We have now reached the time of year where numbers throughout the National Football League begin to shrink. The amount of teams still in postseason contention dwindles on a weekly basis, as does the distance between playoff hopefuls. For the outliers, only the wins and losses increase to abnormal levels.
As they have been all year, the AFC South and NFC East remain wide open, as six teams will realistically compete for two playoff spots over the final three weeks. Most importantly, these divisions will almost certainly yield only one postseason team, each — barring a nearly impossible collapse by all other Wild Card teams — making both races potentially weekly elimination contests. Then again, only the AFC East and NFC South have been claimed.
In Week 15, the amount of divisions still available is likely to decrease, as well.
1. Carolina Panthers (LW: 1) – Record: 13-0
The Carolina Panthers are on a mission. Now 13-0 after a thorough beating of their rivals from Atlanta, the Panthers have clinched a first-round bye, with the next goal of home-field advantage throughout the playoffs within reach. Of course, the focus of the football world is on Carolina’s pursuit for perfection, but the Panthers remain the league’s best team, regardless.
2. Arizona Cardinals (LW: 2) – Record: 11-2
With a home win against the Vikings to open up Week 14, the Arizona Cardinals clinched their second consecutive postseason appearance, and currently sit as the second seed in the NFC playoff picture. With both an offense and defense that ranks near the top in most major categories — and an 11-2 record — the Cardinals are among the league’s elite. They had played like a team destined to return the playoffs, all season, and can now find solace in completing their first task.
3. New England Patriots (LW: 4) – Record: 11-2
In the blink of an eye, the New England Patriots reversed course on their two-game skid, not only correcting the direction of the season, but returning to the top of the conference in the process. With a nationally-televised road win, coupled with loses by the Bengals and Broncos in Week 14, New England, once again, rose to the top of the AFC with control of its own playoff destiny. Now with Cincinnati and Denver both being led by backup quarterbacks in their pursuit of New England, the Patriots may not be challenged again until January.
4. Green Bay Packers (LW: 6) – Record: 9-4
The Green Bay Packers continue to impress with their consistency. After losing four-out-of-five games immediately following a 6-0 start, Green Bay has now won back-to-back contests and regained sole possession of first place in the NFC North. Granted, neither of its last two wins were spectacular — after winning in Detroit via a Hail Mark, Green Bay then knocked off the reeling Cowboys — but a 9-4 record is currently good enough for the third seed in the NFC.
5. Denver Broncos (LW: 5) – Record: 10-3
It couldn’t last forever. The Denver Broncos had survived in the absence of quarterback Peyton Manning for far too long, and finally fell victim to a loss. Still in excellent shape thanks to a 10-3 record, the Broncos continue to rely on their defense, but are somewhat lacking on offense. In their last five games, the Broncos have scored more than 17 points in a game only once.
6. Cincinnati Bengals (LW: 3) – Record: 10-3
How quickly the state of the Cincinnati Bengals changed. Entering Week 14 as the top seed in the AFC, the Bengals lost both their matchup with the Steelers and quarterback Andy Dalton to injury. The latter appears to be the most noteworthy development, as the once 8-0, then 10-2 Bengals had been a well-oiled machine for most of 2015. Without one of its key cogs, Cincinnati might suddenly be a 10-3 franchise in trouble.
7. Seattle Seahawks (LW: 7) – Record: 8-5
How can anyone be shocked? The Seattle Seahawks, despite a 4-5 start to the year, have now won four consecutive games and hold their postseason destiny in their own hands. Perhaps there is some level of surprise for the performance of the Seahawks, considering how average they looked for the first half of the year, but Seattle has proven to be one of the most consistent franchises of the past handful of seasons.
8. Pittsburgh Steelers (LW: 8) – Record: 8-5
The gritty Pittsburgh Steelers would march into Cincinnati and defeat the Bengals to keep the division at-large. Saddled by injuries for much of the early portion of the year, the Steelers are now hitting their stride at the most opportune time, possible, winning four of their last five games. Just outside the playoff picture — due to tiebreakers — Pittsburgh remains one of the most dangerous teams in the league down the stretch.
9. Kansas City Chiefs (LW: 9) – Record: 8-5
It might actually happen. The Kansas City Chiefs — now on a seven-game winning streak — currently hold one of the AFC’s two Wild Card berths. Once 1-5, the Chiefs are in the middle of a truly remarkable comeback, continuously able to avoid letdowns and reverse course on a previously horrific season. With the Ravens, Browns, and Raiders — all with losing records — on the remainder of the schedule, the Chiefs are in prime position to continue this unbelievable streak.
10. New York Jets (LW: 11) – Record: 8-5
Perhaps aided by a more reasonable schedule of late, the New York Jets have now won three consecutive games and sit within the playoff picture as the AFC’s six seed. With their most recent win — a home blowout against the Titans — the Jets have doubled last season’s win total, and are one victory away from their first winning season since 2010.
11. Minnesota Vikings (LW: 10) – Record: 8-5
Perhaps the Minnesota Vikings were getting ahead of themselves. After starting the season 7-2 and, for a brief time, alone atop the NFC North, the Vikings have now lost three of their last four games and are flirting with an all-out collapse. With one of the league’s best scoring defense and a relentless rushing attack, Minnesota is still in a solid position for the next few weeks. In addition, the Vikings will play the Bears and Giants in their next two games after facing the Packers, Seahawks, and Cardinals in three of their last four contests.
12. Washington Redskins (LW: 17) – Record: 6-7
At this point, it is almost impossible for the NFC East to not come down to the wire. With a win in Chicago in Week 14, the Washington Redskins improved to 6-7, good enough for a share of the division lead. As underwhelming as their record is with only three games left in the season, the Redskins have only lost back-to-back games once. With that, Washington has proven to be one of the most underrated teams throughout 2015.
13. New York Giants (LW: 18) – Record: 6-7
As an organization, the New York Giants have a history for playing some of their best games when the stakes are highest. Despite countless heartbreaking losses, a losing record, and both the Redskins and Eagles winning in Week 14, the Giants kept pace in the division with a road win on Monday Night Football. As a follow-up to snapping their three-game losing streak, the Giants will head home to face the undefeated Panthers, currently pushing the team’s Week 17 impending showdown with the Eagles out of sight. For now.
14. Philadelphia Eagles (LW: 20) – Record: 6-7
Do the Philadelphia Eagles only play well when their collective backs are against the proverbial wall? Constantly on the edge of falling out of a putrid division race, the Eagles have now won back-to-back games — including a road victory in New England — and sit tied for first place in the NFC East. As the Eagles will play both the Redskins and Giants in two of their final three games, the division will clearly be sorted out shortly, but, with the inability for Philadelphia to separate itself from the pack, it may come down to Week 17’s road matchup with the Giants.
15. Houston Texans (LW: 13) – Record: 6-7
As quickly as the Houston Texans gained footing in the AFC South race, they tripped and fell, allowing both the Colts and the Jaguars back into the contest. Houston had a difficult task in Week 14 — hosting the Patriots after New England has previously lost back-to-back games — but put forth a relatively uninspired effort in the team’s second consecutive loss. With all three remaining games against their division rivals, the Texans still have the ability to secure a division title on their own watch, but only if they return to the form of the team that won four consecutive games a few weeks ago.
16. Oakland Raiders (LW: 19) – Record: 6-7
2015 may end with yet another losing season for the Oakland Raiders, but the team is not limping down the home stretch. Instead, Oakland completed a rare victory in Denver in Week 14 — the Raiders had previously lost their last three games in Denver by a combined 80 points — improving to 6-7. For a franchise desperately trying to secure its first winning season since 2002, the hope is not lost, yet, but with the Packers and Chiefs as two of the team’s next three opponents, the path will not be easy.
17. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (LW: 14) – Record: 6-7
Maybe next year, Tampa Bay. After evening their record at 5-5 prior to Thanksgiving, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have now lost two out of their last three games to fall even further outside the postseason picture. What makes matters worse for the Buccaneers is that their offense — previously improving in leaps and bounds — has slowed down dramatically, especially against the league’s worst scoring defense in Week 14.
18. Buffalo Bills (LW: 12) – Record: 6-7
In what has been a roller coaster of a season from the onset, the Buffalo Bills, once again, find themselves with a losing record. Their most recent loss — in Philadelphia in Week 14 — likely knocked the Bills out of any postseason contention, especially with only one conference opponent remaining on the schedule. With that, Buffalo’s last hope of ending the year on a high note will come in Week 17, as head coach Rex Ryan will host his former team — the Jets — in a matchup that will likely have some postseason ramifications.
19. Atlanta Falcons (LW: 16) – Record: 6-7
If the Atlanta Falcons had previously held hope for a recovery entering Week 14, their blowout loss in Carolina may have sealed their fate. Now losers of six consecutive games, Atlanta has erased a 6-1 start to the tune of a 6-7 record. Amazingly, the previously 5-0 Falcons will almost certainly miss the postseason, capping off what has been an epic collapse.
20. Indianapolis Colts (LW: 15) – Record: 6-7
While it arguably should have never reached this point, the Indianapolis Colts are finally coming back down to earth. Previously winners of three consecutive games — and four, overall, in the absence of quarterback Andrew Luck — the Colts have now lost back-to-back contests to fall back under .500. Still tied for the division lead, the Colts can regain sole possession of first place with a win against Houston in Week 15, but Indianapolis has been skating on thin ice for too long and may finally be poised to crash through.
21. Jacksonville Jaguars (LW: 29) – Record: 5-8
Of all the teams that continue to flirt with the idea of winning the AFC South, perhaps the Jacksonville Jaguars are the ones that actually want it. The only division team to win its game in Week 14, the Jaguars are now one game behind the Colts and Texans for first place. With the Falcons and Saints — both with losing records — next on the schedule, the Jaguars might actually find themselves playing for the division in Week 17 when they travel to Houston to end the season.
22. New Orleans Saints (LW: 26) – Record: 5-8
2015 will soon close with a disappointing New Orleans Saints’ season. Before the conclusion arrives, however, the Saints made sure that their rivals from Tampa Bay were not rising too quickly, as New Orleans knocked off the Buccaneers in Week 14. For as consistent of a franchise as the Saints have been for years, the end of an era appears to be rapidly approaching, and the final three games of the season might also be the final three games of the current regime.
23. Chicago Bears (LW: 21) – Record: 5-8
The Chicago Bears’ 2015 season would be charted as a mountain. 0-3 to start the year, the Bears then won four-out-of-six games to recover, only to lose three out their next four. Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of Chicago’s season is the team’s home record — a dismal 1-6. In addition to the lack of a winning season for the third consecutive year, the Bears cannot even play ‘spoiler’ down the stretch, as only their opponent next week — Minnesota — is currently vying for a playoff spot.
24. St. Louis Rams (LW: 25) – Record: 5-8
It can be done. The St. Louis Rams can win a football game. For the first time since Week 8, the Rams left a game with a victory. Granted, its Week 14 win was against the equally-inept Lions, but St. Louis — with back-to-back games in which they failed to score more than seven points — is not in a position to rank wins.
25. Miami Dolphins (LW: 22) – Record: 5-8
The Miami Dolphins have been a sinking ship since the start of 2015, and their Week 14 home loss on national television officially ended any hopes for a miraculous playoff berth. Instead, the 5-8 Dolphins will play out their remaining string of games with nothing on the line except the future fate of interim head coach Dan Campbell. After starting 2-0, even Campbell’s squad has crumbled, losing five out of its last seven games to move to 4-5 since the coaching change.
26. Dallas Cowboys (LW: 24) – Record: 4-9
Kept alive only due to the sorry state of the NFC East, the Dallas Cowboys are now virtually eliminated from playoff contention with their Week 14 loss in Green Bay. With that, the Cowboys will be thrust into the spotlight in Week 15 as they host the Jets on national television, but it is little more than a fast advancement to the end of the season.
27. Detroit Lions (LW: 23) – Record: 4-9
Perhaps the Detroit Lions are that bad. In a desperate effort to erase the reputation that comes with a 1-7 start to a season, the Lions had won three consecutive games and were a Hail Mary away from a 4-7 record. Instead, Detroit has fallen back into its old habits, losing its last two games, most disappointingly, in St. Louis against the previously 4-8 Rams.
28. Baltimore Ravens (LW: 27) – Record: 4-9
2015 was simply not the Baltimore Ravens’ year. Ravaged by injuries — yet consistently able to play competitive games — the Ravens finally suffered their biggest loss of the season when the Seahawks came to town in Week 14. Now 4-9, Baltimore has clinched its first pair of back-to-back losing seasons since 1998. For a team that has performed as poorly as the Ravens have, all year, this is the only fitting ending.
29. San Francisco 49ers (LW: 28) – Record: 4-9
The San Francisco 49ers had shown vast improvement over their last handful of games — then again, the bar had been set so low that any semblance of a pulse would have qualified. Unfortunately for San Francisco, playing in Cleveland one week after winning in Chicago proved to be too much for a squad that has failed to score more than 17 points in six of its last seven games.
30. Cleveland Browns (LW: 32) – Record: 3-10
The Cleveland Browns were not built to win many games in 2015, however, a home matchup with the 49ers — one week after San Francisco won in Chicago — provided the best possible opportunity to snap the team’s seven-game losing streak. The Browns responded with a two-touchdown win, good for the team’s third victory of the year. With the Seahawks, Chiefs, and Steelers next on the schedule, Cleveland likely took advantage of its last opportunity to secure a win.
31. San Diego Chargers (LW: 31) – Record: 3-10
For a franchise that has not lost double-digit games since 2003, it is somewhat surprising that the San Diego Chargers are in contention for the first overall pick in next year’s draft. What’s even more amazing is that San Diego entered Week 14 with the sixth-best offense — in yards — yet now has three games in the last four weeks in which it has scored only three points. Clearly, something is not clicking in San Diego.
32. Tennessee Titans (LW: 30) – Record: 3-10
The Tennessee Titans are simply overmatched in 2015. Now 3-10 after a road loss against the Jets, the Titans will travel to New England before closing out the season with Houston and Indianapolis. With a difficult road again, the Titans may find themselves picking in the top-five of next year’s draft for the second consecutive season.