NFL Power Rankings, Week 18: Bengals crack top five; Cowboys, Colts drop

The Packers remain kings as we reach the final week of the regular season.

Green Bay locked up the No. 1 seed in the NFC after routing Minnesota on Sunday night. The Pack's true reward? Sitting atop the NFL Power Rankings for the sixth consecutive week. Right behind are the Rams, who cracked the top two for the first time since their one-week cameo at No. 1 way back in Week 4.

The top-10 newcomers? Let's reacquaint ourselves with the Titans, who have jumped seven spots in two weeks thanks to a pair of impressive wins. Of course, their new ranking probably isn't good enough to Titans fans who believe the AFC's likely No. 1 seed deserves more respect.

To which, I'll remind you all: These are not the Power Standings -- they are the Power Rankings. Understand this distinction and we'll all live together in harmony.

This is history, folks. The first-ever Week 18 NFL Power Rankings.

Watch the NFL Power Rankings show with Dan and Matt "Money" Smith every Tuesday at 3 p.m. ET on NFL Network.

NOTE: Up/down arrows reflect movement from the Week 17 NFL Power Rankings.

Previous rank: No. 1

Matt LaFleur has been the head coach of the Green Bay Packers for nearly three full regular seasons now. The team has won 13 games in each of those seasons. Green Bay has never even lost consecutive regular-season games in LaFleur's time on the sideline -- he is overdue for some recognition among Coach of the Year voters. The latest win -- a Sunday night laugher over the Vikings -- ensures the NFC playoffs will go through Lambeau Field, where Green Bay was undefeated in the regular season. The table is set.

Los Angeles Rams

Previous rank: No. 3

Championship teams know how to close, and that's exactly what the Rams did against the Ravens on Sunday. Matthew Stafford struggled with turnovers for the second straight week, but he was surgical on the 75-yard touchdown drive that put L.A. ahead with less than one minute remaining. Then it was the defense's turn: Von Miller made his biggest play as a Ram, a crushing sack of Tyler Huntley that all but ended Baltimore's hopes of getting the great Justin Tucker on the field for a game-winning field goal attempt. With a win over the rival Niners on Sunday, the Rams will be division champs. 

Previous rank: No. 4

Tom Brady once again saved the day in leading the shorthanded Bucs to a comeback win over the Jets, but the talk after the game focused on a player who wasn’t there when Tampa Bay was on its final march in the fourth quarter. Antonio Brown is history after a very public meltdown in New Jersey, and the Bucs have egg on their face for staying loyal to a player who’s never been loyal to anyone but himself. Tampa Bay’s depth is being tested like never before in Brady’s time with the team.

Kansas City Chiefs

Previous rank: No. 2

Kansas City's defense had been the team’s one constant this season: The unit held the team together when the offense was mired in a curious extended funk. The Chiefs’ attack has reemerged in recent weeks, but it was now the other side of the ball that didn't hold up its end in a damaging loss to the Bengals that may have cost Kansas City the top seed in the AFC. The deadly combination of Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase took advantage of defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s overaggressive approach, as Cincy piled up five plays of 30 yards or more. File this away for a potential January rematch.

Cincinnati Bengals

Previous rank: No. 9

The Bengals are the most fun team in the NFL right now and second place isn’t even in the rearview. Led by Joe Burrow (971 yards passing over the past two weeks) and Ja’Marr Chase (a rookie-record 266 receiving yards in Week 17), Cincinnati has gone from AFC North afterthought to division champion and legit Super Bowl contender. “I said it in the preseason,” Burrow said after beating the Chiefs. “We were talking about playoffs, and I said that if we were going to go to the playoffs, the easiest way to do that was to win the division. Everyone kind of laughed at us a little bit, but we knew what kind of team we had.” This team believes.

Buffalo Bills

Previous rank: No. 7

The Bills handled business at home against the Falcons, but not in the way you might have imagined. Stefon Diggs dropped a sure touchdown pass, and Josh Allen threw interceptions on three consecutive drives, but Buffalo got a surprise monster contribution from its running game in a closer-than-it-looks 29-15 win. The Bills piled up 233 yards on the ground, with Allen and Devin Singletary each scoring twice. Allen needs to clean up his play, but this was an overall a good sign for a Brian Daboll offense that could use more balance.

Tennessee Titans

Previous rank: No. 11

The Titans are one win away from home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs. This seems crazy considering the roller-coaster nature of their season, but they’ll have a clear path to the Super Bowl if they can beat the four-win Texans on Sunday. They blew the Dolphins off the field this past weekend, piling up 198 yards on the ground behind an offensive line that was finally healthy and together for the first time. Meanwhile, Derrick Henry should return soon to boost a running game that -- amazingly -- has held up fairly to extremely well since he left. This is not a team to discount.

Previous rank: No. 8

The Patriots have been dropping unholy late-season 50-burgers on bad teams for years now, but there’s something to be said for their ability to continue this party trick even with Tom Brady playing his home games 1,300 miles away from Foxborough. Mac Jones threw three touchdown passes in a 50-10 win over the Jaguars that clinched a playoff spot and kept New England in the running for a division title with one week to play. No matter how the AFC East shakes out, a grudge match between the Pats and Bills feels inevitable. We plan to watch this game.

Arizona Cardinals

Previous rank: No. 10

Boy, did the Cardinals need that. Arizona went to Dallas on Sunday and picked up the most important win of its season, a 25-22 conquest that breathed some much-needed confidence back into the team. Kyler Murray improved to 8-0 lifetime in games started at AT&T Stadium dating back to his high school hero days, while the beleaguered Cards defense held down a Cowboys attack that dropped 56 points on Washington seven days earlier. Arizona finished the regular season 8-1 away from State Farm Stadium -- good news for a team that could be on the road in the first week of the playoffs.

Dallas Cowboys

Previous rank: No. 6

Something continues to be slightly off in the mix for the Cowboys. An outrageous beatdown of a decimated Washington Football Team felt like ancient history by the second half of a 25-22 loss to the Cardinals in which the offense once again struggled to find its footing. Dak Prescott had five passes batted down at the line of scrimmage and struggled with his accuracy, while Michael Gallup was lost for the remainder of the year when he tore his ACL on a touchdown grab in the second quarter. A Week 18 matchup against the Eagles feels very important regardless of what it might mean to Dallas' playoff seeding.

Indianapolis Colts

Previous rank: No. 5

change in the NFL’s COVID-19 protocols last week allowed Carson Wentz to play on Sunday against the Raiders, but the quarterback wasn’t much of a help to his team in a disappointing last-second loss. Wentz delivered an uneven performance that once again leaves questions about how much Indy can trust its passer in the crucible of the playoffs. The Colts need to get there first, of course: Their simplest route is with a win in Jacksonville. Potentially disturbing fun fact: The Colts haven’t won a road game against the Jaguars in more than seven years. 

Previous rank: No. 13

Trey Lance stepped in for an injured Jimmy Garoppolo (thumb) on Sunday and did the job, leading the 49ers to a workmanlike 23-7 win over the Texans that puts San Francisco on the precipice of the playoffs. Now things get interesting: Lance’s obvious upside makes him a potential X-factor, but Niners coach Kyle Shanahan told reporters after Sunday’s win that Jimmy G will draw the start against the Rams in the season finale -- if he’s healthy enough to do so. Would Shanahan really turn back to his physically compromised veteran with the season on the line? In reality, it will be a roll of the dice no matter which direction he goes.

Previous rank: No. 14

The Chargers took care of business against an undermanned Broncos team. Now, it’s all in front of them. Beat the Raiders on Sunday night in Vegas and the Chargers will be back in the playoffs for the first time in three years. Fatalistic Bolts fans might feel like a prime-time win-and-in showcase sets up for more heartbreak for this star-crossed franchise. This is understandable given the history, but L.A. should enter that game with the deeper team and -- most importantly -- the superior quarterback. It’s time to ride Justin Herbert to the tournament.

Previous rank: No. 15

Four straight wins punched a ticket to the postseason for the Eagles, but it’s fair to wonder if Philly is the NFC’s answer to the Dolphins -- another team that fattened up on the league’s have-nots. The Eagles' current win streak has been built on the backs of the Jets, the Giants and Washington (twice). Take a step back and you’ll see Philly doesn’t have a single win against a team that currently has a winning record. It will be the sensible play when Iggles fans pull those “underdog” masks out of their closets in a couple weeks.

Las Vegas Raiders

Previous rank: No. 16

This Raiders season will not be remembered for a late fade. In fact, Vegas has flipped the entire narrative on its ear. Rich Bisaccia’s team continued its unlikely rise with an upset win over the Colts, the team’s third consecutive narrow victory over an AFC playoff hopeful. If the Raiders beat the Chargers on Sunday night in Vegas, they'll punch a playoff ticket and complete one of the more unlikely turnarounds in franchise history. The stakes are high for everyone, head coach included: Bisaccia is one win away from authoring a strong case to remove the interim label from his title.

New Orleans Saints

Previous rank: No. 21

The Saints are somehow still alive in the NFC playoff picture -- a testament to great coaching and the fight of a decimated team that has battled through adversity. The defense again played the starring role against the Panthers, piling up seven sacks of Sam Darnold in an 18-10 win at the Superdome. The pass rush was led by Cam Jordan, who’s on a heater right now: The veteran had 3.5 sacks Sunday and has posted at least two sacks in three straight games. A win over the hated Falcons, coupled with a Niners loss to the Rams, puts New Orleans in the dance.

Miami Dolphins

Previous rank: No. 12

The Dolphins had the chance to show the doubters their seven-game winning streak wasn’t merely the product of a soft schedule -- then delivered a flat performance against the Titans that validated all those naysayers. The defense was bullied by a Tennessee running game missing Derrick Henry, while Tua Tagovailoa struggled through a poor performance that featured two turnovers and nary an impact play when the outcome remained in doubt. When the Dolphins decision-makers need to decide what to do at the QB position this offseason, one can imagine Week 17 sticking in their heads. 

Pittsburgh Steelers

Previous rank: No. 20

Ben Roethlisberger was the story on Monday night at Heinz Field, but it was the Steelers' stars of today and tomorrow who kept the team’s playoff hopes alive. Najee Harris ran for 188 yards and the game-sealing score, while T.J. Watt closed in on NFL history with four sacks (he has 21.5 for the season) in a 26-14 win over the Browns. That’s a season sweep of Cleveland, the team that ended Pittsburgh’s 2020 season in embarrassing fashion last January. Big Ben’s chances of extending his career beyond Sunday ride on a win over the Ravens coupled with a Colts loss to the Jaguars.

Baltimore Ravens

Previous rank: No. 19

The Ravens saw their playoff chances dashed in cruel fashion by a Rams team that didn’t grab its first lead until the final minute of game time. Baltimore lost because Tyler Huntley -- again filling in for an injured Lamar Jackson -- failed to turn red-zone trips into TDs; Baltimore went without an offensive touchdown for the first time in three years. The first half of the season was defined by narrow wins; the second by narrow losses. It evens out as 8-8 mediocrity. 

Cleveland Browns

Previous rank: No. 17

The Browns probably weren’t thrilled about being guests at Ben Roethlisberger’s emotional goodbye party at Heinz Field. The Cleveland defense held Big Ben to a comically low 2.7 yards per attempt on 46 passes, but the Browns' offense was inept in its own way. Baker Mayfield took nine sacks and threw two interceptions, while Kevin Stefanski deserves criticism for another strange game plan that included just 12 rush attempts for Nick Chubb, the team’s best offensive player. If you’re talking about the most disappointing teams in the NFL this season, the Browns are absolutely part of the conversation.

Minnesota Vikings

Previous rank: No. 18

This Vikings season was fun … until it wasn’t. The playoff-eligible portion of the schedule ended with a blowout loss to -- who else? -- the Packers, who had no problem clinching the NFC’s No. 1 seed in a game Kirk Cousins watched from home after landing on the COVID-19 list at the most inopportune time. Cousins' four seasons in Minnesota have been defined by very good individual production … and very average team results. Cousins is under contract for one more season, making him an intriguing trade chip if the Vikings decide to explore that road (and a team is willing to take on his hefty cap number). 

Atlanta Falcons

Previous rank: No. 22

The Falcons saw their slight playoff hopes drift away in the frigid air of Orchard Park in a 29-15 loss that could have turned out much differently with better execution. The Falcons forced three turnovers -- all Josh Allen interceptions -- but stalled on the Buffalo side of the field too many times to beat a Super Bowl contender on the road. Congrats are in order for Kyle Pitts, who exited the game with a hamstring injury but not before becoming the second rookie tight end in NFL history to surpass 1,000 yards receiving. The kid is a future superstar.

Chicago Bears

Previous rank: No. 24

The Bears are headed toward wholesale changes, but Matt Nagy has his team playing hard in what are almost certainly his final weeks on Chicago's sideline. The defense balled out in a 29-3 win over the hapless Giants, and the star -- once again -- was Robert Quinn. With his 18th sack, the veteran pass rusher broke Hall of Famer Richard Dent’s franchise single-season mark (17.5). The record-breaker also put Quinn over 100 sacks for his career -- not bad for a guy who managed just two sacks in his disappointing 2020 debut with Chicago. 

Seattle Seahawks

Previous rank: No. 25

Where has this version of the offense been the past two months? Russell Wilson had his best game since finger surgery, throwing four touchdown passes -- three to DK Metcalf -- while running back Rashaad Penny's career rejuvenation continued with 170 yards and two touchdowns in a 51-29 blowout of the Lions. In the days leading up to the game, Wilson volunteered to the media that he hoped this wasn't his final game as a home player at Lumen Field. It was the first volley in what's shaping up to be an offseason of soapy melodrama for the Seahawks.

Denver Broncos

Previous rank: No. 23

The Broncos were not set up well to compete on Sunday against the Chargers. Vic Fangio's team was missing five defensive starters, as well as quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and wide receiver Jerry Jeudy. The predictable 34-13 loss clinched a fifth consecutive losing season for the Broncos, who have not returned to the playoffs since their victory in Super Bowl 50. The team will enter the offseason with uncertainty at the most vital sectors of an organization: at head coach, at quarterback, in ownership.

Previous rank: No. 26

Taylor Heinicke had a chance to put a dagger in the heart of a rival on Sunday but instead threw an interception that sealed another Washington loss, the team’s fourth in a row. Heinicke has actually provided the Football Team some clarity with his up-and-down play this season: He makes perfect sense as a high-end backup, but he’s not a difference-maker at QB -- something this team hasn’t had since Robert Griffin III’s rookie season back in 2012. It will be interesting to see what Washington does with a top-10 pick in April’s draft.

Houston Texans

Previous rank: No. 27

Let’s give some love to the NFL’s most under-appreciated playmaker: Brandin Cooks. The veteran wideout had Houston’s lone touchdown in Sunday’s loss to the 49ers and has quietly put together yet another productive season in a career filled with them. True story: Cooks now has six 1,000-yard seasons in his eight years in the NFL. He’s also played with four teams in those eight years, which tells you this is a man who's been fighting a Rodney Dangerfield level of disrespect from the jump. We got you, bud.

New York Jets

Previous rank: No. 29

After it was over, the focus of Bucs 28, Jets 24 was on Antonio Brown’s antics, Tom Brady’s heroics, and a New York fourth-down play call gone horribly awry. But Jets fans should focus on the positives: Their undermanned team hung tough against the champs … and Zach Wilson is showing real progress in the season’s homestretch. The rookie QB is now making the “layups” (coach Robert Saleh’s term for routine throws), and his game tape on Sunday was dotted with several wow passes that showed off his improved rhythm and confidence. 

Detroit Lions

Previous rank: No. 28

We’ve all had such a fun time rooting for the plucky, upstart Lions that we seem to paper over the grisly blowout losses that have dotted their 2-13-1 season. Let’s do it again, shall we? Sunday’s 51-29 setback to the Seahawks featured yet another standout game from rookie wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown, who scored two touchdowns (one receiving, one rushing) and tied Calvin Johnson for the longest streak of games with at least eight receptions in franchise history (he’s up to five with one week to play). Pretty nice company for the 22-year-old.

Carolina Panthers

Previous rank: No. 30

If the Panthers hoped Sam Darnold’s return to the lineup would pump some end-of-season optimism into the building, well, we’re not there yet. Darnold was under constant siege from a stout New Orleans front that piled up seven sacks and had no problem passing through Carolina’s turnstyle offensive line. Darnold started the game with nine consecutive completions, but he faded with the rest of the Panthers attack, culminating with an ugly game-sealing pick in the final minute of an 18-10 loss. Carolina needs a total upheaval of its offensive line before it makes any final judgement on the quarterback playing behind it. 

New York Giants

Previous rank: No. 31

The Giants will end another lost season as the worst team in the NFC. They’ve been non-competitive in recent weeks, but Joe Judge remained defiantly optimistic in a postgame press conference/winding 11-minute monologue that didn’t do him any favors. "This ain't a team that's having fistfights on the sidelines," the coach said after a 29-3 loss to the Bears. "This ain't some clown show organization or something else, OK? You talk about the foundation built, you talk about the things that -- the toughest thing to change in a team, the toughest thing to change in a club, is the way people think." Judge sees foundation and a culture change, but does ownership really see progress in the past two years? If anything, Big Blue has regressed.

Previous rank: No. 32

Trevor Lawrence's rookie season has gone terribly, and there were moments during the Jaguars' latest lopsided loss -- this time a 50-10 shellacking at the hands of the Patriots -- where we couldn't help but wonder what lasting effects this year might have on the No. 1 overall pick. Lawrence threw three more interceptions on Sunday; his only highlight came on a garbage-time screen pass TD that ended a streak of 184 pass attempts without a score. Given Lawrence's generational talents and the melodrama that conspired to melt his debut campaign, it's fair to say no team has a more important offseason in front of it than Jacksonville.

Follow Dan Hanzus on Twitter.

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