1. Kansas City Chiefs (14-1) | Last week’s rank: 1
The Chiefs played down to the Falcons’ level but escaped with the victory and secured the top seed with a missed field goal by Atlanta. Get ready for a third straight AFC championship game to be played at Kansas City. Stop nitpicking about how the Chiefs are winning. Patrick Mahomes has reached the point in his career when he simply knows how to do whatever it takes to win.
2. Green Bay Packers (12-3) | Last week’s rank: 2
Aaron Rodgers was sharp. Davante Adams was brilliant. The running game was productive. The Packers were excellent and unrelenting on offense in dismantling a formidable opponent, in the Titans, Sunday night at snowy Lambeau Field to remain on course for the NFC’s No. 1 seed.
3. Buffalo Bills (12-3) | Last week’s rank: 3
The Bills were dominant in Monday night’s road victory over the Patriots and are in line for the No. 2 seed in the AFC. With the way QB Josh Allen and WR Stefon Diggs are playing, they probably are the biggest threat to the Chiefs in the conference.
4. New Orleans Saints (11-4) | Last week’s rank: 4
RB Alvin Kamara’s six-touchdown masterpiece in the Christmas Day win over the Vikings wrapped up a fourth straight NFC South title. The Saints have not had their offense truly revved up all season, not with the injury issues for WR Michael Thomas and QB Drew Brees. Could they finally be at their healthiest and at their best when the postseason arrives? They’ll need to be, with a trip to Green Bay probably necessary to reach the Super Bowl.
5. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (10-5) | Last week’s rank: 6
Tom Brady’s 348-yard, four-touchdown first half against the Lions in Saturday’s playoff-clinching victory was impressive. But can the Buccaneers actually get it done when they face one of the league’s better teams? That has been the issue all season.
6. Seattle Seahawks (11-4) | Last week’s rank: 8
The defense provided a key goal-line stand, and the Seahawks got it done Sunday against the Rams. The NFC West title is secure, and the No. 1 seed in the conference remains possible. The defensive improvement has made the Seahawks a better-balanced team as the postseason arrives.
7. Pittsburgh Steelers (12-3) | Last week’s rank: 9
The Steelers finally got it together in the second half against the Colts to avoid a fourth consecutive defeat. QB Ben Roethlisberger was very good during the comeback. But there’s no way to know what to expect from Roethlisberger and his team once the playoffs begin. Will the Steelers more closely resemble the 11-0 team that began the season or the 0-3 version that followed?
8. Baltimore Ravens (10-5) | Last week’s rank: 10
The Ravens are playing very well, and they’ve moved back into position for an AFC wild-card berth. Maybe this twisting path to the playoffs could end up being more useful as preparation for the postseason than last season’s joyride through the regular season proved to be.
9. Miami Dolphins (10-5) | Last week’s rank: 12
Coach Brian Flores’s handling of his QB situation has been unconventional, to say the least. He has used Ryan Fitzpatrick twice in relief and once as a fill-in starter since rookie Tua Tagovailoa became the starter, each time turning back to Tagovailoa for the next game. But it’s working for the Dolphins. The wondrous show of “FitzMagic” on Saturday night in Vegas has them on the cusp of reaching the playoffs.
10. Indianapolis Colts (10-5) | Last week’s rank: 5
A very good team will be left out of the AFC playoffs. Right now, that would be the Colts. Their second-half issues in the loss in Pittsburgh have put them in the uncomfortable position of needing Week 17 help to reach the postseason. Taking care of their part of the playoff-reaching equation shouldn’t be a problem, with a matchup Sunday with the Jaguars.
11. Tennessee Titans (10-5) | Last week’s rank: 7
The Titans couldn’t keep pace with the Packers on Sunday night. Few teams can when the Packers are functioning at that level. It was a wasted chance to clinch the AFC South title. But the Titans have another opportunity Sunday against the Texans.
12. Cleveland Browns (10-5) | Last week’s rank: 11
Even with their shortage of wide receivers because of their coronavirus-related issues, the Browns should have found a way Sunday to beat the lowly Jets at the Meadowlands. Leaning on their running game and having Baker Mayfield throw the ball to tight ends and running backs should have been enough. Alas, it’s never easy with the Browns, is it?
13. Chicago Bears (8-7) | Last week’s rank: 15
Mitchell Trubisky has the Bears on the doorstep of the NFC playoffs. Who knew it was even possible? It seemed inevitable a few weeks ago that Trubisky was done in Chicago as a draft bust. There was room to wonder about the job security of Coach Matt Nagy. But they’ve done an admirable job of regrouping and making the Bears’ Week 17 matchup with the Packers have playoff implications for both teams.
14. Arizona Cardinals (8-7) | Last week’s rank: 13
The loss Saturday to the 49ers was troubling, with so much at stake for the Cardinals and San Francisco so depleted. But the Cardinals still can reach the playoffs with a Week 17 triumph over the Rams. The status of QB Kyler Murray after his late-game leg injury against the 49ers will be the obvious issue to watch this week. If Murray can’t play, Chris Streveler or Brett Hundley would start.
15. Los Angeles Rams (9-6) | Last week’s rank: 14
Jared Goff had thumb surgery Monday, and the Rams’ season is coming undone. Backup QB John Wolford is set to start Sunday against the Cardinals. It’s too bad that the offense can’t pull things together, because this is a really good defense. There’s no reason to trust that the Rams, of their own doing, will cash in on their Week 17 opportunity to reach the postseason. But they still can get in with a Bears loss to the Packers.
16. Los Angeles Chargers (6-9) | Last week’s rank: 17
Justin Herbert broke the NFL record for touchdown passes by a rookie, and the Chargers continued their recent winning ways. It remains to be seen whether it will be enough to save the job of Coach Anthony Lynn. There is an argument to be made that maintaining continuity around Herbert would be beneficial. He certainly seems to be figuring things out.
17. Dallas Cowboys (6-9) | Last week’s rank: 18
Andy Dalton put up big numbers, and the Cowboys beat the Eagles to remain in the NFC East race. They were the only team in the division to win Sunday as the NFC East reminded everyone that these are four bad teams and one of them will reach the playoffs by default. How crazy would that be if this Cowboys team, as disappointing as it has been, ends up in the postseason?
18. San Francisco 49ers (6-9) | Last week’s rank: 26
The Cardinals shared their home field with the displaced 49ers. The 49ers repaid that favor by handing the Cardinals a costly defeat Saturday on that very field. No one ever said the NFL is fair or kind.
19. Carolina Panthers (5-10) | Last week’s rank: 27
The Panthers honored former coach Ron Rivera with “Rivera Strong” shirts during pregame warmups Sunday at FedEx Field. Then they went out and kept Rivera’s new team from clinching the NFC East title.
20. Washington Football Team (6-9) | Last week’s rank: 16
Dwayne Haskins, with his release Monday, failed to last two full seasons in Washington after being the 15th pick in 2019. He takes his place among NFL draft busts — perhaps not on the upper tier of all-time QB draft busts, but certainly on the list. The best chance to clinch the division title, at home against the Panthers, is gone. Now comes another opportunity Sunday night at Philadelphia. It’s clear that having Alex Smith back in the lineup is a must.
21. Denver Broncos (5-10) | Last week’s rank: 19
Vic Fangio reportedly will be retained as the Broncos’ coach. That could point toward the team maintaining the status quo at QB as well and entering another season with Drew Lock as the starter.
22. Las Vegas Raiders (7-8) | Last week’s rank: 20
How in the world do you lose a game, as the Raiders did Saturday night, when you kick a go-ahead FG with 19 seconds left and the other team starts at its 25-yard line with no timeouts? Jon Gruden was right: That was inexcusable. The Raiders, with their late-season skid, have failed to make the expected progress in Year 3 of Gruden’s return to coaching.
23. New England Patriots (6-9) | Last week’s rank: 21
The Patriots’ worst home loss of the Bill Belichick era came in Monday night’s 38-9 defeat to the Bills. It simply hasn’t worked with Cam Newton at QB and Belichick, this time, didn’t offer an immediate postgame declaration that Newton remains the starter. There’s really no reason not to give Jarrett Stidham a Week 17 starting opportunity.
24. New York Giants (5-10) | Last week’s rank: 22
Wouldn’t it be fitting for the Giants to win the dreadful NFC East in a three-way tie with Washington and Dallas at 6-10? That remains a possibility, perhaps a strong possibility. All it would take is a Week 17 Giants win over the Cowboys and a Washington loss to the Eagles.
25. Philadelphia Eagles (4-10-1) | Last week’s rank: 23
Jalen Hurts was turnover-prone in the loss to the Cowboys, and the Eagles officially were eliminated from the playoff chase. It’s not that easy to be out of the running before Week 17 in a division in which a 6-10 record still could win it. But there’s probably no turning back now from Hurts as the starter at QB, not this week and not heading into next season.
26. Minnesota Vikings (6-9) | Last week’s rank: 24
Kirk Cousins fumed, and the Vikings were eliminated from playoff contention Friday in New Orleans. This team should have been better, given the exploits of RB Dalvin Cook and the immediate contributions of rookie WR Justin Jefferson playing in tandem with Adam Thielen.
27. Cincinnati Bengals (4-10-1) | Last week’s rank: 29
The Bengals are having a Jets-like late-season winning streak. The difference is that theirs didn’t cost them the No. 1 pick in the draft. They already have their franchise QB, albeit one who’s on the mend after surgery for his season-ending knee injury. The best news for the Bengals wasn’t their recent victories. It was that video of Joe Burrow on his feet and able to walk, although gingerly.
28. Detroit Lions (5-10) | Last week’s rank: 25
The Lions weren’t competitive Saturday against the Buccaneers without their coaches, just as the Broncos weren’t competitive against the Saints last month without their QBs. So it goes in this coronavirus-affected NFL season.
29. Houston Texans (4-11) | Last week’s rank: 28
The Texans continue to lose, but J.J. Watt provided a compelling public lecture on what being a professional is all about. Watt and Deshaun Watson embody that. Watson continues to play through injuries — and play remarkably well. It might be time for someone in the organization to force him to sit down, for his own preservation.
30. Atlanta Falcons (4-11) | Last week’s rank: 30
Younghoe Koo has had a terrific season, but that was a dreadful miss on the game-tying-field-goal-that-wasn’t against the Chiefs. It’s been that kind of year for the Falcons.
31. New York Jets (2-13) | Last week’s rank: 31
The Jets seem committed to doing whatever it takes to make their fans miserable. Their ill-timed two-game winning streak took them out of the running for the No. 1 pick in the draft and the chance to select Trevor Lawrence. Maybe someone should have told them it doesn’t do much good to begin a playoff push after a 0-13 start.
32. Jacksonville Jaguars (1-14) | Last week’s rank: 32
The Jaguars are on the clock. They’ve wrapped up the top pick in the NFL draft and Lawrence, by all appearances, is Jacksonville-bound.