NFL Power Rankings: Analyzing League Landscape Ahead of Playoff Divisional Round

Matt Fitzgerald@@MattFitz_geraldCorrespondent IIIJanuary 9, 2014

The NFL playoffs have had their fair share of surprises thus far, but some drastic changes that have happened to several teams not playing at this juncture have also contributed to a shakeup in the league landscape.

So while the ranking of the elite teams remains rather unchanged thanks to bye weeks from Wild Card Weekend, some of last week's winners helped themselves, as did others that didn't even hit the gridiron.

Below is an overview of how all 32 teams stack up heading into the divisional round of the postseason, including their outlooks for the future. The analysis will focus on the teams whose stock is rising the most at the moment.

Note: Playoff teams' records include the postseason.


1. Seattle Seahawks (13-3)

Throughout the season, Pete Carroll's Seahawks have proven that they are the most complete team in football, so their stock can't get much higher as the NFC's No. 1 seed.

CenturyLink Field is a terrifying place for visitors to play, and Seattle's divisional round opponent, the New Orleans Saints, lost there 34-7 earlier this season. This team has been masterfully built and should be in Super Bowl contention now and for the foreseeable future.


2. Denver Broncos (13-3)

What Peyton Manning has been able to do at age 37 after the major adversity of multiple neck surgeries is nothing short of spectacular. Manning threw for a record 55 touchdowns in 2013, but historically he hasn't enjoyed the same success in the playoffs as he has in the regular season.

The Broncos should be thankful to have Manning on their side because of a shaky defense that should force the legendary quarterback to put a lot of points on the board.

Thankfully, having the No. 1 seed in the AFC gives Denver the inside track to representing the conference in Super Bowl XLVIII.


3. San Francisco 49ers (13-4)

Ever since the arrival of head coach Jim Harbaugh, the culture has completely changed for one of the league's storied franchises as it returned to prominence swiftly. Now the Niners are one win away from a third consecutive NFC Championship Game appearance.

Thanks to an outstanding defense and a relentless, physical running game, San Francisco is the Wild Card squad whose game is dangerous no matter where it plays.

Running back Frank Gore continues to defy the wear and tear his position demands at age 30, something that hasn't gone unappreciated by teammates. Left tackle Joe Staley shared his thoughts on Gore, per's Taylor Price:

Frank’s always been a real competitive player, willing to do anything to help the team. I think that’s one of the things he prides himself on, not just running the ball, but pass-protecting and getting downfield, doing anything he can to help the team. He’s shown that his whole career. We’re not surprised by it.

Young QB Colin Kaepernick is the X-factor, and he continued to show signs of progression in the Niners' road win over Green Bay, keeping his cool in the freezing weather and leading his offense on a winning field-goal drive.

The return of last year's leading receiver Michael Crabtree has helped Kaepernick a ton, per ESPN Stats & Info:

Crabtree wasn't on the field when the Niners lost to the Carolina Panthers 10-9 in Week 10. Now Kaepernick—who threw for a season-low 91 yards in that contest—and his teammates will get a chance at redemption in Charlotte on Sunday, Jan. 12.


4. New England Patriots (12-4)

The combination of QB Tom Brady and head coach Bill Belichick seems to be good enough to win a ton no matter what else is happening with the Patriots.

A matchup with the Indianapolis Colts looms this weekend. New England will look to get back to the AFC title game—the juncture at which the Patriots lost in the last postseason to the eventual Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens.

As long as Brady can be protected from Colts pass-rusher Robert Mathis and the rest of Indianapolis' solid front seven, he should lead the Pats to another big victory.


5. Carolina Panthers (12-4)

The stage is set for 2011 No. 1 overall pick Cam Newton to get his first taste of playoff action. With an outstanding defense to rely on and unprecedented stakes, it will be interesting to see how he responds.

Newton will likely have to make some spectacular improvisational plays and get some help from his backfield if he wants to have a solid debut. A lot of pressure is on him to take another big step, and how he performs will be a big factor in Carolina's prospects to be a consistent contender.


6. New Orleans Saints (12-5)

After a one-year hiatus, head coach Sean Payton's influence has been evident. He's made the Saints a formidable force to be reckoned with once again.

A big part of New Orleans' success has been the massive improvement in the defense under first-year coordinator Rob Ryan. The unit shut down Philadelphia's high-octane offense last week. It has another test upcoming in Seattle.


7. Indianapolis Colts (12-5)

Even though the Colts have a lot of shaky positions in terms of depth on both sides of the ball, the most important one is solid with quarterback Andrew Luck.

If any doubts existed about the top overall pick in the 2012 draft following a second straight 11-win season, they should have been extinguished when Luck orchestrated a comeback 45-44 victory over Kansas City in the Wild Card.

According to ESPN Stats & Info, Luck has been able to elevate his level of play as it gets later in games on a consistent basis:

It will be exciting to see what happens when the Colts buy Luck more protection up front, arm him with another legitimate receiver and develop a more consistent defense.

Luck may be good enough for now to get Indianapolis to the AFC Championship Game, where he may face an epic clash with his Indianapolis predecessor, Peyton Manning. But first, beating Brady and Belichick is on tap.

Regardless of what happens, the Colts have a bright future—and Luck has everything to do with it.


8. San Diego Chargers (10-7)

As hard as the Chargers have been playing for about the past month or so just to get to the divisional round, it's still impossible to rank them ahead of any of the remaining teams still vying for the Lombardi Trophy.

Winning in Denver for the second time in four weeks seems unrealistic, but San Diego wasn't given much of a chance the first time around, either.

In any event, head coach Mike McCoy has done an excellent job in his first year at the helm. The key will be consistency in a tough AFC West division.


9. Green Bay Packers (8-8-1)

The return of Aaron Rodgers under center got the Pack an NFC North title, courtesy of a miraculous final drive in Week 17, and good-but-not-quite-enough play in bowing out of the playoffs to the Niners at Lambeau Field.

Rodgers should come back with a vengeance in 2014, and general manager Ted Thompson will have another opportunity to improve the defense.

Thompson made a brilliant call in drafting Eddie Lacy this past year. The rookie's powerful running (1,178 yards, 11 TDs) has given Green Bay's already dangerous offense far more balance—a scary thought for the rest of the division.


10. Kansas City Chiefs (11-6)

Well, the collapse against the Colts won't do anything for the consistent criticism leveled at head coach Andy Reid's clock management skills.

Having said that, Reid's brilliance got the Chiefs out in front by a ton early in that game. The fact that he even guided a team that just had the first overall draft pick last year to the playoffs will be overshadowed, but he proved that there's a lot of talent in KC with the job he did overall.


11. Arizona Cardinals (10-6)

For the second consecutive year, Bruce Arians made the best of a difficult situation. After leading Indianapolis to the playoffs in an interim role in 2012, he made the Cardinals competitive in the extremely tough NFC West with Carson Palmer as his quarterback.

That's no knock on Palmer, but his career was definitely on the decline before this year. Although Palmer isn't a viable long-term answer, Arizona is in excellent shape with a stout defense and a strong leader in Arians paving the way.

Cornerback Patrick Peterson has emerged as a legitimate star, and Tyrann Mathieu—who unfortunately tore his ACL late in the season—proved to be worth the gamble as a third-round pick in 2013.

It is a testament to the fearless style of those at the top of the Cardinals' organization, Arians and general manager Steve Keim, that this team was able to take a big step forward. More impressive, it came with two of the top three teams in these power rankings in their own division.

If either the Seahawks or 49ers have the slightest of letdowns in 2014, watch out for Arizona to leapfrog one or both of them en route to a divisional crown.


12. Philadelphia Eagles (10-7)

An up-and-down first season for head coach Chip Kelly ultimately resulted in winning the NFC East and nearly advancing past the first round of the playoffs. Not bad for a coach whose innovative offense was demeaned as gimmicky and ill-suited for the NFL.

As long as the defense can upgrade its personnel and Kelly can continue to tailor his schemes to the pros, there seems to be a promising program being developed in Philadelphia.


13. Cincinnati Bengals (11-6)

Is Andy Dalton the surefire quarterback of the future? His numbers took another step up in his third season, but he's fallen flat in all three of his playoff appearances. The TCU product has thrown just one touchdown and six interceptions in three postseason contests—all losses.

A change may be necessary to get this promising Bengals bunch over the hump.


14. Pittsburgh Steelers (8-8)

A 0-4 start plagued Pittsburgh all season, but the fight it showed to battle back to .500—including a three-game winning streak to end the year—showed that the Steelers' stock is going up.

If the front office can find Ben Roethlisberger one more weapon to throw to, one more solid lineman to block for him and another defensive playmaker, the wide-open AFC North could be Pittsburgh's to lose in 2014.


15. Chicago Bears (8-8)

A new seven-year contract means that Jay Cutler will be the Bears' quarterback for quite a while.

Cutler has seen a lot of change in offensive systems in his time in Chicago, but he finally seems to have some stability under Marc Trestman.

Two lethal receiving weapons in Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery and a great running back in Matt Forte give Chicago a ton to build on. Now the typically vaunted defense just has to return to form.


16. Baltimore Ravens (8-8)

The Super Bowl hangover was real for the Ravens—in particular QB Joe Flacco, who chucked 22 interceptions to just 19 touchdowns as an encore for one of the best playoff performances in history.

Getting around three yards per carry from both Bernard Pierce and Ray Rice didn't help.

Baltimore has some serious fixing to do to gear up for another shot at playoff contention.


17. Detroit Lions (7-9)

Head coach Jim Schwartz has been ousted after his failure to get a handle on a squad that has all the elements of a contender but was never disciplined enough to capitalize on them.

The Lions figure to make some noise with the right coach in place and an upgraded secondary to deal with the other prolific passing offenses in the NFC North. What the regime must focus on is nailing those acquisitions.


18. New York Jets (8-8)

Rex Ryan had to overcome a lot of Geno Smith turnovers and a general lack of roster talent to push the Jets to an 8-8 record. In the end, Ryan was rewarded with at least another year as coach.

It's up to Smith to learn from his plethora of mistakes as a rookie. He needs to take better care of the football and put the Jets in position to win more games. Upgrading his supporting cast will be a great way to ensure that—something GM John Idzik should make one of his first priorities.


19. Miami Dolphins (8-8)

A ton of new faces occupied the Dolphins roster, and the pieces didn't quite mesh well enough to result in a playoff appearance. Losses in the last two games prevented Miami from making much noise.

GM Jeff Ireland and offensive coordinator Mike Sherman are no longer in the fold, putting the onus even more on Ryan Tannehill to continue progressing at quarterback as he learns a new system.


20. Dallas Cowboys (8-8)

It's irresponsible to place all the blame on QB Tony Romo at this point. America's Team fields an awful defense. Until that's fixed, Dallas can't hope for anything more than mediocrity.

That side of the ball should be the focus at the top of the Cowboys' draft and in free agency. Major improvement there will likely save Romo a ton of flak and preserve head coach Jason Garrett's job security.


21. St. Louis Rams (7-9)

The Rams might not be sure if Sam Bradford is the one to lead them to the NFL's promised land.

Alas, they have no choice but to stick with him, given his exorbitant contract and the fact that he played rather well before tearing his ACL in just his seventh game of the season.

Great news, though: St. Louis has the second overall selection in the impending draft and an additional first-round pick at No. 13. Two potential immediate impact players can be brought to the fold, making the NFC West all the more difficult to predict moving forward.


22. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-12)

One year away from the NFL was all it took before Lovie Smith got another offer to roam the sidelines. He'll succeed the fired Greg Schiano, taking over a Buccaneers team that is brimming with potential.

Cornerback Darrelle Revis expressed optimism about the future under the longtime Bears head coach:

Smith is known for his defensive brilliance. He has already brought in recently dismissed Minnesota head coach Leslie Frazier to be his coordinator. Third-round pick Mike Glennon also showed he has the tools to be the QB of the future in Tampa Bay—even without stud running back Doug Martin.

Glennon has gotten an endorsement from Smith already, per NFL Sirius XM Radio:

Bleacher Report draft expert Matt Miller didn't like what he saw from Glennon after last year's Senior Bowl, acknowledging the danger in using that stage to scout and touting Glennon as 2013's best rookie signal-caller:

Revis headlines an intriguing secondary featuring young star Mark Barron and All-Pro safety Dashon Goldson. Linebacker Lavonte David and defensive tackle Gerald McCoy set the tone for the front seven.

It wouldn't be surprising to see the Buccaneers take the biggest step forward out of the cellar-dwelling teams of the NFL next season.


23. Tennessee Titans (7-9)

A more physical brand of football was seen on defense in Tennessee, but Chris Johnson's play at running back continues to be inconsistent and young Titans QB Jake Locker has been hurt too much to fairly evaluate.

Now the hunt for a new head coach ensues, which will be a big determining factor in how successful Tennessee is.


24. Atlanta Falcons (4-12)

Quarterback Matt Ryan will be without retiring tight end Tony Gonzalez, and there are still a ton of holes to address on defense.

The offensive line and rushing attack are also weak points, meaning GM Thomas Dimitroff has his work cut out for him in a difficult NFC South, where the Bucs figure to improve and Carolina and New Orleans are likely to sustain their dominance.


25. Buffalo Bills (6-10)

Mario Williams and the Bills have an excellent, swarming defense that is good enough to drive the team to the playoffs.

The big question mark is EJ Manuel, who fought through injuries as a rookie but must avoid a sophomore slump and improve a ton in his second year at QB for Buffalo to be a threat in the AFC East.


26. Minnesota Vikings (5-10-1)

Adrian Peterson couldn't carry the Vikings' turbulent quarterback situation nor their putrid defense to a second straight playoff appearance.

The problem is, Minnesota may have won enough to miss out on one of the top QBs in this year's draft class—a position of dire need.


27. New York Giants (7-9)

What the heck happened to Eli Manning? The two-time Super Bowl MVP threw 27 interceptions and was part of the self-destructing effort the Giants put forth. It was a mild miracle they managed a 7-9 record.

With offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride's retirement, though, perhaps a fresh voice in Manning's ear will help him and the G-Men bounce back from a nightmarish year.


28. Jacksonville Jaguars (4-12)

Gus Bradley did a fine job in his maiden campaign as coach in Jacksonville. That's saying something, since he only managed four wins.

But GM Dave Caldwell holds the third overall pick in the draft, where the Jags figure to grab their long-term answer at quarterback and set up a potential leap up the standings in a tenuous AFC South.


29. Cleveland Browns (4-12)

Three quarterbacks started games for the Browns, the running game was putrid, and the defense declined down the stretch, leading to 10 losses in the last 11 games. Oh, and also the firing of head coach Rob Chudzinski after one season.

This seems like the least stable franchise in the league, and until continuity and a clear, decisive vision is established, negative results are bound to be the status quo.


30. Oakland Raiders (4-12)

The alternation between Terrelle Pryor and Matt McGloin at quarterback yielded no clear answer as to who will lead Oakland's offense for the foreseeable future. Blocking was an issue all year long, making the evaluation all the more difficult.

That is just the beginning of the Raiders' myriad of problems, which could result in a regime change later this offseason.


31. Washington Redskins (3-13)

What a disaster 2013 turned out to be for Washington. Robert Griffin III was not himself and had to be shut down for the final three games, and head coach Mike Shanahan was fired a year after the two combined to lead the team to an NFC East title.

The defense is also a mess, but Washington's bold trade to acquire Griffin has cost the organization the No. 2 overall pick in the 2014 draft.

Things aren't looking too bright in the nation's capital. Whoever takes over for Shanahan will have his hands full.


32. Houston Texans (2-14)

Bill O'Brien seems like an excellent hire as the Texans' next head coach. There is a ton of talent on the roster that needs molding, along with a need for a franchise quarterback.

Considering O'Brien molded McGloin into an NFL-caliber QB at Penn State, it seems anyone Houston would select at the top of the draft would be destined for stardom. That could be enough to boost the Texans right back into the playoffs next season.


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