We have reached the end. With only one week remaining in the 2015 season, the shuffling will finally cease. For the last time, thirty-two teams take the stage.
In the NFC, the six combatants are already decided, with only their matchups and locations up for grabs. In the AFC, the Jets and Steelers will fight over the final seat at the table, while the Colts need nothing short of a miracle to supplant the Texans.
After the next sixty minutes of football, those still alive will rank themselves.
1. Carolina Panthers (LW: 1) – Record: 14-1
There it is. The Carolina Panthers finally suffered their first loss of the season following a perfect 14-0 start to the year. The road loss in Atlanta should not mar what has been a fantastic season for a Panthers team that won seven games one year prior, but it is noteworthy that Carolina was clearly trying to win in Week 16, instead of resting players. With that, the team will have a week off when the regular season ends, as the now 14-1 Panthers have clinched a first-round bye.
2. Arizona Cardinals (LW: 2) – Record: 13-2
If the Panthers’ first loss of the season has any ripple effect, the team most impacted is the Arizona Cardinals. Now 13-2, riding a nine-game winning streak, and with back-to-back blowouts, the Cardinals are easily the league’s hottest team. Already with a first-round bye guaranteed, Arizona can actually catch the Panthers and steal home field advantage throughout the playoffs if the Cardinals can beat the Seahawks and the Panthers lose to Tampa Bay. Regardless, Arizona has been one of the league’s best teams since the start of 2015, and will enter the postseason on fire.
3. New England Patriots (LW: 3) – Record: 12-3
Most teams that suffer three losses in a five-game period might be considered ‘declining.’ Not the New England Patriots. Still with twelve wins on the year, New England will enter Week 17 looking to clinch home field advantage throughout the playoffs. In addition, two of the team’s three losses have come against potential playoff teams, making a three-loss season that much more forgivable.
4. Denver Broncos (LW: 9) – Record: 11-4
It would have taken a complete disaster for the formerly 7-0 Denver Broncos — at one point leading the Chiefs by more than four games in the standings — to collapse to the point of missing the playoffs. Entering Week 16, however, the Broncos remained at risk of such a fate. With a home win on Monday Night Football, Denver not only solidified a playoff berth, but moved back into the second seed in the AFC. Now that a postseason game is guaranteed, the only question that remains is, “Which quarterback will get the start?”
5. Kansas City Chiefs (LW: 8) – Record: 10-5
It happened. The Kansas City Chiefs erased a 1-5 start to make the playoffs. With an unprecedented nine consecutive wins, the Chiefs are equally alive in the chase for the AFC West, as well, although they would need help in order to catch the Broncos. Regardless, with the league’s second-best scoring defense and ninth-best scoring offense, the 10-5 Chiefs will go roaring into the postseason. Then again, their slow start may actually allow them to continue to be overlooked.
6. Cincinnati Bengals (LW: 5) – Record: 11-4
It just couldn’t be easy for the Cincinnati Bengals. Once 8-0, then 10-2 and controlling the destiny of the AFC playoff picture, the Bengals — hamstrung by the loss of quarterback Andy Dalton, have now lost two of their last games and fallen out of the top two seeds in the conference. While the division is secure for Cincinnati, the team will enter the postseason with an unusual amount of uncertainty for an eleven-win organization.
7. Green Bay Packers (LW: 4) – Record: 10-5
The Green Bay Packers refuse to decide on a direction. At 10-5, Green Bay certainly has done enough to deserve a playoff berth — entering Week 17, a Wild Card berth, at least, is guaranteed — but the Packers continue to waver between dangerous and endangered. Following a 1-4 stretch of football, Green Bay rebounded with wins against the Lions, Cowboys, and Raiders, only to get crushed in Arizona in Week 16. A home win against the Vikings to close out the season would erase most of Green Bay’s woes — as the Packers would clinch the NFC North — but Green Bay has seen its share of struggles against playoff-bound teams.
8. New York Jets (LW: 10) – Record: 10-5
The New York Jets will certainly be battle-tested if they make the postseason. Coupled with a loss by the Steelers in Week 16, the Jets held serve at home against their rivals from New England, improving to 10-5 on the season and sliding into the final Wild Card spot. As a reward for handing the Patriots their third loss of the year, New York now controls its own destiny, but a matchup against the team’s former head coach in Buffalo will have no shortage of drama to end the regular season.
9. Minnesota Vikings (LW: 11) – Record: 10-5
In the end, the Minnesota Vikings were not going to be denied a playoff game. After starting the season 7-2, then 8-3. the Vikings had lost back-to-back games against eventual playoff teams. Immediately, Minnesota responded with two home blowout victories over the Bears and Giants. Already guaranteed a postseason berth thanks to their Week 16 Sunday Night Football win, the Vikings will head into Lambeau Field in an attempt to win the NFC North on the regular season’s final game.
10. Seattle Seahawks (LW: 6) – Record: 9-6
As unstoppable as the Seattle Seahawks were for the past five weeks, they are still susceptible to falling to a division opponent — especially the Rams. The Week 16 home loss to St. Louis does little to impact the Seahawks — as the team already has a postseason ticket punched and the division is out of reach — and Seattle will close out the year looking to rebound in Arizona.
11. Pittsburgh Steelers (LW: 7) – Record: 9-6
Of all times for the Pittsburgh Steelers to fall apart, it had to be against the lowly Ravens in Week 16. The road loss now puts the Steelers behind the Jets in the Wild Card race, and sends the team into Week 17 needing a win and some help to get back into the playoff picture. For an offense that ranks in the top-five in both yards and points, the 17-point outing in Baltimore should be nothing more than a blip on the radar, but the Steelers no longer hold their fate in their hands.
12. Washington Redskins (LW: 12) – Record: 8-7
After a season of inconsistency — and an offseason of turmoil — the Washington Redskins hit their stride at the perfect time, winning three consecutive games and clinching the NFC East. While the division had been laughable for much of the year, the 8-7 Redskins — with the lowly Cowboys next on the schedule — made the most of their opportunities and finished a respectable campaign. What was most impressive out of Washington was that quarterback Kirk Cousins leads the league in completion percentage and is one start away from becoming the first Redskins quarterback to start all sixteen games since Jason Campbell in 2009.
13. Houston Texans (LW: 13) – Record: 8-7
Although the Houston Texans will have to wait until the final game of the season to potentially clinch the AFC South, they have done everything in their power to erase a 2-5 start. With four different quarterbacks starting at least one game, the Texans have put together one of the most improbable seasons in recent history. Naturally, Houston’s defense has been the catalyst for such a recovery, but even the offense was on full display in the team’s 34-point outburst in Week 16.
14. Atlanta Falcons (LW: 14) – Record: 8-7
The Atlanta Falcons will end 2015 with one of the most fascinating, yet disappointing seasons imaginable. After starting the year 6-1. the Falcons lost six consecutive games before beating the Jaguars to stabilize. Then, with playoff hopes all but vanished, Atlanta handed Carolina its first loss of the season, only to get officially eliminated from playoff contention hours later. At 8-7, a victory against the Saints would end the Falcons’ season with a winning record, but, considering how far they had fallen, forgiveness will not come easily.
15. Oakland Raiders (LW: 16) – Record: 7-8
The Oakland Raiders refuse to allow 2015 to become another losing season on the resume. After beating their rivals from San Diego on Christmas Eve, the Raiders improved to 7-8 heading into the final week of the season. As if Oakland needs any more motivation for the season finale, the Raiders will travel to Kansas City in an effort to play ‘spoiler’ to the Chiefs.
16. Buffalo Bills (LW: 19) – Record: 7-8
The Buffalo Bills may have entered Week 16 with nothing at stake in their home game against the Cowboys, but they still salvaged a win, improving to 7-8 on the year. In addition to trying to avoid a losing season in head coach Rex Ryan’s first year with the team, his squad has the opportunity to potentially oust his former employers — the Jets — in Week 17.
17. St. Louis Rams (LW: 20) – Record: 7-8
It is always the same story for the St. Louis Rams. On the verge of another potential losing season — at least, a non-winning record is a guarantee — the Rams shocked the Seahawks in Seattle in Week 16, sweeping the season series. For a Rams team that only has seven wins on the year, it is remarkable that they hold a 4-1 record within the division. Then again, St. Louis has now won three consecutive games and might actually be closing out the year on a high note.
18. Indianapolis Colts (LW: 21) – Record: 7-8
For a team that has had nothing but bad breaks from the beginning of the season, the Indianapolis Colts will enter Week 17 still with a slim — almost nonexistent — chance to win the dreadful AFC South. What’s even more impressive than the Colts’ resilience despite losing quarterbacks Andrew Luck and Matt Hasselbeck at multiple times of the season is that the team has now suffered two three-game losing streaks, yet still remains alive.
19. Philadelphia Eagles (LW: 15) – Record: 6-9
The Philadelphia Eagles are finally out of their misery. After an offseason filled with questionable personnel decisions, the Eagles lost their ninth game of the year in Week 16, guaranteeing the franchise its first losing season since 2012, and officially eliminating the team from playoff contention. As an preemptive final chapter to the year, the Eagles then released head coach Chip Kelly, sending the franchise into yet another state of uncertainty.
20. New Orleans Saints (LW: 24) – Record: 6-9
The New Orleans Saints were not ready to roll over and die just yet. Granted, at 6-9 and nowhere near playoff consideration, the Saints are a far cry from respectability, but, with a home win against the Jaguars and two wins in their last three games, they have slowed the bleeding. Regardless, the 2015 season was a complete loss for New Orleans.
21. New York Giants (LW: 17) – Record: 6-9
For a franchise that prides itself playing on well when the stakes are raised, the New York Giants put forth one of the most pitiful efforts of the year in Week 16 nearly twenty-four hours after being mathematically eliminated from playoff contention. The nationally televised loss in Minnesota guarantees New York its third consecutive losing season, and might spell the end of the current coaching regime.
22. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (LW: 18) – Record: 6-9
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers continue to prove that they were playing over their head during the middle portion of the season. Now 6-9 after losing three games in a row — and four in their last five — Tampa Bay has clinched their fifth consecutive losing season. Making matters worse, the Buccaneers will try to avoid a ten-loss season by traveling to Carolina.
23. Detroit Lions (LW: 23) – Record: 6-9
Week after week, the Detroit Lions continue to separate themselves from the bottom of the league in an effort to inch towards respectability. While a home win against the 49ers will hardly do the trick, on its own, Detroit has now won five of its last seven games.
24. Chicago Bears (LW: 26) – Record: 6-9
Every so often, the Chicago Bears win a football game. With only six wins on the season, victories are obviously scarce, but the Bears will occasionally shine, giving head coach John Fox a few bright spots on an otherwise dull debut season with the team.
25. Jacksonville Jaguars (LW: 22) – Record: 5-10
The Jacksonville Jaguars should have a clear gameplan heading into the offseason — fix the defense. Ranked tenth in scoring offense and featuring weapons in quarterback Blake Bortles and wide receivers Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns, the Jaguars will be comfortable on one side of the ball heading into 2016. Allowing the second-most points in the league, the team’s defense needs the attention. At 5-10, no stone will go unturned.
26. Baltimore Ravens (LW: 29) – Record: 5-10
The Baltimore Ravens have five wins in 2015. Two of these wins have been against the Steelers. The latest, a 20-17 home victory in Week 16, put a dent in the Steelers’ playoff hopes, giving the Ravens a small success in a season otherwise filled with failure. Then again, Baltimore has the opportunity to play ‘spoiler’ one more time, as it travels to Cincinnati in Week 17.
27. San Diego Chargers (LW: 25) – Record: 4-11
Don’t worry, San Diego. It’s almost over. With only one game remaining on the schedule, the dreadful 2015 season will draw to a close in one week, which is not soon enough for an eleven-loss franchise threatening for the top pick in next year’s draft. The Chargers can only hope that this year was an anomaly, as they had not previously lost ten games — let alone eleven — in a season since 2003’s 4-12 campaign.
28. Miami Dolphins (LW: 27) – Record: 5-10
Every week has brought the Miami Dolphins closer to an offseason that is all-but-guaranteed to include a massive overhaul. Finally, the end is here. Of course, the Dolphins won’t be able to go out quietly, as they will play host to a Patriots team coming off a loss, yet still in control of possibly securing home field advantage throughout the playoffs.
29. Dallas Cowboys (LW: 28) – Record: 4-11
For the Dallas Cowboys, Week 16 was just another loss. The squad had been doomed from the early portion of 2015 due to the loss of quarterback Tony Romo and, at times, wide receiver Dez Bryant, and they will enter Week 17 sixty merciful minutes away from ending their pain.
30. San Francisco 49ers (LW: 30) – Record: 4-11
It is nearly impossible to win games in the National Football League if a team cannot score. Last in the league in both points and yards gained, the 49ers moved to 4-11 after a 32-17 loss in Detroit in Week 16. Amazingly, the 17-point output is the second-highest total for the team since Week 6. Look no further for a reason behind an eleven-loss season.
31. Tennessee Titans (LW: 31) – Record: 3-12
The Tennessee Titans are just not ready to take on the National Football League. Overmatched in nearly every game, the now 3-12 Titans are staring at another top-five pick in next year’s draft. In the big picture, the development of quarterback Marcus Mariota was the goal of 2015. As his season was cut short a few games early with a knee injury, the focus will shift to his offseason recovery.
32. Cleveland Browns (LW: 32) – Record: 3-12
Will it ever get better in Cleveland? Not if 2015’s 3-12 campaign is any indication. As another pitiful year draws to a close, the Browns will prepare for another high draft pick. Before the scouting can continue, however, they will have to host a Steelers team that still needs a win to stay alive in the playoff race.