NFL Power Rankings: B/R's Expert Consensus Standings, Post-Regular Season
With the 2015 NFL regular season complete, let the playoffs begin.
As 20 teams disband (or deconstruct, depending on the situation) for the offseason, 12 hopefuls remain eager to pursue the game's ultimate goal: an NFL championship.
Bleacher Report remains steadfast in deciphering which teams ended the regular season as the league's best and worst.
Some franchises backed into the playoffs. Others played far better over the second half of the season. A team's playoff standing or draft slotting doesn't necessarily reflect these nuances.
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 power rankings, 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.
While the Tennessee Titans secured the No. 1 overall pick with a 3-13 record, another squad actually ranked dead last in the final power rankings.
Click through the slideshow to find out where all the teams landed in Bleacher Report's Expert Consensus Standings.
32. Cleveland Browns
Highest Ranking: 29 (Schalter)
Lowest Ranking: 32 (4 voters)
What's Good?: The Cleveland Browns once again ended an abysmal season along the shores of Lake Erie with more interesting things happening once the games finished than when they actually occurred. One massive bright spot appeared in 2015, though. In his eighth year, Gary Barnidge set career highs in catches, yards and touchdowns. With his eight-catch, 66-yard performance Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers, the 30-year-old officially amassed more receiving yards (1,043) this year than any single season Hall of Fame tight end Ozzie Newsome produced.
What's Bad?: So much went wrong in Cleveland this year, it's hard to even find a starting point. If one were to look back, everything began to crumble on Nov. 30, 2014. The Browns owned a 7-4 record under first-year head coach Mike Pettine with a chance to make the playoffs for the first time since the 2002 campaign. Since that weekend, the Browns put together a 3-18 record over the next 13 months. Owner Jimmy Haslam didn't have a choice but to make changes again. As a result, Pettine and general manager Ray Farmer were officially released of their duties after Sunday's contest. Continuity once again lost to ineptitude.
What's Next?: Another coaching search will dominate headlines in Cleveland during the offseason. The organization officially announced Sashi Brown will take over as the team's executive vice president of football operations. Now, the team will embark on its eighth head coach search since the team returned to the NFL in 1999.
Last Week's Ranking: 31
31. San Francisco 49ers
Highest Ranking: 27 (Gagnon)
Lowest Ranking: 32 (Freeman, Miller)
What's Good?: When San Francisco 49ers linebacker NaVorro Bowman returned this season after a devastating knee injury that cost him the entire 2014 campaign, his presence in the lineup turned out to be a major positive for an organization in turmoil. Bowman didn't simply provide a presence, though. He also produced like the All-Pro linebacker he was before the injury. The veteran led the league with 154 total tackles.
“It meant a lot to get out there and move the way I was moving prior to the injury,” Bowman said Sunday, per CSNBayArea.com's Matt Maiocco. "And to receive the respect I received from the players throughout the league continued to motivate me and drive me."
What's Bad?: The Jim Tomsula era ended rather quickly. The organization fired him after only one season at the helm. Now, the onus falls on owner Jed York and general manager Trent Baalke, whom the franchise decided to retain. But when the team's ex-head coach, who was quite successful, takes an indirect shot at your misfortune, everyone knows the franchise reached a new low.
"Do not be deceived. You will reap what you sow," Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh tweeted after Tomsula's dismissal.
What's Next?: Three years ago, the 49ers lost to the Baltimore Ravens in Super Bowl XLVII. As another coaching search ensues after this past season's debacle, the team's next head coach will be held to high standards.
“We’re in need of somebody that can win Super Bowls," York said Monday, per the Bay Area News Group's Cam Inman. "We haven’t won a Super Bowl since 1994."
Last Week's Ranking: 32
30. Tennessee Titans
Highest Ranking: 21 (Freeman)
Lowest Ranking: 32 (Schalter, Tanier)
What's Good?: Much of this season revolved around a talent search for the Tennessee Titans. With Marcus Mariota in place, the organization has its quarterback to build around. But who could be added to the team's foundation? Specifically, the team needed young players to perform at the skill positions.
Dorial Green-Beckham quickly developed into the team's No. 1 wide receiver. This year's second-round pick caught 32 passes for 549 yards and four touchdowns. At running back, Antonio Andrews showed some promise, as did this year's fifth-round pick, David Cobb. In the team's final game, Cobb ran for 73 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries. Tennessee's roster is arguably the worst in the NFL, but these young players presented the promise of a brighter future.
What's Bad?: The Titans organization already parted with head coach Ken Whisenhunt during the season. The Titans also didn't renew the contract of general manager Ruston Webster once the season concluded, per Jim Wyatt of the team's official website. Tennessee is now in the midst of a complete rebuild.
"Some teams pick a head coach first, some teams pick a GM first," Titans president and CEO Steve Underwood said Monday, per Wyatt. "My personal view is that isn’t always important as long as you have people that can work together. I think the worst thing that you can do is have two men who are at odds with each other, and we are not going to have that."
What's Next?: Tennessee finished the season tied with the Cleveland Browns for the worst record in the NFL. However, the Titans played a weaker schedule. Thus, Tennessee is officially on the clock with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2016 NFL draft.
Last Week's Ranking: 30
29. Dallas Cowboys
Highest Ranking: 25 (Gagnon)
Lowest Ranking: 30 (3 voters)
What's Good?: A Dallas Cowboys running back might not have led the NFL in rushing for a second straight season, but Darren McFadden produced at an unexpected level in 2015. The Cowboys entered the year with Joseph Randle ready to take over for DeMarco Murray. Obviously, Randle's situation didn't end well. McFadden stepped in and became one of the few reliable performers on the Cowboys offense all season. The former fourth overall pick by the Oakland Raiders recorded his second career 1,000-yard season. McFadden finished with 1,089 yards, which became the fourth-highest rushing total in the league.
"It definitely makes me more hungry," he said, per the Dallas Morning News' Jon Machota. "You want to come back and top what you did this year. I'm definitely gonna come back more hungry and even better."
What's Bad?: It's easy to say at this point that everything that could have gone wrong this season for the Cowboys nearly did. Injuries decimated the roster, and the team didn't come close to the playoffs after winning the division a year ago. What the team emphatically learned is the importance of quarterback Tony Romo. Without his presence in the lineup because of a pair of collarbone injuries, the team wasn't the same. This means the Dallas will address the quarterback position at some point this offseason.
"If the best player there is a quarterback, then that's what our team needs," the 35-year-old Romo said of the NFL draft, per ESPN.com's Todd Archer. "Our team needs good players. That's what we need."
What's Next?: The preparation for next season begins. After such a dismal season, the Cowboys own the fourth overall pick in the 2016 NFL draft.
Last Week's Ranking: 28
28. San Diego Chargers
Highest Ranking: 23 (Freeman)
Lowest Ranking: 29 (Sobleski)
What's Good?: Prior to this season, the last time a member of the San Diego Chargers registered 10 or more sacks came during the 2011 campaign when Antwan Barnes recorded 11. The team chose Melvin Ingram in the first round the following spring to bolster the defense and get after the quarterback. Ingram, however, struggled to stay healthy and never produced to expected levels in his first three years. The South Carolina product finally broke through this season with 10.5 sacks, including 6.5 sacks over the last five weeks. If the dominant player who showed up over the second half continues into next season, Ingram will establish himself as one of the league's premier pass-rushers.
What's Bad?: Not that any of this comes as a surprise, but the Chargers officially filed an application Monday to relocate to Los Angeles in 2016, according to USA Today's Brent Schrotenboer. After 54 years in San Diego, the team could officially move next season if the NFL votes in its favor.
Chargers president Dean Spanos said it was "probably the single most difficult decision that I have ever made, and our family has ever made, in business."
The Oakland Raiders and St. Louis Rams also filed applications before the deadline.
What's Next?: NFL owners will meet in Houston next week. A final decision on all three teams could be made during that time. Until then, everything else revolving around the Chargers is moot.
Last Week's Ranking: 27
27. Baltimore Ravens
Highest Ranking: 23 (Gagnon, Schalter)
Lowest Ranking: 30 (Miller)
What's Good?: The best thing for the Baltimore Ravens this offseason is simply to get healthy at multiple positions. However, one injury actually became beneficial to the team. Prior to this season, wide receiver Steve Smith Sr. decided it would be his last. But the campaign didn't go as planned when Smith suffered a torn Achilles tendon in a Week 8 contest against the San Diego Chargers. As a result, Smith announced last week he'll return for another season. No one should expect the 36-year-old receiver to take a step back even after suffering the injury.
"Just let me play," Smith said, per Ryan Mink of the team's official website. "Quit asking me what I’m going to put up. I’m going to put up the numbers I put up and contribute the way I contribute at age 37.”
What's Bad?: Despite Smith's claim, the Ravens must worry about how all of their stars will return next season. Twenty different players landed on injured reserve this season, including quarterback Joe Flacco, outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, left tackle Eugene Monroe, defensive end Chris Canty and running back Justin Forsett. Smith, Suggs, Flacco and Forsett suffered major injuries, and all of them will be at least 31 years old next season. The core pieces of the franchise are aging and injured, which is never a good combination.
What's Next?: General manager Ozzie Newsome is one of the best at replenishing a roster. He'll get to do so with the sixth overall pick in the 2016 NFL draft. The last time the Ravens owned a top-10 pick, the organization chose Suggs in the 2003 draft.
Last Week's Ranking: 26
26. Miami Dolphins
Highest Ranking: 21 (Davenport, Tomlinson)
Lowest Ranking: 31 (Freeman)
What's Good?: While the Miami Dolphins' season as a whole can be described as a mess, there is talent on the team's roster. This became quite obvious during the team's 20-10 victory Sunday over the New England Patriots. Some will argue the Patriots didn't have much to play for in the final week, but it was still a big win for the Dolphins as they entered the offseason.
One of the most encouraging signs became the performance of this year's first-round pick, wide receiver DeVante Parker. The Louisville product caught five passes and recorded his first 100-yard game with 106 yards and a touchdown. After such a sluggish start to the season, Parker registered 286 receiving yards in the final three games. His ability to stretch the field coupled with Jarvis Landry's consistency should make them a dynamic pair in the coming years.
What's Bad?: The organization still doesn't know exactly what it has in quarterback Ryan Tannehill. The 27-year-old signal-caller finished the season with 4,208 passing yards and a 2-1 ratio of touchdowns to interceptions. Yet, the Dolphins still finished 26th in total offense and haven't put together a winning season with him at the helm. Obviously, the entire blame doesn't fall on the quarterback. After all, the offensive line's play bordered on atrocious at points this season. The run game never provided any consistency. But the goal of the team's next head coach will be to get the most of the quarterback the Dolphins invested a six-year, $95 million contract extension into earlier this year.
What's Next?: Miami quickly made its first major hire by promoting from within the previous front office structure. The organization named Chris Grier its new general manager Monday. The search for a new head coach already began earlier this week and will continue in the coming days.
Last Week's Ranking: 29
25. Jacksonville Jaguars
Highest Ranking: 20 (Miller)
Lowest Ranking: 28 (Davenport, Schalter)
What's Good?: In another losing season, Jacksonville Jaguars wide receiver Allen Robinson became must-watch television. The Penn State product exploded in his second campaign. He's already been highlighted in this section multiple times, and it's mainly because his production couldn't be overlooked. With his 108-yard performance Sunday against the Houston Texans, Robinson finished the season with 1,400 receiving yards.
Robinson's 14 touchdown catches also tied for the league lead.
What's Bad?: At one point this season, the Jaguars were 4-6 with a chance to compete for an AFC South title. Instead, the team lost five of its next six games. Owner Shad Khan still decided to retain head coach Gus Bradley. Khan should be applauded for his patience, but this is a team that really struggled down the stretch. In those final five losses, Jacksonville surrendered 32.8 points per game. As a whole, the Jaguars finished 31st in the league by giving up 28 points per game. The talent found on Jacksonville's offense may be exciting, but the defense needs an overhaul, and it started Tuesday with the dismissal of defensive coordinator Bob Babich, according to the Florida Times-Union's Ryan O'Halloran.
What's Next?: Because of the team's poor finish, the Jaguars will pick fifth overall in the 2016 NFL draft, which will be the fifth straight draft they've owned a top-five selection.
Last Week's Ranking: 25
24. Chicago Bears
Highest Ranking: 15 (Tanier)
Lowest Ranking: 27 (Freeman)
What's Good?: When the Chicago Bears hired general manager Ryan Pace and head coach John Fox, it appeared to be only a matter of time before quarterback Jay Cutler was on his way out of the Windy City. It didn't exactly work out that way this season, and the Bears couldn't be happier. Cutler completed 64.4 percent of his passes for 3,659 yards and 21 touchdowns. More importantly, he only threw 11 interceptions, which is his lowest total in a season where he played at least 11 games. As a result, the Bears are eager to move forward with Cutler behind center.
"We’re going to continue to build the offense around Jay Cutler," Pace said Monday, per CBS Chicago's Chris Emma. "Jay knows we have extreme confidence in him."
What's Bad?: While Cutler's time in Chicago doesn't appear to be ending, the same can't be said for running back Matt Forte. During his time with the organization, the former second-round pick ran for 8,602 yards and added 4,116 receiving yards. But he's 30 years old, and his contract ended after this season. Veteran running backs of Forte's age usually aren't given many options, especially when his team already has a young, talented player such as Jeremy Langford ready to take his place.
What's Next?: The difference in the win column might not have been substantial, but the Bears were a better team in 2015 than they were the previous season. At one point, the team held a 5-6 record before faltering down the stretch. Chicago already added multiple young pieces to the foundation this year. Plus, the team will finally get to see this year's first-round pick, Kevin White, in action next season. The Bears also own the 11th overall selection in the 2016 NFL draft.
Last Week's Ranking: 20
23. St. Louis Rams
Highest Ranking: 16 (Freeman)
Lowest Ranking: 25 (Gagnon)
What's Good?: St. Louis Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald is ridiculously good. Just how good? Donald actually broke Pro Football Focus' all-time grade record this season. The interior defender tied the Cincinnati Bengals' Geno Atkins with the most sacks (11) from a defensive tackle. But Donald's presence extends beyond statistics. He's a consistent disruptive threat who completely wrecks offensive game plans.
"I think the case can be made that he’s the best defensive football player in the NFL," teammate Chris Long said, per ESPN.com's Nick Wagoner. "There’s going to be some people who are going to tell you otherwise but you watch the film, it’s not just about the stats, it’s about destroying like every play, seven out of 10 plays, he’s doing something to just mess the whole thing up. And he’s just on a constant basis making people look silly."
What's Bad?: Case Keenum is the Rams' starting quarterback going into next season. Head coach Jeff Fisher confirmed the decision Tuesday, according to Gridiron Gateway's Nate Latsch. While this doesn't necessarily seem like a bad thing, the Rams did sign former starter Nick Foles to a two-year, $24 million extension before the season began. In reality, the franchise needs to find another quarterback.
"Yeah, we’ll look at all of the positions," Fisher said. "But, we’ll look at that position as well."
What's Next?: Before the team can find a new quarterback, the organization must find out where it's going to play next year. The Rams officially filed an application for relocation to Los Angeles on Monday, according to Wagoner. League owners are set to meet in Houston next week where a final decision could be reached.
Last Week's Ranking: 22
22. Philadelphia Eagles
Highest Ranking: 18 (Tomlinson)
Lowest Ranking: 26 (Tanier)
What's Good?: Philadelphia Eagles running back DeMarco Murray showed Sunday why he's considered a very good running back and why he can still be bad at times even without Chip Kelly running the show. With his first carry since Kelly's dismissal, Murray slashed 54 yards through the New York Giants defense to the end zone. The veteran back only gained 15 yards on 11 carries during the rest of the contest.
However, the organization can move forward knowing Murray is a part of its plans. This wouldn't necessarily have happened if Kelly were still leading the franchise. Instead, Philly should get more out of the running back, whom it gave a five-year, $42 million contract to in the offseason.
What's Bad?: The Eagles are no closer to knowing if they have a franchise quarterback than they were the day they traded Nick Foles to the St. Louis Rams for former No. 1 overall pick Sam Bradford.
"He had to learn our system," interim head coach Pat Shurmur said Monday, per ESPN.com's Phil Sheridan. "He had to become comfortable with everything—the guys he was throwing to, the new opponents.
"I think what you've seen from him in the second half of the year is more of him as a player."
Over the final five games of the season, Bradford completed 67 percent of his passes for 1,428 yards, eight touchdowns and four interceptions.
However, the Eagles are set to hire another head coach, and a new system will follow. If the new coach isn't comfortable with Bradford, Philadelphia could let the quarterback walk in free agency.
What's Next?: First, the team must decide who will be its next head coach. It can then concentrate on free agency and the draft. The Eagles own the 13th overall pick in the 2016 NFL draft.
Last Week's Ranking: 23
21. New York Giants
Highest Ranking: 16 (Tanier)
Lowest Ranking: 26 (Tomlinson)
What's Good?: New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. is good. He's very good. He's historically good. With his 54-yard performance Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles, Beckham set a new NFL record, previously held by Randy Moss, with 2,744 receiving yards in his first two seasons.
"To be in the same company as Randy Moss, I can't ask for much more," Beckham said, per the Giants' official site. "He's someone I looked up to all of my life and probably have all of his jerseys. To be able to do some of the things I've done the past two years with this team, it has been very special."
Beckham finished his sophomore campaign as the NFL's fifth-leading receiver with 1,450 yards.
What's Bad?: Tom Coughlin will no longer roam the Giants' sideline for the first time in 12 years. Since 2004, Coughlin brought discipline, continuity and championships to the organization. Coughlin resigned Monday after another 6-10 season.
The Giants aren't simply losing a Hall of Fame-level head coach. The organization also lost a true leader.
"While it is the job of the head coach to get the technical football right, to make sure the X's and O's are efficient, that the players have a great plan and a chance to win games," Coughlin said in his farewell press conference, per ESPN.com's Dan Graziano. "It is our duty to equip these men with the virtues that will last a lifetime—the values like honesty, trust, responsibility, respect, service and integrity. Those are the things that we teach, in addition to football."
What's Next?: After three straight losing seasons, the Giants desperately need an infusion of talent at multiple key spots. The organization will have a chance to do so starting with the 10th overall pick in the 2016 NFL draft.
Last Week's Ranking: 17
20. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Highest Ranking: 14 (Freeman)
Lowest Ranking: 25 (Davenport)
What's Good?: The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 2015 campaign revolved around quarterback Jameis Winston. Last year's No. 1 overall pick lived up to expectations by becoming the third rookie quarterback in NFL history to throw for more than 4,000 yards.
The Florida State product finished the year with 4,042 passing yards, 22 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. He also became the first quarterback in Buccaneers history to attempt every throw through the entirety of a season, according to Scott Smith of the team's site. But none of that mattered to Winston once the season came to a close.
"We are going to create a mindset this offseason, I guarantee it," Winston said, per Joe Kania of the team's site. "We are going to create a winning mindset, a mindset that you would never give up...a relentless mindset of being able to persevere over adversity. We are going to have that next year."
What's Bad?: Lovie Smith's defense is predicated on getting pressure on quarterbacks without having to blitz. The front four must be able to consistently apply pressure as a result. Outside of All-Pro defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, Tampa Bay's defensive front underwhelmed this season. Jacquies Smith and Howard Jones are fine role players, but neither one instills fear in opposing offenses as an edge-rusher. The duo combined for 12 sacks, but Tampa Bay should try to acquire a top pass-rusher at some point this offseason.
What's Next?: The organization can address its needs on defense with this year's ninth overall pick in the NFL draft. With a consistent coaching staff in place and a franchise quarterback at the helm, everything is building toward a bright future in Tampa Bay.
Last Week's Ranking: 19
19. Indianapolis Colts
Highest Ranking: 15 (Miller, Tomlinson)
Lowest Ranking: 28 (Freeman)
What's Good?: In a somewhat surprising move, the Indianapolis Colts actually signed head coach Chuck Pagano to a new four-year contract instead of letting him go. While the Colts disappointed this year, they're still 41-23 overall during Pagano's tenure. Any team that loses its starting quarterback is going to step back, and the Colts did without Andrew Luck.
"The players are thrilled that coach got an extension," linebacker D'Qwell Jackson told ESPN's Josina Anderson (via ESPN.com's Mike Wells). "I'm just overcome with joy that a guy like himself, that we love and want to play for, a guy that stands for family, faith and football, got another shot. Regardless of everything that happened during the season and all the injuries we had, that isn't where we, like, finish."
What's Bad?: The dynamic between Pagano and general manager Ryan Grigson remains intact. This could be good or bad. It's good in the fact the team is building continuity over a long period of time. It's not good, because the two haven't exactly seen eye to eye in certain situations.
"At the end of the day, whether we have difficult decisions to make or he has a differing opinion than I do, I think we both know what both of us are made of at our core and we work to resolve anything to make the best decision for the franchise,” Grigson told reporters.
"It’s a tough business, and you are going to have tough decisions," he continued. "There are going to be times when we are both passionate about what we do, because we are trying to win a championship."
What's Next?: Although the Colts couldn't sneak into the playoffs, the team still finished 8-8. With Pagano's fate now determined, Indy can look toward the future. The Colts hold the 18th overall pick in the 2016 NFL draft.
Last Week's Ranking: 18
18. New Orleans Saints
Highest Ranking: 17 (Sobleski)
Lowest Ranking: 27 (Miller)
What's Good?: If it was his last game as a member of the New Orleans Saints, quarterback Drew Brees gave a memorable final performance. Brees threw for 323 yards and a touchdown in leading the Saints to a 20-17 victory over the rival Atlanta Falcons. In doing so, Brees captured his sixth passing-yards title. He's the first quarterback in NFL history to accomplish the feat. In fact, the Saints quarterback threw for at least 4,388 yards in 10 straight seasons, which coincides with his arrival in New Orleans.
After the game, Brees gathered with right tackle Zach Strief, wide receiver Marques Colston and right guard Jahri Evans for what might be a final picture with all of them in a Saints uniform.
"I think we just know this: Nothing’s guaranteed beyond this point for any of us,” Brees said, per ESPN.com's Mike Triplett. "And just try to relish these moments and the relationships that we’ve had a chance to have for the last 10 years.
What's Bad?: Plenty of uncertainty surrounds the Saints organization. The first decision to be made revolves around head coach Sean Payton. According to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport (via NFL.com's Conor Orr), Payton can be acquired for a second-round pick and new contract. Rapoport also reported the coach met with general manager Mickey Loomis, but nothing official came out of the meeting. This is an evolving situation seemingly pointing toward Payton's departure from the team.
What's Next?: While other franchises will be concentrating on the playoffs, coaching changes, free agency or the NFL draft, the Saints need to find a way to create cap space. They're currently over next year's projected cap, according to Spotrac.
Last Week's Ranking: 24
17. Atlanta Falcons
Highest Ranking: 15 (Freeman)
Lowest Ranking: 24 (Gagnon, Tomlinson)
What's Good?: Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones is a freak of nature. This isn't exactly breaking news, but Jones' 2015 season was as good as any previously seen in the NFL. The Alabama product finished second all time with 1,871 receiving yards in a season. He also finished seven catches behind Marvin Harrison's single-season receptions record with 136. According to ESPN Stats & Info (via ESPN.com's Vaughn McClure), Jones made the most catches (414) through his first 65 games.
"The competitor that he is, I think when you’re around him you get to sense for that, what it feels like everyday day in day out," head coach Dan Quinn said, per the team's official site. "All the ways that he comes to bat for the team blocking, catching, and big plays. He’s a really unique player, from the size and speed standpoint but he’s even more unique as a competitor."
What's Bad?: After a strong start to the season, quarterback Matt Ryan made multiple mistakes throughout the year that cost his team games. The latest came Sunday against the New Orleans Saints when he threw a late interception. Ryan's 18 turnovers this season tied a career high. At times, he didn't seem to mesh well with Kyle Shanahan's offensive scheme.
"I think that's for everyone, when you're learning something new and it's different, at times there's is too much, right?" Ryan said, per McClure. "I think Kyle did a great job as we went through the year of listening to guys, of responding to feedback, and then also having a better feel for what we were as an offense, too, of what our guys could do, and making a plan to fit that."
What's Next?: An 8-8 finish masked an up-and-down season. The Falcons started 5-0 only to lose seven of their next eight games. Atlanta then won two of its last three contests. Consistency will be key next year. The organization also holds the 17th overall pick in the 2016 NFL draft.
Last Week's Ranking: 16
16. Detroit Lions
Highest Ranking: 14 (Gagnon, Schalter)
Lowest Ranking: 29 (Freeman)
What's Good?: Ziggy Ansah finished in the top five in Lions history with his 14.5 sacks this season. The BYU product finished half a sack behind Robert Porcher's 15 sacks during the 1999 campaign. Clearly, the defensive end established himself as a premier edge defender, only finishing behind the Houston Texans' J.J. Watt and Oakland Raiders' Khalil Mack in sacks this season.
What's Bad?: Even with the Lions' second-half improvement, the team still couldn't effectively run the football. Over the its last two games, Detroit only managed 154 rushing yards. Rookie Ameer Abdullah led the team with 597 rushing yards. And Detroit officially finished dead last in rushing offense by averaging only 83.4 yards per game. If offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter is retained into next season, improving the Lions' ground game will be a heavy focus of his during the 2016 campaign.
What's Next?: After the Lions made the playoffs in 2014, the 2015 season is surely viewed as a disappointment. After all, the team fired multiple decision-makers and coaches during the season. But the Lions still finished strong despite the adversity, which provides hope for next season.
Last Week's Ranking: 21
15. Buffalo Bills
Highest Ranking: 13 (Tomlinson)
Lowest Ranking: 21 (Miller)
What's Good?: Buffalo Bills wide receiver Sammy Watkins took a mini-vacation to Revis Island, and he owned the place. Watkins absolutely dominated New York Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis when the two met Sunday. One player looked like a rising star, while the other is on the back side of his career. Watkins caught 11 passes for 136 yards. It was his fourth 100-yard game in the Bills' last six contests. With such a strong finish to the season, Watkins surpassed 1,000 receiving yards in his second campaign.
"He's a great player," Revis said after the game, per ESPN.com's Colin Stephenson. "I had a great game plan for him, and he made plays. He made plays, and it was back and forth. I batted a couple balls down, but at the end of the day, overall, we didn't play well."
What's Bad?: If the Bills are ever going to experience success under head coach Rex Ryan, they'll do so without Pro Bowl defensive end Mario Williams. According to the Associated Press' John Wawrow, the Bills plan to cut Williams this offseason. Williams' production dropped off dramatically this year, and he publicly criticized the team.
"It’s been clear to me that Mario doesn’t care about anybody but himself," an anonymous teammate told the Buffalo News' Tyler Dunne. "He followed that up by not giving any effort during the season and complaining about the scheme instead of manning up and saying he played like crap and doesn’t care.
"Totally checked out."
What's Next?: The goal in Buffalo remains the same: snapping the league's longest playoff drought. The team claims enough talent to do so, but the players must get on the same page with Ryan. This offseason will be about building trust between the two parties and getting everyone to buy into the team's plans.
Last Week's Ranking: 15
14. Oakland Raiders
Highest Ranking: 14 (3 voters)
Lowest Ranking: 24 (Freeman)
What's Good?: The Oakland Raiders can go into next season eager for an opportunity to improve. This team is loaded with young talent. Quarterback Derek Carr threw for 3,987 yards in his second season. Rookie Amari Cooper became the first Raiders wide receiver since Randy Moss to crack the 1,000-yard barrier. Running back Latavius Murray ran for 1,066 yards. Left guard Gabe Jackson, 24, is one of the leagues' best young blockers. And last year's first-round pick, Khalil Mack, finished second in the NFL with 15 sacks. This is a team on the rise and ready to contend in 2016 despite its inconsistency during the 2015 campaign.
What's Bad?: While the Raiders continue to trend upward in the coming years, the organization won't have the veteran leadership of Charles Woodson to lean on in the locker room. Woodson played his final game Sunday. The future Hall of Fame defensive back recorded seven tackles on his way to retirement. He'll be sorely missed by his teammates and anyone who enjoys watching the sport of football.
"I want people to say that I left it all out on the field, nothing more and nothing less," Woodson said, per ESPN.com's Randy Covitz. “I gave the game everything I had. Every Sunday that I went out and played the game, I gave it 100 percent effort. That is all you can ask for [from] anybody."
What's Next?: Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie drafted extremely well the past two years, but he won't have a top-10 pick this year to add another blue-chip talent. Instead, the Raiders select 14th overall in the 2016 NFL draft.
Last Week's Ranking: 13
13. Houston Texans
Highest Ranking: 11 (Tomlinson)
Lowest Ranking: 13 (3 voters)
What's Good?: The Houston Texans won the AFC South, and they're in the playoffs. Nothing else matters. After a 6-7 start to the season and a constantly revolving quarterback carousel, the team finally settled into a little bit of a rhythm and won its last three games. Everything is now in place with Brian Hoyer's return to the lineup. In Sunday's contest against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Hoyer completed 25 of 40 passes for 249 yards, a touchdown and an interception.
"I think he does a heck of a job of playing the game," Kansas City Chiefs head coach Andy Reid said of Hoyer, per the Houston Chronicle's Aaron Wilson. "He's a good NFL quarterback."
What's Bad?: There is one piece, though, who won't be there for the Texans once the playoffs begin, and he's a really big piece of the puzzle. Left tackle Duane Brown, who started 120 games over his eight-year career, suffered a torn right quadriceps tendon Sunday.
"I give everything to this game, man. I give everything—my heart, my soul, my being—to this game, to this organization, to this team, and I find a lot of joy being out there with my guys every Sunday," Brown said, per ESPN.com's Tania Ganguli. "Being sidelined for any amount of time is devastating for me."
What's Next?: A rematch pits the Chiefs against the Texans. These two teams opened the season against each other, and the Chiefs claimed a 27-20 victory. Revenge (and advancing beyond the first round of the playoffs) will be on Houston's mind when it hosts the Chiefs on Saturday.
Last Week's Ranking: 14
12. New York Jets
Highest Ranking: 9 (Tanier)
Lowest Ranking: 14 (Tomlinson)
What's Good?: The New York Jets might be 12th in these rankings, but they weren't among the dozen teams to punch a postseason ticket. While the team's finish against the Buffalo Bills can't be described as anything other than disappointing, the organization took a step in the right direction this season.
Sure, a playoff appearance would have punctuated this point, but the team still finished 10-6 overall after a 4-12 campaign in 2014. The Jets' six-game turnaround only trailed the Carolina Panthers' eight-game improvement.
Plus, the team found a reliable starting quarterback in veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick. Wide receivers Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker formed a historic duo. The team finished fourth overall in total defense. And Todd Bowles certainly left his mark as a first-year head coach. While Sunday's loss still stings, the Jets have plenty to be encouraged about after a strong 2015 campaign.
What's Bad?: Everything was set for defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson to cash in during free agency. The Temple product produced a career year this season, including 12 sacks. But Wilkerson suffered a broken leg in the season finale, according to the New York Daily News' Manish Mehta. With the injury, contract negotiations could change. Does this make the free agent more or less likely to re-sign with the Jets? It's hard to tell, but it's an unfortunate outcome to an outstanding season.
What's Next?: As the lone team with a winning record to not make the playoffs, the Jets will select 20th overall in the 2016 NFL draft. Before then, the team has free-agent decisions to make regarding Wilkerson, Fitzpatrick and running back Chris Ivory.
Last Week's Ranking: 10
11. Washington Redskins
Highest Ranking: 9 (Schalter, Tomlinson)
Lowest Ranking: 12 (Miller, Tanier)
What's Good?: As Washington Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins and tight end Jordan Reed built a strong rapport, another young target continues to work his way into the offense. Jamison Crowder is an ideal slot receiver. He's shifty, tough and a reliable option. At times, he's even been a favorite target for Cousins. Sunday's effort against the Dallas Cowboys is a perfect example. The Duke product caught five passes for 109 yards and a touchdown. In doing so, Crowder set a new Redskins rookie record with 59 receptions this season.
"He’s a great athlete," Reed said, per the Washington Post's Master Tesfatsion. "I can tell he grew up playing [basketball], and he can use that same kind of movement on the football field. I think that’s what it really takes for that slot position. It’s a lot of quick movements and things like that you’re going to have to do, and he has it down pat.
"He’s a baller."
What's Bad?: While Crowder has the slot covered on offense, fellow rookie Kyshoen Jarrett held down the same role on defense. Unfortunately, Jarrett suffered potential nerve damage in his right arm after a vicious collision with Cowboys running back Darren McFadden. According to ESPN.com's John Keim, the team placed Jarrett on injured reserve Tuesday. In order to offset Jarrett's loss, the Redskins signed veteran cornerback Cary Williams.
What's Next?: The Redskins will host their first playoff game in three years, and it's one of the hottest tickets in the nation's capital. Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers come to town Sunday, but it's actually Washington that has the hot hand at quarterback right now.
Last Week's Ranking: 12
10. Green Bay Packers
Highest Ranking: 8 (Miller)
Lowest Ranking: 12 (Schalter)
What's Good?: Clay Matthews hadn't played well in recent weeks. The Green Bay Packers' franchise defender finally got back on track in the season finale against the rival Minnesota Vikings. Matthews registered three tackles, two tackles for loss, a sack and another quarterback hit. As good as Matthews has been at points this season, he all but disappeared sometimes in the team's previous two games. In fact, he didn't even register a tackle over that period.
If the Packers are going to be successful in the playoffs, Matthews must play more like the linebacker who showed up Sunday.
What's Bad?: The Packers' injury issues along the offensive line became problematic enough where All-Pro left guard Josh Sitton was forced to play left tackle against the Minnesota Vikings. Sitton is a fantastic player, but he's not an NFL offensive tackle. Yes, he survived when asked to play on an island, but the Packers are looking forward to David Bakhtiari's return from an ankle injury—a return that may not come this week.
"I didn’t have any setbacks, which is nice," Bakhtiari said Monday, per ESPN.com's Rob Demovsky. "[Not] having to play in a game, I get a head start for this week."
What's Next?: A two-game losing streak isn't exactly how a team wants to enter the postseason, but the Packers get to start fresh in Sunday's meeting with the Washington Redskins. Green Bay's offense in particular hasn't played well, but all it takes is one good game to get quarterback Aaron Rodgers rolling.
Last Week's Ranking: 11
9. Minnesota Vikings
Highest Ranking: 5 (Tomlinson)
Lowest Ranking: 10 (Schalter, Tanier)
What's Good?: Oh, how the Minnesota Vikings missed running back Adrian Peterson. After sitting out most of last season because of off-field issues, Peterson returned with a fury this year. The Oklahoma product only ran for 67 yards in the season finale against the Green Bay Packers, but it was more than enough for Peterson to capture his third rushing title. The 30-year-old back finished his season with 1,485 yards, which is the lowest total for a league leader since the 2007 season.
"This season is another example of how super elite AP is," former quarterback Brett Favre told Sports Illustrated's Greg Bishop. "It can be magical to watch him run. I’d put him in the top few teammates I’ve ever played with. Guys like him and Reggie White."
What's Bad?: When the season began, the Vikings had big plans for wide receiver Charles Johnson. Johnson played very well down the stretch during the previous campaign, but he became plagued by injuries this season and never made the impact expected. The third-year wide receiver only caught nine passes for 127 yards this season, and he was even inactive for the final game.
"I don't really know what's going on," Johnson said, per ESPN.com's Ben Goessling. "I'm just supporting my teammates, doing what I can do."
What's Next?: The NFC North champions will host the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday in what's expected to be frigid temperatures at TCF Bank Stadium.
Last Week's Ranking: 9
8. Pittsburgh Steelers
Highest Ranking: 3 (Freeman)
Lowest Ranking: 12 (Tomlinson)
What's Good?: Players like Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown are so smooth they don't seem to be making much of an impact when they're actually taking over a game. This is exactly what happened Sunday against the Cleveland Browns.
As quarterback Ben Roethlisberger struggled, Brown once again served as a reliable target. The wide receiver finished the contest with 13 catches for 187 yards and a touchdown. With his performance, Brown tied the Atlanta Falcons' Julio Jones for the league's most receptions with 136. Also, the Steelers wide receiver set a new NFL record with 265 catches over the last two seasons, according to the team's official Twitter account.
"I’ll say this: I wouldn’t trade Antonio Brown for another receiver in football," head coach Mike Tomlin said, per Bob Labriola of the Steelers' official website. "He’s that important to us, and he’s that appreciated here.
What's Bad?: While Brown receives plenty of love around the Steelers organization, Roethlisberger decided it was time to deliver some tough love to Brown's counterpart, Martavis Bryant. The second-year wide receiver only caught two passes over the last two weeks.
"He needs to understand that, and this is coming from love from me and other guys, that this time of year, you've got to toughen up," Roethlisberger told 93.7 The Fan Pittsburgh (via ESPN.com's Jeremy Fowler). "You've got to get tough and you've got to make tough plays and you've got to make tough catches and you have to find ways to do everything you can to help this team."
What's Next?: Pittsburgh needed some help to get into the postseason, but the season starts anew once the playoffs arrive. The Steelers are in a good position by facing the rival Cincinnati Bengals during Wild Card Weekend. Cincinnati still isn't sure if quarterback Andy Dalton will be ready to play Saturday.
Last Week's Ranking: 8
7. Cincinnati Bengals
Highest Ranking: 4 (Tanier)
Lowest Ranking: 11 (Gagnon)
What's Good?: This is what everyone has been waiting for regarding the Cincinnati Bengals. But the outcome, good or bad, of a playoff appearance shouldn't completely determine whether a season is successful. After all, the Bengals secured their fifth straight postseason appearance. Plus, the team captured its second AFC North division title in three years.
The organization never previously experienced this level of consistency. Of course, the franchise wants to take the next step and advance to the divisional round, but extenuating circumstances could prevent this from happening.
What's Bad?: Even if Andy Dalton is healthy enough to start at quarterback for the Bengals, he might not be overly effective. According to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport, Dalton got his cast off this week. However, doctors and team trainers will need to determine whether he actually has enough strength in his throwing hand to be effective. If Dalton starts, it would be somewhat of a surprise at this point. ESPN.com's Coley Harvey reported the team will prepare AJ McCarron to start this weekend against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
What's Next?: Dalton originally injured his thumb in the Bengals' Week 14 meeting with the Steelers. McCarron came into the game and threw for 280 yards and two touchdowns. In order for Cincinnati to finally get out of the first round of the playoffs, whoever starts at quarterback needs to play well Saturday for the Bengals to have a chance.
Last Week's Ranking: 7
6. Denver Broncos
Highest Ranking: 3 (Tomlinson)
Lowest Ranking: 8 (Freeman)
What's Good?: Peyton Manning is back. While the Denver Broncos might have wanted to stick with Brock Osweiler, the young quarterback simply didn't show enough against the San Diego Chargers with the No. 1 overall seed in the AFC playoffs on the line.
Head coach Gary Kubiak pulled the 25-year-old for Manning. The 18-year veteran completed five of nine passes for 69 yards while leading the Broncos to victory. Of course, the team won't name a starter before it's necessary, but a decision will depend on Manning's injured foot. Otherwise, the five-time NFL MVP is once again the team's starting quarterback.
"Peyton's our quarterback," Kubiak said on Nov. 15 after the game against the Kansas City Chiefs, per ESPN.com's Jeff Legwold. "If he's healthy and ready to go, Peyton's our quarterback."
What's Bad?: It might not matter who is at quarterback if the Broncos offensive line can't protect him. Over the last three games, right tackle Michael Schofield surrendered 12 quarterback hurries and a pair of sacks, according to Pro Football Focus.
The rest of the line seemed to jell over the season, but right tackle remains a problem area. As former Broncos offensive lineman and current ESPN analyst Mark Schlereth tweeted during the game, "I feel bad for Schofield he is completely overmatched." Veteran Tyler Polumbus could be the team's answer on the strong side during the playoffs.
What's Next?: After a first-round bye, the Broncos will play Sunday, Jan. 17, against the lowest remaining seed that emerges from the AFC's Wild Card Round.
Last Week's Ranking: 5
5. Kansas City Chiefs
Highest Ranking: 2 (Tomlinson)
Lowest Ranking: 8 (Davenport)
What's Good?: Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith is deserving of some MVP consideration with how well he played during the team's 10-game winning streak. Much was made of his interception-less streak over nine games. He actually threw four in the last four games, including two Sunday against the Oakland Raiders.
However, Smith's athleticism came to the forefront when the Chiefs needed more from the running game. In the last two weeks of play, the quarterback ran for 115 yards. He also set a new career high with 498 rushing yards. His play hearkens back to his days as a member of the Utah Utes before he became the No. 1 overall pick in the 2005 NFL draft. Smith can once again be viewed a dual-threat quarterback defenses will have to account for during the playoffs.
What's Bad?: All-Pro outside linebacker Justin Houston might not play this weekend against the Houston Texans.
"It’s day by day," Chiefs head coach Andy Reid said Monday, per the team's official site. "We’re going to take it and see how he does. The positive was he practiced a little bit last week, which was a good thing. And then we’ll just see how he does this week."
Houston already missed five games with a knee injury. Even if he does play, last year's NFL sack leader likely won't be 100 percent healthy.
What's Next?: A rematch with the Texans lies ahead for the Chiefs. Kansas City opened the season with a 27-20 victory over the Texans, but the Chiefs are a completely different and better team at this point in the season. An 11th straight victory should be quite possible when the Chiefs return to Houston.
Last Week's Ranking: 4
4. Seattle Seahawks
Highest Ranking: 2 (Freeman)
Lowest Ranking: 6 (3 voters)
What's Good?: During the Seattle Seahawks' demolition of the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday, one player kept putting his team in the best position to succeed. The Seahawks drafted Tyler Lockett to be an explosive returner and maybe develop into a wide receiver who could contribute to the offense this year. He's done both, but his value on special teams can't be underestimated.
Against the Cardinals, Lockett returned four punts for 139 yards to set a new team record. With his final regular-season effort, the rookie finished third overall in punt-return yardage. He also finished third in kick-return yardage. When his 664 receiving yards are added to the mix, Lockett gained 1,895 total yards this season. For this exact reason, the Kansas State product earned his first Pro Bowl bid as a returner. More importantly, he makes the Seahawks far more dangerous in two phases of the game.
What's Bad?: The offensive line has been an issue throughout the season. In the team's season finale, the unit struggled at points against one of the league's best defenses. Of course, an argument can quickly be made that neither Russell Okung nor J.R. Sweezy was in the lineup.
While their replacements didn't play all that well, two of the team's regular starters, right tackle Garry Gilliam and left guard Justin Britt, both had issues. However, Okung and Sweezy are expected to return for the team's playoff game, and Marshawn Lynch should return to the backfield as well. However, the concern remains the same today as it was at the start of the year: How will the big boys up front perform?
What's Next?: In the first round of the playoffs, the Seahawks travel to chilly Minnesota to face the Vikings. The temperature is supposed to be well below freezing Sunday, according to Weather.com. How ready Lynch is coming off an injury could very well decide the contest.
Last Week's Ranking: 6
3. New England Patriots
Highest Ranking: 2 (Miller)
Lowest Ranking: 7 (Tomlinson)
What's Good?: When the New England Patriots entered this season, many questions surrounded the team's secondary. After all, the organization just won a Super Bowl with Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner at cornerback. However, the team didn't re-sign either and decided to move forward with Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan at the position. The young defenders repaid the Patriots with outstanding campaigns.
"They really took advantage of those opportunities and have worked hard, continued to develop and refine their technique and craft," head coach Bill Belichick said, per ESPN.com's Mike Reiss. "They’ve given us really solid play throughout the year. They’re both still young players who still have a lot of things they can work on and improve on, but they definitely have helped us a lot and been consistent, dependable and healthy all year, which has been huge."
What's Bad?: Quarterback Tom Brady desperately needs the the team's bye week to heal after taking a beating the last two weeks. The New York Jets and Miami Dolphins either sacked or hit Brady 15 times. According to Pro Football Focus, those two defenses hurried Brady 17 more times.
The offensive line isn't holding up for the future Hall of Fame quarterback, and it resulted in an ankle injury when Ndamukong Suh tackled him. ESPN's Adam Schefter reported Monday that Brady suffered an ankle sprain. While the injury looked worse than it really was, the 38-year-old quarterback can certainly use the extra time to rest.
What's Next?: After a first-round bye, the Patriots will play on Saturday, Jan. 16, against the highest winning seed that emerges from the AFC's Wild Card Round.
Last Week's Ranking: 3
2. Arizona Cardinals
Highest Ranking: 2 (4 voters)
Lowest Ranking: 6 (Freeman)
What's Good?: While the Arizona Cardinals' final game didn't end well, this season can be deemed a rousing success for the franchise. This is because of many factors. First and foremost, head coach Bruce Arians is one of the league's top coaches. Also, quarterback Carson Palmer is legitimately in the MVP conversation.
But there were heavy contributions from many who weren't expected to do so. For example, wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald eclipsed 1,000 receiving yards for the first time in four years. Veteran defensive end Dwight Freeney led the team with eight sacks after signing in early October. And rookie running back David Johnson contributed 658 total yards of offense in the final five games. When the league's top-ranked offense is paired with the fifth-ranked defense, a Super Bowl-caliber squad emerges.
What's Bad?: The Seattle Seahawks built a 30-6 halftime lead Sunday before Arizona started to pull some of its starters to protect them from injury. Arians didn't want to bench his players during the final week and still expected them to play well. It simply didn't happen.
"I think coaches, players, everybody fell into that reading their press clippings thing and [listened to being] anointed Super Bowl champ," Arians said, per ESPN.com's Josh Weinfuss. "This was a nice wake-up call. We got beat in every phase of the game."
What's Next?: After a first-round bye, the Cardinals will play on Saturday, Jan. 16, against the highest winning seed that emerges from the NFC's Wild Card Round.
Last Week's Ranking: 1
1. Carolina Panthers
Highest Ranking: 1 (8 voters)
Lowest Ranking: Unanimous No. 1 overall vote
What's Good?: Well, the Carolina Panthers regained the No. 1 overall spot after last week's hiccup against the Atlanta Falcons. The team returned to its dominant ways Sunday. Carolina blasted the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on its way to a 38-10 victory and a 15-1 record.
"We’re 15-1 and people still have questions," veteran Jerricho Cotchery said, per the Charlotte Observer's Joseph Person. "At some point you’ve got to look at the reality."
More importantly, quarterback Cam Newton might have found a new go-to target in rookie wide receiver Devin Funchess. After Newton's receivers let him down at times this season (including Funchess), the Michigan product continued to grow and become a bigger part of the offense. Newton targeted the rookie eight times Sunday. Funchess caught seven passes for 120 yards and a touchdown. Yes, this year's second-round pick lost a football, but it's clear he's gained the trust of his quarterback and teammates.
What's Bad?: Carolina's secondary depth took a hit when Charles "Peanut" Tillman suffered a torn ACL in his right knee during the second half of the Buccaneers contest, according to the team's official website. The 13-year veteran started 12 games this year, and his presence provided a major boost to the Panthers defense.
"It's too bad," head coach Ron Rivera said. "The guy has done some good things for us. He knew exactly what the risks were (coming back early from same injured knee), but he wanted to play.
"He's been a veteran leader and has really helped our guys out, and he's going to be around."
What's Next?: After a first-round bye, the Panthers will play on Sunday, Jan. 17, against the lowest seed still alive in the NFC's half of the playoffs.
Last Week's Ranking: 2