Chris Simms' Final Regular-Season NFL Power Rankings
Here’s a cardboard box.
Pack up your lockers, and better luck next year.
There’s no sugarcoating a loss this time of year. Every playoff team believes it's in it to win it. When you lose—when those dreams you've had since you were playing pee-wee football temporarily die—it’s like a part of you goes with it. Your team expects you to pack those feelings away with your family photos, your shoulder pads and anything else hanging around.
It’s impossible to do without support. Joey Galloway was that guy when the Buccaneers lost in the 2005 Wild Card Round; he texted me during the playoff rounds that followed to ask, "Can you believe we’re not still playing?" Even to this day, I still don’t.
I've power-ranked every team for more than four months now, and if I'm sure of anything, it's this: At some point, 31 other teams are going to experience that same disbelief and frustration. Twenty are feeling it right now. Another 11 will really feel it in the not-so distant future.
This is the most bottom line of bottom-line businesses, and losers go home. Only one team enjoys locker room clean-out day at the end of the year.
32. Cleveland Browns
Final record: 1-15
Week 1 ranking: 32 (same)
It was easy to see Cleveland’s plan even before the 2016 season began.
General manager Sashi Brown and new head coach Hue Jackson weren’t going to rush. They were going to prioritize draft picks over wins. And they were going to give a lot of rookies (and I mean a lot of them) meaningful starts.
But on those terms, the new-look Browns were only semi-successful. While rookie quarterbacks like Carson Wentz and Dak Prescott flourished elsewhere, Jackson was forced to trot out six different passers over a 14-game losing streak. Also, can you name one great rookie from this Browns’ 2016 class, even after so much exposure? I’m not sure I can.
Season one of the Jackson era is a bit of a wash in my book. The good news is that it never mattered in the first place.
Looking forward: Brown is sitting pretty with the first and 12th (via Eagles) overall picks in the upcoming draft. It's time for this team to find its long-term quarterback.
31. San Francisco 49ers
Final record: 2-14
Week 1 ranking: 30 (-1)
The Chip Kelly reclamation project hit two major speed bumps in 2016.
The first one rocked Kelly long before his first season in Santa Clara. It was obvious to anyone with eyes that San Francisco’s skill-position players were among the worst assembled this decade. Couple receivers like Aaron Burbridge and Rod Streater with the unimpressive Colin Kaepernick-Blaine Gabbert carousel and what do you get? A group that’s 31st in total offense and dead last in passing offense.
That side of the ball was the better one, too. Kelly’s second speed bump was a defense that refused to run, tackle or shed blocks. There was a midseason span of three games where 200 rushing yards allowed was the norm. These Niners ended the year allowing 165.9 ground yards per game, 23 yards more than the second-worst rushing defense. Kelly couldn't keep his job with those numbers.
Looking forward: Kaepernick’s play improved as this nightmare of a two-win season rolled on. But his team is going to move on to his successor at that spot soon, perhaps with its No. 2 overall pick.
30. Los Angeles Rams
Final record: 4-12
Week 1 ranking: 29 (-1)
Think about how good, well-managed NFL teams function.
The Rams’ first year in L.A. was the opposite of that—there was one contradiction after another that left the franchise in worse standing with fans than when it was in St. Louis.
The biggest head-scratchers: L.A. drafted Jared Goff high but refused to play him. The Rams extended Jeff Fisher but changed their mind three-quarters of the way through their return season. And all the while, the team poured millions upon millions into a defense that couldn’t stop anyone—even with Aaron Donald.
You saw what a toll those decisions took in three consecutive weeks this season. The Rams were blown out by the Patriots, Falcons, and Seahawks—three teams that have a goal in mind in all personnel and football decisions. L.A. lacks that element right now.
Looking forward: Like I said before the season began, it's going to get worse before it gets better. L.A. is in dire cap-room straits and won't pick until the second round. But at least this is Goff’s team going forward.
29. New York Jets
Final record: 5-11
Week 1 ranking: 7 (-22)
Gang Green’s summer of contract chicken with Ryan Fitzpatrick should have been a red flag.
There were other quarterback options (on the roster, even). None brought the same name value Fitzpatrick did. And that’s the biggest problem with this team: too many big names, not enough big plays.
The Jets defense is that problem cranked up to 11 on an amplifier. The Jets couldn't help themselves with a 31-year-old Darrelle Revis; now he’s signed on through 2019 as a shadow of his former self. The same goes for Muhammad Wilkerson and all of his 4.5 sacks this year. The Jets just had to have him, though.
Pack all those big contracts and big personalities (Brandon Marshall, Sheldon Richardson) in one locker room with a soft-spoken guy (Todd Bowles) in charge. What do you get? A five-win season of infighting, finger-pointing and low effort. It's like the end of Rex Ryan's rule, but worse.
Looking forward: General manager Mike Maccagnan needs to take a medieval sword to some of these contracts. It needs to divest itself of aging veterans. And it needs to start over with a young quarterback. Whether that’s Bryce Petty or Christian Hackenberg is anyone's guess.
28. Jacksonville Jaguars
Final record: 3-13
Week 1 ranking: 19 (-9)
Jacksonville’s weighty preseason expectations received a 6'5", 231-pound reality check.
His name is Blake Bortles. And whoever assumes the mantle of next Jaguars head coach—be it interim guy Doug Marrone or some other name out there—will have to deal with that problem before we put "Jaguars" and "playoffs" in the same sentence together again.
For long stretches, Bortles was pure sabotage. He raised his career pick-six total to 11 this season, the same number as his career wins. All the skipped passes and missed reads cost Jacksonville more points too.
There's talent on this team. It pops on film with Marqise Lee returning punts, Jalen Ramsey returning picks and Dante Fowler Jr. returning to top sacking form. But quarterback is the most important position in sports, and those contributions were drawn up on a chalkboard that Bortles erased almost every week.
Looking forward: The Jaguars have another top-five pick at their disposal. It will mean nothing without the proper successor to Gus Bradley in place. Jacksonville needs a guy with a proven track record of player development.
27. Chicago Bears
Final record: 3-13
Week 1 ranking: 31 (+4)
Chicago's biggest enemy in 2016 wasn’t any on-field opponent.
It was the trainer's room. From Kevin White before the season to Jay Cutler and Pernell McPhee during it, the Bears were the most injury-ravaged team in football. Their campaign ended with 19—that’s right, 19—players on injured reserve. Show me a team other than the New England Patriots that can compete under those circumstances.
Chicago's youth movement is the silver lining to its walking-wounded season, though. Jordan Howard (1,313 rushing yards, six touchdowns) emerged as one of the best young backs in football. He was joined by receiver Cameron Meredith and center Cody Whitehair—two young players forced to start who came out as potential stars on the other end. On defense, top draft pick Leonard Floyd flashed Von Miller-type potential.
Coach John Fox has assembled what might be the most complete coaching staff in the NFC. It just needs its players to be available to coach up.
Looking forward: Teams might balk at Jimmy Garoppolo’s supposed trade value. Chicago shouldn’t; a first- and a fourth-round pick is chump change to end the quarterbacking black hole that has sunk this franchise for decades. And Fox isn't the type to enter a season with an unpolished rookie at the helm.
26. San Diego Chargers
Final record: 5-11
Week 1 ranking: 26 (same)
It’s time for the Chargers to rip the Band-Aid off.
The Mike McCoy era is over. The Philip Rivers era might be as well; a total change of staff means he'd be on his third offensive coordinator in four seasons. And of course, the era of football in San Diego as a whole needs addressing.
Based on what took place in 2016, those changes might not be a bad thing. San Diego played quite like a team without a home. McCoy watched seven fourth-quarter leads evaporate, sometimes in heartbreaking fashion (and in front of a home crowd of Raiders fans). And whether it's his shrinking supporting cast or his own career downswing, Rivers couldn’t shake the turnover bug. He threw a league-leading 21 picks this past year.
Those three issues muddled what might have been a building-block season for any other team. San Diego found the franchise pass-rusher it missed in Joey Bosa (10.5 sacks in only 12 games). The offense can mold around up-and-comers like Melvin Gordon and Tyrell Williams. But plenty needs to be fixed (add injuries, pass coverage and offensive line play in there, too) before this team can grow.
Looking forward: The next time you see this team, it could be the Los Angeles Somethings. And the fastest way for the Somethings to capture their new market is to find Rivers’ successor early. Then find people to block for him.
25. Buffalo Bills
Final record: 7-9
Week 1 ranking: 21 (-4)
In Rex Ryan's tenure, we learned football's biggest lesson all over again.
The trash-talking is fun. The Super Bowl talk and Bills-themed trucks and tandem bike-riding with brother Rob make for good headlines here at Bleacher Report. But nothing in the league is as entertaining as winning football games. Ol' Rexy didn't do that out in western New York.
In fact, he drove his defense—the apple of his eye—in the opposite direction. When Ryan arrived two seasons ago, Jim Schwartz had groomed this group into a legit top-10 unit. Stars like Marcell Dareus and Mario Williams carried the day. Well, Ryan picked a fight with one of those guys, and the league suspended the other.
I'd argue that Ryan will be better remembered in Buffalo for his offensive decisions than his defensive ones. After all, it was he who pulled the plug on offensive coordinator Greg Roman in the early going. That move salvaged what could have been a lost season for Tyrod Taylor. And it doubled down on what really drove this unit: LeSean McCoy and a good run-blocking line.
Looking forward: Taylor's future goes as the Bills' next coaching search does. If interim coach Anthony Lynn stays (and that appears very likely), Taylor lives out Year 2 of a $92 million extension. Otherwise, an incoming regime might want to break it all down and import its own passer.
24. Philadelphia Eagles
Final record: 7-9
Week 1 ranking: 27 (+3)
General manager Howie Roseman split hard and fast with the previous regime last offseason. There are few holes left to patch from a three-year marriage with Chip Kelly, but they're significant ones.
Take the offensive skill positions, for instance. Kelly's attack stressed scheme over separation; the offense got receivers like Jordan Matthews and Nelson Agholor open. Placing those same pass-catchers in an actual West Coast offense is the football equivalent of teaching them another language. Philadelphia's wideouts were unsurprisingly unimpressive.
The same goes for the defensive backfield, a unit Roseman imported coordinator Jim Schwartz to patch up. He did just that in the first half of the season, using Brandon Graham and Fletcher Cox as a cure-all for what was behind them. But when push came to shove, Kelly left the corner and safety cupboards too bare, and the remaining talent couldn’t contend with the NFC East's best receivers.
The good news? In splitting with Kelly and his handpicked veteran, Sam Bradford, Roseman jump-started the next decade of Eagles football. Carson Wentz showcased all the tools necessary to be the Donovan McNabb to Doug Pederson’s Andy Reid.
Looking forward: Roseman hit on a twofer when he shipped Bradford off to the Vikings. First, he ensured Wentz would get a full season of snaps. Second, he reeled a first-round pick back (No. 15). That pick will immediately go toward supplementing Wentz’s supporting cast.
23. Minnesota Vikings
Final record: 8-8
Week 1 ranking: 11 (-12)
This Vikings team drew comparisons to last year’s Super Bowl winner during its 5-0 start.
It turns out it was more like the 2016 Broncos than the 2015 version: great defense, above-average special teams and an average and predictable offense.
A midseason coordinator swap (Norv Turner to Pat Shurmur) did little to mix things up. In fact, it sunk Sam Bradford deeper into his comfort zone of five- to seven-yard throws. Opposing defenses noticeably sat on the short stuff when the Vikes fell back in the NFC North pack. And the dink-and-dunk passing game was the only thing they needed to defend; losing Adrian Peterson and a host of starting offensive linemen forced this group to abandon the run altogether.
That, in turn, forced Minnesota’s defense to make a play—or else. Remember: Mike Zimmer’s side of the ball swarmed quarterbacks and scored points throughout the season’s first quarter. When this group failed to do its job and the offense's job, the Vikings couldn’t compete.
Looking forward: Teddy Bridgewater is coming back—and with him, I believe a quarterback controversy. Bradford is tailor-made for this offense: Protect him adequately and he’s the better of the two. Especially if his old college teammate Peterson has one good season left in him.
22. Carolina Panthers
Final record: 6-10
Week 1 ranking: 1 (-21)
The Super Bowl hangover is real, people.
Look no further than the 2015 NFC champions—Exhibit A of what can happen to a team when it makes the leap to elite but doesn’t have the foresight to maintain it. Carolina looked talented, disinterested and frustrated all in the span of 16 games. There were times when I couldn’t believe this was the 15-1 team of yesteryear.
Of course, jettisoning a franchise cornerstone didn’t help Carolina’s repeat chances. General manager David Gettleman was arrogant enough to think two rookies could do the job of Josh Norman—a perfect fit for Ron Rivera's coverage scheme. The GM was dead wrong (think: Julio Jones' 300-yard day).
The spotty run game didn't help, either, and it's the cornerstone of everything offensive coordinator Mike Shula sets up later on in the game. It was Cam Newton or nothing for most of the year, and that's the mark of an inefficient team.
Looking forward: Newton is a transcendent talent. Carolina has a shot at grabbing another one at No. 8 overall in the 2017 NFL draft. Despite all its small faults, Carolina is primed for a bounce-back season.
21. Cincinnati Bengals
Final record: 6-9-1
Week 1 ranking: 9 (-12)
I hate to say I told you so about this squad—especially if it comes at the expense of Marvin Lewis.
But I had the book on the Bengals in August. Lewis guided his group to the playoffs in so many consecutive seasons that other teams were guaranteed to sap their talent well dry. In just a few years, Lewis lost top assistants (Jay Gruden, Hue Jackson and Mike Zimmer) and top contributors (Marvin Jones Jr., Mohamed Sanu). That was bound to take a toll.
No one felt that change more than Andy Dalton did. Cincinnati’s quarterback struggled to recreate the magic of his finest year in 2015, especially when A.J. Green, Gio Bernard and Tyler Eifert couldn’t stay on the field together. And remember: Dalton was the beneficiary of a top offensive line a season ago. Cincinnati’s group of five took one giant step back in pass protection these past 16 games.
A similar return to the mean took place on Lewis' defense. For years, this group was the physically gifted freaks of the AFC North; Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap led that charge. Those two, together and healthy, should never be the crux of a lower-third-ranked rush defense. The Bengals had one in 2016.
Looking forward: Will one bad year be enough to force Lewis' ouster? Perhaps decision-makers have been spoiled with his success so much that they forgot what life was like before his arrival. The man should get to name his departure date.
20. New Orleans Saints
Final record: 7-9
Week 1 ranking: 25 (+5)
Get out while the getting is good, Sean Payton.
There’s a reason why the Saints' offensive mastermind flirted with openings in Indianapolis and San Francisco before the season. He saw in his current team what any regular fan can see now: New Orleans is on the edge of a major rebuild.
Payton doesn’t want to be around for the tough decision on his favorite quarterback. Because when you factor out all the Super Bowl 44 nostalgia and broken NFL records, Drew Brees is a good but aging quarterback with one fatal flaw: throwing interceptions at terrible moments. His poor choices in games against the Falcons and Buccaneers are seared into my brain for the number of times I rewatched them, trying to figure out what No. 9 saw. I uncovered no answers.
It's harder for me to judge New Orleans' defense as harshly. Coordinator Dennis Allen lost his top pass-rushing linebacker (Hau'oli Kikaha), his top three cornerbacks (Delvin Breaux, Keenan Lewis, P.J. Williams), a starting safety (Kenny Vaccaro) and his first-round pick (Sheldon Rankins) to injuries this year. Get all those pieces back healthy in 2017 and NOLA's defense can surprise some folks.
Looking forward: Brees' Acme anvil of a contract is what will drive offseason conversation. Do the Saints keep him around for one more year with their talented stable of receivers (Brandin Cooks, Willie Snead, Michael Thomas)? Or do they usher in the next era and start fresh?
19. Indianapolis Colts
Final record: 8-8
Week 1 ranking: 20 (-1)
Any Colts season during the Andrew Luck era that doesn’t end in a playoff berth is a wasted one.
So throw this latest Colts campaign right in the trash where it belongs. Over four months, Luck recaptured most of what made him so damn dangerous from 2012 to 2014. As expected, the 52 other guys on the roster failed to make the jump alongside him.
Coach Chuck Pagano shoulders most of that blame. Luck's offensive strategy on any given week involved throwing, throwing again and throwing some more, regardless of how many inexperienced blockers lined up in front of him. Frank Gore and the running game in general were afterthoughts.
The Colts' flag football approach hurt Pagano's own defense—a group that entered the season at a loss for talent. The main issue? Run defense. Opponents could move this team off its spot on the ground and averaged 120.4 yards per game. It made sense to try that; the only way Indianapolis could come marching back was with Luck working his magic on the field, not watching running backs carve his defense up from the sidelines.
Looking forward: By every available metric (hurries, sacks, completion percentage), Luck has been one of the most hurried quarterbacks in football, if not the most. By Week 17, the Colts were starting three rookies to block for him. That ends in 2017, or it won't be seasons we'll remember as wasted. It'll be a career with Hall of Fame potential.
18. Arizona Cardinals
Final record: 7-8-1
Week 1 ranking: 6 (-12)
All or Nothing wasn’t just the name of the Cardinals’ fly-on-the-wall documentary from 2015.
It ended up being the team's motto for 2016. Coach Bruce Arians spent so much of the year attempting to recreate his magical deep-ball offense that he failed to see what was right in front of him: The 2016 version of his team wasn't built to run it. It's the primary reason why Arizona will be the most talented team watching from home during the playoffs—and the driving force between a 12-point drop from my Week 1 power rankings.
If Arians could have a do-over, he might build his offense around David Johnson instead of a 38-turning-39-year-old quarterback and a dilapidated offensive line. Johnson's talent transcended his blocking. For some time, 150-plus all-purpose yards was a normal stat line for the Northern Iowa product.
Flip the field and you'll find a defense in equal need of soul-searching. Yes, Arizona finished the season ranked second in total defense. That's a bit misleading; with new pass-rusher Chandler Jones quiet for several games and Tyrann Mathieu not his regular ball-hawking self, this same group was average (No. 14 overall) in scoring defense. Perhaps coordinator James Bettcher was a tad too aggressive and man defense-happy in 2016.
Looking forward: Arians isn't the type to wait out a young quarterback and try again in a few years. So if Carson Palmer decides enough is enough, expect this team to be a big player for a certain backup quarterback who is wasting away in Dallas. His name escapes me at the moment.
17. Tennessee Titans
Final record: 9-7
Week 1 ranking: 23 (+6)
Admit it: You laughed a little when you heard the nickname of Mike Mularkey’s offense.
No one is laughing now. Tennessee’s "Exotic Smashmouth" offense was nothing but a raging success, giving an identity to one of the more boring teams to watch of the 2010s.
Mularkey knew what he was doing from the jump. He imported north-south runner DeMarco Murray at a discount, placed him behind an offensive line with three former first-rounders and told him to go crazy. He did; Murray’s 1,287 rushing yards are Comeback Player of the Year-worthy. He led all AFC running backs.
Mularkey's work with Marcus Mariota shouldn’t be overlooked, either. I wasn't alone in questioning the former Heisman winner’s ability to work under center in the pros. He answered those questions with a November to remember—11 touchdowns to two interceptions and a 115 passer rating in four games.
Looking forward: Dick LeBeau accomplished more with less talent than any defensive coordinator in the league. That won't have to be the case in 2017; the Titans have two first-round picks to add to LeBeau's crew. A little more secondary help could make this team elite.
16. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Final record: 9-7
Week 1 ranking: 24 (+8)
Why did the Buccaneers move on from a polished head coach like Lovie Smith?
To have seasons like they did in 2016, that's why. Tampa Bay missed the playoff field, but Dirk Koetter instilled the kind of toughness and discipline that will make my old team a playoff contender for years to come.
Having a quarterback like Jameis Winston eased Koetter into his new role. The former Heisman winner evolved in all aspects of his game. Winston took the next steps as both a pocket passer and mobile thrower in Year 2 while simultaneously locking down the locker room leadership role. I can’t wait to see what 2017 has in store for him (hopefully, a better offensive line and an improved running game).
As good as Winston and Co. were, Koetter’s defense was even better. All the freakish athletes in the back seven—Kwon Alexander and Lavonte David at linebacker plus Vernon Hargreaves, Alterraun Verner and Brent Grimes at cornerback—had standout years. It helped having Gerald McCoy up front, anchoring the Bucs’ best pass-rushing line since I left town.
Looking forward: What Mike Evans did in 2016 (12 touchdowns, 1,321 yards on 96 catches) was nothing short of spectacular when you consider Vincent Jackson was lost for this team's late-season run. Defenses will wise up, though. It's time to get No. 13 a running mate in Koetter’s passing offense.
15. Baltimore Ravens
Final record: 8-8
Week 1 ranking: 17 (+2)
John Harbaugh would never admit 2016 was a rebuilding year for his Ravens.
That's exactly what it was, though. This team is moving on from the last pieces of its Super Bowl run. So what came out to play in the meantime didn't always play the expected brand of Ravens football.
Take the running game: Harbaugh is a ground-and-pound enthusiast if I've ever seen one, but this team got away from that approach all too often. Even after a midseason coordinator change, moving the football was a burden shouldered by Joe Flacco—a guy who needed time to heal up mentally from a torn ACL.
The same goes for the Ravens defense, a unit historically driven by strong secondary play. Pop on the film, though, and you'll see coverage guys stuck in mud as faster wideouts waltz on by. Team speed was an issue, and it's one Harbaugh and Co. must address in order to become the Ravens again.
Looking forward: General manager Ozzie Newsome needs to target a few spots to complete his roster retooling, but offensive line isn't one of them. Rookie Ronnie Stanley looks like the second coming of Jonathan Ogden. And Newsome might have a Kelechi Osemele replacement in versatile tackle/guard Alex Lewis. Both guys popped on film.
14. Washington Redskins
Final record: 8-7-1
Week 1 ranking: 13 (-1)
How do I like the Washington Redskins now?
A lot more than I did heading into 2015. Despite the overall one-spot rankings dip, it's clear this team wasn't just a flash in the playoff pan. They're going places.
Cousins is a big reason why, of course. The fifth-year quarterback took a gamble on himself when he turned down Washington's long-term offers. After an incredible season (67.0 completion percentage, 97.2 quarterback rating) distributing the football to Jamison Crowder, Jordan Reed, DeSean Jackson and others, Cousins seems locked in to be the next $20 million-per-year guy.
In fact, the Redskins defense struggled because of just how well Cousins played this past season. With his quick-strike capability, Ryan Kerrigan and crew were forced back into action earlier than most teams. That took its toll on the secondary, a spot Washington still needs to address despite bringing Josh Norman on last summer.
Looking forward: Washington's offensive line is not far behind rival Dallas' in terms of big guys who can move. The defense could use some talent like that. It surrendered 119.8 rushing yards per game and looked in dire need of some big run-plugging bodies.
13. Denver Broncos
Final record: 9-7
Week 1 ranking: 4 (-9)
Don’t be fooled by Denver’s absence in the playoff field. Its defense is still the best in football for nearly two seasons running.
But even it had its limits. Gary Kubiak’s offense was the textbook definition of "meh"—good enough to not lose a game but not good enough to complement all the plays made on the other end. And thus a promising title defense year in Denver was wasted.
It's not Trevor Siemian's fault. Denver's drop-back passing game relies on running the ball first; C.J. Anderson's early injury meant Siemian was behind the eight ball from the jump. His situation went from bad to worse as the season wore on and his offensive line broke down even further.
Denver's other phases were not without faults. The defense missed an athletic run defender like Malik Jackson and got run on late. The special teams fumbled away too many point-blank possessions (I'm looking at you, Jordan Norwood). But this was a team no one wanted to draw in the postseason. Kubiak couldn’t make it happen in what ultimately ended up as his final season in charge.
Looking forward: Von Miller and Co. will be back with a vengeance in 2017. But I can't tab a leader on the other side of the ball at the moment. It should be Siemian, but quarterback politics is often messy (trust me on this one). I would not be shocked to see Paxton Lynch as the starter, especially with a new coach.
12. Seattle Seahawks
Final record: 10-5-1
Week 1 ranking: 8 (-4)
Pete Carroll's team finds itself in the playoffs yet again.
It also finds itself at a franchise crossroads. To compete for Super Bowls and not just NFC West titles, it can do one of two things: expand offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell's limited playbook or reinvest in Russell Wilson's offensive line.
I'd recommend both. But none of Wilson's starting offensive linemen from his last Super Bowl appearance are on this current Seahawks roster. That lack of continuity and/or actual blocking competence set Bevell's offense back in its simplest mode of waiting for Wilson to do something fantastic—or else.
Seattle's usually scary defense struggled just as much as Wilson did to make magic happen. I can't remember a season during the Seahawks' rise to power in which they allowed so many big plays—especially once Earl Thomas was lost for the year. The Legion of Boom can't skate by on its reputation alone come playoff time.
Looking forward: Marshawn Lynch ain't coming through that door. Seattle hasn't shown an ability to do much of anything to complement Wilson's arm. The only talented answer the team found—C.J. Prosise—hit injured reserve right after his best game. Another ball-carrier must step in this postseason.
11. Detroit Lions
Final record: 9-7
Week 1 ranking: 12 (+1)
Entering Week 17, the Lions trailed in as many fourth quarters as the Browns did.
The difference? One team had a revolving door at quarterback. The other had an MVP-caliber signal-caller.
Matthew Stafford did his best work in 2016. His 24-touchdown season is mind-boggling, especially when you consider the guy went without (A) his favorite all-time target and a future Hall of Fame candidate in Calvin Johnson and (B) any inkling of a rushing attack. Only two teams trailed Detroit in yards-per-carry average; Stafford had to carry the Lions into contention.
Once there, the Lions defense healed up. Back came Ezekiel Ansah and Haloti Ngata; both guys didn’t play their usual roles but still garnered attention. Texas Tech product Kerry Hyder was a gem. And Darius Slay denied enough receivers to keep Stafford within shooting range when the fourth quarter came.
Looking forward: I look at the Lions and see a team that isn't too far off from annual dominance. The line in front of Stafford is a big reason why. After investing three first-round picks up front, Detroit’s pass protection afforded the team enough time to mount so many comebacks. If only it had a running back worth blocking for as well.
10. Miami Dolphins
Final record: 10-6
Week 1 ranking: 28 (+18)
You'll find the most valuable Dolphin wearing a headset, not a helmet.
Adam Gase's influence is so clear and profound. Everything points to this being the first of many postseason runs for the rising star of the head coaching world. Miami is lucky to have him.
It's Gase who stuck to the script when his Dolphins were embarrassed (in both all-orange jerseys and on-field play) by the Cincinnati Bengals in front of a national audience in Week 4. It's Gase who had the foresight to stick Laremy Tunsil at guard and have his five best starting linemen block for Jay Ajayi (1,272 rushing yards, eight rushing touchdowns). And it's Gase who will make his team into one tough son-of-a-you-know-what in the postseason, even without Ryan Tannehill.
Gase also picked up an important lesson from his Denver days: The game's third phase is an important one. Whether it was big punt blocks or big returns by Jakeem Grant and Kenyan Drake, Miami's special teams was a special group.
Looking forward: Ndamukong Suh had a few flashes of his old Detroit days in 2016. He needs help to produce like that at a steady pace. Miami's defense was far too front-four-centric; secondary and linebacking help are needed to patch up a bad rushing defense.
9. Oakland Raiders
Final record: 12-4
Week 1 ranking: 18 (+9)
It's likely Oakland lost its Super Bowl chance the minute its quarterback fell.
That might sting, but take a step back. Look at the bigger picture. I just used the words "Oakland" and "Super Bowl chance" in the same sentence, and that sentence was not "Oakland has no Super Bowl chance whatsoever." It's been a while since any of us could say that—14 painstaking seasons, to be exact.
Raiders fans waded through the football sewage that was JaMarcus Russell and Tom Cable's fists and two seconds of Lane Kiffin; they came out on the other end with Derek Carr and Amari Cooper. I bet any Vader helmet-wearing die-hard in the Black Hole would take that trade-off, all things considered.
Did I mention your soon-to-be Defensive Player of the Year? By my count, Khalil Mack single-handedly won three games for Oakland by either forcing a game-winning turnover or scoring himself. He's not alone now that Bruce Irvin is hitting his Seahawks-days highs on the other side of Jack Del Rio's defense. I'm excited to see what the playoffs bring, even if it's not a Lombardi Trophy.
Looking ahead: Matt McGloin has the reins at quarterback, but it's not his show to run. Oakland's offense will flip to run-you-over mode this postseason, a dangerous setting it tested out a few times this year. Ask the Denver Broncos how easy that is to stop.
8. Houston Texans
Final record: 9-7
Week 1 ranking: 15 (+7)
Brock Osweiler was given the solar eclipse of an NFL contract—rare, attention-grabbing and a little shadowy.
Only Bill O'Brien refused to look at it. And in doing so, he avoided the kind of damage only eclipses (or $72 million quarterbacks) can dole out to the eyes.
That's not to say Houston is the picture of offensive health. Replacement Tom Savage has the tools, but he'll make his third career start in an anything-goes Wild Card Game. His targets, like DeAndre Hopkins and C.J. Fiedorowicz, are too drop-prone. The offensive line will give up some sacks and pressures too.
Anything above Osweiler-level production is a treat for the defense, though. Without J.J. Watt for the better part of the season, Jadeveon Clowney (six sacks) is the obvious headliner. That's fine by Whitney Mercilus, a sackmaster who gets to quarterbacks just as often as Houston's big-name guys do. Behind those two and a four-deep secondary, Houston's defense was a force again in 2016.
Now those guys are getting time to take a breather and diagnose plays. It's amazing what one obvious quarterback switch can do to jump-start a team.
Looking forward: Will this be the year that quarterback doesn't hold Houston back? If Savage settles into his role as a football distributor—and that's a big if—we could see our first home-field Super Bowl this season. That's how talented O'Brien's roster is.
7. New York Giants
Final record: 11-5
Week 1 ranking: 16 (+9)
It wasn't pretty this season in New York.
In fact, it was downright ugly at times.
But Big Blue is playoff-bound for the first time since 2011. And if we know anything from that run and the one that preceded it, it's that this team can catch fire and play with the best of 'em.
Especially when its defense is built like this. General manager Jerry Reese caught a ton of flak in the five boroughs for writing big offseason checks—$62.5 million for Janoris Jenkins, $85 million for Olivier Vernon and $46.25 million for Damon Harrison. It was money well-spent; those three joined Landon Collins and Jason Pierre-Paul to key a defensive turnaround the likes of which I've never seen. Big Blue jumped from dead last in total defense in 2015 to 10th in 2016.
With a group like that, who needs offense? Eli Manning might be on the downswing, but he was still able to get the ball in Odell Beckham Jr.'s hands enough (1,367 receiving yards, 10 touchdowns) to make a difference. He'll need to get hot for this team to stick around in the hunt for 51.
Looking forward: Two questions hold the key to Big Blue's postseason fate. First off, can Rashad Jennings/Paul Perkins run the football? And can Ereck Flowers keep his pass-protecting slip-ups to a minimum?
6. Pittsburgh Steelers
Final record: 11-5
Week 1 ranking: 2 (-4)
Michael Bay might want the Pittsburgh Steelers to star in his next summer blockbuster.
Because Mike Tomlin coaches the NFL's Transformers. Like Optimus Prime and Bumblebee, they shift between two forms—one runs you over, while the other flies by you. Either one is nearly impossible for opposing teams (and Decepticons) to figure out.
The Steelers needed only the push of a tough home loss against the Cowboys to get there. Before that point, Le'Veon Bell only reached the 20-carry plateau in two games returning from suspension. Factor out a meaningless Week 17 and Bell pounded the football 20-plus times in every week after. It's like coordinator Todd Haley woke up and realized he had the NFL's most patient runner since Barry Sanders on his roster, or something.
Whatever he did worked. With Bell working behind pulling guard David DeCastro, the Steelers reinvented themselves as the running team that sets up the long pass, not the other way around. The group that benefited the most? Pittsburgh's pass defense, because Bell scored and bled clock. Sacks and turnovers followed.
The best part? Big Ben Roethlisberger can turn this offense into a giant fighting robot—uh, wide-open passing attack—at the drop of a hat. Case in point: Baltimore stifled the Steelers in Week 16, so Big Ben chucked it down the field in five plays for the score that gave his team the AFC North crown.
Looking forward: Would you want your team to draw the Steelers in the playoffs right now? They could be even scarier with the return of Ladarius Green, Roethlisberger's first seam-stretching tight end.
5. Green Bay Packers
Final record: 10-6
Week 1 ranking: 5 (same)
Seven weeks ago, the greatest quarterback I've ever seen exited a field in Landover, Maryland, as the quarterback on a six-loss team.
He hasn't lost since. Just as Aaron Rodgers predicted, his Packers ran the table, rattling off six consecutive wins to snatch the NFC North crown away from anyone who doubted his team's talent.
As expected, the unexpected run was spearheaded by No. 12. Rodgers threw 40 touchdowns to just seven interceptions on an offense that looked out to sea in the first half of the season. Those totals would have been higher had Rodgers' inconsistent receiving corps reeled in a few additional pinpoint passes (see: Davante Adams). He did it without Eddie Lacy or any real running game to speak of, too.
Rodgers was the spark; Green Bay's defense was the kindling that led to this Packers' hot streak. It was a sieve in that Week 11 game in Washington. Then important contributors returned, like Damarious Randall and Clay Matthews. With all his pieces in place, coordinator Dom Capers did what he does best: throw eight kinds of looks at opposing offenses and create turnovers.
Looking forward: Welcome back, Jordy Nelson. Green Bay's long-lost wide receiver finally regained some of that burst and athleticism sapped from ACL surgery just in time for the playoffs to begin. Lucky for the Pack, unlucky for the New York Giants.
4. Atlanta Falcons
Final record: 11-5
Week 1 ranking: 22 (+18)
We've seen an offense as good as Atlanta's only twice this millennium.
The first was "The Greatest Show on Turf" Rams. The second was the 2007 record-breaking Patriots. That's it—all other teams pale in comparison to the kinds of numbers Matt Ryan and Co. have produced this year. We're watching NFL history.
And Julio Jones might have less to do with it than I have would ever imagined possible. Consider Ryan's line heading into Week 17 when targeting other wideouts: 270-of-364 with 29 touchdowns and three interceptions, according to ESPN Stats & Info.
To frame it another way, 10 Falcons targets have 100-plus receiving yards, at least 10 first-down grabs and at least two touchdowns. This SB Nation study found no other team has more than seven (New Orleans and New England). Think about that level of spreading the football around and try not to let your head explode.
Atlanta features one other characteristic of all Super Bowl contenders: an elite pass-rusher. His name is Vic Beasley, and he's about to set fire to the postseason after leading the league in sacks this year (15.5).
Looking forward: This could well be a one-year title window for Atlanta. Yes, Tampa Bay and Carolina figure to improve in 2017. But the Falcons could be hit with a double whammy if/when coordinator Kyle Shanahan gets the call-up to the head coaching ranks. He's a genius who could set Ryan and Co. back a few healthy steps.
3. Kansas City Chiefs
Final record: 12-4
Week 1 ranking: 10 (+7)
Andy Reid is on the precipice of winning a lifetime’s supply of brisket and ribs.
Because let’s face it—not one barbecue joint in town will force the jolly old Chiefs coach to pay for a meal should his team fulfill its awesome potential and take home a Lombardi Trophy. The Chiefs are that talented.
Where is Kansas City’s weak spot? It’s not on offense, where Alex Smith has morphed from Captain Checkdown into something far more dangerous. Weapons like Travis Kelce (1,125 receiving yards) and rookie Tyreek Hill (1,836 all-purpose yards) don’t give Smith a choice; both guys get the football early in Reid’s offense and make yards-after-catch magic happen.
This year, the power run game serves as a side and not the main course, but even with Jamaal Charles sidelined, it’s still appetizing.
Now for the defense—where the hell do I start? How about up front, where Dontari Poe is joined by a mini-Fletcher Cox? His name is Chris Jones, and he was the perfect first-round pick for this team.
Speaking of which: first-rounders Marcus Peters and Eric Berry had 10 combined interceptions in 2016. That’ll happen when you play K.C.; it turns you over and over. And special teams is just plain special. Hill is the best returner we’ve seen in Arrowhead Stadium since Dante Hall.
Looking forward: The one team that should worry Reid is the one that sits atop these final regular-season power rankings. Spoiler alert: They met in the playoffs last year and only some egregious clock mismanagement separated them. Now K.C. is a more complete and scarier challenger.
2. Dallas Cowboys
Final record: 13-3
Week 1 ranking: 14 (+12)
Pencil Jason Garrett in as Coach of the Year.
The man deserves it after his Cirque du Soleil-level juggling act. Think about it: He's managed big personalities (Dez Bryant, owner Jerry Jones), nurtured two star rookies (Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott) and—above all else—delivered 13 wins to America's Team.
What else does he need to do? String up the Jerry's World Jumbotron?
Garrett separates himself in the staff he's assembled. Look at the job offensive line coach and Bill Callahan pupil Frank Pollack did with Dallas' front five; the O-line laid waste to just about every so-called great defensive front in the game (Ravens, Steelers, Packers, etc.) On the other end, coordinator Rod Marinelli has pieced together what I call the NFL's best hustle defense—11 guys flying to the ball no matter if it's pass or run.
Yes, Dallas is a top-five-talent team this season. I haven't heard much about the coaching job Garrett and Co. have done, though. That's the real reason why the 'Boys could be Houston-bound in a month or so.
Looking forward: Forget the SEC or the Big Ten. Prescott and Elliott are about to embark on their greatest football journey ever, and they're both rookies. That experience doesn't just bode well for this year—it bodes well for the next 10 years.
1. New England Patriots
Final record: 14-2
Week 1 ranking: 3 (+2)
This season epitomizes Bill Belichick’s favorite motto like perhaps no other one before it.
He lost his one constant for four games—the quarterback who’s been his rock throughout New England’s dynasty. Yet even without the services of ol’ Thomas Brady, New England's football factory kept churning when Belichick’s players—gasp!—did their jobs. It’s the same theory that kept the offense churning when Dion Lewis went down or Rob Gronkowski was lost, found and lost again.
Belichick stuck to another core principle at his team’s watershed defensive moment. Jamie Collins is a superstar linebacker and franchise player, but he wasn’t above the scheme and system Belichick values so much. He’s in Cleveland now. Look at where the Patriots are. Any questions?
Looking forward: I don’t see a quarterback in the AFC playoff field capable of (A) going toe-to-toe with Tom Terrific and (B) outsmarting New England’s revamped defense. Look for the Patriots in Houston this February.