A chain is only as strong as its weakest link, or so the saying goes.
Sitting back in a cozy recliner somewhere, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell is smiling at his preseason brilliance.
It isn't unlike a man with power to relish in his own intelligence, but the creativity of Goodell's 2010 league schedule has been successful in separating the "great" from the "garden variety" all season long.
Give yourself a round of applause, Mr. Commissioner.
Drawing down to the bare minimum of the NFL season with three weeks remaining, fans now prepare for a few nervous weeks ahead of Christmas as they await the fate of their beloved teams' possible playoff campaigns this season.
What do these faithful folks have to rely on in the dying stages of such a roller-coaster season?
A pinch of uncertainty, a handful of missed field goals and nightmares of fumbling on that last-minute overtime play in Week 17.
Yes, the difference between playing football in January and hitting the links at Pebble Beach are now on the line as Week 15 approaches. But before we jump ahead into next week's action and focus on the games ahead, let's examine what Week 14 has provided us with and take a look at who is swimming and sinking with three weeks remaining.
Current Record: 8-5
Like every good head coach, Mike McCarthy wore his heart on his sleeve following the Packers' shocking loss to the Detroit Lions this past Sunday, stating that his team's loss was due to poor decision-making on his part.
While Packer fans will have you believe that McCarthy can at times be a bad guy, this was indeed a classy move from the main man.
What wasn't so flashy, though, was Aaron Rodgers' concussion sustained late in the second quarter that more or less saw the Packers' 9-4 hopes vanish in a heartbeat as backup Matt Flynn took the field.
Losing 7-3 in the Motor City, the Packers are now hanging on by a string in the NFC North. The branch of friendship may have been extended to the New England Patriots for dismantling division rivals the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field, but now that the smoke has cleared, that same Patriots team is set to host McCarthy's crew next Sunday night.
For the time being we'll give Green Bay the benefit of the doubt, though. The Packers are still well and truly swimming when it comes to postseason talk.
With that in mind, however, Green Bay really need to get a move on. An untimely concussion sees Aaron Rodgers labeled as a question heading into Week 15, and although Packer fans are well-known for keeping the faith, it's hard to remain hopeful with the NFL's best team popping up on the schedule next weekend.
Green Bay currently ranks 11th in overall points scored, a statistic relevant of Rodgers' efforts. The division is still wide open with Chicago only one game ahead, but with three big games approaching, the words "Wild Card" become all that more favorable.
Current Record: 5-8
Whatever slim hope of postseason play was left in the Houston Texans' tank on Monday night has now been siphoned straight out, thanks to the Baltimore Ravens' overtime heroics that have crushed Gary Kubiak's side.
If you told most fans that the Texans would make a game out of Monday night's affair, they probably would have laughed.
Down 21-7 at halftime, the Texans looked to be worn out against one of the AFC's elite teams, being bruised and battered against Derrick Mason and ultimately losing out in all aspects of the game.
Who said the NFL was predictable though?
Turning it around in the second half, Matt Schaub and his talented offense seemingly shifted into a third-dimensional gear in the fourth quarter, scoring 15 points to send the Monday night matchup to overtime.
Unfortunately for Houston, it was a case of "close but no cigar." Sending a scare into the Ravens was surely a positive point for all Texan fans, but ultimately, a wave of killjoy swept over Reliant Stadium when Josh Wilson returned a pick six that was then followed by a bullet right through the Texans' playoff chances.
At the end of the day, Houston can't look at this one game and say that it all ended here. After all, the Texans' tumultuous second half to the season has cost the team immensely in the long run, and with coaching controversy spiraling out of control, it's no wonder Houston is in a state of disarray.
Next year brings with it new hopes, and even if the Texans won on Monday night, their record would have only boosted them to 6-7 behind the Indianapolis Colts and Jacksonville Jaguars. Would've, could've, should've—the Texans are mathematically eliminated and it's the story of Houston's year.
Current Record: 8-5
A handful of people may question why a division-leading team has cracked this list. While it does seem quite unimaginable, the fact remains the same—the Kansas City Chiefs aren't out of the woods just yet.
Just like the movie Jaws, the San Diego Chargers are hunting down the Chiefs right now. Sitting at a comfortable 7-6 on the season, Norv Turner's persistent team continues to chase the Chiefs throughout the remaining three weeks, even though Kansas City has produced the right mojo to avoid a major catastrophe so far.
There is still time, mind you.
If the Chiefs are to remain in command for the next three games, they must put their 31-0 shutout loss against San Diego last weekend right behind them. Dwelling on the negative surely won't help, and if Todd Haley can keep his team focused on the positive (such as a 13th-ranked overall offense), then Kansas City should steer clear of the danger zone.
To keep the good news coming, the Chiefs' remaining schedule isn't all that daunting either. A trip to St. Louis awaits next week, and with two home games against Tennessee and Oakland following, the Chiefs may just stroll into the postseason quite nicely.
Still, with no Matt Cassel last week, Kansas City will be eager to get their star player back under center. Brodie Croyle struggled against the league's first overall defense last weekend, so if the Chiefs are to finish the job off, they will need Cassel back as soon as possible.
Current Record: 9-4
Rattling the New York Jets seemed like an impossible task for much of 2010. Throw division rivals New England at Rex Ryan's team, though, and you have a shaken franchise that is now questioning itself with three weeks remaining in the year.
Going unnoticed amongst the weekend's headlines was the Jets' dismal defeat against the Miami Dolphins. Losing 10-6, somehow the Jets managed to allow another of their division foes to slide past them, leaving Ryan with two consecutive losses in the month of December.
Who saw that coming?
So now, just like the Green Bay Packers, the Jets are clambering on to what little is left this season. The Patriots still stand the slightest of chances to allow their 11-2 division lead to slip, but the chances of that happening are slim to nil.
Welcome to the Wild Card once again, New York.
And what has caused this drastic collapse?
One, the loss against New England. Two, Mark Sanchez's late season disappointments.
Recently being leaked in the media, Ryan claimed that he considered benching Sanchez on Sunday, as his quarterback threw for just 216 yards and one interception. That scenario never played out, but Week 15 could be a different story.
Playoff football is still a distinct possibility for New York, but a loss against Pittsburgh next week could spell the end for the Jets.
Current Record: 6-7
It was heartbreaking for all Raider fans to watch their team lose in tight fashion against the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday, and you didn't have to listen to Darren McFadden's frustration to know it.
"It's very frustrating," McFadden stated. "A game like that, it don't mean nothing if you don't win."
In Oakland's case, this past weekend can be taken as a minor positive in the Raiders' 2010 campaign. Sure, letting in Maurice Jones-Drew in the dying seconds is no memory anyone wants to relive, but at the same time the Raiders can take a lot away from this loss and perhaps reflect on the issues that still remain this year.
What are they exactly?
First and foremost, rush defense.
Ranked 26th in the league, Jones-Drew's touchdown last week placed the dot below the exclamation point when it comes to the Raiders' lack of run coverage. Bringing in Rolando McClain was supposed to solidify Tom Cable's defense, but unfortunately the Raiders are still a linebacker or a defensive lineman away from being totally solid.
Secondly, Oakland's passing game could do with a boost. Jason Campbell was phenomenal on the day, throwing for 324 yards and two touchdowns, but one gets the feeling that if the Raiders had a big name wide receiver, that game-winning touchdown could have come much earlier in the game.
Realistically, it is trial and error for the Raiders this season, and luckily much of this approach has resulted in good things. Issues do still remain, however, and the playoffs aren't a huge stretch just yet.
Oakland would have to go undefeated in the next three weeks to take the top spot, and the Chiefs and Chargers would have to slip dramatically.
Stranger things have happened, but it isn't a likely scenario.
Current Record: 6-7
A number of verbal lectures have been heard throughout the Seattle Seahawks locker room this season, as head coach Pete Carroll continues to try to rally his troops to a consistent pace as January fast approaches.
If wasting a breath was ever a crime, though, Carroll would be found guilty. Once again on Sunday, the Seahawks slipped up in what has been an extremely turbulent year, falling to the San Francisco 49ers 40-21.
The issue for Seattle is simple: It is in a division that is weak yet so competitive. Still tied with the St. Louis Rams at 6-7 on the season, the playoffs are definitely not out of reach for the Seahawks, but now that San Francisco is breathing fire, things could take a turn for the worst very soon.
Seattle is in a prime position to take advantage of the division, although the Atlanta Falcons and Tampa Bay Buccaneers await in the next two weeks. Following that is the Rams, a game that could mean the difference between first, second or third in the scheme of things.
Current Record: 6-7
Staying in the NFC West, the St. Louis Rams have also taken a mild turn for the worst following the Seattle Seahawks, as they too were blown out of the water against the New Orleans Saints this past weekend.
In terms of excitement, the Rams in the playoffs would be entertaining. Seeing a rookie quarterback such as Sam Bradford turn a struggling team around into a postseason contender is a story line that everyone can jump on, even if you do miss the old days of Kurt Warner and company.
Don't jump the gun too quickly, though.
Yes, just like Seattle, the 49ers are approaching. The NFC West schedule has all three of its contending teams meeting up in the next three weeks, and after the Rams face the Chiefs in Week 15, they will then host San Francisco the very next weekend.
Currently, St. Louis is ranked quite low in all aspects of the game. What makes this story beautiful, though, is the fact that the Rams haven't relied on big time plays, and Steve Spagnuolo's team has won the games that matter.
Three games are crucial in the coming weeks, so let's see if the Rams can live up to expectations.
Current Record: 5-8
Mathematically eliminated? Certainly, as the Tennessee Titans' loss to the Indianapolis Colts last week on Thursday Night Football has doomed Jeff Fisher's team from a playoff opportunity this regular season.
If it hasn't been one thing for the Titans, it has been the other. Vince Young's hasty discussions with Fisher have been well documented and, although this takes the cake in terms of controversial headlines, other factors have made up the Titans' torturous year.
Amongst all of the sagas and questioning, though, is Randy Moss. Signed in Week 10, Moss has caught an astounding five passes for 62 yards since becoming a part of the blue and white and hasn't been the strong-willed player the Titans had hoped for.
The 2011 season is the next step in the Titans' road to success, and one would assume that the NFL Draft is now high on the Titans' priority list. Suggesting Tennessee tank the rest of the season is, of course, a step too far, but a high draft pick would really help the Titans turn their bad luck around in the upcoming future.
Current Record: 9-4
It took overtime to defeat a deflated Houston Texans team on Monday night, but if winning isn't everything, why do they keep score?
Aside from the many important factors that have surrounded the Ravens' monumental year, keeping pace with the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC North has topped the list. Standing at 9-4 behind Mike Tomlin's crew, the Ravens will be stretched to outdo their division rivals, although a Wild Card spot is likely to fall into their laps at this rate.
The promising signs?
There are so many to focus on, but the Ravens' team effort has by far been the best this season. As much criticism as Joe Flacco endured for not stepping up to the plate in 2009, taking a look at the Ravens' scoresheet on Monday night indicates how well Baltimore shares the ball around game in and game out.
Just for the record, the old-timer Derrick Mason got on the board twice on Monday night, scoring two touchdowns and receiving for 78 yards. If this isn't pleasing enough, Josh Wilson's third interception on the year couldn't have come at a more perfect time, returning his pick for six in the overtime period.
Swimming and still alive are the Baltimore Ravens and, even though it is easy to look at the AFC North and focus on the Steelers, let's not forget how far John Harbaugh's team went last season in the playoffs.
A Wild Card berth could be taken as a disappointment, but believe me, it could be just as dangerous as the division crown.
Current Record: 7-6
The words imperfection and Peyton Manning don't normally mix well in a sentence. This season, however, has seen the Sheriff throw for an unusual number of interceptions and turnovers in the Colts' "hot and cold" 2010 campaign.
They say one of the true signs of a veteran quarterback is the ability to fight back when the chips are down. Meet Peyton Manning, the true master of that theory.
On Thursday Night Football last week against the Tennessee Titans, Manning threw for 319 yards and two touchdowns in the Colts' 30-28 victory that saw Indianapolis stay hot on the heels of the Jacksonville Jaguars down south.
When asked of the win, Manning stated that his offense played like the true Colts offense we have all come to know.
He couldn't be more right.
Indianapolis now takes on those very same Jacksonville Jaguars at home this upcoming weekend, a game that is by far the biggest event of Week 15.
Current Record: 10-3
It's odd to think that a 10-3 team can crack the "swimming" participants, but thanks to the Atlanta Falcons, the New Orleans Saints' playoff hopes aren't totally in the clear as the weeks continue to push on.
For New Orleans, beating a team like the St. Louis Rams 31-13 could be taken lightly. As easy as it is to think this way, though, the Saints continue to build a cushion between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and themselves in the NFC South division.
On the day against the Rams, Drew Brees was yet again at his very best. Unfortunately Brees' two interceptions placed a slight dent in his MVP chances. However, his 221 yards and three touchdowns are just as impressive at the same time.
New Orleans' season has encountered some hazy moments on the best of occasions. Losing to the Browns was never ideal, but seeing as though the Saints are now one of the many Wild Card favorites in the NFC, a lot of these forgettable moments can be taken with a grain of salt.
The Baltimore Ravens now prepare to host the Saints in Week 15, one of the weekend's bigger games. The Saints are ranked sixth in points scored and third in yards, so let's just say this matchup against the league's 10th overall defense should be a blockbuster affair.
Current Record: 9-4
Losing to the Dallas Cowboys: forgetful. Bouncing back to have the second best defense in the league: priceless.
Believe it or not, Tom Coughlin's cheeks aren't the only thing to be glowing bright red 14 weeks into the season. The New York Giants are red-hot with a 9-4 record and, better yet, they are matching the Philadelphia Eagles move for move in the NFC East right now.
So what has been the cause for the Giants' fall and rise to the top for the second time this season?
Yes, it does win championships, and even though the Giants aren't all the way there just yet, New York can count their blessings and thank defensive coordinator Perry Fewell for his hard work and elbow grease this year.
What has gone unnoticed throughout the Giants' up and down season, though, is Hakeem Nicks. Missing in action for some parts of the year, earlier in November some folks even chose to place Nicks in the MVP discussion, as his now 896 yards and nine touchdowns have been the main reason for the Giants' ability to post points on the board.
New York is very much swimming with three weeks to go, but the old question of "When will they burn out again?" still lingers around. If the Giants can overcome Philadelphia this weekend, though, the division may swing Big Blue's way a little.
Current Record: 7-6
The team previously mentioned as Jaws is now open for discussion, simply because the San Diego Chargers are mowing down teams in their persistent path to reach the playoffs in the dwindling weeks of the season.
Blowing out Kansas City 31-0 in Week 14, the Chargers looked great. Philip Rivers continued to implement the letters "MVP" into his vocabulary, passing for 226 yards and one touchdown, and with Mike Tolbert and Ryan Mathews' combined effort, the win was in the bag quite quickly for the Bolts.
Still, all is not well in Charger land.
Why is that?
Mainly due to the fact that San Diego still must win their next three games if they are to make the playoffs somehow. Not only that, Norv Turner's dizzying statistical team also must overcome the Raiders and Chiefs in the AFC West in the span of the next three weeks.
Experts predicted a late surge of power from the Chargers and we all knew it was coming. San Diego is certainly swimming with what is left in the season, but the water is slowly becoming shallow, as the Chargers host San Francisco on Thursday night.
Stats mean one thing, wins mean the other. Fortunately the Chargers have had the best of both worlds lately.
Current Record: 5-8
A 5-8 team rarely makes the postseason these days. Defying the odds, however, are the San Francisco 49ers, who are displaying a never give up attitude following a horrendous start to such a promising season in 2010.
To rewind to three months ago, perhaps firing Mike Singletary would have been the worst thing for this franchise. Smartly the 49ers held on to the former Chicago Bear and now are staring right down the barrel of a possible playoff campaign, even if it is to be short-lived.
As for Week 14, the 49ers dished out a heaping serving of points to the Seattle Seahawks. A 40-21 victory at home was the result of a big-time day from Alex Smith, and as you can tell by the photo, the good times were rolling for once at Candlestick Park.
Luckily for San Francisco, the schedule isn't too harsh in the upcoming weeks if you overlook the game away at San Diego this Thursday. A trip to St. Louis and a home game against Arizona are then to follow, so if all things go according to plan, San Francisco could very well wind up 8-8.
We'll wait and find out, but in the meantime keep an eye on the 49ers' ninth-ranked rush defense. It is sure to play a factor this Thursday night against Ryan Mathews and company.
Current Record: 8-5
Is this really the same 3-13 team from a year ago? Yes, but with a much more developed offense and quarterback to its name.
As disappointed as Tampa Bay fans may be if the Bucs miss out on the playoffs this season, this year's performance from Raheem Morris' team has by far been one of the most surprising story lines of the entire season.
Last week against the Washington Redskins, the Bucs survived a close scare, holding on for a 17-16 victory on the back of Josh Freeman's 266-yard, one touchdown effort.
For the most part, it has been these types of victories that have made up the Bucs' season. Losing to Atlanta in the previous week, Tampa Bay hasn't allowed itself to collapse entirely under the strain of a well contested NFC South division, something that plagued this team a year ago.
In years to come, the Bucs are sure to be a great team to watch, but this year it may be one too many losses. The division disappointments are beginning to pile up, and even though the next three weeks could spell some kind of miracle fight for it all, the Bucs aren't being invited to the big dance just yet.
Josh Freeman has had a remarkable year, and so has rookie running back LeGarrette Blount. Throw in Kellen Winslow Jr. and Mike Williams' combined 1,342 yards and 10 touchdowns, and you have the makings of a team that is very much swimming but also struggling against the current in a tough division.