This late in the game, one would think a semblance of clarity would have finally emerged over the NFL landscape.
Nope, not really.
Instead, the NFL keeps getting weirder and weirder. The Seattle Seahawks squandered a game on their mystified home field, making the NFC playoff bracket feel a lot more wide open. Also, nobody apparently wants to take the NFC North or final AFC playoff spot.
With only one week of regular-season football remaining, let's take yet another stab at establishing the league's pecking order.
1. Denver Broncos (12-3)
With a week to spare, Peyton Manning reclaimed the single-season touchdown record from Tom Brady with four passing scores against the Houston Texans.
Peyton Manning sets NFL record for TD passes in season (51), throws for 400 yards, 4 TD, 0 Int in win over Houston. pic.twitter.com/glIJ1gcpBv— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) December 22, 2013
If the New England Patriots lose to the Buffalo Bills in their early-afternoon game, the Broncos will have the AFC's No. 1 seed wrapped up before taking the field on Sunday.
2. Seattle Seahawks (12-3)
The Seahawks had not lost a game at home since Dec. 24, 2011, before falling to the Arizona Cardinals during Week 16. That now makes two losses against NFC West foes vying for a wild-card spot, so perhaps they're fallible after all.
3. Carolina Panthers (11-4)
Here's what Sports Illustrated's Peter King tweeted about Cam Newton during the second half of Carolina's monumental NFC South clash with the New Orleans Saints:
Has Cam Newton made a play today? One?— Peter King (@SI_PeterKing) December 22, 2013
Carolina drafted Newton first overall for games like this, and he's failing them miserably today.— Peter King (@SI_PeterKing) December 22, 2013
Well, this is awkward. Newton orchestrated his fourth game-winning drive of the last two months to put the Panthers ahead in the division.
4. New England Patriots (11-4)
Just when you're about to worry about the Patriots again, they trounce the Baltimore Ravens in a 42-7 stomping. They'll certainly miss Rob Gronkowski during the postseason, but Julian Edelman has caught 44 passes for 491 yards over the last five games.
5. San Francisco 49ers (10-4)
Since Michael Crabtree has returned from a torn Achilles tendon, Colin Kaepernick has completed 61.6 percent of his passes. Beating the Seahawks in Week 14 finally gave the 49ers the legitimate victory they needed to be taken seriously as a Super Bowl contender, if they even make the playoffs.
6. New Orleans Saints (10-5)
The Saints, who are 3-5 on the road this season, are in grave danger of starting the postseason away from the Superdome unless the Panthers squander their division lead during the final week. Burning them for a 43-yard score, DeAngelo Williams was the latest running back to exploit the Saints' subpar run-prevention unit.
7. Cincinnati Bengals (10-5)
Hey everyone, the good Bengals came back! Their inconsistency is infuriating, but when they show up, they show up. They exceeded 40 points scored for the fourth time this season in a 42-14 pouncing over the Minnesota Vikings.
8. Kansas City Chiefs (11-4)
The Chiefs have won nine games against teams with six or fewer wins, but they're just 2-4 against winning clubs. Against winning AFC teams, they're 0-4 with a minus-36 point differential. Hate to be the bearer of bad news, but playoff opponents tend to be good teams.
9. Arizona Cardinals (10-5)
Carson Palmer threw four interceptions, while the ground game compiled just 3.2 yards per carry, and the Cardinals still beat the NFC's top team in the toughest road environment. This defense of Arizona's is legit.
10. Indianapolis Colts (10-5)
The Colts have been demolished a few times this season, but they now boast victories over the Broncos, Seahawks, 49ers and Chiefs. Like last year, their point differential (plus-35) doesn't match their record, but they're an awfully dangerous playoff squad that plays up to its adversary.
11. Philadelphia Eagles (9-6)
After dismantling the Chicago Bears on Sunday night, the Eagles have won six of their last seven bouts. Nick Foles has certainly fueled that hot streak, but LeSean McCoy's 2,012 all-purpose yards don't hurt either.
12. San Diego Chargers (8-7)
The Chargers need a win against the Chiefs (who are locked into the No. 5 seed) and help just to sneak into the postseason, but they're the team AFC division winners should fear. They've already defeated the Chiefs, Broncos and Colts and have yet to lose a game by more than 10 points.
13. Dallas Cowboys (8-7)
The choker known as Tony Romo strikes again. After hurting his leg during the fourth quarter, he led the Cowboys to 10 unanswered points to edge out the Washington Redskins and keep the season alive. But as ESPN Stats & Info points out, that was the first time Romo has propelled the Cowboys to a late victory:
Most game-winning drives in 4th quarter/OT since start of 2006 season- Peyton Manning 25, Tony Romo/Matt Ryan 23— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) December 22, 2013
Wait, 23 is more than one. Weird.
14. St. Louis Rams (7-8)
The Rams can hunt for a .500 record with peace of mind knowing that they have Washington's top pick (currently No. 2) at their disposal. The heavily worked Zac Stacy would represent a rare 300-carry back had he began the season as St. Louis' featured back.
15. Chicago Bears (8-7)
Are you sure this is a team that can win the division with a win in Week 17? The Bears looked horrendous against another playoff hopeful in the Philadelphia Eagles, allowing 289 rushing yards and 54 points. Nobody from the NFC North deserves a playoff bid.
16. Baltimore Ravens (8-7)
Baltimore's rushing woes continued against New England, as Ray Rice managed just 40 yards on the ground through 11 carries. He is averaging just 3.1 yards per carry during a dreadful season for the Ravens offense.
17. Miami Dolphins (8-7)
Fighting for a playoff berth, the Dolphins compiled 103 total offensive yards and were sacked seven times in a 19-0 loss to the Buffalo Bills. Yet they only need a win against the New York Jets to make the playoffs, and they've defeated two of their potential first-round opponents (Bengals and Colts).
18. Pittsburgh Steelers (7-8)
If Antonio Brown stays in bounds during that wild conclusion to the Steelers' bout against the Dolphins, Pittsburgh would be in good shape to make the postseason. It's amazing how such a minuscule detail can alter everything in the NFL.
19. Green Bay Packers (7-7-1)
Here's a much less bizarre thought: Losing a superstar quarterback hurts. The rest of the NFC is going to despise the Bears and Detroit Lions if they allow Aaron Rodgers a chance to return during the playoffs.
20. Detroit Lions (7-8)
Speaking of Rodgers, B/R's own Mike Freeman sums up the Lions' failure fairly well:
Lions not winning an Aaron Rodgers-less division biggest indictment of team.— mike freeman (@mikefreemanNFL) December 23, 2013
All they had to do was beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Or a Ravens team that couldn't score a touchdown. Or the New York Giants, the only team that can match the Lions turnover for turnover. A top-five offense in a weak division shouldn't be sitting out playoff football, but the Lions found a way (mainly through three more turnovers) to cough up their golden opportunity.
21. Buffalo Bills (6-9)
Opposing quarterbacks should consider themselves lucky they won't have to deal with the Bills' ferocious pass rush during the playoffs. The Bills enhanced their NFL-leading sack tally to 56 with seven more against the Dolphins, setting a franchise record in the process.
22. Tennessee Titans (6-9)
At least the Titans avoided a sweep at the Jaguars' hands during a narrow 20-16 victory. A brutal schedule—they've lost seven games to teams with at least 10 wins—has made this a forgettable year in Tennessee.
23. New York Jets (7-8)
The Jets stole a couple of wins early in the season, but who expected them to have a chance to finish at .500 heading into the final week? Rex Ryan may lose his job, but his team has actually soared well beyond all preseason expectations for a squad predicted to spar for the No. 1 draft pick.
24. New York Giants (6-9)
Eli Manning has played quarterback for two championship squads, and yet he's performed so woefully this season that an average 23-of-42, 256-yard outing feels like a sensational revelation. Just how much can be excused by his team's past success?
25. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-11)
In hindsight, Mike Glennon's brief success was likely the product of a favorable schedule. He's completed 53.3 percent of his passes for 151.8 yards per game over his past four matches. Then again, that came amid a brutal slate of opponents.
26. Minnesota Vikings (4-10-1)
When you allow 295.6 passing yards per game, the final result typically is not going to look good. On the bright side, Cordarrelle Patterson has displayed glimpses of Percy Harvin for a team that desperately needs some dynamic offensive weapons to complement Adrian Peterson.
27. Atlanta Falcons (4-10)
The NFL has sharply translated to an aerial duel, but getting outgained 52.1 yards per game on the ground still bears some consequences. Averaging 3.5 yards per carry, Steven Jackson looks like a Michael Turner clone, and that's meant in the worst way possible.
28. Cleveland Browns (4-10)
After playing stout defense early in the season, the Browns have surrendered 31.5 points per game during their six-game losing streak. They even made Geno Smith look competent while Chris Ivory bulldozed them for 109 rushing yards during a Week 16 loss to the Jets.
29. Oakland Raiders (4-11)
At least Oakland doesn't have to be the team to surrender Peyton Manning's record-breaking touchdown pass. He went 32-of-37 for 374 yards and three touchdowns during their earlier meeting, so let's hope for Oakland's sake that Denver takes it easy in Week 17.
30. Jacksonville Jaguars (4-11)
Considering the hapless start to the season, the Jaguars have played inspiring football since their Week 9 bye. Actually, "not horrible football" is probably more like it, but they're 4-3 since that arbitrary endpoint and no longer rank last in points allowed.
31. Washington Redskins (3-12)
Operation "Use an Easy Schedule to Boost Kirk Cousins' Trade Value" stalled during Washington's 24-23 loss to Dallas. The Washington Post's Jason Reid described the underwhelming effort:
Cousins has been mostly effective directing the Redskins’ offense. He did many things well — leading receivers, cycling through progressions and making good decisions in the pocket — in place of Robert Griffin III during a Week 15 loss to the Atlanta Falcons. Against the Cowboys, however, Cousins wasn’t impressive.
He completed only 21 of 36 passes for 197 yards. Often, Cousins wasn’t accurate. Late in the first half, Cousins threw behind wide receiver Santana Moss, who was running uncovered deep in Dallas territory. The ball bounced off Moss’s hands and was intercepted.
Good luck getting a first-round pick for him now.
32. Houston Texans (2-13)
At this point, the Texans should just own up to their awfulness and make sure they drop their 14th straight game in order to preserve the No. 1 pick. Wouldn't it stink to endure 13 consecutive losses, only to win a meaningless game instead of considering their future?