32 began, and 12 remain. After 17 weeks of play, the NFL’s regular season has come to an end, meaning this will be the last edition of my power rankings. It’s been a long road but an enjoyable one and the series will return in September for the 2017 season.
In week 17, half of the games were inconsequential, having no effect on the playoff picture. Of the games that mattered, the biggest shakeup came in the AFC, where the Chiefs took the AFC West title and a first-round bye thanks to their defeat of the Chargers and the Raiders’ slip-up in Denver. The Patriots took care of the Dolphins to secure the #1 seed in the early slate of games, although a loss would have led to the same result, once again thanks to the Raiders. The #3, 4, and 6 seeds were already set in stone before Sunday began, meaning the #3 Steelers will host the #6 Dolphins and the #5 Raiders must travel to face the #4 Texans during wild card weekend while the Patriots and Chiefs enjoy a bye.
Over in the NFC, the Bucs’ incredibly slim playoff hopes dissolved quickly as, despite their victory over the Panthers, many of the results they needed to go their way didn’t, most notably the necessary tie between the Giants and Redskins. The Giants’ victory in the matchup not only contributed to the Bucs’ disappointment and eliminated the Redskins, who were almost guaranteed a playoff spot with a win but also officially cemented the six NFC teams making the playoffs. This outcome gave the Packers and Lions a postseason berth before their Sunday night encounter, where the Packers won. The Cowboys already had the top seed locked up, while the Falcons and Seahawks won to keep their #2 and 3 seeds. On Saturday, the #6 Lions will have to fight off Seattle and the 12th man to keep their Super Bowl dreams alive, while on Sunday the #5 Giants will attempt to replicate a step in their two recent Super Bowl runs with a win in Green Bay.
With the playoff picture cleared up, let’s get right into my final power rankings of the season.
1. Patriots (14-2, LW: 1) AFC East crown? Check. First-round bye? Check. Best record in football? Check. #1 Scoring defense in football? Check. Tom Brady at quarterback? Check. Bill Belichick coaching? Check. A 21-point win over division rival and wild card playoff team in the final week of the season? Check. The Patriots are Super Bowl favorites- we’ve all heard this story before. And with injuries to the Texans and Raiders’ starting quarterbacks, New England gets basically a free pass into the conference championship game. The Patriots have a great chance at their fifth Super Bowl.
2. Cowboys (13-3, LW: 2) Dak Prescott played just two series against the Eagles and Ezekiel Elliott never saw the field. With nothing really on the line, the Cowboys were careful with their stars on both sides of the ball, notably also resting linebacker Sean Lee. Stepping in for Prescott for one drive was Tony Romo, who looked fresh leading the team down the field and hooking up with Terrance Williams for a touchdown. Romo’s free agency audition went just as planned. Third-stringer Mark Sanchez, on the other hand, struggled, throwing for just 85 yards and two interceptions in two and a half quarters of work. Sanchez never looked comfortable or capable of running the offense, which doesn’t bode well for his future.
3. Chiefs (12-4, LW: 4) Hey, Tyreek Hill was really fast again. His 95-yard punt return touchdown capped off a ridiculous rookie regular season where Hill reached the end zone 12 times. The official tally is six receiving touchdowns, three rushing, two punt returns, and a kickoff return. The point is, he’s right there with Odell Beckham Jr. as the top big-play threats in the league. I think a lot of people are almost assuming the Patriots will make the Super Bowl, and while they’re definitely the top dogs in the AFC, the Chiefs cannot be underestimated.
4. Steelers (11-5, LW: 5) The Steelers also rested starters against the Browns, including all three of their big offensive weapons: Big Ben, LeVeon Bell, and Antonio Brown. Despite this, Pittsburgh was able to squeak out an overtime victory, although it seemed unlikely at times during the game. Landry Jones deserves to be commended for his performance, which no doubt will reassure fans that they have a capable backup should anything happen to Roethlisberger. The Steelers, riding a seven-game win streak, are definitely a Super Bowl threat, although their journey begins against a Dolphins team that defeated them 30-15 earlier in the season.
5. Falcons (11-5, LW: 6) Points, points, points, points, points. The Falcons are really good at points. Thanks to 38 more against the Saints, Atlanta finished the regular season scoring an average of 33.8 points per game, good for seventh-best all-time. Matt Ryan delivered another incredible performance on Sunday with 331 yards and four touchdowns and ends the year with the fifth-best single-season passer rating in NFL history. In my mind, he’s earned the MVP. Atlanta will host the Seahawks in the divisional round should Seattle get past the Lions.
6. Giants (11-5, LW: 8) The Giants really had nothing to play for on Sunday, already having clinched the #5 seed. However, a combination of wanting to gain momentum heading into the postseason and playing spoiler to the Redskins led New York to play all their starters in the week 17 road game. If they were looking for a positive offensive performance, they didn’t really get one although Paul Perkins rushed for over 100 yards for the first time this season, and looks to be the Giants clear #1 back going forward. The Giants’ defense, on the other hand, had another fantastic outing and might be the league’s scariest unit right now.
7. Packers (10-6, LW: 9) I have something to get off my chest. No offense to Green Bay’s signal-caller, but Aaron Rodgers doesn’t deserve to become some mythical hero because he “called his shot” saying the Packers would run the table. He said he thought the team could win all of its remaining games, and they did, but by no means was there a guarantee. Still, Rodgers played his way into serious MVP consideration with his phenomenal play down the stretch, leading the Packers to the NFC North title despite a 4-6 start. It feels like there are so many “hot” teams right now, but seriously- the Packers look good. Their game against the Giants has to be the must-watch of wild card weekend.
8. Seahawks (10-5-1, LW: 7) Well, they won. I’m not sure what else you want me to say here. Despite going down 14-3 early on the two-win 49ers, Seattle led the game by halftime and then was able to run out the final 5:42 of the game with Trevone Boykin at QB to hold on to a 25-23 victory. It’s been a weird path to get here for the Seahawks, but they still won their division with ease, and face a reeling Lions team that went from almost a sure thing to barely making the playoffs. Do they have the spark necessary to make a deep run? I don’t think so, but don’t count them out.
9. Raiders (12-4, LW: 3) I kept the Raiders at #3 in the power rankings last week because I didn’t want to unfairly drop the team after a victory and without knowing how they would look in Derek Carr’s absence. After their game against the Broncos, however, the freefall is necessary. Matt McGloin averaged less than two yards per pass attempt before getting injured, leaving Connor Cook to enter the game and see his first NFL action. Cook wasn’t terrible but certainly will have a difficult time against any playoff defense, including the Texans should he start the game.
10. Lions (9-7, LW: 10) Giants, Cowboys, Packers. That’s how brutal the schedule was down the stretch for Detroit, who lost all three games and fell from the 2-seed down to the 6. Unfortunately, it won’t get much easier visiting Seattle. The Lions never found a run game this season, finishing 30th in the league with just 82 yards on the ground per game. The team’s leading regular-season rusher was Theo Riddick with 357 yards. Riddick actually finished with more receiving yards. Unfortunately, with Riddick on the IR, the Lions will need to find some balance somewhere or be eaten alive.
11. Dolphins (10-6, LW: 11) Well hey, 2 out of 3 isn’t bad for Matt Moore. The backup quarterback still had a decent game coming off wins against the Jets and Dolphins to send Miami to the playoffs, but the Patriots overwhelmed the Dolphins in a 35-14 game. Jay Ajayi will be the key when the Dolphins head to Pittsburgh for their matchup on Sunday. Ajayi surpassed 200 yards in the first meeting between the teams and will need another big outing to keep the ball out of the hands of the Steelers’ playmakers.
12. Buccaneers (9-7, LW: 14) Doug Martin began serving a four-game suspension for a failed drug test in week 17, but honestly, I think it only made the decision to cut Martin this offseason easier for the Bucs. Despite rushing for over 1,400 yards in both 2012 and 2015, Martin averaged under three yards per carry this season, was outperformed by Jacquizz Rodgers, and has a history of injuries. For the Bucs as a whole, despite missing the playoffs again, it was a positive year for the franchise as they finished above .500, saw great improvement on defense, and still have a developing Jameis Winston going forward.
13. Redskins (8-7-1, LW: 13) In their most important game of the season, the Redskins just couldn’t sustain drives, going three-and-out five times and throwing two interceptions to Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie in a disappointing 19-10 loss at home. However, I do think Kirk Cousins has proved himself worthy of receiving a large, long-term contract. Cousins loves to air the ball out and gain yardage in big chunks and is still just 28 years old. He can lead this team successfully for years to come if the defense improves.
14. Ravens (8-8, LW: 12) Coach John Harbaugh announced that his team would do everything they could to beat the Bengals in week 17 despite being eliminated from the playoffs a week earlier. I fully believe Harbaugh, although maybe subconsciously it was just tougher for the team to stay motivated. Baltimore looked poor in a 27-10 loss that also marked the final game of future Hall-of-Famer Steve Smith’s career. Smith proved that toughness matters more than size, and has a lot to be proud of in a 16-year career, although I’m sure he would’ve liked it to end on a better note.
15. Broncos (9-7, LW: 17) Denver took full advantage of the Derek Carr-less Raiders, putting together another impressive defensive performance while also finding success on offensive for the first time in several weeks. Head coach Gary Kubiak sadly resigned from his position after the game due at least partially to health reasons, and announced he is retiring from coaching in the league. This leaves the Broncos with many questions on how to move forward, as now the starting quarterback and head coach from their Super Bowl team are gone.
16. Titans (9-7, LW: 16) Matt Cassel didn’t do much for the Titans in their 24-17 victory over the Texans (in fact, Rishard Matthews and Delanie Walker were the only receivers with multiple catches and more than three yards), but he really didn’t have to. Tennessee’s defense struck first with an end zone recovery of a Tom Savage fumble, and continued to shut down the Texans for most of the game. When things got close in the second half, Derrick Henry had a few big runs that sealed the deal. The Titans would be playoff bound if not for a loss against Jacksonville in week 16.
17. Texans (9-7, LW: 15) Texans fans should be happy their team clinched the AFC South in week 16 because it wasn’t happening this week. Tom Savage struggled before leaving the game with a concussion, putting Brock Osweiler back in charge of the offense. Osweiler was solid in relief but had a rough season overall. He’ll get his second chance in the playoffs, as Savage has already been ruled out for the game. Normally, these Texans wouldn’t stand much of a chance in the playoffs, but facing the Raiders at home, you have to like their chances.
18. Colts (8-8, LW: 18) You’ve seen it a million times before- Colts trail big at half, Andrew Luck steps it up, game is tight down the stretch. Indianapolis got the win at home against the Jaguars, although it really shouldn’t have been that close, to finish the season a .500 team for the second consecutive year. With the rise of the Titans, who look capable of becoming a playoff team, the Colts better figure things out fast or continue to be an average team. By the way, has anyone ever led the league in receiving while having a quieter season than T.Y. Hilton?
19. Cardinals (7-8-1, LW: 22) Luckily, the injury wasn’t serious- a sprained MCL that won’t require surgery. Still, David Johnson’s injury likely almost gave some Cardinals fans heart attacks and ended Johnson’s quest for 100 scrimmage yards in every game just one week short. The injury brings about an interesting conversation- should Johnson have played the game in the first place. Of course, resting him would take away the risk of him getting hurt, but then wouldn’t that mean every team should bench their starters after being eliminated from playoff contention? I don’t really have a problem with the Cardinals’ decision.
20. Saints (7-9, LW: 20) Sean Payton dismissed the rumors of a potential trade to the Rams and claimed his plan is to remain with the Saints next season. Still, his future isn’t certain, and one has to wonder how much more Drew Brees has in the tank despite leading the league in passing yards for the seventh time in his career. Simply put, the Saints are one of the league’s worst teams without Brees, and desperately need improvements on the defensive side of the ball.
21. Vikings (8-8, LW: 21) Congratulations to Sam Bradford for finishing this season with the highest completion percentage in NFL history. I’m honestly not quite sure how you pulled that off with one of the NFL’s statistically worst offenses, but it’s really an impressive feat. Before the season, going 8-8 without Teddy Bridgewater or Adrian Peterson would’ve been viewed as a success, so although they had some tough times following a 5-0 start, this hasn’t been a poor year for the team. Plus, they discovered wide receivers Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen.
22. Eagles (7-9, LW: 24) Sure, the Cowboys rested some players and Mark Sanchez isn’t really an intimidating quarterback. Regardless of that, the Eagles have to feel good about ending the year with wins over their two biggest rivals, who both happen to be playoff teams. It’s good momentum going into Carson Wentz and Doug Pederson’s second seasons. I think this team proved that they can compete, and would’ve finished better if not for some injuries and suspensions. Going forward, the NFC East is once a game a four-team juggernaut.
23. Bills (7-9, LW: 19) The Bills have the talent to be a winning football team but just haven’t lived up to their potential in recent years. Of course, it never helps to play in the same division as the never-ending dynasty called the Patriots, but they have the pieces to become a playoff team. However, now with Rex Ryan fired, the Bills are looking for their sixth head coach since 2009- there’s just too much turnover. Additionally, following his benching for E.J. Manuel after one of the best games of his career, Tyrod Taylor’s future with the team is up in the air as well.
24. Bengals (6-9-1, LW: 25) The Bengals impressive performance against the Ravens to close out a lackluster season will be overshadowed by the arrest of Adam “Pacman” Jones this morning for three misdemeanors and a felony. This is far from Pacman’s first encounter with the law, and obviously, the outcome of this incident remains to seen. Back to the game, though, it was a career day for running back Rex Burkhead, who went for 119 yards and two touchdowns in an impressive showing.
25. Panthers (6-10, LW: 21) From one loss to ten, the Panthers had a remarkable drop-off in 2016. Replication of a 15-1 season wasn’t going to happen, especially with free agent losses in the secondary, but no one was really expecting this. Hopefully a healthy Luke Kuechly will bring Carolina’s defense back to life and Cam Newton will learn from a very poor season to make the Panthers playoff contenders again in 2017.
26. Chargers (5-11, LW: 26) Chargers coach Mike McCoy was fired after a 5-11 season and five consecutive losses to end the year. It remains undecided whether a new stadium will be built in San Diego to keep the team in the city or whether the Chargers will move to Los Angeles with the Rams, although the latter seems increasingly likely. Philip Rivers led the league in interceptions this season but will get back key weapons including Keenan Allen next season.
27. Jets (5-11, LW: 29) The Jets had their way with the Bills in a 30-10 victory thanks to an efficient offense, winning the turnover battle, and shutting down the #1 rushing team in the league. It was the kind of performance that makes you wonder, “where was this all season long?” Ryan Fitzpatrick was the quarterback in the game, although he won’t be back next season. It should be an interesting offseason for the Jets, as it usually is for them.
28. Jaguars (3-13, LW: 27) And now for the weekly mandatory statement on Blake Bortles: his last two games of the season were actually pretty good. Apparently, he played most of the season with two shoulder separations and wrist tendonitis, which would explain some of his struggles. While this year was a step backwards, I still believe Bortles should be the team’s starter for next season. The team’s main focus over the offseason should be finding a head coach that can provide the discipline the team needs. Will Tom Coughlin be that coach?
29. Bears (3-13, LW: 28) The Vikings exploded for a season-high 38 points against the Bears, who turned the ball over five times for the second consecutive week. Despite a 3-13 campaign, Alshon Jeffery has already guaranteed a Super Bowl in 2017. I appreciate Jeffery’s efforts to motivate the team and fans, but come on- it’s not happening.
30. Rams (4-12, LW: 30) Well, the good news for the L.A. Rams is that it’ll be difficult for year two to be worse than year one. Over the course of the season, the Rams went 4-12, including losing 11 of their last 12 games, fired their head coach, and changed quarterbacks. Jared Goff put together a thoroughly unimpressive 1,089 yards, five touchdowns, and seven interceptions in seven games. It’s clear that the Rams will be looking for a head coach to properly develop Goff, but we never really saw flashes of brilliance in the #1 overall pick’s rookie season.
31. 49ers (2-14, LW: 31) Where should I start with the trainwreck of a season the 49ers just had? How about a number? 30. San Francisco allowed 30 points per game this season. Even with a great offense, you’d be lucky to go 8-8 with that kind of a defense behind you. Chip Kelly is gone after just one year as head coach, and general manager Trent Baalke is out the door as well, at least partially for not listening to many members of the staff who liked Dak Prescott in the draft. Next year will be the team’s fourth consecutive season with a new head coach. The 49ers are lost.
32. Browns (1-15, LW: 32) That was the most Browns game ever. Facing first and goal from the Steelers’ 5-yard-line with less than a minute remaining in a tie game, Isaiah Crowell fumbled the ball, forcing overtime. On the first drive of overtime, the Browns got another a chance, with first and goal from the 2. A touchdown would win the game. On first down, RG3 threw an incomplete pass. On second down, the Browns threw a screen pass that went for…wait for it…-14 yards. On third down, RG3 threw the ball away, leading to a field goal. On the next possession, the Steelers scored a touchdown, winning the game. I guess Cleveland really wanted the #1 pick…
Thanks to everyone who’s read the power rankings this season. I’ll have a podcast coming out over the next couple days with my picks for wild card weekend.