Whether a team is fighting for home-field advantage, a postseason berth or pride at this point in the season, there is one game left on the schedule that will prove to be crucial in the quest to accomplish its goal.
There are just five games remaining, and a key victory can make a monumental difference in a team’s season. The result of one contest can start a Super Bowl run, and it can also be the final straw for a head coach on the hot seat.
Here are my Week 13 power rankings, with a must-win matchup highlighted for every team.
1. San Francisco 49ers (8-2-1)
Must-Win Game: at New England, Week 15
The 49ers defense has continued to prove itself as the best unit in the NFL, and regardless of who starts at quarterback, the offense will still be more capable than it was last season when the team was on the brink of the Super Bowl.
San Francisco has its sights set on the No. 1 seed in the NFC, and to get that, it will need to win out. A road game against the New England Patriots is the toughest matchup left on its schedule.
2. Houston Texans (10-1)
Must-Win Game: at New England, Week 14
Houston is another team looking to wrap up home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, and to ensure that it holds off a surge from the Baltimore Ravens, the team must also go on the road and beat the Patriots. If the Texans win this game, they will likely be able to cruise to the top of the AFC.
3. Atlanta Falcons (10-1)
Must-Win Game: vs. New York Giants, Week 15
For the Falcons, beating the Giants will be equally as important as how they beat them.
Atlanta has failed to impress many NFL fans this season despite its 10-1 record, and two blowout losses in their last two playoff appearances is an underlying reason for this criticism. To prove that this year’s team is different, it must beat New York and look impressive doing it.
4. Baltimore Ravens (9-2)
Must-Win Game: vs. Pittsburgh Steelers, Week 13
The San Diego Chargers gifted the Ravens a victory this past week, and now they are heading into a showdown with their archrival. If Baltimore beats the Pittsburgh Steelers, they will clinch the division and book their ticket to the dance.
5. Denver Broncos (8-3)
Must-Win Game: at Baltimore Ravens, Week 15
Denver didn’t look like a Super Bowl contender against the lowly Kansas City Chiefs, but it still won the game. If the Broncos can take down the Ravens in a couple weeks, they will put themselves in position to earn a first-round bye.
6. New York Giants (7-4)
Must-Win Game: at Atlanta Falcons, Week 15
The Giants once again looked like a scary team as they trounced the Green Bay Packers. This is the time of year that New York starts to get hot, and a showdown with the Falcons will prove whether or not the team is capable of repeating the run it made last season.
7. New England Patriots (8-3)
Must-Win Game: vs. Houston, Week 14
The Patriots offense is scoring points at an incredible rate, but it will be tested against Houston and San Francisco. If New England can take down the Texans, it will make the AFC playoff picture extremely interesting, and a first-round bye will be within the Pats’ grasp.
8. Green Bay Packers (7-4)
Must-Win Game: at Chicago, Week 15
After a complete collapse against the Giants, protection issues and problems on defense were exposed. Green Bay’s success this season depends on how they respond to this loss, and in the past, an angry Aaron Rodgers has been a scary prospect for other NFL teams. A win against the Chicago Bears would give Green Bay an edge in the NFC North race.
9. Chicago Bears (8-3)
Must-Win Game: vs. Green Bay, Week 15
The Bears looked much better with Jay Cutler under center, and the clash with Green Bay will prove whether or not this team is capable of a deep playoff run. This NFC North showdown will have serious implications for the playoff picture.
10. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-5)
Must-Win Game: at Atlanta Falcons, Week 17
A tight race is starting for the final NFC wild card spot, and it may come down to the final day of the season.
Tampa Bay may be facing a must-win scenario to get into the playoffs in this game and may actually be rooting for Atlanta to wrap up the No. 1 seed early so they do not see Matt Ryan and Roddy White in this matchup.
11. Pittsburgh Steelers (6-5)
Must-Win Game: vs. Cincinnati, Week 16
The Steelers need Ben Roethlisberger back as soon as possible. The team’s playoff hopes are now completely tied to its quarterback’s health, and with a difficult game against the Ravens set for this weekend, the Steelers will likely have little room for error down the stretch. A victory over the Bengals will give them a leg up in the wild card race.
12. Cincinnati Bengals (6-5)
Must-Win Game: at Pittsburgh, Week 16
The AFC Wild Card looks like a three-team race, and if the Bengals can go on the road and beat Pittsburgh, they will have an excellent shot at being one of the two teams still playing in January. If Cincinnati is able to keep its momentum going into this contest, a second straight postseason appearance will be likely.
13. Indianapolis Colts (7-4)
Must-Win Game: at Houston, Week 15
The Colts' chances to reach the playoffs look solid right now, but they have two games against the Texans left on the schedule.
Luckily, one of those matchups is in Week 17 and many of Houston’s stars may be in street clothes for the game. If Indianapolis can pull off an upset in their first meeting with the Texans, a postseason berth will be nearly sealed.
14. New Orleans Saints (5-6)
Must-Win Game: at Atlanta, Week 13
With road matchups against the Falcons and the Giants set for the next two weeks, New Orleans’ playoff hopes are hanging by a thread. They must win one of these two games, and considering that they have already taken down Atlanta, this Thursday night showdown offers them a better chance at victory.
15. Seattle Seahawks (6-5)
Must-Win Game: vs. San Francisco, Week 16
The Seahawks are in the NFC wild card mix but have difficult games with Chicago and San Francisco before the season is over. Finishing 9-7 would leave a lot to chance, but a 10-6 record would almost certainly send them to the postseason, and that is why they need to use the 12th man to take down the 49ers.
16. Minnesota Vikings (6-5)
Must-Win Game: vs. Chicago, Week 14
No team in the NFL has a more difficult stretch of games to finish the season, and the Vikings did themselves no favors by being blown out against the Bears.
Now, they face the Packers on Sunday and will likely need to beat Chicago next week in order to keep pace in the wild card race.
17. Washington Redskins (5-6)
Must-Win Game: vs. New York Giants, Week 13
This is the point in the power rankings where the playoffs are no longer seriously in the picture.
The Redskins still have an outside shot, but that will quickly disappear if they cannot find a way to win on Monday night.
18. Detroit Lions (4-7)
Must-Win Game: vs. Atlanta Falcons, Week 16
The postseason is likely out of reach at this point, and Detroit is fighting only for symbolic victories at this point. A win over the Falcons late in the year will build confidence and momentum going into 2013.
19. Miami Dolphins (5-6)
Must-Win Game: vs. New England, Week 13
The Dolphins’ record suggests they have a shot at the playoffs, but their schedule does not. With two matchups against New England and a road game with San Francisco still to play, Miami needs to start off this difficult stretch with a victory.
20. Dallas Cowboys (5-6)
Must-Win Game: at Cincinnati, Week 14
Dallas may not be able to afford another loss, and a road game against the surging Bengals presents a difficult challenge. Another January spent watching football will be all but certain if they lose this game.
21. St. Louis Rams (4-6-1)
Must-Win Game: vs. San Francisco, Week 13
Losing to the 49ers will likely end St. Louis’ slim hopes at making the playoffs. Although a victory may not result in a trip to the postseason, they should aim to end the season series with San Francisco with a win and a tie against the best team in the division.
22. San Diego Chargers (4-7)
Must-Win Game: vs. Cincinnati, Week 13
The Chargers’ ability to blow a game is truly astounding, and Norv Turner is likely playing for his job at this point. If San Diego loses to the Bengals it will be their fourth defeat in a row, and it will be increasingly unlikely that Turner will be able to survive this collapse.
23. Arizona Cardinals (4-7)
Must-Win Game: at New York Jets, Week 13
Arizona has already nixed any realistic hope at a postseason berth by losing their last seven games. Now the team needs to focus on winning a game as soon as possible. A game against the struggling Jets presents an excellent opportunity to get a victory.
24. Buffalo Bills (4-7)
Must-Win Game: at Miami, Week 16
The Bills are another team that is fighting for pride at this point, and ending the season with consecutive victories over AFC East teams will give fans something positive to remember about this season. That will start with a Week 16 trip to Miami.
25. New York Jets (4-7)
Must-Win Game: at Tennessee Titans, Week 15
This game has no significance in terms of the postseason, but it is a Monday night game. If the Jets lose on national television, it may be the final straw for Rex Ryan.
26. Tennessee Titans
Must-Win Game: at Indianapolis Colts, Week 14
Chris Johnson’s resurgence is an excellent sign for this team, but they need to take down teams in their division to show that they are not falling too far behind. A win against Houston is likely out of the question, but the Titans are capable of upsetting the Colts.
27. Carolina Panthers (3-8)
Must-Win Game: vs. Atlanta, Week 14
The Panthers looked impressive against the Philadelphia Eagles, but they were playing the Eagles. The Panthers need to beat a quality opponent in order to have something positive to look back on this season.
28. Oakland Raiders (3-8)
Must-Win Game: vs. Denver, Week 14
With a young coach, the Raiders need a victory in the second half of the season that they can point to as proof of the team’s potential. If they do not beat Denver, there will be little to build on going into next season.
29. Cleveland Browns (3-8)
Must-Win Game: at Pittsburgh, Week 17
The Browns have a chance to sweep the Steelers this season, and doing that would give the team plenty of confidence as they try to continue developing their young stars.
30. Philadelphia Eagles (3-8)
Must-Win Game: at Dallas, Week 13
The Eagles need to win now. If the team fails to win in prime time for the second week in a row and loses its eighth straight game, it will be the end of the Andy Reid era.
31. Jacksonville Jaguars (2-9)
Must-Win Game: at Tennessee, Week 17
The Jaguars have nothing to play for at this point, and a victory over a division rival in Week 17 would at least end the season on a high note.
32. Kansas City Chiefs (1-10)
Must-Win Game: Race for the No. 1 Pick
There is no victory that can even come close to dressing up the failure and disappointment that has characterized this Chiefs season. A new coaching staff and the team’s pick of college football’s top quarterbacks is the best way to usher in a new era.