NFL Power Rankings Week 17: Cards fly to top for final week of season

2:36 | NFL
SI's NFL Power Rankings: Week 17
Wednesday December 30th, 2015

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:

NFL Week 17 Power Rankings
  • 1
    1Arizona Cardinals
    last week: 2
    record: 13–2
    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.

  • 2
    2Carolina Panthers
    last week: 1
    record: 14–1
    All due respect to esteemed SI colleague Don Banks, but I'm not buying that losing their perfect record helps the Panthers. For starters, they now have to go all-out in Week 17 lest they surrender the NFC top seed to Arizona. Plus, we're underselling how remarkable a perfect season is—there have been 49 Super Bowl champs and just one team to finish the regular season 16–0.

  • 3
    3Kansas City Chiefs
    last week: 6
    record: 10–5
    The top three rushing quarterbacks this season are no surprise: Cam Newton, Russell Wilson and the elusive Tyrod Taylor. No. 4, with a career high 437 yards rushing, is Kansas City's Alex Smith. His passing numbers are below league average and he takes too many sacks (44, most in the NFL), but Smith quietly has been excelling for the resurgent Chiefs.

  • 4
    4New England Patriots
    last week: 3
    record: 12–3
    Bill Belichick has earned his spot among the pantheon of all-time great NFL coaches, but we're not really giving him credit for kicking off in OT, are we? Playing his few remaining healthy starters 60-plus minutes just to tank so the Steelers miss the playoffs is an evil plan even a Bond villain would find needlessly complicated.

  • 5
    5Denver Broncos
    last week: 7
    record: 11–4
    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.

  • 6
    6New York Jets
    last week: 9
    record: 10–5
    GM Mike Maccagnan sent Chicago a fifth-round draft choice in exchange for Brandon Marshall (100 receptions and has a career high 13 touchdowns this season). A few days later, Maccagnan acquired QB Ryan Fitzpatrick (3,700 yards and 29 TDs) for a conditional sixth-rounder. He basically accomplished the same thing you did when you talked your friend into trading a Ken Griffey Jr. rookie card for, like, eight Mike Gallegos.

  • 7
    8seattle Seahawks
    last week: 5
    record: 9–6
    The Seahawks looked like a team with little to play for in a Week 15 loss to St. Louis—they already were locked into the No. 5 or 6 seed ahead of that game. They also, for the first time in a few weeks, looked like a team whose O-line issues could be its undoing come the postseason.

  • 8
    8Minnesota Vikings
    last week: 11
    record: 10–5
    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.

  • 9
    9Washington Redskins
    last week: 12
    record: 8–7
    The argument against the Redskins right now is that they haven't beaten any “good” teams—all of their eight wins are against sub-.500 teams. OK, and ... so? They don't give the Vince Lombardi Trophy to the team with the toughest strength of schedule. Washington is playing its best football as the playoffs approach, a method many underdogs have parlayed into deep runs.

  • 10
    10Cincinnati Bengals
    last week: 8
    record: 11–4
    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.

  • 11
    11Houston Texans
    last week: 13
    record: 8–7
    The Texans' opponents are running just 5.2 plays per drive, per Pro Football Reference, the lowest number in the league. Only the Panthers and Broncos are coughing up fewer yards per possession than Houston (25.6) and it is giving up scores on just 28% of drives, fifth-best. The Texans may be the worst AFC playoff team, in theory, but matching up with their defense does not make for a fun proposition.

  • 12
    12Pittsburgh Steelers
    last week: 5
    record: 9–6
    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?

  • 13
    13Green Bay Packers
    last week: 10
    record: 10–5
    Aaron Rodgers is not playing well right now, nowhere close to what we've come to expect from the two-time MVP. But that pass protection Sunday in Arizona ... ever see someone pick a fight with a group of people only to turn around and realize no one has his back? Yeah, it was like that.

  • 14
    14Oakland Raiders
    last week: 14
    record: 7–8
    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.

  • 15
    15St. Louis Rams
    last week: 16
    record: 7–8
    Jeff Fisher this season has gone 2–0 against the Seahawks, 4–1 against the NFC West and 0–1 against backwards hats. A win Sunday would give the Rams their first non-losing season since 2008. Yet again, this team feels close to being a playoff contender with a major question mark looming at quarterback. Where have we heard that before?

  • 16
    16Atlanta Falcons
    last week: 27
    record: 8–7
    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.

  • 17
    17Detroit Lions
    last week: 18
    record: 6–9
    The Lions are two of the season's most bizarre finishes—Calvin Johnson's goal-line fumble on a Monday night in Seattle and Aaron Rodgers' Hail Mary on a Monday night in Detroit—from possibly having playoff life. Granted, that doesn't help much, although it might come to Jim Caldwell's aid in a few days, when he has a chat about his job.

  • 18
    18New Orleans Saints
    last week: 24
    record: 6–9
    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.

  • 19
    19Philadelphia Eagles
    last week: 15
    record: 6–9
    Well, the Eagles' disappointing season led to Chip Kelly getting fired before Black Monday even arrived. So now, it'll be a new team for Chip Kelly, if he chooses to stay in the NFL, and it'll be back to the drawing board. And by drawing board, I mean giant wall covered with pictures and press clippings of all the former Oregon players in the NFL.

  • 20
    20Indianapolis Colts
    last week: 22
    record: 7–8
    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.

  • 21
    21Chicago Bears
    last week: 21
    record: 6–9
    There are others above him in the Comeback Player of the Year race, but Zach Miller's return this season is outstanding enough on its own, with or without an official award to celebrate it. Miller injured his shoulder in 2011, tore his Achilles in ’12, suffered a concussion in ’13 and went down with a Lisfranc injury during the ’14 preseason. He leads the Bears this year with five touchdown receptions.

  • 22
    22San Diego Chargers
    last week: 20
    record: 4–11
    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).

  • 23
    23New York Giants
    last week: 17
    record: 6–9
    Watching the Giants without Odell Beckham Jr. holds all the appeal of a “Rochelle, Rochelle” performance minus Bette Midler. Hard to believe this Sunday could be Tom Coughlin's swan song. He's been with the Giants since 2005, but it feels like at least twice as long.

  • 24
    24Tampa Bay Buccaneers
    last week: 19
    record: 6–9
    “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.

  • 25
    25Buffalo Bills
    last week: 23
    record: 7–8
    Rex Ryan at his Jan. 14 introductory press conference: “I know it's been 15 years since the Bills made the playoffs. Well, get ready, man, we're going. We are going.” Rex Ryan on Monday, to WGR 550 in Buffalo: “The thing that kind of gives this team a black eye when we're looking at it is that I let my mouth get ahead of everything.” Annnnnd scene.

  • 26
    26Miami Dolphins
    last week: 25
    record: 5–10
    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.

  • 27
    27Baltimore Ravens
    last week: 31
    record: 5–10
    Because so few teams get a title shot in the college football post-season, fan bases there often have this this sort of discussion: “Would you rather have your team win nine games but lose to its biggest rival, or win four games but beat its biggest rival?” The Ravens won't be at all satisfied with this year, but sweeping the Steelers and possibly knocking them from the playoffs will help bridge the gap to 2016.

  • 28
    28Dallas Cowboys
    last week: 26
    record: 4–11
    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.

  • 29
    29Jacksonville Jaguars
    last week: 28
    record: 5–10
    Jacksonville owner Shad Khan announced this week that coach Gus Bradley will return for 2016, his fourth season at the helm. Considering Bradley's record (12–35) that's an almost shocking level of patience from the Jaguars, but how often does it pay off when franchises swap regimes every two or three years?

  • 30
    30Cleveland Browns
    last week: 29
    record: 3–12
    By my count, the internet now is made up of 75% adult websites, 15% daily sports and 10% Johnny Manziel partying videos. We're set up for another tumultuous off-season from one of the league's most chaotic organizations.

  • 31
    31San Francisco 49ers
    last week: 32
    record: 4–11
    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.

  • 32
    32Tennessee Titans
    last week: 29
    record: 3–12
    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.

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