Monday Night Football between the Atlanta Falcons and San Francisco 49ers sent the league and its fans on the path to one final, crazy week as San Francisco escaped with a win.
The AFC is mostly decided outside of the No. 6 seed, but the NFC (the far superior conference) is up for grabs.
Just how good is the NFC? Arizona sits at 10-5 in the NFC West and may miss the playoffs, barring a miracle. The team's Twitter account put it best after Monday saw the 49ers get a win:
Ouch.— Arizona Cardinals (@AZCardinals) December 24, 2013
Indeed. The NFC is truly a powerhouse if teams ranked in the top 10 are not making the playoffs.
1. Carolina Panthers (11-4)
The Carolina Panthers may not have the NFL's best record, but Cam Newton and his team did much to earn the top spot with a 17-13 victory over the New Orleans Saints in Week 16.
Linebacker Luke Kuechly was on fire with 24 total tackles in the dominant showing. As the leader of the NFL's top-scoring defense with an average of 14.7 points allowed per game, Kuechly and the unit will keep the Panthers in any game when the playoffs roll around.
Limiting Drew Brees and the Saints to 365 total yards and 13 points despite more than 38 minutes of possession is just the latest shot heard around the league with the postseason on the horizon.
2. Denver Broncos (12-3)
The Denver Broncos handed the Houston Texans their 13th consecutive loss in Week 16 via a 37-13 outcome.
Denver has now won three of five and has an easy task as it closes the season against the Oakland Raiders. However, the news is not all positive, as ESPN's Adam Schefter reports linebacker Von Miller is out for the year:
Major blow to Broncos, losing their top pass rusher, Von Miller, to a season-ending torn ACL.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) December 23, 2013
Time will tell if Peyton Manning and the offense can overcome the loss.
3. Seattle Seahawks (12-3)
The Seattle Seahawks got a hard dose of reality in Week 16, losing their first game at home since December of 2011.
Seattle allowed Arizona to control the clock for more than 37 minutes and, as the team's Twitter details, the offense was stagnant for the second consecutive week:
Pete Carroll's team better figure things out quickly. The Seahawks have now lost two of three, and while they control their own destiny, the opponent to close the season is St. Louis—a team they hardly beat in Week 8, 14-9.
4. New England Patriots (11-4)
Apparently the New England Patriots offense is just fine without tight end Rob Gronkowski.
Tom Brady and the Patriots went to M&T Bank Stadium in Week 16 and absolutely pasted the defending champs with a 41-7 win over the Baltimore Ravens.
New England did most of its damage on the ground with 142 total rushing yards and two touchdowns, while a quietly very strong defensive unit once again shut down an opposing offense.
The Patriots are the definition of a scary team when the playoffs roll around, and that is especially the case with Brady not having to do the heavy lifting this season.
5. San Francisco 49ers (11-4)
The San Francisco 49ers have won five in a row, with the latest a 34-24 win over the Atlanta Falcons on Monday Night Football.
As ESPN points out, NaVorro Bowman's interception for a touchdown was the biggest defensive play of the season and a great way to end things at Candlestick Park:
49ers had 33.6% win probability before Ryan’s pick-6, 99.8% win probability after Swing of 66.2% is biggest on defensive play this season— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) December 24, 2013
Now the 49ers must move past the Arizona Cardinals, surely furious about their postseason chances, in Week 17. Truth be told, everything is clicking at once in San Francisco, which is bad news for the rest of the league.
6. Arizona Cardinals (10-5)
Poor Arizona. After 49ers linebacker NaVorro Bowman returned an interception 89 yards to give his team a 34-24 victory over the Falcons on Monday night, it became readily apparent the team's path to the postseason was all but impossible.
Bruce Arians should be Coach of the Year once more, but his team must see Seattle lose a rare second home game, or beat San Francisco and have New Orleans lose its first home game of the year to make the playoffs.
7. Cincinnati Bengals (10-5)
For all the publicity Seattle and New Orleans get for great home-field advantages, no team wants to travel to Paul Brown Stadium this year.
This does not get a lot of publicity, but the Bengals are 7-0 at home this year and have scored more than 40 points in each of their last four home games. The Bengals dropped 42 on the Minnesota Vikings in Week 16 to win the AFC North title, as Fox Sports illustrates:
The much-maligned Andy Dalton threw for four touchdowns, his fourth straight home game with a minimum of three touchdown passes. Tackle Andrew Whitworth puts it best, via ESPN's Coley Harvey:
Cincinnati has a chance at a No. 2 seed, meaning they could play at home in the playoffs.
8. New Orleans Saints (10-5)
Well, it is now near impossible to take the Saints seriously.
New Orleans has been cringe-worthy on the road this year, and that notion was only reinforced by its 17-13 loss to the Panthers at Bank of America Stadium in Week 16.
The Saints are a question mark in the postseason because the team is simply human on the road. Even worse, the team has now lost Rookie of the Year candidate Kenny Vaccaro for the season, and coach Sean Payton is adamant in sticking with rookie Terron Armstead at left tackle despite a woeful performance, per ESPN's Mike Triplett:
New Orleans has a plethora of questions to answer and little time to do so.
9. Indianapolis Colts (10-5)
It is truly a shame the Indianapolis Colts cannot play at a high level against any and all competition.
Then again, every loss this year has come against playoff hopefuls, with the glaring exception being a 38-8 loss to St. Louis in Week 10. But as ESPN illustrates, the Colts are at their best against elite competition:
49ers, Seahawks, Broncos and Chiefs are 0-4 this season against the Colts. They are a combined 45-9 against everyone else— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) December 22, 2013
Not a bad business model with the playoffs on the way. Believe it or not, the Colts are an extremely dangerous team once postseason play begins.
10. Kansas City Chiefs (11-4)
As of right now, the Kansas City Chiefs have the look of a one-and-done team in the playoffs.
Kansas City has lost four of its last six, with the only wins in that span coming against teams with a combined seven wins.
The latest embarrassment at the hands of a contender was a 23-7 loss to the Colts in Arrowhead Stadium, where the Chiefs had the look of a team simply laying down on train tracks in the face of legitimate competition.
Kansas City has done little all season to prove it can hang tough with the best teams.
11. Philadelphia Eagles (9-6)
The Philadelphia Eagles have won six of their last seven, with Week 16 being a stunning display of offense in a 54-11 win over the Chicago Bears.
Philadelphia now plays on Sunday Night Football for the second consecutive week, this time in a game against the Dallas Cowboys to crown the NFC East winner.
Backed by the NFL's leading rusher in LeSean McCoy, the Eagles are arguably the NFL's most dangerous team.
12. San Diego Chargers (8-7)
As any good playoff-bound team would, the San Diego Chargers took care of business in Week 16 with a 26-13 win over the four-win Oakland Raiders.
San Diego is postseason bound with help if it can grab a second win over Kansas City, this time at home to close the season.
Regardless, an impressive season for first-year head coach Mike McCoy.
13. Miami Dolphins (8-7)
The 2013 Miami Dolphins personify how horrific the AFC playoff picture is this season.
Miami lost 19-0 to the Buffalo Bills in Week 16, but still entered the driver's seat for the sixth wild-card spot in the AFC.
Now, the team just has to have more good luck in the final week to make the postseason, as ESPN points out:
If all 4 teams alive for the AFC 6 seed lose in Week 17 – the Ravens earn the spot. If all 4 win, the Dolphins earn the spot— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) December 24, 2013
14. Baltimore Ravens (8-7)
So much for that magical run with the door to the AFC North crown wide open.
It was easy to predict that the Ravens, a team well-versed in getting hot at just the right time to win it all, would turn it on after being armed with the knowledge the AFC North was theirs should they win out.
Instead, the defending champs went out and lost 41-7 to New England in front of their home crowd. Playoffs are still a possibility, but this is far from the same team that won it all a year ago.
15. Pittsburgh Steelers (7-8)
Well, nobody can question the resiliency of the Pittsburgh Steelers this year, although a 38-31 win over an Aaron Rodgers-less Green Bay Packers team is hard to brag about.
Still, the Steelers remain in playoff contention, which is not bad for a team that started the season losing four straight.
Pittsburgh closes the season at home against the Cleveland Browns, a team it already defeated in Week 12 on the road via a 27-11 outcome.
16. Chicago Bears (8-7)
What a joke the Bears turned out to be in Week 16 against the Eagles.
The Bears allowed 289 rushing yards and four touchdowns on the ground, with the highlight being eye-popping running lanes such as this:
That is not going to win any games. Chicago needs to figure out in the offseason how to fix a laughably bad run defense.
17. Dallas Cowboys (8-7)
The Dallas Cowboys saved their season in Week 16 as Tony Romo did much to save his reputation with a touchdown pass to DeMarco Murray with one minute and eight seconds left to defeat the Washington Redskins, 24-23.
While great news, the press has been nothing but negative since. Monday, ESPN's Adam Schefter reported Romo will miss the rest of the year due to injury:
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
NFL Network's Ian Rapoport reports the Cowboys are hoping for a "near-miracle recovery":
Could Tony Romo play this week? Sources view it as unlikely. Cowboys holding out hope for a near-miracle recovery, knowing Romo’s toughness— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) December 23, 2013
Oh boy. The backup is Kyle Orton in Dallas. Stay tuned.
18. Green Bay Packers (7-7-1)
Despite a loss in Pittsburgh in Week 16, the Green Bay Packers will play for the NFC North title in Week 17 against the Bears.
Not bad for a team that has been without quarterback Aaron Rodgers for weeks.
Speculation will run rampant about Rodgers' status all week, but the Packers may not even need him to beat a Bears team that laid down in Week 16 in a 54-11 loss.
19. St. Louis Rams (7-8)
The St. Louis Rams may be 7-8 this year and led by Kellen Clemens, but boy is the future bright.
The down year will give the Rams a nice selection, but with the way the Washington Redskins are tanking, St. Louis is guaranteed a top-three pick next year as ESPN's Adam Schefter details:
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
Nobody illustrates the Rams' stockpiling of picks better than Dave Rappoccio:
Merry Christmas from the NFC West! pic.twitter.com/L2hWQZsequ— Dave Rappoccio (@DrawPlayDave) December 23, 2013
20. New York Jets (7-8)
Let's just allow Peter King of Sports Illustrated to do the talking:
The Jets should not fire Rex Ryan.— Peter King (@SI_PeterKing) December 23, 2013
Should Rex Ryan be fired?
Speculation has been prevalent in New York that Jets' coach Rex Ryan will be fired after the season, which is a good or bad move depending on who is asked.
The Jets have lost four of their last six, but Ryan has once again crafted an elite defense and has his players giving their all in the final weeks with playoffs out of the question.
Perhaps instead of firing an elite defensive mind and the ultimate player's coach, the organization should look to help him better draft offensive players.
21. New York Giants (6-9)
New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning managed to keep his turnover hobby in check in Week 16 against the Detroit Lions in a 23-20 overtime win.
Manning has been horrific all year, but threw just one interception in the contest. Of course, he was also sacked in the end zone for a safety in the third quarter.
Nothing more really needs to be said.
22. Detroit Lions (7-8)
Surprise! Another Jim Schwartz classic went down in Week 16 as the Lions managed to out-derp themselves on the way to elimination from playoff contention, via a loss to the six-win Giants.
The organization is a mess and even sent out playoff tickets the day after elimination:
A Detroit Lions fan got his playoff tickets in the mail the day after the team was eliminated from contention. http://t.co/csIolL6Rht— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) December 23, 2013
There is nothing quite like another head-smacking affair in Detroit to provide entertainment near the end of a season.
23. Buffalo Bills (6-9)
Do not look now, but Buffalo is on a two-game win streak, with the most recent victory being a 19-0 win over the potentially playoff-bound Dolphins.
As should have been the case all season, Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller were unstoppable on the ground as they combined for 188 rushing yards and a score, and the Bills held the ball for more than 36 minutes.
Too bad that could not happen with any regularity this season.
24. Tennessee Titans (6-9)
The Tennessee Titans revamped the offensive line last offseason, and it showed in a big way during the team's Week 16 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars, 20-16.
Running backs Shonn Greene and Chris Johnson combined for 181 yards and a touchdown on the ground as the offense held the ball for more than 35 minutes.
Too bad it was against Jacksonville, and like Buffalo above, too bad that was not a constant all season.
25. Atlanta Falcons (4-11)
Matt Ryan threw for 348 yards and a pair of touchdowns and interceptions on the road in a close loss to the 49ers.
In other words, Monday Night Football in Week 16 acted as a nice summary of the 2013 season for Atlanta.
The good news is the team will get healthy over the offseason and add a top prospect via the 2014 draft. Not a bad deal at all after a year of suffering.
26. Minnesota Vikings (4-10-1)
The season is over in Minnesota, with the latest outing being a 42-14 loss in Cincinnati. Matt Cassel threw three picks as the Vikings went an impressive 0-of-9 on third down.
Perhaps the only silver lining in these last few weeks has been rookie receiver Cordarrelle Patterson, who is destined for a bright future in the NFL regardless of his quarterback.
27. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-11)
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers had a nice run of four wins in five games beginning in Week 10, which did much to further the notion that coach Greg Schiano will be around another year, but the team has since lost two straight.
Week 16 was a 23-13 loss to the Rams on the road, but now the Buccaneers can loosen up and have some fun in the final week as they get a shot at the Saints in New Orleans—where they will look to play the spoiler, be the first team to grab a win at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome this season and cause absolute playoff chaos even the BCS would admire.
28. Cleveland Browns (4-11)
The Browns have lost six straight, with the latest being a trip to New Jersey that resulted in a 24-13 loss to the Jets.
Josh Gordon remains one of the NFL's top talents at receiver, but the Browns must do a better job of building around him in the next few years.
That journey begins in the 2014 draft with what should be a top-five selection.
29. Jacksonville Jaguars (4-11)
Jacksonville has now lost two straight after its four-point loss to Tennessee in Week 16, which did much to revert itself back to the land of mediocre it briefly left a few weeks ago.
New names, such as receivers Mike Brown and Kerry Taylor, continue to pop up as contributors, but at this point the coaching staff is simply holding tryouts to see who should stick around on the roster next year.
30. Oakland Raiders (4-11)
Week 16 saw the Raiders lose their fifth straight as quarterback Matt McGloin failed to overcome one of the NFL's weakest secondaries.
It is clear the Raiders are not set on McGloin or Terrelle Pryor as the future at quarterback, so watch for the team to go that route with what will surely be a high pick in the 2014 draft.
31. Washington Redskins (3-12)
Captain Kirk, otherwise known as Kirk Cousins, cannot save the Redskins at this point.
The backup threw for just 197 yards with a touchdown and interception in Week 16 against one of the NFL's worst secondaries, as the Redskins lost a close one to Dallas.
Have fun watching the Redskins all offseason, because they will be a constant name brought up in trade rumors thanks to Cousins—not to mention getting a potential new head coach.
32. Houston Texans (2-13)
Houston has now lost 13 in a row after starting the year with two straight wins.
That is all that really needs to be said at this point. Expect that total to climb to 14 to close the season, as the franchise gets a makeover with a new head coach and a top prospect from the 2014 draft.