A lot can, and will, change over the final eight weeks of the NFL season, but here’s a bit of what we know so far:
The Patriots and the AFC West winner probably will be the two teams with byes come the playoffs. In theory, the Texans or a red-hot AFC North winner could challenge them, but it looks unlikely.
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The Cowboys are in total control of the NFC East and the NFC. Again, things could change, but right now they’re 1.5 games ahead of their next-closest competitor, the Seahawks.
There could be an 8–8 division winner. And, possibly, an 8–8 wild-card team. The AFC North is headed the former direction, while the NFC has brought the latter into play. Both speak to a middle of the pack that has not created much separation thus far.
There’s much more to unpack, of course, but two months to do so. For now, the latest Power Rankings:
32San Francisco 49ers
last week: 31
A loss to New Orleans dropped Chip Kelly’s career NFL record below .500 (27–28). Spoiler alert: It’s gonna get worse before it gets better. Were this season’s story being told by Disney, the 49ers would be at the point where Kelly is contemplating quitting, until an assistant coach tells him he’s found a talking horse that can play quarterback.
last week: 32
“We’re not after good,” Gus Bradley said this week, via FirstCoastNews. “We’re after great.” Presumably, he then left because he got a hot tip on a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. Maybe let’s lower the bar here, Gus, and just get this team “after not being terrible.”
last week: 30
This was about the point in the Lions’ winless season, after a string of hard-fought defeats, that the wheels fell off. They lost by 24 in Week 10 and only played one one-possession game the rest of the way. Can Hue Jackson hold his players’ interest when the season is so far gone?
Los Angeles held its past two opponents to an average of 238 yards and still lost twice. An offense that can’t score, a coach that no longer can win more than seven games in a season and a No. 1 pick that, thus far, has been unable to get on the field. Hey, at least the weather’s nice.
Nothing yet has quite painted the picture of this Jets season like Muhammad Wilkerson skipping a team meeting and thus missing out on the birthday cake his teammates had purchased him. I mean, I guess if it had all somehow been Ryan Fitzpatrick’s fault, that would have been even more fitting—Fitzpatrick spending too much money and bringing the cake several days late, for example. The reality is pretty on the nose, though.
26Tampa Bay Buccaneers
last week: 24
There have been times this season that the Buccaneers seem improved over their former selves. Halfway through the schedule, though, they are 3–5, halfway to the 6–10 finish posted by Lovie Smith’s last team a year ago. Worse yet, the Bucs have lost six straight at home, including all four this year. That makes it impossible to thrive in the NFL.
last week: 23
In Weeks 10 through 16 last season, Carson Palmer averaged 308 yards passing and posted 14 touchdowns to four INTs. The Cardinals’ offense runs through David Johnson these days, but a hot closing stretch like Palmer delivered in 2015 might be a necessity if Arizona is to make the playoffs.
last week: 15
Tennessee has scored 26 points or more in its past five games, the longest streak for the franchise since the 2003 Titans pulled it off seven consecutive times. The problem, of course, is that San Diego also scored two touchdowns—a fumble return and a pick-six—when the Titans’ offense was on the field Sunday.
last week: 26
Just sitting over here looking through the Colts’ 2016 results like Homer Simpson reading a Gary Larson calendar: “I don’t get it. I don’t get it. I … don’t get it.” Off a putrid home loss to Kansas City, the Colts rolled the Packers on the road. Can they carry that effort over beyond their bye? Are they again the team to beat in the AFC South? Would Andrew Luck be even better with a handlebar mustache? All tough questions to answer.
last week: 19
Here’s the list of teams Cincinnati has beaten since September ended: Cleveland. And the Browns were just installed as seven-point underdogs against the Lambeau Field squirrel. What really matters is that for all their misery so far, the Bengals sit a mere half-game back in the AFC North. They still play the Ravens twice and the Steelers once.
The rookie QB/first-year head coach combo is an exciting one for the Eagles’ future, but who pulls them out of their current tailspin? Both Carson Wentz (early) and Doug Pederson (late) made critical mistakes in Sunday’s loss to the Giants, Philadelphia’s fourth in five games.
last week: 28
Rather quietly, the Ravens’ defense has carried them to the top of an underachieving AFC North. Baltimore has allowed just 123 first downs in eight games this season, a bit above 15 per game. That’s the stingiest any NFL defense has been in 2016.
last week: 18
Washington already has finished all of its inter-conference crossover games with the AFC North—it finished 2-1-1—so it will play its last eight against NFC teams, including three more within the East. The Redskins will go a long way toward determining who qualifies for the NFC playoffs, whether they make it or not.
18Green Bay Packers
last week: 8
All this “What’s wrong with the Packers?” talk isn’t much different from the “Why are NFL ratings down?” bluster. Don’t bother trying to pin it on just one factor—the play-calling or Aaron Rodgers or the secondary or, at least early on Sunday, the occasional complete lack of interest in playing football. It’s everything.
last week: 15
Monday night marked Tyrod Taylor’s 23rd career start for the Bills, and it should be clear by now that it wasn’t just a random strong game. He is a legitimately good NFL starting quarterback. The trick for Buffalo now is getting more performances that look like that one and eliminating the ho-hum outings, like the one he had against New England in Week 8.
last week: 11
The Steelers are still the top AFC North team in our Power Rankings, which explains the flaming bag of dog crap on my porch signed, “With Love from Baltimore.” At least for one more week, I’m operating under the assumption that Pittsburgh, once Ben Roethlisberger settles in, cannot be as bad as it has looked the past few weeks.
last week: 21
Make it 12 sacks over the past two games for the Panthers, who either found their defensive footing in the nick of time, benefited from playing the Cardinals and Rams, or a combination of the two. With the Sunday-Thursday turnaround coming up, Carolina could be 5–5 soon if it can maintain this momentum.
How unlikely was it that Minnesota would lose Sunday after taking a 16–13 lead in the closing seconds? Per ESPN’s Trey Wingo, not since 2001 had a team suffered defeat in a fashion matching the Vikings’ late collapse. No matter what happens over the second half of the Vikings’ season, it’ll be hard to match the wild ride they’ve been on so far.
13New York Giants
last week: 22
The last team to finish 6–0 within its own division and miss the playoffs was the 2010 Raiders. All seven teams to run the table since have captured a division title. The Giants probably would settle for a wild-card spot this year, and their unbeaten, 3–0 start within the NFC East is the main reason they have an inside track.
last week: 20
Miami’s last road game came on Sept. 29, a loss to Cincinnati in which Jay Ajayi saw six carries (which at the time brought his total to 18 for the year). Things are different as the Dolphins, now 4–4, prepare for a potentially season-defining swing through San Diego and Los Angeles. Ajayi has averaged 176.3 yards rushing during his team’s ongoing three-game win streak.
last week: 17
The Lions have had an arm and a leg chopped off, been stabbed, shot, electrocuted, had their hair set on fire and were forced to eat only Little Caesars Hot-N-Ready pizzas for a week, but they still refuse to die. Merely surviving might be enough to win the NFC North this season.
Ezekiel Elliott’s going to win Offensive Rookie of the Year in a landslide if he maintains his current pace, and Dak Prescott might be second in line. But … Michael Thomas, anyone? The Saints’ second-rounder is on pace for 94 catches, 10 touchdowns and around 1,150 yards—not far off what Odell Beckham Jr. produced in 2014 (91 catches, 1,305 yards and 12 touchdowns).
last week: 13
Don’t think of Houston as a top-10 team that moved up four spots on a bye. Think of the Texans instead as the first ones listed in about a 14-team tie for ninth (or more accurately, for 23rd). The only way they stay up here is if they finally figure out how to win on the road—a date with Jacksonville this Sunday is about as welcoming a trip as you’ll get.
8San Diego Chargers
last week: 12
The Chargers being this high in the rankings at 4–5 speaks to a) the NFL’s overwhelming mediocrity and b) how well San Diego has played for five weeks now. A Chargers game is like the penguin exhibit at the zoo: It’s more or less the same thing every time, but you know that you’re going to enjoy it.
Denver’s loss in Oakland marked the eighth consecutive time it has come up on the short end when rushing for fewer than 40 yards in a game. That’s also six of the Broncos’ last seven games this season they have failed to reach the 100-yard mark on the ground. The lack of offensive balance needs to be remedied soon.
last week: 8
Walt Coleman walking the field shouting, “The half is not over! The half is not over!” like an officiating Paul Revere was a special moment in this 2016 season. But the refs’ Monday night mishaps should not take anything away from Russell Wilson’s night. Seattle’s run game remains M.I.A., but Wilson woke from a month-long slumber to pick apart the Buffalo secondary.
last week: 6
A couple years ago, Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff was that guy in the office everyone whispers about in the break room—“Did you hear about Tom? Sounds like he’s gonna get laid off. Poor bastard.” And now? He’s the new owner of a three-year contract extension and is in the running for NFL Executive of the Year.
last week: 5
Monday night’s cathartic win over Denver was the football version of that Christmas Story scene where Ralphie just beats the hell out of the school bully. “Something had happened. A fuse blew, and I had gone out of my skull.” The rage had been building for a long time. Oakland finally unleashed it in a flurry of haymakers.
3Kansas City Chiefs
last week: 4
A couple rough years in Philadelphia dragged down his overall record, but Andy Reid’s rockin’ a .661 win percentage as the Chiefs’ coach. To put that in a little perspective, Don Shula’s Miami tenure produced a .659 clip. Everyone’s talking Broncos-Raiders, and the Chiefs are just over here going about their business.
last week: 2
Last season, with Tony Romo injured and Dak Prescott still at Mississippi State, the Cowboys scored a total of 24 offensive touchdowns. With Sunday’s win over the Browns, they now have 26 TDs this season (14 rushing, 12 passing) and are putting up points on nearly 50% of their possessions.
1New England Patriots
last week: 1
In case you’re keeping score at home, the earliest that the Patriots can clinch the AFC East is the Sunday of Week 12, three days after Thanksgiving. Miami would have to lose three straight (including to the 49ers) and Buffalo would have to lose two for that to happen, but it’s within the realm of possibility. Even if the division’s not locked down by Nov. 27, the Patriots figure to be playing for seeding only by early December.