They hammered the Dolphins instead, winning 38-7 and leaving no doubt about which team would rank first in the final 2010 ESPN.com NFL Power Rankings.
As the chart shows, the Patriots were a consensus choice among our four panelists: me, John Clayton, Paul Kuharsky and James Walker. They held the top spot for the final four weeks, emerging as the only 14-2 team in the league. The only 13-3 team, Atlanta, held the top spot for four weeks prior to the Patriots' current run.
Baltimore edged New England for the highest average ranking since April, when we first cast ballots for the 2010 season. The Ravens' ranking averaged 4.35. The Patriots were at 4.50, but they never ranked lower than second over the final eight weeks.
Voters had a tougher time making sense of the Seattle Seahawks' division-clinching victory over the St. Louis Rams. Clayton knocked down the Rams seven spots. Our other panelists apparently couldn't find teams worth moving higher than St. Louis.
Sometimes the rankings seem to make little sense, even when they do. For example, the Arizona Cardinals climbed one spot to No. 28 despite their 38-7 defeat to San Francisco.
What happened? Basically, voters punished Buffalo more than they punished Arizona after both teams played poorly. The Bills fell from 28th to 30th. That allowed the Cardinals to move up one spot from No. 29.
And now, a closer look at the rankings following Week 17 ...
Falling (10): Washington Redskins (-5), Miami Dolphins (-4), Minnesota Vikings (-4), Cleveland Browns (-2), Buffalo Bills (-2), Baltimore Ravens (-1), New Orleans Saints (-1), Jacksonville Jaguars (-1), Cincinnati Bengals (-1), St. Louis Rams (-1).
Unchanged (13): New England Patriots, Atlanta Falcons, New York Jets, Green Bay Packers, Indianapolis Colts, Philadelphia Eagles, New York Giants, Chicago Bears, San Diego Chargers, Tennessee Titans, Kansas City Chiefs, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Detroit Lions.
Deadlocked: We broke one tie. Buffalo prevailed over Cincinnati based on head-to-head results during the regular season. This was the first tiebreaker.
Like minds: All four panelists had the Patriots first, the Falcons second, the Packers ninth and the Panthers 32nd.
Agree to disagree: The Rams generated the largest gap between high and low votes after their 16-6 defeat at Seattle in Week 17. Five other teams generated high-low disparities of at least five spots.
Rams (9): Kuharsky ranked them 15th, higher than any voter ranked them. Clayton ranked them 24th, lower than any voter ranked them.
Seahawks (7): Walker 16th, Clayton 23rd.
Dolphins (7): Clayton 17th, Sando 24th.
Texans (6): Sando and Clayton 19th, Kuharsky 25th.
Lions (6): Kuharsky 18th, Walker 24th.
Titans (5): Sando and Clayton 18th, Kuharsky and Walker 23rd.
Power rankings histories: These colorful layered graphs show where each NFL team has ranked every week since the 2002 season.
Ranking the divisions: Teams from the NFC South averaged a 12.8 ranking, with teams from the NFC North overtaking teams from the AFC East for the second spot. The chart below shows how each voter ranked each division on average. Highest votes in red. Lowest votes in blue.
A voter-by-voter look at changes of at least five spots since last week:
Sando: Redskins (-5), Seahawks (+6).
Clayton: Rams (-7).
Kuharsky: Dolphins (-5), Seahawks (+7).
Walker: Redskins (-6), 49ers (+5), Cowboys (+5).
For download: An Excel file -- available here -- showing how each voter voted this week and in past weeks.
For example, the file shows how far each voter moved each team on his ballot from April through the regular season:
Clayton had the Cowboys ranked second and 30th at various points. The 28-spot differential was the highest by any voter for any team. The Cowboys produced the largest high-low differentials on every ballot.
Walker had the Cowboys fourth and 31st at different times.
I had them fourth and 30th.
Kuharsky had them sixth and 30th.
The file also includes a "powerflaws" sheet pointing out potential flaws in voters' thinking by showing how many higher-ranked opponents each team defeated this season.
A quick primer on the "powerflaws" sheet:
Column Y features team rankings.
Column Z shows how many times a team has defeated higher-ranked teams.
Change the rankings in column Y as you see fit.
Re-sort column Y in ascending order (1 to 32) using the standard Excel pull-down menu atop the column.
The information in column Z, which reflects potential ranking errors, will change (with the adjusted total highlighted in yellow atop the column).
The lower the figure in that yellow box, the fewer conflicts.