Fifteen weeks into the 2013 NFL season, power rankings still feel a bit like throwing lawn darts into the air to see which one impales into a body part.
The lawn darts may be less painful.
For example, the St. Louis Rams trounced the New Orleans Saints last week, and the Minnesota Vikings beat the Philadelphia Eagles by scoring 48 points...and they did so without Adrian Peterson.
This league of parity never hesitates to humble even the most experienced and knowledgeable of fans, but I'm not going to let the unpredictability keep me from laying out the balance of power for all to see.
1. Seattle Seahawks
After falling to the San Francisco 49ers in Week 14, the Seahawks did a decent job of rebounding by going on the road and blanking the New York Giants, 23-0.
The Seahawks now have two home games remaining on the schedule and a two-game lead for the NFC's top seed. That is terrible news for the rest of the conference:
Seahawks likely won't go on road again until they face AFC team at place they just won at, in NJ. Now 3/2 favorite http://t.co/sAMSM3XvVK— Micah Roberts (@MicahRoberts7) December 17, 2013
2. Carolina Panthers
The Carolina Panthers have to avoid defeat to the New Orleans Saints this week to stay alive in the division race. To do that, they will have to be far better than they were in New Orleans in Week 14.
The Panthers quietly fell 31-13 while allowing Drew Brees over 300 yards passing gained at 7.2 yards per pass.
Playing in Carolina is an excellent start. The Saints have not been as potent on the road:
Also, the Panthers haven't allowed an away team to score more than 20 points in a game this season.
Which team will represent the NFC in the Super Bowl?
If the Panthers are going to prove me right by placing them second in the power rankings, they have to win this game.
3. San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers appear to be peaking at the right time. They have won four straight, and that includes their win over the Seahawks.
The 49ers have a slim chance at capturing the division crown but control their own fate for the No. 1 wild-card spot. San Francisco gets an easy date with the Atlanta Falcons at home this week but will face a feisty Cardinals defense in Arizona in Week 17.
4. Denver Broncos
Fourth is lower than most seem to have the Denver Broncos, but I don't like the trend of this team. For example, the Broncos rushed for 18 yards against the San Diego Chargers and their 14th-ranked rush defense.
Still, the bigger concerns come on defense.
The Broncos' once imposing rush defense has disappeared. Denver is 11th in the league in rush defense at 105.4 yards allowed per game. Over their last three games, Denver has allowed 144 yards on the ground per game.
Meanwhile, the 28th-ranked pass defense can only hope to slow teams down, not stop them.
This team will not be able to hoist the Lombardi Trophy if that defense doesn't improve.
5. New Orleans Saints
If the Saints don't figure out how to produce on offense on the road like they do at home, their season is doomed.
For starters, they will likely lose the division to the Panthers. That will leave them staring at nothing but road games in the playoffs.
This video tells you why they could win at least one of those:
6. Kansas City Chiefs
I mentioned that I didn't like the trend of the Broncos. What I didn't mention was that I don't like the trend of any top AFC team.
Sure, the Chiefs offense exploded for 51 points, but that was against a Raiders team that barely laid a hand on Jamaal Charles on three screen passes he took to the house. So let's not read too much into the offensive performance.
Also, we can't forget that the Chiefs allowed undrafted rookie starter Matt McGloin to lead the Raiders to 31 points.
If the Chiefs defense is not elite, this team will have no shot in the playoffs.
7. New England Patriots
Despite falling to the Miami Dolphins in yet another thrilling finish, the Patriots are still in great shape to win the AFC East. They have a two-game lead over Miami.
Still, the Patriots are not out of the woods. They travel to Baltimore to take on a surging Ravens team fighting for their playoff lives.
They finish, however, with the Bills at home. The Bills have beaten the Patriots just once in their past 20 meetings.
8. Cincinnati Bengals
All of a sudden, the Cincinnati Bengals have just a one-game lead in the AFC North, and they will face the second-place Ravens in their regular-season finale.
At least the Bengals get their final two games at home.
It is not out of the realm of possibility the Bengals will miss the playoffs altogether, though. They have the Vikings at home this week, and Minnesota is suddenly a tough opponent.
9. Indianapolis Colts
The Indianapolis Colts have already been crowned division champs, but they aren't playing like it.
The Colts haven't won two in a row or beaten a team with a winning record since their triumph over the Broncos on Oct. 20. Not coincidentally, that is the last game Reggie Wayne was able to play in before suffering his season-ending injury.
10. Baltimore Ravens
The defending Super Bowl champions are not going to let their title go quietly after all.
The Ravens have won four straight and now control their own postseason destiny. To get in, however, they will have to earn it. The Ravens host the Patriots this week and then travel to take on the Bengals to close the regular season.
11. Philadelphia Eagles
When a team gives up 48 points and 382 passing yards to a Vikings team with Matt Cassel at the helm and no Adrian Peterson in the backfield, it is safe to say that team's defense has been exposed.
The Eagles still hold a game lead in the NFC East, however, and although they finish out the season with a tough home game against the Chicago Bears and then an away game with the Dallas Cowboys, there is no reason to think the Cowboys will make a run to the division crown.
12. Chicago Bears
It is easy to get caught up in the Bears situation at quarterback with Jay Cutler returning to health and his starting job after Josh McCown enjoyed a great stretch of play while filling in for Cutler.
What is of greater concern for the Bears, however, is the play of their defense. It is atrocious.
The Bears are 32nd in yards allowed per rush and 23rd in yards allowed per pass. With that kind of defense, the Bears have a limited ceiling no matter who lines up under center.
13. Green Bay Packers
All of this while the Green Bay Packers' postseason hopes hang in the balance. The Packers are just a half-game back of the Bears in the NFC North.
14. Miami Dolphins
It's remarkable that the Dolphins are still in the postseason hunt.
The Dolphins don't control their own postseason destiny, but it's close. With an away game against the Buffalo Bills this week and then a home game against the New York Jets to close out the season, the Dolphins will be in good shape should the Ravens drop a game.
15. San Diego Chargers
The San Diego Chargers kept their postseason hopes alive with a huge win over the Broncos. The Chargers (7-7) are just a game back of the Ravens for the AFC's final wild-card spot.
Of course, Miami is also ahead of them in their path to the postseason, and the Dolphins have a head-to-head win over the Chargers.
San Diego will need some help to get into the postseason, and they will also have to contend with the Chiefs in the final week of the season. At least that game will be at home, as well as their Week 16 contest against the Oakland Raiders.
16. Detroit Lions
I've said it before, and they keep proving me right: The Detroit Lions can't stand prosperity. This team had the NFC North in the palm of its hand. Now it is in third.
The Lions are just a game out of first, and with a home game against the New York Giants and then an away tilt with the Vikings, Detroit can still make a push for the postseason.
But they won't. This team will find some way to blow at least one of those games.
17. Arizona Cardinals
The Arizona Cardinals sit at 9-5 and are just a game out of the NFC's final wild-card spot.
With a suspect offensive line and a turnover-prone quarterback, however, this team will not be able to handle the physicality left on its schedule.
The Cardinals play at the Seahawks and then host the 49ers to close out the season.
18. Dallas Cowboys
Let's play the blame game in Dallas. Jason Garrett seemed to place the blame of last week's debacle on quarterback Tony Romo after everyone wanted to place the blame on Garrett.
This video tells us why the blame should start even higher in the organization.
The Cowboys still control their own destiny in the NFC East, but this is a sinking ship.
19. Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers have made great strides after starting the year 0-4. This will certainly make for a more pleasant offseason.
Barring disastrous performances over the last two games of the season, I expect the core of this roster and coaching staff to return next season.
20. St. Louis Rams
The Rams have been inconsistent, but this team has some outstanding young talent on defense and the core to be a dominant team in the trenches on both sides of the ball. With good quarterback play, the Rams could be a dangerous team next year.
21. New York Jets
What to do with quarterback Geno Smith?
The rookie has shown flashes of brilliance, but he is not progressing as a player. I certainly wouldn't blame the Jets if they've already decided he does not have what it takes to be a franchise quarterback.
In his last five games, he has thrown eight interceptions and two touchdowns.
22. New York Giants
Speaking of quarterback dilemmas in the Big Apple, what do the Giants do about Eli Manning?
Eli Manning is 5 interceptions away from becoming 1st QB since 1988 to throw 30 Int. This was his reaction » pic.twitter.com/wpKfCe9ekU— SportsNation (@SportsNation) December 16, 2013
The Super Bowl hero has been an unmitigated disaster this season. He threw five interceptions this past week to raise his season total to 25.
That matches his career-worst mark set in 2010, and not only does he still have two games to set a new mark, in 2010 he threw 31 touchdowns. He has 16 this year.
23. Tennessee Titans
The Tennessee Titans battled through injuries to try and stay in the playoff race after starting the season at 3-1. They have won just twice, however, since that start.
The defense has been worn down and beaten. In their strong four-game start, the Titans held three opponents under 18 points. They haven't managed to pull that off since.
24. Buffalo Bills
E.J. Manuel isn't setting the world on fire like rookie quarterbacks did last year, but he is coming on strong after having his season interrupted by injury.
In Week 14, Manuel struggled his way to four picks. He looked far better this past weekend with two touchdowns and an interception. More importantly, he led the Bills to a victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Unfortunately, the young signal-caller can't keep his knee healthy:
Third knee injury knocks rookie EJ Manuel out of lineup; Thad Lewis to start http://t.co/t6j7ChP3kV— Tim Graham (@ByTimGraham) December 18, 2013
Head coach Doug Marrone did his best to downplay potential long-term concerns:
Doug Marrone on rookie QB EJ Manuel: "He's not injury-prone" http://t.co/9kzfoV9LIf— Tim Graham (@ByTimGraham) December 18, 2013
Hopefully Manuel can get past his knee issues, but this casts at least some gloom over his projected future.
25. Minnesota Vikings
It's been a rough season in Minnesota that has been made disappointing by bad quarterback play and poor defense.
All of a sudden, however, this team is playing good football. The Vikings are 2-1-1 in their last four games, and all four games have come against teams in the thick of the playoff hunt.
26. Jacksonville Jaguars
For most of the season, the one constant I could count on when mapping out my power rankings was that I could wrap the whole thing up with a cheap joke at the Jaguars' expense.
The team was so awful, the jokes wrote themselves.
Then the Jags went on a three-game winning streak. That streak was snapped last week, but they still only lost by seven. It's impressive this team didn't give up on the season.
27. Oakland Raiders
With some youthful talent and a boatload of oncoming cap space, the future is getting brighter in Oakland. This video expands on that topic.
The question now is, however, will coach Dennis Allen be around to see it.
NFL.com's Michael Silver reported Allen's fate hangs in the balance in the final two games of the season. With games against the Chargers and Broncos to close out the season, it is going to be hard for Allen to do much impressing.
28. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano is certainly another head man whose seat is a touch hot.
The second-year coach is lucky to still be coaching at all after his team started the season 0-8. Since then, however, the Bucs have gone 4-2.
Like Allen in Oakland, Schiano will have a hard time finishing the year on a good note. The Bucs have road games with the Rams and Saints to close out the season.
29. Cleveland Browns
The Cleveland Browns traded away running back Trent Richardson, and we all assumed this team was throwing in the towel on the year.
They won three straight games following the trade and threatened to play themselves out of any decent draft slot.
With a 4-10 record, a five-game losing streak, a sinking defense and two away games to finish the year, the Browns are going to get that premium draft choice after all.
30. Atlanta Falcons
With wins in two of their last three, the Atlanta Falcons have picked themselves up off the mat a bit. Those wins were over the Bills and Washington Redskins, however.
I expect the 49ers and Panthers to knock this team back to the mat over the next two weeks.
31. Washington Redskins
The Redskins have a lot of resources tied up in Robert Griffin III, and where there was nothing but confidence surrounding this young man last season, there are plenty of question marks surrounding him now.
Everything from his attitude to his mechanics are falling under the microscope.
32. Houston Texans
What do you even say about the Texans at this point? They may as well just forfeit the rest of their games this season and start building toward next year.
This franchise still has talent, but it has a lot of holes to fill before thinking about getting back to the postseason.
All team rankings and season stats via TeamRankings.com.