Each week, national NFL writer Mark Maske will provide his ranking of the league’s 32 teams. The league’s lone unbeaten team, Carolina, stays on top, ahead of Arizona, as New England returns to the top three. Meantime, Kansas City, Seattle and Pittsburgh continue their late-season ascensions.
Coach Ron Rivera isn’t tipping his hand yet as to whether he will rest key starters once the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs is clinched or chase a 16-0 regular season. Rivera is calling it a week-to-week evaluation based on what the upcoming game means. For now, there is no decision to be made, with Carolina having secured a first-round postseason bye and a conference semifinal at home, but with home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs not yet wrapped up. The Panthers did get an injury scare Sunday when TE Greg Olsen hurt his knee, but Rivera said the injury was not serious.
2. Arizona Cardinals (11-2) | Last week’s rank: 3
QB Carson Palmer called the Cardinals a tired team in need of a rest following the victory Thursday night at home over the Vikings. That’s what they have gotten with the mini-bye that follows a Thursday game. The stretch that closes the regular season is difficult with games against three playoff contenders in the Eagles, Packers and Seahawks.
3. New England Patriots (11-2) | Last week’s rank: 5
TE Rob Gronkowski returned to the lineup and the Patriots won with relative ease Sunday night in Houston. Normalcy is restored, with the Bengals and Broncos back to chasing New England for the AFC’s top playoff seed. And now the Patriots’ QB advantage over those teams is pronounced. Tom Brady vs. Brock Osweiler or Brady vs. AJ McCarron in a meaningful game? If the Patriots are reasonably healthy on offense when the playoffs arrive, they will be the conference’s decided Super Bowl favorite.
4. Denver Broncos (10-3) | Last week’s rank: 2
Coach Gary Kubiak has not yet named a starter at QB for this weekend. There seems to be no immediate reason to switch back to Peyton Manning, with Brock Osweiler having played reasonably well overall and Manning only now reaching the point where he might be ready to practice. But the loss to the Raiders does change the equation a bit: The Broncos are not an infallible team with Osweiler at QB. Still, he has played better than Manning played earlier this season, and the guess here is that it will take more going wrong for Kubiak to be persuaded to turn back to Manning.
5. Kansas City Chiefs (8-5) | Last week’s rank: 6
The Chiefs simply don’t lose any more, even if the Chargers did make things mighty interesting with their late drive to the 1-yard line Sunday. But Kansas City held on, and the winning streak should continue this Sunday in Baltimore.
6. Seattle Seahawks (8-5) | Last week’s rank: 7
The Seahawks have remade themselves in recent weeks as a pass-happy team. QB Russell Wilson is getting it done as a pocket passer, with 16 TD passes and no interceptions in the past four games. WR Doug Baldwin has eight TD catches over the last three games. It’s working, with Seattle on a four-game winning streak and looking stronger on a weekly basis. Even so, the Seahawks could use RB Marshawn Lynch back in the lineup after rookie Thomas Rawls’s season-ending ankle injury.
7. Pittsburgh Steelers (8-5) | Last week’s rank: 8
The Steelers are unlikely to overtake Cincinnati in the AFC North. But they probably are better positioned for the playoffs than the Bengals are, with Ben Roethlisberger healthy and in the lineup at QB and with a smoothly functioning offense around him.
8. Cincinnati Bengals (10-3) | Last week’s rank: 4
The Bengals’ season isn’t exactly over with the fractured right thumb suffered by QB Andy Dalton. They should be able to hang on and win the division title with AJ McCarron at QB. Winning a playoff game isn’t out of the question, either. But being a legitimate Super Bowl contender either with McCarron in the lineup or with Dalton returning to play but undoubtedly still dealing with the effects of the injury? That perhaps is no longer realistic.
9. Green Bay Packers (9-4) | Last week’s rank: 9
So Mike McCarthy takes over the offensive play-calling and makes RB Eddie Lacy available again to help make those play calls work? Nothing like making yourself look good.
10. New York Jets (8-5) | Last week’s rank: 10
It appears to be a three-way race among the Jets, Steelers and Chiefs for the AFC’s two wild-card spots. The Jets play two of their final three regular season games on the road, beginning Saturday night at Dallas.
11. Minnesota Vikings (8-5) | Last week’s rank: 11
The Vikings are well positioned to make the playoffs. But they have yet to show that they can beat the NFC’s better teams, something that doesn’t bode particularly well for their prospects of advancing in the postseason.
12. Philadelphia Eagles (6-7) | Last week’s rank: 17
Chip Kelly didn’t need to say anything, as it turned out. He could use the final score Sunday as the last word in the LeSean McCoy matter. The Eagles beat McCoy and the Bills and now have two straight wins on the heels of an ugly three-game losing streak. It doesn’t mean the Eagles are a good team. Far from that, in fact. But it won’t take being a good team to win the NFC East this season.
13. Washington Redskins (6-7) | Last week’s rank: 18
Things are headed in the proper direction with GM Scot McCloughan’s rebuilding program. In no way, shape or form should the Redskins be vying for a division title. But that part isn’t their fault. It is the other teams in the NFC East who should be ashamed. The Eagles, Giants and Cowboys should be better. The Redskins are about as good as they could have hoped to be at this point.
14. New York Giants (6-7) | Last week’s rank: 19
QB Eli Manning and WR Odell Beckham were magnificent Monday night in Miami. A fourth-quarter lead translated into a victory this time, and the Giants moved into a virtual tie with the Redskins and Eagles atop the NFC East.
15. Houston Texans (6-7) | Last week’s rank: 14
Even with the loss to the Patriots, the Texans will be playing for first place in the AFC South on Sunday at Indianapolis. They’ll probably have to rely again on T.J. Yates at QB with Brian Hoyer having suffered his second concussion in a span of a month.
16. Oakland Raiders (6-7) | Last week’s rank: 25
The road win in Denver was impressive. So, too, were Khalil Mack’s five sacks of Brock Osweiler. The Raiders probably can’t make a playoff push but they have made significant improvements this season.
17. Jacksonville Jaguars (5-8) | Last week’s rank: 29
The Jaguars are making progress. That was clear with the 51-point outburst against the Colts, which included a 42-point second half. This is a team that could be building toward better things in future seasons.
18. New Orleans Saints (5-8) | Last week’s rank: 30
The Saints got back into the win column with the victory in Tampa. But it was far too little, far too late as what could be a very interesting offseason nears.
19. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-7) | Last week’s rank: 12
The Buccaneers had a chance to inch above .500 but couldn’t win at home against the Saints. Tampa Bay should have been far more productive on offense against a New Orleans defense that has stopped almost no one this season.
20. Buffalo Bills (6-7) | Last week’s rank: 13
LeSean McCoy had plenty to say about Chip Kelly before he and the Bills lost Sunday in Philadelphia. McCoy should not have resorted to no-commenting his way back out of town.
21. Miami Dolphins (5-8) | Last week’s rank: 16
It’s another lost season in South Florida. So much for the notion that the Ndamukong Suh deal would make the Dolphins a contender this season. It’s a signing that has worked out for no one so far.
22. Chicago Bears (5-8) | Last week’s rank: 22
It wasn’t all Robbie Gould’s fault. The Bears had plenty of chances to win Sunday against the Redskins without the game coming down to the tying FG that Gould missed. Even so, crunch-time misses in two straight games do not create much job security for an NFL kicker.
23. Indianapolis Colts (6-7) | Last week’s rank: 15
The injuries are accumulating for fill-in QB Matt Hasselbeck and Andrew Luck probably isn’t ready to return to the lineup yet. The loss in Jacksonville was stunningly lopsided. The Colts began the season with Super Bowl aspirations but now there is no reason to believe they are even the best team in a terrible division. The conjecture about the job security of Coach Chuck Pagano and GM Ryan Grigson is almost certain to intensify again.
24. Atlanta Falcons (6-7) | Last week’s rank: 24
Will the Falcons win another game this season? That 5-0 beginning is a distant memory now. Things have gotten bad enough that owner Arthur Blank has had to express his support for his first-year coach, Dan Quinn. There are no need for such statements of support when things are going even reasonably well. It’s hard to believe that, after that start, this season will go down as disappointment. But that’s the direction in which things clearly are headed.
25. St. Louis Rams (5-8) | Last week’s rank: 31
A .500 season remains within reach. The Rams would have to beat the Buccaneers at home and then the Seahawks and 49ers on the road to accomplish that.
26. Dallas Cowboys (4-9) | Last week’s rank: 21
The Cowboys can’t even pretend to be NFC East contenders any longer. A dreary season winds down in nothing-to-see-here mode.
27. Detroit Lions (4-9) | Last week’s rank: 23
Is it time for Martha Firestone Ford to begin firing people again?
28. Cleveland Browns (3-10) | Last week’s rank: 32
Johnny Manziel played well, minus the one interception on a throw as ill-advised as they come, in the win over the 49ers. But it was only one game and no conclusions should be drawn just yet. The Browns did themselves no favors by waiting so long to make Manziel the starter. But they’ll have to allow things to play out over the remainder of the season and then make an evaluation as to whether they can trust him to be their QB going forward.
29. San Francisco 49ers (4-9) | Last week’s rank: 20
Nine sacks? How did the 49ers allow QB Blaine Gabbert to be sacked nine times in Cleveland? If the Niners really did, as some players suggested, underestimate the Browns, it’s absurd. The 49ers have four wins this season, one of them on the road. There is no one they should take lightly.
30. Baltimore Ravens (4-9) | Last week’s rank: 26
The Ravens were no match Sunday for the Seahawks. That is good news for the Chiefs and Steelers, who play in Baltimore the next two weekends. The offense is going nowhere with Jimmy Clausen at QB. The defense didn’t generate a meaningful pass rush against the Seahawks but at least complemented that with poor coverage in the secondary. Not a great combination.
31. San Diego Chargers (3-10) | Last week’s rank: 27
The Chargers haven’t given up. They just aren’t very good. But they did make the Chiefs earn their victory Sunday. Now comes quite possibly their final game in San Diego this weekend with the Dolphins coming to town.
32. Tennessee Titans (3-10) | Last week’s rank: 28
The Titans were not competitive against the Jets and now are in line to have the top overall selection in the NFL draft. That’s not exactly what they had in mind when they drafted QB Marcus Mariota second overall last year and then opened this season with a promising win over the Buccaneers. But it at least should enable Tennessee to accelerate the rebuilding process around Mariota.