Heading into the penultimate week of the NFL season, teams have only themselves to thank for where they sit in the standings. As Bill Parcells once said, "You are what your record says you are."
It is easy to blame bad luck or a tough schedule for struggles, but at a certain point, the elite teams rise to the top. Most people expected the Houston Texans to finally turn things around, but that obviously never happened.
At this point of the year, we know plenty about a team just by looking at its record. Now the squads have to spend the next two weeks improving that mark.
Until then, take a look at these power rankings based on what we know about each team heading into Week 16.
1. Seattle Seahawks (12-2)
Coming into the year, there was a lot of talk about the Seahawks' inability to win on the road. However, they finished the season 6-2 away from CenturyLink Field, and only the Kansas City Chiefs have an opportunity to post a better record in 2013.
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Thanks to this strong play, Seattle will likely not have to play on the road again until the Super Bowl.
2. Denver Broncos (11-3)
There were no excuses for the Broncos with the latest loss, as the San Diego Chargers simply outplayed them to a 27-20 victory. San Diego presented a blueprint for beating Denver by keeping Peyton Manning off the field with long drives.
Of course, opponents will still have to slow down the Broncos offense when it gets the ball. Considering that few teams are capable of accomplishing this, Denver should be just fine going forward.
3. Carolina Panthers (10-4)
While the Panthers have accomplished a lot this season, the upcoming home battle against the New Orleans Saints will tell you everything you need to know about this team. If the Panthers can earn a win, it will put them in good position to get the No. 2 seed in the NFC and be legitimate Super Bowl contenders.
On the other hand, a loss might prove that Carolina is too young and not quite ready to compete with the best in the league.
4. New Orleans Saints (10-4)
Drew Brees had spent much of the year defending his road record, which was better than most thought, as ESPN's Mike Sando noted:
And the best regular-season road record in the NFL since 2009 belongs to ... you guessed it, the Saints. 24-14 (.632).— Mike Sando, ESPN.com (@SandoESPN) December 12, 2013
However, the most recent loss to the St. Louis Rams dropped the Saints to 3-4 on the road this year. At this point, even the veteran quarterback could not deny the struggles away from the Superdome, via NewOrleansSaints.com:
We’re kind of proving you guys (media) right, right now, which is unfortunate because we certainly don’t feel that way about ourselves. The record doesn’t lie. We have to play better on the road. No excuses, we have to play better on the road and we will.
Of course, it is not just Brees who has struggled. The receivers have not caught passes, the linemen have not made blocks, and the defenders have not wrapped up tackles. Until this changes, there is a reason to doubt the Saints in the postseason.
5. San Francisco 49ers (10-4)
The 49ers are peaking at the right time with four wins in a row. Michael Crabtree is already making a positive impact after missing most of the season, and he is helping the offense move the ball down the field consistently.
However, San Francisco is still 1-3 against the teams above it in these power rankings, which are the opponents it will have to beat in the playoffs. The 49ers have the confidence to win a Super Bowl, but the road will be tough.
6. Kansas City Chiefs (11-3)
Over the past two weeks, Kansas City has had an offensive explosion with a combined 101 points against the Washington Redskins and Oakland Raiders. Of course, those poor defenses had a lot to do with it.
The Chiefs still have to prove that they can beat winning teams, something they have done only once all season. The upcoming battle against the Indianapolis Colts will tell us a lot about the team's chance of contention this season.
7. New England Patriots (10-4)
There are reasons not to trust the Patriots going forward this season, but the big one is the loss of Rob Gronkowski. The offense had to settle for two short field goals against the Miami Dolphins after failing to get into the end zone, an area where the tight end usually comes up big.
New England will still likely win the AFC East and might hold onto the No. 2 seed, but getting to the Super Bowl will be difficult.
8. Arizona Cardinals (9-5)
The Cardinals are playing as well as anyone in the NFL right now, winning five of their last six games to keep the pressure on the teams in the NFC. Unfortunately, they will still have a tough time reaching the playoffs.
Then again, if they can earn wins in Seattle and at home against the 49ers in the next two weeks, they deserve to make the postseason.
9. Cincinnati Bengals (9-5)
For much of the year, the AFC North was one of the weaker divisions in football. However, the Bengals could never put a firm grasp on the division, and they are now only holding on by one game with a battle against the Baltimore Ravens still to go.
Still, Cincinnati has the ability to beat anyone in the AFC. It will just need to remain focused in the final two games to ensure a place in the postseason.
10. Indianapolis Colts (9-5)
After clinching the AFC South, the Colts have to deal with complacency. Few teams are able to relax heading into the playoffs and then turn it on once the important games start again.
Head coach Chuck Pagano has to make sure his squad gives 100 percent effort in order to stay up to speed in the postseason.
11. Miami Dolphins (8-6)
The Dolphins looked dead in the water after Week 10 after a loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers—their first win of the season—dropped Miami to 4-5. However, the squad was able to refocus and play as well as anyone in the league.
Since that loss, the Dolphins have won four of five with their only loss coming against the Panthers. Although they are currently out of the playoffs, they control their own destiny and can reach the playoffs with two more wins.
The big difference is the continued improvement of quarterback Ryan Tannehill. Daniel Jeremiah of NFL.com was one of many who were impressed with the game-winning drive against the Patriots:
Impressive drive by Tannehill. Nice mix of drive throws/touch throws. Lot of time left for #12— Daniel Jeremiah (@MoveTheSticks) December 15, 2013
Besides just the throws, the former first-round pick is also showing great poise in the pocket and coming through when needed. He now appears to be the franchise quarterback that the team was hoping for when he was drafted.
12. Baltimore Ravens (8-6)
The Ravens had the toughest stretch to end the year of those contending for the AFC Wild Card. However, they were able to secure the win against the Detroit Lions and now have plenty of momentum going forward.
If Joe Flacco can regain the magic from last year's postseason, Baltimore can once again go far.
13. Philadelphia Eagles (8-6)
Philadelphia had a chance to take a commanding lead in the NFC East with a win over the lowly Minnesota Vikings, but that did not happen. Now things just get tougher with upcoming games against the Chicago Bears and Dallas Cowboys.
Fortunately, the Eagles will match up the No. 1 rushing attack against the Bears' No. 32 rushing defense.
14. Chicago Bears (8-6)
As previously noted, the matchup is not a good one against the Eagles. Fortunately for the Bears, they are optimistic about Lance Briggs returning to the lineup, according to Rich Campbell of the Chicago Tribune.
Either way, Chicago should be happy to control its own destiny after an up-and-down year. The question is whether the team can make it count with a pair of wins to end the season.
15. San Diego Chargers (7-7)
With so many teams struggling to come through at this point of the year, it is nice to see the Chargers doing their best to play their way into the playoffs. Unfortunately, they still need a lot of help to grab that last wild-card spot.
Still, Philip Rivers has continued his strong play all season long, and he can keep his squad focused on itself to win the final two games and hope for the best.
16. Green Bay Packers (7-6-1)
Mike Spofford of Packers.com reports that Aaron Rodgers still has not been medically cleared to return. The only good news is that Green Bay now believes it can win without him after back-to-back one-point victories under Matt Flynn.
With confidence in the quarterback, a team can achieve anything.
17. Detroit Lions (7-7)
Other teams had a worse 2013 season, but the Lions might go down as one of the most disappointing.
Injuries around the division gave Detroit a real opportunity to secure the NFC North title, but as Ed Werder of ESPN points out, that window might be gone:
Lions had division lead and weeks where GB without Aaron Rodgers and Chic without Jay Cutler and now they're third in NFC North.— Ed Werder (@Edwerderespn) December 17, 2013
Of course, Michael Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser of Pardon the Interruption had some harsher analysis:
On the Lions... Tony: "Detroit has real talent. And they stink." Mike: "Detroit, as I often say, majors in stupid."— PTI (@PTI) December 17, 2013
It is hard to argue with this after seeing the Lions lose despite their talent. Matthew Stafford threw three interceptions against the Ravens, including one on the potential game-winning drive.
They are not out of the race just yet, but the inability to take over a weak division will haunt them.
18. Dallas Cowboys (7-7)
Speaking of game-ending interceptions, Tony Romo also hurt his team with a pair of late turnovers in Week 15. Still, there are plenty of other people to blame regarding the Cowboys' struggles, including the entire defense.
However, the blame game does not matter with a division title still up for grabs. Dallas has to find a way to cure its problems this week, or else it will be heading into the offseason with a lot of question marks.
19. Pittsburgh Steelers (6-8)
Even with a number of bad losses this year, the latest win over the Bengals proves that you cannot count out the Steelers at any time. There are a lot of veterans on the roster with enough pride to play hard every single game.
Pittsburgh still will have tough decisions about what to do with those veterans after the season ends, as a full rebuild is a possibility.
20. St. Louis Rams (6-8)
Although the Rams cannot hang with the best in the league on a consistent basis, they are capable of some dominant performances. St. Louis defeated the Colts, Bears and Saints by a combined 62 points.
Unfortunately, playing in the toughest division in the league gave the Rams little chance of success, especially with a backup quarterback for most of the year.
21. Tennessee Titans (5-9)
Even with five losses in the last six games, the Titans are not giving up on the year. Although the comeback attempt against the Cardinals fell short in Week 15, Tennessee still displayed plenty of effort on both sides of the ball.
With games against the Texans and Jaguars to end the year, the Titans should finish with a respectable record.
22. New York Jets (6-8)
After the season is over, the Jets will once again have to decide whether Rex Ryan should remain with the team. According to Dan Hanzus of NFL.com, the coach does not think he is going anywhere:
I know that I'm a good football coach. I believe in this team. I believe in this organization and I'm determined to bring a winner to this team, there is no question about it. And I know, that I believe, that I'm the right guy for it.
The truth is that he actually did a good job this season in getting the team to six wins. He was forced to start a second-round draft pick at quarterback from Day 1 without many other offensive weapons.
At this point, the bigger question might be whether New York can trust Geno Smith going forward. With a 10-to-21 touchdown-to-interception ratio, the rookie still has a lot to prove in the final two games of the year.
23. Buffalo Bills (5-9)
All Buffalo wants to do at this point of the year is evaluate EJ Manuel, but even that is not possible, as ESPN's Adam Schefter reports:
Bills HC Doug Marrone said QB Thad Lewis will start Sunday vs. Miami due to EJ Manuel's knee injury.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) December 18, 2013
This leaves few positive takeaways for the final weeks of the season.
24. New York Giants (5-9)
The Giants defense has moved into the league's top 10 in yards allowed per game after a terrible start. This means that the blame for the poor season has to fall on the shoulders of Eli Manning, who has thrown a league-worst 25 interceptions.
Although the two-time Super Bowl winner is not going anywhere, he will not be able to survive another season of this type of play.
25. Minnesota Vikings (4-9-1)
Matt Asiata had his moment in the spotlight with three touchdowns in an upset win over the Eagles. Unfortunately, his 1.7 yards per carry will relegate him back to obscurity.
Minnesota is much more interested in seeing the development of younger players like Cordarrelle Patterson.
26. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-10)
Were the four wins toward the end of the season enough to save Greg Schiano's job? What if he gets one or two more over the next couple of weeks?
The answers to these questions are not yet known, but you can be certain the head coach will hope to see the Buccaneers remain competitive in the final two games.
27. Atlanta Falcons (4-10)
After a terrible season, the Falcons were likely hoping to at least secure a quality draft pick that could help the team return to prominence next season. With two wins in the last three games, that is looking worse.
Still, games against the 49ers and Panthers to end the year should ensure that no more wins will be seen in Atlanta for some time.
28. Jacksonville Jaguars (4-10)
Jacksonville still had an outside chance to make the playoffs heading into Week 15, but that is no longer a possibility:
This presents an interesting view to see how the squad will respond. The Jaguars were impressive during their run of four wins in five games, but the latest loss might just give them an excuse to give up on the year.
Head coach Gus Bradley has proved that he can get his team to fight hard, but earning a high draft pick might be too enticing to pass up.
29. Cleveland Browns (4-10)
You do not get points for effort in the NFL, no matter how often you show it. While the Browns lost close games to the Patriots and Bears, there comes a point where there are no more moral victories.
The good news is that a quality quarterback could heal a lot of the woes in Cleveland.
30. Oakland Raiders (4-10)
Apparently, the Raiders never learned how to defend a screen pass. Jamaal Charles torched Oakland through the air in Week 15, totaling 195 receiving yards and four touchdowns (plus one rushing touchdown).
With two top passing attacks incoming between the Chargers and Broncos, things can get bad in a hurry.
31. Washington Redskins (3-11)
One benefit of Robert Griffin III not playing for the rest of the season is that the Redskins can now evaluate Kirk Cousins. In one game, though, we still do not know much thanks to three touchdown passes to go with three turnovers.
Still, it is clear the problems in Washington go far beyond the quarterback position after six losses in a row.
32. Houston Texans (2-12)
Until last week, the Texans had a run of seven straight losses decided by seven points or less. The latest 25-3 defeat ended this streak, proving that Houston has mailed it in for the season and is ready to start preparing for 2014.
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