NFL Power Rankings: Aaron Rodgers and Packers could make playoffs, then be a tough out

After the Green Bay Packers fell to 4-8, Five Thirty Eight's projection model gave them a 3% chance to make the playoffs. After they beat the Chicago Bears to improve to 5-8, that number jumped all the way up to 4%.

It's fine to go on social media and proclaim that anyone saying a week ago that the Packers should get a look at Jordan Love was totally wrong, but did you think the Packers were going to claw their way back into the playoff race? Unlikely. But they're back and in decent shape after beating the Miami Dolphins on Sunday.

The Packers aren't a lock to make the playoffs if they win out — 86% via the The New York Times' playoff simulator — but they've gotten all the other breaks they've needed. No other team in the NFC wild-card race seems overly interested in taking those spots. The Packers finish with games against the Vikings (who still have less than a 1% chance at the top seed, and therefore not a ton to play for) and the Lions at home. It'll be cold at Lambeau Field for those two dome teams. And it feels like if the Packers make it to Week 18 with their playoff hopes alive, they're not losing.

It's all shaping up to be yet another "I told you so" for Rodgers, who has pulled off miracle playoff berths in the past.

"I don’t think we’ve struggled with confidence but definitely haven’t had a lot of believers outside of the locker room, I don't think, so maybe this will give us a couple on the bandwagon,” Rodgers said after Sunday's game. “But we’ve been in a good rhythm, practice energy, cohesion and been playing a little bit better complementary football.”

To be clear, there's no positives about being the No. 7 seed vs. the No. 1 seed, as they've been each of the past two seasons. But they are the type of team no division winner wants to see in the playoffs.

The talent has always been there for the Packers. They underachieved for the first half of the season. But if they get in the playoffs, they're a deep team that has a Hall of Fame quarterback and is playing much better on both sides of the ball lately. Ask yourself this: Think the Vikings really want to see the Packers in a potential No. 2 vs. No. 7 matchup on wild-card weekend?

The defense has been really slow to come around but after a rough start Sunday it made game-changing plays. They've forced eight turnovers over a three-game winning streak. The Packers still aren't great on offense. Rodgers is averaging 222.1 yards per game, which is more than 16 below his previous career low for a season. But we saw on Sunday the offense is still capable of a few important plays each game. Christian Watson's emergence has brought a new dimension to the offense. The Packers need Aaron Jones and Watson, who hurt his hip on Sunday, to be healthy. But if the Packers are relatively healthy the offense shouldn't be bad. They still have the 2020 and 2021 NFL MVP at quarterback.

Just making the playoffs would be an accomplishment after the stats said they were 97% to miss it just four weeks ago. The Packers had high expectations coming into the season and will want more than just an appearance. Maybe they're the type of team that can do more than just sneak in.

Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers have gotten hot and improved their playoff chances. (Photo by Megan Briggs/Getty Images)
Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers have gotten hot and improved their playoff chances. (Photo by Megan Briggs/Getty Images)

Here are the power rankings after Week 16 of the NFL season:

32. Houston Texans (2-12-1, Last Week: 32)

Winning is good for anyone and you're not convincing players and coaches to tank. But go ahead and ask the Jets if they'd have rather lost two more games in 2020 and gotten Trevor Lawrence, or if going 2-14 was worth losing Lawrence for Zach Wilson.

31. Arizona Cardinals (4-11, LW: 31)

One stat sums up how ugly the Cardinals' offense was on Sunday night: DeAndre Hopkins had 10 targets, and they resulted in one catch for 4 yards. The 4 yards tied a career-low for Hopkins. Trace McSorley's inability to get the ball to one of the greatest receivers of this era isn't a good look for him.

30. Denver Broncos (4-11, LW: 27)

The last time a first-year coach got fired during the season under similar circumstances to Nathaniel Hackett was 1978 (Hackett wasn't anywhere near the off-field embarrassment Urban Meyer was last year; that's not the correct comparison). It went really bad, really fast. We might never see another fan base turn on its coach faster than Broncos fans turned on Hackett.

29. Chicago Bears (3-12, LW: 30)

The Texans play this weekend against a Jaguars team that will be looking ahead to a Week 18 AFC South championship game vs. Tennessee, then they finish at a bad Colts team. Why is this in the Bears' part of the rankings? Chicago fans can tell you.

28. Indianapolis Colts (4-10-1, LW: 29)

Nick Foles has had a remarkably weird career. That guy who was playing quarterback for the Colts on Monday night once was a Super Bowl MVP, I promise.

27. Los Angeles Rams (5-10, LW: 28)

Cam Akers' 118-yard, three-touchdown game probably said more about the Broncos' effort, but it's still a great step forward for him. Maybe he will be one of the outliers to the terrible history of running backs coming off torn Achilles injuries.

26. Atlanta Falcons (5-10, LW: 26)

There was some improvement from Desmond Ridder in his second start. He was 22-of-33 for 218 yards against a good Ravens defense. Not perfect or even close, but better. If he can show improvement two more times before the end of the season, he'll give the Falcons something to consider.

25. Las Vegas Raiders (6-9, LW: 22)

The Raiders blew another lead and lost? Get outta here. Here's the thing: The Raiders might be in a spot in which they have to choose between Derek Carr and Josh McDaniels, and we can probably figure out what that choice would be. But is McDaniels better at his job than Carr is at his?

24. New Orleans Saints (6-9, LW: 25)

Somehow, someway, the Saints are still alive in the playoff picture. They aren't eliminated in a terrible NFC South and they aren't entirely dead in the wild-card race either, which is inconceivable. Via Brian Knowles of Football Outsiders, here is the exact parlay the Saints have to hit to win the division: Saints win out (at Philly, vs. Carolina), Panthers beat Buccaneers in Week 17, Falcons beat Panthers in Week 18. It's unlikely but the Saints can't complain. They're still alive.

23. Cleveland Browns (6-9, LW: 20)

I get why everyone is eager to rip Deshaun Watson, but judging the Browns trade a failure because he didn't play well on that ice rink of a field on Saturday isn't it. The trade might be a failure but you shouldn't make any big judgments from what happened in those conditions.

22. Carolina Panthers (6-9, LW: 24)

If the Panthers lose Sunday at Tampa Bay, there's no scenario in which they can win the NFC South. If they win out, they will win the NFC South. There's also a scenario in which they win Sunday, lose in Week 18 and still take the division, but the clearest path for Carolina is to win its final two games. Carolina at Tampa Bay is probably the marquee game of Sunday's slate for those reasons.

21. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-8, LW: 23)

It would be compelling to see Tom Brady in the playoffs, but does anyone really want to see this bad Buccaneers team host one of our six playoff games on wild-card weekend?

20. Seattle Seahawks (7-8, LW: 18)

The Seahawks before their trip to Germany: 6-3. Since they left for Germany: 1-5. That could be total coincidence and the league just caught up to them right at that time. But it's a stark difference. The defense in particular hasn't been the same since that trip.

19. Tennessee Titans (7-8, LW: 16)

It's rare to get a week of rest for an NFL team at this point in the season but the Titans have that opportunity. Their Week 17 game means nothing and their Week 18 game at Jacksonville will determine the AFC South championship. Why would you play guys on a short week for a Thursday night game against the Cowboys? Titans head coach Mike Vrabel wouldn't say what he'll do but he offered a hint that key players could sit. “We’ve got some guys that have played a lot of football for us that are far less than 100 percent,” he said.

18. Pittsburgh Steelers (7-8, LW: 21)

The Steelers finish at a Ravens team that might not have Lamar Jackson and cannot score without him, and then against the Browns, who aren't very good. Mike Tomlin might keep his streak of no losing seasons alive, which is remarkable with this roster.

17. Washington Commanders (7-7-1, LW: 17)

Getting Taylor Heinicke out of the game after the 49ers' defense was getting to him made sense. Turning that into "Hey, maybe Carson Wentz should start next week" is a little confusing. Neither option is great though.

16. New York Jets (7-8, LW: 15)

Zach Wilson will be inactive Sunday, the second time this season he has been put at the bottom of the depth chart. It's getting harder to figure out what happens to Wilson from here. It's hard to imagine he could be the 2023 starter. Can he come back at all to the Jets?

15. New England Patriots (7-8, LW: 14)

Before Rhamondre Stevenson fumbled inside the 10-yard line late in the game, the Patriots were on the verge of an incredible win. They trailed 22-0 and fought back to cut the Bengals' lead to 22-18 when Stevenson fumbled. It ended up being a really tough loss, one that is ruinous to their playoff hopes.

14. Green Bay Packers (7-8, LW: 19)

The one communal experience NFL fans still have is saying a few times each season, "Marcedes Lewis is still playing?" He had a touchdown Sunday. He has played 17 (!) seasons at a demanding position. With Andrew Whitworth retiring after last season, he is the only active player left from the 2006 draft class. Amazing.

13. Detroit Lions (7-8, LW: 9)

Teams have bad games. Teams that start 1-6 can't afford bad games if they want to make the playoffs. The Lions aren't dead yet but Sunday's loss at Carolina sets them way back. And teams with playoff hopes shouldn't play as bad on defense as Detroit did on Sunday. It was a horrendous performance for a team that had played really well for about two months.

12. New York Giants (8-6-1, LW: 13)

The Giants lost and saw their chances to make the playoffs get better. Their playoff odds actually increased by 0.5 percent to 90.1 percent, according to Football Outsiders. The losses to everyone else in the wild-card race helped a lot.

11. Miami Dolphins (8-7, LW: 8)

Tua Tagovailoa going back in the concussion protocol is scary news, and bad for a Dolphins team that has lost four in a row. There's no way, after what happened earlier this season, that Tagovailoa is cleared unless he's absolutely ready. The Dolphins aren't going to blow this playoff spot, are they?

10. Jacksonville Jaguars (7-8, LW: 12)

This sentence was inconceivable five weeks ago, but at this point it would be a huge disappointment if the Jaguars don't win the AFC South. All they have to do is win a home game against the Titans, whose quarterback will be overmatched rookie Malik Willis or Ryan Tannehill rushing back from ankle surgery. This is their division to lose.

9. Los Angeles Chargers (9-6, LW: 11)

The Chargers are on their way to the playoffs for the first time since 2018. I'm not sure if their defense is as good as they showed Monday night — that was one ghastly performance by the Colts — but they looked like a team that has a shot to win a playoff game.

8. Baltimore Ravens (10-5, LW: 10)

John Harbaugh was noncommittal when asked if Lamar Jackson would practice this week. It's hard to believe the Ravens could beat the Bengals for the AFC North title in Week 18 without Jackson. It's also possible the Ravens lose to the Steelers this weekend if Jackson doesn't play, the Bengals beat the Bills and the AFC North race is over. Baltimore's offense is ugly without Jackson in the lineup.

7. Minnesota Vikings (12-3, LW: 7)

If you signed a quarterback and he delivered 20,504 yards, 151 touchdowns to 47 interceptions and a 101.3 passer rating in five seasons, including one season that included eight fourth-quarter game-winning drives for a 12-3 team, that's a good signing, right? It's OK for Kirk Cousins haters to acknowledge that Cousins isn't as bad as you like to think.

6. Cincinnati Bengals (11-4, LW: 6)

I'll give the Bengals a pass for getting sloppy after a 22-0 halftime lead, though it almost cost them a win. They looked absolutely dominant in the first half. If they play like that against the Bills next Monday night, they could get a win that would shake up the AFC.

5. Dallas Cowboys (11-4, LW: 5)

The Cowboys are probably going to get a Titans team resting starters in Week 17, then a winnable game at the Commanders to end the season. The Eagles are unlikely to lose to the Saints or Giants at home to end the season, but you never know. The light is still on, just a bit, for the Cowboys to steal the division.

4. San Francisco 49ers (11-4, LW: 4)

Since the 49ers' last loss on Oct. 23, they're 8-0 and their average margin of victory is 16.6 points. It might not matter who their quarterback is if they're up on every opponent by two touchdowns. Oh, and Deebo Samuel should be back soon.

3. Kansas City Chiefs (12-3, LW: 3)

The biggest game in the Chiefs' season is the Bills at Bengals game next Monday night. The Chiefs are probably winning out. The Bills are probably winning in Week 18 when they host the Patriots. There's an enormous difference for the Bills and Chiefs in the No. 1 and 2 seeds, for obvious reasons. The No. 1 seed — and likely who represents the AFC in the Super Bowl — probably hinges on that Bills-Bengals game.

2. Buffalo Bills (12-3, LW: 2)

The Bills are a top-five defense in most measures. The real test will be Week 17 in a season-turning game at Cincinnati. If the Bills want to be remembered as a championship defense, that's the game Buffalo needs to have.

1. Philadelphia Eagles (13-2, LW: 1)

I'm not knocking the Eagles for a road loss at a good Cowboys team, with their backup quarterback, in which they were 19 yards at the end away from winning it. If anything, I'm more impressed with the Eagles than I was before the game.

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