Nobody was sure what to expect from Peyton Manning in his return to the NFL after missing an entire season due to neck problems. The legendary QB responded with an MVP-level season that lands his new team, the Denver Broncos, atop the Week 17 power rankings.
The Broncos lead a deep pack of contenders, which should make for an exciting postseason. There's still one week left in the regular season, though. Playoff berths are up for grabs and prime seeding is still available, meaning it should be an interesting finale weekend.
With that in mind, let's take a glance at where each team stands as they all prepare for Week 17, including a deeper dive into three teams that have really stepped up down the stretch.
1. Denver Broncos (12-3)
It took some time for Manning to find his groove in Denver, which was expected. Since the middle of October, though, the Broncos have taken off, winning 10 straight games, and they'll likely make in 11 against the Chiefs on Sunday.
The success isn't purely due to Manning and the passing game, though. Knowshon Moreno has stepped in admirably for Willis McGahee, and the Broncos defense has shown the ability to shut down the run and the pass.
Securing a bye is key. It would give Manning a chance to rest before the playoffs and give the team plenty of time to prepare for an encounter with the New England Patriots, if everything plays out as expected. It's safe to say that the Manning experiment has been a success.
2. Atlanta Falcons (13-2)
The Falcons have bounced back nicely with two straight wins after a surprising loss to the Panthers, reestablishing themselves as the team to beat in the NFC.
3. Green Bay Packers (11-4)
Expectations are lower for the Packers this season, at least on a national scale, and that lack of attention should help them as they prepare for the postseason. They got bounced quickly last year amidst all the hype of a tremendous regular season.
4. New England Patriots (11-4)
Even though the Patriots' secondary continues to be a concern (29th in passing yards allowed), it won't matter if Tom Brady and Co. are operating at peak efficiency.
5. Seattle Seahawks (10-5)
The Seahawks made a huge statement on Sunday night. They didn't just beat the 49ers; they crushed them. If anybody didn't view them as a serious threat before that impressive showing, it's hard to deny it any longer.
Russell Wilson is growing with each passing week. He's making much better reads than earlier in the season, and the offensive output shows it. Having a reliable back like Marshawn Lynch to lean on certainly helps the cause.
When you add in the league's fifth-ranked pass defense, which will be a key element in the playoffs, it's time to put the Seahawks in the Super Bowl conversation. They aren't the favorite, but the discussion should include them.
6. Houston Texans (12-3)
Houston slides down the rankings after its second loss in three weeks. The team's struggles on defense must be rectified quickly if the the Texans are going to make a playoff run.
7. San Francisco 49ers (10-4-1)
The season finale will be key for the 49ers. After getting crushed by the Seahawks, they must bounce right back against the Cardinals to build up some positive vibes.
8. Washington Redskins (9-6)
A bye week can do wonders for a team, as the Redskins have illustrated. They've racked up six straight wins since their week off and are now one win away from the NFC East crown.
9. Baltimore Ravens (10-5)
The Ravens got back on track by beating the Giants to end a three-game skid. On a positive note, the difficult schedule down the stretch should help them in the playoffs.
10. Indianapolis Colts (10-5)
Yes, the Colts have taken advantage of an easy schedule to earn their spot in the playoffs. But they are going to be far from an easy out with Andrew Luck leading the way.
11. Minnesota Vikings (9-6)
Just when it looked like the Vikings were on the verge of fading out of the playoff race, they have come up with three straight wins to stay alive. Two of those wins came against the Bears and Texans, so it's not a fluke.
The main reason is obvious: Adrian Peterson.
The explosive back has been tearing defenses to shreds over the past couple months, carrying an otherwise subpar Vikings offense on his back. That's why he deserves plenty of MVP attention.
Peterson will be expected to carry the load once again on Sunday against the Packers. The Vikings aren't built to win a shootout, so it's up to him to control the pace on the ground to give his team a chance to punch its postseason ticket.
12. Cincinnati Bengals (9-6)
Credit to the Bengals for rising to the occasion against the Steelers. Cincinnati is one of the most balanced teams in the league and has been getting better as the season wears on.
13. Chicago Bears (9-6)
While the Bears are still alive in the postseason chase, they are on the outside looking in after a recent stretch of five losses in six games. That just can't happen at this point in the season.
14. Dallas Cowboys (8-7)
It's hard to trust the Cowboys to show up in a big spot after letting another winnable game slip through their hands on Sunday. That's not the type of reputation a team wants.
15. New York Giants (8-7)
The Giants have elevated their play in the clutch over the past few seasons, but they haven't been able to find that magic in 2012. They need a miracle now.
16. Carolina Panthers (6-9)
Carolina was eliminated from playoff contention a while ago, but it has made some nice strides in recent weeks. Cam Newton has been particularly impressive, giving fans hope for next season.
17. New Orleans Saints (7-8)
Due to all the off-field distractions, the Saints' down year shouldn't come as a major surprise. They should bounce back in a major way next fall.
18. Miami Dolphins (7-8)
The Dolphins are still a ways off from seriously challenging the Patriots in the AFC East, but they have an opportunity to assert themselves as a clear No. 2 in the division moving forward.
19. San Diego Chargers (6-9)
Philip Rivers wasn't able to replicate his past success, and Ryan Mathews couldn't stay healthy. Without those two offensive stars producing, the Chargers aren't good enough to compete, and it showed.
20. Pittsburgh Steelers (7-8)
Injuries happen to every team, but the Steelers dealt with a lot of key ones on offense, and it really held them back. It's clear what they must target in the draft, though: a play-making RB.
21. St. Louis Rams (7-7-1)
The Rams have won four of their last five, including a marquee victory over the 49ers. But they still have to become more consistent to make a serious charge toward the playoffs.
22. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-9)
Josh Freeman looked like one of the league's best young quarterbacks early in the season, but he struggled mightily down the stretch. The Bucs have followed suit, showing his importance.
23. New York Jets (6-9)
It should be crystal clear to the front office by now: The Jets must find a new quarterback before next season if they have any plans on competing for a playoff spot in the near future.
24. Cleveland Browns (5-10)
While the record might not seem like much, the Browns did make some serious progress this season. Expect the results to better reflect that when the 2013 season gets underway.
25. Arizona Cardinals (5-10)
After letting a 4-0 start slip away, the Cardinals enter the offseason with a lot of question marks. The main one is this: Who is going to get Larry Fitzgerald the ball more regularly?
26. Detroit Lions (4-11)
Detroit's passing game is elite, with Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson leading the aerial attack. Everything else needs work, however, and that's why the Lions struggled this year.
27. Philadelphia Eagles (4-11)
Since the Eagles failed to live up to the hype for the second straight season, some changes will be needed in the offseason to get the team back on track. Philadelphia has too much talent to win just four games.
28. Tennessee Titans (5-10)
Normally, there's always one area for each team that you can point to to illustrate success. It's tough to find such an area for Tennessee, though, who had a lackluster season across the board.
29. Buffalo Bills (5-10)
Everything set up perfectly for the Bills. They spent money to upgrade the defense, had playmakers on offense and were handed an easy schedule. However, the quarterbacking and coaching weren't good enough to capitalize.
30. Oakland Raiders (4-11)
The Raiders offense would have some real upside if Darren McFadden could stay healthy for an entire season. It hasn't happened yet, however, earning him the dreaded "injury-prone" label.
31. Jacksonville Jaguars (2-13)
Jacksonville put up a fight against the Patriots, losing by a single touchdown. That deserves some praise, because the Jags could have easily mailed the game in. They still have plenty of work to do, though.
32. Kansas City Chiefs (2-13)
It was a season to forget for the Chiefs. They let things get out of control early, and things simply snowballed from there. Like so many other struggling teams, they need a franchise QB.