Week 13 NFL power rankings: Niners sixth

These are my Week 13 NFL power rankings of the top ten teams.

A few weeks ago I ranked the Niners No. 2 and I asked this question: can they beat the Packers?

That may have been a bit ambitious for the Niners, who haven’t shown they can beat the top-tier of teams in this league yet. So I’m ranking them in the second tier.

I’m dropping them four spots to No. 6, and I’m posing a new question – can they beat the Saints? That’s the team they’d most likely have to play at Candlestick Park in their first playoff  game, anyway.

1. Green Bay Packers – The best team by far – their passing game is unstoppable. They most likely will finish this season 16-0.

2. New England Patriots – They’ve won three straight and should win the rest of the games on their schedule, finishing 13-3. This team has a fabulous offensive line, scores a ton of points and is good against the run, so they were built to beat the Ravens. But they’ll struggle against the Steelers, who can take advantage of New England’s weak pass D.

3. Baltimore Ravens. This team was built to beat the Steelers (they’ve already beat them twice this season), but they’ll struggle against the Patriots. The defense seems to be playing as well as they’ve ever played, and the ironic thing is they’re missing their leader – the injured Ray Lewis. This team should finish 13-3.

4. Pittsburgh Steelers – The Steelers have a really effective passing attack. Ben Roethlisberger scrambles around and waits for his speedy receivers, Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown, to get open and they inevitably do. This is exactly the kind of offense the Niners defense will struggle against – the kind that doesn’t need to establish a run game to be effective. Will the Niners beat the Steelers on Monday night of Week 15? It’s hard to see them winning. Not only will they have their hands full with the Pittsburgh passing game, but they’ll have to face that 3-4, blitzing, confusing defense, similar to the Ravens one that just destroyed the Niners offense. Could the Niners block that pass rush with more preparation? Perhaps, but the burden of proof is on them. So far they’ve really struggled against complex pressure – giving up many sacks to New Orleans and Houston in the preseason, and Dallas and Baltimore in the regular season. If there’s hope for the Niners in this matchup, it’s that the Steelers offense is pedestrian in the red zone – scoring touchdowns only 49% percent of the time. If the Niners top-notch red-zone defense can hold the Steelers to field goals, the Niners could compete and maybe evenwin.

5. New Orleans Saints – They just annihilated the Giants on Monday night, easily scoring 49 points. Their offense is better than it’s ever been. The 6’6” tight end Jimmy Graham is Drew Brees’ favorite target and the best target he’s ever had in New Orleans. Their passing game looks just as unstoppable as Green Bay’s, which is bad news for the Niners’ 21st rated pass D. Also, they’re one of the best blitzing defenses in football, and the Niners O-line is vulnerable against the blitz, especially with Chilo Rachal starting at right guard. On the other hand, the Saints are a much better team at home (they lost to the Rams in St. Louis), and they’d most likely have to play the Niners in San Francisco. Also, they still can’t stop the run. Last time these two teams played Frank Gore rushed 20 times for 112 yards. But that production wasn’t enough to beat the Saints last year, and it won’t be enough this year. Alex Smith and the O-line will have to make a blitzing defense pay with big pass plays to win.

6. San Francisco 49ers – The Niners have some key injuries – Bruce Miller, Adam Snyder, and Braylon Edwards. The Niners need these players if they’re going to win a playoff game. They also need a healthy Frank Gore, Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman, Ahmad Brooks, Michael Crabtree….the point is this team can’t afford any injuries. The key for them is to make it through these last five games healthy. Like this weekend against the Rams – St. Louis is the worst team in the league against the run. The Niners could bench Frank Gore and win the game handing the ball off to Kendall Hunter and Anthony Dixon. They should consider playing Gore sparingly, especially if they get an early big lead.

7. Oakland Raiders. Once Darren McFadden, Jacoby Ford, and Denarius Moore come back, the Raiders will have as good an offense as any team in football. With Carson Palmer at quarterback and those playmakers back in the lineup, this team will score 30 points a game.

8. Dallas Cowboys. They’re hot now, and they finally have a running game, but this team always folds in the playoffs and this year will be no different. The head coach (Jason Garrett) and the quarterback (Tony Romo) are just not strong-willed enough to make this team elite.

9. Cincinnati Bengals – This team is lowly no more. The defense is very good and so is the run game. Rookie wide receiver A.J. Green is the real deal and so is the rookie quarterback, Andy Dalton. Dalton is great at throwing the ball to Green – his best receiver and an elite talent in the league. This is an underrated skill – Matt Stafford doesn’t throw the ball to Calvin Johnson nearly enough. But Dalton can do more. A couple weeks ago when Green was hurt, Dalton went into Baltimore and led the offense to 24 points.

10. Atlanta Falcons – This team is very balanced – they can pass, run, and stop the run. They’ve beaten the Lions and the Titans, and I expect them to finish 11-5 and make the playoffs as a wild card team.

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