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NFL Power Rankings — Week 16: Dak Prescott bounces back and moves the Cowboys up

Dak Prescott was sharp in the Cowboys’ win Sunday night over the Buccaneers. (Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
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Each week, national NFL writer Mark Maske will provide his ranking of the league’s 32 teams. Dallas, Oakland and the New York Football Giants crept up as Kansas City fell, but New England held onto the top spot for another week.

1. New England Patriots (12-2) | Previous: 1

Tom Brady and the offense found the going tough in Denver, as always, against the Broncos’ still-rugged defense. But Brady and Co. did enough and the defense took care of the rest. The Patriots secured yet another AFC East title but the goals are far bigger, of course. Getting the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs is vitally important, given how difficult it will be for anyone to go to Foxborough, Mass., during the postseason and win. Just-added wideout Michael Floyd was on the inactive list Sunday and it will be interesting to see what role, if any, he has in the final two regular season games.

Tom Brady leads the crowded pack of NFL MVP candidates

2. Dallas Cowboys (12-2) | Previous: 3

Rookie quarterback Dak Prescott was excellent in a 32-for-36 passing performance Sunday night against the Buccaneers. That puts the talk about a switch back to Tony Romo to rest. Now the issue becomes: Do the Cowboys need to get Romo some playing time to knock off the rust in case he is needed during the postseason? The concern from Sunday night’s game is that the Cowboys, even at home and even with Prescott and RB Ezekiel Elliott being so productive, couldn’t put the game away until the final moments.

3. Oakland Raiders (11-3) | Previous: 4

Derek Carr still does not look like the passer that he was before hurting the pinky on his throwing hand. But there is nothing that can be done about it at this point. The Raiders took care of their business in San Diego and got lucky when the Chiefs lost to the Titans.

4. New York Giants (10-4) | Previous: 6

The defense was terrific again Sunday against the Lions, even with the injuries to key players beginning to pile up. DE Jason Pierre-Paul remains sidelined after his surgery to repair a core muscle injury, and CB Janoris Jenkins hurt his back Sunday. The Giants limited the Cowboys and Lions to a total of 13 points over the past two games. Now it’s a quick turnaround for Thursday night’s game at Philadelphia.

Giants make a good case they’re the NFC’s second-best team

5. Kansas City Chiefs (10-4) | Previous: 2

Just when the Chiefs were looking like a real Super Bowl threat, they slipped up Sunday at home against the Titans. They’re still almost certainly headed to the playoffs. But if it’s as a wild-card team instead of as a division winner and the AFC’s No. 2 seed, that is a far, far different equation.

6. Pittsburgh Steelers (9-5) | Previous: 8

The Steelers found a way to get it done against the Bengals and are playing extremely well now, with five straight victories. The division race sets up favorably for them, with the Ravens headed to Pittsburgh for Sunday’s crucial holiday matchup for first place in the AFC North.

7. Atlanta Falcons (9-5) | Previous: 9

The back-to-back 40-point games by the Falcons as the NFL’s firing-and-hiring cycle gets under way can’t hurt the head coaching chances of offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan.

8. Green Bay Packers (8-6) | Previous: 10

The Packers saved their season with their four-game winning streak. Things get really interesting now as they close the regular season at home against the Vikings and then at Detroit in what could be a showdown for the NFC North title. There is no sense fretting too much about QB Aaron Rodgers’s assorted leg injuries, given that he has demonstrated in recent weeks he does not have to be able to move very much to throw the ball effectively.

9. Seattle Seahawks (9-4-1) | Previous: 11

There were some issues Thursday night, from the ill-advised fake punt that put Jon Ryan in harm’s way to the pass play from the 1-yard line that put conscientious objector Richard Sherman at odds with the coaching staff. None of your mistakes come back to haunt you when you’re playing the Rams, however. The Seahawks caught a break with the Lions’ loss and now are in position to secure the NFC’s No. 2 playoff seed.

The Seahawks should scare the Cowboys and everyone else in the NFC

10. Miami Dolphins (9-5) | Previous: 12

Matt Moore stepped in for Ryan Tannehill at QB and the Dolphins just kept on keeping on. It was only against the Jets, of course. But it was a positive sign for the Dolphins that they might be able to withstand Tannehill’s knee injury.

11. Tennessee Titans (8-6) | Previous: 13

A season filled with pleasant surprises for the Titans brought another one Sunday when they were able to win at Kansas City on kicker Ryan Succop’s long FG. The rebuilding plan is way ahead of schedule and the Titans are the team that really deserves to emerge with the AFC South title.

12. Detroit Lions (9-5) | Previous: 5

QB Matthew Stafford and the offense struggled Sunday at the Meadowlands. But it wasn’t particularly surprising given Stafford’s finger injury, the damp conditions and the Giants’ current level of play on defense. It gets no easier for the Lions as they close the regular season with games at Dallas and at home against the Packers. Their regular season work is a long way from done.

13. Baltimore Ravens (8-6) | Previous: 16

The Ravens just held on against the Eagles and now they have their chance on Christmas Day in Pittsburgh to edge ahead of the Steelers for first place in the AFC North. They already beat the Steelers this season in Baltimore. The division race is coming down to the game that rightfully should decide it.

14. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-6) | Previous: 7

The Buccaneers certainly had their chances Sunday night at Dallas. But they squandered too many opportunities and QB Jameis Winston was too turnover-prone. Their playoff chances were dented. All that is left for them now is to beat the Saints and Panthers and hope for the best.

15. Houston Texans (8-6) | Previous: 17

Would everyone involved have ended up far better off if Brock Osweiler had opted last offseason to remain in Denver? Osweiler, without having to adjust to a new team and a new offense, probably would be playing better. The Broncos likely would have a slightly more reliable QB to complement their still-powerful defense. The Texans might still have a QB mess. But they at least wouldn’t have Osweiler’s burdensome contract as another obstacle to fixing that problem. There is no undoing all of that now, of course, and the Texans must hope for the best with Tom Savage taking over.

Tom Savage is the Texans’ new starting quarterback. Who exactly is Tom Savage?

16. Denver Broncos (8-6) | Previous: 14

The defense did its part against the Patriots, but the offense could get absolutely nothing done. The frustration by the defensive players is understandable. But getting angry at their offensive teammates isn’t going to fix anything. Solving the team’s QB issue would be far more constructive. That will require offseason work, and it’s an offseason that now seems likely to arrive far sooner than the defending Super Bowl champs would have liked.

17. Carolina Panthers (6-8) | Previous: 20

What, exactly, does Cam Newton have to do to get the officials to protect him? He went public with his legitimate complaints. He went to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. And yet, when he was hit in the head while sliding at the end of a run Monday night by the Redskins’ Trent Murphy, the only penalty called was on Newton for throwing the football at Murphy after the play.

18. Indianapolis Colts (7-7) | Previous: 21

The Colts’ playoff hopes realistically have been reduced to next to nothing. But they might be playing well enough lately to preserve the jobs of Coach Chuck Pagano and GM Ryan Grigson.

19. Buffalo Bills (7-7) | Previous: 23

Have you heard that Rex Ryan probably won’t keep his job as coach of the Bills? Has that been reported anywhere yet?

20. Washington Redskins (7-6-1) | Previous: 15

The Redskins got a break with the Buccaneers’ loss Sunday night at Dallas. Then they proceeded to play themselves right back out of the No. 6 playoff spot in the NFC with Monday night’s listless defeat to the Panthers.

21. New Orleans Saints (6-8) | Previous: 25

Coach Sean Payton and QB Drew Brees have done their jobs very well for a very long time, by NFL standards. But the entire operation has begun to feel a bit stale. Cue the now-annual speculation about whether the Saints would allow Payton to move on for a price.

Sean Payton is now part of speculation about the Rams’ coaching job

22. Cincinnati Bengals (5-8-1) | Previous: 18

In a season in which so little has gone right, the Bengals couldn’t even play the spoiler role successfully Sunday against the Steelers. They could have

23. Minnesota Vikings (7-7) | Previous: 19

Adrian Peterson returned to the lineup. It didn’t help. There’s probably nothing, in fact, that can help at this point.

24. Arizona Cardinals (5-8-1) | Previous: 22

Score 41 points at home and lose? It has been that kind of season for the Cardinals.

25. San Diego Chargers (5-9) | Previous: 24

Will the Chargers soon make it two NFL teams in Los Angeles and two NFL teams in L.A. looking for a new head coach?

Chargers president says team is more likely to leave San Diego than stay

26. New York Jets (4-10) | Previous: 26

The Jets finally got around to playing a young QB late in the season, in Bryce Petty. What they forgot Saturday night is that you actually have to block for that young QB. Is rookie Christian Hackenberg such a lost cause that the Jets won’t even play him now? At least Coach Todd Bowles is leaving open the possibility that Hackenberg could be in uniform this weekend.

27. Philadelphia Eagles (5-9) | Previous: 27

No one should fault Coach Doug Pederson for going for two and the win in regulation in Baltimore. It was the right call; it just didn’t work out. Remember when Carson Wentz was mentioned in the same sentence with Dak Prescott when it came to rookie-QB brilliance? That is a fading memory now. But the Eagles, in the long run, will be happy that they played Wentz immediately and got him this season of on-the-job training. He should benefit Thursday night against the Giants from having Lane Johnson back at right tackle.

28. Los Angeles Rams (4-10) | Previous: 28

The John Fassel-coached Rams didn’t look much different Thursday night from the Jeff Fisher-coached Rams. Now the issue becomes the availability of rookie QB Jared Goff, who is subject to the sport’s concussion protocol after absorbing a jarring hit by the Seahawks’ Richard Sherman. It has been a miserable first season in L.A. for the Rams and, mercifully, it ends soon enough.

29. Chicago Bears (3-11) | Previous: 29

Matt Barkley continues to put up interesting numbers at QB. He threw for 362 yards and two TDs against the Packers but also had a Cutler-esque three interceptions. He could be in next season’s QB mix, although the Bears probably would be wise not to count on him to be the starter.

30. Jacksonville Jaguars (2-12) | Previous: 30

It had become clear that Gus Bradley would be fired as the team’s coach by immediately after the season. Instead, the come-from-ahead loss to the Texans prompted it to happen a couple weeks earlier. It simply didn’t work this season, from the regression of QB Blake Bortles to the defense that didn’t come together quickly enough following the offseason infusion of young talent. It never worked under Bradley, in fact. Doug Marrone takes over for now as the interim coach. Could Tom Coughlin’s return to Jacksonville be next? It would make some sense under the current circumstances, especially if there would be a clear succession plan put in place from the outset.

31. San Francisco 49ers (1-13) | Previous: 31

Hey, didn’t you used to be Chip Kelly?

32. Cleveland Browns (0-14) | Previous: 32

Robert Griffin III played a little bit better Sunday but that didn’t stop Coach Hue Jackson from declaring that all options were open at QB. A day later, Jackson said Monday he would stick with Griffin as the starter. So it goes when you’re two losses from becoming the second 0-16 team in NFL history. Move over and make some room, 2008 Lions.

The Browns’ quarterback job doesn’t belong to Robert Griffin III or anyone else right now