With only five weeks remaining in the regular season, the time has come for us to make some determinations about the best and worst teams in the league.
For some, time is up. Their opportunities to assert themselves as contenders have all passed, and all that's left is waiting out the rest of the season to find out where they're picking in the 2013 draft.
For others, though, the remaining five weeks will be all about tuning up for a stellar playoff run. Here's a look at the teams that will stay on top from here on out.
1. Houston Texans (10-1)
The Texans have been one of the most consistent teams in the NFL all season, and as a result it seems clear they aren't going anywhere. They've beaten some of the best teams in the NFL in the Ravens and the Bears, and they've beaten all the bad teams they were supposed to beat.
True, they have one loss—but as a Patriots fans, I strongly believe that it's beneficial for teams to lose at least one regular-season game so they learn how to bounce back, and at least the Texans' one loss came against a non-embarrassing team in the Packers.
The Texans have a solid rushing game, a solid group of receivers and a solid quarterback, plus a good defense. Though their five remaining games won't be easy—the slate features two against Indianapolis and one against New England—this team can compete against anybody.
2. Atlanta Falcons (10-1)
Up next, of course, is the league's only other 10-win team. Though the Falcons' one loss came against a far less competitive team in New Orleans, and though they've been involved in an alarming number of very close games, they still are going to be fine from here on out.
The primary reason for this is that of the five remaining games on Atlanta's schedule, four of them are against pretty bad teams. It helps that the rest of the NFC South is extremely weak; it doesn't help that one of those bad teams handed Atlanta its only loss of the year. Count this as the Falcons' opportunity to exact revenge.
The playoffs, however, will be another story. The Falcons in the Matt Ryan era have been utterly futile in the postseason, so we'll see if this year's team—the best Ryan has ever had—can bring about a different result.
3. Baltimore Ravens (9-2)
The Ravens are getting a huge boost by the impending return of Ray Lewis—not that they're dying to get him back. This team has been able to win just fine without its best defensive player.
4. San Francisco 49ers (8-2-1)
Seems that the Colin Kaepernick experiment is working out quite well for the 49ers—or is it beginner's luck? Even if it is, he should be able to get the job done against St. Louis in Week 13.
5. New England Patriots (8-3)
If the Patriots emerge victorious in this weekend's game against Miami, they can pretty much go on cruise control from here on out—not that they will, of course. Bill Belichick would never stand for taking it easy. That's how Rob Gronkowski ended up with a broken forearm.
But fortunately for New England, Gronk can take his sweet time rehabbing that arm if his team clinches the AFC East this weekend. Yes, the Patriots have been the beneficiaries of one of the worst divisions in the NFL this year, but they can continue to capitalize on it with one more division win to snag themselves a playoff berth.
It's pretty remarkable what the Patriots have been able to do, given that they've been without at least one of their top two offensive assets—Gronk and Aaron Hernandez—for the majority of the season. They didn't look too good early in the season, but over the last five weeks, they've become a legitimate contender once again.
6. Denver Broncos (8-3)
And like the Patriots, Peyton Manning has assembled himself a legitimate contender after some early-season adversity. It just took some time for him and his offense to get into a rhythm—and he has zero competition in the AFC West.
7. Chicago Bears (8-3)
Two weeks ago, the Bears looked like they were done for the season. Now, after Jay Cutler's return and one huge win over the Vikings, they're right back in it.
8. New York Giants (7-4)
Similarly, the Giants once again look like they're for real after laying a 38-10 beating on the Packers on Sunday night. But consistency continues to be a problem for this team. Though when hasn't consistency been an issue for the Giants? It hasn't stopped them when it comes to making deep playoff runs.
9. Indianapolis Colts (7-4)
The Colts have been one of the league's better teams over the last six weeks. They've beaten all the teams they should have beaten but dropped one to the Patriots; for them, the test will be contending with Houston and Detroit over the next five weeks.
10. Green Bay Packers (7-4)
The problem for the Packers has been the same all season: They can't seem to beat the best teams in the league (save for the Texans). Losses to the 49ers and Giants have really done them in this year, and they need some big division wins in the weeks ahead to stay afloat.
11. Cincinnati Bengals (6-5)
After dropping four straight, the Bengals are suddenly undead due to three straight wins over New York, Kansas City and Oakland. And aside from the season finale against Baltimore, they have some seriously winnable games on their remaining schedule.
12. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-5)
The Buccaneers, similarly, have been surging ever since a Week 7 loss to the Saints. Unfortunately, they took a big hit with a heartbreakingly close loss to Atlanta on Sunday.
13. Seattle Seahawks (6-5)
This team may have looked like a contender for the first six weeks of the season, but losses in three of their last five have made the playoffs a long shot. Sunday's 24-21 loss to Miami was the dagger.
14. Pittsburgh Steelers (6-5)
15. New Orleans Saints (5-6)
The good news is, the Saints have made this season respectable. The bad news is, they're still not going anywhere. It looked promising for a while after three straight wins, but Sunday's loss to the 49ers all but sealed the deal.
16. Minnesota Vikings (6-5)
Here, we have another team that looked like a lock for the playoffs after the first five weeks of the season. And this is why you don't judge a team based on the first five weeks: The Vikings have lost four of six and need a miracle to come out on top of the NFC North.
17. Washington Redskins (5-6)
RGIII & Co. just won't give up. They may be 5-6, and they may have a tough couple of games ahead, but for some reason, watching what they did to the Cowboys on Thanksgiving makes you believe the Redskins aren't quite done yet.
18. Miami Dolphins (5-6)
Somehow, Ryan Tannehill's team isn't the worst one in the AFC East. And even though the playoffs aren't really in the picture for them, that win over Seattle on Sunday helped put to rest memories of an ugly three-game losing streak.
19. Dallas Cowboys (5-6)
Tony Romo's redemption tour doesn't appear to be coming this year. After the way Robert Griffin and the Redskins embarrassed him on Thanksgiving, the Cowboys have to start seriously thinking about making some changes.
20. Detroit Lions (4-7)
They seem to have all the pieces, but the Lions haven't been able to put them together in 2012. Part of that is due to the fact that they have virtually no running game and a mediocre defense. Clearly, not even one of the best passing games in football can save you if your team is this incomplete.
21. St. Louis Rams (4-6-1)
What started out as a decent campaign for the Rams has turned disastrous over the last six weeks. This team has gone 1-4-1, suffering losses to teams like Miami and the New York Jets. And it doesn't get any easier, with Round 2 against the 49ers coming up on Sunday.
22. San Diego Chargers (4-7)
This isn't going to be one of those years where the Chargers get away with backing into the playoffs on a .500 record—not with Peyton Manning in the division. The Chargers, who have already lost their two games to the division-leading Broncos, are essentially done—even with one of the easiest schedules in the league over the next five weeks.
23. New York Jets (4-7)
Isn't it Tebow Time yet? Mark Sanchez humiliated himself with last week's gaffe, though that could describe the whole game against New England, not just that one play where his teammate's backside forced a fumble. The Jets are a demoralized team and nothing can save them at this point.
24. Buffalo Bills (4-7)
And the Bills are right behind them. The frustrating thing about Buffalo this season is that it has been able to hang in there in the last several weeks but it hasn't been able to get the job done. And the Bills aren't one of those teams that can disguise a terrible defense with a terrific offense.
25. Arizona Cardinals (4-7)
Here's another example of why you can't judge a team by its first couple of weeks. Since beginning 4-0, the Cardinals haven't won a single game. But there's nothing like a date with the Jets to halt a seven-game slide.
26. Tennessee Titans (4-7)
This season has been one big forgettable mess for the Titans, who have been slaughtered by injuries yet again. You know things are bad when you're one of two teams in the league to lose to Jacksonville.
27. Cleveland Browns (3-8)
Well, on the bright side, the last few weeks have been far better for the Browns than the first five. Perhaps they can capitalize on the momentum they generated in last week's win over the Steelers and grab a couple more unlikely victories to make this season respectable.
28. Carolina Panthers (3-8)
A huge win over the Eagles on Monday Night Football doesn't change the fact that the Panthers are headed home at season's end, but it does bode well for Cam Newton, who had four touchdowns.
29. Oakland Raiders (3-8)
The last four weeks have been ugly for the Raiders, who have allowed an average of 42.25 points during that winless streak. Even Cleveland may pose a threat to them in Week 13.
30. Philadelphia Eagles (3-8)
The Eagles' inevitable offseason overhaul is creeping closer, and on Sunday, Dallas could easily hand them their eighth consecutive loss.
31. Jacksonville Jaguars (2-9)
Chad Henne worked out nicely in Week 12 for the Jags in relief of the injured Blaine Gabbert. He may even be able to snag a few more wins in the next three weeks against the AFC East's weak teams.
32. Kansas City Chiefs (1-10)
Will the Chiefs get another win before 2012 ends? It's possible. They do face Carolina, Cleveland and Oakland in the coming weeks.
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