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2014 NFL Power Rankings – Week 12: Cardinals, Packers, Chiefs move up but Patriots still No. 1

Patriots running back Jonas Gray celebrates a touchdown against the Colts. The Patriots have beaten the Colts and Broncos in their past two games. (AJ Mast/AP Photo)

Each week, national NFL writer Mark Maske will provide his ranking of the league’s 32 teams based on his observations, while Fancy Stats blogger Neil Greenberg mines the numbers to generate a stats-centric power ranking of his own. Compare, contrast and sound off in the comments.

1. New England Patriots (8-2) | Previous Rank: 1

They have beaten Peyton Manning and the Broncos and Andrew Luck and the Colts in their last two games. They have a one-game lead over the Broncos in the race for the AFC’s top playoff seed and hold the tie-breaker advantage over them. But the tests will continue to come for the Patriots, with the Lions and Packers up next on their schedule. Jonas Gray — who knew?

2. Arizona Cardinals (9-1) | Previous Rank: 4

It’s one thing for the Cardinals to say they still can win the Super Bowl with Drew Stanton having taken over at QB for injured Carson Palmer. It’s quite another thing to go out and actually show how realistic it might be by beating a very good team in the Lions. The Cardinals are 3-1 in Stanton’s starts this season. It’s the defense that is doing the heavy lifting; that will have to continue. The NFC West is all but won, with a three-game lead over the Seahawks and 49ers with six games to play.

3. Green Bay Packers (7-3) | Previous Rank: 10

They’ve scored 108 points in their last two games, both at Lambeau Field. They made the Eagles, who are not a bad team, look every bit as helpless Sunday as they’d made the Bears, who were very much a bad team at that point, look a week earlier. It will be interesting to see how the Patriots fare in their Nov. 30 game at Lambeau. But first the Packers must take care of business with a trip to Minnesota this weekend.

4. Kansas City Chiefs (7-3) | Previous Rank: 7

They were clearly the better team on the field Sunday against the Seahawks. Suddenly it’s the Chiefs, not the Broncos, who have resembled the AFC West’s best team lately. The Chiefs lost in Denver early in the season but the rematch in Kansas City is still to come, on Nov. 30.

5. Detroit Lions (7-3) | Previous Rank: 2

This is still a very good team that is still very much in the thick of the NFC playoff chase. The offense should improve down the stretch as QB Matthew Stafford figures out how to use WRs Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate effectively in tandem. But the Lions had a chance to show Sunday at Arizona that they, not the Carson Palmer-less Cardinals, would vie with the sizzling Packers for NFC superiority, and it didn’t happen. But there’s no time to sulk about it, with the Lions playing at New England this weekend.

6. Denver Broncos (7-3) | Previous Rank: 3

The injuries are piling up and the surprising defeat Sunday at St. Louis gives them two losses in their past three games. QB Peyton Manning has had three straight two-interception games and his pass protection was an issue against the Rams. Could the possibility of signing G Richie Incognito be reconsidered? Suddenly, it’s not only chasing the Patriots for the top seed in the AFC playoffs that must be on the Broncos’ minds. They also must concern themselves about the AFC West race, with the Chiefs also 7-3.

7. Indianapolis Colts (6-4) | Previous Rank: 5

Andrew Luck is 0-3 against Tom Brady and the Patriots. That matters, with the path to the Super Bowl in the AFC apparently headed through New England. The most alarming issues for the Colts in Sunday night’s loss to the Patriots at home, though, were their inabilities to run the ball and to stop New England’s running game. Luck needs more help.

8. Dallas Cowboys (7-3) | Previous Rank: 11

The bye week was kind to the Cowboys, as every other NFC East team lost. QB Tony Romo had time to rest his back. The NFC East co-leaders return to play a Sunday night game against the reeling Giants at the Meadowlands.

9. Pittsburgh Steelers (7-4) | Previous Rank: 14

The Steelers continued to struggle against lesser teams, needing a late comeback to barely win Monday night at Tennessee. But at least they won this time after suffering losses this season to the Buccaneers and Jets. The Steelers now have their bye week. When they return, two of their five remaining games are against the Bengals, including the Dec. 28 regular season finale in Pittsburgh in which the AFC North title potentially could be at stake.

10. Cincinnati Bengals (6-3-1) | Previous Rank: 16

Andy Dalton looked far more like a three-time playoff QB with a handsome contract Sunday in leading the Bengals to a badly needed win in New Orleans. He and the Bengals rebounded from their dreadful performance against the Browns in their previous game. Now how about some consistency? The Bengals have had none since their 3-0 start. They play the second of three straight road games Sunday in Houston.

11. Philadelphia Eagles (7-3) | Previous Rank: 6

Oh well, the “Mark Sanchez’s rebirth in Philadelphia” storyline was nice while it lasted, huh? Even if it was only one game. It was an ugly second start of his Eagles tenure Sunday in Green Bay for Sanchez, even if he did throw for 346 yards. The mistakes returned and the Philadelphia defense had no answers for Packers QB Aaron Rodgers. The Eagles at least get a chance to bounce back quickly Sunday with a home game against the Titans.

12. Baltimore Ravens (6-4) | Previous Rank: 12

The Ravens return from their bye week with little margin for error in the jumbled AFC North and the crowded AFC wild-card chase. They alternate road and home games the rest of the way, beginning with a road test Monday night in New Orleans. The Superdome has been one of the league’s toughest road venues in recent years but the Saints have lost their last two games there.

13. San Francisco 49ers (6-4) | Previous Rank: 13

LB Aldon Smith was back Sunday in the Meadowlands after being reinstated from his suspension. His statistics didn’t suggest that his return to the Niners’ lineup had any impact whatsoever on the win over the Giants. But blockers had to account for his presence and the San Francisco pass rush was better. Fellow LB NaVorro Bowman could return to the practice field this week but it’s unclear when he might play.

14. Miami Dolphins (6-4) | Previous Rank: 17

They are a legitimate contender as the season’s stretch run nears, having knocked Buffalo all but out of contention with a win in what amounted to an early elimination game last Thursday night in Miami. But now the Dolphins must play two straight and three of the next four games on the road. Included in that four-game stretch is games at Denver and at New England. The Dolphins get the Broncos on Sunday at a time when Denver is suddenly struggling and perhaps shorthanded on offense, but also badly in need of a victory.

15. Seattle Seahawks (6-4) | Previous Rank: 8

The defending champs currently are on the outside of the NFC playoff picture looking in, and it is totally on merit. The Seahawks just haven’t played consistently well. Their previously solid run defense fell apart against the Chiefs. The absence of DT Brandon Mebane shouldn’t make that much difference. And what is one to think of RB Marshawn Lynch remaining on the sideline during the halftime break and then conducting a postgame telephone interview from the team bus with the league-owned media outlet after failing to speak to other reporters? It’s certainly unusual but probably meaningless when it comes to affecting whether or not games are won.

16. San Diego Chargers (6-4) | Previous Rank: 18

The win Sunday over the Raiders wasn’t particularly impressive. But it was a win, something the Chargers hadn’t managed since they also beat the Raiders on Oct. 12. That was three losses and a bye week ago. The Chargers are only a game out of first place in the AFC West. But TE Antonio Gates told reporters that QB Philip Rivers is playing with a rib injury. And the schedule is unyielding. The tough-of-late Rams visit San Diego this weekend and then the Chargers play only playoff contenders: the Ravens, Patriots, Broncos, 49ers and Chiefs.

17. Houston Texans (5-5) | Previous Rank: 21

What can J.J. Watt do for an encore? He’s already the league’s best defensive player. Can he be selected to the Pro Bowl as an offensive player, too? That TD catch on a fade pattern after lining up at WR Sunday against the Browns was unreal. Watt stole the show but Ryan Mallett also showed some promise in his first NFL start at QB.

18. Cleveland Browns (6-4) | Previous Rank: 9

So much for the stay in first place. That didn’t last long, did it? Sure, J.J. Watt was terrific Sunday for the Texans. But a division-leading team just shouldn’t be losing at home to a then-losing team with a QB making his first NFL start. The Browns simply couldn’t live with their prosperity. It’s not a problem any longer, as they’re right back in the AFC North pack.

19. Buffalo Bills (5-5) | Previous Rank: 15

The positive 3-1 start after the QB switch from EJ Manuel to Kyle Orton has given way to two straight losses. The Bills are just hanging around the outskirts of the AFC playoff race at the moment, and the question of whether Coach Doug Marrone should go back to Manuel has been raised. The Bills play their next two games at home, beginning Sunday against the Jets.

20. St. Louis Rams (4-6) | Previous Rank: 23

Can they put in for a transfer to the NFC South? They would be that division’s toughest team by a wide margin. The recent victories over the Seahawks, 49ers and Broncos say much not only about the effort level that the Rams continue to give for Coach Jeff Fisher, but also about the talent that the roster does have. It’s probably too late for the Rams to climb back into playoff contention but it’s unlikely that anyone will enjoy facing them during what remains of the regular season.

21. Atlanta Falcons (4-6) | Previous Rank: 22

America, meet your first-place Atlanta Falcons. They are two games removed from being 2-6 and on a five-game losing streak. They haven’t beaten a team from outside the NFC South. Mike Smith recently has been regarded as one of the NFL coaches in the greatest danger of being fired after the season. Such is life in football’s junior varsity division.

22. Chicago Bears (4-6) | Previous Rank: 29

QB Jay Cutler and Coach Marc Trestman gained a reprieve from the criticism being heaped on them with Sunday’s triumph over the Vikings. That came after three straight losses, the last two of which had seen the Bears yield a total of 106 points. A two-game winning streak is not out of the question, with the Buccaneers up next Sunday at Soldier Field.

23. New Orleans Saints (4-6) | Previous Rank: 19

Everyone, it seems, keeps waiting for the Saints to wake up, begin playing like a good team and put the NFC South race out of its misery. But it hasn’t happened so far and, more than ever, it’s looking like it might not happen at all. The Saints have lost consecutive home games to the 49ers and Bengals, and have the Ravens coming to the Superdome on Monday night. The offense loses a major contributor with rookie WR Brandin Cooks out for an estimated four to six weeks after undergoing thumb surgery.

24. Minnesota Vikings (4-6) | Previous Rank: 20

The focus remains on RB Adrian Peterson’s playing status. This week, that’s just as well for the Vikings, since no one is paying attention to their mediocre performance in Sunday’s loss at Chicago. Next up is a home game Sunday against the Packers, with or without Peterson eligible to play.

25. Carolina Panthers (3-7-1) | Previous Rank: 24

That respectable 3-2 start is a distant memory now, with the Panthers on a 0-5-1 downward spiral since. They’re on their bye week but then return to play road games at Minnesota and New Orleans. Those certainly are highly beat-able teams. But, then, so are the Panthers.

26. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-8) | Previous Rank: 30

The Buccaneers are winless against their NFC South rivals in perhaps the worst division the NFL ever has seen. Yet they beat the Redskins handily Sunday. That probably says more about the current state of the Redskins than it does about the current state of the Buccaneers.

27. New York Jets (2-8) | Previous Rank: 27

The Jets had known nothing but losing since early September. But they’ll go at least two weeks between defeats, with the victory over the Steelers being followed by a bye last weekend. The notion that the Jets would have fared better this season if they’d turned sooner to Michael Vick at QB will be put to the test when they play Sunday at Buffalo.

28. New York Giants (3-7) | Previous Rank: 25

QB Eli Manning’s five-interception performance against the 49ers in Sunday’s loss was unsightly but not all his doing. Pass-protection issues also played a role. The Giants’ season has unraveled completely, and battling the Redskins to stay out of last place in the NFC East is a less-than-compelling competition to monitor down the stretch.

29. Washington Redskins (3-7) | Previous Rank: 26

It’s not so much that the Redskins went back to Robert Griffin III at QB. That had to be done at some point, with that big-money offseason decision looming about whether to exercise the fifth-year option in his rookie contract. It’s that they did it with Colt McCoy having just orchestrated such an uplifting Monday night victory in Dallas, and with one game left before a bye week. The situation simply called out for McCoy to be given one more start before the switch was seriously contemplated. Griffin isn’t the only problem. Far from it. But the Redskins have gone 0-2 since his return and another season is broken into so many tiny pieces.

30. Tennessee Titans (2-8) | Previous Rank: 28

A fourth-quarter lead Monday night over the Steelers went to waste. But it was an encouraging outing for rookie QB Zach Mettenberger, who threw for 263 yards and two TDs. The Tennessee defense simply couldn’t deal with Pittsburgh RB Le’Veon Bell.

31. Jacksonville Jaguars (1-9) | Previous Rank: 31

NFL philosophical question: If the Jaguars have a bye week, does anyone notice? Well, it just happened. Did you notice? They’re back now and play Sunday at Indianapolis, just what the Colts needed after the loss to the Patriots.

32. Oakland Raiders (0-10) | Previous Rank: 32

If only the NFL had gone to an 18-game season, the Raiders wouldn’t have to stop at 0-16.

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