We’ve reached the conclusion of the regular season. The playoff field is set. The coaching carousel spins with furious velocity, and the NFL Power Rankings are back for one more all-32 countdown ahead of Super Bowl LVI.
The Packers have been our top team for nearly two months now, but the gap between Green Bay and the defending champion Buccaneers is far from vast. The same can be said at the top of our AFC rankings, where very little separates the defending conference champion Chiefs from legit threats in Tennessee, Buffalo and Cincinnati.
The best part? We get to see it all shake out over the next several weeks. This playoff thing is fun. I’m glad they do it every year.
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 18 NFL Power Rankings.
Previous rank: No. 1
Forget the final score at Ford Field. The Packers won on Sunday because they got David Bakhtiari back. The All-Pro left tackle, sidelined since tearing his ACL in practice on the last day of 2020, made a surprise return to the lineup in what served as a postseason dress rehearsal. Bakhtiari was on the field for 27 snaps against the Lions; the team hopes he’ll be able to play four quarters when the Packers reemerge in the Divisional Round. Rookie center Josh Myers (knee) also returned from an extended absence on Sunday, while right tackle Billy Turner (knee) could also return in two weeks. Better protection for Aaron Rodgers means bad news for the rest of the league.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Previous rank: No. 3
The Bucs’ title defense moves on to the playoffs on Sunday, but Bruce Arians started his week by stumping for his quarterback for league MVP honors. “I think if he doesn’t get it, it’s a travesty,” Arians said. “Most completions ever, 5,000 yards, touchdowns — the whole nine yards. To me, it’s not even a close race.” Brady has delivered another bonkers statistical season at 44 years old — if he wins his fourth MVP, it will be well earned. Tampa Bay, meanwhile, is set up very well this weekend with an ideal matchup against Philadelphia at home. The Bucs’ injury issues, not to mention the Antonio Brown melodrama, are well-documented, but Brady gives them legitimacy in any conversation of Super Bowl favorites.
Previous rank: No. 4
Melvin Ingram and Nick Bolton were the heroes on Saturday in Denver. Ingram delivered the crushing hit on Broncos running back Melvin Gordon, and Bolton scooped up the fumble and took it 86 yards to the house to secure a 28-24 win. The Chiefs’ hopes of landing the No. 1 seed were dashed when the Titans took care of business against the Texans a day later, but Kansas City still feels like the favorite to come out of the AFC — even if the team doesn’t seem quite as invincible as it did in recent Januarys. A huge injury to watch: Tyreek Hill was hampered by a heel ailment suffered during pregame warmups at Mile High — will that limit the star this weekend?
Previous rank: No. 7
Tennessee took care of business. Ryan Tannehill tied a career high with four touchdown passes and escaped trouble on a crucial third down in the fourth quarter to deliver one of the biggest completions of the year. It was the kind of performance we didn’t see enough of from Tannehill during the regular season, but the veteran quarterback enters the playoffs fully battle-tested and with a full complement of weapons at his disposal. It’s hard to overstate the importance of a first-round bye: While the rest of the Super Bowl contenders in the AFC battle it out for survival, the Titans get to sit back, rest up … and wait. They’ve already advanced.
Previous rank: No. 6
The Bills’ defense threw a party in the season finale against the Jets, a 27-10 win that doubled as a celebration of Buffalo’s second consecutive AFC East championship. Sean McDermott’s defense finished with nine sacks and held the last-place Jets to just 53 total net yards — the lowest single-game total in New York’s 62-year history. It wasn’t all pile-drivers-through-picnic-tables for the home team: The Buffalo attack underwhelmed against inferior competition for the second straight week, creating the question of whether Josh Allen and Co. will be able to flip a switch on Saturday night against the Patriots. The offense’s inconsistencies make the Bills an unpredictable playoff entrant, but the potential for a deep run is absolutely there.
Previous rank: No. 5
The late, great Chris Wesseling — our friend and longtime podcast partner — used to plan entire Saturday afternoons in January around one-and-done Bengals playoff cameos. The games — dubbed Wesstivus by the Cincinnati native — were typically played in the earliest window on Saturday and consistently ended with the Bengals going out in meek fashion. Wesstivus is back this Saturday — but with a twist: Andy Dalton is long gone, replaced by Joe Burrow and a relentless Cincy attack that will be heavily favored to knock off the just-happy-to-be-here Raiders. We wish Wess was around to celebrate the dawn of a new Bengals playoff tradition.
Previous rank: No. 12
The 49ers punched their ticket to the postseason with a stirring comeback win over the Rams that announced San Francisco as a legitimate threat to come out of the NFC. Jimmy Garoppolo — playing with a torn ligament in his throwing thumb — overcame a slow start to deliver a faith-affirming performance, while Deebo Samuel authored another unique masterpiece that included rushing and passing scores. The defense stepped up, as well, taking over the game in the trenches after a rocky first half. The Niners’ reward is a Sunday matchup with an inconsistent Cowboys team that has every right to be nervous about its first-round draw.
Previous rank: No. 2
The Rams blew leads of 17-0 and 24-17 in an ugly overtime loss to the 49ers that creates doubt around the NFC West champions as the playoffs begin. Who are the real Rams? And will their inconsistencies eventually doom them? Sean McVay, who lost his first NFL game after leading at halftime (he’s now 45-1 in that scenario, including the playoffs), was burned on Sunday by putting his faith in the defense: The coach opted to run the ball three times and punt it back to the Niners in the final minutes of regulation. San Francisco responded with a breezy 88-yard touchdown drive (with zero timeouts) before finishing off L.A. in overtime in front of tens of thousands of Niners fans at SoFi Stadium. It was an ominous Sunday.
Previous rank: No. 10
For the second time in three weeks, the Cowboys flexed their muscles in intimidating fashion. The victim this time was a shorthanded Eagles defense, which had no answers against the NFC East champs. Dak Prescott led the way in the Cowboys’ 51-26 win, throwing five touchdown passes to give him 35 for the season and bump Tony Romo from atop the franchise record books. Mike McCarthy’s team had no problem beating up on a pair of compromised divisions foes down the stretch, but the big question remains in Big D: Can the Cowboys play like bullies against superior competition?
New England Patriots
Previous rank: No. 8
The Patriots entered Sunday with a chance to take the AFC East with a win over the Dolphins and some help from the Jets, but it wasn’t their day. The Bills handled their business in Orchard Park, and New England delivered an uncharacteristically sloppy performance in a 33-24 loss in Miami. Mac Jones threw a pick-six and lost a fumble in the game; he enters his first NFL postseason as a question mark. How much can the Pats rely on their rookie signal-caller? Jones struggled against quality competition in the final weeks of the season and is now tasked with navigating a stout Bills defense that shut him down when these two teams met in Week 16.
Previous rank: No. 9
The table was set — the Cardinals just couldn’t take a seat. The Niners knocked off the Rams on Sunday, meaning a Cards win at home over the Seahawks would make Arizona the NFC West champs. But familiar problems resurfaced (momentum-killing penalties, a lack of splash plays on offense) in a 38-30 loss. Perhaps it’s for the best: Arizona had a woeful 3-5 mark at home this season compared with an 8-1 record away from State Farm Stadium. That is a stark difference in results, and we’ve already seen the Cardinals beat up on the Rams at SoFi Stadium back in Week 4. Could that dominant version of Kliff Kingsbury’s team reemerge on Monday night? It feels unlikely considering the team’s second-half fade, but you can’t rule it out.
Previous rank: No. 15
How about these resilient Raiders? Left for dead by many (including yours truly) after a grisly blowout loss to the Chiefs in Week 14, Las Vegas closed its season with four consecutive wins to advance to the postseason for the first time in half a decade. The Sunday night finale against the Chargers was brilliant theater: The Raiders took control of the game in the second half, coughed up a 15-point fourth-quarter lead, but still found a way to escape with an overtime win. “I just have this weird feeling in my heart like, The job’s not done,” Derek Carr said after the game. “Like my favorite player, Kobe (Bryant), said, ‘Job’s not done.’ ” Vegas is playing with house money on Saturday against the Bengals.
Previous rank: No. 14
There’s no use turning Saturday’s 51-26 loss to the Cowboys into a referendum on the Eagles as they turn their attention to the playoffs. Jalen Hurts and a host of defensive starters sat out Week 18, which likely explains how a competitive game turned into a laugher in the second half. But facts are facts, and the Iggles will enter the postseason tournament with exactly one win over a team that finished above .500, having downed the 9-8 Saints back in Week 11. If Hurts’ ankle allows him to be a playmaker, the Eagles and their dominant run game can put a scare into any NFC contender … but it’s also possible Philly will be exposed as a team out of its depth come Sunday.
Previous rank: No. 18
The rest of the AFC had a chance to put away the Zombie Steelers … but they all failed. And so the godless monster ambles on, roaming the postseason countryside in search of a new host to feed upon. Will it be the Chiefs who send the walking dead to a final resting place? Logically, yes, Kansas City is more than equipped to handle this task — but many of us thought the same about the Titans, Browns and Ravens. The Steelers are the creeping dread of the AFC playoff bracket — an uninvited guest whom no one knows quite how to get rid of.
Previous rank: No. 13
The Chargers nearly pulled it off. Justin Herbert willed the Bolts back to life against the Raiders with two touchdown drives in the final eight minutes of the fourth quarter, including an unforgettable game-tying march that included multiple fourth-and-long conversions and a touchdown pass to Mike Williams on the last play of regulation. Los Angeles couldn’t complete the comeback in overtime, however, ending another season for a star-crossed franchise that always seems to leave its fans asking, “What if?” The first order of business in the offseason: Identify a solution that addresses the team’s most crippling deficiency — run defense.
Previous rank: No. 11
A memorable Colts season ends in devastation. Indy completed a stunning free fall out of playoff contention with a 26-11 loss to the Jaguars that will live on in franchise infamy. The strangest part? Nothing about the outcome felt like a fluke. The Jaguars were the better team from the opening kickoff, dominating the heavily favored Colts on both sides of the ball. Carson Wentz struggled to lead the offense, but he was far from alone — Indy came up short across the spectrum. “Never expected to be sitting here at this moment right now, not like this,” head coach Frank Reich said. “We just didn’t get it done, coaching or playing.” This is the kind of loss that can produce ripple effects for an organization.
Previous rank: No. 17
The Dolphins closed their season with eight wins in nine weeks — but it wasn’t enough to keep Brian Flores employed. The coach was dismissed after three seasons on Monday, a surprise ouster that adds another layer of intrigue to an incredibly important offseason in Miami. “An organization can only function if it’s collaborative, and it works well together,” owner Stephen Ross said. “And I don’t think that we were really working well as an organization [the way] it would take to really win consistently at the NFL level.” It’s a bold decision by an owner unhappy with his team’s internal process, even if the results suggested Flores was on the right track.
Previous rank: No. 16
Sean Payton isn’t going to take home Coach of the Year honors this year, but you can make the case this was the best job he ever did on the Saints’ sideline. New Orleans finished with a winning record despite an avalanche of injuries, four different starting quarterbacks and a month-long shift to Dallas and Jacksonville due to Hurricane Ida and a small fire on the roof of the Superdome. The biggest storyline this offseason will revolve around quarterback, where Payton and Saints GM Mickey Loomis have a huge decision to make at the game’s most important position. Will they stick with Jameis Winston (currently rehabbing a torn ACL), or start over? It’s easy to imagine Payton looking at the Rams this year and wanting to find his own Matthew Stafford. Who would that be?
Previous rank: No. 24
It was all too little, too late, but it was nice to see the return of the explosive Seahawks offense in the season’s final weeks. Russell Wilson looked much more like himself, and the offense was electrified by the sudden emergence of former first-round pick Rashaad Penny, who set another career-high with 190 yards and a touchdown on 23 carries against the Cardinals. Penny rushed for 671 rushing yards over the final five weeks, 208 yards more than the next closest running back (Jonathan Taylor). The offseason begins with a Big Question: Will Wilson and Pete Carroll continue their partnership? A positive end to an otherwise disappointing season may increase the chances the quarterback and coach stay together.
Previous rank: No. 20
The Browns staved off the indignity of double-digit losses with a victory over the JV Bengals, but there’s no escaping the stench of failure that defined Cleveland’s season. Now it’s on the team’s brain trust to fix it. The biggest question is the most obvious one: Should Baker Mayfield remain the man under center? Cleveland plans to run it back with the former No. 1 overall pick next season, but that’s also part of the dance: The Browns want to keep their leverage in the event an upgrade possibility presents itself and Mayfield becomes expendable. Back in Week 1, it seemed impossible the Browns could envision an immediate future that didn’t involve Mayfield. Change comes fast in the NFL.
Previous rank: No. 21
The 2021 season felt like a potential make-or-break year for head coach Mike Zimmer and general manager Rick Spielman … and that’s exactly how it played out. The Vikings stumbled to a disappointing 8-9 finish and both men were shown the door on Monday after lengthy tenures with the organization. While most of the focus on Vikings success or failure tends to focus on Kirk Cousins, it was the regression of Minnesota’s defense that ultimately led to the team’s downturn. The Vikes’ D ranked 30th in football this season — four years after boasting the league’s top-ranked unit and going to the NFC Championship Game. The incoming regime needs to pour resources into that side of the ball.
Previous rank: No. 19
And so it was that perhaps the most frustrating season in franchise history ended with one final indignity: An overtime loss at home that allowed the hated Steelers to sneak in the back door of the playoffs. A campaign that began with such promise (Baltimore had the best record in the AFC after a prime-time win over the Browns on Thanksgiving weekend) ended with a six-game losing streak and historic attrition on both sides of the ball. The not-so-fun-fact that defined the season: The Ravens started a franchise record 47 different players and tied another franchise mark by dressing 75 different guys this season. The Football Gods had their way with this team.
Previous rank: No. 25
A 28-24 loss to the Chiefs served as fitting synopsis of the 2021 season and, in general, Vic Fangio’s three-year tenure with the team, which ended Sunday when Denver announced it was moving on from its head coach. The Broncos delivered a strong defensive performance that put them in position for a huge upset, but failures by the offense kept the team from achieving liftoff. The mistake this time was devastating in nature: A red-zone fumble by Melvin Gordon in the fourth quarter that turned into the game-swinging touchdown return by Kansas City. Denver management will likely look to replace Fangio with a more offensive-minded individual, but nothing is changing for this team until it finds a difference-maker at quarterback.
Previous rank: No. 23
Bears fans won’t have Matt Nagy to kick around anymore. The head coach was dismissed on Monday after four seasons, a tenure that included a 34-31 record and pair of one-and-done playoff appearances. Chicago also parted ways with general manager Ryan Pace, who was unable to keep his chair despite making the bold move to trade up for quarterback Justin Fields in last April’s draft. Fields struggled with injuries and inconsistency during his rookie year, a reality that likely sealed the fate of his coach and general manager. Fields’ upside makes the Bears an attractive destination on the surface, but concerns of organization dysfunction linger.
Previous rank: No. 22
Arthur Smith’s first season with the Falcons included a slew of close victories that obscured a harsh reality: Atlanta is closer to the bottom of the NFC than the top. There are plenty of questions as the offseason begins: Should Matt Ryan remain the face of this franchise? Does Calvin Ridley still have a future with the team? Will Cordarelle Patterson get a big raise after his breakout season? How do you improve a defense that has been a liability? Smith and GM Terry Fontenot have to flip a lot of right levers to return this team to legitimate contention.
Washington Football Team
Previous rank: No. 26
Week 18 offered a nice reminder that the Washington Football Team isn’t particularly close to contention … but it’s not the Giants, either. The offseason will bring yet more speculation about the rotating door that is Washington’s QB position. Taylor Heinicke has the ceiling of an above-average backup, but the Football Team desperately needs a difference-maker. Ron Rivera and Co. also have to figure out why the defense — pegged as a team strength entering the year — underachieved the way it did. Injuries and COVID-19 madness played a role, but the struggles went deeper.
Previous rank: No. 27
These Texans were fighters. This wasn’t the most talented roster — it was probably in the bottom five by that metric — but the team fought hard for first-year coach David Culley and became increasingly competitive as the season went on. NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero and Ian Rapoport reported Sunday that Culley could be one-and-done, which would essentially prove our summertime theory that Culley was only given the big chair to preside over a grim transition year for the franchise. He delivered a performance that deserves a second season on the sideline, but it’s possible that was never the plan in Houston.
Previous rank: No. 29
The Lions just completed the most celebrated three-win season in the history of the sport. A 37-30 victory over the Packers on Sunday might have cost Detroit the No. 1 pick in the draft, but many long-suffering Lions fans will trade that missed opportunity for the entertaining product the team delivered for four-plus months. Dan Campbell built these young Lions into fighters — he envisioned his players as feisty underdogs (never forget the promise of endangered kneecaps) and then turned them into exactly that. The next step is the toughest, of course: The Lions need to go from lovable underdogs to playoff contenders. The work continues.
Previous rank: No. 28
A season of growing pains ended on a down note for the Jets, who managed just 53 yards of offense (an all-time franchise low) in a 27-10 loss to the Bills. Zach Wilson showed signs of progress in the final weeks of the season, and now it’s on general manager Joe Douglas to build a more competitive roster around the young quarterback. Major areas of need include playmaker talent at wide receiver and tight end, as well as help on all fronts for a defense that ranked 32nd in football. With the postseason drought at a league-worst 11 years, it’s long past due for the Jets to make a return to pro football relevance.
Previous rank: No. 30
The Panthers still believe Matt Rhule can be the answer on the sideline, but nothing will change if this team can’t eliminate its gross deficiencies on offense. Carolina averaged less than 18 points per game, as subpar play at quarterback and along the offensive line shipwrecked the attack. Add in dysfunction within the coaching ranks (offensive coordinator Joe Brady was fired in-season) and another injury-plagued year for Christian McCaffrey (hamstring/ankle), and the Panthers’ second-half nosedive makes sense. A sensible first step: Rhule needs to lock down a new play-caller, then decide if quarterback Sam Darnold should remain in the equation.
Previous rank: No. 32
A perfect Sunday in an imperfect season. The Jaguars shocked the world in their season finale, knocking the Colts out of playoff contention with a 26-11 win at TIAA Bank Field. The Jags played easily their best game of the season, beating up the Colts in the trenches while getting a strong performance from Trevor Lawrence, who goes into the offseason on an optimistic note. Best of all? The Lions knocked off the top-seeded Packers in Detroit, another upset that secured Jacksonville the No. 1 pick in the 2022 NFL Draft. Yes, it was a perfect Sunday.
Previous rank: No. 31
The Giants have their work cut out for them this offseason. A proud franchise cratered in 2021, reduced to punchline status as loss after loss piled up and the team became increasingly non-competitive. Dave Gettleman conveniently excused himself from the mess he helped create, announcing his retirement on Monday. That officially puts Big Blue in the market for a new GM and team builder, but what about Joe Judge? Does the embattled head coach get a third year with a 10-23 record to his name? Should the inconsistent and injury-plagued Daniel Jones still be seen as the future at quarterback? This is one of those messes where anxiety comes from not being sure where to even start.