The stretch run. It is upon us.
With six weeks to go in the NFL season, every game on the docket each week seems to have playoff implications. Why? Because only seven teams are more than a game out of the wild card spot at this point in the season.
The league has basically divided into three groups – the elite, the cellar dwellers and the large group bunched together in the middle. Trying to differentiate between that conglomeration of teams, which range from No. 8 to 25 on the list, is difficult. But the cover32 editors were up to the task.
How do they see things shaping up with the stretch run dawning? Read and see.
Here’s the Week 12 edition of Power Rankings:
1. Denver Broncos (9-1) – Dispatching the only undefeated team in the NFL by double digits is impressive, regardless of whether or not people were “buying” the Chiefs as a legitimate contender. The Broncos get another tough test this week at New England, with Manning and Brady dueling yet again. (LW: 2)
2. Seattle Seahawks (10-1) – Seattle’s cruising down the left lane of the NFC West highway with no real traffic in sight. The Seahawks have a much-earned bye this coming Sunday before taking on New Orleans in two weeks on Monday Night Football with the No. 1 seed in the NFC likely on the line. (LW: 3)
3. Kansas City Chiefs (9-1) – The trip to Denver wasn’t a disaster, but it didn’t do much to put doubt in the heads of those who don’t think Kansas City can win a Super Bowl, let alone a playoff game. The visit from the Chargers on Sunday is a crucial contest for K.C. before getting their second crack at the Broncos. (LW: 1)
4. New Orleans Saints (8-2) – New Orleans defeated San Francisco on Sunday to improve to eight wins on the season. The defense which was so maligned a year ago has proven to be legit and can carry the Saints when the offense struggles. (LW: 4)
5. Carolina Panthers (7-3) – The Panthers have now proven they belong in the conversation. In defeating the Patriots, they may have also proven they are among the top-three teams in the NFC. This is a team to watch in the last six weeks. (LW: 7)
6. Indianapolis Colts (7-3) – Indy is in the drivers seat to win the AFC South after their bounce-back win in Nashville last Thursday. Chuck Pagano can begin looking at playoff seeding as opposed to just making the playoffs. The Colts still have Cincinnati and K.C. on the schedule; two wins could wrap up the two seed. (LW: 9)
7. New England Patriots (7-3) – There’s no shame in losing a close game at Carolina, as the Panthers are an up-and-coming team. But if the Pats don’t beat the Broncos on Sunday, chances of the No. 1 seed in the AFC are all but gone. (LW: 5)
8. Cincinnati Bengals (7-4) – They overcame a brutal first quarter to throw up 31 second-quarter points against the Browns. The offense wasn’t great, but got scores from defense and special teams. There’s still room for improvement. (LW: 11)
9. Detroit Lions (6-4) – Beaten badly in the second half by Ben Roethlisberger. Offense was rampant in first half, non-existent in the second. Getting Tampa Bay at home, however, is a great way to bounce back. (LW: 6)
10. San Francisco 49ers (6-4) – A second straight defeat has the Niners all of the sudden in a battle just to make the playoffs. While the team still controls its own destiny, there’s little room for error down the stretch in a crowded NFC wild card picture. (LW: 8)
11. Arizona Cardinals (6-4) – Even if it feels like no one’s noticing, the Cardinals keep winning and are very real threat to make the playoffs. Carson Palmer looked like his old (Bengals) self on Sunday, throwing for more than 400 yards and a couple of scores. (LW: 14)
12. Philadelphia Eagles (6-5) – After being left for dead just three weeks ago, Chip Kelly’s team is now all alone the mediocre NFC East. And with a bye week finally here, they have a chance to heal up for the stretch run. (LW: 12)
13. Chicago Bears (6-4) – They battled the elements and the Ravens to regain a share of the divisional lead. Josh McCown is becoming a great story with his play. Could sign a huge deal in the offseason. (LW: 13)
14. Dallas Cowboys (5-5) – After leading the NFC East all season long, the Cowboys fell out of the top spot during their bye week. Now, a rematch with the resurgent Giants is virtually a must-win. Perhaps they regrouped during the bye. (LW: 16)
15. Green Bay Packers (5-5) – Another Aaron Rodgers-less week equaled another loss. Scott Tolzien was serviceable, but could not lead the team on scoring drive when it mattered most. Yet, they are still somehow alive in the division. (LW: 10)
16. Miami Dolphins (5-5) – The Dolphins season was on the brink this past Sunday, but they showed some gumption in getting a home win against the Chargers. Beating the Panthers this week gets them back in the playoff race. (LW: 24)