Each week, national NFL writer Mark Maske will provide his ranking of the league’s 32 teams. The top three remain unchanged but Kansas City and Seattle creep closer to the league’s elite.
1. Dallas Cowboys (11-1) | Previous: 1
After two straight Thursday games, the Cowboys get a mini-bye before playing the Giants on Sunday night at the Meadowlands. They’ve already clinched a playoff spot and they have a three-game lead in the NFC East. But the Cowboys still must secure the top seed in the NFC playoffs, and they’re seeking to avenge their lone defeat of the season, at home to the Giants in the opener.
2. New England Patriots (10-2) | Previous: 2
The Patriots’ first game since placing TE Rob Gronkowski on the IR list was a routine victory. But it was against the Rams and it was at home, so it wasn’t exactly much of a test. Things should be much tougher next Monday night with the Ravens on hand in Foxborough, Mass. The Ravens have demonstrated in the past they have absolutely no fear of the Patriots. That game is followed by a trip to Denver, so it soon could be clear whether the Patriots will be able to cope with life without Gronkowski and seize the No. 1 seed in the AFC postseason field.
3. Oakland Raiders (10-2) | Previous: 3
The 29 straight points that beat the Bills made everyone forget the bad football that created the 15-point deficit in the first place. The Raiders will need to be better Thursday night against the Chiefs. QB Derek Carr threw the ball well in his first full game since suffering his dislocated pinky on his throwing hand. But there clearly are some issues given Carr’s inability to take snaps under center.
4. Kansas City Chiefs (9-3) | Previous: 5
The Chiefs continue to find a way, with Sunday’s triumph in Atlanta being forged on a TD on a fake punt and safety Eric Berry’s pick-six and pick-two. It makes you wonder just what it takes these days to beat the Chiefs. This week’s game against the Raiders is an NFL rarity: a can’t-miss Thursday night matchup.
5. Seattle Seahawks (8-3-1) | Previous: 6
The victory over the Panthers on Sunday night was decisive and impressive. The productivity of the running game with Thomas Rawls was particularly promising. But Earl Thomas’s broken leg costs the Seahawks not only a game-changing player at safety, but also one of the emotional leaders of their defense. And the offensive line continues to have issues protecting QB Russell Wilson. Your view of the Seahawks these days depends on whether you want to pick out the positives or the negatives.
6. Detroit Lions (8-4) | Previous: 7
The Lions actually won a game without trailing in the fourth quarter. Who knew that was allowed?
7. Denver Broncos (8-4) | Previous: 9
Rookie Paxton Lynch is not the answer at QB, at least not right now and probably not this season. The Broncos, not surprisingly, will go only as far as their defense carries them. Maybe Trevor Siemian can provide just a little bit of help when he returns, perhaps this week.
8. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-5) | Previous: 11
Meet Jameis Winston and the Buccaneers, honest-to-goodness NFC playoff contenders. And this is not fraudulent. The Buccaneers have beaten the Chiefs and Seahawks during their four-game winning streak. This weekend brings the first of two games remaining with the Saints.
9. Pittsburgh Steelers (7-5) | Previous: 12
What was all that about a lack of discipline and accountability? That’s a fading memory now, with the Steelers on a three-game winning streak and in a virtual tie with the Ravens for first place in the AFC North. The division title could be at stake when the two play on Christmas Day in Pittsburgh. First, the Steelers must go on the road to deal with the Bills this Sunday and the Bengals a week later.
10. New York Giants (8-4) | Previous: 4
If Peyton Manning has any pointers this week for facing the Dallas defense, brother Eli probably shouldn’t listen.
11. Baltimore Ravens (7-5) | Previous: 15
QB Joe Flacco’s meeting-room exchange with offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg last week seemed to work. Flacco had lamented what he’d called a conservative approach against the Bengals. The Ravens were anything but conservative on offense Sunday against the Dolphins, as Flacco threw for 381 yards and four TDs. If the offense can be even reasonably productive to complement a powerful defense, the Ravens could be formidable down the stretch.
12. Atlanta Falcons (7-5) | Previous: 10
Coach Dan Quinn’s decision to go for two late against the Chiefs, with a one-point lead, was the right call. It just turned out so wrong, with QB Matt Ryan throwing an interception that Kansas City’s Eric Berry returned for the decisive defensive two-pointer. Things are heading in the wrong direction for the Falcons, with two losses in three games. But the schedule is kind from here with the Rams, 49ers, Panthers and Saints remaining.
13. Green Bay Packers (6-6) | Previous: 20
The four-game losing skid that caused such consternation has given way to a two-game winning streak. Is all well again with the Packers? It’s too soon to say. It could be very telling what happens Sunday when they face the Seahawks in Lambeau Field.
14. Miami Dolphins (7-5) | Previous: 8
Ryan Tannehill was back to being Ryan Tannehill and the Dolphins reverted to being the Dolphins, pre-Adam Gase version, Sunday in Baltimore. So long, six-game winning streak and No. 6 spot in the AFC playoff field. But Gase quickly focused on regrouping, saying his team’s task is to keep one loss from becoming two.
15. Tennessee Titans (6-6) | Previous: 16
The AFC South title is up for grabs as the Titans return from their late bye week. But the next two games are rugged for Tennessee as it faces the Broncos and Chiefs. If the Titans can survive that two-game test and remain in contention, it gets easier from there, as they close with the Jaguars and Texans.
16. Indianapolis Colts (6-6) | Previous: 21
The good news is that the Colts still can win the AFC South. The bad news is that whichever team wins the division actually will have to face a bona fide playoff team from a real division during the postseason.
17. Arizona Cardinals (5-6-1) | Previous: 25
Coach Bruce Arians’s fourth-and-one gamble from his own 34-yard line with a one-point lead late in the victory over the Redskins probably said more about the state of the Washington defense than it did about Arians’s confidence in his offense. Either way, it worked. Can the Cardinals climb back into the thick of the NFC playoff race? Probably not. They have too many teams to pass for a wild-card spot. But at least they’ve managed to keep things interesting for a little while longer.
18. Washington Redskins (6-5-1) | Previous: 13
Coach Jay Gruden can yell at his players all he wants. The defense simply isn’t good enough. Until there are upgrades made there, no amount of yelling is going to make things work.
19. Buffalo Bills (6-6) | Previous: 14
The Bills likely will be home for the playoffs yet again. And it’s possible that the squandered second-half lead Sunday in Oakland will end up being a major reason. Just when the Bills seemed on the verge of climbing back into serious contention, it all fell apart.
20. San Diego Chargers (5-7) | Previous: 17
If the Chargers do join the Rams in L.A., they will be able to immediately stake claim to being the city’s best NFL team. That won’t be saying much, but it’s something. Maybe they can offer Eric Dickerson a spot on their sideline.
21. New Orleans Saints (5-7) | Previous: 18
The only reason left to pay attention to the Saints this season is that they play the Buccaneers twice.
22. Houston Texans (6-6) | Previous: 19
Their lead in the AFC South has disappeared and the Texans are pretty much a mess. There’s little reason to believe that Brock Osweiler is a QB who can get things turned around. Someone has to win this dreadful division. But more and more, it appears it won’t be the Texans.
23. Cincinnati Bengals (4-7-1) | Previous: 27
There’s probably not much to be salvaged from this dreary season. But the Bengals took out some of their frustrations on the Eagles and now they must avoid the embarrassment of losing to the Browns.
24. Minnesota Vikings (6-6) | Previous: 22
Yes, the Vikings were wronged late in the defeat Thursday night to the Cowboys on the missed illegal hit on QB Sam Bradford on the would-be tying two-point conversion. But Minnesota also did plenty to contribute to its latest loss. At least Coach Mike Zimmer rejoins the team this week and a trip to Jacksonville is next on the schedule. If the Vikings can’t even beat the Jaguars, they’re pretty much done.
25. Carolina Panthers (4-8) | Previous: 23
Cam Newton being dressed as he was, even minus a tie, was still dressed better than, what, 95 percent of the male population ever dresses. He certainly didn’t look unprofessional and he certainly wasn’t embarrassing the organization with his attire. Disciplining a player for being dressed as Newton was dressed is a little silly.
26. Philadelphia Eagles (5-7) | Previous: 24
Rookie QB Carson Wentz hasn’t been very good lately, with three TD passes and eight interceptions in his last five games. The Eagles have come unglued. But this is way things were expected to go this season before Wentz and the team raised expectations with their early success. No one should lose sight of that. This always has been about trying to build something lasting for the future, and that’s what it’s about now.
27. Los Angeles Rams (4-8) | Previous: 26
The losses continue to pile up for the Rams and Coach-for-Life Jeff Fisher. There has been speculation that Fisher’s job still could be in jeopardy, even with his two-year contract extension, if the team doesn’t win a few games down the stretch. Okay. Believe it when you see it. Why should this losing season be any different for the Fisher-led Rams?
28. Chicago Bears (3-9) | Previous: 29
The win over the 49ers was as ugly as it gets. But the Bears aren’t exactly in position to be picky about their victories. Anyone missing Jay Cutler yet?
29. New York Jets (3-9) | Previous: 28
No one particularly wanted to watch Monday night. And the Jets, it appeared, did not particularly want to play.
30. Jacksonville Jaguars (2-10) | Previous: 30
Blake Bortles seems to have perfected the art of the interception for a TD.
31. San Francisco 49ers (1-11) | Previous: 31
Colin Kaepernick actually had played reasonably well for four games before his 1-for-5, four-yard passing calamity Sunday in Chicago. But the Chip Kelly offense hasn’t produced wins for the Niners with Blaine Gabbert at QB and it hasn’t produced wins with Kaepernick at QB. Who’s next?
32. Cleveland Browns (0-12) | Previous: 32
Robert Griffin III could return to start at QB this weekend against the Bengals. That’ll fix everything, won’t it?