NFL Power Rankings: B/R's Expert Consensus Standings Heading into Week 14
As the playoffs start to near, the NFL isn't about which team is the best. What team is playing the best right now truly matters.
For most of the year, the New England Patriots were considered the NFL's best team, but Bill Belichick's squad lost two in a row and dropped out of Bleacher Report's top three for the first time.
All it takes is a poor performance or two to shake everything up as it pertains to the most recent status quo.
The overall playoff picture also remains a mess. Only five NFC teams claim an above-.500 record. The AFC is a little more competitive with six winning teams.
The AFC South and NFC East could easily feature a sub-.500 playoff team this year if a squad doesn't truly put it together for either of them.
To make sense of it all, eight Bleacher Report NFL writers—Gary Davenport, Mike Freeman, Brad Gagnon, Matt Miller, Ty Schalter, Mike Tanier, Sean Tomlinson and yours truly—ranked the teams.
In order to build a consensus for these power rankings, each squad's ranking from each writer was added to the others. The lowest totals indicated the best teams, while the highest totals marked the other end of the spectrum. If there was a tie, the club with the single-highest vote got the nod as the better squad.
On the flip side of the equation, two teams split the votes to be deemed the league's worst. Who eventually got the nod—the Cleveland Browns or St. Louis Rams?
Click through to find out where all the teams landed in Bleacher Report's Expert Consensus Standings.
32. Cleveland Browns
Current Record: 2-10
Highest Ranking: 31 (four voters)
Lowest Ranking: 32 (four voters)
What's Good?: Here's Johnny (Manziel), whether Cleveland Browns head coach Mike Pettine wants him back in the lineup or not. The organization officially announced Tuesday that Manziel will resume starting duties.
The coach simply doesn't have a leg to stand on at this point. He grounded last year's first-round pick for the last two games. Cleveland lost both by a collective score of 70-30. At this point, the organization needs to see what it has in the former Heisman Trophy winner since it currently owns the No. 1 overall pick in the 2016 NFL draft. At the very least, Manziel will drum up interest in a team that's clearly the league's worst.
What's Bad?: It's unfair to define any first-year player as a bust based on his rookie performance. The Browns simply can't be happy with the performances of this year's pair of first-round picks, though.
Danny Shelton might not be the difference-maker up front the organization envisioned when it selected him with the 12th overall pick, but at least he's on the field. The team chose Florida State offensive tackle/center Cameron Erving seven picks later.
Erving hasn't played much due to the presence of a veteran offensive front. He got his first start two weeks ago and struggled. It got even worse when he was called into action for an injured Joel Bitonio (ankle) this past Sunday.
Erving was simply abused by Cincinnati Bengals All-Pro defensive tackle Geno Atkins. It got so bad for the first-year player that the Browns coaching staff eventually benched him for Austin Pasztor, who hadn't seen any action with the first-team offense all season. Erving will likely start next year, but he probably wants to forget his performance over the last two weeks.
What's Next?: While the Browns' season is over for all intents and purposes, players are still playing for their jobs, whether it's in Cleveland or for another team next season. Its penultimate home matchup against the San Francisco 49ers might be the team's last legitimate chance to win a game this season. But the 49ers are playing much better since Blaine Gabbert took over at starting quarterback.
Last Week's Ranking: 32
31. St. Louis Rams
Current Record: 4-8
Highest Ranking: 27 (Sobleski)
Lowest Ranking: 32 (four voters)
What's Good?: A new rule of thumb: If you can't find anything else nice to say about the St. Louis Rams, just discuss defensive tackle Aaron Donald. Donald is easily one of the league's best defenders, and he continues to show why each week.
The Rams didn't do much of anything against the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday, but Donald gave quarterback Carson Palmer and his offensive line fits. The defensive tackle led the team with seven total tackles. He also added a sack, two tackles for loss and three more quarterback hits. Even when everything else is going wrong for the team, Donald is worth watching.
What's Bad?: After another underwhelming offensive performance, the Rams finally decided change was needed. Head coach Jeff Fisher dismissed Frank Cignetti as the team's offensive coordinator Monday. Fisher admitted he was "almost out of answers" regarding the St. Louis' offensive problems, per ESPN.com's Nick Wagoner.
The Rams rank 31st in total offense and dead last in passing offense. A solution isn't going to come overnight, but tight ends coach Rob Boras, who also held the title of assistant head coach, will take over play-calling duties.
What's Next?: A five-game losing streak forced a major change to the team's offensive staff. The Rams' next opponent, the Detroit Lions, made a similar change a few weeks back, and they're playing much better since their Week 9 bye (3-1). The Rams don't have the same caliber of offensive weapons as the Lions, though.
Last Week's Ranking: 25
30. Baltimore Ravens
Current Record: 4-8
Highest Ranking: 24 (Tanier)
Lowest Ranking: 31 (Sobleski)
What's Good?: At this point in the season, with all of the injuries the Baltimore Ravens have suffered, John Harbaugh's team should be just trying to remain competitive and stay as healthy as possible down the stretch. The final few games also become an opportunity for Baltimore's young players to showcase their talent.
For example, Javorius "Buck" Allen responded well since he took over as the team's starting running back in late November. The USC product ran for 118 yards and had a pair of receiving touchdowns in the last two weeks. With so many injuries to the Ravens' key players, Allen is a positive late in a lost season.
What's Bad?: Tight end Nick Boyle, 22, is one young player who won't get an opportunity to showcase his talent during the season's last four games. The NFL suspended Baltimore's recent fifth-round pick for violating the league policy on performance-enhancing substances, according to Baltimore Sun's Jon Meoli. Boyle's absence only adds to the Ravens' issues since the team's other tight ends, Crockett Gillmore (back) and Maxx Williams (concussion), are injured. Although, one or both could play this weekend.
What's Next?: The Seattle Seahawks, this week's opponent, are arguably playing better than any other NFL team right now. Quarterback Russell Wilson has been tremendous, and the team's tallied 138 points in the last four games. This is the wrong time for Baltimore to host the two-time NFC champions.
Last Week's Ranking: 29
29. San Diego Chargers
Current Record: 3-9
Highest Ranking: 22 (Freeman)
Lowest Ranking: 31 (Schalter)
What's Good?: Denzel Perryman is a heat-seeking missile at inside linebacker. In the last three weeks, the rookie's level of play continually improved. This past weekend against the Denver Broncos, this year's second-round pick led the San Diego Chargers with 10 total tackles. The Miami product brings an intensity and physical style of play previously lacking in the Chargers defense. No rookie linebacker has played better this season, according to Pro Football Focus.
What's Bad?: The Chargers as we knew them at the start of the season are deteriorating before our very eyes. Mike McCoy's squad was one of the league's most competitive teams through the first month of play. San Diego has continued to come out on the wrong side of the ledger, though.
The Chargers' current version after all the injuries and tough losses simply appears to be beaten down and nowhere near as competitive. Against the Broncos' top-rated defense, the Chargers managed only 272 yards, which is over 100 yards fewer than their season average. Denver sacked quarterback Philip Rivers four times, and the Chargers committed three turnovers. Fortunately, there are only four more games to play.
What's Next?: Three weeks ago, the Chargers faced the Kansas City Chiefs and were blown off the field. Kansas City won the first meeting, 33-3. These two rivals meet again this weekend, but this time they'll play at Arrowhead Stadium. Kansas City has won its last six games, while San Diego has lost seven of its last eight.
Last Week's Ranking: 23
28. Jacksonville Jaguars
Current Record: 4-8
Highest Ranking: 22 (Miller)
Lowest Ranking: 31 (Tomlinson)
What's Good?: Week after week, Allen Robinson dominates any conversation about the Jacksonville Jaguars. Why? Because the second-year wide receiver continues to dominate the competition. Even without fellow budding star Allen Hurns (concussion) on the field, the Tennessee Titans didn't have an answer for Robinson.
The Penn State product caught 10 passes for 153 yards and three touchdowns Sunday on his way to becoming the first Jaguars wide receiver with 1,000 yards since Jimmy Smith in 2005. He is fifth in the NFL with 1,080 receiving yards. Robinson's production comes with a wow factor, but it no longer surprises his teammates.
"I used to [say, 'Wow']," fellow wide receiver Bryan Walters, said, per ESPN.com's Mike DiRocco. "Now it's just like, 'All right, cool, there's A-Rob making another play.' It's been fun to watch, especially throughout the year, him develop like that and now become that extremely consistent in making jump balls and catching over defenders. It's impressive."
What's Bad?: As explosive as the Jaguars offense can be at times, the defense can be equally bad. Jacksonville surrendered 467 yards and 42 points in Sunday's loss to the Titans. It's the fourth time this season the team gave up at least 31 points.
Overall, Jacksonville ranks 23rd in total defense. Illustrating how poorly the Jaguars defense played against the Titans, rookie Marcus Mariota became the first quarterback in NFL history to pass for at least 250 yards with three touchdowns and rush for more than 100 yards in the same game, including an 87-yard scoring scamper.
What's Next?: The loss to the Titans became especially disappointing since both the Indianapolis Colts and Houston Texans lost as well. With a win, the Jaguars would have been one game out of the division lead while hosting the Colts this weekend. Still, the Jaguars have a game remaining with both division leaders. They'll need to win both to maintain any playoff hopes in a weak division.
Last Week's Ranking: 22
27. Dallas Cowboys
Current Record: 4-8
Highest Ranking: 22 (Gagnon)
Lowest Ranking: 30 (Tanier)
What's Good?: Even with a 4-8 record, the Dallas Cowboys' playoff hopes are alive and well after the team's 19-16 victory over the Washington Redskins on Monday Night Football. Due to the 5-7 logjam at the top of the division, the Cowboys are only one game behind their three rivals. Owner Jerry Jones' squad also owns the best divisional record (3-2) among the bunch, which gives it an edge down the stretch.
Monday's win wouldn't have been possible without the play of linebacker Sean Lee. The veteran was simply outstanding. The linebacker recorded 13 total tackles, two tackles for loss, a sack and another quarterback hit. Demarcus Lawrence wasn't too shabby either. The second-year defensive end registered a pair of sacks early and provided consistent pressure off the edge.
What's Bad?: The Cowboys need more from Darren McFadden than what the running back gave them Monday if they're going to legitimately compete for a division title. Of course, McFadden can't be blamed for sitting out most of the second half due to a concussion, but his play before that point was subpar at best. The veteran runner fumbled twice and gained only 53 yards on 14 carries. The Cowboys will need a strong running game to have any hope of making the playoffs.
What's Next?: A trip to Lambeau Field in December usually doesn't result in much success, but the Green Bay Packers haven't played particularly well since the start of November. Aaron Rodgers and his squad recently escaped with a victory against the rival Detroit Lions. Dallas, however, is a far different team at this point in the season and lacks the offensive playmakers the Lions feature.
Last Week's Ranking: 28
26. San Francisco 49ers
Current Record: 4-8
Highest Ranking: 21 (Sobleski)
Lowest Ranking: 30 (Davenport)
What's Good?: Enough cannot be made of Blaine Gabbert's resurrection with the San Francisco 49ers. The former 10th overall pick by the Jacksonville Jaguars has completed 63 percent of his passes for 963 yards, five touchdowns and three interceptions since taking over at starter for Colin Kaepernick. More importantly, the 49ers are 2-2 with him behind center after a 2-6 start to the season.
Without Gabbert, the 49ers wouldn't have won Sunday against the Chicago Bears. The fifth-year signal-caller connected with wide receiver Torrey Smith for a 71-yard touchdown in overtime to seal the 26-20 victory. Gabbert is finally proving he's a legit NFL quarterback.
"Blaine can play," Smith said, per ESPN.com's Paul Gutierrez. "I’ve been saying that since day one. I don’t think people believe in his athleticism, [but] he can run, too."
What's Bad?: Offensive lineman Marcus Martin hasn't played well this season. Last year's third-round pick struggled mightily Sunday. Bears rookie Eddie Goldman basically dominated Martin throughout the contest.
According to Pro Football Focus, the center surrendered three quarterback sacks, another quarterback hit and a hurry. He's ranked as the league's worst center by the site; he hasn't graded positively in one game this season. A team should expect some growing pains from a first-year center, but there should also be flashes of promise. Martin hasn't provided any of those.
What's Next?: An opportunity lies in front of the 49ers to win two straight games for the first time since November of last year. To do so, San Francisco must defeat the woeful Browns in Cleveland. While San Francisco should be considered the favorite in this contest, the hoopla of Johnny Manziel's start will overshadow the 49ers' recent improvement.
Last Week's Ranking: 31
25. New Orleans Saints
Current Record: 4-8
Highest Ranking: 22 (Davenport, Tanier)
Lowest Ranking: 29 (Gagnon, Miller)
What's Good?: The New Orleans Saints nearly knocked off the undefeated Carolina Panthers. "Nearly" being the key word in the previous statement. But it does show how good the team can be when it's playing well.
The offense gained 334 total yards against the league's third-ranked defense, and the Saints defense actually made a few plays along the way. It still didn't prove to be enough, but it was a much better performance than those seen during the previous two games, which the Saints lost by a combined score of 71-20.
Does it change anything in New Orleans? It's unlikely. The team still lost its last four games. But four potentially winnable games round out this year's schedule.
What's Bad?: Anytime the Saints defensive staff puts Brandon Browner on the field, the entire team is at a disadvantage. The 31-year-old cornerback simply isn't effective in coverage anymore, and he continues to hurt his club with numerous penalties.
Browner has already been called for 21 penalties this season and could be the league's all-time single-season "leader" in the category by the end of the year. He only needs to commit two more penalties in four games to go down in infamy, according to NOLA.com's Jeff Duncan. His 21 penalties have resulted in 17 first downs for Saints opponents. Browner has become a liability on the field. The veteran defender also doesn't seem to get along with his new defensive coordinator, Dennis Allen.
What's Next?: This weekend's contest against the surging Tampa Bay Buccaneers may be the most difficult contest on the Saints' remaining schedule. The Buccaneers won three of their last four games, and they're thinking of a playoff spot. New Orleans could serve as spoiler to the Bucs' plans.
Last Week's Ranking: 24
24. Miami Dolphins
Current Record: 5-7
Highest Ranking: 19 (Freeman)
Lowest Ranking: 29 (Sobleski)
What's Good?: In a lost season, Miami Dolphins defensive end Olivier Vernon continues to shine. After a slow start, the pass-rusher has been one of the best players on the field over the past four games. Against the Baltimore Ravens last week, Vernon registered six total tackles, two tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks and four more quarterback hits. He now has 4.5 sacks and 15 quarterback hits during the aforementioned timespan.
According to Pro Football Focus, no 4-3 defensive end has been better since Week 8. Unfortunately for the Dolphins, Vernon is a free agent after the season, and his price tag continues to increase with each passing week.
What's Bad?: The Dolphins' leading receiver, Jarvis Landry, caught only two passes for five yards against the Ravens. His lack of usage apparently irritated the second-year wide receiver, and he blew up on the sidelines, according to the Miami Herald's Adam H. Beasley.
"He’s an emotional player, and sometimes when things aren’t going his way, it gets the best of him," one Dolphins player told Beasley.
Meanwhile, running back Lamar Miller got 21 touches during Sunday's contest. The Dolphins essentially committed to the run game at the expense of the team's best offensive weapon.
What's Next?: Despite the team's issues, the Dolphins are still coming off a victory. Since the Ravens' roster is depleted due to numerous injuries, this didn't come across as an impressive win, but Miami could build toward something with another victory Monday against the unpredictable New York Giants. A .500 record is still within reach.
Last Week's Ranking: 26
23. Tennessee Titans
Current Record: 3-9
Highest Ranking: 18 (Freeman)
Lowest Ranking: 28 (Davenport, Tomlinson)
What's Good?: Marcus Mariota is special. He might not be surrounded with a ton of weapons or even a stable offensive line, but the rookie signal-caller continues to do things very few first-year quarterbacks have done. With his performance Sunday against the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Oregon product became the third rookie quarterback in NFL history to throw three or more touchdown passes in four different games, according to the Tennessean's John Glennon.
Also, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner became the only player in NFL history to pass for at least 250 yards with three touchdowns and rush for more than 100 yards in the same game, according to ESPN.com's Adam Caplan. Plus, Mariota's 87-yard touchdown scamper became the longest run from scrimmage in the league this season. Let's say it again: He's special.
What's Bad?: A quick look at pass-defense rankings indicates the Titans are one of the league's best at stopping opposing aerial attacks. After all, Tennessee ranks ninth overall in the category and only surrenders 230.6 yards per game through the air. However, the team couldn't stop Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles or wide receiver Allen Robinson on Sunday.
Bortles threw for 322 yards and five touchdowns. Robinson caught 10 passes for 153 yards and three touchdowns. Robinson's performance is especially concerning since the Titans didn't have to account for fellow receiver Allen Hurns, who didn't play in the game due to injury. The Titans defense has been underrated this season, but Sunday's performance wasn't among its best.
What's Next?: Tennessee begins a two-game road swing with a tilt against the Jets. At this point, the Titans no longer own the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft, and they're simply looking to improve down the stretch.
Last Week's Ranking: 30
22. Atlanta Falcons
Current Record: 6-6
Highest Ranking: 13 (Tanier)
Lowest Ranking: 27 (Freeman, Gagnon)
What's Good?: While everything seems to be falling apart for the Atlanta Falcons, there are some positive signs of improvement, particularly with a few members of this year's rookie class. Defensive tackle Grady Jarrett is starting to come into his own, and he was arguably the best Falcons player on the field Sunday.
The undersized (6'1", 304 lbs) defensive tackle took on double-teams against the run and created disruption in the backfield. He registered his first career sack and added another quarterback hit. Vic Beasley added a pair of quarterback hurries. And cornerback Jalen Collins played his best game since the start of November. The Falcons defense still needs to be better overall, but these three young players have showed enough potential to develop into legit building blocks.
What's Bad?: Is Matt Ryan still considered a "franchise" quarterback? If the Atlanta Falcons aren't asking themselves this question, the organization should be. There is a disconnect somewhere between his performance pre- and post-bye week.
Since the Falcons experienced their off week in Week 10, Ryan has thrown six interceptions compared to five touchdowns. Those turnovers happened at the worst times, too. Discussions have even started about the Falcons potentially drafting another quarterback to develop, but owner Arthur Blank wants to maximize what the team currently has in Ryan.
"Matt is 30 now," Blank said, per the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's D. Orlando Ledbetter. "We want to make sure that we have a great franchise quarterback. We want to make sure that we support him in every possible way that we can. That’s from every perspective."
What's Next?: It's now or never in Atlanta. After a great start to the season, the team no longer controls its playoff destiny. Unfortunately, the Falcons also have to face the undefeated Carolina Panthers twice in the next four weeks, including this weekend's contest in Charlotte.
Last Week's Ranking: 18
21. Philadelphia Eagles
Current Record: 5-7
Highest Ranking: 17 (Freeman, Tomlinson)
Lowest Ranking: 25 (Sobleski, Tanier)
What's Good?: Just when most were ready to write off Chip Kelly and his Philadelphia Eagles, they go into Foxborough and claim a victory against the New England Patriots. One key change helped spur the victory. Kelly finally decided to cut down DeMarco Murray's carries and to utilize the running backs on the roster better suited to his offense.
Darren Sproles led the team with 15 carries for 66 yards (he added four receptions and a punt-return touchdown). Kenjon Barner finished second on the team with nine carries for 39 yards. While these overall numbers don't appear to be impressive, it's clear Sproles and Barner were more decisive running the football than Murray was through the first 12 weeks of the season.
What's Bad?: While Sproles and Barner's increased usage can be viewed as a positive, Murray isn't exactly happy with his situation. Last year's league-leading rusher was handed the ball eight times for 24 yards. He received as many snaps (14) as Barner, while Kelly used Sproles more than both of those running backs combined, according to Pro Football Focus. Change often brings discontent, and Murray took his case to a higher authority.
"DeMarco Murray's frustration over his lack of playing time and confusion as to how he fits into Chip Kelly's offense prompted the running back to have a lengthy conversation with Philadelphia Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie following Sunday's game," sources told ESPN's Ed Werder.
What will be the outcome of this conversation? Nothing if the Eagles continue to win games like they did Sunday.
What's Next?: The NFC East remains wide-open, and the Eagles can once again be counted among the playoff hopefuls. After the New York Giants and Washington Redskins lost in Week 13, all three teams claim a 5-7 record. The Eagles are tied with the Redskins with a 2-2 divisional record. However, the Buffalo Bills are next on the docket, and Rex Ryan's squad has played well in recent weeks.
Last Week's Ranking: 27
20. Detroit Lions
Current Record: 4-8
Highest Ranking: 16 (Schalter)
Lowest Ranking: 26 (Freeman)
What's Good?: Very little good can be taken away from Thursday's 27-23 loss to the Green Bay Packers. Of course, there is always something a team can find to build on even after the worst outcomes.
In Detroit, the Lions should be encouraged by the progress shown by rookie running back Ameer Abdullah. The Nebraska product posted a career high with 67 rushing yards. More importantly, he didn't get bogged down in the offense. The running back averaged 5.2 yards per carry. It's only the third time this season Abdullah averaged more than 3.9 yards per carry.
What's Bad?: Can anyone come up with a good reason why the freakish 6'5" Calvin Johnson with his 42-inch vertical wasn't on the field Thursday during the Green Bay Packers' Hail Mary attempt? No? OK. Now, we've established it was a poor decision not to have the team's best player on the field in that situation; not much more needs to be said. Except for this...
"I know Calvin practices it a lot, but that’s not my call," tight end Eric Ebron said, per ESPN.com's Michael Rothstein. "I have no say in that. All I know is we practice it."
Instead of witnessing a Lions victory, everyone now gets to watch this Vine for eternity.
What's Next?: What made Thursday's loss even more difficult is the fact the Lions had been playing well since their bye in Week 9, and the loss essentially cost them any chance at a playoff spot, even if it was an outside shot. Now, the Lions are two games behind the 6-6 Tampa Bay Buccaneers for the final wild-card spot with a two-game road swing against the St. Louis Rams and New Orleans Saints next on the docket.
Last Week's Ranking: 21
19. Chicago Bears
Current Record: 5-7
Highest Ranking: 15 (Sobleski)
Lowest Ranking: 24 (Schalter)
What's Good?: With four weeks remaining this season, Eddie Goldman is already running away with the unofficial award for the best rookie among interior defenders. The Florida State product is getting stronger each week. Against the San Francisco 49ers, the first-year defender dominated center Marcus Martin. A nose tackle, particularly a rookie, shouldn't be this good. Most nose tackles are asked to take up space and primarily serve as run defenders.
Goldman can do much more than what's typically asked of his position. The 332-pound anchor in the middle of the Bears defense can also get after the quarterback. The Washington, D.C., native recorded two sacks and three more quarterback hits Sunday. He also blocked a point-after attempt. This year's second-round pick is quickly developing into the total package.
What's Bad?: With quarterback Jay Cutler this season, it's been two steps forward and one step back. Offensive coordinator Adam Gase deserves credit for how well he's handled his quarterback, but there are simply times when the gunslinger will make poor decisions.
The 49ers' Jimmie Ward read a smoke route perfectly and broke on the play, but Cutler still decided to throw the ball. The result? Six points the other way. In the grand scheme of things, it was only one play. But it was one that kept the 49ers in the game when they were not playing well early. Cutler finished the contest 18-of-31 passing for 202 yards and the aforementioned interception.
What's Next?: Two 5-7 teams, the Bears and Washington Redskins, will meet Sunday with two completely different viewpoints. The Bears are three games behind in the NFC North and on the outside looking in at the playoff picture. The Redskins, meanwhile, lead the pathetic NFC East.
Last Week's Ranking: 15
18. New York Giants
Current Record: 5-7
Highest Ranking: 15 (Tanier, Tomlinson)
Lowest Ranking: 25 (Freeman)
What's Good?: Week after week, everyone is treated to another Odell Beckham Jr. highlight. At this point, the wide receiver is must-see TV even on a team that continues to fall apart. Beckham provided yet another one-handed masterpiece Sunday against the New York Jets.
His performances aren't simply about spectacular catches, though. There is plenty of substance to go along with his sizzle. The second-year wide receiver caught six passes for 149 yards, including a 72-yard sprint to the end zone. Beckham already caught 169 passes in his first two seasons, which is an NFL record.
"To be honest, I’d rather be in Super Bowls," the wide receiver told Newsday's Bob Glauber.
What's Bad?: In order to get to a Super Bowl, the Giants need to start winning some games. The team has now lost three straight contests. The fact it's still in the playoff hunt has more to do with the rest of the NFC East's futility more than anything the Giants have recently done.
If New York is going to make any type of move during the final quarter of the season, the team will have to do so with an offensive line that can't stay healthy. Left tackle Ereck Flowers was on crutches early this week due to a sprained ankle, according to ESPN.com's Dan Graziano. Flowers' status for Monday's contest is yet to be determined. If the rookie blocker can't play, Justin Pugh will likely resume left tackle duties.
What's Next?: Flowers, who is a Miami native, will certainly want to get back into the lineup for a meeting with his hometown Dolphins on Monday Night Football. Both teams are 5-7 overall, but the Giants still have a legitimate chance to walk away with an NFC East crown. Monday's contest is vital since it should be considered the easiest remaining game on the schedule.
Last Week's Ranking: 16
17. Washington Redskins
Current Record: 5-7
Highest Ranking: 15 (Gagnon, Schalter)
Lowest Ranking: 20 (Tanier)
What's Good?: The Washington Redskins haven't won consecutive games this season, yet the team is still tied atop the NFC East with a 5-7 record. It's quite amazing. None of the division's participants wants to stake its claim as the top team. Even though Monday night's loss to the Dallas Cowboys hurts, Jay Gruden's squad is still in a position to make a move through the last quarter of the season.
The defense played relatively well against the Cowboys. Quarterback Matt Cassel threw for only 222 yards, and the team combined for fewer than 100 rushing yards. Yet, the Redskins still lost the game, because the offense didn't hold up its end of the bargain.
What's Bad?: DeSean Jackson can make or break a game. The wide receiver can be an explosive offensive threat. He certainly was Monday night. Jackson led all receivers with six catches for 80 yards and a touchdown. Unfortunately, Jackson also coughed up the football on a punt return when trying to make something happen.
"I’ll take that on the chin," Jackson said after the loss, per ESPN.com's John Keim. "I fumbled. I know better than that. Protect the ball under any circumstance and get down."
What's Next?: A trip to the Windy City awaits the Redskins. The Chicago Bears own the same record, but the game is far more important to Washington. Now that the New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles also own the same record, none of these squads can blink, or they could lose a division title.
Last Week's Ranking: 17
16. Oakland Raiders
Current Record: 5-7
Highest Ranking: 12 (Freeman, Schalter)
Lowest Ranking: 20 (Gagnon, Tomlinson)
What's Good?: Prior to the start of the season, first-year Oakland Raiders defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. questioned how good Khalil Mack really was after registering only four sacks during his rookie season. Mack has answered the call with nine sacks so far this season. The second-year defender actually has four sacks in the last two games. The Buffalo product was already one of the league's best run defenders, but he's now coming into his own as a complete player.
"Khalil Mack took another step forward in terms of asserting himself in the front, showed up around the quarterback three different times, ended up with two sacks, really good to see," Raiders head coach Jack Del Rio said after Mack's performance against the Kansas City Chiefs, per ESPN.com's Bill Williamson.
"He is developing his skill level as a pass-rusher. Last year, he gave great effort and came close a lot. I really feel like he’s learning how to finish some of the nuances of being a pass-rusher and a lot of it has to do with the technique and the ability to finish, going from a pressure to a sack.
What's Bad?: For the first time this season, quarterback Derek Carr didn't look like an ascending star. Instead, he provided a mistake-prone performance against a stingy Chiefs defense. The second-year quarterback threw three interceptions. The final turnover sealed Kansas City's victory when safety Tyvon Branch returned the ball 38 yards for a touchdown to make it a two-score game with only 3:14 remaining in the fourth quarter. Carr hasn't forced too many throws this season, but he did Sunday.
What's Next?: It won't get any easier for Carr this weekend. The Raiders travel to Denver and face the No. 1-ranked Broncos defense. Fortunately for Carr, the Broncos secondary is thin at the moment and is not as imposing as it was earlier in the season.
Last Week's Ranking: 13
15. Indianapolis Colts
Current Record: 6-6
Highest Ranking: 12 (Tomlinson)
Lowest Ranking: 21 (Tanier)
What's Good?: Even after being embarrassed on Sunday Night Football, the Indianapolis Colts are still tied atop the AFC South standings. Technically, the Colts own the tiebreaker and lead the division. The team needs to put Sunday's loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers behind it.
Of course, there are concerns about the defense after it surrendered 45 points and couldn't handle Pittsburgh's talented wide receivers, but all that matters at this point is winning the division and waiting until quarterback Andrew Luck is healthy enough to lead the team into the postseason.
What's Bad?: The fact Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw for 364 yards and four touchdowns should be concerning enough, but it doesn't necessarily reflect poorly on the team's secondary. Instead, its pass-rushers should be called on their inability to apply pressure on the opposing quarterback.
The Colts didn't manage a single sack—although, a penalty negated the one time the defense got to Roethlisberger. In fact, the defense didn't even register any quarterback hits. A quarterback of Roethlisberger's caliber will pick apart any defense if he's not under duress. On the season, the Colts rank 28th overall with only 19 sacks.
What's Next?: The Jacksonville Jaguars' Blake Bortles is another quarterback who has put up big passing numbers in recent weeks. The Colts can't afford to lose a divisional contest. With three of the team's last four games coming against divisional foes, they're all important.
Last Week's Ranking: 12
14. Houston Texans
Current Record: 6-6
Highest Ranking: 13 (Gagnon, Sobleski)
Lowest Ranking: 19 (Schalter, Tanier)
What's Good?: The Houston Texans' running game has been a problem all season. Arian Foster's Achilles injury only added to said problem. But running back Chris Polk provided a bit of hope Sunday during his performance against the Buffalo Bills. Polk ran the ball 12 times for 61 yards. He also caught a pass for 11 yards, which resulted in a touchdown. These aren't game-changing numbers, but they're a step in the right direction, since the Texans only average 3.5 yards per carry.
"I think the whole thing all the time with Chris Polk is that he stays healthy," Texans head coach Bill O’Brien said, per the Houston Chronicle's Aaron Wilson. "So far, he’s stayed healthy the last few weeks. He’s helped us in the running game and he can catch passes out of the backfield and he contributes on special teams. I think he’s playing pretty well for us and hopefully that will continue."
What's Bad?: Quarterback Brian Hoyer played one of his best games of the season, yet it wasn't enough against the Bills. There is very little room for error for the Texans if the defense isn't dominating. The Texans couldn't stop the trio of Tyrod Taylor, LeSean McCoy and Sammy Watkins.
Texans safety Quintin Demps, in particular, struggled. The veteran appeared to make the wrong read on the touchdown to Bills tight end Charles Clay. The Texans are 6-6 overall and still tied with the Indianapolis Colts atop the AFC South. In order to claim an outright division title, Hoyer needs help, and the defense must play much better than it did Sunday.
What's Next?: One loss could easily turn into two in a row this weekend since the New England Patriots are the Texans' next opponent. However, the Patriots haven't played well over the last two weeks with losses to the Denver Broncos and Philadelphia Eagles. New England's offense hasn't been at full strength, and the Texans defense is talented enough to fluster quarterback Tom Brady if its plays at a high level.
Last Week's Ranking: 14
13. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Current Record: 6-6
Highest Ranking: 10 (Freeman)
Lowest Ranking: 17 (Schalter)
What's Good?: One play perfectly encapsulated the future of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers organization during Sunday's contest against the Atlanta Falcons. With 1:39 remaining, quarterback Jameis Winston connected with Mike Evans for a six-yard, game-winning touchdown. What happened before the play truly signified the team's future.
"Prior to the game-winning [touchdown, Winston] asked in the huddle, 'who wants a touchdown?' Mike Evans said, "Me! Me! Me!' True story," the Tampa Bay Times' Rick Stroud tweeted.
What's Bad?: Another one of the team's promising young players, linebacker Kwon Alexander, won't be on the field for the final four games this season due to violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing substances, according to ESPN.com's Rick Brown. Alexander was second on the team with 93 total tackles.
"I made a mistake by putting a product in my body that I did not know was banned by the league's policy," Alexander said in a statement. "It's very disappointing and frustrating that I won't be able to be with my teammates during this important final stretch of games, but I have to own up to my mistake, learn from this and ensure it doesn't happen again."
What's Next?: When the Buccaneers met the New Orleans Saints earlier in the year, Winston was making his second start. This year's No. 1 overall pick was still feeling his way through games. He's continued to improve and became a much better player than he was in September. The Florida State product will likely have a big day against the league's 32nd-ranked defense.
Last Week's Ranking: 19
12. Buffalo Bills
Current Record: 6-6
Highest Ranking: 12 (four voters)
Lowest Ranking: 17 (Tanier)
What's Good?: Now the group is mostly healthy, the Buffalo Bills offense is proving hard to stop. Running back LeSean McCoy ran the ball 21 times for 112 yards Sunday. Wide receiver Sammy Watkins put together back-to-back 100-yard games. Tyrod Taylor threw three more touchdowns this past weekend. The quarterback also broke Drew Bledsoe's team record for most pass attempts without an interception. And even tight end Charles Clay finally got more involved with four receptions for 66 yards and a touchdown.
This effort was particularly impressive, because it came against the Houston Texans defense that had been playing better than any other defense since Week 8. Due to the team's ability to run the ball, a dual-threat quarterback and multiple deep threats, the Bills can be one of the league's most explosive offenses.
What's Bad?: For most of the season, cornerback Ronald Darby has been considered the favorite to be named Defensive Rookie of the Year. Darby has not played well over the last two weeks and struggled when asked to cover DeAndre Hopkins this past weekend. The problem is only exacerbated by the fact Stephon Gilmore injured his shoulder against the Texans and could miss some time.
"We'll see how it goes," Bills head coach Rex Ryan said Monday, per the Buffalo News' Tyler Dunne. "He did leave with a shoulder. We'll see how he feels. If he can go, we need him out there. He is a tremendous player for us. Same thing with Brooks. ... Don't believe it's season-ending (on Gilmore), you can rule that out."
What's Next?: McCoy returns to the City of Brotherly Love, but this isn't a grudge match for the former member of the Philadelphia Eagles. The Bills are legitimately battling for the final AFC playoff spot, while the Eagles are still in the mix to win the NFC East.
Last Week's Ranking: 20
11. New York Jets
Current Record: 7-5
Highest Ranking: 9 (Schalter)
Lowest Ranking: 14 (Gagnon)
What's Good?: Maybe it was the newly trimmed beard, but the New York Jets' Ryan Fitzpatrick looked like a different quarterback over the last two weeks. Since shearing his facial hair, the quarterback has thrown for 667 yards, six touchdowns and no interceptions. More importantly, the Jets won both contests.
Of course, it probably has something to do with the fact the Miami Dolphins and the New York Giants own two of the league's worst defenses. Fitzpatrick's teammates understand exactly what the veteran signal-caller brings to the offense.
"He's not going to wow you with his speed or his arm strength, but he's going to do the right things," linebacker Calvin Pace said, per Cimini. "He's going to find the open man and he's going to scramble when he needs to. He's probably the smartest guy on the team. He's what we need. He's a stable presence on offense."
What's Bad?: Certain offensive tackles struggle with speed rushers. Jets right tackle Breno Giacomini is one of those. Robert Ayers and Jason Pierre-Paul got the best of the strong-side blocker in passing situations. Pierre-Paul, in particular, gave Giacomini fits.
"He got me a few times but he’s a helluva player," Giacomini told NFL Network's Kimberly Jones. "His get-off is the best get-off I’ve seen in a long time."
In total, the right tackle surrendered eight quarterback hurries between the two defensive ends, according to Pro Football Focus.
What's Next?: The Jets will host the Tennessee Titans with hopes of pushing even closer to the playoffs. The Titans have a middling defense that just allowed the Jaguars to put up their highest-scoring game of the season, but it's still better than the Giants and Dolphins' defenses.
Last Week's Ranking: 11
10. Minnesota Vikings
Current Record: 8-4
Highest Ranking: 9 (three voters)
Lowest Ranking: 14 (Freeman)
What's Good?: The Seattle Seahawks dominated the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday. The Vikings managed only 125 yards of offense, and the defense surrendered 433 yards. Very few players stepped up and played relatively well. Defensive end Brian Robison was one of those players. The veteran defender provided consistent pressure off the edge and managed a pair of sacks. He could have had a third if the officials didn't call an absurd personal foul when he attempted to tackle quarterback Russell Wilson. Prior to Sunday's performance, Robison provided plenty of pressure but rarely sealed the deal with an official sack. Despite the team's loss, his performance Sunday was a positive.
What's Bad?: Part of the Vikings' problems stemmed from multiple key injuries to the defense. Safety Harrison Smith, linebacker Anthony Barr and defensive tackle Linval Joseph didn't finish Sunday's contest. None of them practiced Tuesday, according to TwinCities.com's Chris Tomasson. Along with those three key injuries, safety Robert Blanton is dealing with a knee injury, and Smith's backup, Antone Exum, was placed on injured reserve due to rib and shoulder injuries he suffered against the Seahawks. The Vikings are basically devoid of depth at safety. As a result, the organization signed free agent Shaun Prater and promoted Anthony Harris from the practice squad.
What's Next?: The Vikings' secondary problems couldn't come at a worse time. The team must travel to Arizona to face the Cardinals on a short week of practice. Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer has thrown for more than 300 yards eight times this season, and head coach Bruce Arians will make sure to test the Vikings' deep coverage.
Last Week's Ranking: 6
9. Green Bay Packers
Current Record: 8-4
Highest Ranking: 7 (three voters)
Lowest Ranking: 10 (Schalter, Sobleski)
What's Good?: Tight end Richard Rodgers will always be remembered as the individual who came down with Aaron Rodgers' impressive Hail Mary pass to snatch a victory away from the Detroit Lions on Thursday Night Football. However, Richard's performance before the astonishing walk-off catch was more than enough to catch the eye of those around the NFL. The second-year tight end caught seven passes on seven targets for 85 yards before grabbing the game-winning touchdown.
"I think you look before the Hail Mary, Richard had a heck of a football game," Packers head coach Mike McCarthy said, per ESPN.com's Rob Demovsky. "I think he caught every ball that was thrown to him if my memory is right, so he needed that and we needed that. So we need more production in the passing game. And that was a big night for Richard."
Richard Rodgers' final stat line read: eight catches for 146 yards and a touchdown. Either way, the Cal product experienced a breakout game.
What's Bad?: After putting two strong games together, Eddie Lacy once again found himself on the bench against the Lions. The former starting back carried the ball five times for only four yards. Lacy was reportedly benched due to missing curfew Wednesday evening, according to Demovsky. The demotion isn't permanent, though.
"Everything Eddie wants to accomplish is right there in front of him." McCarthy said Tuesday, per the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Michael Cohen.
What's Next?: At 8-4, and with the Minnesota Vikings' loss last weekend, the Packers once again took over as leaders of the NFC North. It's now time for Green Bay to make a final push to claim a division title with the undermanned Dallas Cowboys coming to Lambeau Field this weekend.
Last Week's Ranking: 7
8. Kansas City Chiefs
Current Record: 7-5
Highest Ranking: 5 (Schalter)
Lowest Ranking: 10 (Davenport)
What's Good?: The Kansas City Chiefs are absolutely rolling, and their six-game win streak might not stop anytime soon. Quarterback Alex Smith deserves plenty of credit for keeping the offense afloat despite injuries to Jamaal Charles and the offensive line, but veteran linebacker Derrick Johnson doesn't receive nearly enough plaudits for being so reliable on the defensive side of the ball. The 33-year-old is coming off his best game of the season, as he registered 14 total tackles, two tackles for loss and a sack against the Oakland Raiders. After missing almost all of last season due to a torn Achilles, Johnson is once again serving as the rock in the middle of the Chiefs defense.
What's Bad?: Former No. 1 overall pick Eric Fisher continues to disappoint. This seems to be a common theme this season, but his performance Sunday certainly wasn't one of his best. Fisher couldn't handle the Raiders' edge-rushers. The left tackle surrendered a pair of sacks, and a poor pass set directly resulted in another. With the injuries the Chiefs have sustained along the offensive line this season, the team needs Fisher to competently hold down the blind side. Whether he actually does becomes an iffy proposition each week.
What's Next?: None of the teams on the Chiefs' remaining schedule owns a winning record. The path sets up perfectly for Kansas City to enter the playoffs on a 10-game winning streak. First, the Chiefs must deal with the San Diego Chargers, who have lost seven of their last eight games.
Last Week's Ranking: 8
7. Pittsburgh Steelers
Current Record: 7-5
Highest Ranking: 2 (Freeman)
Lowest Ranking: 10 (Tomlinson)
What's Good?: The Pittsburgh Steelers, even without Le'Veon Bell, are unbelievably dynamic on offense. It's nearly impossible to stop wide receivers Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant. The Indianapolis Colts surely didn't Sunday night. Brown caught eight passes for 118 yards and two touchdowns, while Bryant snagged four passes for 114 yards and a score. Just for good measure, slot receiver Markus Wheaton also made three receptions for 50 yards and a touchdown. The offense also features veteran running back DeAngelo Williams, who added 134 yards on the ground. This is an indication that either the Colts defense is really bad or the Steelers offense is really good. Both are actually true, but the latter is more true than the former. If Pittsburgh can stay healthy the rest of the way, it will be a team to be reckoned with due to its formidable offense.
What's Bad?: A month ago, the Steelers claimed veteran Jacoby Jones off waivers to jump-start the team's return game. After four games, head coach Mike Tomlin benched the specialist. Two fumbles Sunday finally sealed the deal.
"I think the depth chart clearly reflects that he's a backup this week," Tomlin said Tuesday, per NFL.com's Kevin Patra. "We'll proceed with that in mind as we prepare. We'll get Markus Wheaton ready to return kicks and Antonio Brown and Wheaton as punt returners and we'll see where that takes us."
What's Next?: In the last four games combined, the Steelers have scored over 140 points. Prior to that stretch, Pittsburgh played the Cincinnati Bengals and managed only 10 points. Clearly, the team the Bengals faced in Pittsburgh will not be the same one showing up in Cincinnati this weekend.
Last Week's Ranking: 10
6. Seattle Seahawks
Current Record: 7-5
Highest Ranking: 3 (Freeman)
Lowest Ranking: 8 (Schalter, Tanier)
What's Good?: The Seattle Seahawks received plenty of flak after making defensive end Frank Clark this year's second-round pick. From a football perspective, it turned out to be an exceptional move, with Clark starting at defensive tackle for an injured Jordan Hill against the Minnesota Vikings. The 271-pound defender wasn't overwhelmed at all. Actually, he flourished playing along the defensive interior. Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater was under constant duress, with Clark the primary reason behind the onslaught. The rookie registered two sacks, two tackles for loss, two pass deflections and three more quarterback hits. Maybe the Michigan product found a home at 3-technique. At the very least, Clark showed his versatility and how devastating he can be at multiple positions.
What's Bad?: In a surprise move, the Seahawks released veteran cornerback Cary Williams this week after he started the first 10 games of the season. He was eventually benched, though, and replaced by DeShawn Shead.
"It's a short amount of time to try and catch up with all of the real specifics of our techniques and stuff," head coach Pete Carroll said, per ESPN.com's Sheil Kapadia. "But he did a nice job. He progressed with it. But we feel more comfortable with the guys that have been with us, and so we made the move."
Williams certainly struggled at points this season, but his contract was guaranteed and he could have provided veteran depth. Instead, the Seahawks decided to move forward with Shead and a now-healthy Jeremy Lane.
What's Next?: Over the past three weeks, the Seahawks finally looked like the team that represented the NFC in the Super Bowl the last two years. Quarterback Russell Wilson, in particular, has taken his game to another level. Everyone in the NFC should be worried about the surging Seahawks, because they're not likely to let up anytime soon even if they have to travel to the East Coast this weekend, albeit against the downtrodden Baltimore Ravens.
Last Week's Ranking: 9
5. Denver Broncos
Current Record: 10-2
Highest Ranking: 3 (Tomlinson)
Lowest Ranking: 8 (Freeman)
What's Good?: The Denver Broncos defense comes at opposing quarterbacks from all angles. When Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware are both healthy and in the lineup, no team features a more fearsome pass-rushing duo. Brandon Marshall and Danny Trevathan are two of the league's most athletic inside linebackers. T.J. Ward is an intimidating presence at safety. And the team features a wonderful trio of cover corners in Chris Harris, Aqib Talib and Bradley Roby.
The one guy who is often overlooked among all of that talent is Malik Jackson. The defensive lineman makes everyone around him better by playing multiple positions and excelling in each of them. Against the San Diego Chargers, Jackson owned their beat-up offensive line. He hit quarterback Philip Rivers three times and deflected of pair of passes. Jackson sets the tone up front.
What's Bad?: The Broncos' safety depth is currently as thin as Denver's air. David Bruton Jr. started Sunday's contest due to Ward's injury and then suffered a sprained MCL and PCL, according to ESPN.com's Jeff Legwold.
"It's a concern right now with T.J. probably still going to take some time to get back, even though he's doing very well, with David's issue," head coach Gary Kubiak said. "I think we're in a situation at a few spots where we're really going to look, it's going to be a week-to-week process for us, get to next Sunday."
Roby will likely start at safety if Bruton is unable to play this weekend, and the recently signed Josh Bush will provide what little depth the team currently has at safety.
What's Next?: With the Broncos' depleted secondary, the league's top-rated defense might be tested by the Oakland Raiders offense and quarterback Derek Carr. Unless, of course, pressure from the defensive front gets to Carr before he has a chance to exploit any mismatches.
Last Week's Ranking: 5
4. New England Patriots
Current Record: 10-2
Highest Ranking: 2 (Miller)
Lowest Ranking: 7 (Schalter)
What's Good?: During a day when almost everything went wrong for the New England Patriots, running back James White provided another weapon in an ailing offense. This season, the Patriots have dealt with injuries to their three biggest playmakers—running back Dion Lewis, wide receiver Julian Edelman and tight end Rob Gronkowski. White finally filled Lewis' role Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles. The former fourth-round pick actually led the team in receptions (10) and receiving yards (115). The running back also scored a touchdown and nearly scored another but come up one yard short.
LeGarrette Blount is a physical downhill runner, but the Patriots lean heavily on their backs in the passing game. White finally proved he can handle a bigger role weeks after the Lewis' injury.
What's Bad?: It's often said that the game is won in the trenches. But when your team features quarterback Tom Brady, he usually masks any deficiencies along the offensive front. This was not the case Sunday, when the Eagles' defensive front absolutely dominated. Philadelphia sacked Brady four times and hit him 13 more times. During 60 dropbacks, the Eagles applied pressure on the quarterback nearly 30 percent of the time. Obviously, Brady isn't accustomed to that much pressure.
What's Next?: If Brady thought he had it bad against the Eagles, it could be even worse this weekend against the Houston Texans. J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney and, yes, former Patriot Vince Wilfork will be coming after the future Hall of Fame quarterback. If the Texans can repeat what the Eagles did to Brady and the offensive line, Houston could earn a season-defining victory on Sunday Night Football.
Last Week's Ranking: 2
3. Cincinnati Bengals
Current Record: 10-2
Highest Ranking: 1 (Tanier)
Lowest Ranking: 4 (four voters)
What's Good?: Unblockable is a term often used for a dominant defensive lineman. A "war daddy" is a defensive lineman who consistently dominates and remains unblockable over the course of his career. Geno Atkins fits that definition, and the Cleveland Browns' offensive interior learned this very quickly.
Those who stat-sheet scout could never understand his impact on the game. Atkins didn't record a single tackle Sunday, yet he was by far the best player on the field, and it wasn't even close. The defensive tackle easily walked the Browns' guards into the laps of the running backs or quarterback on numerous occasions (he was credited with three quarterback hits). No Browns offensive lineman could hold his own against Atkins, and the defender easily preyed on rookie Cam Erving, who was eventually benched for backup Austin Pasztor. A fully healthy Atkins is simply a bad man.
What's Bad?: The Bengals dominated the Browns in every facet of the game. Nearly every Bengal played well. The one who continues to stick out is center Russell Bodine, though. Throughout this season, Bodine has been viewed as the weak link along the Bengals' talented offensive line. Browns rookie Danny Shelton and backup Jamie Meder didn't exactly dominate Bodine at the point of attack, but each got more push than we've seen against other centers. The second-year pivot needs to continually improve and not get pushed around each week.
What's Next?: A huge rivalry contest will ensue this weekend when the Bengals host the Pittsburgh Steelers. When these two teams last met, the Bengals escaped Pittsburgh with a 16-10 victory. The Steelers are playing at a much higher level now, particularly on offense. This contest will be a good sign of where both teams currently stand in the playoff hierarchy.
Last Week's Ranking: 4
2. Arizona Cardinals
Current Record: 10-2
Highest Ranking: 2 (five voters)
Lowest Ranking: 5 (Freeman)
What's Good?: Cornerback Justin Bethel started for the second time in his career Sunday, a day after signing a three-year, $15 million contract extension with the Arizona Cardinals. His play against the St. Louis Rams reflected why the team decided to offer the extension in the first place. Bethel started opposite Patrick Peterson, and the Rams targeted the 25-year-old cornerback 11 times but completed only two passes, according to Pro Football Focus. Bethel also finished second on the team with four total tackles and deflected a pair of passes.
The Cardinals' goal was to sign the Presbyterian prospect during his ascension as a player.
"That’s what the expectation is," team president Michael Bidwill said, per AZCardinals.com's Darren Urban. "We can’t sustain success without players like (Justin)."
The No Fly Zone now features Peterson, Bethel, Tyrann Mathieu, Rashad Johnson, Tony Jefferson and Jerraud Powers (when healthy). All of them are under 30 years old, which will provide stability for the defense over the next few seasons.
What's Bad?: Very little went wrong during the Cardinals' dominant 27-3 victory over the Rams. In fact, more positives, like David Johnson's first start or Carson Palmer's continued excellence, need to be mentioned.
However, one player struggled mightily Sunday. Right guard Ted Larsen had his hands full all afternoon with defensive tackle Aaron Donald. More often than not, Donald got the best of Larsen. There is no shame in being beaten by one of the game's best defenders, but this is a growing trend for the North Carolina State product. Since returning to the starting lineup, Larsen simply hasn't played well. He's surrendered numerous quarterback hits and hurries. Plus, his run blocking has always been below average. As the Cardinals prepare for their playoff run, right guard might be a position to address.
What's Next?: After reeling off six straight victories, the Cardinals have another difficult task in front of them: the 8-4 Minnesota Vikings. The Vikings were shut down by the Seattle Seahawks last weekend, but can Arizona hold Adrian Peterson and Teddy Bridgewater in check for a second straight week? The Cardinals should expect Minnesota to play much better Thursday.
Last Week's Ranking: 3
1. Carolina Panthers
Current Record: 12-0
Highest Ranking: 1 (seven voters)
Lowest Ranking: 2 (Tanier)
What's Good?: A week ago, veteran linebacker Thomas Davis mentioned, via NFL Network, "They're saying we're the worst 11-0 team in the history of 11-0 teams."
Apparently, Davis took it personally, as he played one of his best games of the season in Week 13. The 11-year veteran led his team against the New Orleans Saints with seven total tackles, a tackle for a loss, a forced fumble, a sack and another quarterback hit.
As an entire unit, the Panthers defense didn't play as well as it had in previous weeks, but Davis continues to excel. Plus, the defense doesn't always need to be on top of its game anymore. Not when quarterback Cam Newton plays at an MVP level. Newton bailed out his defense with a 28-of-41 passing performance for 331 yards and five touchdowns, including the game-winning score with only 1:05 remaining.
The Panthers must now be the worst 12-0 team in the history of 12-0 teams.
What's Bad?: Ted Ginn Jr. might be the Panthers' No. 1 wide receiver, but it's simply by default. The speedster creates opportunities because he can take the top off any defense and Newton owns the NFL's strongest arm. However, those opportunities don't convert into touchdowns nearly enough. Yes, Ginn caught five passes for 80 yards and two touchdowns Sunday, but he also dropped a pair of likely scores. Drops from Panthers wide receivers have been a concern all season.
"Devin Funchess (24 percent) and Ted Ginn (18.6 percent) have second- and fourth-highest drop rates among NFL wide receivers," the Charlotte Observer's Joe Person tweeted, via Pro Football Focus.
What's Next?: Carolina must prepare for the first of its contests against the rival Atlanta Falcons. The Panthers already won the division title—their third straight—and the game doesn't necessarily mean much to Carolina other than staying undefeated. But the Falcons are still vying for a potential playoff spot, and this matchup means everything to them.
Last Week's Ranking: 1