How about those Dallas Cowboys? Those of you who have been clinging to the idea that quarterback Tony Romo is bound to fall apart in December may have to find a new favorite hot take, as Romo is currently the best QB in the NFC East with two games left to play in the National Football League regular season. Romo and the Cowboys erased that disappointing Thanksgiving Day performance from memories by going to Philadelphia and defeating the Eagles in front of a Sunday Night Football audience. Dallas is for real, a Super Bowl contender for the first time in at least seven years.
Elsewhere around the league was a debut that left much to be desired. Cleveland Browns rookie quarterback Johnny Manziel did not provide a much-needed spark to an offense that had been failing as of late, and he was, at times, downright awful against the Cincinnati Bengals. Those looking to either panic or to bury the young man known as Johnny Football would do well to go back and watch the game film, though, as Manziel was hung out to dry by a terrible game plan and teammates that failed to show up for what was essentially a home playoff contest.
Two of the worst teams in the NFL came together to produce what was an ugly game that came down to the final play, one that would have provided nothing short of a gut-punch to a fan base that has watched hours upon hours of bad football over the past several years. The question does have to be asked to fans of the New York Jets: Was there a part of you secretly hoping that the Tennessee Titans would somehow complete an unimaginable journey into the end zone with zero seconds left on the clock just to ensure that the Jets would still be in the running for the top overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft?
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32 Tennessee Titans (2-12)
The Titans have to be in full-on “Suck for the duck” mode with two games left on their schedule. There is no way, this early into his short NFL career, of knowing what Zach Mettenberger is going to be as a pro quarterback, but the buzz that is surrounding Marcus Mariota will not be dying down between now and the NFL Draft. Some football analysts are already attempting to bring Mariota's stock down, while others are claiming the product out of Oregon will be a franchise quarterback that cannot be passed up by a team in need of such a player.
31 Washington Redskins (3-11)
Admit it, some members of the Washington fan base: Some of you are now curious to see more from quarterback Robert Griffin III over the last eight quarters of the season before you are ready to run him off after watching him play against the New York Giants. RG3 had a rushing touchdown controversially overturned via replay in the first half of the contest, and he completed 18 of 27 passes for 236 yards and a touchdown. Griffin also contributed 46 yards on five carries. For what it's worth, Washington is right now not in a position to select who will be the top-rated quarterback of next year's draft class.
30 Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-12)
Tampa Bay needs an upgrade at the quarterback position. Wash, rinse, repeat. Rookie wide receiver Mike Evans did not have a monster afternoon in that he reeled in only two passes, but he did manage to score a touchdown for the eleventh time this season. Starting with the September 28 game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Evans had found the end zone in all but two appearances. He is on the verge of running away with the NFL Rookie of the Year award even though he may not actually be the best first-year wide receiver in the league, more on that individual later.
29 Jacksonville Jaguars (2-12)
Here is some useful advice that those running the Jaguars need to accept this December: Take the high draft pick and sell it to the highest bidder whenever the opportunity to do so arises. The Houston Texans did not do so last January when presented with the option, and they are regretting that decision as Jadeveon Clowney begins what will be a long recovery from a knee injury. Jacksonville needs multiple upgrades on the roster, and no one player is turning the franchise into a winner next year. American football fans in London have to be hoping that rumors of the Jaguars being relocated overseas are not true.
28 Oakland Raiders (2-12)
Players inside of the locker room of the Kansas City Chiefs were (reportedly) literally laughing after making light work of the Raiders on Sunday. How quickly they forgot about their loss in Oakland. There are multiple stories out there that Oakland is set to clean house, with the front office and coaching staff two games away from being out of work. It is completely understandable that Oakland fans want Jim Harbaugh to be the team's new head coach. Harbaugh alone is not turning this franchise around without lots of help. This isn't the college game, and Harbaugh won't be recruiting players to join him at a top-tier program during the upcoming offseason.
27 New York Jets (3-11)
Conspiracy theorists had already begun typing out their social media posts before the Jets managed a stop after Tennessee executed three laterals on the final play of the game that almost resulted in a game-winning touchdown for the hosts. Head coach Rex Ryan can read the writing on the wall, and thus he cares little about where New York will be selecting in the first round of the 2015 NFL Draft. Ryan will soon be working with a different club, likely as a defensive coordinator, and he has no reason to tank games so that the Jets can draft a rookie quarterback next spring.
26 Chicago Bears (5-9)
Even Monday Night Football commentator Jon Gruden couldn't come to the defense of Chicago quarterback Jay Cutler when the Bears were hosting the New Orleans Saints. Cutler was downright terrible in the first three quarters of that contest when facing what had been the third-worst pass defense in the NFL, and he was booed by an unhappy home crowd on numerous occasions. The Bears could be a few weeks away from making changes to the coaching staff and to the front office, and Cutler's future with the club will be very much in doubt, unless he gets a vote of confidence from those in charge.
25 Atlanta Falcons (5-9)
All is not lost for the Falcons, as they can still win the division despite dropping a home game to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Missing the playoffs may, however, prove to be a blessing in disguise for the club, as what would be a short-lived postseason run could result in head coach Mike Smith remaining in charge of the Falcons for another year. Quarterback Matt Ryan was paid as if he was a champion a few years back, and he has yet to show that he can consistently win big games. Atlanta fans need to brace for the possibility of a new coaching staff pushing to make a change at the QB position.
24 New York Giants (5-9)
It was only a few months ago when people such as myself were burying first-round draft pick Odell Beckham Jr., the rookie wide receiver who could not get on the field because of lingering hamstring issues during training camp, the preseason, and the month of September. Beckham has since emerged as a true superstar in the making, the top first-year wide receiver in the NFL. He went for a hat-trick of scores against the Redskins, and he also had a touchdown taken off the scoreboard because of a penalty. Beckham is a bright spot for a team that has been a massive disappointment.
23 Cleveland Browns (7-7)
Johnny Manziel could not have had a worse NFL debut as a starting quarterback, but the rookie was only part of the problem. The Browns did not show up to take on the Cincinnati Bengals, getting dominated up front on both sides of the football. Cleveland offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan picked a poor time to go to the read-option offense, and it blew up in his face in a massive way. Anybody trying to evaluate Manziel after that contest either has an agenda or knows little about breaking down how players perform as a team in what was Cleveland's worst outing of the year.
22 San Francisco 49ers (7-7)
The Niners seem content on letting the Harbaugh era come to what is an inevitable conclusion rather than just pulling the plug on it before Christmas. San Francisco won't be making the playoffs, and the players in the team's locker room have to realize that changes are coming. Just as is the case with the Falcons, San Francisco could be on the cusp of making a quarterback change this coming offseason. The 49ers are in a position where they can move on from Colin Kaepernick without suffering a significant salary cap hit, and getting Kaepernick to sign that contract seems like a brilliant move for the club at this point.
21 Carolina Panthers (5-8-1)
Are the Panthers merely the cockroach of the NFC South playoff race that cannot be caught and killed, or are they legitimate playoff contenders on the verge of hosting a game in January? While nobody will see Carolina as being a world-beater capable of making a run up through early February, the team continues to do just enough to not yet be eliminated from postseason play. That said, it seems awfully silly for the Panthers to force quarterback Cam Newton out onto the field of play at any point over the next two weeks. Newton was banged up before what could have been a disastrous car accident. He needs and deserves rest.
20 Houston Texans (7-7)
Any remaining “J.J. Watt for Most Valuable Player” campaigns died a death over the weekend when the Texans lost to the Indianapolis Colts. Houston did well to hold the Colts to 17 total points, and yet the Texans could not do enough to earn a win that would have made things very interesting in the AFC South standings. That contest offered yet another reminder that quarterbacks win MVP honors in a league that is built on passing attacks, one meant to benefit QBs and wide receivers.
19 St. Louis Rams (6-8)
St. Louis getting just enough out of fill-in quarterbacks is good for the occasional win, but it isn't going to make for a Super Bowl contender. Word is that head coach Jeff Fisher will, as he did last February, commit to the often-injured Sam Bradford this coming winter. Bradford is recovering from a second torn ACL in two years, and he is expected to be 100 percent by the time that training camp rolls around. The Rams would undeniably be a better team if they had a real starting quarterback in the lineup. Whether or not Bradford can remain on the field long enough to prove himself to be that man remains unknown.
18 Minnesota Vikings (6-8)
The Minnesota Vikings continue to punch above their weight, and there is an argument to be made that they let one get away against the Detroit Lions on Sunday. Rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater has played well, leaving some to believe that he and not Blake Bortles deserved to be the first quarterback off of the overall draft board last May. The book is not yet out on Bridgewater, a first-year pro who, according to some, entered the league without possessing a high ceiling. Can he prove those doubters wrong and evolve into a winning quarterback over the next several years?
17 Miami Dolphins (7-7)
There was a time on Sunday when it appeared as if the Miami Dolphins were going to make a statement and defeat the New England Patriots. Then, the Pats installed some adjustments and came out of the tunnel as a rejuvenated side ready to take control of the contest. Miami has now lost three of the team's past four contests, a run that will have them on the outside looking in as it pertains to the playoffs. It is not all bad news for the Dolphins looking ahead, however, as Miami could be one offseason away from being able to hang with the Patriots in the standings.
16 New Orleans Saints (6-8)
You let Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints hang around in the division standings despite the club being below .500 throughout the fall months. You're getting what you deserve, NFC South teams. Some, myself included, have speculated while watching the veteran quarterback throughout 2014 that his age was finally catching up with him, but all anybody can do is tip their caps to the one-time Super Bowl MVP who could lead his club to at least one January football game. That contest would take place in New Orleans if the Saints can beat the Atlanta Falcons at home and then knock off the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on the road.
15 San Diego Chargers (8-6)
San Diego had a reason for hope when Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, who was battling the flu, got banged up, but the offense of the Chargers could not put enough points on the scoreboard to pull out a win. 10 points isn't getting it done against the Broncos. Add in that the Chargers were leapfrogged in the standings by the Kansas City Chiefs, and the weekend could not have gone much worse for San Diego. Making the playoffs is not a lost cause for the Chargers, but a side that was far from super against Denver will now need some help to complete that task.
14 Philadelphia Eagles (9-5)
The E-A-G-L-E-S and the Cowboys split their series for 2014, but it was Dallas and not Philadelphia that won what could prove to be the pivotal contest involving those two franchises. Philadelphia was hit for 38 points by Dallas in front of a prime time national television audience. Any team can have a rough night, but the Eagles were made to look like pretenders by a division rival ready to prove that it will not fall apart this December. Head coach Chip Kelly may be considering mortgaging the future of the franchise to move up in the draft so that he can acquire the previously mentioned Mariota.
13 Kansas City Chiefs (8-6)
The demise of the 2014 Chiefs will have to wait for another week. Kansas City ran right through the Raiders in impressive fashion, and the Chiefs were also the recipients of some positive results that keep their playoff hopes alive. Head coach Andy Reid and quarterback Alex Smith silencing their critics is becoming a monthly tradition, and that trend could continue up through the start of 2015. Smith likely isn't going to Gillette Stadium next month and beating Tom Brady and the Patriots in a one-and-done game, but stranger things have happened in what is an “Any Given Sunday” league.
12 Buffalo Bills (8-6)
Nobody wants to take on the Bills right now, as their defense is playing like the best of any in the NFL as winter nears. The new ownership group of the franchise could be on the verge of undergoing “Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda” evaluations if the team cannot win out en route to making the postseason. Buffalo has a championship defense that could get the job done against any offense in the league. The Bills may end up falling one victory shy of January football, which would be a shame for a fan base that nearly had its team ripped from them earlier this year.
11 Pittsburgh Steelers (9-5)
Some out there are hyping the Steelers and not the Cincinnati Bengals as being the favorites to win the AFC North. Pittsburgh has a championship quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger. The team's defense is finding its form at the ideal time of the campaign. There is the concern that the Steelers have played some awful football in front of their home fans and that their final two games on the schedule will take place in Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh will win the division title if it can hold serve against the Kansas City Chiefs and then against the Cincinnati Bengals in a game that could be flexed over to Sunday night.
10 Cincinnati Bengals (9-4-1)
Johnny who? The Bengals did not like that all of the talk about their match-up against the Cleveland Browns centered around rookie quarterback Johnny Manziel, and Cincinnati put a beat-down on the Browns while in northeast Ohio. This was one-sided a contest as you'll see all season, as the Bengals dominated the Browns from the opening drive up until they ran up the score late in the fourth quarter. Cincinnati made a statement in front of an audience that had tuned in to watch Johnny Football. The AFC North title remains Cincinnati's to lose.
9 Baltimore Ravens (9-5)
Baltimore was one team hoping that Manziel would be as good as some advertised him to be, as the Ravens would have benefited from the Browns defeating the Bengals. Finishing atop the division standings remains realistic for a Ravens team that will play the Texans and the reeling Browns over the next two weeks. One thing that isn't getting attention from national media is that the Ravens may be better off without disgraced running back Ray Rice. The Baltimore offense hasn't missed Rice, and the Ravens are two winnable games away from having an 11-5 overall record and a postseason berth.
8 Arizona Cardinals (11-3)
By hook or by crook, the Cardinals find ways to win games. Arizona fans who were not long ago hitting out at Drew Stanton are now hoping that the man who started out the season as the team's backup quarterback will be fully recovered from a knee injury after Week 17. Everybody crowning the Seahawks as the unnamed division champions haven't been paying enough attention to the Cardinals. Bruce Arians is one of the best head coaches in the pro game, and his ability to rally his players around him is far too often undersold by national analysts who don't watch the team play week in and week out.
7 Green Bay Packers (10-4)
The Packers plummet in NFL power rankings following a lackluster outing at the Buffalo Bills. Aaron Rodgers had himself a day to forget, and Green Bay is now behind the Detroit Lions in the division standings. Those within the Packers must quickly pick themselves up before traveling to play against a defense of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers that could have a blueprint for stopping Rodgers and the Green Bay offense. Green Bay cannot afford to be looking past Tampa Bay before hosting the Detroit Lions in what will be the game that determines which team wins the NFC North this season.
6 Detroit Lions (10-4)
All of you who have been waiting for the December Detroit collapse can keep on waiting. There were some nervous moments for the Lions over the weekend, but Detroit did enough to hold off the Minnesota Vikings and climb back to the top of the NFC North standings. While the Lions should be standing with heads held high this midweek, they should also be putting blinders on that allows them to only see an upcoming showdown with the Chicago Bears. Detroit cannot look past the struggling Bears and to what will be a massive game versus the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field.
5 Dallas Cowboys (10-4)
Boost your Web servers, social media websites. The Dallas Cowboys are in first place in the division standings in the middle of December in 2014. Wide receiver Dez Bryant is talking the talk and then walking the walk, and quarterback Tony Romo is leaving critics with little to say during the holiday season. Romo is playing behind the best offensive line in the NFL, and he and Bryant have the Cowboys two wins away from hosting at least one playoff game. Just as with the Lions, those waiting for Romo to have a December meltdown have to hold their tongues for now.
4 Indianapolis Colts (10-4)
The Colts are similar to the Ravens in that both have failed to earn style points in victories, something that won't bother either franchise. Indianapolis still needs help to back its way into home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, but the Colts do know that they will be hosting at least one postseason contest in January. Andrew Luck is a special quarterback, a player who can beat any opponent when at his best. There is not a defensive coaching staff in the AFC looking forward to playing against Luck and the offense of the Colts. Indianapolis has the goods to win it all.
3 Seattle Seahawks (10-4)
Anybody want to play against the Seahawks right now? No? Didn't think so. Seattle is playing as well as is any team in the NFL with the playoffs fast approaching, leaving commentators to suggest that the Seahawks will repeat as Super Bowl champions. You may remember earlier this season when the Dallas Cowboys went out west and defeated the Seahawks in Seattle. Dallas may have to do that again next month to get to the Super Bowl, if the Cowboys stumble against either the Indianapolis Colts or Washington Redskins.
2 Denver Broncos (11-3)
This past Sunday could have been what the Broncos needed before the playoffs arrive. Denver did not fall apart when Peyton Manning was dealing with an illness and an injury, holding the offense of the San Diego Chargers to 10 points and clinching a division title in the process. There is a feeling that the Broncos are somewhat flying under the radar. Maybe some who went all-in on predicting last year that Denver would win it all feel burned by that pick. Do not sleep on the Broncos, a team that hasn't yet forgotten what happened to them last February.
1 New England Patriots (11-3)
It is the Christmas season, and Tom Brady and the Patriots are kings of NFL power rankings. What is old is once again new. The AFC road to the Super Bowl will go through Gillette Stadium and the Patriots so long as New England wins out. Done and done, right? Not so fast. The Patriots will host the Buffalo Bills in Week 17, a game that could determine the playoff fate of the Bills depending on all that occurs this coming Sunday. It's hard to imagine New England failing to win at Gillette with home-field advantage on the line, but that Buffalo defense cannot be taken lightly.
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