The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

NFL Week 18 power rankings: The Packers are the new No. 1

Aaron Rodgers and the Packers will enter the NFC playoffs as the No. 1 seed. (Jeffrey Phelps/AP)

Each week during the NFL season, The Post’s Mark Maske ranks the 32 teams. This week, for the final version of this season, the Packers take over the No. 1 spot. They move up one spot following the loss by the Chiefs. The Rams and Buccaneers also ascend. The Bengals and Titans break the top five. The Cardinals return to the top 10. The Jaguars are a fixture at No. 32.

1. Green Bay Packers (13-3) | Last week’s rank: 2

The No. 1 seed in the NFC is clinched, and QB Aaron Rodgers seems to have secured a second straight MVP award. Such a superb season did not seem to be in the offing amid all the offseason angst, or even following the unsightly season-opening loss to the Saints. It has all worked out, and now there is talk of Rodgers and the Packers staying together beyond this season. But let’s see how it ends. The mood won’t be as celebratory if the Packers don’t take the next step and reach the Super Bowl.

Even in a tumultuous season, Aaron Rodgers and the Packers are the NFC’s No. 1 seed

2. Los Angeles Rams (12-4) | Last week’s rank: 4

QB Matthew Stafford’s interceptions, too often returned for TDs, remain a major issue. But the Rams at least hung tough and managed to pull out a last-minute triumph Sunday against the undermanned Ravens in Baltimore. A victory this weekend over the 49ers would give the Rams the NFC West title. But they’ll need Stafford to be more reliable in the playoffs if they’re going to be a factor in the postseason.

3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (12-4) | Last week’s rank: 5

The Buccaneers knew the risks involved with signing Antonio Brown and then with allowing him to rejoin the team following his latest suspension. No one should be particularly surprised that another incident occurred, although nobody could have guessed that it would be such a public spectacle. Here’s hoping Brown finally gets help and takes the steps necessary to get his life in order. If his ankle injury was a factor, that changes the dynamics of the interaction a bit. As for the Bucs, they have a huge void at WR with Chris Godwin’s injury and Brown’s exit.

Antonio Brown walked away on his own terms Sunday. That should embarrass the NFL.

4. Cincinnati Bengals (10-6) | Last week’s rank: 6

QB Joe Burrow truly is something special and now has thrown for 971 yards and eight TDs in the past two games. The Bengals should be a contender for a decade or more, as long as he’s in place. WR Ja’Marr Chase also is a difference-maker. The franchise’s first division title since 2015 is secured and, given their offensive capabilities, the Bengals will be dangerous in the postseason.

5. Tennessee Titans (11-5) | Last week’s rank: 8

The No. 1 seed in the AFC is within the Titans’ grasp, and RB Derrick Henry could be nearing his return from foot surgery. The Titans were dominant in Sunday’s victory over the Dolphins. Beating the Texans this weekend to secure the top seed — and the opening-round playoff bye — would be significant as Henry works his way back toward being in the lineup for the postseason.

6. Kansas City Chiefs (11-5) | Last week’s rank: 1

The winning streak was halted at eight as the defense didn’t have answers Sunday for Joe Burrow and the Bengals. The Chiefs lost their grip on the top seed in the AFC. They’re still capable of making a postseason run to another Super Bowl, but it’s much tougher now.

7. Buffalo Bills (10-6) | Last week’s rank: 9

The Bills did what was needed, mostly in the second half, against the Falcons and need one more victory for their second straight AFC East title. They are about to be the new kings of the division, thanks in large part to their resilient Week 16 triumph at New England. This remains a team capable of being as good as any in the NFL. But it’s still a bit difficult to be confident from week to week which version of the Bills will show up.

8. New England Patriots (10-6) | Last week’s rank: 10

The Patriots righted themselves, following two straight losses, with a no-doubt-about-it victory at home Sunday over the Jaguars. They’re in the postseason field. But if the Patriots are forced to take to the road and fail to advance very far in the AFC playoffs, they’ll have to wonder what went wrong during their bye week that led to defeats to the Colts and Bills on the heels of their seven-game winning streak. That remains puzzling after the Patriots had seemed poised to keep getting better heading into the postseason.

9. Arizona Cardinals (11-5) | Last week’s rank: 14

Just when the Cardinals seemed to be unraveling at a most inopportune time, they pulled things together and ended their three-game skid with Sunday’s impressive victory at Dallas. They still have a chance to win the NFC West and secure at least one home game in the playoffs. But do they really want that? They’re 3-4 at home and 8-1 on the road. They might be better off taking to the road as a wild card.

10. Dallas Cowboys (11-5) | Last week’s rank: 3

The defeat at home Sunday to the Cardinals was unnerving, basically handing the Packers the top seed in the NFC while raising concerns about the Cowboys. Coach Mike McCarthy’s game management remains an issue. Having no timeouts and thus unable to challenge a would-be fumble by the Cardinals at game’s end was a significant blunder, given a wasted timeout on defense earlier in the half.

11. Philadelphia Eagles (9-7) | Last week’s rank: 12

Reaching the playoffs is an outstanding accomplishment in a transition season, with Nick Sirianni in his rookie year as an NFL head coach and Jalen Hurts in his first full season as the team’s starter at QB. The future is promising and the Eagles’ good fortune even included Hurts escaping harm in a postgame incident at FedEx Field.

12. San Francisco 49ers (9-7) | Last week’s rank: 13

Rookie QB Trey Lance was pretty good in his second NFL start, throwing two TD passes in Sunday’s victory over the Texans while playing for the injured Jimmy Garoppolo. The 49ers seem intent upon going right back to Garoppolo this week if his thumb injury allows him to play, but maybe that shouldn’t be so automatic.

13. Las Vegas Raiders (9-7) | Last week’s rank: 15

The Raiders simply won’t go away. Sunday’s upset at Indianapolis gave them three straight victories and a chance to reach the postseason heading into a Week 18 showdown with the Chargers. Rich Bisaccia deserves plenty of credit for keeping this team so competitive under the ridiculously difficult circumstances that he inherited as interim coach. His work merits legitimate consideration for him to keep the job.

14. Indianapolis Colts (9-7) | Last week’s rank: 7

QB Carson Wentz made it back into the lineup, fresh off the covid-19 reserve list, but was only okay in Sunday’s home loss to the Raiders. RB Jonathan Taylor was productive, as always, but not quite dominant. The Colts remain well positioned to reach the postseason, with a win-and-you’re-in scenario this weekend against the lowly Jaguars. But Sunday’s defeat was a momentum-breaker.

15. Los Angeles Chargers (9-7) | Last week’s rank: 16

The Chargers took care of business against the Broncos and would reach the playoffs with a victory this weekend over the Raiders. This is an ascending team, built around the brilliance of second-year QB Justin Herbert. It’s good to be the Chargers these days. How often have you been able to say that over the years?

16. Pittsburgh Steelers (8-7-1) | Last week’s rank: 20

The final home game for QB Ben Roethlisberger was an unqualified success as the Steelers amassed nine sacks and beat the Browns on an emotional Monday night at Heinz Field. They still have playoff possibilities entering the final weekend of the regular season. And, most notably, T.J. Watt is only one sack from Michael Strahan’s single-season NFL record.

17. New Orleans Saints (8-8) | Last week’s rank: 21

The Saints were able to replenish their lineup and win Sunday against the Panthers to keep their NFC playoff hopes alive. They’ll reach the postseason with a victory over the Falcons and a loss by the 49ers. That’s a realistic scenario.

NFL playoff scenarios for Week 18: Still plenty to decide in the AFC

18. Miami Dolphins (8-8) | Last week’s rank: 11

So much for the storybook ending. The Dolphins couldn’t turn their 1-7 start into a playoff appearance. The winning streak ended at seven with Sunday’s poor performance and lopsided defeat at Tennessee. It’s on to the offseason and the major decisions that loom, beginning at QB. Is Tua Tagovailoa the long-term solution? Or is another attempt to trade for Deshaun Watson coming?

19. Baltimore Ravens (8-8) | Last week’s rank: 17

The Ravens could not get QB Lamar Jackson back on the field and this time they got an inadequate performance by fill-in starter Tyler Huntley, nor could they hold a late lead against the Rams, which all but extinguished their playoff hopes. Five straight losses have turned a once-promising season, with notions of being the AFC’s top seed, into a bitter disappointment. There were major issues with injuries and coronavirus disruptions, but other teams don’t want to hear about your problems; they have problems of their own.

20. Atlanta Falcons (7-9) | Last week’s rank: 18

A losing record is now assured, but the Falcons have done reasonably well in Coach Arthur Smith’s first season. The 1,000-yard receiving season for rookie TE Kyle Pitts confirms he is a star in the making. The Falcons can play the spoiler’s role this weekend against the Saints.

21. Minnesota Vikings (7-9) | Last week’s rank: 19

Sunday night’s loss at Green Bay was listless, perhaps predictably so with QB Kirk Cousins and WR Adam Thielen missing. It seems increasingly likely that this season’s shortcomings will cost Coach Mike Zimmer his job. The Vikings need a fresh start. Cousins has had a very good season but has yet to show he can be the centerpiece of an upper-tier team.

22. Cleveland Browns (7-9) | Last week’s rank: 22

A disappointing season is coming to an ugly ending. QB Baker Mayfield was sacked nine times in the loss Monday night at Pittsburgh and said he will include his agent and family in discussions about whether he will play in this weekend’s season finale. Mayfield is headed for offseason surgery on his injured left shoulder, and his future in Cleveland is murky.

23. Chicago Bears (6-10) | Last week’s rank: 24

Two straight wins are far too little, far too late. It has been clear for some time that the Bears are poised to move on from Coach Matt Nagy. Every decision going forward must be about what’s best for QB Justin Fields.

24. Seattle Seahawks (6-10) | Last week’s rank: 26

If Sunday’s rout of the Lions was indeed the final Seahawks home game with both Pete Carroll as the coach and Russell Wilson as the QB, at least it went well. Major decisions must be made soon. Whatever happens, it was a prosperous era that kept the franchise relevant for a decade.

25. Denver Broncos (7-9) | Last week’s rank: 23

The Broncos have lost three straight, four of five and five of seven. They’re 4-9 since a 3-0 start. The downward spiral does not bode well for Coach Vic Fangio keeping his job. His successor would have a far better chance of succeeding if the Broncos find a way to fix their QB situation.

26. Washington Football Team (6-10) | Last week’s rank: 25

This qualifies as a lost season, with the team regressing from last year’s division title and making zero progress toward putting a franchise QB in place. Taylor Heinicke has some good qualities and is fine as a change-of-pace backup. He should not be the starter for a team that hopes to contend. There can be no more stopgap measures such as last offseason’s signing of Ryan Fitzpatrick. It’s time to make an all-out push to find the right guy.

Svrluga: Taylor Heinicke belongs in the NFL, but he’s not Washington’s QB of the future

27. Houston Texans (4-12) | Last week’s rank: 27

The Texans were back to being the Texans in Sunday’s loss to the 49ers. Does the football-watching public really need the Texans playing a 17th game this season? Or any season?

28. New York Jets (4-12) | Last week’s rank: 28

The Jets couldn’t win on a day when they had a 14-point lead in the second half and an opposing star walked off the field shirtless during the game. Enough said.

29. New York Giants (4-12) | Last week’s rank: 29

Good for Joe Judge to speak his mind and provide real opinions instead of coach-speak nonanswers. Even so, are the Giants still so certain that they want to retain Judge as their coach given the five-game losing streak, the lousy performance Sunday in Chicago and the 11-minute rant during his postgame news conference? There has to be some reconsideration going on, at the very least. Merely changing the GM while keeping the coach and QB in place might not be enough.

30. Carolina Panthers (5-11) | Last week’s rank: 30

Sam Darnold’s return to the starting QB role didn’t go well as he struggled in the loss at New Orleans. The decision on whether Coach Matt Rhule should be kept for a third season looks more borderline all the time. But other than major issues at head coach and QB, everything is just great. It’s not like those positions matter much in the NFL.

31. Detroit Lions (2-13-1) | Last week’s rank: 31

At least the Lions aren’t going 0-17. They’ll always have that.

32. Jacksonville Jaguars (2-14) | Last week’s rank: 32

The only hope is that rookie QB Trevor Lawrence’s career has not been irreparably harmed and the next coach can work wonders. It is perhaps not a realistic hope. But it’s all the Jaguars and their fans have.