It's time to take a look at how the playoff race is shaping up.
As the NFL enters Week 13 there are some teams that are definitively out of the playoffs, and some that look to be definitively in. Then there are the most exciting and interesting teams; the ones who are still battling for their division or a wild card, and whose fate will be affected by everything they do on the field from this week onward.
Since this week has cleared things up a little bit, I'd like to take the time to give you my top 15 teams, listed in order of Power Ranking. Their ranking is based on a combination of their current record, divisional standing and chances of making it to the playoffs (taking into account ease of schedule, injuries and conference competition.)
- Green Bay Packers (11-0)
The Packers are undefeated, still. Although they have slowed down a little as the season has worn on, they are still four games ahead of their tightest divisional competition; therefore they have already unofficially locked up the NFC North barring some unforeseeable collapse. The only thing that is still up for grabs is the top seed, which is still in the reach of the 49ers though it is increasingly unlikely that they steal it from Green Bay now that they've lost two games.
- San Francisco 49ers (9-2)
The 49ers enter Week 13 coming off of a loss to Ravens in the Thanksgiving meeting of brothers/head coaches Jim and John Harbaugh. Jim may have lost the battle, but the Niners coach he still has a chance to win the war. San Francisco has a five game lead in the NFC West with five games to play; mean while Baltimore is tied with Pittsburgh and Cincinnati is still nipping at their heels just one game behind. You do the math.
- New England Patriots (8-3)
The Patriots are 8-3, tied with the Steelers, Ravens and Texans for the top spot in the conference. They get the edge in the power rankings because their remaining schedule has only one game that's even remotely losable, and it's against Tim Tebow. If the best competition you are going to face in your final five games is Tim Tebow and the Broncos, you are in phenomenal shape; especially considering they've all but locked up 9-3 before even stepping on the field against phenomenally atrocious Colts this Sunday. Also...Tom Brady. That's all.
- New Orleans Saints (8-3)
The Saints have Drew Brees and Jimmy Graham and Darren Sproles and a whole bunch of above average receivers; so their offense will carry them to the win in the NFC South. Their defense is still a little suspect, but whose isn't these days? The defensively dominant Ravens who lost to the Seattle Seahawks a couple of weeks ago? I don't think so. Defense might still win championships but offense gets you to the playoffs. Period.
- Baltimore Ravens (8-3)
The only reason the Ravens get the edge over Pittsburgh is because they swept them in the division this year, and the Steelers have been struggling with injury enough that they barely managed 13 points against the dreadful Kansas City Chiefs last Sunday night. Joe Flacco is a crapshoot, and it's starting to be obvious that he is basically just a rich man's Mark Sanchez. Yet the Ravens' next four games are against Cleveland, Indianapolis and San Diego, giving them the opportunity to make sure that the road through the AFC North goes through Baltimore.
- Pittsburgh Steelers (8-3)
Steeler Nation can and should be unnerved after the Steelers barely eeked out a 13-9 win
at home against the Chiefs. The same Chiefs who were demolished 34-3 by the Patriots the week before, in the same Arrowhead Stadium no less. Additionally, Ben Roethlisberger has been struggling lately, perhaps due to his thumb injury, and their best defensive player in Troy Polamalu left last week's game after receiving a major blow to the head. He's questionable to play this week, but it's becoming painfully obvious that the Steelers might be one bad injury and one more divisional loss away from going from AFC Championship contenders to losing their wild card spot to the Bengals.
- Houston Texans (8-3)
This was supposed to be the Texans' year. They have one of the best defenses in the league, one of the best running games in the league, and one of the best wide receivers in the league; on top of the fact that for the first time in the Peyton Manning era the Colts are irrelevant. Now Matt Leinart, who was already replacing Matt Schaub who is now on IR, might be out for the season as well with a collar bone injury. The only hope for them now is that they find a QB is who is serviceable enough not to lose the game for them, and maximize on their strengths. The AFC South is still in the grasp, they'll just have to fight a little harder to keep it.
- Dallas Cowboys (7-4)
So, Tony Romo and the Cowboys are 7-4 and in first place in the NFC East, and have won 5 of their last 6 games... awkward. If you still feel like this is a typo, you're probably not the only one. They still have both of their games against the Giants, so the division could swing in either team's direction based on the outcome of those match ups. But right now it's the Cowboys that look like they are stringing together a great second half of their season while the Giants steadily crumble.
- Oakland Raiders (7-4)
The Raiders should have the AFC West locked up considering how terribly both the Chiefs and the Chargers have played. Yet the Broncos miraculously remain just one game back, keeping the Raiders honest in their quest to win the division for the first time since 2002. Unfortunately for the black and silver, their next two games are at Miami and at Green Bay. Miami has won three of their last four games, nearly beating Dallas last week in a 20-19 showdown. So if they want to keep the lead in their division, Carson Palmer and his running game are going to have to kick things into high gear.
- Atlanta Falcons (7-4)
The Falcons have quietly remained in the playoff hunt all season, comfortably overshadowed by the dynamic Saints. Atlanta gave New Orleans a run for it's' money two weeks ago when they lost by just a field goal in overtime. They've also only allowed 83.5 rushing yards per game, good for the second best run defense in the NFL. They have some tough games coming up, including this week against the Texans, but they still look to be a wild card favorite and sleeper team in the NFC.
- Chicago Bears (7-4)
Even without Jay Cutler, the Bears are a legitimately well rounded team and have at least three winnable games left on their schedule against the Chiefs, Seahawks and Vikings. Denver has turned into the ultimate wild card team to play against, but aren't we all still waiting for whatever Tebow's doing to fizzle out, and fizzle out quickly? They also have their second game against Green Bay ahead. With Cutler, I would have said the Bears were one of the few teams that could beat the Packers. Even with losses to Green Bay and the Broncos the Bears would finish 10-6 which I believe will be good enough for the sixth seed in the NFC.
- New York Jets (6-5)
The Jets may be two game back from the Pats, and they barely resemble the same powerhouse team they have been the past couple of years; but they are playoff tested, and they have consistently kept themselves in the mix. Their remaining schedule is starting look much less menacing now that the NFC West is falling apart underneath the Cowboys, and I just can't bet on an NFC West team or the Tennessee Titans to out-play the Jets for the final wild card spot.
- Detroit Lions (7-4)
Their record is the only thing that keeps the Lions this high in the rankings, because they have been on a steady decline since their 5-0 start. Matt Stafford has played in contrasting sporadic bursts of both fabulous and dreadful, and the running game is possibly better but still unreliable. With their best defensive player in Ndomukong Suh suspended for what looks like at least two games, along with their 4 losses coming in their last 6 games, this team looks to be slowly self-destructing.
- New York Giants (6-5)
Perhaps it's the last name Manning, or the mystique of the Giants themselves, but it' just so hard to completely rule them out; especially with both of their games against Dallas ahead of them. The Giants have a knack for unraveling late in the season, but so do the Cowboys. Despite their massively disappointing showing in New Orleans on Monday night, don't count them out just yet. That's just what they want you to do.
- Cincinnati Bengals (7-4)
They are still only one game back in the AFC North, and neither the Ravens nor the Steelers have me completely convinced. Andy Dalton's weaknesses have been exploited and exposed over the past couple of weeks, but the Cincinnati defense is capable of keeping them in the mix. The next two weeks serve up a tall order for the Bengals as they must face Pittsburgh and Houston in a pair of must-wins, if they want to keep their playoff hopes alive.