1. New England Patriots (11-3) | Last week: 1
The Patriots are simply an amazing team from top to bottom. There are still two weeks to go in the regular season, but the importance of their win over the Steelers cannot be understated, as the playoffs will run through Foxborough if New England wins these next two games. And was there any doubt the Patriots would win toward the end of the game on Sunday? In just 70 seconds, Tom Brady marched his team down the field, something he’s become almost automatic at doing. On defense, they stayed calm and made a play when it matters most. They are a complete team.
2. Pittsburgh Steelers (11-3) | Last week: 2
Despite the loss at Heinz Field to the Patriots, which will likely force them into the two seed in the AFC—and a potential matchup with the Jaguars in the Divisional Round—I came away more impressed with the Steelers after the game. I didn’t think Pittsburgh had much of a shot at beating New England, but they had drives of 8:39 (which ended in a touchdown) and 7:24 (though it ended in a punt), keeping Brady and the Patriots off the field for much of the game. That it’ll be a recipe for success in a potential playoff matchup—though it might be in Gillette Stadium. The throw at the end of the game was obviously a bad decision and should’ve just been a throw away, but those things just happen sometimes.
3. Philadelphia Eagles (12-2) | Last week: 3
Nick Foles picked up right where Carson Wentz left off, tossing four touchdowns in a shootout win against the Giants. Foles didn’t just put up big numbers, as he spread the ball around and threw accurate passed to his receivers, showing his 2015 season with the Rams was just a bad situation. The defense of the Eagles was a bit of a concern on Sunday, as the Giants attacked them with quick passes then torched them on double moves. Philadelphia also didn’t tackle or communicate well, and they’ll need to get things fixed up heading into the playoffs.
4. Minnesota Vikings (11-3) | Last week: 4
Nearly two years after his last appearance in an NFL game, Teddy Bridgewater hit the field for the Vikings in their blowout win against the Bengals. It’s a real feel-good story after the devastating knee injury Bridgewater suffered over 15 months ago. However, Case Keenum doesn’t figure to relinquish the starting job in a Vikings playoff run, as he remains on-fire. Keenum completed over 83% of his passes for the second time in three games, and he deserves Pro Bowl consideration. Minnesota already won the NFC North, and now they’ll look to lock up a first-round bye and potentially homefield in the playoffs if the Eagles slip up.
5. Atlanta Falcons (9-5) | Last week: 5
The upcoming schedule for the Falcons (at New Orleans and vs. Carolina) is the toughest in the NFL, but they held on and took care of the Buccaneers on Monday Night Football, so one win will get them into the playoffs. Despite being a game behind both the Saints and Panthers, the Falcons would claim the NFC South for a second-straight season with two wins. It’ll be fun to watch them play in Weeks 16 and 17, and I like their chances to at least get into the playoffs if not win the division.
6. Los Angeles Rams (10-4) | Last week: 6
Wow. Well the Rams bounced back from their home loss to the Eagles, as they went to Seattle and beat-down the Seahawks worse than we’ve seen since Pete Carroll has been the head coach there. Carson Wentz—and the Nick Foles—and the Eagles played a superb game offensively in Week 14, and it’s a great sign that Los Angeles quickly put it behind them. Young head coach Sean McVay and veteran defensive coordinator Wade Phillips deserve a ton of credit for getting their guys ready to play.
7. Jacksonville Jaguars (10-4) | Last week: 7
Perhaps the biggest turnaround this season is taking place in Jacksonville, and things continue to look up for the Jaguars. They were dominant while blowing out the Texans, and after Pittsburgh’s loss to New England, the Jags are now on a path to face the Steelers instead of the Patriots in the Divisional Round. Maybe they don’t care who they face, but they probably wouldn’t mind facing a team they intercepted five times and destroyed earlier this season. However, matchups can go the total opposite direction the second time around.
8. New Orleans Saints (10-4) | Last week: 8
There is some bad blood heading into this week’s division matchup with the Falcons, as Saints head coach Sean Payton and Falcons running back Devonta Freeman had words during the Week 13 game. It’ll all be settled on the field, though, as the Saints need a win to remain in control of the division and in contention for a top-two seed in the NFC heading into the final week of the season. Having Alvin Kamara, who left early in the Saints’ loss to the Falcons a couple Thursdays ago with a concussion, for an entire game should be huge for the offense.
9. Carolina Panthers (10-4) | Last week: 9
The return of Aaron Rodgers didn’t faze the Panthers at all, as they had a more convincing win than the score might indicate, intercepting Rodgers three times while Cam Newton tossed four touchdowns with no interceptions. Greg Olsen appears to be at full strength after dealing with some foot issues, and Christian McCaffrey continues to be a big-time weapon out of the backfield. Two losses to the Saints is a concern, but they’ve played great football over the last two weeks against Minnesota and Green Bay.
10. Kansas City Chiefs (8-6) | Last week: 12 (+2)
Kansas City’s midseason lull is a thing of the past after their dominant 30-13 win over the Chargers to take control of the AFC West. Kareem Hunt is running wild on defenses, putting up over 100 rushing yards and a touchdown in each of the last two games (he hadn’t had a 100-year rushing game since early October or a rushing touchdown since September). The strong running game will allow Alex Smith to deliver perfect strikes down the field to Tyreek Hill and company—something he’s been doing all season long when taking the deep shots.
11. Baltimore Ravens (8-6) | Last week: 15 (+4)
Early, it looked like Baltimore might be in some trouble against the winless Browns, but they separated and shut Cleveland out in the second half to improve to 8-6. They just need to worry about themselves, but the upcoming schedule (homes games against Indy and Cincy) compared to that of the other AFC wild card contenders (the Bills have to face the Patriots this week) is favorable. The Ravens would love nothing more than a win on Saturday before having off on Christmas Eve and Christmas.
12. Tennessee Titans (8-6) | Last week: 14 (+2)
Marcus Mariota, who’s still battling injuries, played a very good game against the 49ers, throwing for 241 yards and a couple of touchdowns while leading the team to ten fourth-quarter points; but the defense gave up a late drive to Jimmy Garoppolo and the Niners. Tennesse now has to face the Rams and Jaguars, though they are both home games at least. The entire team—offense, defense, and special teams—just needs to put it all together before the Titans fall out of the playoffs. The team moves up in the rankings because I like their playoff standing more than other teams (like Seattle and like Green Bay, who is now out of playoff contention).
13. Dallas Cowboys (8-6) | Last week: 16 (+3)
It took a touchback on a Derek Carr fumble out of the end zone to secure the victory, but the Cowboys will take it. Now, they get running back Ezekiel Elliott back from his six-game suspension, and they are still right in the NFC wild card race. They’ll of course need some help, but a win over the Seahawks would get them to 9-6 with a matchup against an Eagles team that could be resting some players in Week 17. The suspension might’ve done some good for Elliott, who it appeared was perhaps not in the same shape he was as a rookie last season. Being suspended appears to have motivated him, as he is stronger, slimmer, and should be more explosive.
14. Seattle Seahawks (8-6) | Last week: 10 (-4)
The wheels kind of all fell off at once for the Seahawks in their embarrassing loss against the Rams—the worst loss in CenturyLink Field history. After the game, safety Earl Thomas and linebacker Bobby Wagner had some words through the media (traditional and social), which isn’t a good look. Truthfully, I don’t like the whole thing where people say the demise of so-and-so is happening before our eyes, but it really might be happening with the Seahawks on defense. This offseason might be one to re-shape the team a bit, as they still have one of the league’s best franchise quarterbacks and will still compete every year because of him.
15. Los Angeles Chargers (7-7) | Last week: 13 (-2)
They came into the game as one of the hottest teams in the NFL, but Saturday night at Arrowhead just didn’t work out for the Chargers. Arrowhead is one of the toughest places to play in the league so it’s not reason to get too alarmed, and the Chargers still have a realistic shot at the playoffs. The loss of Hunter Henry for the season to a lacerated kidney hurts, but the Chargers still have the talent to pick up a couple wins and see where things fall when the season is over.
16. Buffalo Bills (8-6) | Last week: 17 (+1)
The Bills are in solid wild card position right now, but they have a matchup in Foxborough against the Patriots. From an outside perspective, maybe the Patriots will have a letdown after Sunday’s thrilling win over the Steelers—but the Bills are just thinking about beating them. Buffalo will probably have a little extra juice after the late hit star rookie cornerback Tre’Davious White took from Rob Gronkowski in their first matchup a couple weeks ago, and I like their attitude of a win being the best revenge.
17. Detroit Lions (8-6) | Last week: 19 (-2)
It’s not the way you like to see it happen, but the Lions schedule lightened up a bit after Aaron Rodgers was placed on injured reserve, as they won’t have to deal with him in Week 17 like they did last season when Green Bay took the NFC North crown. Detroit will need help to make the playoffs, but way crazier things have happened than what they Lions need. The most likely scenario is probably two Lions wins and two Falcons losses. We already went through Atlanta having the toughest remaining schedule in the NFL, so it wouldn’t be a huge surprise.
18. Miami Dolphins (6-8) | Last week: 18
The playoff chances of the Dolphins took a major hit with their loss to the Bills on Sunday, and they need so much help that I should probably have the 7-7 Packers over them in the power rankings. But there is still at least some hope in Miami. It’ll be interesting to see how Jay Cutler plays over the final two games of the season, as he’s had a good season considering the circumstances—but Week 15 was probably his worst game of the year.
19. Oakland Raiders (6-8) | Last week: 21 (+2)
The Raiders, who would also be below the Packers if not for slight playoff hopes, also need a ton of help to make the postseason—including the two wins from the Dolphins. Derek Carr’s fumble-to-touchback while trying to make a play was unfortunate, and it’s difficult to fault him for trying to make a play—but he probably wishes he could have a do-over on that. Overall, the Raiders just haven’t been impressive this season, and I don’t see them getting to 8-8.
20. Green Bay Packers (7-7) | Last week: 11 (-9)
Just like that, the Packers went from Super Bowl hopefuls with the return of Aaron Rodgers to out of the playoffs. Rodgers clearly wasn’t at 100%, and he missed some throws he normally makes while throwing three interceptions for the first time since 2009. It’s also the first time Green Bay will miss the playoffs since 2008—Rodgers’ first year as the starter. Brett Hundley will soak up some valuable snaps over the final two weeks of the season here.
21. Washington Redskins (6-8) | Last week: 22 (+1)
Clearly, this season has been less than ideal for the Redskins, who are dealing with a ton of injuries and already had an unproven supporting cast on offense. But they continue to compete under head coach Jay Gruden and beat a Cardinals team that’s also been competing and playing well lately. Over the final two games, it’d be good to see rookie Samaje Perine get going again, as he’s struggled on the ground recently.
22. San Francisco 49ers (4-10) | Last week: 24 (+2)
Jimmy Garoppolo continues to show why he’s someone everyone should’ve been targeting during the offseason. Garoppolo was in the perfect situation while sitting behind the greatest quarterback of all-time while having the greatest coach of all-time as his head coach, and he knows how to be a professional. Maybe the Niners should’ve locked him up right when they traded for him, because Garoppolo is making a ton of money right now with the way he’s playing.
23. Arizona Cardinals (6-8) | Last week: 20 (-3)
The Cardinals couldn’t quite make it two-straight wins and three of four, but they are putting up a fight each week. It’s interesting that head coach Bruce Arians is opting to go with Drew Stanton as the starter over Blaine Gabbert again, and it probably doesn’t bode well for Gabbert’s chances of being the team’s starter in 2018. With a ton of signal-callers set to become available in 2018, the Cardinals will be a team to watch. The Niners better not let Garoppolo hit the open market, or the Cardinals might throw a ton of money at him.
24. New York Jets (5-9) | Last week: 23 (-1)
While it was a 12-point loss to the Saints, the Jets played New Orleans to a closer game than the score indicated. Mark Ingram broke a late touchdown for the Saints, which gave them a two-possession advantage. I’m really hoping the Jets give Todd Bowles a contract extension this offseason, but we’ll see what happens.
25. Denver Broncos (5-9) | Last week: 30 (+5)
Denver looked like a completely lost cause and it looked like head coach Vance Joseph was a lock to be fired. But they deserve credit for playing hard over the last two weeks to pick up a couple of wins—even if it was against two teams near the bottom of the league. Five wins already looked a lot better than where they were at 3-9, but the final two games are probably still critical for Joseph and the coaching staff.
26. Chicago Bears (4-10) | Last week: 25 (-1)
This week against the Browns might be the last stand for John Fox in Chicago. I’ve believed he’s been dealt a tough hand this season and still gets his team to play close games against superior opponents, but he might not be able to survive if the Bears lose to a winless Cleveland team. Mitchell Trubisky might have some extra motivation after the Browns passed on him with the first pick in the draft.
27. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-10) | Last week: 28 (+1)
The Buccaneers basically have the same schedule as the Falcons, just flipped around. However, unlike Atlanta, they are way out of playoff contention—but they need to get some momentum going into 2018. It was cool to see Jon Gruden get put into the Buccaneers’ Ring of Honor, and I think it was unacceptable that ESPN had to cut off the very end to show a promo for ‘SportsCenter’.
28. Houston Texans (4-10) | Last week: 26 (-2)
Texans head coach Bill O’Brien said there is no way he’ll ever resign from coaching the team, and owner Bob McNair already said he won’t be firing O’Brien. And to top it off, franchise quarterback Deshaun Watson says he’d like to play his whole career with O’Brien as his head coach. O’Brien has another year left on his contract, and he should be back for at least next season despite the team’s struggles this year.
29. Cincinnati Bengals (5-9) | Last week: 27 (-2)
There are reports that Marvin Lewis won’t coach the Bengals in 2018, but did anyone tell the team they’re still supposed to play the games? It’s a shame to see Cincinnati get blown out in two consecutive weeks by a combined 67-14, and I really hope the team picks it up and plays hard for Lewis in what could be his final games coaching them. If the players aren’t playing hard, then it’s on them as players. Professional athletes shouldn’t need a coach to fire them up—they should love the game enough to get fired up on their own. And it’s not like Lewis has been unfair to players on the team—he’s had their backs.
30. Indianapolis Colts (3-11) | Last week: 29 (-1)
The Colts aren’t play terribly, but they’ve lost five-straight and are struggling to pick up wins right now. Head coach Chuck Pagano says franchise quarterback Andrew Luck has been “through hell” trying to get over his shoulder injury, and it really is an unfortunate situation that the issue still isn’t taken care of. Hopefully Luck is able to get to 100% soon while avoiding another surgery.
31. New York Giants (2-12) | Last week: 31
Eli Manning had perhaps his best game of the season in Sunday’s loss to the Eagles, as he torched one of the league’s best defenses for 434 yards and three touchdowns. It feels like Manning is on his way out from the Giants, but maybe the new coaching staff will insist on keeping him around. The Giants are currently interviewing GM candidates, and the next GM will probably get a lot of power when selecting the next head coach.
32. Cleveland Browns (0-14) | Last week: 32
A win on Christmas Eve last season was a great gift for the Browns, and they’ll look to make it two-straight years with their first win of the season on Christmas Eve. I wouldn’t call it a Christmas miracle exactly, but it’d sure make the team a little happier around the holidays.