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NFL power rankings, Week 15: Packers hold, Patriots and Seahawks move up

The Broncos, Packers, Patriots and Seahawks are separating themselves from the rest of the NFL. But one or more of the teams jumbled in the middle of this week's rankings are capable of a surprise or two.

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Week 14 is in the books. The Packers remain our top-ranked team after holding off the co-NFC South leading (cough) Falcons. Aaron Rodgers continued his absurd tear at Lambeau Field with a cool 24-of-36 passing for 327 yards and three touchdowns, and he still hasn't thrown a pick at home since something like 1990 (Note: it's actually "only" been two years, but the 396 straight pass attempts without an interception there is an NFL record). The Packers' rush game looked dominant as well, running all over the Falcons for 179 yards at 6.0 yards per carry. The Falcons put up a fight despite falling behind 31-7 before halftime, but ultimately Rodgers and the Packers' offense was too potent. This has been the case for nine of the last 10 teams that Green Bay has run across.

The Patriots bounced back this week with a big win on the road in San Diego, moving up two spots to No. 2. New England has won eight of its last nine games. The Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski-led offense is humming along like a well-oiled machine, and more importantly, the defense is coming on as well. The Pats held Philip Rivers and the Chargers' offense to 216 net yards, and if the Patriots can continue to get shutdown performances from their defense down the stretch, they'll be near impossible to beat. Brandon Browner's jarring hit on Ladarius Green, despite the fact it got called back, could be the kind of galvanizing play that raises the intensity of everyone in the group over the next three games. This type of physical play is exactly the reason that Bill Belichick took a chance on the free agent -- his presence sets a tone.

Speaking of Browner, an original member of Seattle's Legion of Boom -- don't look now, but the Seahawks' defense is back. Pete Carroll's crew continues to stymie opposing quarterbacks, holding the explosive Eagles to just 139 yards of offense on their way to a convincing road win. Teams are scoring an average of 6.7 points per game against the Seahawks over the last three games, and Seattle's offense is starting to execute at just the right time. The defending champs have their swagger back, are playing loose and confident, and once again look like the team that dismantled Peyton Manning's Broncos in the Super Bowl last February.

The Broncos remain contenders to get back to the big game, and come in at fourth in our rankings after holding off the Bills. Manning had his worst game of the season though, throwing for just 173 yards while tossing two picks. His streak of games with a touchdown pass sadly ended at 51, three short of Drew Brees' NFL record. Without much help from Demaryius Thomas (two catches for 11 yards) and missing Julius Thomas (active but on the sideline nursing an ankle injury), the Broncos instead turned to their run game. C.J. Anderson ran it in for three scores. Denver showed the ability to lean on that part of its offense when the pass game wasn't clicking.

Meanwhile, the Eagles fall in the rankings after stumbling against Seattle. They still boast a strong defense and potentially electric offense, assuming Mark Sanchez can prove he has a short memory. Philly doesn't have any time to dwell on Sunday's game, though; the Eagles host the Cowboys in a crucial matchup of the NFC East leaders this week.

The Colts stick at the sixth spot after dispatching the Browns with an Andrew Luck-engineered game-winning drive, moving to 9-4 and strengthening their hold on the AFC South. Luck struggled throughout the day against a stingy Cleveland defense, turning the ball over three times before gutting it out when it mattered. Regardless, winning on the road is always a tough proposition, and I'm sure Indy will take this win for what it was -- ugly -- and move forward.

The second tier

The 2014 NFL season has been a great demonstration of something the league is proud to consistently produce: parity. There are 19 teams with winning records, and the distance separating, say, our seventh-ranked team with the 13th-ranked squad is paper thin. You can make arguments for shuffling the Cardinals, Cowboys, Lions, Ravens, Chargers, Steelers and Bengals (and I'm sure you will), but each club has distinct strengths and weaknesses that put them in this group.

Arizona got back on track this week with a comeback win at home against the Chiefs, further cementing its grip on a playoff berth. The Cards have a dominant defense -- no one really questions that -- but it's their offense that many worry about. After losing Carson Palmer earlier this season, they'll now be without Andre Ellington as well, and moving the football will be a constant battle for them. I'm not saying it can't or won't happen, but Drew Stanton is still a remarkably consistent 50 percent passer.

Meanwhile, the Cowboys stuck to their identity on offense and had no trouble taking out the Bears, setting themselves up nicely for a rematch with the Eagles this week. The Lions are starting to get some of their offensive mojo back with their second straight 34-point performance. If they can remain consistent on that side of the ball, they can contend with anybody, in my opinion. The Ravens won convincingly in Miami, setting themselves up nicely for a shot at the AFC North crown, and of course, the Steelers dismantled the Bengals to put themselves right back in the hunt as well.

The middle of the pack is all sixes and sevens

The Chiefs, Texans, Dolphins, Rams, Bills, 49ers and Browns all have somewhat similar identities. All these teams feature ball-control offenses and, with the exception of probably the Dolphins, feature either struggling or subpar quarterbacks, buoyed by tough, physical, punch-you-in-the-mouth defenses.

Having a good-to-great defense is often not enough, though. It's been a full year since a receiver on the Chiefs caught a touchdown. The Texans are again relying on veteran journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick after a brief stint under Ryan Mallett was cut short by an injury. The Rams, Bills and Browns are also doing the veteran journeyman thing with Shaun Hill, Kyle Orton and Brian Hoyer, respectively, and we have all heard about Colin Kaepernick's struggles of late.

Until they can capture more consistency and effectiveness on the offensive side of the ball, these teams, all with 7-6 or 6-7 records, seem destined to remain in the middle of the pack. They all have strong, hardy defenses that could help them make some noise down the homestretch, though, so they are not the types of teams to overlook either.

The NFC South, you guys

The co-leaders of the NFC South are now each three games under .500. I don't know what to tell you. The Saints got blown out at home by the Panthers and look nothing like the dangerous NFC-elite team they were last season. The Falcons have an exciting offense, but are limited by their defensive problems. Carolina, meanwhile, is still miraculously in the playoff hunt at 4-8-1.

Despite the obvious injustice that the NFC South hosting a more deserving wild card team would be, it's definitely an interesting storyline and "Any Given Sunday" experiment that we could again see a playoff team with a losing record. Get hot at the right time -- and make no mistake, the Falcons, Saints and Panthers all have the potential to do just that -- and you can make a run in the postseason. The last three weeks will sort out the winner of the NFC South, and someone, even if by default, will host a home playoff game.

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The bottom of the pile

The Raiders and Giants showed signs of life, and both teams are still worth watching despite their low rankings on this list. New York has a budding superstar in Odell Beckham Jr. The LSU product went off this week to the tune of 11 catches for 130 yards and touchdown. He also returned four punts for 49 yards and rushed for 9 yards. The rookie just about connected on a 60-yard bomb downfield on an end-around throw, but it was broken up.

Meanwhile, Derek Carr looks like the real deal, and he slung it while connecting on 22 of 28 passes for 254 yards and three touchdowns in an upset victory over the Niners. He looks like the answer the Raiders have been looking for in terms of a franchise quarterback, so they've got that going for them, which is nice.

One last thing for this week that might be noteworthy: The Jaguars aren't the worst team in the NFL anymore, and they're probably not even the worst team in their division at this point. That distinction might belong to the Titans, who have now lost seven straight.

1 Green Bay Packers, 10-3 (Last week: 1) Acme Packing Company
2 New England Patriots, 10-3 (Last week: 4) Pats Pulpit
3 Seattle Seahawks, 9-4 (Last week: 5) Field Gulls
4 Denver Broncos, 10-3 (Last week: 3) Mile High Report
5 Philadelphia Eagles, 9-4 (Last week: 2) Bleeding Green Nation
6 Indianapolis Colts, 9-4 (Last week: 6) Stampede Blue
7 Arizona Cardinals, 10-3 (Last week: 7) Revenge of the Birds
8 Dallas Cowboys, 9-4 (Last week: 10) Blogging the Boys
9 Detroit Lions, 9-4 (Last week: 11) Pride of Detroit
10 Baltimore Ravens, 8-5 (Last week: 14) Baltimore Beatdown
11 San Diego Chargers, 8-5 (Last week: 9) Bolts from the Blue
12 Pittsburgh Steelers, 8-5 (Last week: 15) Behind the Steel Curtain
13 Cincinnati Bengals, 8-4-1 (Last week: 8) Cincy Jungle
14 Kansas City Chiefs, 7-6 (Last week: 12) Arrowhead Pride
15 Miami Dolphins, 7-6 (Last week: 13) The Phinsider
16 Houston Texans, 7-6 (Last week: 18) Battle Red Blog
17 St. Louis Rams, 6-7 (Last week: 20) Turf Show Times
18 Buffalo Bills, 7-6 (Last week: 17) Buffalo Rumblings
19 San Francisco 49ers, 7-6 (Last week: 16) Niners Nation
20 Cleveland Browns, 7-6 (Last week: 19) Dawgs by Nature
21 Minnesota Vikings, 6-7 (Last week: 21) Daily Norseman
22 Atlanta Falcons, 5-8 (Last week: 22) The Falcoholic
23 Carolina Panthers, 4-8-1 (Last week: 27) Cat Scratch Reader
24 New Orleans Saints, 5-8 (Last week: 23) Canal Street Chronicles
25 Chicago Bears, 5-8 (Last week: 24) Windy City Gridiron
26 New York Giants, 4-9 (Last week: 30) Big Blue View
27 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 2-11 (Last week: 25) Bucs Nation
28 Washington, 3-10 (Last week: 26) Hogs Haven
29 Jacksonville Jaguars, 2-11 (Last week: 28) Big Cat Country
30 Oakland Raiders, 2-11 (Last week: 32) Silver and Black Pride
31 New York Jets, 2-11 (Last week: 29) Gang Green Nation
32 Tennessee Titans, 2-11 (Last week: 31) Music City Miracles