The Washington Times - December 25, 2008, 11:05AM

NFL POWER RANKINGS

NFL writer David Elfin ranks the teams (Last week’s rankings in parentheses).

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1. Giants (1) — The comeback in the cold against Carolina cemented New York’s hold on the top spot in the rankings along with homefield advantage in the NFC playoffs. Derrick Ward’s 215 rushing yards showed how dangerous this offense can be even without Plaxico Burress. New York played very well in last year’s meaningless finale. Will it do the same at Minnesota?

2. Titans (4) — Having lost two of its last four and having had a 10-0 lead become a 14-10 deficit, Tennessee could’ve swooned against visiting Pittsburgh last Sunday. Instead, the Titans outscored the Steelers 21-0 the rest of the way to clinch homefield advantage in the AFC. Tennessee, 7-1 at home, could be headed to its first Super Bowl since 1999.

3. Panthers (3) — With a 28-20 lead and less than 5:00 to play last Sunday at Giants Stadium, it was all there for Carolina. But the defense couldn’t stop the Giants and now the Panthers have to win at New Orleans to ensure the NFC South title. Carolina has the run a big-time ground game, but its suspect run defense and poor road record could prove fatal.

4. Steelers (2) — After going 3-1 during a brutal stretch against New England, Dallas, Baltimore and Tennessee to win the AFC North and a first-round bye, Pittsburgh can relax Sunday in a meaningless home game against lowly Cleveland. Mike Tomlin joins Herman Edwards as the only active coaches to reach the playoffs in each of their first two seasons.

5. Ravens (5) — Rookie coach John Harbaugh certainly didn’t let the controversial end to the previous week’s loss to Pittsburgh affect his team on a short week as Baltimore upset Dallas in the final game at Texas Stadium. The Ravens can be a wild card by beating reeling Jacksonville on Sunday.

6. Colts (7) — Make it eight in a row for Indy after Thursday’s victory over the Jaguars. The Colts, in the playoffs for a league-best seventh straight season (the longest streak since the 49ers’ eight in a row from 1983-90), will be the AFC’s fifth seed and visit the AFC West winner next weekend if they beat the Titans at home on Sunday.

7. Falcons (8) — All four rookie coaches — Jim Zorn, John Harbaugh, Tony Sparano and Mike Smith — will finish at least .500, but Smith was the first to clinch a playoff spot thanks to the upset at Minnesota. Atlanta is 6-2 since a 4-3 start. If the Falcons win the NFC South, watch out since they’ll be 7-1 at home after beating hapless St. Louis on Sunday.

8. Cowboys (6) — Jerry Jones’ palace of football opens next fall, but his ‘Boys were in such a hurry to get started on the run to bring the Lombardi Trophy with them that they forgot to focus on beating the Ravens in the finale at Texas Stadium. Dallas won’t have a shot at its first playoff victory since 1996 if it doesn’t win Sunday at equally desperate Philadelphia.

9. Patriots (13) — He has been overshadowed by the rookie class of sideline bosses as well as the work of Tennessee’s Jeff Fisher, but Bill Belichick has done his best coaching job since 2001. It would be an injustice if New England goes 11-5 and misses the playoffs, but it would be payback for the Spygate fiasco that tainted some of its previous excellence.

10. Dolphins (14) — Miami’s defense had held three straight foes without a touchdown and when it gave up 31 points to lowly Kansas City, the offense matched its season-high with 38. That’s the kind of magic ride the Dolphins have been on while winning eight of nine. Avenging a Week 1 loss to the Jets would capture the AFC East for the first time since 2000.

11. Bears (16) — Chicago, as usual, isn’t gifted offensively, but there’s still plenty of moxie in the 2006 NFC champs. Monday’s overtime victory over Green Bay at frigid Soldier Field means the Bears can win the NFC North by winning Sunday at Houston if Minnesota loses to the Giants at home. A wild card berth is possible if Dallas and Tampa Bay lose.

12. Buccaneers (9) — Quarterback Jeff Garcia’s return didn’t matter when the defense allowed two fourth quarter touchdowns and San Diego took an interception to the house as Tampa Bay lost a 24-20 lead and left itself needing to beat Oakland on Sunday and have Dallas lose in Philadelphia in order to make the playoffs for the third time in four years.

13. Eagles (10) — Philadelphia was inches away from rallying from a 10-0 second half deficit to force overtime in Washington and perhaps winning a fourth straight game last Sunday. Instead, the Eagles have to beat the Cowboys — who have two of the last three years in Philly — and have the Bucs and either the Vikings or Bears lose — to reach postseason.

14. Vikings (11) — A decade after blowing the NFC Championship Game at home to upstart Atlanta, the host Vikings fell behind the upstart Falcons 24-7 late in the the third quarter and couldn’t quite complete the comeback. Minnesota has to hope that defending champion Giants don’t give it their all Sunday or the first playoff berth in four years could vanish.

15. Jets (12) — If New York doesn’t make the playoffs by losing Sunday to visiting Miami, that defeat won’t be the only reason. The Jets were embarassing 0-4 on the West Coast losing to the quartet of losing teams by a combined 42 points. New York will be the AFC’s third seed by beating the Dolphins. Will Brett Favre come back if the Jets miss the playoffs?

16. Saints (18) — His team can’t make the playoffs and while having a winning season and keeping Carolina from winning the NFC South would be fun, the big question will be whether Drew Brees can pass for the 402 yards and to break Dan Marino’s NFL season mark of 5,084. Will coach Sean Payton call more than his usual 30 passes if the game gets out of hand?

17. Redskins (20) — If Washington wins at San Francisco on Sunday, Jim Zorn will be 9-7, the best record by a new Redskins coach since George Allen took the nation’s capital by storm in 1971. But it’s Greg Blache’s fourth-ranked defense, not Zorn’s punchless offense that has ensured that Washington will finish at least .500 for a second straight year.

18. Cardinals (15) — They’ll be a playoff host for the first time since 1947 next month. They’ve won their first division title since 1975. But Arizona has as much heart as Phoenix has snow. The Cards have lost four of five, beating only the Lambs. The 47-7 lack of effort last week in New England was an affront to teams that fight but won’t be in the playoffs.

19. Chargers (21) — Bigtime comebacks in back-to-back games. Is Norv Turner really coaching this team? Philip Rivers is a MVP candidate with 32 touchdowns and a 104 passer rating while LaDainian Tomlinson and the defense have struggled. It would be justice if the Bolts avenge the Week 2 robbery by the referees by beating Denver to win the AFC West at home on Sunday.

20. Texans (17) — They had won four in a row to pull within sight of the first winning season in the franchise’s seven years when they spit the bit last Sunday at Oakland, losing 27-16 to the awful Raiders. Now Houston will have to settle for a second straight .500 mark if it can beat visiting Chicago and help keep the Bears out of the playoffs.

21. Broncos (19) — When is someone going to blame Mike Shanahan? The NFL’s genius when he won consecutive Super Bowls in 1997-98, Shanny has won one playoff game since despite being 23 games over .500. Sure, injuries ruined the running backs corps, but If Denver loses at San Diego on Sunday for an 0-3 finish, someone has to be accountable.

22. Seahawks (25) — That wasn’t very nice of Mike Holmgren to put a big dent in protege Brett Favre’s playoff hopes with the 13-3 upset of the AFC East-leading Jets last Sunday. This week at Arizona, Seattle’s big man can ride his Harley into the sunset by finishing with a third straight victory against the mailing-it-in Cardinals.

23. 49ers (22) — They lost four turnovers and had the ball for just 21:22, but the Niners still had enough to beat the Lambs for their third victory in four weeks. Beating Washington on Sunday would produce a 7-9 record, as good as San Francisco has had since 2002. Win or lose, it’s hard to see interim coach Mike Singletary not being given the permanent job.

24. Packers (24) — Whatever carryover coach Mike McCarthy and first-year starting quarterback Aaron Rodgers had going in the first half has long since evaporated. Monday’s loss at Chicago was Green Bay’s fifth straight, fourth in a row by fewer than five points. All the Pack can do now is beat Detroit to make the Lions the first 0-16 team.

25. Bills (28) — Down 13-0 early in the second quarter in Denver, the plunging Bills were surely on their way to their eighth loss in 10 times. Instead, the Bills fought back and won. If they can upset New England at home on Sunday, they’ll keep the Pats out of the playoffs and avoid a fourth straight losing season for the first time since 1984-87.

26. Bengals (26) — Two victories in a row! And a shutout on the road to boot! As much as Kansas City has struggled this year, Cincinnati could actually finish with a 3-game winning streak and in third place in the AFC North by beating the Chiefs. It will still be the worst of coach Marvin Lewis’ six seasons, but it would still give some hope for a better 2009.

27. Jaguars (23) — Front office boss Shack Harris and defensive coordinator Gregg Williams have already paid for this disastrous season (5-11 with a likely final loss at Baltimore) with their jobs. Coach Jack Del Rio is apparently safe, but there figure to be plenty of changes on the roster after the crash from 11-5 and a wild-card victory in 2007.

28. Raiders (30) — I confess I had never heard of Johnnie Lee Higgins until his two touchdowns led Oakland to last week’s upset of Houston. But whoever succeed Tom Cable as the Raiders’ seventh coach in eight years in 2009 has to get the ball in Higgins’ hands. He has three touchdowns on just 16 catches and three more on 40 punt returns.

29. Browns (29) — Yes, Cleveland didn’t score last Sunday at Cincinati after Ken Dorsey became its third quarterback this year to exit injured, but the Browns hadn’t score with him under center either. In fact, the Browns haven’t scored in almost 21 quarters while losing five in a row and seven of eight. How can coach Romeo Crennel survive this disaster?

30. Chiefs (27) — If there’s any silver lining in what will be the worst season in the franchise’s 49 seasons if a 14th loss occurs Sunday against Cincinnati, it’s that Kansas City might have found a quarterback in Tyler Thigpen, the unheralded second-year man from Coastal Carolina. In a division as down as the AFC West, that’s the start of a comeback.

31. Rams (31) — A week after losing a 10-point halftime lead and the game at home to division rival Seattle, St. Louis topped that by blowing a 13-point fourth quarter lead and losing at home to NFC West foe San Francisco with receiver Isaac Bruce, cut by the Rams during the offseason, scoring one of the Niners’ touchdowns. The 2-14 year ends Sunday.

32. Lions (32) — And so it has come to this for the lowliest Lions: there’s been more focus on a Detroit columnist’s mean question to coach Rod Marinelli about his daughter’s marriage than on the fact that Detroit is just a loss at Green Bay from becoming the first 0-16 team. Maybe that controversy will help, but it’s doubtful after 17 straight losses in Wisconsin.

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