NFL power rankings: Chiefs, Cowboys, Colts slip up; Titans, Bengals, Raiders rise for Week 18

With one more week left in the 2021 NFL regular season, the power shifted once again before the playoffs. Some of the NFC and AFC contenders looked good in their penultimate adjustments, others did not. Some of the lower feeders relied on playing out of pride, some were not.

There is still a significant separation of the best and worst teams, but because this is the NFL’s parity party, there is also a confusing medium of disappointing and surprising teams.

The league has provided another wild ride and the roller coaster is sure to continue into Week 18. Here’s how Sporting News sees all 32 teams pitting against each other as they reach the finals:

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NFL Power Ratings

The Packers had a break with the Vikings’ shaky defense at home Sunday night and made the most of it. As the No. 1 seed in the NFC again, they look like more complete Super Bowl contenders, thanks to an improved defense to further boost Aaron Rodgers and the defense.

The Buccaneers had some trouble with the Jets due to all their defensive injuries, but Tom Brady showed that he could still methodically take over a game when needed. The multiple ways that reigning champions can beat an opponent make them so dangerous in their quest to repeat, even now without Antonio Brown.

The Titans proved they can still flex without Derrick Henry with their running game against the Dolphins, while Ryan Tannehill and the defense played great at the same time against a hot team. They’re winning the AFC’s No. 1 seed in all tough ways.

The Rams had a real fight with the Ravens and Matthew Stafford continues to have slow starts with big mistakes. But his running game has become a bigger factor and Cooper Kupp and Odell Beckham Jr. are the ultimate rescue plans for the wide receiver.

The Chiefs’ defense has played much better in the second half, but lately they have battled bigger offenses with young guns, the Chargers and Bengals. Kansas City remains the AFC favorite thanks to Patrick Mahomes, but keep in mind that it has lost to Tennessee, Cincinnati, Buffalo and Los Angeles on the possible playoff field.

The Cardinals were on the ropes when facing the Cowboys, but Kyler Murray got back to the point and the running game and defense were also up to the occasion to make sure they didn’t lose total control to win the NFC West. It was his most impressive road win in a season filled with many.

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The Cowboys saw their level of competition rise again with the Cardinals and were not up to the task, with another slow start to their offense and little support in the running game for Dak Prescott. The defense still makes a lot of big plays, but it can also give up a lot of small ones.

The Bengals went from being a positive U-turn story in the AFC to breaking through as a legitimate new offensive-minded powerhouse led by Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase with their return to the Chiefs’ loss at home. Their defense is still far from perfect, but they can score with anyone in the AFC playoffs.

The Bills stumbled for a while against the Falcons before letting Josh Allen take over for another game, with more welcome support from Devin Singletary in the traditional running game. The defense also bounced back when necessary to make the playoffs well.

The Patriots were not challenged at all against the Jaguars, as Mac Jones had fun winning and beating Trevor Lawrence, while the running game and defense did the rest. Now New England has to consistently deliver that kind of performance against much better teams in the AFC.

The Chargers cleaned up their mess from the Texans mess with absolute dominance in Denver. As it should be, it’s them against the Raiders for a playoff spot behind the Chiefs. They are more dangerous than Las Vegas by Justin Herbert.

The Colts played Carson Wentz against the Raiders, but their lost practice time was costly as he was out and they couldn’t get enough of Jonathan Taylor, the running game and defense to win an expected tight matchup. They expect him to be just a mulligan for his playoff chances with the Jaguars next.

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The 49ers started Trey Lance out of necessity and must have been nervous for a while as the offense sizzled with him. But then he felt more comfortable running and passing as a starter, using all of his assets well and confident that his defense would support him as well. San Francisco definitely has a higher ceiling but a more volatile floor with Lance at QB.

The Eagles had to find their defensive path against Washington, but once they did, the victory was easy with the passing and running of Jalen Hurts doing a lot. Nick Sirianni has done a great job as a rookie coach, the NFC’s Brandon Staley.

The Raiders are showing an incredible fight far removed from Jon Gruden’s training. Derek Carr is still fighting Hunter Renfrow and not much else in the passing game and Josh Jacobs has gotten strong on the ground at the right time.

The Ravens’ season has been defined by injuries and by living / dying from close play. John Harbaugh has done some of his best coaching jobs given the understaffing, but the healthy talent just hasn’t been around long enough for Baltimore.

The Saints got Taysom Hill back in the lead on their offense and that made a big difference in their defense’s confidence. Sean Payton has also flexed his top-level Super Bowl-winning coach, but that might not be enough because the NFC is so tough.

The Steelers will stay alive through Week 18 if they defeat the Browns at home on Ben Roethlisberger’s night on Monday. They need to play a lot better defense to do it.

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The Dolphins went from splashing to splashing in Nashville, and with that, their unlikely late push for an AFC playoff spot evaporated. For the second consecutive season, Brian Flores will have to think about what was left on the table.

The Browns will not make the playoffs again with Baker Mayfield and Kevin Stefanski. But they can still fight through an injury-plagued season and finish above .500 to build a big rebound in 2022.

The Vikings never had the defense to be a playoff team in 2022 and they were fortunate to be in so many close games due to their offense. The bottom line is that they need a lot of improvement there, with or without Mike Zimmer.

The Falcons have overworked the first season with Arthur Smith, displaying a competent offense with Matt Ryan that was not explosive most of the time without Calvin Ridley. The defense and special teams found a few more answers, but they need a lot more.

The Broncos blew a good start that built on their strong defense and running game due to the incompetent play of the quarterback who wasted potential for a promising passing game. Vic Fangio’s old-school approach just hasn’t worked.

The Bears are on a two-game winning streak with two quarterbacks other than first-round rookie Justin Fields, Nick Foles and Andy Dalton. They even showed off some of their old defense and their black and blue running game. That’s still too little, too late for Matt Nagy.

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The Seahawks may be dividing Russell Wilson and Pete Carroll in some way in 2022, but they may want to reconsider now that Wilson has heated things up again with DK Metcalf, Tyler Lockett and Rashaad Penny. A tough schedule and tough division add to “what could have been.”

Washington has been playing Taylor Heinicke at times, which was again for a time against the Eagles. The football team can’t get a franchise quarterback fast enough and also needs to fix a lot on defense by 2022.

The Panthers returned Sam Darnold at QB with more disastrous results against a good defense on the road in New Orleans. Matt Rhule could survive until 2022, but he needs big changes to be successful.

The Jets are getting some inspired and confident play at the end of Zach Wilson, which is a good nugget to carry into 2022 after a tough rebuilding season. Sharing a good game and birthday with Brady is great, but the Jets hope he can consistently build on his advantage as a sophomore.

The Texans could also have their QB answer in rookie Davis Mills, who might also need a lot more help, healthy or not in 2022. Offensive line and skill positions need to be addressed a lot.

The Giants waved the white flag against the Bears without a legitimate offense, defense or special to put on the field. Joe Judge seems to be too relaxed about a total elimination for the season.

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The Lions had to roll Tim Boyle back on offense and were totally under attack on defense in Seattle with no responses for the running game or passing game on the field. At least Amon-Ra St. Brown has played as his namesake god down the stretch and D’Andre Swift is back too.

Trevor Lawrence threw a touchdown pass. Granted, it was an extended handoff in the form of a dump to a running back in deep garbage time after he failed to protect the ball at all. Lawrence has been so shaken and shaken that the Jaguars need to get their next signing or he will become a total failure in Year 2.