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NFL Power Rankings, Week 7: Panthers hit top five; Cards fall

The story of the Week 7 Power Rankings revolves around five protagonists: The Unbeaten.

While the Falcons earned their first blemish in Week 6, the Patriots, Packers, Bengals, Broncos and a pesky group from the South keep plugging away.

I won't, Tyler. See below.

I hear he likes it blackened, with a side of hush puppies. Speaking of, why do hush puppies continue to be so criminally underrated? At least Long John Silver's knows their value ...

The Panthers are no longer underrated here, as they make a strong move into the top five, even leapfrogging another unbeaten. As for your favorite team, see below and share your thoughts: @HarrisonNFL is the place.

Let the dissension commence!

NOTE: The lineup below reflects changes from our Oct. 13 Power Rankings.

PREVIOUS RANKINGS: Week 6 | 5 | 4 | 3 | 2 | 1 | Preseason

The Patriots remain at the top, coming off a business-as-usual (sort of) road win against a potential playoff team.

With that bit of accounting out of the way, we feel it important to bring you a list of the most arduous strategic challenges Bill Belichick has faced in his coaching career, in order:

 **a)** Stopping the "Greatest Show on Turf" 
 Rams in 
 Super Bowl XXXVI. 
 **b)** Guiding the Pats to an 11-5 record with 
 Matt Cassel at quarterback in 2008. 
 **c)** Figuring out some way to stop that wicked-scary 
 fake-punt formation Sunday night. 

The Packers survived a furious Philip Rivers rally and, for now, barely hold their spot at No. 2. Although the mass media has yet to notice, Aaron Rodgers' statistical pace has slowed from that of a Ben Sheets fastball to that of a Lynn Dickey dead sprint -- white-guy Afro included. Take a look at the numbers:

 **» Rodgers' first three games:** 73.6 percent completion rate, 10:0 TD-to-INT ratio, 135.4 passer rating. 
 **» His last three games:** 62.6 percent completion rate, 5:2 TD-to-INT ratio, 96.4 passer rating. 

Those stats are still formidable, but not nearly what we're used to seeing from the reigning league MVP.

For anyone who didn't believe in the Bengals, uh, now is the time to start. Putting up 34 points on the Bills' defense, on the road, in inclement conditions, would meet any sort of litmus test, especially one week after Cincinnati came back from a 17-point deficit against the Seahawks. Sure, this team was fortunate to get EJ Manuel instead of Tyrod Taylor. But that shouldn't diminish the shine on this win.

By the way, Bengals tight end Tyler Eifert is on pace for, like, 91 touchdowns this year.

What a grand occasion for the Panthers to put a complete game together. All three phases -- offense, defense and special teams -- contributed heavily to Carolina's victory over what had been deemed a quality team. To that point, the Panthers had run clean through a relatively easy slate. Beating the Seahawks in Seattle -- handing the home team just its third loss in CenturyLink during the Russell Wilson era -- also required the Panthers to produce in the air, something we haven't seen them do much in 2015. It wasn't perfect, but Cam Newton overcame two interceptions to hit Greg Olsen right in the chest on the game-clincher with less than a minute to play. The big jump here is well earned, folks.

That was one *fugly* interception in overtime from Peyton Manning. And the pick-six Manning threw earlier was clearly behind intended target Ronnie Hillman. But when Manning had to make plays on the final drive of overtime, he made them. It wasn't pretty, but with a defense that scores touchdowns almost as easily as the offense struggles to score them, the Broncos escaped with a win in Cleveland. Don't hate, though. Look what happened to the previously undefeated Falcons (whose fans all wanted me to place them above Denver on these here Rankings last week.)

Call it a blow to the team ego. Or call it divisional football on the road. Dan Quinn didn't look panicked on the sidelines during the loss to New Orleans -- nor should he have. Remember, when he was the Seahawks' defensive coordinator, he saw Seattle get beaten by big special-teams plays in St. Louis last season and still make it to the Super Bowl. Neither this squad nor its leader seemed shook. The real test will come in Weeks 14 and 16, against one team. Take a guess as to which.

Yet another win for Todd Bowles and company, who have quietly gotten off to a sturdy 4-1 start and are in sole possession of second place in the AFC East. (Does anyone care about being in sole possession of second place?) That Jets defense shook off a few Redskins impact plays before ultimately shutting the door in the second half. And Ryan Fitzpatrick added a sweet touchdown run in which he clocked about a 6.4-second 40. Still counts, man.

Landry Jones will be getting free Yuenglings for the next three months following that performance. Maybe my Twitter inbox won't blow up from all the frustrated Antonio Brown owners in fantasy. I guess one catch for minus-2 yards -- Brown's total production Sunday before Mike Vick left -- doesn't light their fire. Speaking of fires, defensive coordinator Keith Butler is starting to light mine as an Assistant Coach of the Year candidate.

The Cardinals had no business losing that game at Heinz on Sunday. Personal fouls killed Bruce Arians' club in the first half -- Arizona was called for six penalties for 75 yards before intermission. The refs failed to call a clear hold of Michael Floyd in the end zone in the second quarter. Obviously, Mike Mitchell's fourth-quarter pick of Carson Palmer in the end zone was the key sequence in the defeat. Those plays aside, Palmer missed several open looks on a day when the win just wasn't to be.

Congrats to the Vikings on the win. And specific kudos go to the defense, which has been the stalwart foundation of this team. Meanwhile, quarterback Teddy Bridgewater has been up and down -- at best. He missed a rollout throw on third-and-1 late in the fourth quarter that could have helped the Vikes salt away the clock. It's little plays like that, hidden from the box score, that are oh so important. We're still waiting to see the Bridgewater who completed more than 80 percent of his passes in the preseason. That said, this club is 3-2 without that brand of Bridgewater. Who says Minnesota lands a wild-card spot?

Philly looked dominant on defense Monday night. Flat-out dominant. If that group can play that way, week in and week out, then concerns about how Sam Bradford and DeMarco Murray fit into this offense -- or why Riley Cooper inexplicably stops on deep routes -- become a bit less pressing. Fletcher Cox looks like a First-Team All-Pro. Connor Barwin was bull-rushing Giants tackle Marshall Newhouse like a man possessed. Even Nolan Carroll was balling out there.

Win, loss, win, loss, win, loss ... That's the story for the Buffalo Bills this season. After their complete dismantling of the Dolphins down in Florida, many of us thought this Bills squad was a playoff team for sure. Now? Tough call. Yes, the club has suffered several injuries, but this peak-and-valley jazz, combined with a key guy like Mario Williams starting to question the defensive system, makes for a giant crud sandwich in Western NY.

Andrew Luck looked a little off Sunday night, even if the Colts' franchise quarterback finished the evening with decent numbers (30 for 50, 312 yards, three touchdowns and zero picks). At least Indy's coaching staff made up for it by pulling some sweet special-teams planning that rivaled the greatest in-game strategy in history, like a mix of Eisenhower's Operation Overlord and LeBeau's Zone Blitz.

Yes, the Giants are still reeling from the Fourth of July. Opposing quarterbacks routinely ignore New York's pass rush, or lack thereof.

On the other side of the ball ...

The play calling on Monday night either left something to be desired, or the Eagles just knew everything that was coming. Combined with the fact that Rueben Randle looks hobbled and Eli Manning kept getting hit ... You get the point.

Bye week for the Rams, whose 2-3 season qualifies as Rams-esque at this point. Todd Gurley is certainly a welcome addition, though; the rookie put up 146 yards and 159 yards in his first two career starts, which far exceeds the first two career starts of two Rams luminaries, Jerome Bettis (33 and 85 yards) and Eric Dickerson (91 and 88 yards). Of course, Dickerson's debut came in Week 1, and the big kid from SMU finished with 1,808 yards -- a total that Gurley is not likely to approach, given that he didn't get going until Week 4. Still, we're comparing Gurley to Hall of Famers for a reason.

This isn't funny anymore. That is to say, the Seahawks deserve the freefall here. We've held fast to the notion that the defense is still a top-three unit, while the offense would come around with Marshawn Lynch back in the fold. Couple that with the tremendous home-field advantage ... ah, whatever -- Seattle is getting flat beat right now, and there isn't a damn fluky thing about it, regardless of what you can blame on miscommunication in the secondary. That's the game. The Seahawks can't just roll the football out there, to use a Sean Payton expression, and expect to win.

The Chargers could be a playoff team. Yet, their approach -- specifically that of coach Mike McCoy -- puts the entire outcome on the shoulders of Philip Rivers. The franchise quarterback calls much of the offense from the line of scrimmage, and he carries the burden of having to play at an elite level all the time for San Diego to win. It should be noted that Rivers did have Danny Woodhead open in the flat on that second-and-goal incompletion to Antonio Gates in the closing moments of the loss to Green Bay. It should also be noted that, had the game seeped into overtime, Rivers (503 passing yards on 65 attempts) could have threatened one of the oldest records on the NFL's books: Norm Van Brocklin's 554 passing yards, set in 1951.

It was an off week for the Raiders, following a narrow loss to the Broncos in which the offense failed the team. One big key for Oakland: getting Latavius Murray in gear again. The third-year back has run 28 times for just 88 yards over the last two games combined, coughing up the football twice to the Bears in Week 4. The Raaaaaiiiders can't get to .500 without Murray being hugely productive.

The Redskins made it interesting for a bit in the new Meadowlands. Then the second half happened. Washington's offense gained all of 77 yards -- including six on the ground -- after the break, giving up two turnovers for good measure. Six games into this season, the 'Skins have been outscored 46-3 in the third quarter. That casts doubt on halftime adjustments ... which casts doubt on coaching.

Last week, we openly fawned all over Josh McCown? (Question mark intended.) This week, a more understated approach to this blurb. McCown's interceptions were not fun, the second coming with Cleveland driving for a potential game-winning field goal. The ball was lofted across the field, right into the arms of David Bruton Jr. Watch the replay again. See if you can make sense of it. Whew boy, this was the 1987 AFC Championship Game all over again, with the Browns coming back from a multi-score deficit against the Broncos ... before committing a terrible, game-altering turnover. Ugh.

This was the appropriate time to make the change from Brandon Weeden to Matt Cassel, with Dallas off last week. Another benefit of the bye: The Cowboys didn't have to play another game without Dez Bryant, who could be close to returning -- possibly even for Sunday's game against the Giants. Same with Randy Gregory, who could be back in action for the first time since Week 1, when he injured his ankle. (That pass rush will look pretty good with Gregory back in the fold.) Tony Romo, on the other hand, is several weeks away from suiting up. Cassel should provide the Cowboys a better shot at winning this Sunday. His career TD-to-INT ratio (96:70) is much better than Weeden's (28:30), and unlike the latter, Cassel has experienced success in the NFL before. Granted, it came in 2010, but work with me here.

Told you these Dolphins would respond to Dan Campbell. Well, at least for one week. Miami got the defensive response the organization was looking for when it committed $60 million guaranteed to a boy named Suh in the spring. How about Reshad Jones delivering an early knockout blow with that pick-six? Scoring defense never goes out of style.

Direct some of your football love toward Colin Kaepernick, who threw for 340 yards and two touchdowns in the 49ers' win over the Ravens. Two weeks since calmly telling reporters he doesn't walk into the team facility worried about job security, Kap has provided back-to-back strong outings. That, my friends, is called walking the walk. Of import: two deep balls uncorked by No. 7. The first, a 76-yard scoring strike to Torrey Smith. That sucker was a beaut. And then the running heave to Anquan Boldin -- which set up Quinton Patton's fourth-quarter touchdown -- was both lovely and the play of the game.

Oh, man -- if only the Bears could have pulled off the road win at Ford Field. Nobody -- and I mean nooooobody -- expected Chicago to climb back to 3-3 after the 0-3 start. Jay Cutler and company came thisclose to doing just that. There was so much back and forth in this NFC North contest, including Cutler getting it done (again) on a last-gasp drive in the fourth. This time, it was two completions to Alshon Jeffery for 49 yards that only ate up 17 seconds. Unfortunately, Jeffery couldn't come up with a ball on third down in overtime, and the suddenly feisty Bears ran out of claws. Give Cutler and this roster credit, though, for not being the destined-for-the-first-overall-pick team people were labeling them as three weeks ago.

DeAndre Hopkins is a better overall wide receiver than Odell Beckham Jr. right now. That's right. Said it on "NFL HQ" -- only to draw a bunch of weird looks from my cohorts -- and I'm saying it again here. What can't Hopkins do? The third-year pro can run 9 routes, handle the possession stuff and routinely highpoint the ball in the red zone. In six games, Hopkins has put up 726 yards and five touchdowns. That translates to a 1,936-yard season with 13 touchdowns. Read that yardage total again.

Don't look now, but the suddenly pesky Bucs are 2-3. Granted, we still don't really know how impressed to be with wins over Jacksonville and New Orleans -- but hey, the Saints did beat the Falcons, right? Consider last week's bye an opportunity for Jameis Winston to get more comfortable in the offense and -- hopefully -- be more careful with the football going forward. Much of the time, these off weeks are about study habits. Let's hope Winston has study habits -- good study habits, I mean.

Nice jump after a convincing win over the previously undefeated Falcons. It was difficult not to pull for the Saints on Thursday night, kinda the same way I felt about the Matt Hasselbeck-led Colts one week prior. Everyone in the football world was saying the Saints were done -- that this was the end of the road for Drew Brees, and that Sean Payton could get dealt in a trade of Jon Gruden proportions. All this, and the rival Falcons were coming to town to beat the snot out of them. But then the blocked punt happened, much like in 2006. Hey, Falcons: Never punt.

Hard to believe a John Harbaugh-coached football team is 1-5. As with all of the Ravens' prior losses this season -- to the Broncos, Raiders, Bengals and Browns -- one or two plays go slightly differently Sunday in San Francisco, and Baltimore is putting a mark in the win column. The loss to the 49ers was most like the season-opening defeat in Denver, when a contested ball in the end zone slipped through Crockett Gillmore's hands, as Steve Smith Sr. had one slide through his mitts on Sunday.

Meanwhile, the Ravens' secondary is so bad, Brady Anderson could go deep on them. (Remember that one year he somehow hit 50 bombs out of nowhere? That was a strange era for baseball. Some people would use another "S" word to describe it.)

That was one unhappy Ken Whisenhunt after the 28-point loss to the Dolphins on Sunday. Tennessee keeps coming up short, so the frustration is certainly understandable. However, Whiz was ticked off in the postgame about Marcus Mariota taking what his coach perceived to be a cheap shot from Olivier Vernon. Yes, Mariota suffered a sprained MCL on the play -- which is unfortunate -- but it sure didn't look intentional. Vernon put two moves on the blocker in front of him, then either was knocked into or stumbled into (or both) the back of Mariota's legs. To me, Whisenhunt's frustration seems misguided. Am I missing something here? Would love to know your thoughts, Titans fans. (@HarrisonNFL)

So the Royals are in the ALCS ... Not sure where to go with this blurb.

Let's see ... Charcandrick West can't fumble that football. Alex Smith is not playing like the 10th-best quarterback in football. (Yes, some hack said he'd be that in 2015. Can't remember who ...) And now Jeremy Maclin is banged up.

Forgive Chiefs fans if they are wearing Dan Quisenberry jerseys, scoring baseball games and re-living the glory days of Tecmo Super Bowl. #Okoyehittingpower

YAAAAAY!!! ... Yaaay!! ... Yay. The Lions finally brokered their first win of 2015. And of course, by Tuesday, we're still writing about a 1-5 team. But hey, that's better than an 0-6 team, right? My colleague on NFL Now, Maurice Jones-Drew, thinks Detroit can go on a run after getting that first win out of the way. The Lions play host to the Vikings this Sunday, then travel to Kansas City, have a bye, play the Packers at Lambeau and have a pair of home games against the Raiders and Eagles. Is Detroit really that much worse than any of those teams -- outside of Green Bay, of course? Maybe the Lions win three or four of those five contests. Maybe.

Think your team is hard to watch? Try being a Jaguars fan. Jacksonville is 15-55 since the beginning of the 2011 campaign. Fifteen and fifty-five. Blake Bortles continues to put up fantasy numbers, leading the casual fan to surmise that he is ascending rapidly. Until you watch the end-zone interception he threw at the end of the first half on Sunday. Down 10-7, the Jags needed points there. Funny thing is, that wasn't even Bortles' worst throw to the other team -- or even to Andre Hal, for that matter. See: this pick-six.

Follow Elliot Harrison on Twitter @HarrisonNFL.

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