The first eight weeks of the season are the easy part. Real contenders find a way to win in the second half of the season.
Many teams have gotten off to hot starts, some expected and some not. Either way, that start must be sustained if that team wants anyone to remember it by the time Week 17 rolls around.
After eight weeks, a few teams stand out. If the NFL has shown us anything before, the division standings are going to shuffle at least once before the season is over.
Let's power rank the teams following Sunday's games and go in-depth on a few that won't sustain their solid start.
1. Atlanta Falcons
A game against the Giants represents this team's toughest second-half test. They'll be fine, but that won't help them in the playoffs.
2. Houston Texans
Contests against Chicago and New England will present stiff challenges, but this squad will cruise into the playoffs. They're simply too tough and consistent on both sides of the ball.
3. San Francisco 49ers
After a dominant Monday night performance, this team doesn't look like it's slowing down. If Alex Smith plays like he did against Arizona (18-of-19, three touchdowns), this team is very tough to stop.
4. New England Patriots
The only games this team may not be favored in come against Houston and San Francisco, but Tom Brady has proved how good he is yet again. New England's revamped defense will have it ready to win when it matters.
5. Green Bay Packers
It's probably just the beauty of Aaron Rodgers' passes that has me believing, but this is still the NFC North's best team. They aren't going anywhere.
6. Chicago Bears
Will this team fall out of the playoffs? No, but the second half of their schedule is absurd. Houston, San Francisco, Green Bay and the Vikings (twice) all show up. Given Jay Cutler's struggles on Sunday, it's easy to see that this team is still not a finished product.
The Bears are in a tough spot. It's hard to imagine what the 49ers and Texans defenses will do to Cutler. He was terrible against the Panthers on Sunday, and that defense couldn't hold a candle to either of those other elite units.
Chicago has its strengths. Matt Forte appears to be getting stronger, the defense is stout and Cutler has been good at times, but he's still a concern as the season rolls along.
When it comes down to it, beating the Packers is the chief concern. They lost the first matchup, making the second go-'round even more important.
7. New York Giants
It looks like this team should have six losses at most by season's end. A dynamic offense overshadows some inconsistencies on defense. You may consider it downhill from here, but it's not going to keep them from the NFC East crown.
8. Denver Broncos
Other than the Ravens in Week 15, Peyton Manning should have his team as the favorite in every game from here on out. If you doubt this team, think twice. Manning is on top of his game, and he has plenty of weapons to work with.
9. Baltimore Ravens
Baltimore isn't as ready as it looked a few weeks ago, and it'll show that in the season's second half.
With two matchups against Pittsburgh, one against Denver and one against the New York Giants, the Ravens will struggle to keep pace in the AFC North. Beating any of those teams is entirely possible, but it's far from a guarantee.
A rash of injuries on the defensive side and a still-shaky Joe Flacco has this team looking like the same squad that couldn't get over the hump last season. Imagining the Ravens with anything less than a stellar defense should scare Baltimore fans, and it's far from flawless this year.
Flacco is going to have to carry this team at some point, and he still struggles at crucial points. He was dreadful against Houston in Week 7, and there's no reason to think that he's ready to win the big one.
10. Pittsburgh Steelers
Aside from two games against Baltimore, the Steelers could run the table. Ben Roethlisberger is playing the best football of his career, putting this team in a position to win. Add in an improving run game, and Pittsburgh's defense has plenty of support.
11. Miami Dolphins
Who can figure this team out? Ryan Tannehill appears to be fine after a leg injury in Week 8. His squad will hang around, albeit inconsistently, for the season's remaining weeks.
12. Minnesota Vikings
This is still a good team, but they don't have what it takes to run the gauntlet in the season's final month and a half.
The Vikings must face Green Bay twice, Chicago twice and Houston once. That could be five more losses right there, and that doesn't even count a tough trip to Seattle in two weeks.
Tampa Bay showed that this defense isn't invincible Thursday night, and that the team doesn't have much on offense other than Adrian Peterson's bruising ground game. Christian Ponder has had a fine year, but he's not ready to beat a team on his own.
Minnesota was one of the season's biggest overachievers through eight weeks, but that's coming to and end. A grueling second-half schedule will make sure of it.
It's still an improvement over last season's debacle.
13. Seattle Seahawks
Seattle's defense will keep them in most games, and five home games should keep them in things down the stretch. CenturyLink Field is very difficult to play in, and that's maybe the one reason not to count Seattle out of a second-place finish in the NFC West.
14. Detroit Lions
Mostly talking about contenders here, and this team definitely isn't that. A solid win over Seattle on Sunday has this team hopeful, but the Lions are still a mess.
15. Washington Redskins
Washington is so difficult to predict. Robert Griffin III was better than his line shows in Week 8, plagued by the inability of his receivers to catch the football.
Even so, this team is dangerous each and every week.
16. Cincinnati Bengals
Cincinnati has lost three games in a row, and there are six games that jump out of their second-half schedule as potential losses. That doesn't bode well for Andy Dalton's team.
Dalton has struggled to find A.J. Green as of late. Part of that is due to a terrible run game, and part of that is due to a below-average defense. Either way, his team has failed to live up to expectations entering the season.
The Bengals have holes in the secondary and in the front seven. If Dalton doesn't take the next step, he will fail to take this team to the next level. Like it or not, he must carry this team as it currently stands.
Cincinnati is getting better, but this year isn't its year.
17. St. Louis Rams
Sunday's loss in London showed how vulnerable this team can be. The Rams will compete down the stretch, but it's not a big deal. This isn't a playoff team.
18. Indianapolis Colts
Aside from two games against Houston and a game against New England, I like this team down the stretch. How much can you expect from this group anyway? Andrew Luck has been excellent, but the Colts are a year or two away.
19. Philadelphia Eagles
The most difficult part of the Eagles' schedule is behind them, but you have to be going uphill before you can really struggle down the stretch. At this point, struggle is synonymous with Philadelphia football.
20. New Orleans Saints
The Saints are getting better, but Denver dominated them Sunday night. With two games remaining against Atlanta, and one against San Francisco, the Giants, and the Cowboys, it's hard to see this season ending well.
21. Arizona Cardinals
The Cardinals are in a free fall right now. Sacking Alex Smith four times on Monday was encouraging, but this team isn't going anywhere fast.
22. Dallas Cowboys
With two games against the Redskins, one against Cleveland and a tilt against New Orleans, I actually like this team to get a bit better in the second half. They should have won in Week 8, and they will finish second in the NFC East.
23. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
For me, this is one of the league's most intriguing teams. If Josh Freeman is on, they can beat anyone. Oakland, San Diego, St. Louis, New Orleans and Carolina all represent very winnable games, but this team is young enough, and prone enough to error, that any game could be a loss.
24. Tennessee Titans
Tennessee could finish anywhere between eight and 10 losses, depending on how it fares against Indianapolis and the New York Jets in the season's second half. No matter what, this team has more bad than good at this point.
25. Buffalo Bills
A pathetic defense makes Ryan Fitzpatrick look worse than he is and erases all contributions from one of the league's best running back duos. For the Bills, it's back to the drawing board. The second half of the season won't save them.
26. Oakland Raiders
The Raiders are just the Raiders. Carson Palmer has this offense looking much better, hooking up with Denarius Moore on a regular basis. Other than that, expect the inconsistent record that we've grown used to for this franchise. Because of San Diego's inadequate play, don't rule out a second-place finish in the AFC West.
27. Cleveland Browns
Wins and losses don't matter for this team, as odd as that sounds. The youngest team in the NFL is improving week by week. Losses are expected, but growth is still happening in other ways.
28. San Diego Chargers
An inconsistent offense has overshadowed what's actually a decent defense for San Diego. One of the league's top run defenses was abused for 100-plus yards by Trent Richardson on Sunday, but inconsistencies on the other side of the ball kill this team.
29. New York Jets
Struggle is the only thing I think of when I think about the Jets. Even a win is a struggle, making the Dolphins' beating of New York on Sunday look even worse.
30. Carolina Panthers
Cam Newton's sophomore slump has this team stuck, and there's not enough talent to support the squad otherwise. Carolina has some fine young players, but it's a ways away from contending on any level.
31. Jacksonville Jaguars
The Jaguars could actually get a bit better down the stretch if Maurice Jones-Drew gets healthy. A halfway-decent performance against the Packers on Sunday leaves room for optimism. Well, that and Guy Whimper's touchdown:
32. Kansas City Chiefs
Struggle down the stretch? Try the whole season. Romeo Crennel knows how to coach a defense (I think), but he has no place coaching this team right now.
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