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NFL power rankings, Week 12: Panthers, Saints making noise, Broncos still on top

A dramatic win over the Patriots pushed the surging Panthers even further up the rankings this week. But it wasn't quite enough to knock Denver out of the top spot. Here's how it all shook out after an exciting Week 11.

Streeter Lecka

You really couldn't have asked for a better finish to Week 11. Unless, you're a Patriots fan. Carolina's big win over New England on Monday night was preceded by a much-anticipated showdown between the previously undefeated Chiefs and the Broncos. Two big-time primetime games capped off a solid week of games that saw more upheaval in the standings, all kinds of weather problems and a gravy boat full of Geno Smith turnovers.

1. Denver Broncos

Facing their toughest test of the season, Peyton Manning and the Broncos answered the challenge with a 10-point victory. The Seahawks may be able to capitalize on Manning's deep ball deficiencies, but there's not a lot of hope for everyone else when the league's other elite pass defense still surrendered 8.1 yards per attempt. Denver will still have to do it again in Arrowhead to ensure themselves of a No. 1 seed, but right now it's crystal clear that the road to the Lombardi Trophy runs through Denver. (Last Week: 1)

2. Seattle Seahawks

The return of tackles Russell Okung and Breno Giacomini didn't prevent some hiccups in the ground game, but Marshawn Lynch still managed three trips to the end zone while Russell Wilson again made the most of limited pass attempts on the way to 230 yards and two TDs. As Percy Harvin continues to ramp up and the Legion of Boom continues to clamp down, the Seahawks will continue a nigh-unchallenged run to the NFC's top overall seed. (Last Week: 2)

3. New Orleans Saints

The Superdome's Supermen ran their home record to 6-0, but they needed every bit of N'awlins voodoo to get past the Niners. Drew Brees is a guaranteed weekly 300 yards, and the only other guarantee is that two of the Saints' top three receivers will change every week. The New Orleans D was normally guaranteed to get rolled on the ground, but they stood tough against Frank Gore while limiting the Niners' pass attack to an anemic 4.1 yards per attempt - all without stud rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro. A playoff trip to Seattle likely wouldn't end any more happily than their previous trip did, but if the Seahawks slip up and concede home field throughout, then the Saints are going to be hellaciously hard to beat. (Last Week: 4)

4. Carolina Panthers

Going for it on fourth down? That's fine and good, but not really special. Taking a tactical false start so that speed burner Ted Ginn would have room to catch a game-winning 25-yard TD? That's some advanced stuff, there - Ron Rivera is playing chess while everyone else plays checkers.  Of course, it helps that Cam Newton is playing great ball and making poised, accurate throws while the Panthers defense mauls just about everyone they see. Stevan Ridley's goal line fumble might have been a key to their victory, but to the victors go the spoils - and the coveted #4 spot in the Power Rankings. (Last Week: 6)

5. Kansas City Chiefs

With their backs against the wall, Alex Smith and Andy Reid were finally willing to roll the dice and throw deep. The Chiefs' receivers weren't up to the challenge, though, and Kansas City wasn't able to generate enough punch to get past Denver on the road. The Kansas City defense clamped the Broncos run game, made Manning work for his yards and even forced him into a fumble, but they couldn't bring enough consistent pressure against the game's premier quick-strike pass attack. There's no shame in a tough loss to a great opponent, and KC will get an Arrowhead rematch for one more shot at home field advantage. Hopefully, they won't mothball passes of 10+ yards during the intervening weeks. (Last Week: 3)

6. New England Patriots

Week 11: Bill Belichick's "take away what you do best" approach on defense ran into its Kryptonite - an offense that does a lot of things kinda well while counting on its defense to hold you under 21. That formula, plus an untimely Ridley fumble, doomed the Pats to defeat on the road. Hey, if we can call a Pick Six a "Schaub", we can call a goal-line fumble a "Ridley."  Tom Brady continues to look far better when he's throwing to professional receivers, but that Panther defense made one play too many. (Last Week: 5)

7. Indianapolis Colts

The Colts' continuing inability to bring their A-game against anyone but an A-list opponent nearly bit them again, as they needed a furious comeback to get past the thoroughly average Titans. T.Y. Hilton and a contact-shy Coby Fleener may be too thin a foundation for an elite passing game when the QB is running for his life as often as Luck seems to be. Speaking of running, the Colts may be facing their own unanticipated version of the Running Back IQ test -- a blind taste test would result in an overwhelming number of consumers choosing Donald Brown as Indy's most effective back. (Last Week: 7)

8. Cincinnati Bengals

The Bengals' D is missing Geno Atkins and Leon Hall something fierce, but they had enough to work an overmatched Jason Campbell and pull Andy Dalton's fat out of the fire for a crucial home win. They'll come out of their Week 12 bye hoping that Dalton can recapture some of his mid-season magic, but their gaffes against the Dolphins and Ravens probably put down any chance of a top two seed in the AFC. At least they won't have to face the Texans again. (Last Week: 11)

9. San Francisco 49ers

It's hard to say that San Francisco isn't one of the league's top teams, but it's also getting harder to ignore mounting losses and an increasingly clunky offense. Word is that Jim Harbaugh really wants to win his way and would prefer not to run "gimmicky" stuff like the read option if he can avoid it. Harbaugh is a good coach and may become a legend some day, but an existing legend in Darrell K. Royal once said, "Dance with who brung ya." Kaepernick's arm won't elevate the Niners with Vernon Davis as his only threat on balls longer than 15 yards. If the 49ers don't start shooting every bullet in their gun with six-to-eight Kaepernick carries a game, they could easily find themselves out of the playoffs. (Last Week: 9)

10. Arizona Cardinals

After enduring the ignominy of a Danny Noble TD, Arizona methodically crushed the Jags while reveling in a Palmer-to-Michael Floyd airshow. They're still afflicted by a tough division, but pratfalls in the NFC North and San Francisco's passing game woes have made a wild card berth a real possibility. There's a lot of football still to be played, but it's looking more likely that the Cards' Week 17 tilt with the Niners could be for the playoffs -- and with options like Daryl Washington, Rashad Johnson and Patrick Peterson to strap on to Vernon Davis, Arizona's chances in that matchup are very intriguing. (Last Week: 13)

11. Detroit Lions

With the chance to open up a lead in the division, the Lions instead honked to a three-win Steeler team. The Lions' sack-or-scorch pass defense got scorched for more than 360 yards, and Matthew Stafford again struggled on many non-Megatron throws. Of course, stopping Calvin Johnson is no easy task, nor is keeping man-beast Ndamukong Suh out of the backfield. But teams that can at least slow down that dynamic duo may find a bit of paper tiger in the Lions' DNA. (Last Week: 8)

12. Chicago Bears

With their backs to the wall, the Bears outlasted a two-hour deluge and then out-fought the Ravens to claim a vital home victory. Josh McCown made just enough hay with Alshon Jeffery while a struggling defense turned back the clock with a pick-six among two interceptions of Trent Dilfer Joe Flacco. Jay Cutler's return will be welcomed, but he might not represent a huge upgrade over Josh McCown's strong play. If whoever is under center can keep Jeffery and Brandon Marshall fed, they might pull out enough shootouts down the stretch to nab a very winnable NFC North. (Last Week: 15)

13. Baltimore Ravens

What is it with the Ravens and oddly delayed games? It's hard to say how much the two-hour deluge put a crimp in Baltimore's chances at a road win, since the Ravens tend to be pretty dreadful on the road in any weather. Just to be on the safe side, though, Ray Lewis blamed a conspiracy and a few of Roger Goodell's weather satellites for the delay that brought the Ravens low. Four remaining home games and two on the road is about as sure a bet for a 4-2 finish as you're likely to see, but Cincinnati's 2.5 game division lead is a pretty good bet to hold up down the stretch. (Last Week: 10)

14. Miami Dolphins

After weeks of Richie Incognito backlash, a backlash to the backlash and then a further anti-backlash backlash, the Dolphins finally got to lash out at someone and took their frustrations out on the suddenly slumping Chargers. There wasn't much aesthetically pleasing about this one aside from TE Charles Clay suddenly turning into Tecmo Bowl Bo Jackson, but it was enough to keep the Dolphins in the playoff hunt. If form holds, they're up for another negative net rushing yard performance against the Panthers next week, but for now let's tip our cap to the Dolphins' O-line. They may not always make headway, but they've made more than their share of headlines. (Last Week: 16)

15. Philadelphia Eagles

If Nick Foles really is just pulling the wool over our eyes by beating up bad secondaries ... well, he picked the right division to call home. In truth, it's looking more and more like his Week 7 debacle against Dallas was one of the NFL's bizarre abberations, and that his poise and accuracy will continue to enable the kind of consistent offensive results that a scattershot Mike Vick could never guarantee. A post-bye week matchup with the 49ers will tell us more, but Foles has almost single-handedly restored the shine to Chip Kelly's offense. (Last Week: 19)

16. Cleveland Browns

The Browns hung tough and looked ready to write an epitaph for Andy Dalton's credibility as the QB of a contending team. Unfortunately, back-to-back Cincy TDs on a blocked punt and a fumble return proved too much to overcome on the road. The Jason Campbell Dreamwagon snapped an axle in a three-pick, 4.4 YPA day, but the Browns' D never backed down as they picked Dalton twice, held the Bengals to under 240 total yards and scored a TD of their own. They're still a quarterback away, but with a bevy of picks in a deep draft they're in fine shape to remedy that deficiency in the future. You can't ignore the whole God-hating-them thing, but on the whole things are looking up in Cleveland. (Last Week: 14)

17. San Diego Chargers

While they haven't been playing all that poorly, three narrow losses in a row have San Diego on the outside of the AFC playoff picture looking in. Sunday may have seen critical mass on the Chargers' O-line, as D.J. Fluker got thrashed at left tackle while Jeromey Clary turned in a typically shoddy show in his return to the right tackle spot. Mike McCoy may need to experiment with the one- and two-step drop going forward, while investigating a 12-step tackling program to get a flailing defense back on the wagon. (Last Week: 12)

18. Dallas Cowboys

After a hiatus, two of America's foremost idiots will return with a more harebrained antics to surprise and delight audiences. In Dumb and Dumber To, Harry Dunne and Lloyd Christmas will set off across the country in search of a new kidney. In Dumb and Dumber Dallas, Jason Garrett and Bill Callahan will come out of the bye week and bungle through still more attempts to get an elite receiver open against combination coverage. With DC Monte Kiffin in talks to star in a reboot of Weekend at Bernie's, there's a real Hollywood flavor in Valley Ranch. (Last Week: 20)

19. New York Giants

Can the Giants join the Jason Voorhees/Freddy Krueger/Michael Myers pantheon and make a third return from the grave? Just one loss out of the division lead, the Giants may be witnessing a familiar second-half surge from the defensive line. The passing game is also showing more signs of life, with each of the Giant's Big Three receivers making a positive impact against the Pack. The Giants may still be slow and shambling, but until you cut their heads off you can't be sure they're dead. (Last Week: 23)

20. Tennessee Titans

The Titans almost managed an upset of the Colts behind stout cornerback play and a dink-and-dunk fandango to Kendall Wright and Delanie Walker. Ryan Fitzpatrick is proving to the the kind of backup QB that every team wants (and Green Bay probably wants most of all) and the defense has quality at all three levels. The sum of those parts still comes out to an average squad, though - and one that will be facing some very difficult decisions at the QB position this offseason. (Last Week: 22)

21. St. Louis Rams

After a week of R&R, the Rams are poised to see how much noise they can make down the stretch with 30 carries a game for Zac Stacy and their own brand of the Lions' "sack or scorch" pass defense. Jeff Fisher despises and fears offense, but there are rumors that even he took a journey to the mysterious East over the bye week to study arcane scrolls detailing the dark art of "downfield passing". Since, you know, he traded up into the Top 10 to grab a receiver with 4.3 speed and all. (Last Week: 21)

22. Green Bay Packers

Aaron Rodgers won't win the League MVP award this season, but his value has never been more apparent than during the stumbling show Green Bay has put on in his absence. Even the Packers' crunching ground game ground to a halt against the Giants, as New York crowded the line and cheerfully traded a couple of deep shots to shut down Eddie Lacy and pressure Scott Tolzien (seriously, Ted Thompson - Scott Tolzien?) into a trio of interceptions. A Lions loss kept the Pack from getting buried in the division, but they'll likely need to win five of their final six to earn a playoff berth. And assuming Rodgers isn't back next week, even the Vikings at Lambeau is no sure thing. (Last Week: 17)

23. New York Jets

It's likely impossible to goad Jets fans into yearning for the return of Mark Sanchez, but a few more showings like that might do it. Despite strong support from the ground game, Geno Smith was horrendous in rifling a trio of interceptions to the Bills' safety corps. No one was happy after this one - the Jets' front seven was mad that their strong effort against the run was wasted, the Jets' secondary was mad that the front seven couldn't provide any pass rush, and serial malingerer Santonio Holmes was no doubt outraged that he was forced to actually line up and run routes. (Last Week: 18)

24. Pittsburgh Steelers

Ben Roethlisberger may or may not have requested a trade, but he certainly hasn't packed it in. Big Ben torched the Lions' craptastic corners all day long, and The World's Unlikeliest Red Zone Hero, Jerricho Cotchery, notched another score on a sweet fake screen pass. Poor Ike Taylor took his lumps in man coverage against Calvin Johnson, but he hung tough and freed the rest of his mates to take advantage of Matt Stafford's non-Megatron mediocrity. Pittsburgh has probably dug themselves too deep a hole to make a realistic playoff push, but with four division games in their final six they aren't buried yet. If nothing else, the last two weeks have restored some well-deserved Steeler pride. (Last Week: 26)

25. Buffalo Bills

No Stevie Johnson or Robert Woods? No problem! Blazing rookie Marquise Goodwin and second-year man T.J. Graham provided enough pop to keep the passing game rolling, helping out E.J. Manuel on some flutterballs and logging a TD apiece. Safety Da'Norris Searcy got a touchdown of his own on a particularly poor Geno Smith toss. C.J. Spiller's massive faceplant has helped to hamstring the offense, but some building blocks are in place on both sides of the ball to bring some long-overdue hope for the future home to Buffalo. (Last Week: 28)

26. Oakland Raiders

Despite sounding like a menu misprint at a dubious Irish eatery, Matt McGloin ate up Houston's secondary with enough deep shots and timely touchdown tosses to stake Oakland to a surprise road win. Houston also had another problem - Lamarr Houston of the Raiders, who paced the team with a sack and two knockdowns to lead yet another game effort from the Oakland defensive front. More good news for Raider fans - Rashad Jennings' show over the last couple of weeks may have provided a stark enough example of the Law of Running Back Fungibility to keep the front office from handing out a pricey contract extension to Darren McFadden. Though a McGloin/McFadden backfield would be fun to watch in 2013, if for no other reason than making viewers think they'd stumbled onto a Gaelic football match. (Last Week: 27)

27. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

If the Dolphins' Incognito saga wasn't proof enough that NFL locker rooms are strange places, the Buccaneers' refusal to quit on misanthropic martinet Greg Schiano serves as further confirmation. The Bucs might simply be reveling in the presence of a competent QB, as Mike Glennon's steadfast refusal to snap the keel and set fire to the sails has set him in stark contrast to the departed Josh Freeman. Tampa's better-late-than-never deployment of Darrelle Revis as a man-coverage eraser of opposing #1 wideouts hasn't hurt matters, either. With Vincent Jackson hauling in bombs and scatback Bobby Rainey running wild, the Bucs have quietly added a little swash to their buckle. (Last Week: 30)

28. Washington Redskins

Robert Griffin III is in line for this season's "Box of Chocolates" award - you never know what you're going to get. After two straight strong weeks, Griffin was taking mincing geisha steps any time a defender was in the neighborhood and missing wide-open downfield throws by five yards or more. His latest too-little-too-late comeback did little to assuage worries that he won't be a plus player prior to September 2014 - if then. We know the secondary is outrageously bad, but at some point Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan are going to have to have good games on the same day if they want to win another game this season. (Last Week: 24)

29. Houston Texans

Watching a once-proud Texans bunch collapse in sections has been one of the most bizarre elements of the 2013 season. We'll be examining their season-long debacle in more detail this week, but a spate of turnovers and the bizarre benching of Case Keenum were the main stories in their horrid home loss to Matt McGloin and the Raiders. Matt. McGloin. If Houston's staff really doesn't trust Keenum, at least the Texans should be in prime position to spend a Top 5 draft pick on a QB next May. Whether anyone on the current staff will be around to coach this posited new QB, however, could be a different story. (Last Week: 25)

30. Atlanta Falcons

Another week, another nadir on the Bataan Death March that has become the Falcons' season. Matt Ryan is up against it with terrible protection and a wounded receiver corps, and Osi Umenyiora is the only member of the defensive front seven that's even beginning to help a beleagured secondary. Losing out is by no means out of the question. (Last Week: 29)

31. Minnesota Vikings

Christian Ponder had strung together a couple of game efforts in a row, but the Seattle secondary has a way of separating the wheat from the chaff in a real hurry. It was a return to the chaff pile for Ponder, and the news that Adrian Peterson is battling a groin injury doesn't exactly brighten the Vikings' prospects down the stretch. For all their struggles, they've got a chance against a reeling and Rodgers-less Packers squad this week - aside from that, they've got a fighting chance to claim the 32nd spot from the Jags. (Last Week: 31)

32. Jacksonville Jaguars

An opening 62-yard TD to Danny Noble generated Fantasy points for no one, but it did generate some brief hope that the Jags could mount an improbable two-game win streak. Those hopes were quickly dashed by a tough Cards defense and a turn-back-the-clock air show from Carson Palmer that highlighted the ineptitude of the Jags' woebegone secondary. Chad Henne did manage more than 230 passing yards to guys not named Cecil Shorts, so at least there's that. But all in all, this No. 1 Draft Choice train has no brakes. (Last Week: 32)

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