1. New England Patriots (10-2) | Last week: 1
Strong defense continues to compliment the elite offense of the Patriots, as New England has allowed only 11.9 points per game over the last eight games—the best in the NFL over that stretch. That kind of defense to go along with an offense that can carve through you in any number of ways formulates a tough team to beat. Perhaps they’ve become such a high standard that they aren’t talked about anymore, but the Patriots have clearly been the best team in football in my opinion.
2. Philadelphia Eagles (10-2) | Last week: 2
Many have said the Eagles are clearly the best team, and now many are suddenly jumping way off the bandwagon and saying the NFC is wide open. If you look at their schedule, the Eagles haven’t been challenged by teams like Seattle much this season, but there’s no reason to get alarmed after one game. People need to slow down a bit on the criticism of Carson Wentz, as he’s still in his second NFL season. If he can develop the accuracy needed on some of the intermediate and deep throws (like the two he missed to Nelson Agholor for would-be touchdowns), he’ll really be a terror for opposing defenses.
3. Minnesota Vikings (10-2) | Last week: 3
Led by an elite defense with a ton of great players and a red-hot quarterback, the Vikings have a clear argument for being considered the best team in the NFC. They’re currently in a position where if they win out, they’ll the top seed in the conference, which would mean the entire playoffs—including the Super Bowl—run through Minnesota. Right now, Case Keenum is playing with great instincts and like he has eyes on the back of his head, but he needs to be careful not to try and do too much for his team.
4. Pittsburgh Steelers (10-2) | Last week: 4
Again, the Steelers didn’t look that great getting it done, but their sheer talent and experience won out in the end against the Bengals, improving their winning streak to seven games. Head coach Mike Tomlin already said he’s looking forward to Week 15 against the Patriots, but the team would be wise to take the Ravens very seriously this Sunday night. A loss to them and a loss against New England in two weeks would suddenly put Baltimore in a position to potentially win the division.
5. Los Angeles Rams (9-3) | Last week: 5
The turnaround of the Rams this season has been simply awesome, as they’re soundly beating the teams they should beat, avoiding any slip-ups through 12 games. Not having Robert Woods over the last couple of weeks because of a shoulder injury hasn’t slowed down the offense much at all, and it indicates how well second-year quarterback Jared Goff is playing. It’ll be very interesting to see how the Rams perform against the Eagles this weekend.
6. New Orleans Saints (9-3) | Last week: 6
New Orleans had a major bounce-back this week, quickly forgetting about their Week 12 loss to the Rams and seizing first place in the NFC South with another convincing win over the Panthers. Offensive Rookie of the Year favorite Alvin Kamara and teammate Mark Ingram continue to run wild, as the rushing attack is top-three in the NFL at 142.6 yards per game. If Eagles vs. Rams isn’t the game of the week, this Thursday night’s Saints vs. Falcons game might be. Let’s just hope it’s not a sloppy contest on a short week.
7. Seattle Seahawks (8-4) | Last week: 10 (+3)
Not to overreact to one game, but the Seahawks look like a force to be reckoned with in the NFC after their dominant win against the Eagles on Sunday night. Even without Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor, the team is playing Seahawks defense, making sure tackles, playing stout against the run, and rushing the passer. Cornerbacks Byron Maxwell and Shaquill Griffin are doing a very nice job on the outside, as they’re both playing well in coverage and coming up to make plays in the running game. And on offense, I’m not going to argue with anyone that says Russell Wilson should be the league’s MVP through 12 games.
8. Tennessee Titans (8-4) | Last week: 9 (+1)
Marcus Mariota got back on track after having six passes intercepted in his two previous games, totaling a touchdown through the air and on the ground against the Titans—and I still think he’ll start to get really hot over the final four games of the regular season. Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau is doing an unsurprisingly fine job with his unit, as the athletic group is probably outperforming the offense this year. First-round rookie cornerback Adoree’ Jackson has excelled in a big role in his first NFL season, and it looks like he’s going to give receivers trouble for a long time. The addition of Jackson and Logan Ryan in free agency is allowing the Titans to play more man coverage this season.
9. Atlanta Falcons (7-5) | Last week: 8 (-1)
Despite having the game at home in Mercedes-Benz Stadium, beating the Vikings right now is a tough task. Atlanta’s offense wasn’t terrible by any means, but they just struggled to break through versus Minnesota—though they were in it the entire game. It was great to see Devonta Freeman back on the field for the Falcons, and they should probably feed him and Tevin Coleman as much as possible to open up shots to Julio Jones and the other playmakers on the outside. A win this Thursday against the Saints would be huge for both the wild card race and the NFC South race.
10. Carolina Panthers (8-4) | Last week: 7 (-3)
The Panthers are now in a bit of a hole in the NFC South, as they’re essentially two games behind the Saints after New Orleans’ sweep over them this year. The defense has become a bit of a concern over the last two, as they’ve given up 27 and 31 points to the Jets and Saints, respectively. And things have a chance to really go south for them, as this week they face the 10-2 Vikings before possibly facing an Aaron Rodgers-led Packers team in Week 15. I did believe something similar about the Saints and their tough schedule heading into last week, but they took care of business at home against the Panthers. Carolina now needs to defend their home field to hold off other teams in a stacked conference.
11. Baltimore Ravens (7-5) | Last week: 12 (+1)
Jimmy Smith’s season-ending Achilles injury is a big loss for Baltimore’s defense, but impressive rookie first-rounder Marlon Humphrey has the ability to step up into a bigger role with the team. Smith’s injury paired with teammate Tavon Young’s season-ending knee injury before the season means the depth of the Ravens will be tested. They are one of the few teams that there should be a level of confidence and expectation that they can keep things going with a next-man-up mentality, though.
12. Jacksonville Jaguars (8-4) | Last week: 13 (+1)
Leonard Fournette has averaged less than 3.0 yards per carry in three of his last four games, but the Jaguars are still 3-1 in that span. They might need to win again without a huge performance by their rookie workhorse, as the front seven of the Seahawks offers some potential problems up front for Jacksonville. And it’ll be really interesting to see the league’s top defense, which leads the NFL with 45 sacks, try to get a hold of the magician-like Russell Wilson. A win on their home field against a top-three MVP candidate and tough defense to get to 9-4 would be an excellent win for the Jags.
13. Kansas City Chiefs (6-6) | Last week: 11 (-2)
They didn’t come through with a chance to tie the game at the end, but, clearly, Alex Smith and the offense got back on track against the Jets, as they hit a ton of big plays just like they were early in the season when they got off to a 5-0 start. But the defense gave up 38 points after playing well in the previous two weeks. Kansas City just needs to put everything together now, and they might emerge as a red-hot team no one wants to see in January—but they’re starting to run out of time. The team-imposed suspension of Marcus Peters was an excellent decision that holds the entire roster accountable. I would trade Peters this offseason with no hesitation.
14. Los Angeles Chargers (6-6) | Last week: 14
The only losses for the Chargers over the last eight games have been to the 10-2 Patriots and 8-4 Jaguars. Los Angeles has been on fire the last three games, and the connection between Philip Rivers and Keenan Allen has been unstoppable. Allen became the first player in NFL history to have three consecutive games with at least ten receptions, 100 receiving yards, and one receiving touchdown. It’s not often things that have never been done in the history of the league are accomplished.
15. Dallas Cowboys (6-6) | Last week: 17 (+2)
Alfred Morris and the running game really got going in last Thursday’s blowout win against the Redskins, and relying on it will help keep the Cowboys in the NFC wild card race. Morris is showing he’s still a very good running back, he just hasn’t had many opportunities behind Ezekiel Elliott over the last two years. Dallas is now likely to get stud linebacker Sean Lee back this week against the Giants, and he’ll give a major boost to the defense.
16. Green Bay Packers (6-6) | Last week: 19 (+3)
Things are looking up for the Packers. Aaron Rodgers is nearing a return, and the running game appears to be heating up as we approach his potential return. If Green Bay can get a win over the 0-12 Browns, they’d improve to 7-6. And if the Panthers simultaneously lose to the 10-2 Vikings, it’d set up an opportunity for the Packers to get into a tie for one of the NFC wild card spots in Week 15, which sure would be an exciting game.
17. Buffalo Bills (6-6) | Last week: 15 (-2)
Last year’s first-round pick Shaq Lawson hasn’t been able to stay healthy over his first two seasons, as he’s been sent to Injured Reserve, ending his season. Wide receiver Jordan Matthews has also been sent to Injured Reserve, and Tyrod Taylor is now battling a knee injury that could force him to miss time. On top of that, star rookie cornerback Tre’Davious White was injured after the unnecessary late hit Rob Gronkowski took at him very late in Sunday’s loss. Hopefully Taylor and White end up being fine for a potentially snowy game this week against the Colts, because the team needs to get the wins when they can with another matchup with the Patriots still to come in Week 16.
18. Oakland Raiders (6-6) | Last week: 21 (+3)
The Raiders survived without top-two receivers Michael Crabtree (suspension) and Amari Cooper (concussion/ankle) against the Giants, which should help Derek Carr have more confidence for when he gets the two big playmakers back on the outside. He could use them both against a Chiefs team that was just torched by the Jets through the air—and torched by Carr himself for 417 yards and three touchdowns back in Week 7. With four games to go against four contending teams, the Raiders need to play their best football of the season here.
19. Detroit Lions (6-6) | Last week: 16 (-3)
Matthew Stafford is getting pretty banged up over the last couple of games, as a bad ankle injury on Thanksgiving and a right throwing hand injury last Sunday have him at far less than 100%. The hand isn’t broken, but we’ll have to see how effective he’s able to be versus a vulnerable Tampa Bay secondary this week. The Lions, like the Cowboys and Packers, are probably going to have to win out to make the playoffs.
20. Miami Dolphins (5-7) | Last week: 23 (+3)
The good news for the Dolphins is they have two games left against the 6-6 Bills and one against the 6-6 Chiefs—two teams that are also in the mix for a wild card spot. But the bad news is they need to face the Patriots on Monday night this week. Adam Gase does have his guys playing hard, and he even attempted an onside kick—and succeeded—with the game in-hand against the Broncos.
21. Washington Redskins (5-7) | Last week: 18 (-3)
Kirk Cousins played well last Thursday night against the Cowboys, but his receivers again let him down. The playoff hopes for the Redskins are very slim, so it’s possible these final four games are the last for Cousins in Washington. It’s a situation to watch, as the team as the coach and foundation (they’ve dealt with a lot of injuries this season) to add a couple more pieces and continue building with Cousins.
22. Arizona Cardinals (5-7) | Last week: 22
The Cardinals couldn’t build on their upset win against the Jaguars, as the Rams jumped to an early lead and handled them in Week 13. I don’t think head coach Bruce Arians’ job is, or should be, on the line, but seeing how his team plays down the stretch will be something to watch—along with Blaine Gabbert continuing to get more time under center in Arians’ offense.
23. New York Jets (5-7) | Last week: 25 (+2)
Each week, it becomes clearer that Todd Bowles should absolutely be in strong consideration for a contract extension—and if he loses his job, it’d be a travesty. Many expected the Jets to be in the mix for the number one pick in this spring’s draft, with fans hoping for USC’s Sam Darnold. But while the roster isn’t where it needs to be to seriously compete in the AFC, Bowles has his team playing well every week.
24. Cincinnati Bengals (5-7) | Last week: 20 (-4)
For a while it looked like the Bengals were going to get a huge win and put a stop to the seven-game winning streak of the Steelers, but it seems like they might have run out of juice after a hot start. Cincinnati set a franchise-record in penalty yardage, which obviously doesn’t bode well for head coach Marvin Lewis as it appears he’ll miss the playoffs this season. Lewis himself apparently doesn’t think he’ll keep his job after the season, but hopefully his guys don’t stop playing hard because of it.
25. Houston Texans (4-8) | Last week: 24 (+1)
While dealing with so many injuries, including to sensational rookie quarterback Deshaun Watson and three-time Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt, the Texans have understandably struggled for a playoff spot. Head coach Bill O’Brien does still have his team battling, which is a major positive sign for future years. This weekend against the 49ers is a good opportunity for the team to pick up another win.
26. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-8) | Last week: 26
One of the coaches that might really be on the hot seat and will need his guys to play really hard for him over these last four games is Dirk Koetter. Buccaneers ownership has shown in the past they aren’t afraid to make a change if things aren’t working out, and there are still four very tough games coming up against the Lions, Falcons, Panthers, and Saints to end the season. Jameis Winston needs to rally the troops and get them to play hard for their coach.
27. Indianapolis Colts (3-9) | Last week: 27
I was just thinking the other day about the weirdness of not having Andrew Luck on the field all this season—the league is much better when he’s out there. Someone that’s been out there a lot over the past 13 years is future Hall of Fame running back Frank Gore, who passed Jerome Bettis and LaDanian Tomlinson for fifth all-time on the NFL’s rushing list on Sunday. Gore has had quite the career, and he’d pass Curtis Martin to get behind only Barry Sanders, Walter Payton, and Emmitt Smith if he plays next season. He’s an active legend at the running back position.
28. San Francisco 49ers (2-10) | Last week: 29 (+1)
The poise and calmness of Jimmy Garoppolo was evident in his first start for the 49ers, and he looked like someone that’s been backing up Tom Brady for the last three-plus years. Garoppolo didn’t light the world on fire against the Bears, but he helped the offense move the ball all game and led the team to a 14-play, 86-yard drive for a game-winning field goal by Robbie Gould. This experience over the final four games will be great for Garoppolo, who will have a stronger team around him in 2018.
29. Chicago Bears (3-9) | Last week: 28 (-1)
Chicago lost another close one to the 49ers, and it was their sixth one-possession loss of the season. Aside from the blowout loss to Philadelphia in Week 12, John Fox has his injury-riddled team playing teams tough. After he apparently didn’t even know the team was going to select quarterback Mitchell Trubisky in last year’s draft, Fox’s fate—fair or not—is probably at least up in the air right now.
30. New York Giants (2-10) | Last week: 31 (+1)
Ben McAdoo took the Giants to the playoffs in his first season as head coach last season, but the plug has no officially been pulled on him. GM Jerry Reese—who undoubtedly shares some blame for not only McAdoo’s firing, but the lack of success late in Tom Coughlin’s tenure with the team—is also gone, so there’s a job that potentially gives full personnel control open already. Ownership showed some incompetence for allowing the benching of Eli Manning to go through, but at least interested coaches won’t need to worry about overbearing owners limiting their decision-making.
31. Denver Broncos (3-9) | Last week: 30 (-1)
This is just getting so bad that I would be shocked if Vance Joseph wasn’t fired after the season. The Broncos are allowing the second-most points in the NFL this season after just having an elite unit under Wade Phillips, and John Elway probably isn’t going to sit around and hope the team just gets better in 2018. Elway also might not like that Dolphins head coach Adam Gase basically ran it up on him, and it’s safe to say he desperately wants to get his team back to where they can be the ones doing that to their opponents.
32. Cleveland Browns (0-12) | Last week: 32
The return of Josh Gordon went very well, as he had 85 yards against the top-five pass defense of the Chargers. Gordon showed that even after a three-year absence he still has the ability to be an elite receiver in the NFL, and if he keeps his head on straight he’ll be a huge asset for the Browns.