Like a mad game of Tetris, all the pieces are dropping into place as we focus in on the last three weeks of the regular NFL season. For some, there’s an expectation of success and glory. For others, a warm glow of anticipation that comes from a decent season and an extra game or two. And for yet others, it’s almost time to confine this wretched campaign to the dustbin of history. So let’s see who’s up and coming, and who’s down and out…
1. Baltimore Ravens (11-2) ←
Whoever they face, Baltimore just keep finding ways to win. In their 24-17 victory against the Bills on Sunday, their D held the Bills to a tad over 200 yards and sacked Josh Allen six times. His opposite number, Lamar Jackson, didn’t post anything special for a change other than three TDs but he didn’t need to. With nine straight Ws, the Ravens are home and hosed as far as the playoffs are concerned. Beat the Jets on Thursday night and the AFC North is theirs. So now, it’s all about staying healthy and keeping on track for that bye week and home-field advantage.
2. San Francisco 49ers (11-2) ↑
The best way to get over a last-gasp loss to our top-ranked Ravens is to grab a last-gasp win over the third-ranked Saints with 517 yards of total offense. The 48-46 epic (apparently the 1,053rd unique scoreline in NFL history) was like two heavyweight boxers trading blows. Jimmy G had four TDs and led the march downfield to set up Robbie Gould’s game-winning FG with seconds left. Emmanuel Sanders also caught the eye with 157 yards, 1 TD reception and a 35-yard TD pass to last week’s star, Raheem Mostert. Even though the Niners defense was below par, Jimmy Garoppolo was on fire and all his offensive weapons took turns to shine. It’s not hard to imagine the Niners going all the way, but they still have to face the Rams and Seahawks in the final two weeks.
3. New Orleans Saints (10-3) ↓
As outlined above, the 49ers game was an absolute ripsnorter (12 total touchdowns) and the Saints’ offense was immense. They scored 46 points and Drew Brees gashed the league’s top-rated pass defense by throwing five TDs (including a go-ahead-but-not-winning score with 53 seconds left) and adding another on the ground with a fourth-down quarterback sneak. But somehow they lost, mainly because their usually robust defense couldn’t stop San Fran from coming straight back at them. In this offensive masterclass, it was inevitable that the team with the last possession won the game. New Orleans have secured a playoff game at the Superdome but the NFC’s No.1 seed still eludes them. Monday night’s game with the Colts should be a more routine affair.
4. Seattle Seahawks (10-3) ←
The ‘Hawks relinquished their advantage over the Niners in the AFC seedings with a 28-12 loss to the Rams. Shipping four touchdowns, Seattle abandoned the run game and took to the air, but with limited effect. Russell Wilson took five sacks, Malik Turner and Jacob Hollister both had costly drops, and the Seahawks didn’t reach the red zone until the fourth quarter – then settled for a field goal. Their first loss since early October should be just a blip, especially with the Panthers and Cardinals waiting in the wings, but their Week 17 clash with the 49ers could yet decide a few things.
5. Green Bay Packers (10-3) ↑
The schedule has been kind to Green Bay, who followed up their win over the Giants with a 20-15 victory over Washington. It was closer than it should have been, and Aaron Jones (192 total yards and his 15th touchdown of the season) was arguably the difference-maker. The somewhat flat Pack still hold a one-game lead in the NFC North and have that vital bye week in their grasp. But Matt LaFleur (the first Green Bay HC to win 10 games in his debut season) will need to crank things up against the Bears and the Vikings if they want to hold on to it. If they win this weekend, and the Rams lose, they’re in.
6. Kansas City Chiefs (9-4) ↑
With four wins from five, KC timed their run to the line to perfection and with Oakland losing, the Chiefs sealed the AFC West with a 23-16 win over the Patriots. With Patrick Mahomes injuring his hand during the game, making him reluctant to throw long, he may have to be treated with… err …kid gloves, especially as they have locked up a playoff spot. Andy Reid’s offense hasn’t been firing on all cylinders of late but their defense held Tom Brady to one score and three sacks. This week, the Broncos – still with the faintest playoff shout themselves – come to Kansas.
7. New England Patriots (10-3) ↓
A second consecutive loss for the Pats was their first at Foxborough in 21 games. A fourth-down potential TD pass to Julian Edelman in the final quarter was batted down, and Tom Brady’s 169 yards against a stout KC defense was his second-worst total of the season. Essentially two games behind the Ravens in the AFC, the Patriots need a bounce-back game to steady the ship and lock up that first-round bye before the Chiefs nip in. Luckily, they have one, as in the immortal words of Bill Belichick, it’s “on to Cincinnati”…
8. Minnesota Vikings (9-4) ↑
Facing the lacklustre Lions brings a W for most teams and the Vikes were no exception. The NFC North hopefuls dished out a 20-7 scoreline, with Detroit’s third-choice QB David Brough almost steering them to a big, fat goose egg but for a garbage-time TD. Despite sterling efforts from the usual suspects – Kirk Cousins, Stefon Diggs and Dalvin Cook – Minnesota’s star of the day was Danielle Hunter. His three sacks makes him the youngest player to reach 50 sacks since the NFL started recording the stat in 1982. The Vikings’ Week 16 game with the Packers could yet decide the division.
9. Buffalo Bills (9-4) ←
Credit the Bills’ third-ranked pass defense for holding the Ravens to a one-score game but their offense struggled, TE Hayden Hurst emerging the top receiver with 73 yards, 61 of which came in one catch-and-run TD. Josh Allen was sacked half a dozen times and Buffalo only had FGs on the board till midway through the fourth quarter. That attack won’t be enough to overhaul the Patriots in the AFC East title race or plough very far into the post-season so the Bills have got to start upping the ante in Pittsburgh on Sunday.
10. Los Angeles Rams (8-5) ↑
The Rams sneak into our top 10 with a prime-time 28-12 win over the Seattle Seahawks. Given where they are in the standings – a win behind the Vikings in the Wild Card race – every game is essentially a playoff for LA. They came through this one with flying colours, with Jared Goff, Robert Woods (98 yards, 1 TD) and Tyler Higbee (116 yards) looking good, and Todd Gurley (113 yards, 1 TD) was finally let loose by that ‘idiot’ Sean McVay (his words, not mine). They may need to win out to maintain their defence of their NFC crown but at least the Rams face the faltering Cowboys next.
11. Houston Texans (8-5) ↓
Having beaten the Patriots last week, Deshaun Watson and co slumped to a surprisingly heavy 38-24 loss to Denver. They went in at HT 31-3 down but despite a second-half recovery of sorts, the lack of JJ Watt and Will Fuller seemed to hamper their efforts on both sides of the ball. A playoff bye is no longer attainable and over the next three weeks, two Titans vs Texans clashes will decide which of these AFC South challengers takes the crown.
12. Tennessee Titans (8-5) ←
A fourth straight win – a handsome 42-21 victory over Oakland – pulls the Titans level with the Texans in the AFC South and suggests they’ve hit a red-hot streak at the right time. Once again, plaudits go to the league’s second-ranked RB Derrick Henry (103 yards and 2 TDs, despite a hamstring issue) and the born-again Ryan Tannehill, who threw for almost 400 yards and recorded his longest-ever pass (a 91-yard TD to AJ Brown). The Titans are a bona fide contender in the AFC, but with the Texans coming to Nashville on Sunday for the first of two head-to-heads, plus the Saints in Week 16, the challenge couldn’t be tougher and the stakes couldn’t be higher.
13. Pittsburgh Steelers (8-5) ←
In seeing off the Cardinals 23-17, the Steelers’ third straight win further solidifies their Wild Card credentials. They also guaranteed at least a .500 season for the 16th time in a row, and ensured that Mike Tomlin has still not experienced a losing season in his 13 years as Pittsburgh HC. Their defense (yay, another 18 fantasy points for me!) racked up five sacks, had several interceptions and forced a punt or turnover on six of AZ’s nine possessions. And that new Steel Curtain leads the league in sacks (48), QB hits (96) and takeaways (33). Offensively, rookie WR Diontae Johnson took an 85-yard punt return back to the house and ended the day with another TD, while Devlin ‘Duck’ Hodges has gone 3-0 at QB, arguably saving their season from a Mason Rudolph-inspired disaster. Having gone 7-1 in their last eight games, Pittsburgh are turning into the dark horse that no one wants to face, and I doubt the Bills are relishing Sunday’s trip to Heinz Field.
14. Chicago Bears (7-6) ↑
The run-in for the Bears isn’t an easy one – Packers, Chiefs and Vikings – so this may be as good as it gets, but you can’t accuse them of not giving it a damn good go. Their 31-24 victory over a division leader – OK, it was only Dallas – saw Mitchell Trubisky (3 TD passes and one running score) continue to improve, taking the Bears back above .500 for the first time in a couple of months. The trip to Lambeau Field could be the next chapter in an amazing fairy tale but the Bears can only keep the faint flame of hope flickering if both they and the Packers beat the Vikings.
15. Dallas Cowboys (6-7) ↓
Still the lowest ranked of the divisional pace-setters (and the only one with a losing record), Dallas lost for the fourth time in five to the improving Bears. But somehow, they maintain their lead in the Division No One Wants to Win. Zeke Elliott and Amari Cooper both rushed past the 1,000-yard mark for the season and Michael Gallup’s 109 yards takes him over 900. And yet the team can’t buy a win. Illustrating their woes, kicker Brett Maher must be on borrowed time with his 10th FG miss of the campaign (the worst record over the last four years). Now joined on 6-7 by Philly, the Cowboys may not even be in pole position in the NFC East when the two teams meet in Week 16, because they face the charging Rams first. But even if they lose and drop to 6-8, they can still make the playoffs. *face palm*
16. Philadelphia Eagles (6-7) ↑
It’s not over, but it’s not pretty. The Eagles saw off a spirited New York Giants on Monday night, coming from 14 points back (and a chorus of boos at half-time) to end a run of three defeats – but they needed overtime. Carson Wentz threw for 300+ yards and 2 TDs, even without some of his key weapons (DeSean Jackson, Nelson Agholor and, during the game, Alshon Jeffrey). Luckily, some bloke I’ve never heard of – Boston Scott – brought in 128 yards while mercurial tight end Zach Ertz, filling in at WR, scored both the equalising and winning touchdowns. Competing with Dallas to be the worst divisional winner, Philly face the Redskins next.
17. Indianapolis Colts (6-7) ↓
It was a close call but a third straight loss (and fifth in the last six) for the Colts – 38-35 to Tampa Bay – fatally holed their playoff hopes below the waterline. All but eliminated from the postseason race (there’s probably an equation using pi and the Fibonacci sequence that explains how they can reach the playoffs), the defense need to hold their hands up to this one, undoing their four turnovers with 542 yards of conceded Bucs offense. Alas, Indy will see out the rest of their fruitless season without legendary kicker Adam Vinatieri, who went on season-ending IR this week with a gammy knee. The conundrum as to whether they will require a replacement in 2020 is one for another day.
18. Cleveland Browns (6-7) ↑
At 6-7, the Browns are hanging on in the playoff race by their fingernails, thanks to a 27-19 win over divisional foes Cincinnati. The one-two sucker punch of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt asked a lot of questions of the league’s worst rushing defense but yet again, most of the talk was about another pre-game controversy – this time, the way Baker Mayfield thinks Odell Beckham Jr’s injury has been managed. The Browns’ path to a Wild Card spot is getting pretty overgrown now but they can probably stay in the picture for at least one more week with a road trip to face the Cardinals.
19. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-7) ↑
Leapfrogging the Panthers in the NFC South, Tampa have now won four of their last five. Despite their latest – a close 38-35 battle with the Colts –the Bucs become the first 6-7 team eliminated from the playoffs. Jameis Winston was his reliably unreliable self, with four passing TDs and one rushing one, but also three interceptions, including his fifth pick-six of the year. His season’s totals (32 TDs vs 28 INTs) must have given Bruce Arians enough cause to consider his options for next season by now but his other weapons (Chris Godwin Mike Evans, OJ Howard and Brashad Perriman) are all in place for the right guy under centre. Is that guy Winston? Only he could fracture his hand during the game, lead his team to a 5 TD win, set a career-high 456 yards in passing, and still cast doubts over his future in Tampa.
20. Oakland Raiders (6-7) ←
Having lost by 31 points twice in a row, the Raiders improved this week: they only lost by 21! Derek Carr did OK but without Josh Jacobs, and TE Darren Waller fumbling for a TD return, their 42-21 defeat by the Titans extended their losing streak. The second-half collapse (it was 21-21 at HT) saw Tennessee gain over 550 yards of total offense, and now means Oakland – looking good at 6-4 not that long ago – are in danger of finishing last in the AFC West. That said, after hosting the Jags in the last game in the Coliseum, they end the year with trips to divisional rivals the Chargers and the Broncos, but their Wild Card hopes are being sucked into a Black Hole.
21. Denver Broncos (5-8) ↑
The Broncos are overcoming their abysmal start and ending the season strongly – and a 38-24 victory at Houston says strong to me. Rookie QB Drew Lock – labelled a “****ing rock star” by Von Miller – went 22-of-27 for 309 yards and three touchdowns, as Denver built an unassailable 38-3 lead early in the second half. Honourable mentions also go to former Texans safety Kareem Jackson, who stifled his former teammates with 11 tackles, a 70-yard fumble return TD and an interception, and TE Noah Fant, who logged 113 yards on just four catches.
22. Los Angeles Chargers (5-8) ↑
The Chargers broke their run of defeats with an emphatic 45-10 demolition of the Jaguars, closing to within a win of Oakland. Despite this, they got evicted from the playoff race and will have to win out against the likes of the Vikings and Chiefs just to achieve a .500 record. That’s unlikely, but if Philip Rivers has more 300-yard, 3 TD games, and Austin Ekeler plays like he did on Sunday (over 100 yards rushing and receiving from just 12 touches), you can’t rule it out. Rivers’ career may be winding down, but he threw the longest TD of his career (84 yards) on his 38th birthday, so he’s still got something left in the tank going down the stretch.
23. New York Jets (5-8) ↑
Gang Green coach Adam Gase engineered a last-second 22-21 victory over his former team Miami. Starting without Le’Veon Bell and Jamal Adams, and then losing TE Ryan Griffin to an ankle injury, New York turned to Robby Anderson (seven catches, 116 yards and 1 TD) and kicker Sam Ficken, whose winning FG (with 00:00 on the clock) was the 10th of the game. Ridiculous as it sounds, the Jets can still have an 8-8 season but they’ll need to win at Baltimore on Thursday night to stay on track to do so.
24. Carolina Panthers (5-8) ↓
The Panthers’ first outing since Ron Rivera’s departure was a 40-20 reverse at Atlanta, stretching their losing streak to five and dropping them down this list yet again. However you analyse it – Kyle Allen logging more interceptions (two) than touchdowns (one), Christian McCaffrey not scoring for a second week, converting just three third downs – it wasn’t a good day for the Panthers. Wideout DJ Moore passed the 1,000 receiving yards mark but that was about it on the positive side of things. Officially out of the playoffs, planning for next season is now top of the to-do list – and the QB debate starts in earnest.
25. Atlanta Falcons (4-9) ↑
Atlanta delivered a 40-20 bomb on the Panthers, sweeping the series with their divisional rivals and kicking them out of playoff contention in the process. Their defense snaffled a bevvy of picks and sacks, and held Christian McCaffrey to 53 rushing yards. Matt Ryan also passed a memorable milestone, becoming the 10th QB in NFL history to surpass 50,000 career yards, while Julio Jones (obviously not at his blistering best) secured his sixth-straight 1,000-yard season. Mirroring Tannehill and Rivers, Ryan’s second TD score – a 93-yarder to rookie WR Olamide Zaccheaus – was the longest of his career.
26. Jacksonville Jaguars (4-9) ↓
Gardner Minshew was brought back against the Chargers but it was more a case of Miscue Mania in their 45-10 humbling, throwing for only 162 yards. As ever, Jacksonville left the lanes open, and Austin Ekeler made the most of them. The Jags’ five-game run of losses by at least 17 points is the first for more than 30 years, and has dragged them down our rankings (NFL.com has them dead last for just not trying any more). At least it’ll bump them up the draft order, which is just as well because it feels like a major overhaul is needed.
27. Arizona Cardinals (3-9-1) ←
From here on down, everyone lost so all the teams keep the same (lowly) positions as they had last week. The Cardinals’ sixth straight defeat – a 23-17 loss to the Steelers – saw their offense occasionally flash but largely falter, with Kyler Murray failing to reach the 200-yard mark and dishing out three interceptions. The match-up with Cleveland promises very little unless you’re an optimistic Browns fan.
28. Washington Redskins (3-10) ←
As I predicted last week, Washington’s mini-revival came to a stuttering halt at Green Bay but at least the 20-15 loss was a respectable one. RB Derrius Grice left the field with another crocked knee and may not play again this year, while Dwayne Haskins was also limping. Their last three games are against each of their underperforming divisional rivals so they could yet finish with a semi-respectable 6-10 record. Stranger things have happened.
29. Miami Dolphins (3-10) ←
Last week’s touchdown hero, kicker Jason Sanders, was Miami’s shining star again: his seven field goals meant he delivered 100% of his team’s points against the New York Jets. Alas, he also missed one, which is kind of crucial in a 22-21 loss. If your kicker is making all the headlines and all the points, then the rest of your offense is underperforming (half of Miami’s 122 rushing yards came through QB Ryan Fitzpatrick). A dodgy pass interference call with 47 seconds left also affected the outcome, ensuring that Gang Green kept possession on an incomplete third-and-18 and could kick the winning FG as the clock ran out. More games with draft-pick rivals await in the form of the Giants and Bengals.
30. Detroit Lions (3-9-1) ←
After his enforced NFL debut last week, we now know who David Blough is: very much a third-string quarterback. In Detroit’s 20-7 loss to the Minnesota Vikings, he ended with 24-of-40 for 205 yards, five sacks, two interceptions and a single TD (to Kenny Golladay) secured in garbage time. The Lions’ year, which they started by going three unbeaten, is going down the pan fast and the offseason probably can’t come soon enough.
31. New York Giants (2-11) ←
A franchise-equalling ninth consecutive defeat – yep, like the Ravens, the Giants were 2-2 once upon a time – means the Bengals still face competition for the first overall draft pick. But at least the Giants took the Eagles to OT before succumbing 23-17. Eli Manning started in place of the injured Daniel Jones and with rookie Darius Slayton, he was on fire, recording 5-of-8 for 154 yards and 2 TDs. Alas, he couldn’t connect with anyone else and only managed 24 yards after the break, with all six second-half drives ending with punts. Manning may not have a place in the Giants’ future but Slayton does: his third double-TD game of the season gives him seven scores on the year, the most among rookie receivers.
32. Cincinnati Bengals (1-12) ←
Cincy’s win last week was a glitch in the matrix and normal service resumed with a 27-19 loss in Cleveland. Their 451 total yardage was their highest since 2016, and Joe Mixon also excelled with 146 yards and Cincy’s only TD. But Andy Dalton continues to prove he’s adequate at best while a few things – deflected passes returned for touchdowns, holding calls, pass interference flags – didn’t go Cincinnati’s way. This week’s game against the Patriots, even with a sub-par Tom Brady and a spluttering offense, sounds like a guaranteed L and yet, something in the back of my mind tells me this match-up might not be as straightforward as it looks on paper. Maybe the Pats actually need to spy on the Bengals’ touchline to beat them?