1. PANTHERS (15-1) (2): The Panthers finish with a flourish with a rout of the Buccaneers at home to cap off the best regular season in franchise history and earn the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs. With the stakes now increasing dramatically, the Panthers will see whether they can transform an epic regular season into the franchise’s first Super Bowl title.
2. CARDINALS (13-3) (1): The Cardinals’ nine-game winning streak comes to an abrupt halt in a 36-6 blowout loss at home to the Seahawks, although there might be a positive to come out of it. Coach Bruce Arians said afterward his players were getting too full of themselves, so a dose of humble pie might be just the playoff motivation they need.
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3. PATRIOTS (12-4) (3): The Dolphins once again prove to be Tom Brady’s kryptonite as this mediocre team gets the best of the Patriots and ruins their bid to get home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs. The good news for New England: Brady’s sprained ankle isn’t believed to be serious, and they should get most of their key players back from injury in time for the postseason.
4. CHIEFS (11-5) (5): The Chiefs finish off a spectacular regular-season roll, reeling off 10 straight wins after a 1-5 start and going into the playoffs with the hot hand. Up first: the Texans in Houston.
5. BRONCOS (12-4) (4): Peyton Manning comes off the bench and plays the hero in Denver’s critical win over the Chargers, as the Broncos take advantage of New England’s stumble against the Dolphins to get the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs. It’s a spectacular turn of events for the 39-year-old quarterback, who can flip the script after it appeared he’d end his career on the sidelines.
6. SEAHAWKS (10-6) (6): Russell Wilson completed a spectacular regular season, becoming the first quarterback in NFL history to throw for at least 4,000 yards and 30 touchdowns and amass 500 rushing yards. He leads the Seahawks into the playoffs on a roll, giving the two-time defending NFC champions an excellent shot at another Super Bowl appearance.
7. VIKINGS (11-5) (9): Mike Zimmer has done a terrific job with the Vikings, getting them into the tournament in just his second season and providing the kind of steady leadership this team has responded to so well.
8. REDSKINS (9-7) (11): Kirk Cousins is easily the most improved player in the league this year. Over his last eight games, he had 19 touchdown passes, two interceptions and a 126.1 rating, helping Washington win the NFC East with five wins in its last six games.
9. PACKERS (10-6) (7): Aaron Rodgers thinks the Packers can turn it on for the playoffs, but there are fundamental problems that may prevent the kind of postseason run he’d like to see. They enter the playoffs with two straight losses and legitimate questions about whether they’ve got enough to make it deep into the tournament.
10. BENGALS (12-4) (10): Unless Andy Dalton is ready to come back from a thumb injury, it’s A.J. McCarron or bust heading into the wild card game against the Steelers.
11. STEELERS (10-6) (12): The Steelers sneak into the tournament by beating up on the Browns in Cleveland and getting a break when the Jets lost to the Bills. That’s a huge sigh of relief after what looked like their playoff hopes might have been done with a stunning loss the week before in Baltimore.
12. JETS (10-6) (8): Ryan Fitzpatrick hadn’t thrown a red zone interception all season … until the fourth quarter of the Jets’ 22-17 loss to the Bills. Fitzpatrick wound up with three interceptions and saw his playoff hopes evaporate at Ralph Wilson Stadium. The wait continues for Fitzpatrick and Pro Bowl wide receiver Brandon Marshall, who still haven’t been to the playoffs.
13. TEXANS (9-7) (14): That’s a good job by Bill O’Brien to get this team into the playoffs. He had huge quarterback problems early in the season, but righted the ship and won with a resourceful offense and a mostly terrific defense led by the incomparable J.J. Watt.
14. BILLS (8-8) (15): Up one week, down the next. That’s the way to get to 8-8, and the exactly what happened in Rex Ryan’s first season with the Bills. His biggest highlight: beating his old Jets team twice, including the playoff knockout punch on the final day of the season.
15. FALCONS (8-8) (13): Dan Quinn started out with such promise at 5-0, but problems he inherited when taking the job eventually surfaced and killed their playoff hopes by the end.
16. RAIDERS (7-9) (16): Charles Woodson had hoped to finish off his career for a playoff run, but this mostly young Raiders team couldn’t match his veteran savvy after a promising first half of the season.
17. SAINTS (7-9) (17): What do you get with a terrific offense and an awful defense? A Saints team that didn’t deserve to be any better than 7-9. Could this be it for head coach Sean Payton?
18. LIONS (7-9) (19): Jim Caldwell’s fate rests in the hands of whatever general manager takes over in Motown.
19. COLTS (8-8) (20): This team reeked of the dysfunction between the coach and the general manager, but somehow they patched together a .500 season despite the prolonged absence of Andrew Luck. That was good enough for team owner Jim Irsay to give Chuck Pagano a contract extension.
20. EAGLES (7-9) (18): Team owner Jeffrey Lurie gave Chip Kelly the keys to the castle and then watched as the coach trashed the place with a roster of miscast players and a distant personality that alienated almost the entire locker room.
21. RAMS (7-9) (21): With the Rams’ whereabouts for 2016 still unknown because of uncertainty surrounding the Los Angeles Stadium situation, Jeff Fisher gets to come back next season despite yet another mediocre record.
22. BEARS (6-10) (22): Jay Cutler showed some flashes of improvement under offensive coordinator Adam Gase, but the hotshot coach might be headed elsewhere to take over as a head coach.
23. RAVENS (5-11) (23): Once Joe Flacco went down, this was a matter of surviving the rest of the season and then pushing the reset button for 2016.
24. GIANTS (6-10) (24): After a dozen years that included two Super Bowl championships, Tom Coughlin walks away from what could be a Hall of Fame career.
25. DOLPHINS (6-10) (30): Dolphins fans are mystified why this team can’t play most weeks like it did in upsetting the defending champion Patriots at home on Sunday. Maybe a new coach finally will turn things around.
26. BUCCANEERS (6-10) (25): Jameis Winston gained valuable experience on the field and didn’t create a hint of controversy off it. A full offseason for the young quarterback and a handful of roster improvements could make the Bucs a wild card contender in 2016.
27. JAGUARS (5-11) (26): Gus Bradley will return next season, but he’ll need to show better results before ultra-patient owner Shad Khan decides he’s had enough.
28. CHARGERS (4-12) (27): Mike McCoy comes back in 2016, but promises some staff changes in hopes of a rebound. Perhaps some certainty over the team’s whereabouts will help.
29. COWBOYS (4-12) (28): Jerry Jones still can’t wrap his arms around a 4-12 record, but this team was doomed once Tony Romo was injured early in the season. Now we wait to see if Jones can’t help himself and trades for Johnny Manziel.
30. 49ERS (5-11) (29): It’s a one-and-done for Jim Tomsula, whose post-Jim Harbaugh run is cut short by team owner Jed York and GM Trent Baalke.
31. BROWNS (3-13) (31): Coach Mike Pettine and GM Ray Farmer get the gate, and Jimmy Haslam starts from scratch for an organization that has known little but heartbreak since coming back to Cleveland in 1999. It will be the Browns’ ninth head coach since then. You just can’t operate like that and expect to win.
32. TITANS (3-13) (32): The bad news: The Titans went through one of the worst seasons in franchise history. Again. The good news: Marcus Mariota showed plenty of promise in his rookie season, and the Titans can re-stock in the off-season, beginning with the first overall pick.