The NFL wanted parity. Now they have it.
Week 11 of the NFL season proved that the distance between one of the worst teams (Jacksonville Jaguars) and one of the best teams (Houston Texans) isn't that far. The Jaguars took Houston to overtime. The Browns took the Cowboys to overtime. The Panthers took the Buccaneers to an extra period. Parity is king in the NFL.
With so many teams so close together when it comes to performance and potential, ranking each team top-to-bottom becomes more and more difficult. In a parity-ruled league, you can't rely on win/loss record or looking at who each team has won or lost against. It's all about how the team looks and plays over the course of the season.
Who comes in as the best and worst teams in the NFL heading into Week 12?
Another week, another loss. With nine of those losses piled up heading into Week 12, the Kansas City Chiefs are guaranteed a losing season.
While we can't guarantee that the Chiefs will have a new general manager or head coach after the season, it's becoming less likely each week that Romeo Crennel can save his job as head coach. As Crennel's team fails, it's also less likely that Scott Pioli comes back as general manager.
Taking a look at some potential candidates for the Kansas City job, you have to wonder about Bill Cowher. He's familiar with the Hunt family after serving as defensive coordinator in K.C. from 1989-1991. Cowher would also be in a position to likely pick his own general manager/personnel guru in the front office if Pioli is let go.
It's just speculation at this point, but a talented but undisciplined team like the Chiefs could do well with a hard-nosed coach like Cowher in place.
The magic has run out in Carolina, and the Panthers are once again reeling.
The 2011 season is but a distant memory, and more than ever the fans and front office are being reminded that this team has a long way to go before they're ready to compete with the big boys in the NFC South. What changes need to be made?
First off, head coach Ron Rivera needs to make sweeping changes to his coaching staff if he's back with the club next season. Offensive coordinator Rod Chudzinski's schemes and play-calling have been exposed. The offensive coaching staff needs re-made from the top down.
On defense, Sean McDermott has done a solid job with the talent on hand, but the team must address its lack of talent on defense during the offseason.
With what looks like a top-five pick in the 2013 NFL draft coming their way, the new general manager in Carolina will have a chance to drastically reshape the roster. The pressure is on.
The Jacksonville Jaguars move up a spot this week by virtue of their taking the No. 1-ranked team in the NFL into overtime. While I'm not a believer in moral victories, Jacksonville deserved to move up.
Tough questions will be asked this week, with most of the football-watching world wanting to know where this Justin Blackmon was all season. We'll be evaluating the game film later this week, too, but Blackmon's 236 yards receiving will draw questions about the ability of Chad Henne at quarterback and the validity of the Houston Texans secondary.
Was Blackmon's big game a credit to Henne or proof that the Texans need help at cornerback?
Blackmon's excellent game can't be ignored, as the team's first-round draft pick has just shown the fans what he can do when a competent quarterback is throwing his way. If anything, the Jaguars' Week 11 performance will stand as a hard indictment against Blaine Gabbert's future with this team.
The Oakland Raiders have big problems on defense. Big, huge, gigantic problems.
The Raider defense has struggled all season, and it points to a lack of talent at both cornerback spots and along the defensive line. Even as big-name players line-up on defense, the overall play of the team has been depressingly bad. A makeover is in order for general manager Reggie McKenzie and head coach Dennis Allen this offseason.
The Raiders have enough pieces to be competitive in 2013 if they can find the right mix between adding free agents and drafting upgrades. Most of the front office's attention this spring should be focused on defense, where the Raiders have been their worst this season.
Put a fork in the Philadelphia Eagles. They're done.
Andy Reid and Michael Vick will soon follow in the footsteps of Juan Castillo as they take the well-deserved blame for all that's wrong with the Philadelphia football team at this point. Following disappointing 2011 and 2012 seasons, Reid's tenure has to be coming to an end.
The Eagles will likely be under new guidance for the first time since the 1999 season, Reid's first with the team. This is a talented roster with a great fanbase, which makes the Eagles job an enticing one to potential hires.
Oregon's Chip Kelly and Penn State head coach Bill O'Brien are two of the hottest names in coaching circles, but don't rule out a Jon Gruden rumor or two once the team officially starts looking for Reid's successor. And trust me, Reid is done here.
All season I've talked about how the Cleveland Browns are better than their record, especially on defense, but at some point this team will be judged on their wins and losses. Head coach Pat Shurmur will be damn lucky to survive that judgement.
Shurmur's incompetence on the job this year has been alarming, and it's proof that some guys are meant to be offensive coordinators and not head coaches. Shurmur is much better when he's sitting in the coaches' box calling plays.
The Browns' new owner, Jimmy Haslam, will have a tough job ahead of him over the next six weeks. Evaluating Tom Heckert, Shurmur and quarterback Brandon Weeden must take priority as the team prepares to move into a new age of Cleveland Browns football.
The Arizona Cardinals almost stunned the NFL with a win over the Atlanta Falcons, but that won't be the story of this week for Arizona. Not even close.
With a 13-0 lead, the Cardinals chose to bench quarterback John Skelton for rookie sixth-rounder Ryan Lindley. Again...they were winning.
Head coach Ken Whisenhunt should be questioned early and often for this head-scratching move. Not that Skelton is anything special at the position, but he's at least a proven commodity. Lindley wasn't prepared all week for this game and was at a strategic disadvantage being thrown into his first NFL action against a one-loss Atlanta team.
This move, along with many others, could be the straw that breaks the coach's back in Arizona. Don't be surprised if Whisenhunt's 2008 Super Bowl honeymoon is over.
The New York Jets have found a way to surprise me. In a good way.
Facing one of the NFL's toughest defenses, the Jets were able to not only win, but win decisively. Rex Ryan's team did to the St. Louis Rams what the San Francisco 49ers couldn't in overtime one week ago—score.
The Jets were impressive in their Week 11 victory, and with six games to go it's not too late for the team to get hot and make a run at the postseason. That may be unlikely due to their schedule and key injuries, but at this point in the season the Jets are still very much alive.
Can they win six straight games with Mark Sanchez at quarterback? I'd bet against it, but crazier things have happened in the NFL this season.
When trusting a rookie quarterback as your starter, it's expected that there will be ups and downs throughout the season. The Miami Dolphins are currently in the "downs" part of the year.
Ryan Tannehill still flashes brilliance at times, but his decision making has regressed over the last four weeks. Some may call it the "rookie wall," but Tannehill must play through his issues and devote himself to the film room to fix the issues.
Some of Tannehill's problems can be pinned on the play-calling of Mike Sherman and the lack of talent at wide receiver. Sherman's play-calling should get better—and more aggressive—once the team has the horses to implement his scheme fully. With only Brian Hartline looking like an NFL-caliber starter at receiver, the Dolphins will need to focus on adding at least one high-priority wide receiver this spring.
Buddy Nix really wants a new quarterback, but he should at least realize that his team is very much alive in the AFC Wild Card race.
Ryan Fitzpatrick hasn't been great, but the Buffalo Bills are at least competitive this season. Even with a game manager under center, the Buffalo offense has gone away from what it does best: run the football. With an exciting ball-carrier like C.J. Spiller in the backfield, the Bills would be wise to pound the football, but instead head coach Chan Gailey attempts to play cute and try to trick the defense. That's not what these Bills are built to do.
It would be a surprise if Gailey is fired after the season, but do expect a change at quarterback unless Fitzpatrick gets hot enough over the next six weeks to lead the Bills to a playoff berth. Even then, drafting a challenger to Fitzpatrick is likely in the cards.
Thanks to a well-timed bye week, the Tennessee Titans see no move this week. Next week they'll have a chance to continue moving up the board.
With Jake Locker back under center, the Titans are a more exciting team, but we've yet to see enough from Locker this season to know if the Titans are a better team with him running the offense. It will help that Locker now has Kenny Britt at full speed and Kendall Wright with 11 weeks of development behind him. Locker and the Titans offense are set up to excel, but now the pressure is on the second-year quarterback to deliver.
The Titans are a good, quality ballclub with a loaded roster of young talent. If any team is poised to flip its season and make a run through the last six weeks, I'd put my money in the AFC on these Titans.
Another disappointing week from the San Diego Chargers. It's fair to wonder how much longer Norv Turner and general manager A.J. Smith can expect to be employed by the club.
It's concerning that the Chargers continually fail to live up to preseason expectations, but most concerning is that the key players on this team are regressing. Philip Rivers hasn't looked the same since Marcus McNeill went down at left tackle. When Jared Gaither was healthy to finish the last three games of the 2011 season, Rivers looked his best in two years.
With the talent level around Rivers regressing—and with poor personnel decisions keeping that talent level low—the franchise quarterback is getting worse at a time when he should be hitting his prime.
There's no one to blame for that other than Turner and Smith. Their inability to make wise personnel decisions have haunted this team. It should be the cause of their unemployment.
The Dallas Cowboys are back to .500, but they didn't play up to their ability in Week 11. That should come as no surprise to anyone who has followed this team over the last decade.
The Cowboys were forced into overtime with the Cleveland Browns, a team they should have beaten by 10 points, but instead the Dallas defense was overwhelmed by a rookie quarterback who had struggled in most every outing of his season thus far. Rob Ryan's defense will be on notice in Week 12, that's for sure.
The Cowboys deserve credit for winning, but it shouldn't have taken an extra period to put away the Cleveland Browns. This team's habit of playing down to their competition has to end—or their season will.
The St. Louis Rams continue to amaze and confuse me. Welcome to another week in the NFL.
One week after taking the San Francisco 49ers to a tie, the Rams looked asleep at the wheel against the New York Jets after a hot start to the game. By the time the second quarter came around, Jeff Fisher's team looked like it had a 20-point lead instead of being wrapped up in a hard-fought game.
This is the problem with young teams—great one week, incompetent the next. As the Rams grow and develop, this will be their curse. Inconsistency is to be expected, but the Rams were faced with a winnable game and instead dropped a loss that guarantees they win no more than nine games this year—something that would require a six-game winning streak.
The playoffs look like an improbability for the Rams at this point.
Calvin Johnson is back, but it appears the Detroit Lions we all came to know and love before the 2011 season are back, too.
The Lions are in a position where one more loss likely ends their hopes of a repeat playoff appearance—and anyone being honest with themselves would admit that the Lions haven't played like a playoff team this season. From Matthew Stafford on over to the defense, this hasn't been a playoff-worthy performance.
The Lions are a good team, and on any given week they can look like competitors, but too often they're an underperforming team with so many holes on defense that they can't keep up when opposing offenses get going. And that tends to happen a lot.
Expectations will be high again in 2013, but the Lions are playing for draft positioning right now, not the playoffs.
The Washington Redskins aren't a good team yet, but they're among the most exciting to watch on a weekly basis. Will that be good enough for a playoff run, though?
The Redskins were dominant in their beatdown of the Philadelphia Eagles, but beating up on an inferior opponent won't do much to restore faith in those fans and media members who've watched Washington drop six losses this season.
In a very competitive NFC, it's likely that 10 wins will be needed for a wild-card berth. The Redskins will spend the next six weeks trying to catch the Minnesota Vikings and Seattle Seahawks. To do that, they need many more performances like the one we saw in Week 11.
It's funny how a well-timed game against the Kansas City Chiefs can change a team's fortunes. The Cincinnati Bengals have now won two straight games to get back to .500.
And with the rest of their division fighting injuries, the Bengals are still a threat for a playoff berth. That's if they can keep up their current hot streak.
The team's schedule isn't too terribly tough from here on out, with winnable games against the Raiders (Week 12), Chargers (Week 13), Cowboys (Week 14) and closing out against two division rivals battling injuries. If the Bengals can win those five games, they'll be sitting at 10-6 with a shot at the division title or at least a wild-card berth.
Mapping out wins on paper is much easier than delivering on the field, but with a 5-5 record, the Bengals have to feel confident about their chances at seeing the playoffs.
Winners of four straight, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have the look of a serious wild-card contender. And if you're meeting the Bucs in the Wild Card Round, good luck.
Greg Schiano's team has been playing lights-out, and major credit needs to go to offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan for his work with quarterback Josh Freeman and running back Doug Martin. The team isn't perfect on offense—the offensive line could be their undoing late this season—but Tampa's football team is miles ahead of where anyone expected them to be 10 weeks ago.
With a tough, aggressive, young defense and an offense that can find big plays, the Buccaneers look like a favorite to come out of the NFC as a No. 6 seed—or better.
A win over the New England Patriots would have made Andrew Luck a saint in the state of Indiana. They still might want to get the paperwork ready on that one.
Luck and the Colts weren't quite up to the challenge of stopping the Tom Brady-led offense of the Patriots, but they did show (once again) incredible heart and toughness even in defeat. And with a 6-4 record, Indianapolis is still playoff-worthy through 11 weeks.
The test of this team will be on how the defense holds up over the next six weeks. The good news is that the schedule here on out isn't that tough—only in two games against the Houston Texans will Indianapolis likely be picked to lose, and even that is in question after Houston almost dropped a game to the Jacksonville Jaguars.
If the Colts can win four of their next six, they'll be a playoff team.
A bye week gives the Minnesota Vikings a late-season break, plus time to set their game plan for the next six weeks. Win four of six, and the playoffs are a likely possibility.
With the way Adrian Peterson is running, winning four more games looks possible, but for the Vikings to be truly competitive over the rest of the season, they need the defense and quarterback Christian Ponder to find some consistency.
Ponder has been hot and cold this season, and that's somewhat expected for a quarterback who is finishing his first full season as a starter. In just his second NFL season, Ponder has looked great at times and maddeningly bad at others.
As the season comes to a close, Ponder has to get on rhythm and find a way to lead his team into the postseason.
A loss to the Baltimore Ravens may not warrant a drop from No. 7 overall to No. 12, but factor in wins by the New England Patriots and New Orleans Saints and the Steelers see a bigger move down than perhaps is normal.
Another thing to consider here is that the Steelers are without Ben Roethlisberger for an unknown period of time. Without Big Ben in the game, the Steelers wouldn't be favored to beat any of the teams ranked ahead of them, and they would likely be picked to lose to many of the teams ranked below them.
Without their MVP, the Steelers aren't the same team.
Depending on how long Roethlisberger is out and how well the team can play without him, the Steelers' playoff hopes could be in jeopardy.
The New York Giants are not fans of November, or least of winning in the 11th month. A much-needed bye came in Week 11, keeping the Giants from a possible 0-3 November.
With six games left on the schedule, the New York Giants find themselves staring down one of the NFL's toughest remaining games. For the Giants to win the NFC East, they won't have to do anything spectacular over the next six weeks, but to enter the playoffs with a home-field advantage, they need to somehow win out.
With the Packers, Redskins, Saints, Falcons, Ravens and Eagles left on the docket, it wouldn't be out of the question for the Giants to limp into the playoffs as an 8-8 or 9-7 team. That's not the confidence with which Tom Coughlin wants his team hitting the end of the season.
A tough fight for the two wild-card seeds in the NFC will likely come down to how well the Seattle Seahawks can play on the road. That's not a good sign for a team that's just 1-4 away from their home field this season.
With three of their six remaining games coming on the road, the Seahawks are could be expected to finish the year with a 9-7 record. Unless they can find a way to win following cross-country trips to Buffalo or Miami, the Seahawks may find themselves one game back from the Minnesota Vikings or New Orleans Saints.
Winning on the road will be key for Pete Carroll's team. On top of taking care of business at home, the Seahawks are in a situation where winning at least one of their road games is a must.
When the New Orleans Saints started the season 0-4, everyone (myself included) wrote them off. The loss of Sean Payton was too great, the absence of Drew Brees over the summer too impactful, the lingering penalties from the Bountygate scandal too distracting.
We were all wrong.
The Saints have managed to kick-start an improbable run through their last six games, and with just six weeks to go they've gone from laughing stock of the NFL to a playoff contender. Credit Brees, interim coach Joe Vitt and the fans of the New Orleans Saints for not giving up.
Teams with momentum are always dangerous, and if the Saints pull off a playoff berth, no one will want to see this team on their schedule.
Facing injuries to Bobbie Williams, Ray Lewis, Lardarius Webb and Dennis Pitta and with a banged-up Haloti Ngata in the game, the Baltimore Ravens were able to hang on and beat their rivals. Even though the win was over a Ben Roethlisberger-less Pittsburgh Steelers, a division win on the road against a hated opponent still ranks as a big win.
It remains to be seen how long the Ravens' luck can hold up. With so many injured stars on defense, it seems logical to assume that eventually Baltimore will run into an offense that can outscore and upset them. It would have been Week 11 if Roethlisberger were healthy, but for another week the Ravens survive.
And in the process they extend their lead in the AFC North to two games.
The Chicago Bears ran head-first into the San Francisco 49ers in Week 11, and it wasn't a pretty outcome for Chicago.
Without Jay Cutler, the Bears' offense never got going, but it was their lack of play on defense that's most concerning. With the NFC North up for grabs, the Bear defense has to be better than they were on Monday night against a backup quarterback.
This is still a talented team, but the Bears have lost now to the Green Bay Packers, Houston Texans and San Francisco 49ers. Good, but not great.
The New England Patriots' record is keeping them from being a higher-ranked team, but that may be changing—very soon.
Tom Brady is playing some of his best football—quite a feat for a future Hall of Famer. With the offense as a whole looking better thanks to an improved run game, the Patriots look like a better team than they were last season. Last season being the year they went all the way to the Super Bowl.
If the defense can improve on the fly with Aqib Talib at cornerback and Devin McCourty at safety—and Week 11 appearances were good—then the Patriots have to be a heavy favorite (again) to make a run to New Orleans for the Super Bowl.
This much is certain, if the Patriots play like they did in Week 11 on Thanksgiving night, they'll be moving up again.
The Denver Broncos aren't quite an elite team, but with an elite quarterback, an elite left tackle and an elite pass-rusher, they're pretty close. And close is good enough in this case.
With so little separating the Broncos from teams like the Houston Texans and New England Patriots, it's easy at Week 12 to look at the Broncos' lead in the AFC West and the level of competition in the conference and see them as a Super Bowl contender. With Peyton Manning getting better each week, there's no telling how red hot this team could be by the postseason.
The key for Denver will be limiting turnovers on offense and finding ways to create opportunities on defense. Manning has been great, but his interceptions are still an issue (ask Eric Weddle). That bit of rust (or uncertainty) can be the difference between a playoff win and loss.
The early-season problems experienced by the Green Bay Packers seem like they happened in a different season altogether. These Packers are for real.
Despite injuries at wide receiver and along the offensive line, the Green Bay offense has been able to hold off hard-charging opponents. The Week 11 win over the Detroit Lions showed the heart of this team—and the depth at receiver and in the secondary.
The Packers aren't the best team in the NFC, but they are very well coached and have one of the game's elite players (Aaron Rodgers). That's a good combination for a team that's playing the underdog role this season.
At some point, the Atlanta Falcons' habit of playing close will come back to haunt them. It may be in the playoffs, but it will happen. Guaranteed.
The Falcons have won six games by less than seven points and lost another by four. The way the team plays down to their competition (no offense, Arizona) has to be a concern for a team that's supposed to be the NFC's best ballclub. It's just tough to see the Falcons being a dominant team who can run away with the conference.
To be fair, they don't have to be dominant, they just have to win. And that's something the Falcons are doing a lot of this year. A team that can find a way to overcome five interceptions by their quarterback has some serious heart.
Two more wins and they clinch the NFC South.
Update: The Falcons moved from No. 2 to No. 3 following the 49ers' win over the Chicago Bears.
Winning close games can be the mark of a good team. While there's nothing wrong with being battle-tested and learning to win bad games can be valuable in the postseason, it's also a little bit scary along the way.
The Texans went to overtime against the Jacksonville Jaguars—a team previously ranked as the second worst in the NFL. While they won't move down for almost losing, this has to be a learning moment for the Houston players and coaches. Especially the coaches.
Wade Phillips' secondary was torn apart by Justin Blackmon—the same Justin Blackmon who looked like a colossal bust through the first 10 weeks of the season. Phillips has to find a way to get more pressure on the quarterback, which in turn allows his understaffed secondary to cover for less time.
Gary Kubiak has to also find a way to not be so conservative. If anything has a chance to doom this team's potential, it's that Kubiak likes to keep things close. He has to find a killer mentality when it comes to offensive play-calling.
Update: The Texans moved from No. 1 to No. 2 following the 49ers' win over the Chicago Bears.
Critics of the San Francisco 49ers will point to their two losses—but no team has a perfect record this season, making the argument of one loss vs. two losses moot. Others may point to a Week 10 tie against the Rams as proof that the 49ers aren't elite. Then there are those who say the 49ers signature win over the Bears without Jay Cutler wasn't that impressive.
They'd all be wrong.
The 49ers defeated—no, dominated—the NFL's No. 2 ranked defense. And they did it with their backup quarterback. After less-than-impressive weeks from the Houston Texans and Atlanta Falcons, the 49ers are the rightful team to be placed in the top spot.
With a Week 12 showdown with the New Orleans Saints looming, the 49ers will need a second-straight dominant performance to remain on top.