1. Arizona Cardinals (9-2) | Last week’s rank: 1
The Cardinals return from their bye with the prospect of having QB Kyler Murray and WR DeAndre Hopkins back in the lineup soon. Each missed three games, Murray with a sprained ankle and Hopkins with a hamstring injury. The Cardinals hung tough without them and already have demonstrated more staying power than last season. The schedule down the stretch is mixed, with games against non-contenders such as the Bears, Lions and Seahawks interspersed with meetings with the Rams, Colts and Cowboys.
2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-3) | Last week’s rank: 2
The Bucs erased their early deficit in Indianapolis then held on at the end after inexplicably allowing a long kickoff return by the Colts. The champs have two straight wins on the heels of their two-game skid. But it still doesn’t appear QB Tom Brady and the Buccaneers have kicked it into high gear, at least not the way they did down the stretch last season.
3. New England Patriots (8-4) | Last week’s rank: 3
The Patriots ran their winning streak to six with Sunday’s convincing triumph over the Titans. They forced four turnovers, and rookie QB Mac Jones threw two TD passes. It would have seemed inconceivable even just a few weeks ago that the Patriots would be in the mix for the No. 1 seed in the AFC. But they’re squarely in the running now. They face the Bills twice in the next three games, with their bye coming after Monday’s first matchup.
4. Kansas City Chiefs (7-4) | Last week’s rank: 4
The Chiefs return from their bye for a final push toward the playoffs and, they hope, another deep postseason run. They have played much more like themselves lately, with wins in four straight and five of six. The post-bye schedule begins with three straight AFC West games: at home against the Broncos and Raiders, then on the road against the Chargers.
5. Baltimore Ravens (8-3) | Last week’s rank: 5
The Ravens are far from perfect. Yet they are, somehow, in position to be the AFC’s No. 1 seed. Their resilience was on display Sunday night when they overcame four interceptions by QB Lamar Jackson to beat the Browns. They will need Jackson to play better, but they’re right in the mix among the top AFC contenders, and now all that matters is which one of those teams can raise its level most down the stretch.
6. Green Bay Packers (9-3) | Last week’s rank: 6
QB Aaron Rodgers was superb in Sunday’s triumph over the Rams, fractured toe and all. The Packers are on their bye week and Rodgers, in considering his treatment options, reportedly will put off surgery for now. Rodgers has vowed not to miss any on-field time. As long as he remains able to play at this level, the Packers’ chances are as good as anyone’s to emerge from the jumble of leading NFC contenders.
7. Cincinnati Bengals (7-4) | Last week’s rank: 10
The Bengals were back to looking formidable in Sunday’s victory over the Steelers. They’re on a two-game winning streak after back-to-back losses before their bye. The Bengals got the running game cranked up Sunday with Joe Mixon’s 165-yard, two-TD performance. If Mixon can remain a factor to complement the passing-game exploits of QB Joe Burrow and WR Ja’Marr Chase, this is a dangerous offensive team.
8. Tennessee Titans (8-4) | Last week’s rank: 7
The Titans were no match Sunday for the Patriots. They simply cannot keep pace with the top contenders minus RB Derrick Henry and WRs A.J. Brown and Julio Jones. Mike Vrabel has done a great coaching job, and the defense can be very good. But when QB Ryan Tannehill is asked to carry too much of the load, there are problems.
9. Buffalo Bills (7-4) | Last week’s rank: 17
That was more like it on Thanksgiving night in New Orleans. The lopsided victory over the Saints showed the Bills still can play like the team that was so dominant early in the season and established itself — temporarily, as it turned out — as the Super Bowl favorite in the AFC. Now it’s about playing at a high level more consistently. The AFC East title will be on the line in two meetings with the Patriots over the next four games, beginning Monday night in Buffalo. The season-ending knee injury suffered by CB Tre’Davious White is a major loss.
10. Las Vegas Raiders (6-5) | Last week’s rank: 23
The Raiders played well in the victory over the Cowboys on Thanksgiving and halted the downward spiral of their season. They are certainly a factor in the playoff race. But the remaining schedule is relatively difficult, making this weekend’s matchup with Washington a game that the Raiders probably have to have.
11. Dallas Cowboys (7-4) | Last week’s rank: 8
The Cowboys have made the NFC East race at least mildly interesting again by losing two straight and three of four. They can complain all they want about the officiating during the Thanksgiving defeat to the Raiders. But if they had played better, it wouldn’t have mattered. Coach Mike McCarthy will miss Thursday night’s game at New Orleans under the coronavirus protocols. If the Cowboys can get WRs Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb back, that could solve some of their issues.
12. Los Angeles Rams (7-4) | Last week’s rank: 9
If the Rams can just add a few more big-name players, maybe they can play their way out of the playoffs entirely. Their Super Bowl-or-bust season is trending decidedly toward bust. The Rams have lost three straight games since the 7-1 start. QB Matthew Stafford has thrown an interception for a TD in each of those three defeats. WR Odell Beckham Jr. was better and had a TD catch in Sunday’s loss to the Packers. But LB Von Miller has mostly been a nonfactor. By the time this team blends all of its new pieces together, it might be too late.
13. San Francisco 49ers (6-5) | Last week’s rank: 13
Watch out for this team. The 49ers made it wins in three straight and four of five with Sunday’s triumph over the Vikings. The 49ers continue to control games with long, time-consuming drives. WR Deebo Samuel has been versatile and valuable, though his groin injury is a major concern. No one should want to face the 49ers these days.
14. Denver Broncos (6-5) | Last week’s rank: 21
The Broncos got it done against the Chargers and continue to hang around the AFC playoff chase. The first of two meetings with the Chiefs comes Sunday night.
15. Miami Dolphins (5-7) | Last week’s rank: 19
It’s time for everyone to notice what this team is doing, posting four straight victories following a 1-7 start. The Dolphins have the Giants and Jets next. It’s entirely possible that they’ll be 7-7 entering a challenging closing stretch against the Saints, Titans and Patriots.
16. Indianapolis Colts (6-6) | Last week’s rank: 11
The Colts were right with the Buccaneers in Sunday’s loss before succumbing late. A few more opportunities for RB Jonathan Taylor might have made a difference. He had a modest 16 carries in a game in which the Colts mostly played with the lead well into the third quarter. QB Carson Wentz generally has played well but still has a penchant for making costly mistakes.
17. Cleveland Browns (6-6) | Last week’s rank: 12
Sunday night’s loss in Baltimore means the Browns have alternated losses and wins over their past seven games, going 3-4 in that span. That’s not going to get it done. They’ve slipped back to .500, and it’s more evident than ever that QB Baker Mayfield is not going to be able to play effectively with his assortment of injuries. The Browns’ bye week is at hand. If Mayfield is not appreciably better when the Browns get back to work, Coach Kevin Stefanski should consider a switch to backup Case Keenum.
18. Minnesota Vikings (5-6) | Last week’s rank: 14
It’s not that QB Kirk Cousins lining up behind the wrong lineman — a guard rather than the center — before a key play in Sunday’s loss to the 49ers was a game-deciding gaffe. It wasn’t. But it contributes to the notion that Cousins can’t quite be trusted when the game is on the line. The shoulder injury suffered by RB Dalvin Cook is likely to deprive the Vikings of a key component of their offense for a few weeks.
19. Los Angeles Chargers (6-5) | Last week’s rank: 15
Just when it’s tempting to begin trusting the Chargers, they go and lose to the Broncos. It’s a reminder to keep the expectations for this season relatively modest and to be satisfied with even small steps forward. A playoff appearance would be a bonus.
20. Washington Football Team (5-6) | Last week’s rank: 20
Washington, unable to kick a clinching FG late because of Joey Slye’s injury, just managed to hold on Monday night against the Seahawks. Ron Rivera won a division title in Carolina at 7-8-1. He won a division title last season with Washington at 7-9. Now he’s in the No. 7 playoff spot in the NFC at 5-6.
21. New York Giants (4-7) | Last week’s rank: 25
Winning cures all. So it doesn’t particularly matter that the offense didn’t look any more potent with Freddie Kitchens calling plays than it had with ousted offensive coordinator Jason Garrett in charge. Anyone who was surprised by the report that General Manager Dave Gettleman is unlikely to stay in the job beyond this season hasn’t been paying attention.
22. Atlanta Falcons (5-6) | Last week’s rank: 26
Coach Arthur Smith and his players get some credit for pulling things together to beat the Jaguars on Sunday after the Falcons lost their previous two games to the Cowboys and Patriots by a combined 68-3. Of course, facing the Jaguars makes it a lot easier.
23. Pittsburgh Steelers (5-5-1) | Last week’s rank: 16
QB Ben Roethlisberger was back to looking old, and the Steelers reverted to being overmatched in their loss to the Bengals. Neither Roethlisberger nor the team around him has maintained much consistency this season, and Coach Mike Tomlin is leaving open the possibility of changes. But there’s no viable alternative, really, to Roethlisberger at QB. The Steelers, don’t forget, tied the winless Lions when he was out.
24. Chicago Bears (4-7) | Last week’s rank: 28
Matt Nagy remains the Bears’ coach. QB Andy Dalton probably keeps the starting job for now because of Justin Fields’s cracked ribs. The Bears are firmly in the playing-out-the-string portion of their season, and there’s not much reason for anyone to pay attention.
25. Philadelphia Eagles (5-7) | Last week’s rank: 18
The Eagles squandered their chance, with a loss to the Giants, to put some pressure on the Cowboys in the NFC East. QB Jalen Hurts had an awful day with three interceptions. Even so, the Eagles could have pulled out the win if WR Jalen Reagor had held on to that final pass at the goal line.
26. New Orleans Saints (5-6) | Last week’s rank: 22
The Saints probably could have used Drew Brees on the field rather than in the NBC broadcast booth for the Thanksgiving night loss to the Bills. Coach Sean Payton simply cannot go with Trevor Siemian at QB any longer with the season slipping away after four straight losses. It’s time for Taysom Hill to take over, assuming his foot injury allows it. Getting RB Alvin Kamara back also is a necessity.
27. Carolina Panthers (5-7) | Last week’s rank: 24
It’s tough to escape the feeling that the Panthers are basically done, with RB Christian McCaffrey’s season-ending ankle injury and QB Cam Newton’s issues as a passer in Sunday’s loss to the Dolphins. McCaffrey is a great player when he’s healthy and on the field. Unfortunately that has become increasingly rare; he played seven games this year after participating in three last season. Newton’s 5-for-21, 92-yard, two-interception performance Sunday was about as dreadful as it gets.
28. Seattle Seahawks (3-8) | Last week’s rank: 27
QB Russell Wilson’s return to the Seahawks’ lineup following his finger surgery was supposed to be a good thing. It hasn’t worked out that way. The final drive Monday night at FedEx Field was fantastic, but the offensive performance until that point was feeble. Is it really that difficult to get DK Metcalf involved? The special teams were excellent for most of the night, but lining up illegally on the onside kick was inexcusable. Those rules are clear.
29. New York Jets (3-8) | Last week’s rank: 31
Rookie QB Zach Wilson returned to the lineup as the Jets beat the Texans. So the bottom-line results were acceptable. The details were not as favorable: Wilson threw a blooper-reel interception as part of a shaky performance.
30. Houston Texans (2-9) | Last week’s rank: 29
It was back to reality for the Texans as they lost to the Jets one week after beating the Titans. Even the bad NFL teams are inexplicable this season.
31. Jacksonville Jaguars (2-9) | Last week’s rank: 30
The Jaguars are limping toward the finish line, with three straight losses following the comparatively encouraging stretch of two victories in three games. They need to find a way to provide some hope by season’s end that things are trending in the right direction with Coach Urban Meyer and QB Trevor Lawrence.
32. Detroit Lions (0-10-1) | Last week’s rank: 32
Thanksgiving is over, and the nation no longer has to watch the Lions play football. That’s a positive thing in which the country can rejoice.