1. Green Bay Packers (13-1, 1st last week): The defense is a huge liability when they aren’t making big plays, and a good secondary can limit Aaron Rodgers. Injuries are also becoming a factor. I really sweated this decision.
2. New Orleans Saints (11-3, 2nd last week): I kept Green Bay ahead of red-hot New Orleans because the Pack have still scored 1.6 more points per game and allowed 0.6 fewer points per game than the Saints. The Saints are hotter and healthier, but Green Bay has still managed to outscore its last four opponents by 40 points despite playing three of those games on the road and only one at home. New Orleans has been a little better, but the competition has been a little weaker (opponents are 25-31, as opposed to Green Bay’s 29-27 opponent record). This is close, but I’m not ready to move the Saints ahead just yet.
3. San Francisco 49ers (11-3, 6th last week): It took some time to develop and might come with an asterisk, but that was one hell of a defensive performance Monday night. Can’t believe they still haven’t given up a rushing touchdown all season. The Niners have an easy schedule now, so there’s a good chance they’ll force the Saints to play a wild-card game.
4. New England Patriots (11-3, 4th last week): They’ll miss Andre Carter, who had emerged as the team’s top pass rusher to help compensate for a terrible secondary. They don’t look like a Super Bowl team, but who does in the AFC?
5. Baltimore Ravens (10-4, 3rd last week): “Championship teams don’t take a step back,” said Terrell Suggs. And yet the Ravens have done so on four distinct occasions this year. I’m worried about the Ravens, but still not ruling them out in the jumbled AFC.
6. Pittsburgh Steelers (10-4, 7th last week): And now Ben Roethlisberger only has four off days to ice that ankle before another game. Have to wonder if they’ll consider resting him against St. Louis and Cleveland.
7. Houston Texans (10-4, 5th last week): Maybe Wade Phillips was the biggest loss of all. Then again, what could Phillips do about his players getting beat up by the Panthers down the stretch Sunday? That was just weird…
8. Atlanta Falcons (9-5, 10th last week): Was that a turning point Thursday against Jacksonville, or was it just a game against Jacksonville? They can send a real message Monday night in New Orleans, in what could be one of the best games of 2011.
9. Denver Broncos (8-6, 8th last week): I love that they may have to beat Kyle Orton and the Chiefs to win the division in Week 17. Just poetically beautiful.
10. Detroit Lions (9-5, 12th last week): Nice comeback, but to win in January they’re going to have to get healthier in the secondary.
11. Dallas Cowboys (8-6, 13th last week): Took care of business against a bad team. Now, the biggest game of Christmas Eve against suddenly smokin’ Philly. The NFC East is completely up in the air — I’m not about to make any predictions.
12. San Diego Chargers (7-7, 22nd last week): I still try to consider the season as a whole when I do these rankings, but right now, only a handful of NFL teams are better than the Chargers and Eagles.
13. Philadelphia Eagles (6-8, 23rd last week): See: 12. San Diego Chargers.
14. New York Jets (8-6, 9th last week): It’s a bit concerning that they continue to struggle against good teams. I know the Eagles don’t qualify for this, but the Jets have yet to beat a team with a winning record since Week 1.
15. New York Giants (7-7, 11th last week): If they blow this, does Tom Coughlin lose his job? Considering the lowered expectations based on early injuries, I’m not sure that would be fair.
16. Arizona Cardinals (7-7, 14th last week): The NFC West is suddenly respectable — it might be one hell of a division to watch in 2012.
17. Seattle Seahawks (7-7, 20th last week): No longer just a sneaky good home team. They’ve won in New York and Chicago now. And St. Louis, if that matters to anyone.
18. Carolina Panthers (5-9, 21st last week): See what happens when you run consistently and run hard? I haven’t seen burst like that out of DeAngelo Williams since he was a rookie.
19. Miami Dolphins (5-9, 15th last week): Holy, Reggie Bush! If they can hire the right coach, the Dolphins will be a major player in 2012.
20. Oakland Raiders (7-7, 16th last week): Losing on the road to Miami and Green Bay is somewhat understandable, but with those blowouts in mind, the collapse at home against Detroit might have been a back-breaker. And now they have to go to Kansas City, and then host the red-hot Chargers. Maybe next year (again).
21. Tennessee Titans (7-7, 17th last week): Once again, a victim of a lack of consistency. They had an inside track for a wild-card spot, but it’s probably too late now. You just can’t afford to lose home games and games against teams like Indy in December.
22. Chicago Bears (7-7, 18th last week): For those who were critical of Jay Cutler since his arrival in Chicago, the last four games should have shut you up pretty quickly.
23. Kansas City Chiefs (6-8, 27th last week): Then again, seeing Kyle Orton slay the unbeaten Packers probably only added fuel to the fire for fans in Chicago. These Chiefs hang with everyone, and they’re still alive with two games remaining.
24. Cincinnati Bengals (8-6, 19th last week): Still alive after having to survive the Rams, but A.J. Green’s injury could be a killer.
25. Washington Redskins (5-9, 26th last week): At the very least, they’ll probably be the primary reason why the rival Giants won’t make the playoffs. Two beautiful performances against New York.
26. Minnesota Vikings (2-12, 24th last week): I don’t buy it, Visanthe. Guys have too much to lose personally to hang it up early in a one-sided game. Not in this me-first league.
27. Jacksonville Jaguars (4-10, 25th last week): Not many teams follow up a 41-14 victory with a 41-14 loss, so consider yourself special, Jacksonville. I hope your new owner is prepared for a rebuild.
28. Buffalo Bills (5-9, 28th last week): Depressing. At least Tim Tebow will bring some excitement to Orchard Park in the home season finale.
29. Cleveland Browns (4-10, 30th last week): On one hand, quarterback controversy! On the other hand, who cares…
30. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-10, 29th last week): This was a 10-win team last year? What the hell? Raheem Morris will need quite an excuse to survive this.
31. St. Louis Rams (2-12, 31st last week): Respectable effort against the Bengals, but word is they’re going to blow things up this offseason regardless. The first overall pick would help greatly. It’s still very possible.
32. Indianapolis Colts (1-13, 32nd last week): I have a weird feeling about the Colts at home Thursday night against Houston. In fact, a 3-0 finish wouldn’t completely shock me.