Each week, national NFL writer Mark Maske ranks the league’s 32 teams. This week, there’s another shake-up at the top following losses by the Chiefs and Rams. The Saints move up to first, and the Chargers ascend to second after their triumph in Kansas City. They might not secure the No. 1 playoff seed, but the Chargers are playing better than anyone else in the AFC right now.
1. New Orleans Saints (12-2) | Last Week’s Rank: 2
The offense couldn’t get moving Monday night at Carolina, but the Saints leaned on their defense and found a way to win. They moved a step closer to securing the No. 1 seed in the NFC and continued to show they’re a team with more to it than just Drew Brees and the passing game.
2. Los Angeles Chargers (11-3) | Last Week’s Rank: 3
The comeback win Thursday night in Kansas City was impressive, and the Chargers have a decent chance at the AFC’s top seed, pending help from a Chiefs opponent or two. Having the AFC championship game played in cozy StubHub Center would be quite a sight.
3. Chicago Bears (10-4) | Last Week’s Rank: 6
The Bears have clinched the NFC North, and given the Rams’ recent struggles and the Cowboys’ performance Sunday, they might have emerged as the top threat to the Saints in the NFC. The key remains quarterback Mitch Trubisky. The Chicago defense will do its thing, and Trubisky must be good enough not to mess everything up.
4. Houston Texans (10-4) | Last Week’s Rank: 8
The Texans have moved ahead of the Patriots for the No. 2 seed in the AFC. It’s easy to dismiss this Texans team as just another Super Bowl pretender that, like previous Texans teams, won’t be much of a factor in the playoffs. But maybe things are different this time.
5. Kansas City Chiefs (11-3) | Last Week’s Rank: 1
The Chiefs still can secure the No. 1 seed in the AFC by winning out. But getting a victory at Seattle won’t be easy, and trust in the Chiefs has been eroded by their inability to hold on to a trio of 14-point leads Thursday night against the Chargers.
6. Los Angeles Rams (11-3) | Last Week’s Rank: 4
Suddenly, it’s a struggle. The offense no longer is covering for the defense’s shortcomings, and the Rams have lost two in a row. The prospect of having to go to New Orleans to win the NFC title game makes a Super Bowl appearance look, increasingly, like a long shot.
7. Baltimore Ravens (8-6) | Last Week’s Rank: 11
The Ravens made the right decision by sticking with rookie Lamar Jackson at quarterback, and they are threatening to overtake the wobbly Steelers in the AFC North. Their style of play, with their overpowering defense and Jackson’s running, makes them a difficult postseason matchup. But there is room to wonder if they can beat several good teams in a row during the playoffs without much of a passing game.
8. Indianapolis Colts (8-6) | Last Week’s Rank: 12
The 7-1 run of success following the 1-5 start to the season means the Colts and quarterback Andrew Luck are relevant again. Coach Frank Reich has done a wonderful job, and Indianapolis finally appears on its way to putting a competent team around Luck.
9. Pittsburgh Steelers (8-5-1) | Last Week’s Rank: 14
The three-game losing streak came to an end with Sunday’s triumph over the Patriots in Pittsburgh. That doesn’t mean that all suddenly is well. But the Steelers showed that they’re capable of holding things together and rising to the occasion in a game that matters.
10. New England Patriots (9-5) | Last Week’s Rank: 7
The cracks are showing and the dynasty could be coming to an end. The Patriots are 3-5 on the road this season, and they’ll have to go on the road for the second round of the playoffs. They won’t have a first-round bye unless they can move up from the No. 3 seed. This has not been their formula for reaching Super Bowls.
11. Dallas Cowboys (8-6) | Last Week’s Rank: 5
The Cowboys’ flat performance Sunday in Indianapolis was alarming. Squandering a chance to clinch the NFC East title was bad enough. Being shut out by the Colts was confounding. So much for the Cowboys ascending to a spot among the NFC’s elite.
12. Tennessee Titans (8-6) | Last Week’s Rank: 13
The shutout of the Giants was good. The “Remember the Titans” celebration was even better. The Titans have found a winning formula by relying on their defense and the running of Derrick Henry, and they should continue to put that approach to use Saturday against the Redskins.
13. Seattle Seahawks (8-6) | Last Week’s Rank: 9
Just when it looks like time to begin believing in the Seahawks, they lose to the 49ers and offer a reminder that this really should have been a rebuilding season all along.
14. Philadelphia Eagles (7-7) | Last Week’s Rank: 18
It’s December, and Nick Foles is again a starting quarterback. Sound familiar? These Eagles, of course, are not last season’s Eagles. That has been evident all season. But at least Foles and the Eagles are keeping things interesting entering their matchup Sunday with the Texans in Philadelphia.
15. Minnesota Vikings (7-6-1) | Last Week’s Rank: 15
New offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski emphasized the running game, as Coach Mike Zimmer wanted, and de-emphasized the passing of Kirk Cousins in the triumph over the Dolphins. That’s fine for now. But such a late-season shift away from Cousins merely serves to reinforce the notion that the Vikings made a sizable mistake by handing him that huge contract in free agency.
16. Cleveland Browns (6-7-1) | Last Week’s Rank: 19
The Browns are not officially eliminated from the playoffs. But from a practical standpoint, they are, given that their only remaining postseason scenario involves a Week 17 tie between the Titans and Colts. Still, the fact that the Browns are even talking about playoff possibilities in mid-December represents quite a step forward for this so recently decrepit franchise.
17. Washington Redskins (7-7) | Last Week’s Rank: 24
Josh Johnson got his first victory as an NFL starting QB and, somehow, the Redskins are still alive in the playoff race. Coach Jay Gruden deserves credit for holding this thing together.
18. Miami Dolphins (7-7) | Last Week’s Rank: 10
That miracle against the Patriots didn’t exactly carry over to Sunday’s game in Minneapolis, and the Dolphins were overwhelmed by the Vikings. Oh well. The Dolphins can just keep savoring the final play against the Patriots while their season ends shy of the playoffs.
19. New York Giants (5-9) | Last Week’s Rank: 16
The shutout loss to the Titans dispels the notion that the Giants are having an encouraging second half to their miserable season. If they believe that it would be wise to go into next season still relying on Eli Manning to be their quarterback, they are fooling themselves.
20. San Francisco 49ers (4-10) | Last Week’s Rank: 29
The 49ers still are playing hard and seem to be relishing the spoiler’s role. Just ask the Broncos and Seahawks. But this isn’t doing much for the Niners’ draft-pick positioning.
21. Buffalo Bills (5-9) | Last Week’s Rank: 30
It’s difficult to know how to feel about Josh Allen’s rookie season. His playmaking abilities as a runner have been a pleasant surprise. It would be better if his skills as a pocket passer were on something approaching the same level. But the Bills must stick with Allen and hope that he develops into a more complete quarterback.
22. Detroit Lions (5-9) | Last Week’s Rank: 17
If the Lions could do it all over again, would they hire Matt Patricia as their coach? They probably would. But that still wouldn’t mean they’d be right.
23. Green Bay Packers (5-8-1) | Last Week’s Rank: 20
All the talk about running the table and the Packers saving their season can finally end. It was never going to happen, not this time around. This season has been a complete failure, and now even a .500 record can’t be attained. The Packers need to be prescient when they choose their next coach because they already have wasted too many seasons of Aaron Rodgers’s productive years.
24. Denver Broncos (6-8) | Last Week’s Rank: 21
Coach Vance Joseph’s decision to kick the field goal on fourth and one, down four points with less than five minutes to play against the Browns, was truly perplexing. If you say that you wanted to trust your defense, then you just as easily could have trusted it to stop the Browns deep in their own territory if a fourth-down gamble on offense had failed. It will be interesting to see if that decision, coupled with the losses to the 49ers and Browns, costs Joseph his job.
25. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-9) | Last Week’s Rank: 22
Jameis Winston didn’t play well in Baltimore, and there remains plenty of room for debate about whether the Buccaneers can count on him to be their long-term solution at QB.
26. Cincinnati Bengals (6-8) | Last Week’s Rank: 31
Beating the Raiders kept open the possibility that the Bengals will finish at .500. But even that greatly diminished goal probably won’t be attained, with road games at Cleveland and Pittsburgh left on the schedule.
27. Atlanta Falcons (5-9) | Last Week’s Rank: 32
Beating the Cardinals doesn’t mean much. But it at least showed that the Falcons haven’t completely checked out on their dreary season.
28. Jacksonville Jaguars (4-10) | Last Week’s Rank: 23
It was just last season that the Jaguars reached the AFC championship game, and now they can’t beat Josh Johnson. That’s quite a downfall.
29. Carolina Panthers (6-8) | Last Week’s Rank: 25
The season can’t end soon enough.
30. Arizona Cardinals (3-11) | Last Week’s Rank: 26
It still says here that Steve Wilks deserves to be retained for a second season as the Cardinals’ coach. The QB situation has been challenging, to say the least, and Wilks deserves another opportunity under more favorable circumstances. But the lopsided loss in Atlanta didn’t exactly bolster that case.
31. Oakland Raiders (3-11) | Last Week’s Rank: 27
The Christmas Eve game against the Broncos could be the Raiders’ final game in Oakland. Or maybe not, with the team’s home for next season still undetermined. It should make for a truly odd and confusing scene.
32. New York Jets (4-10) | Last Week’s Rank: 28
Rookie quarterback Sam Darnold played well and the Jets actually kept things interesting Saturday against the Texans. Not that anyone is really paying much attention any more.
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