It's tough to fathom, but with just one month remaining in the NFL regular season, the stretch run is already upon us. Although there are a few dominant teams that appear to be a cut above the rest, there is so much parity throughout the league that it is difficult to separate some teams from others.
The overall league picture promises to get clearer in the coming weeks, and that starts with Week 14. Very few teams have been officially eliminated from playoff contention, which means that almost every game this week will have something at stake. With that in mind, plenty of teams will have a golden opportunity to prove their worth.
Here is a total breakdown of how the NFL's balance of power figures to look once Week 14 comes and goes.
*All records projected for after Week 14.
32. Houston Texans (2-10)
The Houston Texans have suffered through a miserable two-win season to this point, but their showing against the Pats in Week 13 proved that they still have a great deal of talent, and they'll add a top draft pick to that talent pool this offseason.
So there's your silver lining, if there is one.
Nevertheless, their second loss to the Jaguars on Thursday night—their 11th loss in a row—brings them to rock bottom, and there is nowhere to go but up.
31. Jacksonville Jaguars (4-9)
Most tabbed the Jaguars as the NFL's worst team this season, but they have really come on as of late. Jacksonville defeated the Texans for the second time on Thursday, and have now won three in a row and four of its last five.
The Jaguars are rolling right now, and Gus Bradley undoubtedly has his team moving in the right direction.
30. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-10)
The Buccaneers were one of the hottest teams in football entering Week 13 with a three-game winning streak intact, but they ran into a steamroller known as the Carolina Panthers. Even so, the Bucs have played much better over the past month, and they have an opportunity to close the season strong.
Rookie quarterback Mike Glennon has been a revelation, and he looks like he could be "the guy" moving forward. Glennon and the Buccaneers have a tough matchup this week against a Buffalo Bills team that leads the league in sacks, however. Tampa definitely has a chance, but Glennon won't have the time necessary to make plays down the field.
29. Washington Redskins (3-10)
It isn't necessarily surprising that the Redskins have taken a step back this year after a magical 2012 season, but nobody expected them to be one of the NFL's worst teams. Quarterback Robert Griffin III hasn't bounced back from last season's knee injury as quickly as most hoped, and the defense has been an absolute abomination.
RG3 looked much better this past week against the New York Giants, though, which means he may be rounding into form. Washington has a very tough matchup against the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday, and while it will likely fall just short in its bid to beat the Chiefs, it will manage to keep things close.
28. Minnesota Vikings (3-9-1)
This season hasn't been particularly kind to the Vikings after a playoff appearance last year, but they have firmly established themselves as spoilers in the NFC North over the past couple weeks. They may have to continue their recent run of success without quarterback Christian Ponder, however, as he left the team's Week 13 game with a concussion, according to Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports.
Christian Ponder ruled out with a concussion for the Vikes— Jason La Canfora (@JasonLaCanfora) December 1, 2013
Ponder isn't considered a great NFL quarterback by any means, but he has been a steady presence recently. This team clearly belongs to running back Adrian Peterson, though, which gives Minnesota a chance to win every week. Unfortunately, a tough road test against the Baltimore Ravens will prove to be too much.
27. Atlanta Falcons (4-9)
The Falcons are among the league's most disappointing teams this season, but they showed some flashes of brilliance in a Week 13 overtime victory against the Buffalo Bills. By all rights, the Falcons should have lost the game, but they managed to force a fumble late in regulation as well as in overtime, and they escaped with a win.
Atlanta can still be a dangerous offensive team with quarterback Matt Ryan under center, and the Green Bay Packers will find that out on Sunday. Green Bay simply isn't the same team without Aaron Rodgers at quarterback, and it is now ripe for the picking.
26. Cleveland Browns (4-9)
Cleveland was still very much in the AFC playoff race entering Week 13, but after losing to the Jaguars in heartbreaking fashion, that is no longer the case. The Browns are now playing for draft positioning more than anything, and that pick should get a little better in Week 14 when they lose to the red-hot Patriots.
New England almost lost to the Texans this past week, but it should be refocused, especially at home. The Browns have a fighting chance due to the spectacular play of wide receiver Josh Gordon, but it simply won't be enough.
25. New York Jets (5-8)
The Jets have defied logic for remaining in the AFC playoff race for as long as they have, but everything has started to unravel over the past few weeks. Calling New York's offense anemic would be kind, but rookie quarterback Geno Smith is still expected to start in Week 14, according to Yahoo! Sports.
Smith was replaced by Matt Simms in Week 13 against the Miami Dolphins, but Simms didn't fare much better. The Jets have won five games in spite of their offense, and they'll have to do so against the Oakland Raiders in Week 14. Unfortunately, New York's offense is so bad that Oakland will find a way to win on the road.
24. Oakland Raiders (5-8)
Speaking of the Raiders, they may only be 4-8, but they have performed beyond expectations in many ways. There isn't a ton of star power on the team, but Oakland has managed to hang in there most weeks. It led the Dallas Cowboys for much of the game on Thanksgiving, and even though Oakland fell short in the end, it was a strong showing on the national stage.
Undrafted rookie free agent Matt McGloin has surprised many by thriving in the starting role as of late, and he'll have a chance to score a big road win in Week 14. The Jets are as vulnerable as they come right now, and Oakland's superior team play will reign supreme.
23. Green Bay Packers (5-7-1)
It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure it out, but the Packers simply aren't very good without quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Green Bay has gone through Seneca Wallace, Scott Tolzien and Matt Flynn under center since Rodgers' injury, and none of them has worked out. According to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport, it doesn't seem as though Rodgers is likely to play in Week 14:
That means Packers head coach Mike McCarthy will probably turn to Flynn again. Green Bay absolutely must win on Sunday to remain in the NFC North hunt, but after Atlanta's come-from-behind win over Buffalo in Week 13, the Falcons will have the momentum necessary to knock off the Rodgers-less Packers at Lambeau Field.
22. Buffalo Bills (5-8)
Everything was set up perfectly for the Bills to become players in the AFC wild-card race on Sunday, but they failed to close the deal. Buffalo blew a late lead against the Falcons, fumbled while driving for a game-winning field goal in the fourth quarter and fumbled again while trying to orchestrate a winning drive in overtime. The demoralizing loss dropped the Bills to 4-8, and their playoff aspirations are likely shot.
With that said, Buffalo shouldn't be taken lightly. The Bills lead the league in sacks, and the running back duo of C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson has been dynamic. Because of that, Buffalo should be able to take out the Buccaneers on the road in Week 14.
21. New York Giants (5-8)
The Giants bounced back from a loss to the Cowboys a couple weeks ago by outlasting the Redskins in what was essentially an NFC East eliminator in Week 13. The G-Men still have a tall mountain to climb in terms of making a run at the NFC East crown, but they aren't out of it yet. To become a threat, though, quarterback Eli Manning must play much more consistently.
New York will face another team fighting for its playoff life, the San Diego Chargers, on Sunday. The Giants have dealt with defensive breakdowns at various points over the course of the season, and with how well the Bolts offense has been playing, that will prove fatal for New York.
20. St. Louis Rams (5-8)
Rams head coach Jeff Fisher did a great job with his team last season by helping it progress more quickly than most expected. St. Louis hasn't reached a playoff level this year; however, it has overcome a great deal of adversity. Losing quarterback Sam Bradford for the season could have derailed things, but the Rams have actually played their best football since that time.
The Rams were outclassed by the San Francisco 49ers in Week 13, though, and they have another tough divisional clash on tap in Week 14. The Arizona Cardinals are beatable, but they have been fantastic at home and desperately need this win to keep pace in the NFC wild-card race.
19. Tennessee Titans (5-8)
The Titans have held late leads against the Indianapolis Colts twice over the past three weeks, but they twice allowed the Colts to come back and win. Had Tennessee won those games, it would be vying for the AFC South title. Instead, the Titans are now clinging to slim playoff hopes as they try to regain the No. 6 spot in the conference.
That won't be easy, since the team must face the Denver Broncos on the road in Week 14. The Broncos reestablished their dominance in Week 13, and they'll be heavy favorites. Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick has played well, and running back Chris Johnson is hitting his stride, but that won't be enough for the Titans to prevail.
18. Chicago Bears (6-7)
The Bears have all the talent in the world on the offensive side of the ball, but their defense has been uncharacteristically beatable this season. Also, Chicago has been without quarterback Jay Cutler for the past few weeks. Although backup Josh McCown has done well in his absence, Cutler brings another dimension to the offense. According to Rotoworld via ESPN Chicago, Cutler still hasn't been medically cleared to play.
Jay Cutler doesn't have medical clearance yet http://t.co/d2QR4yB9yf— Rotoworld Football (@Rotoworld_FB) December 3, 2013
That means Chicago will likely turn to McCown once again in Week 14. The Bears will host the Cowboys on Monday night in a game that figures to be huge for both teams. Dallas has shaken the choke-artist label over the past couple weeks, so it should be able to come through against a compromised Bears team on the road.
17. Miami Dolphins (6-7)
Despite all of the off-field issues the Dolphins have dealt with this season, they are in the thick of the AFC playoff race. Miami is tied with the Baltimore Ravens for the final wild-card spot, and it has a real chance to qualify for the postseason. To do that, though, it must vanquish a fellow wild-card competitor in the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Dolphins are a tough team to figure out, because they have played well against a number of top teams—including the Indianapolis Colts, Cincinnati Bengals and Carolina Panthers—but they're prone to bad outings as well. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill has had an up-and-down season, and he'll be more down than up against the Steelers' revitalized defense.
16. Pittsburgh Steelers (6-7)
Pittsburgh's playoff hopes definitely suffered a blow on Thanksgiving night when it lost to the Ravens by just two points, but the Steelers aren't out of it by any means. They are just a game out of the No. 6 spot, and with the Ravens facing a tough schedule down the stretch, there is still time for Pittsburgh to get back in it.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has been very good as of late, and even though Miami's defense is strong against the pass, Big Ben will be the biggest key in this game. The Steelers have too much talent to simply fade away, which means they will figure out a way to defeat the Dolphins at Heinz Field and make the AFC wild-card race even more interesting than it already is.
15. San Diego Chargers (6-7)
The Chargers missed out on a huge chance to make a statement in Week 13 when they lost to the Bengals, but it can still be argued that San Diego is the best team in the AFC wild-card mix. San Diego has beaten the likes of the Colts and the Chiefs, and the team took the Broncos to the brink as well. Quarterback Philip Rivers has enjoyed a renaissance season, which means the Bolts have an opportunity to ascend to the No. 6 spot in the AFC.
San Diego will have to overcome a Giants team that has been playing much better since an 0-6 start, but the Chargers' consistency should come in handy. Provided the Chargers can establish the run with Ryan Mathews and Danny Woodhead, Rivers will carve up New York's suspect secondary.
14. Philadelphia Eagles (7-6)
The Eagles have been a different team since Nick Foles took over as the starting quarterback, and they now look like a team that could potentially do some damage in January. Philly is currently tied with the Cowboys for the NFC East lead, but Dallas holds the tiebreaker by virtue of its win over the Eagles earlier in the season.
This week will present a true test for Philadelphia when it hosts the Detroit Lions. The Lions are capable of being a dominant team as they proved against the Packers on Thanksgiving, but those types of performances are far too infrequent. Even so, the Eagles have really struggled to defend the pass this season, so they'll have an extremely difficult time slowing down the combination of Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson.
13. Baltimore Ravens (7-6)
The 2013 season got off to an awful start for the defending Super Bowl champion Ravens as they were embarrassed by Peyton Manning and the Broncos, but Baltimore seems to be rounding into form at the right time. There are still some issues such as quarterback Joe Flacco's erratic play and running back Ray Rice's inability to get going, but the Ravens have a lot of good pieces as well.
Baltimore will host a surging Vikings team this week that promises to pose a major challenge; however, the Ravens are more talented overall. The Ravens have the No. 6 rushing defense and have allowed a league-low two rushing touchdowns this season, which means they should be able to neutralize Peterson to some degree and win the game.
12. Arizona Cardinals (8-5)
Arizona has a tough climb ahead of it in terms of qualifying for the playoffs, but it's impossible to not be impressed by the job that head coach Bruce Arians has done. Even with a shaky quarterback in Carson Palmer and a lackluster running game, he has somehow managed to lead the Cardinals to a 7-5 record, which is just one game out of a wild-card berth.
Palmer's play has been much better as of late after throwing a slew of interceptions earlier in the year, and that has been the key to the Cards' success. Arizona has a tricky matchup against the Rams on tap for Week 14, but the Cardinals are 5-1 at home on the year, and their defense should be able to handle Kellen Clemens and the St. Louis offense.
11. Dallas Cowboys (8-5)
The Cowboys have continued the tradition of being one of the NFL's most schizophrenic teams, but as is the case every season, it's tough not to be enamored by their talent. The defense has definitely been an issue due largely to the multitude of injuries it has had to deal with; however, the offense has been fantastic, led by Tony Romo, Dez Bryant and Jason Witten.
One thing that makes this year's Cowboys team different is the fact that it has had success running the ball. DeMarco Murray has been very good when healthy. Winning at Soldier Field against the Bears won't be easy by any means, but Dallas is finally built to win big games down the stretch.
10. Detroit Lions (8-5)
Like the Cowboys, the Lions have all the talent in the world, and it can be argued that they are even better equipped to make some noise in the NFC. Not only do they boast a high-powered offense led by Stafford, Megatron and Reggie Bush, but the defensive tackle tandem of Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley gives them one of the best defensive fronts in the entire league.
Detroit tore up the Packers on Thanksgiving, and it now has a ton of momentum moving forward. The Lions will have to deal with an explosive Eagles offense on the road, but Foles has yet to face a team that can apply as much pressure as Detroit. With that in mind, the Lions will provide Philadelphia with a reality check in Week 14.
9. Indianapolis Colts (8-5)
To say the Colts have fallen off in recent weeks would be a huge understatement, but there is still a lot to like about Indianapolis. The Colts have managed to fight off the Titans in two of the past three weeks despite not playing their best football, and they now hold a nearly insurmountable lead in the AFC South. That doesn't necessarily mean they can afford to rest on their laurels, but they now have some time to figure things out.
The Colts arguably have the most impressive resume in the league with wins over the Broncos, Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers. They also have a rising star at quarterback in Andrew Luck and a blossoming running game behind Donald Brown. Even so, the Colts won't be able to build upon their Week 13 win because they'll have to face a tough Bengals team on the road on Sunday.
8. Cincinnati Bengals (9-4)
Like the Colts, the Bengals are a team that could potentially do some damage in the AFC come playoff time, but their inconsistency is a bit unsettling. Cincinnati did manage to stifle the Patriots earlier in the season, though, and it also scored an impressive road win over the Lions. The Bengals are arguably the closest thing the AFC has to a defense-led team like the Seahawks, 49ers or Panthers this season.
Cincinnati's defense is eighth against both the run and the pass, it has a good two-headed monster at running back with Gio Bernard and BenJarvus Green-Ellis, and it has one of the league's best receivers in A.J. Green. Quarterback Andy Dalton is a concern, but the Bengals will play well enough as a team to beat the Colts.
7. Kansas City Chiefs (10-3)
Some might be a bit concerned about the Chiefs as they have lost three straight after opening the season 9-0, but Kansas City is still a very good team. The Chiefs have faced the Broncos twice as well as the Chargers over the past three weeks, and none of those is an easy game. Even so, KC kept it close in both games against Denver, and it lost to the Bolts by just three—it isn't as if the Chiefs have looked awful in defeat.
In fact, it can be argued that there are some positives to take away from the past few games. Quarterback Alex Smith has been given more freedom, and he has thrived. With the Chiefs facing a poor Redskins defense in Week 14, look for Smith to have another great game, but this time in a winning effort.
6. San Francisco 49ers (9-4)
Although the 49ers have definitely looked more human this season than last, they are starting to resemble Super Bowl contenders once again. The defense has been great all season long, but they have had some challenging times offensively. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick is coming around, though, and he will be aided by wide receiver Michael Crabtree, who had two catches for 68 yards in his return from a torn Achilles on Sunday:
Crabtree: "It means a lot just to be out there and help contribute to the win." #49ers— San Francisco 49ers (@49ers) December 2, 2013
Crabtree's return means a lot to the Niners, because Kaepernick now has a full allotment of weapons that includes Crabtree, Vernon Davis and Anquan Boldin. Also, Frank Gore and the running game should get a boost from defenses respecting the 49ers' passing game more. The one-loss Seahawks will provide San Francisco with a major litmus test in Week 14, but there is no doubt the Niners are capable of beating Seattle at home.
5. Carolina Panthers (9-4)
They may not be as heralded as the Seahawks and 49ers, but the Panthers are very much built from the same mold. Their defense has been dominant, and they rank sixth against the pass and second against the run. Also, they have a fantastic dual-threat quarterback in the form of Cam Newton, who has really come of age this season. Carolina is the hottest team in the league right now with eight straight wins under its belt, but it will face its biggest challenge of the year on Sunday.
The Panthers will travel to New Orleans to take on the Saints in a prime-time affair. They are currently tied atop the NFC South, so the winner will take sole possession of the lead. The Panthers are built to beat a team like the Saints, but the fact that the game is being contested in the Superdome gives New Orleans the advantage.
4. New Orleans Saints (10-3)
The Saints had a huge opportunity to make a statement in Week 13 when they faced the Seattle Seahawks on the road on Monday Night Football, but it's safe to say they didn't rise to the occasion. New Orleans was destroyed by a score of 34-7, and tight end Jimmy Graham certainly wasn't happy about the team's performance, according to NewOrleansSaints.com:
Everything went wrong. That’s the problem, especially on the road. We really felt like we were prepared tonight. That first quarter, you can’t do that against a team like that, you just can’t do it. All the aftermath after that, that’s what happens when you do that. Not much went right. You can’t point at one thing or two or three or four. The team played very, very poorly tonight, and we have to learn from that, because all these count. These are huge games coming up. All of them are important.
Unfortunately for the Saints, things don't get much easier this week against the Panthers. New Orleans can't afford another terrible effort or else it could cost it the NFC South. The Saints are a resilient bunch, though, and quarterback Drew Brees simply won't allow his team to flounder again.
3. New England Patriots (10-3)
New England's struggles in Week 13 proved that just about anything can happen in the NFL. The Patriots were riding high after erasing a 24-point deficit in Week 12 to beat the Broncos; however, they very nearly followed that up with a loss to the Texans. The Pats woke up in the second half, though, as quarterback Tom Brady had one of his best passing performances of the season.
The Patriots look to have an easy matchup against the Browns this week on paper, but Bill Belichick's squad won't take Cleveland lightly after a close call last week. Despite all of the injuries the Pats have dealt with this season, they have established themselves as Super Bowl contenders, and they won't falter in Week 14.
2. Seattle Seahawks (11-2)
Who will be the NFL's best team after Week 14?
Most seem to believe that the Seahawks are the NFL's best team after their demolition of the Saints in Week 13. While that may be true, Seattle will find itself in a slugfest in Week 14. The Seahawks will travel to San Francisco to take on the 49ers, and while they thoroughly outclassed the Niners earlier in the season, that game took place in Seattle. Also, the 49ers are starting to play their best football of the season.
Seattle has a chance to win anytime and anywhere thanks to its well-rounded roster. The defense is as good as ever, and the offense is really humming now with quarterback Russell Wilson making his case for the MVP award. San Francisco will be eager to prove that the Seahawks shouldn't be crowned quite yet, though, and that should make things interesting in the NFC West over the season's final few weeks.
1. Denver Broncos (11-2)
Denver's 24-point blown lead against the Pats a couple weeks ago was definitely concerning, but things seemed to get even worse when it fell behind the Chiefs 21-7 in Week 13. The Broncos showed a great deal of resiliency by coming back behind a 400-yard performance by Manning, though. In the process, Denver proved that it is capable of beating a quality team in a hostile environment, so it is deserving of the No. 1 spot.
After a very difficult stretch of games, the Broncos should get a bit of a respite against the Titans in Week 14. Tennessee isn't a pushover by any means, but it doesn't have the firepower necessary to hang with Denver when it is banging on all cylinders. Eric Decker was Manning's go-to guy in Week 13, but Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker, Knowshon Moreno or any number of players could explode at the drop of a dime. That type of offensive versatility is what makes Denver the premier team in the league—especially if Seattle fails to beat San Francisco in Week 14.
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