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NFL power rankings, Week 15: Broncos retake top spot

The Seattle Seahawks lost a tough one on the road to a division rival. Seattle's loss and another offensive explosion from Peyton Manning, in frigid conditions nonetheless, put Denver on top of this week's power rankings.

This way to the AFC title game!
This way to the AFC title game!
Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Blowing snow and bitter cold swept through the NFL last week, adding another dimension to the playoff race and sweeping away established narratives. The Broncos froze out the Titans to stay on top of the AFC, and the Patriots stayed one step behind. A Denver win combined with a Seahawks loss in San Francisco was enough to see the top two spots in the weekly power rankings flip.

The top of the list wasn't the only place where teams were ordering the rankings.  A shifting playoff picture moved things around near the top, and the bottom of the order looks a little different compared to last week as well.

1. Denver Broncos

Current Playoff Projection: AFC #1 seed (AFC West champ)

Peyton Manning stuck it to the Titans, and after the game he hilariously told his cold-weather critics to "shove it where the sun don't shine." So he DOES have some personality outside of a commercial set! Whether or not the cold weather thing was overblown, Broncos fans have to be breathing a little easier after watching the Denver passing game hum despite blustery conditions. There's some cause for concern after Wes Welker notched a second concussion in a month, but even if Welker needs to take a couple of games off, it doesn't look like the Broncos' air attack will miss a beat. (Last week: 2)

2. Seattle Seahawks

Current Playoff Projection: NFC #1 seed (NFC West champ)

A two-point road loss to a surging division rival isn't cause to get down on a team of Seattle's quality, but the degree of surging from the 49ers has to give Seahawks fans a bit of pause. The NFC's road to the Super Bowl still runs through the Clink, but it's not the time of the season to be losing guys (Brandon Browner, K.J. Wright, Max Unger, Percy Harvin) while your division rival gains strength. The Seahawks' closing contests with the Cardinals and Rams just took on a bit more urgency. (Last week: 1)

3. New Orleans Saints

Current Playoff Projection: NFC #2 seed (NFC South champ)

Whatever color Kryptonite it takes to knock off the Superdome Supermen, it ain't Carolina blue. The Saints absolutely had their way with their division rivals on Sunday night, with Rob Ryan's defense bringing the heat and Drew Brees having a laughably easy time picking apart Carolina's zone. If the Saints can figure out whatever color of Kryptonite it takes to beat the Seahawks in Seattle, the odds are that they'll have a good chance to use it come mid-January. (Last week: 6)

4. San Francisco 49ers

Current Playoff Projection: NFC #6 seed (Wild Card)

It didn't quite even out the hide-tanning they took in the Pacific Northwest, but the Niners had to enjoy their measure of revenge on the Seahawks. A damaged offensive line held up well enough to keep Colin Kaepernick (mostly) on his feet, and even if Michael Crabtree has to come to a full stop to come out of his breaks, he's still a welcome addition to the passing game. Seattle will be tough to catch in the division, but the Niners are surging at the right time. (Last week: 5)

5. New England Patriots

Current Playoff Projection: AFC #2 seed (AFC East champ)

In perhaps the most Pyrrhic victory of the 2013 season, New England fashioned a dramatic comeback win over the Browns but lost offensive catalyst Rob Gronkowski for the season with torn ligaments in his knee. Shane Vereen was able to catalyze quite a bit himself. Assuming that playoff opponents will have a better plan than "gape like a goldfish while Vereen roasts our linebackers," Tom Brady will be up against it to approach the offensive efficiency of the last few weeks. With Aqib Talib's early-season shutdown showings a fading memory as well, the New England staff will have to bring its A-game for the Pats to take the AFC. (Last week: 4)

6. Carolina Panthers

Current Playoff Projection: NFC #5 seed (Wild Card)

Cam Newton is famous for his Clark Kent touchdown bit, but he was no match for the Superdome Supermen as the Saints continued to look unbeatable at home. Newton was constantly under siege with nowhere to go with the ball, and the Panthers' defense looked like it was Day One of the training camp zone install as Marques Colston found open spaces with ridiculous ease. Carolina can shake it off after a tremendous eight-game stretch, but even a victory in the rematch may not be enough to keep the Panthers off the road in the playoffs given the Saints' conference tiebreaker edge. (Last week: 3)

7. Cincinnati Bengals

Current Playoff Projection: AFC #3 seed (AFC North champ)

The Bengals' defense got sloppy in the second half - especially on the season's most shameful tackling display on a Terrell Owens Jim Brown Thor Lavon Brazill touchdown, but the game was never in doubt thanks to Cincy's offensive explosion. It's hard to know whether this was a Jekyll or Hyde performance for Andy Dalton, since Jekyll was technically "good" but Hyde was much more powerful. At any rate, it was a good one as Dalton put up a 120.5 QB rating. If this is the start of a hot streak, the Bengals should hope it's not kicking off too soon - there's a reasonable precedent for an AFC North team bagging a title with defense, a pair of running backs and an average QB getting hot during the right four-game stretch. (Last week: 7)

8. Kansas City Chiefs

Current Playoff Projection: AFC #5 seed (Wild Card)

It was a welcome return to early-season form for the Chiefs as they pulled off a three-phases rout of the Redskins. It may not offer a ton of proof about what Kansas City can do against the top tier, but it's always nice to fire on all cylinders while your return games go wild. All but locked into the #5 seed in the AFC, the Chiefs can focus on getting guys like Justin Houston, Branden Albert and Anthony Fasano healthy and putting their November woes behind them. (Last week: 9)

9. Arizona Cardinals

The Cardinals kept the heat on St. Louis all day long, and as a result they're still keeping the heat on the NFC's other Wild Card contenders. Carson Palmer's arm may not be 100% right now (or ever again), but he was laser-accurate to Larry Fitzgerald while the rest of the Cardinals' skill guys each made a small contribution to a 30-point outing. The loss of Tyrann Mathieu stings, as he was deservingly in the DROY conversation and providing lock-down slot defense. Brutal closing dates with the Seahawks and Niners likely keep Arizona out of the playoffs, but if they can coax another year out of Palmer and (finally) shore up the OL they'll be a team to reckon with next season. (Last week: 10)

10. Detroit Lions

Current Playoff Projection: NFC #4 seed (NFC North champ)

It's hard to get too bent out of shape over a game played in hilarious blizzard conditions, but the Lions were by no means ready to answer the challenge on Sunday.  Whether it was Matthew Stafford treating the ball like a live hand grenade or the Lions' vaunted rush defense getting absolutely mauled, Detroit was dominated everywhere but special teams (where their white unis may have simply let their return men get lost, Finnish sniper-style). As a single game it can be written off, but Lions fans - a bunch who no doubt feel cursed on the best of days - can't enjoy the Lions' repeated failures to lock up a massively winnable NFC North.   (Last week: 8)

11. Philadelphia Eagles

Current Playoff Projection: NFC #3 seed (NFC East champ)

In a battle of cold weather teams in a blizzard...pick the one that actually plays outside? The Eagles seemed a lot more comfortable in the cold, and while LeSean McCoy doesn't conjure the image of your classic mudder he had no trouble dashing through the snow to the tune of 217 yards. The Eagles hold a tiebreaker over the Lions, get to face a Vikings team without Adrian Peterson and wrap things up against a Dallas team without any semblance of a defense. Things are looking up for Chip Kelly's boys.  (Last week: 12)

12. Indianapolis Colts

Current Playoff Projection: AFC #4 seed (AFC South champ)

Fourteen weeks in, the Colts may have finally realized that they need to put everything on Andrew Luck's shoulders and stop pretending they have Eric Dickerson squirreled away in the backfield. Either that, or they had no choice but to get pass-happy in the midst of their defense's latest 40-point debacle. Either way, the Colts have won the South by default and will go as far as Lucks's arm and legs can carry them in the postseason. And for all Luck's playmaking ability, that's unlikely to be anything past the Divisional round. (Last week: 11)

13. Miami Dolphins

As noted NFL philosopher Al Pacino opined, the inches we need are everywhere around us. The Dolphins got the inch they needed on the game's final play, as Antonio Brown's fifth metatarsal grazed the sideline to short-circuit what would have been a gut-wrenching Miami defeat. The Fins survived to stay even in the win column for the AFC's final Wild Card berth thanks to big days from Charles Clay and Daniel Thomas. With two of their last three at home, Miami has a solid shot to turn Jeff Ireland's offseason spending spree into a playoff berth. (Last week: 15)

14. Baltimore Ravens

Current Playoff Projection: AFC #6 seed (Wild Card)

For three quarters, the Baltimore-Minnesota game had all the excitement of a twelve year old unwrapping the last present under the tree to reveal a snow globe. And about as much snow. Then, like the twelve year old flipping over the globe to find a note reading "LOL JK PLAYSTATION 4!!!!", absolute pandemonium broke out. When the dust ... er, snow ... settled, the Ravens had snuck out with a three-point win thanks to last-second heroics by Flacco and rookie wideout Marlon Brown. If Brown can keep it up, the return of Dennis Pitta and signs of life from Ray Rice can help Flacco engineer a passable passing game down the stretch. Whether that's enough to help a team utterly dependent on home cooking win the pair of road games it may need to secure a playoff spot, however, is another question. (Last week: 13)

15. Chicago Bears

The Chicago run defense may not conjure up memories of Mike Ditka's '85 Bears, but the Windy City has never had a pair of receivers make it rain like Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery. The cold drove Ditka from the field in about 30 seconds during Monday night's halftime. It didn't even slow down the Bears as Josh McCown threw up another 300-yard effort. Even against a non-NFL defense like Dallas' it was an impressive showing - one that Jay Cutler will be hard-pressed to improve upon whenever he makes it back. Two road games and a possibly Rodgers-led Green Bay team in Week 17 may be too tough a road to bag a playoff berth, but Marc Trestman's inaugural season has take the Bears' offense to new heights. (Last week: 18)

16. San Diego Chargers

The Chargers tend to blow hot and cold, but they looked like world beaters in running over a listless Giants bunch at home. Their secondary is still a box of tinder waiting on a match, but at least San Diego can fight fire with fire when Rivers is in rhythm and Keenan Allen is stating his case for Rookie of the Year honors. When even mincing porcelain figuring Ryan Mathews is running tough, it's tough to count the Chargers completely out of the AFC Wild Card race. (Last week: 16)

17. Dallas Cowboys

Dear readers, I just don't have the strength.  The world was one beer and an accurate flight tracker away from this future 30 for 30 teaser - "What if I told you that a Dallas fan lost a 40-point Fantasy lead to Josh McCown and then rammed his car into the Cowboys' plane?" (Last week: 14)

18. Pittsburgh Steelers

The Ravens weren't the only AFC North team to get up to snowy shenanigans on Sunday - the Steelers turned in a nail-biter of their own with the Dolphins that would have ended with the play of the year had Antonio Brown not stepped out of bounds on a Yackety Sax lateral fandango. Troy Polamalu punctuated a pick six with a turn-back-the-clock dive over the pylon, but the Steelers' aging D must forever live with the shame of surrendering 100 yards to the irredeemably oafish Daniel Thomas. (Last week: 20)

19. New York Giants

There's always the chance that the Giants rise up late in the season like the walking dead. There's also a pretty good chance this year's edition is just dead. Hakeem Nicks tried to get into the act with a way-too-late start on his contract-year push, but two more picks from everyone's favorite Citizen Eco-Drive spokesman and a spate of shoddy tackling made Hicks' effort a vain one. (Last week: 17)

20. St. Louis Rams

After racking up 80 combined points against the Colts and Bears, the St. Louis offense has been brutally rebuffed in its return to NFC West competition. Everyone in the Rams' receiving corps hauled in their customary reception, but few managed more than two as the Cardinals' suffocating pass defense smothered everything Kellen Clemens tried to do. Robert Quinn got close on the pass rush, but couldn't bag any cigars - or keep the Rams' lame secondary from getting lit up by Larry Fitzgerald. (Last week: 19)

21. Tennessee Titans

If the Titans were hoping for freezing temperatures to hinder Peyton Manning, they were sorely disappointed. Manning was on fire, and a formerly solid Tennessee secondary got cooked for nearly 400 yards and four TDs despite concussing Wes Welker in the second quarter. With two winnable games in their last three the Titans can hold out hope for absolute pratfalls from Baltimore and Miami, but it's probably time for Tennessee to start thinking about 2014. At least they'll have more big plays from Justin Hunter to look forward to, as well as the excitement of getting out from under Chris Johnson's hideous contract. (Last week: 21)

22. Cleveland Browns

God hates Cleveland. Despite having a win over the Pats tee'd up for the first time in the Belichick era, the Browns were unable to seal the deal despite another monster performance from Josh Gordon and the re-emergence of Jordan Cameron (a 2013 Fantasy sleeper who had fallen back asleep the last few weeks). Cleveland was handling Rob Gronkowski and the Six-Yard-Hitch Twins in Edelman and Amendola, but were playing checkers all day as Pats OC Josh McDaniels played chess with Shane Vereen. Of course, a win would have meant nothing while a loss sets the Browns up with even better ammo in next May's draft. So maybe ... God loves Cleveland? (Last week: 22)

23. Green Bay Packers

Ten days after getting decapitated, stuffed and served with cranberry sauce by the Lions on Thanksgiving, the Packers find themselves tied in the loss column after a do-or-die victory over the Falcons. Reinforcements like Nick Perry and Johnny Jolly helped hold Atlanta under 300 total yards of offense, and if Aaron Rodgers can join the cavalry charge next week then the Pack have a real shot at a miraculous retention of their division crown. (Last week: 30)

24. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

If you're having a bad day, it's always handy when the other guy is worse. Mike Glennon looked absolutely lost for much of the day against the Buffalo secondary, but benefitted from fantastic field position and got all the help he needed on Bobby Rainey's 80-yard TD scamper. With the Bengals' Geno Atkins out of action, Gerald McCoy has been able to run away and hide with the Best 4-3 DT Title Belt, and his outstanding play has elevated an otherwise blah front seven to respectability. (Last week: 25)

25. New York Jets

On those rare days where the Jets can avoid abject disaster at the quarterback spot, the rest of the roster can get up to some good things. Geno Smith had one of his best days as a pro, actually getting the ball out on time while using his legs well and keeping things to a lone turnover. As a result, the Jets were able to roll up 143 rushing yards against the Raiders' legitimately solid front while Kellen Winslow Jr. (who really should be a Raider, when you think about it) came out of the crypt to lead the team in receiving. While a Week 15 trip to Carolina could get ugly, the Jets' season-ending tilt with the Dolphins means that their playoff hopes aren't completely dead. (Last week: 28)

26. Minnesota Vikings

The Vikings came up just short in Sunday's snoozer-turned-snowball fight with the Ravens, but Adrian Peterson coming up lame was the bigger story. Early reports are that his "mid-foot sprain" may not be too serious, but in the midst of a lost season the Vikes will likely be cautious with their #1 offensive weapon. Making a strong bid for #2 honors is rookie wideout Cordarelle Patterson, who started the season slowly but has looked like a Terrelle Owens-caliber terror with the ball in his hands and a bit of room. Once the Vikes get their QB clown show squared away, Patterson will be a good bet to blow up in 2014. (Last week: 24)

27. Oakland Raiders

Despite a loss to Oakland that was abetted by an in-game QB carousel more befitting of a Mountain West team, there are things to be happy about in Oakland. A historically hideous cap situation will be largely cleared up for 2014, guys like Lamarr Houston and Jared Veldheer are blocks to build around, and the abject hopelessness of the late Al Davis era is a thing of the past. One other benefit from Sunday's game was that Marcel Reece's 100+ yards against the league's #1 run defense should be a strong enough reminder of the Iron Law of Running Back Fungibility to prevent them from wasting one thin dime on Darren McFadden in the offseason. (Last week: 23)

28. Atlanta Falcons

Despite finally getting Steven Jackson and Roddy White more or less up to speed, Atlanta couldn't generate enough punch to get past Matt Flynn's Packers at Lambeau. The Falcons' downtrodden D managed five sacks thanks to Flynn's hilarious lack of pocket awareness, but surrendering an 8.1 YPA day to this joker ranks with any embarrassments that the Cowboys' or Chargers' secondaries have trotted out this season. (Last week: 26)

29. Jacksonville Jaguars

Tremble in fear, for a mighty Jagernaut has arisen. Jacksonville is sporting a three game winning streak behind non-embarrassing play from Chad Henne and some signs that Gus Bradley's Seattle-style schemes are starting to click. You can dismiss their streak thanks to two wins over the utterly moribund Texans if you like, but that's a lot better than dismissing other team's winning streaks because they included YOU. (Last week: 31)

Even this guy can feel the excitement.


30. Buffalo Bills

There were always going to be growing pains for a young Bills squad this season, but you hate to get most of your offensive pieces back together and then turn in maybe the worst opponent-adjusted game of the entire NFL season. EJ Manuel suffered some bad luck but looked outright awful for much of the day while C.J. Spiller finished off his few surviving Fantasy owners. Buffalo's defense was OK outside of an 80-yard jaunt for Bobby Rainey, but they were bedeviled by short fields and absolutely lackadaisical from a pass rush standpoint. A loss to Jacksonville next week would cement one of the most shameful three-game stretches by any team in the league. (Last week: 27)

31. Washington Redskins

Picking a single nadir for this Redskins season isn't easy, but Sunday's beatdown by the NFL's other moderately-more-tasteful Native American mascot is a strong contender. A reeling Chiefs defense casually snuffed out almost every play before it got started, and the Redskins' D was powerless to stop Jamaal Charles and the Chiefs' three-step passing game. RGIII spent the fourth quarter on the bench, and Mike Shanahan failed to name a starter for next week's contest. At this rate, it's worth wondering if Daniel Snyder has named a coach for next week's contest, either. (Last week: 29)

32. Houston Texans

Houston put a hammerlock on the #1 overall choice in 2014 and the #32 overall slot in the Power Rankings with another lifeless loss to the Jaguars. Bob McNair finally took Gary Kubiak out behind the shed for the Ol' Yeller treatment, and former Bears head man Lovie Smith is the hot name out of the gate to helm Houston in 2014. It's interesting to discuss how Lovie's Tampa 2-influenced scheme would fit the Texans' defensive least, it's a lot more interesting than anything the current team will get up to down the stretch. (Last week: 32)

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