NFL Power Rankings, Week 15: Rams, 49ers climb; Ravens slipping

Madness continues to tighten its grip on the NFL.

When the Cardinals fell at home to the Rams on Monday Night Football, it created a completely unique setup to the NFL standings as we reach the middle of December. With four weeks to go, we have a three-way tie for the best record in both the AFC and NFC. According to ESPN, this is the first time this has happened through Week 14 since conferences were formed in 1970.

This traffic jam extends to pretty much the entire NFL right now. Of the 32 teams in Our League, 26 are either in playoff position or one game out. This is an outrageous level of parity that makes an exercise like the Power Rankings feel hopeless and maybe even deranged.

I'm risking my sanity for you, the reader. Please remember this when you seek me out on social media. Let's dig in.

Watch the NFL Power Rankings show with Dan and Matt "Money" Smith every Tuesday at 3 p.m. ET on NFL Network.

NOTE: Up/down arrows reflect movement from the Week 14 NFL Power Rankings.

Previous rank: No. 1

Bad news for the NFC: You had your chance to play the Packers when their offense was mortal. The last three weeks have seen the return of the unstoppable Green Bay attack that defined most of last season for the defending (and future) NFC North champions. As Aaron Rodgers keeps talking about his toe injury getting worse and worse, his play gets better and better. The reigning MVP delivered a masterful performance on Sunday night against the Bears and has thrown 10 touchdown passes against zero interceptions with a completion percentage just shy of 70 percent since Week 11. When you combine this version of the offense with a top-10 defense, it adds up to the best, most complete team in the NFL.

Previous rank: No. 3

Tom Brady owns the Bills. Always has, always will ... but things got dicey on Sunday. The Bucs built a 24-3 halftime lead before a second-half collapse that necessitated a red-zone stand just to get to overtime. After the Tampa Bay defense finally managed to stop a rampaging Josh Allen in overtime, Brady handled the rest. The 700th touchdown pass of his career was a perfectly placed spiral to a wide-open Breshad Perriman, who motored untouched into the end zone for the 58-yard game-winner. Brady is now 107-1 in games in which his team leads by 21 or more at any point, and the Bucs remain just a step behind the Packers in the race for the No. 1 seed in the NFC. 

Arizona Cardinals

Previous rank: No. 2

The Cardinals' troubles at home surfaced again in a disappointing 30-23 loss to the Rams on Monday night. In a game where Los Angeles' best players stepped up to cover for the loss of Jalen Ramsey, several of Arizona's top stars weren't up for the challenge. Kyler Murray made physical and mental errors, DeAndre Hopkins had a crucial fourth-down drop and was largely neutralized in coverage, and no one on the Cardinals' defense stepped up to make a game-changing play as Matthew Stafford repeatedly took the Rams up and down the field. Just like that, Arizona drops from the No. 1 to the No. 3 seed in the NFC while the lead over L.A. shrinks to just one game in the division with four to play. Buckle up.

Previous rank: No. 5

It's been a season of false starts for the offense, but maybe this will be the impetus for a great rise. The Chiefs reeled off 35 unanswered points in the first half against the Raiders en route to a 48-9 win, a necessary laugher with a huge divisional showdown on tap against the Chargers on Thursday Night Football. The offense played its most efficient game of the season, winning the battle up front and avoiding its two biggest issues: turnovers and drops. The final score is perhaps a bit misleading for a team that managed a comparatively pedestrian total of 372 yards of offense, but the Chiefs dictated the flow of the game and didn't self-sabotage at any moment. Progress.

Previous rank: No. 4

Bill Belichick was roundly lionized for his decision to put Mac Jones on ice in Orchard Park and turn to his running game in extreme weather conditions, but the Pats took out the Bills before a Week 14 bye because the defense again delivered in the clutch. New England has the NFL's No. 1 scoring defense (allowing just 15.4 points per game) and the No. 3 total defense (310.0 yards per game allowed). The numbers are even better during the team's seven-game winning streak: Opponents have averaged just over 10 points per game, with the Pats forcing at least one turnover in every one of those contests. Come January, Belichick might be in possession of the only defense in football that counts as a true difference-maker. This could prove to be advantageous.

Los Angeles Rams

Previous rank: No. 8

So much for the talk that Sean McVay's team was "too soft" to hold its own with the NFL elite. It got a little scary at the end, but the Rams were the better group in a 30-23 win over the Cardinals, a game that could swing not just the NFC West but the balance of power in the conference as the playoffs inch closer. Los Angeles' performance was especially impressive given the stunning news shortly before kickoff that Jalen Ramsey would miss the game after landing on the reserve/COVID-19 list. The Rams persevered because their other stars showed up: Matthew Stafford, Aaron Donald, Cooper Kupp and Odell Beckham Jr. all made key contributions in the win. As a result, Los Angeles once again looks the part of a legit Super Bowl contender.

Dallas Cowboys

Previous rank: No. 6

The Cowboys' defense was a big-play machine in Sunday's win over the Washington Football Team. Defensive end Randy Gregory returned to the lineup and made two huge plays, an acrobatic interception that led to a Dallas touchdown and the strip-sack of Kyle Allen that sealed the win in the fourth quarter. Micah Parsons also continued to build on his outrageous rookie season with a sack-fumble that produced a touchdown. Dak Prescott and the Dallas attack remain locked in a curious funk, but the Cowboys all but sealed the NFC East by showing they are more than the star wattage on that side of the ball. No wonder Mike McCarthy felt so confident.

Previous rank: No. 9

The Colts enjoyed the advantage of a late bye and now have everything in front of them, with back-to-back matchups against the Patriots and Cardinals. Those two teams have a combined record of 19-7, and Indianapolis has a chance to stamp itself as a legit Super Bowl contender in the most crucial two-week stretch of its season. Much has been made about the Colts' poor record against quality opponents, but their last three losses -- to the Ravens, Titans and Bucs -- were all games in which Indy led or was tied in the fourth quarter. If the Colts learn how to close out games, there is no ceiling on their season.

Previous rank: No. 10

The Chargers welcomed a bad Giants team into their building on Sunday and took care of business -- a welcome development for a group that has struggled with consistency this season. Justin Herbert delivered another excellent performance, hooking up on a highlight-reel touchdown connection with Jalen Guyton for the second straight week while becoming the first QB in NFL history to reach 30 touchdown passes in each of his first two seasons. Now things get serious: The Chargers welcome the Chiefs to SoFi Stadium on Thursday night with a golden opportunity to make the AFC West very interesting. These Herbert-v.-Mahomes affairs should get prime-time billing every season.

Buffalo Bills

Previous rank: No. 7

The Bills are on a losing streak that's threatening their season, but Josh Allen reminded the world on Sunday this is not a squad bereft of hope. The quarterback put his team on his back in the second half against the Bucs, leading Buffalo to four scoring drives to wipe out a 24-3 halftime deficit and force overtime. The Bills faltered on both sides of the ball in OT, but the team's second-half surge against the defending champs showed the great potential that still lurks within. Allen became just the third player in NFL history to throw for 300 yards and rush for 100 yards in the same game. In a frustrating season, he remains an X-factor in the AFC. 

Previous rank: No. 14

George Kittle is a historically great tight end. To wit: Kittle piled up 13 catches for 151 yards and a touchdown in Sunday's wild overtime win over the Bengals, becoming the first tight end in NFL history to post 150-plus receiving yards and a touchdown in back-to-back games. Jimmy Garoppolo and Brandon Aiyuk connected on the dramatic touchdown pass that clinched the win and put San Francisco in playoff position with four games to play, but Kittle remains Kyle Shanahan's most vital asset. When Kittle's in the lineup, the Niners can beat anyone. Remove him from the mix, and they are ordinary.

Tennessee Titans

Previous rank: No. 13

The good news came in waves on Sunday: It started with a report that Derrick Henry (foot surgery) could return to the field as early as Week 18. Then there was Julio Jones, whose own return to the lineup surely produced a deep exhale of relief from beleaguered quarterback Ryan Tannehill. Finally, and most importantly, the Titans won a football game for the first time in nearly a month. The tape from a 20-0 shutout of the lowly Jaguars is unlikely to be shipped to Canton, but the victory was absolutely necessary as Mike Vrabel's team looks to navigate through its injury quagmire to lock up another AFC South title and make a push for the No. 1 seed.

Cincinnati Bengals

Previous rank: No. 11

The Bengals have graduated from league doormat to a fun team with potential. But the next step? The one where they become a consistent winner? That continues to elude Zac Taylor's group. Cincinnati roared back from a 14-point second-half deficit to force overtime, then grabbed a 3-point lead in the extra period, only to watch the defense falter in a painful 26-23 loss to the 49ers. After the game, Taylor was left to answer questions as to why he got conservative with his play-calling once Joe Burrow and the passing game stormed into field-goal range in OT. Ja'Marr Chase offered a telling answer when asked the same question: "Shoot," he said. "Good question, man. Good question."

Miami Dolphins

Previous rank: No. 15

Jaylen Waddle's tremendous rookie season has flown under the radar a bit. But let's give it some shine with the help of the NFL Research gang: The first-round pick needs 16 receptions over the last four games to break Anquan Boldin's all-time rookie catch record (101 in 2003). Bet you didn't know that! How about this: Waddle already has six games with eight catches or more this season, tied with Odell Beckham Jr. in 2014 for the most such games by a rookie since at least 1950. Boldin and Beckham is the superstar company you want to be in.

Cleveland Browns

Previous rank: No. 16

It got downright terrifying at the end, but the Browns' defense got the final stop it needed against the Ravens to avoid disaster and put Cleveland in good position to actually win the AFC North. That seems like a crazy thought, given all of Cleveland's struggles in this frustrating season, but things are setting up well in a division that doesn't have any true powerhouse. Still, problems persist: The Browns nearly blew a 21-point lead in large part because the offense remains stuck in mud with Baker Mayfield under center. Mayfield told reporters after the game his banged-up body was feeling better after the Week 13 bye, but Cleveland was still shut out in the second half and managed less than 300 yards of offense. If Baker doesn't play better, the Browns are cooked. 

Baltimore Ravens

Previous rank: No. 12

Tyler Huntley nearly led the Ravens to a miracle win over the Browns, but moral victories don't mean much in December. Baltimore's grip on the AFC North loosened with its second straight divisional loss, and Lamar Jackson's health looms over everything. John Harbaugh told reporters on Monday that Jackson avoided the dreaded high ankle sprain in the loss to Cleveland, and he sounded hopeful Jackson would play in Week 15. Jackson's presence is a necessity as the Ravens search to fix an offense that's been flailing for weeks, and it's fair to wonder if the quarterback will be able to attack defenses with his legs if his ankle is compromised. Baltimore will enter the crucible of the regular season in its most vulnerable state.

Minnesota Vikings

Previous rank: No. 19

Why can't the Vikings just be normal? It's a simple question with a complicated, perhaps unknowable, answer. The Vikings jumped out to a 29-0 third-quarter lead at home against the Steelers on Thursday Night Football, and somehow still ended up playing another game that came down to the final snap. Credit the Vikings' defense for getting that last stop, but it's become obvious that Mike Zimmer's team is affected by the knowledge that it always lets opponents back into games. It's become the Vikings' DNA, a self-fulfilling prophecy, and it's aging the entire state of Minnesota in dog years. Said Zimmer: "That team that played in the first half could probably beat anybody. That team that played in the second half could probably get beat by anybody."

Previous rank: No. 17

Taylor Heinicke has had his moments this season, but the Washington offense too often looks mediocre when the high-moxie QB doesn't have a run game to fall back on. With Antonio Gibson and the ground attack neutralized by the Cowboys' stout front, Heinicke failed to move the offense before departing in the fourth quarter with a knee injury. It didn't help that Terry McLaurin exited the game with a concussion, but it's become increasingly clear this offense needs a talent infusion to take the next step. Does that include an upgrade at quarterback? If his body allows it, Heinicke will get four more games to make his case.

Previous rank: No. 20

Gardner Minshew's excellent spot start against the Jets drew national attention, but the story of the Eagles' offensive renaissance continues to trace back to a stellar running attack. Philly has rushed for at least 180 yards in four straight games, the longest such streak by an Eagles team since 1950. It's also the longest streak the NFL has seen since the Lamar Jackson-led Ravens attack of 2018. Jackson's early-career arc is obviously something the Eagles are trying to emulate with Jalen Hurts, another fast and athletic quarterback whose passing abilities could use some refinement. The Eagles' smash-mouth attack should play well in a closing stretch entirely contained within the NFC East.

Seattle Seahawks

Previous rank: No. 22

Well, hello, Rashaad Penny. The former first-round pick became something of a forgotten man in Seattle as a series of injuries stunted his NFL trajectory, but all that will be forgotten if he keeps playing like he did on Sunday against the Texans. Penny sliced up the Houston defense for 137 yards and rushed for scores of 32 and 47 yards in a 33-13 win. He did this despite Alex Collins being back in the lineup, which should tell you Pete Carroll is feeling good about riding with Penny down the stretch, if the 25-year-old's body is up to the task. Look closely, and you can see the slightest glimmer of hope for the Seahawks in the NFC playoff race

Pittsburgh Steelers

Previous rank: No. 18

The Steelers are like a zombie that doesn't know it's dead yet. They take hits, they appear to no longer be amongst the living, and yet, they ... just ... keep ... coming. Ben Roethlisberger and a revitalized defense nearly dug Pittsburgh out of a 29-0 third-quarter hole against the Vikings, the potential game-tying score bouncing off the fingertips of Pat Freiermuth as time ran out. Mike Tomlin isn't a "moral victory" guy, but I'm sure there was a part of the coach that had admiration for an obviously flawed team that refused to quit. At 6-6-1, there remains a path to the postseason, but a rugged schedule makes it more likely Tomlin might be coaching the first sub-.500 team of his career.

Denver Broncos

Previous rank: No. 23

The Broncos took the field on offense for the first time on Sunday with just 10 men, a nod of respect and recognition for Demaryius Thomas, the longtime Broncos wide receiver who died suddenly last week at the age of 33. It was a classy move by the team, which then went out and put together one of its most complete efforts of the season in a 38-10 win over the Lions. Denver had something cooking in its backfield at Mile High: Javonte Williams and Melvin Gordon combined for nearly 200 total yards and four touchdowns in the win. It's the type of attack that Vic Fangio would love to replicate on a weekly basis. Not every opponent will be as gracious as the Lions, of course.

New Orleans Saints

Previous rank: No. 26

Few players are as important to their team as Alvin Kamara is to the Saints. The Pro Bowl running back returned from a four-game absence and whipped up on the Jets, rushing for 120 yards and a touchdown in a 30-9 win. Kamara counts as the only real firepower on an offense that lacks proven playmakers and is counting on Taysom Hill, a quarterback who wasn't a natural thrower of the football before he jacked up his finger. Hill didn't look great against the Jets, and it was a surprise to see how long it took for his rushing ability to be integrated into the attack on Sunday. The Saints need Hill in that dual-threat mode to survive.

Atlanta Falcons

Previous rank: No. 28

The Falcons are, almost impossibly, very much alive in the NFC playoff race. Atlanta forced three Carolina turnovers -- including a critical Mykal Walker pick-six of Cam Newton -- en route to a 29-21 win in Charlotte. The Falcons' 5-2 road record would ordinarily function as a golden ticket to the playoffs, but a 1-5 mark at Mercedes-Benz Stadium has held Arthur Smith's team down. Atlanta won on Sunday because it combined those takeaways with a strong running game -- the team went over 100 yards rushing for the third straight week, with Mike Davis finally looking like a functional complement to Cordarrelle Patterson

Las Vegas Raiders

Previous rank: No. 21

It took exactly one play from scrimmage -- a Josh Jacobs fumble returned for a Chiefs touchdown -- to know how Sunday was going to turn out. The Raiders showed up in only the most literal of ways at Arrowhead, falling behind 35-0 in the first half en route to a 48-9 loss that stands as the worst defeat in the history of their 62-year rivalry with Kansas City. Las Vegas has gone 1-5 since returning from the Week 8 bye, and yet another December collapse could lead to sweeping organizational changes. That reality should be enough to summon necessary urgency, but on Sunday, the Raiders looked very much like a team that just wants to go home. Where have we seen that before?

Chicago Bears

Previous rank: No. 27

The internet had its fun on Sunday night with Matt Nagy, whose comment to an NBC sideline reporter at halftime -- “I’m having so much fun” -- set the table for thousands of windmill Twitter dunks upon the beleaguered head coach as the Packers ran away with another win in the second half. It’s an in-game quote you only get from a guy who knows he’s a goner: He reached the position of head coach of the Chicago Bears, and, on this night, his team was going punch-for-punch with a mighty division rival. Nagy was trying to enjoy this moment in the big chair because he seems to know it won’t be his for too much longer. As former Colts coach Chuck Pagano once said: “They can fire you, but they can’t eat you.” Nagy has reached the stage of acceptance. 

New York Giants

Previous rank: No. 24

It’s hard to find something the Giants do well. The offense wasn’t very good with Daniel Jones at quarterback – it’s worse with career journeyman Mike Glennon at the controls. Then there’s the defense, the team strength of a year ago but very much an average unit in 2021. Justin Herbert and the Chargers rolled up 289 yards, 18 first downs and 24 points in the first half alone on Sunday at SoFi Stadium. How much of this mess should be put at the feet of Joe Judge? The second-year coach isn’t getting results, but he hasn’t exactly been set up for success, either.

Carolina Panthers

Previous rank: No. 25

Cam Newton lawn darts or P.J. Walker hospital balls? This is the choice facing Matt Rhule, whose self-made QB quandary has swallowed up this Carolina season. The Panthers all but excused themselves from the NFC playoff picture with Sunday's dispiriting home loss to the Falcons that featured three QB turnovers and extensive playing time for both of Rhule’s underwhelming options under center. On Monday, Rhule told reporters that it's a "possibility" Sam Darnold is back in the mix once he recovers from his shoulder injury. Decisions, decisions, decisions.

New York Jets

Previous rank: No. 29

More of the same. The Jets suffered their seventh double-digit defeat of the season Sunday, this time a 30-7 clunker against a middling Saints team that isn’t exactly summoning memories of the Drew Brees glory years. The Jets have so many issues, but a lack of talent stands out most. They don’t have any game-changers on defense, and the offense is punchless without Elijah Moore (leg), Corey Davis (core surgery) and Michael Carter (ankle). It creates a very difficult situation for Zach Wilson, who like Sam Darnold before him, becomes difficult to evaluate because of an absence of structure. Around and around the wheel goes for this organization, now 11 years deep into a playoff drought that shows no sign of letting up.

Detroit Lions

Previous rank: No. 30

The afterglow of the Lions’ first win of the season faded as the reality of another losing Sunday set in. Detroit surrendered 184 yards on the ground to the Broncos, while the offense struggled to create big plays with D’Andre Swift and T.J. Hockenson sidelined by injuries in a 38-10 loss. Jared Goff didn’t complete a pass over 20 yards the entire game. Lions coach Dan Campbell said Monday he is "hopeful" that Swift will return to action in Week 15 against the Cardinals. If not, the immortal Craig Reynolds will continue to see extensive work.

Houston Texans

Previous rank: No. 32

I’ve had a working theory that the Texans' plan is to memory hole the entire 2021 season once this whole sordid affair wraps up on Jan. 9. That hypothetical plan hit a minor snag on Sunday, when Ka'imi Fairbairn split the uprights with a 61-yard field goal on the final play of the first half against the Seahawks -- the longest field goal in the 20-year history of the Texans. Houston brass can completely reboot the machine if they wish this offseason, but the next Texans media guide will be unable to ignore the ineradicable greatness Fairbairn gave the world on Dec. 12, 2021.

Previous rank: No. 31

I don’t know if there’s a case quite like Urban Meyer’s in NFL history. A college coach with a legendary résumé makes the jump to the pros on a massive contract and immediately floods the entire organization with a tsunami of toxicity. Sure, we’ve seen esteemed college coaches flop in the league plenty of times before, but Meyer’s case is shaping up as the masterpiece of this particular genre -- the Mona Lisa of malfeasance. With Trevor Lawrence struggling and serious unrest behind the scenes, Jaguars owner Shad Khan is facing a painful decision that would've seemed inconceivable to him less than 12 months ago.

Follow Dan Hanzus on Twitter.

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