The Washington Times - December 31, 2009, 04:26PM

NFL POWER RANKINGS David Elfin’s rankings (Last week’s rankings in parentheses).

What a weird penultimate week in the NFL.


Indianapolis was 20 minutes from heading into the finale still unbeaten when rookie coach Jim Caldwell yanked his stars, costing the Colts a chance at history.

New Orleans and Minnesota, vying for homefield advantage in the NFC, both fell to losing teams. Tampa Bay and Cleveland both won. Again.

Denver and Jacksonville lost as did Miami and Tennessee at home and Baltimore on the road keeping hope alive for the New York Jets, Houston and Pittsburgh.

The New York Giants departed Giants Stadium in the worst way possible, getting blown out by a losing team and being eliminated from NFC contention.

All this flux sent teams careening up and down the rankings like pinballs. The Jets and Texans jumped seven spots. The Steelers rose five and the Bucs and Carolina (which beat the Giants) four. The Giants plunged nine spots, the Titans six, the Ravens five and the Dolphins and Oakland (which lost to the Browns) four.

The only suspense left in the NFC is who — Minnesota, Arizona or the NFC East champ — joins the Saints in having a first-round bye. Philadelphia meets Dallas with the winner taking the NFC East and the other being a wild card.

The AFC divisions have been won. The Jets and Ravens are the wild cards if they beat the the North champion Bengals and the Raiders, respectively.

1. Colts (1) — Amazing, but with a 14-1 record, Jim Caldwell is persona non grata in Indianapolis this week after pulling Peyton Manning, Reggie Wayne et al with a lead which the backups blew to the Jets, costing the Colts their shot at a perfect season. Maybe beating Buffalo heading into the playoffs will restore happiness.

2. Chargers (3) — With Indy losing, San Diego is now the NFL’s hottest team, having won 10 in a row to clinch a first-round bye. Norv Turner, who couldn’t win down the stretch in Washington or Oakland, is now Mr. December. And don’t forget that the Chargers bounced the Colts from the playoffs in 2007 and 2008.

3. Eagles (4) — It was a struggle against Denver at home, but the Eagles have won six in a row and will win the NFC East by avenging a Week 9 loss to the Cowboys on Sunday at Dallas. Philly will gain a first-round bye with a victory and if the Giants upset the Vikings. The Eagles are a wild card if they lose to the Cowboys.

4. Saints (2) — Someone forgot to tell the Saints that the season doesn’t end in November. New Orleans outscored its first 11 opponents by 182 points. In going 2-2 since that 11-0 start, New Orleans has been outscored by four points. The Saints had better pound the Panthers to regain their mojo before their first-round bye.

5. Vikings (5) — Minnesota is 0-3 this month at night after losing 36-30 Monday on at Chicago. The Vikings allowed 92 points in those losses to Arizona, Carolina and the Bears after giving up just 213 points in their other 12 games. The defense needs to get back on track Sunday against the Giants to secure a first-round bye.

6. Cowboys (6) — If Tony Romo and Wade Phillips complete a sweep of Philadelphia on Sunday, they’ll win the NFC East, gain a first-round bye if Minnesota and Arizona lose and enjoy their first winning December in Dallas. If the Cowboys lose, they’ll still be a wild card but the road to playoff success will be much harder.

7. Bengals (7) — Make it two AFC North titles in five years for Cincinnati which had gone 14 years without making the playoffs before 2005. Last Sunday’s victory was emotional since it was the first home game since receiver Chris Henry’s death. The only question for the Bengals is whether they’ll be the third or fourth seed.

8. Packers (8) — Aaron Rodgers became the first quarterback to pass for 4,000 yards in each of the first two seasons that he started a game and matched predecessor Brett Favre in leading Green Bay to the playoffs in his second year as its starter. The Pack close at Arizona in a possible first-round preview.

9. Cardinals (10) — If Arizona beats Green Bay at home, Dallas wins at Philly and Minnesota gets upset by the Giants, the Cards will have a first-round bye. If not, Arizona will try to repeat last year’s NFC title formula: first-round game at home, second round on the road and hope to face a wild card at home for the championship.

10. Patriots (11) — New England emphatically won its seventh AFC East crown in Tom Brady’s eight years as its quarterback by thumping Jacksonville 35-7. If the Pats win Sunday at Houston and Cincinnati loses at the Jets, they’ll be the third seed and avoid facing nemesis Indy until the conference championship game.

11. Texans (18) — Left for dead a month ago after losing four straight AFC South games by a combined 19 points, Houston has won three in a row and can still make the playoffs with losses by the Jets, Ravens, Broncos and Steelers. That’s improbable, but the first winning season is still in sight for the 8-7 Texans.

12. Jets (19) — In a classic case of timing is everything, New York played Indy when the Colts had nothing to play for and opted to rest its stars with a third quarter lead. The Jets roared back and can gain a wild card berth for rookie coach Rex Ryan by getting back to .500 at home with a victory over the Bengals.

13. Broncos (13) — Denver, teailing 27-10 with 17 minutes left in Philly, rallied to tie the game with 6:05 left only to lose on a field goal with four seconds to go. The gut-wrenching defeat means the Broncos, who were 6-0 on Halloween, need to beat Kansas City and have the Jets or Ravens lose to earn a wild card berth.

14. Ravens (9) — Baltimore rebounded from a 20-10 halftime deficit to tie host Pittsburgh with 6:16 left in the third quarter but didn’t score again and were undone by penalties, drops and turnovers in losing 23-20. Still, the Ravens will be a wild card for a second straight year by beating the 5-10 Raiders in Oakland.

15. Falcons (16) — Atlanta has been to a Super Bowl and a pair of NFC Championship Games, but the Falcons have never managed to post consecutive winning seasons during their 44-year history. So while Atlanta (8-7) won’t make the playoffs, it can end that ignominious streak by sweeping suddenly hot Tampa Bay on Sunday.

16. Steelers (21) — The champs have had a supremely rocky season, but they managed to edge fellow contenders Green Bay and Baltimore to stay alive heading into the final day. Pittsburgh will make the playoffs by winning at Miami at 1 PM and if two out of three of the Jets, Ravens and Broncos lose later in the day.

17. 49ers (17) — After losing four in a row, San Francisco has traded victories and defeats for seven weeks meaning it’s due for a loss in Sunday’s finale at St. Louis. However, the Rams have lost 12 straight at home and the Niners, who crushed them 35-0 in Week 4, are looking to finish .500 for the first time since 2002.

18. Panthers (22) — Outscoring NFC North champion Minnesota and the 2008 NFC regular season champion Giants 61-9 over the last five quarters earned coach John Fox and general manager Marty Hurney a reprieve for 2010 after a 5-8 start. The Panthers can finish .500 by beating the going-through-the-motions Saints at home.

19. Dolphins (15) — A week after rallying from a 24-6 deficit to force overtime only to lose on an overtime field goal at Tennessee, Miami fell behind 27-0 at home to Houston. The Dolphins closed within 27-20 but couldn’t recover the onside kick with 2:30 left. Miami (7-8) needs a miracle to win a second straight playoff spot.

20. Titans (14) — Losing 42-17 at home to San Diego and being eliminated from contention just five days after winning its seventh game in eight to reach .500 was no one’s idea of a Merry Christmas in Nashville. Still, the Titans can avoid their first losing season since 2005 by beating the sinking Seahawks in Seattle.

21. Giants (12) — Maybe New York’s ugly swansong at Giants Stadium against Carolina shouldn’t have been so unexpected. Yes, the Giants had pummeled the Redskins six days earlier, but they had still lost six of their past nine games and were just 4-3 at home this year and only plus-34 during 34 seasons in the stadium.

22. Bears (25) — Will upsetting NFC North champion Minnesota in his home finale and probably sweeping lowly Detroit on Sunday to finish 7-9 be enough to save coach Lovie Smith in Chicago? Smith is under .500 since his 2006 Super Bowl season, but if Mike Shanahan doesn’t want the job, as reported, maybe he gets one more year.

23. Jaguars (20) — It’s not easy for a warm weather team to play in Foxborough after Christmas, but only Jacksonville was really that cold last Sunday at New England, falling behind 28-0 at halftime and never making a game of it. The 7-8 Jags, who are almost eliminated, could really find it cold Sunday at Cleveland.

24. Buccaneers (28) — Trailing 17-0 at NFC top seed New Orleans, it would’ve been easy for 2-12 Tampa Bay to call it a day. Instead, the Bucs roared back thanks to rookie quarterback Josh Freeman, a resurgent defense and a punt return score for the season’s biggest shocker. Can they make it three straight against Atlanta?

25. Browns (27) — Cleveland was just 5-23 the last two years on Dec. 9. The Browns are 3-0 since, outscoring Pittsburgh, Kansas City and Oakland by 28 points. Perhaps new GM Mike Holmgren will be encouraged enough to keep first-year coach Eric Mangini, his staff and key players no matter what happens Sunday against the Jags.

26. Bills (23) — Last week’s 31-3 rout at Atlanta was Buffalo’s fourth loss this year by at least 20 points and was its most lopsided defeat in its past 37 games. Interim coach Perry Fewell coaches his final game Sunday against AFC top seed Indy as the 5-10 Bills look to avoid matching their worst record since 2001.

27. Redskins (26) — When soon to be former Washington coach Jim Zorn looks back on what went wrong in 2009, he can point to an 0-6 NFC East record. The Redskins are 4-5 otherwise. Washington (4-11) needs to upset AFC West champion San Diego to avoid its worst record since 1994 when Chargers coach Norv Turner was its coach.

28. Raiders (24) — Despite Sebastian Janikowski’s 61-yard field goal, the fourth-longest ever, Oakland still lost 23-9 last Sunday at Cleveland, going scoreless in the second half to record its seventh straight season of double-digit defeats. The Raiders might keep the Ravens from postseason by winning on Sunday.

29. Chiefs (30) — Maybe Kansas City should switch to the AFC North. After stunning Pittsburgh and being tied at Cleveland in the final minute, the Chiefs were tied with powerful Cincinnati with 2:04 to go last Sunday before losing. Kansas City can ruin AFC West rival Denver’s playoff hopes by winning at home on Sunday.

30. Seahawks (29) — It has been an ugly two seasons in Seattle. After averaging nine victories from 1999-2007, winning five division titles and making the playoffs seven times, the Seahawks are 9-22 since, their worst back-to-back years since 1992-93. They lost the last three weeks to the Texans, Bucs and Pack by 82 points.

31. Lions (31) — Make it two straight winless years on the road and five out of nine for Detroit after last week’s 20-6 loss at San Francisco in which the Lions led after 14:00 but didn’t score again until just 3:55 remained. Detroit (2-13) concludes the worst consecutive seasons in its 80-year history Sunday at Chicago.

32. Rams (32) — St. Louis was tied with NFC West champion Arizona after 17 minutes last Sunday. Thirteeen minutes later, the Rams trailed 17-0 en route to its sixth defeat by at least 20 points. St. Louis, 1-14 this season and 6-41 the last three years, clinches the No. 1 draft pick by falling on Sunday to the visiting Niners.

— David Elfin -