Week 16’s results shifted divisions, included major upsets and ultimately moved us one week closer to the end of the regular season.
There will be two more weeks of non-playoff pro football to kick off January, with the first ever Week 18 taking place on Sunday, January 9th.
There are several factors at play in the race for playoff seeding, which includes a ravaging of rosters via positive COVID-19 cases deeply affecting some contests (WAS-DAL, MIA-NO, etc.).
This has also been one of the tightest races to the postseason in history, particularly in the AFC, where just one team, the Kansas City Chiefs (AFC West champions) has clinched a playoff spot.
With this being the first season with a 17-game schedule, just one season after the league introduced an extra playoff team for each conference, there are a lot of similarities to this season and 2002, which was a year in which the league added the Houston Texans as a team, and realigned the league to feature eight divisions, instead of six.
The mad dash in the AFC feels similar this season. The league will probably better adjust to this new format next season, meaning we can expect slightly less chaos. But for now, let’s enjoy the ride.
There are a lot of takeaways from this week’s action, let’s tackle them in our weekly power ranking section — The Better Half.
THE BETTER HALF
1. Green Bay Packers (12-3) (Last week: 1).
Green Bay survived the Cleveland Browns. They feel and look like a Super Bowl-winning squad, and Aaron Rodgers is close to winning his fourth NFL MVP award, and second in a row.
2. Kansas City Chiefs (11-4) (Last week: 2).
The Chiefs have been on fire these past two months, particularly on defense. Their matchup in Cincinnati this week will be a sign of how they stack up versus one of the better (but not great) AFC squads on the road.
3. Los Angeles Rams (11-4) (Last week: 3).
Matthew Stafford had an ugly outing in Minnesota, but regardless, the Rams are still winning. Cooper Kupp (132 catches, 1,734 receiving yards, 13 TDs through 15 games) is having arguably the greatest season for a wide receiver in NFL history. He’s been amazing to watch.
4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (11-4) (Last week: 4).
Tampa will need to have Chris Godwin and Mike Evans back for the playoffs to have a solid shot of returning to the Super Bowl, but for now, the return of Antonio Brown will do for Tom Brady, who has helped elevate a Bucs team that hasn’t been at full go for virtually the entire season. That was a solid win in Carolina, even with the Panthers looking like one of the league’s worst teams.
5. Dallas Cowboys (11-4) (Last week: 5).
Here comes Dallas. They’re starting to resemble the Super Bowl contending-team that they were earlier in the season. They have a Super Bowl “feel” to them, much like Green Bay, if that makes sense. If they can win out and hang onto the NFC’s No. 2 seed, that would be of big help. But they’ll need some help to do that.
6. Indianapolis Colts (9-6) (Last week: 6).
Down linebacker Darius Leonard, league-best offensive lineman Quenton Nelson, and three more O-line starters for much of the game, the Colts rallied to win in Arizona. Even with Carson Wentz unable to find a rhythm at QB, Indianapolis is a clear contender in the AFC.
7. Buffalo Bills (9-6) (Last week: 8).
The Bills became the first team to win in New England in back to back seasons since Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts did so in 2005 and 2006. Josh Allen (378 total yards, three TDs) was seemingly unstoppable, as Buffalo never punted, scoring on six of their seven possessions, only being stopped by a fourth-and-goal incompletion early on. In all, the Bills converted nine of 16 third and fourth down conversions. At this point in time, they are the better team than the Patriots, and that will likely show in a second consecutive AFC East title.
8. Tennessee Titans (10-5) (Last week: 11).
Tennessee certainly welcomed back receiver A.J. Brown (11 catches, 145 yards, 1 TD vs SF on TNF) with open arms. If they can get Derrick Henry back for the postseason, watch out. They have championship mettle and moxie.
9. New England Patriots (9-6) (Last week: 7). With Cole Beasley out, reserve receiver and special-teamer Isiaiah McKenzie, who entered the game with seven catches for 37 yards, manned the slot position for Buffalo, and had a career-best effort. McKenzie, mostly guarded by Patriots slot CB Myles Bryant, went for 11 catches, 125 receiving yards and a touchdown on 12 targets. Bryant was helpless in man coverage/Cover-1 looks on Sunday, with McKenzie really just running across the field on most passing plays. Jalen Mills was equally as bad in zone coverage, allowing any and every pass to be completed underneath versus him. New England had no answer for Josh Allen on defense, and on offense, converted on just one of 10 third-down attempts. Judging by this game, the Patriots badly missed slot cornerback Jonathan Jones and pass-catching back James White. Both suffered season-ending injuries earlier in the season. A Patriots-Bills matchup is the most-likely projected wild card contest in the league, according to ESPN‘s FPI, so New England better figure out how to play these Bills, or they’ll be one and done in the playoffs.
10. Cincinnati Bengals (9-6) (Last week: 14).
The AFC North is still a logjam, but the Bengals can now win the division by winning just one of their final two games. Joe Burrow, head coach Zac Taylor, offseason EDGE addition Trey Hendrickson and more have helped turn the Bengals into a pretty good team. Cincinnati fans should be excited for the future, even if a deep playoff run in 2021 is mostly unrealistic.
11. San Francisco 49ers (8-7) (Last week: 9).
That was a rough loss in Tennessee. The 49ers find themselves in a little trouble now, but they should still make the postseason. Jimmy Garoppolo could miss some time, so Trey Lance may make his first start this week at home versus the Houston Texans. Rookie QB Davis Mills has been impressive for Houston, putting a little bit of pressure on Lance.
12. Arizona Cardinals (10-5) (Last week: 10).
For the second straight season, they’re free-falling down the stretch. They have a playoff spot clinched, but no one should feel good about hem heading into January. Can they turn it around? Good grief.
13. Miami Dolphins (8-7) (Last week: NR).
Here come the Dolphins. Sure, they’ve beaten up on a slew of bad opponents with bad quarterback situations, but still, to win seven straight games versus anyone in this league is impressive. Give credit where it’s due. If they can win in Tennessee and at home versus New England, they’re in the playoffs. That seems like too much to ask, but will you count them out? They’re a tough bunch.
14. Baltimore Ravens (8-7) (Last week: 13).
Injuries are ultimately proving too much for them this season. They’ve lost four straight, despite hanging tough in some of their losses versus good teams.
15. Philadelphia Eagles (8-7) (Last week: NR).
Here come the Eagles. Loaded with three first-round picks in the Spring, and getting some good play out of quarterback Jalen Hurts, Philly has been a second-half-of-the-season surprise. They have a lot of decisions to make this offseason, but for now, Eagles fans should just enjoy the ride.
16. Los Angeles Chargers (8-7) (Last week: 12).
Their loss to Houston on Sunday was as embarrassing and detrimental of a loss as we’ve seen in 2021, but the Chargers still have a shot at the playoffs. They’re not very good, but they have some good players, including young quarterback Justin Herbert. Can they rally?
Next Up: Minnesota, Las Vegas, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, New Orleans