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2015 NFL Power Rankings — Week 17: Arizona Cardinals are the NFL’s best team right now

Carson Palmer and the Cardinals take over the No. 1 spot. (Matt York/Associated Press)

Each week, national NFL writer Mark Maske will provide his ranking of the league’s 32 teams. The league no longer has any unbeaten teams, after Carolina’s stunning loss at Atlanta, and Arizona climbs into the top spot entering the final week of the regular season.

1. Arizona Cardinals (13-2) | Last week’s rank: 2

The Panthers have been the league’s best team over the entirety of the season. But the Cardinals are the league’s best team right now. They’re terrific on offense, with QB Carson Palmer perhaps now back in the league MVP race with Carolina’s loss. They’re terrific on defense even after Tyrann Mathieu’s season-ending knee injury. The totality of their dominance Sunday against a playoff team like the Packers was striking.

2. Carolina Panthers (14-1) | Last week’s rank: 1

Carolina had its chance to make history and squandered it Sunday in Atlanta with a loss to a team it had beaten by 38 points only two weeks earlier. The Panthers still can clinch the NFC’s top playoff seed by beating the Buccaneers at home Sunday. And, ultimately, keeping their foot on the accelerator through the end of the regular season might serve the Panthers better for the postseason than resting key starters in a meaningless finale might have done. But there is reason to wonder at this point if Arizona, not Carolina, is the NFC’s Super Bowl favorite.

[The Panthers are still very, very good. But not perfect any more]

3. Kansas City Chiefs (10-5) | Last week’s rank: 4

With the issues facing by the Patriots, Bengals and Broncos, it’s possible that no AFC team will enter the postseason better equipped for success than the Chiefs.

4. New England Patriots (12-3) | Last week’s rank: 3

There is nothing wrong, really, with Coach Bill Belichick’s decision to kick off at the outset of OT against the Jets. The revamped OT format has made that a reasonable approach even if there remains a risk of losing on the opening possession, as the Patriots did, by allowing a touchdown. It probably is an option better suited to games played in worse weather conditions than was the case Sunday. But Belichick’s four Super Bowl victories with the Patriots more than earn him the benefit of the doubt on this subject. What is more telling is what the choice says about Belichick’s current level of trust in his injury-depleted offense.

5. Denver Broncos (11-4) | Last week’s rank: 7

Just when a switch back to Peyton Manning at QB this week seemed possible, Brock Osweiler brought the Broncos back Monday night against the Bengals and their OT victory has them in position to be the AFC’s No. 2 seed. That performance by Osweiler seemed to make this indisputably his team unless he gets hurt.

6. New York Jets (10-5) | Last week’s rank: 10

The Jets now control their own playoff fate thanks to Bill Belichick’s decision to kick off in OT and the Steelers’ inexplicable loss in Baltimore. If the Jets win in Buffalo, they’re in. That means beating their old friend, Rex Ryan, something they couldn’t manage earlier this season in the Meadowlands.

7. Minnesota Vikings (10-5) | Last week’s rank: 11

The Vikings are probably the better team at this point in their showdown Sunday night with the Packers for the division crown. But does that ensure a victory, given that the game is being played at Lambeau Field? Certainly not.

8. Seattle Seahawks (9-6) | Last week’s rank: 5

The loss at home to the Rams was startling. Sure, the Seahawks are in the NFC playoff field anyway. But there is something to be said for playing like a championship-caliber team whenever you take the field if you truly are a championship-caliber team.

9. Cincinnati Bengals (11-4) | Last week’s rank: 8

AJ McCarron and the Bengals started well but finished poorly Monday night in Denver. It seems unlikely that Andy Dalton’s thumb would be healed in time for him to play in a first-round playoff game.

10. Green Bay Packers (10-5) | Last week’s rank: 9

The Packers still have a chance to secure the NFC North title and the No. 3 seed in the NFC playoffs with a triumph Sunday night over the Vikings at Lambeau Field. But the lopsided loss to the Cardinals suggests that it doesn’t really matter; Green Bay is unlikely to be a major factor in the postseason.

11. Pittsburgh Steelers (9-6) | Last week’s rank: 6

The loss in Baltimore was unfathomable and unforgivable. The Ravens had done nothing the previous two weekends against the Seahawks and Chiefs to suggest they were a threat to a playoff-bound opponent, and they were starting Ryan Mallett at QB. The Steelers, until Sunday, resembled a team that could be a legitimate threat in the AFC playoffs. Now they’ll need help simply to reach the postseason. They’ll have only themselves to blame if they miss the playoffs; after the defeat to the Ravens, no lamenting a 10-6 team being left out would be permissible.

12. Washington Redskins (8-7) | Last week’s rank: 12

The division title has some legitimacy to it now that the Redskins have ensured themselves of being at least a .500 team. There would be even more credibility if they get a ninth victory, something they should be able to manage at Dallas even if Coach Jay Gruden opts to sit key starters.

13. Houston Texans (8-7) | Last week’s rank: 13

Brian Hoyer appears close to returning to the lineup at QB. The job clearly should be his when he’s ready. But some of the credit for the Texans’ success goes to Brandon Weeden, who played well with Hoyer sidelined. The Cowboys can only wonder why Weeden didn’t fare nearly as well for them this season when he took over for Tony Romo.

[Some NFL contenders must cross their fingers and hope for the best at QB]

14. Atlanta Falcons (8-7) | Last week’s rank: 14

The win over the Panthers allows the Falcons to feel a bit better about themselves after their season came undone. But, really, it underscores the fact that the Falcons were a team capable of being in the playoffs and didn’t get it done even after a 5-0 start. That isn’t the fault of Julio Jones, who is having one of the all-time great seasons by an NFL wide receiver. Just ask Josh Norman and the Panthers.

[Julio Jones is having one of the best seasons ever by a WR]

15. St. Louis Rams (7-8) | Last week’s rank: 15

A .500 season would be Jeff Fisher’s first in his four years coaching the Rams.

16. Detroit Lions (6-9) | Last week’s rank: 16

The Lions probably deserved better this season, given the missed call that cost them a late chance to win in Seattle and the questionable facemask penalty that set up their Hail Mary loss to the Packers. Whether that will be enough to save Jim Caldwell’s job remains to be seen but it’s never a good sign for a coach when an organizational housecleaning already is under way.

17. Oakland Raiders (7-8) | Last week’s rank: 19

The Raiders gave Charles Woodson a win in his final home game. A .500 season would be a significant accomplishment but seems unlikely with the Raiders playing at Kansas City.

18. New Orleans Saints (6-9) | Last week’s rank: 21

If the Saints are contemplating moving on from Coach Sean Payton and QB Drew Brees, as has been speculated, they should be careful. Are they really going to be able to do better?

19. Buffalo Bills (7-8) | Last week’s rank: 23

Rex Ryan did a fine job the previous few years keeping the Jets out of the playoffs. Now he’ll try to do it again.

20. Chicago Bears (6-9) | Last week’s rank: 26

Jay Cutler has demonstrated that he can be a productive QB under the team’s new regime. But can he actually be a winning QB going forward for Coach John Fox?

21. Indianapolis Colts (7-8) | Last week’s rank: 27

The QB situation has become dire with all the injuries. But no one should make the mistake of saying the Colts’ season was ruined by the injuries. The disappointing play came first.

22. Philadelphia Eagles (6-9) | Last week’s rank: 17

It’s time for the Eagles to move on from the Chip Kelly-as-GM experiment. It failed. It cannot continue. He should be the coach and someone else should assemble the roster.

23. New York Giants (6-9) | Last week’s rank: 18

If this indeed is it for Tom Coughlin’s coaching tenure with the Giants, it was an unbecoming end, with the losses and the Odell Beckham Jr. episode. The two-time Super Bowl-winning coach deserved better.

[NFL has ‘no evidence’ the Panthers directed homophobic slurs at Odell Beckham Jr.]

24. Jacksonville Jaguars (5-10) | Last week’s rank: 20

The Jaguars have had some good moments this season but losing four of the past five games has tempered any excitement about progress.

25. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-9) | Last week’s rank: 22

The Buccaneers are limping to the finish in QB Jameis Winston’s rookie season, with losses in three straight and four of five games. It won’t get any easier Sunday at Carolina with the Panthers needing a victory to wrap up the top NFC seed.

26. Baltimore Ravens (5-10) | Last week’s rank: 31

Ryan Mallett? Really?

27. San Diego Chargers (4-11) | Last week’s rank: 24

Safety Eric Weddle was a very good player for the Chargers for a very long time. But his tenure with the team seemingly is coming to an end amid acrimony. He was placed on the IR list Monday and he and his agent, David Canter, had a very public clash with the Chargers over issues such as Weddle being prohibited from traveling with the team to the season finale and being fined for staying on the field to watch his daughter perform at halftime of the final home game. Weddle is eligible for free agency in the offseason and it seems extremely unlikely he will re-sign.

28. Miami Dolphins (5-10) | Last week’s rank: 25

The season cannot end soon enough for this underachieving team. Maybe Joe Philbin wasn’t the problem, as it turned out.

29. Dallas Cowboys (4-11) | Last week’s rank: 28

Okay, so Kellen Moore does not appear to be the answer.

30. Cleveland Browns (3-12) | Last week’s rank: 29

This is the problem with waiting as long as the Browns waited to play Johnny Manziel at QB: The end of Manziel’s second NFL season is about to arrive with no way for anyone to know with any certainty whether or not he can play. It probably won’t be Mike Pettine’s problem too much longer.

31. San Francisco 49ers (4-11) | Last week’s rank: 30

This season’s woes are not necessarily the fault of the team’s first-year coach, Jim Tomsula. That doesn’t mean that Tomsula automatically should keep his job or is capable of turning things around. But when it comes to carving up the blame for what happened this season, plenty must go to CEO Jed York and GM Trent Baalke for failing to make things work with Jim Harbaugh.

32. Tennessee Titans (3-12) | Last week’s rank: 32

It’s time to turn the focus to getting some help for Marcus Mariota, which should get a little easier if the Titans have the top overall pick in the NFL draft.

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