1. New England Patriots (12-3) | Last week: 1
Tom Brady throwing an interception in five straight games might be the most surprising thing that’s happened this season, but the Patriots have gone 4-1 in that stretch and the interceptions aren’t a big concern. Everything is determined on the field and not by mathematics and statistics, but Brady might be in store for a bit of a regression toward the mean for the postseason. Defenses shouldn’t expect to get too many opportunities at turnovers moving forward.
2. Pittsburgh Steelers (12-3) | Last week: 2
In their first full game without Antonio Brown, Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers looked very good on offense on Christmas Day. Roethlisberger has been on fire lately, and the defense benefited from the return of cornerback Joe Haden, who they didn’t have against New England in Week 15. Pittsburgh is still playing for the top seed in the event of a Patriots slip-up against the Jets, and they’ll also be playing to avoid being the team that loses to the winless Browns to end the regular season.
3. Philadelphia Eagles (13-2) | Last week: 3
It’s unbelievable the fans in Philadelphia were booing the team like crazy—on Christmas Night of all nights—because of a subpar performance against the Raiders. The team was 12-2 entering the game, and not all games are going to be perfect. Booing the team—including kicker Jake Elliott, who has been superb this season, for missing one kick—isn’t going to help anyone come playoff time. They might need Elliott to make tough kicks in the postseason, so it’s not smart to give him any reason to be unconfident. Philadelphia’s defense is an obvious concern right now, as guys like Drew Brees and Matt Ryan might carve them up in the NFC. On offense, they should be fine—it was just one bad game.
4. Minnesota Vikings (12-3) | Last week: 4
The Vikings nearly got an opening to perhaps take the number one seed in Week 17, but the Eagles got their win and ended it right there. Minnesota is still going for the two seed, though, which could end up being just as good if the Eagles are knocked off in the Divisional Round. The “Christmas Eve Eve” 16-0 victory over Green Bay was Minnesota’s first shutout since 1993, and their defense looks like the NFL’s best. Case Keenum and the quarterback position remains the wild card for the Vikings.
5. Los Angeles Rams (11-4) | Last week: 6 (+1)
There’s still one week to go and more time to think about it, but Todd Gurley might be my MVP pick this season. The Rams are feeding him the ball, and he’s picking up huge chunk plays and putting the ball in the end zone. At times, Gurley almost looks like he has a “gamebreaker” from the old NFL Street video games, because he really looks like he’s at a different speed than everyone else on the field on some plays. And to think some people were saying Gurley is overrated and Jared Goff is a “bust” after several games last season.
6. New Orleans Saints (11-4) | Last week: 8 (+2)
There is no question the Saints received some help by the officials in their win against the Falcons—frankly, I’m not sure I have seen a worse officiating job than in that game. But the Saints took care of business to put themselves in a position to claim the NFC South with a win versus the Bucs this Sunday. Ted Ginn Jr. was a huge difference in the win over Atlanta, and plays like his 54-yard touchdown are the reason New Orleans targeted him in free agency during the offseason.
7. Carolina Panthers (11-4) | Last week: 9 (+2)
It might not have been the prettiest win, but the Panthers had a clutch drive late to clinch a playoff spot. Special teams came up big for Carolina, and it was Cam Newton and the offense that put it in the end zone for the go-ahead score toward the end of the game. If the Panthers had lost, they would’ve had to play what might have amounted to a playoff game versus the Falcons. Instead, they’ll be vying for the NFC South crown (they need a New Orleans loss), while attempting to also knock the division rival Falcons out of the playoffs.
8. Kansas City Chiefs (9-6) | Last week: 10 (+2)
Kansas City taking care of business to clinch the AFC West for a second straight season now gives them the opportunity to rest some starters ahead of the Wild Card Round. We might see rookie quarterback Patrick Mahomes II, which would be exciting, but don’t forget Alex Smith has had an MVP-caliber regular season if it is indeed over. Smith crossed the 4,000 passing yardage mark for the first time in his career, and he’s playing masterfully in Andy Reid’s offense. Speaking of Reid, it was awesome to see him dress up as Santa Clause after the Christmas Eve win.
9. Atlanta Falcons (9-6) | Last week: 5 (-4)
As stated earlier, the Falcons were on the wrong end of a blatantly poor job by the officials against the Saints, but the loss certainly cannot be pinned on the refs. Devonta Freeman’s second goal-line fumble in two weeks just can’t happen, and Freeman also had a couple of penalties in what was a testy environment coming into the game. Atlanta still has a win-and-in opportunity this week against the Panthers, and look for Julio Jones to have one of his monster performances with his team’s back against the wall.
10. Jacksonville Jaguars (10-5) | Last week: 7 (-3)
Well that was a wake-up call for the Jaguars. Their elite defense was dominated by the 49ers, and it’s not the first time they’ve struggled this season against teams they have superior talent over. However, the Jags still have a lot of young guys on the team, so things like this will happen at times. The more concerning aspect of the loss might’ve been Blake Bortles tossing three interceptions—including his first pick-six of the season. He cannot let that get into his head or the Jaguars might struggle to do anything this postseason.
11. Baltimore Ravens (9-6) | Last week: 11
There were some tight moments, but the Ravens survived the first half of their two-part scenario to get into the playoffs. Joe Flacco is heating up, with seven touchdowns and one interception in his last four games, and Danny Woodhead’s presence in the lineup might have something to do with that. We know what Flacco can do in January, so—paired with the defense—the Ravens have the look of a potentially scary team in the AFC.
12. Tennessee Titans (8-7) | Last week: 12
DeMarco Murray is one tough guy, as he walked off the field with what appeared to be a serious knee injury, and he’s considered day-to-day. I’m not sure Murray will be effective enough to be active for the game, but I commend him for being a tough, team-first guy at a time where it seems guys are on the ground for minutes because of a mild ankle sprain. Anyway, the Titans could use a healthy Murray in a must-win this week against the Jaguars, and you can bet Jacksonville is going to pull out all the stops to knock off their division opponent. It’s a precarious situation for the Titans, and they need a less than 100% Marcus Mariota to play the way he’s shown he’s capable of playing.
13. Seattle Seahawks (9-6) | Last week: 14 (+1)
Russell Wilson didn’t have to carry his team in their big Christmas Eve win over the Cowboys, as the defense contained Ezekiel Elliott in his return and picked Dak Prescott off twice—including a pick-six by Justin Coleman. But Wilson did cash in with a couple of red-zone scores to Doug Baldwin and Jimmy Graham, which was huge in a nine-point win. A win over the Cardinals paired with a Falcons loss to the Panthers would mean the Seahawks are a playoff team—and a scary one.
14. Los Angeles Chargers (8-7) | Last week: 15 (+1)
The Chargers are another potentially scary team in the playoffs, and they’ll also need some help to get into the postseason. They need to take care of business against the Raiders, and Los Angeles might very well find themselves with two playoff teams this season—whether the city deserves that or not is a different discussion. With a win, the Chargers also need a Titans loss (or tie) and Bills loss (or tie) OR a Titans loss (or tie) and Ravens win (or tie). In the unlikely event of a Chargers tie, they also have a chance to get in with a Titans loss and Bills loss.
15. Buffalo Bills (8-7) | Last week: 16 (+1)
While it’s certainly possible, the Bills probably have the most unlikely road to the playoffs—but they do have the most straightforward scenario. A win paired with a Ravens loss would get them in, so the Bengals could really help the Bills out with an upset in Baltimore. A win paired with losses (or ties) by both the Chargers and Titans would also get the Bills in. It’s a credit to new head coach Sean McDermott that his team is in it in Week 17 after people said they were “tanking” before the season.
16. Dallas Cowboys (8-7) | Last week: 13 (-3)
After a Falcons loss to the Saints earlier on Christmas Eve, there was a very real opening for the Cowboys to make the playoffs. But they just couldn’t get anything going, even in Ezekiel Elliott’s return from a six-game suspension. Dak Prescott has struggled lately, but the Cowboys clearly need a revamping of their receiving corps this offseason. All-time great Cowboy Troy Aikman made it clear on the FOX broadcast that Dez Bryant isn’t close to where he was a few years ago, and it’s just a fact. Bryant seemingly complaining about not getting the ball and then promptly fumbling it when they threw to him on the next series was simply not good.
17. Detroit Lions (8-7) | Last week: 17
The seat for Jim Caldwell is probably extremely hot after their loss to the Bengals on Sunday. The Lions have had a fine season, but missing the playoffs opens up the door for GM Bob Quinn to bring in his own guy as the head coach of the team. Unfortunately, next week is going to be a sad one for a lot of coaches losing their jobs despite them being good coaches and good men.
18. San Francisco 49ers (5-10) | Last week: 22 (+4)
Kyle Shanahan probably won’t be losing his job anytime soon, and it’s in large part because they have a young franchise quarterback. I typically don’t overreact to just a few games, but there probably aren’t many quarterbacks I would take over Jimmy Garoppolo to lead a franchise right now. He learned from the best and plays from the pocket, so he should be able to avoid serious injury, but he also has the athleticism to make plays outside the pocket when things break down. As a big Chip Kelly supporter, I just wish he was given another year and the ability to acquire Garoppolo from his friend Bill Belichick. The future is bright for the 49ers.
19. Washington Redskins (7-8) | Last week: 21 (+2)
While dealing with a ton of injuries, the Redskins blew out a Broncos team that had been playing well coming into the game, which bodes well for Jay Gruden’s job security. However, Gruden would have a job very quickly if the Redskins decide to part ways with him, and this entire situation with Kirk Cousins is very interesting. The Redskins will look to finish the season strong against a struggling Giants team.
20. Green Bay Packers (7-8) | Last week: 20
The ESPN report about teams wanting the Packers to have to release Aaron Rodgers after placing him on injured reserve without him suffering an injury is comical, but it’s easy to understand where they are coming from. The rules are there for a reason, and they should be followed, but players that are probably able to play are placed on IR all the time. While there’s no chance it happens, if Rodgers was released, it’d be about the craziest situation imaginable—but it’d probably end with him re-signing in Green Bay immediately. The Jaguars and Eagles (who are my picks as the snitches) might want to give him a talk first, though.
21. Arizona Cardinals (7-8) | Last week: 23 (+2)
Christmas Eve was a win for Larry Fitzgerald, Bruce Arians, and the Cardinals, and it feels like it might be the end of an era in Arizona. Fitz threw a pass in the shutout win over the Giants—the first completion of his legendary career. Was it something that was just a fun thing to do, or is it Fitzgerald checking off a bucket list item before he calls it a career. The completion was to Jaron Brown, and it gave Brown a $500,000 incentive bonus, which was quite the gift from Fitzgerald.
22. Miami Dolphins (6-9) | Last week: 18 (-4)
I 100% do not believe Adam Gase should be fired by the Dolphins, but the media and fans might be turning on him after a regression from last year’s playoff appearance. Considering they lost their starting quarterback in training camp, it’s not surprising to see the team go through an up-and-down season. Ending Buffalo’s season with a win this Sunday might build some momentum into the offseason.
23. Oakland Raiders (6-9) | Last week: 19 (-4)
The more the Raiders play, the more it becomes clear the 2017 offseason was not a good one. Hindsight is 20/20, but the offense was excellent last season with former offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave, but they got rid of him. And Latavius Murray was a touchdown-machine and solid all-around option for Oakland last year, but he’s now a major contributor for a Super Bowl-contending Minnesota squad. Again, from the outside looking in, there doesn’t appear to be a good vibe around the Raiders this year.
24. New York Jets (5-10) | Last week: 24
Todd Bowles again got his team to play a close game against a team that’s trying to make the playoffs, but they couldn’t get the Christmas Eve victory over the Chargers. Considering the roster isn’t that strong and they lost their starting quarterback, firing Bowles would be a travesty. The entire situation with Christian Hackenberg is a bit puzzling, though, as they don’t seem interested in getting him any reps despite spending a scond-round pick on him last year.
25. Chicago Bears (5-10) | Last week: 26 (+1)
Another coach that has gotten his team to play hard and close games each week is John Fox. His team has suffered injuries, including to star outside linebacker Leonard Floyd, but they continue to play strong defense. A win this week against the Vikings would, in my opinion, make the firing of Fox look really bad on Chicago’s part. We’ll see what happens.
26. Cincinnati Bengals (6-9) | Last week: 29 (+3)
While it might ultimately cost Jim Caldwell his job in Detroit, it’s a positive to see the Bengals play hard and pick up a win for Marvin Lewis in what is likely his last go as the team’s head coach. Sending Lewis out with a win this week against the Ravens would be great for him, but hopefully they at least play really hard for four quarters.
27. Denver Broncos (5-10) | Last week: 25 (-2)
Things appeared headed in the right direction for the Broncos, but the Redskins blew them out, allowing Kirk Cousins to toss three touchdowns on them. The pass defense has simply been bad this year, allowing 29 passing touchdowns so far after allowing just 13 (with 14 interceptions) last year. If they allow rookie Patrick Mahomes to light them up this week, it might be too much for Vance Joseph to survive.
28. Indianapolis Colts (3-12) | Last week: 30 (+2)
This might be it for Chuck Pagano as the head coach of the Colts, but he’s also gotten his team to play hard every week despite being at a disadvantage without their franchise quarterback. The roster just isn’t very strong right now, and it’d be tough for a lot of coaches to win games with it—Pagano isn’t doing a bad job.
29. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-11) | Last week: 27 (-2)
The explosion by Jameis Winston at the end of their loss to the Panthers was a bit embarrassing, but it probably shows the frustration that has built up for the Bucs this season. The speculation about Jon Gruden returning to coach the Bucs is rampant, and it’s about the only scenario that would get him out of the broadcast booth before 2019. However, while his love for Winston’s ability is evident, it’s fair to wonder if seeing Winston act the way he does sometimes would give Gruden pause.
30. Houston Texans (4-11) | Last week: 28 (-2)
The players support Bill O’Brien as their head coach, which says a lot in a season that’s had some ugly double-digit losses as of late. If there really are going to be up to 14-15 head coach openings this offseason, as FOX’s Jay Glazer reported, the Texans might end up being one of them. O’Brien would get a job in about five minutes if he did part ways with the Texans, though.
31. New York Giants (2-13) | Last week: 31
Current ESPN analyst and former NFL personnel man Louis Riddick interviewed for the Giants GM job last week, and I think hiring him would be a really solid move for the franchise. He seems to understand the importance of having a strong organization from top to bottom, and he would hire a head coach that meshes with his philosophy. The next GM and head coach will go a long way in determining if Eli Manning plays another game for the team, so Giants fans should try to take in this Sunday, as it could be the last one with him under center for the team he helped bring two titles to.
32. Cleveland Browns (0-15) | Last week: 32
A Christmas Eve victory didn’t come this year for the Browns, and it looks like they’ll be 0-16 by this time next week. Despite what ownership has said about Jackson’s 2018 status, it’s difficult to see new GM John Dorsey not wanting his own guy when he presumably drafts or brings in a new quarterback this offseason.