The Washington Times - January 1, 2009, 04:42PM

The New York Giants ended the NFL regular season where they spent a good majority of it: Ranked No. 1 in our weekly power rankings.

The top two teams, the Giants and the Titans, have stumbled a bit of late, mostly due to injuries and resting their starters; were this an AP basketball or football poll, losing a combined five of their last seven wouldn’t bode well for holding on to the top two spots. But hey, these are power rankings, not polls.

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The Cowboys dropped the most in the final week — out of the playoffs, embarrassed on national television by the Eagles, they dropped from eighth to 15th on our list.

As always, last week’s rankings (in parentheses).

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(Eli Manning hands off to Derrick Ward in this AP photo)

1. Giants (1): The champs lost three of their last four, two of which meant something, but they won the one that counted against Carolina to claim the top seed in the NFC playoffs. New York won’t become the first repeat NFC champion in 11 years unless burly back Brandon Jacobs is healthy again and unless they recover their mojo for next week’s playoff opener.

2. Titans (2): Like the Giants, the AFC kingpins won’t exactly enter postseason on a roll, having lost two of their last three but winning the one that counted against Pittsburgh for homefield advantage. That bodes well for a possible conference title game rematch. Any team that can run and stop the run like Tennessee is a serious threat to win it all.

3. Panthers (3): Carolina has the NFL’s hottest back in DeAngelo Williams, an elite receiver in Steve Smith and a coach (John Fox) and quarterback (Jake Delhomme) who almost combined to win the Super Bowl five years ago. However, the defense’s struggles down the stretch, could prove decisive in keeping the Panthers from getting back to the big dance.

4. Steelers (4): Pittsburgh didn’t prove anything in blasting Cleveland in its finale and lost Ben Roethlisberger to a concussion in doing so. The good news is that Willie Parker and the rushing attack shook off some of their doldrums and that the quarterback figures to be ready for the Jan. 11 playoff opener. His top-ranked defense will certainly be.

5. Ravens (5): Baltimore hasn’t won a playoff game since 2001 when rookie quarterback Joe Flacco was a high school junior, but the never-nervous kid is as hot as any passer heading into the playoffs. The Ravens have won four of five and have the disruptive defense and the ball control offense to be a factor in the AFC playoffs despite being the sixth seed.

6. Colts (6): Does anyone want to play the Colts, who’ve won nine in a row? The last time they sought playoff revenge (2006 AFC title game against New England, they got it. Now, in the seventh straight postseason for the coach Tony Dungy/quarterback Peyton Manning tandem, they’re out to pay back San Diego for the upset that closed the RCA Dome a year ago.

7. Falcons (7): They might be overshadowed by Miami coach Tony Sparano and Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco, but Falcons coach Mike Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan have had a heck of a debut season that continues with a playoff opener at plummeting Arizona. Atlanta’s middling pass defense is an issue, but its recent road success points to an upset triumph.

8. Dolphins (10): Imagine this script: quarterback dumped by Jets returns to New York with local boy coach to lead Miami, 1-15 in 2007, to playoffs for first time in seven years while ending the season for the team that cut him and getting its coach fired. That’s reality for Chad Pennington and Tony Sparano, but so is facing Ed Reed and the Ravens’ defense Sunday.

9. Patriots (9): Quarterback Matt Cassel and coach Bill Belichick deserved to be in the playoffs with an 11-5 record, three games better than that of AFC West survivor San Diego. But the Pats were pounded by the Chargers 30-10 in Week 6. New England can only hope for a repeat what followed its last non-playoff year in 2002: two straight Lombardi trophies.

10. Eagles (13): Philly certainly handled its narrow Week 16 loss at Washington in the best fashion possible: crushing the Cowboys 44-6 to secure the NFC’s last playoff spot and the seventh postseason trip in the 10 seasons of the coach Andy Reid/quarterback Donovan McNabb partnership. If the Eagles can run Sunday at Minnesota, they’ll win.

11. Vikings (14): Brad Childress, formerly Andy Reid’s offensive coordinator, is a year behind his old boss’ plan. It took Chilly and mobile quarterback Tarvaris Jackson three seasons together to reach the playoffs. But running back Adrian Peterson and the run defense are the keys for Minnesota to beat Philly and win its first playoff home game since 2000.

12. Chargers (19): Let me get this straight. San Diego, coached by Norv Turner, won its final five games in 2007 en route to the AFC title game and just completed a 4-0 December by drubbing Denver 52-21 in a win or go home contest for the AFC Worst title? Has the Norvster really changed or is Philip Rivers a very underrated clutch quarterback? Maybe some of both.

13. Cardinals (18): Arizona hasn’t beaten a winning team since Week 6, going 0-5 with an average 20-point margin of defeat. Going 5-0 against its lousy NFC Worst rivals during that span produced the franchise’s first home playoff game in 61 years. There won’t be a second this month. The Falcons might get arrested on Sunday for beating defenseless birds.

14. Bears (11): As it turned out, the last-second 50-yard field goal by Minnesota’s Ryan Longwell would’ve kept Chicago from winning the NFC North anyway, but losing the finale at so-so Houston with a division title at stake wasn’t a very impressive performance by the Bears. Take away the 2006 Super Bowl season and Lovie Smith is a .500 coach.

15. Cowboys (8): No team, not even winless Detroit, should be more embarassed this offseason than Dallas, which not only managed to lose the finale at Texas Stadium but was then destroyed at Philly with a playoff berth on the line. Kicking a field goal down 44-3 was a pathetic choice by coach Wade Phillips whose team is all talent, no toughness.

16. Saints (16): Drew Brees just missed breaking Dan Marino’s record for most passing yards in a season, but that was appropriate since New Orleans just missed being a playoff team despite an 8-8 record. The Saints’ final three losses were to fellow contenders Tampa Bay and Chicago on the road by a field goal each and to NFC South champ Carolina by 33-31.

17. Jets (15): Eric Mangini could’ve looked really smart if his Jets had completed a sweep of Miami by beating Chad Pennington in the quarterback’s return to the Meadowlands. Instead, Brett Favre looked really old again while Pennington thrived. So now, Mangini, the toast of New York in 2006, is looking for a job. And the Jets are looking for his replacement.

18. Texans (20): If Houstonians can somehow forget the Week 16 loss to the Raiders, they could celebrate the Texans winning five of their final six to finish at .500 for a second straight year after five losing seasons in a row. The Andre Johnson-Steve Slaton-Matt Schaub offensive trifecta is a foundation. Coach Gary Kubiak needs a defense worthy of those guys.

19. Buccaneers (12): The Bucs managed to blow leads and then games to San Diego and lowly Oakland at home the past two weeks to complete a season-ending 4-game skid that cost them a playoff spot. New coordinator Raheem Morris needs to reinvigorate a defense that ran out of steam after a dozen years of excellence under the departed Monte Kiffin.

20. Redskins (17): As quarterback Jason Campbell said after Washington finished 8-8, if the Redskins had only won the games they should have (Rams, Bengals, Niners). … But Washington wasn’t supposed to win at Dallas or Philadelphia. This was a .500 team the past four years, and thats what it will continue to be unless coach Jim Zorn’s offense can produce some points.

21. 49ers (23): Remember when this was the NFL’s dominant franchise, winning five Super Bowls from 1981-94 and winning at least 10 games each year from 1983-98? These days a 7-9 finish (5-4 under Mike Singletary, who replaced coach Mike Nolan after a 2-5 start) is cause for satisfaction in San Francisco. The Niners start 2009 as the No. 2 team in the NFC Worst.

22. Broncos (21): In this space last week, I asked, “When is someone going to call Mike Shanahan to task?” Maybe Broncos owner Pat Bowlen read my rankings because he stunned the NF by firing his two-time champion coach/pal of 14 years after Denver completed a monumental collapsed by being thrashed 52-21 at San Diego in the showdown for the AFC Worst title.

23. Packers (24): Ending a five-game late-season skid by beating winless Detroit isn’t exactly reason to celebrate in Green Bay. Packers management probably got more fun out of the traitorous Brett Favre blowing a playoff berth with the Jets. It’s time to fix the Green Bay defense yet again, but at least Aaron Rodgers proved a worthy successor to Favre.

24. Raiders (28): It’s almost unthinkable to think that Al Davis will retain Tom The Cable Guy as Oakland’s coach, but who knows how the Raiders’ thinks anymore? In any case, Davis had to relish his lowly outfit’s stunning upset of Tampa Bay last week ruining the playoff plans of Jon Gruden, the former Raiders coach whose name he can’t stand to utter.

25. Bengals (26): The Bungles limped into Week 15 against playoff hopeful Washington at 1-11-1, but they wound up the season with three straight victories: the upset of the Redskins and shutouts of the Browns and Chiefs. Of course, Cincinnatians remember that the Bengals won three of their final four in 2007 and it didn’t carry over into 2008, but …

26. Seahawks (22): Losing seven of his final nine games for a career-worst 4-12 mark isn’t the exit three-time Super Bowl coach Mike Holmgren envisioned when he announced months ago that this would be his last season. Such an ugly finish could prompt Holmgren to give it another shot at age 62 in 2010. By then Seattle might be competitive again. Or maybe not.

27. Bills (25): Buffalo has gone 7-9, 7-9 and guess what, 7-9, in three seasons under coach Dick Jauron, a 7-9 coach if there ever was one. What’s worse, 7-9 meant last place in this year in the formidable AFC East, which will only be tougher when Tom Brady returns to New England in 2009. So why is Bills owner Ralph Wilson having Jauron return?

28. Jaguars (27): Having won a power struggle with front office boss Shack Harris, Jack Del Rio could be the coach with the most disappointing 2008 season to return in 2009. The Jags were 3-3 when they somehow lost back-to-back to the Browns and Bengals. Jacksonville was 2-6 the rest of the way, beating only Detroit and Green Bay. This won’t be an easy fix.

29. Browns (29): It was just a year ago that Clevelanders were wondering how their Browns had managed to just miss the playoffs at 10-6. Today, those same fans are wondering who’s going to clean up the 4-12 mess left by the departed duo of GM Phil Savage and coach Romeo Crennel. The Browns didn’t top 10 points the final five games, the last two being shutouts.

30. Chiefs (30): If Lamar Hunt had to die at 74 in December 2006, at least he didn’t live to see what has happened to the franchise he founded in 1960. After going 4-12 in 2007, its worst record in 29 years, Kansas City got even worse in 2008, finishing a franchise-worst 2-14. Will whoever replaces departed GM Carl Peterson really hang onto coach Herman Edwards?

31. Rams (31): In a year when local icon Anheuser Busch was taken over by a Belgian conglomerate and both baseball’s Cardinals and Missouri football wilted under pressure, St. Louisians always had the Rams … to kick around. If not for winless Lions, the Lambs would’ve been the NFL’s worst team. Instead, they’re No. 31 for a second straight year.

32. Lions (32): We’re in a recession with jobs hard to come by, but who would want to replace Rod Marinelli as the coach of this team? Detroit made history by going 0-16. It doesn’t have a reliable quarterback, it won just 31 games the past eight years and its best player is 38-year-old kicker Jason Hanson. Interested? Call William Clay Ford, Jr. (313) …