It’s coming down to the wire, folks. The NFL is starting to separate the contenders from the pretenders, and it all starts in Week 13 with divisional matchups set to shape the playoff landscape.
New Orleans and Dallas, two teams with small playoff chances, find themselves in full win-now mode after losses in Week 12. Indianapolis also got trounced with a playoff berth on their doorstep in Week 11, and need a big win this week to stay alive.
By comparison, teams at the top of the rankings like Green Bay, New York and Pittsburgh have more to prove than ever. There were some real unexpected shakeups with Cleveland and Washington pulling off big upsets, proving the age-old adage that anything can happen.
Here’s a look at this week’s NFL Power Rankings, with a mind towards which teams are playing for their seasonal lives on the gridiron.
1. Houston Texans (10-1)
The Texans survived the gauntlet yet again, just like the other team that stands at 10-1. Houston continues an impressive push towards being the top seed in the AFC and continues against division rival Tennessee in Week 13.
2. Atlanta Falcons (10-1)
Nothing looks to be able to slow down this attack, and they have a chance to gain revenge over the Saints at home this weekend when New Orleans visits the Georgia Dome with a playoff berth at stake.
3. Denver Broncos (8-3)
The Broncos hold down this No. 3 spot after their sixth straight win on Thanksgiving weekend. Denver finds ways to turn defense into offense, and every week that Manning has to mesh with this group puts Denver on the map as a top contender.
4. San Francisco 49ers (8-2-1)
Enter Colin Kaepernick. The QB controversy in San Francisco took a new turn this weekend as the second-year pro took over for Alex Smith and commanded this offense to the tune of 31 points against the Saints.
The NFC West isn’t over with, but the 49ers have a major issue if Smith is reinserted in the starting lineup and the offense doesn’t respond. You have a major choice on your hands, coach Harbaugh.
5. Baltimore Ravens (9-2)
The Ravens answered the call in Week 12 and used an unlikely 4th-and-29 play to knock off the Chargers and likely send Norv Turner to an early offseason soon. I wasn’t sold on the Ravens earlier, but they appear to be playoff ready and have a huge game against Pittsburgh on Sunday night.
While it won’t directly effect their playoff standing, the Ravens can completely stomp the door on the Steelers with a win. If they lose, they leave it open for the Steelers to make one final push at the AFC North.
6. Chicago Bears (8-3)
Jay Cutler is back, and the Bears’ game against the Vikings was all but over in the middle of the third quarter. The Bears responded big after the embarrassing loss to San Francisco and now need to capitalize again with the Packers losing in Week 12. The NFC North is still wide open, and the Bears are in the driver’s seat.
7. New England Patriots (8-3)
With their 49-point output, the Patriots successfully answered some questions about their defense while also showing the offense isn’t broken without Rob Gronkowski. New England keeps on winning and flying under the radar in the process.
8. New York Giants (7-4)
Divisional foes Dallas and Washington were nipping at the heels of the defending champs, but now the gap is back to two games and the Giants are hoping December gets here ASAP. Traveling to the nation’s capital won’t be easy but should be a true test of where the defense is against Robert Griffin III.
9. Green Bay Packers (7-4)
This is a make-or-break week for the Packers. We’ve given them excuses for losses all season, and with good reason after the replacement ref debacle.
However, with the Vikings on deck and chasing the Chicago Bears still very much a concern in Green Bay, a loss this week could cripple long-term postseason chances for a team that expects nothing but Super Bowl success.
10. Cincinnati Bengals (6-5)
Cincinnati has rattled off three straight wins, outscoring opponents big and showcasing a defensive display that wasn’t clicking during the team’s early-season struggles. A crippling loss to San Diego would derail all of that momentum.
Since the Chargers have decidedly less to play for than the Bengals, this is a big week for the orange and black. Andy Dalton is playing well, but with real hopes towards the playoffs back on the table, how will they respond?
11. Seattle Seahawks (6-5)
We’ll know more about Seattle after a tilt with the Bears in Week 13. As of right now, an outside shot at the NFC West is still out there, as is Offensive Rookie of the Year in the form of QB Russell Wilson (although RG3 would beg to differ).
12. Pittsburgh Steelers (6-5)
Will Pittsburgh make the playoffs?
The Steelers are somewhat reeling and really hurting on the injury side of their issues. With Baltimore now on the docket and the playoffs looking less and less likely, the Steelers are the team with the most to lose in Week 13.
13. Indianapolis Colts (7-4)
Indy travels to Detroit to take on the depleted Lions in Week 13, but its season is hanging severely in the balance. Not only is Detroit a dangerous opponent with one of the league’s best receivers, but it’s the rest of the schedule that Indianapolis must worry about.
Houston is looming twice on the schedule. An eighth win would push the playoffs into the real realm of possibility, but a fifth loss would make the odds for Cincinnati and Pittsburgh go way up. It’s a big week for Andrew Luck’s group.
14. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-5)
Josh Freeman has been the best QB on the planet over the past couple of weeks, but the setback against the Falcons was a big blow. However, Tampa Bay proved it can play with the big boys, and they have another chance to prove they belong with the big boys against Denver.
If the Bucs can withstand the Broncos and go to 7-5, they have a clear path towards the postseason. A loss would cripple their playoff hopes and be two consecutive losses to good teams.
15. New Orleans Saints (5-6)
The Saints felt the wrath of Kaepernick on Sunday, as has the rest of the league. Still, it was a major blow to their playoff positioning, and with the Falcons being the latest test on the schedule, a loss would take New Orleans into true must-win territory.
16. Minnesota Vikings (6-5)
Minnesota has too many problems and too much opposition (Green Bay/Chicago) to be considered serious contenders here. I like Christian Ponder, and Adrian Peterson is the clear Comeback Player of the Year, but the Vikes are another year away.
17. Washington Redskins (5-6)
RG3 kept Washington’s playoff hopes alive by taking out the Cowboys in front of friends and family in Dallas. They’re still on the outside looking in right now but have a chance to exonerate some of the demons from Eli Manning’s comeback earlier this season when the Giants come to town.
18. Dallas Cowboys (5-6)
Stick a fork in the Cowboys, because they are officially done. Just like the Thanksgiving dinner, the Cowboys are a distant memory, only to be anticipated again next season.
19. St. Louis Rams (4-6-1)
St. Louis is stuck in limbo land, but the tie to the 49ers could be the benchmark for all other future success. I like what Jeff Fisher is doing with the Rams, and they’ll be a dark horse next year with a good draft and some new offensive linemen.
20. Miami Dolphins (5-6)
Miami got off the losing track with a win over Seattle, proving yet again that this team has talent and some real fight. The AFC East is extremely tough, but Miami has exceeded expectations in a big way.
21. New York Jets (4-7)
It’s hard to talk about the Jets without talking about Tim Tebow. and this week is no exception. Tebow wouldn’t fix the defense, but he might keep the offense on the field longer than three plays per possession.
22. San Diego Chargers (4-7)
Norv Turner is gone, and it’s time to seriously start considering a QB change, too. So many questions, so few answers in San Diego, the biggest one being: 4th-and-29?
23. Tennessee Titans (4-7)
Every time Tennessee tries to turn the corner, they turn around and lose to a team like Jacksonville. Lo and behold, Jacksonville unleashed a new passing attack and took down the Titans. Tennessee continues to float between mediocrity and breaking through.
24. Detroit Lions (4-7)
It’s been a bad season for QB play, injuries and Ndamukong Suh. The Lions can write this one off to bad luck or even poor play late in games, but they can’t erase the 4-7 record or turn this season around now.
25. Cleveland Browns (3-8)
The Browns, like the Panthers, have played more than a few close games without positive results. The jury is still out on Brandon Weeden, but he’s now got a win over Pittsburgh on his resume, something many of his predecessors failed to do in their rookie years.
26. Arizona Cardinals (4-7)
Seven straight losses for the once undefeated Cards. Is Kevin Kolb more valuable than making a QB the team’s No. 1 pick? It will be a point of emphasis as the Cardinals get their priorities ready for April.
27. Buffalo Bills (4-7)
Buffalo suffered another tough loss to the Colts, and with every loss comes the end of the Fred Jackson/Ryan Fitzpatrick era. Does it mean the end of the Chan Gailey era?
28. Carolina Panthers (3-8)
Carolina took advantage of Philadelphia on Monday night in a matchup of teams that were expected to both be in playoff contention at the time of the game. Cam Newton really needs to work on pocket presence and leadership in the offseason, because he still has plenty of talent to win NFL games for his team.
29. Philadelphia Eagles (3-8)
Goodbye, Andy Reid. The Eagles can’t afford to let Reid handle this team anymore. Despite the loss of Michael Vick and the offensive line problems, the Eagles have talent on defense and great receivers on the outside. A coaching change seems imminent.
Which bottom five team is the worst of the bunch?
30. Oakland Raiders (3-8)
Cincinnati made things as low as they could be for the Raiders on Sunday, putting up 34 points and widening the gash that is the wound that Oakland can’t seem to heal.
31. Jacksonville Jaguars (2-9)
Jacksonville finally strung together good quarters, and Chad Henne is the cause. Chad Henne! Who would have thought that top draft pick Blaine Gabbert would be done in the middle of his second season? (I did).
32. Kansas City Chiefs (1-10)
Kansas City loses yet again. I still feel they will knock off a team they aren’t supposed to and came darn close against Denver. It’s been a rough year in Missouri, and there’s no end in sight.
Ethan Grant is a featured columnist for B/R's Breaking News Team.