With what seems like a majority of the league’s teams reeling from late-season injury attrition and COVID-related chaos, the NFL’s Week 15 slate was a predictably ugly adventure from start to finish. The Packers move back into the no. 1 spot in this week’s power rankings thanks to a nail-biting win over the Ravens, leap-frogging an increasingly banged-up Buccaneers squad that got shut out by the Saints on Sunday Night Football. The Chiefs continued their slow march back toward elite status with a big win over the division-rival Chargers, while the Rams, Cowboys, and Colts all secured important wins. And despite suffering tough losses this week, the Patriots and Cardinals round out what I see as the NFL’s elite group of eight. With 15 weeks in the books, here are my updated power rankings.
The Top Shelf
1. Green Bay Packers (11-3)
2. Kansas City Chiefs (10-4)
3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (10-4)
4. Los Angeles Rams (10-4)
5. Dallas Cowboys (10-4)
6. Indianapolis Colts (8-6)
7. New England Patriots (9-5)
8. Arizona Cardinals (10-4)
Aaron Rodgers has reached football nirvana.
Rodgers sure doesn’t look like a quarterback who’s playing on one foot. Despite missing practice all week due to a painful toe injury, the 38-year-old signal-caller rose to the occasion on Sunday, strengthening his MVP case in the Packers’ 31-30 win over the Ravens. Rodgers completed 23 of 31 attempts for 268 yards and three touchdowns, adding another sterling stat line to what’s been a wildly efficient season. In fact, in 12 starts since his uncharacteristically sloppy Week 1 performance, Rodgers has been damn-near perfect, completing 69 percent of his passes with 30 touchdowns and just two picks while hitting league-best marks in adjusted yards per attempt (9.4) and passer rating (115.4). Excluding that Week 1 mulligan, Rodgers is absolutely lapping the field in advanced metrics like completion percentage over expectation and EPA per play, too.
LMAO Look at Aaron Rodgers vs. the NFL field since Week 1.— Peter Bukowski (@Peter_Bukowski) December 20, 2021
It's not even close. pic.twitter.com/QITRkAO9i6
Everything he does looks easy. The veteran passer is simply in the zone right now. That’s clear when he threads the needle on tough passes downfield, like this absurd toss to Marquez Valdes-Scantling on Sunday:
And it’s clear when he does all the simple stuff, like working the hard count or executing the perfect play-action fake, such as this one from the win over Baltimore:
Rodgers isn’t doing it all alone, though: The team’s playmaking defense has stepped up; Green Bay’s dynamic running back duo in Aaron Jones and A.J. Dillon provides a classic thunder-and-lightning element; and Rodgers’s unbreakable mind-meld connection with Davante Adams (who caught six passes for 44 yards and a touchdown in the win) is a trump card the team can lean on against even the toughest defenses. The team’s role-playing receivers have even started to step up of late, too, a factor that could make an already good offense that much deadlier down the stretch. When Baltimore looked to bracket and take away Adams on Sunday, Green Bay needed someone, anyone, to make some plays. Valdes-Scantling answered the call, catching five passes for a team-high 98 yards and a score. MVS’s ability to stretch the field and create explosive plays gives the Packers a vertical element that makes everything else they do underneath that much easier―and it could be the team’s X factor late in the year and in the postseason. With Rodgers operating on another plane, the Packers look unstoppable heading into the final weeks of the season.
The Cowboys defense is on a roll.
Dak Prescott and the Dallas offense are still in a midseason slump. In what could’ve been a get-right game against a bad Giants team on Sunday, the Cowboys once again struggled to move the ball―at least relative to the standards they’ve set in the recent past. Prescott relied mostly on underneath options and took a dink-and-dunk approach in the 21-6 victory, totaling just 217 yards on 37 pass attempts (an average of 5.9 yards per attempt). The team’s pass catchers could’ve helped him out a little more in this one, of course, and CeeDee Lamb was credited with two drops, but Prescott struggled to get the vertical game going, completing just 2 of 8 attempts greater than 10 yards for 34 yards total, per NFL Next Gen Stats. That’s been an issue since Prescott returned to action after suffering a calf strain earlier in the year, and it’s something this group will need to iron out quickly if it has any hope of a deep playoff run.
In the meantime, though, Dallas’s defense looks more than capable of picking up the slack. Dan Quinn’s unit created four takeaways for the third straight week in the win, hounding a hapless Giants team quarterbacked by a combination of Mike Glennon and Jake Fromm. With three more picks and a forced fumble in the game, Dallas is now tied for the league lead in takeaways (31). That number reflects the Cowboys’ ability to work in concert from front to back: They pressure the opposing QB with a devastating pass rush while simultaneously anticipating and jumping passes on the back end. The return of Demarcus Lawrence (from an early-season foot injury) has provided a massive boost to the pass-rush group, and Lawrence collected two quarterback hits, a pass deflection, and a forced fumble in the win. And second-year corner Trevon Diggs has been the league’s premier ball hawk, grabbing another interception (his NFL-best 10th) midway through the fourth quarter, a play that put the bow on a dominant group effort. With Lawrence, Diggs, and rookie sensation Micah Parsons (who also had a few big-impact pressures) creating a playmaking triumvirate, the Cowboys defense is built to make life hell for opposing passers.
9. San Francisco 49ers (8-6)
10. Buffalo Bills (8-6)
11. Los Angeles Chargers (8-6)
12. Cincinnati Bengals (8-6)
13. Miami Dolphins (7-7)
14. Tennessee Titans (9-5)
15. Baltimore Ravens (8-6)
16. Pittsburgh Steelers (7-6-1)
The Bills have been a volatile bunch.
Watching Buffalo this season has been a wild ride. On their best day, the Bills look capable of beating any other team in the NFL, boasting a stout defense and big-play offense under Josh Allen. On their worst day, they’re, uh, pretty terrible. Buffalo has dominated some bad teams, destroyed the likes of the Chiefs, Dolphins, and Saints, and gone punch for punch in losses to the Buccaneers, Patriots, and Titans. It also lost to the Jaguars.
The Bills' point differential by game looks like a bangin' roller coaster. pic.twitter.com/bXkre1GdwI— Daniel Kelley (@danieltkelley) December 20, 2021
The Bills offense is a macrocosm of their quarterback. That group possesses an elite, awe-inspiring ceiling, but a surprisingly low floor. Buffalo came into this week ranked dead last in Football Outsiders’ offensive DVOA variance (the volatility in game-to-game performance), and if this team wants to make a long, sustained run into the postseason, it needs to make consistency, both from a week-to-week and play-to-play basis, a big focus. One way to accomplish that would be to cultivate counterpunches the team can deploy on days when Allen isn’t at his absolute best. The Bills need at least some semblance of a ground game, and they need a big-play pass catcher not named Stefon Diggs for defenses to worry about. That’s where the recent emergence of a pair of relatively unheralded role players this week could make an immediate impact.
In the team’s 31-14 win over the Panthers on Sunday, second-year receiver Gabriel Davis and running back Devin Singletary both played crucial roles. Davis stepped up in the absence of Emmanuel Sanders, who’s still on the mend from a knee injury, catching a team-high five passes for 85 yards and two touchdowns. Both of Davis’s scores came in high-leverage situations for the Bills. The first was a 20-yard touchdown on a third-and-12 situation midway through the third quarter, which gave the Bills some much-needed breathing room and pushed the score to 24-8. The second was the play that put the game away: On a fourth-and-2 from the Carolina 14-yard line with just over two minutes to go, Allen found Davis in the end zone to give Buffalo an insurmountable lead.
Singletary’s contributions can’t be overlooked, either. The Bills ditched their less-than-successful strategy of playing musical chairs with Zack Moss, Matt Breida, and Singletary by making the latter the featured guy this week, giving him all but five of the team’s backfield snaps. That seemed to help Singletary find a rhythm, and the elusive playmaker responded with an 86-yard performance that marked a season high for Bills running backs. (Josh Allen still holds the high of 109 yards.) For a team that typically seems to view the run game as a last-ditch option, Singletary’s success on the ground took some pressure off of Allen and gave the team some offensive multiplicity. It gave Buffalo another way to wear its opponent down.
At the end of the day, Buffalo’s tough to beat when Allen’s doing his thing as a big-play-creating passer and scrambler. But variety is key for any true Super Bowl contender. If Allen’s off, it’ll help to keep the chains moving with Singletary and the run game. And when teams double-team Diggs, it’ll help to have someone like Davis who can win in man-to-man looks on the other side.
The Muddled Middle
17. Philadelphia Eagles (7-7)
18. New Orleans Saints (7-7)
19. Cleveland Browns (7-7)
20. Denver Broncos (7-7)
21. Minnesota Vikings (7-7)
22. Las Vegas Raiders (7-7)
23. Seattle Seahawks (5-9)
24. Washington Football Team (6-8)
25. Atlanta Falcons (6-8)
The Saints still have Tom Brady’s number.
It’s hard to overstate just how impressive Brady’s performance has been this year: At 44 years old, the legendary quarterback leads the NFL in both yards (4,348) and touchdowns (36). But while the seven-time Super Bowl champion has seemed to have little trouble dissecting almost every defense he’s faced, New Orleans seems to remain his Achilles heel.
Hearken back to Week 8, when Brady and the Bucs lost a barn burner to the Saints, 36-27, with New Orleans creating three takeaways from the typically turnover-averse passer (two picks and a forced fumble). On Sunday, New Orleans stifled Brady again, holding him to 26 of 48 passing for 214 yards (just 4.5 yards per attempt), no touchdowns, and a pick in the shocking 9-0 loss. It didn’t help that all three of Chris Godwin, Mike Evans, and Leonard Fournette left the game with injuries, but Brady never looked comfortable, nor was he able to get his offense rolling. The Saints dealt the 22-year veteran his first shutout loss since 2006, way back when he was 29 years old―and not a single active defender was in the league.
New Orleans has now dominated Brady and the Bucs in the teams’ four regular-season matchups since the start of 2020, and Brady’s gone a combined 99 of 162 (61 percent) in those games, averaging 259 yards passing per game (compared to 299 yards per game in 30 games with the Buccaneers) with six touchdowns, eight interceptions, and a paltry, very un–Tom Brady–like 71.5 passer rating (his passer rating with Tampa Bay is 101.3). He’s averaged just 4.92 adjusted yards per attempt in those four tilts. There’s never been one reproducible blueprint for stopping Brady-led teams, and most teams will struggle to emulate what the Saints have done. But on Sunday, New Orleans played a lot of Cover 2 man, per ESPN’s Mike Clay (a 42 percent clip, a season high for the Saints and the most the Buccaneers have seen that coverage this year). And they did a hell of a job getting after Brady, sacking him four times. Brady will have to adjust to life without Godwin (torn ACL), Evans (who should miss a few games with a hamstring injury), and Fournette (same as Evans), but he has a nice opportunity to bounce back against the Panthers in Week 16.
The Saints, meanwhile, are still knocking on the door for the NFC playoffs. The team’s offense under Taysom Hill is, well, woof, but the defense has the pieces to make this team a tough wild-card weekend out.
There’s Always Next Year
26. Chicago Bears (4-10)
27. Carolina Panthers (5-9)
28. New York Jets (3-11)
29. Detroit Lions (2-11-1)
30. Houston Texans (3-11)
31. New York Giants (4-10)
32. Jacksonville Jaguars (2-12)
Davis Mills making his case for the Texans.
Outside of Mac Jones, the 2021 rookie class is having a season they’d collectively like to soon forget. Trevor Lawrence has thrown one touchdown in his past seven games. Zach Wilson has been concerningly inaccurate in a dumpster-fire Jets offense. Justin Fields is taking too many sacks, fumbling too much, and missing too many throws. And Trey Lance has barely played. The jury’s still out on all four, of course, and none of Lawrence, Wilson, or Fields has a strong supporting cast or stable franchise situation. Mills is a former five-star recruit who struggled with multiple knee injuries in high school and college, and thus never rose to elite status as an NFL draft prospect. So while it’s natural that this year’s highly touted first-round passers are getting the lion’s share of the attention, Mills probably shouldn’t be overlooked. It’s getting harder and harder to ignore what Mills has been doing in what’s also an aggressively less-than-ideal state of affairs in Houston.
Put Mills’s numbers up against those of Lawrence, Wilson, and Fields, and the Texans’ third-rounder stacks up pretty well. After completing 19 of 30 passes for 209 yards, two touchdowns, and a pick in the team’s win over the Jaguars on Sunday, Mills is outpacing that trio in touchdown passes (10), completion rate (65.6), and passer rating (82.2), the latter number by a good distance. He’s second only to Fields in adjusted yards per attempt (5.76), and has thrown the fewest interceptions. Mills has produced some definite duds, there’s no doubt (you can say the same for all of the rookie quarterbacks), but he’s played modestly well over the past month, making his three-touchdown performance against the Patriots in Week 5 feel a little less fluky. All things considered, he may have earned himself a longer look in Houston.
Mills will have a tough test against the Chargers next week, but if he can finish out the season on a relatively positive note, we could see him starting for the Texans again in 2022.