1. New England Patriots (10-1): The Patriots dropped their first loss of the season to AFC rival Denver on Sunday night but that loss paled in comparison to the one involving tight end Rob Gronkowski. Gronkowki left on a cart with a right knee injury in the fourth quarter. New England has an uncanny ability to overcome adversity but overcoming the loss of Gronkowski, not to mention the defeat to Denver, will be its biggest test yet in 2015.
2. Cincinnati Bengals (9-2): The Bengals ended their two-game losing streak with the perfect tonic: a St. Louis Rams team that is in a downward spiral. A 31-7 blowout win should help Cincinnati get back on track.
3. Denver Broncos (9-2): Whether or not Brock Osweiler is the Broncos' long-term solution at quarterback is of little importance right now. Osweiler proved that no moment is too big for him in leading a late 83-yard scoring drive to set the stage for a huge win against New England in overtime on Sunday night.
4. Indianapolis Colts (6-5): As coach Chuck Pagano continues to make a case to hang on to his job, the Colts continue to keep their grip on the AFC South Division lead with a 25-12 win against previously surging Tampa Bay. That’s three consecutive wins for a team without Andrew Luck and four in a row as the starter for ageless wonder Matt Hasselbeck.
5. Kansas City Chiefs (6-5): The Chiefs continued to roll, posting their fifth straight win Sunday at home against fellow AFC wild-card contender Buffalo. Equipped with a cotton-soft schedule the rest of the way, Kansas City is in prime position to lock up a postseason bid down the stretch as it holds tiebreakers over most of their closest competitors.
6. Houston Texans (6-5): Aside from the Chiefs and the undefeated Panthers and Patriots, the Texans might be the league’s hottest team with four consecutive wins, including Sunday’s 24-6 thumping of New Orleans. The Texans hold tiebreakers over the Jets and Steelers to stake their claim to this spot at the moment.
Best projected matchup: Broncos vs. Texans -- While nobody would be fired up to see Osweiler vs. Brian Hoyer, seeing both defenses get after those two would offer plenty of entertainment. Plus, anything that involves J.J. Watt playing football is always worth watching.
On the rise: Texans (6-5) -- The Colts are fending off the Texans for now and the schedule toughens the next two weeks with games at Buffalo and at home against New England. But Houston is going to be heard from in the AFC South and wild-card race before it’s all over.
On the decline: Buffalo Bills (5-6) – Two weeks in a row, the Bills have had an opportunity to put themselves in position to make a statement about their standing in the AFC chase. Two weeks in a row, the statement has read something like “not ready for prime time.” The schedule is favorable the rest of the way, but the Bills need to start beating teams that are also in the mix, starting next Sunday against Houston.
1. Carolina Panthers (11-0): A whole lot of defense and just a dab of offense helped the Panthers roll over the Cowboys on Thanksgiving. Carolina is cruising with a favorable schedule the rest of the way and an eye on joining the Patriots with a perfect 16-0 regular season.
2. Arizona Cardinals (9-2): The Cardinals got a bit of a scare from the suddenly frisky 49ers, but Bruce Arians’ bunch continues to find ways to win games. The Cardinals still look like one of the league’s most complete teams and the type of team nobody will want to play come January.
3. Minnesota Vikings (8-3): Consider last Sunday's loss to fellow NFC North contender Green Bay an aberration. The Vikings bounced back on the strength of their best player, running back Adrian Peterson, and again sit in the driver’s seat in the NFC North.
4. Washington Redskins (5-6): In the division that nobody seems to want to win, Washington's 20-14 victory over the Giants put the Redskins in the lead in the NFC East. There’s no doubt that quarterback Kirk Cousins & Co. like that.
5. Green Bay Packers (7-4): Even with Brett Favre in the building, the Packers couldn’t beat the Bears at Lambeau Field. Chicago’s 17-13 victory on Thanksgiving was only the Bears’ third at Lambeau since 2006 and gave the Packers their fourth loss in the past five weeks.
6. Seattle Seahawks (6-5): Don’t look now, but here come the two-time defending NFC champions. Seattle leaned on its offense -- yes, its offense -- to come up with a stirring, 39-30 win over Pittsburgh on Sunday and vaulted into the final spot in the NFC by virtue of having a better record against NFC opponents than Atlanta.
Best projected matchup: Minnesota vs. Seattle -- We’ll get a preview of this game next week when the Vikings host the Seahawks and it should offer a good gauge of just how far these two teams have come.
On the rise: Seahawks (6-5) -- Earlier in the season, closing out games was a major problem for Seattle. If the Seahawks can continue to get their Mariano Rivera on and close games out the way they did against the Steelers, they’ll find themselves back in the postseason tournament.
On the decline: Falcons (6-5) -- A team that once sat perched among the league’s elite with a 5-0 start has won just once in the past six games.