1. Carolina Panthers (15-1) Def. Tampa Bay 38-10. Previously: 1
The Panthers recovered from their first loss of the season to take care of Tampa Bay.The undefeated season didn’t happen, but this team still has a first-round bye, home-field-advantage in the NFC, the best record in the NFL, and the best record in team history.They’ve got Ron Rivera and Cam Newton, favorites for Coach of the Year and MVP respectively, and they’ve got our top spot.
2. Arizona Cardinals (13-3) Lost to Seattle 36-6. Previously: 2
That was a bad loss to Seattle, but the Cardinals had nothing to play for, and it showed.If they see Seattle again, it will be in the NFC Championship Game, and that bad taste to finish the season will have had three weeks to stew.For now, they await the highest seed remaining in the second round, be it Washington, Green Bay, or Minnesota.
3. Denver Broncos (12-4) Def. San Diego 27-20. Previously: 9
Peyton Manning returned to the field to bring the Broncos their number one playoff seeding.Now the Broncos have two weeks to decide if Peyton will lead them in the playoffs, as they wait to see how his foot reacts to his game-time. But even if this is the last we see of Peyton this year, or maybe ever, it sure leaves a better taste in the mouth than his previous outing against Kansas City, and having that washed out is something we can all be thankful for.
4. Seattle Seahawks (10-6) Def. Arizona 36-6. Previously: 4
They’ve come a long way from 2-4, and look like a completely different team, not just than the one that opened the season, but than the last two Super Bowl Seattle teams.Russell Wilson has 24 touchdowns and one interception in his last seven games, and Doug Baldwin has the first 1,000 yard season of his career as Wilson’s top target.The same old defense is intact, but suddenly this is a team that can compete with any team in the NFL through the air.
5. New England Patriots (12-4) Lost to Miami 20-10. Previously: 3
Tom Brady lost the last two games of the regular season for the first time in his career.That makes them 2-4 since starting 10-0, and as New England as New England is, you have to wonder if they are just too injured to mount a credible title defense.Their first-round bye will help, as Julian Edelman and Sebastian Vollmer are expected to be ready for the second round.
6. Kansas City Chiefs (11-5) Def. Oakland 23-17. Previously: 7
The NFL’s hottest team just completed one of the most improbable turnarounds the NFL has ever seen.The Chiefs have gone from 1-5 to 11-5 on the back of 10 straight wins, and almost stole the division from Denver.Instead they face the team most similar to them in the first round: Houston.Both teams have a play-making defense, and quarterbacks whose ability to lead you to a Super Bowl will be questioned.With two teams who started a combined 2-9, it’s certainly one of the most unlikely playoff match-ups ever.
7. Pittsburgh Steelers (10-6) Def. Cleveland 28-12. Previously: 6
After many thought Pittsburgh blew their season with an upset loss to the Ravens in Week 16, the Jets handed them back a playoff berth by losing to the Bills Sunday.Now the NFL’s most dangerous offense is in the door, and starts their run off against Cincinnati, who may or may not have Andy Dalton.Pittsburgh’s first two playoff games (if they win the first one) will be against the Bengals and Denver, teams they’ve beaten in the past month.
8. Cincinnati Bengals (12-4) Def. Baltimore 24-16. Previously: 8
That first-round bye certainly would have come in handy. Andy Dalton’s cast is off, but it seems A.J. McCarron is still most likely to start the Wild Card match-up against the Steelers. The Bengals are still 2-2 since Dalton’s injury, but those wins have come against San Francisco and Baltimore. If Dalton returns, this should be the most exciting first round game, with A.J. Green, Tyler Eifert, Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant running up and down the field in the passing game.
9. Minnesota Vikings (11-5) Def. Green Bay 20-13. Previously: 10
The Vikings got revenge for their earlier loss to Green Bay in the game that decided the division.In doing so, they earned themselves the tougher playoff match-up: Seattle.The last time these teams played, the Seahawks were kicking off their renaissance and blew the Vikings out 38-7.The Vikings got jumped on early in that game, and as we’ve seen all season, they don’t have the firepower to recover from that.If they can hang in the game, then they can lean on rushing-title winner Adrian Peterson – and have a chance.
10. Green Bay Packers (10-6) Lost to Minnesota 20-13. Previously: 5
The Packers are 4-6 since starting the season 6-0, and they’ve struggled to look like the contender we’re all used to.Surprisingly, it’s the offense that most often can’t get it done.At the start of the season, it looked like they wouldn’t miss a beat in Jordy Nelson’s absence.Now they’ve struggled all season to run the ball, complete the deep ball, and create the fear opponents are used to feeling about facing Aaron Rodgers.All of that said, Washington in the first round is probably the best match-up they could draw.
11. Washington (9-7) Def. Dallas 34-23. Previously: 12
All season it seemed more and more likely that Washington would be left standing at the top of the NFC East, and they managed to do it with a winning record thanks to a season-ending three game win streak. Kirk Cousins has taken his game to a new level with 23 touchdowns and three interceptions in his final ten games. Washington might be the weakest of the NFC’s playoff contenders on paper, but their offense and DeSean Jackson gives them a puncher’s chance, and with their defense, they’ll need it.
12. Houston Texans (9-7) Def. Jacksonville 30-6. Previously: 13
The Texans, digging themselves out of a smaller hole, did what the Chiefs could not, and went from 1-4 to Division Champions.The Texans lost to the Chiefs in week one; during the game Brian Hoyer was replaced at quarterback by Ryan Mallett.Since Hoyer’s return, the Texans are 5-3 in games he has started. Regardless of how the playoffs go, theTexans mid and late season surge could easily have saved Bill O’Brien’s job.
13. New York Jets (10-6) Lost to Buffalo 22-17. Previously: 11
The loss — and loss of a playoff spot — obviously leaves a very bitter taste to what should be a very positive season for the Jets.Their off-season moves paid off in a big way, from hiring Todd Bowles, to bringing in Ryan Fitzpatrick, Brandon Marshall, and Darrell Revis and that secondary.This is a team that was 4-12 a year ago, and they’re 10-6 today.
14. Buffalo Bills (8-8) Def. New York Jets 22-17. Previously: 18
If the Bills couldn’t end their own playoff drought, the longest in the NFL, they at least kept out their division rivals on the final day of the season.Tyrod Taylor was a big surprise in his first season as Buffalo’s starter at quarterback, and LeSean McCoy was largely successful when he could get on the field.The biggest issue for Buffalo has to be cleaning up the penalties, which they led the NFL in.
15. Indianapolis Colts (8-8) Def. Tennessee 30-24. Previously: 22
In one of the off-season’s early shockers, Chuck Pagano is signed on for four more years.That’s probably good news for the Colts, who can chalk 2015 up as a lost season and get back to building their team.The most pressing issue is Andrew Luck, who is both out-of-contract after this season and coming off his worst year, injury-riddled or not, as a pro.It’s hard to believe Luck won’t be back to both Indianapolis and MVP ballots in the years ahead.
16. Oakland Raiders (7-9) Lost to Kansas City 23-17. Previously: 14
This season was a big step forward for the Raiders.They showed more than once they were able to play with the big dogs in the NFL, Amari Cooper showed he was the receiver everyone made him out to be in the draft, and the team’s development mirrored Derek Carr’s.The Broncos and Chiefs don’t look unassailable in the West, so it’s important Oakland does what they have so often failed to do in the off-season: buy and draft smartly and build on their success.
17. Detroit Lions (7-9) Def. Chicago 24-20. Previously: 23
When you consider Detroit was 0-5 and the last team to pick up a win this season, 7-9 doesn’t look too bad. They still don’t have any run game, and Matthew Stafford to Calvin Johnson appears to be on its way out as an offensive game-plan, but take away officials blowing a game to Seattle, and a hail-mary by Green Bay, and you have a 9-7 football team. Is that any different? Probably not.
18. Philadelphia Eagles (7-9) Def. New York Giants 35-30. Previously: 16
It’s hard to believe the turnover of last off-season in Philadelphia could be topped, but anything is possible now that Chip Kelly is no longer in Philadelphia.Kelly’s moves as GM, one year ago, proved to be failures as much as they were surprises at the time.With Howie Roseman seemingly back in power to pick up the pieces, he and the next head coach will have a lot of decisions to make, starting with Sam Bradford’s pending free agency.
19. Atlanta Falcons (8-8) Lost to New Orleans 20-17. Previously: 20
The Falcons may have been the biggest mid-season disappointment in the NFL.From 5-0 to 6-7, they fell a long way.Devonta Freeman took the world by storm, but clearly wasn’t the same back after his injury, and failed to reach four yards per carry in any game after Week 11.The biggest question mark on this team may still be Matt Ryan, who looked like a different quarterback when he was and wasn’t throwing to Julio Jones, as many might.
20. St. Louis Rams (7-9) Lost to San Francisco 19-16. Previously: 17
Todd Gurley is the big positive for the Rams this season. Picking up Nick Foles for Sam Bradford seems to be a bust.But Gurley had 1,106 yards in just 12 starts and showed no signs that his college injury would hinder his development.The Rams were inconsistent at best in 2015, alternating between a team that shocked us all with wins over Seattle and Arizona, and one that at times looked like the worst in football.
21. New Orleans Saints (7-9) Def. Atlanta 20-17. Previously: 25
Sean Payton’s status as head coach is still up in the air three days after the Saints’ season ended.The team appears to be holding out hope someone will deliver them a draft pick for Payton’s services.The Payton era does appear to have lost traction in New Orleans.The Saints went 7-9 for the second straight year, and the offense that once made fifth-string receivers the hottest waiver pickups in fantasy football has become inconsistent.
22. New York Giants (6-10) Lost to Philadelphia 35-30. Previously: 15
An era of Giants football that saw two Super Bowl Championships ended Tuesday, as Tom Coughlin stepped down as head coach.The other half of that era, Eli Manning, remains, and awaits who will replace Coughlin in New York.Aside from Manning to Beckham, the Giants lacked an identity for much of 2015, and the running game and defenses that punctuated their Super Bowl victories over New England were long gone.
23. Jacksonville Jaguars (5-11) Lost to Houston 30-6. Previously: 21
After a resounding 51-16 win over the Colts in Week 14, the Jaguars looked like they had a chance to sneak into the division race.Instead they lost their final three games.With that said, they often looked to be, like Oakland, taking a step forward this season and removing themselves from the “worst teams in the NFL” conversation.The offense has a lot of promise in Blake Bortles and Allen Robinson, but it was when the defense came to play this season that Jacksonville won games.
24. Miami Dolphins (6-10) Def. New England 20-10. Previously: 28
In a sort-of reverse-New York Jets fashion, a bitterly disappointing season ends on a sweet victory for the Dolphins.The victory over the Patriots was the best case Dan Campbell could have made for his return, but it’s being reported the Dolphins will look elsewhere in 2016.The two biggest names in Miami, Ryan Tannehill and Ndamukong Suh both had inconsistent and disappointing 2015 seasons, mirroring the team.
25. Chicago Bears (6-10) Lost to Detroit 24-20. Previously: 24
If the Falcons are the biggest mid-season disappointment, the Bears can tie the Buccaneers for biggest late-season one.Tampa Bay was Chicago’s only victory in their last five games, after a mid-season stretch where they won three-of-four, beating the Packers, blowing out the Rams, and barely losing to Denver.And they did this all while Matt Forte was banged up.Perhaps most disappointingly, it looked like Jay Cutler had taken a step forward. He gets you every year.
26. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-10) Lost to Carolina 38-10. Previously: 19
Tampa Bay showed a lot of improvement in 2015, but still finished the season with four straight losses.Jameis Winston’s first season in the NFL was a resounding success, highlighted by five touchdown passes against the Eagles, and the Buccaneers largely continued the string of teams with the first pick in the draft taking a big step up the next season.
27. Baltimore Ravens (5-11) Lost to Cincinnati 24-16. Previously: 31
The Ravens avoided their worst season in franchise history by completing a season sweep of the Steelers in Week 16, and almost knocked Pittsburgh out of the playoffs in the process.Playing spoiler to their division rival would have been small consolation in a season that was off the rails well before Joe Flacco and Justin Forsett got injured.
28. San Diego Chargers (4-12) Lost to Denver 27-20. Previously: 26
Somewhere along the way the Chargers went from a team in every game they played, to the whipping boy of the NFL, back to a team that almost knocked Denver from a one seed to a wild card on the last day of the season.Mike McCoy will remain as head coach in 2016, the team has announced, but now the focus is on whether or not the Chargers will remain in San Diego, as they were among three teams to file Tuesday for relocation to Los Angeles.
29. San Francisco 49ers (5-11) Def. St. Louis 19-16. Previously: 27
Jim Tomsula is out after one season in San Francisco, leaving you to wonder how exactly the 49ers expected this season to go with Blaine Gabbert outplaying Colin Kaepernick and the team dropping to about sixth string at tailback.The 49ers fall has been as quick as their rise, and they can only look on enviously as Jim Harbaugh celebrates twice as many victories in his first season at Michigan.
30. Dallas Cowboys (4-12) Lost to Washington 34-23. Previously: 30
The Cowboys did not have the season they were expecting, and it can’t all be chalked up to Tony Romo’s absence, even if they were 3-1 with Romo.With the fourth pick in the draft, and Romo continuing to deal with injuries each season, they have to ask if it’s time to draft a quarterback to eventually take over the reigns.At any rate, they need a backup they are more comfortable with than they had in the 2015 season.
31. Tennessee Titans (3-13) Lost to Indianapolis 30-24. Previously: 32
The Titans improved on their 2014 record by one game, which would have been great if that record was say, 10-6.On the bright side, though he only played in 12 games, Marcus Mariota adjusted more quickly to the NFL than most were expecting.Mike Mularkey will be a candidate for head coach going forward, but most will be keeping an eye of whether the Titans attempt to reunite Mariota with Chip Kelly.
32. Cleveland Browns (3-13) Lost to Pittsburgh 28-12. Previously: 29
Another season down, and another coach, Mike Pettine, and GM, Ray Farmer, fired in Cleveland.This season devolved from a surprisingly competitive Browns team that took Denver to overtime, to a weekly saga about Johnny Manziel.Manziels’ future might depend heavily on who replaces Pettine and Farmer in Cleveland, as the Browns hold the number two pick in the draft this season.