2021 B/R NFL Power Rankings: Where Does Every Team Stand Entering Week 17?

NFL StaffContributor IDecember 28, 2021

2021 B/R NFL Power Rankings: Where Does Every Team Stand Entering Week 17?

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    Bleacher Report

    The playoff picture across the NFL is mostly coming into focus.

    Some teams punched their tickets to the postseason tournament in emphatic fashion in Week 16. The Kansas City Chiefs are once again the champions of the AFC West after burying the Pittsburgh Steelers at Arrowhead Stadium. The Dallas Cowboys clinched the NFC East before even taking the field Sunday night, but they went ahead and blew out the Washington Football Team anyway.

    Other teams haven't been as fortunate. The Arizona Cardinals have clinched a playoff berth, but the team is barreling in the wrong direction after a third straight loss. Meanwhile, the San Francisco 49ers and Los Angeles Chargers jeopardized their odds of making the postseason with stumbles in Nashville and Houston, respectively.

    At the opposite end of the spectrum, there appears to be a two-team race to land the No. 1 pick in the 2022 draft. And with all due respect to the Detroit Lions' putrescence, as we saw Sunday, no one does bad better than the Jacksonville Jaguars.

    Another week of blowouts, nail-biters and upsets have once again shaken up the NFL's pecking order, and as has been the case every week, Bleacher Report NFL analysts Brad Gagnon, Gary Davenport and Brent Sobleski have come together to rank all 32 teams from back to front.

    The squads at either end seem locked in. But the movement in between is enough to give you vertigo.

32. Jacksonville Jaguars (2-13)

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    John Munson/Associated Press

    Last Week: 32

    Week 16 Result: Lost at New York Jets 26-21

    There is no bottom. Not for the 2021 Jaguars.

    The fact that they fell to a bad New York Jets team for their seventh straight loss was bad enough but not unexpected. The team scores the fewest points per game in the NFL and allows the sixth-most.

    It got even worse Sunday. The Jags have already had their fair share of injuries offensively, but Week 16 brought with it possibly the cruelest blow of all. Running back James Robinson tore his Achilles in the first quarter after having one of his better games of the season the week before.

    With two games remaining against wild-card contenders (the New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts) that are trying to stay in the AFC playoff picture, a Robinson-less team is highly unlikely to win another game this season. When the Jags arrive at the 2022 draft, it will be with a new head coach and a dismal 3-30 record over the past two seasons.

    If it loses out, Jacksonville will also have the first overall pick for a second consecutive year.

    At least there's that.

31. New York Giants (4-11)

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    Matt Rourke/Associated Press

    Last Week: 28

    Week 16 Result: Lost at Philadelphia 34-10

    Want a statistic that hammers home just how terrible the New York Giants are in 2021?

    On Sunday, the Cowboys scored 10 more points in one game than New York did in all of December.

    It would be laughable if it weren't so depressing. In his first start Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles, quarterback Jake Fromm completed just six of 17 pass attempts for 25 yards. Running back Saquon Barkley carried the ball 15 times and barely cracked 30 yards on the ground.

    As the losses have piled up, head coach Joe Judge has insisted that the team was heading in the right direction. But even Judge admitted Sunday's debacle wasn't a good look.

    "It's not good enough," Judge told reporters. "Point blank, I'm not going to make excuses or church it up right there. Collectively, it's not good enough."

    With Judge's 10-21 record as the team's head coach, the product that the Giants are putting on the field may not be his problem much longer.

30. New York Jets (4-11)

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    John Munson/Associated Press

    Last Week: 31

    Week 16 Result: Won vs. Jacksonville 26-21

    There were plenty of big games in Week 16, but none was bigger than the titanic showdown between the Jaguars and New York Jets at MetLife Stadium—at least concerning positioning for the 2022 draft.

    Kidding aside, this was a game played by two teams desperate for bright spots. 

    It was also the end of a wild week for the Jets, who had a number of players on the COVID-19/reserve list and played Sunday without the services of head coach Robert Saleh. After the game, acting head coach Ron Middleton lauded the professionalism of his players. 

    "It was just the culmination of the week, everybody being professional, everybody going about their job with all the adversity," Middleton told reporters. It was an awesome win."

    "Awesome" may be pushing it. But with rookie running back Michael Carter topping 100 yards on the ground for the first time this season and quarterback Zach Wilson having one of his better games, it was something the Jets can point to as progress, a reason to smile. 

    With the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Buffalo Bills on the slate to close out the campaign, it'll probably be the last smiling New York will be doing until next spring at the earliest.    

29. Carolina Panthers (5-10)

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    Jacob Kupferman/Associated Press

    Last Week: 29

    Week 16 Result: Lost vs. Tampa Bay 32-6

    The Carolina Panthers' 3-0 start to the season becomes harder to believe by the week.

    Since then, they have just two victories in 12 games. Whether it's been Cam Newton or Sam Darnold under center, the Panthers have been unable to generate offense of late. That is putting immense pressure on Carolina's defense to be perfect, and the unit is cracking under that pressure.

    However, while Carolina may be falling apart, embattled head coach Matt Rhule insisted to reporters after the game that better times are coming in Charlotte.

    "I believe 1,000 percent the process is working," he said.

    Given the "Fire Rhule" chants at the stadium Sunday and the thoroughness with which the Panthers have disintegrated, it's becoming less certain with every defeat that Rhule will be a part of the process in 2022.

28. Houston Texans (4-11)

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    Justin Rex/Associated Press

    Last Week: 30

    Week 16 Result: Won vs. Los Angeles Chargers 41-29

    There hasn't been much go right in Houston this season. And one meaningless December win over the Chargers isn't going to reverse that or take away the cloud of uncertainty that hovers over the franchise.

    But earning a second win this year over a team that could make the playoffs has to feel awfully good.

    Despite the fact that the Texans had 16 players on the COVID-19/reserve list, including their best edge-rusher (Jonathan Greenard), leading tackler (Kamu Grugier-Hill) and No. 1 wide receiver (Brandin Cooks), they handled the Chargers with surprising ease to notch their second consecutive win. After the game, Houston head coach David Culley praised his players for facing the week's adversity head-on.

    "Those guys came in, and they showed that they were ready to do what we needed to get done," he said. "This team is so resilient. They've never really worried about what happens on the outside. All we've tried to do is just get better."

    Keeping this momentum going is not going to be easy, though. Houston's last two games are against teams that would make the playoffs if the season ended today.

    Of course, no one thought the Texans had a chance against the Chargers either.    

27. Detroit Lions (2-12-1)

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    Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

    Last Week: 27

    Week 16 Result: Lost at Atlanta 20-16

    The losses may keep piling up for the Lions. But these are not the "Lie-downs" of years past.

    Detroit may be bad. But it has fought tooth and nail under first-year head coach Dan Campbell.

    There has been no shortage of adversity either. The Lions have been without their top offensive weapons (running back D'Andre Swift and tight end T.J. Hockenson) for weeks. On Sunday in Atlanta, they didn't have Jared Goff (COVID-19/reserve list) and were forced to start Tim Boyle under center.

    As has been the case so many times this year, Boyle and the Lions played well enough to hang around, only for a late miscue (in this case a Boyle interception) to seal yet another loss.

    The result keeps Detroit in the hunt for the first overall pick next April and gives the team a cushion of sorts. With a trip to Seattle and a home date with the Packers remaining on the schedule, if the team loses either game, it can't pick lower than second overall.

    Add some talent to all of that fight, and the Lions might just be on to something.   

26. Washington Football Team (6-9)

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    Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

    Last Week: 23

    Week 16 Result: Lost at Dallas 56-14

    Frustrations have boiled over in Washington.

    Actually, it happened in Dallas. With WFT headed toward a third straight loss inside the division that would all but end their postseason aspirations, defensive linemen Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne came to blows on the sideline of Sunday's blowout defeat.

    After the game, Allen downplayed the brouhaha.

    "When things are going bad like they are, things get heated. I think everybody saw what happened. I think the important thing is to move forward from it. S--t happens. Brothers fight," Allen told reporters.

    "The reality is that it wasn't just one thing that went wrong in the nation's capital this season," Davenport said. "There were injuries and inconsistent play at quarterback and on defense, and the secondary was mostly awful. Add it all together and you have one of the league's more disappointing teams in 2021. The organization will have quite a bit of work to do once the offseason gets underway."   

25. Seattle Seahawks (5-10)

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    Stephen Brashear/Associated Press

    Last Week: 24

    Week 16 Result: Lost vs. Chicago 25-24

    It's over in Seattle.

    After losing a heartbreaker to the Bears in Seattle, the Seahawks have officially been eliminated from the playoffs. But the reality is that the 2021 season has been over in the Emerald City for a long time.

    Seattle's offense has been an inconsistent mess. The Seahawks defense is the NFC's worst in terms of yards per game allowed.

    As bad as things have been though, Seattle head coach Pete Carroll admitted that Sunday's loss was a new nadir in a season filled with them.

    "That was about as disappointing a loss as we've had," Carroll said. "We were in control in so many ways in that game to go win it and put it away and we just never did, and let them stay alive. They found a way to make their plays."

    With the loss, Seattle suffers the first 10-loss season of Carroll's tenure as head coach.

    And with just two more games to play, the uncertain futures of both Carroll and quarterback Russell Wilson in Seattle tower over the franchise.

    This could be an offseason Seahawks fans never forget.

24. Denver Broncos (7-8)

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    Last Week: 22

    Week 16 Result: Lost at Las Vegas 17-13

    There is absolutely zero question what Denver's highest offseason priority will be.

    The Broncos have the NFL's sixth-ranked defense. In Courtland Sutton, Jerry Jeudy and Tim Patrick, Denver has a solid trio of wide receivers. Veteran Melvin Gordon and youngster Javonte Williams are a formidable one-two punch in the backfield.

    But none of that has really mattered in 2021—because the quarterback play in Denver has been abysmal this year.

    Denver's atrocious offense against the Raiders can't be solely blamed on Drew Lock—the run game was stuck in the mud Sunday, managing just 18 yards on 16 carries. But the Raiders stacked the box because they didn't think Lock could make them pay for it—and he didn't.

    Head coach Vic Fangio (whose future in the Mile High City is anything but certain) allowed to reporters after the game that Denver's offense was offensive in Week 16.

    "They did a good job up front on us," Fangio said. "We could never seem to get our backs through the first wave of the defensive line and we had a hard time finding any room there. You get 158 yards of offense and eight first downs, it's hard to say anything good about the offense."

23. Chicago Bears (5-10)

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    Lindsey Wasson/Associated Press

    Last Week: 26

    Week 16 Result: Won at Seattle 25-24

    The future of head coach Matt Nagy has been a hot topic in Chicago for much of what has been a mostly miserable season. At this point, it's unlikely that anything the Bears do over the next couple of weeks will change his fate.

    Whatever the decision is, it has likely already been made.

    Still, given that Chicago was forced to trot out their third-string quarterback Sunday, it had to feel good to upset the Seahawks in Seattle. Of course, it helps when your third-string quarterback is a player in Nick Foles who has a Super Bowl MVP award on his mantle.

    "Matt Nagy found a way to keep his job (for another week)," Sobleski wrote. "The Bears surprised everyone with a victory in snow-laden Lumen Field with third-string quarterback Nick Foles behind center and the gusty decision to go for two and secure the victory with a minute left to play. It was a good win. Was it enough to prevent the inevitable? Probably not. But Chicago should be proud of its effort in what looked like a game destined for a Seahawks win."

22. Atlanta Falcons (7-8)

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    Last Week: 25

    Week 16 Result: Won vs. Detroit 20-16

    The Atlanta Falcons are not an especially good football team. Atlanta has one victory this season against a team with a winning record—and that was a Week 7 win against a Dolphins team in the throes of a seven-game skid.

    But after defeating the Lions Sunday, the Falcons are also just a single game under .500 and still on the fringes of playoff contention. In nine one-score games this season, the Falcons are quietly 7-2. And quarterback Matt Ryan told reporters after the win that folks who count the Falcons out do so at their own peril.

    "It's a gritty group for sure," said Ryan. "It hasn't been perfect by any stretch of the imagination throughout the year, but when we've been in one-score games we've done a good job."

    If the Falcons can earn wins in their last two games. Atlanta will post a winning record for the first time since 2017.

    But getting those two wins aren't going to be easy. In Week 17, the Falcons travel north to face the AFC East-leading Buffalo Bills, followed by a home date with the rival Saints.

    And in this instance, a split isn't going to cut it.

    "What a frustrating freakin' team," Gagnon said. "Consistently inconsistent for more than half a decade now. Time to start fresh at quarterback, because the ceiling isn't high enough right now. Congrats on your first home win of the season though!"

21. Minnesota Vikings (7-8)

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    Bruce Kluckhohn/Associated Press

    Last Week: 20

    Week 16 Result: Lost vs. Los Angeles Rams 30-23

    Week 16 may have marked the end of an era of sorts in the Twin Cities.

    Despite a Week 16 loss to the Los Angeles Rams, the Minnesota Vikings are still technically alive for a playoff spot. But Minnesota would need both wins in the team's last two games and outside help. Odds are the Vikings will miss the postseason for the third time in four years.

    And that may well mean the end of the line for head coach Mike Zimmer.

    There has been no shortage of speculation about Zimmer future after eight seasons as Minnesota's head coach—speculation Zimmer has done his best to downplay. But the cold reality is the loss to the Rams sums up everything that's wrong with the Vikings—and many of the problems aren't new.

    Zimmer is supposed to be a defensive-minded coach, but Minnesota's defense has ranked 27th or worse two years running. The Vikings flatly refuse to get hot or win close games—all eight losses this year are by one score, and Minnesota hasn't won three straight in well over a calendar year.

    The Vikings aren't a bad team. But they aren't a good one, either. And changes need to be made to snap Minnesota from their morass of mediocrity.

20. New Orleans Saints (7-8)

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    Derick Hingle/Associated Press

    Last Week: 18

    Week 16 Result: Lost vs. Miami 20-3

    If there's one team in the NFL that rather deserves a mulligan of sorts for their season falling apart, it's the New Orleans Saints.

    Mind you, that mulligan isn't going to get the Saints into the playoffs. And while New Orleans isn't out of it completely after falling at home to the Miami Dolphins Monday night, it's going to take wins over the Panthers and Falcons to close the season above .500—and some help on top of that to make the postseason.

    And at this point, just accomplishing the front end of that is going to be a tall ask.

    There isn't a team in the league that seen the most important position on the field blasted harder by injuries this year than the Saints. Jameis Winston suffered a season-ending knee injury. Taysom Hill has been in and out of the lineup. Both Hill and Siemian landed on the COVID-19 list last week, forcing the Saints to start Ian Book against the Dolphins.

    That went about like you'd expect. And so long as the situation under center is such a mess, the ceiling in the Big Easy is going to hover closer to also-ran than contender.

19. Baltimore Ravens (8-7)

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    Aaron Doster/Associated Press

    Last Week: 17

    Week 16 Result: Lost at Cincinnati 41-21

    If the Baltimore Ravens fail to make the playoffs, Week 16 will be looked back on as when the levee finally broke and the flood of injuries that have besieged Baltimore all season long finally swallowed the franchise.

    That the Ravens were forced to start journeyman veteran Josh Johnson at quarterback against a good Bengals team was bad enough. But it was the Ravens patchwork secondary that imploded Sunday, allowing a staggering 525 passing yards and four touchdown throws to Joe Burrow.

    This wasn't the heartbreak of the preceding weeks that saw Baltimore miss out on two game-winning two-point conversions and lose three straight by four points combined—it was a blasting that left the Ravens on the fringes of the postseason with two games to play.

    "The good news is that the Ravens' final two games are both at M&T Bank Stadium," Davenport said. "The bad news is that neither of those games are gimmes, and it's hard to see this Ravens team beating the Los Angeles Rams with new leaks springing by the day. If the Ravens drop a fifth straight next week, the season finale against the hated Steelers may wind up more about pride than postseason."

    "This four-game losing streak goes so much deeper than Lamar Jackson's injury," Gagnon continued. "The once-awesome Ravens defense has just four takeaways in the team's last eight games, and that weak unit is a big reason why the Ravens now have a negative scoring margin on the season. They might be better off missing the playoffs for draft capital purposes, because even with Jackson, this team isn't a Super Bowl contender."

18. Pittsburgh Steelers (7-7-1)

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    Icon Sportswire/Getty Images

    Last Week: 16

    Week 16 Result: Lost at Kansas City 36-10

    In Mike Tomlin's 15 years as head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers, the team has never had a losing record. Not once.

    If Sunday's blowout loss in Kansas City was any indication, this may be the season that ends.

    All of the issues that have dogged the Steelers in 2021 were plainly evident. The offense was a herky-jerky mess that couldn't get untracked until well after the game was out of hand. Pittsburgh's defense was carved up with ease by the Chiefs, and it's genuinely hard to imagine any Steelers team having a defense this bad,

    "The Steelers might be a .500 team, but they've now been outscored by 70 points this season," Gagnon said. "They don't belong near the playoffs, and like Baltimore, they'd be better off missing out and starting from scratch this offseason."

    "Somehow, the Steelers are still fighting for a playoff spot, even though Sunday's beatdown at the hands of the Kansas City Chiefs felt more like the franchise's demise than just an aberration as they prepare for one last push," Sobleski added. "Ben Roethlisberger brings little to nothing to the table at this stage of his career. The running game is stagnant because the offensive front is rather poor. Plus, the Steelers' defense has turned into a sieve in recent weeks. The Steelers just may finish with a losing record for the first time in Mike Tomlin's tenure."

17. Cleveland Browns (7-8)

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    Matt Ludtke/Associated Press

    Last Week: 15

    Week 16 Result: Lost at Green Bay 24-22

    No team has mastered the art of disappointment quite like the Cleveland Browns.

    In a game against the Green Bay Packers that the Browns absolutely had to have, Cleveland outgained the NFC's No. 1 seed by almost 100 yards. Running back Nick Chubb spear-headed a ground attack that racked up well over 200 yards. And none of that mattered even a little, because Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield threw four interceptions.

    Mayfield didn't shy from blame while speaking to reporters after the game.

    "It was just missed throws," Mayfield said. "Uncharacteristic, and I hurt this team. That's the most frustrating thing for me, because I thought our defense played tremendous against a really, really good offense. But when you turn the ball over on your own territory, in the red zone and around midfield and give them extra opportunities, they're going to take advantage of it."

    At 7-8, Cleveland's hopes for a second straight trip to the postseason aren't completely dashed. But in addition to needing wins at Pittsburgh next week and at home against the Bengals in the regular season finale, the Browns need quite a few things to break the right way.

    And Cleveland isn't the sort of team that generally gets lucky breaks.

16. Las Vegas Raiders (8-7)

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    David Becker/Associated Press

    Last Week: 21

    Week 16 Result: Won vs. Denver 17-13

    The Las Vegas Raiders are living dangerously. But they're still alive.

    It hasn't been especially impressive—Vegas has won a pair of low-scoring squeakers the past two weeks. But after surviving the Browns in Cleveland, the Raiders outlasted the Broncos in Las Vegas to get above .500 for just the second time since their bye week.

    Still, as Sobleski pointed out, the Raiders face an uphill climb if the team is going to advance to the playoffs for the first time since 2016.

    "The Raiders are currently humming ABBA's 'I'm Still Alive' after somehow surviving two games against the Cleveland Browns and Denver Broncos," he said. "At 8-7 and despite everything the team endured this season, Las Vegas is still in the mix for the AFC's final playoff seed. The Raiders have a tough task ahead of them, though. They need to beat both the Indianapolis Colts and Los Angeles Chargers to secure that spot."

    That win over the surging Colts won't be easy, and the Raiders lost the first meeting with the Chargers back in Week 4. But the Silver and Black will enter 2022 with something to play for.

    And given all the adversity this team has faced this season, even that is an accomplishment.

15. Los Angeles Chargers (8-7)

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    Justin Rex/Associated Press

    Last Week: 10

    Week 16 Result: Lost at Houston 41-29

    In the long-ago days of last week, the Chargers were in the thick of the hunt in the AFC West. An overtime loss to the rival Chiefs in Week 15 put a dent in the chances of Los Angeles winning the division.

    Then the Bolts followed that up with a choke-job against the Houston Texans that may wind up keeping them out of the playoffs altogether.

    Yes, the Chargers had several prominent players on the COVID-19 list, including running back Austin Ekeler and wide receiver Mike Williams. But the Texans were short just as many players, if not more. There's no excuse for being thoroughly outplayed on both sides of the ball by a bad Houston team.

    To his credit, Chargers head coach Brandon Staley didn't while speaking to reporters after the loss.

    "I didn't coach well enough," he said. "I didn't put our guys in a good enough position to be consistent in the game, and that's why we lost."

    It was a stunner that leaves the Chargers with no margin for error over their final two games—games in which their opponents (the Broncos and Raiders) are just as desperate as the Bolts suddenly are.

14. Philadelphia Eagles (8-7)

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    Laurence Kesterson/Associated Press

    Last Week: 19

    Week 16 Result: Won vs. New York Giants 34-10

    Philadelphia's Week 16 win over the New York Giants sums up why it's hard to peg the team in 2021.

    In the first half of the game, the Eagles looked mediocre at best, especially on offense, But whatever head coach Nick Sirianni said at halftime worked. After intermission, the Eagles got the ground game that has been the team's signature in recent weeks going, while the defense completely shut down New York. A 3-3 contest at the break was a rout when the game ended, and at 8-7, the Eagles have worked their way inside the NFC playoff bracket.

    After the win, QB Jalen Hurts credited the team's resiliency for keying six wins over the team's last eight games.

    "Another week where we came out and didn't execute like we wanted to, but I've always admired the grit and perseverance of this team," he said. "We have so much character in how we do things, how we operate, how we're able to overcome."

    That resiliency will be put to the test soon enough. After next week's trip to Washington, the Eagles host the surging Cowboys in a Week 18 matchup that could well decide whether the Eagles make the playoffs.

    "The Eagles might not be prime Super Bowl contenders, but that's now three consecutive wins by double-digit margins for a team that wasn't expected to do anything this season but now has a plus-80 scoring margin," Gagnon wrote.

13. San Francisco 49ers (8-7)

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    Mark Zaleski/Associated Press

    Last Week: 13

    Week 16 Result: Lost at Tennessee 20-17

    The San Francisco 49ers have a Jimmy Garoppolo problem.

    The Niners dominated the first half of Thursday's tilt in Nashville. But thanks to a missed throw to a wide-open Kyle Juszczyk and an end-zone interception, San Francisco's lead was just 10 points at the half. That lead evaporated after Garoppolo's second pick of the game early in the second half. And when the final gun sounded, the 49ers found themselves at 8-7 and fighting for their postseason lives instead of 9-6 and breathing down the necks of the Rams and Cardinals.

    It's not hard to pinpoint San Francisco's biggest problem this year. In the seven games where Garoppolo hasn't thrown a pick, the Niners are undefeated. In the seven games in which Garoppolo has been intercepted (counting Week 16), San Francisco has won once. In San Francisco's eight wins, Garoppolo has two giveaways. In the six losses in which he was under center, he has turned it over 11 times.

    Of course, Garoppolo's level of play may have given way to an entirely new issue. Thanks to a torn ligament and fracture in his thumb, Garoppolo's status for this week's date with the Houston Texans is up in the air.

    San Fran could be forced to turn the reins on offense over to rookie Trey Lance at a time in the season where there is no margin for error.

    No pressure.

12. Arizona Cardinals (10-5)

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    Last Week: 9

    Week 16 Result: Lost vs. Indianapolis 22-16

    Here we go again.

    Last year, the Arizona Cardinals entered the month of December sitting at 6-5 and in the thick of the NFC playoff hunt. But the Cards won just two more games the rest year, watching as a Week 17 loss to the Rams handed the final playoff spot in the NFC to the Bears.

    That's not going to happen this year. By virtue of Minnesota's loss to the Rams on Sunday, Arizona locked up a spot in the postseason. But after falling in listless fashion to the Colts on Christmas night, Arizona has dropped three straight games and fallen out of first place in the NFC West.

    Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury told reporters after the game the Redbirds have issues that need to be resolved—quickly.

    "We continue to find ways to lose; critical situations, penalties, things of that nature," Kingsbury said. "We've got to get it turned around somewhere."

    It's not just one facet. The offense has struggled without star wideout DeAndre Hopkins. The defense has suffered letdowns at critical junctures. Special teams was a disaster against the Colts.

    There's a lot that needs to be cleaned up and two games left to do so.

11. Miami Dolphins (8-7)

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    Butch Dill/Associated Press

    Last Week: 11

    Week 16 Result: Won at New Orleans 20-3

    The Miami Dolphins are two weeks away from one of the truly great comeback tales in NFL history.

    After winning in Week 1, the Dolphins proceeded to drop seven games in a row. At the halfway point, the Dolphins appeared to have a better chance at a top-five pick in the 2022 draft (that would have belonged to the Philadelphia Eagles) than making the playoffs.

    Apparently, the Dolphins were just luring the rest of the AFC into a false sense of security. Because after dispatching an offensively challenged Saints team led by a fourth-string quarterback, the Dolphins have peeled off seven straight wins to get back above .500 and into the No. 7 seed in the AFC playoff bracket.

    There's no time for celebrating just yet. The AFC is overflowing with seven- and eight-win teams jockeying for the last two wild-card spots. And both teams left on Miami's schedule (the Titans and Patriots) would be in the postseason if the season ended now.

    Still, while there's work to be done and the Dolphins aren't a team without flaws, the resiliency and determination the group has shown in turning things around after such a miserable start is impressive.

10. Tennessee Titans (10-5)

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    Wade Payne/Associated Press

    Last Week: 12

    Week 16 Result: Won vs. San Francisco 20-17

    Over the last month, the Tennessee Titans were stumbling. Losers of three of four, they had gone from the No. 1 overall seed in the AFC to having just a one-game lead over the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC South.

    The Titans halted that skid Thursday night, and after coming back to down the San Francisco 49ers, the Titans will all but certainly hit the playoffs as AFC South champs for the second year in a row.

    Wide receiver A.J. Brown wasn't the only reason that Tennessee won the game, but he may well have been the biggest one. In his first game back from a stint on injured reserve, he hauled in a career-high 11 passes for 145 yards and a score.

    "Whether or not the Titans are a real threat to represent the AFC in Super Bowl LVI remains in question," Davenport said. "But what can't be questioned is that the Tennessee offense played its best game in weeks with Brown and Julio Jones back on the field. If Derrick Henry really can get back for the playoffs (and Brown and Jones can stay there), then Tennessee's viability as a Super Bowl contender will go way up."

9. Cincinnati Bengals (9-6)

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    Aaron Doster/Associated Press

    Last Week: 14

    Week 16 Result: Won vs. Baltimore 41-21

    The question of Joe Burrow's viability as the franchise quarterback in Cincinnati is a matter that has already been settled. But if there were any doubting Thomases left, they were answered Sunday against the rival Ravens.

    All Burrow did was scorch the Ravens for a career-best 525 passing yards and four scores in Cincinnati's second blowout win over the Ravens this season. That victory puts the Bengals in the driver's seat in the AFC North, and after the win, Burrow told reporters that getting Cincy into the postseason for the first time since 2015 is much more important than gaudy stats.

    "We're right where we want to be," Burrow said. "We knew we had a chance to be in this position in training camp. We knew the kind of team we had. You couldn't ask for a better situation right now. We control our destiny. Win these next two games, and we've got the division locked."

    "Sunday's blowout win was a big step for the Bengals," Davenport said. "A chance to show that they are ready for the pressure of meaningful December football. But next week's visit from the red-hot Chiefs is the real litmus test. If Burrow can somehow figure out a way to pull that one off, the Bengals will go from AFC North front-runner to legitimate threat in the conference."

    "As long as Cincinnati's front five can keep Joe Burrow upright, the Bengals' passing attack can torch any defense," Sobleski added. "Burrow set a franchise record Sunday with 525 passing yards, which is the fourth-most in NFL history. The fact that he's the league's most sacked quarterback remains a major concern. Still, Burrow remains unflappable with awesome pocket presence and legitimate escapability to extend plays and let his skill-position performers go to work."

8. New England Patriots (9-6)

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    Winslow Townson/Associated Press

    Last Week: 3

    Week 16 Result: Lost vs. Buffalo 33-21

    There hasn't been a team that has made a bigger in-season push up these rankings than the New England Patriots. The Pats began the season as an AFC East also-ran with a rookie quarterback. They entered Week 16 in the driver's seat in the division—a division they could all but lock up with a win over the rival Bills.

    There was just one problem: a really good Bills team's unwillingness to hand over the keys in the AFC East.

    For the first time in quite a while, the Patriots were handled with relative ease. Defensively, New England wasn't as successful holding Josh Allen and the Buffalo offense in check as in their first meeting. Offensively, Mac Jones struggled, throwing for just 145 yards with a pair of interceptions.

    "It's hardly time for Patriots panic," Davenport said. "The Pats may have lost two straight and fallen from first place, but this remains a dangerous football team. But we may have overestimated how close these Pats are to the Chiefs, Bills and maybe even the Titans in the AFC. Mac Jones looked like a rookie Sunday at Gillette."

7. Buffalo Bills (9-6)

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    Steven Senne/Associated Press

    Last Week: 8

    Week 16 Result: Won at New England 33-21

    For many years, the New England Patriots have been the bullies of the AFC East. While that wasn't the case last year, it appeared after New England beat the Bills in Buffalo a few weeks ago that the Patriots may have re-established their stranglehold on the division.

    Not so fast, my friend!

    Sunday at Gillette Stadium, the Bills sent a clear message that they are the class of the division, taking care of the Pats in decisive fashion. It was a game in which Josh Allen topped 300 passing yards with three touchdowns, while the Bills defense held Mac Jones and the Pats to just 288 total yards and nabbed a pair of takeaways.

    Gagnon believes it was a statement win for the Bills in more than just the division.

    "All nine Bills wins have come by 12 or more points, and they lead the NFL in points differential by a huge margin," he said. "This team hasn't had luck on its side this season, but it can absolutely challenge the Kansas City Chiefs in January."

6. Indianapolis Colts (9-6)

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    Last Week: 7

    Week 16 Result: Won at Arizona 22-16

    If only.

    If only the Indianapolis Colts realized one of these years that the NFL regular season starts in September.

    After downing the reeling Cardinals on Christmas night, the Colts are rolling. Since starting the season with a winless September, the Colts have peeled off nine wins in 12 games. Since losing to the rival Titans on Halloween, Indy has just one loss, and that was a one-score defeat to the defending Super Bowl champions.

    Call them slow starters. Or late bloomers. But whatever the nomenclature used to describe it, the Colts are one of the hottest teams in the AFC.

    That's probably not going to be enough to catch the Titans in the AFC South. But with the NFL's best (active) running back in Jonathan Taylor and a top-10 scoring defense, the Colts have established themselves as the sort of team no one wants to face on Wild Card Weekend.

5. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (11-4)

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    Rusty Jones/Associated Press

    Last Week: 6

    Week 16 Result: Won at Carolina 32-6

    It has been quite the week for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Last week's shutout loss to the Saints involved much more than just losing a game. Running back Leonard Fournette, wide receivers Chris Godwin and Mike Evans and linebacker Lavonte David were all felled by significant injuries. All but Evans have already been placed on injured reserve.

    You would never know that the Bucs were shorthanded in Sunday's blasting of the hapless Panthers, though. It was a win that earned the Buccaneers their first NFC South crown since all the way back in 2007, and with 11 wins, Tampa has matched the regular-season win total from last year's Super Bowl team.

    With only a rematch with the Panthers and a tilt with a terrible Jets team left on the schedule, the Buccaneers have a good chance of setting a team record for wins. But that won't make this season a success any more than that division crown does.

    Only one thing will: a trip to Los Angeles and a victory in Super Bowl LVI.

    Getting these banged-up Bucs past the Packers, Rams and Cowboys and on to SoFi Stadium could be a tall ask, even for Tom Brady.

4. Los Angeles Rams (11-4)

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    Bruce Kluckhohn/Associated Press

    Last Week: 5

    Week 16 Result: Won at Minnesota 30-23

    Matthew Stafford is headed back to the postseason.

    After downing the Vikings in Minneapolis on Sunday, the Los Angeles Rams are officially headed back to the postseason. In fact, that win, coupled with Arizona's loss on Christmas, hands first place in the division back to the Rams. L.A. is one of three division leaders one game back of the Packers, jockeying for a first-round bye in the postseason and home-field advantage.

    However, this was also a game the Rams won in spite of Stafford, as the veteran signal-caller threw for just 197 yards and tossed three interceptions. His shakiness of late leaves at least one of our analysts with concerns that this trip to the playoffs will look a lot like Stafford's first three.

    "When firing on all cylinders, the Rams have the talent and balance to beat any team in the league," Davenport said. "But we haven't really seen the Rams fire on all cylinders for a while now. With Arizona floundering, the Rams will probably win the NFC West, but they were outgained Sunday and minus-two in turnovers. Those are the sort of numbers that lead to one-and-done playoff trips."

3. Dallas Cowboys (11-4)

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    Roger Steinman/Associated Press

    Last Week: 4

    Week 16 Result: Won vs. Washington 56-14

    Thanks to the Raiders' win over the Denver Broncos on Sunday (it's a long, convoluted story), the Dallas Cowboys had clinched the NFC East before ever taking the field against the Washington Football Team on Sunday night.

    But Dallas must have been in a message-sending mood, because rather than taking their foot off the gas, the Cowboys floored it. Then they floored Washington, demolishing their division rival in a game that was over well before halftime.

    In doing so, Dallas made it clear that this team has its sights set quite a bit higher than "just" winning the division.

    "The Cowboys look downright dangerous after their 56-14 mauling of the Washington Football Team (and the game wasn't even that close)," Sobleski said. "The Cowboys offense is back on track with weapons aplenty and all of the key components in place, except left tackle Tyron Smith, who should return from an ankle injury in the coming weeks. Defensively, Micah Parsons is a game-wrecker, and Trevon Diggs is the league's premier ballhawk. Only the Green Bay Packers look as potent in the NFC."

2. Green Bay Packers (12-3)

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    Matt Ludtke/Associated Press

    Last Week: 2

    Week 16 Result: Won vs. Cleveland 24-22

    There hasn't been a more blessed team at the quarterback position over the last quarter-century than the Green Bay Packers, who transitioned from one MVP in Brett Favre to another in Aaron Rodgers.

    On Christmas Day, Rodgers became Green Bay's all-time leader in touchdown passes. But it was an opportunistic Green Bay defense that paved the way for a fourth straight win that keeps the Pack on track for a first-round playoff bye and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

    It wasn't a flawless effort, as Green Bay was outgained by almost 100 yards and surrendered a gaudy 219 yards on the ground. But thanks to four takeaways, three scoring strikes from Rodgers and a big game from star wideout Davante Adams, the Packers are 12-3 and in the driver's seat as the top seed in the NFC.

    "Green Bay isn't head-and-shoulders better than the other top contenders in the NFC," Davenport said. "But there isn't a clear front-runner in 2021. That makes home-field advantage all the more important, especially if said advantage involves playing on frozen tundra."

1. Kansas City Chiefs (11-4)

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    Icon Sportswire/Getty Images

    Last Week: 1

    Week 16 Result: Won vs. Pittsburgh 36-10

    Remember when everyone was wondering what was "wrong" with the Kansas City Chiefs?

    Yeah, that was dumb.

    After annihilating the Steelers at Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday, the Chiefs are champions of the AFC West for the sixth season in a row. After a 3-4 start, the Chiefs have peeled off eight consecutive wins to claim (for now) the top spot in the AFC playoffs.

    Kansas City's offense didn't miss a beat against the Steelers despite the absence of tight end Travis Kelce. The Chiefs' surging defense completely shut down the Steelers, notching three takeaways and not allowing a point until the game was all kinds of over.

    "The gap between the Chiefs and whatever AFC team you want to call second fiddle grows larger by the week," Davenport said. "Patrick Mahomes has eliminated the turnovers that were such a problem earlier in the season, and the Chiefs are playing as well defensively as any team in the NFL. Given the level this team is playing at, the only organization that can keep the Chiefs away from a third straight Super Bowl is the Chiefs."