NFL Power Rankings: Exploring League Landscape Heading into Week 15

Joseph Zucker@@JosephZuckerFeatured ColumnistDecember 12, 2013

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - DECEMBER 08:  Russell Wilson #3 of the Seattle Seahawks is congratulated by head coach Pete Carroll after the Seahawks offense scored a touchdown against the San Francisco 49ers during the second quarter at Candlestick Park on December 8, 2013 in San Francisco, California.  (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

As the NFL season nears its conclusion, the teams with something to prove are running out of time to iron out their issues.

With the amount of parity in the league this year, few teams have emerged as serious Super Bowl contenders. Sure you've got some good teams near the top of the standings, but you can come up with valid reasons why they'll fall before reaching MetLife Stadium.

With that in mind, here's a look at the full standings for the entire league. The contenders with the most to prove are underlined.

1. Seattle Seahawks (11-2)

The Seattle Seahawks remain the most balanced team in the league. That loss to the San Francisco 49ers shouldn't scare you too much. The Seahawks still have one of the best defenses in the league, while Russell Wilson is doing a great job of managing the offense and letting Marshawn Lynch shoulder the offensive burden.

2. Denver Broncos (11-2)

Dec 8, 2013; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Broncos running back Montee Ball (28) reacts with fans after running for a five yard touchdown in the fourth quarter against the Tennessee Titans at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. The Broncos defeated the Titans
Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

It may seem weird that the Denver Broncos have any question marks. They've consistently been one of the best teams in the league, and Peyton Manning is one of the best quarterbacks in history and doesn't deserve whatever kind of "choker" label he gets.

However, there is an argument that he struggles in inclement weather. Manning's arm strength is average, which means his passes aren't able to hit the mark as much in windy conditions, and the offense can't take as many chances downfield. In playoff games at Sports Authority Field, this could turn into a big problem.

3. New Orleans Saints (10-3)

The New Orleans Saints are a formidable team in the Superdome, going 7-0 at home up to this point in the season. On the road, they're only 3-3. That's a bit of a concern should Seattle lock up home-field advantage for the postseason.

4. Carolina Panthers (9-4)

There haven't been a lot of games where Cam Newton has been forced to take over. He's been able to rely on the defense and manage the game. But unlike Wilson, he'll need to play better in the postseason if the Carolina Panthers are to be true Super Bowl contenders. The Panthers offense isn't as strong as Seattle's.

5. San Francisco 49ers (9-4)

A win over the Seahawks illustrated the toughness of this team and how different it is from the early part of the season. The defense did a great job of limiting Lynch and preventing Wilson from throwing the ball downfield.

6. New England Patriots (10-3)

Rob Gronkowski is out for the season, which is a major blow to the New England Patriots. They've done so well handling all of their injuries thus far in the season and remaining one of the best teams in the AFC. There's no doubting, though, how much losing Gronk hurts the offense, Tom Brady especially, per ESPN Stats and Info:

Playing well in the regular season and playing well in the postseason are two different things. As good as Brady is, he's got an uphill battle making up for all of the Patriots' injuries while simultaneously overcoming what continues to be an unspectacular defense.

7. Kansas City Chiefs (10-3)

LANDOVER, MD - DECEMBER 08:  Head coach Andy Reid of the Kansas City Chiefs looks on from the sidelines during the second half against the Washington Redskins at FedExField on December 8, 2013 in Landover, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Rob Carr/Getty Images

The good news is that the Kansas City Chiefs ended their three-game losing streak. The bad news is that it came against the Washington Redskins.

Given the way the Chiefs lost to the Denver Broncos, there's reason to question their ceiling. Not to mention Philip Rivers torched the Kansas City defense for 392 yards and three touchdowns. If the defense keeps getting the Chiefs into shootouts against tough offenses, Alex Smith won't be able to keep Kansas City in the game.

8. Cincinnati Bengals (9-4)

CINCINNATI, OH - DECEMBER 08:  Andy Dalton #14 of the Cincinnati Bengals walks off the field victorious against the Indianapolis Colts at Paul Brown Stadium on December 8, 2013 in Cincinnati, Ohio.  The Bengals defeated the Colts 42-28.  (Photo by John Gr
John Grieshop/Getty Images

Until Andy Dalton performs well in the playoffs, you can't trust the Cincinnati Bengals too much. He's been awful in each of the past two playoffs, and this season hasn't seen Dalton progressing too much as a quarterback. His decision-making has been questionable at best, and he's had problems hitting the short to mid-range throws, which has been his bread and butter in the past.

Everything else on the Bengals is good enough for a playoff push. An injury-ravaged defense remains one of the best in the league, while the combination of BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Giovani Bernard can help move the chains.

The key will be Dalton. If he repeats his past two Wild Card Games against the Houston Texans, it will be another early postseason exit for Cincinnati.

9. Philadelphia Eagles (8-5)

The anchor for this team used to be the defense, which was languishing near the bottom of the rankings earlier in the season. However, there has been a lot of improvement on that side of the ball recently, which has been a huge boost for Nick Foles, LeSean McCoy and that explosive offense.

10. Arizona Cardinals (8-5)

Dec 8, 2013; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Arizona Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer (3) throws a pass in the first half against the St. Louis Rams at University of Phoenix Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

It's unfair that this Arizona Cardinals team will most likely miss out on the playoffs. Their defense is one of the best in the league, and Carson Palmer has thrown two interceptions in his past four games.

11. Indianapolis Colts (8-5)

Ever since the Reggie Wayne injury, this team hasn't looked the same. The offense isn't hitting on all cylinders, which magnifies the Indianapolis Colts' defensive problems. Although they locked up the AFC South, it may be a forgettable postseason for the Colts.

12. Miami Dolphins (7-6)

Although it's probably too little, too late from the Miami Dolphins when it comes to the AFC East, they could snatch a wild-card spot. A game with the Patriots will be difficult, but it gets easier to close the season, with the Buffalo Bills on the road and New York Jets at home.

13. Detroit Lions (7-6)

The Detroit Lions are teetering on the brink. They can't afford to drop any more games, or they risk watching the Chicago Bears leapfrog them and win the division. Since neither team is going to win the Wild Card, the NFC North battle will be a lot of fun to watch.

14. Chicago Bears (7-6)

CHICAGO, IL - DECEMBER 09: Quarterback Josh McCown #12 of the Chicago Bears runs for a touchdown in the second quarter against the Dallas Cowboys during a game at Soldier Field on December 9, 2013 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Ima
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Who is this man, and what has he done with the real Josh McCown? The 34-year-old has thrown for over 300 yards three games in a row and has 13 touchdowns to one interception. Of course, this gives Bears fans another reason to hate Jay Cutler, so it's business as usual.

15. Baltimore Ravens (7-6)

The Baltimore Ravens are one of those teams that could go either way this season. Every time you doubt Joe Flacco, you have to think back to that Super Bowl run. However, that three-point win over the Minnesota Vikings gives you pause. The Ravens have the Patriots, Bengals and Detroit Lions to finish the season. It will be tough securing a wild-card berth.

16. San Diego Chargers (6-7)

It's a shame the San Diego Chargers hit that rut in Week 9. Seeing a three-team race in the AFC West would've been a lot of fun. For the time being, let's admire the way Rivers has rolled back the years and put together one of his best single seasons ever.

17. Dallas Cowboys (7-6)

The Dallas Cowboys defense used to be in a place where it wouldn't drag the entire team down. That time is gone, with the unit becoming one of the biggest jokes in the league. At least with a defensive coordinator like Monte Kiffin, you know the team has a long-term plan in place. In a few years, Kiffin could have this defense in step.

18. Green Bay Packers (6-6-1)

Until Aaron Rodgers comes back, the Green Bay Packers are stuck in the same position the Chicago Bulls are without Derrick Rose. They won't all of a sudden become a terrible team, but there's a definite ceiling when it comes to their ambitions.

19. Pittsburgh Steelers (5-8)

Dec 8, 2013; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers strong safety Troy Polamalu (43) runs with the ball after a missed Miami Dolphins field goal during the second quarter at Heinz Field. The Miami Dolphins won 34-28. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-U
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sport

It's always hard to watch a team that's been good for so long begin declining. The Pittsburgh Steelers aren't getting any younger, and they'll have some decisions to make this offseason. They can either go with the complete overhaul, or make enough moves to give the team one last run with this current core, as the Ravens did last year with their aging defense.

20. New York Jets (6-7)

At least Geno Smith was able to keep the New York media at bay for another week. He's had plenty of ups and downs this year, but for the most part, the rookie quarterback has looked good. Smith will have his growing pains, and things will be a lot better next year.

21. Tennessee Titans (5-8)

Tennessee's loss last week hastened the inevitable. The Titans weren't going to win the division without Jake Locker. Now it will be a challenge to finish .500.

22. St. Louis Rams (5-8)

When Sam Bradford went down for the season, you gave up on the St. Louis Rams. The fact that the team has remained somewhat competitive is a good sign for the future, as is the struggles of the Redskins, which makes that first-round pick in 2014 even better.

23. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-9)

In the end, we can't be all that surprised by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' resurgence. They finished 7-9 last year and spent a lot of money in the offseason to improve. Now if they could get around to firing Greg Schiano, there would be reason for hope in Tampa.

24. New York Giants (5-8)

That 37-14 loss to the Chargers was distressing for the New York Giants. They never looked to be in the game and turned the ball over three times. It was the kind of lethargic performance that's come to symbolize New York's 2013 campaign.

25. Cleveland Browns (4-9)

FOXBORO, MA - DECEMBER 08: Josh Gordon #12 of the Cleveland Browns stiff arms Aqib Talib #31 of the New England Patriots on his way to the endzone in the second half during the game at Gillette Stadium on December 8, 2013 in Foxboro, Massachusetts.  (Phot
Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

Can you imagine how good Josh Gordon would be with a consistent quarterback? There's an argument to be had that he's supplanted A.J. Green as the second-best wideout in the NFL. But with the Cleveland Browns' track record, there's no guarantee that help will be arriving this offseason.

26. Buffalo Bills (4-9)

Nobody can be that surprised by EJ Manuel's poor performance this year. Everybody said after the draft he was a project at QB. The Buffalo Bills need to keep with their long-term plan and let Manuel learn from his mistakes.

27. Jacksonville Jaguars (4-9)

The Jacksonville Jaguars are playing really well at the moment, winning their past three games. It at least gives fans some reason to hope for 2014. The team needs a years to possibly get to an elite level, so it's good to see the Jags taking some steps forward and failing to give up after starting the season so poorly.

28. Minnesota Vikings (3-9-1)

There's a cloud over Minnesota following Adrian Peterson's injury. Without their star running back, the Vikings are one of the worst teams in the league. They're pinning their hopes to Matt Cassel or Josh Freeman.

29. Oakland Raiders (4-9)

The only compelling storyline for the Oakland Raiders is whom will be the starting QB in 2014. Terrelle Pryor and Matt McGloin have had their moments, leaving the coaching staff with plenty to talk about in the offseason.

30. Washington Redskins (3-10)

According to Sports Illustrated's Doug Farrar, Robert Griffin III is done for the rest of the season, with Kirk Cousins getting the starting nod. You could see where Cousins finishes the season great and sparks a quarterback controversy in Washington.

31. Atlanta Falcons (3-10)

If you look up "lost season" in the dictionary from now on, you're going to see a picture of the 2013 Atlanta Falcons. With games against the Redskins, 49ers and Panthers, the Falcons could easily go from 13-3 to 3-13 in the space of a year.

32. Houston Texans (2-11)

Dec 5, 2013; Jacksonville, FL, USA; Houston Texans quarterback Matt Schaub (8) slides for a seven-yard gain as he is pursued by Jacksonville Jaguars cornerback Mike Harris (20) in the fourth quarter at EverBank Field. The Jacksonville Jaguars best the Hou
Phil Sears-USA TODAY Sports

At least Gary Kubiak is out. He was the team's biggest symbol of futility in the postseason. It will be interesting to see who gets the job, because the Houston Texans could make a quick recovery next season with a clean slate.


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