1. New Orleans Saints (12-2) Def. Carolina 12-9. Last Week: 2
The Saints began this season narrowly losing a blowout where Tampa Bay shredded their defense. The offense didn’t miss a beat from there, carrying them to ten straight victories and the top of this list.
Now that unit has started to struggle, it’s the defense that has kept the wins coming to New Orleans. If the Saints can put it all together – as they did in 2017 – alongside the home field advantage they’re on pace for. They’ll be the favorites at a time when it seems many of the top contenders – New Orleans included – are stumbling.
2. Los Angeles Chargers (11-3) Def. Kansas City 29-28. Last Week: 4
The odds are still stacked against the Chargers in the AFC West. They hold a worse division record than Kansas City and need the Chiefs to lose to finish higher than the fifth seed in the AFC.
That acknowledged, they just won on the road in Kansas City to end a nine-game losing streak to their division rivals and can make their case as the hottest team in the NFL; they’ve won 10 of their last 11.
3. Kansas City Chiefs (11-3) Lost to LA Chargers 29-28. Last Week: 1
The Chiefs still hold the inside track: win out, and home-field advantage in the AFC is theirs. This season could have been a step back for Kansas City as much of their defense moved on and an unproven quarterback stepped in to replace Alex Smith.
Instead, it has served as a launching pad for Patrick Mahomes career. Ten touchdowns in the final two games would give him the NFL record in his first season as a starter. That may sound unlikely, but he accomplished the feat just three weeks ago. For the Chiefs, in light of recent failures, it’s all about playoff success.
4. Chicago Bears (10-4) Def. Green Bay 24-17. Last Week: 6
After a two-and-a-half sack performance against the Packers, Khalil Mack officially has more sacks than the Oakland Raiders (in two fewer games played). That Bears draft pick is probably looking a lot less attractive than it did at the start of the 2018 season as well. Things are falling into place for the Bears to possibly steal a first-round bye if the Rams drop another game.
The Bears also just clinched their first division title since Jay Cutler led them to the playoffs in 2010.
5. Los Angeles Rams (11-3) Lost to Philadelphia 30-23. Last Week: 3
The bad news? The Rams’ offense seems to have reached its peak in their 54-51 shootout with Kansas City. And that’s fair, that would be most offenses’ peak. But that game came in Week 11. In their back-to-back losses, the Rams have struggled to stretch the field and forget they have an MVP candidate to hand the ball off to.
The good news? The Rams have already won their division, their remaining games are against the Cardinals and 49ers, and they do have Todd Gurley.
6. Houston Texans (10-4) Def. NY Jets 29-22. Last Week: 9
When it comes down to it, it’s all about Deshaun Watson to DeAndre Hopkins in Houston’s offense. They connected for 170 yards, two touchdowns, and the game-winner against the Jets to bounce back from their first loss in ten games.
One win against Philadelphia or Jacksonville will clinch Houston’s third division title under Bill O’Brien and winning out assures them of their first first-round bye in franchise history.
7. New England Patriots (9-5) Lost to Pittsburgh 17-10. Last Week: 5
Losing streaks rarely happen this late in the season to New England. Two games may be a modest one, but it just guaranteed the Patriots their worst record in almost a decade.
The Patriots should finish well as their final two games are at home against the Bills and the Jets, two teams with longstanding contributions to the said decade. But the Patriots will finish 2018 with a record of 3-5 on the road, and things aren’t lining up for them to have more than one home playoff game this postseason.
8. Indianapolis Colts (8-6) Def. Dallas 23-0. Last Week: 10
Make it two weeks in a row where playoff contenders knocked off by the Colts. Marlon Mack reappearing in the offense helps, but it comes alongside their defense stepping up to the plate in a huge way.
They’ve allowed just 27 points in their last three games. Rookie Darius Leonard leads the league in tackles by 22. Things aren’t entirely in their own hands as they need Pittsburgh or Baltimore to drop a game.
9. Seattle Seahawks (8-6) Lost to San Francisco 26-23 (OT.) Last Week: 8
Seattle really just missed a chance to have some peace of mind as the 2018 season heads into the holidays. The Seahawks would have clinched a playoff berth with their 11th straight victory over the 49ers, but it wasn’t meant to be.
Now they have to win on the road in Kansas City or face entering Week 17 with their future up in the air. That’s a favorable matchup with the Cardinals, but the Seahawks just learned no games can be taken for granted.
10. Baltimore Ravens (8-6) Def. Tampa Bay 20-12. Last Week: 12
Raise your hand if you want your team to play the Ravens in the playoffs. The best rushing attack in the NFL and one of the best defenses is usually a pretty good combination this time of the year.
It’s worked out for the Ravens too as they’re 3-1 since Lamar Jackson was inserted into the starting lineup and completely changed the way this offense ran (literally). If the Ravens win out against the Chargers and the Browns, they’ll have a playoff spot.
11. Pittsburgh Steelers (8-5-1) Def. New England 17-10. Last Week: 14
The Steelers had dropped three straight games (and five straight to the Patriots) entering last Sunday’s game. Minus Le’Veon Bell and James Conner for another week in the backfield, they turned to rookie Jaylen Samuels and he delivered 142 yards rushing.
Pittsburgh’s season is in their own hands, but they have to win in New Orleans this week – something they haven’t done since 1990 – to keep it that way.
12. Dallas Cowboys (8-6) Lost to Indianapolis 23-0. Last Week: 7
Amari Cooper followed his best day as a Cowboy with his first real dud: four catches for 32 yards. This loss, however, was about a lot more than Cooper.
The defense that was truthfully responsible for so much of Dallas’ success this season let Marlon Mack run wild. It’s easy to see how vital Cooper is to preventing this offense from being the stagnant unit that we saw in the first half of the 2018 season. The division isn’t clinched yet.
13. Tennessee Titans (8-6) Def. NY Giants 17-0. Last Week: 13
Call the Titans Baltimore-light now that they finally have a running game. Derrick Henry followed his career week with what would have been a career week otherwise: 170 rushing yards on 33 carries.
All the defense did was hand Saquon Barkley the worst day of the rookie running back’s career, allowing 31 yards rushing to a back who had 538 in his last four games. They’re in the same boat as the Colts, waiting on other teams to lose.
14. Minnesota Vikings (7-6-1) Def. Miami 41-17. Last Week: 15
It wasn’t a performance that reflected greatly on John DeFilippo. A few days removed from firing their offensive coordinator in the midst of an underwhelming season, the Vikings came back to restore their commitment to running the football (a career-high 136 rushing yards for Dalvin Cook) and the second wild-card spot in the NFC. It’s theirs if they win out against the Lions and Bears.
15. Philadelphia Eagles (7-7) Def. LA Rams 30-23. Last Week: 16
With Nick Foles back at quarterback, the rest of the Eagles suddenly looked like the team that made the Super Bowl a season ago. They followed the Bears’ blueprint for stopping the Rams offense and found balance in the offense (and a healthy helping of Alshon Jeffery) for the first time in weeks. Was it too little too late? The Eagles need a Vikings loss (or two Dallas ones) and another big upset of their own this week against the Texans.
16. Miami Dolphins (7-7) Lost to Minnesota 41-17. Last Week: 11
The Dolphins followed the most magical moment of their season with the most dismal. On offense, they let Ryan Tannehill get sacked nine times, resulting in 37 team passing yards on the day.
Not to be outdone, the defense revitalized the Vikings offense, allowing 418 yards of offense and 41 points less than a week after the Vikings were nearly shut out on Monday Night Football and performed so badly they fired their offensive coordinator.
17. Cleveland Browns (6-7-1) Def. Denver 17-16. Last Week: 17
Nobody is quitting in Cleveland yet, as the Browns’ unlikely playoff push stays mathematically alive for another week. This probably won’t be the second season in a row the NFL’s longest playoff drought ends.
But the Browns are 4-2 since Hue Jackson’s tenure ended and even more amazingly: they’ve only used one starting quarterback in those six games. The times they are a-changin’.
18. Green Bay Packers (5-8-1) Lost to Chicago 24-17. Last Week: 19
After losing in Chicago, the Packers have dropped to 0-7 away from Lambeau Field this season. On the bright side, that means they’re 5-1-1 at home.
On the much more prominent downside, their chances of any home playoff games – or, indeed, any playoff games – are exactly zero following Week 15’s results. It’s the second year in a row, Green Bay has missed the postseason after reaching it eight years in a row from 2009-2016.
19. Carolina Panthers (6-8) Lost to New Orleans 12-9. Last Week: 22
The Panthers’ sixth loss in a row puts them in the backseat as the NFC wild card is out of their control. Despite the loss, Christian McCaffrey’s impressive season had one of its brighter moments. The second-year tailback threw a 50-yard pass, ran for 53 yards, and racked up 67 receiving yards. They’ll need more than that if they’re going to snap a four-game losing streak against the Saints in Week 17.
20. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-9) Lost to Baltimore 20-12. Last Week: 21
The turnovers have dropped off nicely, but so has the passing offense that spent most of the season racking up huge numbers. In two straight losses, Jameis Winston is completing less than half his passes and has thrown for just 370 yards. Only two receivers caught passes Sunday in an offense that once seemed overflowing with targets.
21. Denver Broncos (6-8) Lost to Cleveland 17-16. Last Week: 20
The Broncos’ losing streak continued in exactly the same way it started, a failure to run the football. In a game they rarely trailed, Denver ran just 20 times for 32 yards, instead opting to let Case Keenum air it out 48 times.
Keenum’s two interceptions gave him 20 turnovers this season; it’s not what the Broncos envisioned when they signed the quarterback coming off a career year in 2017.
22. Cincinnati Bengals (6-8) Def. Oakland 30-16. Last Week: 24
The Bengals ended their worst losing streak since 2010 – five games straight – by taking care of business against the even worse Raiders. It wasn’t a pretty victory, but it’s impressive when you consider the circumstances: the Bengals are eliminated from the playoffs, and playing without their starting quarterback and their superstar wide receiver. But they’re still playing hard.
23. Atlanta Falcons (5-9) Def. Arizona 40-14. Last Week: 25
The Falcons finally ended their five-game losing streak and showed that something separates this 2017 playoff team (and 2016 Super Bowl team) from the NFL’s bottom-feeders even when their record doesn’t (hint: it’s Deion Jones).
Tevin Coleman ran for 145 yards on just 11 carries, his best career day on the ground. With Devonta Freeman injured and Coleman’s rookie contract ending, the Falcons need to make decisions about their backfield going forward.
24. New York Giants (5-9) Lost to Tennessee 17-0. Last Week: 18
The Giants followed their best game of 2018 with their worst. The offense ran into a buzzsaw against the Tennessee defense. They can do some serious damage to playoff hopes with games against the Colts and Cowboys remaining, but should they want to? The Giants modest improvement has endangered their chances of having a high pick to use on a quarterback.
25. Washington (7-7) Def. Jacksonville 16-13. Last Week: 27
A week after failing to show up against the Giants while injuries forced them down to their fourth quarterback and their once-promising season slipped away. Washington is somehow only one game back in their division.
Josh Johnson has been a spark at quarterback for sure, but the fire doesn’t have to grow too large to outscore Jacksonville’s anemic offense.
26. Buffalo Bills (5-9) Def. Detroit 14-13. Last Week: 29
Josh Allen’s unprecedented rushing attack wore off, but the Bills’ rookie quarterback will be more than happy to win one with his arm. His favorite target, undrafted rookie Robert Foster has 438 yards and two scores in the last five games – a huge percentage of the Buffalo passing offense over that span.
27. Detroit Lions (5-9) Lost to Buffalo 14-13. Last Week: 23
If they don’t win their remaining two games – no easy task against the Vikings or Packers (or, at this point, any opponent), the Lions will finish with their worst record since a 4-12 finish in 2012. Matt Stafford is in danger of failing to hit the 4,000 yard mark for the first time in his career when he’s played a full season.
28. San Francisco 49ers (4-10) Def. Seattle 26-23 (OT.) Last Week: 32
Alright, we’ll up the 49ers for that. Two weeks after they lost to Seattle in a 43-16 blowout, the 49ers have their first win streak of the 2018 season.
Technically, it also has to be their last. Making it grow any longer will be just as much of a challenge as upsetting the Seahawks was; San Francisco’s remaining games are against Chicago and the Rams.
29. New York Jets (4-10) Lost to Houston 29-22. Last Week: 28
The Jets, despite this loss, look like they’re starting to click as Sam Darnold’s rookie year draws to a close. The quarterback led a clutch fourth-quarter scoring drive (before Houston’s own) for the second week in a row. Two of Darnold’s four best QBR scores this season have come in those two games.
30. Jacksonville Jaguars (4-10) Lost to Washington 16-13. Last Week: 26
The most embarrassing defeat yet in the embarrassment that is the Jaguars’ 2018 season? Jacksonville has reached 20 points twice since September. Installing Cody Kessler at quarterback helped the passing offense reach 20 total yards Sunday. That’s a whole ten yards per turnover.
31. Oakland Raiders (3-11) Lost to Cincinnati 30-16. Last Week: 30
Wins have come few and far between for the Raiders this season, and that pattern continued following their upset of Pittsburgh a week ago. Through the Khalil Mack and Amari Cooper trades they are in fact responsible for a tremendous amount of success in the 2018 NFL season – it just hasn’t been their own.
32. Arizona Cardinals (3-11) Lost to Atlanta 40-14. Last Week: 31
Their first round pick in 2018 was benched at the end of this game, but Josh Rosen will be back under center this week. The Cardinals may be picking first overall in the 2019 draft for the first time since 1958.