As the 2016 NFL season enters the final quarter, the playoff picture is becoming clearer. Some division leaders are separating themselves from the rest of the pack, while others have faltered giving way to new teams on top.
The Detroit Lions are leading the NFC North and have a chance to claim their first division title since 1993. Can Minnesota and Green Bay bounce back after mid-season slumps?
Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston show no signs of a sophomore slump as they have both of their respective teams in playoff contention.
The AFC West has taken a stranglehold as the best division in football, but will Oakland, KC, and Denver all make the playoffs?
Without further ado, The Al Dente Dozen Week 14 edition.
1. Dallas Cowboys (11-1) ⇔
After a hard fought battle in Minnesota, the Cowboys prevailed after a failed two-point attempt by the Vikings at the end of the game to move to a league-best 11-1. I don’t think there are that many teams that can alter the Cowboys path to the Super Bowl. Seattle probably has the best chance, but they prove every year that they are a different team on the road, and unless something drastic happens, it looks as though the Cowboys will have home-field advantage throughout. Big division matchup this week against the New York Giants, who gave them their only loss back in week 1.
2. New England Patriots (10-2) ⇔
Losing Gronk for the season is a major loss, but this is one organization that epitomizes the phrase “next man up.” Martellus Bennett will see his workload increase and will be and integral part of the offenses’ success. The Patriots will treasure home field advantage throughout the playoffs, so they should finish the season strong instead of faltering as they did last season. However, their next two opponents have had great success against them; in Foxborough against Baltimore, and in Denver against the Broncos.
3. Oakland Raiders (10-2) ⇔
“Just Win Baby!” The iconic phrase made famous by the late Raiders’ owner Al Davis. Well, that is what this Oakland team continues to do in the 2016 season. After losing a lead to the Carolina Panthers in Week 12, Derek Carr led his troops to a come from behind victory. In Week 13, the Raiders trailed Buffalo 24-9. Oakland scored 29 unanswered to shock Rex Ryan 38-24. Jack Del Rio instills faith in his players, and his players continue to make their coach look good. Khalil Mack is having an MVP-Caliber season, and between him, Von Miller, and Justin Houston, the three best defensive players may all reside in the AFC West. Pivotal matchup this Thursday between the Raiders and Chiefs in Kansas City.
4. Seattle Seahawks (8-3-1) ⇔
Got back on track this week with a 40-7 rout over the Carolina Panthers. Thomas Rawls looked like the running back we all expected him to be after a surprising campaign last season. The defense stifled Cam Newton and the Panthers offense all night. This may be the only team that has a viable shot to knock off the Cowboys in the NFC Playoffs, but they will have to play with better consistency and learn how to bring the same intensity that they play with in Seattle on the road.
5. Kansas City Chiefs (9-3) ⇔
With back-to-back improbable wins at Denver and at Atlanta, the Chiefs move within one game of the division-rival Raiders as they welcome Oakland to Arrowhead on Thursday. The offense is playing consistent mistake-free football, and the defense is creating plays and scoring opportunities for the offense. Eric Berry is playing at an All-Pro level with two interceptions against the Falcons, one returned for a touchdown, and one returned for a two-point conversion that sealed the win the Chiefs. Not to be overlooked: the Chiefs special teams unit is by far the best in the NFL.
6. Detroit Lions (8-4) ⇑3
Prior to week 13, the Lions may have well just waited to leave the locker room until the 4th quarter when they continually came back to steal games. On Sunday against the Saints, the Lions dominated from the get-go on all sides of the ball. The defense stifled the high-octane New Orleans offense and Stafford and the boys did enough to seal a 28-13 victory. As I mentioned earlier, the Lions have a chance to win their first division title since 1993. Detroit may be known as Hockey Town, USA, but right now the Lions are the hot ticket.
7. Denver Broncos (8-4) ⇑1
It wasn’t pretty but the defense bounced back in a big way in clinching a 20-10 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars. Rookie Paxton Lynch made his 2nd career start for the injured Trevor Siemian, and it was obvious he is still some time away from taking over the reigns. An injury to Kapri Bibbs called for Kubiak to reunite with his former running back Justin Forsett who will split carries with Devontae Booker in the backfield. The defense looked like it’s old self, forcing three turnovers, including a pick-six and the ultimate game-sealing strip sack. The Broncos travel to Nashville for what seems to be a must win in the extremely competitive AFC West.
8. Atlanta Falcons (7-5) ⇓1
In all reality, the Atlanta Falcons should be sitting at 8-4 right now. Instead, they are 7-5 due to a Matt Ryan poorly thrown ball on a two-point attempt that would have put the Falcons up three. From a one-point lead to a one-point deficit. Overall, Atlanta has faltered a bit down the stretch, but they are still well-coached and the offense can score points on anybody. They control their own destiny in the NFC South with the surging Buccaneers nipping at their heels.
9. New York Giants (8-4) ⇓3
The Giants are a solid team from top to bottom, but it seems like after every week some player is complaining about something. First, it was Odell complaining about pretty much everything from not getting the ball enough, to defensive players playing “too hard” against him. Now, the usual team-first Victor Cruz has spoken out about his lack of usage within the offense after his zero targets against the Steelers. Couple all this drama with the news that JPP will have surgery for a sports hernia that will sideline him for the remainder of the regular season, and you see why I slid the Giants down three spots. A home game against the Cowboys this week could get them back on track or send the shaky train towards total derailment.
10. Baltimore Ravens (7-5) ⇑2
You can never count out a John Harbaugh-coached team. The Ravens started off 3-0 before losing four straight. The resilient team bounced back and sit at 7-5 with the top spot in the AFC North. The defense is as ruthless as it has ever been, and the running back committee has been very successful and efficient. Week 13 was billed as a possible AFC Wildcard matchup that was quickly dispelled as the Ravens dismantled the Dolphins 38-6. Flacco and the Ravens travel to Foxborough this weekend to face the Patriots in a Monday Night Showdown. A Christmas Day matchup with the Pittsburgh Steelers could decide who wins the division.
11. Pittsburgh Steelers (7-5) N/A
My original prediction for Super Bowl champion, the Pittsburgh Steelers have finally clawed their way back into the Al Dente Dozen. Pittsburgh has the talent and skill set to beat anybody, but they seem to always have trouble staying healthy. It seems like every week at least one of their stars is out. Well, as of now, all elite weapons are a go, and it should be a good old-fashioned slugfest down the stretch for the AFC North Division title.
12. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-5) N/A
Tampa Bay Fans—Welcome to the all-important Al Dente Dozen. After week 9, the Bucs were 3-5 and the season appeared to slip away. “Not so fast my friend,” as Lee Corso would say. Tampa Bay has won four straight and now are tied with Atlanta for the division lead at 7-5. What’s more impressive about the four-game win streak is that they beat Kansas City at Arrowhead and the Seahawks in Tampa. Jameis Winston is playing like a true star, and third-year receiver Mike Evans has elevated his game to elite status. Oh, and that defense, they have been the backbone down the stretch holding KC and Seattle to 22 combined points.