Three weeks remain in the 2016 NFL regular season, and the playoff races in the NFC and AFC are coming into sharp focus. And some surprises have emerged in that group.
There is still some time for the standings to change, and we’ll learn whether or not this season’s surprise teams carry their breakout success into the playoffs. However, the NFL always comes down to this simple hierarchy: If any two given teams played, who would win? That’s what fans really want to know, that’s what power rankings are all about, and that’s how the 32 NFL teams are slotted here each week.
32. Cleveland Browns
Browns fans are getting history for Christmas.
31. San Francisco 49ers
Separating the bottom few teams is all but impossible at this point, but the 49ers have officially lost all momentum towards respectability. It’s so bad there are reports the owner is about to get fired.
30. Los Angeles Rams
Good night, sweet prince. Jeff Fisher is spared the ignominy of being the NFL’s undisputed loss king, at least for now, and Jared Goff gets to muddle through one of the worst-managed quarterback debuts in NFL history under special teams coordinator John Fassel.
— Drew Copley (@DrewASJax) December 4, 2016
29. Jacksonville Jaguars
The Jaguars keep piling up respectable losses. Losing 25-16 to a team that’s now 7-6 and boasting the league’s No. 1 scoring defense is far from an embarrassment.
Now, a 2-11 season? That’s an embarrassment.
28. New York Jets
The Bryce Petty Project is going about as well as anyone could have hoped, which is not necessarily all that great. Nevertheless, he was able to get a win against the league’s second-worst team — which at least proves the Jets aren’t the league’s second-worst team.
27. Indianapolis Colts
Watching Andrew Luck lay on the Lucas Oil Stadium turf after his 4th-and-1 pass fell incomplete was almost as painful for us as it was for him. But even more painful was knowing one of the league’s most talented quarterbacks still doesn’t have enough around him to beat a team that ranks in the league’s bottom six in both offense and defense in a must-win home game.
What. A. PLAY!
26. San Diego Chargers
We’re getting to the time of year where it’s practically impossible to handicap some teams. The Chargers have been stronger than their record indicates all year — they’ve had a nightmarish schedule and at least as much bad luck as good — but their season is over and they’re fading fast. Welcome to “Could Beat Anybody, Could Lose to Anybody”-ville, population about the next 15 teams.
25. Philadelphia Eagles
The Eagles still rank sixth in Football Outsiders DVOA, and ninth in PFR’s Simple Ranking System. But a four-game losing streak has dropped them out of playoff contention, and who knows how motivated they’ll be to play spoiler in the bonkers NFC East.
24. Carolina Panthers
I mean, once again: plenty of talent, big wins, just beat the inconsistent Chargers. But before that, they got pasted 40-7 by the Seattle Seahawks, who turned around and got pasted 38-10 by the Green Bay Packers the following week. So, uh, here? At the cutoff of the bottom third of the league?
You saw @_ThaJizzleMan's 56-yard TD run Sunday.
— Arizona Cardinals (@AZCardinals) December 13, 2016
23. Arizona Cardinals
The Cardinals are still technically alive for the playoffs, but a raft of injuries and suspensions compound the unlikeliness that they run the table while the Seahawks lose out. For a team that was on everybody’s Super Bowl shortlist, this is incredibly disappointing.
22. Houston Texans
The Texans are a bottom-third team (or worse) by basically every available metric, except perhaps scoring defense (13th). Yet an easy schedule and some lucky breaks have them sitting at 7-6, tied for the division lead, with basically all the divisional tiebreakers in hand.
When you’ve caught all the breaks, who cares that you’ve been outscored on an average of 3.5 points per game? Well, I care, when I’m making my power rankings. But if the Texans make the playoffs, they sure won’t.
21. Cincinnati Bengals
Wait, where did these guys come from? All it took was dropping to 3-7-1 for the Bengals to flip the switch and look dominant in their first pair of back-to-back wins. A little late, guys.
Dolphins DE Cameron Wake should be viewed as the front runner for the NFL's Comeback Player of the Year honors. 9.5 sacks, 4 forced fumbles pic.twitter.com/F3a6VhQ96X
— Omar Kelly (@OmarKelly) December 12, 2016
20. Miami Dolphins
Honestly, without Ryan Tannehill, this team is probably not even this good. But I can’t look at a team on a 7-1 run, with a mathematical chance to catch the New England Patriots, and stuff them down in the bottom third of the league.
19. Chicago Bears
Yeah, I know they’re 3-10. But listen: They beat the Minnesota Vikings on Halloween, then lost four of five — but those four losses came against four likely playoff teams. Subtract the first loss against the Bucs, add in their 26-6 stomping of the 49ers, and the Bears have outscored their opponents 80-75 over their last four games. Matt Barkley and company are legitimately dangerous, and could yet take a bite out of a contender.
18. New Orleans Saints
Before Drew Brees threw six picks in two games, the Saints were a dangerous team, especially at home. But then, you know, Brees threw six picks in two games. There are a lot of reasons to be excited about the future in New Orleans, but not the near-future.
— Pittsburgh Steelers (@steelers) December 13, 2016
17. Buffalo Bills
Rex Ryan’s gonna get fired, the defense got rolled by LeVeon Bell, Tyrod Taylor’s not good at anything but getting sacked, and it’s all gone to heck in a handbasket.
Of course, they still came within a wintry onside kick of beating the Steelers, and are still technically in the AFC playoff race. So, you know, it can’t be all bad.
16. Denver Broncos
The lack of quality and stability at quarterback has become an increasingly big problem. Then again, there wasn’t much quality or stability at quarterback last season and the Broncos were a lot better than this. A lack of balance on offense is killing this team, and they’re trending towards not making the playoffs. Their final three games are against the Patriots, Chiefs and Raiders, so it’s entirely possible they lose out.
15. Minnesota Vikings
Yes, the Vikings are on a miserable 2-6 run — but as alluded to earlier, they’ve still allowed fewer points this season than any other team. Four of those six losses were Washington, Detroit (twice) and Dallas, by an average of just 4.3 points per game. This is still a very, very tough team to beat — and with games against the Colts and Bears, in addition to the Packers (whom they bested earlier this season), it’s likely a nine- or 10- win squad.
— Green Bay Packers (@packers) December 11, 2016
14. Seattle Seahawks
This ranking might come off as a harsh overreaction to their 38-10 shellacking in Green Bay. But that, combined with the loss of Earl Thomas the week before and the 12-5 loss to the Buccaneers the week before that, makes for a really ugly trend.
A hilariously easy run at the end of the schedule (home against the Rams and Cardinals, at the 49ers) will tack a bunch of wins onto their record, but the Seahawks have real flaws right now.
13. Tennessee Titans
The Titans are clearly the best team in the AFC South right now, and beating Denver goes a long way toward proving it. Sadly, they weren’t so clearly the best team in the AFC South earlier in the year, so they’re slogging through a much harder final month without any tiebreakers in hand. But if they can go into Arrowhead Stadium and beat the Chiefs this week, they’ll have proven their point — and this ranking correct.
12. Baltimore Ravens
The narrative in play, that the Ravens’ offense was finally catching up to its top-five defense, was spectacularly imploded by Tom Brady and company on Monday night. Only back-to-back special-teams miracles kept that game close — and while the Ravens deserve credit for making those plays, they also deserve demerits for getting shredded by Chris Hogan and company.
— Green Bay Packers (@packers) December 12, 2016
11. Green Bay Packers
THERE we go. THAT’s the Packers team that’s seemed one switch-flip away from reality all season long. It took a month and a half of spectacular play from Aaron Rodgers and the offensive line before the rest of the team got it together, AND a Lambeau Field snowstorm, but we finally got to see The Real Packers for one game. The question is, will we see that same team performance for the rest of the year? Or was this a one-night-only revue?
I feel a little sketchy about putting Washington this high. But they’re 7-5-1 against a very difficult schedule, and the offense has been much more consistent since their Week 9 bye. With games against the Panthers and Bears before finishing the season in what could be a win-and-in against the Giants, They’re in great position to pad their resume right before the postseason.
9. Detroit Lions
After a dominant road win in a notoriously tough place to play, the Lions looked shaky at home against those pesky Bears. Though every advanced metric says this team is still flawed (and the status of Matthew Stafford’s middle finger is up in the air), it’s hard to argue with a 9-1 run, 6-1 home record and DeAndre Levy back on the field. The Lions’ next two games, on the road at the Giants and Cowboys, will tell us exactly how for-real they are.
HIGHLIGHT: OBJ to the HOUSE! 61-yard TD! https://t.co/aRgNcSQaza
— New York Giants (@Giants) December 12, 2016
8. New York Giants
Well, I was all set to drop the Giants after getting whooped by the Cowboys en route to a miserable four- or five-loss finish. But, uh, the Giants won? And therefore swept the Cowboys? And could still technically catch the Cowboys and pass them for the NFC East title? Even though Eli Manning still looks like hot garbage? Okay?
7. Pittsburgh Steelers
Yeah, look out: The Steelers have finally managed to win a few games without tripping over themselves, and all the talent and potential seems to be coming together at the right time. They’re going to be a very tough out down the stretch.
6. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Bucs have now won seven of nine (reference!), and their defense is gradually becoming one of the nastiest in football. Over the last five games, they’ve allowed an average of just 12.8 points. I thought about putting them one spot higher, but there’s no denying the…
WARNING: This is not for the faint of heart.
Vic Beasley, you are a monster
5. Atlanta Falcons
… Falcons, who despite still having a bottom-five scoring defense, are outscoring opponents by a ridiculous average of 6.4 points per game. They don’t just have the best scoring offense in football, they’re boat-racing everybody they beat. At 8-5, they’re not quite beating everybody, but nobody’s signing up to play the Falcons right now.
4. Oakland Raiders
That Thursday Night Football loss against the Chiefs was a bad, bad look — but take away their two losses to the Chiefs, and the Raiders are 10-1. I’ve been saying this is a flawed team all along, but it’s a flawed team that’s kicked almost everybody’s butt. I’ll need to see another bad performance before I drop them any further.
3. Dallas Cowboys
The Cowboys had been gutting out close wins against teams with good, physical defenses for a month before they finally ran out of steam against the Giants. Now we’ll find out how Dak Prescott and company handle their first real adversity of the year (at the worst possible time).
Speechless. Best observed with the eyes. https://t.co/nhMYF4BrTr
— Kansas City Chiefs (@Chiefs) December 9, 2016
2. Kansas City Chiefs
That was a truly impressive win over the Raiders, good enough to vault the Chiefs all the way up here. Save the Bucs, they’ve beaten all comers since their Week 5 bye. They’ve finally proven they can do everything they need to win the Super Bowl, and done it all at the same time. The only question is, can they do it again?
1. New England Patriots
Yes, that home win over the formerly 7-5 Ravens was an impressive one. Even given that the Ravens are far from a juggernaut, and even given the special teams mistakes that made the game a lot more interesting than it should have been.
I didn’t want to put the Patriots all the way up here, though. Not because the win wasn’t impressive, but because it was their first truly impressive win in forever. Even so, though, there’s no other team I can credibly rank above them right now. Kudos to Tom Brady for a standout game when his team needed it most.