Andrew Luck and the Colts are looking like playoff contenders.
The last unbeaten has fallen and the races are tightening up.
It is getting to the point in the NFL season where games are becoming must-wins and the playoff pictures in both the AFC and NFC are beginning to take shape.
Injuries were the story of Week 10. On Monday Night Football Ben Roethlisberger went down with an injury, and Jay Cutler, Michael Vick and Alex Smith were all knocked out with concussions the day before.
How will injuries affect the teams rankings and playoff aspirations?
There have been a variety of surprises and disappointments so far this season, and there is surely to be more ahead. Who are the playoff contenders and pretenders as we enter the final stretch of the season?
This is pretty self-explanatory. The Chiefs are bad—so bad that the team had not led a game in regulation until their Week 10 matchup with the Pittsburgh Steelers on Monday Night Football.
The offense has not taken advantage of Jammal Charles in recent weeks and Romeo Crenell fired himself as defensive coordinator. I think it is safe to say things are a mess around Arrowhead and the playoffs are just a distant dream for the Chiefs.
With Carolina, Cleveland and Oakland still remaining on the team’s schedule, it is possible that the Chiefs squeak out a few more wins. However, that will not save a lot of jobs in Kansas City.
The Jaguars are currently in a race, but it is not for a playoff spot—it is for the No. 1 draft pick.
The Jacksonville offense has been downright pitiful. It ranks last in both points scored and yards per game. On top of that Maurice Jones-Drew has been hampered by injury.
Like the Chiefs, the Jags have a few winnable games left on the schedule, most notably two games against the Titans.
With Blaine Gabbert under center and an MJD-less backfield, it is realistic to say the Jaguars may not win another game this season. A high draft pick could solve the team’s offensive woes and bring to life this year’s first-rounder, Justin Blackmon.
Blackmon currently has only 26 catches for 250 yards and one touchdown.
As someone who had Cam Newton penciled in as a possible MVP candidate prior to the season, it was hard to watch as the second-year quarterback get battered by the Denver Broncos defense and mocked for his patented celebration by practically every defender on the field.
The Panthers have a lot of problems. The running game that was once the most deadly two-headed attack in the league has been completely absent, and Newton has hit the dreaded sophomore slump. The defense has been competent, but the team’s 24 points allowed per game is not a number the offense can keep up with.
It would be nice to see the Panthers reel off a few more wins before the end of the season, but Newton will have to find the magic from his rookie year for that to happen.
New Cleveland Browns CEO Joe Banner has been on the job for just a few weeks but faces no shortage of major decisions ahead. The team does not know if Brandon Weeden is the quarterback of the future, and choices will have to be made to either keep Pat Shurmur as coach and Tom Heckert as general manager, or let them go.
Wins against San Diego and Cincinnati were somewhat impressive, but the team still has a long way to go before even thinking about the playoffs.
Kansas City, Oakland and Washington are winnable games left on the Browns schedule, but the team will probably not sniff a .500 record.
Outside of a win against Pittsburgh in Week 3, the Raiders have not done anything impressive this season. The team’s other two wins came against Kansas City and Jacksonville.
The Raiders got embarrassed for a second consecutive week against the Ravens Sunday, letting up a whopping 55 points. The Oakland defense has let up 97 points in the last two weeks combined.
The Raiders offense has some talent. Darren McFadden is an elite back, but he is rarely at 100 percent. Carson Palmer may not be the same quarterback he was with the Bengals, but he is doing his best with what is around him.
After two 8-8 seasons and narrowly missing the playoffs, it seems like the Raiders have taken a step back this year. Having Peyton Manning in the division certainly did not help either.
The Rams play this season is about as consistent as a roulette wheel.
Sunday they battled to the first tie in four NFL seasons—against the 49ers. In the team’s previous game, it got ran out of the building against the Patriots 45-7.
Jeff Fisher has the Rams going in the right direction, but it will take a few more seasons before they are a real contender. The NFC West is only getting better.
Could things get any worse in Philly?
The Eagles' issues came to a head against the Cowboys Sunday. Their division rival came on strong late with 21 fourth-quarter points and ended up blowing out the Eagles.
On their way to their first five game losing streak under Reid, the Eagles also lost quarterback Michael Vick to a concussion. Vick has been the most hit quarterback in the NFL this season.
LeSean McCoy continues to be a bright spot, but the team continues to mishandle his talent. The touchdown leader among running backs just a season ago has not touched the ball more than 20 times in the last five games.
Chances are a new era of football will begin next season in Philadelphia.
Robert Griffin III is the future in Washington and the team has a centerpiece to build around for years to come. However, the Redskins' 3-6 record has them on the outside looking in on the playoffs.
Even coach Mike Shannahan seemed to give up on the season when he said (via Washington Post), "When you lose a game like that, now you're playing to see who, obviously, is going to be on your football team for years to come.”
The emergence of Griffin and running back Alfred Morris shows promise on the offensive side of the ball, but the team needs to get better on defense and add weapons to be a playoff contender.
The Bills had a surprising effort against the Patriots in Week 10, but that is expected with a divisional opponent.
The Bills are beating the teams they should, like Kansas City and Cleveland, but look hardly competitive against some of the elite teams in the league.
The defense ranks 32nd in points allowed (31.7) and the $100 million investment in Mario Williams has not paid off yet.
Only two teams remaining on the Bills schedule have winning records (Seattle, Indianapolis). The Bills have a chance to finish the season on a high note, but the playoffs are not a possibility.
Remember the preseason, when ESPN was stationed at Jets training camp and video of Tim Tebow running through the rain was exciting news?
In Week 10 the Jets are fresh off a thorough butt whooping from the hands of the Seattle Seahawks and the circus that once surrounded the team is beginning to leave town.
Just about everyone has had enough of the Tebow vs. Mark Sanchez debate. Either way, the Jets are not a relevant team when it comes to postseason talk. The team lost its most explosive offensive and defensive weapons in Santionio Holmes and Darrelle Revis early in the season, and the Jets have not been able to recover.
Rex and his staff took the team to the playoffs in past years, but this season has been such a debacle that the team needs to take a good, hard look at the future.
The Titans exploded against the Dolphins Sunday in a 37-3 win, just one week after getting dismantled by the Bears, 20-51.
Chris Johnson was M.I.A when the season started. CJ2K was looking more like CJ0K. The once prolific back had under 25 yards in four of his first five games, and it looked like Johnson’s time as an elite back was over in the NFL.
Then Week 7 rolled around and Johnson exploded for 195 yards. The fifth-year back has rode that momentum and now is a top-five back.
The team has also been forced to play without Jake Locker. Locker missed five games with a left shoulder injury, and while Matt Hasselbeck was a solid veteran, he did not provide the spark the team needed in big games.
While the Titans looked promising in Week 10, their inconsistent play through the season will prevent them from making a playoff run. A Steelers loss on Monday Night Football could have helped the team’s cause, but now it is losing even more ground in the race for a Wild Card spot.
The Cardinals looked like a surefire playoff contender early in the season. After four weeks, the team was undefeated, taking down Seattle, New England, Philadelphia and Miami in that stretch.
The defense looked elite and made up for the offense’s incompetence.
Then the injury bug bit the Cardinals, and the offense that was once bad became awful. The team has virtually no running game or offensive line. The running game ranks last in the NFL (76.2) and the Cardinals quarterbacks have been sacked a NFL-high 41 times. The next closest team has allowed 29 sacks.
No matter how good the defense is, it will not be able to make up for the historically bad, injury-riddled offense.
The Seahawks and 49ers are still within striking distance, but it is unlikely that the Cardinals make a run unless the offensive improves tremendously. That is very unlikely this late in the season, even if Wells does return from the IR.
The Falcons, 49ers, Seahawks and Bears are all opponents the Cardinals will have to face in the final stretch of the season.
The Lions needed a win against Minnesota in Week 10 to keep their playoff run alive, but losing 24-34 really diminished hopes of reaching the postseason.
The Lions may have the toughest final seven games in the NFL. Every team left on the Lions schedule—except for Arizona—are firmly in the playoff picture.
There may not be a more disappointing team in the NFL. Matt Stafford, Calvin Johnson and Ndamukong Suh were expected to lead Detroit on a deep playoff run, but now it looks like they will be watching it from their couches instead.
After two consecutive close losses, the Cowboys were finally able to get a win against the Eagles Sunday.
The Cowboys have been finding a way to lose games. Since the team’s Week 5 bye, the Cowboys let games against Baltimore, Atlanta and New York slip away.
Only one of the remaining seven teams on the Cowboys schedule have a winning record and the Giants are trending downwards.
Tony Romo, Miles Austin, Dez Bryant and Jason Witten have been great, but the running game will have to get better for the Cowboys to have a realistic shot at the playoffs.
If Jason Garrett wants to save his job, he is in perfect position to do so by leading his team to the playoffs. However, the Cowboys have been far from consistent, and the Giants are likely to recover from their recent stumbles and stave off their NFC East rival.
The last time the San Diego Chargers saw the Denver Broncos, the team had a collapse for the ages in the second half, allowing the Peyton Manning-led Denver team to overcome a 24-0 deficit and escape with a win.
Now the Chargers go to Mile High Stadium in Week 11 for what is undoubtedly the biggest game of the season.
A win will gain some major ground on the Broncos, while a loss may crush the team’s playoff hopes for good.
Philip Rivers has continued to make some highly questionable decisions on interceptions, and Norv Turner is having to coach on a very hot seat. There is just not enough stability or leadership in San Diego to make a run.
The Bucs have put themselves into the playoff conversation. Doug “Muscle Hamster” Martin has thrown the team on his back and carried Tampa Bay to three straight wins.
If the playoffs started today, Tampa Bay would be a half game out of the second Wild-Card spot behind the 6-4 Seahawks and Vikings.
Remaining games at New Orleans and Denver will be tough, and the Bucs still have to face Atlanta twice.
Will Doug Martin rush for 251 yards every week—no. However, Martin is a dangerous weapon that opens up the passing game.
If the Bucs can pull off the upsets, they will make the playoffs. However, the playoffs still seem like a long shot.
The Dolphins were the hot pick as a playoff dark horse after an undefeated October, but now they have lost in consecutive weeks and have significantly damaged their playoff hopes.
The Dolphins made things interesting, but they do not have the talent or schedule to have a shot at a spot in the postseason. While Brian Hartline has proven to be a solid No. 1 option and Davone Bess has been a capable No. 2, there is literally nothing behind them on the depth chart.
The Dolphins have a bright future ahead and should be competitive in the tough AFC East. However, the Dolphins are a few pieces away from being a playoff team.
Christian Ponder rebounded, Adrian Peterson continued his outstanding running and the defense looked excellent in the Vikings 34-24 win against Detroit in Week 10.
It was a win the Vikings desperately needed. It ended a two-game skid, and now the team can go into the bye week with some hope.
The bye week is a much-needed break. A game at St. Louis in Week 15 is the only game remaining on the Vikings schedule where they will be favored.
I hate to bet against Peterson, the NFL’s leading rusher, but spotty quarterback play and a tough slate of games will keep the Vikings out of the playoffs.
It seems the Saints have finally overcome the bounty scandal and the turmoil of the offseason.
After a disappointing start to the season, the Saints have won four of their last five and are looking much better than their 4-5 record indicates. The team's win Sunday against the previously undefeated Falcons is a testament to that.
However, the Saints have to dig out of quite the hole. Oakland, Dallas and Carolina are the only teams left on the Saints' schedule with losing records.
The Saints offense will not be the problem. Drew Brees will sling the ball for big yardage every game, and the stable of Saints running backs seems to have finally found their niche.
The defense has been horrid and will have to keep opponents to realistic point totals so that the offense can keep up. The Saints defense is currently allowing 469.3 yards per game.
At 4-5, the Saints are only a few games out of a playoff spot. While they did not make it easy on themselves by losing games they should have won early on, the Saints will find a way into the postseason.
The Bengals stopped a four-game losing streak in dominant fashion against the Giants in Week 10 with a 31-13 win.
However, that four-game slump is now coming back to haunt the Bengals. Like many of the AFC teams in the hunt for a playoff spot, the narrow win by the Steelers on MNF was a big hit to the Bengals' playoff aspirations.
The Bengals have a very favorable remaining schedule. The only teams with winning records left are Pittsburgh and Baltimore in the final two weeks of the season. It is very possible that the Bengals will be riding a lengthy winning streak entering Week 15. If the Steelers continue their streaky play and Ben Roethlisberger remains out with injury, the Bengals could sneak into the playoffs.
The drubbing of the defending Super Bowl champions is a good sign that the Bengals are on the right track.
The Colts are by far the story of the year in the NFL. The team let its Hall of Fame quarterback go to another city and drafted its quarterback of the future with the first overall pick.
Then, first-year head coach Chuck Pagano was diagnosed with leukemia in September. Instead of falling apart in the absence of their head coach, the Colts have battled for their leader in his absence.
Andrew Luck has played out of his mind and has exceeded even the lofty expectations that were placed on him prior to the season.
The Colts will be tested against New England and Houston in their remaining games, but it should provide an ample test to see if Indy has what it takes to be a playoff team.
The Colts are the surprise of the 2012-13 season. Buy into Luck and Chuckstrong.
The Steelers narrowly won against the lowly Kansas City Chiefs on Monday Night Football, but they also lost quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to a right shoulder sprain.
The Steelers will host their AFC North rivals, the Baltimore Ravens, on Sunday Night Football next week, and two weeks later, the teams will meet in Baltimore. The AFC North will likely be decided in those two games and the Steelers may have to depend heavily on backup QB Byron Leftwich. The ground game has already suffered multiple injuries, making the injury to Roethlisberger even more devastating.
Nothing would be guaranteed with Big Ben sidelined—just look at the Monday night game—but it is a down year in the AFC. At 6-3, the Steelers have given themselves a nice cushion and should still be able to get into the playoffs and have a healthy Roethlisberger ready to go.
Russell Wilson has improved every game and has thrown 10 touchdowns and just two interceptions in his last five games.
The Seahawks have looked nearly untouchable at home (outside of the replacement ref game), and the defense is obviously among the elite units in the league.
With an ever-improving offense, headlined by Marshawn “Beast Mode” Lynch, and a defense that punches its opponents in the mouth, the Seahawks are going to lock up a Wild Card spot and possibly make a run at the NFC West crown.
The Giants have struggled in the last two games, but they are still in first place of the NFC East division by two games in the win column.
The Giants stranglehold on the struggling NFC East is loosening, but the team should come out of the bye week healthy, and with momentum, ready to make a late run and hold off the Cowboys.
If it is one thing the defending Super Bowl Champions are good at, it is making miracle runs just when everything looks like it is going downhill.
The Rams get up to play NFC West opponents and the 49ers were the most recent team to experience this.
In Week 10 the two teams battled to a tie. It had not happened since the Philadelphia Eagles and Cincinnati Bengals wound up in a 13-13 deadlock back on Nov. 16, 2008.
The 49ers have been a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde team. The team has looked good for the majority of the season, but in its two losses against the Giants and Vikings, the team looked bad. Sunday was another example of that.
The 49ers are a playoff team. They have the best ground game in the NFL and the tenacious defense ranks first in points allowed per game. It takes just one bad game to be eliminated from the playoffs though.
The Baltimore Ravens have their issues this season, but that was not apparent Sunday as the team set a franchise record for points scored against the Oakland Raiders.
Despite the defense being hampered by injuries to key players like Ray Lewis and Lardarius Webb, the Ravens showed Sunday why they are a lock for the postseason.
The Ravens have two games against Pittsburgh in the next three weeks, and the AFC North crown will likely be decided in those games.
While the Ravens were likely not happy with a Steelers win Monday night, if Ben Roethlisberger misses time due to the injury he sustained in the game, it will make the path to the top of the AFC North much easier for the Ravens.
The Patriots were another team that struggled against an opponent they usually dominate.
New England’s prolific offense functioned flawlessly, but the young defense opened the door for a Buffalo comeback. The Patriots would come out on top 37-31, but it was a close call.
The Patriots are the main beneficiary of the Dolphins two consecutive losses. The Dolphins would be right on the heels of the Patriots if they had managed to win those games, but now the Tom Brady and the rest of the Patriots have some breathing room.
The Patriots have been a fixture in the postseason for more than a decade, and they will be making another run at a Super Bowl this season.
The Packers were on a bye last week, but got a huge boost from the Texans beating the Bears. Green Bay is now only one game behind Chicago in the NFC North.
The Packers and Aaron Rodgers seem to have recovered from their early struggles and have reeled off four convincing wins in a row. The team looks to be in championship form and has managed to fight through various injuries.
The Packers have a tough slate of games to end the season, including five games against divisional opponents.
However, Green Bay will challenge the Bears for the division crown, but if the Packers do not come out on top of the NFC North, they will likely have a Wild Card spot locked up.
Almost one year ago, a promising season came to a screeching halt for the Bears when Jay Cuter broke his thumb and backup Caleb Hanie proceeded to throw away the season.
Now, the Bears have Jason Campbell who is a tremendous upgrade from Hanie. Campbell is a quality NFL quarterback and should be able to do a decent job if Cutler misses time.
While missing Cutler is not what the Bears want at this point in the season, the team relies more on its aggressive and veteran-laden defense.
The Bears have very important games against Minnesota (twice) and Green Bay left on the schedule. With both teams nipping at their heels for the division lead, wins in these games would give the Bears ample breathing room moving forward.
The Broncos are giving the Texans a run for the best team in the AFC and have looked unbeatable as of late.
Peyton Manning is playing at an MVP-level, and the defense had one of its best performances against Carolina Sunday.
The Broncos have the potential to run the table and enter the playoffs on a big winning streak. A matchup with Baltimore in Week 15 is the Broncos most challenging game remaining on the schedule. Four games against Oakland, Cleveland and Kansas City should be easy wins for Manning and the Broncos.
Manning is showing why he is a future Hall of Famer. His presence under center has made the Broncos an elite threat coming out of the AFC.
Tim Tebow who?
The Falcons had a chance late to retain their perfect record, but would end up being on the losing end of a game for the first time this season Sunday against the Saints.
Atlanta is still very, very good. Matt Ryan is throwing the ball to two Pro Bowl-caliber receivers and a future Hall of Famer tight end in Tony Gonzalez.
No one likes to lose, but it is much better to get the losses out of the way in the regular season, rather than in the postseason where a loss will end your season. The Falcons know that all too well.
Outside of a collapse of epic proportions, the Falcons are a lock for the playoffs. The question will be if they can make some noise once they make it there.
Championship teams win games like the Texans won Sunday.
In pouring rain, against an elite opponent on the road, the Texans found a way to navigate through the mud of Soldier Field to an ugly, but convincing, 13-6 win.
The Texans have a great mix of an effective running game, a passing game that can take advantage of that success and a gritty defense, led by NFL sack leader J.J. Watt, that stifles opponents.
The Texans won their first playoff game in franchise history last year. More should be on the way this postseason.