1. New England Patriots (11-2): Rob Gronkowski returned and so, too, did New England’s winning ways as the Patriots spiked Houston 27-6 on Sunday night to reclaim their spot atop the AFC. Like it or not, the Patriots again are in control of securing home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs.
2. Cincinnati Bengals (10-3): Never mind the Bengals' 33-20 loss to AFC North Division rival Pittsburgh. The bigger problem might be the losses they suffered on the depth chart as quarterback Andy Dalton left with a fractured thumb and tight end Tyler Eifert suffered a concussion. Dalton's long-term status will mean everything to Cincinnati’s playoff hopes, which look a lot bleaker now than they did going into Sunday.
3. Denver Broncos (10-3): Brock Osweiler and the Broncos came crashing back to earth in Sunday’s 15-12 loss to Oakland. Osweiler’s final numbers were fine, but the inability to reach the end zone left the Broncos lamenting a missed opportunity to keep their grasp on the No. 1 seed, instead tumbling all the way to the wild-card round.
4. Indianapolis Colts (6-7): Houston claimed the AFC South Division lead for all of about seven hours before losing to New England and paving the way for the Colts to jump back to the top of the division.
5. Kansas City Chiefs (8-5): Come rain, rain or more rain, the Chiefs just keep on winning. They pushed through an unrelenting storm Sunday to knock off San Diego 10-3 and extend their winning streak to seven. Kansas City closes the season with a game at Baltimore and are at home against Cleveland and Oakland, which means a 10-game winning streak is within reason.
6. New York Jets (8-5): So what if you’d rather see Pittsburgh’s high-powered offense in the playoffs? The Jets and quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick had no intention of ceding this spot in beating Tennessee 30-8. New York has now won three in a row for the first time since 2011.
Best projected matchup: Denver vs. New York. Two top-five defenses mixed with a battle of the Brandon Marshalls. What’s not to love?
On the rise: Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers have sent a strong message the past two weeks with blowout wins against Indianapolis and Cincinnati. They’ve won four of their past five, and so long as Ben Roethlisberger is healthy, they can score on anyone in the league. Next week’s game against Denver will be a good test of how far Pittsburgh has come, but it will close with road games against Baltimore and Cleveland. If the Steelers, Jets and Chiefs all win out, Pittsburgh will sneak into the playoffs ahead of the Jets.
On the decline: Indianapolis Colts. The Colts have yielded 96 points in the past two weeks, both losses. Sunday’s 51-16 beatdown to Jacksonville showed once again why the Colts are more pretender than contender. Only playing in the AFC version of the NFC East is keeping Indianapolis in the mix.
1. Carolina Panthers (13-0): The Panthers just keep rolling with an easy, 38-0 win against Atlanta on Sunday. The "Moneyball" crowd might be down on the Panthers, but Cam Newton & Co. simply don’t care.
2. Arizona Cardinals (11-2): These Cardinals are flying high after clinching a playoff berth with a 23-20 win against Minnesota on Thursday night. They have won seven in a row, and a legitimate case can be made that the Cardinals are the NFL’s most complete team as they push for a first-round bye and, with some help, the No. 1 seed.
3. Green Bay Packers (9-4): Green Bay still doesn’t look like the team that started the season 6-0, but the Packers are more than willing to accept Minnesota’s invitation to win the NFC North. A 28-7 win against Dallas gave the Packers a firm hold on the division with a game advantage and the current head-to-head tiebreaker.
4. Washington Redskins (6-7): Per custom in the NFC East, the Redskins barely held on to beat Chicago 24-21, but with wins scarce for all four teams in the division, there’s no need for beauty points. Washington still holds the tiebreaker.
5. Seattle Seahawks (8-5): The Seahawks are absolutely rolling right now, running over hapless Baltimore for a 35-6 win, their fourth in a row and sixth in the past seven games. And the schedule is favorable in the final three weeks with home games against Cleveland and St. Louis and a road trip to Arizona, which will probably have the NFC West wrapped up at that point.
6. Minnesota Vikings (8-5): Panic would be understandable after losing three of the past four games but the Vikings are still in a good spot to make the postseason dance. That’s because none of the other “contenders” in the NFC playoff picture are closer than two games behind Minnesota.
Best projected matchup: Minnesota vs. Green Bay. The Packers manhandled Minnesota earlier this season and they’re scheduled to meet again in Week 17 in a game that could determine the NFC North champion. It’s also possible they could play twice in as many weeks, which means there won’t be many surprises left to spring in the wild-card round.
On the rise: Seahawks. The scariest part of Seattle’s ascent? Russell Wilson is rounding into the type of quarterback who can carry a team. Add that to a potent Seattle defense and you have a dangerous team in January.
On the decline: Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Bucs looked like the team outside of the playoff picture most likely to make a run at Minnesota’s wild-card spot. Until Sunday. At 6-7, the Bucs likely need to win out against St. Louis, Chicago and Carolina, plus get some help, to have a shot.