The commercials are over. The clock resets, once more, to the fifteen-minute mark. The season is entering its fourth quarter.
As each team begins its home stretch, different races will form. Some franchises are still fighting for divisions while others are trying to position themselves for a first-round bye. A handful of teams will fight for one of the two Wild Card spots, and, of course, one team will continue its pursuit for perfection.
With five teams already securing double-digit wins, but only one team with double-digit losses, the mass portion of the league still has yet to be settled. That will change in the next few weeks.
1. Carolina Panthers (LW: 1) – Record: 12-0
What more could be said about what the Carolina Panthers have done in 2015, especially in the past few weeks? Three-quarters of the way to perfection, the 12-0 Panthers survived a shootout in New Orleans in Week 13. Perhaps the Panthers’ defense allowing 38 points — the next highest total for an opponent was Green Bay’s 29 point effort in Week 9 — is noteworthy, but the fact that Carolina, again, found a way to outpace its opponent is remarkable.
2. Arizona Cardinals (LW: 3) – Record: 10-2
If the Arizona Cardinals are slowing down, it certainly isn’t hurting the team’s record. Now 10-2 and riding a six-game winning streak, the Cardinals have, indeed, seen their offense cool off in the past two weeks, only to keep winning, regardless. Sandwiched between two teams in their own races — chasing Carolina for the top seed in the NFC and holding off the surging Seahawks for the division lead — the Cardinals have the luxury of hosting three or their final four games.
3. Cincinnati Bengals (LW: 5) – Record: 10-2
If a ‘letdown’ is secretly hiding in Cincinnati, it has not yet revealed itself. Now 10-2 and, coupled with New England’s loss, atop the AFC playoff picture, the Cincinnati Bengals are in a position to host all of their postseason games. For a franchise that has routinely struggled in the playoffs — despite five postseason appearances in the past six season, the Bengals have not won a playoff game since 1991 — any advantage Cincinnati gains is welcomed.
4. New England Patriots (LW: 2) – Record: 10-2
Suddenly, the New England Patriots have a reason to worry. It was one thing for the Patriots to lose a road game against the top-ranked Denver defense, but it’s another issue entirely when New England lost at home in Week 13 for its second defeat in as many weeks. Injuries have obviously restricted the Patriots, of late, and they currently sit as the third seed in the AFC, but it is more likely than not that this once 10-0 team will recover.
5. Denver Broncos (LW: 4) – Record: 10-2
The Denver Broncos are teetering on the edge of a perfect situation or an impossible decision. 3-0 in games in which Brock Osweiler has started, the Broncos are now a tiebreaker behind the Bengals for home field advantage throughout the AFC postseason. As starting quarterback Peyton Manning‘s health returns, Denver will be faced with choosing which signal-caller gets the nod, but, at least, the Broncos are well on their way to having an enviable problem.
6. Green Bay Packers (LW: 7) – Record: 8-4
Sometimes, prayers do get answered. In what many are considering a ‘miracle ending,’ the Green Bay Packers avoided their fourth loss in five games with an improbable series of events concluding with a Hail Mary touchdown pass and a win. Make no mistake, the Packers needed such a dramatic finish — in addition to an untimed play due to a defensive penalty — to beat the Lions in Week 13 mainly because of how poorly Green Bay played for nearly the entire game. Regardless of performance, the Packers are now a relatively shaky 8-4, but find themselves well into the playoff picture entering the final quarter of the season.
7. Seattle Seahawks (LW: 8) – Record: 7-5
For the better part of 2015, the Seattle Seahawks looked like a far cry from the teams that enjoyed three consecutive seasons with at least eleven wins. Now riding a three-game winning streak, Seattle has not only returned to the playoff picture, but done so in clutch fashion, by knocking off the Steelers and Vikings in back-to-back weeks.
8. Pittsburgh Steelers (LW: 9) – Record: 7-5
The Pittsburgh Steelers operate purely on brute force. Ravaged with injuries for the better part of 2015, Pittsburgh appears to finally be coming into form to the tune of three wins in four games, and has a chance to put a dent in Cincinnati’s division lead with their Week 14 showdown.
9. Kansas City Chiefs (LW: 10) – Record: 7-5
Upon looking at their schedule, it was almost ‘too easy’ to picture the Kansas City Chiefs recovering from a 1-5 start to make a push for the playoffs. While nothing in the National Football League is as easy as it looks, the Chiefs are attempting to make history, and have now won six consecutive games to sit currently in a playoff position. With their current level of play, it would actually be a disappointment if they didn’t earn a postseason berth.
10. Minnesota Vikings (LW: 6) – Record: 8-4
While they may be one of the league’s most complete teams, the Minnesota Vikings are still lacking in one area — the ability to win ‘clutch’ games. With a home loss to the Seahawks in Week 13, the Vikings surrendered their division lead, again, to the Packers. Minnesota has continually played better when being the pursuer, not the pursed, but, if the Vikings want to turn 2015 into a truly special season, they will need to perform when there is something to lose.
11. New York Jets (LW: 12) – Record: 7-5
The New York Jets are as sporadic as a team could be. Once 4-1, then 1-4 in separate five-game stretches, the Jets trailed their in-house rivals in Week 13 by double-digits late in the fourth quarter. As the Jets tend to do, they transformed into a different team, and captured a much-needed win, currently securing the last seed in the AFC playoff picture.
12. Buffalo Bills (LW: 17) – Record: 6-6
The Buffalo Bills have not made it easy on themselves, but, in typical form for a resilient team, they aren’t out of the playoff picture, yet. With a home win against fellow Wild Card hopeful Houston, the Bills ended their two-game skid and evened their record on the year. Unfortunately, it may not be enough, as Buffalo will play its next three games against non-conference opponents, where it won’t be able to gain ground in the tiebreakers for a potential AFC Wild Card berth.
13. Houston Texans (LW: 11) – Record: 6-6
It had to happen, eventually. The Houston Texans finally lost a game after Halloween. Entering Week 13 riding a four-game winning streak, the Texans met their match in Buffalo, and now remain a tiebreaker behind the Colts for the lead in the average AFC South. With a primetime matchup with the Patriots — followed by two road games — next on the schedule, Houston is suddenly in an unfavorable position.
14. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (LW: 19) – Record: 6-6
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers refuse to step out of the playoff picture, completely. Once 2-4, Tampa Bay had won three of its next four games to pull to .500, only to lose in Indianapolis. In Week 13, the team rebounded and, again, evened its record. The persistence is impressive for a young team centered around its rookie quarterback, but the Buccaneers are actually solid on all fronts. Despite the scoring offense and defense ranking in the bottom-half, the Buccaneers have the ninth-most yards gained and ninth-fewest yards allowed. With that, Tampa Bay might actually be under-performing.
15. Indianapolis Colts (LW: 13) – Record: 6-6
As the AFC South refuses to claim a champion, the Indianapolis Colts suffered the same fate as their pursuers from Houston — that is, a Week 13 loss. Quite frankly, the fact that Indianapolis had previously been a perfect 4-0 with backup quarterback Matt Hasselbeck filling in for the injured Andrew Luck was remarkable. Now that the weaknesses have been exposed — the quarterback position and secondary — the Colts will need to find a way to prevent what could be a quick drop-off.
16. Atlanta Falcons (LW: 14) – Record: 6-6
As the Atlanta Falcons continued to squander a prime position after a 5-0 start, the team began to morph into the squad that has now lost six of its last seven games. The record may suggest that Atlanta is an average .500 team, but, without a victory against a team with a winning record, it is more likely that the Falcons simply over-performed to start the year.
17. Washington Redskins (LW: 15) – Record: 5-7
The Washington Redskins simply can’t accept a gift. Hosting the Cowboys — without Tony Romo — on national television in Week 13, and entering the contest with a one-half game lead in the NFC East, the Redskins laid a proverbial egg. In addition to failing to extend their division lead, the Redskins allowed the Eagles and Giants to catch them, as the three teams now sit tied atop the division.
18. New York Giants (LW: 16) – Record: 5-7
Whatever value is taken from the fact that the New York Giants frequently hold leads in the fourth quarter of games can be immediately removed and replaced with the realization that they fail to actually win said games. In what has become an amazing trend, the Giants fell victim to a now-common fate in Week 13, when they lost to the Jets after leading by ten points with less than five minutes remaining in regulation. With the Giants currently featuring the league’s worst passing defense, leads will clearly be difficult to maintain.
19. Oakland Raiders (LW: 18) – Record: 5-7
Little changes in Oakland. Once 4-3 and in legitimate conversations for the AFC playoff picture, the Oakland Raiders have since lost four of their last five games and crumbled towards another losing season. What’s worse for Oakland is that it failed to stop its bitter rival’s then-five-game winning streak in Week 13, when the Chiefs came to town. With the Broncos, Packers, and Chiefs coming up in three of their final four games, the Raiders have a tall task ahead if they want to regain a .500 record.
20. Philadelphia Eagles (LW: 23) – Record: 5-7
Of course, the Philadelphia Eagles would end their three-game losing streak with a win in New England. After throwing away what should have been the ‘easier’ portion of their schedule by falling into an ill-timed slump, the Eagles completed the more difficult task — beating the Patriots. With the rest of the NFC East playing their roles to perfection, the Eagles are now back in a tie atop the division, despite a 1-3 record and -53 point differential in their last four games.
21. Chicago Bears (LW: 20) – Record: 5-7
The Chicago Bears made it interesting for a few weeks, recovering from an 0-3 start by improving to 4-5. While some of the issues were corrected after the team’s first three games, fundamental flaws still exist. With that, the Bears will enter the home stretch of yet another season devoid of meaningful games.
22. Miami Dolphins (LW: 25) – Record: 5-7
Perhaps the Miami Dolphins won’t lose every game they play. The Dolphins survive a Week 13 barn-burner with the hapless Ravens en route to the team’s fifth win of the season. Naturally, as Miami finally gets back in the win column, so do the Bills and Jets, proving how futile all of the Dolphins’ efforts have been in 2015.
23. Detroit Lions (LW: 22) – Record: 4-8
Considering that the Detroit Lions’ 2015 record no longer matters, is there any consolation to be had for thoroughly outplaying the Packers in Week 13? Ultimately, Detroit reverted back to the team that opened the season with a bevy of heart-breaking losses, suffering the same fate via a nearly-impossible Hail Mary. The Lions have clearly improved their game, however. With only four games remaining, a winning season is now mathematically impossible, but Detroit is nowhere near the team that started the year 0-5.
24. Dallas Cowboys (LW: 29) – Record: 4-8
It would be too much to ask for the Dalla Cowboys to go quietly into the night. Instead of folding after quarterback Tony Romo was lost to an injury for the second time — officially ending his season — the Cowboys won their Week 13 Monday Night Football matchup in Washington. At 4-8, with three division wins, the Cowboys are legitimately alive in the NFC East race. If they continue to play at the 1-7 rate that the team has in games without Romo, it won’t matter how pathetic the division is; Dallas will miss out, regardless.
25. St. Louis Rams (LW: 21) – Record: 4-8
What began as a potentially hopeful year for the St. Louis Rams has quickly turned into another disaster. Even the singular bright spot on the team — rookie running back Todd Gurley — has been a non-factor in recent weeks, and the league’s second-worst offense is making a push to pass San Francisco in a battle of ineptitude. At the rate the Rams are going, this might be the only race they will ‘win.’
26. New Orleans Saints (LW: 27) – Record: 4-8
In what has become a weekly routine, the New Orleans Saints continually find ways to lose football games. Going toe-to-toe with the undefeated Panthers in Week 13, New Orleans was on the verge of completing an eye-opening upset on multiple occasions. As usual — at least, what has become the new ‘usual’ — the Saints lost. With one more loss, the Saints will clinch their first back-to-back losing seasons since 1999.
27. Baltimore Ravens (LW: 24) – Record: 4-8
At the rate that the Baltimore Ravens play close games — they still have yet to finish a game with a margin of victory or defeat greater than eight points — the Ravens are an incredible mix of resilient yet overmatched. Baltimore still only has four wins on the season, and, with the amount of injuries the team has sustained, cannot realistically be expected to earn more.
28. San Francisco 49ers (LW: 30) – Record: 4-8
With the division out of reach, the San Francisco 49ers would seemingly be playing for nothing. With that, the franchise has rallied around backup-turned-starting quarterback Blaine Gabbert to the tune of a 2-2 record in his four starts. For a team that had played as poorly as San Francisco has, the recent stretch is a small positive on an overall negative season.
29. Jacksonville Jaguars (LW: 28) – Record: 4-8
The Jacksonville Jaguars displayed an equal balance of past and future in their Week 13 road loss to the Titans. Featuring a high-powered attack that seemingly scored at will, Jacksonville was as inept on defense as it was prolific on offense. As history remains doomed to repeat itself, the Jaguars keep losing, regardless of the clear strides the team has made on one side of the ball.
30. Tennessee Titans (LW: 31) – Record: 3-9
While 2015 has proven to be a net-loss for the Tennessee Titans, the franchise will take solace in the on-field development of rookie quarterback Marcus Mariota. His talents were on full display in Week 13, as his legs — arguably his most dangerous asset in college — coupled with his arm for a deadly combination in a home win against the Jaguars. If only the Titans could host Jacksonville every week.
31. San Diego Chargers (LW: 26) – Record: 3-9
The San Diego Chargers are a complete failure. Their three wins on the season have come against the now 4-8 Lions, 2-10 Browns, and 4-8 Jaguars, and they are an embarrassing 0-3 within the division. For a franchise that has not lost double-digit games since 2003, the Chargers are actually in contention for the first overall pick in next year’s draft.
32. Cleveland Browns (LW: 32) – Record: 2-10
If there previously existed tiers of teams in the National Football League, the Cleveland Browns have created another. Below even the basement, the Browns are such an unparalleled mess that considering them an ’embarrassment’ would be a compliment. But fear not, Cleveland, as the circus comes to town for the final quarter of the season, highlighted by Johnny Manziel.