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NFL Power Rankings, Week 17: Atlanta Falcons reclaim top spot

Week 17 is here, as are the Power Rankings. Or maybe I should just say, Merry Christmas, Broncos fandom ...

Considering the abuse this space took from those who felt Denver was being disrespected, it's amazing we're not pushing Tatum Bell Fatheads on the website in response. It should also be noted that having a team at fifth overall is now viewed as a slap in the face. You'd think they were undefeated, or had won nine in a row coming into last weekend. Oh ... wait.

Yes, Denver continues a more prodigious streak than the roll you were on with "Breakfast Club," "Young Guns" and "Men at Work." Frankly, "Emilio," I was a "Young Guns II" guy, myself.

Speaking of two, Denver sits at that lofty spot after stampeding the ailing Browns, pushing the winning run to 10 in a row and the overall record to 12-3. The Broncos sit behind only the red-hot Falcons, who are 13-2, with one of those victories coming courtesy of three Peyton Manning picks. Who would win now? Maybe we'll find out in New Orleans.

As for the rest of the league, let us know how we did in the rankings -- @HarrisonNFL is the dropbox.

Until then, Happy Holidays, and of course, let the dissension ride ...

(Note: Arrows reflect change in standings from last week's Power Rankings.)

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Roddy White was due for a big outing. Three of his previous four games coming into the Saturday night special in Detroit had been disappointing, but he was on point at Ford Field, hauling in eight balls for 153 yards and two touchdowns. Speaking of on point, Matt Ryan played at such a high level that general faith in the Atlanta Falcons must have risen a tick.

Considering the level at which the Denver Broncos and Green Bay Packers are playing, is it possible that we could have a rematch of Super Bowl XXXII? If so, I would be forced to write just four words: "This one's ... for ... JAAHN!" (Make that four words, with a contraction.)

I think Aaron Rodgers is ready for the playoffs, but it's hard to tell. Maybe he should have thrown for 500 yards and eight touchdowns in a 95-7 win. Need to watch the game film.

The New England Patriots struggled for a good portion of their road game in Jacksonville, so they earned a slight demotion in the Power Rankings (especially since they were coming off a home loss, to boot). One thing that's paramount to this Patriots ballclub, though, is its ability to produce takeaways. Three more Sunday gives New England 36 -- most in the AFC (for the second consecutive season).

Holy cow. It's too bad the Seattle Seahawks don't have a slightly better record, because I'm not sure "The Greatest Show on Turf" could move the football without a few turnovers in Seattle. What a stick-it-to-ya win for Pete Carroll and his players. I wonder if Carroll and Jim Harbaugh will ever go sprinting together on the beach in a quest for the West title, a la Sly and Apollo in "Rocky III". Frenemies? Not likely.

The San Francisco 49ers will stay here until I see a healthy Justin Smith on the field. Seriously, though, how do you pick a top team in this league? For the third consecutive week, the No. 1 squad in the Power Rankings goes down in a heap. The Niners showed how vulnerable a top-shelf club can be when missing its top defensive player. That said, the Seahawks dominated. San Francisco is still a very good football team, and could beat the Seahawks at the 'Stick ( as they did back in October). Harbaugh's group better take care of bidness versus the Arizona Cardinals to ensure they'll play another game at the 'Stick.

Hard to be Positive Perry after such an awful performance by a punchless offense, but here's the deal: Beat the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday, and you get a first-round bye and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. From the "In case you were wondering ..." department: The home team has won the last six AFC Championship Games.

The Cincinnati Bengals showed some grit, going into their house of horrors, eliminating the Pittsburgh Steelers from postseason contention and sewing up their second consecutive playoff berth.

Robert Griffin III played efficiently, but it was a team effort from the Washington Redskins on Sunday. Shoot, everybody contributed in Philadelphia. Five different guys ran the football, seven others caught passes. Four different defenders sacked Nick Foles. Heck, even Josh Morgan scored a touchdown -- and didn't throw the football at anybody! Team football -- love it, embrace it, respect it.

The Baltimore Ravens' offense in the first half on Sunday: 290 yards, 7.3 yards per play, 24 points, 6-for-8 on third down, no turnovers. The Ravens hadn't put up that much yardage in the first half since September of last year. Fans miss Cam Cameron. Except not at all.

The Chicago Bears rode the coattails of a defense that suddenly looks opportunistic again, scoring its eighth defensive touchdown of the 2012 season to get things started in Arizona. Two quarters later, the D added a ninth. ( Thank you, Charles Tillman.) "Peanut" and the rest of Lovie Smith's players still go as far as the offensive line will take them, in my eyes. It should be noted that despite all the abuse this Bears team has taken, it still owns a 9-6 mark. If Chicago wins at Detroit and Minnesota loses to/ties Green Bay, the Bears are playing January football.

Congratulations to everyone involved with the Indianapolis Colts. While this team didn't play its best ballgame at Arrowhead, there's no minimizing the 10-5 record and playoff berth achieved by a group that seemed destined for a 4-12 clunker back in March. The key now is to get better offensive-line play, both in the running game and in pass protection. Otherwise, it's one-and-done in New England, Baltimore or wherever they play their wild-card game.

Huge win for the Minnesota Vikings, and a mea culpa from this writer. I did not see the Vikes going on this late-season run, riding the crest of large road wins in St. Louis and Houston. Head coach Leslie Frazier deserves some Coach of the Year votes, yes? As for Adrian Peterson, would love to hear your thoughts on if he can gain 208 yards against the Packers on Sunday to break Eric Dickerson's rushing record. Hit me up @HarrisonNFL. Thinkin' he comes up short, but what a year for AD.

This space has documented the sorry case of the depleted Dallas Cowboys defense several times now. Add DeMarcus Ware's shoulder to that tally. Yet, we can't let this blurb go by without pointing out Tony Romo's remarkable surge this season. How does this suit you: Over his last eight games, Romo has thrown 17 touchdown passes and three interceptions, while totaling 2,612 yards. That's 326.5 yards per game. He's almost singlehandedly keeping the team in games, with some help from Dez.

Shades of 2006 and '09 in Pittsburgh, when decent teams couldn't do enough to get into the playoffs. This Steelers team dealt with many injuries along the offensive line, at running back, in the secondary, at linebacker, and of course, at quarterback. And yet, Pittsburgh has still outscored the opposition in 2012. Give this organization a ton of credit, as its "bad" years are of the 8-8 and 9-7 variety. Since 2004, Pittsburgh is 96-47 with two Super Bowl rings, another Super Bowl appearance, and a helluva lot of quality football in between. All this must be my Pittsburgh Coast bias.

The good news? The New York Giants are still alive in the playoff race, despite the awful defensive performance in Baltimore. The bad news? New York needs a minor miracle. First of all, Big Blue must beat the Philadelphia Eagles. Then the Redskins must beat or tie the Cowboys. And did I mention that the Bears and Vikings have to lose, too? Yeah, bit of a tall order.

The defending Super Bowl champions have been the most inconsistent team in the NFL, bar none. Consider: They almost blew a 23-point lead in Dallas ... then lost two in a row ... blew out the Packers, 38-10 ... then lost ... hung a 52-burger on the Saints ... got shut out, 34-0 ... then lost big on Sunday. Who are these guys?

Drew Brees played out of his freaking mind Sunday at Jerryworld. As I figured he would, Brees attacked the Cowboys' inside linebackers and safeties to perfection. That's what a vet like No. 9 does, identifying the defense's weak spot and unleashing his best weapons in said area. In this case, that meant targeting Jimmy Graham, Darren Sproles and the other running backs to keep New Orleans out in front. It's crazy, but Brees throws for 446 yards with three touchdowns to zero picks, and nobody bats an eye anymore.

If Leslie Frazier deserves Coach of the Year votes, then you better believe Jeff Fisher deserves a chunk of those ballots, as well. This is a club that won two games last season, scored the fewest points in the league and gave up the sixth most points. Yet here the Rams are, 7-7-1, with some quality wins over the 49ers and Seahawks under their belt. If not for the Colts and Redskins -- and their rookie quarterbacks -- people would notice the St. Louis Rams.

The Miami Dolphins' slim playoff hopes went down the tubes this past weekend. Nonetheless, that doesn't negate a season in which the Fins won at least three more games than anyone expected them to. Remember "Hard Knocks," when we were treated to awkward Joe Philbin visits with players in an Ikea-filled office, wide receivers that had no moves and a quarterback battle that featured David Garrard and Matt Moore? How times have changed in this football city.

Week 17's Panthers-Saints game won't have a playoff spot riding on it. Nor will it feature two winning teams. Nonetheless, it could be the most exciting contest on the last day of the regular season. The Saints' offense has been unstoppable, while Cam Newton would present a difficult challenge to the 1975 Steelers and 2000 Ravens the way he's been using his legs of late. Oh, let's not depart this blurb without noting that the defense held the Oakland Raiders to 189 yards -- total.

We thought the 10-game losing streak in 2011 was tough to swallow. This season might be worse for Tampa Bay Buccaneers fans. Greg Schiano's team has gone from 6-4 to 6-9, while quarterback Josh Freeman has struggled mightily, compiling a sub-70 passer rating during that streak. As he goes, the Bucs go ...

... But it's Christmas, and we're pointing out the bright spots. With this team, it has to start with Doug Martin, who won't win Offensive Rookie of the Year, but he sure as hell should get strong support. Martin has 1,766 yards from scrimmage this season with a game to play. A lot of league observers thought he could play, but no one anticipated Martin threatening 2,000 yards of offense.

A road win is a road win is a road win. Sure, some might snicker at beating the pilot-less Jets, given the fact that Greg McElroy got the nod on Sunday. But don't underestimate the effectiveness of the San Diego Chargers' defense, which notched 11 sacks on Sunday. Ranked 11th overall, San Diego's defense has only allowed 95.1 rushing yards per game (fourth) and has forced opposing offenses to go three-and-out 26.3 percent of the time -- the fourth highest percentage in the league. Pretty decent from a relatively star-less unit.

The Cleveland Browns have had their share of struggles the past two weeks, losing to Kirk Cousins and getting blown out on the road in Denver. The key in Cleveland is the large number of young players who have gotten a long look, thanks to a surplus of injuries on defense and a lack of proven commodities on offense. The number of young guys contributing is staggering. The Browns boast 12 starters with less than three full years in the league.

Go to the light, Carol Anne. Granted, sitting through another Chan Gailey campaign would be brutal for Buffalo Bills fans, who are tired of watching their team implode like the house in "Poltergeist." Staying in theme in these rankings, we're pulling the diamonds from the trash. C.J. Spiller is solidifying himself as one of the premier backs in football, tallying 138 more rushing yards in a losing effort at Miami. Meanwhile, little-known defensive tackle Alex Carrington has blocked an astounding four kicks this year, a single-season record for the franchise. Power Rankings side note: Carrington went to Arkansas State, home of the Red Wolves.

The encouraging signs emanating from New York are rather dim and out of focus coming off two bad losses, but one favorable piece of news is that Greg McElroy will start the season finale in Buffalo. Why? Because, if you're gonna look at a kid as an organization, then look at him. Start him two games, not two random series that don't fit into the flow of the game. Sound Tim-ilar to anything Jets fans have seen this season? The Jets are 6-9 and have nothing to lose by giving McElroy another shot.

Bears defense 14, Cardinals 13. Quarterback play was poor, again. At least the running game made up for it by averaging around none yards per carry. OK, here are a couple of reasons for optimism in Arizona: There will be a coaching change, and someone besides Ryan Lindley or Brian Hoyer will play quarterback in 2013. Oh, and Larry Fitzgerald is under contract. Doing my best here.

The losses just keep piling up, as does the frustration surrounding a 2011 playoff team that seemed to have turned it around. The margin of victory (or defeat) is so small in the NFL that there is no way these Detroit Lions are truly a 4-11 team. Unfortunately, they are. Kudos to Calvin Johnson, who can become the new CJ2K with 108 yards receiving versus Chicago.

The Philadelphia Eagles fought back against one of pro football's hottest teams in the Washington Redskins. But, as has often been the case in 2012, Philly fell short. Nick Foles contributed to the loss -- particularly with a big first-half fumble caused by Ryan Kerrigan -- but he also competed his tail off, completing 32 of 48 passes for 345 yards and a touchdown. Is Foles the answer in 2013? Maybe. You can't doubt that some of the traits he brings are superior to those of Michael Vick, starting with accuracy. Unfortunately, Foles has played his last game of the season, as a broken hand will keep him out of the finale.

We're trying to keep the positive vibes going. Hard to do at this point in the rankings. So I'm going to bail, and let Mike Munchak keep this blurb on the sunny side. "It's embarrassing to lose 50-something to seven ... thank God we have (another game) because I wouldn't want this to be our last game of the year." Yeah, so that's good.

Positives: Sebastian Janikowski has only missed three field goals. Shane Lechler has been solid. Ok, I'm not gonna blow smoke up your ... It's been an awful season in Oakland.

Here's what I like from Sunday's 23-16 loss to the Patriots: This Jacksonville Jaguars team fought. Every season, you hear some fans hoping out loud that their downtrodden team will lose for better draft position. Hogwash. Mel Tucker's defense stopped the Patriots on third down eight times, while giving Tom Brady just 5.6 yards per pass play. New England's ground attack averaged less than four yards per rush. The effort was there, even if the favorable outcome was not.

Similar to the Jags, the Kansas City Chiefs gave their fans something to cheer about Sunday, despite a loss. The defense shut down the Colts for the better part of the afternoon, giving Andrew Luck very little in the passing game (205 yards on 35 attempts). Once again, quarterback play was the problem. Still, if I'm a Chiefs fan, I'm encouraged by a group that refuses to quit on the season.

Elliot Harrison is an analyst on NFL Network's NFL Fantasy Live show, weekdays at 1 p.m. ET and Sundays at 11:30 a.m. ET. Follow him on Twitter _@HarrisonNFL_.

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