THE FINE FIFTEEN
1. New England (12-2). LW: 1. The Patriots’ defense responded to the doubters by holding the defending Super Bowl champs to three points.
2. Dallas (12-2). LW: 2. I’ll admit, after two sluggish offensive performances in a row, I was in the camp that had questions about the Cowboys young stars sustaining success deep into the year. Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott haven’t played a 16-game regular season before. Well, so much for that theory.
3. Kansas City (10-4). LW: 3. The MMQB’s big boss, Peter King, has always had a criterion for guiding these rankings: Who would win if teams played this week on a neutral field in, say, Wichita? So, for that reason, I have the Chiefs, who swept the season series against the Raiders this year, ahead of Oakland. But the loss against Tennessee has tempered hopes of a postseason home game at Arrowhead.
4. Oakland (11-3). LW: 4. The Raiders’ remaining schedule: vs. Colts and at home against the Broncos. The Chiefs are home vs. Broncos and then away at the Chargers. Denver might not make the postseason, but they’ll play a large role in deciding the AFC West.
5. Seattle (9-4-1). LW: 5. Hated Richard Sherman’s sideline outburst over the offensive play-calling. Liked the way Pete Carroll handled it.
6. Pittsburgh (9-5). LW: 7. The schedule-makers made a bet that the AFC North would come down to Steelers-Ravens on Christmas Day. That’s a best bet.
7. Atlanta (9-5). LW: 8. Got a kick out of Dan Quinn lauding the Falcons’ season-high 248 rushing yards as being key to “December football,” because they’re a dome team that doesn’t have any real cold-weather games left this year. And they may not have any in January, either, depending on how the postseason seeding works out. But, point taken. The NFL’s most prolific offense also needs to be a balanced one for a postseason run.
8. Giants (10-4). LW: 9. The underrated move of the Giants’ offseason was retaining defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. Free-agent fixes don’t always work, but he’s successfully assimilated the new stars and developed the young players into a defense that’s driving the team to the verge of a postseason return.
9. Detroit (9-5). LW: 6. Matthew Stafford’s injured middle finger on his throwing hand didn’t seem to be a big factor (another thing I was wrong about), but the Lions’ offense was out of sync. They still lead the NFC North, but with games against the Cowboys and surging Packers remaining, the division is up for grabs.
10. Denver (8-6). LW: 11. The Broncos can win out and still not get into the postseason. But if they do, the offense just has to be a little bit better, because no team wants to face this defense.
11. Green Bay (8-6). LW: 13. I agree with Peter King here: Jordy Nelson is the leader in the clubhouse for the Comeback Player of the Year award.
12. Baltimore (8-6). LW: 12. Strong words from John Harbaugh, who called the decision to pass the ball in the red zone with a 10-point lead the “all-time worst call ever.” The pass was picked off, which led to a nearly successful Eagles comeback. Harbaugh took responsibility for the play call, which was made by OC Marty Mornhinweg, but his comment reinforces season-long frustrations with the offense.
13. Miami (9-5). LW: 15. It was a happy homecoming at MetLife Stadium for Mike Tannenbaum, the former Jets GM and now current Dolphins EVP of football ops. He has a chance to continue his AFC East revenge tour next week against Rex Ryan’s Bills.
14. Buccaneers (8-6). LW: 10. The emotions of Jameis Winston can be a good thing, once he learns how to control them. Sunday night was an example of why he, and this team, still has work to do to become a contender.
15. Tennessee (8-6). LW: 16. They’ve had some real quality wins the last few weeks, over the Packers and the Broncos, but Sunday’s win at Arrowhead was probably the most impressive. They are the best team in the AFC South.
Also receiving consideration:
16. Washington (7-6-1). LW: 14
17. Indianapolis (7-7). LW: 20.
18. Houston (8-6). LW: 18
19. Buffalo (7-7). LW: 19.
20. Minnesota (7-7). LW: 17.
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