The Panthers' shot at a perfect season ended abruptly in Atlanta on Sunday as they experienced their first regular season loss in more than a calendar year, falling to a determined Falcons club. They face the bitter taste of defeat this week, but it's just a bump in the road for Cam Newton and his squad, who are still in great shape heading into the final week of the season.
However, with a dominating blowout win over the Packers at home, the Arizona Cardinals move up claim the top spot in this week's rankings, their first trip to the No. 1 spot this entire season. It's been a long time coming though, as Carson Palmer powered his crew to their ninth straight win. They're balling on offense, averaging a league-best 420 yards and 32.2 points per game, while the defense is giving up a paltry 18.5 points per contest. That means, on average, the Cardinals are winning in a blowout, and even worse for their potential foes in the playoffs, they seem to be getting better as the season goes on.
If there's a team in the NFL that's hotter than the Cardinals right now though, it's the Chiefs. Kansas City clinched a playoffs berth on Sunday to continue their complete season turnaround, becoming the only team in NFL history with a five-game losing streak followed up directly with a nine-game winning streak. They're giving up just 18 points per game (2nd-NFL) while protecting the football, second in the league with a +15 turnover ratio. Alex Smith continues to fly under the radar but set a career mark for passing yardage (3,330) on Sunday against the Browns. They might not be the sexy Super Bowl pick right now, but they're extremely balanced and tough.
Meanwhile, the Patriots dropped a tough one in overtime to the Jets, but still have the inside track to the AFC's top seed. With a win next week over the Dolphins, they'll lock it up, but the overall concern is a downward trend since their Week 12 loss to Denver. They've battled some major injuries along the way so much of those struggles can be expected, though, and they're due to get Julian Edelman back over the next couple of weeks, which will be a big key. New England remains dangerous.
So do the Broncos, who clinched a playoffs berth with their wild win over the Bengals on Monday Night Football. The AFC West is still up for grabs, as is No. 1 seed in the AFC, and with that elite defense and an improving offense, this is a team that could be tough to beat in January. Brock Osweiler made some very, very impressive throws in the fourth quarter and overtime and took a big step forward as the leader of that offense. That could be huge over the next month.
The Bengals, even with backup AJ McCarron starting at quarterback and even with a loss to Denver on Monday night, still look like a contender as well. Cincy will probably have to make due without Andy Dalton for a few more weeks, so McCarron's play has been encouraging for their chances at a Super Bowl run, and that defense remains stout enough to give them a shot to win against anyone. Hue Jackson's playcalling continues to be a different maker on a week to week basis.
Washington continues to exceed expectations and a lot of credit is due to the incredible play of Kirk Cousins. Arguably, no player has made themselves more money than Cousins this year, and his absurd efficiency over the past six weeks has been the catalyst which has propelled Washington to the NFC East crown. It was an ugly start to the season for Cousins and he battled calls for his benching, but he played through it, and Washington's offense is peaking at the right time. The NFC East has been a much maligned division this year, but winning a game at FedEx Field in the wildcard round is not going to be a gimme for some team hoping to come in and feast on an "easy draw."
Speaking of peaking at the right time, the Vikings have dominated their last two opponents with a combined score of 87-34 and look to be firing on all cylinders. They'll look to ride that success into next week's enormous matchup with the Packers, which will determine the winner of the NFC North.
On the other hand, the Seahawks had been extremely hot but really stumbled against the Rams, losing their third game of the season at home on Sunday to drop to 9-6. After losing just three games in three years at CenturyLink Field from 2012-2014, the aura of invincibility for the Seahawks at home is very diminished this season. But, at the end of the day, it won't matter. Whether they end up as the No. 5 or No. 6 seed, Seattle's path back to a third straight Super Bowl appearance will have to come on the road this year.
SB Nation presents: Rams punter Johnny Hekker nails Cliff Avril, comes to regret it
Still in the hunt:
The Jets leapfrogged the Steelers to the No. 6 spot in AFC seeding with their exciting overtime win over the Patriots on Sunday, and look primed for a run into the postseason. The defense is playing well, but more importantly, Ryan Fitzpatrick continues to play with a veteran efficiency, particularly in the redzone where he's developed great rapport with Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker.
Meanwhile, the Steelers lost a key matchup to the Ravens in Baltimore, severely damaging their playoff hopes in the process. Pittsburgh remains one of those teams that no one will want to face once the postseason begins, but the obvious problem with that is that the Steelers will need some luck just to get to the dance.
The Texans took care of business against the lowly Titans on Sunday to strengthen their hold on the AFC South, but the Colts beat the Dolphins to keep things interesting. Both teams are playing with second-, third- or fourth-string quarterbacks at this point but by virtue of a bad division, someone has to host a playoff game. Right now it's looking like Houston will hold that honor.
Trending in the right direction:
The postseason is no longer a possibility for the Lions, but you've got to admire the way they've been playing over the past two months after starting out the year 1-7. They've won five of seven since and the Jim Bob Cooter offense has Matt Stafford looking like a franchise quarterback again. No one's going to be happy about the 2015 season as a whole in Detroit, but the way they've played in the second half gives some hope for 2016.
I don't know if the Falcons have turned things around, necessarily, but they've at least shown some fight over the past two weeks in beating the Jaguars and Panthers. Atlanta raced out to a quick 5-0 start with new head coach Dan Quinn, but the wheels fell off and they ended up losing seven of their next eight games en route to a missed postseason. That said, the win over the Panthers gives them something to build on and restores a little bit of confidence.
The same could be said for the Rams, who won their third straight game on Sunday in Seattle. St. Louis struggled mightily with consistency this year but swept the division-rival Seahawks and have showed signs of life of late. They'll have a shot at ending the year at .500 with a win next week.
Tripping before the finish line:
The Buccaneers looked like a potential playoff team for a stretch this season, but three straight losses have erased that impression. Same goes for the Giants, who looked like the favorites in the NFC East only a few weeks ago, but lost their last two games while being eliminated from the playoffs.
Over in the AFC, more coaching changes could be in store for the Dolphins, who have lost three in a row, and Gus Bradley's seat is surely starting to feel a little bit hot as the Jaguars went from playoff contention a few weeks ago before losing two straight to eliminate themselves from that race.
Jockeying for that first pick:
I'm putting my money on the Titans picking up that first overall pick — and they will with a loss next week, but don't count out the Browns, who share a 3-12 record.
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