Battling for playoff positioning creates enough pressure, but there are a few teams whose Week 16 results could affect more than just whether they make the playoffs.
Some have already been mathematically eliminated, but the final two weeks of the season still hold weight for men under center and/or the men on the sidelines. In this NFL Power Rankings, I focus on the teams with the most at stake as the season draws to a close.
*Highlighted teams will feature an image.
1. San Francisco 49ers 10-3-1
Even though they nearly blew it, the Niners' win over the New England Patriots on Sunday night was the most impressive road win of the season. The Niners have hit their stride with Colin Kaepernick under center, and they are the league's best team.
2. New England Patriots 10-4
Their comeback against the Niners made me wish for a Super Bowl rematch. The way these two teams are playing, I'd say that is the best bet around the NFL.
3. Denver Broncos 11-3
The Broncos are on a nine-game win-streak, and they are clearly the hottest team in the NFL. The only reason I can't justify placing them ahead of the Patriots is because they failed the head-to-head test in Week 5.
Both teams were different then, so it doesn't necessarily hold any weight for a possible playoff meeting, but it is enough to keep Peyton Manning and Co. third.
4. Houston Texans 12-2
This team has picked up some big wins this season, but it is defined more by its losses in my eyes. Being blown out by both the Green Bay Packers and Patriots won't let me put the Texans any higher than fourth.
5. Atlanta Falcons 12-2
The Dirty Birds are like the NFC's version of the Texans.
They have the shiniest record, but something about them doesn't scream elite. The 34-0 rout over the New York Giants certainly helps, but even that's a little tainted because of how bad the G-Men have looked lately.
6. Washington Redskins 8-6
Some may consider this too high for the Skins, but this is one of those teams that no one wants to play in the postseason. If Robert Griffin III is healthy, this team could pull the upset on any one.
7. Green Bay Packers 10-4
This is not a Packers juggernaut, but Clay Matthews and Aaron Rodgers ensure this team is still a force. Despite being pummeled this season, (sacked 45 times), Rodgers has still been durable and played like an MVP.
Matthews has missed four games, but he still has 11 sacks. Where would the Packers be without those two?
8. Seattle Seahawks 9-5
The jury is still out on the Seahawks as a legitimate threat to make the Super Bowl. They have won two straight on the road, but the circumstances were iffy.
Beating the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field doesn't mean as much now as it would have earlier in the season. The Bears have lost five of their last six, and the road win over the Buffalo Bills on Sunday was actually played in Canada.
Either way, the Seahawks have looked good in their last three games, but they still have some things to prove.
9. Dallas Cowboys 8-6
Quietly, the Cowboys have won big games over the last three weeks. What's more impressive is that all three games were decided by seven points or less.
The Cowboys finally look clutch.
10. Cincinnati Bengals 8-6
Games don't get much bigger than the Week 16 matchup with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
It's pretty simple for the Bengals. If they win, they will clinch a playoff spot. A Baltimore Ravens loss would keep hopes of capturing the AFC North alive in Week 17.
If they lose, they open the door for a complete collapse.
11. Indianapolis Colts 9-5
The Colts have really over-achieved this season. They rode the emotion of playing for their cancer-stricken head coach, Chuck Pagano, and a weak schedule to the cusp of a playoff berth.
Still, this team deserves a ton of credit for its heart and ability to rally behind their leaders. It should wrap up a playoff spot with a win over the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 16.
12. Pittsburgh Steelers 7-7
Is Todd Haley's offense good for the Steelers?
The Steelers are struggling mightily. They have lost their last two games, and despite what Mike Tomlin says about his quarterback being "on board" (per ESPN), there is something to the talk that Ben Roethlisberger is unhappy with the play-calling, per NFL.com.
The issue has come up too many times to be much ado about nothing.
They have to beat the Bengals on Sunday if they hope to reach the playoffs. If you think Roethlisberger had an issue with Todd Haley during the season, wait until he realizes he won't be playing in January.
Something may have to give in this scenario, and a Week 16 loss could be the tipping point. Stay tuned.
13. New York Giants 8-6
How many NFC East teams will reach the playoffs?
How embarrassing would it be if the Giants missed the playoffs after winning the Super Bowl last season?
With two relatively tough—but winnable—games remaining at the Baltimore Ravens and at home against the Philadelphia Eagles, that's a question the team may be in a position to answer.
The Seahawks already have the inside track on the first wild card, so the Giants would have tons of competition for the final wild card spot. That's before we even mention the three-way tie they are a part of in the NFC East.
Another loss could put the G-Men in serious jeopardy of missing the playoffs all together.
With Eli Manning playing so poorly in the Giants' most recent losses (one touchdown pass to five interceptions in the last four defeats), you have to wonder what that does to his legacy.
14. Baltimore Ravens 9-5
If the Ravens don't win another game, what should happen during the offseason?
The Ravens are the only team that has already clinched a playoff spot, but they don't even look like a playoff team anymore.
They have lost three games in a row, and the once-vaunted defense has allowed an average of 29.3 points in the three losses. They have fallen to 26th in the NFL in rushing yards allowed.
With such an aging core—especially on the defensive side of the ball—the organization has to be worried. If the losing continues in Week 16, and into the playoffs, the defense could see major changes in 2013.
15. Chicago Bears 8-6
If the Bears miss the playoffs, should Lovie Smith be fired?
The worst collapse this NFL season is in Chicago. After starting the year 7-1, the Bears have lost five of their last six games. They have gone from leading the NFC North to outside of the playoffs if the season ended today.
They need to win out to feel good about their chances of reaching the playoffs. Even then, they would need help.
As much as I like Lovie Smith as a head coach, he would deserve to be fired if the Bears miss the postseason again this year.
This would be the fifth time in the last six seasons the team the team has come up short of that goal. This team has too much talent for management to accept that.
When the Bears take on the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday, they will be playing for their playoff lives, and possibly their coach's job.
16. Minnesota Vikings 8-6
I know the Vikings just beat the Chicago Bears in Week 14, but the Bears also knocked off the Vikings in Week 12.
The fact is, neither team is overly impressive to me at this point. Adrian Peterson is worth your three hours alone, but this team has too many holes to make noise in the playoffs.
17. New Orleans Saints 6-8
The Saints never recovered from the effects of the bounty scandal. All things considered, they did a good job salvaging six to eight wins in a season wrought with turmoil.
18. St. Louis Rams 6-7-1
Jeff Fisher has this team headed in the right direction. With the draft picks they gained in the RGIII deal, the Rams have a bright future.
Even though it is highly unlikely, the team could still make the playoffs. If the Bears, Vikings and two NFC East teams completely fall apart, the Rams would be in if they won out.
19. Miami Dolphins 6-8
Even though they are under .500, the Dolphins should be proud of what they accomplished this season. They traded away a premier wide receiver in Brandon Marshall and missed out on Manning, but a solid defense and running game has still led them to respectability.
20. Tampa Bay Buccaneers 6-8
The Bucs have really hit hard times. The 41-0 loss to the Saints on Sunday was the low point of the season. Something has to be done to improve the team's 32nd-ranked pass defense.
21. Cleveland Browns 5-9
The Browns are building their team in the right way. They aren't in as good of shape as the Rams, but the teams are in a similar place. Browns fans should be charged for the NFL draft.
This team is only a player or two away from serious playoff contention.
22. Carolina Panthers 5-9
The league made an adjustment to Cam Newton, but now he seems to have regained his stride. In his last five games, he's thrown 10 touchdown passes and no interceptions.
If this team can get stronger on the defensive side of the ball, they can make a legitimate playoff push in 2013.
23. New York Jets 6-8
Who should be the Jets' quarterback for the rest of the season?
All things considered, it's hard to find a bigger football mess than the Jets. They have seemingly pulled the plug on Mark Sanchez as quarterback. Greg McElroy will start on Sunday when the team hosts the San Diego Chargers, per the New York Times.
They have no hopes of making the playoffs, so this is a game to access whether McElroy has what it takes to lead this team in 2013. Don't take that to mean the team won't consider drafting a quarterback, but a strong finish would at least give it some momentum.
As for Tim Tebow, if he doesn't find his way under center at some point in the last two games, I'm betting he asks to be traded to a team that gives him an opportunity to compete for the job.
24. San Diego Chargers 5-9
With Norv Turner and A.J. Smith reportedly on the way out at the end of the season, this team is in transition, per NFL.com.. That said, I respect their effort since the news went public the first week of December.
25. Tennessee Titans 5-9
Chris Johnson isn't having his best season, but he has still rushed for 1,159 yards. The Titans' real issue is their defense. The team has allowed 30 or more points eight times this season.
26. Buffalo Bills 5-9
Ryan Fitzpatrick isn't a spectacular quarterback, but he certainly isn't the Bills' biggest problem. The run defense is ranked 30th in the NFL, and despite his 10.5 sacks, Mario Williams hasn't made the impact the team hoped for when they signed him.
27. Arizona Cardinals 5-9
Rebounding from the 58-0 beating they suffered in Week 14 vs. the Seahawks took guts, but then again, they only beat the Detroit Lions on Sunday.
The Cardinals aren't as bad as they looked against the Seahawks, but they can't waste another year of Larry Fitzgerald's career without finding someone to throw him the ball.
28. Oakland Raiders 4-10
The Raiders need a complete overhaul, from Carson Palmer and Darren McFadden to Tommy Kelly and Rolando McClain. This team doesn't have a winning persona.
In some cases, it's a matter of heart; other cases are a matter of durability. Either way, this team is a prisoner of its "stars" unattained potential.
29. Philadelphia Eagles 4-10
The Eagles are finally playing without pressure, and they will have an opportunity to play the ultimate spoiler to their rivals. If they can beat the Redskins and the Giants to finish the season, they'll have some say in who wins the NFC East.
30. Detroit Lions 4-10
There is no Madden curse; there is only low locker room integrity and a quarterback that makes too many bad decisions with the ball. Calvin Johnson has still caught 106 passes for 1,667 yards.
Matthew Stafford has thrown seven interceptions in his last five games. Megatron has been as advertised.
31. Kansas City Chiefs 2-12
This has been a tough year for the Chiefs in every way. I'm sure the organization will be happy to see the calendar turn over to the year 2013. This year hasn't been very good to this team.
32. Jacksonville Jaguars 2-12
If the Jaguars are smart, they will do what's necessary to bring Tebow back to Florida. Even if he can't help turn the team around, he'll at least help with attendance. The Jaguars are 21st in the NFL in home attendance percentage.
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