After Week 14's action, the contenders are really starting to be separated from the pretenders. Many playoff contenders are starting to cement their status as the league's elite teams, while other teams have begun to fall off the map.
Of course, this is all prone to change, as the NFL is truly a week-to-week league. These teams, though, look like locks to continue to rise up the rankings. Here is a complete power ranking of the NFL, with a special look at these rising teams.
1. New England Patriots (10-3)
What a performance from the Patriots on Monday Night Football! They completely dismantled the Texans, shutting them down on defense while gashing them on offense. The Patriots have the best offense in the league, made even more dangerous than years past thanks to their balance. They are Super Bowl favorites at this point.
2. Houston Texans (11-2)
Some will say the Texans were exposed against the Patriots, but they are a better team than what they showed Monday night. The Texans remain an explosive offense and an elite run defense, but their pass defense is becoming more and more suspect. Matt Schaub also needs to prove that he can beat the top teams.
3. Denver Broncos (10-3)
The Denver Broncos continue to impress, having won eight straight games. Peyton Manning has the offense operating at a high level, and Von Miller leads one of the NFL's best and most explosive defenses. This team is built to go deep into the playoffs.
4. San Francisco 49ers (9-3-1)
Colin Kaepernick will have some bumps in the road, but he's the real deal at quarterback for the 49ers. He's averaged over 260 yards of total offense since becoming the starter. This, combined with a defense that gives up an NFL-low 14.2 points per game, keeps the 49ers in the upper echelon in the NFL.
5. Atlanta Falcons (11-2)
I'm still wary of the Falcons. They know how to win close games, which is important, but their lacking running game and average defense give reason to hesitate. Matt Ryan still needs to prove that he's a top NFL quarterback, as well.
6. New York Giants (8-5)
If you thought the Giants' offense was good before, just wait until David Wilson starts carrying the load for this offense. His explosion offsets the passing game perfectly, making this an offense that is clicking at just the right time. Eli is a proven winner, and the defense is bending but not breaking. This is a very good football team.
7. Green Bay Packers (9-4)
The Packers have so many holes, but they have talent where it counts. Their passing game remains second-to-none with Aaron Rodgers spreading the ball around to a talented group of receivers. Even with injuries to receivers and poor offensive line play, Rodgers is still near the top of the league with a 103.7 passer rating. This guy alone keeps the Packers near the top of the rankings.
8. Seattle Seahawks (8-5)
The biggest riser in these rankings over the past two weeks has to be the Seattle Seahawks.
Last week, this team handled a tough Chicago Bears team on the road, with Russell Wilson shredding one of the NFL's best defenses for 293 yards. Then, this week, the Seahawks asserted complete dominance over the Arizona Cardinals, thrashing them 58-0 thanks to forcing eight turnovers.
This defense is one of the NFL's best, with an elite group of corners and a stellar pass rush. They create turnovers as well as any team in the league, and they completely shut down opposing passing games, holding opponents to just 196 yards per game.
Paired with a constantly improving offense, this Seahawks team might just be the surprise of 2012 as they continue to rise up the rankings.
9. Washington Redskins (7-6)
In consecutive weeks, the Washington Redskins have defeated the New York Giants and the Baltimore Ravens, two of the NFL's premiere franchises. As long as Robert Griffin III is healthy, this team is legit.
The Skins have a running game that averages an astounding 167 yards per game. Paired with the efficient passing of Griffin, this offense has grown into one of the NFL's best.
The defense, on the other hand, is still a work in progress. If their second half against the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday is any indication, though, this defense can shut down opponents in crunch time. The Skins held the Ravens to just seven points in the second half, and they forced Joe Flacco into two turnovers.
This team just keeps improving, making them the team that nobody will want to play come playoff time. They'll need some breaks to get in, but if they do, opponents had better watch out.
10. Indianapolis Colts (9-4)
The myth of Andrew Luck continues to grow. Luck and the Colts came back from a 20-7 halftime deficit against the Tennessee Titans, cementing Luck's status as this year's captain comeback. The Colts have plenty of holes, but they are always in the game with Luck at quarterback.
11. Baltimore Ravens (9-4)
The Ravens might be the hardest team to rank in the NFL. After two losses in which the defense was shredded and the offense faltered in crunch time, the Ravens are clearly on the decline. I can't rank them too low, though, until we know what firing Cam Cameron does to that offense. There is still reason for hope in Baltimore, but it's fading fast.
12. Minnesota Vikings (7-6)
With the standings the way they are, the Minnesota Vikings are going to struggle to get into the playoffs, but they are a dangerous team should they get in.
Adrian Peterson cannot be stopped by any defense, ensuring that the Vikings can pound the ball.
Unfortunately, the Vikings aren't particularly strong anywhere else, showing just how great Peterson really is. As long as he's in the game, the Vikings have a chance.
If Christian Ponder starts to become a threat, the Vikings' offense will be truly deadly. For now, they will have to rely on Peterson and a defense that is just good enough. That's been enough, though, to make them one of the most surprising teams in the NFL.
13. Dallas Cowboys (7-6)
Don't look now, but the Dallas Cowboys have won four of five, and Tony Romo is starting to become a real leader. A strong end to the season might be enough to save multiple jobs in Dallas, so this team will always be hungry.
14. Chicago Bears (8-5)
The Bears are a team in decline after losing four of their last five. This defense just doesn't look the same as the unit that is ranked fifth in the NFL. This team is falling apart. They need to figure out their problems, and fast, if they are to make the playoffs.
15. Pittsburgh Steelers (7-6)
Ben Roethlisberger was supposed to be the savior of this franchise, coming back to lead the Steelers to the playoffs. After a 34-24 loss to the San Diego Chargers at home, though, this team looks to be on the decline. Their struggles on the ground game are making them predictable on offense, but their defense remains solid, giving up just 262 yards per game.
16. St. Louis Rams (6-6-1)
The Rams are one of the most vanilla teams in the NFL, but they do have a top 10 defense. Chris Long and Robert Quinn lead a defense that has accumulated 39 sacks, and this defensive line is one of the best in the NFL. The Rams are one offensive weapon away from being competitive in the NFC.
17. Cincinnati Bengals (7-6)
The Cincinnati Bengals feature two of the best players in the NFL in A.J. Green and Geno Atkins. These two alone keep the Bengals in most games. But when Andy Dalton is on, this team is among the NFL's best. Limiting turnovers, as Dalton has 14 interceptions this season, is key for this team. Dalton is still too inconsistent for this team to rise into the upper half of the NFL.
18. Cleveland Browns (5-8)
Brandon Weeden and the Cleveland Browns are riding a three-game winning streak, thanks mainly to an opportunistic defense that has racked up 14 interceptions and 34 sacks. Weeden has improved significantly, completing 64 percent of his passes over this winning streak. If he keeps improving, this could be a team to watch out for in 2013.
19. New Orleans Saints (5-8)
Drew Brees has never been asked to do more, and he's proving that he needs help. The Saints' offense is still elite, but a lacking running game and the league's worst defense has kept the Saints from succeeding this season.
20. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-7)
Just as people were starting to believe in the Bucs, they ripped off a three-game losing streak that has even seen them lose to the lowly Philadelphia Eagles. The Bucs are capable of winning any game with the leagues fifth-ranked scoring offense, but their pass defense is holding them back.
21. New York Jets (6-7)
As bad as the New York Jets are, they are clearly above the bottom-feeders in the NFL. They were ugly wins, but the Jets have won two straight against the Arizona Cardinals and the Jacksonville Jaguars. They can't beat the NFL's best, but the Jets' eighth-ranked defense is good enough to keep the Jets in most games.
22. Detroit Lions (4-9)
The Lions are probably the NFL's most disappointing team this season. Despite the strength of the Matthew Stafford-Calvin Johnson connection, the Lions' defensive failings and lack of offensive balance have held this team back. The Lions also average around seven penalties per game, a stat that is killing this team.
23. Miami Dolphins (5-8)
The Dolphins have some solid defensive pieces in Cameron Wake and Karlos Dansby, but this team lacks offensive talent and playmakers in the secondary. The Dolphins need better play from quarterback Ryan Tannehill and a defense that gives up over 250 passing yards per game.
24. Carolina Panthers (4-9)
Don't look now, but Cam Newton is quietly the hottest quarterback in the NFL. He has racked up eight touchdowns with no interceptions over the past four weeks, and he hasn't had a passer rating under 95 over that span. If the rest of the team starts to match Newton's productivity, the Panthers will improve substantially.
25. San Diego Chargers (5-8)
Despite a surprising win over the Steelers, Philip Rivers and the Chargers are a struggling football team. Despite being 5-8, the Chargers have averaged 22 points per game while giving up just 21. The Chargers are just good at finding ways to lose, as their Week 12 collapse against the Baltimore Ravens indicates.
26. Buffalo Bills (5-8)
C.J. Spiller's breakout season can't save this mediocre team. The defense gives up 27.1 points per game, and Ryan Fitzpatrick leads a passing game that ranks 25th in the NFL. This team isn't actively bad, just mediocre. They are a star or two away from being competitive.
27. Tennessee Titans (4-9)
Jake Locker has taken some real lumps this season, but he's flashed some talent. The same cannot be said for a defense that gives up 377.8 yards per game. The Titans' mediocre pass rush has played a huge role in their defensive struggles, as no Titans' pass-rusher has more than five sacks.
28. Philadelphia Eagles (4-9)
After a pedestrian start to his career, Nick Foles showed that he can win a football game in a 23-21 win over Tampa Bay. LeSean McCoy and Bryce Brown could form a nice duo in 2013, but Andy Reid needs to go. Also, this defense desperately needs an overhaul, as they give up 26.5 points per game.
29. Jacksonville Jaguars (2-11)
We've seen all we need to see from the Jacksonville Jaguars. Whether it's the scared Blaine Gabbert or the mistake-prone Chad Henne at quarterback, the Jaguars are going to be terrible until they upgrade the position.
30. Kansas City Chiefs (2-11)
Like the Jaguars, the Chiefs are a quarterback away from being relevant. Jamaal Charles is a special player, having racked up 1,420 total yards already this season, but the Chiefs have no passing game to speak of.
31. Oakland Raiders (3-11)
The Raiders are like a worse version of the Chargers; they have some talent, but they just know how to lose. Unlike the Chargers, the Raiders are rarely in football games, thanks to a defense that gives up a league-worst 30.9 points per game.
32. Arizona Cardinals (4-9)
So many teams need quarterbacks, but none need one more than the Arizona Cardinals. The Cardinals thought they might have something in Ryan Lindley, but his 42.6 passer rating is an accurate reflection of how poorly he's played. John Skelton was no upgrade, throwing four interceptions against the Seahawks in a 58-0 loss. I can't remember a team that has ever been so inept at quarterback, making the Cardinals the worst team in the NFL.
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