Week 16 of the NFL season did not disappoint. In fact, it will be tough to top as the 2013 campaign comes to an end.
The last weekend before Christmas brought us Peyton Manning breaking records, several teams clinching playoff spots, coaching hot seats getting even hotter and the bottom of the draft order closer to being set. A lot happened this week, so don't feel bad if you missed a few things. That's what we're here for.
With just two weeks left, the weekly power rankings are largely set. The biggest changes come at the top, due to the Carolina Panthers beating the New Orleans Saints and the Indianapolis Colts waking up from their coma and taking down the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead.
Those wins, and losses, bring about our biggest changes of the week. But there's so much more involved here. Who's the best heading into the final week? Find out inside.
This Week's Rank: 32
Last Week's Rank: 32
No movement this week for the Houston Texans, not after another loss. This one—which makes 13 in a row—came at the hands of the Denver Broncos in an epic beatdown. The Texans are all about next year at this stage. The best news for ownership is that the team lost, and thereby increases its hold on the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 draft.
The suffering will soon end in Houston, as the Texans have just one more week to disappoint fans. At least until the hiring of a new head coach, that is. With the team interviewing Lovie Smith this week, they've satisfied the Rooney Rule and are now free to hire any coach. The pressure is on for general manager Rick Smith as he looks to hire his first head coach.
This Week's Rank: 31
Last Week's Rank: 31
Despite good play from Kirk Cousins and an inspired performance by the entire Washington team, the Dallas Cowboys were able to rally for a last-minute victory. And really, that perfectly sums up Washington's 2013 campaign. Not quite good enough.
Head coach Mike Shanahan looks like he'll keep his job until season's end. But with just three wins and a current slotting that would give the team the No. 2 pick in the draft—if it weren't headed to St. Louis as part of the Robert Griffin trade—it looks like big changes are coming at the top of the pecking order.
There is talent here, and the more Cousins plays well, the better Washington's chances are of shipping him off for a decent draft pick this offseason. And that is the plan, I'm told, as owner Daniel Snyder wants to recoup some draft picks and reassure Griffin that he's the future in Washington.
Hold on tight, fans. This offseason will be interesting.
This Week's Rank: 30
Last Week's Rank: 30
A Week 16 loss is disappointing for the Oakland Raiders, especially given that it was a winnable division game. As has been the case all season, this isn't about right now. The Raiders are building for the future, and the biggest question mark is who will be leading the charge.
Head coach Dennis Allen has done an incredible job getting four wins out of this roster. He stepped into a mess that got worse due to the salary cap and has managed to develop the roster and unearth solid players he can build around. Allen's job hasn't been an easy one, and to the outside eye, it might look like he's struggled.
Allen, for the money, deserves at least another year in Oakland. Let's hope general manager Reggie McKenzie sees that too.
This Week's Rank: 29
Last Week's Rank: 29
If you read this article each week, you know that I'm a big fan of what head coach Gus Bradley is doing in Jacksonville. Sunday's loss to the Tennessee Titans doesn't change that. In fact, the way the Jaguars fought a tough Titans team until the end of the game is yet another reason why you should hop on the Bradley bandwagon while there is still room.
Coaching a team with very little NFL-caliber talent among the veterans, Bradley has gone deep into the depth chart to find starters while working on reclamation projects like Andre Branch and Tyson Alualu to find a pass rush on a defense that features four rookie starters.
Bradley hasn't won many games, but the fact that he's won any games is a credit to his ability as an NFL head coach.
This Week's Rank: 28
Last Week's Rank: 28
With two minutes left in their Week 16 game, the Atlanta Falcons saw new life. Down three points, head coach Mike Smith elected for an onside kick, and it was executed perfectly. Two minutes to drive for the win or the tie.
In what may sum up the 2013 Falcons perfectly, the second chance didn't last long. A Matt Ryan pass was picked off by NaVorro Bowman, who took it 89 yards to the house for a wild ending. The Falcons would go on to lose for the 11th time and move one step closer to a top-five pick in the 2014 draft.
The game may sting on the surface, but Falcons fans know that a loss on Monday night is better for the team long term. If that loss helps them land Jake Matthews or Jadeveon Clowney, then it was well worth it. Think of that as you settle in for one final game this season.
This Week's Rank: 27
Last Week's Rank: 27
It's no surprise that the Cleveland Browns lost another game in Week 16. With six straight losses, their lack of talent is starting to catch up with them. There are bright spots, and some players with star potential, but overall this is a team in need of a lot of work.
It all starts at quarterback in Cleveland. No matter how good—or bad—the coaching staff is, without a quarterback, the team will never move forward. Through all of the players trotted out over the past decade, it's the lack of performance at that one position that best signifies this team's struggles.
The front office, coaches included, must hit on a quarterback this offseason. That might be Brian Hoyer, Kirk Cousins or a draft pick. How they acquire one doesn't matter. The only thing that does matter is finally finding a starting-caliber quarterback.
This Week's Rank: 26
Last Week's Rank: 26
It's a common theme among the lower-ranked teams in this week's power rankings—the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are close, but they're just waiting for the young talent to click together. The big question is whether head coach Greg Schiano is the man to get that done.
A four-win season isn't what anyone had in mind for the Buccaneers, but the turnover from Josh Freeman to Mike Glennon at quarterback caused a brief setback. Glennon, for all of his struggles at times, has proven himself worthy of the starting quarterback job moving forward.
With a talented running back, solid wide receivers and a good offensive line around him, the Tampa offense should really come to life in 2014. That is, if Schiano can coach up the talent he has at his disposal.
If he keeps his job after a disappointing 2013 season, Schiano will find himself with a loaded roster on both sides of the ball. The expectations next season will be very high. And rightfully so.
This Week's Rank: 25
Last Week's Rank: 23
The hot streak has ended for the Minnesota Vikings. After a solid string of play over the past five weeks, Father Time caught up with the team in Week 16. An embarrassing 42-14 defeat at the hands of the Cincinnati Bengals reminds us all that while they've played tough, the Vikings have issues.
The overwhelming theme here is the complete breakdown of what worked during their 2012 playoff run. Adrian Peterson is banged up, yes, but the defense isn't making plays in the backfield. To say the Vikings missed Percy Harvin and Antoine Winfield would be an understatement—even if both moves made the best sense for the team long term.
Now, head coach Leslie Frazier looks ahead to one more week in Minnesota. From there, it's anyone's guess as to what the future holds for the Vikings.
This Week's Rank: 24
Last Week's Rank: 25
The 2013 season hasn't seemed like a great success for the Tennessee Titans, and yet they're on track for a six- or seven-win season. That's not bad considering they lost quarterback Jake Locker for much of the season. Expectations were higher, though, and head coach Mike Munchak could still be looking for work once the season ends.
A Week 16 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars should help his cause, but the key for Munchak is to prove that he's the right man to develop this young roster moving forward. The current front office has done a nice job adding talent, so it's up to Munchak and his coaches to finish the job.
Whether general manager Ruston Webster thinks he can will determine who is coaching this team next fall.
This Week's Rank: 23
Last Week's Rank: 24
A Week 16 win at home over the Miami Dolphins doesn't resurrect the Buffalo Bills' playoff chances—in fact, they sealed the AFC East for the New England Patriots with the win—but it does show that Doug Marrone has his team headed in the right direction as his first season comes to an end.
Marrone has been the beneficiary of a very good 2013 draft in Buffalo, but he's done a nice job molding that talent. With five rookies making big contributions this year out of a seven-man class, you can see the future on the field each week.
The future of the franchise is in good hands, and the team's Week 16 statement win over a playoff-caliber division rival proves it.
This Week's Rank: 22
Last Week's Rank: 18
At the midway point of the season, the Detroit Lions looked like a favorite to walk through the division (and an easy schedule) to clinch the NFC North title. Now, they are officially eliminated from the playoff race.
That's Jim Schwartz for you.
Due to the free fall from the talented Lions, Schwartz's tenure in Detroit is likely over. And it's hard not to look at the depth chart and see a team that should have owned the division while Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler were hurt. And yet, here the Lions are, on the outside looking in.
This Week's Rank: 21
Last Week's Rank: 21
When Rex Ryan needed a win, he got one. Now, with one week left, the New York Jets are still able to save themselves from a losing season. After their 24-13 win over the Cleveland Browns, Ryan may be in a position to save his job heading into the offseason.
The Jets were able to win on Sunday thanks to an old-school Ryan game plan. The Jets defense clamped down on the Browns, picking off Jason Campbell twice, while the offense rolled on the backs of Chris Ivory and Geno Smith.
In what may have been his last home game as the Jets coach, Ryan showed once again that he's able to make something out of nothing. Few coaches in the league today could produce seven or eight wins with this roster, and Ryan continues to do so.
This Week's Rank: 20
Last Week's Rank: 22
It hasn't been an easy season for the New York Giants—and a second straight year out of the playoffs will hurt—but you have to like the way the team has played to end the year.
Closing out the year with a win over the Detroit Lions that kicked Jim Schwartz's team out of the playoff race has to be satisfying. And if the Giants can win in Week 17 at home against Washington, fans can ride off into a promising offseason with some momentum.
The Giants are an odd team heading into the offseason, though. They're well-coached, and they have a solid quarterback and some playmakers on both sides of the ball. And yet they're looking at a losing record. Getting healthy is one thing, but general manager Jerry Reese has to add impact players early and often in the upcoming free-agency and draft periods.
This Week's Rank: 19
Last Week's Rank: 16
All week, Miami Dolphins fans asked me why I had their team ranked so low coming off big wins over the New York Jets, Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots in consecutive weeks. Your answer came in Week 16—I simply didn't trust this team to keep it up.
I can't take too much credit or proclaim psychic powers, though, because the Dolphins loss was largely due to injury. Had quarterback Ryan Tannehill been available all game, the Dolphins might have won and still controlled their own playoff destiny.
Instead, head coach Joe Philbin's team is looking toward Week 17 with the season on the line. Win or go home, Dolphins.
This Week's Rank: 18
Last Week's Rank: 20
The constant takeaway from Jeff Fisher's St. Louis Rams is that few teams in the league are able to play as tough on a weekly basis. That's the recipe for success, and it paid off in Week 16 with a 10-point win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The story in St. Louis won't be about the win, though. It will be about left tackle Jake Long's knee. He tore his ACL and MCL during the first quarter, though Fisher expects him back for the 2014 season. With Long and quarterback Sam Bradford facing significant injuries, the Rams will be holding their breath all summer as their two most important offensive players try to get healthy.
The good news is that this tough Rams defense has a star in defensive end Robert Quinn. Without Long and Bradford, Quinn has quickly emerged as the team's MVP in his 18-sack season.
This Week's Rank: 17
Last Week's Rank: 19
Hold on to your hats, ladies and gentlemen, things are about to get interesting in Dallas.
UPDATE: Monday, Dec. 23, at 8:05 p.m. ET
ESPN's Adam Schefter first reported that Tony Romo was set to miss the rest of the season due to a back injury.
Schefter also reported that Dallas is expected to work out free-agent QBs John Skelton and David Carr as potential backups for Kyle Orton.
---End of update---
With reports emerging Sunday morning that Jerry Jones would fire Jason Garrett if the team missed the playoffs, America's Team was under considerable pressure to make something happen in Week 16. And it did, even though the start had to cause a quickened heart rate for Garrett.
In the end, his team prevailed thanks to smart quarterbacking by Tony Romo and really bad secondary play by Washington. For one more week, Garrett's job is safe and the Cowboys season is still alive.
This Week's Rank: 16
Last Week's Rank: 13
It's really tough to fault the Green Bay Packers for losing without Aaron Rodgers, but the missing quarterback wasn't their only problem. In fact, Mike McCarthy should be praised for how well he had backup Matt Flynn playing in the snow against the Pittsburgh Steelers defense.
The game would have gone differently with Rodgers, but you play with who you have. And at 7-7-1, the Packers season hasn't gone as planned, but lessons have been learned and new stars have emerged. Ted Thompson and McCarthy are two of the best at what they do, and if there's a way to salvage this season, they will.
This Week's Rank: 15
Last Week's Rank: 14
Some weeks it seems like everything goes wrong. For the Chicago Bears, that happened in Week 16. And the timing couldn't have been worse.
With the Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers losing earlier in the day, the Bears had a chance to put the NFC North away. Now, headed into Week 17, the Bears and Packers are still fighting for the playoff spot. The Philadelphia Eagles are to thank for that.
The Eagles simply outran and outperformed Chicago. The Bears offense never got going, and they had no answer for the uptempo run game on defense. Of all the bad weeks, this one is up there for the Bears. Now it's time to regroup and get ready for the de facto NFC North title game in Week 17.
This Week's Rank: 14
Last Week's Rank: 15
The San Diego Chargers are so close to being a playoff contender. It may not happen this year, but with any continuity among the coaching staff, this will be a team to fear in the near future.
Head coach Mike McCoy, in his first season running a team, made a smart move by adding veteran Ken Whisenhunt as his offensive coordinator. That marriage has resulted in exceptional play from Philip Rivers and the San Diego offense.
With rookies D.J. Fluker and Keenan Allen arriving instantly as two of the better offensive players, the team has both experience and upside ready and waiting.
This Week's Rank: 13
Last Week's Rank: 17
With one week to play, the Pittsburgh Steelers' playoff hopes are still alive. That might have sounded crazy after the team's 0-4 start, or even after they limped to a 2-6 record at the halfway point of the season. But since that time, Mike Tomlin's team has come together and ripped off a 5-2 record.
Now, with one week to go, they're alive. Their playoff future depends on some help—they need Miami, Baltimore and San Diego to lose—but crazier things have happened in the final week of the NFL season.
Even if the playoffs aren't happening this season, the Steelers have found a playmaker in Le'Veon Bell. If they can stay healthy in 2014 and start the season the way they finished this one, the Steelers will be back in the playoffs before long.
This Week's Rank: 12
Last Week's Rank: 12
What looked like an impressive comeback run during the second half of the season may die in Week 17. The Baltimore Ravens' loss to the New England Patriots makes them a long shot to secure the No. 6 seed in the AFC. And yet, it's still possible.
The Ravens need help, though. They can either win and have Miami or San Diego lose. If they lose, they would need Miami, San Diego and Pittsburgh to all lose. If that happens, they're in the playoffs and headed to Indianapolis or Cincinnati to defend their Super Bowl title.
This Week's Rank: 11
Last Week's Rank: 7
I want to trust the Kansas City Chiefs, but games like this week's against the Indianapolis Colts are why I cannot.
With a chance to stay alive for the AFC West crown, the Chiefs laid an egg with their worst showing of the year. And they did it at home, in the cold, against a dome team. It was poor timing on the part of Alex Smith to let loose with his worst play of the past three seasons.
The result is that the Chiefs are locked in to the No. 5 spot in the AFC—and that means a road game to open the playoffs, possibly in Indianapolis. The same team that just put a beating on them at home.
The Chiefs have enough talent to make a run, but they have to play better against top-tier teams. When facing Denver, San Diego and Indianapolis this year, they're 0-4. And that's not good enough to like their chances in the postseason.
This Week's Rank: 10
Last Week's Rank: 10
The Cincinnati Bengals put up 42 points on the Minnesota Vikings in Week 16 and clinched a playoff berth in the process. With another 10-plus-win season, Marvin Lewis has delivered his third straight Bengals playoff team. That's a long way from the team he inherited, where the fans wore bags over their heads at games.
Lewis has done a bang-up job coaching this team again in 2013, and their hold on the AFC North shows just how well-coached they are. Without their best defender, tackle Geno Atkins, and with a beat-up secondary, the Bengals are still performing well week after week and showing the type of big-play ability on both sides of the ball that they'll need to get out of the first round of the playoffs.
That's the goal for Lewis and Co. after back-to-back early exits, but this year, they look like a team ready to hold down the fort at home in the opener.
This Week's Rank: 9
Last Week's Rank: 11
The 2013 Indianapolis Colts have won the AFC South. They've claimed at least 10 victories—among them the Denver Broncos, San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks and Kansas City Chiefs. They've played well at home and on the road. And yet, they're flying well under the radar when we talk about playoff teams and the Super Bowl.
The Colts haven't always been consistent, especially since losing wide receiver Reggie Wayne to injury, but here they are as one of the winningest teams in the NFL with a home playoff game in the Wild Card Round (assuming they don't sneak into the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye).
Coach Chuck Pagano has taken heat for the team's play, but from the outside looking in, fans and media members should be pretty happy with the results of this ballclub.
This Week's Rank: 8
Last Week's Rank: 9
After delivering over 500 yards of total offense against the Chicago Bears in Week 16, the Philadelphia Eagles look locked and loaded to take on the Dallas Cowboys. And they'd better be, because if they win, they're in the playoffs.
In one of the biggest games of the week, Chip Kelly's team is poised to dominate. They beat the Bears by running the ball, and that's where Dallas struggles. Needless to say, Tony Romo's status will be huge as well.
The on-paper matchup favors the Eagles in every way, but that's why they play the games. And in a crazy NFL season, anything can happen. But you can bet that Kelly will have this team ready to roll. If they play like they did on Sunday night, the Cowboys are in for a long day.
This Week's Rank: 7
Last Week's Rank: 2
A chance to lock up the NFC South and a playoff spot was lost in Week 16, as the New Orleans Saints fell to the Carolina Panthers. The road loss confirms fears about the Saints' ability to play on the road, and now that a wild-card berth looks most likely, you have to wonder how long they can last in the playoffs this time around.
The Saints have an amazing amount of talent, but they become a different team on the road. That showed up this week in the form of just 13 points scored against an average Carolina secondary in a must-win game. When the game mattered most, the Saints couldn't produce. And that's a big problem they continue to have on the road.
You have to love what Drew Brees can do when he's at home, but betting on the Saints when they're on the road is just too big of a risk.
This Week's Rank: 6
Last Week's Rank: 6
So much for Tom Brady struggling against the Baltimore Ravens. Maybe he did when Ray Lewis and Ed Reed were younger men, but in Week 16, Brady put a statement win on the scoreboard while clinching the AFC East title.
The Patriots have now made the playoffs in 10 of the last 11 seasons, and from here, they have a winnable road to another Super Bowl. If they win in Week 17 (at home versus the Bills), then they're the No. 2 seed with at least one home playoff game at worst.
It's easy to imagine a scenario where the Patriots travel to Denver for another classic Brady vs. Peyton Manning showdown in the AFC Championship Game. That's what most impartial NFL fans—and probably some executives—want to see happen. And on paper, it looks probable if the Patriots can play the way they did in Week 16.
This Week's Rank: 5
Last Week's Rank: 8
The Arizona Cardinals did something in Week 16 that few can claim—they stopped Russell Wilson. The Birdgang defense stepped up and shut down the passing lanes Wilson does such a good job of finding. With big guys clogging those lanes and a stable of athletes in the secondary, the Cardinals defense was masterful in the huge win.
It wasn't the prettiest win you'll see this season, but the 17-10 final score is one the Cardinals won't soon forget. And with 10 wins, Bruce Arians has his team in playoff form. The big question is if they'll get in. They need to beat the 49ers next week and have the Buccaneers take down the Saints on the road.
This Week's Rank: 4
Last Week's Rank: 4
A blowout win over the Atlanta Falcons would have moved the San Francisco 49ers up this week—I was prepped to shoot them above Denver. The team's final game at Candlestick Park was not convincing.
The 49ers came back from a halftime deficit to take a fourth-quarter lead, but the Falcons pulled within three and got the ball back on a well-placed onside kick. Channeling the greats who made game-saving plays before him on that same field, NaVorro Bowman registered an 89-yard pick-six off Matt Ryan.
It was a perfect ending to the final game in a hallowed home of football. And to top it all off, the win puts the 49ers in the playoffs. A sweet send-off to Candlestick, indeed.
This Week's Rank: 3
Last Week's Rank: 5
Week 16 was a good one for the Denver Broncos.
To start things off, they were able to take down the Houston Texans in an easy 37-13 win. Coupled with a Kansas City loss, Denver locked up the AFC West and a shot at the No. 1 seed in the AFC. All the Broncos need to guarantee home-field advantage throughout the playoffs is a win or a New England loss or tie in Week 17.
Week 16 also saw Peyton Manning throw touchdown No. 51 on the season, breaking Tom Brady's single-season record for touchdown passes. To do so in 15 games, at age 37, is further proof that Manning is a football messiah sent here for our viewing pleasure.
UPDATE: Monday, Dec. 23, at 8:30 p.m. ET
Denver's good Sunday was followed up with unfortunate news on Monday. The Broncos confirmed that Von Miller tore his ACL and will miss the rest of the season.
While a huge blow to their defense, Denver is not unaccustomed to playing without its edge-rusher. The Broncos opened the season 6-0 while Miller served a six-game suspension.
His absence will be felt, but the Broncos can still win football games without him.
---End of update---
This Week's Rank: 2
Last Week's Rank: 1
One week after we proclaimed the Seattle Seahawks unbeatable at home, they lost to the Arizona Cardinals. Such is life in the NFL.
Now the Seahawks need to beat the tough St. Louis Rams (in Seattle) to secure the NFC West title and the No. 1 seed in the conference. That home-field advantage is still hugely important, but the mystique has worn off the Seahawks thanks to a loss in San Francisco and now this home loss to the Cardinals. That's two losses in three weeks to teams with a tough defense.
It won't be easy for any team to replicate what the 49ers and Cardinals did to the Seahawks, but they now look more beatable. And if they lose next week and the 49ers win, they would be playing on the road again in the postseason.
This Week's Rank: 1
Last Week's Rank: 3
The Carolina Panthers should be feared by every team in the league. Everyone.
I said at midseason that Cam Newton should steal a few MVP votes, and while he may not be in line to take the trophy from Peyton Manning during a record-setting season, Newton's brilliance under offensive coordinator Mike Shula cannot be ignored. Newton has become the quarterback the Panthers needed when they drafted him No. 1 overall. And now the rest of the league is stuck trying to figure out how to stop him.
The Panthers' success isn't just about Newton, though. You could make a strong case for Luke Kuechly being the team's MVP as the anchor of a very stout front seven on defense. Kuechly and pass-rushing stars Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy make the Panthers defense one to fear.
And with a playoff berth locked up, plenty of NFC teams will be fearing the Panthers when it's their turn to stop them.