2. New England Patriots (9-3) | Last Week’s Rank: 4
3. Kansas City Chiefs (10-2) | Last Week’s Rank: 3
The Chiefs managed to endure the turbulence of Friday’s release of running back Kareem Hunt to win Sunday in Oakland. That wasn’t much of a test, given the state of the Raiders. The loss of Hunt is significant, and it cannot be assumed that the Kansas City offense will maintain its level of excellence when the competition toughens.
4. New Orleans Saints (10-2) | Last Week’s Rank: 1
No one should overreact to the loss Thursday night in Dallas. It was only one game, after all. But no one should ignore it, either. If the Saints don’t have home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs, it matters. It’s not that they can’t go to L.A. and win the NFC title game; they can. It’s more about the lost advantage of not having the game in New Orleans. The offensive performance against the Cowboys also highlighted the lack of another major threat in the passing game if an opposing defense somehow manages to thwart Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara.
5. Houston Texans (9-3) | Last Week’s Rank: 5
It’s now nine wins in a row since the 0-3 start, and the Texans have joined the jumble atop the AFC with the Chiefs, Patriots, Chargers and Steelers. It’s looking like there will be no weak links in the entire AFC playoff field.
6. Los Angeles Chargers (9-3) | Last Week’s Rank: 7
It took three tries for the Chargers to convert the game-winning field goal Sunday night in Pittsburgh. But convert it, they did. In doing so, the Chargers served notice that they cannot be ignored as a Super Bowl possibility in the AFC. Joey Bosa is back from his injury and making big plays on defense, and the offense will be top-notch once running back Melvin Gordon returns from his knee injury.
7. Dallas Cowboys (7-5) | Last Week’s Rank: 9
The Cowboys suddenly are playing well and are looking like the no-doubt-about-it class of the NFC East. It would have been difficult to imagine, going into that game Thursday night, a defense performing as well against the New Orleans offense as the Dallas defense did. The offense played a complementary, ball-possession style. But in this NFL season of vroom-vroom offenses, can that style work on a consistent basis against the top teams?
8. Chicago Bears (8-4) | Last Week’s Rank: 6
The comeback to force overtime against the Giants made things interesting, and the play call for the tying touchdown at the end of regulation was wonderfully daring. But the loss underscores the Bears’ need to have Mitchell Trubisky back in the lineup at quarterback. They’re not an NFC heavyweight without him.
9. Baltimore Ravens (7-5) | Last Week’s Rank: 11
The big QB decision could be looming for Coach John Harbaugh, with Joe Flacco reportedly set to return from his hip injury. But is there much a decision to be made? How could Harbaugh and the Ravens turn back to Flacco now while on a three-game winning streak with prized rookie Lamar Jackson as the starter?
10. Seattle Seahawks (7-5) | Last Week’s Rank: 12
The easy triumph at home over the Niners leaves the Seahawks very well positioned to reach the NFC playoffs as a wild card. The home game this coming Monday night against the Vikings will be closely watched. But even if the Seahawks lose that game and a Sunday night matchup Dec. 23 with the Chiefs, they would finish 9-7 by beating the 49ers again and the Cardinals.
11. Pittsburgh Steelers (7-4-1) | Last Week’s Rank: 8
Don’t look now but the Steelers were just called for being offside again. That ending against the Chargers was a little silly, but the concerns are real. The Steelers suddenly are floundering and the top-heavy AFC does not allow for such missteps among its leading contenders.
12. Denver Broncos (6-6) | Last Week’s Rank: 14
The Broncos somehow became competent while no one was paying attention. They’re on a three-game winning streak and the 49ers, Browns and Raiders are up next on the schedule. Coach Vance Joseph’s job is looking quite a bit more secure these days.
13. Philadelphia Eagles (6-6) | Last Week’s Rank: 16
The win Monday night over the Redskins means that the Eagles still have possibilities for the remainder of their season. But their performance was not all that sharp, at least not for the first three quarters, and left tackle Jason Peters limping off the field in the final minutes was not a welcome sight.
14. Minnesota Vikings (6-5-1) | Last Week’s Rank: 13
Note to Adam Thielen: Taking on Bill Belichick might not have been the way to go. But at least Thielen showed some competitiveness and edge. The rest of the team wilted, and QB Kirk Cousins had another turnover-marred performance in a meaningful game.
15. Miami Dolphins (6-6) | Last Week’s Rank: 21
Just finishing .500 will be challenging with the Patriots and Vikings still on the schedule. But the Patriots generally have struggled in Miami, so this Sunday’s game will be interesting.
16. Tennessee Titans (6-6) | Last Week’s Rank: 22
Needing to rally at home to beat the Jets does not inspire all that much confidence that a run to the playoffs is in store.
17. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-7) | Last Week’s Rank: 24
The Buccaneers have won two straight games with Jameis Winston back in the starting lineup, and Winston is playing well and avoiding interceptions. It’s probably too little, too late to salvage this season and the job of Coach Dirk Koetter. But it could persuade the team to stay the course with Winston at QB beyond this season.
18. New York Giants (4-8) | Last Week’s Rank: 26
So do the Giants get credit for holding things together and winning three of four games since the 1-7 start? Or does that merely serve to intensify the frustration for those who believe this is the team that the Giants should have been all along? If not for the recently squandered lead in Philadelphia, the Giants would be on a four-game winning streak and back in the playoff conversation.
19. Jacksonville Jaguars (4-8) | Last Week’s Rank: 28
The offense didn’t do much against the Colts, but the defense showed that it remains capable of dominating a game. Unfortunately for the Jaguars, satisfying days like that have been far too rare this season.
20. Indianapolis Colts (6-6) | Last Week’s Rank: 10
Never mind the last offensive play that the Colts didn’t get, thanks the official’s inbounds decision. This was about their lack of success on all the offensive plays that came before that. It has been a feel-good season for the Colts under their first-year coach, Frank Reich: Andrew Luck has reestablished himself as a franchise QB and the team around him has looked surprisingly promising. But that was a disappointing performance against the Jaguars.
21. Washington Redskins (6-6) | Last Week’s Rank: 19
The injury to Colt McCoy following the injury to Alex Smith has left the Redskins in desperation mode at quarterback, with Mark Sanchez the latest to be ascend to QB1 in Washington. Really. The Redskins made it more interesting than it probably should have been Monday night in Philadelphia, and the 90-yard touchdown run by Adrian Peterson was remarkable. But there’s just no way to hold things together with the offense this decimated.
22. Detroit Lions (4-8) | Last Week’s Rank: 20
The loss to the Rams ensured that the Lions will be no better than .500 in Matt Patricia’s first season as their coach. That means it is certain that the Lions have taken a step backward under Patricia after he inherited a team that went 9-7 last season under Jim Caldwell.
23. Cleveland Browns (4-7-1) | Last Week’s Rank: 15
With the loss in Houston, it was back to reality for the Browns after they’d begun to feel pretty good about themselves. Maybe too good.
24. Carolina Panthers (6-6) | Last Week’s Rank: 18
It just keeps getting worse for the Panthers, and this team looks nothing like a playoff contender at this point. Monday’s shake-up of the defensive coaching staff might be just the beginning if this downward spiral continues.
25. Arizona Cardinals (3-9) | Last Week’s Rank: 30
Give the Cardinals credit for this: They came to play Sunday at Lambeau Field with a sense of purpose that the Packers lacked. In fact, the Cardinals played better and with more intensity Sunday than several teams that are in the playoff races.
26. Green Bay Packers (4-7-1) | Last Week’s Rank: 17
The loss at home to the Cardinals was galling and the firing of Mike McCarthy was justified, even with his distinguished coaching tenure in Green Bay that included a Super Bowl triumph. This season is lost. Now it’s about finding the right offensive-minded coach to provide a system that will benefit QB Aaron Rodgers.
27. Buffalo Bills (4-8) | Last Week’s Rank: 23
Yes, the Bills actually were a playoff team last season, as amazing as that now seems in retrospect.
28. Cincinnati Bengals (5-7) | Last Week’s Rank: 25
Wide receiver A.J. Green needs to undergo season-ending toe surgery, yet another indication that it’s all over for the Bengals. As if another indication was needed.
29. Atlanta Falcons (4-8) | Last Week’s Rank: 27
When it reaches the point at which owner Arthur Blank must profess his faith in Coach Dan Quinn and General Manager Thomas Dimitroff, that tells you all that you need to know about the state of the Falcons’ season. The jobs of Quinn and Dimitroff should be safe after a Super Bowl season in 2016 and a playoff appearance last season. But the Falcons have fallen far this season, and it has happened swiftly.
30. Oakland Raiders (2-10) | Last Week’s Rank: 29
This season can’t end soon enough for Jon Gruden and the Raiders.
31. New York Jets (3-9) | Last Week’s Rank: 31
The speculation about Mike McCarthy being the best head coaching candidate to oversee the development of rookie quarterback Sam Darnold already has begun, and Todd Bowles hasn’t even been fired yet.
32. San Francisco 49ers (2-10) | Last Week’s Rank: 32
Are the Niners on the clock yet?