NFL Power Rankings: Patriots rise to the top

Tom Brady is embracing the role of underdog in the AFC championship game. (Stephan Savoia/AP)
November 26, 2013, 5:48 PM

It’s a lesson we’ve been taught time and time again the past 13 years in the NFL: never count out Tom Brady and Bill Belichick.

Following a tumultuous off-season in which the Patriots were engulfed by the legal troubles of former tight end Aaron Hernandez, the dynamic duo has faced heaps of scrutiny during the regular season. Many questioned the team’s inexperience on offence after losing Hernandez and former go-to receiver Wes Welker; questions arose when one key defensive player after another was forced out due to injury; even more questions arose about Brady after the legendary quarterback threw just two touchdowns over a four-game stretch.

Question no more.

Orchestrating the biggest comeback in Patriots history Sunday night against Peyton Manning and the high-powered Broncos, Belichick and Brady proved to the football world once again that all they need is each other.

RANK

TEAM PREV

1

The first half against the Broncos was far from perfect football, in fact it may have been the Patriots’ worst of the season. But, led by a crazy-eyed Tom Brady, New England was a different team in the second half. If the injury-ravaged-yet-overachieving defence can continue to perform, this team is a true title contender.

6

2

The Seahawks come off the bye and enter into the most important two-game stretch of the season, starting with a Monday night matchup against the Saints that could ultimately decide the top spot in the NFC. Seattle’s ongoing problems at cornerback couldn’t have come at a worse time.

2

3

Let’s chalk that performance up to fatigue. The Saints didn’t look like themselves on offence against the Falcons last Thursday, but thanks to solid defence and some questionable play calling by the Falcons, New Orleans was able to maintain its one-game lead in the NFC South. The Saints’ regular season, however, will be defined in the next two weeks with games at Seattle and home against the surging Panthers.

4

4

Boy, that’s a tough way to lose a football game, especially after being up 24-0 at the half. Peyton Manning was 50-0 in games where his team led by at least 22 before Sunday night. The Broncos must recover quickly as they head to K.C. to take on a Chiefs team that’s coming off a stinging loss of its own.

1

5

The hottest team in the NFL kept it going Sunday thanks to a full team effort in the second half. After falling down 16-6, the Panthers’ defence didn’t allow a single point in the final two frames and Cam Newton did the rest. With his play over the past two weeks, Newton has solidified himself as a legitimate MVP candidate.

5

6

One good thing that came out of Sunday’s loss to the Chargers: Alex Smith and the offence showed they can hold up in a shootout. But the bad outweighs the good as K.C. come off its second straight loss, starting with the injuries to Tamba Hali and Justin Houston. A Chiefs team that registered 10 sacks in Week 6 has just one in the past three games.

4

7

After dropping two in a row and allowing the Cardinals to leapfrog them in the NFC West, the 49ers got a big win Monday night. Colin Kaepernick had his best game since Week 1 and San Francisco’s defence smothered RG3 and the Redskins’ struggling offence. The Niners face the Rams and Seahawks in must-win games the next two weeks.

7

8

All of a sudden the Steelers and Ravens are hot on the tail of the AFC North-leading Bengals, who come off a bye with a two-game lead in the division. Cincinnati has a stiff test of AFC opponents the next three weeks, starting Sunday with Philip Rivers and the high-flying Chargers.

8

9

I think it’s fair to say that Carson Palmer has found his stride. The Cardinals quarterback has thrown for 400-plus yards two weeks in a row while leading an offence that’s averaged 30 points a game during a four-game win streak. Coupled with a defence that hasn’t allowed more than 300 total yards during that stretch, and the Cards are becoming a serious threat in the NFC.

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10

While the Cowboys defence decided to make it interesting by allowing a Giants comeback, Tony Romo did a spectacular job on the final drive of the game, converting crucial third downs, running the clock and not pulling a “Romo.” Dallas now controls its own playoff destiny.

13

11

The Eagles were sitting at home while the Cowboys beat the Giants and now get back into the swing of things with a big test at home against the streaking Cardinals. Nick Foles and the Eagles can’t lose many more, as they will probably need to win the NFC East to get into the playoffs.

11

12

Detroit continues to be its own worst enemy. The Lions were given a golden opportunity to increase their lead in the NFC North thanks to a loss by the Bears but, thanks to five turnovers against the Bucs, couldn’t capitalize. Big questions also remain on the defensive side of the ball, as Detroit’s secondary has given up far too many big plays this season.

10

13

The Chargers needed a win on Sunday to keep up in the AFC Wild Card race and Philip Rivers delivered it. Thanks to Rivers’s late-game heroics, San Diego is in the thick of the post-season chase with a crucial game against the Bengals on the docket.

13

14

Since giving up a franchise-record 55 points to the Patriots in Week 9, the Steelers defence has been lights out. Other than a rough second quarter against the Lions last week, Dick LeBeau’s defensive unit has smothered the opposition. The fact that Big Ben has six touchdowns, no picks and a 110.8 quarterback rating over the past two weeks helps, too.

19

15

The loss of Reggie Wayne a little more than a month ago altered the course of this team’s season. No one on the offence, not even Andrew Luck, can execute anymore and Wayne’s leadership has been sorely missed. The defence isn’t any better. Thanks to a weak division, Indy will get in the playoffs, but THESE Colts won’t win a game in January.

9

16

The Bears once again find themselves lucky to be in the NFL’s biggest mess of a division. Chicago was able to get back into the game against St. Louis Sunday only to blow it in the fourth quarter. But, thanks to the Lions’ loss to the Bucs, remain in a tie for the NFC North lead. But is this really a playoff team?

12

17

It wasn’t pretty, but the Ravens stayed in the playoff race with a boring win over the struggling Jets. Defence was the word of the day in Baltimore, as the Ravens held New York to just 220 total yards. But the offence is still struggling to play consistently and the lack of any sort of running game means this team won’t be a threat come January.

17

18

This loss is going to be tough to overcome in what has already been a tough season in Miami. With the chance to take sole possession of the final AFC wild card spot, the Dolphins couldn’t hold on late and now sit in a group with six other teams at 5-6. All of that can be forgotten with wins against their next two opponents — the Jets and Steelers.

16

19

With two dominant victories their past two outings, the Rams, without their franchise quarterback, have helped justify why the NFC West was heralded coming into the season. With road games against division rivals San Francisco and Arizona coming up, St. Louis has a chance to get back in the NFC playoff picture but they need to keep up the high-paced play that’s got them back in the “W” column.

21

20

The Jets have lost two straight for the first time this season and it comes down to the horrendous play of rookie quarterback Geno Smith. Due to the backlog of teams at 5-6 in the AFC, Rex Ryan’s team is still in the mix, but Geno may need to sit on the sidelines in order to give this team the offensive boost it needs.

15

21

Ryan Fitzpatrick’s play of late is showing Titans fans exactly why the Bills gave the quarterback a $59-million deal in 2011. He single-handedly lifted Tennessee to a critical last-second win over the Raiders to keep the team’s playoff hopes alive. The Titans could improve their chance exponentially this weekend with a win over the struggling Colts.

23

22

With losses by both the Jets and Dolphins, the Bills will be coming off the bye healthy and with a slim chance of snapping their playoff drought. Buffalo heads to Toronto to take on the slumping Falcons in a game the team would do well not to take lightly.

25

23

All Matt Flynn needed was a little bit of Lambeau. The long-travelled quarterback came in for the ineffective Scott Tolzien and helped end Green Bay’s losing skid. Unfortunately, he couldn’t get the win. With Aaron Rodgers likely out for Thanksgiving Day, Flynn will need to do more of the same in a vital division game against the Lions.

20

24

It was a valiant effort, but Sunday’s loss effectively ends the Giants’ hopes for a playoff appearance. Eli Manning and New York were able to limit the turnovers that cost them so dearly early in the season, but the defence couldn’t stop Tony Romo on a crippling final drive.

24

25

After an absolutely awful start to the season, the Bucs have put together four solid games in a row, including three consecutive wins. Thanks to hard-nosed defence and the play of rookie quarterback Mike Glennon, who is making a case for rookie of the year, Greg Schiano’s job may yet be saved.

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26

A long shot coming into Week 12, any hopes of a playoff appearance for the Raiders evaporated in the final seconds of the loss to Tennessee. Undrafted rookie quarterback Matt McGloin was impressive in his second start and is making a case as the permanent starter heading into the off-season

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27

Unlike previous years, Cleveland isn’t a terrible team; the Browns just don’t have enough firepower at the positions that matter most: quarterback and running back. Good thing they have two 2014 first-round picks to cure what ails them. They do, however, have a legit No. 1 receiver in Josh Gordon.

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28

There’s not much to be positive about in the U.S. capital. Like we’ve said all year, RG3 isn’t the same player we saw last season. Problem is, the second-year quarterback is playing like he is. Griffin hasn’t been able to adjust to the effects of his injury and it’s hurt Washington’s offence immensely. A full off-season together will do wonders for RG3 and the Redskins.

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29

The saddest part about Minnesota’s tie against the Packers was that the Vikings offence actually played well with Christian Ponder at the helm. The defence, however, was awful in the fourth quarter, allowing the Pack to climb back into the game. Another inconsistent effort from the disappointing Vikings overshadowed a great performance from Adrian Peterson.

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30

Head coach Gus Bradley and the Jaguars have quietly made a massive improvement defensively. After allowing more than 161 rushing yards a game, Jacksonville has allowed just 58 a game the past three contests, two of which were wins. That’s a big positive in a mostly forgettable season in Jacksonville.

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31

Atlanta kept it close in both games against the Saints this season, but this team just isn’t good enough to hang with the big boys. The Falcons made some frustrating decisions Thursday that changed the landscape of the game, including Matt Ryan’s questionable slide in the red zone and a field goal attempt in the final minutes when they were down by four.

31

32

With Super Bowl aspirations entering the season, no one would’ve guessed the Texans would be in line for the first-overall pick come Thanksgiving, but here we are. Case Keenum did look like a promising part of Houston’s future, but after the offence was held to just 214 yards against the Jags, you have to think Teddy Bridgewater is looking mighty tempting.

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