With just two weeks remaining in the NFL's regular season, the league's hierarchy remains unsettled. Several playoff spots have essentially been decided, but no team appears willing to step up as the very best in the league.
The Seattle Seahawks, Denver Broncos, New England Patriots and New Orleans Saints all made bids in recent weeks, but each of them stumbled along the way. Additionally, with so many teams hovering around the .500 mark, it's difficult to pinpoint which teams are for real.
Once Week 16 comes and goes, the balance of power should be a bit easier to decipher. Here is a look ahead at where every team figures to stand after Week 16.
*All records are projected following Week 16
32. Houston Texans (2-13)
If it wasn't already apparent, the Texans proved to be the NFL's worst team in Week 15 after getting thrashed by the Indianapolis Colts. Two losses to the Jacksonville Jaguars ultimately cost head coach Gary Kubiak his job, and Texans fans truly can't wait for this nightmare season to end.
The light at the end of the tunnel is that Houston controls its own destiny when it comes to securing the No. 1 overall draft pick and bringing in its next quarterback. The Texans will take another step toward that goal by losing to an angry Broncos team in Week 16.
31. Washington Redskins (3-12)
The Redskins appear to be a team in disarray, but even though they lost to the Falcons in Week 15, they may have found something. Kirk Cousins started in place of Robert Griffin III at quarterback, and he made plenty of nice plays. He played so well, in fact, that ESPN's Colin Cowherd questioned whether he might actually be better than RG3.
Has anyone considered Kirk Cousins is just a better QB than RGIII? #firecolin— Colin Cowherd (@ESPN_Colin) December 15, 2013
It's important to remember that Griffin is still recovering from a knee injury, so that isn't necessarily a fair evaluation. Cousins does appear to give Washington a better chance to win right now, but that won't matter in Week 16 against a Dallas Cowboys team that absolutely must come out on top.
30. Oakland Raiders (4-11)
Things were looking quite promising for the Raiders early in the season. They were competitive against some respectable teams and quarterback Terrelle Pryor appeared to be a revelation. When Pryor got injured several weeks ago, however, Oakland turned to rookie Matt McGloin at quarterback. Even though Pryor is now healthy, he hasn't been put back into the lineup.
McGloin hasn't been half bad, but it's a strange decision considering the fact that the Raiders have only won once with him under center. Don't look for that trend to change in Week 16 on the road against the San Diego Chargers.
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29. Jacksonville Jaguars (4-11)
The Jaguars had a 4-1 run snapped in Week 15 when they lost a hard-fought game to the Buffalo Bills, but the turnaround orchestrated by head coach Gus Bradley cannot be understated. Jacksonville is out-manned essentially every week, but it continues to put in an honest effort and give the opposition fits.
Jacksonville's biggest issue is the fact that Chad Henne hasn't proven to be the answer at quarterback. The Jags definitely have a chance to win this week when they host the Tennessee Titans, but the Titans, who are much better than their record suggests, should be able to handle the Jaguars.
28. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-11)
Tampa Bay's 2013 season got off to a nightmarish start as it lost each of its first eight games, but the Buccaneers have looked much improved ever since. They were beat down by the surging 49ers in Week 15, but rookie quarterback Mike Glennon and the rest of the squad has largely been competitive over the past several weeks.
Unfortunately for Tampa, it must travel to St. Louis to take on a Rams team that is very difficult to handle on the road, as the Saints learned the hard way in Week 15. The Bucs can't be counted out, especially if Bobby Rainey can get things going in the running game, but St. Louis is the safer pick.
27. Atlanta Falcons (4-11)
The Falcons have looked better over the past few weeks, and if not for a narrow Week 14 loss to the Green Bay Packers, they would be riding a three-game winning streak heading into this week. The defense is a major issue, but Atlanta remains a dangerous team offensively thanks to Matt Ryan, Steven Jackson, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez.
Those offensive threats may not be able to flex their collective muscle in Week 16, however. The Falcons face a stiff test against the San Francisco 49ers on the road, and it's difficult to imagine Atlanta pulling off the upset.
26. Minnesota Vikings (4-10-1)
Despite the fact that the Vikings played without superstar running back Adrian Peterson in Week 15, they managed to put up 48 points in an upset win over the Philadelphia Eagles. If everything goes as planned, Peterson should be able to suit up in Week 16, according to Ben Goessling of ESPN.com.
Frazier thinks Peterson, Gerhart should be back next week. Rhodes could be the one guy who isn't practicing Wednesday. #Vikings— Ben Goessling (@GoesslingESPN) December 16, 2013
That obviously qualifies as great news for the Vikes, but it may not matter. In Week 16, Minnesota will travel to Cincinnati to take on a Bengals team that is vying for a first-round bye in the AFC. Not even Peterson will be enough to help the Vikings win that one.
25. New York Jets (6-9)
Some might consider it a minor miracle that the Jets have managed to win six games this year. Their defense is dominant at times, but rookie quarterback Geno Smith has been a mess and the offense is essentially void of any explosive weapons.
Even so, New York has beaten teams like the Patriots and Saints. A home win over the Cleveland Browns would give the Jets an opportunity to finish the season .500, but Gang Green's current form suggests that won't happen.
24. Cleveland Browns (5-10)
Speaking of the Browns, Cleveland is a team that has performed well beyond its means this season. Most figured that the Browns gave up on the season when they traded running back Trent Richardson to the Colts early in the year, but they have been much better ever since the savvy trade.
The biggest takeaway from this season has been Josh Gordon's emergence as an elite wide receiver. Cleveland would probably be better off losing to the Jets in order to improve its draft position, but the Gordon factor will be too much for New York to handle.
23. New York Giants (5-10)
The Giants' four-game winning streak after starting 0-6 appears to have been smoke and mirrors. The G-Men have been thoroughly outclassed by the Chargers and Seahawks over the past two weeks, reverting right back into their miserable early-season form.
Defense has been a problem for the Giants all season long, but the play of quarterback Eli Manning has been an even greater concern. The Giants have a chance to play spoiler on the road against the Detroit Lions in Week 16, but Manning's erratic play won't allow it to happen.
22. Buffalo Bills (6-9)
Based on raw numbers, the Bills should be in playoff contention. They rank among the league leaders in sacks, interceptions and rushing yardage, but they haven't been able to put it all together. Inconsistent play from rookie quarterback EJ Manuel has plenty to do with that.
Buffalo won't make the postseason this year, but it could prevent the rival Dolphins from doing so. The Bills managed to beat Miami, which is tied for the AFC's final wild-card spot at 8-6, on the road earlier this season. The Bills are much better at home, as their 3-3 record in true home games suggests, and home-field advantage will help push them past the Dolphins in Week 16.
21. Tennessee Titans (6-9)
The Titans appear to be on the precipice of taking the next step, but a few things are holding them back. Their defense has some good pieces; however, it has been lit up in recent weeks. Also, Tennessee tends to get away from the running game a bit too often, which was apparent when Ryan Fitzpatrick threw for 400 yards in Week 15.
Tennessee will face the Jaguars on the road in Week 16, and while the Jags have proven to be a very tough team to beat over the past six weeks, the Titans will find a way to get it done behind running back Chris Johnson.
20. Pittsburgh Steelers (6-9)
Unless the Steelers win out and get some help in the process, they won't be going to the playoffs this season—which is a shame, as they have come into their own lately. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is playing at an extremely high level, and it would have been fun to see what the two-time Super Bowl winner could have done on this year's postseason stage.
The Steelers looked impressive during their Week 15 win over the Bengals, but they have another difficult game on tap in Week 16 at Green Bay. The Packers have a very real chance to make the playoffs, and they have momentum on their side as well. That combination will ultimately prove to be too much for the Steelers to overcome.
19. St. Louis Rams (7-8)
On paper, it doesn't seem logical that the Rams whooped up on two strong Chicago Bears and Saints squads in two of the past four weeks, but Jeff Fisher's team is as feisty as they come. Despite the fact that the Rams have been playing with journeyman quarterback Kellen Clemens under center for much of the season, they have risen to the occasion more often than not.
St. Louis has been particularly good at home, no matter what its 4-3 home record might suggest. The play of rookie running back Zac Stacy has been a revelation, and he'll power the Rams to a victory over the Bucs in Week 16.
18. Miami Dolphins (8-7)
It wasn't long ago that the Dolphins appeared to be dead in the water, but they came on in a big way as of late. Things truly came to a head in Week 15 when Miami scored a huge victory over the rival Patriots. If the Dolphins do end up making the playoffs, it'll be due to the fantastic play of quarterback Ryan Tannehill.
Miami has a seemingly soft schedule to close the season, but the team shouldn't make postseason plans just yet. The Bills beat the Dolphins earlier in the year in Miami, and playing in the frigid Buffalo conditions will be too much for the Fins to overcome.
17. Dallas Cowboys (8-7)
Just when you think the Cowboys' season can't get any crazier, it somehow manages to do just that. Dallas was in control against the Packers in Week 15, but it managed to blow a 23-point lead. The loss was so devastating that Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant left the field to hide his tears, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter.
Cowboys WR Dez Bryant told reporters he left field early Sunday so no one would see him cry.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) December 16, 2013
It's tough to blame Bryant, who had 11 catches for 153 yards and a touchdown, because Dallas had no business losing that game. The Cowboys have to find a way to regroup and beat the Redskins in Week 16, though. A win guarantees a de facto NFC East title game between the Cowboys and Eagles in Week 17, so Dallas will get it done.
16. Chicago Bears (8-7)
Many were questioning Bears head coach Marc Trestman's decision to start Jay Cutler over Josh McCown in Week 15 after Cutler threw an early interception, but Cutler ultimately proved Trestman right by leading Chicago to a win. In fact, the Bears now control their own destiny when it comes to winning the NFC North after the Lions' loss in Week 15.
Chicago will face a tough road test against the Eagles on Sunday night, though. Philly won't be in a must-win situation, but it could clinch the NFC East if the Cowboys lose earlier in the day. The Bears have a ton of talent on offense, but defense has uncharacteristically been their Achilles' heel. The Eagles will take advantage of that poor defense in Week 16.
15. Detroit Lions (8-7)
The Lions really let one slip away in Week 16. They didn't give up a single touchdown against the Ravens, but six Justin Tucker field goals were enough to get the job done. Quarterback Matthew Stafford came up surprisingly small in what was a huge game for Detroit, and the Lions are now entering desperation mode.
Detroit has another home game on the horizon in Week 16 against the Giants, so it will have an opportunity to redeem itself. New York's defense has been so shaky this year that Stafford should be in line for a bounce-back performance, and wide receiver Calvin Johnson ought to have a dominant showing as well.
14. San Diego Chargers (8-7)
The Chargers remain one game behind the leaders in the AFC wild-card race, but they are peaking at the right time. San Diego could have essentially eliminated itself from contention in Week 15 by losing to the Broncos, but the Bolts found a way to get the job done. As far as impressive victories go, it doesn't get much better than beating Peyton Manning and the Broncos on the road.
San Diego can't afford to rest on its laurels, though. It would be very easy to look past the Raiders this week since they have been struggling lately, but Oakland beat the Chargers earlier in the year. As long as quarterback Philip Rivers continues his hot play, however, the Bolts will be fine.
13. Green Bay Packers (8-6-1)
Green Bay figures to be a very interesting team over the next couple weeks. The Packers are just a half-game out of first place in the NFC North, but their contention may be contingent upon the return of quarterback Aaron Rodgers. He may play in Week 16, but Packers head coach Mike McCarthy isn't putting all of his eggs in that basket, according to Rob Demovsky of ESPN.com.
MM: We're game-planning right now with Matt Flynn. That's the way we're going about it as an offensive staff.— Rob Demovsky (@RobDemovsky) December 16, 2013
Regardless of whether Rodgers or Flynn starts in Week 16, the Packers figure to be favored at home against the Steelers. Beating Pittsburgh won't be easy, but it's tough to pick against Green Bay after its incredible comeback win in Week 15.
12. Arizona Cardinals (9-6)
The Cardinals may not have as much talent as some of the other contending teams in the NFC, but they somehow continue to get the job done. Arizona survived with an overtime win over the Titans in Week 15, which guaranteed that it would finish with a winning record. Even so, the Cards still trail the 49ers and Panthers by a game each in the NFC wild-card race.
Arizona will be tested in a big way when it faces the Seahawks on the road in Week 16. Seattle is one win away from clinching the NFC West, and it would love to do it at home against a division rival. The Cardinals have the personnel necessary to play a low-scoring, hard-hitting affair, but the Seahawks simply do it better than anyone else.
11. Baltimore Ravens (9-6)
This year's version of the Ravens is far different than the one that won the Super Bowl last year, but it doesn't have any less heart and desire. Baltimore has some obvious deficiencies, especially on the offensive side of the ball; however, it continues to win. Kicker Justin Tucker was the star in Week 15 as he connected on six field goals, including a game-winning 61-yarder to beat the Lions.
Quarterback Joe Flacco has been hit-and-miss, while running back Ray Rice has struggled mightily all season long. Baltimore will host the Rob Gronkowski-less Patriots in Week 16, and even though the Ravens aren't exactly firing on all cylinders, they'll find a way to pull off another big victory.
10. Philadelphia Eagles (9-6)
The Eagles blew a golden opportunity in Week 15, as a win over the Vikings would have put them within one victory of clinching the NFC East. Instead, Philadelphia needs a Dallas loss as well as a win in Week 16 to accomplish that feat. Even so, the Eagles are still in good shape, and they should be able to beat the Bears.
All signs point toward this being a high-scoring affair since both teams feature explosive offenses and questionable defenses. Philadelphia's trio of Nick Foles, LeSean McCoy and DeSean Jackson has been absolutely fantastic lately, and the team will continue to excel in Week 16.
9. Indianapolis Colts (9-6)
If nothing else, the Colts are very lucky that the AFC South wasn't very competitive this year. The Texans and Jaguars are among the worst teams in the league, while the Titans have fallen off after a hot start. Indianapolis has been a bipolar team over the past several weeks, and that is something that must be sorted out before the playoffs.
The Colts looked good in a Week 15 win over Houston, but they'll truly be tested against the Chiefs on Sunday. Quarterback Andrew Luck may have the ability to lift Indy over KC on his own, but based on the fact that the Chiefs have been playing superior team football, expect the Colts to fall on the road.
8. New England Patriots (10-5)
A win in Week 15 would have given the Patriots control of the top spot in the AFC, but after a disappointing loss to the Dolphins, New England is very much in danger of missing out on a first-round bye. That would be a huge blow in terms of confidence since the Pats clearly aren't the same team without Rob Gronkowski. They have to learn how to win without him, though.
Quarterback Tom Brady has managed to put the team on his back so many times in the past, and head coach Bill Belichick needs him to do it again. New England will remain on the road to face the surging Ravens in a game that could be pretty ugly. That style of play generally favors Baltimore, and that will be apparent in Week 16.
7. Cincinnati Bengals (10-5)
The door was wide open for the Bengals to make a run at one of the top two seeds in the AFC in Week 15, but they were unable to take advantage as they lost to the Steelers. As noted by Pat Forde of Yahoo! Sports, Cincinnati let both the Patriots and Broncos off the hook with their subpar showing.
Bengals are making the Broncos and Patriots feel better about their Week 15 duds. They're awful.— Pat Forde (@YahooForde) December 16, 2013
Even so, it's tough to discount Cincinnati moving forward. Not only do the Bengals have a great defense, but weapons like A.J. Green and Giovani Bernard on offense give the team the ability to score at will when they are on their "A" game. Cincinnati's up-and-down play is disconcerting with the playoffs on the horizon, but it will correct things with a win over Minnesota this week.
6. Kansas City Chiefs (12-3)
The Chiefs seemed to be in the process of squandering a 9-0 start when they lost three consecutive games to the Broncos, Chargers and Broncos again, but they have corrected that with back-to-back wins since. Kansas City's defense has been its biggest strength this season, but it is nice to see the offense rounding into form as well.
KC dropped 56 points on the Raiders in Week 15 thanks to the explosion of running back Jamaal Charles as a pass-catcher. Quarterback Alex Smith is also starting to take on an even bigger role in the offense. Kansas City doesn't really have a signature win this season, but it will secure one in Week 16 over the Colts.
5. Carolina Panthers (10-5)
Most figured that the Panthers' hopes of winning the NFC South were dashed when they lost to the Saints a couple weeks ago, but after New Orleans lost to the Rams and the Panthers beat the Jets in Week 15, things are back up for grabs. Both teams are 10-4, and the winner in Week 16 will gain the upper hand in the divisional race with one game left to play.
The Panthers were beaten easily by the Saints in Week 14, but that game took place in New Orleans. Carolina being at home this time around should level the playing field a bit. The game will likely come down to whether Panthers quarterback Cam Newton can make more plays than Saints quarterback Drew Brees, and it's tough to see that happening.
4. New Orleans Saints (11-4)
The Saints were embarrassed on the road by the Seahawks a few weeks ago, but they impressively made up for it with a dominant win over Carolina. Rather than building upon that momentum, New Orleans put up arguably its worst showing of the year in St. Louis in Week 15 as the Rams had their way with the Saints.
It was definitely an eye-opening experience with the playoffs approaching, especially since the Saints could conceivably play their way out of having a home game in the playoffs. Beating the Panthers on the road won't be an easy task by any means, but Brees and head coach Sean Payton know how important it is, so they'll come through with a massive win.
3. Denver Broncos (12-3)
The Broncos seemed to have everything back in check after blowing a 24-point lead against the Patriots several weeks ago as they beat the Chiefs twice, but things got messy in Week 15. Denver was handled by the Chargers' ball-control offense, and it's possible that a blueprint for beating the Broncos has been discovered. Luckily for Denver, though, the loss didn't ultimately hurt, as the top three teams in the AFC lost.
Per Rich Eisen of NFL Network:
Broncos, Pats, Bengals all lost, first time 1, 2 and 3 seeds of a conference lost in same week this late in season since Week 17, 1991— Rich Eisen (@richeisen) December 16, 2013
There are definitely some chinks in the armor, but the loss to San Diego may prove to be nothing more than a bump in the road. Quarterback Peyton Manning is still playing at an MVP level, and opposing teams will struggle to account for all of his weapons. The Broncos will get back on track in Week 16 by taking their frustration out on Houston.
2. San Francisco 49ers (11-4)
Perhaps the 49ers haven't been as consistently dominant this season as many expected after their Super Bowl run last year, but there is no doubt that they are starting to reach their peak. Their win over the Seahawks in Week 14 was huge from a confidence perspective, and it can certainly be argued that San Francisco has a better chance than anyone else when it comes to knocking off Seattle during the playoffs.
The Niners will likely have to settle for a wild-card spot, but that doesn't make them a lesser team by any means. The defense is playing great, and the offense is starting to come together as well. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick has been much better since the return of wide receiver Michael Crabtree, and they will continue to work on their rapport in a win over Atlanta in Week 16.
1. Seattle Seahawks (13-2)
It would have been very easy for the Seahawks to experience a late-season collapse after losing to the 49ers in Week 14, but it didn't take them long to right the ship. Seattle was dominant in all phases as it shut out the Giants in Week 16, and all signs point toward it clinching both the NFC West and the No. 1 seed in the NFC in Week 16.
Seattle won't be able to sleepwalk its way to victory over a game Cardinals squad, but being at home certainly helps. Provided the defense continues to play at a high level and quarterback Russell Wilson continues to play smart football, the Seahawks are the team to beat in the NFL.
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