1. Carolina Panthers (14-0) Def. New York Giants 38-35. Previously: 1
The Panthers narrowly avoided losing this week as the Giants staged a 28-point comeback after falling behind 35-7. That's no reason to take them out of their top spot however, as they've won close games all season. For a team we thought was all about the run, MVP front-runner Cam Newton has thrown five touchdown passes three times in his last five games.
2. Arizona Cardinals (12-2) Def. Philadelphia 40-17. Previously: 2
David Johnson dragged Eagles all over the field on his way to 187 rushing yards Sunday night. Despite injuries to Andre Ellington and Chris Johnson the Arizona backfield is looking better than ever. This week they clinched the NFC West. Next week they'll take on Green Bay at home, and if they win, they'll have clinched a first-round bye in the playoffs.
3. New England Patriots (12-2) Def. Tennessee 33-16. Previously: 3
The Patriots can clinch homefield for the AFC postseason with a win Sunday against the Jets. Thelatest weapon in Bill Belichick's tool-shed was fullback Joey Iosefa, who carried 14 times Sunday in the absence of LeGarrette Blount. The Patriots let this one get a little closer than most may have expected, but if we aren't going to punish the Panthers for that, we won't blame the Patshere.
4. Seattle Seahawks (9-5) Def. Cleveland 30-13. Previously: 4
The Seahawks, 7-1 in their last eight games, kept on rolling, thanks to the continued presence of touchdown monster Doug Baldwin, who has caught 10 in the last four games. Even more promising is Christine Michael's ability to perform in the run game (16 carries for 84 yards) after Thomas Rawls was lost for the season and with the continued absence of Marshawn Lynch.
5. Green Bay Packers (10-4) Def. Oakland 30-20. Previously: 6
The Packers found a middle ground between tearing itup in the run game and being abysmal (every previous week), with 103 yards on 28 carries for the team. They'll need some more of that sweet mediocrity to stay balanced on offense and have a chance against the most balanced offensive team in the NFL when they travel to Arizona.
6. Pittsburgh Steelers (9-5) Def. Denver 34-27. Previously: 7
On a week where the other contender for best receiver in football left us talking about everything but his play, Antonio Brown's play on the field (against Denver's usually dominant secondary) showed us that there are no other contenders. Brown had his eighth 100-yard day of the season and found the end zone twice as the Steelers knocked off Denver to stay on pace for a wild-card spot.
7. Kansas City Chiefs (9-5) Def. Baltimore 34-14. Previously: 8
The Chiefs are breathing down the Broncos neck as the season ends.If the teams end the season tied at 11-5, the Chiefs will have the tiebreaker based on division record, after the teams split their head-to-head match-ups. This victory over the Ravens was as Chiefs-ish as it gets, with the defense scoring on 73 and 90 yard returns, and the offense churning out just 277 yards-in a comfortable victory.
8. Cincinnati Bengals (11-3) Def. San Francisco 24-14. Previously: 9
Cincinnati locked down a playoff spot this week, and a win over Denver next week would lock down the division and a first-round bye. A.J. McCarron didn't turn the ball over, which is about all you can ask of A.J. McCarron.Worryingly,however, the run game couldn't take the pressure off him against San Francisco, finishing with 68 yards on 36 carries.
9. Denver Broncos (10-4) Lost to Pittsburgh 34-27. Previously: 5
The Broncos, once 7-0 and able to look comfortablyback at a 2-5 Chiefs team, are suddenly in a precarious spot. After back-to-back losses, the Broncos desperately need to right the ship against Cincinnati, both if they want to finish with a first-round bye over the Bengals, and hold onto the division they have been in first place of since Week 1. Without Andy Dalton, the Bengals are unlikely to engage them in the kind of shootout Pittsburgh did, and that's probably a plus for the Broncos.
10. Minnesota Vikings (9-5) Def. Chicago 38-17. Previously: 11
Minnesota responded to back-to-back losses brilliantly, and Teddy Bridgewater played his best game of the season. The defense, which has been banged up, managed to grab two turnovers and the offense turned them into 14 points.The Vikings will face an equally desperate Giants team on Sunday night this coming weekend.
11. New York Jets (9-5) Def. Dallas 19-16. Previously: 10
The running game again fell off against Dallas, and it probably made things a lot closer than itotherwise should have been. But Ryan Fitzpatrick has something special in the fourth quarter this season, and it's been on full display the last two weeks. With the Steelers and Chiefs schedules very favorable towards 11-5 finishes, the Jets' game against New England on Sunday takes on huge significance in the wild card race.
12. Washington Redskins (7-7) Def. Buffalo 35-25. Previously: 15
The season is almost behind us and the team that looks the best in the NFC East is....Washington? Hard to believe at the start of the year, and maybe even the middle, but here we are. Earlier this year we wrote about how Kirk Cousins was either great or awful. For the past six weeks he's just been great, with a 12-2 touchdown to interception ratio and one game with a quarterback rating below 100.
13. Houston Texans (7-7) Def. Indianapolis 16-10. Previously: 18
The tie that had sat atop the AFC South for six weeks with this game in our sights finally ended this weekend, and Houston stands alone. Brandon Weeden's performance after T.J. Yates injury sends a nice message to the other team in the state of Texas after his dismissal. If the Chiefs can catch the Broncos and the Texans can hold on, two of the AFC's division champions will have begun the season 1-4.
14. Oakland Raiders (6-8) Lost to Green Bay 30-20. Previously: 12
We mentioned a couple weeks ago that Oakland's schedule to ride out the season was anything but nice. Still, splitting Denver and Green Bay to start out isn't so bad. And they were right in this game, leading in the third quarter after Amari Cooper's second touchdown of the afternoon. Cooper went over 1,000 receiving yards for his rookie campaign on the day.
15. New York Giants (6-8) Lost to Carolina 38-35. Previously: 17
Odell Beckham Jr. managed to make sure no one is talking about the weekend's best game and most thrilling comeback. Of course, that comeback wouldn't have happened without Beckham's talent on the field, and now that talent won't be on the field (pending appeal) for the Giants against the Vikings next week after his one game suspension.The Giants still have an outside chance at the division title, but boy is it an outside one.
16. Philadelphia Eagles (6-8) Lost to Arizona 40-17. Previously: 13
Channel a former Cardinals coach when thinking about the Eagles: Dennis Green. Because they are who we thought they were: a team without an identity. What are the Eagles good at? It was supposed to be their front seven and stopping the run, but that has completely fallen apart without a third round rookie, Jordan Hicks, who was never supposed to factor in this season anyway.
17. St. Louis Rams (6-8) Def. Tampa Bay 31-23. Previously: 24
The Rams have suddenly won two in a row after losing the previous five, and now they face the team they opened the season against with such promise: Seattle, who lost to St. Louis 34-31 in overtime opening day.Todd Gurley went over 1,000 yards Thursday for the first of what will hopefully be many times in his career.
18. Buffalo Bills (6-8) Lost to Washington 35-25. Previously: 14
Make it four of five losses for Buffalo, and the AFC wild card race that was so congested has quickly climbed out of view. Rex Ryan's first season wasn't the healthiest for the Buffalo backfield, and that certainly contributed to the disappointment. But more important, and more controllable, are the penalty yards that Buffalo continues to lead the NFL in despite picking up "just" 56 Sunday.
19. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-8) Lost to St. Louis 31-23. Previously: 16
Jameis Winston topped 300 passing yards for the first time this week, putting the ball in the air 50 times for 363 of them as the Bucs staged a fourth quarter comeback that couldn't quite get the job done. Their second loss in a row means Tampa will have to beat Carolina on the last Sunday of the season, if they want to finish .500.
20. Atlanta Falcons (7-7) Def. Jacksonville 23-17. Previously: 25
There's some fight in them yet. It took the Falcons worst loss of the season (38-0 last week to Carolina) to wake them up from a six game losing streak. With the Panthers back on the schedule next week, we'll see just how much fight is left. The Falcons technically are still in the wild-card race, but they'll need to win out to have a shot.
21. Jacksonville Jaguars (5-9) Lost to Atlanta 23-17. Previously: 19
Jacksonville failed to capitalize on last week's 51-16 shellacking of the Colts. With a win Sunday, they would have suddenly been just a game behind the winner of Houston vs. Indianapolis. T.J. Yeldon's presence was missed, as Blake Bortles finished Sunday as the team's leading rusher, and Denard Robinson managed just 28 yards on 14 carries.
22. Indianapolis Colts (6-8) Lost to Houston 16-10. Previously: 20
Is it a good thing that the Colts didn't give up 50 points, or a bad thing that they've lost their hold on first place in the division? The answer to that question may be obvious, but the bigger one is: Is this the end of an era, as the Colts string of 16 division wins has been snapped with two straight losses? Or is it a brief respite and will order be returned to the AFC South when Andrew Luck is back at quarterback?
23. Detroit Lions (5-9) Def. New Orleans 35-27. Previously: 26
Matthew Stafford out-gunned Drew Brees, and that's got to count for something. Even after letting the Saints comeback from a 28-3 deficit, the Lions finally found a way to finish a game, so give them credit for that. Golden Tate, who was a forgotten man with one touchdown in the first ten games, suddenly has five in the last four.
24. Chicago Bears (5-9) Lost to Minnesota 38-17. Previously: 21
Make it three losses in a row for the spiraling Bears, and this was their worst one yet. They can right the ship with games against Tampa Bay and Detroit left, but they can't save the season. During the losing streak, perhaps not-so-coincidentally, Jay Cutler's turnover streak has started to reappear.
25. New Orleans Saints (5-9) Lost to Detroit 35-27. Previously: 22
They won't go away, with this game being a good example of their season in microcosm: fall out of the race early, fight your way back, lose in the end. Sean Payton's name is starting to come up for other coaching opportunities, and it says something that this team hasn't quit on him. 2014 first round pick Brandin Cooks had a career high 124 yards receiving, and has two 100-yard efforts in his last three games after one in the first 21 efforts of his career.
26. San Diego Chargers (4-10) Def. Miami 30-14. Previously: 31
Danny Woodhead almost doubled his season touchdown total in one game, scoring four, and Philip Rivers threw three touchdowns and got one of his two interceptions back by recovering a fumble on the same play in what has been a rarity this season for San Diego fans - a fun game they led 24-0 in and never looked back.
27. San Francisco 49ers (4-10) Lost to Cincinnati 24-14. Previously: 28
You might wonder how you lose (and go down 24-0) to a team that only gains 242 yards of offense, and you might find that the answer is to turn the ball over four times and only gain 318 yards of offense yourself. Another question for the idle mind to ponder: if Blaine Gabbert is throwing the ball 50 times in a game, are you winning that game?
28. Miami Dolphins (5-9) Lost to San Diego 30-14. Previously: 23
The Dolphins greatest accomplishment this season may be making the Chargers look good. Miami is 29th in yards per game and 30th in yards allowed per game this season, and that tells you most of what you need to know about the Dolphins' season. Stay tuned to see if Dan Campbell gets to stay around next season, but don't stay tuned for much else.
29. Cleveland Browns (3-11) Lost to Seattle 30-13. Previously: 27
The Browns led against Seattle, and that is more than the Seahawks previous two opponents can say. One week after exploding for 145 yards, Isaiah Crowell had nine carries for 23 yards, letting everyone rest assured that this was, in fact, the Browns' running back. Duke Johnson had a 39-yard run that would have made him the Browns' leader in total yards had it been his only play of the day.
30. Dallas Cowboys (4-10) Lost to New York Jets 10-16. Previously: 29
Kellen Moore replaced Matt Cassel at quarterback this week and, if he starts next week, will become the fourth quarterback to start for the Cowboys this season. This is generally what the records of teams who start four quarterbacks in a season look like. If he can get 102 yards over the final two games, Darren McFadden will have his first 1,000-yard season since 2010, and just the second of his career.
31. Baltimore Ravens (4-10) Lost to Kansas City 34-14. Previously: 30
The Ravens need a win in their last two games, against Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, to avoid their worst season since their first year in Baltimore, 1996, when they went 4-12. If Jimmy Clausen remains the starting quarterback and they get one of those wins, it would also be his first win as a starter since his rookie season, 2010.
32. Tennessee Titans (3-11) Lost to New England 33-16. Previously: 32
Marcus Mariota's knee likely won't keep him out for the remainder of the season, and his removal from the game against the Patriots was mostly cautionary. That's good news, since Mariota continuing to get time playing in the NFL is about the only point left in the Titans' season.