With eleven games played for each franchise, the disparity between a team’s record and its performance is virtually eliminated. Even though upsets occur on a weekly basis, the state of a given squad is beginning to solidify for 2015.
Week 12 did bring a change in the playoff races, however, as they actually grew a bit closer for the first time in weeks. While the Bengals increased their division lead, they also gained on the Patriots in the race for home field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs. The Vikings regained control of the NFC North — albeit with only a one-game lead — while the NFC East refuses to find a leader for an extended period of time.
In addition to the playoff races finally heating up, the league also saw one of its two unbeatens fall in Week 12. New England — defending champions from last year’s Super Bowl — was the 10-0 franchise handed its first loss, while the Panthers — coming off a season where they won the NFC South with a losing record — improved to 11-0 with a Thanksgiving blowout in Dallas.
1. Carolina Panthers (LW: 2) – Record: 11-0
The Carolina Panthers simply do not slow down. Now a perfect 11-0 and with the league’s second-best point differential of 127, their dominance is unquestioned. What’s most impressive about Carolina’s run is that the team has not played a game decided by fewer than eight points since beating the Colts in overtime in Week 8. With New England’s loss in Week 12, the undefeated Panthers take the top spot in the Power Rankings.
2. New England Patriots (LW: 1) – Record: 10-1
There will be no perfection in Foxborough — the New England Patriots lost a football game. Previously undefeated — and, looking unstoppable, at times — New England’s winning streak was snapped with a Week 12 loss in Denver on Sunday Night Football. More important than the loss of a perfect season was the near-loss of star tight end Rob Gronkowski, who left the field with an apparent knee injury late in the game. Thankfully for the Patriots, Gronkowski’s injury appears to be far less serious than initial reports suggested, as it would have been an even more difficult task for New England to try to survive another downed pass-catcher.
3. Arizona Cardinals (LW: 3) – Record: 9-2
It couldn’t have been that easy, every game. In what turned out to be a much more tightly contested game than many expected, the Arizona Cardinals kept their winning ways going with a division win in San Francisco in Week 12. With the Seahawks continuing to stay alive in the NFC West, the fact that Arizona avoided a letdown is inspiring, and it continues to impress as one of the league’s most complete and dangerous teams.
4. Denver Broncos (LW: 5) – Record: 9-2
No Peyton Manning? No problem. Despite how poorly the surefire future Hall of Fame quarterback had played throughout 2015, the change from Manning to backup Brock Osweiler was expected to come with a drop-off — or, at least, a learning curve. Now 2-0 with Osweiler, the Broncos may be fielding the best possible version of themselves. Of course, Manning’s team built enough of a lead in the AFC West that Osweiler has to do little more than manage the remaining few games and cruise into the playoffs, but, with a win against the previously undefeated Patriots under his belt, he might be more than just a fill-in.
5. Cincinnati Bengals (LW: 6) – Record: 9-2
After losing back-to-back games following a perfect 8-0 start, the Cincinnati Bengals desperately needed to get back on track. In Week 12, the Rams obliged as the Bengals got back to their winning ways with a blowout victory. Now 9-2 and heading into back-to-back games against division opponents, Cincinnati may be on the verge of clinching the AFC North in the coming weeks.
6. Minnesota Vikings (LW: 7) – Record: 8-3
As suddenly as the Minnesota Vikings lost their division lead is as quickly as they regained it. One week after a home loss to the Packers, the Vikings traveled to Atlanta and knocked off the reeling Falcons to return back to the top of the NFC North. With a top-five scoring defense and an offense that rarely turns the ball over, it would take a complete collapse for Minnesota to miss the postseason.
7. Green Bay Packers (LW: 4) – Record: 7-4
For a team that hardly ever loses at home, what can be made of back-to-back home defeats? This is the case for the Green Bay Packers, losers of four of their last five games, and again reopening the conversation of the depths of this recent skid. At 7-4, Green Bay has played well enough to remain in the playoff picture, but the dominance that once ruled Lambeau Field might be dwindling.
8. Seattle Seahawks (LW: 10) – Record: 6-5
Perhaps, this is the same Seattle Seahawks team as in recent years. Indeed, Seattle is not winning games in as dominant fashion as it has, but the Seahawks are still every bit as capable of winning clutch games as their counterparts from 2012-2014. With a hard-fought win against the Steelers in Week 12, the Seahawks have now won back-to-back games and, remarkably, moved above .500 for the first time this season. With a showdown in Minnesota against the 8-3 Vikings in Week 13, Seattle will be put to the test, yet again, as it tries to stay alive in the NFC playoff race.
9. Pittsburgh Steelers (LW: 8) – Record: 6-5
As always, it is never easy for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Battling injuries in nearly every game, the Steelers have somehow survived to the tune of a 6-5 record — good for a virtual tie for an AFC Wild Card berth. With the next three games coming against opponents with winning records, the road only gets bumpier for the Steelers. If any team is up to the task of winning difficult games under harsh conditions, Pittsburgh is arguably the squad best prepared.
10. Kansas City Chiefs (LW: 12) – Record: 6-5
Perhaps, it is possible. The Kansas City Chiefs are making every effort to rewrite history by becoming one of the rare teams to start a season 1-5, yet make the playoffs. With its fifth consecutive win, Kansas City has finally moved back above .500 and will play its remaining five games against teams currently with losing records. If an opportunity ever existed for a ‘second chance’ in the National Football League, the Chiefs are the prime example.
11. Houston Texans (LW: 14) – Record: 6-5
The Houston Texans appear to be coming into form at the perfect time. In a footrace with the Indianapolis Colts for the AFC South title, the Texans were able to take advantage of a sinking Saints team in Week 12, thanks to, yet again, the strength of its defense. In addition, what was previously a question mark — the quarterback position — may finally be answered — at least, for 2015.
12. New York Jets (LW: 16) – Record: 6-5
After losing back-to-back conference games for the second time in five weeks, the New York Jets desperately needed a win to keep pace in the AFC Wild Card race. Miami allowed such a recovery to occur in Week 12 by acting as New York’s punching bag for the second time, this season. Now 6-5 and heading into a rivalry game with their co-tenant at MetLife Stadium, the Jets need to find a way to avoid another regression if the postseason hopes are to be realized.
13. Indianapolis Colts (LW: 15) – Record: 6-5
What the Indianapolis Colts have put together in the absence of quarterback Andrew Luck is downright remarkable. With Luck in the lineup, the Colts were a disappointing 2-5. Instead, Indianapolis has won all four games with Matt Hasselbeck under center, despite the team still featuring the same weaknesses as before. While the AFC South previously appeared to be winnable by any team that showed up to its respective game on Sunday, the Texans have made it a more difficult task for the Colts to claim division supremacy. If Indianapolis can maintain this success, it won’t matter what happens in Houston, anyway.
14. Atlanta Falcons (LW: 9) – Record: 6-5
It doesn’t happen often, but the Atlanta Falcons are beginning to look like the rare team that starts a season on an extended winning streak only to miss the postseason. Once 5-0, Atlanta has now lost four consecutive games — and five of their last six — to fall further into what has become a crowded NFC playoff race. Perhaps the most concerning issue with Atlanta is that each of its last two losses have come at home, where the Falcons have previously dominated. With three consecutive road games ahead, Atlanta is suddenly in a difficult position.
15. Washington Redskins (LW: 20) – Record: 5-6
The Washington Redskins are the perfect example of a team that is constantly overlooked, but worthy of recognition. Now 5-6 and tied with the Giants atop the NFC East, Washington might be the team most deserving of winning the division. With three games against NFC East opponents — including hosting the Cowboys without Tony Romo in Week 13 — the Redskins will be put to the test as the ‘hunted,’ not the ‘hunter,’ for arguably the first time, all season.
16. New York Giants (LW: 11) – Record: 5-6
It would have been too easy for the New York Giants to simply win in Week 12 and take control of the most average division in football. Instead, the Giants lost to the Redskins, conceding sole possession of first place in the NFC East, and leaving three teams within a single game of the division lead. The Giants are living proof as to the repercussions that come from failing to put a team away — both in a game and in a season-long division race.
17. Buffalo Bills (LW: 13) – Record: 5-6
The descent is happening quickly in Buffalo. After winning back-to-back division games to push the Buffalo Bills into a winning record, the team promptly lost back-to-back road games against the Patriots and Chiefs. Granted, New England is 10-1 and Kansas City is arguably the hottest team in the sport, but Buffalo cannot afford to lose many more games if it wants to survive in the AFC playoff race.
18. Oakland Raiders (LW: 18) – Record: 5-6
With the Broncos and Chiefs refusing to lose ground, it may not matter what happens in Oakland. Regardless, the Oakland Raiders put an end to their losing streak with a road win in Tennessee in Week 12. Granted, beating the Titans is not a call for celebration — all but two of Tennessee’s opponents have done the same — but Oakland is still trying to change the narrative of a franchise associated with losing. With that, every win is critical for a shift in perception.
19. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (LW: 17) – Record: 5-6
For a team that was quietly making a push towards an NFC Wild Card berth, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were in prime position to knock off the suddenly-hot Colts and their backup quarterback. Instead, the Buccaneers left Indianapolis with a losing record, casting doubt upon any playoff aspirations for 2015.
20. Chicago Bears (LW: 27) – Record: 5-6
In what has been a wild NFC North, the Chicago Bears, winners of three of their last four games — and five of their eight — are somehow still alive. The odds that the Bears can carry this winning streak into a threat for the division hinge largely on the play of the Vikings and Packers, but, with a defense that has not allowed more than 23 points since its Week 7 bye, Chicago appears to be a team legitimately on the rise.
21. St. Louis Rams (LW: 19) – Record: 4-7
Stop if you have seen this episode before — the St. Louis Rams are horrible. Once 4-3 and with wins against the Cardinals and Seahawks, the Rams have now lost four consecutive games and are spiraling out of control. With an abysmal offense that has lacked success from the quarterback position, all season, St. Louis appears destined for its ninth consecutive losing season.
22. Detroit Lions (LW: 26) – Record: 4-7
Are the Detroit Lions actually back in the playoff conversation? At 4-7, and with three consecutive victories, a full recovery into a playoff position appears impossible. But the team is undoubtedly on fire. At least, the Lions have recovered from an abysmal start by proving that their 1-7 low was an aberration.
23. Philadelphia Eagles (LW: 22) – Record: 4-7
As unbelievable as it is for a team one game out of first place in the division, the Philadelphia Eagles have no business being alive in the race. Now losers of three consecutive games, the Eagles have progressively looked worse as their downtrend gains momentum. With a matchup in New England looming in Week 13, Philadelphia has likely missed its opportunity to get back on the winning track.
24. Baltimore Ravens (LW: 28) – Record: 4-7
Considering how every one of the Baltimore Ravens’ eleven games have been decided by one score, it should not be shocking that they have now won back-to-back games. The surprise, however, is that Baltimore’s fourth win of the year came one week after losing quarterback Joe Flacco for the season — marking yet another big-name Raven to go down to injury. Although unlikely that the Ravens can keep this recent string of success alive with a skeleton crew, they have played well enough to be considered a ‘sneaky sleeper.’
25. Miami Dolphins (LW: 21) – Record: 4-7
At this point, the Miami Dolphins are simply playing out the remainder of their schedule as a necessity. With four losses in their last five games — including a defeat at the hands of each of their division rivals — the Dolphins are now one loss away from their seventh consecutive non-winning season. After the turmoil that 2015 has featured — namely, a mid-season head coaching change — this should hardly be a surprise.
26. San Diego Chargers (LW: 31) – Record: 3-8
The San Diego Chargers couldn’t have possibly lost every game. In recent years, traveling to Jacksonville would have looked like a sure-fire victory, but not in 2015 when the previously 2-8 San Diego squad traveled across the country in hopes of breaking its six-game losing streak. Thankfully for the Chargers, it happened, as San Diego finally played a complete game and left Week 12 with a win. It won’t go far, but the victory prolonged the guarantee of a losing season for at least another week.
27. New Orleans Saints (LW: 24) – Record: 4-7
The New Orleans Saints are inching towards clinching another losing season — with two more losses, the Saints will have back-to-back losing seasons for the first time since 1999. With the inability to win a game following a bye week — and, barely even competing, at that — it is more likely that losses will continue to pile up than a complete reversal of fortune.
28. Jacksonville Jaguars (LW: 25) – Record: 4-7
The Jacksonville Jaguars simply aren’t there, yet. Hosting a two-win Chargers team in Week 12, Jacksonville had the rare opportunity to enter a game with the expectation that it would win. As the Jaguars have a tendency to do, they lost, and fell two games back in what was actually a winnable division. Naturally, the state of the AFC South afforded Jacksonville such an opportunity, but the fact that the Jaguars couldn’t get the job done with something on the line is further indication that the franchise is still in the process of building.
29. Dallas Cowboys (LW: 23) – Record: 3-8
It would have taken a nearly impossible miracle, but any belief that the Dallas Cowboys held about making a push for the NFC East vanished on Thanksgiving. In addition to falling to 3-8, quarterback Tony Romo was injured again and has been ruled out for the remainder of what has been a dismal season.
30. San Francisco 49ers (LW: 29) – Record: 3-8
The San Francisco 49ers are clearly not going to compete for a playoff spot in 2015, but they also aren’t going to roll over and die. Now 1-2 — and with a six-point loss to the Cardinals — in the three games since quarterback Blaine Gabbert was named the team’s starter, the 49ers’ offense has outpaced that of the first eight contests. Granted, the bar was set so low — an average of 13.6 points-per-game versus the new offense’s 14.3 points-per-game — but any improvement is welcomed for a franchise in as bad a state as San Francisco.
31. Tennessee Titans (LW: 30) – Record: 2-9
The Tennessee Titans were seconds away from securing their third win of the season when leading the Raiders in Week 12, only to fail as they have done eight other times, this year. With the Titans’ ninth loss, they clinch their fourth consecutive losing season, and will close out the year with four opponents with winning records in their final five games.
32. Cleveland Browns (LW: 32) – Record: 2-9
The Cleveland Browns have now entered their annual tradition of celebrating the holidays by preparing for a high draft pick in the following year’s draft. Now 2-9 after losing a borderline unwatchable Monday Night Football contest in Week 12, the Browns have fallen to the bottom of the league, where they will likely remain for the next five weeks.