The NFL playoffs are on the horizon with just a month left in regular season, but teams have to get through four more grueling weeks as winter sets in across the country.
San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh recently shared his thoughts on football in December, via Cam Inman of the Bay Area News Group:
Jim Harbaugh on December football: "It's only for the tough. A lot can play in April or May in OTAs & minicamp; a lot participate in August"— Cam Inman (@CamInman) November 29, 2013
Only one team has claimed a playoff berth so far, but more teams are on track to clinch postseason spots this weekend. Here's an updated look at the power structure of the entire league heading into the Week 14 action.
1. Seattle Seahawks (11-1)
The Seahawks made a major statement Monday night with a dominating 34-7 effort over the visiting New Orleans Saints, giving them the edge as the NFL's top team after 13 weeks of action. Quarterback Russell Wilson just continues to win, and the victory makes him a perfect 14-0 at home as a starter in the NFL.
Russell Wilson is now 14-0 at home as the Seahawks starting QB. The 12th man helps...— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) December 3, 2013
Wilson outdueled Drew Brees with 22-of-30 passing for 310 yards and three touchdowns and rushed for a game-high 47 yards on eight carries. But don't forget about the defense, which held Brees and the Saints to their lowest point total of the season, well off their average of 26.
With the victory, Seattle became the first NFL team in 2013 to claim a playoff spot. The Seahawks can secure the NFC West on Sunday by beating the San Francisco 49ers at Candlestick Park in what's sure to be a fierce battle of division foes. The 49ers are two-time reigning NFC West champs, but Pete Carroll's crew has overtaken Harbaugh's group as the top dog in the division and all of football.
2. Denver Broncos (10-2)
The Kansas City Chiefs started off Sunday's contest against the Broncos with all the momentum, but Peyton Manning and the Broncos left Arrowhead Stadium with a 35-28 victory. While it wasn't surprising to see Manning throw for 403 yards and five touchdowns, it was stunning to see Eric Decker haul in four scores as part of his eight-catch, 174-yard performance.
This Denver offense looks unstoppable at times, as it was able to quickly erase an early 21-7 Kansas City lead and turn it into a 14-point advantage during the big division win. The defense might be cause for concern after giving up a combined 62 points the past two weeks, but with Manning directing the offense, it hasn't mattered much.
Head coach John Fox rejoined the Broncos on Monday, four weeks after undergoing heart surgery. His return is great for the organization, and he's back just in time to be on the sidelines for Denver's postseason run. The Broncos can clinch a playoff spot with a victory at home against the Tennessee Titans on Sunday and remain the favorites to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl.
3. Carolina Panthers (9-3)
How about "Riverboat" Ron Rivera and the Panthers?
The head coach has become a fan favorite since turning around the team by bringing a defensive mentality and making aggressive decisions that have paid off. Panthers fan Jim Kennedy created this image of Rivera in November, and it's since been seen on posters around Bank of America Stadium.
Cam Newton is still the face of the franchise, but it's the defense that's responsible for the team's current eight-game winning streak. Carolina leads the NFL in giving up just 13.1 points per game and ranks No. 2 in yards allowed per contest (289.8), with Defensive Player of the Year candidate Luke Kuechly in the middle of it all.
The Panthers are tied with New Orleans atop the NFC South, and the two teams will face off on Sunday Night Football in the Big Easy.
4. New England Patriots (9-3)
The Patriots have reeled off back-to-back 34-31 victories the past two weeks, albeit against different competition. A week after beating the Broncos at home, Tom Brady and Co. went down to the wire against Case Keenum and the Houston Texans.
Still, the Patriots earned the victory and should clinch the AFC East with a win Sunday against the sputtering Cleveland Browns.
Brady had a slow start to the year but has put up monster numbers in the past four contests, averaging 360.8 passing yards per game with 10 touchdowns and two interceptions in that span. The offense has rounded into form with the addition of tight end Rob Gronkowski, who has now scored a touchdown in four straight contests.
5. New Orleans Saints (9-3)
Granted, the Saints played a good defense in Seattle on Monday night, but the 34-7 loss represented a rock bottom of sorts for the team. Jeff Duncan of The Times-Picayune shared some perspective on the poor offensive output by the Saints against the Seahawks:
The Saints' 188 yards of total offense is a low in the Sean Payton-Drew Brees era.— Jeff Duncan (@JeffDuncan_) December 3, 2013
Still, there are few more teams more well-rounded than New Orleans, which now ranks seventh in scoring offense (26 points per game) and sixth in scoring defense (19.2 points allowed per game). The offense has hit a lull with just 24 points the past two contests, but don't count on the group to stay down for long.
New Orleans will need a top-notch effort if it wants to beat the Panthers and their stingy defense on Sunday.
6. Kansas City Chiefs (9-3)
After going on a nine-game winning streak to start the year, the Chiefs have now lost three in a row. Two of the three losses have come against the Broncos, giving Denver a one-game lead in an AFC West that will likely come down to the wire.
But Kansas City will have a chance to keep the pressure on Denver with upcoming contests against the Washington Redskins and Oakland Raiders in the next two weeks. The Chiefs defense remains elite and ranks fourth in scoring (17.8 points allowed per game), and the offense will also be dangerous as long as Jamaal Charles is in the backfield.
7. San Francisco 49ers (8-4)
The San Francisco offense received a boost with Michael Crabtree's return from offseason Achilles surgery in Sunday's 23-13 win over the St. Louis Rams but suffered a scare when starting left tackle Joe Staley went down with a knee injury. With talented left guard Mike Iupati also missing the past two games with a knee injury, the offensive line situation will be important to monitor for the 49ers.
Quarterback Colin Kaepernick played well with his full arsenal of receivers, going 19-of-28 for a touchdown and 275 yards, his highest total since he posted 412 in the season opener against the Green Bay Packers. While the injuries mounting in the trenches are concerning, the offense should grow with Crabtree joining Anquan Boldin, Vernon Davis and Mario Manningham.
8. Cincinnati Bengals (8-4)
Andy Dalton has been limited to just 283 passing yards combined in the past two weeks, but that hasn't stopped the Bengals from winning both contests to take a two-game lead in the AFC North ahead of the second-place Baltimore Ravens.
Cincinnati has a stout defense, which ranks fifth in points allowed per game (18), led by linebacker Vontaze Burfict. The Bengals have a big matchup looming Sunday against the Indianapolis Colts in a tilt that features two teams jockeying for playoff position in the AFC.
9. Philadelphia Eagles (7-5)
Will Nick Foles ever throw an interception?
The second-year quarterback has thrown for 1,791 yards with 19 touchdowns and no interceptions while guiding the Eagles to a 6-1 record since taking over for Michael Vick earlier this year. The Eagles are riding a four-game winning streak, and the defense has clamped down by giving up 17.5 points per game in that span.
You can count on the offense to be clicking, but the key for this team is the defense holding up on its side of the ball.
10. Indianapolis Colts (8-4)
The Colts have shown flashes of brilliance but have been largely hit or miss this year. Last week, they claimed a 22-14 victory over the Tennessee Titans, and they enter Sunday's contest against the Bengals with a chance, coupled with a Titans loss, to win the AFC South.
Trent Richardson's demotion raises some eyebrows, but he has said all the right things in support of coach Chuck Pagano and new starter Donald Brown. For this team, the potential is there, but it's a matter of showing up on a consistent basis.
11. Detroit Lions (7-5)
The Lions (27.2 points per game) have one of the league's most powerful offenses, led by the trio of quarterback Matthew Stafford (3,825 passing yards, 27 TDs, 14 INTs), wide receiver Calvin Johnson (72 catches, 1,299 yards, 12 TDs) and running back Reggie Bush (1,302 yards from scrimmage, five TDs).
Sunday's tilt against the Eagles should provide some major offensive fireworks in a matchup of two NFC teams trying to prove they belong among the league's elite. The Detroit defense also flexed its muscle with a seven-sack effort in last week's 40-10 drubbing of the Green Bay Packers.
12. Dallas Cowboys (7-5)
Dallas has squeaked by with close victories over the New York Giants and the Oakland Raiders the past two weeks to jump into a first-place tie with Philadelphia in the NFC East.
Lance Dunbar was growing into a solid second tailback alongside DeMarco Murray, but he suffered a season-ending knee injury on Sunday against the Raiders. Ed Werder of ESPN relayed the severity of the injury via Twitter:
Source: Cowboys fear RB Lance Dunbar will require season-ending knee surgery based on preliminary evaluation of MRI. Recovery time: 3 months— Ed Werder (@Edwerderespn) November 29, 2013
Now the team is expected to give Phillip Tanner and Joseph Randle a long look to complement Murray in a Cowboys offense that ranks third in points per game (27.4).
13. Arizona Cardinals (7-5)
First-year coach Bruce Arians has brought a winning attitude to the desert. But last week's 24-21 loss to the Eagles means the Cardinals are currently on the outside of the playoff picture looking in.
The defense is the strength of the team and ranks eighth, giving up an average of 20.6 points per game, but the offense is evolving with the development of wideout Michael Floyd, who gives the team a solid No. 2 opposite star Larry Fitzgerald.
Arizona faces two must-win games against St. Louis Rams and Tennessee Titans before finishing off the year with tough division contests against Seattle and San Francisco.
14. Chicago Bears (6-6)
In six games of action this year, backup Josh McCown has thrown for 1,461 yards with nine touchdowns, one interception and a 65.2 completion percentage. But he only has a 2-3 record as starter this year, including last week's 23-20 loss to the Minnesota Vikings in overtime, a contest in which Alshon Jeffery set the franchise single-game record with 249 yards receiving.
15. Baltimore Ravens (6-6)
The defending Super Bowl champs have won three of their past four following the controversy-filled 22-20 victory against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Not even Mike Tomlin stepping on the field could keep the Ravens from making a push for the playoffs.
Baltimore has emerged as the No. 6 seed in the AFC following a week in which six 5-6 teams were shouldering for position. This Sunday, the Vikings are coming to Baltimore for a game the Ravens should win, pushing their record over .500 for the first time since being 3-2.
16. Miami Dolphins (6-6)
The Dolphins are also in the thick of the AFC playoff hunt after Sunday's 23-3 win against the New York Jets.
Ryan Tannehill has strung together consecutive 300-yard passing games for the first time all year, and the defense ranks ninth in points allowed per game (20.7). Traveling to Pittsburgh on Sunday will be no easy task for the second-year signal-caller, but Miami is in must-win mode the rest of the year.
17. Green Bay Packers (5-6-1)
Just like NFC rival Chicago, Green Bay is awaiting the return of its starting quarterback, Aaron Rodgers. Per Ian Rapoport of NFL.com, the Packers are mulling the idea of keeping Rodgers on the sideline for the rest of the year as he rehabs from a collarbone injury.
For #Packers, if Rodgers can’t go this week & they have no chance at the playoffs, source said it’s possible Rodgers is shut down for 2013— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) December 1, 2013
It looks like the team's best chance is to win the NFC North, which will be hard to do without Rodgers. The Packers have gone 0-4-1 since he went out against the Bears in Week 9 and will be playing with high stakes when they face the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday.
18. Pittsburgh Steelers (5-7)
Tomlin's actions on the sidelines stole the headlines, but Sunday's 22-20 loss to the Ravens put a major damper on a late-season turnaround for the Steelers.
Pittsburgh's recent defeat put an end to a three-game winning streak, and the team is slated to host the Dolphins in an AFC clash with major playoff implications. Ultimately, the team's 0-4 start has proved to be too big of a deficit to overcome.
19. Tennessee Titans (5-7)
The Titans have lost three of their last four with Ryan Fitzpatrick as starting quarterback. The improvement of receiver Justin Hunter and the consistency of Kendall Wright have been encouraging for the team, but it hasn't found a way to win close games lately.
Up next is a road contest against the Broncos in Denver, which could mark the premature end to the season for the Titans.
20. New York Giants (5-7)
Big Blue sneaked into the playoffs with a 9-7 record in 2011 before winning the Super Bowl, and that's the longshot goal for this year.
The Giants kept their faint playoff hopes alive by beating the Washington Redskins 24-17 on Sunday and still have a chance to win the NFC East, trailing the Cowboys and Eagles by two games with four weeks of action left.
21. San Diego Chargers (5-7)
The passing game may be be developing into a potentially dangerous attack with the emergence of receiver Keenan Allen and tight end Ladarius Green, but San Diego has lost four of its last five.
In the latest defeat, a 17-10 loss to the Bengals, San Diego was hurt by three turnovers, uncharacteristic for a team that had just 13 entering the contest. The Chargers were one of the six teams in last week's 5-6 logjam in the AFC, but they now have slim chances of making the playoffs.
22. St. Louis Rams (5-7)
The Rams had momentum heading into last week's contest against the San Francisco 49ers, but the 23-13 loss set them back in a big way. The running back duo of Zac Stacy and Benny Cunningham has enabled this team to stay competitive with backup quarterback Kellen Clemens under center the past five weeks.
But St. Louis is three games out of a playoff spot with the Seahawks and 49ers running away atop the NFC West.
23. Buffalo Bills (4-8)
The Bills played an entertaining contest in front of energized fans in Toronto last week but lost 34-31 in overtime.
Rookie E.J. Manuel has returned to the starting lineup and added a spark to the team the past three contests, leading it to a 37-14 victory over the New York Jets in Week 11. Another bright spot is the fact that the defense leads the league with 43 sacks, but the team has virtually no shot of making it to the postseason.
24. New York Jets (5-7)
The Jets are stuck on offense and have just six points in the last eight quarters. The combination of Geno Smith and Matt Simms at quarterback has yielded just 309 yards of passing offense during the current three-game win streak, and it doesn't look like it's going to get better anytime soon.
25. Oakland Raiders (4-8)
Matt McGloin's honeymoon is over after his captivating win against the Houston Texans in his Week 11 NFL debut. According to Steve Corkran of the Bay Area News Group, coach Dennis Allen is sticking with McGloin over a healthy Terrelle Pryor for now.
Coach Dennis Allen said he is inclined to stick with Matt McGloin at quarterback for now, without signing off on McGloin for final 4 games.— Steve Corkran (@CorkOnTheNFL) November 29, 2013
The Raiders have lost to the Titans and Cowboys in consecutive weeks and are headed to MetLife Stadium for Sunday's contest against the Jets.
26. Minnesota Vikings (3-8-1)
Kicker Blair Walsh got to celebrate victory twice in last week's 23-20 overtime thriller against the Bears. First, he made a 39-yarder that was wiped out by a penalty. Then, his 34-yarder sealed the victory a week after his team tied the Packers in overtime.
Minnesota returned to the win column for the first time since Week 10, with Adrian Peterson rushing for 211 yards to bring his NFL-leading total to 1,208.
27. Cleveland Browns (4-8)
The Browns have lost six of seven, with last week's deflating 32-28 loss serving as the latest defeat. Cleveland now must go on the road to face the New England Patriots in what could be a blowout game.
The team's most compelling storyline has been the production of receiver Josh Gordon, who became the first receiver in NFL history to post back-to-back 200-yard receiving efforts following his big games in Week 11 (14 catches, 237 yards, one TD) and Week 12 (10 catches, 261 yards, two TDs).
28. Atlanta Falcons (3-9)
The Falcons secured their first win since Week 7 with Sunday's 34-31 overtime victory against the Bills in Toronto.
Receiver Roddy White finally broke out with a season-high 143 yards, but it's too late for the Falcons to make any impact on the playoffs this season.
29. Jacksonville Jaguars (3-9)
The Jaguars have won three of four after an 0-8 start to the season and could run their winning streak to three games with a victory over the Houston Texans on Sunday. These two teams met in Week 11, and Jacksonville claimed a 13-6 victory thanks to the defense's best effort of the year.
30. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-9)
After going 0-8 to start the year and suffering through locker-room controversy, the Bucs have gone 3-1 in the past month. But Tampa Bay was outclassed in last week's 27-6 loss to NFC South powerhouse Carolina with rookie Mike Glennon (14-of-21, 180 yards, one interception) under center.
Glennon has brought some stability to the position since Josh Freeman was released, though, totaling 1,962 yards on 62.8 percent passing with 13 touchdowns and five picks in nine contests. Still, Tampa Bay ranks 30th in points scored (18.1 per game), which doesn't help the defense that ranks 17th, allowing 23.8 points per game.
31. Washington Redskins (3-9)
Things are unraveling in the nation's capital, with the Redskins losing four straight and dropping out of playoff contention in the last month. Quarterback Robert Griffin III broke out with a season-high 88 rushing yards in Sunday's 24-17 loss to the New York Giants, but he is still seeking his first touchdown of the year on the ground.
It's not just the inconsistent offense that's hurting the Redskins, as the defense ranks 31st in points allowed per game (30.2) and has been the main reason for the team's downfall.
32. Houston Texans (2-10)
The Texans showed a lot of fight in Sunday's 34-31 loss to the New England Patriots behind rookie quarterback Case Keenum, but they ultimately fell to their 10th straight defeat. It also marked the sixth straight loss in a one-possession game, a situation in which Houston excelled last year, per James Palmer of CSN Houston:
"When there is a play to be made we're not making it." - Gary Kubiak on close games. 5-0 in one score games last season. #Texans— James Palmer (@JPalmerCSN) December 3, 2013
Brian T. Smith of the Houston Chronicle said it's a foregone conclusion that coach Gary Kubiak and his staff will be fired in the near future. The Texans will try to snap their losing streak this weekend when they travel to Jacksonville to face the Jaguars.