1. Green Bay Packers (14-1, 1st last week): It’s almost as if they heard us mumbling under our breath about the offense fading and the defense tripping. That was a statement Sunday night.
2. New Orleans Saints (12-3, 2nd last week): Both were dominant this week, and the Saints have actually been much more dominant of late. It remains a toss up, but I can’t swap them until the Packers do something to merit a drop.
3. San Francisco 49ers (12-3, 3rd last week): That wasn’t a pretty victory in Seattle, but when’s the last time San Fran won pretty? The defense is dominant and the offense doesn’t make mistakes. Is that a Super Bowl formula? Not typically, but they’re in the mix.
4. New England Patriots (12-3, 4th last week): Was the second half against Miami the turning point for a defense that has struggled all season? Because the Bills should be a breeze, we might not have an answer until the divisional playoffs.
5. Baltimore Ravens (11-4, 5th last week): What’s wrong with the offense? They’re averaging just under 20 points per game over the last five weeks. Need more than that to beat the Packers or Saints.
6. Pittsburgh Steelers (11-4, 6th last week): If they’re healthy in January, they might be the AFC’s best team. And it’s not like they haven’t won as a wild-card entry before…
7. Detroit Lions (10-5, 10th last week): Red-hot again. It’s just a shame Lions-Packers means pretty much nothing this week.
8. Atlanta Falcons (9-6), 8th last week): I didn’t expect them to win in New Orleans, where no one wins. But I expected more than that. They’ve been far too inconsistent this season.
9. Dallas Cowboys (8-7, 11th last week): Tony Romo’s hurting and Montrae Holland is out. Yet I’m still surprised that the borderline terrible Giants are a three-point favorite with the division on the line at MetLife.
10. Philadelphia Eagles (7-8, 13th last week): And DeSean Jackson watch officially begins…
11. Seattle Seahawks (7-8, 17th last week): Can still improve their win total for the third straight year by beating the Cardinals in Week 17. I expect that to happen again in 2012, but maybe with a jump into the double digits. This is a good football team.
12. Carolina Panthers (6-9, 18th last week): Looking like a playoff team in 2012. Then again, that’s what we said about the Buccaneers at about this time last year.
13. Cincinnati Bengals (9-6, 24th last week): Not only might they find the back door to the playoffs, but they might keep getting lucky with the depleted Texans on wild-card weekend. They’re a mediocre team that could be a fluke victory away from the AFC championship game.
14. Denver Broncos (8-7, 9th last week): Tim Tebow has lost his clutchicity and the defense has lots its ability to make big plays. The Chiefs are going to present one hell of a challenge.
15. Houston Texans (10-5, 7th last week): Decent chance they finish the season on a three-game skid, equalling their loss total from the first 14 weeks. It’s been a positive year, but it doesn’t look as though it’s going to end on a high note.
16. Arizona Cardinals (7-8, 16th last week): What’s with the slow starts? A terrible first half and some errors in the final minutes cost them their season in Cincy.
17. Miami Dolphins (5-10, 19th last week): Sentence I never though I’d write: I’m really excited to see the Matt Moore-Reggie Bush-Brandon Marshall trio from the get-go in 2012.
18. New York Giants (8-7, 15th last week): Where would they be without sophomores Victor Cruz and Jason Pierre-Paul?
19. Tennessee Titans (8-7, 21st last week): If every Week 17 game involving a AFC wild-card contender is won by the Vegas favorite, the Titans get the conference’s sixth seed, setting up a rematch with the Texans six or seven days later.
20. New York Jets (8-7, 14th last week): Brian Schottenheimer’s had too many chances. The Jets have to fire him and acquire a quarterback (via the draft, free agency or a trade) to compete with Mark Sanchez.
21. Oakland Raiders (8-7, 20th last week): Might they be getting healthy again at just the right time? They’ll need to slay the Chargers and get help. Otherwise, 2012 will be a do-or-die season for Carson Palmer and Hue Jackson.
22. San Diego Chargers (7-8, 12th last week): Norv Turner’s fighting for his job, so expect them to put up a fight in Oakland.
23. Chicago Bears (7-8, 22nd last week): On the verge of finishing 7-9 for the third time in five years. How many lives does Lovie Smith have? Probably at least one more, because injuries killed the Bears this year.
24. Kansas City Chiefs (6-9, 23rd last week): If beating the Packers was their Super Bowl, spoiling the Broncos’ season would have to be their conference championship victory. Or something like that.
25. Minnesota Vikings (3-12, 26th last week): The big question now: Why was Adrian Peterson playing if he was anything less than 100 percent in the final stages of a lost season?
26. Buffalo Bills (6-9, 28th last week): I have absolutely no idea what to make of that out-of-the-clear-blue-sky victory against a division leader at the Ralph.
27. Washington Redskins (5-10, 25th last week): And the quarterback draft debate begins again…
28. Jacksonville Jaguars (4-11, 27th last week): I get the feeling they’ll give Blaine Gabbert one more full season as the starter, but can you imagine how bad he’d be without NFL leading rusher Maurice Jones-Drew? It’s enough to make you throw up in your mouth a little.
29. Indianapolis Colts (2-13, 32nd last week): Again, it’s hard to lose on purpose, and right now they’re just as good as, if not better than, the Jags. The battle for the top pick is going to get intense at around 3:30 ET on Sunday.
30. Cleveland Browns (4-11, 29th last week): Peyton Hillis waited until Week 16 for his first 100-yard rushing effort of the year. Don’t expect a repeat performance with the Steelers on deck.
31. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-11, 30th last week): I can’t imagine a scenario that doesn’t have Raheem Morris losing his job next Monday.
32. St. Louis Rams (2-13, 31st last week): Pretty amazing that the two breakout teams of 2010 are a combined 6-24 in 2011.