NFL Power Rankings, Week 13: Carolina Panthers claim No. 1

Stretch-run time, man.

The Week 13 NFL Power Rankings are in, with teams across the league gearing up for these last five weeks of the regular season. No more byes, no more holiday triple-headers and no more time for excuses around this year's "it" teams. Hashtag, December football.

Like the relationship between Peyton and the Broncos (which is bound to suffer in 3 ... 2 ...)? Or makeup-able, à la Favre in a beanie with a Kenny Rogers beard at Lambeau?

I am not above posting this tweet. #earnedit

Cousins and the Redskins earned it this past week, as did many of the winners in the Week 13 Power Rankings -- like those pesky Lions! Take a gander below to see if you agree with your team's spot. Let me know what you find: @HarrisonNFL is the dropbox.

Let the dissension commence!

NOTE: The lineup below reflects changes from our Nov. 24 Power Rankings.

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The shellacking this team handed the Cowboys at AT&T Stadium effectively Riverboat Ron'd any remaining non-believers. Actually, Rivera played most of the Thanksgiving game close to the vest, understanding that his defense was controlling the contest. This space has always felt Carolina is one of the better ballclubs in the NFL (although you wouldn't know it, judging from the mentions in my Twitter timeline), but has never felt the Panthers will go 16-0. Given the remainder of their schedule, however, I have to say it just might happen. Ditto Cam Newton winning the MVP, as the race between him and Tom Brady is a heckuva close shave right now. Shout-out to the scores of readers who felt change was needed at the top. An example (little biased, but that's OK):

The only person who hated the refs' work Sunday night more than Tom Brady? Peyton Manning. First loss in a long while for a Bill Belichick-led team that has been playing with fire for several weeks in a row. Of course, a pass offense that features Brandon Bolden, Brandon LaFell, Keshawn Martin and Scott Chandler should probably be ranked 61st, not first. What Tom Brady was able to accomplish late in the fourth quarter with the posse he was rolling with should cement him as the greatest quarterback of all time.

The Cardinals are the NFC's foremost opponent to the Panthers' dominance of the conference. But this is the Power Rankings -- the article of truth! -- so let's be honest here: They got bailed out in San Francisco. A ticky-tacky roughing-the-passer on Quinton Dial, failure by the refs to call a delay-of-game penalty and dropped interceptions allowed Arizona to snatch victory from the jaws of a flat freaking performance. That said, good teams find ways to win these kinds of games. Bad teams don't.

Kudos, Leon Hall. Not too many guys come back from one Achilles injury, much less a twofer. Nice to see the long-time Bengal putting away the Rams with a second-half pick-six on Sunday. With the Steelers' loss putting them three games behind Cincy in the AFC North, the division race is all but over with five games to play. #WhoDey

Examining the AFC playoff picture -- i.e., the Brocketology -- the Broncos have an excellent shot for the top seed in the postseason. They are a mere game behind the Patriots, with a home bout against the equally 9-2 Bengals on tap in Week 16. By that time, DeMarcus Ware should be fully healthy. John Elway and Gary Kubiak should be reasonably excited, at least until they sit down for the breakup talk with a certain quarterback. Those are never fun. Perhaps they should say, "It's not you, it's us." That approach works well.

What a surprising Thanksgiving loss to Chicago. The reality is that we wouldn't be talking about it if Davante Adams could catch a contested football. That's part of being a wide receiver in the NFL -- using your body to shield defenders and securing the tough catches. While all of our stomachs were full of Turkey Day goodness, Adams and James Jones needed their Hall of Fame quarterback to walk the football over and place it in their bellies.

People can talk all they want about Carolina not getting respect, but here are the Vikings at 8-3. Why not talk about these guys? Adrian Peterson made Hamburger Helper out of the Falcons' meaty run defense, while the Vikings' D made Matt Ryan appear to be, well, Matt Ryan. The inconsistent quarterback was ineffective throughout, including on an all-important pick by the ageless Terence Newman in the end zone. Love T-New.

If Antarctica were a chip, it would sit squarely on the shoulder of No. 89 in Seahawks blue and lime green. Doug Baldwin always gives the sense, forcibly, that he is enough as a WR1 in an oft-absent passing game. He showed up Sunday, bailing out his team's secondary time and again. Broken coverage by DeShawn Shead (but who's taking names?), Jeremy Lane (oh -- I am) missing a huge third-down tackle of DeAngelo Williams, Earl Thomas arriving a step late on everything ... we could go on and on. The point? Seattle won a huge ballgame against a contender -- with what is typically the strength of the team playing the worst game ever.

The better team might have lost on Sunday. So many plays to circle in the setback in Seattle: Antonio Brown falling down on a deep ball picked by Richard Sherman ... Markus Wheaton's catch on the sideline getting overturned (MIT professors will solve global warming and why it doesn't rain in California before ascertaining what comprises an NFL catch) ... Ben Roethlisberger failing to pull the ball back before it shot-putted out of his hands into Ahtyba Rubin's paws. Ugh -- disappointing loss for the Terrible Towels, who consequently lost their wild-card spot.

Who looks more unbeatable than the Chiefs right now? The Panthers? OK. Who else? While we're at it, who will beat Kansas City now or in the near future? Take a gander at the Chiefs' upcoming schedule:

At worst, this team is going 9-7. But can you say that 11-5 isn't more foreseeable?

Houston goes as far as the defense takes it. That could mean the AFC South title or sixth seed. Who would've thought that, after allowing more than 500 yards to the dismal Dolphins, these Texans would go on to average a mere 250.5 yards allowed in the ensuing games? That's 35.3 yards per game fewer than the Broncos' top-ranked defense is giving up this season. So much for the game passing Romeo Crennel by ...

Hey, sports broadcasters, everyone gets it: Matt Hasselbeck is 40. We're starting to slide into Tom Brady was a sixth-round draft pick and Did you know Antonio Gates played basketball? territory with the constant talk of Hasselbeck's age. Brett Favre got an MVP vote at 40. Vinny Testaverde started an entire season at 40. Sonny Jurgensen posted the highest passer rating in the NFC at 40. Enough already. What's important is that the Colts play the Texans in Week 15. #football

So close for Tyrod Taylor on that fourth-down run that ended the Bills' final possession. Buffalo's grasp of the wild card has slid right through the proverbial fingers the last two weeks -- with losses to the Patriots and Chiefs -- because the offense can't put together a drive at the end of the game. While Taylor put up another nice statistical outing (106.4 passer rating), the Bills aren't scoring enough points to compensate for a defense that gives 'em up. Not sure any member of the Bills Mafia thought the latter side of the ball would be such a leaky roof. Where have you gone, Fred Smerlas?

The power of the razor and a douse of shaving cream is formidable, apparently. Ryan Fitzpatrick took down his beard before playing a clean game of football, sans a turnover versus the Dolphins. Varying reports said these things might have been found in Fitzpatrick's bristles upon trimming:

 **a)** Beer goggles toward 
 Devin Smith, 
 who finally scored. 
 **c)** Ken O'Brien's 
 "Starting Lineup" figurine. 
 "Witness" with DVD commentary, where Harrison Ford lives with the Amish. 

Forget the home loss to the Broncos -- this football team is hot. And we're starting to wonder what would've happened if this Jay Cutler had been around in 2011 or 2012, the final days of the Lovie Smith Era. Oh, what could've been ... Poised and under control, Cutler is proving that solid quarterback play often has little to do with fantasy numbers. It's avoiding the plays that kill your football team.

And how about the defense?

Ah, the drama (dramedy) of the NFC East. The Giants wasted an opportunity that should have been easier to pick up than a Tiki Barber fumble on Sunday. With the Eagles and Cowboys getting squashed on Turkey Day and the Redskins destined to be a side dish in the division if Big Blue swept them, the outcome was swept away in Eli Manning interceptions and Giant mistakes. But hey, they're still in a first-place tie.

Take a bow, Derek Carr. The young quarterback drove his mates the length of the field to win in the sloppy elements -- and in a game they had to have. To do that when you're playing model football is notable, but when you're missing throws, like to a wide-open Michael Crabtree on that same drive, resilience is as important as talent. Again, big ups.

Opportunity lost for the Bucs, who didn't get outplayed Sunday at Lucas Oil. Rather, they beat themselves. The 12 penalties obviously mattered when you consider that Tampa Bay outgained the Colts and averaged almost a yard more per play (5.5 to 4.7). And while Bucs drives continually stalled, the difference in the game was the Colts scoring two touchdowns in four trips into the red zone.

If Kirk Cousins could play every game at home, Tom Brady and Joe Montana might have to move aside. Thanks to one of the crazier statistical fluctuations of the season, the Redskins quarterback's herky-jerky ride rolls on -- along with Washington's NFC East hopes:

 **» Cousins at home:** 11 TDs, 2 INTs, 113 passer rating. 
 **» Cousins on the road:** 5 TDs, 8 INTs, 69.8 passer rating. 

At least he makes it interesting.

Don't look now, but the Lions are the NFC's third-hottest team ... and that's saying something, considering the Panthers have won 15 straight regular-season games dating back to last year, and the Cardinals have become everyone's darling in 2015. The heart of the three-game win streak? Everybody. Matt Stafford looks like a completely different player in Jim Bob Cooter's offense. Megatron looks happy (well, for him). And not even the lovechild of Anthony Munoz, Larry Allen and Lomas Brown could block Ziggy Ansah right now.

Even Falcons fans can't argue against the precipitous drop here. Who cares if this team is 6-5? Who is playing worse football than NotHotlanta right now? The Falcons haven't won a game in more than a month. The last team they defeated, the 2-9 Titans, would probably beat them if they played today. Atlanta has turned the ball over more since Week 5 (19 times) than any other team in the entire league. And yet, the wild card is there for the taking. Incredible.

Among the teams that lost Sunday, the Dolphins looked the worst. Chris Ivory's 31-yard touchdown jaunt, during which he broke five tackles, must've upset every fan in Miami. Tim Bowens must've been ticked off. Zach Thomas probably threw his remote at the TV. Louis Oliver likely hit the Bowflex with his anger. John Offerdahl tuned it out before making a spinach dip out of a bread bowl. Not sure how Aubrey Beavers reacted ... basically just wanted to type a sentence with Aubrey Beavers in it. So ... the Dolphins are 4-7.

Around 1982, a nice evening with the fam involved Patio TV Dinners and 60 minutes of " That's Incredible," featuring Fran Tarkenton and Cathy Lee Crosby. That New Orleans is still wholly relevant in the 2015 playoff discussion would have been a more-than-viable segment. In fact, some of Bum Phillips' '82 club from that era could beat this group. Yet, with the Bucs, Falcons, Eagles, Packers and Rams all losing on Sunday, the Saints are in business when they have no business being so. #GeorgeRogers #GuidoMerkens

It's gotten so bad for Philly that faint chants for Koy Detmer could be heard within sports bars all around Philly. The Eagles' defense absolutely stunk in Detroit, no question, but the offense sure doesn't help matters when it's contributing those fast-paced three-and-outs. Kelly was so uncomfortable fielding questions about his product on the field, that he introduced a new method for all coaches to follow. Forget the gruff, one-word, terse-is-as-terse-gets approach from the Belichicks of the world. Nope. Kelly gave the media cesspool the "Storage Wars" auctioneer, sheering responsibility with sheer speed ...

 *"Wejusthavetoplaybetter. Ithinkwe'llgetbetterwiththeplayerswehave. Guysmighthavelostfocus. Jeremymaclinwhowe'lljusttakeitonegameatatime. Idon'tknowwhensambradfordwillbeback. Ihaven'tlostcontrolofeverything."* 

Not sure any team in league history has ever had its wins and losses decided at the end of football games like the Ravens have. But a walk-off field-goal block TD in regulation? That really never has happened before. Give credit where credit is due: Matt Schaub, Buck Allen and Kamar Aiken -- three guys who Topps probably wasn't looking to make any football cards of -- made plays Monday night. Look out.

Add injury to insult for the reeling Cowboys, who will now trot Matt Cassel back out there at quarterback. And if he doesn't work out? Enter Kellen Moore. Unfortunately, Tony Romo is out for the season, leading this space to speculate how much time he has left in his career. Although the Panthers' defense made the man who posted 2014's top passer rating resemble a rookie Thursday, Romo remains one of the top players in Cowboys history, as fans are all too familiar with how this Dallas team looks without its franchise quarterback. #0-7

Here is how I knew it was going to be San Diego's day: The first piece of Chargers- Jaguars I took in was a Philip Rivers 8-yard scamper for a first down. Rivers "sprinted" to the first-down marker, which led to the Bolts going up two scores in the fourth quarter. Antonio Gates caught two touchdown passes from Rivers on Sunday, giving the 35-year-old tight end four scores on just 33 receptions. Melvin Gordon has 170 touches, zero touchdowns. The rookie scores less than Poindexter in "Revenge of the Nerds."

Not dropping these guys this week -- not after some of the penalties they endured Sunday. The 49ers gave the big, bad Cardinals all they could handle at the Blue Jean. Meanwhile, Blaine Gabbert's play makes you wish Colin Kaepernick had been benched in, oh, Week 3.

In unrelated news, those alternate unis are hideous. This franchise has arguably the classiest-looking jersey in pro football. Come on.

If the Jaguars are ever going to compete for a playoff spot, then they have to win games like Sunday's. The Chargers limped into Jacksonville with the worst record in pro football, against a team that is in its first division title race since 2007. With the way the Texans are playing -- and, somewhat surprisingly, the Colts -- Gus Bradley can kiss his postseason dreams goodbye now. The defense simply can't get stops. And while Blake Bortles puts up nice fantasy numbers, turnovers = costly.

The 2015 campaign has turned ugly quick in St. Louis. Jeff Fisher has fewer supporters than Mike Martz at "Pass Protection Made Simple" coaching camps ... than people who want the Raiders back in L.A. Then there is Nick Foles, whose uninspiring play is making Chip Kelly look like Football Yoda right now. Do you realize how difficult that is?

The Titans' pass defense -- ranked third going into Week 12 -- couldn't hold the fort in soggy Nashville on Sunday, leaving this team in position to land the top pick in the 2016 NFL Draft. Not that anyone is desirous of another cruddy record. The good news is the team found its quarterback of the future, particularly important considering the upcoming college marketplace is devoid of franchise QBs. #positiveenergey #PowerRankings

Only in Cleveland would a team name a quarterback the starter and then demote him to third-string before he took the field. Only in Cleveland would a team lose a game it was lining up to win. Only in Cleveland would a team literally become the first NFL franchise to lose on a walk-off *field-goal block TD* in regulation. Yuck. #OIC #OnlyInCleveland

Follow Elliot Harrison on Twitter @HarrisonNFL.

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