1. New England Patriots (9-2) | Last week: 1
I’m not sure they’ll reach the 39-straight winning seasons the New York Yankees had from 1926-1962, but Tom Brady looks like he might be able to play until he’s 62 years old, which would give the Patriots a shot. Seriously, 17-straight winning seasons for an NFL team is incredible, and it is just another marker to show New England is the preeminent sports franchise of the century. In all three phases, the Pats continue to be the best team in the league after their slow start defensively this year.
2. Philadelphia Eagles (10-1) | Last week: 2
While the Patriots are still the top team for me because they have the best player, best coach, and a strong team overall, the Eagles have probably been the most-dominant squad in the league so far this season. Carson Wentz continues to play like an MVP, as a very strong supporting cast is helping finish his spectacular plays and he’s being put in a very good position to play great football. On defense, the cornerbacks continue to be perhaps the main reason they’re playing so well, as their play basically means there’s no weakness on that side of the ball.
3. Minnesota Vikings (9-2) | Last week: 3
The more he plays, the more it appears Case Keenum won’t relinquish his starting spot under center any time soon. Over the last four games, Keenum has nine touchdowns to three interceptions, has at least 280 passing yards in every game, and has completed at least 70% of his passes over the last three games. The offensive line, to me, is clearly the most-improved unit in the NFL from last year to this year—and it’s helping make the whole team go. Even without Sam Bradford at quarterback, Minnesota is an elite team.
4. Pittsburgh Steelers (9-2) | Last week: 5 (+1)
I have to admit, the Steelers being up in the top-five doesn’t feel correct to me, and it’s probably because I don’t see them getting past the Patriots in January. But they’re still 9-2 and look poised for a first-round bye, and there’s always hope for another team to knock off New England before Pittsburgh would have to play them. And there’s no doubt the Steelers are extremely explosive on offense, which should keep them in almost every game. However, it’s hard not to believe the quarterbacks in the AFC like Tom Brady and Philip Rivers wouldn’t be able to carve them up on defense.
5. Los Angeles Rams (8-3) | Last week: 10 (+5)
After what was essentially a beat-down against the Vikings a couple weeks ago, the Rams bounced back to put a stop to the red-hot Saints and their eight-game winning streak. The Rams didn’t have Robert Woods (shoulder) in the lineup, but Jared Goff lit up a Saints secondary that was without its top two corners—something you love to see from a young second-year quarterback. Los Angeles needs to keep it going with a win over the Cardinals this week, though, as the schedule gets tough with matchups against Philadelphia, Seattle, and Tennessee after that.
6. New Orleans Saints (8-3) | Last week: 4 (-2)
Without their top cornerbacks Marshon Lattimore and Ken Crawley, the Saints struggled to contain the Rams offensively, despite doing a relatively good job on star running back Todd Gurley. But New Orleans never gave up and made it a close game, which is a big positive for Sean Payton’s team. He’s still an elite quarterback, but it’s a slight concern to see Drew Brees miss some throws like he did on Sunday—something that might be happening a little more this season. Brees is a great bet to play lights out during a potential playoff run, but it’s no guarantee they get there in a stacked NFC. They have two matchups with the Falcons, and one against the Panthers (this week), left on their schedule.
7. Carolina Panthers (8-3) | Last week: 6 (-1)
It was concerning to see the defense give up huge plays to Josh McCown and the Jets in Week 12, but the veteran McCown deserves a lot of credit for playing some exceptional football (which he’s been doing all season). Carolina got destroyed by the Saints back in Week 3, so this matchup on Sunday could be very telling for a team that has Super Bowl aspirations. Like the Saints, sitting at 8-3 looks great right now, but things can go sideways in an instant.
8. Atlanta Falcons (7-4) | Last week: 7 (-1)
And of all the difficult schedules for Super Bowl-caliber teams in the NFC, Atlanta probably has the most difficult final five games of the regular season. In back-to-back weeks, they’ll hot the 9-2 Vikings and 8-3 Saints, so they need to defend their beautiful new Mercedes-Benz Stadium and they’ll be in excellent playoff position. The offense is on-fire right now, and you probably heard Julio Jones had 253 yards in their win over Tampa Bay. The All-Pro now has three 250-yard receiving games in his career, and no one else in NFL history even has two—more impressive might be that Jones did it in only 47 snaps. Jones has the rare ability to really put the team on his back at the wide receiver position.
9. Tennessee Titans (7-4) | Last week: 9
Before the season, if you told me Marcus Mariota would have nine touchdowns and twelve interceptions at this point, I wouldn’t have believed it. The third-year quarterback that appeared primed for a breakout to superstardom has battled injuries while dealing with some young receivers that haven’t been precise with their route running, which is leading to some of these turnovers. The good news for the Titans is the team still sits at 7-4 and in great playoff position in the relatively weak AFC. I expect Mariota and the offense to get hot at some point here.
10. Seattle Seahawks (7-4) | Last week: 13 (+3)
While the top-two MVP candidates might be residing in New England and Philadelphia, most people in Seattle will tell you their guy is the MVP. The Seahawks have no running game, they’re dealing with about as many injuries as any team in the league, and the upcoming schedule (Philadelphia, Jacksonville, Los Angeles, and Dallas) is no cake walk. If Wilson can get his team to the playoffs in one of the deepest conferences we’ve seen in a while, he’ll be right up there in the MVP discussion. The loss of Kam Chancellor (neck) for the season might be the final blow to the team’s Super Bowl chances, though.
11. Kansas City Chiefs (6-5) | Last week: 8 (-3)
There’s no question the Chiefs are struggling in a big way right now, but it’s not totally uncommon for this to happen with Andy Reid’s Kansas City teams. In 2013, they went 2-5 after a 9-0 start; in 2015, they started 1-5 before rattling off 11-straight wins and narrowly losing to the Patriots in the Divisional Round. As improbable as it might seem right now, the Chiefs have the ability to go on a run—and I certainly don’t think benching Alex Smith is the way to go. The offensive line needs to do a much better job of opening up holes for rookie running back Kareem Hunt; and, while Smith hasn’t seen some open guys recently, the receivers overall need to do a better job of creating separation. I expect All-Pro cornerback Darrelle Revis, who’s been counted out by almost everyone, to give the Chiefs a boost defensively.
12. Baltimore Ravens (6-5) | Last week: 12
The offense of the Ravens doesn’t look great at the moment, but the defense is still one of the best in the NFL. With the passing game, Baltimore just seems off—whether it’s a slightly off-target throw or a receiver slipping. But the Ravens are in control to get into the playoffs, and they’ll have the players on offense (Jeremy Maclin, Mike Wallace, a deep group of running backs) to help Joe Flacco put on his playoff cape and make a run.
13. Jacksonville Jaguars (7-4) | Last week: 11 (-2)
With their loss to the Cardinals, the chances of the Jaguars getting a first-round bye took a big hit while trying to keep up with the titan Patriots and Steelers in the AFC. Now, they’re second in the AFC South to the Titans, who own the tiebreaker after their win earlier this season, but the Jags are still in strong position for the playoffs. The next three games are home at Jacksonville, with two very winnable division games against the Colts and Texans sandwiching a game versus the Seahawks. Leonard Fournette has had less than 35 rushing yards in two of his last three games, and they’ll need to get him going to make a serious playoff run with their elite defense.
14. Los Angeles Chargers (5-6) | Last week: 15 (+1)
This might be too low for the Chargers, who are not only beating teams, but blowing them out. Philip Rivers is really feeling it right now, and his connection with Keenan Allen (23 receptions for 331 yards and three touchdowns over the last two games) looks like it’s going to lead to some double teams that’ll open things up for everyone else on offense. Defensively, the Chargers have two book-end rushers in Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram that no one would want to see in January.
15. Buffalo Bills (6-5) | Last week: 17 (+2)
It was a great sign to see Sean McDermott’s team bounce back after they couldn’t have looked much worse in Week 11 agaisnt the Chargers. Buffalo remains a game up in the AFC wild card race, but they aren’t ahead of the Chiefs (who they just beat) and some of the other teams because they still have a couple of matchups with the Patriots on their schedule. Even splitting the two games would be good for their playoff chances, but the Pats are tough to beat.
16. Detroit Lions (6-5) | Last week: 14 (-2)
Matthew Stafford nearly led the Lions to a huge comeback win over the Vikings on Thanksgiving, but they couldn’t pull it off and are now three games behind Minnesota with five games to go. Stafford was actually uncharacteristically off in the Thanksgiving loss, and he’ll need to be at the top of his game for Detroit to make the playoffs for the second year in a row. A win this week in Baltimore against the Ravens could be the push they need into the final quarter of the season.
17. Dallas Cowboys (5-6) | Last week: 16 (-1)
Fantasy football really doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things when it comes to real games on the field, but Dak Prescott’s one fantasy point over the last two games show how much the Cowboys have struggled recently. People continue to claim Prescott is being “exposed” and is a below average quarterback—but it’s only been a few games and he’s still off to an outstanding start to his career. For the right-now, he needs to step up on Thursday night against the Redskins to keep the playoff hopes of the Cowboys alive.
18. Washington Redskins (5-6) | Last week: 18
The Redskins are in the same boat as their division rival Cowboys, as they desperately need a win on Thursday Night Football to remain realistic playoff contenders in the NFC. Oklahoma’s all-time leading rusher and rookie running back Samaje Perine continues to look like a steal in the fourth round of the draft, and he’s bringing some needed balance to an offense that hasn’t been sharp in the passing game this season.
19. Green Bay Packers (5-6) | Last week: 19
When the Packers drafted Brett Hundley in the fifth round in 2015, I thought it was an absolute steal; but I was a little worried after a few games. However, Hundley was terrific in Green Bay’s near-upset against the Steelers on Sunday night. He needs to keep it going and get the Packers on a roll, as Aaron Rodgers—who was throwing the ball around in warmups the other night—might actually be able to come back in a couple of weeks. Matchups with the Buccaneers and Browns in Weeks 13 and 14 could mean the Packers get right in the thick of things before the final three games of the regular season.
20. Cincinnati Bengals (5-6) | Last week: 20
Early in the year, it didn’t look like Marvin Lewis had much of a chance to remain in Cincinnati in 2018. But they’re now 5-3 over their last eight games, and they’re competing for a wild card spot in the AFC. While it still might not lead to a playoff appearance for the Bengals, it’s good to see his guys play hard (even if they don’t always play smart) for their head coach when things didn’t look good several weeks ago.
21. Oakland Raiders (5-6) | Last week: 24 (+3)
Considering the Broncos haven’t been defending anyone lately, I’d like to see the Raiders do more before they’re considered legit playoff threats in the AFC. Just a couple weeks ago we saw they were no match for the Patriots, but maybe they can get hot down the stretch and get closer to their 2016 form. Hopefully Amari Cooper, who’s dealing with a concussion and an ankle sprain, is able to play and step up as the difference-maker he’s capable of being over the final few weeks for the Raiders.
22. Arizona Cardinals (5-6) | Last week: 25 (+3)
It was clear during the preseason that Blaine Gabbert might be a long-term option at quarterback for the Cardinals, and the situation is unfolding as anticipated. Gabbert led a win over the league’s number one defense in Week 12, and he has command of the offense—along with good raw ability. Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians, who tells you how he feels and doesn’t seem to conceal much, would not have said he’d be “very comfortable” with Gabbert as his quarterback in 2018 if he didn’t mean it. Not that it’s something he’s thinking about, but five-straight wins and a playoff berth for Gabbert might earn him a ton of money this offseason.
23. Miami Dolphins (4-7) | Last week: 21 (-2)
Jay Cutler has cleared concussion protocol and will start for the Dolphins against the Broncos this week, and his presence should help steady the offense despite a three-interception game in Week 10. Considering the circumstances, Cutler has played pretty well this season—and his team has an outside shot at the playoffs, as they have two games remaining against the Bills, a team that’s ahead of them in the wild card race. Adam Gase needs to get his guys to go on a run like they did last season, starting this Sunday.
24. Houston Texans (4-7) | Last week: 22 (-2)
The Texans came up just short of getting within a game of AFC’s final wild card spot, so now they’ll almost certainly need to rattle off five-straight victories and hope for some help in the process. Stranger things have happened. Jadeveon Clowney has a sack in five-straight games, and it’s really a shame J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus have had to watch from the sideline for most of the year. Linebacker Brian Cushing, who’s ten-game suspension for PEDs is now over, is now back at least—but it might be too late for Houston.
25. New York Jets (4-7) | Last week: 26 (+1)
Todd Bowles’ team gave the Panthers a run for their money, but they couldn’t quite pull out the victory. The good news for the Jets is they’re clearly the best team in New York right now, and the situation with the Giants doesn’t have everyone calling for someone’s head with the Jets—which is right. Bowles continues to have his team play a lot better than most anticipated heading into the season, and he deserves another season with the team.
26. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-7) | Last week: 23 (-3)
Jameis Winston is set to return this week after missing three games with a shoulder injury, but two starting offensive linemen, Demar Dotson and Ali Marpet, have been placed on Injured Reserve. I’m certainly not arguing Winston should just sit the final five games of the season, but the Bucs need to protect him heading into 2018. He’s already been banged up this season, so they should have him work on getting the ball out of his hands quickly.
27. Indianapolis Colts (3-8) | Last week: 28 (+1)
A fourth-quarter touchdown drive by the Titans ensured the Colts won’t have a winning season for the third-straight year. Jacoby Brissett was sacked eight times in the loss to Tennessee, and it’s abundantly clear the offensive line is the area to build this offseason. The Colts should look at the Vikings as a great example of how much a unit can change in one year, as Minnesota had by far the worst unit in the league last season to one of the better in the league this season—and it’s been a big part of their ascendance into the NFC’s elite.
28. Chicago Bears (3-8) | Last week: 27 (-1)
Chicago’s 31-3 loss to Philadelphia was the first time they weren’t competitive in a game for several weeks, but the Eagles are on a roll right now and would blow out a lot of teams. Mitchell Trubisky is getting some great experience, as Troy Aikman and a lot of other great quarterbacks have taken beatings and struggled more than this during their rookie seasons.
29. San Francisco 49ers (1-10) | Last week: 31 (+2)
The Jimmy Garoppolo era with the 49ers is now underway on the field, as he started off with a bang during the final few plays against the Seahawks, as he threw his first touchdown with the team as time expired. Rookie C.J. Beathard filled in admirably and is a great asset in the quarterback room for San Francisco, but it’ll be very exciting to watch Garoppolo in his first 49ers start this weekend against the Bears. There isn’t a ton of help around him on offense, but the playing experience will be good nonetheless.
30. Denver Broncos (3-8) | Last week: 30
Cornerback Aqib Talib acted like a clown and the team again struggled to stop passing offenses in last Sunday’s loss to the Raiders. With each passing game, it’s probably becoming harder and harder for John Elway to watch, and no change after the season would be a surprise at this point. I’m interested to see how Trevor Siemian plays after sitting on the bench for several weeks. He’s shown major flashes over the last two seasons and should get better with more time under center.
31. New York Giants (2-9) | Last week: 29 (-2)
From the moment they signed him in the offseason, I thought Geno Smith was a potential long-term quarterback for the Giants and a good fit in Ben McAdoo’s offense, so this isn’t an indictment on him. But the decision to bench two-time Super Bowl champion Eli Manning is outrageously discourteous. A few weeks ago in the power rankings, I wrote they probably want to see what Smith and rookie Davis Webb can do in the offense, but it’s still a shock to see them actually do it.
32. Cleveland Browns (0-11) | Last week: 32
Hue Jackson is now 1-26 as the head coach of the Browns, which almost doesn’t seem real. But seeing Jackson and Browns owner Jimmy Haslam chat it up with Bengals quarterback A.J. McCarron—who they had agreed to trade for at the deadline but had the paperwork botched—might mean they’re getting a feel for their potential franchise quarterback. The team does have talent, though, so it might be difficult to justify keeping Jackson if he has only one win after two seasons.