NFL Power Rankings Week 15: Breaking Down the State of Every NFL Team
The NFL's 2012 campaign is now 15 weeks old, with just two more Sundays remaining on the regular season slate. The playoff picture is beginning to solidify, though there's still plenty of uncertainty in both conferences with respect to qualifiers and seeding.
The contenders are jostling for playoff position, while the teams in the dust are looking to play spoiler and finish the year strong.
Let's take a look at the state of each NFL team from worst to first.
Note: Teams in playoff contention will have a section on their biggest concern down the stretch, while teams out of the race will have a section on the bright side for their organization.
32. Kansas City Chiefs (2-12)
Brady Quinn, like the Chiefs' season, is headed straight into the turf.
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The Skinny: The Chiefs boast the NFL's worst point differential (-172), edging the Jacksonville Jaguars as the current frontrunners for that ignominious crown. They're also tied with Philadelphia for the worst turnover differential, with 22 more giveaways than takeaways.
That's not exactly a recipe for success.
Kansas City's offensive ineptitude shone through in their loss to the Raiders. KC was not only shut out—they didn't even record a first down until almost ten minutes into the third quarter against the NFL's 24th ranked defense.
The Bright Side: GM Scott Pioli won't be back after this year. Pioli came to the Chiefs from New England with a great pedigree of success alongside Bill Belichick, but he's been a major disappointment.
His signature decisions—hiring Todd Haley, giving up a second rounder for Matt Cassel and drafting DE Tyson Jackson third overall in 2009—have all backfired. The most valuable pieces in the organization (Tamba Hali, Jamaal Charles, Dwayne Bowe) are holdovers from the previous regime.
The Chiefs need a fresh start after a terrible season marred by tragedy. They'll get one, and they'll also most likely get the top pick in the draft.
31. Jacksonville Jaguars (2-12)
Not a productive day for Chad Henne and the Jaguars offense.
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The Skinny: It's really a coin-flip between the Kansas City Chiefs and Jacksonville Jaguars for the distinction of NFL's Worst Team.
Interestingly, both teams are actually in somewhat similar situations. They've got some game-breakers at the skill positions (the Jaguars boast injured RB Maurice Jones-Drew and an emerging star in WR Justin Blackmon), a few talented pieces on an otherwise porous defense (Paul Posluszny is a wrecking ball at ILB, and they'll return underrated LB Daryl Smith) and serious questions at the quarterback position.
Jacksonville was ravaged by injuries to their secondary and disappointed by their 2011 first rounder, QB Blaine Gabbert, who seems to be a clear bust. They were throttled 24-3 in Week 15 during an intrastate matchup with the Miami Dolphins, who smoked their former QB Chad Henne in limiting him to just 6.3 YPA.
The Bright Side: Jacksonville has talent at the skill positions, and they aren't as far off from fielding a decent team as it might seem. If the Jags can hit on a few high picks and the injury bug doesn't strike so hard next season, they might be a competent QB away from making a little noise in the AFC South in a year or two.
30. Philadelphia Eagles (4-10)
Fumbles killed the Eagles again in Week 15.
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The Skinny: Turnovers have been the bane of a once-promising Eagles team. They're tied with Kansas City for the worst turnover differential in the league (-22).
Reid, who has been with the Eagles since 1999—leading them to a Super Bowl appearance along the way—will be gone after another disappointing season from an Eagles team that had remarkably high hopes heading into the past two seasons.
The Eagles saw their pass rush dip measurably this season from their 2011 campaign in which they registered an NFL-high 50 sacks. This year? They've got just 28 through fourteen games.
Philly's offense also dropped off dramatically this year. They fell from eighth in the NFL in offensive DVOA in 2011 down to 24th this year. For an explanation of the contextual metric DVOA, click here.
The Bright Side: The Eagles have talent, and plenty of it. They've got one of the game's best playmakers in LeSean McCoy, who has been very much underused by Reid. They've also got a young defense with veteran talent sprinkled in.
What they need to focus on this offseason is a major overhaul on their offensive line. According to ProFootballFocus, Philly is ranked 26th in the NFL in pass protection—a big reason for their turnover differential.
29. Oakland Raiders (4-10)
The Raiders will have to punt on this season.
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The Skinny: The Raiders are an interesting case study. They're the NFL's 12th-ranked offense and ninth-ranked defense. Sounds like a balanced, complete team right? Almost certainly one that's headed for the playoffs.
Yet they're 4-10.
A lot of that has to do with their turnover differential (-7), which was just 10th in the AFC. They also had terrible special teams play: Football Outsiders rates them as the 30th-ranked team in special teams DVOA, despite another excellent season from K Sebastian Janikowski.
SeaBass kicked the Raiders to a 15-0 win against the Chiefs, with his five FGs marking the difference in the scoring.
Still, the Raiders weren't able to put it together in GM Reggie McKenzie's first season.
The Bright Side: The Raiders are at the crest of a youth movement, and they may take another step back next season as veterans like Richard Seymour and Rolando McClain depart as free agents.
That's all part of the plan for McKenzie, who plans to restore the Raiders to their former greatness from the ground up. Youth will be the name of the game, and youth will be served in Oakland next year.
While the Raiders' decision to part with first and second-round picks to acquire Carson Palmer may have set them back a bit, they'll show a lot more discipline in rebuilding their team with McKenzie at the helm.
28. Cleveland Browns (5-9)
Cleveland, meet the league's worst QB.
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The Skinny: The 2012 Browns are yet another example of how important QB play is to the success of a team.
Cleveland has the league's 17th-ranked defense by DVOA. They've got a promising rookie HB in Trent Richardson—rated by ProFootballFocus as the league's 13th-best rusher. They have an outstanding offensive line that ranks eighth in the NFL in adjusted sack rate. They've even got the league's fourth-ranked special teams unit, according to Football Outsiders.
Unfortunately for them, they also have Brandon Weeden.
Weeden has the NFL's 32nd-ranked QB rating (72.4), 28th-ranked YPA (6.59) and he's thrown 17 INTs to just 14 TDs.
Weeden continued his habit of bit-spitting against the RGIII-less Washington Redskins, throwing two more picks to just one TD and mustering a 66.8 QB rating in a 38-21 loss.
The Bright Side: As I've outlined, the Browns have a good team. They just need a less-than-awful QB to open up the passing game and give Richardson some running lanes.
Prioritizing the QB search been the case for the last several Browns' offseasons, but it's going to have to happen again. Weeden isn't working out, and he'll be 30 next season. Time to move on.
27. Detroit Lions (4-10)
Back to the drawing board for Stafford and the Lions.
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The Skinny: The Lions have plenty of top-end talent. Unlike last year, it simply hasn't translated into wins.
QB Matt Stafford, now in his third full season, has experienced a major regression from his breakout 2011 season in which he threw 41 TDs to just 16 INTs.
This season, the INT rate has remained about the same (he's got 15 through 14 games) but the TDs have dropped. A lot. He's only got 17, in what has become a wildly disappointing season for last year's Cinderella team.
On the other side of the ball, the Lions are the 12th-ranked defense by yardage allowed, but their undisciplined play (6.9 penalties per game, 26th in the NFL) and inability to generate turnovers (17 takeaways, 13th in the NFC) have hurt them majorly.
As a result, they're just 28th in the league in points allowed per game (27.7).
Their problems came to a head against the lowly Cardinals, to whom they yielded 38 points in a Week 15 loss.
The Bright Side: The Lions have players in discussion for best offensive and defensive players in the NFL in Calvin Johnson and Ndamukong Suh. Suh has experienced a significant drop off in basic stat production this year, with just 6.5 sacks, but ProFootballFocus still ranks him as the second best pass-rushing DT in the game.
Stafford is still a talented QB, they've got a solid rookie RB in Mikel LeShoure and Calvin Johnson continues to tear up opposing defenses. They may need to find a more disciplined coach than Jim Schwartz—someone who can maximize the talent on the team.
26. Buffalo Bills (5-9)
The Bills have been falling all over themselves this year.
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The Skinny: What a disappointment the Buffalo Bills have been.
Buffalo completely revamped their defense in the offseason by signing marquee FAs Mario Williams (to the biggest contract given to a defender ever) and Mark Anderson, and drafting CB Stephon Gilmore to bolster the back end.
The expectations were sky-high. The results haven't left the ground.
Buffalo is just the 24th-ranked defense in football. They haven't created turnovers (19, good for 10th in the AFC) and they're just above average at generating negative plays (they're 12th in the league in both adjusted sack rate and percentage of stuffed runs according to Football Outsiders).
We thought we'd see greatness in upstate New York this year. Instead, we've seen mediocrity.
The Bills bottomed out in Week 15 with a humiliating 50-17 rout by the Seattle Seahawks in Toronto in which they gave up three rushing touchdowns to rookie QB Russell Wilson.
The Bright Side: The Bills might simply need time for their defense to gel—it's definitely got the talent, both in a vicious front-seven and in the back end with Gilmore and (if they can retain him) Jairus Byrd.
They may need to look at a coaching change—offensive-minded Chan Gailey hasn't done enough to utilize all-around weapon CJ Spiller and often forces the Bills and QB Ryan Fitzpatrick into a predictable dink-and-dunk offense.
25. Arizona Cardinals (5-9)
The Cardinals finally broke through in Week 15.
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The Skinny: Speaking of bad QB play, the Cardinals are more than willing to provide.
They've somehow regressed from legends like John Skelton and Kevin Kolb to Ryan Lindley.
Still can't believe this team beat the New England Patriots.
The Cards snapped a nine-game losing streak against the comparably awful Detroit Lions in Week 15, riding three turnovers from their opportunistic defense (32 takeaways, third in the NFC) to a 38-10 blowout.
Even in a game in which his team put up 38 points, Lindley didn't do much. He averaged just 4.6 YPA and threw one INT to no TDs. Still, all they need from the QB position is efficiency, and Lindley completed 14 of his 21 attempts in the game.
The Bright Side: Arizona is a little like Philadelphia in that carelessness with the ball (29 giveaways, second in the NFC) and a terrible offensive line (30th in adjusted sack rate) have destroyed a once-promising season.
The Cards need to revamp that line and find a game-manager type QB (returning Kolb will do) to allow their defense to dominate games again before the offense puts them in an overly tight spot.
24. San Diego Chargers (5-9)
It was(n't) nice knowing you, Norv.
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The Skinny: The Chargers have Phillip Rivers on their side. Beyond that? A stout defensive front, and not too much else.
Rivers is still a very good QB, despite some regression this year. They've got a defensive line that's phenomenal against the run (5th in the NFL, per Football Outsiders) but terrible at rushing the passer (22nd in adjusted sack rate).
They don't have much of an offensive line (22nd in run blocking and 25th in pass protection) and lack firepower outside of Malcolm Floyd.
San Diego lost badly at home in Week 15, getting crushed 31-7 by a resurgent Panthers team.
The Bright Side: This is an organization that needs revamping.
That starts with cleaning house—coach Norv Turner (who has led the Chargers to perennial underperformance) and GM A.J. Smith (who hasn't done enough to surround Rivers with the necessary talent).
Thankfully for Chargers fans, this year was the last straw for ownership. Next year should be the dawn of a new era for San Diego football, and hopefully one not mired in disappointment and frustration like the Turner era.
23. New York Jets (5-9)
Parting is such sweet sorrow.
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The Skinny: The bluster and the bravado has been swept away, and all that's left is a non-playoff team with a soon-to-be-vacant GM position.
Once again, the Jets couldn't measure up to their own lofty standards. They fumbled away their season, both literally and figuratively. It was perfect tragic poetry for a botched snap to end their postseason hopes—the Jets had bumbled their way through an injury-filled, buttfumble-marred season.
New York has to be thinking about revamping their entire organizational philosophy. Their top-heavy approach to cap management left them with little recourse once a couple star players got hurt.
While Mark Sanchez's cap situation basically guarantees he'll be back with the Jets next season, they have to start looking for his replacement, as well. This team is a mess.
The Bright Side: While this season didn't live up to expectations, credit should be given to coach Rex Ryan for keeping the Jets mostly competitive through all of their injuries and hard luck.
Still, a tough decision has to be made regarding his future with New York—if he has truly lost the locker room, then a change must be made.
22. Carolina Panthers (5-9)
Finally some roar from these Panthers.
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The Skinny: Everyone expected the Panthers to take a step forward this year with continued emergence from QB Cam Newton. That hasn't happened, and Newton's frustrations have grown this year.
But the last two weeks, the Panthers have played like the team people thought they'd be. They've taken down the NFC's top-seeded Atlanta Falcons and crushed the San Diego Chargers on the road.
The Panthers have some big holes to fill, and they'll be doing it with a new GM after the firing of Marty Hurney following the team's 1-5 start.
Their biggest needs are in the trenches. They need to find DTs who can stop the run (they're 31st in the league in run defense DVOA) and offensive linemen who can stop anyone (they're also 31st in run-blocking, and 22nd in pass protection).
They've also got major needs in the secondary, though the return of top corner Chris Gamble (lost to IR on October 22nd) may help.
The Bright Side: These two wins probably saved coach Ron Rivera's job. This is a young team blessed with a franchise QB, and with the right moves, they can absolutely contend in the NFC in the next couple of years.
21. Tennessee Titans (5-9)
CJ won't reach 2K, but he's still got gamebreaking speed.
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The Skinny: The New York Jets were supposed to roll through the rest of their schedule on their way to a possible sixth seed in the playoffs.
Chris Johnson and the Titans changed all that.
The Titans shut down the Jets in forcing five turnovers, including a late fumble recovery off a botched Nick Mangold snap to win it.
Johnson did his part with a 94-yard TD run, on which he made one cut at the line and was off to the races.
With the Titans down 10-7 in the third quarter, QB Jake Locker engineered a fantastic 64 yard drive, which he capped with a 13-yard TD run that featured rare shiftiness and power from a QB (along with some good blocking).
The Bright Side: The Titans didn't seriously contend for a playoff berth all year, but they have the pieces down the road. Jake Locker has begun to look like a viable weapon, and their defense is young, fast and talented.
If Johnson produces again in 2013, they'll take a step forward with a more cohesive offense.
20. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-8)
Rough game for the Bucs' offense.
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What's both surprising and embarrassing is that they were shut out.
Every metric from total yards to points to DVOA points to the Saints having one of the worst defenses in the league. And yet somehow Josh Freeman, Doug Martin, Vincent Jackson and company managed exactly zero points against them in a 41-0 loss.
That's a terrible way to end a season for a Bucs team that was still a playoff contender up to that point.
With the Rams and Falcons left, the Bucs can still play spoiler and strive for a .500 record. But the great season that coach Greg Schiano and QB Josh Freeman had crafted down in Tampa has to be at least a little tainted with this dud.
The Bright Side: Well none, with respect to this game. But the Bucs still had an impressive season, and they'll return their major weapons next season. If they add an impact player on defense through the draft or free agency, they'll take the next step forward into being a playoff team.
19. Miami Dolphins (6-8)
Tannehill put up a solid performance against the Jags.
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The Skinny: Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson and RGIII aren't the only rookie QBs with a shot at the playoffs.
Alright, the odds are a little longer for Ryan Tannehill and the Miami Dolphins, but if they win out against the Bills and Patriots—and the Pats may be resting their starters—the Dolphins only need a few breaks to go their way to steal that sixth seed.
Miami rode a monster defensive line—behind DE Cameron Wake—to a solid season. They have some weaknesses to address, particularly at CB and WR, and they need to resolve the Jake Long situation.
Still, they dominated the Jaguars in Week 15 with a rookie LT in Jonathan Martin (who made the switch from RT after Long hit IR early in December) and Tannehill.
The Dolphins may not be at the Patriots' level yet. But they can absolutely compete in the AFC in the near future.
The Bright Side: Tannehill has made significant strides this year—if it weren't for RGIII and Luck setting the rookie bar historically high, Tannehill would be lauded for his incredible productivity as a rookie.
He needs to cut down on the mistakes (12 INTs) but Tannehill absolutely seems to be growing into a viable starting quarterback. That's something the Dolphins have lacked since, well, Dan Marino.
18. New Orleans Saints (6-8)
Didn't see that coming.
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The Skinny: Now that was a beatdown—one that commissioner Roger Goodell can't punish them for.
Drew Brees recovered from his string of three games with an INT to throw for 307 yards and four TDs. On the other side of the ball, the Saints came away with four INTs (two by Jabari Greer) in a 41-0 smackdown of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
This was a remarkable win in the wake of former commissioner Paul Tagliabue's vacating of the Saints' players Bountygate suspensions. Though the Saints won't be in the playoffs this year, they've demonstrated that they're certainly capable of playing with their heads held high and finishing the season strong.
The Saints can also play spoilers to the Dallas Cowboys, who they visit next week in a matchup that has major playoff implications for Dallas.
I know if I was Rob Ryan, I'd be burning the midnight oil trying to prepare for Drew Brees and the prolific Saints offense.
The Bright Side: The Saints are a good team—we all know that. They're the third-ranked offense in the NFL by DVOA. With the Bountygate scandal behind them, expect New Orleans to come back strong next season.
17. St Louis Rams (6-7-1)
The Rams had a surprising season in 2012.
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The Skinny: The Rams' playoff hopes are slim after the loss to the Vikings. Still, coach Jeff Fisher and GM Les Snead should be proud of their team's turnaround this year.
Smart drafting, a strong defensive front and decent years from Steven Jackson and Sam Bradford helped the Rams hang around for a while.
Still, they need WR Danny Amendola healthy for a full year, and they could do with a stud OLB to add pass rushing depth behind Chris Long and Robert Quinn.
Of course, I'm looking ahead—there's still a long shot that St. Louis might make the playoffs. But they might be better off with a higher pick to draft an impact player that puts them over the top.
The Bright Side: The Rams have revamped quickly and put themselves in a position to compete this year, let alone next season.
A good offseason (which likely involves letting Steven Jackson walk in free agency) could make them contenders in a tough NFC West.
16. Minnesota Vikings (8-6)
They should call him A.S.—All Season. Or not.
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The Skinny: The Vikings owe their entire season to Adrian Peterson. It's almost unreal how a HB a year removed from ACL surgery can singlehandedly carry a team into postseason contention, especially in this league of high-flying passing offenses.
For my money, Peterson deserves the MVP award.
Minnesota has the 23rd-ranked defense by DVOA. They're 13th in the NFC in turnover differential (-3). They're quarterbacked by the remarkably mediocre Christian Ponder, who sports a 14:12 TD to INT ratio and the 34th-ranked Y/A.
And yet they're 8-6 with a puncher's chance at the playoffs after a 212 yard game from Peterson in a win over the St. Louis Rams.
Peterson has an outside shot at Eric Dickerson's single season rushing record; he needs 294 yards in his last two games. If he gets is, it's eminently possible that the Vikings, who won just three games last year, secure a playoff berth this season.
Cause for Concern: The remaining schedule. Minnesota has two very tough games ahead against Houston and Green Bay. They'll need Peterson at his best, but even he might not be enough against two loaded teams.
15. Chicago Bears (8-6)
Frustration abounded for the Bears against Green Bay.
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The Skinny: The Bears troubles start and end in the trenches, where their offensive line is ranked 30th in the NFL in adjusted sack rate and 20th in run-blocking.
They've lost five of six and are on the precipice of losing out on a playoff berth. Fortunately for Chicago, they've got an easy slate ahead, with winnable games against the Cardinals and Lions upcoming.
Still, their performance against playoff contenders this season hasn't been encouraging. Besides the Packers, the Bears have lost to the Seahawks, 49ers, Texans and Vikings since November.
They've been the victims of a tough schedule in the last ten weeks, but it's hard to compete against tough teams with subpar line play. Even their feisty, opportunistic defense can't put such an inept offense in a position to win against the NFL's elite.
Cause for Concern: Not too much with respect to making the playoffs, though nothing is guaranteed. But the Bears' postseason prospects don't look too bright, with their offensive line being the major culprit.
14. Pittsburgh Steelers (7-7)
Another tough loss for the Steelers.
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The Skinny: In a passing-dominated league, the top pass defense has lost four of its last five games to drop out of a playoff spot.
Obviously, the Steelers biggest issue was the health of Roethlisberger, but they couldn't pull off a huge victory even with Big Ben in the lineup.
Injuries have finally taken a toll on this team, and the odds that they'll be able to beat the Bengals seem pretty long at this point.
Ultimately, it comes down to Week 16 for Pittsburgh. Win, and they've got the inside track to a berth with their Week 17 game coming against Cleveland. Lose, and they're done.
They'll need their defensive backs—most of whom are battling injuries—to come up big against the Bengals' deep threats.
Cause for Concern: It's do or die for Pitt. Will the Steelers offensive line, just league-average in adjusted sack rate, be able to slow Cincinnati's relentless pass rush?
13. Indianapolis Colts (9-5)
Andrew Luck couldn't solve the Texans' D.
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The Skinny: The Colts' hopes of winning the AFC South have faded with their depantsing at the hands of the Texans. But they're still very much a playoff team—in fact, they clinch a berth with a win over doormat Kansas City.
Rookie QB Andrew Luck has been very good in his first year, ranking eighth in the NFL in yards per game. He still makes too many mistakes (18 INT to just 20 TD) but he's turned a team that was 2-14 last year into a contender.
The Colts will likely enter the playoffs as the fifth seed, with a possible matchup against the Ravens. That's not a bad matchup for Luck, as the Ravens are just 14th in the league in pass defense DVOA.
Of course, they've got a horrible defense of their own, one that's 30th overall in DVOA. So that game might well be a shootout.
First things first for Luck and crew, however. They have to handle their business against KC.
Cause for Concern: An inspired Colts team beat the Packers early in the season, but they haven't shown that they can hang with the class of the AFC this year. They've really only had two quality wins—Week 2 against the Packers, and Week 6 against the Dolphins—and both were at home.
They'll have to beat quality teams on the road in the playoffs, and that seems like long odds.
12. New York Giants (8-6)
Manning could do nothing against the Falcons.
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
The Skinny: Could there be much more at stake in the Week 16 matchup between the Giants and Ravens?
The Giants, winners of just three of their last six, are fighting for their playoff life after a demoralizing beatdown by the Atlanta Falcons. They're going up against a slip-sliding Ravens team that is struggling to keep hold of its division.
Eli Manning and the Giants offense weren't able to muster a single point against the superior Falcons. They'll have to show a lot more fight if they want to beat the desperate Ravens.
The conventional wisdom surrounding the Giants is that they'll turn it on in the playoffs behind their pass rush and Manning. But now there's a large chance they won't even get that chance. They have to win both of their remaining games if they want to return for another crack at the Lombardi.
Even if they get there, showings like their Week 15 performance don't bode well for their ability to get back to the Super Bowl.
Of course, that's exactly the kind of outlook we all had on the Giants last season.
Cause for Concern: The Giants are missing tackles, losing the turnover battle and getting an inconsistent season from Eli Manning. There's a lot to be concerned with, but if they can just get back to the playoffs, all bets are off.
11. Baltimore Ravens (9-5)
Joe Flacco is struggling at a crucial time.
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The Skinny: Even though they're ranked below teams with better records, I feel like I'm ranking the Ravens too high. The Ravens are in free-fall, and they're really one miracle Ray Rice 4th-and-29 conversion from a four-game losing streak.
As it stands, they've lost their last three, including two games in which the victorious QBs were Charlie Batch and Kirk Cousins (a little misleading, but still).
They looked poised for a top-two seed for a while, but now they're at risk of winding up a wild-card team if they don't win one of their next two.
Meanwhile, QB Joe Flacco hasn't taken the step forward he was expected to take this year. He's just 14th in the league in passer rating and 15th in YPA, all while amassing a fairly pedestrian 2:1 TD to INT ratio.
Cause for Concern: We'll see if the Ravens can right the ship in time. For now, Baltimore needs to get things going by using Ray Rice more. That's why they fired OC Cam Cameron, after all.
10. Dallas Cowboys (8-6)
The Cowboys won a crucial game to keep pace in the NFC East.
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The Skinny: The Cowboys and Redskins are headed towards a huge Week 17 matchup with each other. For the first time in a long while, it seems the Cowboys might actually have the big-game prowess to pull out a crucial victory in that game. But they've got other business to take care of first—the New Orleans Saints in Week 16.
The Cowboys managed a tight win against the Steelers in Week 15 to pull up in the lane next to the Redskins and Giants in the NFC East. They'll need to do so again against a potent Saints attack if they hope to stay alive.
One thing we haven't been used to seeing in crucial situations is big plays by the Cowboys. Last week, they finally got one when CB Brandon Carr intercepted a Ben Roethlisberger pass and OT and returned it to the Steelers goal-line to set up the game-winning FG.
That's an encouraging development for a fanbase that has seen it's team come up small at important times in recent seasons.
Cause for Concern: Can they slow the Saints? Dallas is still just the 22nd-ranked defense in DVOA, and the Saints boast the league's third-ranked offense. New Orleans just put up 41 points against the Buccaneers, and Dallas will obviously have to fare much better if they hope to win this upcoming game.
9. Cincinnati Bengals (8-6)
Cincinnati senses a playoff berth at arm's length.
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The Skinny: The Bengals have a competent QB, a dependable rusher, the best WR in the league and a ferocious pass rush.
What more could you want out of a potential playoff team?
The combination of Cincinnati's fourth-ranked defense and big-play threat A.J. Green gives them a chance in any playoff game, but they've got to secure a spot in the postseason first.
Cincy still has Pittsburgh and Baltimore left on their schedule, and both games are huge. If the Bengals can win out, they'll be in—and they may have a shot at the division title if the Giants beat Baltimore next week.
The Bengals are a dangerous team because they can get interior pressure with DT Geno Atkins (see my breakdown of Atkins here). If they amass defensive stops and uncork the defense with Green, they're tough to stop.
Cause for Concern: Taking care of business. A loss at this point of the season, especially to Pittsburgh, might doom the Bengals' playoff hopes. They need to win both of these divisional games.
8. Washington Redskins (8-6)
The Skins were able to win without RGIII.
Jason Miller/Getty Images
The Skinny: Who needs RGIII?
Well, the Redskins most likely. But they didn't need him against Cleveland, beating the Browns 38-21 behind backup rookie QB Kirk Cousins to climb atop the NFC East standings.
The Skins have beaten opponents with ball control. Their sixth-ranked rushing attack and league-average run defense, combined with taking care of the ball (they're third in the NFC in turnover differential at +13) have led to the NFL's ninth best TOP.
Not a sexy stat, but their ability to control the game, plus a phenomenal year from QB Robert Griffin, have pushed the Skins to 8-6.
They've got two divisional games against the Eagles and Cowboys to close the regular season. If they win both, they're your NFC East champs.
Not bad for a team led by two rookie passers.
Cause for Concern: The health of Robert Griffin III. Cousins has demonstrated that he is a competent quarterback, but the Skins will need their electrifying starter back at the helm if they want to make a deep run. Reports are that coach Mike Shanahan is being very careful with Griffin, and wisely so.
7. Houston Texans (12-2)
Arian Foster and the Texans wrapped up their division in Week 15.
Scott Halleran/Getty Images
The Skinny: Pretty low ranking for a 12-2 team, right?
I'll admit it's tough to keep the Texans too far down on this list after a convincing victory against the division rival Colts, but they need to prove that their defense is championship caliber before they're ranked any higher.
Yes, they're the third-ranked defense in the league by DVOA and they boast a higher turnover ratio (+15, second in the AFC), but they haven't yet proven that their scheme works against elite offenses.
Houston likes to play a lot of man coverage and blitz a lot, but that leaves them vulnerable to good QBs and skill players who can get open one-on-one. They haven't stopped an offense that can pick that scheme apart.
Don't believe me? The Texans have faced just three teams in the top 10 of offensive DVOA (the Packers, Patriots and Lions). In those match-ups, they've given up an average of 33 points per game.
The Texans are still a balanced football team, one with arguably the best defensive player in the league. They're also likely to be the top seed in the conference, meaning they're two home wins from a Super Bowl. But they haven't yet shown enough to prove that they're capable of getting those two wins against elite teams.
Cause for Concern: Read above.
6. Green Bay Packers (10-4)
Rodgers and his poofball hat are headed into the playoffs.
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The Skinny: The Packers have proven everything they need to prove heading into the playoffs.
They've beaten good teams, including the AFC's Houston Texans. They've beaten playoff contenders on the road, most recently against the Chicago Bears. They've responded to adversity, winning three in a row since their defeat at the hands of the New York Giants.
Now with the NFC North in hand, the Packers must simply get healthy enough to compete in the grueling NFC playoffs.
They'll need Charles Woodson back in the safety slot to cover deep threats like Brandon Marshall in the postseason. They'll need Clay Matthews at full strength (which he seemed to be last week, racking up two sacks in his return from a hamstring injury) to disrupt opposing quarterbacks.
They'll also need their team's second-most tenuous hamstring, that of WR Jordy Nelson, to loosen up in time for the Packers to return one of their critical offensive weapons against the NFC's top defenses.
The Packers have nothing to prove to anyone. Now it's time for them to prove to themselves that they can return to the Super Bowl.
Cause for Concern: Health. Clay Matthews must stay on the field. This is a much more menacing defense with him.
5. Seattle Seahawks (9-5)
Russell Wilson dominated the Bills with his arm and legs.
Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images
The Skinny: The Seahawks are ranked second in the league in DVOA. They've handled good teams like the Patriots and Green Bay Packers. They've got a vicious defense and an exciting young QB in Russell Wilson.
Oh, and they just put up 50 points on the last two teams they faced. That's the first time that's happened in 62 years.
Most recently, they pasted the Buffalo Bills in Toronto, 50-17. Wilson ran for three touchdowns and threw for another.
The Seahawks defense is brutal and consistently leaves opposing teams battered and bruised. Their front seven is relentless and their secondary has held up just fine despite missing some key pieces.
Finally, much-maligned coach Pete Carroll may now be in the running for Coach of the Year.
Cause for Concern: Can they win on the road in the playoffs? Seattle is just 3-4 this season on the road, and their most recent win (which was, admittedly, dominant) came on an essentially neutral field against the Buffalo Bills.
They've had one convincing road win this year, an OT victory against the Chicago Bears. If Seattle doesn't overtake the 49ers for the division, they're going to have be road warriors in the playoffs.
4. New England Patriots (10-4)
Brady came up short in orchestrating a near-phenomenal comeback.
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The Skinny: It's hard to figure out where to rank the Patriots after a crushing home loss that they sorely needed.
There's a lot of ways to slice this, after all—they did go down 31-3 at home in a nationally televised game in which they turned the ball over four times.
But they also came all the way back to tie the game at 31 before special teams blunders and Kyle Arrington's perennial incompetence doomed them.
New England probably won't get a bye in the playoffs, and that means that a wildcard win likely sends them to Mile High Stadium to face Denver (a scary prospect). But their defense has shown strides, dominating the 49ers in stretches and, in their previous game, the Texans for 60 minutes.
Meanwhile, their offense likely won't cough up the ball four times in a game again this year (a few of which were likely aided by the rain). After all, even with that four turnover game, the Pats still have the second-fewest giveaways in the league.
And if they can avoid a rash of turnovers like that, this offense is unbelievably tough to stop. After all, they put up eight more points on the 49ers than any other team did all season in spite of the turnovers and several huge penalties by special teams.
Cause for Concern: Once again, a dominant defensive line that could get pressure with just four rushers caused problems for the Pats. Pats offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels didn't do a good job of immediately adjusting to the rush, often leaving Brady without a back in the backfield to pick up the blitz.
We'll see if some of the better pass-rushing teams can get to Brady in the playoffs.
3. Denver Broncos (11-3)
Peyton Manning has carried the Broncos this year.
Rob Carr/Getty Images
The Skinny: The Broncos' Week 15, 34-17 victory over the Ravens was really their first major statement game this season. In beating Baltimore, Denver proved it could do something that it failed to do against the Patriots or Texans: Beat a high-seeded AFC opponent.
Denver is the league's hottest team right now with nine straight wins, but it remains to be seen whether Manning will be able to carry Denver through a deep playoff run. The Texans and Pats, two teams who beat the Broncos handily, both loom as potential obstacles to an AFC title.
Denver made a statement with their win against Baltimore. Now it remains to be seen whether that statement will ring true in the playoffs.
Cause for Concern: New England and Houston both gashed Denver on the ground. Pats halfback Stevan Ridley rushed for 151 yards against Denver, and Texans RB Arian Foster had 105.
Denver is particular weak at defending runs to the left, where Elvis Dumervil is graded out as just the 56th best 4-3 DE at defending the run on ProFootballFocus. It's a big reason why Denver is 27th and 30th at stopping the run to the left end and left tackle, respectively (per Football Outsiders). That could be huge in a ball-control situation come playoff time.
2. Atlanta Falcons (12-2)
Can Matt Ryan take his Falcons to the next level in the playoffs?
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The Skinny: There is a lot of justified trepidation over the Falcons' recent playoff failures. It's reasonable to wonder whether this will be yet another magical regular season cut short by poor playoff performance for Matt Ryan and his Atlanta squad.
But this team has too many weapons to discount. That's especially true after their 34-0 shellacking of the New York Giants.
Ryan threw three TDs against the defending Super Bowl champions' defense, picking apart New York to the tune of 9.5 YPA.
This is an elite team, with an above-average defense (ranked 13th in the NFL in DVOA), good pass protection (ninth in the NFL in adjusted sack rate) and good discipline (3.6 penalties per game, fewest in the league). Atlanta has as good a shot as any team at emerging as the victors of the NFC.
Cause for Concern: Pretty straightforward—can the Falcons repeat their regular season success in the playoffs? Signature wins like their most recent one over the Giants seems to indicate that they can, but slip-ups to non-playoff teams like the Panthers are always worrisome. Only time will tell.
1. San Francisco 49ers (10-3-1)
The 49ers survived a late road scare to haul in an impressive win.
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The Skinny: The manner in which they reached the outcome wasn't always perfect. But the San Francisco 49ers deserve the top spot in the NFL power rankings after beating the New England Patriots at home in December. No team has done that since the New York Jets in 2002.
Yes, they almost gave up a four-touchdown lead. But that was largely without their star DT in Justin Smith, who exited in the third quarter with an elbow injury. Without him, they couldn't run the proper stunts to pressure the QB in man coverage, and so they had to switch to a zone, which New England picked apart.
Beyond the comeback, there's a lot to be impressed with about the 49ers' performance. They generated four turnovers from the least turnover-prone offense in the league. Their D held the league's best third-down offense to two-for-15 on conversions. QB Colin Kaepernick threw for four TDs.
All in all, San Francisco in on the road against a tough opponent and throttled them. While their struggles with the St. Louis Rams may affect their overall seeding, the 49ers are definitely the favorite in the NFC after their showing against the Patriots.
Cause for Concern: The health of Justin Smith. Smith is integral to their defensive scheme and a big reason why Aldon Smith has registered so many sacks this year. If he's less than 100 percent, that could affect the dominant 49ers defense.