The Panthers hold onto the top spot in our Power Rankings this week with a shootout win over the Saints in New Orleans, moving to 12-0 on the year. Carolina has won 16 straight regular season games dating back to last year, and they've done it with balance on both sides of the ball -- a strong run game, a deadly passing attack, a stout rush defense and a smothering pass defense. They can beat you in so many ways.
After Carolina, there are four 10-2 teams, and you could make arguments for just about any order among the rest of the NFL elites. I'm still very high on the Broncos because of their completely dominant defense -- they are capable of shutting down any team and any quarterback in the NFL right now, and can do it in any weather, at home or on the road. Their offense still isn't where it probably needs to be for a real run at the Super Bowl, but that elite defense will keep them in every game, week in and week out. If Brock Osweiler can continue to develop as the starter and manage the game without making too many mistakes, it's going to be very tough to beat Denver down the stretch.
The same could be said for the Bengals, who probably have the deepest and most talented roster in the NFL this year. Like Carolina, Cincinnati is very balanced on offense and defense with very few exploitable vulnerabilities, and it has completely annihilated its last two opponents by the combined score of 68-10. Importantly, Cincy currently holds the inside track for the top seed in the AFC, so it's looking likely that the road to the Super Bowl could go through Paul Brown Stadium. Barring some collapse by Andy Dalton (which looks less likely with every passing week), it's very tough to pick against the Bengals in any matchup down the stretch.
Similarly, the Cardinals are firing on all cylinders and have won six games in a row on the arm of Carson Palmer and on the back of an aggressive, attacking defense. Arizona will throw a combination of haymakers at you and very few teams can counter or defend that, and this makes them one of the most dangerous in the NFL right now.
Meanwhile, while the Patriots held the top spot in these rankings from Weeks 2-12, they've lost two in a row and are certainly showing signs of fading after losing several key players on both sides of the ball. The good news is that Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski should return this season, but New England is now on the outside looking in for that ever-important home-field advantage in the playoffs.
Moving on up
The Chiefs have won six games in a row and now look like locks for one of the AFC's Wild Card spots. They're getting decisive and efficient play from Alex Smith, who hasn't thrown a pick in 304 straight pass attempts, but maybe more importantly, he's showing the ability and willingness to attack downfield. With that element in their offense, and with the way their defense is playing right now, the Chiefs can really play with anybody in this league.
The Seahawks can, too, and are showing signs of returning to the form that won them two straight NFC titles. They're dominating on the defensive side of the ball -- they held Minnesota to an NFL-wide season-low 124 yards of offense on Sunday -- and Russell Wilson has been absolutely in the zone. Combined with the emergence of Thomas Rawls as a legit bellcow in the Seattle run game, Pete Carroll's crew looks primed to do some damage if they can secure a Wild Card spot. Their win over the Vikings -- their third straight -- pushed them to 7-5.
Meanwhile, the Steelers blew out the Colts on Sunday Night Football to improve to 7-5 as well, positioned in the AFC for a Wild Card run. Pittsburgh is one of those teams that no one is going to want to face once the playoffs roll around -- they can throw the ball better than just about anyone in the league and DeAngelo Williams has been more than an adequate replacement for Le'Veon Bell this year.
The Jets got a big win over the Giants in the battle of New York and the Ryan Fitzpatrick to Brandon Marshall connection continues to pay dividends. New York is more balanced than I thought they'd be with a strong defense and a surprisingly effective redzone offense (currently first in the NFL in converting redzone opportunities into touchdowns) and they are making a run at being one of the Wild Cards in the AFC, as well.
SB Nation presents: How the Lions helped the Packers win on a Hail Mary
Still in the hunt:
The Bills got a much-needed win over the Texans on Sunday and keep their hopes alive in the AFC Wild Card race. Tyrod Taylor has played efficiently and the LeSean McCoy-led rushing attack in Buffalo is really hitting its stride. Meanwhile, the Cowboys beat Washington on Monday Night Football and the NFC East continues to be a complete mess of mediocrity.
Tampa Bay beat the Falcons to move into second place in the NFC South, and the Bucs are also in a position to make a run at that final playoff spot in the NFC.
The Vikings took a beating at the hand of the Seahawks at home on Sunday and slip in our rankings this week. Seattle neutralized their league-leading rush offense and put the game in the hands of Teddy Bridgewater, and the second-year pro was completely ineffective. They're definitely still in it at 8-4, but the race for the NFC North title just got a little more interesting.
Elsewhere, against the Bills, the Texans defense came back to earth in a big way, and the Bears offense struggled to put points on the board against the 49ers, blowing a shot at the win with a badly missed Robbie Gould field goal.
Jockeying for that first pick:
It's still anyone's game as far as the first pick goes, but the Browns certainly have the pole position. The Titans, Chargers, Jags and Ravens don't look too far behind, though.
|RANK||WEEK 14||SB NATION BLOG|
|1||Carolina Panthers, 12-0 (Last Week: 1)||Cat Scratch Reader|
|2||Denver Broncos, 10-2 (Last Week: 2)||Mile High Report|
|3||Cincinnati Bengals, 10-2 (Last Week: 4)||Cincy Jungle|
|4||Arizona Cardinals, 10-2 (Last Week: 5)||Revenge of the Birds|
|5||New England Patriots, 10-2 (Last Week: 3)||Pats Pulpit|
|6||Kansas City Chiefs, 7-5 (Last Week: 6)||Arrowhead Pride|
|7||Seattle Seahawks, 7-5 (Last Week: 8)||Field Gulls|
|8||Pittsburgh Steelers, 7-5 (Last Week: 9)||Behind the Steel Curtain|
|9||New York Jets, 7-5 (Last Week: 11)||Gang Green Nation|
|10||Green Bay Packers, 8-4 (Last Week: 10)||Acme Packing Company|
|11||Minnesota Vikings, 8-4 (Last Week: 7)||Daily Norseman|
|12||Buffalo Bills, 6-6 (Last Week: 15)||Buffalo Rumblings|
|13||Houston Texans, 6-6 (Last Week: 12)||Battle Red Blog|
|14||Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 6-6 (Last Week: 19)||Bucs Nation|
|15||Indianapolis Colts, 6-6 (Last Week: 13)||Stampede Blue|
|16||Chicago Bears, 6-6 (Last Week: 14)||Windy City Gridiron|
|17||Oakland Raiders, 6-6 (Last Week: 16)||Silver and Black Pride|
|18||Detroit Lions, 5-7 (Last Week: 20)||Pride of Detroit|
|19||Washington, 5-7 (Last Week: 17)||Hogs Haven|
|20||Miami Dolphins, 5-7 (Last Week: 22)||The Phinsider|
|21||Philadelphia Eagles, 5-7 (Last Week: 25)||Bleeding Green Nation|
|22||New York Giants, 5-7 (Last Week: 18)||Big Blue View|
|23||Atlanta Falcons, 6-6 (Last Week: 21)||The Falcoholic|
|24||Dallas Cowboys, 5-7 (Last Week: 26)||Blogging the Boys|
|25||New Orleans Saints, 4-8 (Last Week: 24)||Canal Street Chronicles|
|26||San Francisco 49ers, 4-8 (Last Week: 27)||Niners Nation|
|27||St. Louis Rams, 4-8 (Last Week: 23)||Turf Show Times|
|28||Tennessee Titans, 3-9 (Last Week: 31)||Music City Miracles|
|29||Baltimore Ravens, 4-8 (Last Week: 28)||Baltimore Beatdown|
|30||San Diego Chargers, 3-9 (Last Week: 29)||Bolts from the Blue|
|31||Jacksonville Jaguars, 4-8 (Last Week: 30)||Big Cat Country|
|32||Cleveland Browns, 2-10 (Last Week: 32)||Dawgs by Nature|