Every season since the NFL moved to its current, 12-team playoff format in 1990, four teams have qualified for the playoffs that did not make it the previous year. Through seven weeks of the 2015 regular season, the league is right on track.
If the postseason started today, the Jets, Falcons, Giants and Vikings all would get an invite—none made it last year. The list of party-crashers could grow beyond four this year, too, because of how teams like Oakland, St. Louis, Washington and, of late, Miami are playing.
There is much less drama up top. Five teams are undefeated, and they lead off our latest Power Rankings:
1. New England Patriots
• BEDARD: Brady flashes fourth-quarter mastery vs. Jets
2. Green Bay Packers
By the time they welcome in Chicago on Thanksgiving night, the Packers either will be in a fight with Minnesota for the division or they'll have run away as the NFC's team to beat. Their next four: at Denver, at Carolina, Detroit, at Minnesota. Buckle up. (Seat belts optional for the Lions game.)
3. Cincinnati Bengals
A member of the NFL since 1970, the Bengals never have started a season 7–0. To get there this year, they'll have to find some way to slow down Ben Roethlisberger, assuming he makes his return. In two wins over the Bengals a year ago, Roethlisberger threw for a combined 667 yards and five touchdowns.
4. Carolina Panthers
The Panthers' defense and style of play does not leave their opponents with much margin for error. To wit: When Carolina has hit or topped the 20-point mark the past three seasons, it has a record of 22-2-1. Cam Newton's club has gone over that number in all six wins this year.
5. Denver Broncos
There are three teams averaging a paltry 5.0 yards per play this season, tied for last in the league. They are the Broncos, Texans and 49ers. The latter two are a combined 4–10 this season, while Denver heads into Week 8 still holding an unblemished record. Is the success sustainable?
6. Minnesota Vikings
• FARRAR: Vikings have quietly become NFC contender
7. New York Jets
Whereas Rex Ryan used to treat games against the Patriots like the fate of the world depended on them, Todd Bowles consistently brushed off the matchup as just one of 16 to play this regular season. That approach could come in handy this week, as the Jets try to rebound from the loss on a tough road trip out to Oakland.
8. Arizona Cardinals
The popular NFL theory goes that running backs hit a wall once they turn 30. And then along came ol' Benjamin Button Chris Johnson, 30 as of Sept. 23, rediscovering his game in the desert. Monday night's showing vs. Baltimore was as close to CJ2K as we've seen in a long time.
9. Atlanta Falcons
• BELLER: Fiction: Everything is just fine with Matt Ryan in Atlanta
10. St. Louis Rams
The Florida Marlins. That's who won the World Series in 2003, the last time St. Louis was above .500 in November. It could happen again Sunday, if the Rams can dodge an upset attempt by division rival San Francisco.
11. Seattle Seahawks
Michael Bennett is like the crazy uncle of NFL players—remember last month when he didn't like Matthew Stafford because Stafford is from Dallas and that's where JFK was assassinated? He's also a phenomenal defensive lineman, as Colin Kaepernick found out during Bennett's 3.5-sack show on Thursday.
12. Pittsburgh Steelers
Ben Roethlisberger is set to return, just in time for a three-game homestand that begins when Cincinnati visits on Sunday. Pittsburgh averaged 458.5 yards in the two full games Roethlisberger played to start the year; that number dropped to 304 in Weeks 3 through 7.
13. Miami Dolphins
Things have improved in such rapid fashion under Dan Campbell that to summarize it properly we'd need an '80s training montage and the rights to “Eye of the Tiger.” If the Dolphins win at New England on Thursday, they may as well just hand Campbell a lifetime contract.
14. New York Giants
Are the Giants the best team in the East? That's like asking, “Which 'Transformers movie is your favorite?” It doesn't matter. They're all garbage. Fine, perhaps we're being a little unfair to the Giants—they are 4–3 and in first place, after all. If the defense keeps producing turnovers like it has lately (eight over the past two games), they should be able to stay there.
15. Oakland Raiders
The Raiders led San Diego by 27 at one point Sunday. They only scored 27 points once last season, coincidentally in a 31–28 loss to the Chargers. There is a lot to like about this team, and with a few more efforts like the one in Week 7, people will start to notice.
16. Washington Redskins
• BENOIT: How Kirk Cousins made it all work for one afternoon
17. Philadelphia Eagles
Ryan Mathews is averaging 6.1 yards per carry and 8.1 yards per catch this season. DeMarco Murray's numbers in the same two categories are 3.5 and 5.7, respectively. Murray has been more productive recently, but the limited use of Mathews grows more indefensible by the week.
18. New Orleans Saints
Three rookies have made a massive difference on defense for the Saints: Stephone Anthony, Hau'oli Kikaha and Delvin Breaux. Kikaha is up to 4.0 sacks in his first season, and Breaux, out of nowhere, is starting to look like a shut-down cornerback.
19. Indianapolis Colts
• FARRAR: Colts' issues could lead to huge offseason shakeup
20. Cleveland Browns
The Browns are 2–5 and just lost to St. Louis by 18. Are there really a dozen teams worse than they are right now? Well ... probably. The NFL has all the competitive balance of a baby deer on ice this season. At least the Browns are capable of knocking off one or two of the big boys.
21. Buffalo Bills
• FARRAR: A now contrite Rex Ryan seems to have lost the Bills
22. Dallas Cowboys
If we pretend the Cowboys' season is an on-demand TV show, then the Tony Romo injury is one of those ads that you aren't allowed to fast forward through. The best chance Dallas has of staying in the race continues to be rooting for its division rivals to lose.
23. San Diego Chargers
Sunday was humiliating, from the insurmountable halftime deficit to the thousands of Oakland fans who overran San Diego's stadium. Philip Rivers is on pace to throw the second-most passes in an NFL season (710), and that is definitely not a good thing.
24. Chicago Bears
Not that the Bears are primed for a playoff run or anything, but they could make tangible progress by knocking off Minnesota this Sunday. The flip side, should they pull it off, is that they'd feel even worse about letting their Week 6 game at Detroit get away.
25. San Francisco 49ers
Even by Thursday night's diminished standards, the 49ers' offense vs. Seattle was a train wreck. They finished with 124 yards passing, 61 yards rushing and 43 yards lost to sacks.
26. Kansas City Chiefs
Way to go, Eric Berry. One does not need to be a Chiefs fan to give the Kansas City safety a tip of the cap. In Sunday's win over Pittsburgh, Berry picked off his first pass of 2015—and his first since his '14 season came to a screeching halt when he was diagnosed with cancer.
27. Baltimore Ravens
Slumps have a way of magnifying every little issue that pops up during the course of a game. So Joe Flacco's underthrow of a potential deep touchdown, and a controversial call on a fumble, and a downright ridiculous illegal formation penalty must feel like par for the course in Baltimore.
28. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Lovie Smith has produced a lot of success over his NFL career. Right now, though, he is as much a “defensive guru” as Al Golden is an all-time University of Miami coaching great. Never has a 24-point lead felt less secure than it did for the Bucs in Washington.
29. Houston Texans
The Texans opted not to cut Ryan Mallett prior to their Week 7 game, presumably because they did not want to risk being without a backup quarterback. The question is: Would anyone have noticed? A monkey riding a dog could have played quarterback for Houston in the first half and it wouldn't have changed anything.
30. Jacksonville Jaguars
This question alone sums up the state of the AFC South, but are the Jaguars the biggest threat to take a division title from Indianapolis? After a wild win over Buffalo, maybe. Jacksonville's passing attack is creeping toward being quite good.
31. Tennessee Titans
• BURKE: AFC South's terrible start could mean big changes ahead
32. Detroit Lions
They canned offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi this week, along with a couple of assistants. Jim Caldwell could be next, and then the Lions can start the process of looking for their next coach ... who will be fired sometime before the 2018 season.