It took until the final week of the season, but the Cardinals have finally flown into the top spot of Chris Burke's Power Rankings. Here's how the rest of the teams shake out heading into Week 17.
The Patriots held the No. 1 spot in our Power Rankings from Week 1 through Week 11. The Panthers then jumped atop the mantle when New England faltered in Week 12, holding the lead until their first loss in Week 16.
And now, finally, the Cardinals have their turn.
Will they still be there come Feb. 8, the day after Super Bowl 50? Will the Patriots overcome their injury woes to repeat? Or can one of the other contenders, led by 14–1 Carolina, get to the top?
It should be a fun ride finding out. As the regular season wraps, here are how the Power Rankings stand:
Sometimes, the best evidence for a coaching staff's genius comes when it is forced into a tough spot. Not that anyone needs further evidence of how money Bruce Arians and co., have been in Arizona, but D.J. Swearinger's play the last two weeks have provided it. Swearinger, just signed on Dec. 1, was promoted from the practice squad on Dec. 8 and played 54 steady snaps with Rashad Johnson out in Week 15. Then with Johnson and Tyrann Mathieu down Sunday, Swearinger delivered as a starter, in Arizona's dominant defensive effort against the Packers.
The Broncos now have won three games this season after trailing by 14 points (against Kansas City, New England and Cincinnati, no less). They're also 3–0 in overtime and 5–1 against teams that already have clinched playoff berths. It's not always graceful, but Denver has found ways to win close games against very good opponents. That experience can go a long way come the postseason.
This is about the time each season where everyone tries to figure out which player will emerge as a surprise playoff star. So, here's a name to remember: Jerick McKinnon. The backup RB has hit big plays (and scored) in each of the past two weeks. He could be a game-changing safety valve should Teddy Bridgewater find himself under heavy pressure.
Cincinnati's problem in having an inexperienced QB at the helm was on full display Monday. AJ McCarron came out hot, armed with Hue Jackson's creative script vs. Denver's man-to-man approach. But when those scripted plays ran out and the Broncos switched to zone, it all fell apart. A learning experience for McCarron, sure, but this is a tough time to be going through those lessons.
This is sort of an NFL Rorschach test: What do you see when you look at the Steelers? Is this a Super Bowl contender whose knack for playing down to opponents caught up to it in Week 16? Or is it a mediocre team with enough offensive firepower to raise its game against the league's elite?
The Raiders will have a ton of money to spend this off-season, just as they did last off-season. They're the latest proof, though, that the simplest path from rebuild to respectability is through the draft. Derek Carr, Amari Cooper and Khalil Mack are just three pieces—OK, three huge pieces—of a 2013–15 run that's added no fewer than 10 reliable players to the fold.
Two weeks after a 38–0 loss to Carolina dumped the Falcons to the Power Rankings basement, an upset of the previously unbeaten Panthers moves them to the middle of the pack. Consider it a tip of the cap for a job well done in Week 16, even though their play from Weeks 8–14 made the result relatively meaningless.
Drew Brees has averaged 336.8 yards over his past four outings, with 11 total touchdown passes to just one interception. If the Saints do have thoughts about moving on from Brees after this season (and his $30 million cap hit puts the possibility on the table), this recent hot stretch could make it harder to say goodbye.
They are still alive in the AFC South race, much the way your Christmas tree will have a couple specks of green left when you lazily drag it to the curb in February. Indianapolis opened the year thinking Andrew Luck could lead it to a Super Bowl; it likely will finish Sunday with anyone healthy enough to pull a jersey on over his pads starting at QB.
The Chargers could be among the leading 2016 bounce-back candidates—they've been far more competitive than the 4–11 record shows. But first, they have to figure out if their coach is coming back (doubt it) and if they still will be playing in San Diego (really doubt it).
“It's not a finished product,” Lovie Smith said this week of his defense, making a late push into NFL's 2015 Things That Did Not Have to Be Said competition. Still, the Buccaneers actually inched closer to that finish line than it seemed they would early on this season.
Is it even worth parsing each Miami game at this point? The Dolphins haven't exactly rolled over, but they're also not playing the most inspired football, either. They had four chances to score a game-winning TD from Indianapolis's five-yard line late Sunday. The result of those plays: They lost nine yards.
With their 16–6 loss in Buffalo, the Cowboys now have scored seven points or fewer in four games this season. They also haven't cracked the 20-point barrier since before Thanksgiving. There are fun-to-watch bad teams and there are let's-never-speak-of-this-again bad teams. Dallas is the latter.
A line from the his biography page on the 49ers' official website states that Jim “Tomsula’s coaching career began with great uncertainty, but his desire to coach the game was steadfast.” Tomsula's first gig was as an assistant at Catawba College; his latest role, guiding the worst 49ers' team in a decade, has brought that story arc full circle.
Landing the No. 1 pick, as Tennessee would do with a Week 17 loss, one year after holding the No. 2 pick is not quite the progress this franchise had in mind. (The Titans do have one more win this season than they did a year ago.) The whole future rests on Marcus Mariota, and what the front office can build around him.