The NFL Power Rankings enter December trying to figure out which games are truly the most important. Yes, every NFL game counts, but we admit that some just count a little bit more. Our NFL Nation writers assisted us in finding the most meaningful games down the stretch, picking games due to playoff implications, future aspirations and a slew of other factors.
How we rank in our Power Rankings: Our power panel — a group of more than 80 writers, editors and TV personalities — evaluates how teams stack up throughout the season.
Week 12 ranking: 1
Most important game remaining: Week 14 at Buffalo
An undefeated season would be cool, but for the Steelers, the biggest goal is reaching the Super Bowl, and the best way to do that is to clinch the top seed in the AFC. To do that, the Steelers have to stay ahead of a one-loss Chiefs team — which might mean going undefeated. The two biggest games left that could cause them to trip up are at Buffalo — a team that beat the Steelers on “Sunday Night Football” a year ago and really started the slide that prevented them from making the playoffs — and against Indianapolis in Week 16. — Brooke Pryor
Week 12 ranking: 2
Most important game remaining: Week 15 at New Orleans
If the Chiefs are to catch the Steelers for the AFC’s No. 1 playoff seed, they might have to win out. Four of their five remaining opponents aren’t on their level, and then there’s New Orleans. So the Saints could be the team standing between the Chiefs and a first-round playoff bye. Normally, this would be one of the least important games of the Chiefs’ remaining schedule because the Saints play in the NFC, but this is not a normal season. — Adam Teicher
Week 12 ranking: 3
Most important game remaining: Week 15 vs. Kansas City
Technically, this is the least important game on the Saints’ remaining schedule, since it is against an AFC opponent and won’t affect playoff tiebreakers. But every other team on the Saints’ slate has a losing record. So how could I not highlight a matchup that might be the most thrilling game left in the entire NFL regular season? And not to be cliché, but every game remaining on the Saints’ schedule is equally important, since they would badly love to clinch the NFC’s No. 1 seed — and would lose a tiebreaker to the Packers if they finish in a two-way tie for first. — Mike Triplett
Week 12 ranking: 4
Most important game remaining: Week 16 vs. Tennessee
The Packers should have the NFC North wrapped up by then and when it comes to playoff seeding, a game against an AFC foe probably won’t impact tiebreakers. So why is it so important? Because it will be the Packers’ only chance to prove they can beat a top-tier opponent heading into the playoffs. After their blowout loss at Tampa Bay and their OT loss at the Colts, they could use a win over a legitimate Super Bowl contender to erase any doubts about whether they’re legit themselves. — Rob Demovsky
Week 12 ranking: 5
Most important game remaining: Week 14 vs. Pittsburgh
The Bills are in good position to win their first AFC East title since 1995, but have faltered against the best teams in their conference this season. With Pittsburgh coming into town possibly still undefeated, it will be a prime opportunity for Buffalo to throw its hat in the ring of conference title contenders against arguably the best team in the NFL on “Sunday Night Football.” The Steelers’ defense also will provide a challenging litmus test for the Bills’ upstart passing offense. — Marcel Louis-Jacques
Week 12 ranking: 7
Most important game remaining: Week 16 vs. L.A. Rams
In all likelihood, it’s a three-team race for the NFC West crown between Seattle, the Rams and Arizona. Since the Seahawks have a two-game lead over Arizona and a split in the season series, the Rams look like their biggest challenger. They’re one game back of the Seahawks, but beat Seattle at SoFi Stadium. The Seahawks should be heavily favored in their next three games (Giants, Jets, at Washington) while the Rams have three winnable games of their own over that stretch. That means they could still be within one game of each other when they meet at Lumen Field in the rematch. — Brady Henderson
Stephen A. Smith isn’t ready to crown Patrick Mahomes MVP yet and makes a case for why Derrick Henry should be in the discussion.
Week 12 ranking: 10
Most important game remaining: Week 13 vs. Cleveland
The race for an AFC playoff spot is extremely tight. The Titans have the No. 3 seed and are one of three teams with an 8-3 record. The Browns happen to be one of those teams. A win over Cleveland has double value in that it keeps the Titans ahead of the Colts and counts as a much-needed win over an AFC opponent. All three of Tennessee’s losses have been against AFC opponents, so avoiding another one would be a major boost for the Titans’ playoff hopes. — Turron Davenport
Week 12 ranking: 6
Most important game remaining: Week 14 vs. Minnesota
At 7-5 after back-to-back losses to the Rams and Chiefs, the Bucs are drifting further from “contender” status and closer to “pretender,” which means they need to come out of the bye week with a statement win. Every game will matter, but they need a tone-setter. Coach Bruce Arians said they’ll spend this time going over everything, which should include adjustments in philosophy and playcalling. The offense has been stagnant much of the time. There has been no play-action or motion and Tom Brady‘s deep ball has been far too inconsistent. Further, they need to finally establish an offensive identity, as changing it week to week isn’t helping with consistency. — Jenna Laine
Week 12 ranking: 8
Most important game remaining: Week 14 at Las Vegas
The Colts lost out on being able to control their playoff destiny when Tennessee beat them Sunday to take a one-game lead over Indianapolis for first place in the AFC South. The Colts would have the seventh and final spot if the playoffs started today. The playoffs obviously don’t start today, which means the Colts can’t afford any more slip-ups. The Raiders are right in the thick of things for a playoff spot, too, as they have just one more loss than the Colts. That’s why that matchup is big for both teams. The Raiders beat the Colts in Indianapolis in 2019. — Mike Wells
Week 12 ranking: 9
Most important game remaining: Week 13 at Arizona
From top to bottom, the NFC West is the most competitive division in the league, which means the Rams’ next division game is their most important. Despite dropping the season series to the 49ers, the Rams remain in a three-team race with the Cardinals and Seahawks to win the division. Taking care of their game Sunday against the Cardinals is critical to staying in the hunt, especially with a trip to Seattle in Week 16. The Rams are 6-0 against Arizona under Sean McVay. — Lindsey Thiry
Week 12 ranking: 11
Most important game remaining: Week 14 at Cleveland
If the Ravens want to virtually guarantee a third straight trip to the playoffs, they’ll need to win in Cleveland. The biggest obstacle standing in Baltimore’s way of 11 wins is the Browns, the only team with a winning record left on the schedule after Wednesday’s game in Pittsburgh. The Browns are 8-3, and the other remaining four teams on the Ravens’ schedule are a combined 10-33-1 (.238). Baltimore has won five of its past six games in Cleveland, but this year’s Browns are quite different from those teams. — Jamison Hensley
Week 12 ranking: 14
Most important game remaining: Week 14 vs. Baltimore
As much fun as it might be to potentially knock off Pittsburgh in the regular-season finale, beating Baltimore on Monday Night Football is easily the Browns’ most important remaining game. First, it would give Cleveland the signature victory this otherwise breakout season is missing. Second, the Ravens are a rival, dating to the Art Modell relocation 25 years ago. But most importantly, it would all but clinch a playoff berth, which would snap the league’s longest postseason drought of 18 years. — Jake Trotter
Week 12 ranking: 12
Most important game remaining: Week 13 vs. L.A. Rams
If the Cardinals lose this one, their playoff hopes might be dashed. A loss would put them two games back of the Rams with four to play, but with another game against them and one against the 49ers left, the Cardinals could run out of time to catch up in the NFC West. And sitting at 6-5, Arizona has three teams nipping at its heels for the seventh and last playoff spot. Coming off a 1-3 stretch, Sunday is as close to a must-win as Arizona has faced all season. — Josh Weinfuss
Week 12 ranking: 15
Most important game remaining: Week 16 at Las Vegas
The Dolphins currently hold a wild-card spot, but after Sunday’s game vs. Cincinnati they will be entering the toughest stretch on their schedule (Chiefs, Patriots, at Raiders, at Bills). The Raiders game is most significant because with both teams vying for a wild-card spot, the win and tiebreaker advantage will be essential. It’s quite possible that contest — now a Saturday, day-after-Christmas prime-time game — could be a playoff elimination game. Miami has dreams of the Week 17 game in Buffalo being an AFC East championship game, but if they don’t win in Vegas the week before, that Week 17 game might not matter. — Cameron Wolfe
Week 12 ranking: 13
Most important game remaining: Week 13 at N.Y. Jets
Um, it’s this week! After Sunday’s unmitigated disaster in Atlanta — a 43-6 blowout loss to a three-win Falcons team — the Raiders fell to 6-5 and head east again to face the winless Jets, who upended them last year with a 34-3 beatdown. Lose at MetLife to a sorry Jets team again and the Raiders’ season, for all intents and purposes, is over. Handle business, and Las Vegas remains in the playoff hunt. No pressure, right? — Paul Gutierrez
Adam Schefter reports that the 49ers will play their next two home games in Arizona after Santa Clara County’s decision to restrict contact sports for at least the next few weeks.
Week 12 ranking: 17
Most important game remaining: Week 13 vs. Buffalo
It’s not so much about the Bills as the fact that the most important game for the Niners right now is always going to be the next one. An upset against the Rams pushed the 49ers back into the NFC playoff picture, but they don’t have much margin for error if they intend to sneak into the postseason. That means the next game is going to be the one that holds the most meaning simply because another loss will make that task exceedingly difficult. — Nick Wagoner
Week 12 ranking: 18
Most important game remaining: Week 13 at L.A. Chargers
“The Next One.” When Tom Brady used to be asked which Super Bowl ring was his favorite, that was always his answer. In the case of the Patriots’ remaining schedule, it also applies because at 5-6 they likely can’t afford another loss if they want to keep their longshot playoff hopes alive. The final five games unfold this way — at Chargers, at Rams, at Dolphins, vs. Bills, vs. Jets. — Mike Reiss
Week 12 ranking: 19
Most important game remaining: Week 14 at Tampa Bay
The easy answer would be “all of them” given the Vikings are the No. 8 team in the NFC and one game out of the final wild-card berth. Minnesota got this far after a 1-5 start by beating up on bad teams, with only one of the Vikings’ five victories coming against a team with a winning record (Week 8 at the Packers). A win on the road against 7-5 Tampa Bay is critical. In order to be taken seriously as a postseason contender, Minnesota needs to show it can defeat better competition. A win against the Bucs would up the Vikings’ playoff odds significantly. — Courtney Cronin
Week 12 ranking: 16
Most important game remaining: Week 13 vs. Detroit
The Bears have dropped five straight and desperately need a victory to keep their fading playoff hopes alive. Losing Sunday’s game to the Lions at home would be the ultimate embarrassment after Detroit just fired coach Matt Patricia and general manager Bob Quinn. The Lions clearly are bracing for another rebuild. The Bears might be on the same road unless they snap out of it over the final five games and do enough to save Matt Nagy’s and Ryan Pace’s jobs. — Jeff Dickerson
Week 12 ranking: 20
Most important game remaining: Week 14 vs. Denver
In other words, the next game coming off the bye. It’s important because it will show how the players and staff bounce back from a fourth-quarter collapse in Sunday’s 28-27 loss to Minnesota that all but ended any hopes of a playoff berth. It’s important because realistically it might be the only winnable game left on the schedule, with Green Bay, Washington and New Orleans after that. All three of those teams will be fighting for a playoff spot. It’s also important because it likely will mark the return of running back Christian McCaffrey (shoulder) and set the tone for 2021. — David Newton
Week 12 ranking: 25
Most important game remaining: Week 13 vs. New Orleans
In short, the next game on the docket. The Falcons have been a far tougher out under Raheem Morris, given they are 4-2 since Morris was named interim head coach. They are coming off their best effort of the season in Sunday’s rout over the Raiders and can see where they really stand against the division leader. They can also study what the Broncos did against Saints QB Taysom Hill, who finished with 78 yards passing Sunday. If the Falcons can give Hill similar problems, it would not only give them back-to-back wins over teams with winning records, but would be the kind of win that helps Morris’ candidacy for the permanent job. — Jeff Legwold
Dan Orlovsky sounds off on Drew Lock, Brett Rypien and Blake Bortles after all of them had to be placed on the reserve/COVID-19 for not following league protocol.
Week 12 ranking: 21
Most important game remaining: Week 13 at Kansas City
In an injury-ravaged season in which the Broncos just played a game without any of their quarterbacks in uniform, the most important measuring stick of progress will be how the Broncos fare against the defending Super Bowl champions. The Broncos have lost 10 in a row to the Chiefs and four in a row at Kansas City, three of those coming by double digits. Patrick Mahomes isn’t going anywhere and the Broncos can’t really say they’ve progressed until they show it against the team that is on track to win the AFC West. — Jeff Legwold
Week 12 ranking: 22
Most important game remaining: Week 17 vs. Washington
The Football Team is tied with the Giants atop the division at 4-7 — with the Eagles right behind — and should be in contention the rest of the way despite a pretty challenging schedule. Somebody has to win this dreadful division, and this game in Philadelphia could decide which team goes to the playoffs. — Tim McManus
Dan Orlovsky says there have been too many moments where the coaching has failed the Chargers this season and expects the team to move on from Anthony Lynn.
Week 12 ranking: 23
Most important game remaining: Week 17 at Kansas City
The first go-around was Justin Herbert‘s first start and he threw for 311 yards, took the game to OT and lost, in large part because Anthony Lynn decided to punt on fourth-and-short in overtime instead of going for it, giving the ball to the Chiefs, who drove for a game-winning field goal. Perhaps a more experienced Herbert, along with a healthy Austin Ekeler, can come up with an effort that provides momentum for next season and perhaps saves Lynn’s job. — Shelley Smith
Week 12 ranking: 27
Most important game remaining: Week 13 vs. Indianapolis
At 4-7, the Texans have to win their remaining games for a shot at the playoffs. That starts Sunday when they host the 7-4 Colts. Houston has three remaining AFC South games and is 2-1 in the division (both wins coming against the Jaguars). It is extremely unlikely the Texans will run the table, but with how well quarterback Deshaun Watson is playing, expect them to remain competitive in every game. — Sarah Barshop
Week 12 ranking: 26
Most important game remaining: Week 17 vs. Dallas
In order for the Giants to win the division and make the playoffs they are going to need to beat the Cowboys in Week 17. There is no way around it. The Giants are going to have a hard time over the next four weeks when they face four teams (Seattle, Arizona, Cleveland and Baltimore) with a winning record, beginning with the Seahawks in Week 13. That likely leaves the matchup with Dallas, which has beaten them seven straight times, as an absolute must-win. — Jordan Raanan
Week 12 ranking: 24
Most important game remaining: Week 13 at Chicago
This is the most important game only because it’s Darrell Bevell’s debut as a head coach and it might begin to answer the question of whether it was the talent on the roster or the coaching of Matt Patricia that caused many of Detroit’s problems this season. So it’s intriguing from that aspect to see how the players respond to a regime change. Otherwise, the most important game for Detroit is the last one because it can really push forward on its plan for the future once it concludes. — Michael Rothstein
Week 12 ranking: 29
Most important game remaining: Week 17 at Philadelphia
Because it’s the NFC East, Washington doesn’t need to be perfect down the stretch even with a 4-7 record. But it will have to win at least two more games if it wants to win the division. That means Washington will have to win one game in the next four — a difficult stretch that includes Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Seattle and Carolina. If it can get to 5-10 entering the finale, it has a shot. To be safe, if Washington wins two of its next four games it would enter the last game likely being able to clinch with a win, which would give Washington a 4-2 division record. That could prove key in a tiebreaker scenario. — John Keim
Bart Scott asserts that Mike McCarthy needs to change his coaching style if he wants to remain a head coach in the NFL.
Week 12 ranking: 28
Most important game remaining: Week 17 at N.Y. Giants
It’s not because there will be a chance for the Cowboys to win the NFC East against the Giants. It’s not because they can extend their seven-game winning streak against New York. No, it’s the most important game because that will mark the end of one the franchise’s most disappointing seasons and allow it to turn its attention to 2021. From injuries to poor play to questionable coaching decisions, this season has been one to forget. The quicker it’s over for the Cowboys, the better. And they can turn their attention to a probable top-five pick in the upcoming draft. — Todd Archer
Week 12 ranking: 30
Most important game remaining: Week 14 vs. Dallas
For the second straight year, December is all about losing for the Bengals. Cincinnati and Dallas are in the mix for the No. 3 draft pick. While the Bengals are indeed trying to win, a loss will likely clinch the rights to select the best player in the 2021 draft not named Trevor Lawrence or Justin Fields. That means potentially taking Oregon’s Penei Sewell, a dominant tackle who could fortify the edge and protect Joe Burrow for years to come. While another loss might be a lot for Zac Taylor and the Bengals to stomach, nobody said rebuilding was going to be fun. — Ben Baby
Week 12 ranking: 31
Most important game remaining: Week 13 at Minnesota
The Jaguars have lost 10 consecutive games (a franchise record for a single season) heading into Sunday’s matchup with the Vikings. The streak needs to end now because the Jaguars have Tennessee and Baltimore the following two weeks. Three more losses ties the longest losing streak in franchise history (last five games of 2012 and first eight of 2013). — Mike DiRocco
Week 12 ranking: 32
Most important game remaining: Week 17 at New England
There’s a good chance the Jets will be 0-15, which sets up a fascinating angle if the Patriots are eliminated: Would Bill Belichick want to beat the Jets to hand them the dreaded 0-16, or would he be better served with a loss if it costs the Jets a shot at Trevor Lawrence? Belichick certainly doesn’t want to see the Clemson star and presumptive No. 1 pick in the division for the next 10-plus years. This could be the game no one wants to win. — Rich Cimini
Madden NFL 22 teases cover athletes with goats
The Madden NFL 22 game cover will be released later this week. The day when we see which superstar nabs the cover is another big date on the NFL’s offseason calendar.
To promote this year’s cover release, EA Sports is teasing the identity of the athlete with literal goats. Former cover athlete Peyton Hillis interacts with the animals and reacts to the cover.
The video seems to promise two GOAT (greatest of all time) athletes. Given his Super Bowl win last season and his untouchable status as the NFL’s greatest QB, it’s safe to assume that Tampa Bay Buccaneers QB Tom Brady will be one of the athletes featured.
But who could join him? Could it be Kansas City Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes, who lost to Brady in Super Bowl LV? Maybe it’s a former or current Brady collaborator. Whomever it is, the ungulate ad men in the video aren’t saying.
Who do you think will be joining Brady?
WR Jamison Crowder agrees to pay cut to remain with New York Jets, source says
FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — New York Jets wide receiver Jamison Crowder, the team’s leading receiver the last two seasons, avoided the possibility of being released by agreeing to a pay cut, a source confirmed Monday.
Crowder was due to make a non-guaranteed $10 million in base pay for 2021, the final year of a three-year, $28.5 million contract. Details of the renegotiated contract weren’t immediately available, but the new deal is expected to significantly lower his $11.4 million cap charge.
The Jets are among the league leaders in cap space (about $27 million), but they approached Crowder recently about a reduction. Crowder, who turns 28 on Thursday, skipped the voluntary portion of the offseason as the two sides haggled over the contract. NFL Network first reported the agreement.
The Jets’ mandatory minicamp starts Tuesday, and Crowder is expected to attend.
Coach Robert Saleh was optimistic that a deal would get done, saying 10 days ago that “Jamison’s definitely got a role here and we’re excited to have him.”
After signing receivers Corey Davis and Keelan Cole in free agency, and drafting Elijah Moore in the second round, the Jets had the leverage in talks with Crowder. He led the team with 59 catches and 699 yards in 2020, but his production was down because he missed four games due to leg injuries. The Jets also finished 32nd in total offense for the second straight year.
Even though Crowder is back, it will be interesting to see if his role diminishes in the regular season. Moore, selected 34th overall, has impressed the coaches in offseason practices. Like Crowder, he’s a slot receiver.
In another contract-relation development, safety Marcus Maye reported to the facility Monday ahead of the minicamp. Maye, who signed his franchise-tag tender ($10.6 million) earlier in the offseason, skipped the voluntary practices as the two sides attempt to negotiate a long-term deal. The deadline is July 15. If they can’t agree to a deal, Maye will play the 2021 season for the amount of the tender.
Cam Newton expected to practice at New England Patriots minicamp after hand injury during OTAs
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Ten days after sustaining a minor injury on his right throwing hand, New England Patriots quarterback Cam Newton is expected to take part in the team’s mandatory minicamp beginning Monday, according to coach Bill Belichick.
Newton had not been present at last Thursday’s practice when reporters were present, but returned the following day. The hand apparently responded well.
“He practiced last week. I’d expect him this week too,” Belichick said Monday.
Newton has been taking top repetitions in spring practices, with Belichick having previously declared him the team’s quarterback. Belichick previously left open the possibility that Newton could face a challenge for the starting job when the team shifts from a spring teaching mode to more of an evaluation mode at the start of training camp in late July.
Jones was complimentary of Newton, noting that he gave him the nickname “Mac and Cheese” while calling him a “good mentor.”
Another notable storyline at Patriots mandatory minicamp surrounds cornerback Stephon Gilmore, the 2019 NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Gilmore is scheduled to earn a base salary of $7 million in 2021, which is below market value for a player of his caliber, and Belichick deflected a question when asked if he’s seen Gilmore at camp.
Gilmore is not present, according to the Boston Globe.
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