The Saints stayed on a roll Thursday night, with QB Drew Brees throwing four TD passes — to four undrafted players — in a win over the Falcons. Now New Orleans travels to Dallas for another Thursday night game. The Saints cannot afford a misstep, with the Rams on their heels in the race for the NFC’s top postseason seed. Getting to stay at home throughout the conference playoffs would mean everything for this team.
2. Los Angeles Rams (10-1) | Last Week’s Rank: 2
The Seahawks’ win Sunday at Carolina kept the Rams from clinching the NFC West title. No matter. As the Rams return from their bye, their goals are far bigger. They’ll try to overtake the Saints for the NFC’s No. 1 seed. The schedule is favorable. Of the Rams’ final five regular season opponents, only one — the Bears — currently has a winning record.
3. Kansas City Chiefs (9-2) | Last Week’s Rank: 4
The Chiefs had their bye week to recover from their warp-speed loss to the Rams. They should be able to get back into the win column Sunday, when they take on the Raiders in Oakland for the first of their two remaining games against their lowly divisional opponent.
4. New England Patriots (8-3) | Last Week’s Rank: 5
The Patriots struggled for a while against the Jets but settled down and took care of business, and QB Tom Brady put up some more Brady-like passing numbers. Sunday’s matchup with the Vikings in Foxborough, Mass., is very interesting, and the Patriots now are back in position for a first-round playoff bye.
5. Houston Texans (8-3) | Last Week’s Rank: 6
The Texans got off to a sluggish start Monday night against the Titans and had no answers for the passing of Tennessee QB Marcus Mariota. Even so, they rolled to their eighth straight win after a 0-3 start to the season. Can they compete with the Chiefs, Patriots and Steelers in the postseason? That remains to be seen. But they certainly are an interesting team.
6. Chicago Bears (8-3) | Last Week’s Rank: 7
What the NFL did to the Bears last week was unfair, and they won anyway. The Bears went from playing a Sunday night game to playing the early game on Thanksgiving. That’s too quick of a turnaround, and no team should be forced to do that. It left little time for QB Mitchell Trubisky’s ailing shoulder to heal. But the Bears won in Detroit with Chase Daniel at QB and strengthened their hold on first place in the NFC North.
7. Los Angeles Chargers (8-3) | Last Week’s Rank: 8
Philip Rivers’s 28-for-29 passing performance in the victory over the Cardinals was remarkable. But the loss of RB Melvin Gordon to a sprained medial collateral ligament in his right knee is a major setback. The Chargers are losing Gordon, whose status is called week to week, just after standout pass rusher Joey Bosa returned to the defensive lineup. The good news is that Gordon is expected to play again this season.
8. Pittsburgh Steelers (7-3-1) | Last Week’s Rank: 3
The loss to the Broncos was a surprising setback, and the Steelers must regroup quickly. They now face a difficult stretch in which they play the Chargers, Patriots and Saints in three of their next four games.
9. Dallas Cowboys (6-5) | Last Week’s Rank: 9
The addition of WR Amari Cooper has made a difference, and the Cowboys are the team to beat in the NFC East after defeating the Redskins on Thanksgiving. But nothing will come easy moving forward, with the Cowboys hosting the Saints on Thursday night and then the Eagles 10 days later.
10. Indianapolis Colts (6-5) | Last Week’s Rank: 10
Andrew Luck threw two interceptions in the win over the Dolphins but continued to thrive by throwing for 343 yards and three TDs. Luck getting the Colts back into the playoffs this season would be one of the league’s best success stories of 2018.
11. Baltimore Ravens (6-5) | Last Week’s Rank: 11
The passing numbers haven’t been good for rookie QB Lamar Jackson in his two starts. But the Ravens are 2-0 in those games, so why go back to Joe Flacco now even if he is healthy enough to play? Just stick with Jackson as long as the wins keep coming, and go back to Flacco only if needed.
12. Seattle Seahawks (6-5) | Last Week’s Rank: 12
The Seahawks are playing surprisingly well despite being in the midst of a transition year. The running game was contained Sunday at Carolina, but QB Russell Wilson and his receivers made the big plays when needed. The Seahawks play four of their remaining five games at home, and the one road game is at San Francisco.
13. Minnesota Vikings (6-4-1) | Last Week’s Rank: 13
Kirk Cousins was very good Sunday night against the Packers, outshining Aaron Rodgers as the Vikings moved into the NFC wild-card lead. That doesn’t justify the Vikings’ signing of Cousins to a mega-deal in the offseason. Not yet, at least, but it’s a start, and the Vikings’ season has possibilities again. Now comes a road game Sunday at New England, and Cousins must continue to play at a standout level.
14. Denver Broncos (5-6) | Last Week’s Rank: 20
What has gotten into the Broncos lately? They’ve beaten the Chargers and Steelers in their last two games, and suddenly the playoffs are a possibility. The Broncos face the Bengals, 49ers, Browns and Raiders in their next four games. Coach Vance Joseph deserves credit for getting things turned around.
15. Cleveland Browns (4-6-1) | Last Week’s Rank: 21
16. Philadelphia Eagles (5-6) | Last Week’s Rank: 22
The comeback against the Giants kept the season from coming completely unraveled for the defending champs. If the Cowboys lose Thursday night to the Saints and the Eagles beat the Redskins on Monday night — certainly a plausible scenario — a trio of 6-6 teams would sit atop the NFC East.
17. Green Bay Packers (4-6-1) | Last Week’s Rank: 14
It feels all but over for the Packers’ season and most likely for Mike McCarthy’s coaching tenure in Green Bay. McCarthy and QB Aaron Rodgers spoke following Sunday night’s defeat at Minnesota about the need for the Packers to win their final five games and hope that’s good enough to reach the playoffs. But is there any reason to believe this team will pull off such a 5-0 finish?
18. Carolina Panthers (6-5) | Last Week’s Rank: 16
The Panthers have lost three straight games since a 6-2 beginning and suddenly a spot in the NFC playoffs is far from a certainty. QB Cam Newton and RB Christian McCaffrey were terrific against the Seahawks, but they had too little help. The defense couldn’t get a stop in crunchtime Sunday. The Panthers need to pull things together quickly if this season is to be salvaged.
19. Washington Redskins (6-5) | Last Week’s Rank: 17
Colt McCoy will benefit from having some practice time to get ready for Monday night’s game at Philadelphia, something he didn’t have before his Thanksgiving start at Dallas after taking over for the injured Alex Smith at QB. It’s not easy to feel good about the Redskins’ chances. But they’re certainly not out of it, and just about anything still can happen in the NFC East.
20. Detroit Lions (4-7) | Last Week’s Rank: 15
The Lions are 4-7 with Matt Patricia as their coach after firing Jim Caldwell following a 9-7 season. The Patricia apologists can stop talking about him needing time to establish a new culture. Unless that culture involves winning fewer games than his predecessor, this season has been a significant disappointment.
21. Miami Dolphins (5-6) | Last Week’s Rank: 18
The Dolphins are falling apart and the loss to the Colts was extremely damaging to their playoff chances. The return of QB Ryan Tannehill wasn’t enough to turn things around, and now the play-calling of Coach Adam Gase is drawing scrutiny.
22. Tennessee Titans (5-6) | Last Week’s Rank: 19
What was that play call on the failed first-half fourth down during Monday night’s loss in Houston? The Titans chose to hand the ball to TE Luke Stocker, for his first NFL carry, rather than Derrick Henry, their 247-pound RB. That alone was enough for them to deserve to lose.
23. Buffalo Bills (4-7) | Last Week’s Rank: 26
Josh Allen and the Bills, by winning Sunday, got the final word on Jalen Ramsey and the Jaguars after Ramsey called Allen “trash” in his GQ interview. It’s not much. But at least it’s something in a mostly forgettable season for the Bills.
24. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-7) | Last Week’s Rank: 28
Jameis Winston was very good Sunday against the Niners. The most encouraging thing of all was that he didn’t throw any interceptions. That’s all that matters now. The season is lost and all that remains is the Buccaneers figuring out whether Winston should be part of their long-term future as their QB.
25. Cincinnati Bengals (5-6) | Last Week’s Rank: 23
26. New York Giants (3-8) | Last Week’s Rank: 24
There actually would have been a long-shot chance for the Giants to climb back into the NFC East race if they’d held on to that lead Sunday against the Eagles. It didn’t work out that way, and it’s back to playing-out-the-string mode. It would make sense for the Giants to find a way to get some playing time for rookie QB Kyle Lauletta while preserving the dignity of Eli Manning, who has played far better in recent games.
27. Atlanta Falcons (4-7) | Last Week’s Rank: 25
The Falcons nearly beat the Patriots in the Super Bowl two seasons ago and nearly beat the eventual Super Bowl champion, the Eagles, in last season’s NFC playoffs. But their run of success appears over and they now are reduced to a spoiler’s role. Their first chance comes Sunday against the Ravens.
28. Jacksonville Jaguars (3-8) | Last Week’s Rank: 27
After Monday’s benching of QB Blake Bortles and firing of offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett, this season is an unmitigated calamity for the Jaguars. It’s almost impossible to believe that this team reached last season’s AFC championship game and resembled a powerhouse in the early stages of this season.
29. Oakland Raiders (2-9) | Last Week’s Rank: 29
Is there any reason to believe that things will be better in Year 2 (or beyond) for Jon Gruden and the Raiders? Yes, there are bountiful draft picks to come. But who trusts that this Raiders regime will make the most of them?
30. Arizona Cardinals (2-9) | Last Week’s Rank: 30
There were almost no bright spots in the loss to the Chargers. Coach Steve Wilks’s patience ran out, and he released starters Andre Smith and Bene Benwikere on Monday. There is nothing to be salvaged from this season. But Wilks’s exasperation could set a no-nonsense tone for next season.
31. New York Jets (3-8) | Last Week’s Rank: 31
The only way for the Jets to salvage anything positive out of this season is if rookie QB Sam Darnold gets healthy, gets back into the lineup and finishes well. Otherwise, there’s basically nothing about which the Jets can feel good.
32. San Francisco 49ers (2-9) | Last Week’s Rank: 32
So maybe Nick Mullens isn’t the answer at QB after all. Of course, anyone who believed after that brilliant first start against the Raiders that Mullens might be the answer probably was being unrealistic.