1. Carolina Panthers (12-0) Def. New Orleans 41-38. Previously: 1
The Panthers survived both of their closest calls this season Sunday when they overcame the Saints fast start and Cam Newton passed the NFL's concussion protocol. Only Atlanta, the Giants, and Tampa Bay stand between Carolina and an undefeated regular season. Those Falcons games matter less than it once looked like they would.
2. Denver Broncos (10-2) Def. San Diego 17-3. Previously: 2
Denver's defense is playing as lights out as it was to start the season, and Brock Osweiler is the game manager they need to get wins out of their play. The looming showdown between the Broncos and Bengals is looking more and more like it will decide home field advantage as the Patriots struggle to replace their injured offensive stars.
3. Arizona Cardinals (10-2) Def. St. Louis 27-3. Previously: 4
No Chris Johnson? No Andre Ellington? No problem. The Cardinals still ran for 175 yards on their way to 524 yards and a complete dismantling of one of the only two teams to beat them this season. And they allowed only 212 yards. Man, this team is balanced.
4. Cincinnati Bengals (10-2) Def. Cleveland 37-3. Previously: 5
The Bengals remaining schedule includes what looks like two easy victories, San Francisco and Baltimore, and two games of monumental importance. The first, next week at home, could bury the Steelers for good. The second, on Dec. 28 in Denver, could decide AFC home field advantage for the playoffs.
5. New England Patriots (10-2) Lost to Philadelphia 35-28. Previously: 3
The first definitive proof that Tom Brady can't do it all on his own. With New England down a few strings on offense, receivers were breaking off routes and dropping passes Sunday, but mostly they were putting the Patriots march to home field advantage in serious doubt. When does Gronk come back?
6. Kansas City Chiefs (7-5) Def. Oakland 34-20. Previously: 8
The Chiefs are the NFL's reverse Falcons. Neither team is showing any signs of stopping. During their win streak Jeremy Maclin has blossomed into exactly the receiving threat the Chiefs desperately needed when they signed him. Their remaining schedule makes 11-5 an equally realistic and amazing outcome for this season.
7. Seattle Seahawks (7-5) Def. Minnesota 38-7. Previously: 9
Throw this column on the pile that may have prematurely buried the defending NFC Champions. After wins over Pittsburgh and Minnesota, the latter in an absolutely dominant fashion, the Seahawks have proven that yes, they can beat good teams.
8. Pittsburgh Steelers (7-5) Def. Indianapolis 45-10. Previously: 10
This offense is nutty good, and apparently doesn't even need Le'Veon Bell to be so. DeAngelo Williams is averaging a full yard more per carry than Jonathan Stewart back in Carolina. Next week comes Pittsburgh's last stand in the division against Cincinnati.
9. Green Bay Packers (8-4) Def. Detroit 27-23. Previously: 6
I know, how far is it fair to drop a team for winning? But Thursday's victory over the Lions was another uninspiring performance by the Packers until Aaron and Richard Rodgers contributed some magic at the end. The run game disappeared again as it has too often this season. Two games against the Cowboys and Raiders could let Green Bay build momentum heading into a Dec. 27 match-up with the Cardinals.
10. Minnesota Vikings (8-4) Lost to Seattle 38-7. Previously: 7
This was an ugly, ugly, loss. Only a second half kickoff return by Cordarrelle Patterson got the Vikings on the scoreboard at all. That said, this is what will happen to the offense when the Vikings fall behind early enough that Adrian Peterson only gets, say, eight carries. The defense's performance is a little more distressing.
11. New York Jets (7-5) Def. New York Giants 23-20 (OT) Previously: 13
Ryan Fitzpatrick sure looks capable of putting a team on his shoulders this season. The Jets are a different team with him at quarterback, and what he brings was on display in the fourth quarter and overtime against the Giants. Brandon Marshall helped him out by going over 1,000 yards, and in doing so became the first NFL player to gain that many for four different teams.
12. Indianapolis Colts (6-6) Lost to Pittsburgh 45-10. Previously: 11
So Matt Hasselbeck won't be blank-and-oh as a starter when Andrew Luck comes back. This was easily the worst the Colts have looked with Hasselbeck at the helm. No Colt managed to gain 50 rushing or receiving yards Sunday, and not because the ball was just spread around so perfectly.
13. Buffalo Bills (6-6) Def. Houston 30-21. Previously: 14
The Bills are still in the thick of things in the playoff race, especially with a meaty three game stretch against the NFC East upcoming. They'll have a chance to finish things with a season sweep of the Jets, one of their primary opponents in the wild card race.
14. Houston Texans (6-6) Lost to Buffalo 30-21. Previously: 12
Houston's four game win streak came to an end but they remain tied with Indianapolis for the division lead and close on the heals of the AFC wild card leaders. Facing the Titans and Jaguars in their last two games will give them a chance to finish well, but the division may be decided a week earlier in Indianapolis.
15. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-6) Def. Atlanta 23-19. Previously: 17
Jameis Winston is showing the difference a quarterback can make, and boy does 2014's worst NFL team have one now. Even Muscle Hamster found the end-zone this week. With New Orleans, St. Louis, and Chicago still on the schedule, a winning record isn't out of the question.
16. Chicago Bears (5-7) Lost to San Francisco 26-20 (OT) Previously: 15
The game was following the same script seemingly every Chicago win has this season: the Bears marcing down the field late in the fourth quarter. But this time the usually dependable Robbie Gould couldn't connect as time expired, one of two misses from Gould Sunday despite connecting on a 51-yarder.
17. Oakland Raiders (5-7) Lost to Kansas City 34-20. Previously: 16
Derek Carr's worst day of the season ended appropriately as a pick six sealed the defeat for Oakland. So there are still some growing pains. Going 1-4 in their last five has probably removed the Raiders from playoff contention, and with games against Denver and Green Bay left before another match-up with the Chiefs, it will take some upsets to make this season's record look different from those past.
18. Washington (5-7) Lost to Dallas 19-16. Previously: 18
Chalk this game up as confirmation that every team in the NFC East is desperate not to win the NFC East. DeSean Jackson had his third straight game with a long (20+) touchdown catch, if you're interested in finding the positives in a terrible Monday Night Football game where the teams combined for 583 total yards.
19. Atlanta Falcons (6-6) Lost to Tampa Bay 23-19. Previously: 19
Didn't the Bears do this once? (Sort of, in 2012, when they began 7-1 before losing five of the next six, mostly while Jay Cutler was being shuffled on and off the field.) Take heart, Falcons fans, Chicago rallied for 10 wins and...missed the playoffs.
20. New York Giants (5-7) Lost to New York Jets 23-20 (OT.) Previously: 20
The Giants just allowed the Jets to pull off the comeback they themselves were attempting last week against Washington. If Josh Brown doesn't miss a field goal for the first time this season, it's still a Giants victory, but they have got to find some kind of run game.
21. Detroit Lions (4-8) Lost to Green Bay 27-23. Previously: 21
The win streak ends, but Detroit is at least back to losing games as it did to start the season: in close fashion and sometimes even when they should win. This season's done, but with the Rams, Saints, 49ers, and Bears left on the schedule, Detroit can gather some wins.
22. New Orleans Saints (4-8) Lost to Carolina 41-38. Previously: 22
Sure, they lost their fourth game in a row, but they also became the first team in NFL history to return a two point conversion for two points. That's got to count for something, right? The Saints showed up against Carolina, and if they can do the same against Tampa Bay, Detroit, Jacksonville, and Atlanta to finish the season, they should do so with more than four wins.
23. Miami Dolphins (5-7) Def. Baltimore 15-13. Previously: 23
Lamar Miller had his first 20-carry game of the season, and his first 100-yard outing since the brief renaissance of the Dolphins during Dan Campbell's first two games as coach. The Dolphins are 3-0 when he hits 100 yards. And 1-0 when Ryan Tannehill throws for only 86 yards, which is a thing that happened this weekend.
24. Philadelphia Eagles (5-7) Def. New England 35-28. Previously: 27
We all saw that coming, right? The ultimate proof of "Any Given Sunday" was rolled out in New England this week. Credit the Eagles for their victory, but pump the breaks on declaring the Eagles fixed. They were still out-gained 427-to-248 Sunday, and it's hard to count on 99-yard pick sixes and 83-yard punt return touchdowns every week.
25. San Francisco 49ers (4-8) Def. Chicago 26-20 (OT.) Previously: 29
Let no one say Blain Gabbert doesn't make big plays after a 44-yard touchdown run and 71-yard touchdown pass in overtime knocked off the Bears. This performance had two impressive responses from the 49ers, as Gabbert's touchdown run answered the Bears breaking a tie that had persisted for over a quarter, and the overtime score came two plays after a dropped interception could have positioned San Francisco for a game winning field goal.
28. Dallas Cowboys (4-8) Def. Washington 19-16. Previously: 26
If Dallas would just part ways with Greg Hardy, they'd almost be a team you could root for to overcome losing Tony Romo twice. Games left against Green Bay, the Jets, and Buffalo make it likely Dallas finishes 5-11 and at least one or two games back in the division, even if they beat Washington week 17 to finish 4-2 in the division.
26. Jacksonville Jaguars (4-8) Lost to Tennessee 42-39. Previously: 24
Sure, maybe we've mentioned that the Jaguars wins don't generally come from their biggest aerial highlight shows, but those sure are fun. They have a special receiver in Allen Robinson, who had his second 150 yard, multi-touchdown game of the season Sunday to pass the 1000-yard mark for the first time in his young career.
27. Baltimore Ravens (4-8) Lost to Miami 15-13. Previously: 25
Javorius Allen was one of the few bright spots in a pretty depressing and unusual Baltimore loss this weekend. Maybe Matt Schaub pick sixes aren't that unusual, but losing when you outgain the other team 375 yards to 219?
29. San Diego Chargers (3-9) Lost to Denver 17-3. Previously: 28
This was a rare game where San Diego lost and Philip Rivers wasn't able to dominate through the air. If the Chargers can't come to terms to remain in San Diego, they may have just one more game there left: Dec. 20th against the Dolphins.
30. Tennessee Titans (3-9) Def. Jacksonville 42-39. Previously: 31
See our comments about Jameis Winston for Marcus Mariota's importance to this team. Mariota hasn't translated into as many wins for the Titans, but when he does nab one it sure is in style. See his 87-yard touchdown scamper Sunday.
31. St. Louis Rams (4-8) Lost to Arizona 27-3. Previously: 30
Remember when the Rams beat Arizona behind 146 yards from Todd Gurley in his coming out party? Yeah, neither can we. If the Rams are even going to play terribly against their own division now, the Browns may have a challenger for the bottom spot.
32. Cleveland Browns (2-10) Lost to Cincinnati 37-3. Previously: 32
Travis Benjamin's injury was another in a long line of losses for the Browns, as what once looked like a team with some promise has fallen to singular possession of the worst record in the NFL.