After 14 weeks of NFL play, there are still the “Have’s” (8 teams with 9 wins or more including the league’s two undefeated teams — Colts and Saints both 13-0) and the “Have Nots” (11 teams with 5 or less wins, who are now basically finishing out the string). But a good portion of the league (13 teams) is still caught in the parity-laden middle with records ranging from 8-5 to 6-7. So with only three games remaining for teams, there is little time left for the “Contenders” and “Pretenders” to sort themselves out before the playoffs — only 9 playoff berths remaining. Though “mathematically” there are still a lot of teams in contention for the NFL’s remaining 9 playoff spots, I believe after Week 15, the league will have a much clearer playoff picture. With only two division races still really up for grabs (AFC East and NFC East), the real fun will be the fight for the wildcard berths in both the AFC and NFC.
In looking at the current NFL standings here’s the breakdown: The “Elite” – Saints (13-0), Colts (13-0), Vikings (11-2), Chargers (10-3), Bengals (9-4), Eagles (9-4), and Packers (9-4); “Strong Playoff Contenders” — Cardinals (8-5), Broncos (8-5), Cowboys (8-5), and Patriots (8-5); “In the Hunt” teams that will soon be either in or out of the playoffs — Giants (7-6), Jaguars (7-6); Jets (7-6), Ravens (7-6), Dolphins (7-6), Steelers (6-7), Falcons (6-7), Texans (6-7), Titans (6-7), and Niners (6-7); and lastly the “Finishing Out the String” teams (See you at the 2010 NFL Draft) – Panthers (5-8), Bears (5-8), Seahawks (5-8), Bills (5-8), Raiders (4-9), Redskins (4-9), Chiefs (3-10), Lions (2-11), Browns (2-11), Rams (1-12), and Buccaneers (1-12)
Now on to the rankings for this week.
1. Colts (13-0) – Records fell everywhere as the Colts won an NFL record 22-straight regular season games with a dominating win over the Denver Broncos. In a Thursday Night Special, it will be interesting to see if the Colts rest players or play for perfection against their desperate hosts, the Jacksonville Jaguars.
2. Saints (13-0) – In another comeback win that kept them perfect, the Saints did just enough to hold-off the injured, but dangerous Atlanta Falcons. In a Saturday night special, the undefeated Saints will continue striving for perfection when they host the desperate Cowboys, who are now 0-2 in the dreaded month of December.
3. Chargers (10-3) – The Bolts did their part to continue the Dallas Cowboys’ December swoon as San Diego led by QB Philip Rivers rode a huge goal line stand to a playoff worthy win. In a possible playoff preview, the Chargers will host the Bengals who will probably be grieving after the unfortunate death of WR Chris Henry.
4. Vikings (11-2) – Minnesota showed their teeth as they claimed a playoff berth by thumping the Bengals via their strong defense (allowed less than 100 yards passing) and running game. Looking to wrap-up the NFC North division and trying to keep the heat on the Saints for the NFC’s top spot, the Vikings will travel to Carolina.
5. Eagles (9-4) – It must be a “December Thing” as the Eagles continued their dominance in the year’s last month by gaining control of the NFC East race by outlasting the Giants in a thrilling back-and-forth SNF game. In a game that will have a playoff feel, the Eagles will host the desperate Niners who are trying to catch the Cardinals in the NFC West race.
6. Packers (9-4) – The Pack sent their longtime rivals, the Chicago Bears, further into the abyss with a solid road win. The Packers will look to maintain their quiet, but successful playoff run in Week 15 when they travel to P-burgh to face the reeling Steelers (5-straight losses).
7. Bengals (9-4) — Cincy looked vulnerable as they had no passing game in an embarrassing road loss to the Vikings. With the horrible news earlier in the week of the passing of WR Chris Henry, the Bengals must pick-up the pieces and travel across the country to face the surging San Diego Chargers.
8. Cardinals (8-5) – Just when I was about to jump on the Cardinals’ bandwagon, they looked atrocious in a 7-turnover loss to the Niners on Monday Night Football. With an eye on the NFC West crown, the Cardinals will need to re-assert themselves when they travel to Motown to face the 2-win Detroit Lions.
9. Broncos (8-5) – In a game that showed the dominance of the undefeated Indianapolis Colts, the Broncos had no answer to the overall talent of the Colts. Though the Broncos have a big lead in the AFC Wildcard race, they will need to take care of business against the upset-minded Oakland Raiders.
10. Patriots (8-5) – It was a struggle, but the Patriots pulled together for a tough win over the scrappy Carolina Panthers. However even in winning the game over the Panthers, you have to wonder if malcontents on the Patriots roster (Randy Moss and Adalius Thomas) will affect their locker room chemistry. With no room for error and the Jets and Dolphins breathing down their backs, the Patriots need to stay focused when they travel to Buffalo this week.
11. Cowboys (8-5) – It is time for the Dallas to wake-up and admit that they have a problem playing in the month of December (5-11 since 2006). The Cowboys fell behind and then had no answer for Chargers TE Antonio Gates in a big road win by San Diego. With basically their season on the line and possibly head coach Wade Phillips’ job, the Cowboys will need to reverse their December fortunes in New Orleans against the undefeated Saints in a Saturday night special game.
12. Giants (7-6) – The G-Men put up a lot of yardage (512 yards) and points, but in the end, the Eagles led by big play receiver DeSean Jackson ran past the Giants in a huge road win. On ESPN Monday Night Football, the Giants season will be on the line when they face the dangerous 4-win Redskins.
13. Ravens (7-6) – The Ravens made sure the pathetic Detroit Lions understood that they were basically a minor league team as they thumped them by over 40 points. It looks like John Harbaugh’s team is peaking at the right time as the playoffs are approaching, but the Ravens must stay focused when they host the inconsistent Chicago Bears.
14. Dolphins (7-6) – The ‘Phins continue to surprise in December (undefeated in the month under head coach Tony Sparano) as they traveled north to Jacksonville and came away with a tough win over the Jags. With the Wildcat on the bench, the Dolphins will rely on QB Chad Henne and their attacking defense when they travel to Tennessee for a “Loser Leaves Town” match with the Titans.
15. Jaguars (7-6) – With the playoffs in sight, the inconsistent Jags didn’t have much more than RB Maurice Jones-Drew in a tough home loss to the Dolphins. The Jaguars will host the undefeated Colts in a game that could make or break their playoff hopes.
16. Jets (7-6) – The J-E-T-S and back-up QB Kellen Clemens got an ugly win over the Tampa Bay Bucs, but at least it was a win. With their playoff hopes still alive, the NY Jets will keep their foot on the gas when the equally desperate Atlanta Falcons come to Gotham.
17. Steelers (6-7) – What in the world is wrong with the defending Super Bowl Champs? In a must-win situation, the Steelers came up very short against the searching-for-respect Cleveland Browns on Thursday Night Football. Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin will need his team to back-up his “big” boasts as P-Burgh’s season is on the line when the Steelers host the surging Green Bay Packers.
18. Falcons (6-7) – Mike Smith’s team showed that they are a bunch of fighters, but without starting QB Matt Ryan, RB Michael Turner and a good portion of their secondary, the Falcons lost to the undefeated Saints. With their season on the line, the Falcons will need to get everyone healthy for a playoff-type game against the equally desperate host NY J-E-T-S.
19. 49ers (6-7) – Mike Singlegtary’s team made it two in a row over the NFC West leading Arizona Cardinals, as the Niners won easily by winning the turnover battle on Monday Night Football. With thoughts of winning out on their minds, the Niners will travel to Philly for a playoff-type game against the surging NFC East leading Philadelphia Eagles.
20. Titans (6-7) – Luckily for the Titans, they didn’t need QB Vince Young (hamstring) to play long in a “laugher” win over the St. Louis Rams. All the cards will be on the table as the Titans host the Dolphins in a game that will end one team’s playoff hopes.
21. Texans (6-7) – Desperation was in the air as the Texans led by QB Matt Schaub took care of business against the Seattle Seahawks. With no room for error, the Texans will look to get back to .500 when they travel to St. Louis to face the two-win Rams.
22. Seahawks (5-8) – The Hawks dimming playoff hopes were basically extinguished with a road loss to the Texans. In a pride only game, the Seahawks will look to pad their stats when they host the Tampa Bay Bucs.
23. Bills (5-8) – In a very ugly game that someone had to win, the Bills did a millimeter more than the Chiefs. With hopes of spoiling the Patriots playoff dreams, the host Buffalo Bills will need to get a better passing effort from QB Ryan Fitzpatrick than last week.
24. Panthers (5-8) – It appears the John Fox era in Carolina maybe coming to an end soon as the Panthers talked a lot but couldn’t win over the Patriots. The Panthers host “Comeback Kid” QB Brett Favre and the surging Minnesota Vikings, who are looking to wrap-up the NFC North this week.
25. Bears (5-8) – It was a typical Midwest black-and-blue special, but the host Bears had no answer for the surging Packers who scored on their very first offensive play. With whispers of head coach Lovie Smith’s job security in the air, the Bears will travel to possibly snowy Baltimore for a showdown with the ascending Ravens.
26. Redskins (4-9) – The ‘Skins pulled out their “A-game” in a surprisingly easy win over the downtrodden Oakland Raiders. With new GM Bruce Allen now in charge, the host Redskins will look to spoil the NY Giants playoff dreams on Monday Night Football.
27. Raiders (4-9) – Al Davis’ team not only lost to the Redskins, they also lost QB Bruce Gradkowski (knees) for the remainder of the season. With journeyman QB Charlie Frye at the helm, the Raiders will look to be a thorn in the Denver Broncos’ side.
28. Chiefs (3-10) – In a game where the Bills were terrible on offense, the Chiefs were even worse as big-ticket QB Matt Cassell threw 4 interceptions in a bad home loss. In Week 15’s “Toilet Bowl”, the Chiefs will host the Cleveland Browns, who are coming off their biggest win of the year.
29. Browns (2-11) – On NFL Network Thursday Night Football, the Browns led by do-everything WR Josh Cribbs ended their 12-game losing streak to the Pittsburgh Steelers on a very chilly night in Cleveland. In a game that is sure to be “Blacked Out”, the Browns will travel to KC for this week’s Toilet Bowl against the Chiefs.
30. Lions (2-11) – No Matthew Stafford equaled a very poor effort by the Lions and back-up QB Daunte Culpepper in a throttling by the host Baltimore Ravens. The Arizona Cardinals will look to rebound from a poor Monday Night Football showing when they travel to Detroit to face the reeling Lions.
31. Rams (1-12) – The Tennessee Titans thumped the poor Rams despite losing starter Vince Young very early in the game. The Houston Texans will look to get the ball to All-World receiver Andre Johnson early and often when they face the 1-win Rams.
32. Buccaneers (1-12) – The J-E-T-S easily rolled over the hapless Bucs. Beleaguered head coach Raheem Morris’ team maybe in for another butt-kicking as the Bucs travel across the country to face the Seattle Seahawks.
Lloyd Vance is a Sr. NFL Writer for Taking It to the House and an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA)