Monday night’s Rams-Cardinals game was the perfect encapsulation of a 2021 season that may be among the best in recent NFL history in terms of overall competitiveness. While the expanded playoff field lends a generous hand, there are only five teams completely eliminated from playoff contention and 23 teams with a 10% chance or better of reaching the playoffs, according to FiveThirtyEight.
There has been much debate over the legitimacy of the Cardinals as a Super Bowl contender and, seemingly each week, some heated argument over why they are or are not the No. 1 team in the Power Rankings. One loss shouldn’t dislodge them from the top of any list, but their loss to the Rams shows just how much parity and imperfection remains even among the best teams in the league right now. On nights when Kyler Murray or DeAndre Hopkins look anything less than superhuman, so do the Cardinals. On nights when the Rams’ defense can penetrate and get their hands on a few tipped passes, they look indestructible.
So what do we make of the landscape right now?
This was among the most difficult rankings I’ve done for the series this year, though I tried to fall back on what we know about these teams for sure, and how that can be applied to the end of their schedule (and possibly through the opening rounds of the playoffs). I hope you enjoy, but I am certain you will not. Please keep the shouting to a minimum.
1. Green Bay Packers (10–3)
Last week: Win vs. Chicago, 45-30
Next week: at Baltimore
With Aaron Rodgers making a quiet MVP comeback in Green Bay, the Packers have returned to their throne atop the Power Rankings. This offense has a way of setting opponents up for disaster that is so cruel. A handful of running plays in the second quarter could simply be probing a safety and his in-game tendencies for a long ball deep in the fourth. The combination of Rodgers, Matt LaFleur and Nathaniel Hackett may be one of the most enviable brain trusts in the league right now. On defense, De’Vondre Campbell continues to mount an incredibly impressive campaign that, had it not been for Micah Parsons, would have had him in the conversation as the best linebacker in football. Most of their lingering issues from failed playoff runs past seem to have been bandaged.
2. Kansas City Chiefs (9–4)
Last week: Win vs. Las Vegas, 48-9
Next week: at Los Angeles Chargers (Thursday)
The Chiefs’ offense is roaring back to life and their defense has regained something of a respectable edge. Kansas City has held its opponents to 10 points or fewer in all but one week dating back to Nov. 7. Emerging out of the competitive slog that was the AFC West, the Chiefs now have enough breathing room to dig out the root causes of their early-season dysfunction and find a way to diversify in time for the playoffs.
3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (10–3)
Last week: Win vs. Buffalo, 33-27 (OT)
Next week: vs. New Orleans
The Buccaneers are, like last year, a perfectly imperfect club. If they can dictate the parameters offensively, there isn’t a defense in the NFL that can adequately mark them for four quarters. That said, this defense is struggling to appropriately mask the depth of their injuries in the secondary. The fact that they are still fifth in net yards per attempt surrendered is a credit to the patchwork tapestry operating under Todd Bowles.
4. Los Angeles Rams (9–4)
Last week: Win at Arizona, 30-23 (Monday)
Next week: vs. Seattle
A massive win for a Rams team that had spent a majority of this season feasting off the worst of their schedule. Their ability to pester Kyler Murray in the backfield and connect on some of their plotted home-run plays builds confidence for the thick of a deep postseason run.
5. Arizona Cardinals (10–3)
Last week: Loss vs. Los Angeles Rams, 30-23 (Monday)
Next week: at Detroit
The Cardinals are not a deflating balloon by any stretch, but are simply confronting some of the statistical abnormalities that aided their incredible rise this year. With the Colts and Cowboys also remaining on their schedule, we should get a more accurate picture of how they’ll fare against one of the best teams in the NFL in the postseason.
6. New England Patriots (9–4)
Last week: Bye
Next week: at Indianapolis (Saturday)
A punishing win over the Bills before the bye has them refreshed and somewhat comfortable atop the AFC again. Their rematch against Buffalo the day after Christmas is the lone remaining hurdle on a schedule that will finish with games against the Jaguars and Dolphins. Don’t sleep on this Saturday night tilt against the Colts, which could see Bill Belichick’s defense tested more seriously than it has been in months.
7. Dallas Cowboys (9–4)
Last week: Win at Washington, 27-20
Next week: at New York Giants
Finally, a team breaks away from the NFC log jam and starts asserting itself. While Dallas is imperfect and Dak Prescott seems to be experimenting a bit and rediscovering his comfort zone in the pocket, their roster offensively is miles deep with playmakers. Defensively, this newfound potency is such an incredible lift for Mike McCarthy, who should have hired Dan Quinn the moment the Falcons let him go in season last year.
8. San Francisco 49ers (7–6)
Last week: Win at Cincinnati, 26-23 (OT)
Next week: vs. Atlanta
Volunteer to play this team down the stretch at your own peril. While the boneheaded loss to the Seahawks will stick in their paw, this 49ers team is hopping from town to town and running the ball down peoples’ throats. The return of George Kittle means one of the league’s hardest-to-defend offenses has a tailwind coming down the final stretch.
9. Tennessee Titans (9–4)
Last week: Win vs. Jacksonville, 20-0
Next week: at Pittsburgh
While a drubbing of the Jaguars is nothing to celebrate, the Titans’ continued relevance post-Derrick Henry is a phenomenal storyline that should have Mike Vrabel in the coach of the year conversation. The No. 1 seed in the conference is still very much in their sights.
10. Baltimore Ravens (8–5)
Last week: Loss at Cleveland, 24-22
Next week: vs. Green Bay
Life with a hampered Lamar Jackson could be difficult given how instrumental his mobility is to their ultimate success. Two straight losses feel incredibly ominous heading into a stretch of games that could prove to be absolutely relentless: Green Bay, at Cincinnati, Los Angeles Rams, Pittsburgh.
11. Los Angeles Chargers (8–5)
Last week: Win vs. New York Giants, 37-21
Next week: at Kansas City (Thursday)
If they can shake their inconsistencies, the Chargers could be the kind of team that could upend the AFC playoff picture. Currently sitting as a No. 5 seed, Brandon Staley and Co. have a chance to bolster their credentials with a prime-time matchup against the Chiefs. They, they head into a soft spot in their schedule that includes winnable games against the Broncos, Raiders and Texans.
12. Cincinnati Bengals (7–6)
Last week: Loss vs. San Francisco, 26-23 (OT)
Next week: at Denver
This Sunday’s road trip to Denver could wind up being a great assessment of where the Bengals are at. Beating a Vic Fangio defense in the elements would cement the toughness and physical edge we’ve come to admire about this suddenly-feisty Bengals outfit. An untimely loss puts them in a precarious spot with the AFC playoff field tightening.
13. Buffalo Bills (7–6)
Last week: Loss at Tampa Bay, 33-27 (OT)
Next week: vs. Carolina
The Bills were put in a nearly impossible position, tasked with recovering from a Patriots loss with a short-week road trip to Tampa Bay. New England looms again just after Christmas, but for now, Sean McDermott and Co. need to focus on getting Josh Allen a start where escaping the pocket is not mandatory.
14. Indianapolis Colts (7–6)
Last week: Bye
Next week: vs. New England (Saturday)
The Colts have back-to-back prime time Saturday games in a row after a fortuitous bye week. Jonathan Taylor remains in the MVP conversation and could cement an Offensive Player of the Year run under the bright lights. This is a team that could do some sneaky damage if they somehow find their way into the playoffs through the back door.
15. Denver Broncos (7–6)
Last week: Win vs. Lions, 38-10
Next week: vs. Cincinnati
A win over the Bengals next week could begin to turn the tide of a fascinating AFC playoff race. Credit Vic Fangio with keeping Denver alive despite the trading of one of the best players in franchise history. Patrick Surtain II is a star in the making. Javonte Williams is about to take over. A good draft class could end up pushing Denver over the edge.
16. Cleveland Browns (7–6)
Last week: Win vs. Baltimore, 24-22
Next week: vs. Las Vegas Raiders (Saturday)
With discontent swirling, it seems like an odd time for the Browns to find their footing. We’ll see if a nearly-blown victory against the Ravens is actually a sign of progress, or if games against the Raiders, Steelers, Bengals and Packers will tell us all we need to know about the Baker Mayfield era.
17. Pittsburgh Steelers (6-6-1)
Last week: Loss at Minnesota, 36-28 (Thursday)
Next week: vs. Tennessee
Once Ben Roethlisberger gets a little oil in the joints he doesn’t look so bad, right? With Tennessee and Kansas City coming down the pike, the next eight quarters will determine if Roethlisberger ends a storied career in the playoffs or bows out in the regular season. The Steelers, sadly, have been what we thought they’d be this season. That doesn’t mean there hasn’t been some special moments.
18. New Orleans Saints (6–7)
Last week: Win at New York Jets, 30-9
Next week: at Tampa Bay
A team I wouldn’t want to see at any point from here on out. Taysom Hill is fun to watch and, while perhaps a bit combustible in big spots, will make life miserable for the division-rival Buccaneers and maximize the Saints’ far flung playoff chances.
19. Miami Dolphins (6–7)
Last week: Bye
Next week: vs. New York Jets
The Dolphins haven’t lost since Halloween and have the Jets coming after the bye week. Life is far better for Brian Flores and Tua Tagovailoa than it was a few months ago. The Dolphins have an emerging defensive star in Jevon Holland and an offense that, if they could somehow establish a running game, would creep back to mediocre in a hurry.
20. Minnesota Vikings (6–7)
Last week: Win vs. Pittsburgh, 36-28 (Thursday)
Next week: at Chicago (Monday)
Mike Zimmer’s defense blew a last-second touchdown to the Lions and nearly blew one of the largest leads in NFL history on Thursday night. A team once destined for the seventh seed needs help, and much more consistency, down the stretch.
Last week: Loss vs. Dallas, 27-20
Next week: at Philadelphia
Washington Football Team has rebounded as a run defending unit and has not rushed for fewer than 100 yards since their win over the Buccaneers in Week 10. Taylor Heinicke is hanging tough, but will he have the mobility to get him out of the pocket and complete some of those signature, Favre-ian passes in a December clash in Philly?
22. Philadelphia Eagles (6–7)
Last week: Bye
Next week: vs. Washington
The Eagles (and the NFC East, really) are fascinating down the stretch. All their remaining games are divisional and they get two cracks at the Washington Football Team. FiveThirtyEight has them a hair under 40% to make the playoffs. I feel like their odds are slightly better with the Football Team reeling.
23. Las Vegas Raiders (6–7)
Last week: Loss at Kansas City, 48-9
Next week: at Cleveland (Saturday)
Sunday’s loss to the Chiefs aside, this is a team playing inspired football despite some grim circumstances. Derek Carr will finish with another top 15 season and Maxx Crosby is among the best edge rushers in football. There is some talent here.
24. Atlanta Falcons (6–7)
Last week: Win at Carolina, 29-21
Next week: at San Francisco
A team playing way above themselves right now, the Falcons go into this week with the worst combined DVOA (Defense Adjusted Value Over Replacement) in the NFL. Miraculously, they’ve been able to take advantage of some bad opponents and feed on the bottom half of their schedule. Right now, the signature win of the Arthur Smith era is over the Saints. Could they surprise the 49ers or Bills down the stretch?
25. Chicago Bears (4–9)
Last week: Loss at Green Bay, 45-30
Next week: vs. Minnesota (Monday)
Say what you will about Matt Nagy, but coming out and taking two fists to the Packers in prime time on the road was a noteworthy performance given his embattled status. Justin Fields is starting to feel out his mobility at the NFL level and, while he lacks an elite performance this season, should have enough raw material present to build on for Year 2.
26. Seattle Seahawks (5–8)
Last week: Win at Houston, 33-13
Next week: at Los Angeles Rams
Positive Pete Carroll is back after a vintage Russell Wilson-type performance against one of the worst teams in football. FiveThirtyEight has the Seahawks at a 4% chance of making the playoffs with a season-defining game against the Rams coming next week. Could they shock the world? Or, was the Texans game just a nice respite from the storm?
27. New York Giants (4–9)
Last week: Loss at Los Angeles Chargers, 37-21
Next week: vs. Dallas
With the swath of uncorrected reports out there that Joe Judge is safe for another year, one can probably take that to the bank with some degree of certainty. We’ll see how the Giants perform now that they know what the next year is going to look like. The only question now: What can the Giants put out there to inspire confidence in 2022? This offense is talent rich. The defense is … well coached but severely undermanned. Putting the pieces together and spoiling a season for a division rival would be a nice head start.
28. Carolina Panthers (5–8)
Last week: Loss vs. Falcons, 29-21
Next week: at Buffalo
The firing of Joe Brady did not seem to ignite Carolina’s offense and may go down as one of the strangest scapegoating attempts in recent coaching history. The benching of Cam Newton, who was signed in the middle of the season after going unclaimed, is also a strange bit of blame deflection. This team is falling to pieces in a hurry.
29. Detroit Lions (1-11-1)
Last week: Loss at Denver, 38-10
Next week: vs. Arizona
The Lions are probably not going to end this year with a winning streak, but they’ll put themselves in a position to transform their defense with the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft. This season was not beautiful, but starting 2022 as one of the 10 best teams in net yards per rushing attempt and having an offensive line good enough to court some quarterback talent isn’t the worst place to be.
30. New York Jets (3–10)
Last week: Loss vs. New Orleans, 30-9
Next week: at Miami
Zach Wilson is lacking that signature game this season, which the Jets could really use before season’s end to bolster confidence in the Robert Saleh regime. Wilson has not topped a 100 QB rating this season and is third to last in points above average logged (-29.7, behind only Trevor Lawrence and Jared Goff). Remaining on the schedule? Three teams either in the playoffs or in contention (Bills, Buccaneers, Dolphins) and the Jaguars. So we’re telling you there’s a chance.
31. Houston Texans (2–11)
Last week: Loss vs. Seattle, 33-13
Next week: at Jacksonville
We’re approaching a month since Houston’s stunning win over the first-place Titans. David Culley and Co. have the Jacksonville Jaguars on the schedule this week, though, and can emerge from this season with three more wins than we all believed possible. Culley may not be around to see this rebuild through, but he did a hell of a job trying to put out a wildfire with a Dixie cup full of water. Also worth noting: Davis Mills since Oct. 10 is 141-of-205 (68.8%) for 1,380 yards, six touchdowns and three interceptions.
32. Jacksonville Jaguars (2–11)
Last week: Loss vs. Tennessee, 20-0
Next week: vs. Houston
Until Urban Meyer shows anything reminiscent of a person who wants to be here, and drops the air of a celebrity poker player upset that the casino isn’t using his fixed deck for this charity round of hold ‘em, I’m going to find it hard to join the chorus of wait-and-see folks. I understand the theory behind a rebuild but keeping Meyer endorses starting the rebuild over again next year. There is no way he can return to the Jaguars with his current slate of assistant coaches. There is little chance he’s competitive in veteran free agency without having to overpay. Is an owner who had to release a statement about Meyer re-earning his trust going to also trust him to gut a staff (and pay for the second year on their contracts), then hire a new staff of “non losers”? Play poker with Trevor Lawrence’s future if you wish. He’ll be a lot harder to build around when he’s making $50 million a season in a few years.
More NFL Coverage:
• Urban Meyer Is Bringing Nothing to the Jaguars
• Jimmy Garoppolo Has Given 49ers All They Could’ve Hoped For
• Rookie Micah Parsons Is the Key to a Transformed Cowboys Defense
• Week 14 Takeaways: Bucs Survive Josh Allen, But Bills Take a Step Forward