Only now has it occurred to me that the Patriots and Buccaneers -- more specifically, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady -- are destined to meet atop the Power Rankings, and eventually in Super Bowl LVI.
Everything else represents the long-and-winding preamble to that climactic showdown, and we're all here to play along and distract from a conclusion to the season that now feels completely inevitable. I'll continue to write these Power Rankings because, well, it's my job, but also because the universe needs structure -- especially right now.
But we all know the truth. The season's final Sunday is already preordained. We live in a simulation.
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 13 NFL Power Rankings.
Previous rank: No. 1
Aaron Jones returned to the lineup in the Week 12 win over the Rams after missing a week with a knee injury and saw significantly less work than upstart second-year back A.J. Dillon. Was this a case of Green Bay wisely easing its star rusher back onto the field -- or has Dillon shown enough to carve out a legitimate timeshare in the backfield? Jones is too talented as a runner and receiver to take out of the mix, but a 1-2 punch of Jones and Dillon makes the Packers' running game deadly in the same way that Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt are weaponized to close out opponents for the Browns. You know what's better than having The Guy in your backfield? Having two of them.
Previous rank: No. 2
Kyler Murray returned to action on Sunday and looked like the all-around menace to defenses that he was before an ankle injury put him on the shelf for a month. Murray threw two touchdown passes and rushed for two more in a blowout win over the Bears, showing no limitations in mobility. DeAndre Hopkins -- also back in the lineup after an extended absence -- was the recipient of Murray's first touchdown pass, making Week 13 pretty much a perfect reintroduction for the Cardinals as they came out of their bye week. A win over the Rams next Monday night would put Arizona in the driver's seat for both the NFC West title and the No. 1 seed in the NFC.
Previous rank: No. 3
Is it Tom Brady's turn to be the MVP favorite? Brady threw four more touchdown passes on Sunday -- giving him a league-best 34 on the season -- in an easy win over the Falcons that pushed Tampa Bay one step closer to an inevitable NFC South title. Brady opened the game with 13 consecutive pass attempts and completed 38 of 51 passes overall. He remains the unquestioned driver of his offense in his 22nd NFL season, and he's been the best quarterback in football during a year in which the quality of play at the position has been strangely inconsistent. The Bucs don't need balance to their attack when they have the G.O.A.T. at the controls.
Previous rank: No. 5
The man's rare sideline smile told the story: This was the kind of night that keeps Bill Belichick in the game. With frigid cold and gusting winds, Belichick took the ball out of his quarterback's hands (three pass attempts for Mac Jones) and won with a pounding run attack and a defense that bent but did not break. The 14-10 victory over the Bills pushed the Pats' winning streak to seven games and gave them sole possession of the No. 1 seed in the AFC with five weeks in the regular season. Tom Brady might be gone, but the Pats' continued ability to win contests like this goes right back to the legend in the hoodie on the sideline.
Previous rank: No. 4
This is the new normal. The Chiefs are winning every week because of their defense, not because of Patrick Mahomes and an offense that remains lost in the fog. Penalties, turnovers and a stunning dearth of big plays have come to define Andy Reid's attack, and we're now well past the point where you can look at Kansas City's body of work on offense and call it a slump. This is who the 2021 Chiefs are, and one bad day at the office for Steve Spagnuolo's defense might be all it takes to make the defending conference champions disappear in January. You don't win Super Bowls with a broken offense -- is it even possible to make a fix before the season ends?
Previous rank: No. 8
It wasn't a work of art, but the Cowboys got the job done on Thursday night in New Orleans. The defense did the heavy lifting, icing the game with three fourth-quarter interceptions -- including a Carlos Watkins pick-six -- in a 27-17 win that snapped a two-game losing streak. Afterward, Dallas got a much needed "half-bye" to rest up and recover before making a push for the top seed in the NFC. The ongoing slump of Dak Prescott remains a situation worth tracking: The quarterback made some elite throws against the Saints, but he has not been as consistent a force since his return from the calf strain that cost him a game.
Previous rank: No. 6
A challenging Bills season reached new levels of frustration on Monday Night Football in the swirling winds of Orchard Park. The Patriots proved themselves to be the more physical team, repeatedly winning at the line of scrimmage even when the whole stadium knew Mac Jones' primary job was to turn around and hand the ball off. Josh Allen made good use of his cannon arm, but he also missed key throws and presided over two fourth-quarter drives that stalled in the red zone and ultimately cost Buffalo a game it desperately needed. A rematch at Foxborough looms, but not before a date with Tom Brady and the Bucs. Gut-check time has arrived.
Previous rank: No. 11
Ah, if only the Rams could play the Jaguars every Sunday. Los Angeles rolled to a blowout win at Hollywood Park, snapping a three-game losing streak and putting themselves in a more positive headspace, with a Monday night showdown on tap against the first-place Cardinals. The star-laden defense will need to step up in the way it couldn't against the Packers, while the offense needs to find the consistency it had earlier this season. Near the top of the concern list: Will Matthew Stafford and Odell Beckham find chemistry in the home stretch? Beckham has two touchdowns in three games with Los Angeles, but he has yet to make a real impact.
Previous rank: No. 13
The Colts demolish bad teams. Cream them. Grind them into dust. Strike them from the Earth. Banish them to parts unknown. It happened again on Sunday, in a 31-0 win over the moribund Texans that moved Frank Reich's men back over .500 as they reach their bye. When the Colts return to action in Week 15, they'll hit a critical two-game stretch against the Patriots and Cardinals that will define their season. Indy still has just one win against a team with a winning record this season. Is this an actual AFC powerhouse ... or just a middle-of-the-road group that beats up on the have-nots? We'll find out soon enough.
Previous rank: No. 15
The Chargers flew to Cincinnati to ride a roller coaster. Brandon Staley's team nearly blew a 24-point lead, but a massive touchdown on a fumble recovery by Tevaughn Campbell changed everything in a 41-22 win over the Bengals. It might have been the play of the year for the Bolts, but it wasn't the only promising development to come out of the victory: Justin Herbert and the big-play attack were back after a frustrating sabbatical. Herbert averaged over 9 yards per attempt and showcased his top-shelf arm strength on an absurd 44-yard TD strike to Jalen Guyton in the second quarter. As CBS analyst Charles Davis deftly put it during the telecast: "That call is not in everyone's playbook."
Previous rank: No. 7
The Bengals had a chance for their first three-game winning streak of the season ... and fell on their faces. Hosting the Chargers in front of a fired-up crowd at Paul Brown Stadium, Cincy surrendered the game's first 24 points, mounted a comeback to cut the deficit to 2, then watched a rare Joe Mixon fumble kick-start a final Bolts surge in a 41-22 loss. Injuries are also a concern. Joe Burrow gutted his way through the game after suffering a dislocated pinkie in the first quarter, while starting cornerback Chidobe Awuzie and linebacker Logan Wilson were both knocked out the game with ailments. The AFC North remains there for the taking ... but you never know which version of the Bengals is going to show up.
Previous rank: No. 9
It's easy to second-guess John Harbaugh's decision to go for that 2-point conversion in what turned out to be a stomach-punch loss to the hated Steelers, but the coach had his reasons. The Ravens' defense had allowed three consecutive scoring drives in the fourth quarter, and a season-ending pec injury suffered by star cornerback Marlon Humphrey on the previous Pittsburgh possession put his secondary in a desperate situation. Baltimore has made its season with clutch plays in the biggest moments of games, so Harbaugh decided to trust his gut on the coaching equivalent of a "heat check" by a sharpshooter in basketball. Sure, the ball rimmed out, but you have to respect the moxie.
Previous rank: No. 12
Turnovers have become a major problem for the Titans in recent weeks: They give up too many of them, and they don't generate enough for themselves. Tennessee went into its Week 13 bye with nine combined giveaways and zero takeaways in back-to-back losses to the Texans and Patriots. This, as you probably don't need to be made aware, is perhaps the ultimate recipe for doom in professional football. During a six-game win streak that preceded the Titans' shocking loss to Houston, Tennessee's defense forced 11 turnovers. If the Titans are to snap out of their current funk, they'll need an immense clean-up effort in this area of their game.
Previous rank: No. 10
The 49ers suffered their most frustrating loss of the season on Sunday in Seattle, a game that will be remembered for an unending litany of self-inflicted errors. They allowed a 73-yard touchdown on a fake punt run. They fumbled a kick return. They threw two interceptions, and took a sack in the end zone for a safety. They were charged with 10 penalties, including two critical roughing the passer fouls. And even with all that mess, the Niners were 3 yards away from the potential game-tying score when Jimmy G’s fourth-down pass attempt was batted away in the final seconds. “We definitely blew it,” Nick Bosa said after the game. “… We got to do a better job of not giving the game away.”
Previous rank: No. 18
Tua Tagovailoa throws a good ball. I'm not exactly offering up Baldy's Breakdown-level football discourse here, but you know a talented passer when you see one, and Tua looks the part. The 2020 No. 5 overall pick possesses great touch and accuracy, and his left-handed motion makes him unique in a football world that has moved away from the southpaw QB in recent years. The Dolphins' winning streak is up to five after a 20-9 conquest over the Giants, and Tua's steady hand, combined with Brian Flores' increasingly ferocious defense, is a pairing that could take Miami from 1-7 to the playoffs.
Previous rank: No. 16
Andrew Berry gave the media 30 minutes as the Browns began their much-needed bye week, but the general manager was too smart to offer the press the red meat they craved regarding Baker Mayfield. The former No. 1 pick has struggled through an injury-riddled year, but Berry was careful not to play his hand on how this season has -- or has not -- changed the team’s internal evaluation of the quarterback. Time remains on Cleveland’s side: Mayfield has one year and nearly $19 million left on his rookie deal, which makes him the likely starter in 2022 regardless of what happens the rest of the way. Mayfield might not be close to the lucrative long-term extension that appeared imminent last summer, but he’s not facing a doomsday scenario, either.
Previous rank: No. 20
Taylor Heinicke got away with some mistakes on Sunday, but he also made some key plays in another fourth-quarter comeback for the surging Football Team. A clutch field goal by Brian Johnson -- Washington's fourth kicker this season -- allowed the Football Team to escape with a 17-15 win in Vegas and stay in playoff position in the wide-open NFC. The real star of the game was the revitalized defense, which continues to thrive without several of its best players. Washington stifled a Raiders attack that missed injured tight end Darren Waller, and Derek Carr failed to punish Washington when presented with coverage breakdowns. The Football Team has some juice.
Previous rank: No. 21
The Steelers' offense found its footing just in time on Sunday, producing 17 points in the fourth quarter of a stirring 20-19 win over the Ravens to keep Pittsburgh's AFC North hopes alive. The Steelers clinched the huge victory when Lamar Jackson’s 2-point conversion pass attempt hit the fingertips of Mark Andrews and fell incomplete with seconds to play. The pass was errant because of pressure from -- you guessed it -- T.J. Watt, who also collected 3.5 sacks and took a commanding lead in the Defensive Player of the Year race. There isn’t another non-quarterback in the sport who is as important to his team as Watt is to the Steelers. Forget DPOY, Watt deserves MVP buzz.
Previous rank: No. 14
Some things we'll just never know: Who built Stonehenge? What became of Amelia Earhart? Why did Cameron Dantzler play 11 yards off the receiver? The Vikings' latest ridiculous loss could have significant long-term ramifications for the franchise, especially if Minnesota's truly manic season ends with the team one win shy of a playoff berth. The Vikings dug themselves out of a 20-6 hole, only to still find a way to lose to a Lions team that hadn't claimed victory in 364 days. Mike Zimmer's future with the team has never been hazier, and you wonder if more seismic changes are in store once this wildly frustrating season reaches its sure-to-be-absurd conclusion.
Previous rank: No. 22
There’s a reason why Gardner Minshew's postgame celebration with his father looked like a scene straight out of Friday Night Lights. With Jalen Hurts out with an ankle injury, Minshew was given one start to make an impression -- to plant the seed that he could be The Guy -- and he absolutely nailed his audition. Minshew completed his first 12 passes against the Jets and led Philly on seven consecutive scoring drives in a convincing win that led to the inevitable questions about Hurts’ job security. Nick Sirianni did a nice job of deflection, but Eagles fans have now caught MinshewMania in the same way Duval County did before them. Minshew is a fun and passionate player, with the underdog charisma of Rocky Balboa. No wonder Iggles fans are head over heels.
Previous rank: No. 17
A narrow loss to a surging Washington team is no cause to ring the shame bell, but if the Raiders want to show they are different than the teams that have failed in recent years they have to step up when it matters most. Derek Carr has to hit Foster Moreau and Zay Jones in the red zone. Trevon Moehrig needs to hold on to an errant Taylor Heinicke pass on Washington’s final drive. We’ve reached the crucible of the regular season, and the teams who will advance to the playoffs are the teams who seize opportunities and take advantage of their opponent’s mistakes. The Raiders lacked that killer instinct on Sunday in a loss that summoned the ghosts of Decembers past.
Previous rank: No. 26
The Seahawks are not a very good team, but they showed real fight in yet another win over the 49ers. That started early, on a fake punt -- from their own 27-yard line! -- that resulted in a 73-yard touchdown run by Travis Homer. It was the spark Seattle needed and it burned through four quarters of a wild 30-23 win at Lumen Field. At 4-8, the Seahawks are highly unlikely to find their way back into the NFC playoff picture, but this version of Pete Carroll’s team could cause some havoc for contenders down the stretch. Seattle in a spoiler role feels strange for a team that qualified for the playoffs in nine of the past 10 seasons, but weirdness is the modus operandi of this NFL season.
Previous rank: No. 19
Sunday night’s crucial showdown with the Chiefs represented an audition of sorts for Teddy Bridgewater. The veteran quarterback has led a nomadic NFL career, and the SNF stage was a golden opportunity for Bridgewater to announce to this franchise that he can be more than a stopgap option under center in Denver. Unfortunately for Bridgewater, the outcome likely produced the opposite effect. Bridgewater struggled against a stout Kansas City defense, throwing two crucial second-half interceptions -- including a game-sealing pick-six -- in a 22-9 loss. Denver’s offense couldn't deliver in the critical moments on a day the defense all but shut down Patrick Mahomes, and even a 20-play drive in the third quarter failed to produce points. The Broncos are still looking for their difference-maker at QB.
Previous rank: No. 23
This probably won't come as a surprise, but career journeyman Mike Glennon was not the solution to the Giants' season-long offensive funk. Big Blue managed just nine points and 250 total yards in a performance that provided a hint that maybe Jason Garrett wasn't the only problem with one of the worst offenses in football. You know what has been a problem? Saquon Barkley, the former No. 2 overall pick who has been unable to rise above the middling talent around him. Is Barkley trapped in a bad situation -- or is he not the same guy after the reconstructive knee surgery and nagging injuries that have haunted him this season? This is a team that feels like it could be headed toward a hard reboot.
Previous rank: No. 24
The Panthers have a Christian McCaffrey conundrum. When this season comes to a conclusion, McCaffrey will have missed 23 of 33 games since signing the contract extension that made him the highest-paid running back in NFL history. Unfortunately for his brethren, McCaffrey has become the latest example of why teams paying running backs big money is bad business. McCaffrey will be back next season, but Matt Rhule and the braintrust (minus Joe Brady) will likely use the rest of the season as a barometer in deciding whether Chuba Hubbard is a worthy backup. If you're going to walk the CMC tightrope, you had better have a strong safety net.
Previous rank: No. 25
Taysom Hill added some much-needed excitement to the offense, but the desired result remained elusive for the Saints, who continued their stumble out of the playoff picture in a prime-time loss to the Cowboys. The game turned during a disastrous fourth-quarter sequence that featured three interceptions in six pass attempts by Hill, who was clearly affected by a finger injury suffered in the first half. New Orleans could still make noise with a win streak, but that’s not happening unless they get healthy at key spots along the offensive line (Terron Armstead, Ryan Ramczyk) and at running back (Alvin Kamara). Hill’s finger issue is a concern, as well, though it's unclear if it'll require surgery in the near term or if he'll be able to play through it.
Previous rank: No. 27
It's hard to get very excited about watching the Bears right now, as the mostly quiet crowd at Soldier Field on Sunday afternoon will surely attest. Chicago is pretty much out of the NFC playoff picture, the embattled head coach seems like he's on a countdown clock to Jan. 10, and Justin Fields' injured ribs have kept him out of the lineup for two weeks and counting. Backup quarterback Andy Dalton made some unwelcome personal history against the Cardinals, tying a career high with four interceptions that led to 23 Arizona points. That's six losses in seven games for the Mouses of the Midway.
Previous rank: No. 28
The financials connected to Matt Ryan make him the Falcons’ likely starter for the balance of this season and the next one, as well … but you wonder if Arthur Smith is entirely comfortable with that idea. It’s not fair to put Atlanta’s sleepy attack at the feet of the greatest quarterback the franchise has ever had, but a leaky offensive line combined with the 36-year-old’s poor pocket mobility has made for ugly football when the Falcons face a team with any pass rush. Perhaps Atlanta fixes this fatal flaw with a smart offseason of fortifications along the line, but this increasingly feels like a marriage in which a clean break would serve both sides well. Easier said than done, of course.
Previous rank: No. 29
Let's focus on a positive that came out of the latest lopsided Jets loss: Zach Wilson showed some legitimate promise with an excellent first half against the Eagles. The rookie quarterback, who has seemed overwhelmed for long stretches of his rookie season, led the Jets to touchdowns on each of their first three possessions -- breaking a season-long trend of slow starts to begin his NFL career. Wilson moved well on his injured knee and unfurled some precise lasers that sparked the imagination of excitement-starved Jets fans at the Meadowlands. New York's defense is an abomination that doesn't allow them to be competitive on most weeks, but a strong finish by Wilson will send the organization into the offseason on a high.
Previous rank: No. 32
Jared Goff read the coverage, found the receiver and delivered the completion. His celebration began, not with a sprint to celebrate with wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown, but with a beeline toward Dan Campbell, the head coach who wanted this win more than anyone. The Lions beat the Vikings in dramatic fashion on Sunday, eliminating the prospect of another winless season in Detroit and pumping some good spirit into a region reeling from senseless tragedy. After the game, Campbell dedicated the win to all the people impacted by the recent school shooting in Oxford, Michigan. This has not been an easy year for the Lions -- it’s been a pretty rough millennium, in fact -- but on Sunday, the team authored one of the most indelible moments of the NFL season.
Previous rank: No. 31
Urban Meyer surely believed he’d be immune from the struggles of so many other hotshot college coaches who sauntered into the NFL then promptly fell on their faces. Meyer went 83-9 during his fantastically successful seven-year run at Ohio State, but it took less than three months for Meyer to surpass that loss total in his debut season with the Jaguars. “I wish I had all the answers, and I’d give them to you,” Meyer said after a blowout loss to the Rams dropped Jacksonville to 2-10. “I don’t know the answers other than I know this: that you’re going to keep swinging and keep working together.” Is Meyer up for the challenge that’s in front of him? Stay tuned.
Previous rank: No. 30
The Texans were shut out for the second time this season, the latest indignity in a season full of them. Tyrod Taylor was sent to the bench during the blowout to Colts, and Ian Rapoport reported Monday the veteran is considered week-to-week with a wrist injury on his non-throwing arm. That opens the door for rookie Davis Mills to return to the lineup in Week 14, and most likely, for the balance of the regular season. Something tells us that the Texans’ Week 1 starter at QB in 2022 isn’t currently on the roster. In fact, we’d be willing to bet that a lot of players who will be starting for the Texans in Week 1 of 2022 aren’t currently under contract with the team.