In week 15, the Patriots, Raiders, and Seahawks secured spots in the playoffs, joining the Cowboys in a playoff field now one-third full. New England not only clinched a playoff berth with their 16-3 win over the Broncos, but also locked up a first-round bye while dealing a massive hit to the defending Super Bowl champions’ odds of defending their title. Winning isn’t anything new to the Patriots, but the Raiders had plenty reason to celebrate. Oakland improved to 11-3, earning their first trip to the postseason since their Super Bowl appearance following the 2002 season. In addition, the Raiders regained the top spot in the AFC West following the Chiefs’ loss to the Titans, giving the Raiders control of their destiny for a first-round bye. Lastly, the Seahawks officially claimed the NFC West title on Thursday night, although that race has been all but over for weeks.
Elsewhere in the league, the Bengals, Chargers, Cardinals, and Eagles all saw the tiny thread holding their playoff hopes together cut. While the top and bottom of the league cemented themselves even further, the wild card races got even more interesting. With the Chiefs and Giants all but guaranteed wild card spots (each holds greater than a 99% chance of making the playoffs according to FiveThirtyEight), each conference has essentially six teams fighting for one spot at the moment.
In the NFC, the Packers were last week’s big winners, gaining hold of the #6 seed with losses by the Buccaneers and Redskins while a Lions loss opened the door in the NFC North as well. The Green Bay victory essentially eliminated the Saints and Panthers, while the Vikings’ loss to the Colts all but ended their postseason dreams. Still, all three teams remain mathematically eligible. The playoff formula for all wild card contenders is simple: win your final two games, and hope the people in front of you don’t. It may all come down to the Packers’ week 17 game against the Lions to see if the Packers can hold on.
As far as the AFC goes, the Dolphins trounced the Jets 34-13 to reach nine wins. One more victory would almost definitely send Miami to the playoffs, and the easier opportunity comes in week 16 against the Bills, who aren’t quite done yet (more on that later). If the Dolphins can’t get it done there, they’ll get a second, much harder opportunity against the Patriots. Still, a scenario remains where the Dolphins could make the playoffs losing both games. However, it is very unlikely.
The Steelers-Ravens matchup in week 16 and the Texans-Titans game in week 17 are likely to decide the AFC North and AFC South, respectively. However, with how close the AFC wild card race is, all of these teams could still have a shot at a wild card should they lose. Much is still to be decided over the final two weeks of the regular season. Here are my power rankings.
1. Patriots (12-2, LW: 1) The Patriots’ defense shut down the Broncos defense on New England’s way to an NFL record eighth straight division title. It’s the Patriots 14th straight 10-win season, and 15th trip to the playoffs in 16 years. Yea, I’d call them a dynasty.
2. Cowboys (12-2, LW: 2) Can we finally put the Cowboys’ quarterback controversy to rest? Now at 12-2, Dak had the second-best completion percentage while throwing 30+ passes in NFL history against the Bucs, going 32-36 in an important bounce-back game. Prescott might have fallen out of the MVP conversation, but he is definitely the QB of his team.
3. Raiders (11-3, LW: 4) 11-3? 11-3! I still have some trouble reading that record- the Raiders have been a punchline for almost my entire life. You have to love what the Raiders have been doing this season and the way they’ve fought back after trailing late in many games. Derek Carr is one of the MVP frontrunners, and I think Jack Del Rio is practically a lock for Coach of the Year.
4. Seahawks (9-4-1, LW: 6) The Rams matchup looked easy on paper, and the Seahawks made it look even easier on the field. Still, the Rams had won three straight against Seattle coming in, and many questions were asked of the Seahawks following their blowout loss to the Packers. Now with the division locked up, they’re only two wins away from a first-round bye, and I like their odds against the Cardinals and 49ers.
5. Chiefs (10-4, LW: 3) The Chiefs have been almost impossible to predict this season. I’d like to call them overrated- many of their wins have come in close games- but they play a grind-it-out style of football and have beaten some very good teams, including a sweep of the Raiders. Tyreek Hill gives the offense an extra, big-play dimension, but was held without a catch against the Titans. He did explode for a 68-yard rushing touchdown, but the Chiefs need to get him the ball more often.
6. Steelers (9-5, LW: 5) Kicker Chris Boswell was a busy man on Sunday, going a perfect six for six on field goals to help the Steelers erase a 20-6 deficit and stay on top of the AFC North. The Bengals were held to just 38 yards in the second half while Andy Dalton threw a pick to Lawrence Timmons. Pittsburgh hosts the Ravens in week 16 and can clinch the division with a victory.
7. Giants (10-4, LW: 7) The Giants didn’t move up in the power rankings this week, but make no mistake- this was a massive victory for the G-Men. This defense is improving every single week and has allowed just 13 total points to the Cowboys and Lions in back-to-back games while leading the NFL in points allowed in their past eight contests. When the offense commits no turnovers and can generate a few big drives like they did against Detroit, the Giants defense can be unleashed. They won’t catch the Cowboys, but the Giants should safely take the #5 seed.
8. Falcons (9-5, LW: 9) The Falcons have demolished two of the worst teams in the NFL in back-to-back weeks, dropping 42 on the Rams and 41 on the 49ers. Atlanta wraps up the year against the Panthers and Saints and needs just one win to lock up the NFC South. Now averaging 33.5 points per game, they’re a team that has the offensive firepower to beat anyone. A potential wild card matchup with the Giants would be a great offense vs. defense showdown.
9. Lions (9-5, LW: 8) Detroit fell 17-6 to the Giants at MetLife Stadium in the first of three difficult matchups to close out their season. Next up is the Cowboys, another game that appears to be a loss if the Lions can’t find a way to stop Ezekiel Elliott and Dez Bryant. The season should come down to week 17 where Detroit hosts the Packers for the NFC North. A win should equate to a #3 or 4 seed. Can the Lions go winless and still make the playoffs? They don’t want to find out.
10. Packers (8-6, LW: 10) A huge pass to Jordy Nelson setting up a field goal on the last play of the game prevented overtime with the Bears and possibly saved the Packers’ season. The real hero in the 30-27 victory was Ty Montgomery. The wide receiver turned running back exploded for 162 yards and two touchdowns on just 16 carries. Who needs real RBs?
11. Buccaneers (8-6, LW: 11) Despite four turnovers, the Bucs had the ball with a chance to score a touchdown on the game’s final drive to take down the Cowboys. They led after three quarters, and kept the game close in the fourth by holding Dallas to three Dan Bailey field goals. Tampa Bay’s five-game win streak was snapped, but it was a decent game overall. The Bucs will likely have to defeat the Saints and Panthers for a playoff spot.
12. Titans (8-6, LW: 15) Tennessee trailed the Chiefs at Arrowhead 14-0 in the first quarter. On the road against the #2 seed in the AFC, the game could’ve been over early. However, the Titans allowed just three more points and put together three scoring drives in the fourth quarter to win their third straight and keep pace with the Texans in the AFC South. Five Titans were named to the Pro Bowl this year, including DeMarco Murray, who is second in the league in rushing.
13. Ravens (8-6, LW: 14) Despite being ranked just 28th in rushing, the Ravens gained 151 yards on the ground to stay in playoff contention. Had Baltimore lost to the Eagles, the Steelers matchup in week 16 wouldn’t have meant much. Now, the Ravens can tie the Steelers and sweep the season series with a victory. With another two field goals and three extra points, Justin Tucker is now 58/59 on the year, his only miss coming on a blocked field goal.
14. Dolphins (9-5, LW: 16) Matt Moore spent no time getting acclimated to the Miami offense. Instead, he tossed four touchdown passes in a 34-13 win over the Jets. The Dolphins can almost guarantee themselves a playoff spot in Buffalo this week. Jay Ajayi crossed the 1,000 rushing yard mark for the season against the Jets and will look to continue his breakout season.
15. Redskins (7-6-1, LW: 12) All is not well for the Redskins, who settled for five field goals in a 26-15 defeat against the Panthers. Quarterback Kirk Cousins was Washington’s leading rusher in the game…with two carries for 11 yards. It was that kind of night for a team that has now lost three of four. Now the NFC’s #8 seed, the Redskins must finish the year with wins at the Bears and home against the Giants, plus get help with at least one loss by the Packers and Bucs.
16. Broncos (8-6, LW: 13) The Broncos (4-0) and the Vikings (5-0) were the NFL’s last two unbeaten teams. Keyword: were. Now a combined 6-13 since, each has fallen out of the playoffs and is unlikely to play into January. Three Broncos defenders (Von Miller, Chris Harris Jr., and Aqib Talib) made the Pro Bowl, but the defense hasn’t been the issue. Over their last three games, the Broncos have scored just 26 offensive points.
17. Texans (8-6, LW: 18) The Texans are a very strange team indeed. The Texans benched their starting quarterback Brock Osweiler for Tom Savage, a man whose name should bring about bad puns for years to come, and then came back against the Jaguars to send Jacksonville to 2-12 and remain in the AFC South lead. Houston’s defense is great, and they could go on a playoff run with even decent offense. Savage was 23/36 for 260 yards in relief and has earned the starting job.
18. Colts (7-7, LW: 20) Looks like someone was upset with dropping to #20 in the power rankings. Colts-Vikings was essentially an elimination game, and while the Colts’ playoff prospects don’t really look any better than they used to, they’re still alive. The game was 27-0 by halftime, but the Raiders won’t be as easy to beat as Minnesota.
19. Bills (7-7, LW: 19) The Bills beat the Browns by 20, but Rex Ryan still seems likely to be fired. I don’t understand why- the Bills could still make the playoffs. All they need is to beat the Dolphins and Jets, the Dolphins to lose to the Patriots, the Titans to go 0 for 2 against the Jaguars and Texans, the Steelers and Bengals to beat the Ravens, and the Raiders to win against the Broncos and Colts. Oh wait, I see why he might be fired now.
20. Panthers (6-8, LW: 22) Here’s another stat to summarize the Panthers’ fall this season: last year, they led the league with 10 players selected to the Pro Bowl. This year? Just four. Carolina has shown flashes of 2015’s Super Bowl season this year, including during their last two victories. It’s won’t be much consolation, but they can still finish 8-8 with two wins to close out the year.
21. Vikings (7-7, LW: 17) The return of Adrian Peterson was much less exciting than intended. We knew he’d be eased back in his first action since week 2, but AP finished with just six carries for 22 yards and a lost fumble. The game was over before it started, and now Minnesota has only a 14% chance of reaching the postseason even if they win their last two. In week 16 the Vikings will try to play spoiler home against the Packers.
22. Bengals (5-8-1, LW: 21) Marvin Lewis isn’t worried about his job security. Still, after five straight playoff seasons, a 5-8-1 season can’t make Lewis very happy. He still hasn’t won a playoff game in 14 years with the team. He may have a long leash, but no leash lasts forever. The Bengals blew a 14-point lead in the second half against the Steelers, but can shake up the playoff picture should they upset either the Texans or Ravens.
23. Chargers (5-9, LW: 22) Close losses have been the story of the year for San Diego in their final season before moving to Los Angeles. Philip Rivers leads the league in interceptions but will get Melvin Gordon back next week against the Browns. Kenneth Farrow has struggled as the backup, and the team as a whole has been limited offensively in Gordon’s absence. If Cleveland’s first 14 games have shown us anything, the Chargers should get a victory.
24. Saints (6-8, LW: 26) Just when I comment on how New Orleans’ offense has disappeared, they drop 48 points on the league’s #1 defense in terms of yards allowed. It’s all good, though- Brandin Cooks’ seven catches for 186 yards and two touchdowns sent me to my fantasy football league championship. Drew Brees has already thrown for over 4,500 yards with two games remaining, but the Saints will miss the playoffs for the third straight year. Poor Brees.
25. Cardinals (5-8-1, LW: 24) Sometimes, scoring 41 points just isn’t enough. David Johnson had 53 yards from rushing and 55 receiving to set an NFL record with 14 consecutive games to start a season with 100 or more total yards. It’s been a remarkable season from the second-year running back, but not for the team as a whole. Where will Larry Fitzgerald play next year?
26. Eagles (5-9, LW: 25) Doug Pedersen took one out of the Jack Del Rio playbook by going for two when trailing by just one point in the closing seconds of the game. You’re a genius when it works, and an idiot when it doesn’t. Pedersen experienced the latter, and the Eagles dropped to 2-9 following their 3-0 start. They can at least try to eliminate the Giants from NFC contention at home on Thursday. In recent years, Philly has had the Giants’ number at home.
27. Bears (3-11, LW: 27) The Bears’ last four losses have all come by less than seven points, including three-point losses to the Lions and Packers in back-to-back weeks. Matt Barkley won’t be the future solution for the Bears at QB, but he has done well to generate offense despite throwing multiple interceptions in three of his five games. Unfortunately, this year doesn’t appear to be a strong QB draft class, but the Bears will own a top-five pick.
28. Jets (4-10, LW: 28) Tough times for the Jets. This week in misery, they fell by 21 points to a backup quarterback. Next week, they’ll be lucky if it’s that pretty in New England. Alright, maybe it won’t be that bad, but this was a surprise 10-win team a year ago, and…it’s not this year. No one from the Jets made the Pro Bowl.
29. Rams (4-10, LW: 29) Sean Mannion might get his chance to start this week if Jared Goff can’t return from a concussion. In the first game following the firing of Jeff Fisher, the Rams fell 24-3 to the Seahawks, and looked exactly like the Jeff Fisher Rams in the process. It’s been an ugly season, but hopefully the signing of a new head coach will help Goff develop as a promising young QB.
30. Jaguars (2-12, LW: 30) Gus Bradley, Gus Bradley. You get fired after a game where the OTHER team’s quarterback got replaced for playing poorly. After going 14-48 in nearly four seasons, I’m not the least bit surprised to see the Jags make a change. In his latest stunning performance (and not in a good way), Blake Bortles threw for 92 yards and an interception. Who knows what the strategy is going forward for one of the league’s perennial worst teams.
31. 49ers (1-13, LW: 31) The Niners have lost 13 straight games since their opening week victory against the Rams. Good news! They get the Rams for a second time this season in week 16, where yes, I’m hearing that unless they tie, someone will indeeed win the game. The Rams will be at home, but the 49ers have something resembling an offense, so it’ll be interesting.
32. Browns (0-14, LW: 32) October 30th. That was the last time the Browns scored 14 points in a game. Can they go 0-14? All eyes will be on Cleveland as they try to avoid becoming the second winless team in a 16-game season.