• Dallas is clearly the cream of the crop in the NFL right now. But from the Chiefs to the Patriots to even the Dolphins, you can make a case for quite a few teams who deserve that second spot.
By Chris Burke
November 30, 2016

The Cowboys have won 10 straight and are threatening to run away with the NFC. They’ve won in Washington, Pittsburgh and Green Bay. They also have a victory over AFC North-leading Baltimore and took down the Redskins again Thursday. They have to be No. 1 in Power Rankings right now.

But what about No. 2?

The Patriots certainly have a case as the AFC’s current No. 1 playoff seed, even if they struggled throughout November. The Raiders, tied with New England at 9–2, are in the mix with five straight wins. Or, how about Kansas City? Sure, the Chiefs have three losses, but they also have victories at Oakland and Denver.

Are the Seahawks still part of the conversation, despite their ugly loss in Tampa Bay? They’re positioned for a bye, and they won in New England not too long ago. The Falcons? The surging Dolphins? The 8–3 Giants? The Lions?

O.K., maybe the list of contenders for that 2-hole doesn’t go that deep, but there’s a lot of room for debate behind Dallas. Let’s find out how everything looks.

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1Cleveland Browns
last week: 32
record: 0–12

“You’ll come down from the Lurch with an unpleasant bump. And the chances are, then, that you’ll be in a Slump. And when you’re in a Slump, you’re not in for much fun. Un-slumping yourself is not easily done.” — Dr. Seuss, Oh, the Places You’ll Go

3Chicago Bears
last week: 30
record: 2–9

Matt Barkley far exceeded expectations in his debut start. So much so, in fact, that had his wide receivers not spent Sunday afternoon treating the football as if it were a pie they were taking out of the oven with their bare hands (bear hands?), he would have scored a comeback win over Tennessee.

4los angeles Rams
last week: 27
record: 4–7

To frustrated Rams fans, the head coaches around the rest of the league all must look like Robin Williams’s character from Dead Poets Society—exciting, energetic, different. Meanwhile, they’re stuck with the headmaster who makes them read that “Understanding Poetry” essay.

5Jacksonville Jaguars
last week: 28
record: 2–9

A silver lining in this season, akin to your garage still standing after a tornado decks your entire house, is that the Jaguars’ defense actually has been rather solid for about a month now. It would be easier to take notice of the improvement if Jacksonville could actually finish a game.

7Cincinnati Bengals
last week: 26
record: 3–7

Cincinnati’s offense actually ranks in the top 10 in yardage this season but just 27th in points. That drop-off speaks both to issues in the red zone and turnovers. Andy Dalton had 6.5% of his passes result in touchdowns last season, a career best. He’s down to 2.9% in 2016, one of the worst marks in football.

8Arizona Cardinals
last week: 25
record: 4-6-1

Bruce Arians said the idea of tanking for a better draft pick would be “absolutely asinine,” even though his team can max out at 9–6–1 and likely will be an underdog at least twice more. But at some point, the line between losing on purpose and just being flat out bad becomes rather blurred anyway.

9Philadelphia Eagles
last week: 23
record: 5–6

The Eagles all but ran out of receivers, offensive linemen and running backs Monday, but the real problem was that their defense could not get off the field. Green Bay finished 10 of 14 on third downs, its final drive stretching 15 plays and lasting approximately the length of It’s a Wonderful Life.

10Minnesota Vikings
last week: 19
record: 6–5

That Sam Bradford interception, in a tie game with 30 seconds left Thursday, was to football what your random relative’s “So, who did you vote for?” question was to a quiet Thanksgiving dinner. Stranger things have happened, but Minnesota might be too deep into its tailspin now to pull itself out.

11Carolina Panthers
last week: 22
record: 4–7
12Tennessee Titans
last week: 21
record: 6–6

The Titans were seven yards away from pouring gasoline on their season and lighting a match, only to keep Chicago—with the help of a butter-fingered receiving corps—out of the end zone. A late Week 13 bye gives Tennessee time to recharge.

13Houston Texans
last week: 14
record: 6–5

In a poll on SB Nation’s Battle Red Blog, 79% of respondents (as of Tuesday) believed the Texans should bench Brock Osweiler. (SI.com’s Greg Bedard expressed the same thought in his Week 12 wrapup column.) To which I would counter: If the Texans had any faith that Tom Savage or Brandon Weeden could get it done this year, Osweiler would not have the money to be able to watch game film from a golden throne while sipping 50-year-old single malt scotch and eating unicorn steaks.

14Indianapolis Colts
last week: 18
record: 5–6

The Colts’ best play last Thursday came on a pass from their punter to their third-string tight end, so ... let’s just move on. A trip to the Jets this week is important, but the Colts’ season really hinges on Week 14 against Houston—a loss there would allow the Texans to pocket the head-to-head season sweep tiebreaker.

16Baltimore Ravens
last week: 22
record: 6–5

The offense remains suspect and the schedule is about to turn tricky, but there is little doubt that at least Baltimore’s defense continues to be playoff-caliber. Opposing teams are scoring on 24.8% of their drives this year—and that’s any scoring, not just touchdowns. The next best defense in that regard is Los Angeles (27.9%). There are 28 teams checking in at 30% or higher.

18New Orleans Saints
last week: 17
record: 5–6

Sean Payton treated L.A. defensive coordinator (and “Bountygate” creator) Gregg Williams with all the hospitality of a murdered child in a horror movie who terrorizes the new owners of his house. Admit it: You’re a little surprised Payton didn’t go for two and try to hit 50 points after Willie Snead’s trick-play touchdown pass.

19San Diego Chargers
last week: 16
record: 5–6

The Chargers almost certainly will wind up among the Best Teams to Miss the Playoffs, an honor right up there with winning a T-shirt for eating a 72-ounce steak in 15 minutes. Still, with games against Tampa Bay, Oakland and Kansas City left, this is a potential spoiler no opponent will want to see.

20Buffalo Bills
last week: 12
record: 6–5

Can the Bills find four more wins on a schedule that still includes games with Oakland, Pittsburgh and Miami? Does Rex Ryan deserve Coach of the Year consideration if he somehow gets his team to the playoffs? Is that Rob Ryan’s real hair or does he just refuse to take off a Gandalf wig? All questions without easy answers.

22New York Giants
last week: 11
record: 8–3

There has been surprisingly little buzz about the Giants, considering that if Dallas loses at Minnesota Thursday, they actually would control their own destiny within the NFC East. Perhaps blame it on their penchant for escaping trouble: Sunday’s win over Cleveland was the Giants’ first double-digit victory since Nov. 8, 2015.

24Tampa Bay Buccaneers
last week: 13
record: 6–5

Tampa Bay’s defense now has forced 20 turnovers on the season, good for a third-place tie in that category. Not bad for a unit that came up with just two takeaways total in Weeks 1 through 4, as the Buccaneers struggled to a 1–3 start.

25Denver Broncos
last week: 5
record: 7–4

The Broncos finished last season 4–2 against the AFC West, part of why they were able to hold of Kansas City’s charge. Thanks to Sunday’s heartbreaking loss, the best they can do this year is 3–3, and that’s if they beat the Chiefs (on the road) and Raiders back-to-back in Weeks 16 and 17.

26Miami Dolphins
last week: 6
record: 7–4
27Atlanta Falcons
last week: 9
record: 7–4

Passing numbers have skewed in favor of quarterbacks over recent years—Dan Marino was the only QB in NFL history with a 5,000-yard passing season until 2008; that number has been reached seven times since. Still, only Marino, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees and Matthew Stafford have hit the 5K mark. Matt Ryan is on pace for 5,113 yards right now.

28Seattle Seahawks
last week: 2
record: 7-3-1

The rules for my college intramural flag-football league stated that linemen had to “block” while keeping their hands behind their backs, so I feel ya, Russell Wilson. The Seahawks now have been held under 10 points three different times. They still should win the NFC West and wind up with a first-round bye, but is their issue up front a fatal flaw?

29Kansas City Chiefs
last week: 7
record: 8–3

30New England Patriots
last week: 3
record: 9–2

The Patriots faced a top-10 strength of schedule back in April when the NFL released its 2016 slate. It hasn’t played out quite that way. Just three of New England’s 11 games have come against teams currently in the playoff picture, and the only one since Tom Brady returned to the lineup was his lone loss of the year (Week 10 vs. Seattle).

31Oakland Raiders
last week: 4
record: 9–2

Funny, but that whole EA Sports “If it’s in the game, it’s in the game” mantra never got around to a quarterback dislocating his finger on his center’s butt. Between Derek Carr’s injury and Carolina’s 25 unanswered points, the Raiders easily could have folded Sunday. That they responded with their own rally is emblematic of why they’re sitting at 9–2.

32Dallas Cowboys
last week: 1
record: 10–1

How does Dallas know that things are going right? When stuff like this happens: Thursday marked the first time ever—for a franchise dating back to 1960—that the Cowboys had allowed 500-plus yards in a game (Washington had 505), gained fewer than 400 yards (Dallas had 353) and still won. Just how exactly do you beat this team?

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