Will Green Bay hold on to the top spot through the end of the regular season? One slip could be all it takes for Patrick Mahomes and the surging Chiefs to reach our summit for the first time this season.
Meanwhile, COVID-19 continues to roll through the NFL with ruthless efficiency. The resulting havoc on rosters has turned the league upside down and made analysis increasingly difficult. Teams like the Chargers, Ravens and Saints (just to name a few of those heavily impacted) don’t get any mercy in the NFL standings, but we’ve attempted to view these compromised squads in more of a big-picture manner.
Which is a rambling way of saying, yeah, this is getting to be damn near impossible. We only promise to do our best.
Watch the NFL Power Rankings show with Dan and Matt “Money” Smith every Tuesday at 3 p.m. ET on NFL Network.
NOTE: Up/down arrows reflect movement from the Week 16 NFL Power Rankings.
Previous rank: No. 1
The Packers might want to start closing out foes with a little more vigor. For the second straight week, Green Bay allowed an opponent to slash a comfy fourth-quarter advantage. But for the second straight week, the defense got the final stop it needed to ensure victory. The hero this time was Rasul Douglas, who ended Cleveland’s final drive with an interception, his second of the game. Not bad for a guy signed off the Cardinals’ practice squad in October. “Talk about an all-time pickup midseason,” Aaron Rodgers told Erin Andrews after the game. “Rasul Douglas has changed our defense, changed our team.” Did Aaron Rodgers just compliment his general manager? Kind of!
Previous rank: No. 4
Matthew Stafford struggled against the Vikings on Sunday, but his teammates were there to pick up their veteran quarterback in an important 30-23 win. Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey powered the defense, Sony Michel paced an effective running game, Brandon Powell had a massive special teams score and Cooper Kupp once again made the big play when it mattered most, this time logging a 37-yard reception on third down that set up the clinching field goal in the fourth quarter. In losses earlier this season, Los Angeles tanked when Stafford struggled. On Sunday, the Rams showed they can thrive without good QB play — and they’re on the verge of winning the NFC West because of it.
Previous rank: No. 6
Carson Wentz worked through his progressions, slid to his left to buy time, kept his eyes downfield and fired a laser into the hands of Dez Patmon in the back of the end zone. The brilliant touchdown connection — on third-and-9, no less — served as the dagger strike in an impressive road win at Arizona and a declarative statement that Wentz is once again a QB to be reckoned with in the NFL. The former No. 2 overall pick isn’t perfect — he’s still prone to the occasional head-scratching decision — but when he’s locked in, Wentz makes the Colts look like the best team in football.
(UPDATE: The Colts announced Tuesday that Wentz has been placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list, endangering his ability to play on Sunday.)
Previous rank: No. 9
In the biggest moment of Buffalo’s season, Josh Allen delivered a superstar performance. The quarterback threw three touchdown passes, including the game-clincher on a 75-yard drive in the fourth quarter, to lead the Bills to a massive 33-21 win over the Patriots in Foxborough. Buffalo now is in control of its own destiny: win the next two weeks, and the Bills repeat as AFC East champions. It wouldn’t have been possible without Allen, whose elite abilities with his arm and legs allowed Buffalo to move the chains at critical junctures and score touchdowns when it appeared the Patriots were ready to make their move. He’s a franchise quarterback in every way.
Previous rank: No. 7
In the end, maybe the difference between the top two teams in the AFC East is that one has Josh Allen and the other doesn’t. The Patriots couldn’t contain the Bills’ superstar quarterback, who repeatedly drove down the field on the NFL’s top-ranked defense in a costly 33-21 loss at Foxborough. Mac Jones has developed nicely in his rookie season, but the Pats don’t have an answer to Allen — on defense or at the quarterback position. Back-to-back losses to the Colts and Bills make you wonder if New England is simply a step behind the true Super Bowl contenders in the AFC.
Previous rank: No. 12
This was undoubtedly a Big Moment for the franchise. The Bengals were taking control of the AFC North with another vicious blowout of the hated Ravens, and Joe Burrow was closing in on the single-game team record for passing yards. With less than two minutes to play and Cincinnati ahead by 20 points, Burrow connected on a 52-yard strike to Joe Mixon that put him over 500 yards and into the record books. After the game, Burrow was asked if it felt good to deliver a historic performance days after Ravens defensive coordinator Wink Martindale said people shouldn’t rush to “buy a gold jacket” for the young Bengals QB. Burrow offered a wry smile and replied, “Maybe.” This is a bad man.
Previous rank: No. 5
Frustration is mounting in the desert. The Cardinals were beaten by the surging Colts on Christmas night, the fourth consecutive home loss for the one-time NFC leaders. The Cardinals have lost five of eight games after their 7-0 start and now welcome another red-hot team into their building on Sunday in the Cowboys. Arizona managed to clinch a playoff spot with some outside help in Week 16, but it’s fair to wonder if this is a fading team that’s already peaked. A superstar quarterback has the ability to quell even the nastiest momentum, making the next few weeks a critical test for Kyler Murray.
Previous rank: No. 14
A.J. Brown played savior to the Titans’ offense on Thursday night, piling up 11 catches for 145 yards and a touchdown in a massive 20-17 win over the 49ers. It was Brown’s first game in five weeks, and he offered a stark reminder that this attack absolutely needs its No. 1 wide receiver to remain functional. Brown was especially vital on third down — his eight catches in those critical situations were the most by any player in 30 years, per ESPN Stats & Information research. The win makes the Titans overwhelming favorites to win the AFC South, while the looming return of superstar running back Derrick Henry makes Tennessee a very real Super Bowl contender in the AFC. Change happens fast in the NFL.
Previous rank: No. 13
The Dolphins made history on Monday Night Football, becoming the first team to have a seven-game losing streak and seven-game winning streak in the same season. It’s only fitting a team pulled this off in the bizarre and increasingly unstable 2021 season. Offensive coordinator George Godsey built a game plan that highlighted the playmaking abilities of Jalyen Waddle, who continues to look the part of an emerging superstar. The defense had fun against New Orleans’ decimated offense, sacking overmatched rookie Ian Book eight times. The Dolphins’ schedule finally tightens up in the final two weeks with matchups against the Titans and Patriots. Win both, and they’re in.
Previous rank: No. 11
Jimmy Garoppolo had been so steady in recent weeks that it’s understandable if 49ers fans were lulled into a false sense of security. In reality, Jimmy G remains a very hit-or-miss entity on balance — and the QB missed badly against the Titans on Thursday night. Garoppolo threw two ugly interceptions and missed Kyle Juszczyk on a walk-in score, mistakes that got San Francisco beat in frustrating fashion. The Niners remain in good shape for a playoff berth, but the ability to trust the quarterback in a big spot has been shaken once again. And now, adding injury to insult, Garoppolo’s questionable for Sunday’s game vs. Houston with an injured right thumb.
Previous rank: No. 10
COVID-19 came for the Chargers hard in Week 16, sending the team into Houston without star running back Austin Ekeler, No. 2 wideout Mike Williams and Pro Bowl defensive end Joey Bosa. Even so, the result of Sunday’s action — a 41-29 loss to the previously 3-11 Texans — is hard to qualify as anything other than a bitter disappointment. Run defense continues to be a major issue: Los Angeles surrendered 189 yards on the ground, while three turnovers — two picks by Justin Herbert and a killer fumble by Justin Jackson — acted as the recipe for an upset. The season is on the line on Sunday against the Broncos.
Previous rank: No. 19
The boo birds were out in full force as the Eagles bumbled their way through an ugly first-half performance against the Giants. Luckily for Nick Sirianni and Co., their divisional rivals from New Jersey are terrible, a reality that allowed the Eagles to recover from a slow start. Jalen Hurts engineered three touchdown drives in the second half, and the Philly defense had no problem shutting down an inept New York attack fronted by overmatched first-time starter Jake Fromm and, later, eternal journeyman Mike Glennon. Hurts was a non-factor in the running game for the second straight week — a sign his injured ankle still isn’t close to 100 percent.
Previous rank: No. 21
The Raiders aren’t winning pretty, but who cares? Posting back-to-back victories over AFC playoff contenders has kept Las Vegas in postseason contention and saved the organization from another season being defined by a December collapse. The 17-13 final on Sunday doesn’t tell the story of a mostly dominant performance by the Raiders, who had three turnovers but outgained the Broncos 342-158 and allowed just eight first downs all day. The defense has been much-improved down the stretch, holding three of its last four opponents to 17 or fewer points. Building on that streak will be a challenge with Jonathan Taylor and the surging Colts on deck.
Previous rank: No. 17
Run. The. Ball. Kevin. Down by 2 points and with a massive upset victory in sight at Lambeau Field, Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski opted to put his faith in Baker Mayfield rather than Nick Chubb. The result was calamitous: Mayfield’s final pass attempt — his fifth consecutive throw on the game-deciding drive — was picked off by Rasul Douglas to ensure a 24-22 loss. It was Mayfield’s fourth interception of the game, and it came on an afternoon when Chubb was running through Packers arm tackles with regularity. Stefanski is a talented offensive mind, but it’s time to understand the limitations of this quarterback and ride with the actual star of Cleveland’s attack.
Previous rank: No. 15
All season, the Vikings have been a fun watch because they can turn any game into a nail-biter — whether it’s against a powerhouse like the Packers or a bottom-feeder like the Lions. But being entertaining and being good are two very different things. The Vikes had the chance to alter the course of their season with a win over the Rams on Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium but instead delivered a deeply uneven effort that featured critical breakdowns by the offense, defense and special teams. The inconsistencies under Mike Zimmer have become tedious to the fanbase; it’s fair to wonder if it will be considered untenable by the Powers That Be.
Previous rank: No. 16
Week 16 felt like the moment that the walls finally caved in on the star-crossed 2021 Ravens. Playing their third-string quarterback and missing an absurd 33 players to injured reserve or the reserve/COVID-19 list, Baltimore suffered a relentless beatdown at the hands of a Bengals team that relished the opportunity to embarrass a longtime bully. The decimated secondary allowed Joe Burrow to pass for 525 yards as Baltimore’s playoff chances took a significant hit. After the game, John Harbaugh sounded like a coach worn down by a punishing season: “We’re going to focus on the last two and see what we get accomplished and see if we can work our way into the playoffs.”
Previous rank: No. 18
The evidence is everywhere now: Pittsburgh is not a very good football team. The Steelers’ playoff hopes are on life support following a blowout loss to the Chiefs that once again put a spotlight on Pittsburgh’s offensive ineptitude. The team’s first-half struggles are taking on historic proportions: The Steelers have been outscored 97-9 in the opening 30 minutes of their last five games, failing to score a single first-half touchdown in the process. You have to go back to 1940 to find the last Steelers team to manage that, per Elias Sports Bureau (via ESPN). Pittsburgh can still find its way to the postseason with back-to-back wins and some help, but the bigger picture is clear: Significant changes are necessary.
Previous rank: No. 20
Ian Book realized a dream on Monday by starting his first game in the NFL. By his second snap, it felt more like a nightmare. The rookie — pressed into action with both Taysom Hill and Trevor Siemian on the reserve/COVID-19 list — threw a pick-six on the second pass of the night, and things didn’t get much better in a punishing loss to the Dolphins. Book was a piñata behind a makeshift offensive line, sacked eight times, and the toothless New Orleans attack failed to manage a single third-down conversion in 12 attempts. Like the Ravens in the AFC, the Saints feel like a once-promising team that’s simply endured too much. The roof has fallen in.
Previous rank: No. 25
We can sit here and talk about how the Falcons aren’t a worthy playoff contender until we’re blue in the face — hell, I’ve done that for two months on the Around The NFL Podcast — but give Arthur Smith’s team credit: The kids stay in the picture. Sure, they needed a goal-line interception in the final minute to hold off Tim Boyle and the Lions on Sunday, but there’s something to be said for Atlanta’s ability to win close games with regularity. Here’s the fun fact: The Falcons have won seven of nine one-possession games, including four victories by four points or fewer. Luck? Skill? It doesn’t matter.
Previous rank: No. 23
Drew Lock was not the guy to jump-start the Broncos’ offense in a virtual must-win game on Sunday. The backup quarterback — pressed into action after Teddy Bridgewater’s scary head injury a week earlier — threw for just 153 yards and led the Denver offense to a grand total of eight first downs in a 17-13 loss to the Raiders. At 7-8, the Broncos once again fit the profile of a mediocre team trapped in quarterback purgatory. Will this be the offseason when that finally changes? Stay tuned.
Previous rank: No. 26
“I’m just an ordinary guy with nothin’ to lose.” Trailing by a point with 61 seconds remaining after a Jimmy Graham touchdown, Bears coach Matt Nagy decided to go full Lester Burnham. The coach wanted to steal a win in snowy Seattle with a two-point conversion, and his boldness was rewarded when Nick Foles connected with Damiere Byrd in the back of the end zone. Bears 25, Seahawks 24 — a feel-good win for a team (and a beleaguered head man) that hasn’t had a lot to feel good about.
Previous rank: No. 24
The Seahawks collapsed in the final two minutes against the Bears, surrendering an 80-yard touchdown drive and two-point conversion, then failing to move the ball past midfield before turning it over on downs. The 25-24 defeat clinched the first double-digit-loss season in the Pete Carroll era. After the game, the coach was forced to deliver another grim postmortem. “That was about as disappointing a loss as we’ve had,” Carroll said. “We were in control in so many ways to win it and put it away, and we just never did and let them stay alive, and they found a way to make their plays.”
Washington Football Team
Previous rank: No. 22
The Cowboys appeared to be playing a different sport than the Football Team on Sunday night. Dallas rolled to a 42-7 halftime lead en route to a 56-14 loss for Washington that should serve as a reminder of how much work needs to be done to get this organization back to true contender status. Taylor Heinicke looked overwhelmed in his return to the lineup after a COVID-19 absence, unable to get anything going before mercifully being lifted in favor of Kyle Allen in the fourth quarter. Washington didn’t lose to the Cowboys because of Heinicke, but it stands to reason the franchise should be aggressive in its attempt to upgrade the position during an offseason that’s rapidly approaching.
Previous rank: No. 29
The Texans’ offense delivered its best performance of the season against the Chargers. Rex Burkhead tore into a vulnerable Los Angeles run defense for 149 yards and two touchdowns, while Davis Mills completed 21 of 27 passes for 254 yards and two touchdowns without a turnover. It continued an intriguing run of quality performances by Mills, the third-round rookie who has played smart and efficient football since replacing Tyrod Taylor as starter three weeks ago. That doesn’t mean the Texans won’t be in the market for a QB after they finally part ways with Deshaun Watson, but Mills has earned a chair in the quarterback room going forward.
Previous rank: No. 27
The Lions are going to give you everything they have for 60 minutes. We saw it again on Sunday, when Tim Boyle — subbing for Jared Goff (COVID-19) — marched Detroit to the Falcons’ goal line late in the fourth quarter before throwing a game-sealing interception. Some Lions fans will take the crushing loss in exchange for the improved chance at the No. 1 overall pick. Detroit currently sits at No. 2 in the 2022 NFL Draft pecking order, one half-game “behind” the Jaguars. Something tells us Dan Campbell will bite the kneecap off any person who so much as whispers “tanking” around him.
Previous rank: No. 31
Zach Wilson dodged a pack of Jaguars pass rushers and broke into the open field, deking out a defender near the sideline before completing his unlikely journey to the end zone. The 52-yard touchdown was the longest rushing score by a quarterback in Jets history and a reminder of the dynamic athleticism possessed by the No. 2 overall pick. Wilson’s rookie season has been difficult, but his elusiveness is undeniable and the arm talent is still very much there. Wilson has the tools to be special — it’s on the young QB and his team to find a way to put it all together.
Previous rank: No. 28
What’s the opposite of the Midas touch? Whatever it is, Matt Rhule has it when it comes to the quarterback position in the NFL. On Sunday, the coach opted to play both Sam Darnold and Cam Newton — roughly splitting the snaps between the two quarterbacks — to predictably regrettable results. The resulting 32-6 loss to the injury-ravaged Bucs showed just how far this team has fallen since the salad days of September’s 3-0 start. Rhule did himself no favors after the game with a labored Jay-Z analogy that drew groans on social media and — perhaps — within the Panthers front office. Rhule’s best chance at a third year in Carolina might hinge on his ability to keep a low profile.
Previous rank: No. 30
The Giants have reached the stage of a bad season when hope ceases to exist. Losing becomes inevitable — simply avoiding embarrassment becomes the primary goal. A sleepy Eagles team allowed New York to hang around for two quarters on Sunday, but Philly pulled away with ease to tag Big Blue with its fourth consecutive loss. Jake Fromm‘s NFL starting debut went so poorly — 6-of-17 passing for 25 yards and an interception — that Joe Judge felt compelled to pull the second-year pro in favor of Mike Glennon in the third quarter. There has been entirely too much Mike Glennon on tri-state area televisions this year.
Previous rank: No. 32
On Sunday, Trevor Lawrence and the Jaguars faced a bad Jets team that had its entire defensive line on the reserve/COVID-19 list. Jacksonville still found a way to lose, turned away at the goal line in the final seconds of a 26-21 loss. A bad day got worse with the news that running back James Robinson — the team’s best offensive player — suffered a torn Achilles in the game. The Jaguars, losers of seven straight and in possession of the worst record in football, are on a collision course with the No. 1 overall pick for the second straight year.