘€” A young team headed in the right direction certainly will suffer some setbacks along the way. The Bucs have played some competitive games against some of the best teams in the league but lost an easy one last Sunday against the Eagles. Josh Freeman [21] must improve his completion percentage.

18. (16) Saints (5-8) ‘€” The bounty scandal has been a mess for both the Saints and the NFL. It’s finally time to move on. Both sides declared victory after Paul Tagliabue‘s decision, but the truth is both sides lost.

19. (20) Rams (6-6-1) ‘€” The Rams have improved on both sides of the ball under new coach Jeff Fisher [22], but the improvement on defense has made the difference. The pass rush already has matched the total number of sacks from the entire 2011 season and the run defense is substantially better.  

20. (18) Dolphins (5-8) ‘€” The Dolphins’ main focus should be on Ryan Tannehill and having the rookie end his first season in the NFL on a good note. In the offseason, Miami needs to build around Tannehill and add some more receiving options.

21. (22) Jets (6-7) ‘€” It’s sad, but Braylon Edwards [23] should help improve the Jets’ stagnant offense. If by some miracle the Jets make the playoffs, they will be the worst team to ever reach the postseason in the history of the NFL.

22. (21) Lions (4-9) ‘€” Well-coached teams get better in the second half of the season and don’t blow leads in three straight games. The Lions are 1-5 in the month of November and have blown a double-digit lead in each of the last three weeks.

23. (23) Bills (5-8) ‘€” Chan Gailey has made poor coaching decisions on numerous occasions this season. You don’t have to be Bill Belichick to understand that C.J. Spiller is the team’s best offensive weapon. When you have a starting quarterback prone to throwing interceptions, you might want to increase Spiller’s workload. The running back is averaging over six yards per carry but got just seven carries in Buffalo’s latest loss.

24. (24) Titans (4-9) ‘€” Jake Locker [24] hasn’t been terrible this year, but he also hasn’t been able to find a way to win games like Andrew Luck, RG3and Russell Wilson. Locker has shown glimpses of being capable to be a solid starting quarterback but he’s also been extremely inconsistent.

25. (25) Chargers (5-8) ‘€” Sunday’s win over the Steelers was the team’s best victory of the season, but it’s likely too late to save Norv Turner [25]‘s job. The decline of Philip Rivers [26] over the past two seasons along with the fact that the Chargers will miss the playoffs for the third straight year will cost Turner his gig.

26. (26) Browns (5-8) ‘€” The first three-game winning streak since 2009 has given Browns fans reason to be optimistic for the future. Trent Richardson [27] and Brandon Weeden have created some excitement in Cleveland for the first time in a long time.

27. (28) Panthers (4-9) ‘€” The Panthers don’t have much to play for these days other than pride and the opportunity to end the season on a good note. A win against a division rival that most likely will land the No. 1 seed in the conference is a huge confidence-booster and a sign the Panthers have the talent to compete in the NFC South.

28. (29) Eagles (4-9) ‘€” The Eagles haven’t won a game this year by more than two points. For a team many expected to reach the playoffs, getting its fourth win of the season in the month of December is unacceptable. Andy Reid [28] should go with Nick Foles for the remainder of the season to see what the rookie is capable of.

29. (27) Cardinals (4-9) ‘€” A nine-game losing streak is bad enough, when the team is unable to even compete, that’s a glaring sign that the organization needs a major overhaul. Ken Whisenhunt [29] and general manager Rod Graves will be looking for employment once the season ends.

30. (30) Chiefs (2-11) ‘€” The end of the season mercifully is closing in for Chiefs fans. Kansas City has been outscored by 157 total points. The No. 1 pick in the 2013 draft is in their grasp.

31. (31) Raiders (3-10) ‘€” Dennis Allen is making a case for the Raiders to find their ninth head coach since 2001. Bad penalties, costly turnovers and an inability to compete should have upper management in Oakland looking to make major changes for the 2013 season.

32. (32) Jaguars (2-10) ‘€” Jacksonville is 7-22 since the start of last year and hasn’t had a winning season since 2007. New owner Shad Khan will blow things up this offseason.

Which NFL teams are in your top 10? Leave your opinions/comments below or e-mail them to powerrankings@weei.com [30]. You also can send comments via Twitter to @JoeytheFishWEEI.