The beauty of late-season football is that every team looks more like itself: more complete in the best cases, often more flawed, but always more true. The long weekend of games that set up the final month of the 2014 regular season was no different, and it began to separate the pretenders to the throne from the real contenders.
Denver's decisive victory in Kansas City on Sunday night was a case in point. The Chiefs had an opportunity -- in a frigid home game that would seem to have played to their strengths -- to send the Broncos tumbling into a murky AFC playoff picture and to position themselves to win the AFC West. Instead, Kansas City struggled to stop the run, as it has all season, and Alex Smith missed several open receivers (the Chiefs still haven't completed a touchdown pass to a wide receiver this season) -- the two flaws that figure to doom any lofty championship dreams. The Broncos have unveiled a power running game with C.J. Anderson that shows they can win in cold weather even if Peyton Manning can't carry them (he had 179 yards and completed just 50 percent of his passes against the Chiefs).
"I think you need to be able to win different types of football games," Manning said late Sunday night. "I can't speak for Kansas City, as far as what they were prepared for and what they were looking to stop tonight, but we wanted to come out and establish the run; we thought it was important and it went really well the entire night."
Like the Patriots and Packers, whose Super Bowl credentials were only enhanced by their practically flawless slugfest Sunday, the Broncos again look equipped to make a long January run, particularly because they are now back in the hunt for the top seed in the AFC standings, with New England holding the lead because of its head-to-head victory over Denver last month. So, too, do the Seahawks, who have won five of six, haven't allowed a touchdown in two straight games and just vanquished their most hated rival. If they can do something similar against the Eagles' explosive offense this Sunday, they will look like the only team that can challenge the Packers for NFC supremacy.
Now, let's take a look beyond the surging powerhouses, at some other teams (and individuals) to watch in the regular season's final month:
Teams in reverse
» Arizona: Strange to say this about a 9-3 team, but uh-oh ... The offense has scored just one touchdown in the Cardinals' past two games, bothlosses. The defense sprang a leak against Atlanta -- Atlanta? -- on Sunday. And the injuries continue to pile up. With their record and the tiebreakers they have in hand, the Cardinals are still in first place in the NFC. But Seattle is gaining fast in the NFC West. The Cardinalsstill have three divisional games -- two onthe road -- with which they can save their season, but Bruce Arians has his work cut out making backup Drew Stanton into a playoff quarterback.
» Oakland: So much for some late-season hope for the future. How does a team coming off its first win of 2014 suffer its worst loss in more than 50 years? The Raiders showed no fight against the Rams, marking an absolute low point of a terrible campaign. Oakland might have young building blocks in place, but this is a franchise at its nadir.
» Any team that calls MetLife Stadium home: It didn't look possible to play worse than the Jets did against Buffalo last week -- until the Giants blew a 21-0 lead to a one-win Jaguars team. Before those two games, I wasn't convinced Rex Ryan or Tom Coughlin would lose their respective jobs. Now I'm not sure either can survive. Against Buffalo, the Jets appeared to be completely unprepared, despite coming off a bye week andnot having to be dug out of their homes with snowmobiles. As for the Giants, there have been subtle signals of hope for the future -- thank you, Odell Beckham Jr. -- but over the past month, they've shown a disturbing inability to adjust in the second half of games. Can either group find a better coach than Ryan or Coughlin? Perhaps not. But when teams regress this dramatically, it's hard not to think a change might be needed anyway.
Teams at a turning point
» Cleveland: Though it's not the ideal time for a quarterback controversy, coach Mike Pettine is facing the most delicate decision of his first year. Brian Hoyer has gotten the Browns to 7-5, which has them in a three-way tie for second place in the AFC North and very much in the wild-card race. But over his past four games, Hoyer has thrown one touchdown and six interceptions, and he's completed just 53 percent of his passes. Rookie Johnny Manzielinjected a spark when Hoyer was benched in Sunday's loss to Buffalo. This feels like a changing-of-the-guard moment, with Hoyer having seemingly crashed into his ceiling. While Hoyer said he was shocked by his benching, the real surprise should be that he held off Manziel this long -- a surprise that would be topped only if Pettine were to go back to Hoyer now.
» Washington:Robert Griffin III has been benched. Jay Gruden has been brutally candid in his public assessment of him. And when the results didn't improve Sunday, even though Colt McCoy looked better than Griffin, everything else was cast under the unrelenting microscope, revealing a team with problems that don't stop at the quarterback position. There are a lot of big-picture decisions ahead for a franchise that has been at a turning point repeatedly in the past decade. Is Gruden, who was chosen from a crowded field, worthy of his post? Can anybody here assemble a well-constructed roster? And whither Griffin? The final four weeks might provide answers to some of those questions -- particularly regarding Gruden and McCoy's viability -- but that is only the beginning of what feels like another in a long line of rebuilds.
The NFL's best parlor game
It says something about Jim Harbaugh that anticipation for his departure from San Francisco centers not on who the 49ers might get to replace him, what they would get if they were to "trade" him to another team, or what will become of Colin Kaepernick. It's all about where the brilliant handful might land. With his name connected to jobs from coast to coast (New York Jets, Miami Dolphins, University of Michigan, Oakland Raiders, even remaining in San Francisco), we can only hope Harbaugh's offseason movements include meetings conducted under cover of darkness, the way Harbaugh once scouted Peyton Manning.
The wild cards
» Atlanta: The 5-7 Falcons lead the NFC South. If they win the division, they'll host a playoff game. Lose it, and coach Mike Smith probably gets fired. Considering the circumstances, Smith could be fired even if he does make the playoffs.
» New Orleans: The Saints are also 5-7 in the NFC South, with a decidedly easier closing schedule than the Falcons. If New Orleans wins the division, somebody will have to play them in one of the NFL's most intimidating settings, even if the Saints just lost three in a row at home. If they fail to win the lowly division, one could envision big changes in the Big Easy.
» Joe Philbin: The Dolphins are undoubtedly improved and free of the off-the-field controversies that marked them last year. But if they lose to inferior teams down the stretch (they play the Vikings once and the Jets twice to end this season) to miss the playoffs again, as they did in 2013, will owner Stephen Ross, who once coveted Harbaugh, stick with Philbin?
» Dan Quinn: The Seattle Seahawks' defensive coordinator is a prime head-coaching candidate. Now that the Seahawks' defense is back on top of the league and the team is again in control of its fortunes in the NFC West, the final month -- and perhaps beyond -- might provide the top line on Quinn's résumé.
» Rob Ryan: His New Orleans defense has been at or near the bottom of the league all season. Does a playoff appearance save Ryan's job?
» Mark Sanchez: The jettisoned Jets quarterback will be a free agent this offseason, and if he continues his unexpected career renaissance with Chip Kelly's Eagles -- Sanchez is still not a great thrower, but he was mostly mistake-free against Dallas on Thanksgiving -- he could pump up his value, either in Philly's eyes or on the open market.