Each week, national NFL writer Mark Maske will provide his ranking of the league’s 32 teams. This week, the Patriots celebrate their eight-game winning streak with a return to top spot, immediately followed by the AFC’s other powerhouse, the Steelers, who will host New England in what could be a candidate for the game of the year a week from Sunday. Current NFC No. 1 seed Minnesota finds itself in the top three. Then, the Eagles, who had their nine-game winning streak snapped in Seattle Sunday night, and the Rams, who will host those Eagles this weekend, round out a competitive top five.
1. New England Patriots (10-2) | Last Week’s Rank: 2
The Patriots reclaim the No. 1 spot with their victory in Buffalo and the Eagles’ loss in Seattle. This is where the Patriots were supposed to spend the entire season, out in front with the rest of the NFL chasing them. It didn’t work out that way. But the Patriots have regained their front-runner status, even if they now are facing the prospect of being without TE Rob Gronkowski for a game. His one-game suspension by the NFL was fully justified for a late hit that was both egregious and extremely dangerous.
2. Pittsburgh Steelers (10-2) | Last Week’s Rank: 3
Concern over the injury suffered by Ryan Shazier took precedence over the outcome of the game Monday night in Cincinnati, won by the Steelers on a last-second field goal.
3. Minnesota Vikings (10-2) | Last Week’s Rank: 4
Case Keenum is for real. He’s not quite an MVP candidate but he’s not that far away from that. The Vikings are for real. The defense was terrific Sunday in Atlanta. Minnesota is as good as anyone in the NFC. That guarantees nothing come playoff time. But there’s a chance the Vikings could win a Super Bowl while playing all their postseason games at home.
4. Philadelphia Eagles (10-2) | Last Week’s Rank: 1
The Eagles are still a very good team, even after the defeat in Seattle. They still have a chance to secure the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs. But they might not be the conference’s Super Bowl favorite any longer. The Vikings have, at the very least, achieved co-favorite status.
5. Los Angeles Rams (9-3) | Last Week’s Rank: 5
Sean McVay had better get plenty of NFL coach of the year votes. The Rams haven’t faded away and get two more games against the NFC’s elite, the Eagles and then the Seahawks, up next on the schedule.
6. New Orleans Saints (9-3) | Last Week’s Rank: 7
The season sweep of the Panthers puts the Saints firmly in control of the NFC South race. But they still must face the Falcons twice, beginning with Thursday night’s game in Atlanta.
7. Seattle Seahawks (8-4) | Last Week’s Rank: 9
The Seahawks still are capable of beating anyone, as the triumph Sunday night over the Eagles demonstrated. Unfortunately for them, they haven’t looked like that consistently enough to believe with much conviction they can make a run through the entire NFC playoffs and reach another Super Bowl.
8. Carolina Panthers (8-4) | Last Week’s Rank: 6
The Panthers probably can forget about overtaking the Saints, but they remain in very good position to secure a wild-card spot. It is crucial that TE Greg Olsen’s surgically repaired foot is sound and that he returns to the lineup to give QB Cam Newton another reliable receiver.
9. Baltimore Ravens (7-5) | Last Week’s Rank: 10
The Ravens are playing much better, with three straight wins, and securing a wild-card spot is a realistic possibility. Their meeting with the Steelers on Sunday night in Pittsburgh will be difficult but the Browns and Colts are up next after that.
10. Los Angeles Chargers (6-6) | Last Week’s Rank: 11
The Chargers have given L.A. two contending NFL teams and they are, at the moment, the best team in the AFC West. Which isn’t saying very much at all.
11. Tennessee Titans (8-4) | Last Week’s Rank: 12
The Titans and Jaguars are stride for stride in the AFC South race as the season’s stretch run arrives. A crucial road trip comes next for the Titans, with games at Arizona and at San Francisco the next two Sundays.
12. Jacksonville Jaguars (8-4) | Last Week’s Rank: 13
While the Giants are about to move on to their second coach since Tom Coughlin’s exit — a less-than-voluntary departure, in Coughlin’s telling of it — he is enjoying great success as the front office architect of the Jaguars. If the best revenge is to live well, Coughlin is doing it.
13. Atlanta Falcons (7-5) | Last Week’s Rank: 8
The Falcons have hung tough and are having a pretty good season. But pretty good is not quite good enough in the NFC. The Falcons were exposed Sunday by an excellent Vikings team. Julio Jones disappeared from the offense and no one else stepped forward to be a difference-maker.
14. Oakland Raiders (6-6) | Last Week’s Rank: 18
The Raiders go from playing a team in the Giants that just had benched its starting QB for no good reason, to facing a team in the Chiefs that probably should be benching its starting QB but won’t.
15. New York Jets (5-7) | Last Week’s Rank: 23
The Jets are the very best NFL team in all of East Rutherford, N.J. That’s not exactly high praise at the moment. But it’s more than anyone had a right to expect from them this season.
16. Dallas Cowboys (6-6) | Last Week’s Rank: 24
The Cowboys took care of business Thursday night against the Redskins and get to play the Giants this Sunday. They’ve endured four of the six games of RB Ezekiel Elliott’s suspension. But time is running short and they’re simply too far behind some very good teams in the NFC playoff chase.
17. Green Bay Packers (6-6) | Last Week’s Rank: 25
By the time Aaron Rodgers is ready to play, the Packers probably won’t have realistic playoff hopes. The top-heavy NFC just has too many good teams ahead of them. There might not be any good reason for Rodgers to come back this season.
18. Cincinnati Bengals (5-7) | Last Week’s Rank: 14
The most meaningful issues arising from Monday night’s game in Cincinnati were concerns over the severity of the injury suffered by the Steelers’ Ryan Shazier and the alarm over the brutality of the illegal hits delivered by both teams. The competitive implications of the Bengals’ loss were far less significant, although their playoff chances were damaged.
19. Detroit Lions (6-6) | Last Week’s Rank: 15
The injuries are accumulating for QB Matthew Stafford and the Lions are becoming an afterthought in the NFC playoff chase.
20. Kansas City Chiefs (6-6) | Last Week’s Rank: 16
Was that really this season when the Chiefs were 5-0? It seems like several years ago right about now. Maybe Coach Andy Reid will snap to his senses at some point and figure out that a dramatic change or two must be made. Otherwise, there is no indication whatsoever that the Chiefs are going to find a way to reverse their downward spiral. And it might be too late now, anyway.
21. Washington Redskins (5-7) | Last Week’s Rank: 17
Whatever happens between now and the end of the season has absolutely nothing to do with whether QB Kirk Cousins remains in Washington. The Redskins have had plenty of time to know what they have in Cousins, and Cousins has had plenty of time to figure out what he thinks about the team. It comes down to financial considerations now. The negotiating history between both parties and the numbers involved for Cousins to be franchise-tagged again make it difficult to believe that he will be a Redskin next season.
22. Buffalo Bills (6-6) | Last Week’s Rank: 19
The Bills are on a 1-4 skid and their postseason hopes are slipping away.
23. Miami Dolphins (5-7) | Last Week’s Rank: 28
Being far better than the Broncos doesn’t prove all that much at this point.
24. Arizona Cardinals (5-7) | Last Week’s Rank: 20
Even a .500 season is a long shot now. It feels more and more like major changes could be in store in the offseason.
25. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-8) | Last Week’s Rank: 21
Jameis Winston was sharp in his return to the lineup. It didn’t help. This has been a miserable season for the Buccaneers and it’s time for them to reassess whether they’re on the right path to being a contender.
26. Houston Texans (4-8) | Last Week’s Rank: 22
The Texans have clinched their first nonwinning season in four years with Bill O’Brien as their coach. It will become their first losing season under O’Brien unless they can run the table, and there seemingly is little chance of that.
27. Indianapolis Colts (3-9) | Last Week’s Rank: 26
The Colts are about as irrelevant as it gets. If they didn’t show up for any of their remaining games, would anyone notice?
28. San Francisco 49ers (2-10) | Last Week’s Rank: 31
The Jimmy Garoppolo era got off to a promising start with the win over the Bears. Garoppolo was pretty good even with a pared-down version of Coach Kyle Shanahan’s offense. He should only get better from this point forward.
29. Chicago Bears (3-9) | Last Week’s Rank: 27
Not much that Coach John Fox is doing is working. It would be an upset at this point if he makes it to the end of the season before the Bears dismiss him.
30. New York Giants (2-10) | Last Week’s Rank: 29
Memo to current and future NFL head coaches: Don’t ever use the line, “I’m going to coach this team as long as my key card works.” Ben McAdoo used it, then got fired the next day. Eli Manning presumably gets his starting job back and the Giants presumably avoid what could have been a very ugly scene at this Sunday’s home game against the Cowboys.
31. Denver Broncos (3-9) | Last Week’s Rank: 30
John Elway was being overly kind, as it turned out, when he called the Broncos soft.
32. Cleveland Browns (0-12) | Last Week’s Rank: 32
Josh Gordon looked pretty good in his return. The fact that he immediately became the focal point of the Browns’ offense was another sign of just how terrible this team is.
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