With one extra week left in the 2021 NFL regular season, the power shifted once again before the playoffs. Some of the NFC and AFC contenders looked sharp in their penultimate tuneups, some did not. Some of the bottom-feeders built on playing for pride, some did not.
There’s still a significant separation from the best and worst teams, but because this is the NFL parity party, there’s also a muddled middle of disappointing and surprising teams.
The league has provided another wild ride and the roller coaster is bound to continue in the first Week 18. Here’s how Sporting News sees all 32 teams stacking up against each other going into the finales:
NFL power rankings
1. Green Bay Packers 13-3 (previous ranking: 1)
The Packers got a break with the reeling Vikings’ defense at home on Sunday night and took full advantage of it. As the No. 1 seed in the NFC again, they look like more complete Super Bowl contenders, thanks to an improved defense to further boost Aaron Rodgers and the defense.
2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers 12-4 (4)
The Buccaneers had some trouble with the Jets given all their defensive injuries, but Tom Brady showed he could still take over a game in methodical fashion when needed. The multiple ways the reigning champs can beat an opponent makes them so dangerous in the quest to repeat, even now without Antonio Brown.
3. Tennessee Titans 11-5 (6)
The Titans showed they can could still flex without Derrick Henry with their running game going off against the Dolphins, while Ryan Tannehill and the defense played very well at the same time against a hot team. They are earning the AFC’s No. 1 seed in every which hard way.
4. Los Angeles Rams 11-5 (5)
The Rams got a real fight from the Ravens and Matthew Stafford continues to have slow starts with big mistakes. But their running game has become a bigger factor and Cooper Kupp and Odell Beckham Jr. are the ultimate bailout plans at wide receiver.
5. Kansas City Chiefs 11-5 (2)
The Chiefs’ defense has played much better in the second half, but they have struggled of late against bigger-time offenses with young guns, the Chargers and Bengals. Kansas City is still the AFC favorite because of Patrick Mahomes, but keep in mind it has lost to Tennessee, Cincinnati, Buffalo and Los Angeles in the potential playoff field.
6. Arizona Cardinals 11-5 (7)
The Cardinals were on the ropes going into the Cowboys matchup but Kyler Murray went back on point and the running game and defense also rose to the occasion to make sure they didn’t lose a total grip on winning the NFC West. It was their most impressive road victory in a season full of many.
7. Dallas Cowboys 11-5 (3)
The Cowboys saw their level of competition rise again with the Cardinals and they weren’t up to the task, with another slow start for their offense and not much worthy support in the running game for Dak Prescott. The defense still makes a lot of big plays, but it can also give up a lot of little ones.
8. Cincinnati Bengals 10-6 (10)
The Bengals went from a feel-good turnaround story in the AFC to breaking through as a legitimate new offensive-minded power led by Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase with their comeback takedown of the Chiefs at home. Their defense still far from perfect, but they can score with anyone in the AFC playoffs.
9. Buffalo Bills 10-6 (9)
The Bills stumbled for a while against the Falcons before they let Josh Allen take over another game, with more welcome support from Devin Singletary in the traditional running game. The defense also bounced back when needed to go into the playoffs well.
10. New England Patriots 10-6 (11)
The Patriots weren’t challenged at all against the Jaguars as Mac Jones had fun winning and outplaying Trevor Lawrence while the running game and defense did the rest. Now New England has to turn in that kind of performance consistently against much better AFC teams.
11. Los Angeles Chargers 8-7 (12)
The Chargers cleaned up their messes from the Texans disaster with utter domination in Denver. As it should be, it’s them against the Raiders for a playoff spot behind the Chiefs. They are more dangerous than Las Vegas because of Justin Herbert.
12. Indianapolis Colts 9-7 (8)
The Colts did play with Carson Wentz against the Raiders, but his missed practice time was costly as he was off and they couldn’t get quite enough from Jonathan Taylor and the running game and the defense to win an expected tight matchup. They hope it’s just a mulligan for their playoff chances with the Jaguars next.
13. San Francisco 49ers 9-7 (13)
The 49ers started Trey Lance out of need and they had to have been nervous for a while as the offense sputtered with him. But then he felt more comfortable running and passing as their starter, using all of his assets well and trusting his defense would support him, too. San Francisco definitely he has a higher ceiling but more volatile floor with Lance at QB.
14. Philadelphia Eagles 9-7 (15)
The Eagles had to find their defensive way against Washington, but once they did, the win came easy with Jalen Hurts’ passing and running doing plenty. Nick Sirianni has done a great job as a rookie coach, the Brandon Staley of the NFC.
15. Las Vegas Raiders 9-7 (19)
The Raiders are showing amazing fight far removed from Jon Gruden’s coaching. Derek Carr keeps grinding with Hunter Renfrow and not much else in the passing game and Josh Jacobs has come on strong on the ground at the right time.
16. Baltimore Ravens 8-8 (14)
The Ravens’ season has been defined by injuries and living/dying by the close game. John Harbaugh has done one of his best coaching jobs given the short-handedness, but the healthy talent just hasn’t been there for Baltimore enough.
17. New Orleans Saints 8-8 (18)
The Saints got Taysom Hill back to lead their offense and it made a big difference in the confidence of their defense. Sean Payton also has flexed his high-level Super Bowl-winning coach but it may not be enough because the NFC is so tough.
18. Pittsburgh Steelers 7-7-1 (16)
The Steelers will stay alive into Week 18 should they beat the Browns at home on Ben Roethlisberger’s night on Monday. They need to play much better run defense to do it.
19. Miami Dolphins 8-8 (17)
The Dolphins went from splashing around to splat in Nashville, and with it, their improbable late push for an AFC playoff berth evaporated. For a second straight season, Brian Flores will need to think about what was left on the table.
20. Cleveland Browns 7-8 (20)
The Browns won’t be making the playoffs again with Baker Mayfield and Kevin Stefanski. But they can still fight through an injury-riddled season and finish above .500 to build on a big rebound in 2022.
21. Minnesota Vikings 7-9 (21)
The Vikings never had the defense to be a playoff team in 2022 and were fortunate to be in so many close games because of their offense. The bottom line is they need much improvement there, with or without Mike Zimmer.
22. Atlanta Falcons 7-9 (22)
The Falcons have overachieved in the first season under Arthur Smith, flashing competent offense with Matt Ryan that fell short of explosive most of the time without Calvin Ridley. The defense and special teams found a few more answers, but need a lot more.
23. Denver Broncos 7-9 (23)
The Broncos wasted a hot start that was based on their strong defense and running game because of incompetent quarterback play squandering the potential of a promising passing game. Vic Fangio’s old-school approach just hasn’t worked.
24. Chicago Bears 6-10 (25)
The Bears are on a two-game winning streak with two QBs who aren’t rookie first-rounder Justin Fields, Nick Foles and Andy Dalton. They even flashed some of their old defense and black-and-blue running game. That still is too little, much too late for Matt Nagy.
25. Seattle Seahawks 6-10 (26)
The Seahawks may be breaking up Russell Wilson and Pete Carroll in some form in 2022, but they might want to reconsider now that Wilson has warmed up things up again with DK Metcalf, Tyler Lockett and Rashaad Penny. A tough schedule and a tough division add up to “what could have been.”
26. Washington Football Team 6-10 (24)
Washington has been game at times with Taylor Heinicke, which it was again for a while vs. the Eagles. The Football Team can’t get a franchise QB fast enough and also needs to fix much defensively for 2022.
27. Carolina Panthers 5-11 (27)
The Panthers went back to Sam Darnold at QB with more disastrous results against a good defense on the road in New Orleans. Matt Rhule might survive into 2022, but he needs some big changes to be successful.
28. New York Jets 4-12 (29)
The Jets are getting some inspired and confident play late from Zach Wilson, which a nice nugget to carry into 2022 after a tough rebuilding season. Sharing a good game and birthday with Brady is cool, but the Jets are hoping he can tap more into his upside consistently as a sophomore.
29. Houston Texans 4-12 (28)
The Texans might also have their QB answer in rookie Davis Mills, who could also use a lot more help healthy or otherwise in 2022. The offensive line and skill positions need to be addressed a lot.
30. New York Giants 4-11 (30)
The Giants waved the white flag against the Bears with no legitimate offense, defense or special to put on the field. Joe Judge seems to be a bit too relaxed about a total wipeout of the season.
31. Detroit Lions 2-13-1 (31)
The Lions had to roll with Tim Boyle again offensively and they got totally lanced defensively in Seattle with no answers for the running game or downfield passing game. At least Amon-Ra St. Brown has played like his namesake god down the stretch and D’Andre Swift is back, too.
32. Jacksonville Jaguars 2-14 (32)
Trevor Lawrence threw a touchdown pass. OK, it was an extended handoff in the form of a dumpoff to a running back in deep garbage time after he couldn’t protect the ball at all. Lawrence has been shaken and stirred so much the Jaguars need to nail their next hire or he will become a total bust in Year 2.
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