How can a team currently outside the AFC playoff bracket land in the league’s top five this week, and how can a six-win team reside in the basement? All things are possible in Power Rankings.

By Chris Burke
December 16, 2015

The latest Power Rankings update is a reminder that this exercise is not meant to regurgitate the standings, nor to predict future victories, but rather to figure out how teams stack up in the present.

That’s how a team currently outside the AFC playoff bracket lands in the top five, and how a six-win team resides in the basement.

Three weeks of the regular season remain to sort everything out before the playoffs begin. For now, this is how it is:

1
Carolina Panthers
1
13–0
The Panthers last week became the ninth team in NFL history to reach 13–0, though their latest win came with injury-filled caution flags. Cam Newton briefly left the game banged-up, then Greg Olsen narrowly dodged a serious knee injury. Jonathan Stewart sprained his foot and Bene Benwikere broke his leg. Perfection is within reach, but Panthers fans will be crossing their fingers.
2
Arizona Cardinals
4
11–2
• BANKS: Injured Benjamin watches Panthers
3
New England Patriots
5
11–2
Tucked away in the storage area of my basement are a bunch of random containers filled with sports cards (mostly baseball) that I’ve collected through the years. I imagine Bill Belichick’s personal stockpile is similar, only instead of memorabilia he has defensive backs tucked away for when he needs them. “Hey, Bill, where are the Christmas lights?” “They're downstairs, behind Leonard Johnson.”
4
Seattle Seahawks
6
8–5
• PODCAST: Week 15; the rise of mobile QBs
5
Pittsburgh Steelers
8
8–5
• BEDARD: No one wants to play Pittsburgh
6
Denver Broncos
3
10-3
• DEITSCH: Covering Super Bowl 100
7
Kansas City Chiefs
7
8–5
Hey, they’re not all going to be Monets. You have to win ugly sometimes, and Sunday’s 10–3 slopfest against the Chargers was about as unappealing as it gets. But the Chiefs’ slow start left them no wiggle room down the stretch, so getting the result is all that matters now.
8
Cincinnati Bengals
2
10–3
• BENOIT: The NFL’s most physically gifted QB
9
New York Jets
11
8–5
Bilal Powell, a 2011 draft pick, had zero career receiving touchdowns until Week 13 of this season. He’s now found the end zone in two straight games off passes from Ryan Fitzpatrick. His uptick in production is a huge development for the Jets’ offense.
10
Green Bay Packers
10
9–4
Every game with Eddie Lacy is like that first ride after taking the training wheels off a kid’s bike—give him a push and hope it works out. The difference in Green Bay’s offense is obvious when Lacy is on his game. That he and James Starks combined for their most productive game of the year in Mike McCarthy’s return to play-calling may not be a coincidence.
11
Minnesota Vikings
12
8–5
Up one spot after a tough loss in Arizona, which could have been a win had the Vikings even pretended that there was a clock ticking down toward zero before their last play. Of the five likely playoff teams they’ve faced so far, the Vikings have lost to four.
12
Oakland Raiders
18
6–7
• TAYLOR: Barret Robbins’s Super Bowl mystery
13
Washington Redskins
17
6–7
Simply by finally winning a road game, Washington threw another wrench into the NFC East race. Considering the Giants’ schedule, taking the next two (Buffalo, at Philadelphia) might be enough for Washington to clinch the division. But the Redskins haven’t won three straight since RG3’s magic struck late in 2012.
14
Philadelphia Eagles
19
6–7
• LONGFORM: How the ’85 Bears tempted fate
15
Buffalo Bills
9
6–7
Over their past two road trips, the Bills have been whistled for 24 penalties (15 at Philadelphia). Rex Ryan and his coaching staff were upset with the officials Sunday, as one might expect, but that’s still a complete breakdown in discipline.
16
Houston Texans
15
6–7
With Brian Hoyer doubtful for Week 15, the Texans’ AFC South hopes figure to rest on T.J. Yates, a recurring guest star in this franchise’s history. Think of him as Henry Winkler’s Barry Zuckerkorn on Arrested Development—he’s usually not there, but it tends to be important when he is.
17
New York Giants
23
6–7
• KING: Giants have burst Goliath’s bubble before
18
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
13
6–7
The Bucs’ surprising playoff hopes are all but gone after their offense sputtered Sunday, against New Orleans of all teams. Scoring just 17 points against that Saints defense deserves the ol’ Ron Burgundy line: “I’m not even mad. That’s amazing.”
19
New Orleans Saints
24
5–8
Tim Hightower had not played in an NFL game since 2011, then stepped in Sunday and ran for 85 yards and a touchdown. Absolutely terrific story considering Hightower’s perseverance coming back from a knee injury. But, jeez, C.J. Spiller? This was the most resounding indictment yet of his role in this offense.
20
Indianapolis Colts
14
6–7
• BURKE: Hot Seat Watch: Who’s on notice?
21
Chicago Bears
16
5–8
The Bears’ chance to make a playoff push turned into their death knell—back-to-back home losses to San Francisco and Washington. Chicago has made a few solid finds amid this lost season, like Adrian Amos and Jeremy Langford and Willie Young’s resurgence. Using these last three games to keep digging is a must for the coaching staff.
22
Miami Dolphins
20
5–8
This depends in part on who coaches Miami in 2016, but as it stands, Lamar Miller has to get out of there during free agency. He averaged 7.42 yards on 12 carries Monday; the Dolphins gave him the ball twice over the final 25 minutes. This has been a recurring theme all year. It’s absurd.
23
St. Louis Rams
26
5–8
• Fantasy Week 15: Player rankings by position
24
Dallas Cowboys
21
4–9
The Cowboys are on national TV this coming Saturday against the Jets. They could be flexed into a prime-time game in Week 17, if the Redskins are playing for the division title. We’re all begging you: Please play Kellen Moore. We can’t take any more Matt Cassel.
25
Jacksonville Jaguars
30
5–8
• BURKE: How the Jags can make the playoffs
26
Detroit Lions
22
4–9
The Aaron Rodgers Hail Mary in Week 13 assured that the Lions had little playoff motivation in Week 14 and ... well, they looked like it. Jim Caldwell’s stoic look doesn’t play all that well when the walls are crumbling around him.
27
San Francisco 49ers
25
4–9
If you take a glance at the Coaching Hot Seat Flow Chart, you’ll notice that a yes answer to “Did you lose to Cleveland?” advances the line all the way to “Pack your bags.” Any hope Jim Tomsula had of hanging onto his job may have vanished Sunday.
28
San Diego Chargers
28
3–10
• MAYS: Curry, Newton nurturing friendship
29
Tennessee Titans
29
3–10
Delanie Walker is closing in on 1,000 receiving yards for the first time in his 10-year career. That’s a great tribute to his performance, but it also provides further evidence of the lack of help surrounding rookie quarterback Marcus Mariota. He’s throwing to Walker because he doesn’t have many other choices.
30
Cleveland Browns
32
3–10
The Browns once were 2–3 this season and took the Broncos to overtime in Week 6. Remember that? Their latest win over San Francisco snapped a seven-game skid, so it was cathartic if nothing else. Let’s see what Johnny Manziel can do at Seattle and Kansas City the next two weeks.
31
Baltimore Ravens
30
4–9
• SI’s Untold Super Bowl Stories
32
Atlanta Falcons
27
6–7
There is not a team in the league playing worse football right now than the Falcons. They were zombies in a 38–0 loss at Carolina, the final nail in the coffin on their 2015 season. While Dan Quinn deserves (and likely will get) another crack at this, his team’s utter implosion is cause for serious concern.

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