The Patriots are difficult to beat when Rob Gronkowski is healthy and in the lineup (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Each week, national NFL writer Mark Maske ranks the league’s 32 teams. This week, the New England Patriots maintain the top spot in the rankings but find a new contender for No. 1 right below in the Minnesota Vikings. The Panthers, Steelers and Rams round out the top five headed into the final week of the regular season, while the biggest mover, the San Francisco 49ers, rockets into the No. 14 spot thanks to a four-game winning streak engineered by quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo.

1. New England Patriots (12-3) | Last Week’s Rank: 1

The Patriots still have a bit of Week 17 work to do to secure the top seed in the AFC playoffs. That means no chance to rest QB Tom Brady and other key starters. Coach Bill Belichick seems to prefer it that way, anyway.

2. Minnesota Vikings (12-3) | Last Week’s Rank: 3

The defense pitched the shutout Saturday night in Green Bay to compensate for a mediocre outing by QB Case Keenum and the offense. The Vikings probably will enter the playoffs as the favorite in the NFC given the diminished state of the Eagles. But only slightly so amid the conference’s balanced field of very good but not quite great teams.

3. Carolina Panthers (11-4) | Last Week’s Rank: 2

The Panthers probably are headed to a wild-card berth. But they would be a very good in that role and fully capable of running the table to reach the Super Bowl.

4. Pittsburgh Steelers (12-3) | Last Week’s Rank: 4

The Steelers bounced back from their defeat to the Patriots and took care of business Monday against the overmatched Texans, even without WR Antonio Brown in the lineup. Despite Brown’s uncertain status for the playoffs, there remains no reason to doubt a Steelers-Patriots rematch in the AFC championship game.

5. Los Angeles Rams (11-4) | Last Week’s Rank: 6

Todd Gurley is very unlikely to be the league’s MVP. It’s difficult to imagine the award going to anyone but Tom Brady. But Gurley is having a terrific season and he certainly belongs in the conversation.

6. Philadelphia Eagles (13-2) | Last Week’s Rank: 7

The Eagles clinched the NFC’s top seed with the triumph Monday night over the Raiders. But they looked like anything but a Super Bowl team. The defense was much improved after struggling so badly against the Giants, but fill-in QB Nick Foles was shaky and the offense was unimpressive. The Eagles appear extremely vulnerable heading into the postseason.

7. New Orleans Saints (11-4) | Last Week’s Rank: 9

A playoff spot is secured. But the Saints cannot take their foot off the accelerator, needing a victory Sunday at Tampa to wrap up the NFC South.

8. Baltimore Ravens (9-6) | Last Week’s Rank: 10

The Ravens made it far tougher than it needed to be Saturday against the Colts. But at least they got the victory. A win Sunday against the Bengals gets them back into the AFC playoffs after a two-year drought. That’s what this season was all about.

9. Jacksonville Jaguars (10-5) | Last Week’s Rank: 5

Yes, the 49ers are playing well with Jimmy Garoppolo at QB. And yes, it was on the road. Even so, that was an embarrassing and bewildering loss for a team that’s supposed to be the main threat to a Steelers-Patriots rematch in the AFC championship game. Most troubling of all, Blake Bortles was back to being Blake Bortles with his three-interception performance.

10. Atlanta Falcons (9-6) | Last Week’s Rank: 8

The Falcons still can reach the playoffs with a victory over the Panthers or a Seahawks loss. But this simply is not the same offense that it was last season. And this season is bound to end in disappointing fashion for Atlanta, whether it’s this coming weekend or soon thereafter.

11. Kansas City Chiefs (9-6) | Last Week’s Rank: 13

The Chiefs have pulled things together with three straight wins. But it’s still impossible to forget that 1-6 stretch of miserable play, and nearly as impossible to envision them being a major factor in the AFC playoffs.

12. Los Angeles Chargers (8-7) | Last Week’s Rank: 15

The Chargers still can reach the playoffs but need plenty of help. They have only themselves to blame for the way they started the season.

13. Seattle Seahawks (9-6) | Last Week’s Rank: 17

This is a very flawed team. Winning a playoff-elimination game against the Cowboys with more penalty yards than yards of total offense was next to unthinkable. But the Seahawks retain their playoff possibilities, needing a win Sunday over the Cardinals and a Falcons loss to the Panthers.

14. San Francisco 49ers (5-10) | Last Week’s Rank: 20

The success of QB Jimmy Garoppolo playing in Coach Kyle Shanahan’s offense provides plenty of hope for next season in Year 2 of the Niners’ new regime. The 49ers are playing like a playoff team right now. Unfortunately for them, it took them until December to get Garoppolo into the lineup.

15. Buffalo Bills (8-7) | Last Week’s Rank: 14

Okay, the instant-replay reversal that overturned Kelvin Benjamin’s TD catch was debatable at best. Fine. But does that explain the Bills being outscored 24-3 by the Patriots in the second half Sunday? The criticism of the officiating was off target. Some of the players needed to take a look at their own play instead. They must move on quickly, though. The Bills still have a Week 17 chance to end the franchise’s long playoff drought, although they’ll need help.

16. Dallas Cowboys (8-7) | Last Week’s Rank: 11

Very little went as planned this season for the Cowboys, and there was nothing but frustration Sunday as they lost to the Seahawks and were eliminated from playoff contention even with Ezekiel Elliott back in the lineup. The Cowboys certainly can hope for better next season, with Elliott presumably available for a full season and QB Dak Prescott another year wiser following this season’s ups and downs. But that Super Bowl-filled future for Prescott and Elliott no longer looks as certain as it did at the conclusion of last season, does it?

17. Washington Redskins (7-8) | Last Week’s Rank: 21

Finishing .500 would be nice. But really, it’s all about what happens next with Coach Jay Gruden and QB Kirk Cousins. The Redskins have total control over the decision with Gruden. They can keep him if they want, and they should. Unfortunately for them, their past sets of negotiations with Cousins have put that situation somewhat out of their control, given how costly a third straight franchise tag would be.

18. Cincinnati Bengals (6-9) | Last Week’s Rank: 27

Can the Bengals come up with a big performance Sunday in Baltimore to knock the Ravens from playoff contention and, if the speculation about Coach Marvin Lewis’s future is accurate, send him off with a victory?

19. Detroit Lions (8-7) | Last Week’s Rank: 12

Coach Jim Caldwell probably deserves to stay. The Lions reached the playoffs last season and still could go 9-7 this season. But the lack of clarity on that issue to this point could be telling.

20. Tennessee Titans (8-7) | Last Week’s Rank: 18

The Titans’ playoff “push” has been an embarrassment. They still can reach the postseason with a triumph Sunday at home over the Jaguars, who are locked into the AFC’s No. 3 seed and have nothing at stake. But the Titans look like a complete playoff non-factor, and their late-season spiral feels like a step backward for their once-promising development even if they sneak in.

21. Green Bay Packers (7-8) | Last Week’s Rank: 16

Other NFL teams think the Packers should be forced to release Aaron Rodgers? Great. They can think that all they want. It’s not going to happen. Even so, the Packers got a little too cute by placing Rodgers on IR. It wasn’t necessary. Shutting him down for the remainder of the season was fine. That was the right move. But he didn’t need to be placed on IR. Did the Packers really need to free up that roster spot so badly for two meaningless games? Did anyone tell them that there’s a game-day inactive list?

22. Arizona Cardinals (7-8) | Last Week’s Rank: 23

It remains unclear whether Bruce Arians will opt to return for another season or walk away from coaching the Cardinals. If Arians is not back, it would stand to reason that the Cardinals would overhaul the roster and make it a team-wide reset.

23. Chicago Bears (5-10) | Last Week’s Rank: 26

It hasn’t been a great rookie season at QB for Mitchell Trubisky. But it has been a necessary part of the learning process. Enough good things have happened for the Bears to hope that he makes a big jump in Year 2 and becomes a reliable starter.

24. Denver Broncos (5-10) | Last Week’s Rank: 19

Did Sunday’s loss at FedEx Field amount to Kirk Cousins’s in-person audition for the Broncos QB job in 2018? If so, he was impressive enough. But before they address their QB situation, the Broncos must decide whether it will be one and done for Vance Joseph as their coach.

25. Miami Dolphins (6-9) | Last Week’s Rank: 22

The Dolphins are stumbling to the finish line in a forgettable season. The major offseason task is to clarify the QB situation and decide whether Ryan Tannehill returns to being the unquestioned starter.

26. Oakland Raiders (6-9) | Last Week’s Rank: 24

The Eagles gave the Raiders every chance to beat them Monday night in Philadelphia. And the Raiders couldn’t do it. It’s been that kind of season for a team that was supposed to be so much better.

27. New York Jets (5-10) | Last Week’s Rank: 25

The Jets have five more wins than many thought they’d have this season. But is that enough for Todd Bowles to stay?

28. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-11) | Last Week’s Rank: 28

The Jon Gruden speculation has intensified, and it doesn’t look particularly promising for Dirk Koetter to be given a third season.

29. Houston Texans (4-11) | Last Week’s Rank: 29

Things went about as expected Monday against the Steelers. The combination of T.J. Yates and Taylor Heinicke at QB was forgettable. At least WR DeAndre Hopkins provided one highlight with his unreal TD catch.

30. Indianapolis Colts (3-12) | Last Week’s Rank: 30

The coaching tenure of Chuck Pagano presumably comes to an end Sunday against the Texans. Pagano never had a chance this season without Andrew Luck or a viable Plan B at QB until the Jacoby Brissett trade was made just before the season. But it’s not always about fairness when the firing-and-hiring season for NFL coaches arrives.

31. New York Giants (2-13) | Last Week’s Rank: 31

Will Sunday’s matchup against the Redskins at the Meadowlands be Eli Manning’s final game with the Giants? The possibility of that adds considerable intrigue to an otherwise unwatchable game.

32. Cleveland Browns (0-15) | Last Week’s Rank: 32

The Browns are on the clock. The No. 1 overall selection in the NFL draft is secured. In the meantime, they seek their own brand of perfection when they play Sunday at Pittsburgh with a winless season still within reach.

Read more on the NFL:

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Kelvin Benjamin’s overturned TD in Bills-Patriots game sparks anger, confusion

Ryan Shazier visits Steelers in a wheelchair, but his prognosis remains unknown