2. Cincinnati Bengals (8-0) | Last Week: 3
The misstep by the Broncos in Indianapolis puts the Bengals and Patriots a step ahead in the race for the top two playoff seeds in the AFC. There’s a long way to go, of course. But the Bengals might be the league’s most complete team at the moment, given the injuries on offense with which the Patriots are dealing. Cincinnati simply lacks New England’s proven playoff mettle.
3. Carolina Panthers (8-0) | Last Week: 4
The Panthers have separated themselves from the rest of the NFC. They have wins over the Seahawks and Packers and they are two games clear of every other team in the conference. Probably the most encouraging development for Carolina in the triumph Sunday at home over Green Bay was the big-play capability in the passing game. If WRs Devin Funchess and Jerricho Cotchery can add that until-now-missing element to the offense, the Panthers will be very, very difficult to beat. They’re tough enough to defeat even without that working for them.
4. Denver Broncos (7-1) | Last Week: 2
The Broncos have dropped from the ranks of the unbeaten and now the defense that has led the way all season will be missing some of its headliners. CB Aqib Talib is appealing a one-game suspension by the NFL for his eye-poke incident last weekend against the Colts and pass rusher DeMarcus Ware is expected to be sidelined two to four weeks after aggravating his back injury.
5. Minnesota Vikings (6-2) | Last Week: 5
The NFL has determined that the hit by the Rams’ Lamarcus Joyner that caused Vikings QB Teddy Bridgewater’s concussion was illegal. Joyner hit Bridgewater in the head after the QB had begun to slide at the end of a running play. The next step in the league’s process is to determine potential discipline, and a significant fine seemingly could be coming.
6. Arizona Cardinals (6-2) | Last Week: 7
The Cardinals return from their bye to deal with a difficult two-game stretch of facing the Seahawks and Bengals. An Arizona victory Sunday night in Seattle would push the Seahawks three games behind in the NFC West race and leave them realistically needing to secure a wild-card spot to reach the playoffs.
7. Green Bay Packers (6-2) | Last Week: 6
From QB Aaron Rodgers’s tablet-tossing while on the bench to the sideline argument involving defenders Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Julius Peppers and B.J. Raji, the Packers’ frustration was on display during Sunday’s defeat at Carolina. Consecutive road losses to the Broncos and Panthers can be forgiven and can be overcome. But the defense’s inability to stop anyone obviously is a concern. And it appears increasingly likely that the Packers will have to go on the road and beat a good team or two during the NFC playoffs to reach the Super Bowl. There is considerable room to wonder at this point if they are capable of that.
8. Seattle Seahawks (4-4) | Last Week: 8
They certainly haven’t looked like a championship-caliber team so far. But the Seahawks have managed to hang around and keep themselves in position to make a run in the second half of the season. If they indeed are going to make a third straight Super Bowl appearance, it’s about time for them to begin showing signs they’re a team headed in that direction.
9. New York Jets (5-3) | Last Week: 13
QB Ryan Fitzpatrick missed no time after suffering a torn ligament in the thumb of his left (non-throwing) hand. He showed few ill effects in Sunday’s win over the Jaguars. But now there’s a short turnaround and the stakes are higher for Thursday night’s meeting with the Bills.
10. New York Giants (5-4) | Last Week: 14
Jason Pierre-Paul wasn’t great in his season debut. But he looked capable of helping, at least, and he should get better as he settles back in.
11. Pittsburgh Steelers (5-4) | Last Week: 15
The bad news was obvious Sunday, with QB Ben Roethlisberger getting hurt again. An offense that already was without RB Le’Veon Bell now must try — again — to get by without Roethlisberger for at least a few weeks. But there were positive signs for the Steelers. WR Antonio Brown had a record-setting day and RB DeAngelo Williams showed again that he can fill in capably for Bell.
12. Philadelphia Eagles (4-4) | Last Week: 18
DeMarco Murray was productive in his return to Dallas and the Eagles stayed on the heels of the Giants in the NFC East chase. It’s probably just a race to see which team in the division can secure the right to lose a first-round playoff game. But everyone can put that aside for now and pretend it’s meaningful.
13. St. Louis Rams (4-4) | Last Week: 9
The signing of WR Wes Welker certainly is intriguing. He always has productive and he has the potential to move a borderline contender closer to being a playoff team. But everyone must hope Welker made the right decision to resume his career after his issues with concussions.
14. Oakland Raiders (4-4) | Last Week: 11
Whether the Raiders reach the playoffs or not this season, they have made themselves relevant again. They are a competent and respect-worthy team, something that has not been the case in recent memory.
15. Atlanta Falcons (6-3) | Last Week: 12
Remember when the Falcons were an early-season success story? Nope, no one else does, either. It is a rapidly fading memory, for sure. The Falcons have lost three of four games since a 5-0 start and now have their bye week to seethe about their defeat at San Francisco.
16. Indianapolis Colts (4-5) | Last Week: 22
Where has that version of QB Andrew Luck and the Colts been all season? Luck was reliable and the Colts gave a solid performance in beating the Broncos. Let’s get one thing straight: It was not the firing of offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton that made things right. Hamilton is a good and respected coach. He has been mentioned for head coaching jobs. He was not the problem.
17. Buffalo Bills (4-4) | Last Week: 24
Rex Ryan never has been afraid to provoke an opponent. But making IK Enemkpali a team captain for Thursday night’s game against the Jets? Is that really necessary? The Jets would be right to be offended. And if that works in the Jets’ favor in a game that is very important to both teams, Ryan would deserve any criticism he receives.
18. Chicago Bears (3-5) | Last Week: 25
What happens if you play a Monday night game and no one pays attention?
19. New Orleans Saints (4-5) | Last Week: 10
The Saints signed place kicker Kai Forbath, not known for a strong leg on kickoffs, for his 87 percent career field goal accuracy while with the Redskins. Forbath delivered a game-winner against the Giants but wasn’t as dependable Sunday, having a potential winning field goal deflected late in regulation before the Saints lost in overtime to the Titans.
20. Kansas City Chiefs (3-5) | Last Week: 19
The Chiefs attempt to continue their recovery Sunday at Denver. They won their final two games before their bye. But before that came five straight losses.
21. Houston Texans (3-5) | Last Week: 21
The Texans haven’t lost this month, thanks to a Nov. 1 win over the Titans and then a bye week. That qualifies as a dynasty in the AFC South.
22. Miami Dolphins (3-5) | Last Week: 16
So much for the move to interim coach Dan Campbell saving the Dolphins’ season. Losing at New England with a short work week to prepare is entirely understandable. Following that up by having a long time to prepare and still being overwhelmed at Buffalo is a completely different matter.
23. Washington Redskins (3-5) | Last Week: 17
The receivers let down QB Kirk Cousins in Foxborough. It wouldn’t have made much difference even if they’d caught everything that Cousins threw, however. The Redskins simply were overmatched. They get back to playing teams more on their level when the Saints visit FedEx Field this weekend.
24. San Francisco 49ers (3-6) | Last Week: 29
Coach Jim Tomsula named QB Blaine Gabbert to start the Niners’ next game at Seattle following a bye week. Was that even in question? Gabbert took over the starting job and the 49ers won. Why wouldn’t he start?
25. Tennessee Titans (2-6) | Last Week: 32
Mike Mularkey has moved ahead of Dan Campbell in the interim coach of the year race. Mularkey vowed to make the Titans’ offense more user-friendly for rookie QB Marcus Mariota. It’s so far, so good, at least one game into Mularkey’s tenure. He’s two victories away from matching Ken Whisenhunt’s win total in Whisenhunt’s 23-game Titans coaching career.
26. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-5) | Last Week: 20
The first half of QB Jameis Winston’s rookie season is over and the Buccaneers should be pleased. Winston has thrown for 1,897 yards and 10 touchdowns, with seven interceptions and a passer rating of 84.0. There is every reason to believe at this point that he will continue to develop into a consistently productive NFL starter.
27. Baltimore Ravens (2-6) | Last Week: 26
The Ravens beat a bad team, the Chargers, before their bye. They have a chance to beat another bad team Sunday when they host the Jaguars. Goals must be adjusted in a season such as this. Getting back anywhere close to .500 by season’s end would be an accomplishment for the Ravens after the way things have gone.
28. Jacksonville Jaguars (2-6) | Last Week: 23
Blake Bortles put up big passing numbers Sunday in the Meadowlands, and the Jaguars were in the game against the Jets until the final stages. But they’re still the Jaguars and their late mistakes sealed the outcome in their 13th consecutive road loss dating back to December 2013.
29. Dallas Cowboys (2-6) | Last Week: 27
Tony Romo is eligible to return to the lineup later this month but the competitive portion of the Cowboys’ season very well might be over by then. It might be over now, in fact. The Cowboys certainly had their chances against the Eagles but again weren’t quite good enough.
30. San Diego Chargers (2-7) | Last Week: 28
If these are the franchise’s final days in San Diego, they certainly aren’t pretty.
31. Cleveland Browns (2-7) | Last Week: 30
It’s Johnny Manziel time. Will Coach Mike Pettine realize it? If not, will the franchise’s upper management “help” him realize it?
32. Detroit Lions (1-7) | Last Week: 31
Actual accountability in the Lions organization? This sure is a crazy, newfangled management approach by owner Martha Firestone Ford, isn’t it?