Week 15 of the NFL season is hugely important for over half the teams in the league, as all of these franchises and their players have plenty on the line when they step onto the gridiron.
Whether it’s working towards a bye in the playoffs or fighting for a wild-card berth, there are about 20 squads that will be fighting tooth and nail to come away with a win.
Let’s take a look at the Week 15 power rankings with a focus on the most important matchups for contending teams.
1. New England Patriots (10-3)
The Pats proved they were legitimate Super Bowl favorites once again this year after destroying Houston at home in Week 14.
Now Tom Brady and co. have a chance to cement their outstanding season and status as the top team in the NFL by winning an upcoming matchup against our No. 2 team, the 49ers.
2. San Francisco 49ers (9-3-1)
With Colin Kaepernick under center in San Francisco, the Niners have been revitalized on the offensive end—sans a slip-up against a surprisingly good Rams team in Week 13.
The strength of this team is still the defense, and it will face the biggest test of the 2012 season in a road game against New England this Sunday. A win would make them the squad to beat in the playoffs.
3. Denver Broncos (10-3)
Peyton Manning is our pick for the 2012 NFL MVP, and his Broncos have been on an absolute tear—winning eight straight contests heading into the looming matchup with the Ravens.
It’s going to be tough for Denver to pull out a W, but doing so would inch them closer to a first-round bye in the upcoming postseason.
4. Houston Texans (11-2)
The Texans, and QB Matt Schaub in particular, have greatly struggled in primetime contests against top competition. It’s a bad sign for their impending playoff run, and there’s still a chance they lose the AFC South if Indianapolis can win out (which would include beating Houston twice).
While Houston has only lost to Green Bay and New England, the Colts are going to give the team a run for its money. Expect a battle at Reliant Stadium this weekend.
5. Atlanta Falcons (11-2)
The Dirty Birds seemed to be content with their commanding lead on the rest of the NFC and dropped a winnable game against the lowly Panthers last week. They’ll need to get their house in order, and quickly, as both San Francisco and Green Bay are right on their heels.
Atlanta still has to get past the Giants, Lions and Bucs before the year is over, and none of those wins will come easy.
6. Green Bay Packers (9-4)
If Green Bay can eliminate the Bears at Soldier Field this Sunday, they’ll claim the NFC North crown and lock up a playoff berth. However, a loss will significantly set them back and leave the division wide open for Chicago or Minnesota to steal.
Our money is on QB Aaron Rodgers elevating his teammates and pulling out this crucial victory.
7. Baltimore Ravens (9-4)
Despite all the injuries in Baltimore, the team has largely persevered and thrived.
However, a setback in an overtime loss to the Redskins last week led to Cam Cameron being dismissed as the offensive coordinator. The hope is that a new play-caller, Jim Caldwell, will breathe new life into the Ravens' attack. We’ll find out against the Broncos, as Baltimore will certainly need to put points on the board to win.
8. New York Giants (8-5)
The G-Men once again proved the doubters wrong by thrashing the Saints this past Monday.
However, the playoffs are far from guaranteed for Big Blue, as the Redskins and Cowboys are right at their heels. They have to extend their lead in the NFC East by coming out on top against Atlanta this week.
9. Indianapolis Colts (9-4)
Indy is preparing to hit the road to take on an extremely tough Texans group, and a win would give them serious hope of capturing the AFC South in Andrew Luck’s rookie season.
This group would have to win out in order to accomplish that goal, but as we’ve learned during this “Chuckstrong” campaign, anything is possible with the upstart Colts.
10. Seattle Seahawks (8-5)
Russell Wilson is playing in the shadow of Luck and Robert Griffin III, but the rookie signal-caller is making serious noise in the NFC West.
It’s unlikely that his Seahawks can catch the Niners for the division at this point, but a W against the Bills in Buffalo on Sunday will put them one step closer to claiming a wild-card spot in the NFC.
11. Chicago Bears (8-5)
As was the case around this time last year, injuries have been a major concern for Da Bears.
Jay Cutler was knocked out of last week’s loss to the Vikings, and the franchise fell behind the Packers in the NFC North race. We’ll see if they can bounce back and get their offense going again versus Green Bay at home on Sunday.
12. Washington Redskins (7-6)
While Kirk Cousins was remarkable during his limited appearance in last week’s win over Baltimore, the ‘Skins can’t afford to lose RGIII for long.
Every game counts at this point in the season, and Washington needs their best player under center to secure a longshot playoff berth. Fortunately, it has a winnable matchup against a defensively challenged Browns squad in Week 15.
13. Cincinnati Bengals (7-6)
Cincy’s playoff chances took a nosedive when it let a sure victory slip away to the Cowboys at Paul Brown Stadium this past week.
Marvin Lewis, a legitimate Coach of the Year candidate up until that heartbreaking defeat, must figure out a way to turn it around in a hurry. They can start by beating up on the lowly Eagles on Thursday Night Football.
14. Pittsburgh Steelers (7-6)
The Steelers are down, but they aren’t out. Ben Roethlisberger’s triumphant return didn’t go as expected, with the Bolts' offense coming alive against the vaunted Pittsburgh defense last week.
They have a chance at redemption and can keep their fleeting postseason dreams alive with a win against this next team.
15. Dallas Cowboys (7-6)
Expect Cowboys Stadium to have a playoff atmosphere on Sunday, as both the Steelers and ‘Boys desperately need a victory to stay afloat in 2012.
Dallas has a propensity to blow big games, so it’ll be interesting to see if Tony Romo can buck the trend and perform under pressure this time.
16. St. Louis Rams (6-6-1)
Sam Bradford is finally living up to his No. 1 overall draft pick status and has the desperate Rams still in contention despite a dismal start. It’s a do-or-die game for St. Louis against Minnesota this coming weekend.
17. Minnesota Vikings (7-6)
Adrian Peterson has put the Vikes on his back this year, and the NFL’s top rusher can help earn an improbable playoff appearance by going off against the Rams.
18. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-7)
The Bucs improved rapidly under first-year NFL head coach Greg Schiano, and received a significant boost from RB Doug Martin.
However, their last-ranked passing defense ended up being their downfall, and Tampa removed itself from the wild-card discussion with a heartbreaking loss to Philly in Week 14.
19. New Orleans Saints (5-8)
With the bounty scandal finally running its course, the Saints can get back to focusing on football. Unfortunately, it’s a bit too late as the team has little chance of turning it around and would need a miracle to make the postseason.
20. New York Jets (6-7)
As with the Saints, Gang Green has almost no chance of a playoff berth, but isn’t mathematically eliminated.
We expect a major overhaul of the roster, and potentially the coaching staff, once this dismal season is through in New York.
21. San Diego Chargers (5-8)
The Bolts have had an extremely up and down 2012 season, and that lack of consistency is what has led to a sub-.500 record. While winning out would help them finish at a respectable 8-8, this franchise needs to upgrade key personnel in order to compete with Peyton Manning in the division for the next few years.
22. Cleveland Browns (5-8)
We knew the Browns were more talented than their record when they were just 2-8, and three wins in a row is no fluke for this young team.
Expect Brandon Weeden, Trent Richardson and the rest of this upstart squad to make a serious playoff push in 2013 when they have more experience under their collective belt.
23. Detroit Lions (4-9)
Detroit’s underdog story was a good one in 2011, but they have reverted back into the same old atrocious Lions just a year later.
Calvin Johnson’s record-setting season is the only thing these Motor City fans have to look forward to.
24. Miami Dolphins (5-8)
Unless Ryan Tannehill improves, the ‘Phins will once again be looking for a franchise QB after next year. We’re not calling him a bust yet, but he’s certainly not living up to expectations as a first-round pick even if he were considered a project.
25. Buffalo Bills (5-8)
Fortunately for Bills supporters, the squad didn’t start out hot and completely collapse this year. They were erratic all season and never gave any glimmer of hope they would be a playoff team in 2012.
26. Carolina Panthers (4-9)
The Panthers' 1-6 start put them in a hole that they had absolutely no chance of climbing out of. Cam Newton looked pitiful at times and we even heard him compared to NBA Rookie of the Year turned bust Tyreke Evans.
Thankfully, the dual-threat signal-caller has improved drastically over the past few weeks and given Carolina fanatics something to look forward to in 2013.
27. Philadelphia Eagles (4-9)
Nick Foles is starting to show why he is the future of the franchise, and helped his Eagles to a thrilling comeback win on the road against the Bucs last week.
He has three more chances to show his stuff before heading into the offseason to continue improving. We expect a drastic jump in his skills upon completing a full training camp with the first-team offense.
28. Tennessee Titans (4-9)
The Titans have been abysmal for much of the 2012 campaign, but Jake Locker has been a joy to watch develop. If he can get it going next year, they’ll definitely win a few more games.
29. Arizona Cardinals (4-9)
The QB woes in Arizona have been ridiculous, and it seems this franchise hasn’t had any luck since Kurt Warner retired. Let’s hope they address the situation this offseason, before they suffer another 58-0 shellacking.
30. Oakland Raiders (3-10)
As usual, the Raiders are in the basement of the NFL and can’t find a way to convert all the talent and athleticism on the roster into a winning product. Perhaps yet another coaching and QB change will solve that.
31. Kansas City Chiefs (2-11)
It’s been a rough season for the Chiefs on and off the field, and we wish them the best in 2013, as things can’t get much worse this year.
32. Jacksonville Jaguars (2-11)
The Jags are the laughing stock of the NFL and it may be time to end the Blaine Gabbert era, as it’s clear the young man isn’t a starting-caliber QB.