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2015 NFL Power Rankings — Week 13: Panthers take over No. 1; ailing Patriots drop behind Broncos

Cam Newton and the Panthers can celebrate being No. 1. (Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press)
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Each week, national NFL writer Mark Maske will provide his ranking of the league’s 32 teams. Injury-riddled New England falls out of the top spot, behind both unbeaten Carolina and the Denver team that stunned the Patriots in overtime on Sunday night.

1. Carolina Panthers (11-0) | Last week’s rank: 2

For the first time this season, there is a new No. 1 team. New England’s loss leaves the Panthers as the league’s only undefeated team. Who would’ve thought before the season, especially when standout WR Kelvin Benjamin suffered his season-ending knee injury in training camp, that Carolina would be the final NFL team with a chance to go 16-0? But this team is no fluke. Its style is a bit unorthodox for today’s pass-happy NFL, but the Panthers are honest-to-goodness excellent. The remaining schedule is favorable for a run at an unbeaten regular season if Coach Ron Rivera does not choose to rest starters once the top playoff seed in the NFC is secured.

From early November: What if someone other than the Patriots chases 16-0?

2. Denver Broncos (9-2) | Last week’s rank: 4

It is two starts into QB Brock Osweiler’s tenure and Peyton Manning’s return appears a long way off. It might never come, in fact, at least not in a Broncos uniform. Osweiler wasn’t great Sunday night. But he made enough good plays, and at the right times, to help knock the injury-restricted Patriots from the ranks of the unbeaten. The Osweiler-led Broncos suddenly look like a serious threat in the AFC playoffs.

Is Peyton Manning done in the NFL?

3. New England Patriots (10-1) | Last week’s rank: 1

Yes, in the season after DeflateGate, it was supposed to be Tom Brady vs. the world. But Brady was supposed to have a few healthy teammates to assist. From Brady’s offensive linemen to RB Dion Lewis, then WRs Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola, the injury list has grown steadily. Brady and the Patriots overcame all of that and kept winning until Sunday night in Denver, when TE Rob Gronkowski also got hurt. Gronkowski is the one player, aside from Brady, the Patriots cannot lose. Fortunately for them, his knee injury does not appear too serious.

Loss to Broncos didn’t help the Patriots. It cost them far more than perfection.

4. Arizona Cardinals (9-2) | Last week’s rank: 3

The Cardinals’ chances of having playoff success last season were done in by injuries to QBs Carson Palmer and Drew Stanton. Now, with another team capable of advancing deep into the postseason, the Cardinals must deal with RB Chris Johnson suffering a fractured tibia, according to multiple reports. Johnson’s injury shouldn’t be quite as debilitating to the offense as last season’s quarterback woes, but it is a major loss. Johnson had energized Arizona’s running game and had given opposing defenses something to worry about other than Palmer’s passing.

5. Cincinnati Bengals (9-2) | Last week’s rank: 6

The Bengals got back into the win column, ending their two-game losing streak with Sunday’s lopsided victory over the Rams. There are three should-win games left on the regular season schedule against the Browns, 49ers and Ravens, plus tougher matchups with the Steelers and Broncos.

6. Minnesota Vikings (8-3) | Last week’s rank: 8

The Vikings reclaimed first place in the NFC North with Sunday’s triumph at Atlanta following the Packers’ Thanksgiving night loss. The regular season finale, with the Vikings playing at Green Bay, could be for the division title.

NFC North is not as close as it looks

7. Kansas City Chiefs (6-5) | Last week’s rank: 9

Andy Reid has done a terrific coaching job getting the Chiefs to rebound from their 1-5 start and overcome the loss of Jamaal Charles to a season-ending knee injury. WR Jeremy Maclin is having, relatively quietly, a productive season with 57 catches for 772 yards and three touchdowns.

8. Seattle Seahawks (6-5) | Last week’s rank: 14

QB Russell Wilson had a big game Sunday and the Seahawks again gave a glimpse of the team they can be — but have not been with any consistency this season — by outlasting the Steelers. But now Wilson will have to get by without TE Jimmy Graham, who made little impact on the offense overall this season but was productive Sunday before his season-ending knee injury.

Jimmy Graham done for the season after tearing his patellar tendon

9. Green Bay Packers (7-4) | Last week’s rank: 5

It remains unfathomable that the Packers could have lost on the night Brett Favre’s number was retired and Bart Starr was on hand at Lambeau Field to see it. There are some serious issues, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to make a convincing case for the Packers being listed among the NFC’s top contenders.

Really? The Packers can’t win on the night they retire Brett Favre’s number?

10. Houston Texans (6-5) | Last week’s rank: 10

Has talking about J.J. Watt’s dominance gotten old? Few seem to be mentioning it this season but he leads the league with his 13.5 sacks, two more than anyone else. The Texans have won four straight games. But suddenly the AFC South race is overflowing with competence, with the Colts also playing well.

11. Indianapolis Colts (6-5) | Last week’s rank: 12

Coach Chuck Pagano said Monday that Andrew Luck remains the Colts’ starter at quarterback once he is fully healthy, despite the team’s 4-0 record with Matt Hasselbeck filling in. That makes sense. Luck is a franchise quarterback, even if he hasn’t played like one this season. Hasselbeck is a 40-year-old backup. What doesn’t need to be said, of course, is that maybe, just maybe Luck being declared fully healthy will happen to coincide with a point when Hasselbeck is not playing quite so well. Hasselbeck has saved not only the Colts’ season but possibly Pagano’s job, at least for the time being.

12. Pittsburgh Steelers (6-5) | Last week’s rank: 7

Nothing has been easy for the Steelers this season and it has been one injury-related issue after another for QB Ben Roethlisberger, who now is subject to the league’s concussion protocol. Landry Jones finished the loss in Seattle and would be in line to make another start if Roethlisberger is not cleared to play.

Ben Roethlisberger leaves game against Seahawks and enters concussion protocol

13. New York Jets (6-5) | Last week’s rank: 16

The Jets regrouped to beat the Dolphins after a 1-4 stretch and now face the Giants in a game with major playoff implications for both residents of MetLife Stadium.

14. Chicago Bears (5-6) | Last week’s rank: 19

Few would have envisioned QB Jay Cutler playing as well as he has played this season. Much of the credit should go to Coach John Fox and offensive coordinator Adam Gase, who becomes a strong head coaching candidate league-wide after nearly landing the San Francisco job last offseason when he and Fox left Denver.

15. Washington Redskins (5-6) | Last week’s rank: 22

So what, exactly, is the reaction supposed to be to being a 5-6 division leader? Happy about it? Or embarrassed? Whatever the case, there is one thing to keep in mind: The only two NFL teams to reach the playoffs with losing records in non-strike seasons, the 2010 Seahawks and last season’s Panthers, won their postseason openers at home. So while the NFC East will send a bad team to the playoffs, recent NFL history suggests that team has a good chance to win a postseason game.

The Redskins have found first place. The trick now is to stay there.

16. Detroit Lions (4-7) | Last week’s rank: 24

Where was all of this earlier in the season? The Lions are playing very well now, like the team that vowed before the season that it wouldn’t miss a step even after losing defensive anchor Ndamukong Suh in free agency. It probably is too late for the Lions to get back into the playoff mix. But continued success for the remainder of the season might limit what once seemed to be an organization-wide housecleaning getting started to something less sweeping.

17. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-6) | Last week’s rank: 13

It probably is asking too much for the Buccaneers to be a playoff team in the rookie season of QB Jameis Winston. It’s still not out of the question. But it’s tougher now after a loss in Indianapolis.

18. New York Giants (5-6) | Last week’s rank: 11

It is a season of could-have-beens and should-have-beens for the Giants. They squandered leads to lose their first two games. They lost a game against the Patriots they should have won. And there was no excuse for the Giants playing the way they played for three quarters Sunday against the Redskins. Their late rally wasn’t enough, and now the Giants find themselves in catch-up mode (thanks to the Redskins’ tie-breaker edge) in a division race they could have all but wrapped up Sunday.

The NFC East was there for the taking for the Giants. They didn’t take it

19. Buffalo Bills (5-6) | Last week’s rank: 15

Rex Ryan certainly enjoyed that win over the Jets. But it hasn’t done much to catapult his team, which has lost two straight since then.

20. Atlanta Falcons (6-5) | Last week’s rank: 17

QB Matt Ryan has thrown five interceptions in the past two games and was booed during Sunday’s loss at home to the Vikings. In a season that began in such promising fashion with five straight wins, merely staying above .500 now could be a major challenge for the Falcons.

The maddening case of Matt Ryan

21. Oakland Raiders (5-6) | Last week’s rank: 28

A three-game losing streak ended with Sunday’s victory at Tennessee. But if the Raiders are going to reassemble their season, they’ll have to do so against far tougher competition. They face the Chiefs, Broncos and Packers the next three weeks.

22. Baltimore Ravens (4-7) | Last week’s rank: 26

The Ravens have found ways to lose tight games all season but found a crazy way to win one Monday night in Cleveland with their walk-off touchdown on a blocked field goal. Matt Schaub took over at quarterback and — who would’ve thought it possible? — threw an interception for a touchdown.

23. San Diego Chargers (3-8) | Last week’s rank: 31

Philip Rivers and the Chargers at least haven’t given up, as their win Sunday in Jacksonville ended a six-game losing streak.

24. Jacksonville Jaguars (4-7) | Last week’s rank: 18

A victory at home over the Chargers would have gotten the Jaguars to within a game of .500. The franchise is inching closer to on-field respectability but isn’t quite there yet.

25. Miami Dolphins (4-7) | Last week’s rank: 21

The interim coach will have an interim offensive coordinator after Dan Campbell fired Bill Lazor on Monday and replaced him with quarterbacks coach Zac Taylor. At least Campbell still is trying to make things work. But at this point, the competitive portion of the Dolphins’ season is basically over.

26. Philadelphia Eagles (4-7) | Last week’s rank: 23

What happens when your attempt to go from good to great, as owner Jeffrey Lurie characterized it in the offseason after handing total control over the roster to Coach Chip Kelly, instead takes you from good to terrible?

Thanksgiving games were ugly for Chip Kelly and the Eagles, Tony Romo and the Cowboys

27. Dallas Cowboys (3-8) | Last week’s rank: 20

It is easy to question now whether QB Tony Romo returned too soon from the first time he broke his left clavicle in Week 2. But Romo simply did what football players regularly do, accepting the risk and playing when it was medically feasible to do so. Romo’s season is over now and so, essentially, is the Cowboys’. But with the pressure off, you never know. Fill-in QB Matt Cassel and the rest of the team might play better and actually win a game or two without Romo.

28. New Orleans Saints (4-7) | Last week’s rank: 25

Drew Brees said following the pre-bye loss to the Redskins that the book on the Saints’ season wasn’t written yet. Well, that project is mighty close to completion now with the post-bye defeat to the Texans.

29. St. Louis Rams (4-7) | Last week’s rank: 27

Coach Jeff Fisher said in colorful language not to question his players’ effort level. That’s fair. Effort is always difficult for outsiders to measure accurately. But it is absolutely valid to question the franchise’s results as the Rams stumble toward potentially a fourth straight losing season under Fisher, who last coached a team to a winning season in 2008 with the Titans.

30. San Francisco 49ers (3-8) | Last week’s rank: 29

Blaine Gabbert continues to perform reasonably well at quarterback. But it is difficult to envision him being a long-term solution at the position.

31. Tennessee Titans (2-9) | Last week’s rank: 30

It has been a hard-knocks NFL indoctrination for rookie QB Marcus Mariota, with the Titans having won only once since their season-opening victory over Jameis Winston and the Buccaneers.

32. Cleveland Browns (2-9) | Last week’s rank: 32

The Browns lost Monday night in extraordinarily Browns-like fashion, having their potential game-winning field goal as time expired blocked and returned by the Ravens for a game-winning touchdown. Coach Mike Pettine stuck to his disciplinary benching of Johnny Manziel, going to Austin Davis at quarterback after Josh McCown was hurt. The Browns are ranked here only because there is no option to put them lower.

The Browns were right to bench Johnny Manziel