2021 B/R NFL Power Rankings: Where Does Every Team Stand Entering Week 13?

NFL StaffContributor INovember 30, 2021

2021 B/R NFL Power Rankings: Where Does Every Team Stand Entering Week 13?

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    Bleacher Report

    There is one thing for certain in the NFL in 2021: Nothing is certain.

    The top five in these power rankings has been a carousel of ups and downs all season long. The New England Patriots have surged from the back half to the top five thanks to six straight victories. The Los Angeles Rams and Tennessee Titans have both occupied the top spot at some point this season, but both have been sent tumbling by losing streaks.

    At least the Detroit Lions and Jacksonville Jaguars have been consistently awful. God bless 'em.

    With only six weeks left in the regular season, much remains to be decided across the league, whether it's divisional races, wild-card spots or the No. 1 seed in each conference.

    After another wild week of NFL action that scrambled the standings in both the AFC and NFC, Bleacher Report NFL Analysts Brent Sobleski, Brad Gagnon and Gary Davenport have come together once more to rank the league's teams from worst to first.

    The team atop these rankings didn't even play in Week 12. The team at the bottom just wishes it hadn't.

32. Jacksonville Jaguars (2-9)

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    Last Week: 32

    Week 12 Result: Lost vs. Atlanta 21-14

    The Jacksonville Jaguars have endured a miserable 2021 season. But even in a year that has been one low after another, getting handled at home by a bad Atlanta Falcons team is a new nadir.

    The Falcons had scored three points in their last two games combined, so of course the Jaguars allowed them to score three touchdowns. The Falcons had allowed at least 25 points in each of their last three games, so of course the Jags managed only one touchdown against them.

    As he has so often this year, Jaguars quarterback Trevor Lawrence struggled, finishing 23-of-42 for 228 yards, one touchdown, one interception and a passer rating of 68.4. But head coach Urban Meyer told reporters after the game that he thought the addition of a faster offensive tempo and more option plays helped Lawrence take a step forward even in defeat.

    "A little better," Meyer said. "I thought the coaches worked their tails off and we went some tempo, we went some pace a little bit, which I think our quarterback is used to that, and I think you'll see more of that."

    Given that Sunday's game marked the fifth straight in which the Jaguars failed to top 17 points, it must have been a baby step.

31. Houston Texans (2-9)

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    Justin Rex/Associated Press

    Last Week: 30

    Week 12 Result: Lost vs. New York Jets 21-14

    Last week, the Houston Texans logged one of the biggest upsets of the 2021 season in taking down the AFC South-leading Tennessee Titans.

    In Week 12, they came crashing back to earth.

    The Texans pulled off that upset of the Titans despite managing only 190 yards of offense. Against the Jets, they tallied only 202 yards. And without the five Tennessee turnovers that gave them short field after short field in Week 11, the Texans offense wasn't able to sustain much of anything.

    Quarterback Tyrod Taylor told reporters after the game that the offense's performance left a lot to be desired.

    "We didn't execute on third down," Taylor said. "We didn't execute in general early downs as well. When you put yourself in third-and-long, those are hard to come by. The flow wasn't right in the second half and we have to be better at that moving forward."

    With a Indianapolis Colts team up next that should be seething after a close loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 12, things are probably going to get worse in Houston before they get better.

30. Detroit Lions (0-10-1)

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    Thursday's loss to the Chicago Bears just about summed up the Detroit Lions' 2021 season.

    After scoring a touchdown to pull ahead by a point, Detroit allowed a game-winning drive that took the last eight-and-a-half minutes of the game. The straw that broke the camel's back on that drive? Consecutive timeouts by the Lions that resulted in a delay-of-game penalty on a critical third down.

    Head coach Dan Campbell tried to explain the gaffe to reporters after the game:

    "Obviously can't do that. But we had miscommunication. Half of our secondary had one call and half had the other. It was a check by what they were doing, so you don't get it until in the middle of the play, but it's something we had talked about. You don't get it pre-snap. It's a call and it's got basically a check on it to what they're going to do and what they line up in offensively."

    Well, that clears that up.

    The Lions are as talent-deficient as any team in the NFL. Add bad coaching to that mix, and Detroit doesn't have a chance.

    "At this point, everyone should just feel bad for the Lions," Sobleski said. "They're 0-10-1 even though they had opportunities to secure a victory in each of the last three contests against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Cleveland Browns and Chicago Bears. Instead, Campbell's squad fell short yet again.

    "Yes, Detroit is the NFL's worst team. At the same time, the Lions go out and compete hard each week. At least fans can be consoled knowing an elite pass-rusher awaits at the top of the 2022 NFL draft."

29. New York Jets (3-8)

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    Justin Rex/Associated Press

    Last Week: 31

    Week 12 Result: Won at Houston 21-14

    Given how few things the New York Jets have enjoyed in 2021, they should be thrilled about beating the Texans in Houston in Sunday.

    But look at just about any number that isn't the final score, and the smiles start to fade.

    Just as he has most of the season, rookie quarterback Zach Wilson struggled mightily in his return to action after missing time with a knee injury. He went 14-of-24 with an interception and four sacks, and the Jets mustered only 266 yards of offense.

    But there were legitimate reasons for optimism as well. Despite the absence of lead back Michael Carter, the Jets rushed for 157 yards and averaged 4.6 yards per carry. New York's beleaguered defense played its best game of the season, allowing only 202 total yards and shutting out Houston in the second half.

    It gives the Jets at least a modicum of momentum heading into two straight games at home against teams with losing records.

    But hoping for the start of a winning streak may be pushing the boundaries of optimism.

28. Chicago Bears (4-7)

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    Duane Burleson/Associated Press

    Last Week: 28

    Week 12 Result: Won at Detroit 16-14

    Week 12 dawned amid reports that Chicago's Thanksgiving Day date with the Lions would be Matt Nagy's last as head coach. The team denied those reports, but the dominant storyline for the Bears was a disappointing season that left Nagy on the hottest of seats.

    After Chicago outlasted the Lions on Thursday, Nagy lauded his team's ability to overcome those distractions:

    "Everybody understands with the distractions that we had, that we fought through it. So, there was a report that came out that was false and that's where it started. And then we had practice and we continued with our days. We had our practices like we normally would, and I cleared it up with the team.

    "As I think everybody is aware, the next day (Bears Chairman) George (McCaskey) came in and had a good talk with the team and confirmed that that wasn't true. And then we went about our business."

    That the Bears needed a last-second field goal to get past a winless team speaks to the irony of Nagy's accolades.

    His job will likely be secure for only six more weeks.

27. Seattle Seahawks (3-8)

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Last Week: 26

    Week 12 Result: Lost at Washington 17-15

    It's fair to wonder at this point if we're nearing the end of an era in Seattle.

    After losing their third straight game Monday night in Washington, the Seahawks are 3-8 and all but finished—even in an NFC where the seventh playoff seed sits on the wrong side of .500 right now. Since Russell Wilson returned to the lineup after missing time with a broken finger, the Seahawks offense has careened off a cliff.

    Seattle has scored 28 points in the last three games combined. Star wide receiver DK Metcalf had one catch against one of the worst secondaries in the NFL and hasn't cracked 50 receiving yards since Week 7.

    The passing game is bad. The running game is worse. Seattle's season is DOA.

    The only question is what's next.

    Pete Carroll, 70, is the oldest head coach in the league. Is this the end of his Seahawks tenure? Given Wilson's unhappiness last offseason, will he try to force his way out of town if seismic changes are coming? What about high-priced veterans like linebacker Bobby Wagner?

    No one expected Seattle's run to end with a thud like this.

    But no one ever does.

26. Atlanta Falcons (5-6)

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    Last Week: 27

    Week 12 Result: Won at Jacksonville 21-14 

    While Sunday's win over the Jaguars got the Atlanta Falcons back to within a game of .500, let's be real: This is not a good team on either side of the ball.

    Still, even amid a mostly depressing season, Cordarrelle Patterson has been at least one bright spot.

    For most of his NFL career, Patterson has alternated between being a disappointing wide receiver and an excellent kick returner. But with their backfield in complete disarray, the Falcons have leaned on Patterson as a do-it-all running back.

    On Sunday against the Jaguars, Patterson carried the ball a season-high 16 times for 108 yards and two touchdowns. While speaking with reporters after the game, Falcons head coach Arthur Smith lauded the team's best offensive weapon, who sat out last week's lopsided loss with an ankle injury.

    "Obviously, having CP back adds an element," Smith said. "He's a warrior. He's a big, physical presence that can do a lot for us. And that's clear. Good to have him back."

    Granted, when the best news for a team's entire season is the play of a 30-year-old running back, you know things haven't gone all that well.

25. Carolina Panthers (5-7)

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    Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

    Last Week: 22

    Week 12 Result: Lost at Miami 33-10

    When Cam Newton re-signed with the Carolina Panthers, it was a great story. In the days and weeks since, however, it's become apparent that he isn't going to save their season.

    Newton was dreadful against the Dolphins on Sunday. He finished 5-of-21 for 92 yards, zero touchdowns and two interceptions. He finished a career-low passer rating of 5.8 before getting benched late for P.J. Walker.

    While speaking to reporters afterward, Panthers head coach Matt Rhule made it clear that no one person was solely responsible for Carolina's Week 12 collapse.

    "As it evolved, or devolved I should say ... I purely believe Miami outplayed us today, outcoached us today," Rhule said. "They were better than us today. Pretty simple to me."

    Things aren't likely to get better for the Panthers after their Week 13 bye. Running back Christian McCaffrey injured his ankle against Miami, and the team placed him on season-ending injured reserve on Monday.

    "Christian McCaffrey or not, Cam Newton or not, the Panthers are a bad football team that has now lost seven of its last nine games," Gagnon said. "There's very little they do well, aside from some solid performances in pass defense. That wasn't the case against Miami on Sunday."

24. New York Giants (4-7)

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    Corey Sipkin/Associated Press

    Last Week: 25

    Week 12 Result: Won vs. Philadelphia 13-7 

    As it turns out, Jason Garrett was the problem all along.

    That statement is made in jest, of course. Firing their offensive coordinator hardly fixed all that ails the Giants offense. With interim coordinator Freddie Kitchens calling the plays, the G-Men averaged only 2.6 yards per carry and posted 264 yards of offense against the Eagles.

    Still, that—combined with a solid defensive effort that included four takeaways—was enough for the Giants to earn a six-point win over the Eagles. And hard though it may be to believe, they now sit only one game back of the third wild-card spot in the NFC.

    The win came on the day former Giants great Michael Strahan had his No. 92 jersey retired, and head coach Joe Judge said that the team used that halftime ceremony as motivation.

    "With a guy like Strahan being honored, we're always big on the history of the organization. ... When you get a guy being honored like that, you don’t want to go out there and lay an egg," Judge said, "especially defensively, right?"

    "The Giants' current situation seems unsalvageable. They have the same record they did a year ago (4-7), yet the NFC East is markedly better. Instead of battling for a division title, they're in last place," Sobleski said. "The next six weeks will be difficult to navigate, too, with the Miami Dolphins, Los Angeles Chargers, Dallas Cowboys, Eagles, Chicago Bears and Washington Football Team still on the docket. A late-season run is highly unlikely."

23. New Orleans Saints (5-6)

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    Derick Hingle/Associated Press

    Last Week: 19

    Week 12 Result: Lost vs. Buffalo 31-6

    The New Orleans Saints are toast.

    On some level, maybe they always were. Even during their 5-2 start, when most of the players were healthy, it was clear that the Saints had significant limitations offensively.

    However, Jameis Winston's season-ending knee injury has forced first Trevor Siemian and now Taysom Hill into the starting role at quarterback. With Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram II both out in Week 12, the Saints were forced to turn to Tony Jones Jr. and Ty Montgomery at running back. The wide receiver corps has been without Michael Thomas for the entire season. And after mustering a measly 190 yards of offense against the Bills, the Saints have dropped four in a row to fall below .500 for the first time this season.

    Head coach Sean Payton told reporters after the game that he isn't exactly sure how to stop the skid.

    "We'll look at everything right now. Obviously, we have to," Payton said. "We've got to look closely at everything we're doing and who we're doing it with."

    Given all of the injuries and the drop in performance that have come as a result, it may not matter what Payton does.

22. Philadelphia Eagles (5-7)

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    John Munson/Associated Press

    Last Week: 18

    Week 12 Result: Lost at New York Giants 13-7 

    The Philadelphia Eagles entered Week 12 on a nice roll. They had won three of their last four games to get back to within a game of .500 and back on the periphery of the playoff race in the NFC.

    Then came Sunday's divisional tilt with the Giants, and every bit of momentum Philly had built up evaporated in a cloud of Jalen Hurts turnovers.

    Hurts was a mess against the Giants, tossing three picks and finishing the game with a passer rating of 17.5. The second-year pro admitted to reporters after the game that his mistakes cost the team dearly.

    "Today, I put us in a bad situation with those turnovers I had in the first half, especially going in with the opportunity to get points before halftime," Hurts said. "It's something we have to overcome and we will."

    The Eagles aren't out of it, not in an NFC where the last playoff team currently sits a game under .500. But beginning next week against the Jets in the same stadium where they just crashed and burned against the Giants, they're just about fresh out of margin for more mistakes.

21. Denver Broncos (6-5)

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    Jack Dempsey/Associated Press

    Last Week: 24

    Week 12 Result: Won vs. Los Angeles Chargers 28-13

    It's rare to see an NFL team post a convincing when its quarterbacks combine to pass for 155 yards. But that's what happened Sunday in Denver.

    With Teddy Bridgewater banged up and Drew Lock playing dreadfull football, the Broncos were forced to lean on their ground game and defense. And thanks to 137 yards from Melvin Gordon III and Javonte Williams and two interceptions from rookie cornerback Patrick Surtain II (including a pick-six), the Broncos blasted the rival Chargers to move to 6-5 and get back into the postseason conversation.

    Keeping those playoff aspirations on course won't be easy. Starting on Sunday night against the Chiefs in Kansas City, five of Denver's last six games are against teams with winning records. Four of those matchups are inside the AFC West, including two games with a Chiefs and a Week 17 rematch with the Chargers.

    There's also the matter of Bridgewater's health, although Denver head coach Vic Fangio made it clear that if he's at all able to play, he's the guy.

    "Teddy's toughness is unquestioned when you talk about him and I didn't question it in the big picture," Fangio said. "And like I said, some [of] you have asked me, he's our quarterback and it's as simple as that."

20. Washington Football Team (5-6)

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Last Week: 21

    Week 12 Result: Won vs. Seattle 17-15

    If the 2021 season ended today, the Washington Football Team would be the seventh seed in the NFC playoffs.

    That is not a misprint.

    Not all that long ago, Washington was widely regarded as one of the biggest disappointments of the season—a 2-6 mess of a team at its bye week with an inconsistent offense and a terrible defense.

    But then a funny thing happened. Washington hasn't lost since coming out of that bye. After stunning the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 10, Washington outlasted the Carolina Panthers and then the Seahawks to get back to within a game of .500, within two games of the Cowboys in the division and into the NFC playoff picture.

    With Antonio Gibson running hard and Taylor Heinicke not making mistakes, Washington's offense is moving the ball. The defense is playing better without defensive ends Montez Sweat and Chase Young than it was with them.

    And with two meetings with the Cowboys coming up over the last month, repeating as NFC East champions—a notion that seemed laughable a few weeks ago—suddenly isn't so far-fetched.

19. Cleveland Browns (6-6)

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    Gail Burton/Associated Press

    Last Week: 16

    Week 12 Result: Lost at Baltimore 16-10 

    "The Cleveland Browns have the same chances of making the playoffs in 2021 as the Jacksonville Jaguars: zero."

    That's what Davenport wrote after watching another pathetic effort from the Browns offense Sunday night in Baltimore. 

    With Odell Beckham Jr. gone and injuries mounting, Cleveland has arguably the weakest array of passing-game talent in the league. Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield isn't playing well, in part because of a litany of injuries. Cleveland's vaunted one-two punch at running back of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt tallied 36 yards on 15 carries against Baltimore.

    Davenport isn't the only analyst who thinks the Browns are officially in Donesville as a playoff contender.

    "You are what your record says you are," Sobleski said. "The Browns entered the season with lofty expectations, and they've fallen well short as a middling squad with a 6-6 record. Mayfield's regression coupled with subpar play from multiple offensive positions has led to the team scoring 17 or fewer points in six of its last seven games. Cleveland is perfectly mediocre."

18. Miami Dolphins (5-7)

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    Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

    Last Week: 23

    Week 12 Result: Won vs. Carolina 33-10

    There has been plenty said and written about the future of the quarterback position in Miami. But if Tua Tagovailoa keeps having games like he did Sunday against the Carolina Panthers, the notion of moving on from him will make less and less sense.

    Granted, Tagovailoa threw only one touchdown pass against the Panthers. But he completed 27-of-31 passes for 230 yards on the day, and his passer rating in Miami's fourth consecutive victory was a robust 108.3.

    After the game, the young quarterback told reporters that the team we saw Sunday was who Miami expected to be back in September:

    "We look like the team that we kind of wanted to be at the beginning of this year. You know, it looked like a lot of guys went out there confident knowing what to expect offensively, defensively and in the kicking game. I would say this is the best that we’'e played complementary football yet, but there's still some plays that were left out there on the field that we can fix."

    The problem is that this winning streak came after a seven-game skid that all but crippled Miami's postseason aspirations.

    Still, Gagnon believes there might just be hope in South Florida.

    "They were once 1-7 and now they're in the playoff mix," Gagnon wrote. "Let's not forget that they were fully expected by many to be a playoff team this season, and that Brian Flores is a hell of a coach. With a relatively soft closing schedule, I think the Dolphins might sneak into the postseason."

17. Las Vegas Raiders (6-5)

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    Roger Steinman/Associated Press

    Last Week: 20

    Week 12 Result: Won at Dallas 36-33 (OT)

    The Las Vegas Raiders hadn't had much to be thankful for in November. They entered Thursday's game with the Dallas Cowboys having not won since Week 7.

    However, after a wild overtime victory over the Cowboys, the Raiders are back above .500 and back in the mix in both the AFC West and the wild-card race.

    The hero of the victory was one of the NFL's more underrated quarterbacks. Derek Carr came into Week 12 ranked second in the league in passing yards per game, and after throwing for 373 yards against the Cowboys, the 30-year-old won't be dropping in those rankings.

    The game marked the Raiders' first win on Turkey Day since 1968, and Carr told reporters afterward that getting a win on the holiday was a special treat.

    "It kind of gave me goose bumps, I'm not going to lie," Carr said. "When that kick went through, I had a lot of memories as a kid."

    Some of those goose bumps were probably born of the sizable boost the Raiders' postseason aspirations received.

16. Minnesota Vikings (5-6)

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    Tony Avelar/Associated Press

    Last Week: 15

    Week 12 Result: Lost at San Francisco 34-26

    You had to know that the Minnesota Vikings would be involved in a close game in Week 12. Only one of their 11 games this season has been decided by double digits.

    Unfortunately, as has been the case so many times in 2021, the Vikings came up just short, dropping back below .500 after allowing over 200 yards on the ground. That inability to stop the run was a killer in the opinion of Minnesota linebacker Eric Kendricks.

    "They came with it," Kendricks told reporters afterward. "We knew that their run game was really good. Very complex, very confusing. They have a lot of people to block and open up for it. It was about eliminating that and we didn't do it."

    Thanks to a week in which the Vikings weren't the only fringe contender to take a loss, Minnesota is tied with Washington for the final playoff spot, although if the season ended today Minnesota would be watching the postseason from home.

    But in addition to getting knocked from the postseason (albeit barely), the defeat could prove to be doubly costly. Star running back Dalvin Cook suffered a shoulder injury against San Francisco that leaves his status moving forward in doubt.

15. Pittsburgh Steelers (5-5-1)

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    Jeff Dean/Associated Press

    Last Week: 13

    Week 12 Result: Lost at Cincinnati 41-10

    The Pittsburgh Steelers need a hug. And a stiff drink. And after the beating the Cincinnati Bengals just gave them, probably some Icy-Hot.

    The Steelers are now riding a three-game winless streak that includes their vaunted defense allowing over 40 points in back-to-back games. Over the last two weeks, they've surrendered a staggering 903 yards.

    While speaking to reporters after the game, veteran defensive end Cameron Heyward preached patience while simultaneously showing frustration with how poorly the team is playing.

    "There is a lot of football to be played," Heyward said. "But if we do what we did out there today, we won't win another damn game."

    Edge-rusher T.J. Watt was no less blunt.   

    "We have to stop this before it continues to unravel and become a bigger issue than it already is," Watt said. "We can't keep playing like this. It's absolutely embarrassing."

    The schedule isn't doing Pittsburgh any favors. Every team the Steelers face the rest of the way came into Week 12 with at least as many wins as losses.

    And with Watt hitting the COVID-19 list Monday, things just keep getting worse in the Steel City.

14. Los Angeles Chargers (6-5)

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Last Week: 12

    Week 12 Result: Lost at Denver 28-13

    After dropping 47 points on the Cleveland Browns back on Oct. 10, the Los Angeles Chargers looked the part of a Super Bowl contender.

    Now it's becoming fair to question whether they will make the postseason at all.

    The Chargers defense, which allowed 147 yards on the ground in Sunday's loss to the Broncos, has struggled to stop the run for most of the season. Mistakes and turnovers have been an issue most of the season, and it two second-half Justin Herbert interceptions (one of which was returned for a score) did in the Bolts on Sunday.

    Since their Week 7 bye, the Chargers have alternated losses and wins every week. For Gagnon, that inability to establish any positive momentum might be most alarming of all.

    "It's discouraging that the Chargers haven't won consecutive games since early October," he wrote. "This team hasn't taken off like many expected, and Herbert has been wildly inconsistent in a hyped sophomore season. The defense has frequently been horrendous as well. I'm not sure that this is a playoff team."

13. San Francisco 49ers (6-5)

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    Tony Avelar/Associated Press

    Last Week: 17

    Week 12 Result: Won vs. Minnesota 34-26 

    The San Francisco 49ers are rolling, winners of three straight and four of their last five games. They've gotten back into playoff picture in the NFC by doing what they do best: running the football.

    On Sunday at Levi's Stadium, the Niners mustered 208 yards on 39 carries, which averages out to a robust 5.3 yards per carry. Tailback Elijah Mitchell peeled off 133 rushing yards in his return to the lineup, while wide receiver Deebo Samuel averaged 11 yards per carry and scored twice.

    With so many teams on the fringe of playoff contention struggling to find an identity, the 49ers are doing what they do best. Sobleski believes that makes them dangerous.

    "The Niners have won three straight contests and scored at least 30 in each," he said. "How? They've gone back to basics. Kyle Shanahan's system is predicated on running the ball with the passing attack married to those ground-based principles. Since losing to the Arizona Cardinals on Nov. 7 when quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo threw for a season-high 326 yards, the Niners averaged 41.7 carries over the next three contests. They're winning at the point of attack and running the football effectively."

12. Indianapolis Colts (6-6)

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    AJ Mast/Associated Press

    Last Week: 11

    Week 12 Result: Lost vs. Tampa Bay 38-31

    If the Indianapolis Colts come up short of the postseason in 2021, they might look to Sunday's loss to the Buccaneers as the day that the tide turned for the worse.

    The Colts mostly matched the defending Super Bowl champions blow for blow, and they entered halftime with a 10-point lead. But they were outscored 24-7 after the break, and it doesn't take a ton of high-level deduction to figure out where things went wrong. They turned the ball over five times against the Buccaneers, including three times in the second half.

    You aren't going to beat average NFL teams with five turnovers. Against one of the league's best? Forget about it.

    At 6-6, the Colts are hardly finished, especially with the injury-ravaged Tennessee Titans getting blown out in New England. But with seemingly the entire AFC on the right side of .500, there is little margin for error.

    And the Colts committed far too many of them in Week 12.

11. Cincinnati Bengals (7-4)

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    Emilee Chinn/Associated Press

    Last Week: 14

    Week 12 Result: Won vs. Pittsburgh 41-10 

    It's time to start taking the Cincinnati Bengals seriously as a legitimate contender in the AFC North.

    The Bengals had already notched decisive wins over the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens. But for anyone who hadn't received the memo, Cincinnati sent another message Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium.

    The Bengals didn't just sweep the division series with Pittsburgh for the first time since 2009. This was an absolute mauling.

    The Bengals scored on their first four possessions and didn't allow the Steelers to sniff the end zone until well after the game had been decided. It was also a career day for Cincinnati running back Joe Mixon, who piled up 165 rushing yards and two scores on 28 carries.

    "I can't believe I'm saying this, but right now, the Bengals look like the most balanced team in their division," Davenport said. "Joe Burrow has taken a sizable step forward, Mixon is playing lights-out football and Cincinnati's defense is better than most realize. This team is absolutely capable of overtaking the Ravens and winning the division."

    "The Bengals are officially back," Gagnon added. "It was really important to see them bounce back emphatically from a little midseason slump, and two no-doubter wins over the division-rival Steelers is a clear sign this core has what it takes to become a contender very soon. They're a playoff team right now, though."

10. Dallas Cowboys (7-4)

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    Ron Jenkins/Associated Press

    Last Week: 9

    Week 12 Result: Lost vs. Las Vegas 36-33 (OT)

    The Dallas Cowboys have problems.

    Not long ago, the Cowboys were 6-1 and looked like not only the best team in the NFC East, but maybe the entire conference's most dangerous squad. Dallas led the league in both total offense and scoring offense and was hurtling toward a postseason berth and perhaps even home-field advantage.

    But then came three contests in four games against the AFC West.

    After falling in overtime to the Raiders, the Cowboys lost all three of those AFC West games—including two in a row at home. With the Philadelphia Eagles heating up, a division that appeared to be settled a few weeks ago is suddenly back in play.

    There's more than one reason for the swoon. The Dallas defense has taken a step back, allowing a season-high 509 yards to Vegas. The Cowboys also shot themselves in the foot on multiple occasions, committing 14 penalties for a staggering 166 yards.

    "Plenty of playoff contenders have scuffled as of late," Davenport said. "But after surrendering over 500 yards and 36 points and losing twice at home to so-so AFC West teams, there's no way I can look at the Cowboys as a top-three team in the NFC. It isn't all bad news, though. Only one of Dallas' six remaining opponents currently has a winning record."

    However, the Cowboys will be without head coach Mike McCarthy in Week 13 after he tested positive for COVID-19.

9. Tennessee Titans (8-4)

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    Steven Senne/Associated Press

    Last Week: 5

    Week 12 Result: Lost at New England 36-13 

    The Tennessee Titans are in trouble.

    Much of their 2021 season has been about weathering storms. Despite losing wide receiver Julio Jones and star running back Derrick Henry to injuries, the Titans were somehow able to continue winning.

    Last week, the Titans also placed star wide receiver A.J. Brown on injured reserve. That may have finally been the straw that broke the camel's back.

    The Titans had a surprising amount of success running the ball Sunday against the New England Patriots even without Henry. D'Onta Foreman and Dontrell Hilliard both surpassed 100 yards on the ground.

    But without Jones and Brown, the passing game completely evaporated. Ryan Tannehill finished 11-of-21 for only 93 yards, one touchdown and one interception.

    "As a Super Bowl contender, the Titans are toast," Davenport said. "There have just been too many injuries on offense, and the defense isn't all that good. Tennessee's schedule is soft enough down the stretch to hold off the Colts and win the division, but this team is looking at a quick postseason exit."

8. Baltimore Ravens (8-3)

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Last Week: 10

    Week 12 Result: Won vs. Cleveland 16-10

    In many respects, the Baltimore Ravens would like to forget Sunday night's matchup with the rival Browns.

    Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson was mostly dreadful, throwing four interceptions. Baltimore's ground game was stuck in neutral much of the game, managing only 3.4 yards per carry.

    But at day's end, the only number that matters is the final score. And thanks to a defense that allowed only 262 yards and notched two takeaways, the Ravens earned a six-point win that kept them on top of the both the AFC North and the conference as a whole.

    Jackson applauded the defense's effort while speaking to reporters after the game.

    "Our defense just played lights out today," he said. "I'm ticked off, but I told all those guys: 'Way to have our back, way to have my back.'"

    "Baltimore is finding ways to win," Sobleski said. "Despite Jackson throwing four interceptions Sunday, the Ravens still won 16-10. In doing so, they became the first team in the last six years to win a game despite having a starting quarterback throw four interceptions. Jackson needs to be better overall, but he still makes the necessary plays to give his team an advantage over opponents."

    "The Ravens aren't exactly piling up style points," Davenport added. "But they're 6-1 this season in one-score contests. If there's a team that most needs a first-round bye this year, the Ravens are probably it. Their offensive inconsistency could be their undoing once the playoffs get underway."

7. Los Angeles Rams (7-4)

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    Matt Ludtke/Associated Press

    Last Week: 2

    Week 12 Result: Lost at Green Bay 36-28

    When the Los Angeles Rams sent two first-round picks, a third-round pick and quarterback Jared Goff to the Detroit Lions for signal-caller Matthew Stafford, it was supposed to be the final piece in a Super Bowl puzzle. Over L.A.'s first eight games, it appeared that may well be the case.

    The past three weeks have been a much different story.

    In each of the last three games, Stafford has thrown turned the ball over multiple times. In each of the last three games, he's thrown a pick-six. And in each of the last three games, the Rams suffered losses.

    While talking to reporters after the game, McVay came to the defense of his veteran quarterback.

    "I'm not interested in revisiting the past, and some of the things that haven't always gone the way we wanted to. I've got great confidence in this guy—and I'm not going to sit here and criticize our players. ... I have total confidence and belief in Matthew Stafford, and I think the narrative everybody wants to throw out, six turnovers—all of those have a totally different story and not all of those are his fault."

    In fairness, Stafford isn't solely responsible for L.A.'s skid. But both he and his teammates have considerable work to do to keep the 2021 season from unraveling.

6. Buffalo Bills (7-4)

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    Butch Dill/Associated Press

    Last Week: 8

    Week 12 Result: Won at New Orleans 31-6

    The Buffalo Bills entered Week 12 with one mission: to wash off the stink from a blowout loss at home to the Indianapolis Colts the week before that sent them tumbling from first place in the AFC East all the way to the seventh seed in the AFC.

    In most respects, the Bills accomplished that mission. Facing a New Orleans Saints team that has been decimated by injuries, Buffalo dominated on both sides of the ball on the way to a blowout victory.

    However, that victory may have been somewhat Pyrrhic.

    Star cornerback Tre'Davious White tore his ACL in the second quarter of the game and will miss the rest of the season. Quarterback Josh Allen told reporters that losing White is a major blow.

    "I know all the guys in the locker room are praying for him and hurting with him," Allen said. "You can't say a single bad thing about that man. He comes in and busts his ass every day."

    "Every team in the league has to deal with injuries," Davenport said. "But there are injuries, and then there are season-killers. Losing the heart and soul of the AFC's best pass defense may well be the latter."

5. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-3)

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    Last Week: 7

    Week 12 Result: Won at Indianapolis 38-31

    Tom Brady has a reputation for winning football games. But in Sunday's wild win over the Indianapolis Colts, the hero for the defending champions was "Lombardi Lenny."

    Playing against arguably the hottest team in the league, Buccaneers running back Leonard Fournette 131 total yards and four touchdowns and 24 touches. Tampa's defense also came up big after intermission, forcing three second-half turnovers to help erase a 10-point Colts lead at the half.

    The Buccaneers needed that kind of a win after dropping two of their last three. With the New Orleans Saints imploding, it's becoming more certain by the week that Tampa Bay will win the NFC South.

    "These Buccaneers aren't without their flaws, especially in the defensive backfield," Davenport said. "But the run defense is one of the NFL's best, and the offense is loaded. The Bucs may not be the best team in the league on paper, but the last thing anyone wants is to face Tom Brady in the postseason."

4. Green Bay Packers (9-3)

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    Aaron Gash/Associated Press

    Last Week: 6

    Week 12 Result: Won vs. Los Angeles Rams 36-28

    Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has endured a bumpy few weeks.

    After he landed on the reserve/COVID-19 list, there was an uproar about his potentially misleading comments regarding his vaccination status. He also has a toe injury that has largely kept him off the practice field.

    However, between the lines everything, has gone just fine. Rodgers certainly didn't look banged up Sunday against the Rams, as he threw for 307 yards and two scores while running for another.

    While speaking to reporters after the win, Rodgers credited both his preparation and his offensive line for the effort:

    "It definitely isn't the ideal situation not to practice. But if I can go out there, take mental reps, go through the plan and my preparation and feel good about what I'm doing, and when I get out there, I've just got to rely on my instincts. The beauty is it's an 11-person-a-side game, and I really feel the offensive line allowed me just to settle in."

    After downing the Rams, the Packers head into their bye week with a nigh-insurmountable lead over the Vikings in the NFC North.

    But at this point, winning the division has given way to securing the NFC's top seed (and a first-round bye) as the Packers' most immediate goal.

3. New England Patriots (7-4)

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    Mary Schwalm/Associated Press

    Last Week: 4

    Week 12 Result: Won vs. Tennessee 36-13

    Calling the New England Patriots the best team in the AFC hasn't exactly been a rarity over the last two decades. But that was with Tom Brady under center, not rookie quarterback Mac Jones.

    No one expected to be using those sorts of superlatives for this year's Patriots. And yet, here we are.

    Heading into Week 7, the Patriots were a 2-4 team whose only wins were over the Jets and Texans. But after obliterating a Titans team that entered Week 12 as the AFC's top seed, the Pats have peeled off six straight victories, with the last two coming via blowout.

    Over that winning streak, Jones has looked like anything but a rookie quarterback. He scorched the Titans for 310 yards and two scores Sunday and is playing as well as any quarterback in the conference.

    The Patriots currently occupy first place in the AFC East. A season that began with hopes of possibly vying for a wild-card spot have morphed into targeting a division title and possibly the No. 1 seed in the AFC.

    And that is one of the biggest surprises of the first 12 weeks of the 2021 season.

    "Buffalo vs. New England will be the ultimate rivalry to watch down the stretch," Gagnon said. "They play twice, and both have been dominant in different ways. Buffalo wins big consistently but is prone to lapses, while the Patriots have figured out a thousand different ways to win. The Bills might also be the better team on paper, but that doesn't always mean everything. Regardless, I think both have to be considered top-five teams right now." 

2. Kansas City Chiefs (7-4)

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    Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    Last Week: 3

    Week 12 Result: Bye Week

    After Week 7, one of the hottest topics in NFL circles was a question that no one expected to be asking in 2021.

    "What's wrong with the Kansas City Chiefs?"

    The Chiefs had just been blown out in Nashville by the Tennessee Titans. The defense was struggling. The offense was turning the ball over with alarming regularity. Kansas City sat dead last in the AFC West.

    Fast-forward one month, and the Chiefs hit the bye riding a four-game winning streak that includes victories over the Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys. The offense has cleaned up the turnovers and righted the ship. The defense is playing exponentially better than it was a month ago.

    The Chiefs are back on top of the AFC West. So as it turns out, the answer to that question is "nothing."

    "Kansas City's schedule the rest of the way is no cakewalk," Davenport said. "Every team left on the slate was at least .500 entering Week 10. But that will just give the Chiefs a chance to solidify their case as what I already believe them to be—the best team (again) in the AFC."

1. Arizona Cardinals (9-2)

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    Darryl Webb/Associated Press

    Last Week: 1

    Week 12 Result: Bye Week

    Things are rolling along in the Valley of the Sun.

    The Arizona Cardinals headed into their bye week with the best record in the NFL. Despite being without quarterback Kyler Murray and wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins for the past three games, the Redbirds have kept on winning and remained atop the NFC West.

    There are a number of reasons for the team's success. But per Darren Urban of the team's website, general manager Steve Keim credited head coach Kliff Kingsbury, who has gone from questions about his future after last year's second-half swoon to a Coach of the Year front-runner.

    "Every coach and GM are presented with challenges early in their career," Keim said. "At 9-and-2 in his third year, I think it's pretty apparent his leadership, skillset, and football acumen has led to a lot of our success."

    Murray and Hopkins should be back this week, and if the Cardinals can down the Rams again in Week 14, they could take a commanding lead in the division.

    But at this point, Arizona's sights are set substantially higher than only an NFC West crown.