As the regular season comes to an end, we've reached a point where teams need to start evaluating potential draft picks, or preparing for what they hope will be an extended playoff run. For many teams on the fringes of the playoff race, they might be better suited to calling it a season and moving up a couple of spots in the draft rather than fighting to the finish to crash out of the playoffs early.
Still others could see this as their shot to legitimately contend for a title, and figure to make a move towards the postseason.
But, who stands where in the hunt for the postseason, and who should start looking towards next year? Let's take a look.
(Highlighted team sections will feature an image)
1. San Francisco 49ers 10-3-1
The Niners' thrilling Sunday night win over the New England Patriots at Foxboro Stadium makes them the clear No. 1. Colin Kaepernick is showing why Jim Harbaugh has so much faith in him. He's thrown seven touchdowns and only two interceptions in his five starts.
2. New England Patriots 10-4
Watching Tom Brady and the Patriots launch such a furious comeback against the Niners was great. Right now, this has to be considered the most likely Super Bowl matchup.
3. Denver Broncos 11-3
John Elway's guys won nine straight, and were it not for their Week 5 stumble against the Patriots, I would probably have them at No. 2. Peyton Manning and Co. are lurking if the Pats should stumble.
4. Houston Texans 12-2
Houston is the best team in the NFL against poor and mediocre teams. The blowout losses to the Patriots and the Green Bay Packers make it impossible to place them higher than fourth.
5. Atlanta Falcons 12-2
Can the Falcons build on their impressive 34-0 rout of the New York Giants? They won over a few critics with that performance, but they need to secure home-field advantage if they hope to reach the Super Bowl.
6. Washington Redskins 8-6
Washington has a youthful nucleus to build around, led by Robert Griffin III, but making the playoffs is not counter-productive for this group. This is a dangerous team that has a chance to beat anyone in the NFL.
Because of RGIII's ability as a dual-threat (3,650 all-purpose yards and 24 touchdowns), Alfred Morris' underrated rookie season at RB (1,322 yards and nine touchdowns), and the improving play of the defense (five sacks, three interceptions and no 300-yard passers in the last three games), no one wants to play the Redskins right now.
7. Green Bay Packers 10-4
The Green Bay Packers are already in the playoffs. They wrapped up another NFC North title by beating the free-falling Chicago Bears on Sunday. Still, this team is in no way a championship contender.
Aaron Rodgers has been incredible under the circumstances. Considering he's been sacked 45 times in 14 games, the fact he has still thrown for 3,588 yards, 32 touchdowns and only eight interceptions is amazing.
That being said, they can't hope to beat the likes of the Niners—or even the New York Giants—with such poor pass-blocking. Although it's too late, the Packers would have been better off with a higher draft pick.
They could have taken Chance Warmack from Alabama or even Michigan's Taylor Lewan in the first round to help protect Rodgers in 2013. These two studs could slide for some unknown reason, or the Packers could trade up to get them.
However, in those scenarios, the players wouldn't be as coveted or the team would have to trade other assets to get them.
8. Seattle Seahawks 9-5
This is one of those young teams that could possibly benefit from a higher draft choice, but making the playoffs is actually good for the Seahawks.
They need to see what they have in Russell Wilson in the postseason. He's had a very good rookie campaign (3,099 total yards, 25 touchdowns and only nine interceptions) but producing in the playoffs is what it's all about.
Even though they aren't a Super Bowl team, it helps the Seahawks to see if Wilson is truly the type of player that can lead a championship run.
9. Dallas Cowboys 8-6
The Cowboys are quieting the critics that say they aren't clutch. In the last three weeks, they have pulled out three close victories in near must-win situations.
They will be dangerous if they make the playoffs.
10. Cincinnati Bengals 8-6
Cincinnati can do a lot for the overall development of their team with a win over the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday. Knocking one of their biggest rivals out of playoff contention, and keeping their hopes alive for a division title would be huge.
11. Indianapolis Colts 9-5
The Colts are the biggest overachievers in the NFL this season. This team has gone from a two-win mess in 2011, to a 9-5 surprise on the cusp of a playoff berth in 2012.
As great a story as it is, they would be better off missing the playoffs.
The Colts desperately need to bring in defensive players that fit the 3-4 system. Players like LSU's Barkevious Mingo and Oregon's Dion Jordan could be beastly pass-rushers in that scheme.
Although we're only talking a matter of two to three slots in the draft, that could be the difference between taking one of these players, or having the assets to trade up.
12. Pittsburgh Steelers 7-7
Pride and tradition says the Steelers should be a playoff team, but the product on the field says they would lose in the first round.
With an aging and injury-riddled defensive core, the Steelers need to add studs on that side of the ball. Todd Haley's play-calling can work in Pittsburgh, but it is designed to prosper on a team with a strong running game and defense.
The defense can't hold up its end of the bargain for long. They are already showing cracks in this vein.
Despite their top-rated pass defense and fourth-rated run defense, the Steelers haven't been very stingy of late. In the last four games, they have allowed an average of 25 points and 325 yards of total offense.
That's not Steelers' football.
James Harrison is 34 years old and has missed three games this season. Troy Polamalu is 31 and has missed nine games of action.
This team is better off missing the playoffs to rebuild and replace the aging stars on their defense.
13. New York Giants 8-6
This team seems to be at their best when their backs are against the wall. If that holds true, we should see some special things from the G-Men in the next two weeks.
If they drop one of their final two games, they could go from Super Bowl champion to missing the playoffs.
14. Baltimore Ravens 9-5
Baltimore is in a situation similar to the Packers. They have already clinched a playoff spot, but they clearly aren't a Super Bowl team. They have been contenders too long to hold much value in just reaching the postseason.
Anything less than a Super Bowl is a failure for the Ravens.
Their predicament also resembles that of the Steelers. The team is built on defense, but an aging and injured core of stars makes them a shell of themselves.
Though the situations are similar to the Packers and Steelers, the Ravens are worse off on both accounts. At least the Packers are still winning despite their inability to protect the quarterback. The Steelers haven't exactly hit rock bottom on the defensive side of the ball either.
The Ravens are moving backwards in the standings, and they are in danger of slipping behind the Bengals in the AFC South. Their once vaunted defense has been a joke all season—not just the last three games.
They are ranked 22nd against the pass and 26th against the run. This team could really use an impact player for its defense. Obviously, a higher draft pick would make that more practical.
15. Chicago Bears 8-6
This is a tough situation.
If the Bears don't make the playoffs, then Lovie Smith may be fired. ESPN's Kevin Seifert says:
"It's fair to make Smith's continued employment contingent on a playoff berth. If he makes the playoffs, a firing would be an awfully harsh verdict."
That being said, can the Bears actually make a deep playoff run with this group?
My answer is no.
The offensive line is still not up to par, Mike Tice's play-calling still leaves a lot to be desired, injuries and age on defense are a concern, and the lack of a reliable pass-catching tight end is frustrating.
Even with those imperfections, the Bears are only one or two players away from being a Super Bowl-caliber team.
A veteran offensive tackle, a tight end that can actually catch, and a change at offensive coordinator would do the trick. It's possible the Bears could get all those things without missing the playoffs. But they also have to think about bringing in the eventual replacements for Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs.
With all those things considered, getting the best draft position is the ideal result.
16. Minnesota Vikings 8-6
Riding Adrian Peterson's magical season masks the areas the Vikings need to address to become a complete team. Still, it's fun watching Peterson carry them.
17. New Orleans Saints 6-8
The bounty scandal crushed this team's season. They deserve credit for salvaging at least six wins under these circumstances. This team will rebound in 2013 barring an injury to Drew Brees.
18. St. Louis Rams 6-7-1
There is actually a scenario—albeit unlikely—where the Rams could make the playoffs. They need the Bears, Vikings and two NFC East teams to lose both their remaining games, and the Rams would have to win out.
Yeah, it won't happen, but it's better that they don't make the playoffs anyway.
The team is approaching a very important draft for their future. Armed with the picks they acquired in the RGIII trade, they are in position to grab multiple starters. Missing the playoffs will only make their own pick that much better.
19. Miami Dolphins 6-8
The Fins are under .500, but they had a season they can be proud of. This young defense is impressive, and the running game has been consistent all year.
All in all, Joe Philbin has had a respectable rookie coaching season in Miami.
20. Tampa Bay Buccaneers 6-8
The 41-0 rout at the hands of the Saints on Sunday was rock bottom. The Bucs need help on defense in the worst way. Targeting the best defensive backs and pass-rushers available in the draft and free agency is advisable.
21. Cleveland Browns 5-9
You have to like what the Browns are doing. They are putting players in place to turn this franchise around. I'm still not a fan of taking Trent Richardson at No. 3 overall in the 2012 NFL draft, but there is no doubt he has a bright future.
Still, the Browns have a solid quarterback in Brandon Weeden, and they lucked out with Josh Gordon in the supplemental draft.
22. Carolina Panthers 5-9
Thanks to Cam Newton's adjustments, he is looking like the player that had everyone excited in 2011. Newton hasn't thrown an interception in the last five games. Despite the slow start, he's on pace to finish in the neighborhood of his 2011 totals in passing yards and passing touchdowns.
His interception total will almost certainly drop. He had 17 in 2011, and has only 10 this season with two games remaining. His quarterback rating is also up from 84.5 to 88.9.
Now, the Panthers just need to get him some help on defense. The team is still just 17th in the league against the run.
23. New York Jets 6-8
The Jets are a mess in almost every way. Rex Ryan has lost this group of guys and the Jets' management would be wise to re-evaluate him and the entire roster.
24. San Diego Chargers 5-9
25. Tennessee Titans 5-9
Allowing 30 or more points eight times in 14 games is a formula for failure. That's exactly what the Titans have done this season. Chris Johnson may take some of the blame, but he's had a decent season with over 1,100 yards rushing.
The defense is this team's biggest problem.
26. Buffalo Bills 5-9
Mario Williams has 10.5 sacks, but I contend he hasn't had the impact on the Bills' defense some expected.
This team is still just 15th in pass defense and 24th in overall defense. He's just one man, but it's clear the team still has some holes on that side of the ball.
27. Arizona Cardinals 5-9
It will be a football tragedy if the Cardinals don't find a capable quarterback to get Larry Fitzgerald the ball. Of all the elite receivers in the NFL over the last 12 years, Fitzgerald has probably spent the most years without a viable option to throw to him.
28. Oakland Raiders 4-10
The stars of this team simply aren't winners.
Carson Palmer is soft and may never shake the stigma of being aquitter after bailing on the Cincinnati Bengals. Darren McFadden is as talented as running backs come, but he can't seem to stay healthy. He has missed 23 games in five seasons.
He registered his first sack of the season on Sunday after recording 7.5 in 2011.
This roster needs an overhaul.
29. Philadelphia Eagles 4-10
Playing without pressure for the first time, this team is dangerous. They finish the season with games against the Redskins and Giants.
They can really play spoiler to their rivals, and ultimately have a say in who wins the NFC East. If the Eagles win out, the Cowboys will love them.
30. Detroit Lions 4-10
So much for the Madden Curse. Calvin Johnson has caught 106 passes for 1,667 yards through 14 games.
Unless, of course, you believe the curse affects Matthew Stafford's decision-making, Titus Young's thought process, Dominic Raiola's mouth, Ndamukung Suh's self control and Jim Schwartz's handle on the team.
31. Kansas City Chiefs 2-12
The year has been a rough one for the Chiefs in every way. Putting 2012 behind them as fast as possible is probably the best medicine for what ails them.
32. Jacksonville Jaguars 2-12
The Jaguars franchise needs a jolt. This team needs to make the decision to chase Tim Tebow to breathe life into the organization on the field, in the stands and on national television.
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