Each week, national NFL writer Mark Maske ranks the league’s 32 teams.
This week, the Pittsburgh Steelers celebrate yet another dramatic win by climbing over New England to reach No. 1. The Patriots, who saw their eight-game winning streak and 14-game road winning streaks snapped in a “Monday Night Football” defeat in Miami, fall one spot. Meanwhile, the Philadelphia Eagles spiral out of the top five thanks to Carson Wentz’s season-ending injury. And the Carolina Panthers, Jacksonville Jaguars and Atlanta Falcons all make big moves up the list on the heels of important home victories.
1. Pittsburgh Steelers (11-2) | Last Week’s Rank: 2
Remember when QB Ben Roethlisberger wondered aloud whether he just couldn’t get it done any more? No one was wondering that about Roethlisberger after his 506-yard passing performance in Sunday night’s triumph over the Ravens.
2. New England Patriots (10-3) | Last Week’s Rank: 1
Bill Belichick was outmaneuvered by Adam Gase. Tom Brady was outplayed by Jay Cutler. Nothing was very Patriot-like for the Patriots on Monday night in Miami and they suffered their nearly annual loss there. But it really makes little difference in the big picture. If the Patriots go to Pittsburgh and win Sunday, they will leapfrog the Steelers for the top seed in the AFC playoffs based on the head-to-head victory.
3. Carolina Panthers (9-4) | Last Week’s Rank: 8
The surgically repaired foot of TE Greg Olsen continues to be a concern. There is room to wonder whether the Panthers can be a Super Bowl team without a healthy and productive Olsen. But their win over the Vikings was impressive, especially given the way Carolina churned out yards in the running game.
4. Minnesota Vikings (10-3) | Last Week’s Rank: 3
Case Keenum remains the starter at QB despite throwing two interceptions in the loss at Carolina. Keenum’s performance against the Panthers was an issue. So, too, were the performances of an offensive line that allowed Keenum to be sacked six times, and a defense that permitted the Panthers to run for 216 yards.
5. Jacksonville Jaguars (9-4) | Last Week’s Rank: 12
The crowd’s behavior at the end of Sunday’s game was not acceptable. It’s the Jaguars’ responsibility to ensure that things like that don’t happen in their stadium, and they must keep their fans under control. As for the game, beating Seattle counts as a very good win for a team that looks more promising all the time.
6. Atlanta Falcons (8-5) | Last Week’s Rank: 13
Matt Ryan‘s non-MVP-like season continued with his three-interception performance Thursday night against the Saints. But the Falcons still found a way to win a game they had to have. They’re hanging around the NFC South race and they close the regular season with games against the Saints and then the Panthers.
7. New Orleans Saints (9-4) | Last Week’s Rank: 6
The late-game mistakes by QB Drew Brees and Coach Sean Payton on Thursday night in Atlanta were as surprising as they were damaging. Payton needed to worry a lot less about the performance of the officials and a lot more about controlling his own emotions.
8. Philadelphia Eagles (11-2) | Last Week’s Rank: 4
It remains a very good team around the fill-in QB, Nick Foles. But you can’t believe on one hand that Carson Wentz was the NFL’s MVP and then believe on the other hand that his absence due to a torn ACL doesn’t threaten to undo the Eagles’ season. He was the MVP for a reason.
9. Los Angeles Rams (9-4) | Last Week’s Rank: 5
The Rams are 1-2 thus far during their four-game, late-season test against the Vikings, Saints, Eagles and Seahawks (with a victory over a lesser team, the Cardinals, thrown into the mix). That stretch concludes Sunday in Seattle. If the Rams lose to the Seahawks, there will be little choice but to conclude that they aren’t quite ready yet to be on even terms with the NFC’s other top contenders.
10. Los Angeles Chargers (7-6) | Last Week’s Rank: 10
Could there actually be an argument by season’s end about which of L.A.’s two winning NFL teams is better? Few could have seen that coming at the outset of the season.
11. Seattle Seahawks (8-5) | Last Week’s Rank: 7
Seahawks players receive their share of the blame for the chaos at the end of the loss in Jacksonville. The fans should have behaved better. So, too, should have Seattle’s players. The Seahawks’ on-field performance wasn’t so great, either.
12. Baltimore Ravens (7-6) | Last Week’s Rank: 9
The Ravens cannot afford to waste an offensive performance such as the one they got Sunday night in Pittsburgh. Even the passing game was productive. They might find a way to sneak into the playoffs. But if they do, don’t expect anything more.
13. Dallas Cowboys (7-6) | Last Week’s Rank: 16
The Cowboys finally figured out how to play without suspended RB Ezekiel Elliott, winning their past two games. Unfortunately, it took them three losses without Elliott to figure it out. Facing the Redskins and Giants in the two victories didn’t hurt, either.
14. Green Bay Packers (7-6) | Last Week’s Rank: 17
The Packers most likely are not reaching the NFC playoffs, with or without Aaron Rodgers back at QB. The wise move might be to protect Rodgers from himself and keep him safely on the sideline for the remainder of the season. But there will be great pressure to allow Rodgers to play Sunday at Carolina if he’s given medical clearance to return from his broken collarbone.
15. Detroit Lions (7-6) | Last Week’s Rank: 19
It’s fair to question whether Matthew Stafford has played to the level demanded by his monstrous contract. But don’t ever question the QB’s toughness or late-game mettle. Both were on vivid display in Sunday’s gritty victory in Tampa.
16. Kansas City Chiefs (7-6) | Last Week’s Rank: 20
The Chiefs got back into the win column, but they had plenty of help from the Raiders. The competition should be far tougher Saturday night against the Chargers, who are the one team in the division actually playing well.
17. Tennessee Titans (8-5) | Last Week’s Rank: 11
There’s no excuse for the feeble loss in Arizona at a time when the Titans should be making a stretch-drive push for the playoffs.
18. Buffalo Bills (7-6) | Last Week’s Rank: 22
The Bills found the perfect cover for playing rookie QB Nathan Peterman: Have it snow so hard that even if Peterman throws an interception (or five), no one can actually see it.
19. Miami Dolphins (6-7) | Last Week’s Rank: 23
The Dolphins played well and earned their win Monday night over the Patriots. QB Jay Cutler was superb. RB Kenyan Drake was a workhorse. The Miami pass rush bothered Tom Brady and CB Xavien Howard intercepted him twice while shutting down Brandin Cooks.
20. Arizona Cardinals (6-7) | Last Week’s Rank: 24
It will be interesting to see whether Bruce Arians want to keep coaching in Arizona beyond this season. He has done a pretty good job to keep this Cardinals team near .500. But how wearying is it at this point in his career to struggle so hard just to be mediocre?
21. Oakland Raiders (6-7) | Last Week’s Rank: 14
Did anyone tell the Raiders that they actually were playing for first place Sunday? They looked like they were going through the motions in a playing-out-the-string game. That’s actually what it should be when .500 teams get together this late in a season. But this is the pitiable AFC West.
22. Denver Broncos (4-9) | Last Week’s Rank: 31
Either the Broncos haven’t quite given up, or the Jets are truly awful. Maybe both.
23. New York Jets (5-8) | Last Week’s Rank: 15
Josh McCown‘s broken hand forces the Jets to give Bryce Petty another look at QB. Why not get some playing time for Christian Hackenberg as well? There’s little reason to believe that either is the answer. But it certainly can’t hurt to find out a little more.
24. Chicago Bears (4-9) | Last Week’s Rank: 29
Mitchell Trubisky has put up the two most efficient passing games of his rookie season the past two weeks. The prized young QB perhaps could help the Bears attract a respected coach if they decide to fire John Fox.
25. San Francisco 49ers (3-10) | Last Week’s Rank: 28
So does Kyle Shanahan deserve credit for waiting until Jimmy Garoppolo was ready – really ready – to play before putting him in the lineup? Or does he deserve blame because Garoppolo should have been playing sooner? The Niners still have never lost a game started by Garoppolo.
26. Cincinnati Bengals (5-8) | Last Week’s Rank: 18
The physical and emotional toll of last Monday’s loss to the Steelers was evident in Sunday’s listless defeat to the Bears.
27. Washington Redskins (5-8) | Last Week’s Rank: 21
The Redskins’ regression over the past couple weeks undercuts the argument that Coach Jay Gruden has gotten the most out of his injury-depleted team and kept his players competing. Even so, it says here that Gruden should stay as coach and there shouldn’t be too much deliberation about it. He’s not the issue.
28. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-9) | Last Week’s Rank: 25
It isn’t looking particularly promising for Coach Dirk Koetter. The team is playing poorly and has been one of the league’s biggest disappointments this season. And now there is talk about Koetter’s relationship with QB Jameis Winston being strained.
29. Houston Texans (4-9) | Last Week’s Rank: 26
Bill O’Brien says he wants and expects to be back as the Texans’ coach. He is probably deserving of that despite this season’s struggles, given his overall performance over four years in Houston.
30. Indianapolis Colts (3-10) | Last Week’s Rank: 27
The NFL’s TV-ratings woes undoubtedly are about to end with a scintillating Colts-Broncos game on tap Thursday night.
31. New York Giants (2-11) | Last Week’s Rank: 30
A dreary season keeps getting drearier. But the guess here is that Steve Spagnuolo, the team’s interim coach, won’t consider benching QB Eli Manning this week.
32. Cleveland Browns (0-13) | Last Week’s Rank: 32
New GM John Dorsey inherits a team with a 1-28 record since the start of last season but also with two first-round picks and three second-rounders in the upcoming draft. The tendency is to say it can only get better. But it’s the Browns. So how about settling for: Even if it does get worse, it can’t get that much worse.