NFL Power Rankings: B/R's Expert Consensus Standings Heading into Week 16

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystDecember 22, 2015

NFL Power Rankings: B/R's Expert Consensus Standings Heading into Week 16

0 of 32

    Fred Vuich/Associated Press

    Do or do not. There is no try. Teams continue to rise to the occasion as the playoff picture starts to clarify. 

    Six teams have already clinched a playoff berth with two weeks of games left to be played. Yet, there are still a couple of teams that haven't solidified a place in the postseason, even though they are playing as well as any other team in the league. 

    Of course, the 14-0 Carolina Panthers are at another level right now, but the Pittsburgh Steelers and Kansas City Chiefs are two of the teams no one would want to face in the first round. 

    The Steelers are coming off a tremendous 34-27 comeback victory against the Denver Broncos. Pittsburgh is still competing with the New York Jets and Chiefs for two playoff spots, but the Steelers offense with a healthy Ben Roethlisberger is as good as any other unit in the league. 

    Kansas City, meanwhile, has won eight straight contests. It's the first team ever to do so immediately after a five-game losing streak, according to NFL Network's Rand Getlin

    Denver needs to play well over the last two weeks, or it will possibly lose its spot at the playoff table. 

    Other teams also have plenty of work to do before earning a valuable postseason spot. However, it's quite likely with two 7-7 division leaders, the league's best 12 teams won't all be playing after the regular season ends. 

    To make sense of it all, eight Bleacher Report NFL writers—Gary Davenport, Mike Freeman, Brad Gagnon, Matt Miller, Ty Schalter, Mike Tanier, Sean Tomlinson and yours truly—ranked the teams.

    To build a consensus for these standings, each squad's ranking from each writer was added to the others. The lowest totals indicated the best teams, while the highest totals marked the other end of the spectrum. If there was a tie, the club with the single-highest vote got the nod as the better squad.

    As the race for the No. 1 overall pick continues to heat up and become more "competitive," this week, five different teams elicited at least one tally as the league's worst.

    Click through the slideshow to find out where each team landed in Bleacher Report's Expert Consensus Standings.

32. Baltimore Ravens

1 of 32

    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Current Record: 4-10

    Highest Ranking: 28 (Davenport, Tanier)

    Lowest Ranking: 32 (Gagnon, Miller)

    What's Good?

    The Baltimore Ravens have the makings of a good wide receiver corps for next year if everything works out in the team's favor.

    First, Steve Smith Sr. must decide to play another season. It's something he's leaning toward doing, according to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport—though Smith acknowledged on Twitter he's not sure what he'll do. Along with Smith's return, this year's first-round pick, Breshad Perriman, needs to get healthy and provide the presence the organization expected when it made him the 26th overall pick.

    There is one wide receiver still on the field making plays, however. Kamar Aiken rose to the occasion after Smith's season-ending injury. Since Smith's injury in Week 8, Aiken has caught 37 passes for 469 yards and three touchdowns. His best performance came Sunday against the Kansas City Chiefs when he snagged eight balls for 128 yards and a touchdown. Second-year wide receiver Jeremy Butler also added 60 yards on three catches. 

     

    What's Bad? 

    While Aiken and Butler stepped up in the absence of the Ravens' top wide receivers, the same can't be said of rookie running back Buck Allen in recent weeks. After three strong performances, Allen didn't play well against two of the league's top defenses. The USC product also fumbled against the Seattle Seahawks and the Kansas City Chiefs. 

    "It probably won't carry over, but you play the best players," head coach John Harbaugh said, per ESPN.com's Jamison Hensley. "At running back, the best players don't fumble. Fumbling—it is what it is. You have to hold on to the football. He knows that. I have a lot of love and respect for Buck. No way is Buck going to be banished, by any stretch."

     

    What's Next?

    The season can't end soon enough for the Ravens, who are riddled with injuries and in the midst of their worst campaign since the franchise's first year in Baltimore. It likely won't get much better over the next two weeks with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals remaining on the schedule. 

    Last Week's Ranking: 31

31. San Francisco 49ers

2 of 32

    Tony Avelar/Associated Press

    Current Record: 4-10

    Highest Ranking: 24 (Gagnon)

    Lowest Ranking: 32 (3 voters)

    What's Good?

    Week in and week out, San Francisco 49ers linebacker NaVorro Bowman comes to play. He must feel like he's in Bizarro World after he missed all of last season with a torn ACL and MCL and returned to a team that isn't anything like the one he was a part of prior to the injury.

    During San Francisco's latest feeble game Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals, Bowman continued to shine, while the team folded. The Penn State product registered 12 total tackles and a tackle for loss. It's the sixth time this season Bowman notched double-digit tackles, and he's tied for the league lead with 136 tackles. As a result, the 49ers linebacker should be a prime candidate for NFL Comeback Player of the Year. 

     

    What's Bad?

    The fans are turning on the 49ers and CEO Jed York. Banners have been flying high above the stadium calling for York to be held accountable for the team's downfall. With the Bengals holding a 24-0 lead in the third quarter Sunday, Levi's Stadium was nearly empty, per 49ers blogger Jennifer Chan

    "We love our fans to death," wide receiver Torrey Smith said after the game, per ESPN.com's Paul Gutierrez. "But we played in an empty stadium.

    "I don't blame them. We're not playing good. It's not fun to watch right now. Who wants to sit there and watch that?"

    Very few. 

     

    What's Next?

    The 49ers' next game is on the road against the Detroit Lions before they "treat" their fans to one more home game against the St. Louis Rams. 

    Last Week's Ranking: 32

30. Cleveland Browns

3 of 32

    Associated Press

    Current Record: 3-11

    Highest Ranking: 27 (Schalter, Tanier)

    Lowest Ranking: 31 (three voters)

    What's Good?

    Anytime Ozzie Newsome's name is mentioned in Cleveland, it's said with reverence. Even after building the hated Baltimore Ravens, Newsome's status with Browns fans remains intact. When a current player invokes comparisons to the Hall of Fame tight end, it's not done lightly. During his breakout season, tight end Gary Barnidge opened eyes around the NFL, but no one was ready to compare him to the Wizard of Oz.

    His play warranted such a comparison, though. Barnidge tied Newsome's team record for touchdown catches by a tight end Sunday when he snagged his ninth against the Seattle Seahawks. With two games left to play, Barnidge can break the record and even surpass Newsome's best receiving season. With 930 receiving yards, Barnidge needs only 73 yards to best the Hall of Fame tight end's top output. He's also just 176 yards behind Kellen Winslow Jr.'s standout 2007 campaign. 

     

    What's Bad?

    The Browns defense is atrocious. It's surely been said numerous times already, but it needs to be said again. Cleveland never stood a chance against the surging Seahawks offense. Russell Wilson threw for 249 yards and three touchdowns. Seattle amassed 182 rushing yards, even though it was down to its fourth running back—Christine Michael—whom the organization had re-signed four days earlier.

    The Browns have now surrendered 30 or more points in nine games this season. The defense is ranked 26th overall and surrenders 387.9 yards per game, which is 10 more yards per game than the franchise's horrible 1999 expansion defense. 

     

    What's Next?

    Two things have yet be determined. First, will the team "earn" the No. 1 overall pick in the 2016 NFL draft? Second, will owner Jimmy Haslam dismiss head coach Mike Pettine, general manager Ray Farmer or both? Upcoming games against the Kansas City Chiefs and Pittsburgh Steelers loom large. 

    Last Week's Ranking: 29

29. Tennessee Titans

4 of 32

    Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

    Current Record: 3-11

    Highest Ranking: 19 (Freeman)

    Lowest Ranking: 32 (Tomlinson)

    What's Good?

    Jurrell Casey and Brian Orakpo are often highlighted as the Tennessee Titans' top two defensive players. Defensive end Karl Klug doesn't receive the same type of recognition.

    He's not a starter, but he's been a consistent performer along the defensive line. The Iowa product registered another sack Sunday against the New England Patriots. He's now accounted for 2.5 sacks in the last three games, and his 4.5 sacks are tied for fourth on the team. This year's sack output is Klug's best since his rookie campaign, when he had seven.

    The Titans defense isn't great, but it still ranks in the league's top half. 

     

    What's Bad?

    Like all rookies, quarterback Marcus Mariota experienced ups and down this season. The Oregon product's biggest problem has been staying healthy. Mariota missed two games earlier this season with an MCL sprain in his left knee. He suffered an injury in his right knee Sunday against the Patriots, and he's expected to miss at least one more game. 

    "He will be out this week and evaluated again at the start of next week and see where he's at with that," head coach Mike Mularkey said, per TitansOnline.com's Jim Wyatt. "The injury is basically the same injury as the other knee, but less serious.

    "Obviously, he is not going to play this week. We're going [to] reevaluate it and see if he can play next week."

    With Mariota out of the lineup, Zach Mettenberger will once again start. The former sixth-round pick has yet to win a game in eight career starts. 

     

    What's Next?

    The Titans will face the Houston Texans and Indianapolis Colts with Mettenberger likely at the helm. The only thing on the line at this point is the No. 1 overall pick in the 2016 NFL draft, and the Titans are already in pole position. 

    Last Week's Ranking: 27

28. Miami Dolphins

5 of 32

    Brad Penner/Associated Press

    Current Record: 5-9

    Highest Ranking: 24 (Davenport)

    Lowest Ranking: 32 (Sobleski)

    What's Good?

    Of the great wide receivers to play in a Miami Dolphins uniform—from Paul Warfield to the "Marks Brothers" (Mark Clayton and Mark Duper) and even Brandon Marshallnone of them accomplished what Jarvis Landry did Sunday.

    Landry surpassed a single-season Dolphins record when he caught his 91st reception against the San Diego Chargers, and he now has 97 receptions. After his eight-catch, 54-yard performance, Landry is only 26 yards away from his first 1,000-yard campaign. It's been a difficult year in Miami, but the LSU product is developing into a legitimate star. 

     

    What's Bad?

    As if the Dolphins didn't already have enough problems along the offensive line, the situation worsened Sunday. The team's two best blockers—center Mike Pouncey and left tackle Branden Albert—both suffered injuries. While interim head coach Dan Campbell didn't provide any updates early this week, the Miami Herald's Armando Salguero reported Pouncey's season is likely over due to a foot injury.

    "That's always an issue because you always want to have five guys there that are all on the same page," Campbell said Monday, per the Miami Herald's Andre C. Fernandez. "Now, essentially, you have [a] rookie, [a] second-year guy and a third-year guy in Dallas on the line. It will be interesting, but those guys will fight, and if that's what we've got, we will make a go of it."

     

    What's Next?

    All the Dolphins brass can hope for at this point in the season is the team doesn't completely give up during the final two games, though its performance against the Charges indicated it may have already done just that. Miami's final two games against the Indianapolis Colts and New England Patriots could build confidence or show how far the team has fallen this season. 

    Last Week's Ranking: 25

27. Dallas Cowboys

6 of 32

    Tom Pennington/Getty Images

    Current Record: 4-10

    Highest Ranking: 23 (Gagnon)

    Lowest Ranking: 32 (Tanier)

    What's Good?

    The Dallas Cowboys' young defensive ends played well Saturday versus the New York Jets. Even against two veteran offensive tackles, DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory were able to apply plenty of pressure to quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. Lawrence registered four tackles for loss, a sack and three more quarterback hurries, according to Pro Football Focus. Gregory didn't register a sack, but he did create pressure on Fitzpatrick five times in only 31 snaps. Lawrence and Gregory could develop into a highly disruptive duo in the coming years. 

     

    What's Bad?

    The quarterback carousel continues in Dallas. Kellen Moore will be the team's fourth starting signal-caller this season. Moore, who went undrafted out of Boise State in 2012, never displayed the physical tools most NFL teams prefer in a quarterback, but he'll get an opportunity to start the first game of his career this weekend. 

    Head coach Jason Garrett said, per ESPN.com's Todd Archer:

    He just deserves an opportunity. He did some good things in the ballgame, provided a little bit of a spark for us, made some plays in the passing game, moved the ball. He made some mistakes. Hopefully he'll learn from those mistakes. But we think he gives us the best chance to help us move the ball, score some points and win a football game.

    While filling in for the injured Matt Cassel, Moore completed 15 of 25 passes for 158 yards and a touchdown. He also threw three interceptions. 

     

    What's Next?

    Dallas' season essentially ended when the Washington Redskins claimed their seventh victory Sunday. With the NFC East crown officially out of reach, the only potential remaining highlight to the Cowboys' season is to play spoiler against the Redskins in Week 17. A victory against the Buffalo Bills this weekend would make the offseason a little easier, too. 

    Last Week's Ranking: 28

26. San Diego Chargers

7 of 32

    Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

    Current Record: 4-10

    Highest Ranking: 23 (Davenport, Tomlinson)

    Lowest Ranking: 28 (Miller)

    What's Good?

    The San Diego Chargers as everyone currently knows them finished their home slate on a high note. If Sunday's game is the organization's final one in San Diego, this year's squad gave its loyal fans something to smile about before the holidays.

    The Chargers dominated the Miami Dolphins during a 30-14 victory. Quarterback Philip Rivers threw for over 300 yards and three touchdowns in what was likely his last game at Qualcomm Stadium. Danny Woodhead contributed four touchdowns. Tight end Antonio Gates led the team with six receptions for 88 yards. The players tried to give their fans a special moment, even if it was difficult for them to leave the old stadium

     

    What's Bad?

    Very little went wrong for the Chargers Sunday, but a pall loomed over the contest due to the team's potential move to Los Angeles. Nothing has been officially determined, but the emotions were real and raw. A choked-up Rivers called it an honor to be an NFL quarterback and play in the same city for so long, per ESPN.com's Eric D. Williams"It truly is an honor to be a quarterback in the NFL. When you're a quarterback on a team in the NFL and you've been blessed enough as I have to stay in the same place for 12 years, you become the quarterback of that town."

    Former Chargers linebacker Gary Plummer certainly didn't pull any punches.  He said, per the Los Angeles Times' Nathan Fenno:

    [The city] seems to be doing everything humanly possible, including doing back flips, to try to get them to stay. It seems as if the Chargers have flipped them the middle finger on both hands. ... The Chargers' arrogance throughout the process this year has been disgusting, really. It's just sad. There's such a lack of foresight.

    A final decision is expected in early January, but the outcome already seems obvious. 

     

    What's Next?

    The Chargers may never return to San Diego, and the team will play a pair of meaningless road games against the Oakland Raiders and Denver Broncos. 

    Last Week's Ranking: 30

25. New Orleans Saints

8 of 32

    Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

    Current Record: 5-9

    Highest Ranking: 18 (Freeman)

    Lowest Ranking: 28 (Gagnon)

    What's Good?

    In what's amounted to a lost season in New Orleans, there are some bright spots on the Saints, particularly among their young players. Wide receiver Brandin Cooks continued to shine Monday night against the Detroit Lions. Last year's first-round pick caught 10 passes for 124 yards and a touchdown. He's now seven yards away from his first 1,000-yard campaign. Fellow second-year wide receiver Willie Snead also caught 10 passes Monday for 76 yards. He's only 126 yards away from a 1,000-yard season.

    This year's first-round pick, Andrus Peat, found a home at left guard over the last four weeks. Even on the team's putrid defense, there are still a couple of bright spots. Outside linebacker Hau'oli Kikaha forced his fourth fumble of the season against the Lions. Opposite Kikaha, Kasim Edebali registered a pair of sacks. And middle linebacker Stephone Anthony managed six tackles, which added to his team-leading total of 101. Clearly, there is plenty of talent on the Saints roster. 

     

    What's Bad?

    New Orleans has reached a point of uncertainty regarding its head coach. Even if the team can eke out a couple of wins to finish 7-9, Sean Payton may not be back. This could be the end of an era—an era that's been good to the Saints.

    The hang-up is simple: Payton's contract extends into the next two seasons, and the New Orleans brass realizes the head coach still holds value around the league. This won't be a simple case of a postseason dismissal. If the organization decides change is needed, it will likely trade Payton to another team, which will bring back valuable assets in return. This is the main conversation in New Orleans right now despite there still being two games left in the season. 

     

    What's Next?

    In those final two games, the Saints face the Jacksonville Jaguars and Atlanta Falcons. It's quite possible they will finish 7-9. Would it be enough to keep things intact? That's what everyone is wondering. 

    Last Week's Ranking: 23

24. St. Louis Rams

9 of 32

    Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

    Current Record: 6-8

    Highest Ranking: 20 (Sobleski)

    Lowest Ranking: 28 (Freeman)

    What's Good?

    It can't go without mention that St. Louis Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald again proved he is an absolutely wrecking ball against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Donald is arguably the best defensive player in the NFL right now. But he has been regularly discussed in this weekly feature.

    Good quarterback play from St. Louis' signal-callers hasn't. Case Keenum provided exactly what the team needed Thursday. The Houston product had a nearly flawless performance. He completed 14 of 17 passes for 234 yards and two touchdowns. It was only the third time this season a Rams quarterback threw for more than 200 yards in a game. Two of those three performances resulted in wins. 

     

    What's Bad?

    San Diego wasn't the only city potentially hosting its last professional football game in Week 15. If the Rams get approval from the league, they'll likely move to Los Angeles as well.

    "Obviously, the fans were incredible—chanting and yelling and being loud when the defense needed them to be loud," Keenum said, per the Associated Press (via the New York Times). "I think it was a great atmosphere and I think it was a great atmosphere for the nation to watch and see."

    The biggest difference between San Diego and St. Louis is the St. Louis Board of Aldermen passed a measure to put $150 million toward the building of a new stadium, according to ESPN.com's Nick Wagoner. With this development, the tug of war between owner Stan Kroenke and the city could get ugly if the real estate czar is determined to move his team. 

     

    What's Next?

    The Rams have two road games left against the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers. 

    Last Week's Ranking: 26

23. Detroit Lions

10 of 32

    Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

    Current Record: 5-9

    Highest Ranking: 15 (Gagnon)

    Lowest Ranking: 27 (Davenport)

    What's Good?

    Since Jim Bob Cooter took over the Detroit Lions offense, quarterback Matthew Stafford has been a different player. In seven games under the direction of Joe Lombardi, Stafford completed 65 percent of his passes for 1,866 yards with 12 touchdowns and nine interceptions. Under Cooter's supervision in seven games, Stafford has completed 67.2 percent of his passes for 1,797 yards with 15 touchdowns and four interceptions.

    More importantly, the quarterback hasn't thrown an interception in four of his last five games. He also set a new franchise single-game record by completing 88 percent of his passes Monday, according to ESPN Stats & Info. After plenty of turmoil within the organization earlier in the season, the Lions might have found a new rhythm. 

     

    What's Bad?

    Are we finally seeing the decline of Calvin Johnson? The 30-year-old wide receiver is no longer a big part of the team's offense. Since his three-touchdown performance against the Philadelphia Eagles on Thanksgiving, Stafford has targeted the 6'5" receiver fewer times in each subsequent game.

    Johnson might have registered 1,000 receiving yards Monday for the seventh time in his career, but he only made one catch for 19 yards. Golden Tate, meanwhile, continued to become a much larger part of the offense with six targets compared to Johnson's one.

     

    What's Next?

    The Lions have quietly won four of their last six games and have an opportunity to finish the season with a three-game winning streak. Both of Detroit's final games, against the San Francisco 49ers and Chicago Bears, are winnable, and victories would complete a massive turnaround for a team that started 1-7. 

    Last Week's Ranking: 22

22. Jacksonville Jaguars

11 of 32

    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    Current Record: 5-9

    Highest Ranking: 17 (Miller)

    Lowest Ranking: 26 (Davenport)

    What's Good?

    Any time a defensive player can snag an interception when he has one hand in a cast and wrapped up, he deserves to be mentioned. Jacksonville Jaguars linebacker Paul Posluszny did just that when he caught a fluttering ball that was tipped at the line of scrimmage by teammate Jared Odrick. Not only did Posluszny grab the interception despite his bad hand, but he also led his team with 10 tackles and two tackles for loss against the Atlanta Falcons. 

    "It seemed like he was making a lot of plays," Jaguars head coach Gus Bradley said, per Jacksonville.com's Vito Stellino. "I know some of the defenses we called were set up for that opportunity and I thought he played his tail off. I felt like he was normal except for the club on."

     

    What's Bad?

    With rookie running back T.J. Yeldon nursing an injured knee, Denard Robinson took over as the lead back. It was the first time Robinson started a game this season, and he didn't play well when given the opportunity. The college quarterback fumbled twice and dropped a pass. 

    "No excuses," Robinson said, per ESPN.com's Mike DiRocco. "I've just got to hold onto the ball."

    The third-year back also suffered a knee sprain Sunday, but he's not expected to miss any time due to the injury. 

     

    What's Next?

    The Jaguars clearly improved this season, but a strong finish will go a long way in building something for the future. A two-game road swing against the New Orleans Saints and Houston Texans will be difficult, but Jacksonville can win both games. 

    Last Week's Ranking: 21

21. Atlanta Falcons

12 of 32

    Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

    Current Record: 7-7

    Highest Ranking: 16 (Davenport, Tanier)

    Lowest Ranking: 30 (Gagnon)

    What's Good?

    What's often lost in a season, whether it's gone well or poorly, is the play of a team's offensive line. For example, the Atlanta Falcons' Ryan Schraeder is the game's best right tackle, according to Pro Football Focus. The Valdosta State product has surrendered only two sacks, which is tied for fourth-best among right tackles who have played more than 900 snaps so far this season. He has surrendered fewer quarterback hurries (18) than all but two other players at his position with that much playing time.

    A year ago, Schraeder wasn't even a permanent starter until Week 8. Since then, he's quickly developed into one of the league's better offensive linemen. 

     

    What's Bad?

    Desmond Trufant played one of his worst games of the year against the Jacksonville Jaguars and their emerging star wide receiver, Allen Robinson. Trufant shadowed Robinson throughout the contest, but the second-year receiver caught three passes for 57 yards and a touchdown. While this doesn't seem that bad, the cornerback was also called for pass interference on the touchdown pass he surrendered, and he got called for another pass interference penalty, which wasn't accepted because Robinson made the catch.

    Sunday's game was a good litmus test for Trufant to see where he stands against one of the game's best young receivers, and the cornerback came up short. 

    What's Next?

    The Falcons are on the verge of becoming the first team to secure a losing record after starting a season 5-0. It would happen if Atlanta loses its next two games against the Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints. 

    Last Week's Ranking: 24

20. Chicago Bears

13 of 32

    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Current Record: 5-9

    Highest Ranking: 15 (Tanier)

    Lowest Ranking: 27 (Freeman)

    What's Good?

    In his first game as a starter, undrafted free agent John Timu certainly looked the part at inside linebacker. Timu replaced Christian Jones in the starting lineup and led the Chicago Bears with nine tackles, including a tackle for loss. 

    "I saw a guy that's instinctive, much like I kind of thought he would be," head coach John Fox said, per ChicagoBears.com's Larry Mayer. "He's earned that opportunity. I thought he did a pretty good job."

    With Timu showing promise in his first game, the Bears are building a strong young core of defensive players. Nose tackle Eddie Goldman, safety Adrian Amos, cornerback Kyle Fuller and Timu are all starters in their first or second years. 

     

    What's Bad?

    Kyle Long is a young starter on the offensive side of the ball who hasn't played well in recent weeks. He's experienced multiple ups and downs during his first year at right tackle. In his last five games, Long has surrendered 12 quarterback hurries, according to Pro Football Focus. He also gave up a sack in each of the last two weeks. 

    "I think he's been a steady performer," Fox said, per ESPN.com's Jeff Dickerson. "I don't think he's been a performer that's been real inconsistent or more inconsistent. I think like everybody, the newer you are at something there is more to learn, more to be accountable for."

     

    What's Next?

    The organization can consider its final two games to be measuring sticks for the Bears' growth this season. This weekend's opponent, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, is 6-8, while the following week's game against the Detroit Lions could feature two teams with the same record. 

    Last Week's Ranking: 20

19. Indianapolis Colts

14 of 32

    AJ Mast/Associated Press

    Current Record: 6-8

    Highest Ranking: 15 (Miller)

    Lowest Ranking: 25 (Tanier)

    What's Good?

    When an offense isn't moving the football, a team must find another way to manufacture points. The Indianapolis Colts can rely on their special teams ace. Undrafted free agent Quan Bray burst onto the scene by putting his team in good field position multiple times Sunday against the Houston Texans. Bray gained 147 total yards courtesy of four punt returns and three kick returns. 

    "He gave us great returns," head coach Chuck Pagano said, per the Indianapolis Star's Dana Hunsinger Benbow. "He gave us great energy. He lifted this whole team...by himself for a period of time there. Just a fantastic job by him."

    The Colts can't expect Bray to perform at this level every week, but he at least provides a presence on special teams that opponents must account for in their preparation. If they don't, Bray could make them pay like he did against the Texans. 

     

    What's Bad?

    Andrew Luck still isn't ready. As hopes of capturing the AFC South continue to dwindle, the Colts' franchise quarterback can't come to the rescue. Per CBSSports.com's John Breech, Pagano announced Monday that Luck won't play Sunday against the Miami Dolphins. Who will start remains a mystery, though. The Texans pummeled the 40-year-old Matt Hasselbeck during Sunday's contest. Charlie Whitehurst came on in relief once Pagano decided to pull Hasselbeck. The two quarterbacks combined to complete 18 of 32 passes for 160 yards with a touchdown and an interception. 

    "I'm just going to give them what I got," Hasselbeck said after the game, per ESPN.com's Mike Wells. "We'll see how it goes. It's December and everyone's a little bit banged up."

     

    What's Next?

    The Colts continue to cling to their playoff hopes. However, Indianapolis must win its next two games against the Dolphins and the Tennessee Titans and hope the Texans lose both of their games to get into the playoffs via the easiest path. If it doesn't, tiebreakers and other scenarios could come into play.

    Last Week's Ranking: 19

18. Philadelphia Eagles

15 of 32

    Matt Rourke/Associated Press

    Current Record: 6-8

    Highest Ranking: 15 (Tomlinson)

    Lowest Ranking: 24 (Miller, Sobleski)

    What's Good?

    Usually when a team gives up 40 points and loses by more than three scores, there isn't much optimism. The Philadelphia Eagles are a strange bunch, though. At 6-8, the team still believes it can capture the NFC East. 

    "Still got a chance," wide receiver Jordan Matthews tweeted Sunday. 

    Matthews is one of the primary reasons why the Eagle still have a chance. The second-year wide receiver might not have been able to carry his team against the Arizona Cardinals, but he certainly lifted the offense with eight receptions for a career-high 159 yards and a touchdown. The Vanderbilt product leads the team with 72 receptions, 839 yards and five receiving touchdowns. 

     

    What's Bad? 

    DeMarco Murray's situation continues to fester. Last year's league-leading rusher only received two carries Sunday. It was the fewest carries Murray has had since the third game of his rookie season. 

    "I've never dealt with anything like this in my life," Murray said, per ESPN.com's Phil Sheridan. "That's frustrating more than anything. I guess this is how it is. I don't know."

    At least this time, Murray didn't discuss the issue with team chairman and CEO Jeffrey Lurie. 

     

    What's Next?

    Saturday's showdown with the rival Washington Redskins could decide which team captures the NFC East crown. The Redskins own a one-game lead, but a win by the Eagles would close the gap and give Philadelphia a better divisional record. 

    Last Week's Ranking: 17

17. Buffalo Bills

16 of 32

    Bill Wippert/Associated Press

    Current Record: 6-8

    Highest Ranking: 14 (Sobleski)

    Lowest Ranking: 20 (Miller, Tanier)

    What's Good?

    The Buffalo Bills' endless search to find a franchise quarterback might finally be over after Tyrod Taylor's play this season. 

    "Is he the long-term starter?" general manager Doug Whaley said, per MMQB.com's Jenny Vrentas. "Let's put it this way: He's shown us enough that we can obviously keep trying with him. But it won't preclude us from going out and protecting ourselves [in case] he's not." 

    Close enough. 

    Taylor completed 16 of 29 passes for 235 yards and two touchdowns Sunday against the Washington Redskins. The quarterback also added 79 rushing yards. 

     

    What's Bad?

    Any time a Rex Ryan defense isn't counted among the league's best, it's considered a disappointment. The Bills are ranked 21st overall, and the cracks are starting to show by how the players conduct themselves. First, Mario Williams questioned the team's play-calling. 

    "You know, it's crazy," Williams said, per Syracuse.com's Matthew Fairburn. "You saw the game. You're trying to switch personnel as they're coming out of the huddle. I don't know, man. I don't know who in the world was calling, saying what personnel they're in and how that was confusing, but apparently it is. Like you say, this is game in and game out."

    Linebacker Preston Brown agreed with Williams. 

    "I don't know who that guy is [in the coaches' box], but we talk about it in the meetings," Brown said, per ESPN.com's Mike Rodak. "It's been an issue with the personnel coming in and out. I mean, you can see it on games: People are running in and out; we're changing plays here and there. So it's definitely been an issue."

    Clearly, Ryan hasn't won over the locker room in Buffalo like he did with the New York Jets. 

    What's Next?

    Multiple injuries and discontented players have already put the final nail in this year's coffin, but the Bills must still play the Dallas Cowboys this weekend and the New York Jets during Week 17. 

    Last Week's Ranking: 16

16. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

17 of 32

    Billy Hurst/Associated Press

    Current Record: 6-8

    Highest Ranking: 13 (Freeman)

    Lowest Ranking: 21 (Schalter)

    What's Good?

    The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are fading down the stretch, but the same can't be said of second-year wide receiver Mike Evans. The 6'5" target posted his fifth 100-yard game of the season Thursday with nine catches for 157 yards. In doing so, Evans became only the eighth wide receiver in NFL history to record 1,000 or more yards in his first two seasons, according to Buccaneers.com's Scott Smith.

    With 1,046 receiving yards this season, the Texas A&M product needs just six more yards to best his rookie output. As Tampa Bay continues to improve, the team claims a dynamic battery with Evans and quarterback Jameis Winston. 

     

    What's Bad?

    The team did not meet expectations over the last two weeks. After reaching .500, the Buccaneers lost their last two contests against opponents with losing records. Instead of legitimately discussing the playoffs, the team is now discussing next season. 

    "We want to set the momentum going into next year," cornerback Jude Adjei-Barimah said Monday, per ESPN.com's Rick Brown. "I feel like these last two games are like the first two games of next season, and that's a good thing in a way."

    Clearly, the Buccaneers showed massive improvement this year, but it's not quite as good as it could have been. 

     

    What's Next?

    Reaching the .500 mark won't be easy. Tampa Bay still faces a competitive Chicago Bears squad and then travels to Carolina to face a Panthers team that could be playing for a perfect regular season. 

    Last Week's Ranking: 14

15. Houston Texans

18 of 32

    AJ Mast/Associated Press

    Current Record: 7-7

    Highest Ranking: 13 (Davenport, Tomlinson)

    Lowest Ranking: 24 (Freeman)

    What's Good?

    The Houston Texans defensive front usually garners most of the attention, but the secondary played well Sunday against the Indianapolis Colts. First, Houston only allowed 140 passing yards. Second, cornerbacks Johnathan Joseph and A.J. Bouye made big plays when the team needed them the most.

    Joseph tackled Griff Whalen late in the game. In doing so, the cornerback also pried the ball loose for a turnover. Bouye made sure the 16-10 score stood with his interception. If the secondary continues to play as well as the defensive front, the unit will be good enough to win games, which is a must since the offense continues to deal with quarterback issues. 

     

    What's Bad?

    T.J. Yates became the latest Texans quarterback to fall. He suffered a torn ACL Sunday and was placed on injured reserve Monday, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter. With Brian Hoyer still dealing with a concussion, Brandon Weeden will become the fourth quarterback to start for Houston this season. Weeden, a former first-round pick by the Cleveland Browns, was cut by the Dallas Cowboys earlier this season. When pressed into action Sunday, the 32-year-old gunslinger completed 11 of 18 passes for 105 yards and a touchdown. 

    "Never blinked an eye," left tackle Duane Brown said, per ESPN.com's Tania Ganguli. "Never seemed fazed by situations. It wasn't too big for him, so I'm proud of him."

     

    What's Next?

    The Texans control the AFC South after their victory over the Colts. However, Houston must produce enough offense over the next two weeks against the Tennessee Titans and Jacksonville Jaguars to actually claim the division title. 

    Last Week's Ranking: 18

14. New York Giants

19 of 32

    Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

    Current Record: 6-8

    Highest Ranking: 13 (Gagnon, Tanier)

    Lowest Ranking: 17 (Miller)

    What's Good?

    A runner finally emerged as the lead back in the New York Giants' crowded backfield. After being given multiple opportunities, Rashad Jennings finally broke through against the Carolina Panthers. He carried the ball 16 times for 107 yards and a touchdown against the Panthers' third-ranked defense. The 30-year-old now leads the team with 619 rushing yards and two touchdowns. He's also a valuable third-down back. 

    "Of 57 qualifying running backs, DeAngelo Williams and Rashad Jennings are the only two without a pressure allowed in pass protection," Pro Football Focus tweeted

     

    What's Bad?

    Odell Beckham Jr.'s ability on the field cannot be questioned. But he clearly went overboard Sunday against cornerback Josh Norman and the Panthers. As a result, he might cost his teamwhich is still in the playoff hunt—a postseason berth with his one-game suspension. Beckham is appealing the ruling, but the chances of it being overturned aren't in his favor. The talented wide receiver needs to control his temper, or it could have a negative effect on the rest of his career. 

    "There are qualities that Odell Beckham, this young man, brings to this football team the likes of which I've never seen," head coach Tom Coughlin said, per ESPN.com's Dan Graziano. "I will not defend his actions [Sunday], because they were wrong and this particular franchise and organization does not tolerate that. But I will defend the young man and the quality of the person. I will defend him as long as I am able."

     

    What's Next?

    At 6-8, the Giants need some help to make the playoffs. The team must first overcome a difficult opponent in the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday Night Football before it finishes the regular season against the Philadelphia Eagles.

    Last Week's Ranking: 15

13. Oakland Raiders

20 of 32

    Ryan Kang/Associated Press

    Current Record: 6-8

    Highest Ranking: 10 (Freeman)

    Lowest Ranking: 18 (Gagnon)

    What's Good?

    Amari Cooper returned to form. After being shut out by the Denver Broncos, this year's fourth pick overall responded with a six-catch, 120-yard performance against the Green Bay Packers. With his latest monster game, Cooper cracked the 1,000-yard barrier in his first season. He also became the first Raiders wide receiver since Randy Moss—yes, Randy Moss—in 2005 to register 1,000 receiving yards in a season. 

    "It's pretty special," veteran safety Charles Woodson said, per ESPN.com's Bill Williamson. "We all knew it when we saw him first coming in to our practices and watched the way he moved around and ran routes that he was going to be a special guy."

     

    What's Bad?

    Speaking of Woodson, the 18-year veteran has decided to retire after this season, per Reuters' Jahmal Corner. The all-time great defensive back is still playing at a high level, and he's been a tremendous presence in the Raiders' locker room, but he realized it's time to step aside. 

    "Was it a tough decision? Kind of, but a couple of weeks ago it hit me that this would be it," the 39-year-old said Monday. "It was important for me to let Raider Nation know now." 

    Woodson is the oldest active defensive player in the league, yet he's still among the league leaders in interceptions and fumble recoveries. The entire organization will feel his loss.

     

    What's Next?

    A .500 record is still attainable for the Raiders, which would reflect the team's growth this season. This weekend's contest against the San Diego Chargers favors Oakland, but the Week 17 meeting with the Kansas City Chiefs should be far more difficult. 

    Last Week's Ranking: 12

12. Washington Redskins

21 of 32

    Matt Hazlett/Getty Images

    Current Record: 7-7

    Highest Ranking: 11 (Gagnon, Schalter)

    Lowest Ranking: 14 (Freeman)

    What's Good?

    When the Washington Redskins drafted a pair of quarterbacks in 2012, no one expected their fourth-round pick to develop into a franchise signal-caller. But that's exactly what's happened—even if it took everyone outside the organization some time to accept Kirk Cousins.

    Against the Buffalo Bills, Cousins completed 78.6 percent of his passes for 319 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions. In doing so, the Michigan State product set two single-season team records, according to the Redskins' official site: Cousins' 300-yard performance was his sixth, and the quarterback now has 336 completions. His 69.7 completion percentage leads the league as well.

    Washington fans and Cousins' teammates are certainly enjoying what they're seeing. 

    "He's just a special guy," Redskins end Jason Hatcher said, per ESPN.com's John Keim. "He has this spirit on him, this calm, confident spirit. He's where he's supposed to be all the time, he's working hard. Last person to leave, first person in the building. When you see stuff like that, you gain respect for a guy."

     

    What's Bad?

    Every team around the league is banged up right now, but the Redskins have been hit particularly hard by injuries on the offensive side of the ball. The team placed wide receiver Andre Roberts on injured reserve Monday, according to CSN Mid-Atlantic's Rich Tandler. Right tackle Morgan Moses and center Josh LeRibeus suffered ankle sprains during the Bills contest. Both blockers are considered day to day. Running back Matt Jones also has a hip contusion. With the division crown on the line this weekend, the Redskins need as many key contributors on the field as they can get. 

     

    What's Next?

    Washington's season comes down to this: a matchup against the rival Philadelphia Eagles for the NFC East title. The Redskins claim the crown with a win. A loss means Washington will have to beat the New York Giants the following week. 

    Last Week's Ranking: 13

11. Minnesota Vikings

22 of 32

    Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

    Current Record: 9-5

    Highest Ranking: 10 (5 voters)

    Lowest Ranking: 12 (Freeman, Schalter)

    What's Good?

    In Sunday's 38-17 victory over the rival Chicago Bears, second-year quarterback Teddy Bridgewater played the best game of his young career. The Louisville product completed 85 percent of his passes for 231 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions. He also ran for a score. Bridgewater became the first quarterback to do so since the Cleveland Browns' Frank Ryan in 1964, according to Randall Liu, the NFL's director of NFC communications.  

    "I've seen a real growth in knowing protections, knowing how to move the line and being able to take care of that stuff at the line of scrimmage, knowing the looks the defense is giving us and being able to get us in a good protection, which is, I think, for a second-year guy, pretty impressive," former NFL quarterback Shaun Hill told Scout.com's Tim Yotter.

     

    What's Bad?

    Bridgewater needs to better recognize pre-snap looks and incoming pressure from opposing defenses because the offensive line has been an issue throughout the season. On Sunday, rookie right tackle T.J. Clemmings struggled against the Bears' pass rush. The Pitt product gave up four quarterback hurries off the edge, according to Pro Football Focus.

    If the Vikings are going to make a serious postseason push, the big boys up front need to perform better over the final two weeks and into the first round of the playoffs. 

     

    What's Next?

    The Vikings haven't captured a playoff spot yet, but a victory this weekend against the New York Giants on Sunday Night Football would punch their ticket. 

    Last Week's Ranking: 11

10. New York Jets

23 of 32

    Brandon Wade/Associated Press

    Current Record: 9-5

    Highest Ranking: 8 (Schalter)

    Lowest Ranking: 12 (Gagnon)

    What's Good?

    When the New York Jets entered this season, no one envisioned them breaking any type of passing records with Geno Smith or Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback. After Smith's bad break, Fitzpatrick took the reins and led the Jets to one of the most prolific passing seasons in team history.

    New York ranks 10th in passing offense, and Fitzpatrick is 580 passing yards away from surpassing Joe Namath's single-season Jets record of 4,007 yards, set in 1967. Also, wide receivers Brandon Marshall and Erick Decker broke a team mark with 21 combined receiving touchdowns this season. Marshall has even tied Al Toon's team record with 93 receptions in a single season. 

     

    What's Bad?

    Earlier this season, D'Brickashaw Ferguson struggled against a talented Houston Texans front. At the time, it was easy to assume it was a one-game setback. But his level of play really didn't improve over the next four weeks.

    According to Pro Football Focus, the 32-year-old left tackle performed rather poorly. Over that time, the 2006 fourth overall pick surrendered 13 quarterback hurries, six quarterback hits and two sacks. His problems were only exacerbated by an offensive line that played poorly against the Dallas Cowboys. But there might be growing concern within the organization that Ferguson is becoming a liability at left tackle. 

     

    What's Next?

    Four straight wins got the Jets into the thick of the playoff race, but the team can't let up over the next two weeks. New York likely needs to win both of its remaining games to receive a postseason bid, but that is a difficult task since it faces the New England Patriots this weekend. 

    Last Week's Ranking: 10

9. Denver Broncos

24 of 32

    Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

    Current Record: 10-4

    Highest Ranking: 7 (Gagnon)

    Lowest Ranking: 11 (Freeman)

    What's Good?

    The Denver Broncos looked like world-beaters in the first half of Sunday's game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders was spectacular early in the contest against his old team. He caught five passes for 107 yards and a touchdown in the first quarter, and the SMU product finished with 10 catches for 181 yards. With his most recent performance, Sanders is now 31 yards away from a second consecutive 1,000-yard season. 

    "That first half was fun," Sanders said after the game, per DenverBroncos.com's Allie Raymond. "We've got to figure out a way to carry that first half over to the second half. Like I said, we're a work in progress and we're going to continuously work."

     

    What's Bad?

    As Sanders mentioned, the Broncos fell apart in the second half. They surrendered a 27-13 halftime lead and lost 34-27. Denver's top-ranked defense couldn't handle Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and wide receiver Antonio Brown.

    The team also received another blow to its depleted secondary. According to the Associated Press (via Yahoo), safety David Bruton Jr. suffered a fractured right fibula during the game and continued to play with the injury. However, he won't be able to repeat the feat. The Broncos placed Bruton on injured reserve Tuesday, per the team's official site

     

    What's Next? 

    Denver has plenty to play for over the next two weeks. The team could clinch a first-round bye or miss the playoffs altogether. While it's difficult to envision the Broncos not making the postseason, it's still possible. A win this weekend against the Andy Dalton-less Cincinnati Bengals on Monday Night Football would be the first step toward claiming the AFC West and a first-round bye. 

    Last Week's Ranking: 7

8. Green Bay Packers

25 of 32

    Ryan Kang/Associated Press

    Current Record: 10-4

    Highest Ranking: 5 (Tanier)

    Lowest Ranking: 10 (Schalter)

    What's Good?

    Even at 35 years old, the Green Bay Packers' Julius Peppers is still one of the league's premier pass-rushers. He registered 2.5 sacks Sunday against the Oakland Raiders and now has 9.5 on the season, which leads the team. With his most recent performance, Peppers passed Lawrence Taylor, among others, and moved into 10th all-time with 135 career sacks.

     

    What's Bad?

    It only took one week before Mike McCarthy's play-calling went from being the answer to another question. Yes, the Packers won ugly against the Raiders, but Green Bay's once-vaunted offense managed 79 fewer yards than Oakland's.

    Quarterback Aaron Rodgers never got into a rhythm and only completed 56.4 percent of his passes for 204 yards. Rodgers wasn't too happy after the game, per ESPN.com's Jason Wilde: "We weren't very effective. We had less than 300 yards and had a terrible first half."

    Guard T.J. Lang added: "There's some frustration. We feel like we're not playing up to our talent level a little bit." 

     

    What's Next?

    If the Packers offense is going to get on track, this is a good weekend for it to happen. Green Bay's next opponent, the Arizona Cardinals, has scored 30 or more points in eight games this season. The Cardinals have scored 40 or more four times, including Sunday's effort against the Philadelphia Eagles.

    Last Week's Ranking: 9

7. Kansas City Chiefs

26 of 32

    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Current Record: 9-5

    Highest Ranking: 5 (3 voters)

    Lowest Ranking: 9 (Davenport, Gagnon)

    What's Good?

    The Kansas City Chiefs' Marcus Peters has emerged as one of the favorites for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. He is building his reputation on big plays, because his season has actually been rather hit or miss. 

    "[Peters] leads NFL cornerbacks in interceptions (seven), targets (123), passes deflected (16); second in touchdowns allowed (seven), yards (903), receptions allowed (66)," Pro Football Focus tweeted

    The rookie returned two of those interceptions for touchdowns, including a 90-yard pick-six Sunday against the Baltimore Ravens.

    "His attitude seems to have spread throughout the team," quarterback Alex Smith said, per KCChiefs.com's B.J. Kissel. "It's very rare for a young guy to have such a great attitude that it rubs off on others."

     

    What's Bad?

    As good as Peters and the Chiefs secondary can be at times, the team's defensive backs still suffer from mental lapses. Of course, Kansas City held a commanding lead throughout most of its 34-14 victory against the Ravens, but the team also allowed a 48-yard touchdown to Kamar Aiken on a Hail Mary. Aiken finished the contest with eight catches for 128 yards. As aggressive and opportunistic as the Chiefs defense can be, its approach can work against it at times. 

     

    What's Next?

    With two games left to play, surging Kansas City has a legitimate shot to unseat the Denver Broncos as this year's AFC West champion. First, the Chiefs need to handle the flailing Cleveland Browns before they face the rival Oakland Raiders. 

    Last Week's Ranking: 6

6. Cincinnati Bengals

27 of 32

    Tony Avelar/Associated Press

    Current Record: 11-3

    Highest Ranking: 3 (Tanier)

    Lowest Ranking: 8 (3 voters)

    What's Good?

    No Andy Dalton? No problem. The Cincinnati Bengals still beat one of the NFL's worst teams in the San Francisco 49ers with AJ McCarron under center. In McCarron's first start, he completed 15 of 21 passes for 192 yards and a touchdown. He actually became the first Alabama quarterback to win an NFL game since the 1987 season, but that's neither here nor there. What matters is what he can do until Dalton is healthy. McCarron's performance became an important confidence builder.

    "We were pleased [with] AJ McCarron's play Sunday," head coach Marvin Lewis said, per WBNS 10-TV's Kayla Anderson. "He played composed."

    The second-year quarterback got his feet wet against the league's 27th-ranked defense, which allowed him to establish a little bit of comfort. McCarron will need it Monday against the Denver Broncos and their top-ranked defense. He can expect to be under pressure all night. How he responds will be crucial to any type of success the Bengals experience. 

     

    What's Bad? 

    The last time a Cincinnati running back ran for more than 100 yards in a game was in Week 2 against the San Diego Chargers. Second-year runner Jeremy Hill looked like he had started to turn around his season at the end of November and early December with a pair of strong efforts against the St. Louis Rams and Cleveland Browns. Two weeks later, the Bengals coaching staff decided to bench Hill for Giovani Bernard. As a team, the Bengals rushed for 68 yards Sunday. 

    "We did a horrible job of that as an offense," Hill said, per ESPN.com's Coley Harvey. "We didn't run the ball well. We kept him in 3rd-and-longs. We let free runners get to him. It's just stuff that you just can't do, especially when you've got guys down and you've got AJ in there. You've just got to put him in better positions.

     

    What's Next? 

    Cincinnati has already clinched a playoff spot, which is a good thing considering the team's current quarterback situation. The Bengals could still lose their first-round bye if they don't win one or both of their final games, especially since Monday's opponent, the Broncos, could take it from them. Cincinnati will then play the Baltimore Ravens during the final week of the regular season. 

    Last Week's Ranking: 8

5. Pittsburgh Steelers

28 of 32

    Jason Bridge-USA TODAY Sports

    Current Record: 9-5

    Highest Ranking: 2 (Freeman)

    Lowest Ranking: 9 (Tanier)

    What's Good?

    Consider this for a second: The Pittsburgh Steelers own the league's second-ranked offense even with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger having missed four games this season due to injury. In those four contests, the Steelers averaged only 315.3 yards per game. As a whole, the Steelers are averaging 402.9 yards per game this season.

    Clearly, Roethlisberger and his surrounding cast have been nearly unstoppable when healthy. The 12th-year quarterback has thrown for 334 yards or more in seven of the 10 games he's played.

    Meanwhile, Antonio Brown has eclipsed 100 yards receiving in seven of the 10 games Roethlisberger has played. Brown is coming off arguably his best performance of the season against the Denver Broncos' No. 1-ranked defense. The wide receiver caught 16 passes for 189 yards and two touchdowns against the NFL's best cornerback duo. If the league's top defense can't slow the Steelers offense, no one can. 

     

    What's Bad?

    The Broncos made Pittsburgh look ugly early before the Steelers responded in the second half. However, the issues that originally allowed the Broncos to build a 27-13 first-half lead shouldn't be glossed over due to the Steelers offense's performance. In the first half, Brock Osweiler looked like a Pro Bowl quarterback. To the defense's credit, it didn't allow the Broncos to score in the second half, but the unit still needs to put together a full-game effort. 

    "We stopped kicking our own butt, probably is the No. 1 adjustment," Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said, per ESPN.com's Jeremy Fowler.

    Tomlin's explanation doesn't signal any major changes coming within the unit, but Pittsburgh needs to see that level of play from its defense more often to be considered legitimate Super Bowl contenders. 

     

    What's Next?

    The Steelers should cruise into the playoffs with upcoming games against the hapless Baltimore Ravens and equally inferior Cleveland Browns, even if both games are on the road. 

    Last Week's Ranking: 5

4. Seattle Seahawks

29 of 32

    Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

    Current Record: 9-5

    Highest Ranking: 3 (Freeman, Miller)

    Lowest Ranking: 7 (Tanier)

    What's Good?

    Earlier in the year, the Seattle Seahawks offense couldn't get on track. The offensive line struggled, and no one seemed to be helping quarterback Russell Wilson.

    Things changed drastically over the second half of the season. On Sunday, Wilson became the first quarterback in NFL history to throw three or more touchdowns passes without an interception in five straight games. Doug Baldwin caught his 10th touchdown pass in the last four games, a feat duplicated only by the great Jerry Rice.

    Meanwhile, the Seahawks amassed 182 rushing yards against the Cleveland Browns' porous run defense. Christine Michael, whom the team re-signed only four days earlier, carried the ball 16 times for 84 yards. Even with all the injuries Seattle's key performers have suffered, Wilson continues to lead the way for the league's fifth-ranked offense. 

     

    What's Bad?

    Michael played well upon his return, but his performance came against the league's 31st-ranked run defense. Of course, Seattle would love to have Marshawn Lynch return for the playoffs. He is still recovering from abdominal surgery, but Beast Mode could come back before the season is over, though it won't happen this week. Head coach Pete Carroll confirmed the team's top running back isn't ready to return to practice, per 710 ESPN's Liz Mathews

    "It's just a race against time right now," Carroll said, via ESPN.com's Sheil Kapadia. "I know he's going for it, so that's what's important."

     

    What's Next? 

    Seattle has already clinched its fourth straight playoff appearance, and its final two games will define when, where and who it plays to start the postseason. The Seahawks face the St. Louis Rams this weekend and the Arizona Cardinals in Week 17. 

    Last Week's Ranking: 4

3. Arizona Cardinals

30 of 32

    Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

    Current Record: 12-2

    Highest Ranking: 2 (4 voters)

    Lowest Ranking: 5 (Freeman)

    What's Good?

    Arizona Cardinals rookie running back David Johnson has provided a boost to the offense in recent weeks. The Northern Iowa product deserved praise after two 90-plus-yard efforts against the St. Louis Rams and Minnesota Vikings, but apparently, Johnson hadn't shown us anything at that point. The rookie runner absolutely exploded against the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday Night Football. Johnson ran for 187 yards and three touchdowns, including what may have been the NFL's best run of the year

    "He's a very mature young guy," head coach Bruce Arians said, per ESPN.com's Josh Weinfuss. "We don't consider him a rookie anymore. Very talented young man. We knew that he was going to have a breakout game.

    "We felt we could get him the ball."

    Not only did quarterback Carson Palmer hand him the ball 29 times, but the running back also caught four passes for 42 yards. 

     

    What's Bad?

    Usually when a team scores 40 points and wins easily, there are few negatives. But the Cardinals suffered a devastating injury to one of their top players as Tyrann Mathieu tore the ACL in his right knee Sunday. Prior to the injury, he had put together a Defensive Player of the Year-type season. The team will feel his absence. 

    "We're losing a brother, and he's more than just that to this team and this organization," safety Rashad Johnson said, per AZCardinals.com's Darren Urban. "He's a lifeline. He's an emotional leader. He plays with the passion and fire that we need every Sunday. When he's on the field, you know there is a different level of energy because of what this guy brings to the table."

    With Mathieu out of the lineup, Jerraud Powers is expected to play more nickelback, while Justin Bethel will receive more playing time. 

     

    What's Next?

    The Cardinals have key games remaining against the Green Bay Packers and Seattle Seahawks. Yes, Arizona has already clinched the NFC West crown, but its performance over the next two weeks could determine if it will also own a first-round bye in the playoffs. 

    Last Week's Ranking: 2

2. New England Patriots

31 of 32

    David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

    Current Record: 12-2

    Highest Ranking: 2 (3 voters)

    Lowest Ranking: 4 (Freeman, Schalter)

    What's Good?

    It's no surprise the New England Patriots easily captured another AFC East title, but this year's squad isn't built like other recent iterations. Generally speaking, Tom Brady defines who the Patriots are. The offense, in turn, is viewed as the catalyst for the team's success.

    However, this year's Patriots defense might be as good as those units that first led New England to Super Bowl success. The Patriots rank sixth in total defense, and their ability to get to opposing quarterbacks separates them from most teams. New England is tied with the Denver Broncos for most sacks this season with 47, and it has registered a sack in every game this season. Chandler Jones' strip sack Sunday against Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota even resulted in a touchdown by defensive lineman Akiem Hicks.  

    "That's just a testament to our defense and how we've been trying to bring pressure all year," Hicks said, per ESPN.com's Mike Reiss. "This has gone by quick for me, [but] I'm just happy to be here with these guys."

     

    What's Bad?

    With both the offense and defense playing well, New England needs better special teams to become truly dominant. Against the Titans, Danny Amendola fumbled a punt return, which resulted in good field position for Tennessee. The Titans capitalized with a field goal. Over the past month, the Patriots have struggled on special teams, especially in their loss to the Philadelphia Eagles. If New England is going to make a push for another championship, it must be strong in all three phases of the game. 

     

    What's Next?

    The Patriots finish the regular season with a two-game road swing against division opponents. The New York Jets certainly have more to play for than New England this weekend since they're still battling for a playoff spot. The Miami Dolphins, on the other hand, are already looking forward to their offseason. 

    Last Week's Ranking: 3

1. Carolina Panthers

32 of 32

    Julie Jacobson/Associated Press

    Current Record: 14-0

    Highest Ranking: 1 (8 voters)

    Lowest Ranking: Unanimous No. 1

    What's Good?

    At this point, Cam Newton is simply padding his MVP case. The Carolina Panthers quarterback continued to wow everyone Sunday against the New York Giants, when he became the first signal-caller in NFL history with 300 or more passing yards, five passing touchdowns and 100 or more rushing yards in the same game, according to NFL Network's Andrew Siciliano.

    More importantly, Newton led his team to its 14th straight victory. After falling behind 35-7 late in the third quarter, the Giants came roaring back to tie the game. But Newton calmly marched his offense 49 yards in the final 1:46 before Graham Gano's game-winning field goal. During the final drive, Newton completed three of his four passes and ran for the final 10 yards to set up an easier field goal.

    "Something that I don't think should be seen on a quarterback's face is panic," Newton said after the game, per SI.com's Doug Farrar. "It was just a matter of time until the tables turned. They had the momentum, and it was tough. ... For us, that last drive, we practice it over and over again in practice, and hopefully it showed today that it carried over."

    At this point, it's hard to imagine anyone else winning the MVP award. 

     

    What's Bad? 

    As good as the Panthers have been this season, they don't need to prove anything to anyone. However, Odell Beckham Jr.'s antics Sunday clearly got into multiple defenders' heads, which affected their play. Whether or not the Panthers incited the ruckus with a bat and verbal abuse, Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said his team needs to concentrate on what's important. 

    "To stay focused and maintain our composure," Rivera said when asked what his message would be when he spoke to the team this week, per ESPN.com's David Newton.

     

    What's Next?

    An undefeated season hangs in the balance, but the Panthers have already clinched the NFC South title and a first-round playoff bye. Will Rivera rest his starters, or will he attempt to remain perfect? This is the primary question with the Atlanta Falcons and Tampa Bay Buccaneers on deck. 

    Last Week's Ranking: 1