Even though there is only one weekend left in the NFL regular season, there are still plenty of moving parts heading into the playoffs.
There will be two contests that will decide division winners on Sunday, both sixth seeds for the postseason are still up for grabs, and top teams are jockeying for first-round byes. The NFL prides itself on parity, and the league proved it this year, as there are still 18 teams with playoff aspirations following 16 weeks of action.
Let's take a look at the power structure of the entire league heading into what's sure to be a drama-filled weekend.
1. Denver Broncos (12-3)
Peyton Manning and the Broncos continue to reign supreme as the AFC's top seed. Coupled with a lackluster performance by the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday, there's no doubt that Denver is the NFL's top team right now.
Manning made NFL history in the 37-13 win over the Houston Texans in Week 15, throwing for four scores to bring his season total to 51, surpassing the mark of 50 set by Tom Brady in 2007. Manning (5,211) is also the league's lone quarterback with at least 5,000 yards, along with his 67.2 completion percentage and 10 interceptions, making him a runaway favorite to win league MVP.
Peyton Manning throws No. 51 to beat Tom Brady’s single season TD record! pic.twitter.com/JIyEq8hCQG— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) December 22, 2013
With a win against the lowly Oakland Raiders on Sunday, the Broncos would secure home-field advantage in the playoffs and become the only 13-win team in a competitive and balanced AFC.
2. Seattle Seahawks (12-3)
Russell Wilson's remarkable streak of undefeated home starts came to a halt on Sunday when the Seahawks suffered a 17-10 defeat to the Arizona Cardinals.
The quarterback and the offense struggled throughout the contest, posting just 10 first downs all game and sending the team to a loss despite four turnovers created by the Seattle defense. Coupled with the 19-17 loss to the San Francisco 49ers in Week 14, the Seahawks have lost two of three following a seven-game win streak.
As the team's Twitter account noted, it's been a rare lapse of success for the Seahawks lately:
Seattle has been on the verge of clinching the NFC West for three weeks now and still needs one more victory to snatch the division crown from two-time reigning champ San Francisco. For the season finale, Seattle will face the St. Louis Rams, a team it defeated 14-9 in Week 8.
3. Carolina Panthers (11-4)
Cam Newton put on his Superman cape in the final stages of Sunday's 17-13 win over the New Orleans Saints. It's a good thing he was dressed for the occasion, via Will Brinson of CBS Sports:
Newton had been struggling all game against the Saints in a rain-soaked Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, but then he engineered a scintillating winning drive. He made a couple of great throws leading up to the game-winning, 14-yard touchdown pass to Domenik Hixon with 23 seconds left on the clock.
Not only did the victory push the Panthers into sole possession of first-place in the NFC South, but it elevated the team to the No. 2 seed in the NFC. Carolina now just needs to beat the Atlanta Falcons in the season finale to wrap up a coveted a first-round bye, setting the stage for the team's first playoff run under third-year coach Ron Rivera.
4. San Francisco 49ers (11-4)
If the 49ers don't ever play a game at Candlestick Park again, they exited the stadium with a bang by beating the Atlanta Falcons 34-24 on Monday Night Football. The contest was marked by some late drama, as NaVorro Bowman returned an interception 89 yards for a touchdown with 70 seconds left to seal the victory.
San Francisco clinched a playoff spot with the win and currently holds the No. 5 seed as the NFC's top wild-card team. The 49ers need a win against the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday and a Seattle loss to secure their third straight NFC West crown. San Francisco can even claim the conference's top seed if it wins and Seattle and Carolina both lose.
The Niners have won five straight heading into their matchup with Arizona, which is also hot with seven wins in its past eight contests.
5. New England Patriots (11-4)
The Patriots made a huge statement with Sunday's 41-7 victory over the Baltimore Ravens.
The loss of Rob Gronkowski will certainly burden the team, but the defense and special teams are rounding into form and helping New England maintain its identity as a powerhouse. Tom Brady and the offense accounted for the first 27 points in the game, while two more late touchdowns on a kickoff fumble recovery and an interception turned it into a blowout.
Entering Sunday's game with the Buffalo Bills, New England has a one-game lead on the Cincinnati Bengals and Indianapolis Colts, meaning it's poised for a first-round bye alongside the the Broncos.
6. Kansas City Chiefs (11-4)
Alex Smith and the offense looked limited in the 23-7 loss to the Colts on Sunday. After Jamaal Charles scored a 31-yard touchdown on the opening drive, the Chiefs were shut out the rest of the way, with Smith going 16-of-29 for 153 yards and no interceptions.
But with the division officially out of reach, the Chiefs are locked into the fifth seed in the AFC. As such, according to Eye on Football, coach Andy Reid is considering resting his starters for the Week 17 matchup against the San Diego Chargers, one of four teams vying for the final AFC playoff spot:
The Steelers probably won't be too thrilled to hear this: Andy Reid might rest the Chiefs starters this week http://t.co/fUfRNcjXoz— Eye on Football (@EyeOnNFL) December 23, 2013
Reid deserves a ton of credit for the turnaround for a team that won just two games in 2012 and dealt with major off-the-field incidents. It makes sense to rest his starters for the playoffs with the team's playoff situation set in stone.
7. Cincinnati Bengals (10-5)
Andy Dalton exploded for 366 yards and four touchdowns in a dominant 42-14 win over the visiting Minnesota Vikings and now has nine scores and no interceptions in his past three contests. Dalton (4,015) has eclipsed the 4,000-yard mark for the first time in his three-year career to go along with 31 touchdowns and 16 interceptions.
Bengals throttle Vikings, 42-14. Andy Dalton: 366 Pass yds, 4 TD, 0 Int Cincinnati is 7-0 at home this season— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) December 22, 2013
Even though last week's win secured the AFC North crown, the Bengals have plenty to play for in the final game of the regular season. A victory over the Baltimore Ravens and a Patriots loss would give Cincinnati a first-round bye and the No. 2 seed in the conference.
8. Indianapolis Colts (10-5)
After struggling with inconsistency for most of the season, the Colts are rounding into form down the stretch of the regular season.
With Sunday's 23-7 victory over the Chiefs, Indianapolis has now outscored its past two opponents 48-10 and is poised for another big win against the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 17. Running back Donald Brown has brought new life to a rushing attack that was sputtering with Trent Richardson as the lead man.
Since the Bengals hold the tiebreaker over the Colts with their 42-28 win in Week 14, Indianapolis looks locked into the fourth seed and a home divisional round matchup against the Chiefs.
9. New Orleans Saints (10-5)
Drew Brees and the Saints couldn't overcome the elements and a menacing Carolina defense in last week's 17-13 defeat. New Orleans is now in second place of the NFC South looking up at the Panthers, and a first-round bye looks to be out of reach without some help.
A victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday would ensure the Saints a playoff spot, and the team will always be dangerous in the postseason as long as Brees is under center.
Payton: “we are approaching Sunday like a playoff game” #TBvsNO— New Orleans Saints (@Saints) December 23, 2013
But the Saints have now lost three of four, and the offense has sputtered in that stretch, posting an average of 16.8 points per contest. New Orleans needs to find consistency in the running game, as the rushing attack ranks just 25th in the league (91.7 yards per contest).
10. Arizona Cardinals (10-5)
Not even four Carson Palmer interceptions and a road game in Seattle could stop the Cardinals from rolling to their seventh win in the past eight contests, a gutsy 17-10 victory.
The win ensured the NFC West as the league's only division to feature three 10-win teams this year. Kyle Odegard of AZCardinals.com provided some more perspective of the division's depth:
NFC West the only division in the NFL in which every team has a positive point differential.— Kyle Odegard (@Kyle_Odegard) December 23, 2013
But it also means that the Cardinals could be shut out of the playoff picture despite having a better record than the division winners of the NFC North or NFC East. The Saints are just a win over the Buccaneers away from clinching their playoff spot, while the 49ers have already captured the other wild-card seed.
11. Philadelphia Eagles (9-6)
Nick Foles and the Eagles laid the lumber on the Chicago Bears Sunday, romping to a 54-11 victory that puts Philadelphia in the driver's seat to win the NFC East under first-year coach Chip Kelly.
Foles (21-of-25, 230 yards, two touchdowns) was proficient once again and now has 2,628 yards, 25 scores and two picks for the season. Meanwhile, the offense had to be encouraged by the running game, as LeSean McCoy had 133 yards and two of the team's four rushing touchdowns on the night.
The Eagles will play the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday Night Football in Week 17, and a win would wrap up the division crown and the No. 3 seed in the NFC.
12. Miami Dolphins (8-7)
There is currently a three-way tie for the final spot in the AFC postseason race, but the Dolphins hold an advantage over the San Diego Chargers and Baltimore Ravens with their 7-4 conference record.
The way Miami is playing right now, though, its Week 17 matchup against the New York Jets doesn't look like an easy one. The offensive line has given up a franchise-record 58 sacks this season, and quarterback Ryan Tannehill suffered a knee injury scare in Sunday's embarrassing 19-0 loss to the Buffalo Bills
The Dolphins don't control their own destiny in this muddled AFC playoff picture but have to win against the Jets and see the Ravens lose to the Bengals or the Chargers lose the Chiefs in order to clinch a berth. Got it?
13. Baltimore Ravens (8-7)
The Ravens were rolling along with five wins in six weeks until the Patriots handed them a 41-7 loss on Sunday in Foxboro. It was a deflating defeat for Baltimore, which wraps up its tough season-ending gauntlet with a matchup at Cincinnati.
The defending Super Bowl champs are hoping that they don't end up in a three-way tie with the Dolphins and Chargers for the final AFC spot. While the Ravens hold head-to-head tiebreakers against those two teams, Miami has the advantage in a three-way tie.
14. San Diego Chargers (8-7)
The Chargers' path to the postseason may have been made easier by the Chiefs in Week 17. If Reid decides to bench some of his starters in Week 17, San Diego could be playing a second-string Kansas City team in the regular-season finale.
Still, San Diego needs a lot of help if it wants to sneak into the postseason. According to Chris Burke of Sports Illustrated, the Chargers need to beat the Chiefs, and the Dolphins and Ravens each have to lose their respective games for San Diego to reach the playoffs.
15. Dallas Cowboys (8-7)
Tony Romo might have overcome injury to finish off Sunday's 24-23 victory over the Washington Redskins, but he won't be finishing the year with the Cowboys. Adam Schefter of ESPN dropped a bomb on the football world Monday when he reported that Romo will be out for the year:
Cowboys QB Tony Romo has been ruled out the rest of the season due to his back injury, per league source.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) December 23, 2013
Now the team's playoff hopes hinge on the arm of backup Kyle Orton, who has never appeared in a postseason game. The Week 17 contest with the Eagles will represent a one-game battle for the NFC East division crown, and Orton will be tasked with guiding the Cowboys to victory. It doesn't bode well for Dallas in the regular-season finale.
16. Chicago Bears (8-7)
The Bears took a major step backward as they ramp up for the postseason on Sunday, suffering a handy 54-11 defeat to the Eagles. Still, the Bears are atop the NFC North, and their Week 17 matchup with the Green Bay Packers will decide the division winner.
The oldest rivalry in NFL will be an NFC North Championship game next week. Bears host Packers with winner clinching division & playoffs.— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) December 23, 2013
Jay Cutler's return under center didn't produce results for the offense, but it's the big output allowed by Chicago's defense that has to have Bears fans concerned.
17. Pittsburgh Steelers (7-8)
Pittsburgh is holding on to the slimmest of playoff chances heading into the final weekend of the regular season, something remarkable considering its 0-4 start to the year. Rookie Le'Veon Bell posted a career-high 124 rushing yards in Sunday's 38-31 victory over the Green Bay Packers, a win that keeps Pittsburgh's season on life support.
It's a long shot, but the Steelers can clinch a wild-card berth if they beat the Cleveland Browns and Baltimore, Miami and San Diego all lose.
18. Green Bay Packers (7-7-1)
It seemed like the Packers were all but finished once Aaron Rodgers went down with his collarbone injury, but Green Bay still has a chance to clinch the division by beating the hated Bears on Sunday.
According to Jason Wilde of ESPNWisconsin, the team is still mulling whether or not to bring back Rodgers on Sunday:
McCarthy: "Aaron Rodgers, same deal. A lot of conversation going on with Aaron, Ted Thompson, Dr. Mckenzie and I."— Jason Wilde (@jasonjwilde) December 23, 2013
"After seeing Aaron practice for two weeks, this is clearly something that Ted Thompson and I need to sit down and assess the situation."— Jason Wilde (@jasonjwilde) December 23, 2013
Chris Mortensen of ESPN reported that the injury is an "extraordinary risk" for Rodgers, but the team's entire season is riding on this one game, so it will be interesting to see how this situation plays out.
19. St. Louis Rams (7-8)
The Rams are holding their own in the ultra-competitive NFC West and could impact the division outcome with a victory over the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday.
For now, St. Louis looks like the top team that has already been eliminated from playoff contention. As noted by Schefter, the Rams are poised to get better with a top pick in next year's draft from the Washington Redskins, via the Robert Griffin III trade in 2012:
Based on strength-of-schedule tiebreakers Rams now almost assured of no worse than a top-3 pick from Washington Redskins.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) December 23, 2013
20. Detroit Lions (7-8)
The Lions repeatedly shot themselves in the foot all season long, and now it has them eliminated from the playoffs. Things came to a boil in last week's 23-20 overtime loss to the New York Giants when coach Jim Schwartz yelled at his home fans who booed the team in Detroit.
It's easy to see why Lions fans are mad after self-inflicted mistakes have led the team to five losses in six games and derailed a promising season.
21. New York Jets (7-8)
Geno Smith and the Jets are showing signs of life down the stretch with two wins in their past three games. While they have been eliminated from postseason contention, they will still have an impact in the AFC playoff race, as they play the Dolphins on Sunday.
Per Bob Glauber of Newsday, it might mark a farewell for coach Rex Ryan, who has the support of his players.
22. New York Giants (6-9)
The Giants outlasted the Lions 23-20 in overtime on Sunday, but this season was over early. The six-game losing streak to start the year means that next week's contest against the Washington Redskins will only be for pride.
Adam Schein of NFL.com shared his thoughts on what the disappointing season means for the future of coach Tom Coughlin:
I'll say it again. If I was advising Tom Coughlin, I'd tell him to retire. Next year could be as bad as this one - or worse. @SNYtv— Adam Schein (@AdamSchein) December 18, 2013
Coughlin will always be remembered as a two-time Super Bowl-winning coach, but his window of success for the Giants appears to have closed.
23. Buffalo Bills (6-9)
The Bills enter the Week 17 finale against the Patriots following two straight wins over the Jacksonville Jaguars and Miami Dolphins.
The team's defense added to its NFL-leading total (56) with seven more sacks in Sunday's commanding 19-0 win against Miami in the first shutout of the year for Buffalo. On the other side of the ball, Thad Lewis caught the eye of CBSSports.com's Jason La Canfora while playing in place of an injured E.J. Manuel:
Thad Lewis showing some spark again for the Bills He's been fun to watch when he's had the chance to play— Jason La Canfora (@JasonLaCanfora) December 22, 2013
24. Tennessee Titans (6-9)
According to Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean, the Titans will decide fate of coach Mike Munchak next season.
Munchak guided the Titans to a 9-7 record in his first year with the club in 2011 but is in danger of a second consecutive six-win season. With such regression, it's only natural that Munchak is on the hot seat.
25. Atlanta Falcons (4-11)
The Falcons showed some moxie in Monday night's 34-24 loss to the 49ers but ultimately fell in another deflating loss in a disappointing campaign. Injuries and a one-dimensional offense hurt the Falcons all season long, and they struggled mightily after reaching the NFC Championship after the 2012 season.
26. Minnesota Vikings (4-10-1)
Adrian Peterson returned to the lineup for Minnesota last week but had just 54 yards while quarterback Matt Cassel (13-of-27, 114 yards, one TD and three INTs) also struggled in the 42-14 loss to the Bengals.
According to Jay Glazer of FOX Sports, the big defeat might have been the final straw for the coaching future of Leslie Frazier in Minnesota:
Don't mean to be Captain Obvious but I'd think Leslie Frazier sealed his fate today. Door was open a crack b4 today despite woes— Jay Glazer (@JayGlazer) December 23, 2013
The team's struggles at quarterbacks persisted all season long, and the Vikings won't finish the 2013 campaign with consecutive victories at any point of the year.
27. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-11)
The Buccaneers can play the role of spoiler on Sunday when they travel to New Orleans for a matchup against the Saints. A Tampa Bay loss would ensure the Saints make the playoffs, but if the Bucs win, it would certainly complicate things for Brees and Co.
This season was doomed by an 0-8 start, and the team has now lost two straight after a promising run that featured five wins in six contests. Coach Greg Schiano remains on the hot seat despite his team's turnaround in the second half.
28. Cleveland Browns (4-11)
Josh Gordon's stellar season hasn't stopped the Browns from stumbling to six straight losses down the stretch. Gordon now has 80 catches for 1,564 yards and 10 touchdowns this year, putting him on pace to join Torry Holt in some elite company, per Andrew Siciliano of NFL Network:
Still, Cleveland is in the cellar of the AFC North and will fall short of the five-win mark for the sixth straight season.
29. Jacksonville Jaguars (4-11)
As of two weeks ago, the Jaguars were one of the hottest teams in the league with four wins in five contests and the slimmest of playoff chances. But with two straight defeats and a date with the Colts coming up on Sunday, it looks like Jacksonville will be in the hunt for a third consecutive top-five pick in April's NFL draft.
30. Oakland Raiders (4-11)
It's the same old story for Raiders fans, who have become accustomed to seeing their team struggle mightily since the Super Bowl season in 2002. Quarterback Matt McGloin might have led the Raiders to a victory in his first career start but has suffered five consecutive defeats going into the Week 17 tilt with Denver.
On Monday, Raiders head coach Dennis Allen announced Terrelle Pryor would reclaim the starting job for the season finale:
Head Coach Dennis Allen has named @TerrellePryor the starting quarterback for Sunday's season finale vs Denver.— OAKLAND RAIDERS (@RAIDERS) December 23, 2013
The team looks destined for a second straight four-win season under coach Dennis Allen and general manager Reggie McKenzie, who might be looking over their shoulder at owner Mark Davis.
31. Washington Redskins (3-12)
Coach Mike Shanahan's seat is getting hotter every Sunday. This past week's heartbreaking 24-23 loss to the Dallas Cowboys marked the seventh straight defeat for the Redskins, who have had Kirk Cousins under center the past two weeks.
It's too bad that this team has already traded away its first-round 2014 pick to the St. Louis Rams as part of the Robert Griffin draft-day deal in 2012, because Washington looks like it might have the No. 2 selection in April's draft.
32. Houston Texans (2-13)
Gary Kubiak remains the only NFL head coach who has been fired so far this year, and the Texans look headed for the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 draft. The team started the season 2-0 but has lost 13 straight entering the season finale against the Titans.
If there's been a silver lining this year, it's been the production of receiver Andre Johnson. On Sunday, he joined Wes Welker as one of two players in NFL history to ever post 100-catch seasons in five different years.