1. Green Bay Packers, 13-1. That the Green Bay Packers finally lost a game for the first time in a year isn’t shocking. That they lost to the 5-8 Kansas City Chiefs is. That being said, everyone deserves an off-day. The Packers are the defending Super Bowl Champions, and, with the addition of players who were injured last year, like tight end Jermichael Finley, and the continued improvement of quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who is the front runner for the Most Valuable Player Award for the NFL, they are better than last season. Including the playoffs, the Packers had won 19 straight games. The Packers have clinched their division already, and are headed to clinching home field throughout the entire NFC playoffs. The Packers host the Chicago Bears on Christmas, a team suffering from injuries to quarterback Jay Cutler and running back Matt Forte. They should emerge 14-1.
2. Baltimore Ravens, 10-4. When playing at their best, the Baltimore Ravens are the best team in the AFC. They have defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers twice to sweep the season series, the San Francisco 49ers, and the Houston Texans, but have also lost to the Jacksonville Jaguars and Seattle Seahawks, and just got blown out by the San Diego Chargers, which shows a lack of focus. They continue to be one of the more dominant teams in the league on defense, led by the ageless wonder linebacker Ray Lewis. The Ravens are the third-stingiest defense in the NFL, allowing only 236 points in 14 games. Their offense, led by quarterback Joe Flacco and running back Ray Rice, will ultimately decide if they can make a Super Bowl run. The Ravens host the Cleveland Browns, a game they should win if they want to secure a first-round bye.
3. San Francisco 49ers, 11-3. The San Francisco 49ers are a league surprise, led by fiery first-year head coach Jim Harbaugh. They had an impressive Monday night win over the Pittsburgh Steelers, but many, including me, still doubt their ability to win a Super Bowl. The 49ers have already clinched the division crown, and running back Frank Gore is perhaps the biggest reason for their success, as he is averaging 4.4 yards per carry on the season and is fourth overall in the NFL in rushing. The other reason is the stingy 49ers defense, as they have allowed the least points in the NFL (185). The 49ers travel to face the Seattle Seahawks Saturday.
4. New Orleans Saints, 11-3. The New Orleans Saints are fighting for a first-round bye, and they will need to defeat the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday Night Football on Christmas night to continue to have a chance. Led by quarterback Drew Brees, the Saints only trail the Green Bay Packers in scoring offense in the NFL with 457 points. The Saints do leave a lot to be desired defensively, and when their offense struggles, they are vulnerable. Still, their offense will keep them in any game against any opponent in the NFL.
5. Pittsburgh Steelers, 10-4. In an AFC that appears to be wide open, the Steelers, led by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and defensive back Troy Polamalu, have the ability to perform in the clutch, which makes them a contender to reach the Super Bowl. A high-ankle sprain has hobbled Roethlisberger, and he didn’t seem like himself in a 20-3 loss to the San Francisco 49ers Monday night. The Steelers need the Baltimore Ravens to lose again, because although the two teams are tied, the Steelers lost both games to the Ravens, which gives them the tie breaker. The Steelers host the St. Louis Cardinals, which should be an easy victory Saturday.
6. New England Patriots, 11-3. Quarterback Tom Brady has the New England Patriots again contending for a Super Bowl, and have won six in a row and are fighting for the overall number one seed in the AFC, a seeding that they currently hold. Losses to the Pittsburgh Steelers and New York Giants exposed some of the weaknesses of the Patriots, but a relatively easy schedule should lead them to home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. The Patriots host the Miami Dolphins Saturday.
7. Houston Texans, 10-4. The Houston Texans suffered a tough 28-13 loss to the Carolina Panthers that has raised questions about their ability to contend for a Super Bowl. With the foot injury to Houston Texans quarterback Matt Schaub, and a fractured collarbone for backup quarterback Matt Leinart, third-string quarterback TJ Yates has been thrust into the starting lineup. The Texans have the third-highest-scoring offense in the AFC, led by two top running backs, Arian Foster and Ben Tate, who have combined for over 1,900 yards in 14 games. The Texans are experiencing their best season in franchise history and appear on pace to win their first-ever division crown. The Texans travel to face the Indianapolis Colts Thursday, who won their first game of the season last weekend 27-13 over the Tennessee Titans.
8. Detroit Lions, 9-5. The Detroit Lions, led by quarterback Matthew Stafford and wide receiver Calvin Johnson on offense, and defensive linemen Ndamukong Suh on defense, are a young team that will be a tough playoff opponent and should be for the foreseeable future. The Lions also have shown the ability to come back from large deficits, so they are never out of a game. The Lions host the red-hot San Diego Chargers in one of the weekend’s best match ups.
9. Atlanta Falcons, 9-5. The Atlanta Falcons have won four out of five, and face a stiff challenge when they head to New Orleans to face the Saints this weekend. Running back Michael Turner is the catalyst for the offense, and has run for 1,129 yards thus far this season, good for third in the NFL. Quarterback Matt Ryan leads an offense that doesn’t do anything fancy, but gets the job done. The veteran leadership of Tony Gonzalez has the Falcons possibly making a deep playoff run.
10. Denver Broncos, 8-6. Since inserting quarterback Tim Tebow into the starting lineup, the Denver Broncos are 7-2. A strong running game lead by Willis McGahee, who is 10 yards away from 1,000 on the season, combined with Tebow’s leadership skills, have led the Broncos to win several close games, including five by four or less points. The Broncos travel to Buffalo to face the Bills in a battle to secure their lead in the AFC West.