Just for the hell of it, I compared these rankings to my original rankings, published days before the season began. Some interesting notes:
Biggest surprises: 49ers (up 26 spots), Bengals (up 21 spots), Panthers (up 17 spots), Cardinals (up 16 spots), Seahawks (up 14 spots).
Biggest disappointments: Buccaneers (down 24 spots), Rams (down 18 spots), Chargers (down 15 spots), Chiefs (down 11 spots), Colts (down 11 spots), Jets (down 10 spots).
Teams that did exactly as I expected: Packers (no movement), Patriots (no movement), Cowboys (no movement), Vikings (no movement), Browns (no movement), Steelers (down 1 spot).
1. Green Bay Packers (15-1)
Last week: 1st
What does it say about the NFL in 2011 that the league’s best team, by almost all measures, has the league’s worst defense on paper? The only other NFL team giving up more than 400 yards per game? Fourth-ranked New England.
2. New Orleans Saints (13-3)
Last week: 2nd
It feels like it’s their year. Then again, it also feels like it’s Green Bay’s year. And besides, didn’t both of those teams just have their ‘years’? I don’t know what to think at this point.
3. San Francisco 49ers (13-3)
Last week: 3rd
Saturday, Jan. 14 at 4:30 p.m. ET: San Francisco hosts its first playoff game since 2002, but might be an underdog if they face the Saints.
4. New England Patriots (13-3)
Last week: 4th
The much-maligned defense has really shown up in the second halves of their last two games. Scary. They have a real chance to break that six-year Super Bowl drought.
5. Baltimore Ravens (12-4)
Last week: 5th
It’s all about Ray Rice on offense and Terrell Suggs on defense. Those guys both have the ability to take over games.
6. Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4)
Last week: 6th
At this point, I think they can win in Denver no problem, regardless of who’s at running back, outside linebacker and free safety.
7. Atlanta Falcons (10-6)
Last week: 8th
Matt Ryan might finally get that first playoff win Sunday at MetLife. On paper, it should be all Atlanta against the shorthanded Giants, who won the NFC East by default. All that said, I’m nervous for them.
8. Detroit Lions (10-6)
Last week: 7th
I’ve said they can beat anyone, anywhere with Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson, but the defense cannot perform like it did in Week 17 Saturday night in New Orleans. Because if they do, 45 points might not be enough for Stafford, Johnson and the offense.
9. Philadelphia Eagles (8-8)
Last week: 10th
Four-game winning streak and a full head of steam headed into the offseason. They should have all the key cogs back in 2012, with DeSean Jackson the only question mark. They’re the extremely early NFC East favorite for next year.
10. New York Giants (9-7)
Last week: 18th
If Eli Manning can get hot again and the pass rush can kick it up a notch like it did in 2007, anything can happen. But don’t count on it.
11. Cincinnati Bengals (9-7)
Last week: 13th
Getting Andy Dalton some playoff experience ASAP. Can’t hurt, right? And with the Texans up first, there’s a decent chance Dalton registers his first playoff win before Matt Ryan.
12. Arizona Cardinals (8-8)
Last week: 16th
If only they had a quarterback, they might be my breakout team of 2012. Don’t feel good about Kevin Kolb (never did) and John Skelton probably isn’t the answer, either.
13. Seattle Seahawks (7-9)
Last week: 11th
They can’t afford to lose a 25-year-old Marshawn Lynch after that season. Big payday coming for Lynch, who is slated to become a free agent with impeccable timing.
14. Carolina Panthers (6-10)
Last week: 12th
I can see it now: Cam Newton throwing passes to Justin Blackmon for the playoff-bound Panthers in 2012. Did you also just pee a little?
15. Miami Dolphins (6-10)
Last week: 17th
With the right coach, they can compete for a division title in 2012. Jeff Fisher or Bill Cowher could breathe new life into this team.
16. Dallas Cowboys (8-8)
Last week: 9th
Again, the above-average yet overhyped Cowboys fall short. Next year will be do-or-die for Jason Garrett.
17. Denver Broncos (8-8)
Last week: 14th
One touchdown and nine turnovers in three straight losses for Tim Tebow. And the loss of Chris Kuper adds injury to insult. The Broncos are in big trouble this weekend with the Steelers coming to town.
18. Houston Texans (10-6)
Last week: 15th
They really were a Super Bowl contender in 2011, but luck wasn’t on their side. Injuries truly are the worst part about professional football. Sometimes, it doesn’t seem fair. Then again, it’s how you deal with your injuries. Look at the Packers in 2010.
19. Tennessee Titans (9-7)
Last week: 19th
Watch out for these guys. A lot of balance and quite a young core. They flew under the radar this year, and ended up being the only team with a winning record to miss the playoffs.
20. New York Jets (8-8)
Last week: 20th
Why the hell is Brian Schottenheimer a chic head-coaching candidate? Did no one watch the Jets offense this season? And same for Mike Pettine? The defense took a giant step backward! It all seems so arbitrary.
21. San Diego Chargers (8-8)
Last week: 22nd
Philip Rivers takes all the heat, but they finish with a middle-of-the-pack defense that registered only 32 sacks and 21 takeaways. The transition from Ron Rivera to Greg Manusky was not successful in Year 1. The question now: Will this coaching staff get another chance?
22. Kansas City Chiefs (7-9)
Last week: 24th
New head coach and the return of Jamaal Charles, Matt Cassel, Eric Berry and Tony Moeaki. It’ll be an exciting offseason in KC.
23. Oakland Raiders (8-8)
Last week: 21st
Prediction: Hue Jackson and Carson Palmer won’t be in Oakland in 2013.
24. Chicago Bears (8-8)
Last week: 23rd
I’ll repeat what I said about the Texans: They really were a Super Bowl contender in 2011, but luck wasn’t on their side. Next year should be promising, but the Lions and Packers aren’t going away and that defense isn’t getting any younger.
25. Minnesota Vikings (3-13)
Last week: 25th last week
Sure, they led the league with 50 sacks, but a 107.6 opponent passer rating is simply embarrassing. They have to address that secondary in the draft and free agency.
26. Buffalo Bills (6-10)
Last week: 26th
Dave Wannstedt is the new defensive coordinator. Solid start to the offseason. And I’m not even being sarcastic. Get healthy, draft well and be a player in free agency and 2012 could be a real breakout season.
27. Washington Redskins (5-11)
Last week: 27th
Still quite a lot of work to do. Like the Bills, they showed glimpses of excellence early before fading. What happened to that pass rush? Mike Shanahan is running out of time.
28. Jacksonville Jaguars (5-11)
Last week: 28th
They’re pushing for offensive head-coaching candidates, which indicates to me that new owner Shad Khan isn’t ready to give up on Blaine Gabbert. And that’s a shame.
29. Indianapolis Colts (2-14)
Last week: 29th
I like Jim Irsay’s gall, because I think the Polians had become complacent. It’s time for a new regime and a new era in Indianapolis.
30. Cleveland Browns (4-12)
Last week: 30th
If you have the chance, please draft Robert Griffin III. Please, please, pleaseee.
31. St. Louis Rams (2-14)
Last week: 32nd
Whoever the new head coach is, I highly doubt he decides to keep the fiery Josh McDaniels around. That means three coordinators — and potentially three different offenses — in three years for Sam Bradford. Growth-stunting stuff.
32. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-12)
Last week: 31st
Can’t believe they gave up a ridiculous 494 points. That’s 45 more than the 31st-ranked Vikings and 64 more than the Colts, who surrendered 62 in one game.