All season long, teams have been positioning themselves for the final playoff push. Divisions like the AFC North and NFC East play coy, pretending like one team is ready to separate from the rest, only to snap back into the crowd. Others, like the AFC East and AFC West, appear to now have clear champions. In fact, teams may even be clinching division titles this week.
Then there are the hopefuls. The 7-6 franchises that seem to populate the AFC. The 9-4 teams, one of which wouldn't make the playoffs in the NFC today. Many teams took a hit in their playoff races; some may be knocked out for good. Others will see these failures as opportunities, either to supplant the fallen or to trip over their bodies, as well.
With only three games remaining for each team, now is the time for the pieces to shift into position for their final moves.
Week 15 NFL Power Rankings
Week 15 NFL power rankings
30. New York Jets (Last Week: 31)
Those are the Jets. Even when they take a 5-7 team to overtime, they find a way to lose in epic fashion. New York continues to act like it wants to drop out of the race for the first overall pick, but somehow hangs on week after week. The next leg of the race brings the Jets to Tennessee, where one of the two abysmal franchises is guaranteed a third win. Or a tie. Which would further push this season into hilarious absurdity.
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29. Oakland Raiders (Last Week: 32)
Entering Week 15, one of the following two teams — 49ers and Raiders — have played 2-1 football in its last three weeks, while the other has dropped two of three. That’s right, like everyone in America would have easily predicted, the previously 0-10 Oakland Raiders are winning two-thirds of their contests since Week 12. In reality, Oakland hosted games against arguably its two biggest rivals and came out on top in both. In the National Football League, situations like that are bound to happen, but it speaks more to the Raiders’ opponents falling asleep than it does any Oakland breakthrough.
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26. Chicago Bears (Last Week: 24)
Chicago simply can’t hang with good teams. Of the Bears’ five wins, only one — their Week 2 victory in San Francisco – came against an opponent with a winning record. They appear overmatched almost every time they take the field, and they tend to fall apart in bunches. On Thanksgiving, it was a 21-point second quarter that did them in. In Week 14, it was a 21-point third quarter. Despite the Bears’ late surge making the game look a lot closer than it really was, Chicago had almost officially clinched a non-winning record this year 40 minutes into the game.
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25. New York Giants (Last Week: 29)
The New York Giants needed a sacrificial lamb, and Tennessee obliged without a fight. One week removed from an unacceptable, heart-wrenching loss in Jacksonville, the Giants pounded the Titans in Tennessee to snap New York’s seven-game losing streak. The team is still a bumbling mess, ranked in the bottom-half of nearly every category, while touting a pathetic 4-9 record, but the Giants have an opportunity to secure back-to-back wins when they host one of the few teams currently performing worse: the Washington Redskins.
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24. Carolina Panthers (Last Week: 27)
It should not have come as a surprise. Division teams — especially underdogs whose seasons have long been pronounced dead — often rise to the occasion and play the role of spoiler. When Carolina, previously riding a six-game losing streak, went to New Orleans, there was no shred of intimidation. Instead, the Panthers were the aggressor, mauling the Saints en route to a 31-point victory. Now, as if the football fans of the world hadn’t already been punished enough by the NFC South, the Panthers remain alive in the division race. With a home game against the 2-11 Buccaneers on the slate this week, Carolina might actually survive even longer.
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23. New Orleans Saints (Last Week: 22)
Let’s all come to an agreement on one realization — this year, the Saints are not good. Maybe they can get hot and run through the playoffs. Maybe this is simply a down year, from which New Orleans rebounds to a 12-win season in 2015. Maybe they will finish 8-8 and look respectable. Whatever eventually plays out does not negate the fact that, through 13 games, the 5-8 Saints have been nothing short of bad. Losing to a division opponent, no matter how weak the other team appears, is often forgivable. But getting blown out, at home, when a horrific season somehow is still salvageable is absolutely unacceptable. If New Orleans wants the division title, it’s going to have to play like it.
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22. Minnesota Vikings (Last Week: 23)
With four wins in their last six games, the Minnesota Vikings have turned their once doomed season into one of respectability. Granted, each of these four wins came against terrible teams — Buccaneers, Redskins, Panthers, and Jets — but Minnesota deserves some credit for taking care of business. With six wins under its belt, Minnesota will, at worst, flutter around mediocrity.
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21. Atlanta Falcons (Last Week: 21)
The Atlanta Falcons walked into Lambeau Field on Monday night with almost no conceivable chance to win. Trailing by multiple scores seemingly all night, the Falcons showed some toughness by refusing to lie down against the far superior Packers. Despite the loss, the performance was inspiring. At 5-8, Atlanta remains tied with the Saints atop the NFC South, and the Falcons need to prove they can withstand the battle that will surely go down the wire. At this point, Atlanta has surpassed the rest of the division by playing arguably the best football of the group, although that obviously speaks more to the competition than it does the Falcons.
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20. San Francisco 49ers (Last Week: 17)
That should be the final nail in the coffin for the San Francisco 49ers. After a 4-4 mid-season record, San Francisco stayed afloat in the treacherous NFC West with a three-game winning streak heading into Thanksgiving. With a loss to the Seahawks, the 49ers’ only hope of a postseason appearance came in the form of a potential Wild Card spot. With a loss to the Raiders – yes, that’s not a mistake – the 49ers’ only hope of a postseason appearance now comes in the form of next year’s team. Quite frankly, the 49ers have failed to meet expectations all season. With a struggling offense — ranked in the bottom-third for points scored – and a gauntlet of teams to close the season – Seattle, San Diego, and Arizona — the 49ers, indeed, must start to look ahead.
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19. Houston Texans (Last Week: 19)
Don’t look now, but, with back-to-back divisional wins against the Titans and Jaguars, the Houston Texans are alive in the AFC playoff picture. At 7-6, they still have a chance to grab the divisional title, and Houston has the opportunity to further that effort when they travel to Indianapolis this week. Trailing the Colts by two games, a Texans loss would seal the division for Indianapolis, while likely knocking Houston out of the postseason hunt for good. Now is the time for the Texans to prove that their late surge was not merely a result of playing Tennessee and Jacksonville in consecutive weeks.
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18. St. Louis Rams (Last Week: 20)
The only remorse that the St. Louis Rams should feel about their season is that they dug themselves too deep a hole from which to escape. Winners of three of their last four games, the Rams have now shut out back-to-back opponents — granted, the Raiders and Redskins — and erased a 1-4 start via a 5-3 record since mid-October. In all likelihood, the Rams probably picked the right year to hover around .500, as the NFC West has proved to be too strong for even a 9-4 team to lead the division, but St. Louis will put its surging team to the test when it tries to knock off the division-leading Cardinals on Thursday night.
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17. Buffalo Bills (Last Week: 15)
It has been well-documented that the Buffalo Bills would be facing top-notch competition to end their season — Denver, Green Bay, and New England in three of the team’s final four games — and Buffalo would have certainly proven its worth if it survived. With their loss in Denver, the Bills have likely buried themselves in any playoff race. Even with a top-five defense, Buffalo would have to stop Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, and avoid a hiccup in Oakland to even be reconsidered for postseason contention.
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16. Cleveland Browns (Last Week: 18)
It’s just not going to happen for the Browns this year. Cleveland has played a tough, inspired, promising season, but it will likely end in December. Unable to prevent an Indianapolis touchdown with less than one minute remaining in the game — give Cleveland credit, as it held the league’s leader in yards gained to its third-worst performance of the year — the Browns lost both their Week 14 game and any smoothly paved road to the playoffs. Now a full game behind the rest of the AFC North — as well as the final Wild Card spot — Cleveland will probably need to win out to still be playing in January.
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15. Miami Dolphins (Last Week: 14)
Miami absolutely could not afford a home loss against a conference opponent, and Sunday’s defeat at the hands of the visiting Ravens might spell the end of any playoff push for the Dolphins. At 7-6, Miami has lost every edge in the Wild Card race and will likely end the season just outside the playoff bubble. When compared to seasons past, Miami might look favorably on 2014 – with one more win, the Dolphins would avoid a losing season for only the second time since 2008 – but key wins and a string of solid play had put the Dolphins in position to make the postseason. With that, the Dolphins appear to have squandered a great opportunity.
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14. Kansas City Chiefs (Last Week: 12)
So goes the Chiefs’ season. Lose two. Win two. Lose. Win five straight. Lose three straight. Give Kansas City points for consistency, but not stability. The Chiefs’ loss in Arizona makes it officially impossible for them to catch the Broncos — against whom they were swept — and leaves them fighting the rest of the crowded AFC for one of the two Wild Card berths. The Chiefs have thoroughly disappointed of late, likely turning a 7-3 record into an early end to their season. Even with a top-five scoring defense and an offense that protects the football better than almost every other team in the league, the Chiefs have simply fallen apart at the wrong time. They may pummel the Raiders this week, avenging a loss that began this spiral, but unless the Chiefs can return to their mid-season form, it will be ‘too little, too late.’
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13. Baltimore Ravens (Last Week: 16)
Talk about a ‘statement win.’ One week removed from blowing a one-point lead in the last minute of a home game against the Chargers, the Ravens travel to Miami and break through via a 21-3 second-half performance. Baltimore still sits behind Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, but, at 8-5 and facing the lowly Jaguars at home, the Ravens should stay afloat in the playoff race at least another week.
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12. San Diego Chargers (Last Week: 11)
At this point, if the San Diego Chargers fall out of the AFC playoff picture, no one can fault them. After completing a miraculous last-minute comeback in Baltimore in Week 13, the Chargers lost to the visiting Patriots on Sunday Night Football. Work doesn’t get any easier this week, either, as they host the Denver Broncos. And don’t worry, if they survive this game, they will next head to San Francisco, followed by Kansas City. Even though they currently sit in the sixth seed for the AFC playoffs, the Chargers — streaky and inconsistent as they tend to be — are bound to stumble somewhere. If they don’t, it is debatable if any team has better earned its playoff berth.
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11. Cincinnati Bengals (Last Week: 9)
Week 14’s game between the Steelers and Bengals was a microcosm of each team’s season. While the Steelers bounced back and forth between hiccups and explosions, the Bengals failed, again to take control of the lockjaw division. A win against Pittsburgh would have all but sealed their rival’s fate. Instead, Cincinnati loses its chance to extend its division lead. With the team’s next two games coming against a hungry rival in Cleveland and a top-notch franchise from Denver, it seems highly unlikely that the Bengals clinch any playoff berth before their Week 17 rematch against the Steelers.
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10. Pittsburgh Steelers (Last Week: 13)
While they would not have been mathematically eliminated from either the playoffs or the division, the Pittsburgh Steelers absolutely had to have a win in Cincinnati on Sunday. With a late surge, they achieved their goal and, once again, shifted shape into a dangerous team on the rise. No one will buy into them after the wild inconsistency they have shown throughout the year, but some of their best performances have come when it mattered most.
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9. Detroit Lions (Last Week: 10)
Detroit needed that. Fresh off back-to-back road losses to the Cardinals and Patriots, the Lions were gifted the Bears and Buccaneers on a platter at home. Promptly, they beat both teams by the same 34-17 score and held firm in their stance as a deserving playoff team. Still featuring the league’s top scoring defense, the Lions next two games are against teams with losing records – Minnesota and Chicago – and, if they can hold serve until Week 17, could close their season in Green Bay with a battle for the NFC North title. As a fallback plan, the Lions winning their next two games likely earns them a playoff berth, anyway, as a team with eleven wins should see games in January.
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8. Dallas Cowboys (Last Week: 8)
The only thing worse than losing to Philadelphia on Thanksgiving would have been Dallas losing one week later in Chicago. Fortunately, for the Cowboys, they were able to handle a struggling Bears team, regardless of the final score making the game appear much closer than it actually was. Further forgiveness for Dallas’s home loss in Week 13 came when Philadelphia fell to the Seahawks, moving both NFC East teams into a tie for the division lead. When the Eagles and Cowboys meet on Sunday Night Football this week, it will, once again, be for the division lead.
(Photo Credit: Ron Jenkins, Fort Worth Star-Telegram/Getty Images)
7. Philadelphia Eagles (Last Week: 4)
Consider everything gained from Philadelphia’s Thanksgiving Day win in Dallas effectively lost. The Eagles’ home loss to the surging Seahawks sets up yet another showdown for the NFC East lead against the Cowboys when the two teams meet on Sunday night. Philadelphia has proven to be one of the top teams in the NFC all season long, but has failed to survive among some of the conference’s giants. They still hold the edge in the division via their tiebreaker, but the Eagles’ struggles against the Seahawks were nothing if not eye-opening.
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6. Indianapolis Colts (Last Week: 7)
There may be no team outside of Dallas whose true evaluation must wait for the playoffs more than the Indianapolis Colts. They have played at a steady level for nearly the entire season, performing in-line with their place among the rest of the league. They absolutely pound terrible teams — 5-0 with an average margin of victory of over three touchdowns against teams with losing records — lose to some of the elite — 0-3 against the Broncos, Eagles, and Patriots, each of whom currently have at least nine wins – and slide past the average — a five-point victory in Houston and a one-point win in Cleveland. With a two-game lead and only three remaining, Indianapolis will almost surely clinch the AFC South in the near future, but the Colts’ last and only threat comes in the form of the visiting Texans this week.
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5. Arizona Cardinals (Last Week: 6)
After back-to-back road losses, the Arizona Cardinals enjoyed a much-needed homecoming with their victory over the visiting Chiefs. The trepidation around the Cardinals has been palpable since the day quarterback Carson Palmer was lost for the season and, for a few weeks, the fans’ worst nightmares were coming to fruition. Then, using relatively the same formula that has served them so well all season — a top-five scoring defense, limiting turnovers, and clutch strikes — the Cardinals got back in the win column to hold off the rising Seahawks. With its division lead dwindled down to one-game, Arizona cannot be bursting with confidence, especially with all three of the team’s remaining games coming against division opponents, including two on the road.
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3. Denver Broncos (Last Week: 3)
Taking care of business for a third consecutive week, the Denver Broncos held off the visiting Bills in a game Denver handled much more comfortably than the final score would indicate. Since losing in St. Louis, the Broncos have now defeated the Dolphins, Chiefs, and Bills en route to tie for the AFC’s best record. With the division all but locked up — a win in San Diego would officially seal the title — the Broncos continue to push for home field advantage throughout the playoffs, but should, at worst, finish with a first-round bye.
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2. New England Patriots (Last Week: 2)
Few things in life are guarantees. Fewer exist in football. Perhaps the one exception is the New England Patriots. In December. After a loss. Surprising absolutely no one, the Patriots rebounded from their Week 13 defeat in Lambeau Field with a clutch road victory in San Diego. The Patriots keep pace with — in fact, due to a tiebreaker, ahead of — the Denver Broncos, and hold the fate of AFC’s home field advantage in their hands. With three division games remaining in their final three contests, the Patriots could clinch the AFC East as early as this week, and their eventual first-round bye appears to be equally a foregone conclusion.
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1. Green Bay Packers (Last Week: 1)
Surely they are capable of losing, but the Packers flat-out look unstoppable. Even when Atlanta’s offense continued to claw back from the depths of a potential Monday Night Football blowout, Green Bay strikes quickly and effectively. It almost seems like the Packers are toying with teams at this point, rightfully brimming with confidence that, in the end, they will pull out the win. In fairness, they almost always do. But even with the absurd string of success Green Bay is currently experiencing, the Packers remain locked into multiple battles. Not only is home field throughout the playoffs still feverishly contested by the Arizona Cardinals, among others, but the Lions remain hot on the Packers’ heels for the division crown.