Week 15 is in the books. The Packers fall out of the top spot in our rankings after holding it for only two weeks, taking a step back against a tough Bills defense. Aaron Rodgers had a career day, but just not the type you're looking for late in the season with the playoff picture still murky. Rodgers is the straw that stirs the drink for the Packers, and he connected on just 17 of 42 passes for 185 yards while tossing two interceptions. He finished with a career-low passer rating of 34.2 and a career-high 25 incompletions. Taking the Pack's spot at No. 1 this week are the 11-3 Patriots, who dispatched the Dolphins with surprising ease at home.
New England has now rattled off wins in nine of its last 10 games after being blown out by the Chiefs on national television in Week 4. Since that embarrassing loss, Tom Brady has gone on an absolute tear, completing 66 percent of his passes at 7.76 yards per attempt in that time, with 28 touchdowns and just six picks -- good for a 106.9 passer rating. Over that streak, Rob Gronkowski has caught 63 passes for 946 yards and eight touchdowns, and it's safe to say he changes what the Patriots are able to do to defenses and provides Brady with his favorite target. Also important is that the Patriots' defense has been stingy of late as well, allowing an average of 13.5 points in their last two wins.
The Pats may have one of the most potent offenses in the NFL, but the Seahawks are back up there among the best defenses right now as winners of four in a row. In those four wins -- against the Cardinals, Eagles and 49ers twice -- their opponents are averaging 6.8 points and just 188 total yards per game. Defensive domination pushes Seattle to No. 2 in our rankings this week, its highest spot since Week 5. The Seahawks are winning with the formula they used last year on the way to a Super Bowl victory, and they appear to be peaking at the right time.
The Broncos and Cardinals both held serve and moved past the Packers to fill out the No. 3 and No. 4 spots this week. Denver survived a scare when Peyton Manning went to the locker room with a thigh injury, but the future Hall of Famer was able to return and hold off the slumping Chargers on the road. The Broncos clinched the AFC West title with the win and continued to use a more balanced approach on offense, rushing 39 times -- almost twice the number of times they asked Peyton to throw the ball.
NFL playoff picture 2014
The apparent change in philosophy to a more balanced approach is an interesting one for Manning and the Broncos, who are 11-3, the same record they posted at this time last year. Manning had 47 touchdowns and 4,811 yards passing at this point last season, an absurd rate that was going to be extremely difficult to match. This season, Manning has 37 touchdowns (second to Andrew Luck's 38) and 4,143 yards through the air (fourth behind Luck, Ben Roethlisberger and Drew Brees), so he's obviously no slouch. The Broncos aren't asking him to do quite as much with his arm, hoping a strong running game will benefit them in the playoffs.
As for the Cardinals, they'll be really, really hoping to get more from their run game and continue to dominate with their attacking, aggressive defense after losing yet another quarterback to injury. With Drew Stanton's knee injury keeping him out several weeks, the Cards will call on recent Chargers practice squad quarterback Ryan Lindley, a former sixth-round pick by Arizona. Lindley has completed 93 of 181 career passes (51 percent) for 782 yards (4.3 yards per attempt), with zero touchdowns and seven interceptions in four starts, so it's obviously not an ideal situation for the NFC's current No. 1 seed and lone 11-game winner. Because of the Cardinals' situation at quarterback, Arizona only rises to No. 4 on our list.
Andrew Luck shrugged off an early pick-six to throw two touchdowns, helping lead the Colts to an AFC South-clinching win over the Texans. Indianapolis struggled on offense in this one, managing just 4.3 yards per play while going 2 of 12 on third down. The Colts were buoyed by their defense, which shut down Tom Savage and the Texans' offense after Ryan Fitzpatrick went out with an injury. The Colts have now won four in a row and are 5-0 in their division, but will have to finish off their season on the road. Their big test will be at the Cowboys, our No. 7-ranked team, next week.
Dallas bounced back from a blowout loss two weeks ago to hold off the Eagles, and look to be clicking right now in all areas -- the Cowboys have won four of their last five. In the five games since returning to action after suffering two fractures in his back, Tony Romo has completed 71 percent of his passes for 1,190 yards, 8.56 yards per attempt and 13 touchdowns to only two picks. DeMarco Murray, not to be forgotten, has 554 rushing yards and four touchdowns in his last five games. The Cowboys' offense is as potent as ever right now, and they've scored 30+ in four of their last five.
Meanwhile, the Lions took advantage of the Packers' loss by dispatching the Vikings, setting up an exciting race for the NFC North division title. The Lions' offense wasn't particularly explosive, managing just 233 total yards and 4.7 yards per play, but once again their stout defense gave them a chance to win. The Lions' run defense has been feasting on opponents, allowing a truly impressive 63.8 rush yards per game at 3.1 yards per carry. Detroit is on pace to best both of the top marks from last season: the Jets' 3.4 yards per carry allowed, and the Cardinals' 84.4 yards per game allowed. For better or for worse, the Lions make opponents one-dimensional.
AFC North still up for grabs
The Steelers and Ravens both got crucial wins to keep pace with the Bengals, who remain a half-game ahead in the AFC North. This will be a race to the finish and there's very little separating these three teams from a talent and position standpoint. The Ravens finish with games at Houston and then at home against the Browns, while the Steelers host the Chiefs and Bengals. Cincy has to face the Broncos before heading to Pittsburgh to wrap up the regular season, so, holy crap, this is going to get interesting.
Oh, and so is the NFC South
The Panthers are now making a claim for the NFC South title with a win over the Bucs, overcoming the loss of Cam Newton this week after he was injured in a car accident. The Saints are currently out in front, though, with a win over the hapless Bears. Obviously, we're still living with the chance that the Saints or Panthers may end up winning the NFC South with a losing record.
The wild cards
With only two games remaining, the AFC playoff picture is starting to come into focus as the Broncos, Colts and Patriots clinched spots. Seeding is still very much up in the air in the NFC, though. The Cardinals remain the only team to clinch in the NFC thus far, and the Packers, Seahawks, Cowboys, Lions and Eagles are all looking to get a foot in the door. With five teams now in competition for four spots (the Cardinals have clinched one, and the NFC South gets the sixth by default), there's going to be one good NFC team left on the outside looking in.
A race to the bottom
As of right now, the Buccaneers hold the No. 1 pick in the 2015 NFL Draft by virtue of strength of schedule tiebreakers, and they'll face the Packers and Saints to finish off the season. The Titans get the Colts to finish the year off, but play the Jaguars this week, which should have a winner, probably, I'd assume, which could shake things up at the top of the draft. The Jaguars face the Texans in their finale. The Raiders get two good teams in the Bills and Broncos to finish off the season, as does Washington, who has to finish with the Cowboys and Eagles. The Jets get the Patriots and Dolphins. Right now, there's no clear favorite for the dubious distinction of finishing "last" in the NFL for the chance to pick first in the draft.
|RANK||WEEK 16||SB NATION BLOG|
|1||New England Patriots, 11-3 (last week: 2)||Pats Pulpit|
|2||Seattle Seahawks, 10-4 (last week: 3)||Field Gulls|
|3||Denver Broncos, 11-3 (last week: 4)||Mile High Report|
|4||Arizona Cardinals, 11-3 (last week: 7)||Revenge of the Birds|
|5||Green Bay Packers, 10-4 (last week: 1)||Acme Packing Company|
|6||Indianapolis Colts, 10-4 (last week: 6)||Stampede Blue|
|7||Dallas Cowboys, 10-4 (last week: 8)||Blogging the Boys|
|8||Detroit Lions, 10-4 (Last week: 9)||Pride of Detroit|
|9||Baltimore Ravens, 9-5 (Last week: 10)||Baltimore Beatdown|
|10||Philadelphia Eagles, 9-5 (last week: 5)||Bleeding Green Nation|
|11||Pittsburgh Steelers, 9-5 (Last week: 12)||Behind the Steel Curtain|
|12||Cincinnati Bengals, 9-4-1 (Last week: 13)||Cincy Jungle|
|13||San Diego Chargers, 8-6 (Last week: 11)||Bolts from the Blue|
|14||Kansas City Chiefs, 8-6 (Last week: 14)||Arrowhead Pride|
|15||Buffalo Bills, 8-6 (Last week: 18)||Buffalo Rumblings|
|16||Miami Dolphins, 7-7 (Last week: 15)||The Phinsider|
|17||Houston Texans, 7-7 (Last week: 16)||Battle Red Blog|
|18||St. Louis Rams, 6-8 (Last week: 17)||Turf Show Times|
|19||San Francisco 49ers, 7-7 (Last week: 19)||Niners Nation|
|20||Carolina Panthers, 5-8-1 (last week: 23)||Cat Scratch Reader|
|21||New Orleans Saints, 6-8 (Last week: 24)||Canal Street Chronicles|
|22||Cleveland Browns, 7-7 (Last week: 20)||Dawgs by Nature|
|23||New York Giants, 5-9 (last week: 26)||Big Blue View|
|24||Minnesota Vikings, 6-8 (Last week: 21)||Daily Norseman|
|25||Atlanta Falcons, 5-9 (Last week: 22)||The Falcoholic|
|26||Chicago Bears, 5-9 (Last week: 25)||Windy City Gridiron|
|27||Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 2-12 (last week: 27)||Bucs Nation|
|28||New York Jets, 3-11 (last week: 31)||Gang Green Nation|
|29||Washington, 3-11 (last week: 28)||Hogs Haven|
|30||Jacksonville Jaguars, 2-12 (last week: 29)||Big Cat Country|
|31||Oakland Raiders, 2-12 (last week: 30)||Silver and Black Pride|
|32||Tennessee Titans, 2-12 (last week: 32)||Music City Miracles|