The regular season has come to a close, and we now have a pretty clear picture of which teams are the true contenders for this year’s Super Bowl. I mentioned a few weeks ago that it’s not really about getting homefield advantage or a higher seed. At this time of the season the goal is just to head into the playoffs with momentum. And if you look at this year’s field you see a number of teams doing just that, especially ones playing in this week’s Wild Card games.
The Colts are one of those. After losing three-of-five in November and early December, Indianapolis rallied with three dominant wins to finish, and now they host a Chiefs team that has lost five-of-seven, including 23-7 vs. Indy two weeks ago. Also in the AFC, the Bengals enter having won five-of-six, and they play the Chargers who rallied from 5-6, 5-7 and 6-7 to go 9-7 and make the postseason.
Over in the NFC are two intriguing teams in Philadelphia and Green Bay. The Eagles started 3-5 and looked lost, but Nick Foles took over and they fire into the playoffs on a 7-1 run. The Packers are a complete toss up. They seemed to find their resiliency a little bit in going 2-5-1 without Aaron Rodgers, but now they play the 49ers, a team that has beat them three times in the last two years and has won six straight.
Biggest Rise: Packers +5
Biggest Fall: Bears, Cowboys, Lions -3
1. Seattle Seahawks (13-3, LW: 1): The Stat: 5-of-7. The player known as Beast Mode, Marshawn Lynch, just keeps producing and driving this Seattle offense. Lynch finished the regular season with 1,257 rushing yards, second best in his career, and he’s topped the 1,000 mark five times in seven pro seasons. He also set a career high with 12 rushing touchdowns, while adding two more through the air.
2. Denver Broncos (13-3, LW: 3): The Stat: 1. Their number is one, as in the top spot in the record book for Peyton Manning in multiple passing categories. With his 266 yd, four touchdown performance Sunday, Manning added to his season record touchdown total (55) and he bested Drew Brees’ season yardage mark by a single yard with 5,477. On top of his personal marks, Denver set the NFL mark for points in a season, besting the 2007 Patriots 606-589. The one mark they didn’t reach? The points per game record. They needed 50 in the season’s final week to break the standard of the 1950 Rams (38.8 ppg), but they scored just 34 (37.9 ppg).
3. San Francisco 49ers (12-4, LW: 2): The Stat: 20. Colin Kaepernick didn’t have the most consistent season in his first full year as the starter, but it was much better than the 49ers have been used to the last decade. Kaepernick threw a pair of touchdown passes Sunday, bringing his season total to 21. That makes him the first San Francisco quarterback since Jeff Garcia in 2002 to throw 20 or more. The striking thing about Kap is how much his performance really affects the team. In 12 wins he threw 19 touchdowns and just two interceptions. In the four losses he had just two TD and six picks.
4. New England Patriots (12-4, LW: 4): The Stat: 105. Coming into the season Danny Amendola was the answer to replace Wes Welker in the slot for Tom Brady. That didn’t last long. In Week Two, Amendola left with injury, and Julian Edelman took over. Fast forward to now, and the former Kent State quarterback is the third Patriots receiver to ever top 100 receptions in a season. Edelman finished with 105. Welker did it five times (2007, 08, 09, 11, 12) and Troy Brown got there in 2001. Brady was the quarterback for all of those except 2008 when he was injured.
5. Carolina Panthers (12-4, LW: 5): The Stat: 12. The Panthers got the job done when they had to, hanging on for a 12-4 record and the second seed in the NFC. The somewhat surprising 12 wins for this year’s Carolina team ties the 1996 and 2008 squads for the franchise record. In 1996, Carolina lost in the NFC Championship to the future Super Bowl champion Packers, and in 2008 the season ended in the Division round Super Bowl runner-up Cardinals. This year’s defense also tied the franchise record with 60 sacks. They share that with the 96 team.
6. Indianapolis Colts (11-5, LW: 7): The Stat: 8,196. That’s the combined passing yards total in last two seasons for quarterback Andrew Luck. It’s an impressive number on its own merit, but it’s actually an NFL record for the first two seasons of a career. Luck broke the record of 7,920 set by Cam Newton one year ago. He also did it with slightly better TD-INT numbers. Newton threw 40 touchdowns and 29 interceptions. Luck has 46 and 27.
7. Philadelphia Eagles (10-6, LW: 6): The Stat: 27:2. The Eagles started the season 3-5 and seemed lost in Chip Kelly’s up tempo scheme. Then Nick Foles happened. In a year dominated by Peyton Manning’s records, Foles set a record of his own by finishing with an all-time best 27 touchdowns against two interceptions. No one has ever had a better ratio. He didn’t do it alone though. LeSean McCoy won the NFL rushing title with 1,607 yards, becoming the first with that crown since Steve Van Buren in 1949. He also broke the team rushing mark of 1,512 yards set by Wilbert Montgomery in 1979.
8. New Orleans Saints (11-5, LW: 8): The Stat: 0-5. If the Saints are going to win their Wild Card game in Philadelphia, they’ll need to buck history in order to do it. New Orleans is 6-8 all-time in playoff games, but on the road the franchise is 0-5. They’ve lost at Chicago twice, Minnesota, Seattle and most recently San Francisco. They have played the Eagles twice in the playoffs, going 1-1, both games at home.
9. Cincinnati Bengals (11-5, LW: 9): The Stat: 8-0. After a slow start, Cincinnati put a stamp on the regular season with authority by beating Baltimore 34-17. That gave the Bengals an 8-0 home record for the first time since 1988. This is also the first time since 2009 that Cincinnati has enjoyed a homefield advantage. They went 6-2 in 2009 with records of 3-5, 4-4 and 4-4 between then and now. A big reason for the success: Andy Dalton set a franchise record with 33 touchdown passes, and AJ Green (11) and Marvin Jones (10) are the only Bengals teammates in history with double digit touchdown catches.
10. Kansas City Chiefs (11-5, LW: 11): The Stat: 36. The Chiefs defense didn’t quite keep up with its torrid start, but it’s still one of the best in the league this year. KC was second behind Seattle with 36 takeaways in 2013. Their +18 turnover differential also trails only the top ranked Seahawks. The most impressive part wasn’t even the numbers this year. It’s the turnaround. Last year the Chiefs were dead last with just 13 takeaways, and 31st in turnover margin at -24.
11. Arizona Cardinals (10-6, LW: 10): The Stat: 9-4-3. The Cardinals became just the sixth team since the NFL went to eight divisions in 2002 to win double digit games but miss the playoffs. They did finish first in one category though. Arizona went 9-4-3 against the spread this year, meaning they most consistently paid out money to the people betting on them. It also means they were one of the biggest surprises of the years since the line setters couldn’t seem to peg them all season.
12. San Diego Chargers (9-7, LW: 14): The Stat: 69.5. Philip Rivers hasn’t been his best the last two or three years, but he certainly was this year in leading the Chargers back to the playoffs. Rivers led the NFL in completion percentage, hitting on 69.5% of his passes. That total is easily the best of his career, and it’s the first time the Chargers have led the league in completion percentage since Dan Fouts did it in 1979. Not to be glossed over, the Chargers are also the fifth team since 2004 to have a losing record through 13 games but make the playoffs. San Diego also did it in 2008.
13. Green Bay Packers (8-7-1, LW: 18): The Stat: 4. Aaron Rodgers and Randall Cobb were the key focus to Sunday’s division and playoff clinching win at Chicago, but those two were only with the Packers for part of the season. In fact, Green Bay is just the second team since 1990 to make the postseason while starting four different quarterbacks. Rodgers, Seneca Wallace, Scott Tolzien and Matt Flynn all contributed in their own way to the 2013 Packers. The other team, the 2003 Denver Broncos, were led by Jake Plummer (11 starts), Danny Kanell (2), Steve Beuerlein (2) and Jarious Jackson (1). That 10-6 Broncos teams lost 41-10 in the Wild Card round.
14. Pittsburgh Steelers (8-8, LW: 17): The Stat: 0. The Steelers were the only team in the NFL this year to not make a field goal of 50+ yards. In fact, Pittsburgh never attempted a 50+ yard kick with Shaun Suisham. Suisham’s career long is 52 yards, and he’s hit from 49 at Heinz Field, where 52 is the longest made in an NFL game. The lack of long field goal attempts could have cost the Steelers their playoff spot though. A 50-yard kick would be attempted from the 33-yard line, and Pittsburgh turned it over or went for it on 4th down ten times in their eight losses from the inside the 35. Also, his only two misses of the season came in a 21-18 loss to Oakland.
15. Chicago Bears (8-8, LW: 12): The Stat: 1-9. You can’t say Jay Cutler was to blame for Chicago’s loss to Green Bay this time. That falls firmly on the defense. It’s also hard to argue, though, Cutler’s futility against the Packers in his career. He’s 1-9 all-time against Green Bay, 1-8 in his five years with the Bears, and his numbers are not good. Sunday’s game is the first time with the Chicago he’s thrown more touchdowns than interceptions against the Packers, and his stats against Green Bay are worse than his career averages in every single important passing category.
16. Dallas Cowboys (8-8, LW: 13): The Stat: 2. That’s how much the Cowboys lost by Sunday against Philadelphia, and they lost by two or fewer a record number of times in 2013. Four of their eight losses came by one or two points, tying the 1984 Chiefs, 2000 Chargers and 2002 Jaguars. Their other four losses came by 3, 9, 17 and 32 points.
17. Baltimore Ravens (8-8, LW: 15): The Stat: 4.5. When Joe Flacco signed his lucrative new contract, Anquan Boldin’s ticket out of town was written and stamped. Add that to injuries to Jacoby Jones, Dennis Pitta and others on offense along with a completely ineffective running game and you get the league’s worst offense in yards per play. Baltimore averaged 4.5 yards per snap, tied with Tampa Bay for the worst overall. Pretty shocking stat for the defending Super Bowl champions, the third one in five years to miss the playoffs after winning it all.
18. St. Louis Rams (7-9, LW: 16): The Stat: 973. He didn’t pass the century mark, but Zac Stacy definitely gave the Rams hope for the future of their running game. St. Louis was the last team in the league to score a rushing touchdown, but once Stacy took over the starting job he would never give it up. The rookie averaged 80.8 yards per game in his 12 starts, and he finished the year with seven touchdowns.
19. New York Jets (8-8, LW: 23): The Stat: -97. The Jets were the NFL’s most overachieving team this year from a point differential perspective. New York was outscored by 97 points, a touchdown per game, yet they finished 8-8. That’s because when they won, New York did it close. When they lost, it was usually a blow out. The average win was by 6.6 points, and the average loss was by 18.8.
20. New York Giants (7-9, LW: 22): The Stat: 44. The Giants cleaned up their turnover problems quite a bit after an absolutely awful start, but it still wasn’t good enough to keep them from tying for the fourth-most turnovers in franchise history. The team record is 58 from 1983. The 44 tied the 1966 team but still trailed 1960 (49) and 1971 (45). In 2011 and 2012 New York combined for 45 giveaways.
21. Miami Dolphins (8-8, LW: 19): The Stat: 6, 9. The Dolphins finished 8-8, and the different between the wins and losses was definitely the defense. In the eight wins the Miami defensive unit had 12 interceptions and 25 sacks. In the eight losses, they only had six picks and 16 quarterback take downs, a difference of six interceptions and nine sacks.
22. Tennessee Titans (7-9, LW: 21): The Stat: 1,077. The Titans couldn’t get on the right side of .500 this year, and many would argue Chris Johnson was a big part of that. Johnson topped 1,000 rushing yards for the sixth straight season, but CJ2K barely topped 1K this time around. In fact, his 3.9 yards per carry was the worst of his career. He started just once in 2010 but still rushed for 278 more yards than in 2013.
23. Detroit Lions (7-9, LW: 20): The Stat: 4. The Lions lost six of their final seven games to go from almost a sure playoff berth to finishing with a losing record and firing their head coach. In the process, Detroit became the fourth team (and the third as well) since 1978 to finish under .500 after starting 6-3 and playing at least four of their final seven games at home. The others to suffer through that feat: 1984 Jets, 1986 Cowboys and 2007 Lions.
24. Minnesota Vikings (5-10-1, LW: 26): The Stat: 5. If there was a bright spot on the Vikings roster this season it has to be Cordarrelle Patterson. Not only did he become a serious threat in the return game, he developed into a field stretching receiver as the season went on. In fact, Patterson finished the season with a touchdown in five straight games. The last player to do that in Minnesota was Randy Moss in 2004. Moss did it four times in his Minnesota career with seven straight games being his best. Hall of Famer Cris Carter did it five times. Seven was his best streak as well.
25. Buffalo Bills (6-10, LW: 24): The Stat: 2,307. It was another tough season in Buffalo, but all hope is not lost. The Bills were second in the NFL with 2,307 rushing yards, trailing only Philadelphia. It doesn’t hurt to have a one-two punch like CJ Spiller and Fred Jackson. Spiller ran for 927 yards in 15 games, and Jackson added 896. The duo also combined for 572 yards through the air and a total of 12 touchdowns.
26. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-12, LW: 25): The Stat: 5-17. Greg Schiano is no longer the Buccaneers’ head coach, and it appears Lovie Smith is ready to fill that role, and a major reason for that is the last season-and-a-half. Schiano came to Tampa at the beginning of last year bringing a new fire, and the revived Bucs started 6-4. Then the wheels came off. They went 5-17 over the last 22 games, worst in the NFL, and the coach is looking for employment.
27. Atlanta Falcons (4-12, LW: 29): The Stat: 4-12. The disaster of a season by Atlanta wasn’t just bad. It was historically bad. The Falcons are only the second team in league history to go 4-12 the season after being a conference’s number one seed. The last one was the 2003 Raiders team that still hasn’t recovered. Not exactly a path Atlanta would like to start down. Also, Atlanta’s 10-win differential from last year to this year ties this year’s Texans for the worst drop off ever from one season to the next.
28. Oakland Raiders (4-12, LW: 27): The Stat: 0. The Raiders thought they had their franchise quarterback when they signed Matt Flynn in the offseason. Then they thought they had it figured out when Terrelle Pryor took the reins in the early going. In reality, they have no idea who the guy is to be under center, and it showed. Oakland is the only team in the NFL that never won a game that it was losing or tied in the 4th Quarter. In their four wins they entered the final quarter leading by 10, 21, 18 and 11 and never relinquished those leads.
29. Cleveland Browns (4-12, LW: 28): The Stat: 17.17. The Browns surprisingly cut ties with running back Trent Richardson earlier this season, and now they’ve done the same with Head Coach Rob Chudzinski. The timing of both moves was a little strange, especially because it had nothing to do with saving money. The team actually still owes Chudzinski $10.5 million and Richardson $6.67 million, a total of $17.17 million for those two people to not be part of the organization anymore.
30. Jacksonville Jaguars (4-12, LW: 30): The Stat: -202. The Jaguars finished the year an NFL worst -202 in point differential. They were last in points and 28th in points against. The -202 differential isn’t just the worst this year. It’s the worst in the franchise’s 19 year history. It’s the sixth straight season Jacksonville has given up more points than they scored, and that’s happened ten times overall.
31. Washington Redskins (3-13, LW: 31): The Stat: 113. Last week, Pierre Garcon broke Art Monk’s team record for receptions in a season. Now Garcon finishes the year first in receptions, the first one to do it since Monk did it in 1984. Garcon caught six passes for 56 yards in the season finale, and he and Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown became the second and third players to make it through an entire season with at least five receptions in every game. The only other one to do that was Jacksonville’s Jimmy Smith in 2001.
32. Houston Texans (2-14, LW: 32): The Stat: 109. Things went horribly for Houston in 2013. Their 14 straight losses make them the first team to lose that many in a row since Detroit’s winless season of 2008. It wasn’t all bad, though. Andre Johnson kept up his stellar play, recording 109 receptions. That gives him five seasons with at least 100, tying the NFL record set by Wes Welker.