By Chris Burke
December 23, 2014

"Every good story needs a good ending. Don't write the beginning of a novel without knowing the end of it." -- A.D.Y. Howle

The same rule does not apply to sport. The ending is always a mystery, often unimportant compared to the journey there.

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So here we stand at the final NFL Power Rankings of the regular season, looking back on a season that unfurled more than its fair share of surprises. The 49ers' unraveling; the rapid decline of Jay Cutler's Chicago standing; the Cowboys' defense riding Rolando McClain to an NFC East title; Arizona first threatening to run away with the NFC's top seed, then fading as injuries hit.

After all of that, two of 12 playoff spots remain unclaimed headed into Week 17. And other than the Patriots having locked down the No. 1 seed in the AFC, little else has been settled in terms of the matchups for January.

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No one knows the ending. Not yet, anyway.

This is where the story stands for now ...

1New England Patriots
last week: 1
record: 12-3

The AFC road to the Super Bowl officially goes through Foxborough, where the Patriots are 15-4 all-time in the postseason. They've also won 15 straight there overall (pending a Week 17 visit from Buffalo). Their last home loss: the 2012 conference title game vs. Baltimore.

2Seattle Seahawks
last week: 2
record: 11-4

Sent Marshawn Lynch a note asking if he wanted to write the Seahawks' blurb. He hasn't gotten back to me. Journalists are so angry at Lynch for his introverted act. The Seahwaks might care a bit, too, if they weren't leading the league in rushing behind Lynch's 1,246 yards.

3Green Bay Packers
last week: 4
record: 11-4

The Green Bay defense has been porous in three games this season (Seattle, New Orleans, Atlanta). In the other dozen outings, it's held every opponent to 24 points or fewer. Sure, talking about the D over Aaron Rodgers is like asking for Robin's help when Batman is standing right there, but sooner or later this Packers season will come down to getting a stop.

4Dallas Cowboys
last week: 5
record: 11-4

There is a very real possibility that Jerry Jones wins Executive of the Year. He put the finishing touches on a dominant O-line by drafting Zack Martin and swung that stunningly successful deal for Rolando McClain, among other moves. Of course, Jones has named himself Executive of the Year for the past 25 seasons, but this one would count.

5Cincinnati Bengals
last week: 8
record: 10-4-1

While Cincinnati is still waiting on that Marvin Lewis playoff win, no one can deny that he has established a steady regular-season power -- this is now four straight years and five of six with a trip to the postseason. Prior to Lewis' arrival, the Bengals never had landed three straight playoff trips, let alone four.

6Denver Broncos
last week: 3
record: 11-4

Peyton Manning's passing woes will grab all the headlines, but almost as problematic Monday night was how shaky the Denver defense looked minus Danny Trevathan and Brandon Marshall. Rather than entering the playoffs hot, the Broncos have more question marks than at any other point this season.

7Detroit Lions
last week: 6
record: 11-4

The last time the Lions won more than 10 games before this season was 1991, a year that also saw their most recent victory at Lambeau Field and the franchise's lone Super Bowl-era playoff victory. You can look at those facts as a good omen for Detroit or as a reminder of what a sinkhole this organization was for two decades. It might be a little of both.

8Pittsburgh Steelers
last week: 11
record: 10-5

The Pirates had made the playoffs twice since the Steelers' last postseason trip, so Mike Tomlin and Co. restored some order to the Pittsburgh sports universe by clinching a spot. Now comes a chance to wrap the AFC North and host a playoff game. Not bad considering the panic following a 3-3 start.

9San Diego Chargers
last week: 15
record: 9-6

The 2014 Chargers keep doing the horror-movie villain thing where they look like they're dead just long enough for the other characters to think they're dead, before jolting upright and stabbing someone in the face. Saturday's San Diego rally in San Francisco, with its season on the line, is as great an escape as the NFL has seen in some time.

10Indianapolis Colts
last week: 7
record: 10-5

"We'll keep it hidden. We'll never speak of it again." That was Frodo's suggestion for how to handle things in the first Lord of the Rings movie and also what Chuck Pagano likely told his team regarding Sunday's Cowboys game tape. The Colts have played themselves into the 4-seed, meaning a tough opening draw and multiple roadblocks stand between them and the Super Bowl.

11Arizona Cardinals
last week: 9
record: 11-4

The current choices of a gimpy Drew Stanton, Ryan Lindley and Logan Thomas point toward a disappointing one-and-done for a team that once had a strong grip on the NFC's top seed. If Warner wasn't five years into retirement, he might be a better option.

12Kansas City Chiefs
last week: 13
record: 8-7

"I think there are so many little things that happened," QB Alex Smith said of Sunday's loss in Pittsburgh, though he may well have been speaking about Kansas City's entire season. "They’re not big things, but just little stuff that gets magnified."

13Houston Texans
last week: 17
record: 8-7

Can the coach of an 8-8 or 9-7 non-playoff team win Coach of the Year? Probably not this season. Those votes for Bill O'Brien will make sense, though, given where Houston was at this time last year. And also where Houston was at this time last week, wandering the quarterback aisle at the local Costco, looking for Case Keenum.

14Baltimore Ravens
last week: 10
record: 9-6

Surely, there have been worse losses in the Ravens' 19-year franchise history than the one suffered Sunday. On the other hand ... well, let's just say that getting smoked in a must-win game by a team starting its fourth-string QB is not exactly a career highlight for anyone.

15Miami Dolphins
last week: 16
record: 8-7

In Tony Sparano's final three seasons as Miami head coach (counting 2011, when he was fired after Week 14), the Dolphins posted a 20-28 combined record. In Joe Philbin's three years at the helm, they're sitting on 23-24. Technically, that's progress. Just like technically you've started doing the laundry by throwing all your dirty clothes in the basement.

16Philadelphia Eagles
last week: 12
record: 9-6

Going to be a long offseason in Philadelphia.

17Atlanta Falcons
last week: 24
record: 6-9

True to Smith's word, the Falcons can secure a playoff berth by doing that -- and little else -- this season. An Atlanta win over Carolina on Sunday would complete a perfect 6-0 mark within the NFC South, which would be good enough to take the crown in spite of a 1-9 finish against everyone else.

18Buffalo Bills
last week: 14
record: 8-7

The NFL is built so all teams, in theory, have a realistic shot at being competitive year to year. There is no booster in place to help middle-of-the-pack squads get over the top, a lesson the Bills have learned time and again during a now 15-year playoff drought. This is arguably the closest Buffalo has been to true relevance in a decade. Can it take the next step in 2015?

19Carolina Panthers
last week: 22
record: 6-8-1

Every March Madness, there is at least one small-school team that none of the big boys want to play: Mercer last season, Florida Gulf Coast back in 2013. Carolina might be the NFL's version of that Cinderella if it can topple Atlanta to claim the NFC South at 7-8-1. Should that happen, the Panthers would enter the playoffs riding a four-game win streak, with a defense that has found its footing and the always-dangerous Cam Newton.

20New York Giants
last week: 23
record: 6-9

Sunday's finale with Philadelphia is meaningless, for all intents and purposes. The eyes of Giants fans already are focused on Monday -- "Black Monday" as it's known in NFL parlance, the day after the regular season wraps when most fired coaches are shown the door. Will Tom Coughlin be among them this year? If he is, the coming months will take on a much different look in New York.

21San Francisco 49ers
last week: 19
record: 7-8

The 49ers provided Saturday a three-hour abridged version of their season, in case you weren't paying attention in Weeks 1-15. They raced out to a 28-7 lead on the strength of their defense and run game; later, Colin Kaepernick broke loose on a 90-yard TD run. And then ... kaboom.

22Minnesota Vikings
last week: 21
record: 6-9

Losing on a blocked-punt safety in the final minute is a good ways down the list of preferred ways to go out. But it does open the door for this little factoid: Minnesota's last five losses have come by an average of 3.2 points. A few plays here or there and this is a team fighting for its playoff life in Week 17.

23St. Louis Rams
last week: 18
record: 6-9

The Jeff Fisher experience has come full circle on the season, with Sunday's implosion reopening concerns about his coaching prowess -- the Rams were an undisciplined mess against New York. Watching Odell Beckham Jr. run wild could not have been fun. St. Louis drafted six WRs from 2011-13, none even providing anywhere close to the impact Beckham has.

24Cleveland Browns
last week: 25
record: 7-8

Jordan Cameron and Josh Gordon combined for 2,563 yards receiving last season. Between injuries and suspensions, they're sitting at 686 yards this year. No matter who plays quarterback for this team in 2015, getting that duo back on the field together full-time should be priority No. 1.

25Oakland Raiders
last week: 27
record: 3-12

Don't look now, but the Raiders are 3-2 over their last five games, success not matched by this franchise since Weeks 3-8 of the 2012 season. Sure, it may not be much in the grand scheme of things (and it actually hurts Oakland's draft placement). For a team that seemed headed toward an 0-16 finish, however, it is a silver lining.

26New Orleans Saints
last week: 20
record: 6-9

The Saints probably are not worse than the Raiders in reality, but, sweet jambalaya, this collapse has been ridiculous. After taking control of the NFC South with a Week 9 win at Carolina, New Orleans proceeded to lose its final five home games, in most cases struggling to even stay competitive.

27New York Jets
last week: 26
record: 3-12

We're still awaiting the official Jets fan reaction to be delivered either by billboard or plane banner.

28Washington Redskins
last week: 32
record: 4-11

Are you familiar with the concept of a relationship "backslide"? As in, two people part ways only to randomly hook up again one night? That was Week 16 for Jay Gruden and Robert Griffin III. It seemed like Washington was headed toward splitting those two this offseason. After RGIII's encouraging outing vs. Philadelphia, perhaps not.

29Jacksonville Jaguars
last week: 29
record: 3-12

The Jaguars-Titans Thursday nighter drew the smallest TV audience of any game this season (4.9 million). On the other hand, 4.9 million people watched a pair of 2-12 teams play with nothing aside from draft position on the line. Via SportsMediaWatch, that's more viewers than any NBA game so far this season and more than almost every (234 or 239) college football game aired by ESPN's networks in 2014.

30Chicago Bears
last week: 30
record: 5-10

Marc Trestman will start Jay Cutler at QB this week, mere days after benching Cutler for the now-injured Jimmy Clausen. The non-NFL equivalent of this turn of events: yelling "I hate you!" at someone, then immediately asking that person for a ride to the airport.

31Tampa Bay Buccaneers
last week: 28
record: 2-13

The Bucs managed six first downs on Sunday. Six. For all their bumbling in recent seasons, the last time they had that much trouble moving the chains came when they were held to seven first downs by Dallas on Dec. 17, 2011. Another loss Sunday lands Tampa Bay the No. 1 pick and, with it, the first shot at a new quarterback.

32Tennessee Titans
last week: 32
record: 2-13

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