1. Denver Broncos (12-3) Last week: 3
The Broncos carry a 10-game winning streak into the regular season finale against the Chiefs, who limited Peyton Manning & Co. to a season-low 17 points on Nov. 25. Denver should have little trouble extending their winning streak to 11 games and could clinch home-field advantage throughout the playoffs with a win over the Chiefs and some help from Manning’s former team, the Colts, who host the Texans on Sunday.
2. Seattle Seahawks (10-5) Last week: 7
The Seahawks showed that they’re for real with a 42-13 blowout of the 49ers at CenturyLink Field on Sunday night. From an advanced metrics standpoint, the Seahawks are the No. 1 team in the NFL, ranking in the Top 5 in Football Outsiders’ offensive, defensive and special teams DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average). With a win over the Rams and losses by the 49ers and Packers, the Seahawks will get a first-round bye in the playoffs.
3. San Francisco 49ers (10-4-1) Last week: 1
One week after going on the road and beating the Patriots, the 49ers were trounced by division rival Seattle, lost wide receiver Mario Manningham for the remainder of the season and are not sure if All-Pro defensive lineman Justin Smith will be back for the playoffs. The NFC West is still theirs for the taking, but the 49ers are literally limping into the post-season.
4. New England Patriots (11-4) Last week: 2
So much for the ornery Patriots getting back on track by beating up on a cupcake in the form of the Jaguars in Week 16. New England looked sloppy from the get-go as Tom Brady and his receivers appeared to be operating off different playbooks. The Patriots need to get it together this week against the Dolphins as a first-round bye is beyond their control.
5. Green Bay Packers (11-4) Last week: 5
Not only are the Packers peaking at the right time, they’re getting healthy at the right time. Wide receiver Jordy Nelson and safety Charles Woodson could be back as early as this Sunday’s game against the Vikings, where the Packers have a chance to clinch the No. 2 seed in the NFC.
6. Atlanta Falcons (13-2) Last week: 6
Matt Ryan for MVP? Hard to argue against a quarterback of the No. 1 seed in the NFC who has completed nearly 70 percent of 571 pass attempts for 4,481 yards with 31 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. Over the last two weeks, Ryan has been outstanding, completing 48-of-60 attempts for 549 yards with seven touchdowns and zero interceptions. Ryan could pad those numbers against a leaky Buccaneers pass defense that ranks 28th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric.
7. Houston Texans (12-3) Last week: 4
“We’ve got a lot of mistakes to fix,” Texans head coach Gary Kubiak said following his team’s 23-6 loss at home to the Vikings in Week 16. If the Texans can get their act together on offense – which could easily happen for that veteran unit – they could be very dangerous in the post-season as their defense ranks in the Top 5 in Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric.
8 Washington Redskins (9-6) Last week: 8
A six-game winning streak has put the Redskins in control of their playoff destiny. Extend that streak to seven with a win at home over the Cowboys and the Redskins will win their first NFC East title since 1999.
9. Baltimore Ravens (10-5) Last week: 10
The Ravens ended a three-game losing streak with a 33-14 thumping of the Giants on Sunday, clinching the AFC North and assuring themselves of at least one home game in January. With that late-season nosedive fresh in their minds, do not expect John Harbaugh to let his team to ease up in the regular season finale.
10. Indianapolis Colts (10-5) Last week: 11
A playoff spot clinched and the Colts get head coach Chuck Pagano back this week. The Colts are an incredible story and could face Pagano’s previous employer, the Ravens, in the opening round of the post-season.
11. Cincinnati Bengals (9-6) Last week: 13
Here’s why the Bengals will be a tough out in January: Over the last seven games, they’re allowing just 11.1 points and 272 yards of total offense per game. Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer should get some consideration for at least one of the eight or so head coaching vacancies that could open up this offseason.
12. Minnesota Vikings (9-6) Last week: 14
Beat the Packers and the Vikings are in the post-season, which few would have thought was possible earlier this month. The Vikings had lost to the Packers on Dec. 2, which was their fourth loss in five games, and the team placed versatile offensive weapon Percy Harvin on injured reserve. Three wins later, the Vikings are in control of their playoff fate and Leslie Frazier is a legitimate Coach of the Year candidate.
13. New York Giants (8-7) Last week: 9
What has happened to the Giants’ defense? Over the last four weeks, they’ve allowed an average of 446 yards per game, opponents have converted on 55.8 percent on third down and the once vaunted pass rush has just two quarterback sacks. Is it any wonder that the Giants now need help just to get a chance to defend their Super Bowl title in January?
14. Dallas Cowboys (8-7) Last week: 12
The Cowboys’ defense picked the wrong week to have their worst game of the season, allowing the the Saints to rack up 562 yards of total offense, including 446 through the air. The Cowboys remain in control of their playoff destiny – beat the Redskins and they’ll win the NFC East – but that defense, which ranks 23rd according to Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric, is a concern.
15. Chicago Bears (9-6) Last week: 15
The Bears snapped a three-game losing streak with a 28-13 win over the Cardinals, but need and a win and help to make the playoffs. Beating the Lions won’t be easy, nor will doing the unthinkable – rooting for a Packers win, which must happen in order for the Bears to play in January.
16. New Orleans Saints (7-8) Last week: 16
Drew Brees is finishing out his 2012 season on a high note. Over the last two weeks, Brees has completed 63-of-92 pass attempts for 733 yards with seven touchdowns and zero interceptions. Brees is just 219 passing yards and one passing touchdown away from a second consecutive 5,000-yard/40-touchdown season.
17. St. Louis Rams (7-7-1) Last week: 18
With a win over the Seahawks, the Rams can finish the 2012 regular season with an overall record above .500 and go undefeated (5-0-1) within an increasingly difficult NFC West. With two first round picks next season, the Rams can continue stocking their roster and should make the NFC West a legitimate three-team race in 2013.
18. Pittsburgh Steelers (7-8) Last week: 17
Five of the Steelers’ eight losses in 2012 were by three-point margins. That list does not include inexcusable losses to the Browns (20-14) on Nov. 25 and a 10-point loss to the Chargers at Heinz Field on Dec. 9. Those two losses will sting just as much as the close ones when the Steelers are cleaning out their lockers next week.
19. Carolina Panthers (6-9) Last week: 20
If the Panthers go on the road and beat the Saints to finish 7-9, that has to be enough to buy Ron Rivera another season, right?
20. Miami Dolphins (7-8) Last week: 21
Seven wins and remaining in playoff contention well into December is a good start to the Joe Philbin Era. If the Dolphins can retain Jake Long, Sean Smith and Reggie Bush (and that’s your priority order) this offseason, they should be in the playoff hunt in 2013.
21. San Diego Chargers (6-9) Last week: 27
A win at home over the lowly Raiders on Sunday would allow Norv Turner to close out his tenure with the Chargers with a 7-9 record, which would be a respectable mark considering the injuries and somewhat boneheaded personnel decisions A.J. Smith has made that have handcuffed the offense.
22. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-9) Last week: 19
The 2012 season cannot end fast enough for Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman. Over the last two weeks, the 2009 first round pick has thrown eight interceptions as the Buccaneers losing skid reached a fifth game in Sunday’s 28-13 loss to the Rams.
23. Cleveland Browns (5-10) Last week: 22
It’s important to note that the Browns’ impressive three-game winning streak in late November/early December came against the Steelers, Raiders and Chiefs. When they faced playoff-caliber teams – the Redskins and Broncos – the Browns were beat by a combined score of 72-33.
24. New York Jets (6-9) Last week: 23
The Jets’ circus reached a whole new level in Week 16 as Greg McElroy was sacked 11 times while Tim Tebow refused to participate in “Wildcat” packages devised for him by offensive coordinator Tony Sparano. Sweeping changes within that organization are expected to come after the season.
25. Buffalo Bills (5-10) Last week: 24
The Bills are averaging 13 points per game over the last three weeks and carry their second three-game losing streak of the season into Sunday’s regular season finale against the Jets, a game that will be blacked out on local television. Few would be surprised if this is Chan Gailey’s last game as the Bills’ head coach.
26. Detroit Lions (4-11) Last week: 25
Even with a potential eight-game losing streak to close out a disappointing 2012 season, head coach Jim Schwartz appears safe as his contract extension before the start of the season runs through the 2015 season. The Lions have lost 41 of the 63 regular season games that Schwartz has roamed the sidelines, so it’s “Playoffs or Bust” for him in 2013.
27. Philadelphia Eagles (4-11) Last week: 29
Andy Reid starting Michael Vick, and exposing the team to Vick’s $3 million injury guarantee, in the final game of his tenure as head coach is like a clerk leaving the store unlocked on his final day of work. The Eagles should have parted ways with Reid during this disaster of a season and avoided a scenario like this.
28. Tennessee Titans (5-10) Last week: 26
Head coach Mike Munchak has a point when he says that his coaching staff has only had one offseason to install their program and turnaround the franchise, but owner Bud Adams wasn’t happy with his team’s showing in their 55-7 loss to the Packers. That wasn’t the first time Adams publicly expressed his dismay, which means changes are very possible.
29. Arizona Cardinals (5-10) Last week: 28
Why wouldn’t the Cardinals take a look at Brian Hoyer, as they did in last week’s 28-13 loss to the Bears? Hoyer, 27, backed up Tom Brady for a few seasons and, if he’s resigned in the offseason, could be in the mix for a wide-open competition during the 2013 offseason.
30. Jacksonville Jaguars (2-13) Last week: 30
If the ESPN report that Tim Tebow is a “virtual certainty” to be with the Jaguars next season comes to fruition, it will be fair to question the intentions of owner Shad Khan. When you don’t know who the GM will be, or who the head coach will be, but you know that Tebow will be on the team, it’s clear that the organization is prioritizing short-term ticket sales over building a winning football program.
31. Oakland Raiders (4-11) Last week: 31
With Carson Palmer out for the regular season finale against the Chargers, Raiders head coach Dennis Allen has to decide between starting Matt Leinart or Terrelle Pryor at quarterback. It has to be Pryor, right? Leinart is a career backup and is not signed for next season. Pryor is under contract through 2014 and the club needs to see what he can do because there are no guarantees that Palmer will be back next season. The 33-year-old Palmer is set to earn $13 million in non-guaranteed base salary in 2013 and he has not been a $13 million quarterback in quite some time.
32. Kansas City Chiefs (2-13) Last week: 32
How does a team put up 507 yards of total offense and only reach their opponents’ red zone twice? The 2012 Kansas City Chiefs, that’s how, who of course turned the ball both times they reached the Colts’ red zone last week.