We already knew the 2021 NFL season was an unpredictable beast. But now a different kind of beast -- the COVID-19 virus and its dreaded Omicron variant -- has plunged the league into a deeper level of unknowingness.
If you're like me, you wake up every morning and check the latest sports news with a sense of dread: Who will be the next big name taken out of action? The NFL, like the rest of us, is just trying to get by right now.
Let's focus on the good news: Football is still being played. And given the bizarre state of this NFL season in which only one team has clinched a playoff spot through 15 weeks, intrigue abounds.
Happy holidays, everybody.
Watch the NFL Power Rankings show with Dan and Matt "Money" Smith on Wednesday at 3 p.m. ET on NFL Network.
NOTE: Up/down arrows reflect movement from the Week 15 NFL Power Rankings.
Previous rank: No. 1
Green Bay's defense has been at a consistent top-10 level for the majority of the season, so we'll give it a mulligan for a fourth-quarter letdown Sunday that nearly allowed Tyler Huntley and the Ravens to escape with a dramatic comeback win. The Packers got the stop they needed on Huntley's two-point conversion attempt, and as a result, they are NFC North champions for the third straight year. Aaron Rodgers, meanwhile, is now in the driver's seat for his fourth MVP award (and second in as many years). Rodgers posted three more TD passes and has been the league's best quarterback for the past month. Crunch-time performance counts in this race ... or at least it should.
Previous rank: No. 4
Travis Kelce* has rarely performed like a dominant force this season, so consider the veteran's sudden re-emergence as a game-wrecker an early Christmas present for the Chiefs and their fans. Kelce lit up the Chargers for a career-high 191 yards and two touchdowns on 10 catches, including the game-winning 34-yard gallop to the end zone in overtime on Thursday night. The dramatic victory moved Kansas City one step closer to its sixth consecutive AFC West title and offered more evidence the mostly dormant offense woke up just in time. Said Patrick Mahomes of his trusty tight end: "You think he's old. He can't run by people. But he's still running by people. And he got in the end zone."
* -- Kelce was placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list on Monday.
Previous rank: No. 2
Sometimes the Football Gods throw us a curveball just to keep us off the scent. The defending champion Bucs limped to a 9-0 loss to the Saints on Sunday Night Football, putting the team's hopes for a playoff bye in serious doubt. Mike Evans (hamstring), Chris Godwin (knee) and Leonard Fournette (hamstring) all exited with injuries, leaving Tom Brady in a vulnerable and frustrating situation. Brady struggled without his key playmakers, committing two turnovers in his first shutout loss in over 15 years. Bad news got worse on Monday when further tests revealed a torn ACL for Godwin. The impending return of Antonio Brown has become a necessity for an offense suddenly searching for answers.
Previous rank: No. 6
Survive and advance. The Rams worked their way through the COVID-19 week from hell, then found a way in a 20-10 win over the Seahawks on Tuesday at SoFi Stadium. The offensive star, once again, was Cooper Kupp, who caught nine passes for 136 yards and two touchdowns, setting a Rams single-season record with 122 receptions on the season. The Offensive Player of the Year Award should come down to Kupp and Jonathan Taylor -- no other candidates should bother to apply. Credit also must go to the defense, which held Russell Wilson to 156 yards in a must-win game for Seattle. The Rams now find themselves tied with the Cardinals atop the NFC West with three games to play. This should be fun.
Previous rank: No. 3
The Cardinals have now lost four of seven after their 7-0 start. Sunday brought the season's most disappointing moment: a 30-12 defeat to the Lions in which the Cardinals were never particularly competitive. Did Arizona look past an inferior opponent? Has the offense become limited with DeAndre Hopkins out of the picture? Did the Cardinals -- gulp -- peak at the wrong time? All fair questions for a team that went from NFC leader to slumping superpower in danger of losing its grip on the NFC West. A home showdown with the surging Colts should tell us a lot about Kliff Kingsbury's team.
Previous rank: No. 8
Once again, it was Jonathan Taylor to the rescue. The MVP candidate busted through a box packed with defenders on the 67-yard touchdown that put the kibosh on a New England rally and clinched a massive 27-17 win on Saturday night. Frank Reich remained committed to the run down the stretch, showing a noticeable lack of faith in Carson Wentz after the quarterback threw an ugly interception earlier in the fourth quarter. Wentz's ability to come through when it matters most remains uncertain at best, but in Taylor, the Colts have a special talent who can put the team on his back. The Colts have proven their bona fides as legit AFC contenders.
Previous rank: No. 5
The seven-game winning streak is a memory after multiple uncharacteristic mistakes and breakdowns in fundamentals led to a 27-17 loss to the Colts on Saturday night. The defense failed to capitalize on turnover opportunities, the punt unit gave up a block and a touchdown and Mac Jones threw two interceptions, including one in the red zone. It was ugly, but there's something to say about the fourth-quarter reboot that produced 17 points and put a serious scare into the home team. Jones made several money throws in the final 15 minutes, and the defense took over the game ... until Jonathan Taylor bailed out Indy with a breakaway TD to clinch it. The AFC East lead will be up for grabs on Sunday against the Bills.
Previous rank: No. 7
The Cowboys have become the NFC version of what the Chiefs were in the AFC for much of this season: a team filled with high-profile stars on offense getting regularly carried by its defense. Dak Prescott and the Dallas attack continued to look pedestrian in a 21-6 win over the Giants, leaving it to the defense to do the heavy lifting. Dan Quinn's guys happily accepted the challenge, forcing four turnovers for the third consecutive week. The stats tell the story of an opportunistic unit: The Cowboys lead the league with 23 interceptions and are tied for first in takeaways with 31. The D will take Big D to an NFC East title, but there's no road back to the Lombardi unless the offense finds its groove.
Previous rank: No. 10
The Bills took care of business on Sunday in Orchard Park, beating up on a depleted Panthers team in a 31-14 win that snapped a two-game losing streak. Josh Allen showed no ill effects from the sprained foot suffered in Week 14's loss to the Bucs, and Gabriel Davis continued his upward climb with two touchdowns and 85 yards receiving. The victory, combined with a Patriots loss in Indy, puts destiny in Buffalo's hands. Beat the Pats on Sunday in Foxborough and take care of business against the Falcons and Jets, and this frustrating regular season will end with the desired result: a division title and home playoff contest next month. Will these Bills rise to the occasion?
Previous rank: No. 9
Is there such a thing as believing in your guys … too much? Over and over, the Chargers passed on easy points on Thursday night in favor of bold risks that didn’t pay off. Two trips inside the Kansas City 5-yard line ended with fourth-down incompletions; another trip imploded with a goal-line fumble. More conservative decision-making by Brandon Staley likely would have avoided the fate of Thursday night’s painful overtime loss to the Chiefs -- but Staley has a vision. "That’s the way we're going to play around here,” the coach said after the game. “... With a quarterback like ours, with an offense like ours, that’s how we’re going to play."
Previous rank: No. 11
The Niners took care of business against the Falcons on Sunday and will enter a Thursday night showdown with the slumping Titans having won five of six games. There are encouraging signs all across the roster, but don’t sleep on the second-half surge of Jimmy Garoppolo. The veteran quarterback -- a figure of suspicion in recent years -- has posted the fourth-best QBR in the NFL since Week 8. He’s cut down on mistakes, found a rhythm with George Kittle and Brandon Aiyuk and has stayed healthy -- all key factors in San Francisco finding its footing. Trey Lance remains the future, but Garoppolo is taking advantage of his moment in time, however fleeting it may be.
Previous rank: No. 13
Predicting where this winding Bengals season goes is a fool’s errand, but it’s at least possible Joe Burrow’s 56-yard touchdown strike to Tyler Boyd on Sunday is remembered as a turning point. Cincinnati’s offense was in a deep slumber before that third-quarter strike, and it allowed the Bengals to escape with a 15-10 win over the Broncos that kept their playoff hopes from slipping into dream territory. Of course, one big play doesn’t cover up for the sins of an attack that was mostly limp against Denver’s quality defense. A Week 16 matchup against the Ravens should tell us a lot about both teams. It’s clarity that we seek in the AFC North.
Previous rank: No. 14
On Sunday, the Dolphins became just the second team in NFL history to get to 7-7 after starting a season 1-7. So why are we still struggling to take this team seriously in the muddled AFC? Much of that goes back to a ridiculously favorable schedule: Miami's last five opponents (covering six games) have a combined record of 26-58. A prime-time win over the Ravens stands out, but the streak also includes victories over the Texans, Panthers, Giants and Jets (twice!). We'll learn a lot more about the Dolphins over their final three weeks as the schedule tightens up considerably. Sunday's matchup against the Saints will function as close to a playoff game for both teams.
Previous rank: No. 12
The idea here is that the cavalry will eventually arrive for the Titans in the form of a healthy A.J. Brown and Derrick Henry. (We’ve given up on the idea of Julio Jones as a difference-maker and you should, too.) But will Brown -- and eventually Henry -- really serve as the magic elixir that fixes Tennessee? On Sunday in Pittsburgh, the Titans' offense managed just one touchdown and turned the ball over three times in the span of 10 calamitous plays in a 19-13 loss. Tennessee has actually run the ball well during Henry’s absence, but pass-protection failures and Ryan Tannehill’s inability to make plays downfield are glaring issues. Does that make Brown the skeleton key? Does a key to unlock this attack actually exist?
Previous rank: No. 17
Kirk Cousins should have feasted on Monday night. The quarterback was facing a Bears team that was missing many of its defensive starters due to injuries and COVID-19 protocols, including its entire defensive backfield. But Cousins struggled mightily to move the ball against Chicago, finishing with two touchdown passes and a career-low 87 yards in the lackluster 17-9 win. That’s consecutive subpar performances by Cousins, who simply needs to play better to get the Vikings to the playoffs and alter the perception that he’s a stat compiler more than an actual winner under center. Yep, that’s right ... this Sunday against the Rams: It’s (yet another) Kirk Cousins Legacy Game!
Previous rank: No. 16
The analytics culture war that has consumed the Football Cognoscenti reached an apex on Sunday afternoon, when John Harbaugh lost his second game in three weeks on a final minute two-point conversion attempt that went sideways. Harbaugh was championed in some corners of the internet for his boldness, while others derided the coach for his stubborn refusal to take a more conservative, traditional path. No matter where you come down, it doesn’t change the fact that the Ravens have gone from the No. 1 seed in the AFC to out of playoff positioning entirely in the span of a month. Lamar Jackson needs to get back on the field and deliver a statement of intent on Sunday against the Bengals.
Previous rank: No. 15
The insidious nature of the COVID-19 virus put the Browns in a nearly impossible situation in Week 15. Cleveland was without multiple starters and key personnel against the Raiders, including its top two quarterbacks and head coach Kevin Stefanski. But the backup Brownies stepped up. Nick Mullens performed well as the emergency QB, and the defense thrived ... until Derek Carr drove the Raiders to the winning field goal on the final play of the game. At 7-7 with a difficult schedule ahead, the Browns now face an uphill climb to a postseason return. "This one hurts," Mullens said. "I really believed in the fourth quarter that this night was destined for Cleveland. Sometimes, it doesn't work out like that."
Previous rank: No. 21
"I think we still have a pulse in this thing.” Ben Roethlisberger’s postgame comments seemed to bolster our theory that the Steelers are a zombie that doesn’t know it’s dead yet. Mike Tomlin’s team continues to lumber mindlessly through the NFL landscape. These Steelers crash through barricaded doors, feast on the occasional arm, tumble down the unexpected hillside -- only to get back up in their eternal quest for ... not brains, but an unlikely playoff bid. Pittsburgh beat Tennessee thanks to a defense that forced three turnovers in the span of 10 plays and a kicker who converted four of his five field-goal attempts in a 19-13 win. There’s nothing pretty about the undead, but they demand to be taken seriously.
Previous rank: No. 19
Jalen Hurts returned to the lineup and took care of business on Tuesday night, running for two scores and throwing for another in a 27-17 win that keeps the Eagles relevant in the NFC playoff picture. Philadelphia was able to take advantage of a Washington team missing five starters -- including quarterback Taylor Heinicke -- due to COVID-19. Philly’s run game is no joke: The Eagles are the first team with 175-plus yards on the ground in seven straight games since the 1985 Chicago Bears. Philly doesn’t have that legendary team’s defense -- but it plays a style of ball that translates well to December and January. The schedule stays extremely soft this week with a home matchup against the broken Giants.
Previous rank: No. 23
An upset win over Buccaneers -- even a bruised and battered Bucs team -- is worthy of significant praise, but can the Saints be taken seriously in the NFC given the limitations of their offense? Taysom Hill was a non-factor as both passer and runner of the football against Tampa Bay, and his high-stakes audition has been spotty, at best. New Orleans managed just 11 first downs on Sunday night on a paltry 3.5 yards per play. The three field goals produced by that output stood up because Cam Jordan and the New Orleans defense rattled Tom Brady before and after Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and Leonard Fournette all exited with injuries. Still, the Saints need to find more balance to play beyond the regular season.
Previous rank: No. 25
Style points aren't a thing. The Raiders needed to beat the COVID-19-compromised Browns to keep their playoff hopes alive -- and they achieved their goal with a 16-14 win in front of the Dawg Pound. Derek Carr led the Raiders down the field in the final seconds, and Daniel Carlson was once again money, drilling the 48-yard game-winning field goal as time expired. Carr’s latest crunch-time heroics came after the veteran QB appeared to lose the game by throwing an interception on Vegas’ penultimate possession. "After that interception, I told the guys, ‘Please, I promise we’ll win it -- just get the ball back.' ” The defense delivered the stop, and Carr kept his word. Another must-win game, this time against the Broncos, is up next.
Previous rank: No. 18
The Football Team showed plenty of fight hanging tough against the Eagles on Tuesday night, but this is not a roster that can withstand many injuries -- or a full-blown COVID-19 outbreak. Washington jumped out to a 10-0 lead, but was outgained in yardage 519-237 and never found its footing with its top two quarterbacks taken out of action due to COVID-19 protocols. Washington needs to win out to have a chance at a playoff return, a nearly impossible ask for a team this compromised. “We’re in a unique situation," wide receiver Terry McLaurin said. "... We had the mindset going into the week that we’ll play with whoever we have. This is the NFL, you have to be ready at all moments.”
Previous rank: No. 22
The Broncos have told us who they are at this point: This is a team with a quality defense led by a coach in Vic Fangio who knows how to scramble up an opponent’s playbook. Unfortunately for the Broncos, teams are too often successful in scrambling Denver’s own attack, thus neutralizing the team’s principle strength. Teddy Bridgewater exited Sunday’s damaging loss to the Bengals with a scary head injury that required a precautionary overnight hospital stay and puts his Week 16 availability in doubt. Meanwhile, the idea of Drew Lock stepping in to wake this dormant offense from its long winter’s nap feels like the plot of a particularly fanciful Lifetime Christmas movie.
Previous rank: No. 20
The Seahawks have felt out of sync all year. We saw it again in a 20-10 loss to the Rams on Tuesday that all but ended their season. The turning point came with eight minutes to play in the fourth quarter: D.K. Metcalf got behind Jalen Ramsey and was open for a potential game-tying touchdown strike. All Metcalf needed was an accurate rainbow deep ball from Wilson, the type of pass the quarterback has perfected over the past decade. But Wilson’s pass hung up in the Los Angeles air, allowing Ramsey to get back in the play and force an incompletion. Wilson has been a special quarterback in his career, but his misfire in a critical juncture of the season was emblematic of the offense’s year as a whole.
Previous rank: No. 24
The Falcons have hung around in the NFC playoff picture thanks to an unusual level of parity across the league this season combined with a series of narrow wins against mostly mediocre competition. But Atlanta has been exposed whenever it faces a team that profiles as an actual Super Bowl contender. The 49ers are just such a team, and they delivered a 31-13 thumping of Atlanta in an expected outcome. The Falcons can keep themselves in the postseason conversation with a win over the Lions on Sunday -- but it’s not crazy to say Detroit might be the superior team despite a worse record. The Falcons need serious work this offseason.
Previous rank: No. 26
The Bears deserve credit for fighting hard in Monday night’s 17-9 loss to the Vikings. Chicago was missing a host of starters because of injuries and COVID-19 designations, but it battled to the end thanks to a stout defense that made life extremely difficult for Kirk Cousins (a career-worst 87 passing yards). If only Matt Nagy -- manic throughout the affair -- could unlock his own offense. Justin Fields and the Chicago attack couldn’t find the end zone until a meaningless score as time expired, while five personal fouls (one committed by Nagy himself) furthered the narrative that this is a lost team wandering through the woods. Well, they are Bears.
Previous rank: No. 30
Dan Campbell has had his Lions fighting hard all season. On Sunday, they combined that consistent effort with great execution, resulting in a stunning blowout of the Cardinals. Jared Goff* continued his mastery against Kliff Kingsbury teams with three touchdown passes, while Detroit has found something in rookie receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown, who had eight catches for 90 yards with a score and now holds the single-season team record for catches by a rookie with 65. Detroit would be better off without a hot finish to its season from a draft-position perspective, but that goes against everything Campbell preaches inside the building. These Lions have heart -- and they’re a dangerous opponent for any overconfident contender.
* -- Goff was placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list on Monday.
Previous rank: No. 28
This has turned into a Murphy’s Law season for the Panthers: Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. On Sunday in Buffalo, it was kicker Zane Gonzalez limping off the field after suffering a leg injury during pregame warmups. Carolina didn’t need any extra challenges against a quality Buffalo opponent, and the resulting 31-14 loss could hardly be considered a surprise. Panthers fans who were thrilled to take their No. 1 jerseys out of storage should savor these last three games: Cam Newton’s time with the Panthers is certain to conclude after Week 18. What other changes are in store in Charlotte?
Previous rank: No. 31
When is a win actually a loss? Ask members of the Texans front office, who would probably admit over drinks at the holiday party that Sunday’s 30-16 victory over the Jaguars counted as a substantial setback for the organization. Houston swept the season series from Jacksonville, an act of bad-team-on-bad-team crime that pretty much ensures the Texans won’t have the No. 1 overall pick come April. Meanwhile, they’re going to produce a 30 for 30 doc one day about Brandin Cooks’ 1,000-yard season for the 2021 Houston Texans. What if I told you …
Previous rank: No. 27
Daniel Jones’ third NFL season is officially over after the Giants moved their quarterback to injured reserve with a neck injury. In some ways, Jones’ latest season was a lot like the two before it: He flashed legit ability as a passer and runner, but the New York offense never consistently performed as the Giants remained an NFC also-ran. The job of Big Blue management is to discern how much of the team’s struggles connect to Jones, and how much goes back to failures in coaching and talent acquisition around the former top-10 pick. Jones’ future ultimately depends on who is running the show at the Meadowlands in a couple of months. Stay tuned.
Previous rank: No. 29
The Jets are deficient in so many areas that it seems reductive to put their ineptitude at the feet of a 22-year-old rookie quarterback. Still, Zach Wilson’s ongoing struggles cannot be ignored. New York managed three first downs in the second half of Sunday’s 31-24 loss to the Dolphins and the big-picture numbers paint a grim picture: When Wilson missed four weeks with a knee injury, the offense, led by a coterie of backup QBs, averaged 24.5 points and 435.8 yards per game. In the four weeks since the No. 2 pick’s return to the lineup, the Jets have averaged 16.3 points and 257.8 yards per game. Wilson has yet to put together a full four quarters of quality play this season -- and he’s running out of time to do so.
Previous rank: No. 32
See? It wasn’t Urban Meyer’s fault, after all. We kid … but Sunday’s 30-16 loss to the Texans served as a reminder that Meyer’s general incompetence combined with Jacksonville’s young and talent-deficient roster made for one of the gnarliest failure stews in recent memory. The only real goals left this season: 1) Escape the final three weeks without any serious injury to Trevor Lawrence; and 2) lock down the No. 1 overall pick for the second consecutive year. Facing the similarly downtrodden Jets puts an uncertain competitive glow upon Week 16.