Entering the last quarter of the NFL season, the power rankings are finally starting to resemble something that may actually have meaning in the postseason.
This is the time of year when serious Super Bowl contenders start flashing their peak form. Also, with every team having played at least 12 games by this point, there has been enough head-to-head action to get a solid feel for how all 32 teams match up with each other.
1. Seattle Seahawks (11-1)
The rest of the NFC has to be dealing with serious anxiety issues, as the conference's path to the Super Bowl is almost assuredly going through Seattle.
After the Seahawks' supremely impressive 34-7 victory over the New Orleans Saints this past Monday night, Seattle now has a two-game lead for home-field advantage in the NFC.
Seattle is a great team in any stadium, but it is nearly unbeatable in the noise factory that is their home stadium.
2. New England Patriots (9-3)
It was just Week 11 when the New England Patriots fell to the Carolina Panthers. That game, however, was in Carolina, and that game wasn't decided until a questionable non-call in the end zone on the game's final play—a play that kept Patriots from stealing the win.
I say this to justify placing the Patriots ahead of the Panthers in these power rankings.
Tom Brady is starting to get the passing game going, and his young receivers have rounded into form. With a solid rushing game and a good pass defense, the Patriots have enough to make another run to the Super Bowl.
3. Carolina Panthers (9-3)
The Panthers have now won eight straight games. Defensively, this team is outstanding. The Panthers are first in terms of points allowed per game, second in yards allowed per game and sixth in yards allowed per play.
That kind of defense gives the Panthers a team that can win in any setting.
The question mark about this team centers around Cam Newton. The amazingly talented quarterback has to avoid interceptions, as he's thrown six of them in his last five games.
4. Denver Broncos (10-2)
Peyton Manning and the Broncos offense have the firepower to lead this team to victory in any matchup. Their porous defense, however, means this team can lose any matchup.
The pass defense has struggled all season in Denver, and now the rush defense is being exposed. The Broncos are ninth this season in terms of yards per rush allowed (3.9), and over their last three games, they have allowed 5.2 yards per rush.
5. Kansas City Chiefs (9-3)
After a 9-0 start where the Chiefs didn't allow a team to score more than 17 points in any contest, the team has lost three straight while allowing at least 27 points in each game.
It is no coincidence that the defense is suffering due to injuries to star pass-rushers Justin Houston and Tamba Hali in recent weeks. The health of these two is vital for this team's chances in the postseason.
The Chiefs do have the potential to earn a trip to the Super Bowl, though. The offense, which has been considered a liability, has scored at least 28 points in the last two games.
6. New Orleans Saints (9-3)
I think it is fair to say that the Saints were humbled this past Monday night while getting destroyed by the Seahawks.
Which team will win the NFC South?
The mighty Saints offense mustered just 188 yards in that game, as Seattle's physical secondary was able to all but shutdown the athletically limited wide receiving corps of the Saints.
Combine that with a defense that, although improved, still struggles at the point of attack, and it is tough to see the Saints navigating their way through the NFC.
7. Cincinnati Bengals (8-4)
Coming off of their bye, the Bengals picked up a solid road win with a 17-10 victory over the San Diego Chargers. This win helped the Bengals retain their two-game lead in the division and provided the blueprint this team needs to follow moving forward.
Dalton attempted just 23 passes in the win, his lowest total of the year. This team doesn't need to have Dalton chucking up 53 passes as he did in the Bengals' Week 9 loss to the Dolphins.
The Bengals need to focus on defense and help that side of the ball out by running as much as possible on offense.
8. San Francisco 49ers (8-4)
The 49ers have looked great over the last two weeks during convincing victories over the St. Louis Rams and Washington Redskins. With San Francisco getting key players like Michael Crabtree and Aldon Smith back onto the field, the team has an opportunity to peak at just the right time.
This week, with the Seahawks rolling into town, the 49ers will get a chance to prove how dangerous they can be.
9. Philadelphia Eagles (7-5)
The Philadelphia Eagles have won four straight games, and quarterback Nick Foles is basically on track to be the best quarterback in all of eternity. The lengthy second-year player has thrown 19 touchdowns and no interceptions this season.
Last week, he threw three touchdowns and no interceptions against a very good Arizona Cardinals defense.
The Eagles control their own destiny in the NFC East, and this is a team that is starting to gel at the right time.
10. Arizona Cardinals (7-5)
The Cardinals lost by just three points to the Eagles this past Sunday. Quarterback Carson Palmer threw two interceptions in the game, and that came after the veteran enjoyed his first two interception-free games of the season.
That is the big problem with this Cardinals team. They have a good defense and an offense with potential, but Palmer has evolved into a quarterback who makes bad mistakes at the worst times.
11. Indianapolis Colts (8-4)
With a three-game lead in the AFC South, the Indianapolis Colts could sleepwalk into the postseason. What'e the point, however, if they are going to get trounced in the first round?
That is exactly the fate the Colts are staring at if they can't improve upon their recent play.
The Colts have won two of their last four, and those two victories came over the 5-7 Titans by a combined 11 points.
12. Detroit Lions (7-5)
The Detroit Lions have enough talent to make some noise in the postseason. This team is fourth in scoring, second in yards per game, 13th in yards per rush, seventh in yards per pass and fourth in yards allowed per rush.
The Lions remain suspect in pass defense, but in today's NFL, every team has a flaw.
The problem with the Lions is that there is no trusting this team to make the smart plays in the biggest moments.
13. Miami Dolphins (6-6)
I've been wanting to write the Dolphins off, but this flawed team keeps hanging tough in the playoff race.
The Dolphins have a woeful offensive line. They are also ranked 21st in both yards per rush and yards allowed per rush. They are an even worse in terms of yards allowed per pass, as they rank 24th. However, the team is ranked 13th in turnover margin, which is encouraging.
Miami has proven itself to be a resilient team, and as much as I've wanted to do so, I can't count this team out.
14. San Diego Chargers (5-7)
The San Diego Chargers showed real promise earlier in the season. However, this team has now lost four of its last five, and at 5-7, it is going to be hard to make the postseason.
Although the defense needs an influx of athletes, Chargers fans can take solace in the fact that Philip Rivers has returned to form and that the offense is on the right track.
15. Dallas Cowboys (7-5)
Since the debacle against the Saints, where they allowed over 600 yards of offense, the Dallas Cowboys have won two straight to keep pace with the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC East.
Still, this team has issues, and most of those remain on the defensive side. The Cowboys are 30th in yards allowed per rush and 24th in yards allowed per pass.
16. Baltimore Ravens (6-6)
The defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens are keeping themselves alive in the playoff race with two straight wins, improving their record to .500.
Baltimore has a strong defense, but a weak offensive line has led them to post a league-worst 2.9 yards per carry and the fifth-most sacks allowed. That line is going to keep this team from making another magical postseason run.
17. St. Louis Rams (5-7)
The St. Louis Rams have made solid strides as the season has gone along. This is good news for fans, because a 23-13 setback to the 49ers on Sunday all but destroyed their postseason hopes.
The Rams are 5-7, and with road games against the Cardinals and Seahawks as well as home dates against the Saints and Buccaneers remaining, a prolonged win streak is unlikely.
18. New York Jets (5-7)
Any team receiving quarterback play that makes fans long for the days of Mark Sanchez is going to struggle to win consistently in the NFL.
With the league's best rush defense, the Jets were able to keep themselves relevant for a while. With three straight losses, however, it is now safe to forget about this team until next year.
19. Chicago Bears (6-6)
Josh McCown has done an excellent job of filling in at quarterback for the Chicago Bears. The problem is, this defense is terrible.
The Bears are ranked 28th in points allowed, which is no surprise given the fact they are ranked 32nd in yards allowed per rush and 25th in yards allowed per pass.
20. Green Bay Packers (5-6-1)
Sometimes the value of a player is best measured in his absence. Such is the case with Aaron Rodgers.
With Rodgers at the helm, the Packers posses one of the most feared attacks in the NFL. In three of the past four games, all without Rodgers, the Packers have scored 13 points or less, and now this team hasn't won in its past five outings.
21. New York Giants (5-7)
If the Giants make the playoffs, let's just go ahead and hand them the Lombardi Trophy.
After starting the season 0-6, the Giants have won five of their past six. We've seen this kind of turnaround lead the Giants to the Super Bowl before.
This season, however, the Giants' passing game is still struggling. With away games against the Chargers and Lions and home games against the Seahawks and Redskins remaining, New York is going to have a hard time winning out, which it would almost assuredly need to do in order to make the postseason.
22. Pittsburgh Steelers (5-7)
It's going to be interesting to see what the Pittsburgh Steelers look like next season. Prior to last week, the Steelers had won three straight to help build hopes of a playoff run. Last week's loss to the Ravens was a big setback, though.
23. Tennessee Titans (5-7)
In two of their last three games, the Tennessee Titans have lost twice to the Indianapolis Colts. That is the same Colts team they are chasing in the AFC South standings.
That will be a lot for this team to put behind them and close out the season in strong fashion. Still, this team has battled through injuries and adversity all year. If nothing else, coach Mike Munchak can feel secure in the fact that his team has not quit on him.
24. Oakland Raiders (4-8)
The Raiders have lost four of their last five. Only one of those losses, however, came by more than one score.
This team isn't very talented, and they've had some key injuries. It is impressive that they've been as competitive as they have been. With a boatload of cap space this coming offseason, there is reason for hope in Oakland.
25. Jacksonville Jaguars (4-9)
The Jacksonville Jaguars have spent nearly the entire season being the laughing stock of the NFL. All of a sudden, this team has won three straight and four of their last five, keeping them postseason eligible.
I certainly don't think they will make the postseason, but it is astounding that it's even a possibility.
Success of coaches in the NFL is typically measured in wins and losses. What Gus Bradley has done in his first year as head coach to keep this team not only from quitting on him but to make big strides is an amazing testament to his coaching ability.
26. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-9)
Greg Schiano is another coach who must be given credit for his team's turnaround.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were a train wreck at 0-8. Still, this team kept fighting and won its next three contests.
The Bucs were knocked back down to earth this past weekend after getting trounced by the Carolina Panthers, but a strong finish to the season could save Schiano's job. That seemed like an impossible proposition earlier in the year.
27. Buffalo Bills (4-8)
The Buffalo Bills showed promise earlier in the year under first-year coach Doug Marrone. Most notably, the defense was no longer laughably bad.
For the season, the stats are still improved from last year. The Bills are 19th in yards allowed per rush and 10th in yards allowed per pass.
That defense is eroding, however, and a struggling Atlanta Falcons' offense went for over 420 yards against them this past weekend, posting 6.6 yards per pass and 5.0 yards per rush.
Buffalo must close out the season strong to carry over a sense of progress into next year.
28. Cleveland Browns (4-8)
Statistically, the Browns' defense is astounding. It is third in yards allowed per rush and second in yards allowed per pass.
Numbers don't tell the whole story, however, and this defense certainly isn't getting any better.
Over their last three games, which have all been losses, the Browns have allowed the opposition to score at least 27 points.
29. Minnesota Vikings (3-8-1)
As long as the Minnesota Vikings have Adrian Peterson in the backfield, this team can be a contender with just a decent defense. This defense isn't anywhere close to decent, however.
The Vikings are last in points allowed, 30th in yards allowed per game and 31st in opponent third-down conversion percentage.
30. Atlanta Falcons (3-9)
With an overtime win over the Bills, the Falcons snapped a five-game losing streak. Still, this team can't do anything above average but pass the ball.
The Falcons still have a solid foundation of talent. It would be too early to blow this current group up—especially considering the high draft pick this terrible season is going to net them.
They must, however, focus on getting stronger in the trenches.
31. Washington Redskins (3-9)
What a difference a year makes.
At this time last season, everyone was drooling over Robert Griffin III and the surging Redskins. Trading three first-round picks and a second-rounder to the Rams for the right to the draft pick that netted them Griffin seemed like a coup.
Now, we are all left to wonder if Griffin can take the abuse of the NFL and why his teammates don't pick him up after he is sacked. Also, we are left wondering if this franchise will be able to withstand the picks forked over to draft him.
32. Houston Texans (2-11)
Somehow, the Houston Texans have been an even bigger disappointment than the Falcons this year.
The Texans' disaster of a season hit a new low on Thursday as they became the first visiting team to lose to the Jaguars all season. At least they took the guesswork out of which team is the worst in the NFL.
Note: All team rankings and season stats via TeamRankings.com.