Here we are on the doorstep of Week 14, the weather's cold, the playoffs are approaching, and we don't have a true, no-doubt-about-it Super Bowl favorite.
Oh sure, the Falcons have been as consistent as they come and Houston looks to have the AFC's No. 1 seed on lockdown, but there's no team that is just leaving battered opponent after battered opponent in its wake.
Atlanta's the one team without a bad loss on its resume, but you wouldn't have to go far to find someone who would pick San Francisco, Green Bay or the New York Giants in a matchup with them.
Instead, we have a lot of tiebreaker nightmares going on. Team A beating Team B, which beats Team C, which beats Team D, which beats Team A, and so forth.
For example, you think the Texans are tops in the league? Well, they got crushed by Green Bay. Who in turn got walloped by the Giants. Who lost to the Bengals. Who were wrecked by the Ravens, who got trounced by the Texans.
There's been a lot of that.
With no juggernaut in the works, the Lombardi Trophy will go to the team that gets hot late and carries it into January. You don't want to peak too early, but you don't want to run out of time, either. So now, in the final quarter of the season, playing good football becomes as important as ever.
Four points are all that is separating Atlanta from a perfect season, and there's no shame to how the Falcons lost—in the Superdome, to Drew Brees and a Saints team with a dangerous mix of talent and desperation.
Atlanta's had some tough wins along the way—a one-point win over Tampa Bay being an example—but no team wins a Super Bowl without some gut-check wins. At this point, the ability to survive when a team plays you tougher than expected is the mark of a good team.
And make no mistake, Atlanta's good. The Falcons are hot (hard for an 11-1 team not to be), and while they don't roll over teams, they always seem to have that extra layer of depth that their opponent doesn't.
Even with their gaudy record, however, Atlanta's not answering any skeptics now. The question has never been about Mike Smith and Matt Ryan's ability to win games and divisions. The pressure will be greater than ever for the duo to win a playoff game, which they have yet to do in three tries since Ryan was drafted third overall in 2008.
Until then, Atlanta won't prove itself. But the Falcons are setting themselves up well.
Top to bottom, the Texans might be the most complete team in the league.
Matt Schaub and Arian Foster make them dangerous running or throwing the ball, and the defense, led by sensational lineman J.J. Watt, can cover and dial up pressure, making moving the ball against them very difficult.
They're also rolling, having won six straight games. Their point differential of 130 is the second-highest in the league, and they're ranked in the top five in points allowed, sacks, turnovers forced and opposing quarterback rating.
There are some warning signs. There was the 42-24 shellacking at the hands of the Packers in a Sunday-night prime-time affair, and though Houston followed that up by crushing Baltimore, the Texans had to fight to survive overtime games against the lowly Jaguars and Lions.
Still, the Texans have a firm grasp on the top overall seed in the AFC, and a win against the Patriots this Monday night would make it all but official. That would force the playoffs to go through Reliant Stadium, and if the Texans keep playing the way they have been, they'll go into those games with a head of steam.
If we're talking about St. Louis Rams' opponents, the 49ers would rank near the bottom of this list. Try as they may, San Francisco just can't figure that team out.
Those results (a loss and a tie) shouldn't mar what the Niners have shown themselves to be, however. Their defense is as nasty as any in the league (when NaVorro Bowman is your third-best linebacker, you should have a tax at that position), and Colin Kaepernick and Alex Smith, the competitors for the San Francisco quarterbacking job, have proven they can make plays under coach Jim Harbaugh.
The second half of the season is well upon us, and the Patriots are acting like it. They've now won 20 straight games in the latter part of the season, and if you go by scoreboard results, no one in the NFL is hotter than New England.
Thirty-eight-point win over the Rams. Thirty-five-point win over the Colts. Thirty-point win over the Jets. They've now won six in a row, eight of their last nine, and they might have the NFL's MVP in Tom Brady.
(Side note: Brady's thrown for 3,537 yards and 25 touchdowns, but his most impressive stat? Four interceptions. There's nothing a quarterback can do that's more important than protecting the football, and Brady's been the best at it.)
The best sign, however, is the improving defense. The Patriots have long shown an ability to score points, but without a defense that could make stops, it recently hasn't been a formula to avoid playoff disappointments.
Lately, however, New England's cleaned up its act while defending the pass, as the acquisition of Aqib Talib has allowed Devin McCourty to stay at safety, which has plugged up the holes that led to the Pats getting carved up by the deep ball in losses to Baltimore and Seattle and in wins against Denver and Buffalo.
The pass rush has also improved, and New England currently sports a league-best turnover margin (plus-24) and point differential (plus-170).
Until the Patriots make life difficult for a top-caliber quarterback (they'll have a chance Monday against Matt Schaub), it'll be hard to completely trust the defense in Foxborough. But New England is clearly going in the right direction.
The Broncos are quickly becoming the team no one wants to play.
They haven't lost since Oct. 7 at New England, and they've been fueled by a terrific season from Peyton Manning, who's become both a Comeback Player of the Year and MVP favorite while compiling a quarterback rating of 104.6, 29 touchdowns and 3,502 passing yards.
These aren't the gimmicky Broncos of the Tim Tebow era. These Broncos are capable of beating anyone.
They can beat anyone because they're not just Manning. Receiver Demaryius Thomas (69 receptions, 1,114 yards and eight touchdowns) is having a Pro Bowl season, and Von Miller (15 sacks) leads a defense that's ranked sixth against the pass and seventh against the run.
With that combination, the Broncos have been as good as any team across the board in recent weeks. Since looking like they were second-tier fodder in losses to Atlanta, Houston and the Patriots, Denver has won seven straight games, beating playoff hopefuls New Orleans, Cincinnati and Tampa Bay along the way.
They're currently tied for the second seed in the AFC, but Denver has the best schedule going forward. A matchup with Baltimore will be tough, but the other games are against AFC dregs Kansas City, Oakland and Cleveland.
Winning out would give Denver 11 straight wins and potentially a No. 2 seed. If that happens, the Broncos would be a difficult out in January.
The Giants had a little mini-slump going. Eli Manning was suddenly struggling. Surely, New York was falling back into the middle of the pack, right?
Don't buy it. The Giants are as good at any team in the league at pacing themselves. They still have the frenzied defense and quarterback that played terrifically during last year's championship run, so now would not be a good time to bet against them.
It's been a far rockier season for the Pack this year after last season's nearly-perfect 15-1 jaunt into January.
Green Bay began the year 2-3 and was blown up in a Sunday-night game by the Giants, 38-10, a week ago, but the Packers are starting to round into form. They've won six of their last seven, and Aaron Rodgers (105.0 rating, 29 touchdowns) is looking like an MVP again.
At 9-3, the Ravens are tied for a second seed in the AFC, but while the Patriots and Broncos are surging, Baltimore's having trouble taking off.
Injuries have taken a toll, as Ray Lewis has missed most of the season and reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs missed the start of the year with a torn Achilles and is now dealing with a torn bicep.
The offense has also struggled and as a result, the Ravens have had to go down to the wire for some games. They've won most of them, however, and if the offense and defense find their rhythm from earlier, this team could be a favorite in the conference.
The Bears had the league's most ferocious defense for most of the first half of the season, but Chicago's lost its way on that side of the ball recently, allowing 32 points to San Francisco and 23 in a losing effort to Russell Wilson and the Seahawks, who've had trouble winning on the road.
Jay Cutler's carelessness with the ball make him and the Bears offense hard to trust in big games, but this team can still pass a test in its next two games against Minnesota and Green Bay. Wins in those games would show the Bears have patched up the holes that allowed to go from winning six straight to losing three of four.
The Steelers were faced with a difficult situation last weekend. Their playoff hopes were already on the line, and to make things worse, Ben Roethlisberger wasn't healthy enough to play, forcing veteran backup Charlie Batch to play the season's biggest game against division-leading Baltimore.
Well, Batch delivered, Pittsburgh won and now the Steelers have to be feeling good about themselves. They're 7-5 and in line for a playoff spot, and they'll be enjoying the return of the quarterback with whom they won four straight games before his injury.
Having the league's best defense against the pass never hurts, either.
As it turns out, Andrew Luck was worth that No. 1 pick.
We're told it's a quarterback league day in and day out, but even that doesn't fully explain the turnaround Luck's generated. Without him, the Colts were uncompetitive. They were pathetic.
With him, however, they immediately re-discovered the playoff swagger that became entrenched during the Peyton Manning years.
The Colts have showed a late-game cool that's rare for a team guided by a rookie. They've played in seven games decided by a score or less, and they've won six of them.
They've twice scored touchdowns in the final minute to erase deficits, against Green Bay and last week against Detroit. They beat Tennessee in overtime and they walked off with a win against the Vikings.
Once again, there's magic in Indy.
The Colts drew criticism for their personnel decisions in the offseason, in which they cut bait with several veterans and long-time contributors, including Manning, but it's hard to argue with them now.
The Colts are hot, with wins in six of their last seven games, and as a result, they've got their hands on the top wild-card spot in the AFC.
Discussion of the Colts' current hot streak is incomplete, however, without mentioning the one setback in that stretch. Indianapolis was blown out against rival New England, 59-24, raising questions about its ability to run with the top teams in the league.
The Colts will have another chance to prove themselves before the regular season's out. They play Houston twice in the final three weeks, in an instance of bizarre scheduling by the NFL. A pair of close games, even wins, and Indy could enter the playoffs as a dark horse.
That guy drafted after Andrew Luck? He's doing all right, too.
The Redskins are the Colts of the NFC, an uncompetitive team (for a longer period of time) that has been turned into a contender overnight by one player. Robert Griffin III has re-energized the franchise, leading it into the thick of the playoff hunt.
With a 104.6 rating, 16 touchdown passes, only four interceptions and 642 yards on the ground, he deserves to be in the MVP discussion, especially if Washington keeps winning.
Pete Carroll's coaching style is unusual, but since his hire before the 2010 season, he's gotten results. The Seahawks made the playoffs that year, and this season, they're winning games no one expected them to.
With surprising rookie Russell Wilson (95.2 rating) leading the way, Seattle's beaten New England, Green Bay (albeit on a controversial call), Dallas and Chicago.
The Seahawks are 7-5 and currently in line for the playoffs, thanks largely to a 5-0 record at CenturyLink Field, their deafening home stadium.
The Bengals' season so far has been one of streaks and skids. Cincinnati started the year 3-1, then lost four straight games, and now is on a four-game winning streak, spurred by a surprising win over the Giants.
Cincy's in the playoff hunt, but getting there will be tricky. Only one below-.500 team (the self-destructing Eagles) remains, and the Bengals will have to deal with Dallas, Baltimore and a Pittsburgh team they'll likely be butting heads with to get into the AFC dance.
On a side note, Carson Palmer's demand to be traded was a brilliant idea, wasn't it?
The Saints are still a team few squads would want to play, but New Orleans is running out of chances to do damage in the playoffs.
Saddled with a 5-7 record, and crippled by an 0-4 start, New Orleans likely has to run the table to have any shot at cracking the NFC playoff picture.
Drew Brees isn't a quarterback to bet against, but it's desperation time in the Big Easy.
It's hard to get a sense for whether the Buccaneers are trending up or down. They're on a two-game losing streak, following losses to good Atlanta and Denver teams by a combined nine points. Before that, they won four straight games, but only one victory came against a .500 team.
However this year turns out for Tampa Bay, the future is bright. Josh Freeman (23 touchdowns, only eight interceptions) has re-discovered his form from a breakout 2010 rookie season, and first-year players Doug Martin, Lavonte David and Mark Barron should have the team feeling good about itself going forward.
It's a passing league, but as the Vikings are showing, having the league's best running back still amounts to something in this day and age.
Having a do-it-all receiver doesn't hurt, either.
The remaining schedule is brutal, however; if Minnesota is to make the playoffs, it'll have to get through a slate made up of Chicago, St. Louis, Houston and Green Bay. No easy task.
The Cowboys are just always one play away, one player away, one something away from being special.
Instead, they're a mediocre team that plays everyone close but can't look convincing against anyone.
None of their last four losses have come by more than seven points. Only one of their last four wins has. It's another aimless season in Dallas for a team that is facing mounting pressure to eventually get it right.
It's a rebuilding year in St. Louis, and new coach Jeff Fisher is doing well with what he has to work with.
The Rams are 5-6-1, far from being the doormat many projected before the year. Fisher had a reputation for guiding tough teams in Tennessee and that principle has crossed over, as the Rams showed, by tying and beating San Francisco, that they're not going to let themselves be pushed around.
With games against Buffalo, Minnesota, Tampa Bay and Seattle remaining, winning out and making the playoffs isn't out of the question. Whether or not they make it, 2012 has seen good developments in the Gateway City.
The Dolphins had their fans going with a 4-3 start, but losses to Tennessee and Buffalo effectively took them out of the playoff race.
Adding to the misfortune is a second-half slump for promising rookie Ryan Tannehill. The Texas A&M product started the season well, but ratings below 70 in three of his past four games has seen his overall rating drop to 72.3, 31st in the NFL.
What happened in Motown?
The Lions, fresh off of a season of growth and postseason play, were supposed to make strides this year and become one of the NFC's top teams.
They have the league's best wide receiver, a promising young quarterback who threw for over 5,000 yards last year and a tenacious defensive front. This was supposed to be the next step.
Instead, the Lions have taken that step in the wrong direction.
It's the same old stuff in Detroit. Bad mistakes. Blown leads. Should-have-been wins that turn into how-did-that-happen losses. When you have the talent this team does and a 4-8 record to show for it, that tends to be the formula.
Matthew Stafford, the golden-armed gunslinger, is 23rd in the league with a passing record of 83.1 That mark isn't terrible, but his inconsistency, which has led to six games with a rating below 80, has been alarming.
He's never been conservative with the ball, but he threw 41 touchdowns to offset his 16 picks last year. This year, his ratio is a far more Jay Cutler-esque 16-to-11.
It's not all Stafford's fault, of course, but that's little solace to Lions fans who have seen their team plummet out of the division and playoff races. They've lost five out of seven and four straight, turning a manageable 4-4 scenario into their current predicament.
It doesn't get much easier, with games against the Packers, Falcons and Bears remaining. The winters get cold in Michigan, but the city might end up with a team to match the temperatures.
The Jets aren't a bad football team, really. Their defense is good. Their offensive line has solid players. They're pretty good on special teams.
They just have a gaping, rapidly expanding hole at the worst place to have any weakness at all.
The Jets are 5-7 and in all likelihood out of the postseason hunt, and it's because they've insisted on starting a quarterback who has no business being anywhere near the field of play.
Mark Sanchez is 32nd in passer rating and 33rd in completion percentage (despite there being only 32 teams), but has been trotted out each week in the Jets' never-ending attempt for him to figure it out.
The Jets finally said uncle and put in Greg McElroy in the middle of last week's game. It remains to be seen how effective he'll be, but the quarterback play in New York can't get much worse.
There was no hopeful start this season. The Bills began 2-1, but the optimism was quickly dashed in a 52-28 loss to New England. That was the start of five losses in six games that buried Buffalo in the AFC East.
The bright spot has been C.J. Spiller, who's at 907 yards rushing and will likely reach the 1,000-yard mark soon.
The Titans narrowly missed the playoffs last year, and there was reason to hope they'd knock on the door again this season. Instead, hampered by a sieve-like pass defense, Tennessee fell into an unrecoverable 1-4 jam right off the bat.
Jake Locker's awaited debut season as a starter had a setback when the Washington product missed a month and a half with a shoulder injury, but he's back now and it'll be interesting to see how he finishes the season.
Just as Mark Sanchez has done nothing to keep the Jets' starting quarterback job, Norv Turner's done the same to hang on to the Chargers' coaching position.
San Diego's bottomed out under Turner in what must be the coach's final season at the helm. Once a perennial playoff team, the Chargers have become a league laughingstock, and a team that somehow, though mistakes and miserable game management, turns top-tier talent into losing records and failed seasons.
No play summed the Turner era up better than when the Chargers had the Ravens in a 4th-and-29 jam, down a touchdown, at the end of the game. That should be automatic for any defense, and when the play is a dump-off to the running back, which Joe Flacco threw to Ray Rice, it gets even easier. Game over, without question.
But because he was playing the Chargers, Rice evaded a tackler and was able to gain 30 yards on the play. A dump-off on a 4th-and-forever was able to get the first down. Mind-blowing.
The game went to overtime, and if you thought the Chargers were going to win, you haven't watched them too much recently.
Since starting 3-1, the Chargers have lost four straight games and seven out of eight. Philip Rivers, formerly a top-notch quarterback, has thrown 15 interceptions and is an alarming decline. Ryan Mathews, the team's 12th overall pick in 2010, can't take the next step in his development.
Turner will likely be gone after this season. But he's not the only one going wrong for the Chargers right now.
Red hot in September, Arizona's gone ice cold since.
The Cardinals became first-quarter darlings after stunning the Patriots, 19-18, at Gillette Stadium, but those good vibes are extinguished now.
Arizona is still trying to solve its downward spiral. The Cardinals have lost eight straight after starting 4-0, and the problems extend beyond the record. Arizona has the most unstable quarterback situation in the league, and is the only squad in the NFL to have three quarterbacks take 100 or more pass attempts.
A big reason for the Cardinals' hot start was their defense, which has remained solid, as Arizona is third in the league in defending the pass. But without an answer at quarterback, competing in the NFL is impossible.
The team has been looking for the solution ever since Kurt Warner retired, and Kevin Kolb, who was acquired in a trade from Philadelphia, was supposed to be it. But Kolb's had trouble with health and efficiency, and the revolving door has continued.
The struggles at the position have had a statistical effect on their best player. With no reliable presence to throw him the ball, Larry Fitzgerald is on pace for only 867 receiving yards and five touchdowns. The yards would be his lowest since his rookie season, and the touchdowns would be his lowest ever.
Fortunes can change quickly in the NFL. The Cardinals are a perfect example.
The Browns are probably the hottest of the bad teams.
After starting 0-5, Cleveland's won four of its last seven games, earning impressive wins over Cincinnati and Pittsburgh (granted, Ben Roethlisberger wasn't playing).
The team appears to have used its third overall pick wisely, as Trent Richardson is on pace to pass 1,000 rushing yards easily.
Like Detroit, good things were expected of the Panthers this year after Cam Newton's impressive rookie year.
The 2012 season crashed and burned out of the gate, however. Five straight losses dropped Carolina to 1-6, and at 3-9, they're out of the race far earlier than expected.
A sophomore slump for Newton (14 touchdowns, 10 interceptions) has fueled the downturn, but the 2010 Heisman Trophy winner has picked his game up lately, with four ratings over 95 in his past five games, two of which have resulted in wins.
Now we get to the king of collapses.
The past year and three-quarters in Philadelphia has been a train wreck. The decision to go wild in free agency in the hopes of building a super-talented team went horribly wrong, as the Eagles haven't been competitive since taking the field as their new selves.
The depths to which this team has recently sunk, however, are unimaginable. The Eagles have lost eight straight, going winless in October and November.
To put things in perspective, the Phillies have won more recently than the Eagles. At this rate, the Flyers will pass them soon, too.
The streak blew up an auspicious start in which it seemed a full season had done the "dream team" experiment some good. The Eagles were 3-1, fresh off of an impressive win over the Giants, and seemed poised to be an NFC favorite.
Instead, the season's over, Michael Vick's future is murky and Andy Reid's is likely decided. The coach has been one of the NFL's best since taking over in 1999, but playoff disappointments in years past warmed up the hot seat, and this season will likely be too much to survive.
To make matters worse, the Eagles play out the string against all .500-or-better teams, who will likely need to win to stay in the playoff chase. There's a good chance the Eagles will finish 3-13 with 12 straight losses on the ledger, marks that were unimaginable entering last year.
It's five straight losses for the Raiders, who, like the Titans, have underachieved after flirting with the playoffs a season ago.
The reasons for Oakland's downturn are on both sides of the ball. The defense stinks, ranking 25th against the pass and 28th against the run.
The run game, however, has been a more surprising no-show this season. Darren McFadden averaged 5.4 yards per carry in an injury-shortened season last year, and the halfback hasn't been able to get going this year. He's averaged only 3.3 yards per carry and scored just two touchdowns.
It's put more responsibility on Carson Palmer, who's thrown for 3,532 yards and 20 touchdowns but has also tossed 13 picks.
The Chiefs haven't been able to win games this year despite ranking fairly impressively in some statistics. They're ninth against the pass and fifth in rushing offense, but all it's equaled is a 2-10 record and a race for the No. 1 overall pick.
As is often the case with bad teams, quarterback play has been the major problem. Whether it's been Matt Cassel (66.7 rating, dead last among qualifying quarterbacks) or Brady Quinn (70.3 rating), the job hasn't gotten done for Kansas City.
The Jaguars get the nod for the last spot because, unlike other teams that are severely lacking in one area, they're miserable across the board.
The passing offense is ranked 24th in the league, and that's the bright spot. Jacksonville is also ranked 28th against the pass, 31st against the run and 32nd on the ground.
The team does seem to have a find in receiver Cecil Shorts, who has 43 catches for 824 yards and seven touchdowns.