1. Arizona Cardinals: 12-2 (1)

Each and every week the Cardinals continue to impress me in ways they hadn’t before. Sunday night David Johnson looked unstoppable. He rushed for three touchdowns and 187 yards, good for 6.4 yards per carry. But the thing that made him look like a man among boys was his third quarter 47-yard touchdown run. On that run, Johnson broke two tackles and made another defender miss. It was arguably the best run since Marshawn Lynch’s run in the 2011 playoffs. If you don’t believe me, click here. The Cardinals have found their bell cow back in Johnson to go along with their elite receiving trio of Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd, and John Brown.

Carson Palmer has won 25 of his last 29 starts and with their win last week the Cardinals clinched the NFC West title. With a win this Sunday the Cardinals will clinch a first round bye for the first time in the history of their franchise.

 

  1. New England Patriots: 12-2 (2)

Sunday’s win over the Titans was a classic Patriots’ win. Get up big early: Take their foot off the gas.

Their win clinched their sixth consecutive playoff bye, an NFL record. No matter the injuries, the Patriots continue to win games. If it weren’t for Cam Newton, Tom Brady would be the NFL’s MVP. What he has done this season is remarkable. Just look at his receiving core over the last month and a half. The likes of Keshawn Martin, Brandon LaFell, and Danny Amendola have been his number one options, and despite this, the Patriots keep on winning.

 

  1. Carolina Panthers: 14-0 (3)

After narrowly blowing a 35-7 second half lead, the Panthers all but clinched an undefeated regular season. The team is on fire. They’ve won their last 18 regular season games.

Cam Newton continues to be the MVP of the league. He finished with five passing touchdowns through the air in addition to rushing for nearly 100 yards. Newton is making his mediocre receivers look like a legitimate NFL receiving core.

With a win this Sunday the Panthers would clinch home field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs.

 

  1. Seattle Seahawks: 9-5 (4)

After a slow start, the Seahawks are back in the playoffs. Since 2011, the Seahawks have one of the best records in the second half of the NFL season. What does that mean? Simple, they play their best when it matters most.

Russell Wilson showed us again why he is a dark horse candidate for the MVP award. Despite a depleted running game the offense couldn’t be stopped scoring on six of their seven drives. Wilson finished with 249 yards, three touchdowns, and completed 70 percent of his passes. In his last five games, Wilson has 19 touchdowns and zero interceptions. He’s arguably playing better than any quarterback not named Cam Newton right now.

Teams do not want to play Seattle right now and I believe, as we head toward January, the Seahawks might be the scariest team in all of the NFL.

 

  1. Pittsburgh Steelers: 9-5 (5)

The Steelers came up with a huge win on Sunday, defeating the Broncos 34-27. After that win, the Steelers find themselves among the six-playoff teams in the AFC.

Like the Seahawks, the Steelers are a team nobody wants to see on their schedule. Their offense is too good for opposing teams to stop. The amount of weapons they have on offense is a nightmare for opposing defenses. Just ask the Broncos, whom the Steelers torched this past Sunday.

I’m not sure any team can compete with the Steelers if the game were to get into a shootout. If any team is going to beat the Patriots come January it will be this Steelers’ team.

 

  1. Cincinnati Bengals: 11-3 (6)

The Bengals clinched their fifth consecutive playoff berth after defeating the 49ers this past Sunday. Despite the absence of Andy Dalton, the Bengals’ offense looked formidable, scoring 24 points. With a defense like the Bengals have, the offense doesn’t need to score more than 20 points per game. Not to mention, the offense is only going to better as AJ McCarron’s level of comfort increases.

This Sunday, the Bengals have one of their biggest games of the year, as they take on the Broncos. With a win, the Bengals would clinch a first round bye for the first time since 2005.

Even without Andy Dalton, I truly believe the Bengals have a shot at winning this game. As I mentioned earlier, their defense has been fantastic all season long and if they continue to play the way they have the Broncos’ offense will be extremely ineffective.

 

  1. Green Bay Packers: 10-4 (8)

After a mid season hiccup the Packers are right where we thought they would be, in the playoffs and in position to win 12 games.

They haven’t been the elite Packers we are used to seeing, but that’s okay. Since Thanksgiving, the Packers have looked better and better each week. Mike McCarthy has taken back the play calling duties and it has shown. He benched Davante Adams for having too many drops, moved Randall Cobb back to the slot, and dumbed down the James Jones’ routes. The Packers are a dangerous team right now and with Aaron Rodgers at quarterback I will never count out the Packers.

 

  1. Kansas City Chiefs: 9-5 (9)

The Chiefs have won eight consecutive games after starting the season 1-5. The team has turned the ball over once since week three and they are doing this all without their best player Jamaal Charles.

Their offseason acquisition of Jeremy Maclin has looked like one of the best free agent signings in all of football. Last year the Chiefs’ receiving core was abysmal, so much so opponents could stack the box and not have to worry about receivers creating space and getting open. But now, with Maclin on the team, the entire defensive game plan has shifted for opponents of the Chiefs. Maclin’s elite talent creates openings on the line for the running game, by drawing more attention to the receiving core. In addition to that, Maclin has also added a deep threat dynamic that the Chiefs haven’t had in almost a decade.

 

  1. Denver Broncos: 10-4 (7)

After blowing a 27-10 second half lead against the Steelers, the Broncos find themselves in “must win mode”. If they lose the remaining two games on their schedule they could find themselves outside the playoffs.

Now, I don’t think that is going to happen, but it’s crazy to think that two weeks ago, this team was the “favorite for home field advantage in the AFC”.

One bright spot for the Broncos was how well their offense played in the first half against the Steelers. After scoring just one offensive touchdown in their previous nine quarters, the Broncos scored three in the first 30 minutes of the game.

But, the bad news, they were shut out in the second half. If their offense plays like that, the Broncos won’t beat any team come January.

 

  1. New York Jets: 9-5 (10)

Despite a win over the Cowboys last Saturday the Jets fell out of the playoff picture in the AFC due to various tiebreakers. For the Jets to qualify for the playoffs, they need to finish with a better record than the Steelers, Chiefs, or Broncos.

With all that said, the Jets are still one of the best teams in the NFL, and it would be a shame if they missed the playoffs. Ryan Fitzpatrick continues to shock the football world. Over his last four games, Fitzpatrick has 10 touchdowns and one interception. This is the best four game stretch of his career since 2012 when he played with the Bills.

 

Sean Mason

Spark Sports NFL Analyst

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