The Panthers stay on top of the NFL power rankings with another completely dominant performance this week. They remained perfect on the year by annihilating the Falcons at home. Cam Newton strengthened his MVP bid by tossing another three touchdowns while Carolina's defense pitched a shutout. The Panthers are firing on all cylinders right now and while some still may doubt their championship credentials, they're playing with a chip on their shoulder, which makes them even more dangerous down the stretch.
The NFC is well represented this week as the Cardinals make a jump up to the second spot after dispatching the Vikings at home on Thursday Night Football. Carson Palmer is putting up an MVP-caliber season of his own and rookie David Johnson has filled in admirably for Chris Johnson at the running back spot. Arizona can throw the ball all over the field with the best of them, it can run and it has one of the most confounding and aggressive defenses in the league -- currently second in takeaways (25) with three games to go. The Cardinals are a perfect example of balance between young playmakers -- Tyrann Mathieu, Patrick Peterson, Deone Bucannon, John Brown, David Johnson -- and savvy veteran leaders like Palmer, Larry Fitzgerald, Calais Campbell, and Dwight Freeney.
The Patriots rebounded with a nice blowout win over the Texans on Sunday Night Football, avoiding their first three-game skid in over a decade. They may still miss Julian Edelman and Nate Solder, but getting Rob Gronkowski back was huge for Tom Brady and New England looked a lot more like itself this week. More important, they're back in the pole position for the No. 1 seed in the AFC with losses by the Bengals and Broncos. The Patriots look pretty primed for another run at the Super Bowl.
The Seahawks are finally starting to look like they're ready for a Super Bowl encore as well. Seattle throttled the Ravens to improve to 8-5 on the year and is getting absolutely insane production out of Russell Wilson in the absence of Marshawn Lynch and Jimmy Graham. The defense is starting to look like the dominant force it has been the last few years and Seattle is playing its best ball this season at the right time. The Seahawks almost surely have to go the wild card route this year, but no one's going to want to play this team come January.
Disaster in Cincinnati. Following an intercepted pass by Andy Dalton on Sunday, the Bengals' franchise quarterback broke his thumb and the prognosis is murky. We know that he'll miss at least one game, but if Dalton misses extended time (or worse, is done of the year), it really hurts Cincinnati's chances of making a Super Bowl run. They're a deep, talented team with weapons at every position, but I'm not sure that's enough to make me put my faith in A.J. McCarron leading the Bengals to the promised land.
Meanwhile, the Broncos took a step back as well in losing to the Raiders. Denver couldn't get anything going on offense -- the run game was non-existent -- and a few untimely drops by Demaryius Thomas and Vernon Davis doomed their comeback attempt at home. This is still an elite defense but the offense continues to struggle, and without a little more balance, it may be tough for Denver to make noise once the playoffs roll around.
The Vikings lost their second in a row and fell out of first place in the NFC North, and while Teddy Bridgewater's play was encouraging, Minnesota is going in the wrong direction. There's still time to turn it around and make a push into the playoffs, but right now they've got to survive a spate of injuries and right the ship.
The Texans had a chance to show their playoff credentials at home against New England, but fell flat. J.J. Watt's hand injury was an issue on defense and Houston just couldn't get anything going on offense, in part due to an inability to protect Brian Hoyer from the Patriots' pass rush. Houston is still very much alive for the playoffs in the AFC South, but that's not saying a whole lot.
Moving on up:
The Steelers took advantage of Dalton's injury in Cincy on Sunday, grabbing a key win to keep pace with the Jets and Chiefs in the wild card race. Ben Roethlisberger couldn't find the end zone against the Bengals' tough secondary, but Pittsburgh's defense carried the day by picking off Dalton and McCarron a combined three times -- the key turnovers in the game. They'll have another big test this week as they host the Broncos.
Meantime, the Jets won their third game in a row by dispatching the Titans at home. Eric Decker and Brandon Marshall continue to be top-tier weapons for Ryan Fitzpatrick, and Chris Ivory carried the load with 22 carries for 101 yards on the ground. Apart from a bust on a trick pass play to Marcus Mariota for a touchdown, the defense held things down. New York still looks like a dark horse contender in the AFC.
A 305-pound lineman tried to cover Brandon Marshall in the Jets' easy win
The Raiders have a lot tougher path into the playoffs but gave the Broncos fits Sunday in an upset in Denver. Khalil Mack set a league-wide season-high with five sacks and Oakland forced three Denver fumbles -- recovering two of them. It wasn't Derek Carr's day against the Broncos' tough secondary -- he only completed 12 passes on a season-low 41 percent completion rate -- but he'll look to bounce back next week against the Packers.
Still in the hunt:
The NFC East is a mess, but it's also getting pretty interesting.
Washington bounced back from a tough loss to the Cowboys last week with a much-needed win on the road in Chicago. Kirk Cousins was efficient, completing 77 percent of his passes for 300 yards, a touchdown and a pick. Tight end Jordan Reed was targeted frequently, finishing with nine catches for 120 yards. It's not typically all that pretty for Washington, but the team plays with toughness and violence on both sides of the ball and that gives it a good shot at winning the NFC East.
They've got some competition in the Eagles, though, who won their second straight against an AFC East opponent. A week after knocking off the Patriots, they knocked off the Bills in Philly, spoiling LeSean McCoy's homecoming. Things are still a little up and down on defense for the Eagles, but the good news is that Sam Bradford looked more comfortable in the passing game this week against Buffalo's secondary. If he can parlay that into some confidence down the stretch, it may be enough to propel Philly to an NFC East title.
Meanwhile, the Giants finally held on to a fourth quarter lead in knocking off the Dolphins on the road on Monday Night Football, improving to 6-7 to keep pace with the division leaders.
Jockeying for that first pick:
Not a whole lot has changed at the bottom of the league outside of Cleveland, which finally showed some signs of life in blowing out the 49ers. That moves the Browns up a tick and definitely sends San Francisco down into the cellar, just ahead of the Chargers. Don't count out the Titans, though, who technically would own the top pick if the season were to end today.
|RANK||WEEK 15||SB NATION BLOG|
|1||Carolina Panthers, 13-0 (Last Week: 1)||Cat Scratch Reader|
|2||Arizona Cardinals, 11-2 (Last Week: 4)||Revenge of the Birds|
|3||New England Patriots, 11-2 (Last Week: 5)||Pats Pulpit|
|4||Denver Broncos, 10-3 (Last Week: 2)||Mile High Report|
|5||Seattle Seahawks, 8-5 (Last Week: 7)||Field Gulls|
|6||Kansas City Chiefs, 8-5 (Last Week: 6)||Arrowhead Pride|
|7||Pittsburgh Steelers, 8-5 (Last Week: 8)||Behind the Steel Curtain|
|8||Cincinnati Bengals, 10-3 (Last Week: 3)||Cincy Jungle|
|9||New York Jets, 8-5 (Last Week: 11)||Gang Green Nation|
|10||Green Bay Packers, 9-4 (Last Week: 10)||Acme Packing Company|
|11||Oakland Raiders, 6-7 (Last Week: 17)||Silver and Black Pride|
|12||Minnesota Vikings, 8-5 (Last Week: 11)||Daily Norseman|
|13||Philadelphia Eagles, 6-7 (Last Week: 21)||Bleeding Green Nation|
|14||Washington, 6-7 (Last Week: 19)||Hogs Haven|
|15||Buffalo Bills, 6-7 (Last Week: 12)||Buffalo Rumblings|
|16||Houston Texans, 6-7 (Last Week: 13)||Battle Red Blog|
|17||Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 6-7 (Last Week: 14)||Bucs Nation|
|18||New York Giants, 6-7 (Last Week: 22)||Big Blue View|
|19||Chicago Bears, 6-7 (Last Week: 16)||Windy City Gridiron|
|20||Detroit Lions, 5-8 (Last Week: 18)||Pride of Detroit|
|21||Indianapolis Colts, 6-7 (Last Week: 15)||Stampede Blue|
|22||St. Louis Rams, 5-8 (Last Week: 27)||Turf Show Times|
|23||Jacksonville Jaguars, 5-8 (Last Week: 31)||Big Cat Country|
|24||New Orleans Saints, 5-8 (Last Week: 25)||Canal Street Chronicles|
|25||Miami Dolphins, 5-8 (Last Week: 20)||The Phinsider|
|26||Atlanta Falcons, 6-7 (Last Week: 23)||The Falcoholic|
|27||Dallas Cowboys, 4-9 (Last Week: 24)||Blogging the Boys|
|28||Tennessee Titans, 3-10 (Last Week: 28)||Music City Miracles|
|29||Baltimore Ravens, 4-9 (Last Week: 29)||Baltimore Beatdown|
|30||Cleveland Browns, 3-10 (Last Week: 32)||Dawgs by Nature|
|31||San Francisco 49ers, 4-9 (Last Week: 26)||Niners Nation|
|32||San Diego Chargers, 3-10 (Last Week: 30)||Bolts from the Blue|