In a year with much uncertainty in the NFL, the Patriots have been a guiding light, a faint flicker of normalcy in an ever-changing football landscape.
While perennial contenders like the Falcons and Chiefs have shown cracks in their armor, it’s been business as usual in Foxboro. Tom Brady is still the greatest, Bill Belichick is still a hoodie-wearing genius and Rob Gronkowski remains the league’s golden goose at tight end. There was a mini-slump in September but the Pats quickly overcame it, bludgeoning teams with their powerhouse offense while patching up most of their holes on defense. If the NFL were a Bingo card, the Patriots would be a free square, the high-water mark that all NFL teams are measured against.
So you can understand why the football world devolved into a state of panic when the Patriots face-planted in humiliating fashion Monday night in Miami. The final tally had New England losing by seven but it felt like more. Teams play down to their opponents all the time, but not the Patriots. This was a layup and New England doesn’t miss layups. They dunk on teams like the Dolphins. Jay Cutler, a man who laughs in the face of cardio, has no business running circles around the greatest quarterback who ever lived.
It’s one loss and the Patriots still control their own destiny. If they take care of business against the Steelers on Sunday, they’ll be back on top of the AFC and we’ll forget this debacle ever happened. No team makes adjustments like New England. But if they don’t, we’ll be left to wonder if this Patriots team has what it takes.
We know New England can put up points with the best of them, but will it be enough to overcome a defense that ranks dead-last in passing yards allowed? And what if teams start replicating Miami’s approach by bringing constant heat on Tom Brady? Will the Pats adjust or keep hitting their head against the wall like they did for four quarters on Monday night?
Monday had all the familiar symptoms of a trap game. After beating the Dolphins senseless in Week 12, you could understand why the Patriots may have been looking ahead to Sunday’s battle of AFC heavyweights in Pittsburgh. But it was still unusual to see the Patriots, a team that traditionally saves its best football for late in the year, lose in such mystifying fashion in a game that should have been a freebie. The Patriots are still Vegas favorites, but now when teams face them in the playoffs, they can say to themselves, If Smokin’ Jay can clown Belichick and the boys, why can’t we?
Luckily the Pats didn’t fall too far in my rankings as many of the league’s heavy-hitters including the Rams, Vikings, Saints and Seahawks also lost in Week 14. That paved the way for my new No. 1, the 11-2 Pittsburgh Steelers.
1. Pittsburgh Steelers
Last Week: 4
A wide receiver has never won MVP but will Antonio Brown be the one to finally buck that trend? I don’t see why not. He’s averaged a preposterous 156.8 yards with six touchdowns over his last four games and is now on pace for the third-most receiving yards in NFL history. Sunday was Ben Roethlisberger’s third career 500-yard passing game. Know how many other quarterbacks have reached that milestone three times? Zero, my friends.
2. New England Patriots
Last Week: 1
I wanted to drop the Patriots lower, but deep down, don’t we still expect them to beat the Steelers on Sunday? Then again, Ben Roethlisberger just threw for more yards against Baltimore (506) than Tom Brady has in his last two games combined (491). Seriously Tom, would it kill you to eat a strawberry? Miami’s 27 points on Monday night were the most allowed by the Patriots since Week 4 against Carolina.
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3. Philadelphia Eagles
Last Week: 2
I’m not saying it will happen again but Nick Foles did produce the third-highest quarterback rating in NFL history during his last stint as the Eagles’ starter, so maybe he has a few more tricks up his sleeve. In the two games Zach Ertz has missed this year, Trey Burton has caught seven-of-10 targets for 111 yards and three touchdowns including a 71-yard, two-touchdown gem against the Rams in Week 14.
4. Minnesota Vikings
Last Week: 3
Minnesota’s eight-game winning streak vanished in a flash Sunday against Carolina. Case Keenum’s three turnovers may have played a role in the streak ending, though he still delivered the goods in fantasy by rushing for a career-high 40 yards while also reaching 280 yards passing for the fifth time in six games. The touchdowns keep coming for Kyle Rudolph, who has visited the end zone four times over his last three games.
5. Los Angeles Rams
Last Week: 5
Christmas came early for Cooper Kupp owners in Week 14 as the rookie shredded Philadelphia for a career-high 118 yards and a touchdown. That TD was his first since Week 7. Sammy Watkins continues to be a touchdown-or-bust fantasy producer, but with five touchdowns in his last six games, the busts are becoming much less frequent. The Rams should be well-stocked for the stretch run with lead receiver Roberts Woods (shoulder) on track to return against the Seahawks in Week 15.
6. New Orleans Saints
Last Week: 6
You think you know heartbreak? Try owning Alvin Kamara in fantasy. I can’t imagine how many fantasy seasons were ruined when Kamara went down with a concussion early on in Week 14. Michael Thomas scored for the second week in a row while matching a season-high with 117 receiving yards in Thursday’s loss to Atlanta. He’s closing in on his second straight 1,000-yard season and needs just 15 catches to eclipse Jimmy Graham’s team record of 99.
7. Carolina Panthers
Last Week: 9
Jonathan Stewart sank the Vikings with a season-high three touchdowns in Sunday’s victory. He’s been a scoring machine with five touchdowns over his last three games. Devin Funchess overcame a difficult matchup with Xavier Rhodes to score his team-leading seventh touchdown on Sunday, giving him four TDs in his last four games. Who wore it better, Cam Newton or Mustafa from Austin Powers?
8. Jacksonville Jaguars
Last Week: 8
Blake Bortles knocked Seattle down a few pegs in Week 14 (four spots in my rankings, if you’re keeping track), leading the Jags with 268 passing yards and two touchdowns. One of his touchdowns went to rookie Dede Westbrook, who has averaged just under 80 yards per game over his last two contests. The Jags drafted a winner in Leonard Fournette. The rookie has either scored a touchdown or rushed for 100 yards in nine of 11 games this year.
9. Atlanta Falcons
Last Week: 11
Sometimes, you have to win ugly. It doesn’t get much uglier than throwing three interceptions in a span of four passes, but somehow Matt Ryan survived it, leading a late comeback in Thursday’s win over New Orleans. Devonta Freeman did the heavy lifting for Atlanta, rumbling to 91 rushing yards while scoring his first touchdown since Week 4. With Tevin Coleman in the concussion protocol, we could be seeing a lot of Freeman Monday night in Tampa Bay.
10. Los Angeles Chargers
Last Week: 10
Make it four straight for the surging Chargers. Philip Rivers has been money over his last three games, sporting a ridiculous 122.7 quarterback rating with six touchdowns and no interceptions during that span. Tyrell Williams has mostly taken a backseat to Keenan Allen this year but he’s come around by scoring in two of his last three games. The 132 yards he tallied Sunday were his most since Week 7 of 2016.
11. Seattle Seahawks
Last Week: 7
Repeat after me, “Do not fade, Russell Wilson.” Say it long and loud because Week 14 proved once and for all that Wilson, who is more magician than quarterback at this point, cannot be benched under any circumstances. By the way, has anyone seen Jimmy Graham lately? He wasn’t even targeted in Sunday’s loss to Jacksonville.
12. Baltimore Ravens
Last Week: 13
Alex Collins went nuclear against the Steelers in Week 14, blowing up for a career-high 166 yards from scrimmage on 20 touches. Sunday extended his touchdown streak to four games. The Ravens hadn’t allowed a 300-yard passing game all season before Ben Roethlisberger’s eruption on Sunday Night Football. How did Chris Moore celebrate his latest end-zone visit? By doing the dead fish from FIFA, of course.
13. Dallas Cowboys
Last Week: 14
Dak Prescott was an assassin on Sunday, ripping the Giants for a career-high 332 passing yards as the Cowboys stayed alive in the NFC Wild Card race. Dez Bryant scored for the second time in as many weeks but the real hero was Rod Smith, who exploded for a career-best 160 yards from scrimmage including an 81-yard touchdown to put the game on ice. Sean Lee had a busy Sunday, delivering 18 tackles and an interception over 66 defensive snaps.
14. Kansas City Chiefs
Last Week: 18
Kareem Hunt put the Chiefs on his back in Week 14, rolling to 138 yards from scrimmage in a win over Oakland. Hunt’s touchdown Sunday was his first since Week 3. Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce are both nearing 1,000 yards receiving for the year. The last time the Chiefs featured a pair of 1,000-yard receivers was with Dwayne Bowe and Tony Gonzalez in 2008. Kelce has been a model of consistency this year, notching 70-plus yards in five of his last six outings.
15. Green Bay Packers
Last Week: 16
The prodigal son has returned as Aaron Rodgers will be activated for Sunday’s game in Carolina. It’s not the easiest matchup to come back to and CT scans show that Rodgers’ broken collarbone is only about 80 percent healed. But when every game left is a must-win, bringing back a two-time MVP and future Hall of Famer is a risk well worth taking. Nobody is happier to see Rodgers than Jordy Nelson, who averaged an embarrassing 21.9 yards with no touchdowns in seven games with Brett Hundley as the starter.
16. Detroit Lions
Last Week: 17
The middle of a playoff push is a risky time to switch running backs, but it worked for the Lions as Theo Riddick led the way with 93 yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns against the Bucs in Week 14. It’s probably curtains for Ameer Abdullah now that Riddick has emerged as Detroit’s top back. Matthew Stafford was a question mark for Sunday after injuring his hand a week earlier but impressed with 381 yards on 36-of-44 passing. He’s completed a remarkable 82.2 percent of his passes over the past two games.
17. Tennessee Titans
Last Week: 12
The Titans are 8-5 but it sure doesn’t feel like it. The NFL doesn’t give out a Least Valuable Player award, but if they did, Marcus Mariota would certainly be in the running. The former Heisman Trophy winner melted down against Arizona in Week 14, committing two turnovers while barely completing 50 percent of his passes. Corey Davis notched 69 yards in his NFL debut. Since then he’s averaged just 31.2 yards per game while pulling in only 19-of-39 targets (48.7 percent).
18. Buffalo Bills
Last Week: 20
The Bills are running out of quarterbacks with Tyrod Taylor (knee) banged up and Nathan Peterman still in the concussion protocol. But why throw it when you have a stud like LeSean McCoy? He bullied his way to 156 yards and a touchdown in Sunday’s whiteout at Orchard Park. Kelvin Benjamin can’t be both healthy and successful. It has to be one or the other. That prophecy fulfilled itself again Sunday when Benjamin scored his first touchdown as a Bill, only to leave after aggravating a knee injury.
19. Arizona Cardinals
Last Week: 23
While maybe not “contract-extension good” (though it’s been talked about), Blaine Gabbert did just enough to carry the Cardinals past Tennessee in Week 14. Gabbert was probably feeling it Monday morning after taking eight sacks in that game. Larry Fitzgerald added 44 yards to his tally on Sunday, bumping him ahead of Randy Moss for third on the NFL’s all-time yardage list. He’s closing in on what would be his ninth 1,000-yard receiving season.
20. Oakland Raiders
Last Week: 15
Amari Cooper returned from a high-ankle sprain in Week 14 but lasted just 14 snaps before aggravating his injury. Game script worked against Marshawn Lynch on Sunday, but that didn’t stop him from scoring his fifth touchdown in five games. Derek Carr has never quite gotten the hang of playing in KC. In four career starts at Arrowhead, he’s 0-4 with three interceptions and an underwhelming 62.1 quarterback rating.
21. Miami Dolphins
Last Week: 24
Two weeks after getting blown out in Foxboro, the Dolphins returned the favor by handing New England its first loss in two months. Kenyan Drake had his fingerprints all over Monday night’s win, balling out with 193 yards from scrimmage on a career-high 30 touches. Jarvis Landry supplied two touchdowns in the victory, giving him eight for the year. That’s as many as he had in his previous two years combined. Second-year corner Xavien Howard leads Miami with four interceptions this year, all of which have come in his last two games.
22. Washington Redskins
Last Week: 19
Another frustrating season for Jordan Reed came to its conclusion Tuesday when the tight end was placed on I.R. with a hamstring injury. He only made it through six games this year. It’s been a lousy stretch for Kirk Cousins, at least by his standards. He’s garnered a sluggish 77.7 quarterback rating with three interceptions over his last two outings. Another loss will clinch the Redskins’ third losing season in five years.
23. Cincinnati Bengals
Last Week: 21
Giovani Bernard led the Bengals in both rushing and receiving yards on Sunday, but it didn’t make a lick of difference as Cincinnati took a beating in a 33-7 loss to the Bears. Even A.J. Green had an off week, struggling to just five catches on 12 targets while also losing a fumble. The Bengals are reportedly considering a position change for John Ross, who was the third receiver picked in this year’s draft. Sounds promising.
24. Chicago Bears
Last Week: 27
Mitchell Trubisky—and I realize this has never been said before—was firing on all cylinders Sunday. He went for 271 yards through the air while also providing his first career rushing touchdown in a win over Cincinnati. After hitting the skids against the Niners in Week 13, Jordan Howard redeemed himself a week later by going for 147 yards and two touchdowns. He’s eclipsed 1,000 yards rushing in back-to-back seasons.
25. Denver Broncos
Last Week: 30
Denver ended its eight-game losing streak in style, cruising to a shutout win over the Jets in Week 14. Demaryius Thomas starred with a team-high 93 receiving yards, his most since Week 6. While Thomas held up his end of the bargain, Emmanuel Sanders labored through another tough week, nabbing just one-of-five targets for 16 yards. He’s been held under 20 yards in four straight games and hasn’t scored a touchdown since Week 2.
26. New York Jets
Last Week: 22
We knew the injury bug would hit Josh McCown sooner or later. This year it got to him in Week 14. If McCown has thrown his final NFL pass—a distinct possibility at age 38—he’ll finish his 15-year career with 110 touchdowns (97 passing, 13 rushing) and 17,168 passing yards. Remember the good ol’ days when you could plug Austin Seferian-Jenkins into your fantasy lineups? Sadly, that ship has sailed as ASJ has averaged a meager 25 yards over his six-game touchdown drought.
27. San Francisco 49ers
Last Week: 28
Know the last time Jimmy Garoppolo lost an NFL start? Never. He’s a perfect 4-0 following Sunday’s win over the Texans. Better yet, Jimmy G has emerged as a legitimate fantasy weapon, averaging 313.5 passing yards in his two starts this year. Marquise Goodwin keeps on cooking. He’s now cleared 70 yards in four straight games including a 106-yard effort in Week 14. Carlos Hyde’s touchdown Sunday was his first since Week 6. That was two quarterbacks ago for the Niners.
28. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Last Week: 25
Turnovers have always been Jameis Winston’s Achilles' heel. That problem resurfaced Sunday as Winston committed three turnovers (two interceptions, one lost fumble) in a loss to Detroit. It was also a rough week for Mike Evans, who has been held under 30 yards in three of his past five games. Doug Martin put an end to his six-game touchdown drought Sunday but fumbled and was eventually benched for Peyton Barber. The Bucs have dropped three straight and eight of their last 10.
29. Houston Texans
Last Week: 26
DeAndre Hopkins continues to pay the bills in fantasy. He’s averaged a monstrous 121.6 yards with five touchdowns over his last seven games. Will Fuller has averaged 69.8 yards with seven touchdowns in four games with Deshaun Watson under center but only 24.3 with no touchdowns in three games without him. Tom Savage being allowed to re-enter Sunday’s game after this hit may be the most flagrant violation yet of the league’s concussion protocol.
30. Indianapolis Colts
Last Week: 29
I hope Frank Gore slept until Tuesday after seeing an exhausting 36 carries in Week 14. Gore’s 130 rushing yards were his most since the final week of the 2014 campaign. The snow was no friend to Adam Vinatieri on Sunday. The veteran may miss out on a $500,000 bonus after shanking both of his kicks against Buffalo. Already assured of their first losing season since 2011, the Colts will look to end a four-game slide Thursday against Denver.
31. New York Giants
Last Week: 31
Eli Manning got a standing ovation in his return Sunday against Dallas but there wasn’t much to cheer about after that as the Giants fell flat in the first game of the post-Ben McAdoo Era. Sterling Shepard was a no-show, logging just 16 yards on two catches. He’s averaged only 36 yards in two games since coming back from migraines. Wayne Gallman was a rare bright spot for the G-Men, leading the team with 99 yards from scrimmage on a career-high 19 touches.
32. Cleveland Browns
Last Week: 32
DeShone Kizer had his best game yet (well, except for this pass), but it didn’t stop the Browns from blowing a 14-point fourth-quarter lead in Sunday’s loss to Green Bay. The winless Browns will have their pick of the litter come draft day, but will Hue Jackson be around to witness it? Executive VP Sashi Brown was axed last week and it wouldn’t be a surprise to anyone if HueJax followed him out the door. On a more hopeful note, Josh Gordon’s touchdown Sunday was his first since Week 15 of 2013.
Biggest Jump: Broncos
Biggest Drop: Raiders, Titans