Each week, national NFL writer Mark Maske ranks the league’s 32 teams. This week, the New England Patriots take advantage of the rule book and a questionable late-game decision by Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to move back into the No. 1 spot. Pittsburgh stays in the top five despite the loss but is now looking up at the Panthers and Vikings, who look like the class of the NFC. Speaking of which, the L.A. Rams jump three spots after their destruction of the Seahawks in Seattle. And the Jaguars, now with double-digit wins for the first time since 2007, clock in at No. 5 with a return to the playoffs just a few weeks away.
1. New England Patriots (11-3) | Last Week’s Rank: 2
The Patriots reclaim the No. 1 spot after their victory over the Steelers. It certainly wasn’t easy. But Tom Brady yet again was at his best in crunch time. Rob Gronkowski was a difference-maker for the offense in his return from his one-game suspension. And good luck and meticulous preparation came together for the Patriots in the wild final sequence when the catch-rule replay reversal went their way and their defense was more than ready for the fake-spike throw into the end zone.
2. Carolina Panthers (10-4) | Last Week’s Rank: 3
Owner Jerry Richardson’s announcement that he will sell the franchise after the season amid the NFL’s investigation into allegations of workplace misconduct against him, along with his exit from the team’s day-to-day operations, coincide with the Panthers potentially headed to their second Super Bowl in three years. They certainly can compete with the NFC’s best teams, and TE Greg Olsen’s return to form in Sunday’s victory over the Packers could give QB Cam Newton the help he needs on offense.
3. Minnesota Vikings (11-3) | Last Week’s Rank: 4
The ovation for QB Teddy Bridgewater in his appearance Sunday was a terrific moment. But this is undeniably Case Keenum’s team, and the Vikings will go as far as Keenum is able to take them. Who would have thought those words would be said this season?
4. Pittsburgh Steelers (11-3) | Last Week’s Rank: 1
The Steelers couldn’t beat the Patriots in last season’s AFC championship game, and they couldn’t beat the Patriots on Sunday in Pittsburgh despite having an eight-point lead in the fourth quarter. There’s little reason to be confident they can win at New England this season if indeed it comes to that. One obvious key will be WR Antonio Brown’s recovery from the calf injury he suffered Sunday. His MVP hopes were dashed, and it remains to be seen how effective he’ll be able to be during the postseason.
5. Jacksonville Jaguars (10-4) | Last Week’s Rank: 5
The Jaguars may be the one team capable of preventing the expected Steelers-Patriots rematch in the AFC championship game. They can play rugged defense and run the football, and they could face the Steelers in what could be a competitive conference semifinal. But the problem remains: Can QB Blake Bortles, even with his recently improved play, be trusted in games of consequence?
6. Los Angeles Rams (10-4) | Last Week’s Rank: 9
Their shockingly lopsided victory in Seattle reestablishes the Rams as a top NFC contender. They went 2-2 in their four recent games against the Vikings, Saints, Eagles and Seahawks, and they close the regular season against the faltering Titans and the rebuilding 49ers. A 12-win season is well within reach.
7. Philadelphia Eagles (12-2) | Last Week’s Rank: 8
What happened to the defense against the Giants? The secondary was carved up by Eli Manning, and the pass rush was nonexistent. The good news was the play of fill-in QB Nick Foles, who took over for the injured Carson Wentz and threw four TD passes. But the Eagles did not look like a Super Bowl team Sunday, and it had nothing to do with Foles.
8. Atlanta Falcons (9-5) | Last Week’s Rank: 6
The Falcons made it tougher than it needed to be Monday night in Tampa but managed to get the win they needed. They’ve held things together in a reasonably good season on the heels of their brutal Super Bowl defeat. Even so, it’s difficult to imagine them being a major factor in the NFC playoffs.
9. New Orleans Saints (10-4) | Last Week’s Rank: 7
Beating the practically QB-less Jets was not exactly a major feat, but at least the Saints took care of business. Now they face the Falcons for the second time in three games and have a chance to make amends for their loss in Atlanta. The late-game mistakes by QB Drew Brees and Coach Sean Payton were costly in that defeat, so they must be more reliable this time around.
10. Baltimore Ravens (8-6) | Last Week’s Rank: 12
The Ravens are well positioned to get back into the playoffs after a two-year absence. But nothing can be taken for granted. Their remaining schedule is favorable, with home games against the lowly Colts and Bengals. They cannot afford any missteps, however.
11. Dallas Cowboys (8-6) | Last Week’s Rank: 13
RB Ezekiel Elliott is back from his six-game suspension, and the Cowboys still have some hope in the NFC playoff chase. Maybe Elliott should take the opposite approach of Aaron Rodgers and say that, yes, he is back to save the season.
12. Detroit Lions (8-6) | Last Week’s Rank: 15
The Lions are out of the division race and would need help to reach the playoffs as a wild card. But no one should be questioning the job security of Coach Jim Caldwell. He’s done a good job.
13. Kansas City Chiefs (8-6) | Last Week’s Rank: 16
They’ve righted themselves with two straight wins and were clearly the better team in the “showdown” (by the modest standards of the AFC West) on Saturday night with the Chargers. But it’s difficult to simply forget that 1-6 stretch of miserable play.
14. Buffalo Bills (8-6) | Last Week’s Rank: 18
The Bills visit New England this weekend with their playoff hopes still alive. They must focus on that rather than on seeking any type of revenge for Rob Gronkowski’s hit on Tre’Davious White.
15. Los Angeles Chargers (7-7) | Last Week’s Rank: 10
That was a truly disappointing performance Saturday night in Kansas City. The Chargers simply gave away the game. They are probably the best team in a bad division. But they also are probably headed to missing the playoffs, with their 0-4 start to blame.
16. Green Bay Packers (7-7) | Last Week’s Rank: 14
Aaron Rodgers said he wasn’t coming back to save the Packers’ season. Unfortunately for him, he was right. He gave a distinctly un-Rodgers-like performance with three interceptions in the loss to the Panthers, and now there’s no reason for the Packers to play Rodgers any more this season and expose him to the risk of reinjuring himself. Remember Tony Romo rebreaking his collarbone? The Packers should avoid that scenario with Rodgers. The season is done, made official by the Falcons’ win Monday night. Rodgers should be shut down.
17. Seattle Seahawks (8-6) | Last Week’s Rank: 11
Instead of there being hope for a deep playoff run, the lopsided defeat to the Rams produced speculation that a teardown of the roster could be in store. Would Coach Pete Carroll stay around for a rebuilding project around QB Russell Wilson and LB Bobby Wagner? The narrative certainly can change quickly in the NFL, can’t it?
18. Tennessee Titans (8-6) | Last Week’s Rank: 17
Losses to the Cardinals and 49ers are unforgivable for a team that should be making a late-season playoff push. The Titans no longer are deserving of a spot in the postseason. They have played their way out.
19. Denver Broncos (5-9) | Last Week’s Rank: 22
Brock Osweiler, promising-once-more QB prospect? Okay, let’s not get carried away. But he did play well Thursday night in Indianapolis.
20. San Francisco 49ers (4-10) | Last Week’s Rank: 25
The future is bright with Jimmy Garoppolo at QB. The three straight wins with Garoppolo as the starter have raised expectations for next season. It always seemed like a near certainty that the Niners would franchise-tag Garoppolo this offseason if they couldn’t re-sign him first. But if anyone had any doubts about that, they should be erased. Garoppolo cannot be allowed to leave.
21. Washington Redskins (6-8) | Last Week’s Rank: 27
A .500 season remains within reach as the Redskins close with the Broncos and Giants. That would be a decent accomplishment, given the circumstances.
22. Miami Dolphins (6-8) | Last Week’s Rank: 19
Beat the Patriots and then lose to the Bills? Jay Cutler outplays Tom Brady and then is outplayed by Tyrod Taylor? Even after 14 games, the 2017 Dolphins remain a mystery.
23. Arizona Cardinals (6-8) | Last Week’s Rank: 20
Blaine Gabbert is still Blaine Gabbert, unfortunately for the Cardinals. There was no reason that the Cardinals should have lost Sunday at FedEx Field, but Gabbert simply could not get the offense into the end zone.
24. Oakland Raiders (6-8) | Last Week’s Rank: 21
The Raiders shouldn’t be upset with referee Gene Steratore’s use of an index card to measure a Cowboys first down Sunday night. They should be mad at themselves for botching their final drive with QB Derek Carr’s fumble through the end zone. The Raiders remain a major disappointment, and their nonwinning season could add Coach Jack Del Rio’s employment status to the list of uncertainties engulfing the franchise.
25. New York Jets (5-9) | Last Week’s Rank: 23
Bryce Petty had his chance. Isn’t it time to give second-year QB Christian Hackenberg a look?
26. Chicago Bears (4-10) | Last Week’s Rank: 24
Coach John Fox heaped praise on Mitchell Trubisky’s three-interception performance against the Lions. Maintaining the confidence of a rookie QB is important, but that’s taking it too far.
27. Cincinnati Bengals (5-9) | Last Week’s Rank: 26
If Coach Marvin Lewis indeed is headed out the door at season’s end, his players aren’t giving him much of a farewell gift. Their performance against the Vikings was dreadful. The Bengals may end up appreciating what they had in Lewis as their coach if they return to their status as a league laughingstock after he leaves.
28. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-10) | Last Week’s Rank: 28
It’s becoming tougher and tougher to construct an argument — any argument — that the Buccaneers should retain Dirk Koetter as their coach.
29. Houston Texans (4-10) | Last Week’s Rank: 29
It still says here that Bill O’Brien deserves to stay in place as coach, based on what he accomplished in previous seasons. But that’s not looking quite so certain any longer. The one question that should guide everything the Texans do is, what’s best for the development of QB Deshaun Watson?
30. Indianapolis Colts (3-11) | Last Week’s Rank: 30
Is it beginning to feel like no sure thing that QB Andrew Luck will be in the Opening Day lineup next season, either?
31. New York Giants (2-12) | Last Week’s Rank: 31
If Eli Manning needs to audition for other NFL teams, he gave a pretty good one Sunday by throwing for 434 yards and three TDs against the Eagles.
32. Cleveland Browns (0-14) | Last Week’s Rank: 32
Wanted: Real players. New GM John Dorsey isn’t exactly sparing the feelings of the previous regime, is he? It will be interesting to see if the Browns and Coach Hue Jackson remain so committed to one another beyond this season, given that Jackson now could have a potential landing spot in Cincinnati.
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