Who is the best team in the NFL?
With two weeks left in the NFL regular season, the question of who the best team is can vary. Maybe you see the Atlanta Falcons with a huge Week 15 win over the New York Giants—and a league-best 12 wins—and put them in the top spot. The Houston Texans held off the Indianapolis Colts to tie the Falcons with 12 wins—are they the best?
Or we could toss out records. This isn't about the team with the best record, necessarily, but about the best team. Who would get your vote?
With a loss on Sunday, the Jacksonville Jaguars are close to clinching a spot in the top two picks of the 2013 NFL draft.
Sorry, that's the only good news I have for the fans this week.
Things aren't as bad as they look in Jacksonville, but a major rebuild is needed. It's clear the team missed on quarterback Blaine Gabbert, but 2012 first-rounder Justin Blackmon looks like a potential star at wide receiver now that a competent quarterback is throwing him the ball.
With Blackmon, Maurice Jones-Drew and Eugene Monroe in place, the Jaguars are a quarterback away from being a competitive team on offense in 2013.
The good news is that the suffering is almost over.
The 2012 season has been a massive disappointment for the Kansas City Chiefs, but with just two games left, fans can start looking ahead to an offseason that should bring about major changes. General manager Scott Pioli may not keep his job. Head coach Romeo Crennel is on the hottest seat in the league. There should be major changes at quarterback, too.
There's a good base of talent on the offensive line, at running back and at linebacker for the turnaround in Kansas City to get started. That means finding a better quarterback for 2013 and finding a coaching staff that knows how to win.
It's tough to put into words just how bad the Philadelphia Eagles have been this year. The impending change at head coach should paint the picture pretty well.
Andy Reid has been the head coach of the Eagles since 1999, and while early success gave the head coach a cushion that allowed him a few bad seasons, the play of the team over the last two years has been inexcusable. Change is coming.
The new coaching staff will find a roster with talented players who have been mismanaged under Reid. Should a proven coach come in with a plan to instill discipline and accountability, the Eagles will be back in playoff contention sooner than later.
The Arizona Cardinals continue to be an example in bad quarterback play. Never before did I think that a team could so badly miss Kevin Kolb, but the Cardinals do.
What's most troubling is that the team was able to win four games to begin the year with a nice mix of efficient quarterback play and a strong defense. Without Kolb in the lineup due to injury, the efficient offense has been missing.
Even the defense has had its ups and downs lately, but that's the unquestionable strength of the team. What's amazing is that these Cardinals managed to beat the New England Patriots.
Reggie McKenzie's first season as the Oakland Raiders general manager won't end on the high note that many had hoped for in the preseason, but the 2012 season hasn't been a total waste either.
McKenzie inherited a team in rebuilding mode, and with so few draft picks to use in 2012, McKenzie wasn't able to fully restock his roster through the draft or free agency. And while the team may get worse in 2013 after their expected losses of Richard Seymour, Desmond Bryant and Rolando McClain, the franchise is headed in the right direction under McKenzie.
Younger will be better in 2013, and for the Raiders, that is the key. Getting younger, getting more disciplined and finding young talent to build around will be the offseason keys.
Playoffs? No, forget about the playoffs. Eight losses all but ends the New York Jets season and with that comes the responsibility that Rex Ryan's team dropped a game to the lowly Tennessee Titans. With two games left in the season, the Jets have a chance to hit .500, but nothing more.
You have to hand it to Rex Ryan for the job he did as the head coach of a team with so many injuries an obstacles in his way. Rex has done an admirable job, or more than, in getting his team to perform every week. That alone has to guarantee Rex's job for 2013.
The Jets have issues, mostly at quarterback and on offense, but the head coaching job should be safe for 2013. Whether or not Mark Sanchez's job is safe will be another question.
The three-game winning streak had fans feeling pretty good about the Cleveland Browns. And then Week 15 happened.
Against the RGIII-less Washington Redskins, we saw Brandon Weeden play one of his worst games as a pro—an impressive feat considering how bad Weeden has looked all season. The Redskins aren't the 1985 Chicago Bears, either. This was a game the Browns could have won, but they weren't able to get a viable, credible game from their quarterback.
The new regime, led by owner Jimmy Haslam, will have to decide who is running the show next year. Their second decision will be about Weeden's future.
The Tennessee Titans put an end to the New York Jets' season, putting Rex Ryan's team at eight losses on the year and ending the team's hopes of a postseason.
While Mike Munchaks' team hasn't performed up to expectations this season, they are clearly on the right track with a young defense full of fight and an offense that's starting to gel late in the year. With Jake Locker, Kenny Britt, Kendall Wright and Chris Johnson, the Titans have hope for 2013.
Forcing turnovers in key spots has been big for the Titans all season, and in Week 15 that was the difference. With two games left, the team has a chance to get to a respectable 7-9 and show momentum to end the season.
Buddy Nix knows he needs a better quarterback, but Ryan Fitzpatrick isn't all that's wrong with the Buffalo Bills.
The head coach and so-called "offensive genius," Chan Gailey, has to be held accountable for an offense that too often limits what Fitzpatrick can do. Gailey is also responsible for an offense that's failed to utilize its best player, C.J. Spiller. Fitzpatrick may be too safe, and while he'll never be a franchise quarterback, Gailey must take the blame for trusting Fitzpatrick and then failing to use the talent around him.
The embarrassing "home" loss to the Seattle Seahawks in Toronto won't go far in appeasing a fanbase that's tired of losing. Free-agent signings like the one of Mario Williams do little to temper expectations. The time is now for the Bills' front office to build the winner that the fans deserve.
Where were these Carolina Panthers hiding all season?
Cam Newton and friends have been red hot the last two weeks—taking down the Atlanta Falcons in Week 14 and then busting the San Diego Chargers in the mouth this past week. It begs the question: What changed?
Head coach Ron Rivera may have saved his job with this late-season surge, but with general manager Marty Hurney already fired, the team will be facing major questions in 2013. The new general manager has a young, exciting team to build around, but the team does have major holes at defensive tackle, on the offensive line and in the secondary.
Building a roster good enough to compete in the NFC South will take time, but the right pieces are in place to get started.
As if the 2012 season wasn't bad enough for the Detroit Lions, the trash fire that was Week 15 should put a nice exclamation point on it. Losing to the Arizona Cardinals isn't acceptable, and this could be the breaking point for ownership after a miserable season.
While Jim Schwartz may not be fired after this season, it would surprise no one if he was sent packing after the Lions' undisciplined ways led to another disappointing season. The regression from 2011 to now—including the total meltdown of players like Titus Young—makes you wonder if Schwartz is the best man for this job.
The talent is unmistakable. Matthew Stafford, Mikel Leshoure, Calvin Johnson, Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley are all high-level players, but the penalties and poor play are adding up. Schwartz may survive this offseason, but he'll be on notice in 2013.
Goodbye, Norv Turner, it was fun while it lasted. Well, actually, it wasn't—at least not for fans of the San Diego Chargers who watched the window of opportunity collapse and then shatter as a well-built team fell apart thanks to bad management of the salary cap and poor decisions in free agency.
If anything will serve as the fuel to kick Turner and general manager A.J. Smith out of their offices, the loss to the Carolina Panthers in Week 15 should do the job. With San Diego down 31-0 in the third quarter, it was painfully evident that this one was in the bag. Turner's job should follow soon after.
The rebuilding job here won't be that easy. Philip Rivers is a good quarterback, but the rest of the offense needs to be blown up and started over from scratch. That will leave a tall order for the next general manager and head coach.
Being shut out by the New Orleans Saints has a way of ruining your season.
It's not a surprise that the Saints scored 41 points on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense, but it was a shocker that the Bucs offense didn't answer. Against the No. 32-ranked defense in the entire NFL, the Buccaneers managed to score zero points. Good job, good effort.
Greg Schiano has done a good job in his first season as head coach, but this Week 15 stinker leaves a black mark on an otherwise bright season. With two games left, the team can erase the bad taste left in everyone's mouth after Week 15.
A rookie quarterback, protected by a rookie left tackle, coached by a rookie head coach. The Miami Dolphins are a young team, but they are full of promise.
Ryan Tannehill had a dominant performance in Week 15 against the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars, instilling even more confidence in the fanbase and football operations team in his future as the franchise quarterback. Tannehill needed a big game like the one he had, and in the moment he delivered.
The playoffs aren't a possibility, but the Dolphins have a chance to end the year on a high note if they can win out. Getting to 7-9 in Joe Philbin's first year as head coach would be considered a victory.
Another week and Jeff Fisher's Rams are still in playoff contention. St. Louis needs help getting into the postseason, but if it can win out and get losses from the Minnesota Vikings and the Chicago Bears continue losing, then the Rams will have to hope that they can beat the Seattle Seahawks in Week 17.
Those scenarios might be far-fetched, but they're at least possible. To go from holding the No. 2 overall pick in the NFL draft to a playoff contender in one season is remarkable, and a big hat-tip is owed to Fisher and general manager Les Snead for their work in adding key players and also coaching up the available talent.
Playoffs or not, Fisher and Snead should feel great about the job they've done this season—and the fact that they hold two first-round picks in the 2013 NFL draft.
You have to hand it to the New Orleans Saints: With the season nearly over, they managed to keep fighting, putting the Tampa Bay Buccaneers down in a Week 15 shutout. Beating a division rival 41-0 sends a nice statement to the NFL in the same week that former commissioner Paul Tagliabue overturned Roger Goodell's punishment of Saints players in the Bountygate scandal.
Whatever is motivating the Saints right now, it's working. I fully expected New Orleans to lay down after it was all but eliminated from playoff contention, but instead the Saints continue to fight and claw for respect in a very trying season.
The 2013 season will be different thanks to a full offseason for the front office to restock the defense, and with Sean Payton expected back as head coach, New Orleans will be a contender again next season.
Adrian Peterson isn't human. He can't be, not with what we're seeing just one year after tearing his ACL. Thanks to Peterson's unreal healing ability, and his 1,800 yards rushing have helped too.
While Peterson has been the story this year, the Minnesota Vikings have been a solid team all around. The holes of the team last year—the offensive line and secondary—are both much improved thanks to Matt Kalil and Harrison Smith coming over via the first round of the 2012 draft.
Smart drafting and healthy running backs have gone a long way to improving the quality of play in Minnesota, and a team that won just three games in 2012 is now two wins away from 10 victories and a potential playoff berth.
Losing to the Green Bay Packers wasn't unexpected—it happened earlier in the season, after all—but it was more in the way that the Chicago Bears lost that makes us lose faith in their playoff chances.
The Bears aren't a lock to get in as a wild-card team, but they see winnable games in Week 16 against the Arizona Cardinals and Week 17 on the road in Detroit. That should be good enough for a 10-win season and wild-card seed, but feeling good about the team's chances once they make the playoffs is another story. Their play against Green Bay did little to change that.
Lovie Smith is continually on the hot seat, but the real pressure in Chicago should be on offensive coordinator Mike Tice and on new general manager Phil Emery to find and develop offensive linemen. The Bears' entire front five could stand to be replaced this summer, and that must be the focus of the entire team once their season ends.
Winning under pressure isn't something we've become accustomed to from the Dallas Cowboys, but over the last eight days we've seen great composure from Jason Garrett's team—and in the process they've added two wins to their resume.
With the NFC East crowded at the top, every win counts for the Cowboys' postseason chances. They currently trail the Washington Redskins for the top spot in the East, but they're still alive in the wild-card race. With the division not yet settled, the Cowboys have plenty to play for in the coming weeks.
A win over the New Orleans Saints in Week 16 would give the Cowboys nine wins, but it will be their Week 17 game against the Washington Redskins that matters most. Winning against New Orleans is key, but Dallas has to win out.
Who are the real Baltimore Ravens?
Is the team that started the year 9-2 who we should look for in the playoffs, or are the real Ravens the ones who have dropped three straight games and limped to 9-5?
Determining which team we'll see in the playoffs isn't easy. Injuries have decimated the roster, but the problems here are about more than just who has been healthy and who hasn't. Losing Ray Lewis and Lardarius Webb hurt (a lot), but also an issue has been the misuse of Ray Rice in the backfield. The team's best offensive player has been underutilized all season, and even after the firing of offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, Rice continues to be more decoy than asset.
The Ravens will make the playoffs, but they may do it as a 9-7 wild-card team instead of as a division champ and potential first-round bye. That's not the kind of momentum you want heading into January.
Andrew Luck's magic may have run out in Week 15, or it could be simply that the Indianapolis Colts met a much better team in the Houston Texans. That seems more likely.
The Texans serve as an example of where the Colts are now versus where they need to be in order to compete in the AFC South. Yes, Andrew Luck is amazing, but the talent around him needs to be improved through another strong offseason of free-agent signings and draft picks. General manager Ryan Grigson has a tall order on his hands, but the hardest part of his job—finding a franchise quarterback—is over. Now the fun part begins.
The playoffs will be here soon for the Indianapolis Colts, who at worst finish with a 9-7 record. That's a stark improvement over their two wins last season and a reminder of the great job done by the entire football operations team. Even as they recoup from a loss in Week 15, that much must be remembered.
It's becoming harder and harder to pick the Pittsburgh Steelers to win each week. That complicates the ability to forecast their chances as a playoff team.
Injuries have caused a lot of problems for this team, but they were still in position to improve their standing and make a nice push to the playoffs. Now they find themselves trailing the Cincinnati Bengals for the No. 6 seed in the AFC. With the way the Steelers have looked as of late, expecting them to win against Cincinnati in Week 16 is a stretch.
Week 17 will bring the Cleveland Browns to town, and it's a good chance to add a victory, but by then it might not matter. The Steelers' season comes down to next week at home against the Bengals. It's the definition of must-win.
It may not feel like the Cincinnati Bengals are sitting on the verge of a second straight playoff berth, but here they are with eight wins and a legitimate shot at the postseason.
The projected No. 6 seed, Cincinnati doesn't have an easy road through the rest of the season, not with Pittsburgh and Baltimore still on the schedule. The good news for the Bengals is that the Ravens haven't looked the same over the last several weeks, and the Steelers are banged up on offense and defense. Neither game will be an easy win, but both are winnable.
Andy Dalton and A.J. Green will see favorable matchups in both games, as neither the Ravens nor the Steelers have the manpower in the secondary to take Green away down the field. And if teams devote too much attention to Green, BenJarvus Green-Ellis has been a nice surprise down the stretch for the Bengal run game.
Win and they're in. Easier than it sounds.
First place in the NFC East has to feel pretty damn good. The Washington Redskins know that feeling right now, and if they can keep winning over the next two weeks, they'll head to the playoffs on the strength of two rookie quarterbacks and the rebirth of Mike Shanahan's running game.
While Robert Griffin III has been the story of the year (rightfully so), the play of fellow rookie Alfred Morris at running back has been just as impressive. Add in All-Pro-caliber play from left tackle Trent Williams and outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan and you have a stocked roster ready to compete for the long haul.
The playoffs are here for the taking. Win and they're in, but that means taking down the Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas Cowboys. Doable, for sure, but not easy.
So much for ranking the New York Giants above the Atlanta Falcons.
Week 15 proved that Atlanta is the better team, and it also could have pushed the Giants out of the playoffs. With two games remaining, the G-Men find themselves out of the NFC East driver's seat. Instead, Eli Manning and Co. need to win against the Baltimore Ravens and Philadelphia Eagles to keep their playoff hopes alive.
The story on the Giants has been that they'll turn it on in the playoffs, but no one stopped to consider that the reigning Super Bowl champions might not even make the postseason. Now that's a reality, and Tom Coughlin's team must win out if they plan to defend their title in the playoffs.
I wouldn't want to coach against the Seattle Seahawks right now. Most NFL coaches wouldn't either.
Seattle's supposed weakness was in their inability to play well on the road—and then they went all the way across the country to beat the Buffalo Bills to a pulp in Toronto. So much for not traveling well.
Russell Wilson is a Rookie of the Year candidate, the defense is violent and fast, and the coaching continues to improve from week to week. Pete Carroll may not have been thought of as a winning coach before this season, but the work he's done in establishing schemes and building up this team has been perfect.
With the NFC West still up for grabs, the Seahawks are making a positive statement. The San Francisco 49ers may not be scared, but the showdown between the two in Week 16 should be epic.
Being the first NFC team to 12 wins puts the Atlanta Falcons firmly in position to take the No. 1 seed into the playoffs. Not only does that mean home-field advantage, but it also means a week off to rest, self-scout and get healthy for the postseason.
You won't find much faith in the Falcons' playoff chances outside of Atlanta. Critics are quick to point out previous failures, but those same people overlook signature wins like the Week 15 crushing of the New York Giants. That's a marquee win for the Falcons, but because it happened in the regular season, it's discounted. It shouldn't be.
The Falcons' 12 wins are legit, and their postseason chances are too. This is a different team, a better team, than we've seen under Mike Smith.
With a definitive win in Week 15, the Houston Texans move to 12 wins and keep their lead in the AFC for the No. 1 overall seed. With that comes a week off and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs—two things from which the team would benefit greatly.
There hasn't been a lot of talk about the Texans lately, especially after they were blown out by the New England Patriots in Week 14, but this is still one of the more balanced teams in the entire league. With Arian Foster running as well as any back not named Adrian Peterson, the Texans have the offense to win games by controlling the tempo and attacking defense's weaknesses. That will come up big in the playoffs.
What's most concerning about the Texans is their defense, and that's a big part of the reason why I can't rank them higher. They may have the NFL's most wins (tied with Atlanta), but seeing them as a viable AFC Super Bowl representative isn't something I'm comfortable with.
Ten wins and the NFC North title were earned in Week 15, and along the way the Green Bay Packers proved that they belong in the conversation of elite teams in the NFL. If only because Aaron Rodgers and Clay Matthews are two of the best in the business at what they do.
Rodgers keeps the Packers in games that they otherwise shouldn't be in, and with him under center the team always has a chance to win, but at some point the injuries on both sides of the ball become an issue. Jordy Nelson and Charles Woodson are both integral playmakers on their respective sides of the ball, and without them, this is a different team.
Getting Nelson and Woodson back in time for the playoffs will make a remarkable difference, but the hope at that point will be that each player is ready to go without the rust that comes from missing significant time.
If the injuries can be covered up and Rodgers can continue to stay hot, the Packers have to be considered one of the few legit Super Bowl contenders in the NFC.
Well, the New England Patriots went from dominating in Week 14 and proving they belonged at the top of the NFL's power rankings to dropping two spots after a loss to the San Francisco 49ers. Not just a loss, a home loss that featured San Francisco pulling ahead early before New England fought back.
The Patriots are still one of the NFL's best teams, and week to week, the fact that they move up or down a few spots matters very little. This is a playoff team, and in the AFC, they are still one of the scariest teams to face each week. You might point to the way San Francisco handled them, but expecting to get four turnovers from Tom Brady's offense each week is foolish.
New England falls this week, but don't rule the Patriots out in the long haul.
The Denver Broncos have managed to win nine straight games—thanks to the Peyton Manning-led offense and a ton of Von Miller rushing the passer. Now that the AFC West is theirs and the playoffs are looming, what are the realistic chances that we see Manning back in the Super Bowl?
The Broncos are good, but they aren't flawless. While it's true that no team is this year, it's tough to envision Denver beating the New England Patriots, or even the Houston Texans for that matter. Manning has Denver playing much better than its talent level would indicate, and for that he'll be an MVP favorite, but awards don't matter in the playoffs.
The Broncos must cover up their issues at cornerback and defensive tackle with smart scheming and great tackling, and similarly on offense, they'll have to trust that Knowshon Moreno can continue to carry the load in the running game.
Nothing is impossible for these Broncos, and a Super Bowl trip wouldn't surprise anyone at this point.
The best team in the NFL. Any questions?
San Francisco makes the rise from No. 3 after a definitive win over the New England Patriots—the same Patriots who dismantled the Houston Texans last week. If you're looking for a statement win, the 49ers delivered one.
On offense and defense, San Francisco controlled the game from the opening drive. Forcing Tom Brady and his offense into turnovers and third-down situations allowed Vic Fangio's defense to dictate the game from early on, and it was the reason for the 49ers' ability to pull away early and maintain their lead once Brady and Co. started their comeback.
The rest of the season will test the 49ers—especially at Seattle next Sunday night—but momentum can be built after a big road win like this, especially for a second-year quarterback like Colin Kaepernick.
You might be willing to bet against Kaepernick, but I'm not. The 49ers are the NFL's best team heading into Week 16.