The second half of the NFL season comes packed with pressure. Playoff positions are on the line for some, while others are jockeying for less glorious things like NFL draft spots.
Through nine weeks of play, the Atlanta Falcons are the league's only undefeated team. The Houston Texans and Chicago Bears each have one loss, but the rest of the league is a jumbled mess. That's good for some teams as they try to climb the ladder in their respective divisions.
Let's power rank the NFL teams after Week 9, highlighting a few squads that will ascend throughout the season's second half.
1. Atlanta Falcons
Rise? An 8-0 team simply must keep going.
2. Houston Texans
The Texans still have a blowout loss to the Packers on their record, but this team is still head and shoulders above the rest of the AFC.
3. Chicago Bears
The Bears have won six in a row, making a strong case for themselves as the NFC's second-best team. As long as the defense keeps forcing turnovers, don't expect this squad to go anywhere.
4. San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers are still capable of beating any of the three teams ahead of them on these power rankings. Without a bye week, they may actually be ahead of the Bears.
5. Green Bay Packers
The ascension has already begun. After a rocky start, Aaron Rodgers has his team as winners of four straight. Don't sleep on this team. As long as Rodgers is behind center, they will be just fine.
6. Baltimore Ravens
Two games against Pittsburgh, one against the Giants and one against the Broncos, and I could see this team descending before all is said and done.
7. New England Patriots
The Patriots' worst days are behind them. A second-half schedule that will welcome the toughest matchups to Gillette Stadium will help this team get better and better as the playoffs near.
Games won't be easy. Welcoming Houston and San Francisco to Foxboro will still be difficult, but home-field advantage will present a definite edge. This will allow Tom Brady to have some degree of comfort against two of the league's best defenses.
On top of that, none, I mean none, of these teams have the passing attack to completely exploit New England's biggest weakness. Indianapolis is probably the closest, but the rest of its team isn't ready to compete with New England.
This shouldn't be surprising. Brady is Brady, and he has help. Stevan Ridley has been dynamic in the backfield, the receiving corps has been solid and the Patriots' run defense has been underrated all season long.
Keep an eye on this team as you always should.
8. Denver Broncos
The Broncos are looking more and more like an 11-win team as the season rolls around. With six very winnable games remaining on the table, and two others that will be tough but also winnable, it doesn't look like Peyton Manning is going anywhere.
Denver has won three straight games. Manning has been spectacular, especially in leading a fourth-quarter comeback over the Bengals on Sunday. With an above-average run game and defense backing him, he will continue his excellent play.
Betting against Manning isn't a good idea. The AFC West is mostly terrible, and Denver has shown itself to be the class of the division.
Manning will be very dangerous come playoff time.
9. Pittsburgh Steelers
Pittsburgh must get through the Ravens two times, but the rest of the second-half schedule looks very nice for the Steelers. Considering their play the last three weeks, it's hard to see this team halting its resurrection.
The Steelers are always a force until the season ends. With the offensive line finally creating space, the run game has ignited. Three straight 100-yard performances from the combination of Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman have this offense playing two-dimensional football again, and that's scary when you consider how well Ben Roethlisberger has played this year.
Defensively, don't count this old unit out either.
Sunday's huge win over the Giants could be all this team needs to start itself on a torrid hot streak.
10. New York Giants
This Giants team could go either way. With tough matchups coming up, especially with Green Bay and Atlanta, they will have to play well. I expect them to tread water, neither rising or falling.
11. Seattle Seahawks
The Seahawks will have the benefit of four more home games this year, but San Francisco will still beat them in CenturyLink Field. Add in two or three road losses, and this team will struggle to keep pace.
12. Minnesota Vikings
The Vikings are so close to being there, but they're not. Christian Ponder doesn't have the weapon he needs to stretch the field, allowing teams to pack the box against the short passing game and Adrian Peterson.
13. Indianapolis Colts
This team will remain in about the same place, finishing either 10-6 or 9-7. Either way, much better days lie ahead for this group.
14. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Buccaneers are much better than 4-4, at least for anyone who has watched this team lately.
With Doug Martin shredding defenses, Josh Freeman improving and Vincent Jackson playing like a No. 1 receiver, this offense can put up its fair share of points. Add in a daunting run defense, and Tampa Bay has one of the most dangerous teams in the NFL.
Two games against Atlanta and a game against Denver will present very difficult challenges, but the Buccaneers are as good, or better, as everyone else on their second-half schedule.
Keep an eye on this team. They're fun to watch, and they're not going to go down easy.
15. Miami Dolphins
Miami is close to being ready, but 2013 is more likely to be the year. A faulty pass defense will hold this team back from making real noise.
16. San Diego Chargers
Come on, you know the Chargers. When the going gets tough, they fall apart. If anything, the Chargers will fall down the board.
17. Dallas Cowboys
Dallas is difficult to judge, but inconsistency is almost certain. Expect each week to bring a completely different outlook for one team that can't get out of its own way.
18. Detroit Lions
Detroit's inconsistencies will keep this team from really putting things together. The run game exists, then it doesn't, and so on. Without more reliable play on both sides of the ball, the Lions will take a step forward then take two steps back.
19. Arizona Cardinals
Arizona is a mess, and it doesn't have nearly enough talent on offense to turn things around this season.
20. Philadelphia Eagles
Check back after Monday Night Football.
21. Oakland Raiders
The Raiders aren't a laughing stock this season, but Carson Palmer still makes critical mistakes. No way will this team finish behind Kansas City in the division though.
22. St. Louis Rams
The Rams don't have enough on offense just yet, although a scrappy defense will provide a foundation for next season.
23. Cincinnati Bengals
The Bengals have to face Baltimore and Pittsburgh one more time each. Add in game's against the NFC East's best teams, and this club will continue to head in the wrong direction.
24. New York Jets
The Jets won't finish with more than eight wins. This should spell the end of Mark Sanchez's starting tenure, but this whacky team will probably botch that too.
25. Washington Redskins
Rising was an option a few weeks ago, but three straight losses have Washington seeking to develop Robert Griffin III without any other possibilities in mind.
26. New Orleans Saints
Check back after Monday Night Football.
27. Buffalo Bills
Offensively, this team has potential. Defensively, not so much. The Bills have solid pieces in the backfield, but this team lacks otherwise.
28. Carolina Panthers
Cam Newton is extremely inconsistent, meaning this team will have to wait until his sophomore slump period is over with to win games.
29. Cleveland Browns
Age aside, this team is looking much better here and there. Even so, success won't come until next season at the earliest.
30. Tennessee Titans
Chris Johnson has been much better as of late, but Sunday's beating handed out by the Bears left me wondering how this team has even managed to win three games.
31. Jacksonville Jaguars
Jacksonville isn't going to rise anywhere, at least not with this offensive line protecting a mediocre bunch of skill players.
32. Kansas City Chiefs
Believe it or not, the Chiefs are going to rise...never mind, I can't even joke about it. This team isn't going anywhere this year and maybe not next year either.