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NFL power rankings: Panthers reclaim throne, Cardinals and Chiefs not far behind

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The Panthers may have lost their chance for a perfect season, but they're sitting at the top of our NFL power rankings.

SB Nation 2016 NFL Playoff Guide

The Panthers took over at the top of our power rankings back in Week 12 and only relinquished that throne once over the season's final six weeks. They were overtaken by the Cardinals last week after their quest for a perfect season was foiled by Atlanta, but Carolina could not be held down for long. It ended the season on a high note in Week 17, dominating Tampa Bay on its way to recapturing the No. 1 spot in our final rankings of the season. Cam Newton and his crew deserve the honor, finishing with a league-best 15-1 record, 500 points, and 58 touchdowns. That defense ain't chopped liver, either.

Nipping at their heels were the Arizona Cardinals, who just missed out on capturing the top spot after a dud of a finale against the Seahawks at home. Nonetheless, Arizona's season as a whole was supremely impressive -- it finished first in the league in yards per game, first in yards per play, and second in points, while surrendering just 19.6 points per game (7th). Carson Palmer put up an MVP-caliber performance in his continued career renaissance, setting career highs in passing touchdowns, yards, and yards per attempt. Moving Larry Fitzgerald into the slot has been a revelation, and the future Hall of Fame receiver set career highs for receptions himself. More important than stats, though, with balance in all three phases, the Cardinals look like a true contender to rep the NFC in the Super Bowl.

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On the back of a very strong finish in which they won their final 10 games, the Chiefs come in third on our list, tops among the AFC field despite their No. 5 seeding. That's what a 1-5 start will buy you, I guess. The AFC's No. 1 seed in the Broncos aren't far behind, but lingering questions about the quarterback situation cloud their potential to take it all the way to Santa Clara. Will it be Peyton Manning's team again or will Brock Osweiler get another shot? More important, is it clear which option is worse? Neither Manning nor Osweiler have been impressive this year, but Denver's elite and suffocating defense carried them. That pass rush, combined with that secondary, will be a big deal in the postseason.

The Seahawks made a late push to round out the top five in this year's rankings, finishing out the year by winning six of seven with historic numbers from quarterback Russell Wilson. The Seattle defense may not be as potent as it's been in recent years (though it did give up the fewest points for the fourth straight season), but the Seahawks have a much more efficient and consistent offense this year than they've had in their last two years. For once, it looks like the offense may carry Seattle in the postseason and with the way they've been playing, it's not farfetched to imagine the Seahawks advancing to their third straight Super Bowl. Like Arizona, they feature balance in all three phases of the game, particularly with Tyler Lockett exploding of late in the return game.

Meanwhile, the defending Super Bowl Champion Patriots finish at the No. 6 spot in our rankings. After their 10-0 start, New England had looked like an unstoppable juggernaut, but things have changed. They grabbed the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye in the AFC but limped into the postseason with a 2-4 record over their final six games. They've been losing the battle of attrition, Tom Brady now has a high-ankle sprain, and there are still quite a few question marks along the offensive line. The good news is that they will have a couple of weeks to get healthy and back into their early-season form. If any team can do it, it's the Patriots.

It's a similar situation for the Bengals, who will have to do the unlikely and win in the postseason with a backup quarterback at the helm. They're balanced, though, with a strong run game featuring Jeremy Hill and Gio Bernard, an elite No. 1 receiver in A.J. Green, and a tough defense, so once the tournament starts, anything is possible. Their not-so-secret weapon is of course Hue Jackson, whose playcalling and offensive design brilliance has been on full display this season and hasn't ended with Andy Dalton's thumb injury. A.J. McCarron is young and inexperienced, but Jackson's surely going to put together a smart gameplan to get the most out of him.

They'll have to get by the Steelers, though, who snuck into the postseason with the help of a Week 17 loss by the Jets. Pittsburgh has been hot and cold of late, but obviously boast one of the most dynamic and explosive passing offenses in the NFL. When Ben Roethlisberger gets things going in the passing game, he's tough to stop, and he's throwing to one of the league's best in Antonio Brown.

On the other hand, Minnesota's passing game is underwhelming, but it features the NFL rushing champion in Adrian Peterson, a strong defensive group, and explosive special teams group. The Vikings finished the year on a high note as well by beating the Packers in Lambeau to win the NFC North, so they'll look to ride that wave of confidence into the playoffs.

Washington is playing great ball as well right now, and it all starts with Kirk Cousins. The fourth-year signal caller set passing records for Washington this year and passed for a touchdown in all 16 games, and with a healthy DeSean Jackson and an emerging Jordan Reed, that passing game can be as dangerous as any.

Rounding out the playoffs field, the struggling Packers get to travel to Washington and the Texans, winners of the AFC South, get the honor of hosting one of the league's hottest teams in the Chiefs. Despite the NFC East's tepid performance this year, Green Bay will have a very tough challenge facing Jay Gruden's squad, and it heads into the postseason with very little momentum. The Packers lost six of their final 10 games this year and Aaron Rodgers and that normally elite offense just can't seem to get anything going. Washington could give them some trouble. As for the Texans, a stout defense is the name of the game, and if they can force Alex Smith to turn the ball over a time or two, they could have a real shot at the upset.

On the other side of the coin, the bottom of our rankings is pretty closely related to where teams ended up in the Draft order. The Titans look like the worst team in the NFL right now and it's no fluke that they'll have the first overall pick in the draft this year. The Browns aren't far behind, nor are the Chargers, all of whom face major upheaval over the next few months.

RANK FINAL SB NATION BLOG
1 Carolina Panthers, 15-1 (Last Week: 2) Cat Scratch Reader
2 Arizona Cardinals, 13-3 (Last Week: 1) Revenge of the Birds
3 Kansas City Chiefs, 11-5 (Last Week: 3) Arrowhead Pride
4 Denver Broncos, 12-4 (Last Week: 6) Mile High Report
5 Seattle Seahawks, 10-6 (Last Week: 9) Field Gulls
6 New England Patriots, 12-4 (Last Week: 4) Pats Pulpit
7 Cincinnati Bengals, 12-4 (Last Week: 7) Cincy Jungle
8 Pittsburgh Steelers, 10-6 (Last Week: 8) Behind the Steel Curtain
9 Minnesota Vikings, 11-5 (Last Week: 10) Daily Norseman
10 Washington, 9-7 (Last Week: 11) Hogs Haven
11 New York Jets, 10-6 (Last Week: 5) Gang Green Nation
12 Green Bay Packers, 10-6 (Last Week: 12) Acme Packing Company
13 Houston Texans, 9-7 (Last Week: 13) Battle Red Blog
14 Buffalo Bills, 8-8 (Last Week: 15) Buffalo Rumblings
15 Detroit Lions, 7-9 (Last Week: 16) Pride of Detroit
16 Oakland Raiders, 7-9 (Last Week: 14) Silver and Black Pride
17 Philadelphia Eagles, 7-9 (Last Week: 19) Bleeding Green Nation
18 New Orleans Saints, 7-9 (Last Week: 20) Canal Street Chronicles
19 Atlanta Falcons, 8-8 (Last Week: 18) The Falcoholic
20 St. Louis Rams, 7-9 (Last Week: 17) Turf Show Times
21 Indianapolis Colts, 8-8 (Last Week: 22) Stampede Blue
22 Chicago Bears, 6-10 (Last Week: 21) Windy City Gridiron
23 Miami Dolphins, 5-11 (Last Week: 27) The Phinsider
24 New York Giants, 6-10 (Last Week: 23) Big Blue View
25 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 6-10 (Last Week: 24) Bucs Nation
26 Jacksonville Jaguars, 5-11 (Last Week: 25) Big Cat Country
27 Baltimore Ravens, 5-11 (Last Week: 26) Baltimore Beatdown
28 San Francisco 49ers, 5-11 (Last Week: 31) Niners Nation
29 Dallas Cowboys, 4-12 (Last Week: 28) Blogging the Boys
30 San Diego Chargers, 4-12 (Last Week: 29) Bolts from the Blue
31 Cleveland Browns, 3-13 (Last Week: 30) Dawgs by Nature
32 Tennessee Titans, 3-13 (Last Week: 32) Music City Miracles