It's officially the homestretch of the NFL regular season with just three weeks left before the playoffs begin.
Division crowns and playoff berths have already been earned, and there figure to be more postseason-clinching celebrations in locker rooms across the league this weekend. Denver and Seattle are tied atop the league standings with 11 wins apiece, but which team is best suited to win it all?
Here's a fresh take on the entire league heading into Week 15.
1. Denver Broncos (11-2)
Peyton Manning and the Broncos aren't slowing down the pace even though it's December, as evidenced by the team's 51-28 drubbing of the Tennessee Titans on Sunday in Denver. Despite another big day by the offense, kicker Matt Prater stole the show by nailing an NFL-record 64-yard field goal.
While Manning (4,522 yards, 45 TDs, 9 INTs) has continued to keep up his record-breaking pace, it's been the development of the team's rushing game in recent weeks that makes this offense even tougher to defend. The duo of Montee Ball and Knowshon Moreno has combined for an average of 184.7 rushing yards in each of the past three games while adding four total touchdowns.
Heading into Sunday's contest against the San Diego Chargers, Manning is on the verge of making history:
#Broncos Peyton Manning has now thrown 45 TD this season. He needs 5 more to tie the NFL record of 50 set by Tom Brady in 2007.— Sportsnet Ticker (@SportsnetTicker) December 9, 2013
Manning threw for four scores in the 28-20 victory over San Diego in Week 10, and six isn't out of the question for him, so a big day could mean a new NFL record.
2. Seattle Seahawks (11-2)
Seattle had a chance to win the NFC West on Sunday in San Francisco, but the 49ers gutted out a tough 19-17 victory on a last-minute field goal by Phil Dawson.
That didn't stop these rabid Seahawks fans from welcoming their team back late Sunday night at the Seattle airport:
The defeat snapped a seven-game winning streak for the Seahawks, who still remain one of the most dangerous teams in football. After 14 weeks of action, Seattle ranks second in points scored (27.5 per game) and points allowed (15.8 per game), which it has used to take a one-game lead over the New Orleans Saints for home-field advantage in the NFC.
The Seahawks head to New York for this weekend's matchup with the Giants still needing a victory and a 49ers loss to secure the NFC West title.
3. Kansas City Chiefs (10-3)
The Chiefs exploded in Week 14 with their biggest point total of the year in a 45-10 victory over the reeling Washington Redskins.
While the defense contributed its usual stingy effort, the special teams provided a huge boost to the offense by scoring two touchdowns. It was a well-rounded team effort that bodes well for the prospects of the Chiefs heading into the postseason push.
What's notable is that the team was able to put up so many points even though quarterback Alex Smith (14-of-20, 137 yards, 2 TDs) had a pedestrian day under center. Meanwhile, Jamaal Charles (1,162 rushing yards, 10 TDs) continues to be one of the league's most prolific running backs on a team that looks built to make a deep run in the playoffs.
4. New Orleans Saints (10-3)
The Saints offense was sputtering heading into Week 14 but rounded back into form with a 31-13 victory over the Carolina Panthers.
Drew Brees bounced back from his subpar performance in Week 13 to go 30-of-42 for 313 yards and four touchdowns against a stout Carolina defense. He also joined an elite NFL club in the process:
Drew Brees: became 5th player in NFL history to pass for 50,000 yards last night (Favre, P. Manning, Marino, Elway)— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) December 9, 2013
Despite the franchise's identity built on explosive offense over the past few years, the scoring defense ranks higher (No. 5, 18.7 points allowed per game) than the offense (No. 7, 26.4 points per game), thanks to the influence of first-year defensive coordinator Rob Ryan.
5. Carolina Panthers (9-4)
Carolina's nine-game win streak came to a halt on Sunday with the 31-13 loss to New Orleans. The defense was exposed by Brees, but it still remains the rock of this team.
The unit welcomed back one of its best players against the Saints, when Charles Johnson (knee) returned at less than 100 percent. The pass-rusher recently told Jonathan Jones of the Charlotte Observer that he'll play again this weekend vs. the New York Jets.
But the team has lost running back Jonathan Stewart to a torn MCL, with Max Henson of Panthers.com reporting head coach Ron Rivera is optimistic Stewart can return by Week 17:
It's a good thing that DeAngelo Williams is back in the lineup after missing a game with a quadriceps injury, as he'll be leaned on heavily down the stretch by the Panthers offense.
6. San Francisco 49ers (9-4)
The 49ers didn't allow the Seahawks to celebrate at Candlestick Park with Sunday's thrilling 19-17 victory in another physical battle between these two heated NFC West foes. Phil Dawson sealed the win by converting a chip shot field goal with 26 seconds left, as the 49ers kept their slim hopes of winning a third straight division crown alive.
Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Staley made a successful return to the lineup after a knee injury scare in Week 13, but Colin Kaepernick (15-of-29, 175 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT) struggled in the passing game with Michael Crabtree active for the second straight week.
The same can't be said for running back Frank Gore, who rattled off a big 51-yard run to set up Dawson's game-winner, as part of his 17-carry, 110-yard effort. The defense now ranks third in points allowed (16.5 per game) on a powerful team that is shaping up to be just like the first two 49ers squads under Jim Harbaugh in 2011 and 2012.
7. Cincinnati Bengals (9-4)
The Bengals enter Sunday night's matchup against the Pittsburgh Steelers just one victory away from clinching their third consecutive playoff berth and fourth in five years. The franchise has experienced a major turnaround under coach Marvin Lewis, and the team is looking sharp with three straight wins.
Quarterback Andy Dalton starred in last week's 42-28 victory over the playoff-bound Indianapolis Colts after two down weeks, throwing for 275 yards and accounting for four touchdowns, three passing and one on the ground. Linebacker Vontaze Burfict is still atop the NFL's leaderboard in tackles (139), in the middle of a defense that ranks sixth in points allowed (18.8).
8. New England Patriots (10-3)
The Patriots suffered a major setback on Sunday when Rob Gronkowski tore his ACL in the 27-26 victory over the Cleveland Browns. New England has placed the talented tight end on injured reserve, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter, ending Gronkowski's season:
Patriots officially placed TE Rob Gronkowski on IR and signed TE D.J. Williams.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) December 9, 2013
The Patriots offense struggled mightily without Gronkowski to start the year, as he missed six games following multiple offseason surgeries. ESPN's SportsCenter shared a graphic illustrating the impact Gronk has had on the offense:
New England's offense can ill afford to regress back to its form from the beginning of the season, so it will be interesting to see how Tom Brady adjusts.
9. Philadelphia Eagles (8-5)
Nick Foles finally threw an interception last week, but that didn't stop the Eagles from rolling to a 34-20 victory in a snow-filled matchup against the Detroit Lions.
LeSean McCoy excelled despite the elements, rushing the ball 29 times for a career-high 217 yards and two touchdowns. The defense has also been a key to the the team's current five-game winning streak, giving up an average of 18 points per game in that span.
Coupled with the Dallas Cowboys' loss on Monday Night Football, the Eagles now hold a one-game lead for first place in the NFC East.
10. Arizona Cardinals (8-5)
The Cardinals stayed hot with a commanding 30-10 win over the St. Louis Rams in Week 14. But coach Bruce Arians and his team still have to catch up to the Panthers or 49ers if they want to claim a spot in the NFC playoffs.
The defense has been consistent all year and ranks seventh in points allowed per game (19.8), while quarterback Carson Palmer (3,458 passing yards, 20 TDs, 17 INTs) has done just enough to keep the Cardinals in the thick of the playoff hunt.
11. Indianapolis Colts (8-5)
The Colts are the first division winners in the NFL this season, but that's more of a reflection of the weak AFC South, where no other team has more than five wins.
Indianapolis was handled by the Bengals in a 42-28 defeat on Sunday, as the team hasn't strung together consecutive wins since Weeks 7 and 9. Coming up for the Colts will be a big matchup with the Chiefs in Week 16, sandwiched by contests against the Houston Texans and Jacksonville Jaguars.
Consistency will be key for coach Chuck Pagano's group as it prepares for the playoffs.
12. Baltimore Ravens (7-6)
The Ravens needed two touchdowns in the final 76 seconds of Sunday's contest against the Minnesota Vikings to claim a 29-26 victory in a game that featured 42 fourth-quarter points.
Baltimore has hit its stride the past few weeks, winning four of its past five while jockeying with the Miami Dolphins for the sixth AFC playoff spot. Despite a big overhaul before the season, Baltimore's defense has been stout, ranking eighth in points allowed per game (20.1).
13. Detroit Lions (7-6)
The Detroit Lions and Chicago Bears are now tied atop the NFC North, but the Lions get the nod after claiming two wins against their division rivals so far this year.
Given the current landscape of the NFC with strong second-place teams like the Panthers and 49ers, it's likely the NFC North will only send one team to the playoffs this year. The Lions have lost three of four and will try to get back in the win column against Baltimore on Sunday Night Football.
14. Chicago Bears (7-6)
Josh McCown was at his best in Monday night's 45-28 victory over the Dallas Cowboys, going 27-of-36 for 348 yards and four touchdowns in place of Jay Cutler, who is still recovering from an ankle injury.
Ian Rapoport of NFL.com shared some perspective on McCown's production in recent weeks:
If Jay Cutler starts next week, Josh McCown’s time as a #Bears starter: 3-2, 11 TDs, 1 INT, Completion percentage in the high 60s.— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) December 10, 2013
It's hard to imagine Cutler losing his job to McCown in this situation, but the backup is certainly giving head coach Marc Trestman something to think about.
15. Dallas Cowboys (7-6)
The Cowboys fell a game behind the Eagles for first place in the NFC East with Monday night's 45-28 loss to the Bears. ESPN's Todd Archer reports linebacker Sean Lee exited the contest with a neck injury, the latest setback for a team that has had trouble staying healthy all year.
With a Week 17 home matchup against the Eagles on the schedule, Dallas will have to play well against the Green Bay Packers and Redskins in the next two contests if they want a shot to win the division.
16. Miami Dolphins (7-6)
The Dolphins will finish off the season with contests against each of their AFC East counterparts, starting with Sunday's home game against the New England Patriots.
Miami has won three of its past four, including last week's 34-28 victory over the Steelers. Armando Salguero of the Miami Herald detailed how the team has moved past the Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin situation and evolved into a playoff contender.
17. Green Bay Packers (6-6-1)
The Packers scored 12 unanswered points in the second half of Sunday's 22-21 win over the Atlanta Falcons to snap a five-game losing streak.
With a victory, the team kept its hopes for winning the NFC North alive, as the Packers are just a half-game behind division leaders Detroit and Chicago. Green Bay could also receive a major boost in the form of franchise quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who has a chance to play this week, according to Schefter:
Mike McCarthy said team plans to work out Aaron Rodgers on Tuesday and evaluate him Wednesday. Chance he plays Sunday vs. Dallas.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) December 9, 2013
Adding Rodgers to the offense would be huge for the team's chances to reach the postseason, as Green Bay was 5-2 before he went down with his injury and just 1-4-1 since.
18. San Diego Chargers (6-7)
The Chargers, along with the New York Jets, trail the Ravens and Dolphins by one game in the race for the final AFC playoff spot.
Running back Ryan Mathews looked like a workhorse in Sunday's dominating 37-14 win against the New York Giants, carrying the ball a season-high 29 times for 103 yards and a score. San Diego will need more of that consistency from Mathews to go alongside Rivers, who is having a solid campaign with 3,882 passing yards, 26 TDs and nine INTs.
19. New York Jets (6-7)
The Jets snapped a three-game losing streak with a 37-27 win over the Oakland Raiders on Sunday but face a stiff task in Week 15 on the road against the Panthers. Geno Smith threw his first touchdown in six contests against Oakland, but his average of 190.4 passing yards per game and season totals of nine touchdowns and 20 interceptions don't bode well for New York.
Geno Smith now with an NFL league-leading 20 interceptions.— NFL on ESPN (@ESPNNFL) December 8, 2013
Another loss would do major damage to the playoff hopes of the Jets, who are seeking their first trip to the postseason since going to back-to-back AFC title games in 2009-10.
20. Pittsburgh Steelers (5-8)
Once you reach the eight-loss mark in the NFL, your chances of reaching the playoffs turn dim.
That's where the Steelers find themselves following a deflating 34-28 loss to Miami, in a game where Antonio Brown stepped out of bounds on what could have been the game-winning play as the clock struck zero.
Pittsburgh is essentially reduced to a spolier's role for the rest of this season, starting with Sunday's contest against NFC North-leading Cincinnati.
21. New York Giants (5-8)
Big Blue has lost two straight since its promising five-game win streak and will likely be spectators as the Eagles and Cowboys fight for the NFC East crown.
The defense regressed to its porous early-season form in last week's 37-14 loss to San Diego that was essentially over at halftime. New York will face tough opponents in the next two weeks, with games scheduled against Seattle and Detroit, so the defense better stop the bleeding now.
22. Tennessee Titans (5-8)
The Titans have officially been eliminated from the AFC South picture this season, but the team has some promising young players to look forward to in 2014.
Rookie wideout Justin Hunter continues to blossom alongside fellow receiver Kendall Wright, as he hauled in four catches for 114 yards and a touchdown on Sunday. Still, the Titans were handed a 51-28 loss by Denver and have now lost two straight heading into their Week 15 tilt against Arizona.
23. St. Louis Rams (5-8)
The Rams have gone 2-4 since Kellen Clemens took over for Sam Bradford under center and have a tough schedule to close out the season with games against the Saints and Seahawks wrapped around a date with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The development of rookie receiver Tavon Austin has been promising, but the team has lacked consistency on offense all year.
24. Jacksonville Jaguars (4-9)
Guess who's on a three-game winning streak?
None other than the Jaguars, who opened the season with an eight-game losing skid and looked poised for the No. 1 pick in the 2014 draft.
Running back Maurice Jones-Drew has played a big role in the past three victories, as his 264 rushing yards in that span have provided some consistency to Jacksonville's offense.
25. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-9)
Like the Jaguars, the Buccaneers have turned things around lately by winning four of their past five.
Bobby Rainey has provided a big spark to the offense lately, as evidenced by his 80-yard score in Sunday's 27-6 win over the Buffalo Bills. In his past four games, Rainey has racked up 388 rushing yards and four total touchdowns.
26. Cleveland Browns (4-9)
The Browns played the Patriots tough on Sunday but ultimately lost 27-26 to suffer their fourth straight loss.
While his team hasn't fared well the past month, receiver Josh Gordon has been doing his part:
Browns WR Josh Gordon has 774 receiving yards in his past four games, MOST in any four-game span in NFL HISTORY!!— NFL on ESPN (@ESPNNFL) December 9, 2013
Gordon now leads the league in receiving yards (1,400) to go along with his 71 catches and eight touchdowns.
27. Oakland Raiders (4-9)
Oakland has lost five of six and will be hard-pressed to get back off the mat with games coming up against the Chiefs, Chargers and Broncos to close out the season.
The quarterback situation is in flux with Matt McGloin and Terrelle Pryor both seeing snaps in Sunday's 37-27 loss to the Jets, while running backs Rashad Jennings and Darren McFadden are also dealing with injuries. It doesn't look good for the Raiders going forward.
28. Buffalo Bills (4-9)
The return of first-round pick quarterback E.J. Manuel has done little to reverse the misfortunes of the Bills, who are poised to miss the playoffs for the 14th straight year. Buffalo suffered a 27-6 loss to Tampa Bay on Sunday and has now lost five of six.
Running backs C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson have been hit-or-miss this year, and the defense hasn't been able to hold an opposing team to less than 14 points all season.
29. Minnesota Vikings (3-9-1)
Vikings fans held their collective breath on Sunday when star running back Adrian Peterson went down with a foot injury in the wild 29-26 loss to Baltimore. But after Peterson underwent tests on Monday, Minnesota had good news to report, per ESPN's SportsCenter:
Adrian Peterson expects to play Sunday after MRI reveals no torn ligaments or Lisfranc injury. He will get CT scan to rule out fractures.— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) December 9, 2013
Minnesota is 2-2-1 in its past five games but has three tough matchups against the Eagles, Ravens and Lions to close out the year.
30. Atlanta Falcons (3-10)
The Falcons have been involved in three straight one-possession games lately but only have one win to show for it.
Despite jumping out to a 21-10 lead against the Packers on Sunday, the Falcons lost 22-21 and have now suffered defeats in six of their past seven contests.
31. Washington Redskins (3-10)
Robert Griffin III might be on the sidelines to end the season, as coach Mike Shanahan wants to make sure his franchise quarterback is healthy, per Mike Jones of the Washington Post. ESPN's SportsCenter also passed along a comment from the embattled Shanahan via Twitter:
Mike Shanahan won't name Robert Griffin III as starter for Sunday's game. "I want to make sure he's healthy going into the offseason."— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) December 9, 2013
Shanahan's job status is also up in the air, according to Mark Maske of the Washington Post, so keep an eye on the nation's capital for a major shakeup.
32. Houston Texans (2-11)
The Texans fired coach Gary Kubiak earlier this week in a move that many saw coming.
The team is now riding an 11-game losing streak and has the inside track for the top pick in next year's draft. Lack of quarterback production and a subpar defense haven't enabled the Texans to realize their potential despite a talented roster.