NFL Week 15 Power Rankings: Officially Time to Panic in Pittsburgh

↔️ 1. Chiefs: The Chiefs are absolutely rolling right now, and improved 22-1 in their past 23 games including the Super Bowl run. They just picked up a huge road win against a top team, New Orleans, and look poised to finish out the season with a 15-1 record. Their next two games are home contests against the Falcons and Chargers. However, they will lose running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire for the remainder of the regular season due to a high ankle sprain. The injury looked pretty bad in the game, but I guess they’re expecting him back for the playoffs. Kansas City will likely have a first round bye, so CEH will have an extra week to get healthy. Still, based on what I’ve seen with other players’ high-ankle sprains, a 3-week return timetable seems very optimistic on the Chiefs’ part. Normally guys miss 4-6 weeks minimum with these types of injuries. And apparently they’re saying CEH also has a groin injury too. I’m not sure he’ll be back on the field for at least a month.

↔️ 2. Packers: They were not particularly impressive in their 24-16 win over the Panthers at Lambeau, but then again the game wasn’t really as close as the score. The Pack went into the half up 21-3, but then took their foot off the gas and allowed Carolina to get back into the game. The Packers only managed to score a field goal in the second half, and while it was enough to get the win, you just would prefer to see them close out games better. Last week they had a 28-14 fourth quarter lead on Detroit but ended up winning 31-24. A few weeks prior, they had a 28-14 halftime lead on the Colts but ended up losing the game in OT after only managing a field goal after halftime. They’re like the anti-Buccaneers: they start hot and finish cold, while the Bucs start cold and finish hot. Yet, at the end of the day, the Packers still got the win (but not the cover!) and tightened their grip on the #1 seed in the NFC. They’re now a full game up on the Saints and Seahawks.

📈 3. Bills: As much as I want to move them up to #2 given how their 48-19 road win over Denver was more impressive than Green Bay’s 24-16 home win over Carolina, Buffalo’s win over the Steelers–which was the main reason for their initial vault into the top 3 in the power rankings–is diminished by how bad the Steelers looked against the Bengals. I still think the Bills are a great team, but it’s looking like their signature win of the year over the Steelers isn’t quite as impressive as it seemed at the time. Is this a cause for concern? No, not really. I still believe the Bills represent the biggest threat to Kansas City in the AFC, although I would expect the Bills to be underdogs against the Chiefs.

📈 4. Saints: Yes, the Saints are moving up a spot after a loss, but that’s only because the Rams are dropping hard this week and there’s no way I can put the Bucs over the Saints after what the Saints did to them in their two head-to-head matchups this year. Look, at first I was ready to bail on the Saints after their loss to the Chiefs on Sunday, but after some thought I’m still holding my Saints stock and here’s why: for one, Drew Brees was clearly not 100%. He only completed 44% of his passes in that game. That’s very uncharacteristic and it leads me to believe his injuries had a lot to do with his performance. Second, the Saints were without Michael Thomas, and he’s a player I’d consider a difference-maker. The Saints might be able to beat lesser teams like the Panthers and the Lions without Thomas, but they missed him in a major way against the Chiefs. Third, the Saints lost time of possession to Kansas City 41-19. That’s an insanely lopsided margin, maybe the most lopsided time of possession margin I’ve ever seen. Fourth, the Saints had a special teams blunder when their guy let a fumbled ball go out of the endzone for a safety instead of falling on it for a TD. That cost New Orleans 5 points in a game they lost by 3. And that’s my biggest point here: despite all they had going against them, the Saints still only lost by 3. I’m not giving up on the Saints even after a 2-game slide.

📈 5. Bucs: Tampa can’t keep getting away with these slow starts, although they were able to make the comeback from down 24-7 against the Falcons because the Falcons are the biggest chokers in the league. The Bucs need either a win over the Lions on the road or a Bears loss to the Jags to clinch a playoff berth. I’m assuming the Bucs will get the win in Detroit (Vegas has them -9.5), but you can never be sure with them.

📈 6. Browns: Baker Mayfield was out there throwing lasers and picking apart the Giants defense on Sunday night. I went over his emergence (resurgence?) in the instant reactions post yesterday, but Baker has been excellent ever since Odell went down for the season. He’s got the Browns sitting at 10-4 with a great chance to get to 11 wins as they play the Jets next week. Assuming they beat the Jets, this will be the first time the Browns have won 11 games since 1994, when Bill Belichick was their head coach. Yeah. The main thing with this Browns team is that now that Baker Mayfield’s arm appears to be live, they’re a real threat in the AFC. They were still pretty good when they were leaning heavily on the run, but now they’re a dangerous team that can beat you through the air or on the ground. Their defense still isn’t that great, but they do have Denzel Ward, their top corner, back on the field, which is big. They’ve got to beat the Jets and then have one of the Ravens, Colts or Dolphins lose in order to clinch a playoff berth this weekend and end their 18-year playoff drought. But even if it doesn’t happen next weekend, it should happen in week 17. According to 538, they’ve got a 93% chance to make the playoffs as it stands right now.

📈 7. Titans: After a 45-26 win over the Lions, the Titans now sit at 10-4. Given that they own a head-to-head win over the Bills from earlier in the season and the Steelers are in free-fall, the Titans actually have an outside shot at the #2 seed in the AFC, although they’d need the Bills to lose one of their next two games. The Titans, though, must take care of business on the road at Lambeau. They’re built to win these types of games–in the cold, on the road–and Green Bay’s run defense will really be put to the test against Derrick Henry. But I just don’t trust that Titans defense going up against Aaron Rodgers. I feel like he’ll be picking them apart all game long and have plenty of time to throw. The Packers are only -3 home favorites, so it seems like Vegas sees these two teams as about equal.

📈 8. Ravens: The Ravens are one of four teams that had 7 players selected to the Pro Bowl (the Chiefs, Seahawks and Packers are the others). What makes Baltimore unique is that they’re currently on the outside looking in of the playoff picture. They’re the #8 seed in the AFC right now. It’s crazy to think that Baltimore might miss the playoffs. They’ve got the second-highest point differential in the league at +116. The bad news is that the Ravens need help in order to make the playoffs, the good news is that the Ravens have a great shot at getting that help. The Ravens have played one of the toughest schedules in the league thus far, but starting with their week 15 game against Jacksonville, it really opens up now. They’re home against the Giants this week, and next week they’re at Bengals. Those are two very winnable games. Meanwhile, the Dolphins are at Raiders this week and finish the season at Bills. The Ravens need to win their final two games, which is very doable, and then just have the Dolphins lose one of those two games. It’s more likely the Dolphins lose at Bills in week 17, as the Raiders have fallen off a cliff lately. But if I’m the Ravens, I like my odds here. Despite being 6-5 at one point this season and left for dead, the Ravens now look like they’re going to finish 11-5 and squeak into the playoffs assuming the Dolphins can’t win out. And you know what? The Ravens deserve it. They’ve played one of the hardest schedules in the league this year while the Dolphins have played one of the easiest. It looks like the tide is turning in Baltimore’s favor here in the last three weeks of the season. One last thing: it was nice to see Dez Bryant get a TD in the win over Baltimore. That was his first TD since the 2017 season. Good for him. The guy has been through a lot since being cut by the Cowboys, including a torn Achilles.

📈 9. Colts: That’s their second win off a Texans goal-line fumble in three weeks. The Colts have really been getting the bounces to go their way lately. Indy is one of the 5 AFC teams competing for 4 playoff spots. They’re -1.5 road favorites going into this weekend’s matchup with the Steelers, which a few weeks back would’ve been unthinkable. The Steelers have already clinched and the Colts haven’t yet, but somehow it feels like the Steelers will be the more desperate team coming into this game. But I don’t even know if that’ll be enough to matter as the Steelers couldn’t even beat the Bengals last night. The Colts really need to capitalize this weekend. If Tennessee loses, Indy can take over first place in the division. If the Titans manage to win on the road in Green Bay, Indy still needs a win to keep pace in the division going into week 17, where they’ll play the Jaguars, and the Titans will go on the road to play the Texans.

📈 10. Seahawks: Somehow, the team with the worst pass defense in the league managed to get both its safeties selected to the Pro Bowl. Their cornerbacks must be really, really, really bad, I guess. Seattle is sitting at the #3 seed in the NFC right now. They’ve got the same 10-4 record as New Orleans but New Orleans holds the tiebreaker by virtue of a better conference record. This week’s matchup against the Rams is huge for the Seahawks, as a win will, I believe, clinch the NFC West for them. Vegas has Seattle as -1.5 home favorites, although it’s tough to say version of the Rams we’ll see this weekend. Will it be the Rams team that got beat by the Jets, or will the Rams have a strong bounce back?

📉 11. Rams: They say the NFL is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately? league and there’s no better example of this than the Rams. They were #3 in last week’s power rankings, now they’re #11. That’s what happens when you lose to the Jets as a 17-point favorite. There really is no excuse for that. Even if you get caught snoozing against the Jets, you should at least be regroup and salvage a win somehow. But the Rams couldn’t. I want to chalk this loss up as the Rams having a bad game, but this is the New York Jets we’re talking about. There’s really no excuse for the Rams losing to them. Now I’ve got to wonder if the Rams’ offense is their Achilles’ heel. I just don’t know about the Rams anymore. I thought they were elite, but now I can’t say that confidently.

📈 12. Dolphins: As I went over above while discussing the Ravens, it’s looking like the Dolphins will be the AFC team to end up on the outside looking in when all is said and done. They now have to go on the road to play the Raiders and then have the Bills in week 17. They’re going to need to win both of those games because Baltimore will probably win out. I just don’t know if I trust this young Dolphins team to do that. They’ve been a pleasant surprise this season, but I think they’ll fall just short of the playoffs. Nice home win over the Patriots this past weekend, though. Normally Belichick terrorizes rookie QBs, but the Dolphins were able to find a way to win that game anyway. Tua had a pretty bad day as expected–20/26 passing for 145 yards, no TDs, 1 INT and a 56.8 QBR–but the Dolphins were able to rush for 250 yards and secure the 22-12 win. That was a great coaching job by Brian Flores to out-maneuver the great Bill Belichick.

📈 13. Cardinals: Arizona held on for a close home win over the suddenly-resurgent Eagles. Jalen Hurts had a great day overall against the Arizona defense, but the Cards were able to sack him 6 times. Their defense has been underrated all season long in my opinion, but give Kyler Murray credit for having a big game, too: 27/36 for 406 yards passing, 3 TDs, 1 INT, sacked only once, plus 8 rushes for 29 yards and a TD. Somehow his QBR was only 45.2, which doesn’t make a lot of sense because that’s a really good statline. His passer rating was 127.8, and I don’t really understand why there’s such a huge disparity between his passer rating and QBR. Kyler did have a lost fumble in addition to the INT, so maybe it was the two turnovers that dragged his QBR down. Cardinals have the 49ers at home this week, then at Rams to close the season out. They’re a game ahead of the Bears for the final NFC playoff spot, so if you’re Arizona your mindset has to be winning out, as the Bears play the Jaguars this week and then the Packers in week 17, who could potentially be resting their starters (more on this below). Arizona is in control of their destiny here. Will Kliff Kingsbury and Kyler Murray be able to get it done? I like their chances.

📈 14. Washington: I know they just lost to Seattle, but I can’t put them below the Steelers, right? I mean, Washington just beat Pittsburgh two weeks ago. Washington is flawed on offense, for sure, but that defense is legit. They held Seattle to only 20 points, which is impressive. But their offense just can’t hold up its end of the bargain. I still think they’re the best team in the NFC East, they’re really coming together as of late, and nobody wants to play them in the playoffs, but at the end of the day, there’s a reason this team is 6-8.

📉 15. Steelers: Wow, really? Yeah, this is harsh. But the Steelers look horrible right now. They just lost to the Bengals. I know it’s a division rivalry, but it’s still the Bengals without Joe Burrow or Joe Mixon. I mean, come on. The Stillers are in total free-fall right now. I have no confidence in their ability to beat the Colts this week, even though it’s a home game. I also have no confidence in their ability to beat the Browns on the road in week 17. It’s officially time to hit the panic button on the Steelers, whatever that entails. Big Ben was 20/38 passing for just 170 yards with 1 TD and 1 INT. He also lost a fumble on a botched snap which wasn’t really his fault. Juju also had a lost fumble, and the Steelers had 3 total turnovers that led to 17 Bengals points. That was the ballgame. The Bengals wouldn’t have won that game without those turnovers. I mean, Ryan Finley only threw for 89 yards on 13 passing attempts. But here’s an area of concern: the Bengals ran for 152 yards and 2 TDs on Pittsburgh’s normally stout run defense. That’s a problem. Another problem: the Steelers offensive line couldn’t protect Ben, either. He was only sacked once in the game, but he was hit 9 times and seemed rattled for much of the game. At one point with about 4:00 to play in the first half ESPN showed a graphic that Ben was 5/13 passing for -2 yards. He went into the half 7/16 for 19 yards, and the Steelers were behind 17-0 having only picked up 2 first downs.

The main problem I have with the Steelers’ performance in that game was that they really needed to come out and dominate to turn their season around, yet they just couldn’t. I expected that game to be a slumpbuster for them–it turns out they were the slumpbuster for the Bengals. Cincy just punished them all game long; the Bengals looked more physical and it looked like they wanted it more even though they’ve long since been eliminated. The fact that the Steelers couldn’t get up for that game, in which they were 14.5 point favorites, to turn their season around makes me wonder if they are even capable of turning it around. Oh, on top of all that, you’ve also got Juju Smith-Schuster out here dancing on other teams’ logos before the game and getting them all pissed off. This is not helpful for a team in complete freefall. The Bengals made sure Juju knew exactly what they thought about him and his Tik Tok dances during the game, though:

16. Bears: I’m going to include them as my last team in the power rankings because the Bears are technically still in the hunt at 7-7. It looks like they’ve potentially turned their offense around with back-to-back 30+ point games. The Bears can still get into the playoffs if they win out and the 8-6 Cardinals lose out. If the two teams finish with identical records at the end of the season, they would then have to go to tiebreaker scenarios, which are outlined here. But while it’s still too early to tell if the Bears would win those tiebreakers, they should finish with a better conference record (assuming they finish the season with the same record as the Cardinals) and will definitely finish with the better record in common games. The Bears still probably need to win out as they’re already a game behind the Cardinals, but that’s going to be tough unless the Packers decide to rest their starters in week 17. That’s a big “if,” though. The Packers may not have the top seed in the NFC locked up going into week 17, and even still, I can see them playing their starters just to deprive their rivals a spot in the playoffs.

So that’s it for the rankings. Those are the only teams that are still alive in my view, although I guess technically the Raiders and Vikings are both still alive, too. But I’m willing to write both those teams off at this point.

Pittsburgh’s Nightmare Playoff Scenario:

Can you believe that just a few weeks ago we were talking about whether the Steelers might rest their starters in week 17? Now it’s looking like the Steelers will have to win that game in order to ensure they win the AFC North. It’s very possible the Steelers could end the season on a 5-game losing streak. They have already dropped from the #1 seed in the AFC down to the #3 seed, and they could fall even lower if they lose to the Colts this weekend.

Let’s assume the Steelers lose to Indy, the Titans lose to Green Bay, the Browns beat the Jets, the Chiefs beat the Falcons and the Bills beat the Patriots. A pretty realistic scenario, right?

That would mean the Chiefs remain the #1 seed, the Bills remain the #2 seed, and the Colts would then take over the #3 seed in the AFC along with the lead in the AFC South. Pittsburgh would fall to #4, with Cleveland at #5 and having the same 11-4 record as Pittsburgh going into their week 17 matchup. If the Browns win that game, then the Browns win the AFC North, move up to the #3 seed (because they hold the tiebreaker over the Colts), and the Steelers fall all the way down to the #5 seed and enter the playoffs as a wildcard team.

That’s not some improbable Rube Goldberg slippery-slope scenario. It’s favored by Vegas to happen:

  • Steelers are +1.5 at home against Indy
  • Titans are +3 on the road at Green Bay
  • Browns are -9.5 road favorites over the Jets
  • Chiefs are -10.5 at home against the Falcons
  • Bills are -7 road favorites over the Patriots

The real question, though, is does any of this seeding talk about the Steelers actually matter? Doesn’t it feel like they’re going to be one-and-done in the playoffs no matter what? Ben can’t throw it deep, they can’t run the ball, and their defense ain’t what it used to be.

At this point, after 3 straight losses, it feels like it doesn’t matter if they’re the #5 seed, the #1 seed or the #3 seed, they’re going to be one-and-done regardless.

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