2021 B/R NFL Power Rankings: Where Does Every Team Stand Entering Week 16?

NFL StaffContributor IDecember 22, 2021

2021 B/R NFL Power Rankings: Where Does Every Team Stand Entering Week 16?

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    Bleacher Report

    Even by NFL standards, Week 15 was quite the festival of the bizarre.

    The omicron variant has thrust COVID-19 back into the forefront of the league. After the Cleveland Browns, Los Angeles Rams and Washington Football Team were blasted by positive cases, three games were postponed. 

    Once the games started, the wackiness really kicked into high gear.

    In Detroit, a one-win Lions team thumped the 10-win Arizona Cardinals. On Sunday night, injuries swept through the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on the way to a shutout loss to the New Orleans Saints. The league's hottest team saw its momentum halted by a team that has the makings of a force in the postseason.

    Add it all together, and you have a week of NFL action that shook up the league's pecking order substantially. And now that (most of) the dust has settled, Bleacher Report NFL analysts Gary Davenport, Brad Gagnon and Brent Sobleski have come together to rank the league's teams from last to first.

    One thing didn't change—the squad taking up residence at the bottom.

32. Jacksonville Jaguars (2-12)

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    Last Week: 32

    Week 15 Result: Lost vs. Houston 30-16

    No team in the NFL had a longer week than the Jacksonville Jaguars.

    It started with a bombshell report in the Tampa Bay Times that finally put an end to the five-alarm dumpster fire that was Urban Meyer's tenure as head coach. But even without Meyer, the Jaguars still stink.

    At least interim head coach Darrell Bevell remembered that running back James Robinson is on the team. Other than that, it's the same old, sad story.

    The offense is bad. The defense is worse. Rookie quarterback Trevor Lawrence has one touchdown pass since Week 9, and he told reporters after Sunday's defeat that all of the losing has gotten old.

    "It's definitely frustrating," Lawrence said. "All the guys are frustrated. We want to be more consistent. We want to win. ... We all have to play better. That's the thing: You've just got to look yourself in the mirror and figure out how to get better, and I think we'll do that, but got to really do that this week."

    As of right now, the Jaguars are in position for the No. 1 pick in next year's draft. At least there's that.

    "What a mess," Gagnon said. "When you hire a hot-shot college coach and said coach is gone before Christmas, your penalty is a 32nd ranking for the remainder of the season. But this isn't just an Urban Meyer problem, as the Jags have lost 27 of their last 28 games on American soil. I'd say 'poor Trevor Lawrence' but a No. 1 overall pick has to do more to overcome."

31. New York Jets (3-11)

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    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    Last Week: 29

    Week 15 Result: Lost at Miami 31-24

    For a time Sunday, it appeared as though the New York Jets might play spoiler. They peeled off 10 unanswered points to open the game against the Miami Dolphins and led 17-10 at intermission.

    Alas, they got outscored 21-7 after the break and wound up taking their 11th loss in 14 games with Robert Saleh as head coach.

    In many respects, the loss summed up all the things that are wrong with the Jets in 2021. Rookie quarterback Zach Wilson had another uneven game. They were soft defensively and erratic offensively, getting outgained by over 150 yards. And they were gashed for over 100 rushing yards by a running back in Duke Johnson who was sitting on Miami's practice squad not that long ago.

    The Jets are a bad football team that needs substantial help on both sides of the ball. And it's going to take time for them to get better.

    But as things stand today, New York would pick twice in the top eight next April. So there's that to look forward to.

30. Houston Texans (3-11)

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    Stephen B. Morton/Associated Press

    Last Week: 31

    Week 15 Result: Won at Jacksonville 30-16

    Only in Houston can a team win and lose doing it.

    Head coach David Culley and the Texans aren't about to apologize for downing the Jaguars in Jacksonville on Sunday. It was the first career win for rookie Davis Mills, who told reporters that he admired the way Houston rallied for the victory.

    “I think we handled their pressure extremely well,” said Mills. "I felt like our team fought through the adversity, really that everyone is facing around the league.”

    It was the Texans' second victory of the season against the Jaguars, and they have improved at least a little since their bye, going 2-3 over their last five games.

    But by beating the Jags again, the Texans might have cost themselves in the 2022 draft. Houston entered the contest in position for the No. 2 overall pick and left it at No. 3.

    The Texans aren't likely to fall further than that, because they aren't likely to win any more games this season. Starting with next week's home date with the Chargers, they close out the season with three straight games against playoff contenders.

29. Carolina Panthers (5-9)

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    Joshua Bessex/Associated Press

    Last Week: 28

    Week 15 Result: Lost at Buffalo 31-14

    The Carolina Panthers lost kicker Zane Gonzalez on Sunday in Buffalo when he hurt himself in pregame workouts.

    That pretty much sums up a rapidly disintegrating season for the Panthers.

    Cam Newton went 18-of-38 against one of the league's best pass defenses, throwing for only 156 yards. Despite those struggles, Newton insisted after the game that both he and the offense are making progress—it just isn't showing yet in games.

    "You just got to keep working," he said. "I think the harsh reality about what we do is we only get judged on Sundays. So never mind what you're going through personally, never mind what the things are that's happening on the field as well as off the field as a production piece that's where we're analyzed on."

    The even harsher reality is that at the rate things are going, Newton's odds of returning to the Panthers in 2022 are just about zero. And barring an unexpected turnaround, the veteran quarterback isn't going to be the only guy headed out of town.

28. New York Giants (4-10)

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    Seth Wenig/Associated Press

    Last Week: 26

    Week 15 Result: Lost vs. Dallas 21-6

    During his tenure as head coach of the New York Giants, Joe Judge has repeatedly mentioned doing things "the right way." But the NFL is a results-driven business, and former Raiders CEO and current CBS Sports analyst Amy Trask has seen enough to be convinced that Judge isn't the guy to get those results.

    "Most recently he said, 'I'm not interested in having some sort of quick flash. I'm not interested in shortcuts. I'm not interested in quick fixes. I want to do this the right way,'" Trask said, per Kevin Manahan of NJ Advance Media. "Dude, you've been there 29 [now 30] games. What are you talking about, 'quick fixes?'"

    After Judge gave a nearly 1,700-word defense of his 10-20 record as head coach last week, the Giants proceeded to go out and get waxed by a Dallas team that appeared to play most of the game at about half speed. The G-Men managed only 15 first downs and turned the ball over four times.

    As things stand right now, the Giants possess two of the first six picks in the 2022 draft thanks to the Justin Fields trade. It's an opportunity for a franchise reset.

    And it's getting less likely by the week that Judge and general manager Dave Gettleman will be around to oversee it.

27. Detroit Lions (2-11-1)

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    Jose Juarez/Associated Press

    Last Week: 30

    Week 15 Result: Won vs. Arizona 30-12

    Jared Goff is an Arizona Cardinals killer.

    After stunning the 10-win Cardinals on Sunday in Motown, Goff has won eight straight games against the Redbirds. He has never lost to Arizona head coach Kliff Kingsbury.

    Goff wasn't the only reason Detroit pulled off the win, but he was a big one. The 27-year-old threw for 216 yards and three scores with a passer rating of 139.7.

    After what was undoubtedly the high point of Detroit's season, Goff told reporters he knew this team was capable of this sort of effort.

    "You know the game we've talked about playing all season? This was that game," he said. "This is what we knew we could do."

    Goff may have known something like this was possible, but the rest of the league couldn't have seen this coming.

    "Detroit may own the league's second-worst record, but Dan Campbell and his staff are doing one of the best coaching jobs in the entire league," Sobleski said. "Everyone knew Campbell and new general manager Brad Holmes inherited the league's worst roster. Yet this group continues to fight, which is why the Lions are 2-3-1 after an 0-8 start."

26. Chicago Bears (4-10)

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    Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    Last Week: 27

    Week 15 Result: Lost vs. Minnesota 17-9

    That the Chicago Bears (and head coach Matt Nagy) are toast is not news. We know it. You know it. And as Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports reported, Nagy's own staff knows it.

    "Many of the assistants on Bears coach Matt Nagy's staff have already been looking for potential jobs on the college markets, and most of them are operating as if they will be seeking employment elsewhere next season, league and team sources said. The Bears are 4-9, on the verge of playoff elimination and falling short of ownership's expectations for this season, with ownership mulling changes to the organization's hierarchy and possible restructurings at the highest level of management."

    You can make that 4-10 after an ugly loss to the rival Vikings. The Bears had almost twice as many yards of offense as Minnesota, but they also had three times as many turnovers. The defense played well, but the offense (Nagy's alleged forte) was once again a comedy of errors.

    It has been a miserable season in the Windy City, and all the Bears will get for that misery is the right to watch the New York Giants pick in their stead next April.

    Maybe go ahead and hire a new general manager too.

25. Atlanta Falcons (6-8)

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    Tony Avelar/Associated Press

    Last Week: 24

    Week 15 Result: Lost at San Francisco 31-13

    After getting flattened by the 49ers in San Francisco, the Atlanta Falcons are 6-8 and well outside the postseason picture. Despite that, veteran quarterback Matt Ryan told reporters after the defeat that he's not ready to give up on hopes of advancing to the postseason:

    “Still a chance. 'So you're saying there's a chance,' isn't that the old movie line or whatever? Listen, I've seen crazy things happen in this league, so we've got to hold up our end of the bargain and that starts next week. When we get back to Atlanta, we've got to find a way to have a really good week of practice get ourselves in position to play well next Sunday and keep that narrow focus and see what happens.”

    Ryan might not want to say the playoffs are out for these Falcons. So we'll do it for them.

    If the Falcons were ever in the hunt, they aren't anymore. Atlanta is 24th in total offense, 26th in total defense and haven't beaten a team that presently sports a winning record.

    It's time for a ground-up rebuild—one that includes taking a look at the long-term situation under center.

24. Seattle Seahawks (5-9)

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    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    Last Week: 22

    Week 15 Result: Lost at Los Angeles Rams 20-10

    We may all be bearing witness to the end of an era in Seattle.

    Over their years together in the Emerald City, Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson and head coach Pete Carroll have combined to lead the greatest decade the franchise has ever known, Seattle has gone to the playoffs eight times since Wilson arrived in 2012. There have been four division titles, with the latest coming just last year. There were two Super Bowl trips. And the lone Lombardi trophy in Seahawks history.

    But there won't be a Super Bowl trip in 2021. Or an NFC West title. Or a postseason berth. In fact, after falling to the Rams in listless fashion Tuesday night, something will happen in Seattle this year that hasn't since 2011.

    The Seahawks are going to have a losing season.

    Wilson is a 33-year-old quarterback who reportedly wasn't happy with the state of the franchise less than a year ago. Carroll is 70 and the oldest head coach in the league.

    It was one hell of a run. But at this point it's fair to ask whether both will be back for another go in 2022.

    Or even whether either will.

23. Washington Football Team (6-8)

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    Last Week: 18

    Week 15 Result: Lost at Philadelphia 27-17

    Back in September, there was optimism that veteran free-agent quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick could be the missing piece in a postseason puzzle for Washington—the guy who could turn them from reigning "champions" of the league's worst division a year ago to a genuine postseason threat.

    When Washington's postseason aspirations effectively died in Philadelphia on Tuesday night, it was with a quarterback under center who hadn't been with the team a week.

    That loss more or less sums up Washington's 2021. After being plucked from the Patriots practice squad because of starter Taylor Heinicke (Fitzpatrick made it all of six pass attempts into the season before getting hurt) and backup Kyle Allen both landing on the reserve/COVID-19 list, Garrett Gilbert actually led Washington to a 10-0 lead thanks to a pair of early turnovers. He also got Washington to within three in the fourth quarter.

    But the same Washington defense that has let the team down time and time again this season just could not stop the run, allowing a whopping 238 yards. And at 6-8, Washington isn't going anywhere after Week 18 but home. 

22. Denver Broncos (7-7)

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    Jack Dempsey/Associated Press

    Last Week: 21

    Week 15 Result: Lost vs. Cincinnati 15-10

    Multiple things might have ended Sunday at Mile High Stadium when the Denver Broncos fell to the Cincinnati Bengals.

    With a brutal schedule left and multiple teams between them and a spot in the playoffs, the Broncos' chances of making the postseason are likely done. And after quarterback Teddy Bridgewater suffered a scary-looking head injury that landed him in the hospital overnight, his tenure as the team's starter might also be over.

    Bridgewater hasn't played badly. But the same limitations that were evident last year in Charlotte have followed the 29-year-old to Colorado.

    And just like with the Panthers, those limitations have capped the Broncos' ceiling.

    "The Broncos have the defense to be a legit contender, and the offensive weapons," Davenport said. "But Bridgewater isn't any more of a long-term solution for Denver under center than Drew Lock. That has to be the focus of the Broncos' offseason—finding a quarterback who is more than a temporary patch or one-year Band-Aid."

21. Las Vegas Raiders (7-7)

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    David Richard/Associated Press

    Last Week: 25

    Week 15 Result: Won at Cleveland 16-14

    The Las Vegas Raiders have been through their share of turmoil in 2021. Both the team's head coach and a former first-round pick were sent packing. After hitting the bye week at 5-2, the Raiders lost five of their last seven.

    The Raiders absolutely had to figure out a way to get past a shorthanded Browns team in a rescheduled game to keep their lagging postseason hopes afloat.

    It wasn't pretty, but Vegas did that Monday, winning on a Daniel Carlson field goal as time expired and drawing praise from interim head coach Rich Bisaccia.

    "It's been a long time coming to win a game like that in the end," Bisaccia said. "We understand the situation we're in and what the playoff race looks like."

    In reality, a lot of things would have to break right for these Raiders to make the postseason—not the least of which is three more wins to end the season against the Broncos, Colts and Chargers.

    But for now at least, there's still hope in Sin City.

20. Minnesota Vikings (7-7)

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    Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    Last Week: 20

    Week 15 Result: Won at Chicago 17-9

    If the season ended today, the Minnesota Vikings would be in the playoffs.

    After downing the rival Bears in Chicago, the Vikings have won two straight and four of six to reach 7-7 and take up residence, at least temporarily, in the NFC's seventh and final playoff spot.

    That's the good news.

    The bad news is that the Vikings didn't much look like a playoff team Monday night. Kirk Cousins may have improved his woeful record on Mondays, but he did so completing just half his passes for 87 yards. Minnesota tallied just 193 yards of offense for the game.

    That may have been good enough to beat the lowly Bears, but come next Sunday, the Vikings will be hosting the Los Angeles Rams. After that comes a trip to Green Bay.

    In other words, unless the Vikings figure out a way to up their level of play in short order, their stay on the right side of the playoff cutoff line isn't going to be a long one.

19. Philadelphia Eagles (7-7)

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    Matt Rourke/Associated Press

    Last Week: 19

    Week 15 Result: Won vs. Washington 27-17

    So far this season, there have been exactly zero reasons to compare the 2021 Philadelphia Eagles to the greatest single-season team in NFL history.

    But after downing a depleted Washington team in a delayed game Tuesday to get back to .500 and stay in the postseason hunt in the NFC, the Eagles have done something that no team has since the meat-grinder that was the 1985 Bears.

    The Eagles gashed Washington for a staggering 238 yards on the ground—the seventh straight game Philly had at least 175 rushing yards.

    The Eagles are 5-2 over that span. And at least one of our analysts believe this team has a real shot to make the postseason.

    "Philly is controlling the tempo of games. Dictating the script. The Eagles have a manageable schedule that includes another date with Washington and next week's meeting with an awful Giants team," Davenport said. "The Eagles aren't without their flaws, and Wild Card Weekend is probably as far as they get. But when the Cowboys come to town in Week 18, it could well be a play-in game. And the Cowboys aren't without flaws of their own."

18. New Orleans Saints (7-7)

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    Jason Behnken/Associated Press

    Last Week: 23

    Week 15 Result: Won at Tampa Bay 9-0

    For most of the season, the New Orleans Saints have looked like a model of mediocrity. They're too good to be bad, but they aren't nearly good enough to be taken seriously as a postseason contender.

    These Saints have already accomplished one surprising thing in 2021, though. They've once again swept the defending Super Bowl champions in the regular season.

    Sunday night's win in Tampa came against a Buccaneers offense that lost its top two wide receivers and its No. 1 running back during the game. But with Saints head coach Sean Payton sidelined by COVID-19, acting head coach Dennis Allen crafted a masterful game plan—one that left Sobleski duly impressed.

    "Allen's preparation and game plan was nothing short of spectacular," he said. "New Orleans' defensive effort against the Buccaneers on Sunday may have been the best singular performance by any side of the ball this season. In fact, the Saints are the first squad since 1970 to shut out the league's No. 1 scoring offense at home. New Orleans has its problems on offense, but the Saints come to compete every week."

17. Baltimore Ravens (8-6)

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    Julio Cortez/Associated Press

    Last Week: 13

    Week 15 Result: Lost vs. Green Bay 31-30

    Maybe next time, the Baltimore Ravens should just play for overtime.

    For the second time in three weeks, the Baltimore Ravens went for a two-point conversion (and the win) at the end of a game. And for the second time in three weeks, the Ravens failed, dropping their third straight game in the process.

    On some levels, they were understandable decisions. The Ravens played Sunday's game against the Green Bay Packers without quarterback Lamar Jackson and with a defensive backfield that has been ravaged by injuries.

    Head coach John Harbaugh wasn't in the mood for second-guessing after the loss.

    "We were just trying to go get the win right there," Harbaugh told reporters. "I think our chances of winning right there were a little bit higher than in overtime, maybe, if you calculate it out."

    Proponents of analytics would likely agree. And had the pair of conversion tries been successful, the Ravens would be sitting at 10-4 and vying for the AFC's No. 1 seed.

    But if frogs had wings, they wouldn't bump their butts when they hop.

    The conversions weren't successful. And now the Ravens are 8-6 and fighting for their playoff lives ahead of a rematch with a Bengals team that thumped them 41-17 back in Week 7.

    "There's no shame in falling by just a single point to the Green Bay Packers without Lamar Jackson, but Jackson's durability is a concern this season and it's also important to note that he's a quarterback and doesn't play defense," Gagnon wrote. "That unit hasn't been good for much of the season. The Ravens are a good team when Jackson's healthy, not a great one."

16. Pittsburgh Steelers (7-6-1)

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    Matt Durisko/Associated Press

    Last Week: 17

    Week 15 Result: Won vs. Tennessee 19-13

    The Pittsburgh Steelers just won't die.

    They rushed for only 36 yards against the Tennessee Titans and barely cracked two yards per carry. They totaled 168 yards of offense and were outgained by 150 yards.

    Yet thanks to four takeaways and an outstanding defensive performance, Pittsburgh still managed to beat Tennessee.

    While talking to reporters after the game, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger lauded his teammates for playing like they can't afford any more ugly losses like last week's setback in Minnesota.

    "When you've got teams like this and environments like this, every game is a playoff," Roethlisberger said. "It had the feel of a playoff game, physically, emotionally. I think we still have a pulse in this thing, so we'll go from here."

    With the Ravens losing at home, the Steelers are only a half-game out of the division lead. However, they're now heading into a three-game gauntlet that starts in Kansas City before a home date with Cleveland and a trip to Baltimore.

15. Cleveland Browns (7-7)

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    Kirk Irwin/Associated Press

    Last Week: 14

    Week 15 Result: Lost vs. Las Vegas 16-14

    It can hardly be called a surprise that the Cleveland Browns lost to the Las Vegas Raiders on Monday. The team was short more players than you can count on both hands, including its best wide receiver and top two quarterbacks.

    Head coach Kevin Stefanski was out too, sidelined by the COVID-19 outbreak that caused the game to be delayed two days.

    Still, after watching Nick Mullens lead the Browns to a one-point lead late only to see that league dashed by a Daniel Carlson field goal, acting head coach Mike Priefer admitted to reporters that this loss stung.

    "That locker room right now is hurting," Priefer said. "That's the most I've seen it in that kind of pain. You're upset when you lose. Obviously, you're joyous when you win. But when you lose that type of game, that was tough."

    Cleveland should be hurting. Had the Browns won, they would have taken the lead in the AFC North. The loss dropped the team to 12th in the AFC.

    And with a short week to prepare for a trip to Lambeau to face the Packers, the 2021 Browns are circling the proverbial drain.

14. Cincinnati Bengals (8-6)

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Last Week: 15

    Week 15 Result: Won at Denver 15-10

    Some NFL games are action-packed shootouts in which the scoring comes early and often. Sunday's tilt between the Denver Broncos and Cincinnati Bengals was not one of those games.

    But to have success in the NFL, teams sometimes need to win ugly. And the Bengals were able to do that, securing a piece of first place in the AFC North in the process.

    Neither team hit 300 yards of total offense or accrued even 20 first downs. But after squeaking out the victory, quarterback Joe Burrow talked up his team's ability to find a way to win.

    "We have great players that can make plays, whenever they're there," Burrow said. "We didn't make as many plays as maybe we would have liked, but we got the job done."

    Nothing is guaranteed to these Bengals. Not with a schedule left that includes the Ravens and Chiefs at home and the Browns on the road.

    But it's been a while since Cincy had something to play for at Christmas.

    "The Bengals look like the best team in the AFC North, but they're flawed, and the logjam atop the division reflects the imperfections found within each of the contenders," Sobleski said. "One particular area sticks out for the Bengals: Joe Burrow is the most sacked quarterback in the league. Last year's No. 1 overall pick is special, but he needs to stay upright to take advantage of all the Bengals' offensive weapons."

13. San Francisco 49ers (8-6)

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    Tony Avelar/Associated Press

    Last Week: 16

    Week 15 Result: Won vs. Atlanta 31-13

    The San Francisco 49ers aren't winning the NFC West. After 15 weeks, they're two back of the Arizona Cardinals with three to play, and they lost both head-to-head meetings with the Redbirds.

    But the 49ers are also starting to look like the team in the NFC bracket that no one wants to see in the Wild Card Round.

    After dispatching the Atlanta Falcons in Week 15, the Niners have peeled off five wins in six games to work their way to the No. 6 seed in the NFC. They're playing their kind of football—and doing so at a high level.

    Despite injuries at running back, San Francisco ranks seventh in the league in rushing. Jimmy Garoppolo has been efficient under center, and he has no shortage of passing-game weaponry at his disposal.

    It has largely flown under the radar, but the Niners are sixth in the league in both total defense and pass defense as well.

    "I say this with complete seriousness: Given how the three NFC West teams in postseason position are playing, respectively, I would rather take on the Cardinals or Rams on Wild Card Weekend than have to face these Niners," Davenport said. "They can run the ball and play defense, and while that might be old-fashioned, it's also a recipe for postseason success."

12. Tennessee Titans (9-5)

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    Last Week: 8

    Week 15 Result: Lost at Pittsburgh 19-13

    From looking at most of the stats, one would think that the Tennessee Titans handled Pittsburgh with relative ease in Week 15. Tennessee almost doubled the Steelers in total yards, held them to roughly two yards per carry on the ground and allowed fewer than 170 yards on offense.

    And yet, the Titans limped out of Pittsburgh with a six-point loss for one simple reason. Actually, there were four of them: turnovers, including three in the fourth quarter.

    Tennessee quarterback Ryan Tannehill admitted that those miscues put the team in an untenable position.

    "It has to get cleaned up," Tannehill told reporters. "Obviously, if you turn the ball over as many times as we did, you're going to put yourself in a tough position."

    Wide receiver Julio Jones, who has missed six games in his first season in Nashville, left with a hamstring injury after failing to make a catch.

    "The Titans are still in first place in their division," Davenport said. "But they have lost three of their last four, and the lone win over that span was over the two-win Jaguars. The injuries and mistakes are piling up. With Tennessee having two games left against teams that are .500 or better, the AFC South may not be the foregone conclusion it was a few weeks ago."

    "The Titans are falling apart, figuratively and literally," Sobleski added. "On offense, Tennessee simply doesn't have enough firepower. Derrick Henry's absence looms large. Jones continues to deal with a balky hamstring. The team is averaging fewer than 15 points per game during the last month of play."  

11. Miami Dolphins (7-7)

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    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    Last Week: 12

    Week 15 Result: Won vs. New York Jets 31-24

    Halfway through the 2021 season, the postseason looked like a pipe dream for the Miami Dolphins. Fast-forward six weeks, and it's a much different story.

    After downing the New York Jets on Sunday, the Dolphins have won six straight to get back to .500. The playoffs are absolutely in play.

    The Dolphins didn't accrue a ton of style points in this one. They spotted a bad Jets team 10 points to open the game, and the offense was led by a practice squad running back getting his first real action of the year.

    But hometown kid Duke Johnson made the most of his opportunity, topping 100 yards on the ground, scoring twice and earning praise from quarterback Tua Tagovailoa.

    "The O-line did a great job today up front with creating those opportunities for Duke to find a hole and hit it and find ways to bounce the ball and have Duke be himself," Tagovailoa told reporters. "That's how he was his entire career, and I'm glad we were able to witness that today."

    "Whether these Dolphins are capable of hanging with the AFC's best in the playoffs is debatable," Davenport said. "For every win against Baltimore, there are two losses to the Bills. Two of their three remaining opponents would be in the playoffs if the season ended today, too. But the Saints, Titans and New England Patriots had best take Miami seriously, because the 'Fins are the hottest team outside of Kansas City."

    "They might still be merely 7-7, but a six-game winning streak coming off a seven-game losing streak shows how resilient and well-coached the Dolphins are," Gagnon added. "A lot of other teams would have thrown in the towel at 1-7. That said, the schedule's been soft. Can't wait to see how they perform against the Saints, Titans and Patriots to close out the season."

10. Los Angeles Chargers (8-6)

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    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    Last Week: 10

    Week 15 Result: Lost vs. Kansas City 34-28 (OT)

    The Los Angeles Chargers had a chance to assume first place in the AFC West with a win over the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 15.

    They were unable to take advantage of that opportunity, and some have blamed head coach Brandon Staley's decision to go for it on fourth down three times inside field-goal range.

    Staley dismissed those criticisms. 

    "The real football people understand that what I'm doing is playing to the strengths of our football team," Staley told reporters. "What I'm doing is I'm trying to make the decisions that I think are going to win us the game. And I'm ready to live with all that smoke that comes with it. And I've been very transparent about that."

    "The analytics crowd no doubt loved Staley's aggressiveness," Davenport said. "And going for it is the 'it' thing to do. But the reality is that the Chargers were O-fer on those fourth-down attempts, including two from inside the 10 and one right before halftime. There's a thin line between aggressive and reckless, and now the Bolts are essentially done in the AFC West and have a margin for error that is equally thin."

9. Arizona Cardinals (10-4)

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    Jose Juarez/Associated Press

    Last Week: 5

    Week 15 Result: Lost at Detroit 30-12

    We don't mean to alarm you, but after watching the Lions dominate the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday, it appears that the end times may be here.

    We had a good run.

    Kidding aside, what happened in Motown on Sunday was easily the most surprising result of any game this season. The Lions didn't just beat the Cardinals. They thumped them. Detroit was the better team in every facet of the game. Offense. Defense. Special teams.

    Quarterback Kyler Murray all but admitted as much after the game.

    "They were hungrier than us," Murray told reporters. "They played harder than us. We didn't come prepared at all, and it showed."

    After a 10-2 start, the Cardinals have dropped two straight and have watched their lead in the NFC West all but evaporate. And that is bringing back memories of how the 2020 season ended in the desert.

    "The Cardinals aren't going to miss the playoffs altogether like they did last year," Davenport said. "But Sunday's game was Kliff Kingsbury's fourth with a playoff spot on the line, and he's still searching for win No. 1 in that situation. However, once Arizona does finally clinch a spot, I'm having an awfully hard time imagining Arizona reach the NFC title game, let alone the Super Bowl."

    Gagnon was that much harsher, dropping the Cards to 13th in his rankings.

    "That's right. I don't view the Cardinals as a top-12 team despite the fact only the Packers have a better record," he said. "They're collapsing in December for the second year in a row, and they don't deserve the benefit of the doubt because of that. Throw in DeAndre Hopkins' injury and I'm not sure they'll even hold on to win the NFC West."

8. Buffalo Bills (8-6)

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    Joshua Bessex/Associated Press

    Last Week: 11

    Week 15 Result: Won vs. Carolina 31-14

    A month ago, the Buffalo Bills looked like one of the favorites to represent the AFC in Super Bowl LVI. Maybe the favorite.

    Three losses in four games later, the Bills entered Week 15 clinging to the last playoff seed in the conference. They badly needed a strong effort, and they got that Sunday.

    Granted, it came against a Panthers team that looks worse with each passing week, but rather than stumble and struggle, Buffalo took care of business by three scores against a team it was supposed to beat.

    Combined with New England's loss to the Colts, the Bills' win puts the AFC East back in play and jacks up the stakes for next week's showdown at Gillette Stadium. As quarterback Josh Allen told reporters after the game, Buffalo's focus is already on that matchup.

    "We're just trying to find ways to win games, and we did that today," Allen said. "We're going to need that going forward. We all know who we have next week. It's no secret."

    By this time a week from now, the AFC East will either be wide-open or all but decided.

7. Indianapolis Colts (8-6)

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    AJ Mast/Associated Press

    Last Week: 9

    Week 15 Result: Won vs. New England 27-17

    So, Jonathan Taylor appears to be pretty good at the whole running the football thing.

    The second-year pro entered Saturday's game leading the NFL in both rushing yards and scores on the ground. The Patriots held Taylor mostly in check for his first 28 carries. But the 29th was a backbreaker, with a 67-yard touchdown salting away the game and lifting the Colts to 8-6.

    With Tennessee losing Sunday in Pittsburgh, the Colts are now just one game out of first place in the AFC South. A pair of losses to the Titans makes winning the division an uphill climb for the Colts, but Davenport believes Indianapolis is sending a message to the rest of the AFC.

    "The Colts can control tempo with a dominant offensive line and the league's best running back," he said. "Indy's opportunistic defense is tied for the league lead in takeaways. And while Carson Wentz hasn't posted huge stats, he also hasn't made a lot of mistakes with the football. This is a team that none of the division leaders want any part of on Wild Card Weekend."

    Gagnon went so far as to slot Indy inside the top five.

    "Indy's only regulation loss since Week 3 was a valiant effort against the Bucs in which the team scored 31 points," Gagnon wrote. "They compete hard every week and will be a tough out in January. They wouldn't be a top-five team in a lot of other years, but this has been a damn weird one."

6. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (10-4)

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    Mark LoMoglio/Associated Press

    Last Week: 4

    Week 15 Result: Lost vs. New Orleans 9-0

    The Tampa Bay Buccaneers headed into Week 15 looking to keep pace with the Packers and Cardinals atop the NFC. Like the Cardinals, the Buccaneers stumbled.

    But in some respects, Tampa's setback may have been even more costly than the stunner in Detroit.

    It's not just that the Buccaneers lost. Or that they were shut out. Tom Brady and the offense didn't score a point in large part because wide receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin and running back Leonard Fournette were all injured during the game.

    A visibly angry Brady (who smashed a tablet in frustration in the fourth quarter) made no excuses while speaking to the media after the game.

    "Just a tough night. Didn't do much of anything right," Brady said. "I wish it was just one thing. It was a lot of things. We just didn't play well enough. We're not going to win scoring no points."

    The defeat isn't going to prevent the Buccaneers from winning the NFC South. But with Godwin's season over thanks to an ACL tear and Evans and Fournette staring at uncertain futures , the injuries that happened during it could most assuredly impact the Buccaneers' chances of repeating as Super Bowl champions.

5. Los Angeles Rams (10-4)

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    Kevork Djansezian/Associated Press

    Last Week: 6

    Week 15 Result: Won vs. Seattle 20-10

    There have been times when the Los Angeles Rams have looked like a team that could play a Super Bowl in its home stadium for the second year in a row. There have also been times when the Rams have looked like a team that would struggle to win a single playoff game.

    There were instances of both Tuesday night against the Seattle Seahawks. But to the Rams' credit, in a week when so many contenders stumbled (including the team ahead of the Rams in the NFC West), Matthew Stafford and Co. took care of business and moved into a first-place tie with the Arizona Cardinals atop the division.

    Still, winning the West won't be easy—even with Arizona pulling another December disappearing act. Starting with next week's trip to Minnesota to face the Vikings, the Rams close with three matchups against teams that would all be in the playoffs if the season ended now.

    The Week 18 date with the red-hot San Francisco 49ers at SoFi Stadium is looming on the horizon as a game that could have massive stakes for both teams.

4. Dallas Cowboys (10-4)

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    Seth Wenig/Associated Press

    Last Week: 7

    Week 15 Result: Won vs. New York Giants 21-6

    The Dallas Cowboys have just about wrapped up the NFC East. On Sunday, they made relatively short work of an overmatched Giants team.

    And the wildest part of it may be that the Cowboys have won three straight without playing especially well on offense

    This isn't to say that they are playing badly. But quarterback Dak Prescott admitted after the game that the offense hasn't matched the defense's level of play.

    "It's definitely frustrating, as I said, the defense is doing a great job giving us the ball, giving us the ball in plus territory, and we've got to find a way to get it in the end zone," Prescott told reporters. "Simple as that, and I'm sure we'll do that."

    "The Cowboys are maybe the hardest contender to get a feel for," Davenport said. "If the offensive inconsistencies continue into the postseason, the team could easily be one-and-done. But if an offense loaded with talent can up its level of play the way the defense has over the past month, Dallas could wound up repping the NFC in Los Angeles in February."   

3. New England Patriots (9-5)

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    Aaron Doster/Associated Press

    Last Week: 2

    Week 15 Result: Lost at Indianapolis 27-17

    "All good things must come to an end."

    That's what a philosophical Bill Belichick might have said after the Indianapolis Colts ended New England's seven-game winning streak.

    Darth Hoodie is a lot of things, but philosophical is not one of them. Surly after a loss, on the other hand…

    "I've said it like five times. I can say it another five times," Belichick told reporters after the game. "We didn't do anything well enough to win tonight."

    The Patriots actually outgained the Colts by 90 yards, held running back Jonathan Taylor in check for most of the night and limited Carson Wentz to just 57 passing yards.

    But Taylor's last tote was a 67-yard score that sealed the game. Patriots quarterback Mac Jones tossed a pair of costly interceptions. And New England had a punt blocked and returned for a score by E.J. Speed.

    New England still holds a one-game lead over the Bills in the AFC East. But next week's visit to Gillette Stadium by Buffalo just became a much bigger matchup.   

2. Green Bay Packers (11-3)

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    Julio Cortez/Associated Press

    Last Week: 3

    Week 15 Result: Won at Baltimore 31-30

    The Green Bay Packers are the kings of the north once again.

    By virtue of Sunday's wild win over the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium, the Packers have captured a third straight NFC North title. That left quarterback Aaron Rodgers in a celebratory mood after the game.

    "I think at moments like this, it's important, as much as you win with class, you have to savor these a little bit. These are special," Rodgers told reporters. "I think it's important to keep that perspective on how special accomplishing this is three years in a row."

    But wait—there's more!

    By virtue of both the Arizona Cardinals and Tampa Bay Buccaneers losing in Week 15, the Packers are the only 11-win team in the NFC. That potentially means having Wild Card Weekend off and the road to Super Bowl LVI coming through Titletown.

    "The Packers may not be the most talented team in the NFC," Davenport said. "But they have been the most consistent, and when you have Rodgers under center, every game in winnable. After a wild Week 15, the Pack have to be viewed as the NFC's new front-runner."   

1. Kansas City Chiefs (10-4)

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    Last Week: 1

    Week 15 Result: Won at Los Angeles Chargers 34-28 (OT)

    The Kansas City Chiefs must be butter because they are on a roll.

    Come for the power rankings, stay for the wit.

    In avenging their Week 3 loss to the Chargers, the Chiefs peeled off their seventh consecutive victory and opened up a two-game lead over the Bolts in the AFC West. They once again appear to be the team to beat in the AFC.

    The star of Thursday's win at SoFi Stadium was tight end Travis Kelce, who exploded for 10 catches for 191 yards and two scores, including the game-winner. The performance ended Kelce's mini-slump, although head coach Andy Reid told reporters after the game that the notion Kelce was slipping was as foolish as those who wondered if the Chiefs were in trouble at 3-4.

    "Everybody is talking about him losing a step. He looked fast to me," Reid said. "His endurance down the stretch for an elder statesman—he's not over the hill—his acceleration is something."

    Right now, the only ones who appear to be in trouble are the other 15 teams in the AFC.

    "In professional football, where parity reigns supreme, the Chiefs are ascending as possibly the league's only elite team," Sobleski said. "Reid's squad is now on a roll having won seven straight contests. More importantly, the mistakes that were being made earlier this season are dissipating, and both sides of the ball are playing well. Once again, the Chiefs are the NFL's team to beat."


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