Usually by this point of the NFL season, at least a few of the division races are essentially over.
But heading into Week 12 this season, only the AFC East and NFC West are even bordering on that distinction, and both outlooks could change in a hurry if the Patriots (vs. Detroit) or Cardinals (at Seattle) drop games this weekend. Even the pitiful NFC South is still up for grabs, with the last-place 2-8 Buccaneers just two games behind the leaders, the 4-6 Falcons.
A lot of the races are tightly clustered, both in the standings and in this week's Power Rankings.
Not sure there has been a more defining moment than Rob Gronkowski blocking the Colts' Sergio Brown almost into the stands and stealing his lunch money. While several other contenders struggle to find their footing, the Patriots keep racking up signature wins. Like Gronkowski vs. Brown, this is a runaway train right now.
The Cardinals probably did not expect to have 14 points -- on two Drew Stanton touchdown tosses -- just a few minutes into Sunday's game against Detroit. But once they had those touchdowns pocketed, the defense really went to work. The Lions offense could have been on the field for 24 straight hours and it's hard to say with any real confidence that Arizona's lead would have vanished.
Just in case you're looking for yet another way to quantify how ridiculous Aaron Rodgers has been of late, may I present this stat: Over the Packers' last four games, Rodgers is averaging 10.9 yards per passing attempt. That's the same clip Sid Luckman posted in 1943, for the greatest yards-per-attempt season in NFL history.
An offense led by one of the best running backs in football, a defense that can be impenetrable and a daunting home-field advantage fueled by an extremely boisterous crowd -- I seem to remember a team fitting a similar description winning the Super Bowl recently.
Two times in his 250 career games, Peyton Manning has thrown a touchdown pass in a game which sees his team fail to reach double digits. The first was a 29-6 loss to Miami on Sept. 13, 1998, two games into Manning's rookie season. The second came Sunday in St. Louis.
"It's easy when you are on the other end of this thing like we were last week," Sanchez said. "National TV, everything is going great, we score a lot of points, defense and special teams score -- that's fun and it's easy. But now it's tough. And this is going to be a really good test for this team."
Thank the defense for this ranking -- the Lions lost Sunday and still lowered their points-allowed average. The offense could cement Detroit's spot in the Power Rankings top 10 and make it a legitimate contender, except it has been about as reliable as the Tigers' bullpen was in the ALDS. The Lions rank 30th in rushing, 26th in points and haven't hung more than 24 on the board since Week 1.
Do all that, and San Francisco is sitting on nine wins, with back-to-back home games in Weeks 16-17 against San Diego and an Arizona team that could have the No. 1 seed sewn up already. Still think the 49ers miss the playoffs?
Hey, hope you enjoyed that bye week, Cowboys. After playing the Sunday nighter in Week 12, they have a quick turnaround for their annual Thanksgiving Day afternoon affair (against NFC East co-leader Philadelphia), then play another Thursday game the next week (at Chicago). Tony Romo may as well rig it so he can sleep in a hot tub.
10. Seattle Seahawks
Reinforcements could arrive Sunday in LB Bobby Wagner and OT James Carpenter. Good thing, because it's getting late early for the defending champs.
11. Miami Dolphins
We always praise teams for finding value at running back or wide receiver, so here's a little love for the Miami defense. Of the dozen Dolphins to record at least one sack this season, only Jared Odrick (No. 28 overall in 2010) and Louis Delmas (No. 33 in 2009) were selected before Round 3 of the draft. Oh, and there's that whole finding-Cameron-Wake-in-the-CFL thing ...
The Bengals saw a 152-yard rushing day from Jeremy Hill, 127 yards receiving for A.J. Green and a sterling performance by Andy Dalton (16-of-22 for 220 yards and three touchdowns) in Week 11. That the Bengals' near-perfect offensive day came on the road in New Orleans, one week removed from a Thursday night meltdown, just goes to show how strangely unpredictable the AFC North has been in 2014.
13. Cleveland Browns
Josh Gordon led the league in receiving last season despite missing two games. A repeat in 2014 after sitting out the first 10 Cleveland contests would be among the most amazing feats in NFL history. The Browns would settle for him reclaiming his No. 1 WR role and pushing them into the postseason.
History may be repeating for the Colts, who rode a perfect 6-0 record within the AFC South to the division crown last season, then eventually became roadkill for the Patriots. Indianapolis is 3-0 so far intra-division but just 3-4 outside it. It will be hard to trust this defense in a postseason meeting with either New England or Denver.
15. Baltimore Ravens
Oh right, football. The ongoing enjoyment level for Harbaugh and Co. depends heavily on Sunday's trip to New Orleans. If the Ravens cannot duplicate Cincinnati's win there, the last five weeks will be an uphill climb.
The Steelers can't seem to decide whether they are a good team or not, so they get a middle-of-the-road Power Rankings spot until they do. The best news about their remaining schedule is that all five teams left on it are in the playoff hunt. Which means odds are slim that the Steelers will pull their "Wake me up when the fourth quarter starts" routine, like they have repeatedly against the league's also-rans.
17. Houston Texans
"It made the four years, the wait worth it," Mallett said, via the Houston Chronicle. "I couldn’t ask for a better start to my career."
18. San Diego Chargers
That's what the Chargers came up with out of a bye? A sloppy 13-6 win over the Raiders? It was like season two of The Walking Dead -- the previews all looked exciting, then the episodes actually aired and they were just sitting around that stupid farm again.
19. St. Louis Rams
On his first two catches Sunday, WR Kenny Britt piled up 96 yards and a touchdown. He finished last season with 96 yards and zero touchdowns. Britt's stunning 128-yard showing was overshadowed nonetheless by another shutdown outing from the Rams defense, this time against Peyton Manning. This is about as good as a 4-6 team gets.
20. Atlanta Falcons
No team in NFL history ever has qualified for the postseason by sweeping its division ... and losing every other game. The Falcons legitimately might be able to pull it off in the NFC South. Atlanta's 4-6 right now, with a 4-0 mark against its division rivals. Finish the job by knocking off New Orleans in Week 16 and Carolina in Week 17, and we could be seeing our first 6-10 playoff team.
21. Buffalo Bills
With Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller out of the lineup and Sammy Watkins hobbling, the Bills offense has regressed to being all together too Kyle Orton-y. Buffalo mustered a mere 237 yards last Thursday at Miami, a dismal night that likely ended any playoff hopes.
The last two weeks, the Superdome has been less an intimidating venue and more befitting the actual New Orleans experience -- visitors show up, go nuts for a bit, then leave talking about how much fun they had. (And/or, in my experience, how they want to go back despite feeling like death.) If it can't recapture its usual Big Easy mojo, this team's headed for an early end to its season.
23. Chicago Bears
"I still love 'em," Bears fan Samuel Jaramillo told the Chicago Tribune. "But I get heartburn a lot watching them."
Undoubtedly, there is potential for the Vikings' Teddy Bridgewater-led offense. At present, however, Bridgewater has turned jumpy behind an offensive line that couldn't block off a parking space if you provided the traffic cones. The result is a game like Sunday's in Chicago, where the Vikings managed just 243 total yards.
25. New York Jets
The Jets haven't lost in two weeks! Granted, this last week was thanks to a bye but whatever. They will return to action in full-on spoiler mode, a role they played with aplomb in 2013 by bouncing Miami from the postseason in Week 17.
26. New York Giants
Manning's teammate, Antrel Rolle, said Tuesday, "There's no doubt in my mind" that the Giants can win their last six games. Dream big, I guess.
Only because the NFC South is an unstoppable tire fire right now are the Panthers -- a nightmarish 1-7-1 in their past nine games -- even within striking distance of the playoffs. This team should be focused on 2015, namely on how it's going to repair the offensive line so Cam Newton can retire from his job as Human Piñata and be a quarterback again.
28. Tennessee Titans
No NFL team ever publicly goes full Philadelphia 76ers, throwing a lineup including the mascot, a couple hot dog vendors and some random fans out there in order to tank. A ballgame like Monday's was more or less ideal for the Titans, though. They put up a fight on national TV against the Steelers, with rookie QB Zach Mettenberger playing well. And they lost, boosting their draft standing.
Before the season, this week's Bucs-Bears game stood out as an interesting one thanks to Lovie Smith making his Chicago return. That's still happening, of course, but neither team is really in any position to brag at the moment. Unless "Ha ha! You're going to have to fire this coach, too!" is something the Buccaneers fans feel like using to taunt the Bears.
A quick status check on where the Jaguars' season is at right now: Cornerback Dwayne Gratz was arrested this week after drunkenly trying to use bubble gum to pay for items at a Miami Beach store.
31. Washington Redskins
The Washington Post's Dan Steinberg presented a clear contender for Most Depressing Sports Experience of the Year with his write-up of the Buccaneers-Redskins viewing experience. Somewhere between the crowd booing and chanting for Colt McCoy, Washington managed to lose by 20 to a team with one win.
32. Oakland Raiders
Not to make excuses for an 0-10 team in need of, like, two dozen legitimate players before it's competitive, but this was a horrible season for the Raiders to pull the schedule they did. The worst team they have played, by the standard of this week's Power Rankings, is the Jets at No. 25. Every other opponent thus far currently sits at .500 or better; just one the rest of the way, 4-6 St. Louis, is below that mark.