10. Washington Redskins
We start with a spot that has been seemingly reserved for the New York Giants, who have appeared to be the frontrunner in the NFC East for the vast majority of the season. Boy, how things have changed. They’re now tied with two teams atop the division – one of them being the a group that has won 5 in a row, the Washington Redskins. The NFC East has quickly become the most interesting division in football, with the NFC East title possibly coming down to the last week of the season when the Dallas Cowboys (the other team in this 8-6 bunch) go into Washington. The ‘Skins had a very impressive second half with on Sunday, with backup QB Kirk Cousins leading the offense to 28 points – including 3 long drives totaling over 200 yards. They may look to his leadership for one more week before handing the team’s playoff chances back into the hands of RGIII.
9. Indianapolis Colts
There’s no shame for the Colts in losing to the Houston Texans. We all knew that the Texans would come out more focused after getting roasted by the Patriots a week ago…and they did. Indianapolis got themselves into a 17-point deficit against an opponent that prefers to play out in front. Andrew Luck and company have erased these types of deficits in the past, but not against a team of Houston’s caliber. The Colts got some productive running from Vick Ballard (18 carries for 105 yards), however, Luck was a bit off the mark – connecting on just 13 of 27 pass attempts. More than anything, Indy lost this game defensively. They allowed Matt Schaub to have a quietly efficient day, and we got to see an episode of “Arian Foster Gone Wild.” We recommend that the Colts focus on Chiefs this week, because the last thing they can afford to do is lose in Kansas City when another matchup with the Texans awaits in Week 17.
8. Chicago Bears
There’s a good chance that the Bears, who were once 7-1, have played themselves out of the postseason. Chicago has two winnable games left (at Arizona, at Detroit), but that may not mean much given the glut of teams who are in the NFC playoff hunt. The Seahawks are a full game in front of them and own the head-to-head tie-breaker against them. Their divisional rivals Minnesota have a better mark versus NFC North competition and a better record in the conference. All of the NFC East’s top teams (Dallas, New York and Washington) have equal or better in-conference records, to boot. This season will be a tough one for Bears fans to swallow.
7. Atlanta Falcons
Atlanta got their big win – and more – on Sunday in the Georgia Dome. The Falcons didn’t make any mistakes against the Giants who, just a week ago, feasted on turnovers from Drew Brees in their rout of the Saints. Atlanta also got the sometimes-sloppy Eli Manning to throw two picks, as well as causing a fumble. Quarterback Matt Ryan shook off his recent penchant for interceptions and turned in a nice, clean performance that included two TD passes to Julio Jones and another to Tony Gonzalez. This game was a good sign that this Falcons team is intent on not making their playoff run a one-and-done situation.
6. Seattle Seahawks
Again, this is the most terrifying NFL team – at the moment. However, we seriously doubt that the Niners are afraid of anyone right now. This time around, the Seahawks get the division leaders on their own turf in a game that could bring them closer to potentially stealing the NFC West crown. This probably won’t happen (given that San Fran would have to lose their final game, as well), but Seattle should be more concerned about proving that they can handle the Niners. Russell Wilson will have to realize that they may not be able to put up 50 points, but he needs to focus on playing as much mistake-free football as he possibly can. The way that Seattle’s defense is playing, that could be more than enough to pull them one game closer to the Niners.
5. Green Bay Packers
Green Bay did what was expected, knocking off the Bears for the second time this season. Now, the Packers have clinched the NFC North, and are a good bet to finish the regular season with 12 wins. The Packers are right where we thought they’d be coming into the season – an experienced team with a great quarterback, tested defense and a real chance team beat any team during any game.
4. Houston Texans
Houston gained a small portion of its swagger back by beating the Colts with ease. The Texans showed us why they are so dangerous. When they are able to establish Arian Foster (27 rushes, 165 yards) early, they can keep the chains moving and keep the pressure on the opposition. The Texans were able to then get Matt Schaub to be more effective, and were able to open up their biggest target – Andre Johnson (11 rec., 151 yards, TD). With a win over the Adrian Peterson and the Vikings, Houston will seal up home field advantage in the AFC.
3. Denver Broncos
Another team that is playing the way the would want to heading into the playoffs is the Denver Broncos. They have won 9 straight, and their final two opponents (Cleveland, Kansas City – both in Denver) should provide little opposition – allowing them to cruise into the second season with a 13-3 mark. What that means is that the Broncos have the inside track to the AFC’s #2 seed, which would give them a home game in the divisional round. As they prepare for the postseason, the most encouraging development in Denver has been their ability to piece together a productive running game. Over his last two games, Knowshon Moreno has put up 237 yards in relief of the injured Willis McGahee. Having a strong ground game to pair with the always-dangerous Peyton Manning gives Denver a chance to beat anyone when the games really count.
2. New England Patriots
The Patriots were one half away from reclaiming their #1 spot on this list. Unfortunately for them, it was probably the most atrocious half of football they have played this season. Spotting the Niners a 28-point lead is usually a recipe for a blowout, but New England came out in the second half and made a game of it. Looking strictly at the offensive numbers, the Pats outshined the Niners in total yards (520 – 383) and first downs (32 – 19). But perhaps the most telling stat of this game was New England’s third down efficiency. Tom Brady and his troops only converted 2 of 15 (13%) of their third downs. And with a defense as rugged as San Francisco’s, you are not going to get 10 yards on 2 downs on a consistent basis. Even if your team leads the league in scoring.
1. San Francisco 49ers
Talk about holding on by the skin of your teeth…Jim Harbaugh was certainly holding his breath in the second half on Sunday night. The 49ers’ most defining play of the game came after the Patriots had come back to tie the ball game at 31. LaMichael James’ 62-yard kickoff return quickly re-established momentum in favor of the Niners and – one play later – they were celebrating Michael Crabtree’s catch-and-run that put them back in the driver’s seat. San Francisco has the look of a top team in the NFC, but they’ll get another test this week in Seattle to validate that.