Everything works in tiers—even when we don't realize it. That concept even applies to the pecking order among NFL teams on a week-to-week basis. Heading into Week 14 with teams jockeying for playoff position or simply fighting for pride, every squad fits into a sub-group.
Here's a breakdown of where all 32 NFL teams rank with just four weeks remaining in the regular season.
The Real Super Bowl Contenders
1. Seattle Seahawks, 11-1
With Monday night's 34-7 beatdown of the New Orleans Saints, the Seahawks left no doubt which team is not only the best in the NFC, but the best in the NFL. Seattle has won seven games in a row; the Seahawks are of course undefeated at home and a dominant 8-0 in the NFC.
What NFC team has the best chance to knock off the Seahawks at CenturyLink Field?
As a virtual lock to get home-field advantage in the playoffs, which team is going to have the ability to come into CenturyLink Field and knock them off?
Seattle, this may be the year your Seahawks get it done.
2. Carolina Panthers, 9-3
We must remember, the Panthers only lost to the Seahawks by five points in the season opener. The team has won eight in a row. The Panthers are a much better team now than they were in Week 1. Could Cam Newton and Co. go into Seattle and win in January?
3. Denver Broncos, 10-2
From a commercial standpoint, a Seahawks vs. Broncos Super Bowl isn't all that exciting. However, from a pure football point of view, it could be an epic game of contrasting styles.
We can't automatically place Denver in the Super Bowl just yet, but aside from inexplicably blowing a huge lead against the New England Patriots in Week 12, the Broncos still look like the best team in the AFC.
4. New England Patriots, 9-3
Are the Broncos better than the Patriots? It depends on where the game is played. Denver blew a huge lead in Foxborough and the Pats and Tom Brady came back to steal one in overtime.
If the two teams meet in Denver, the result would likely be different.
Because the Broncos have the inside track to home-field advantage, the next matchup would be on their turf. Based on that and the way the team lost in New England, Denver still gets the nod from me.
Knocking on the Door
5. New Orleans Saints, 9-3
The Saints are obviously still a quality team and one of the more dangerous in the NFC.
That said, Monday night's loss had to be demoralizing. Because the team knows that for all intents and purposes, the road to the Super Bowl in the NFC will run through a loud and raucous CenturyLink Field, it can't feel too good about its chances.
The last time the Saints visited the Seahawks before Monday night's rout was in the 2010 playoffs. Marshawn Lynch went beast mode and the Hawks won 41-36. This time, the results were even worse. This is a bottom-line league and unfortunately, the Saints can't beat the Seahawks in Seattle.
The best hope the Saints have is for another team to upset Seattle at home.
6. Kansas City Chiefs, 9-3
After two losses to Denver, the Chiefs have to be relegated to second-tier status. The two games against their division rivals were an opportunity to prove they belonged in the Super Bowl-contending conversation.
Without gaining a split, the Chiefs aren't quite ready for the big time.
7. San Francisco 49ers, 8-4
San Francisco is the only team in this tier that has the ability to rise into the top tier. It really seems that the Niners have yet to play their best football. They have lost every really big game on their schedule (Indianapolis Colts, Seahawks, Panthers and Saints), but the team has an opportunity to prove its worth on Sunday.
The Niners play host to the Seahawks in San Francisco. This is the best chance the team has for a statement-making win until the playoffs.
8. Indianapolis Colts, 8-4
What do you make of a team that is responsible for handing the Seahawks their only loss, the Broncos their first defeat and defeating the Niners, but also head-scratching 30- and 29-point losses to the St. Louis Rams and Arizona Cardinals. Indy's inconsistency makes placing it any higher than No. 8 impossible.
However, we can't ignore that the team has shown the ability to beat the very best in the league.
Looking Good, But Not Good Enough
9. Cincinnati Bengals, 8-4
After starting the season 2-2 in its first four games, Cincinnati has gone 6-2 since.
Andy Dalton has had his ups and downs. He had a three-game stretch from Oct. 13-27 when he threw for over 300 yards and at least three scores every week. He's now in the midst of a stretch that has seen him throw just six touchdown passes and nine interceptions in his last four games.
The defense has been consistent. It ranks sixth in the NFL in yards allowed and has helped to create a winning foundation. Primarily because of that unit, the Bengals have all but run away with the AFC North.
Now Marvin Lewis' bunch has to prepare for the playoffs and hope to improve enough to defeat the conference's elite.
10. Dallas Cowboys, 7-5
If the Cowboys only had a solid defense, the team would be really dangerous.
Dallas is the only team in the NFL that has allowed over 5,000 yards of total offense so far this season. That inability to stop opponents has overshadowed a 3,140-yard and 24-touchdown season for Tony Romo in 12 games. Even with those issues, the team has a very good chance to win the NFC East.
11. Detroit Lions, 7-5
The Lions seem set to claim the NFC North by default. The Chicago Bears are too banged-up on defense to claim it, and without Aaron Rodgers, the Green Bay Packers aren't very good.
Detroit's defense is just 15th in the NFL and Matthew Stafford is still a hard man to put your trust in under center. He's thrown six interceptions in the last two weeks, and he's had five games with a completion percentage under 60 percent this season.
However, until another team in the division makes a move, the NFC North title is the Lions' to lose.
12. Philadelphia Eagles, 7-5
With Nick Foles finally settled in at quarterback, the Eagles seem primed to really push the Cowboys for the division crown. The team has won four in a row, including an impressive win over the Cardinals on Sunday. The last four games on the Eagles' schedule are winnable (Detroit, at Minnesota, Chicago and at Dallas). If Philly runs the table, it could be dangerous in the postseason.
13. Arizona Cardinals, 7-5
Why did the Cardinals drop below the Eagles in the rankings after a head-to-head loss, but the Cowboys didn't fall beneath the Lions after losing to Detroit in Week 8?
The Cards' schedule was pretty weak leading into Week 13, and the loss to Philly was less than a week ago. What a team has done lately is more indicative of its current standing.
Arizona is having a surprising season, though.
Carson Palmer is quietly having a solid campaign with 3,189 passing yards. Most of all, the Cards' eighth-ranked defense has helped to make Arizona legitimate.
Middle of the Road
14. Chicago Bears, 6-6
When was the last time Bears fans hoped their defense could match their high-powered offense? Because of a plethora of injuries and old age, the Bears' defense is ranked 28th in the NFL. That issue is curtailing an offense that boasts the best WR-TE-RB grouping in the NFL.
Think that sounds crazy? Which foursome at the skill positions is better than Brandon Marshall (78 catches, 990 yards, nine touchdowns), Alshon Jeffery (70 catches, 1,109 yards, five touchdowns), Martellus Bennett (48 catches, 545 yards, five touchdowns) and Matt Forte (1,416 all-purpose yards and eight total touchdowns)?
I can't think of one.
15. Baltimore Ravens, 6-6
The defending champions better soak up all the glory involved with accepting that title. This team is dangerously close to missing the playoffs. Considering the Ravens already have six losses and they finish the season with games against the Patriots and Bengals, things look bleak.
16. Miami Dolphins, 6-6
Don't sleep on the Dolphins possibly grabbing a spot in the AFC playoffs. Barring a complete collapse by the Chiefs, Andy Reid's team seems to be a safe bet to take the top Wild Card spot. There are a boatload of teams vying for the last spot.
Over the last three weeks, the Fins have looked good. In Week 11, Miami beat the San Diego Chargers 20-16. In Week 12, the Fins nearly upset the Panthers and in Week 13, the team smashed the New York Jets 23-3.
A 3-1 finish will almost certainly get the Dolphins to their first postseason since 2008.
17. Green Bay Packers, 5-6-1
Based on the fact that the Packers are 0-4-1 since Rodgers went down, there can be no debate as to how important he is to the team. Murmurs about him being a system quarterback seem to be misplaced because no other quarterback the Pack has tried this season has had positive results.
Ian Rapoport of NFL.com reports that Rodgers could sit the entire season if the Packers fall out of contention.
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
If that happens, expect to see Green Bay plummet in the overall standings.
18. Pittsburgh Steelers, 5-7
Even Mike Tomlin can't stand in the way of the Steelers' fall from the ranks of the elite. The last two seasons have been tough for the proud franchise. At 5-7, the Steelers are staring a second straight season without a playoff berth square in the face.
19. Tennessee Titans, 5-7
Without Jake Locker, the Titans' passing game lacks punch and doesn't create the balance needed to allow Chris Johnson to excel in the running game. Johnson hasn't had a 100-yard rushing game since Nov. 3, which was the last full game Locker played.
Tennessee looks to be headed for a nasty end to the season.
20. San Diego Chargers, 5-7
Heading into their bye week, the Chargers looked like a team ready to make a move in the standings. Since then, the Bolts have lost four of five games.
A defense ranked 28th in the league against the pass isn't helping. With the Manning brothers coming up back-to-back in the next two weeks, the Chargers could see their season go down the drain soon.
More Bad Than Good
21. New York Giants, 5-7
The G-Men are vastly improved from where they were earlier in the season. In fact, at 5-7 the team isn't completely out of the NFC East division race. Eli Manning has decreased his turnover pace, and the Giants have won five of their last six games.
If the team can make good on Antrell Rolle's "run-the-table" claim—though it would be a little late—it could make things interesting the next four weeks.
22. St. Louis Rams. 5-7
St. Louis isn't going to the playoffs, but the team's run game and defense are creating nice momentum for next season. Over the last five games, the Rams have averaged 174 yards rushing and the defense has forced a total of 11 turnovers. That's the type of identity that is more in line with head coach Jeff Fisher's philosophy.
23. Oakland Raiders, 4-8
There have been more bright spots to the Raiders' season than most expected. The team ranks fifth in the league in rushing. Much of that is due to Terrelle Pryor's running ability. However, even with the mobile quarterback out of the lineup, running back Rashad Jennings has been consistent. He's averaged 89.6 rushing yards per game in the last five weeks.
Still, the Raiders must gain some consistency in the passing game to improve. Oakland is ranked just 28th in the NFL in passing.
24. New York Jets, 5-7
Mustering only three points against Miami on Sunday was a bad look for the Jets. The 31st-ranked offense is anemic and suddenly, the defense isn't looking much better. Gang Green's defense is now ranked just 25th in the NFL. One more loss will all but kill the team's fleeting playoff hopes.
25. Buffalo Bills, 4-8
The Bills allowed the Atlanta Falcons to do something on Sunday they hadn't really done all season: excel. Roddy White had 10 catches for 143 yards, and the Falcons picked up a road win. Buffalo simply ran into a team that had been underachieving all season that finally put things together.
The future is still interesting for this young team with EJ Manuel at quarterback.
26. Cleveland Browns, 4-8
Losing three in a row is bad. But when the third loss in the string is a home loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars, your season has hit rock bottom. The Browns need a strong finish to give fans something to feel good about heading into next season.
27. Minnesota Vikings, 3-8-1
Neither the Bears nor the Vikings deserved to win Sunday's bizarre overtime game. The Vikes ultimately pulled it out despite the blunders by Rhett Ellison. The tight end dropped an easy touchdown that turned into an interception. He was also called for a face-mask penalty that wiped out the first game-winning field goal.
Adrian Peterson and ridiculous late-game decisions by Bears' head coach Marc Trestman saved the day.
As bad as the Vikes are, can you imagine where they would be without AP?
28. Atlanta Falcons, 3-9
The Falcons are in the running for NFL's most disappointing team in 2013. When overtime victories at Buffalo are the crown jewels of a season, it is safe to say a team that was 13-3 last year hasn't played up to its potential.
29. Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 3-9
Rookie Mike Glennon has at least made a case for himself as the Bucs' starting quarterback in 2014. The team will almost certainly draft a quarterback, but Glennon's play has to be recognized. He's completed 62.8 percent of his passes and thrown for 13 touchdowns to just five interceptions.
He isn't spectacular, but he is steady.
30. Washington Redskins, 3-9
Robert Griffin III and Co. are on a four-game losing streak and the Skins are the only team legitimately out of contention for the NFC East title. Washington is perhaps the only team that can give the Falcons a run for their money in the race for most disappointing.
31. Jacksonville Jaguars, 3-9
Don't look now, but the Jags are on a two-game winning streak. It is the first time the team has won two in a row since 2010. Finally, the Jags aren't in last place in the AFC South and they aren't ranked No. 32 in my power rankings.
32. Houston Texans. 2-10
The third nominee for the award for NFL's most disappointing team goes to the Texans. Having lost 10 games in a row, this team is an absolute mess. It showed some pride by pushing the Pats on Sunday, but heads are sure to roll in every direction once this nightmarish campaign is finally over.
All stat references per Pro-Football-Reference.