The 2012 NFL playoff picture might still be out of focus, but with three quarters of the season down, it's safe to say we can start separating the contenders from the pretenders this year.
Even when our power rankings get shuffled a little bit, as they did coming into Week 14, there is starting to be a clear separation on a weekly basis. This happens every year, though. The good teams get better; the bad get worse; the awful begin firing coaches and sending scouts out in droves looking for the next franchise player.
With that in mind, here is a look at the latest batch of power rankings heading into Week 14 action.
1. Houston Texans (11-1)
Injuries may be starting to creep up on the Texans, but barring a late-season collapse, they're well on their way to an AFC South crown and first-round bye.
With two games remaining against the Colts in the season's final four weeks, all Houston needs to do is win one of those games.
2. Atlanta Falcons (11-1)
Admittedly, Atlanta's resume is pretty weak for a squad that's lost just one game. According to Football Outsiders, which ranks the Falcons as the 12th-best team in the NFL, they have played the third-worst schedule in the league thus far.
Considering just four of the team's wins have come by more than one score, it's not exactly hard to be skeptical about Atlanta come playoff time. Still, winning is winning, no matter which way one wants to look at it.
3. New England Patriots (9-3)
Ho-hum, just another AFC East crown and six-game winning streak in New England. Nothing to see here.
(Seriously, though; don't tell anyone, but the Patriots are a good football team.)
4. San Francisco 49ers (8-3-1)
Some may try to criticize Jim Harbaugh following his team's loss to the Rams on Sunday. I'm not one of those people. Colin Kaepernick wasn't abysmal by any stretch, and sometimes, a team just has your number in a particular year.
Nevertheless, by going with Kaepernick, Harbaugh put the spotlight directly on his team. The 49ers can't dillydally with mediocrity for more than one week, or this entire situation could turn into an unwanted circus.
5. Denver Broncos (9-3)
Peyton Manning and the team's vaunted pass rush are obviously the reasons Denver has taken the AFC West title. Still, I wonder if Willis McGahee's injury will come back to haunt the Broncos in the first-round bye chase or in the playoffs.
Though he's been solid in two games as a starter, we're all familiar with Knowshon Moreno's work by now and John Fox obviously doesn't feel comfortable with Ronnie Hillman in pass protection.
6. Green Bay Packers (8-4)
The Packers are a bit schizophrenic in their greatness, but there is no better team in football when they're firing on all cylinders.
Injury problems, especially on defense, need to be cleared up before the playoffs, but Green Bay has played its way back into NFC North favorite status.
7. Baltimore Ravens (9-3)
If your secondary allows Charlie Batch to complete 69.4 percent of his passes and throw for 276 yards, I'd say that unit could use some fine-tuning. With a matchup against a red-hot Redskins team coming this week, the Ravens don't look like they'll be locking up the AFC North anytime soon.
8. Chicago Bears (8-4)
Losing three out of four games is always disconcerting, but the Bears are falling into where most expected coming into the season. They have a good but not overwhelming defense, and the offense is replacement-level even on its best week.
9. New York Giants (7-5)
They lost to a scorching division rival by one point on the road, so let's back away from the panic button for now. Still, three losses in their last four games don't lie. The Giants have major problems on both sides of the ball that need to be fixed pronto.
Otherwise, the expected late-season run will never come.
10. Indianapolis Colts (8-4)
Never mind the fact that the Colts had to come roaring back against a then-4-7 Lions team or that Andrew Luck had thrown three interceptions to put them in that position in the first place.
There's just something about this team that feels special. I know that's an overwrought sportswriter cliche that's been beaten into the ground with a mallet, but there is no other reason this team should be 8-4.
Well, other than the fact that Indianapolis has played three teams that will go to the playoffs this season. There's always that little factor as well.
11. Cincinnati Bengals (7-5)
Of the league's "hottest" teams, the Bengals might be the one peaking at the right time. They rank in the top 14 in the NFL in every counting stat imaginable (points against/for, rushing yards against/for, passing yards against/for, etc.).
Perhaps it's an upswing influenced by a weakened schedule, but there cannot be many teams excited to play Cincinnati at this juncture.
12. Pittsburgh Steelers (7-5)
If Ben Roethlisberger returns this week, the Steelers should reclaim their status among the NFL's 10 best teams.
If not, they could be cradling their playoff hopes for dear life come Week 15.
13. Seattle Seahawks (7-5)
I'm still not sure whether I love or hate Pete Carroll for jumping around like a just-crowned prom queen whenever his team scores a late-game touchdown. I just know it's one of those two starkly different emotions.
14. Washington Redskins (6-6)
Andrew Luck may wind up being the better quarterback down the line, but there's no question that Robert Griffin III is the 2012 NFL Rookie of the Year.
Griffin has thrown for 2,660 yards and 17 touchdowns against four interceptions this season. To put the latter statistic another way, Griffin has as many interceptions period as Luck has multi-interception games.
Couple that with him breaking the quarterback rookie rushing record, and you have an almost impenetrable resume.
15. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-6)
You can't blame the Bucs for losing two close games against top-five teams in Weeks 12 and 13. But Tampa's slow first quarter of the season is starting to look like it will prevent Greg Schiano's squad from making the playoffs this season.
16. Dallas Cowboys (6-6)
Say what you will (and most do) about the Cowboys, but they've quietly won three of their last four games. With the Giants swooning, the NFC East isn't quite out of Dallas' grasp just yet.
17. New Orleans Saints (5-7)
Five Drew Brees interceptions later, and the Saints' dream of coming back from 0-4 to make the playoffs is on life support.
Still, New Orleans' remaining schedule has three games against NFC Wild Card contenders. If it wins out, there may still be time for celebration in the Bayou.
18. St. Louis Rams (5-6-1)
Considering where the Rams were a year ago, it's hard not to have Jeff Fisher on the shortlist for Coach of the Year.
19. Minnesota Vikings (6-6)
Adrian Peterson gets my vote for Comeback Player of the Year over Peyton Manning, but Christian Ponder is looking less and less like a franchise quarterback every week.
With Lucks and Griffins running amok through the league this year, it's obvious that the window has shortened for evaluating the position.
For Ponder to keep the job heading into next season (or at least avoid a competition), he's going to need a reversion to his early-season form down the stretch.
20. Detroit Lions (4-8)
Playoff contenders beware. The Lions have the talent to play with and beat every single team in the NFL. It just so happens that their late-game execution is getting to historic levels of dreadfulness at this point.
21. Miami Dolphins (5-7)
Losers of four of their last five games, the Dolphins have fallen a long way from being a popular playoff sleeper in late October.
22. Buffalo Bills (5-7)
Biggest "what if?" of the 2012 fantasy season: What if Chan Gailey had the good sense to make C.J. Spiller his unquestioned No. 1 running back?
What if indeed.
23. New York Jets (5-7)
Greg McElroy led the Jets to exactly one touchdown, and people are falling over themselves to anoint him the starting quarterback.
Yep, that's the 2012 Jets season in a nutshell.
24. San Diego Chargers (4-8)
Has anyone ever fallen out of the "elite" conversation faster than Philip Rivers? In a two-year stretch, Rivers has gone from people debating his merits against Roethlisberger and Eli Manning to one of the most oft-criticized signal-callers in the league.
25. Arizona Cardinals (4-8)
When (or if) Kevin Kolb returns, the Cardinals should right the ship and become a non-horrible team again. For now, though, let's all enjoy Ken Whisenhunt's still-strange decision to start Ryan Lindley while it still lasts.
26. Cleveland Browns (4-8)
Cleveland's two-game winning streak may go a long way toward saving head coach Pat Shurmur's job, but certainly won't help out come April's draft.
27. Carolina Panthers (3-9)
Sunday's loss to the Chiefs was the Panthers' seventh loss of the season that came by one score or less.
If you're looking for any positives heading into the 2013 season, there should at least be some return to the mean in close games.
28. Tennessee Titans (4-8)
Like the Vikings, the Titans may have to do some reevaluation at the quarterback position this offseason. The sample size for Jake Locker likely isn't enough for the team to make a big splash, but Locker's questionable accuracy and decision-making have to be concerns going forward.
29. Philadelphia Eagles (3-9)
The remainder of the season will all just be a countdown to who gets fired/cut and when it's going to happen.
30. Oakland Raiders (3-9)
Carson Palmer is putting up surprisingly gaudy yardage numbers in his second season with the Raiders, but it hasn't shown on the scoreboard. Oakland has scored just 19.6 points per game this season, which is tied for 23rd with the Panthers.
Still, you have to wonder whether this season would have gone differently had Darren McFadden stayed healthy and performed as expected.
31. Kansas City Chiefs (2-10)
I won't lionize the Chiefs' win last week, but it was certainly one of the more touching moments of the 2012 season.
32. Jacksonville Jaguars (2-10)
On Sunday Chad Henne went back to being Chad Henne and all was right with the world. The Jaguars have been at a massive talent disadvantage all season and that's not going to change with Maurice Jones-Drew still on the mend.
Like the new article format? Send us feedback!