Despite the parity that frequently exists throughout the National Football League, 2015 has been a relatively consistent year. Week after week, the amount of teams that make drastic moves within the Power Rankings remain small, while only the tiers of teams see an internal shuffle. In addition, teams continue to perform as they have, all season, regardless of injuries at key positions — Denver, Indianapolis, and Houston all won games in Week 11 with a backup quarterback.
The middle group of teams is always an area of focus as, not only are some squads still vying for a winning record, but a playoff berth, as well. Because teams like New England, Carolina, and Denver have accumulated so few losses while leading their respective divisions, a Wild Card spot remains in reach for a large number of teams.
With every team’s bye week in the past, the next six games will act as a standalone season to determine the outcome of 2015.
1. New England Patriots (LW: 1) – Record: 10-0
It is just another year in the National Football League for the New England Patriots. With a Monday Night Football win in Week 11, New England clinched its thirteenth consecutive regular season with double-digit wins. The conversation regarding a potentially perfect year began weeks ago, but, at 10-0, the end of the race is in sight. Before considering a 16-0 record a foregone conclusion, it is worth noting that the Patriots have now failed to reach 28 points for the third consecutive game.
2. Carolina Panthers (LW: 2) – Record: 10-0
The Carolina Panthers are 10-0. Despite any prism through which viewing the Panthers yields a less impressive result, the Panthers have beaten all ten of their opponents, this season. Now with a top-five scoring defense and scoring offense, Carolina has ascended to the runaway favorite for the NFC — at least, in the regular season. With four road games on the remainder of their schedule, the Panthers may hit a roadblock in the coming weeks, but it looks like it won’t matter in the long run.
3. Arizona Cardinals (LW: 3) – Record: 8-2
From the start of the season, there was no stopping the Arizona Cardinals. Now 8-2 and riding a four-game winning streak that included a victory in Seattle and a home win against the formerly 8-1 Bengals, the Cardinals are clearly a force in the NFC. Trailing only the Patriots in point differential for the season, Arizona is firmly implanted in the class of the elite. Amazingly, the Cardinals cannot relax, as they remain two games behind the Panthers in the race for home field advantage, and a single game ahead of the Packers and Vikings for a first-round bye.
4. Green Bay Packers (LW: 7) – Record: 7-3
Most teams cannot lose three consecutive games, win one, and reclaim the top spot in their division. Most teams are not the Green Bay Packers, winners of their first six games to start the season. The Packers had previously hit a skid that pushed them behind the surging Vikings in the NFC North, but a win in Minnesota in Week 11 proved to be the cure. Now 7-3 and heading home to host the Bears on Thanksgiving night, the Packers’ three-game losing streak might end up as nothing more than a few bad games in a short timespan.
5. Denver Broncos (LW: 6) – Record: 8-2
The Denver Broncos may be prepared to move through the backend of their schedule without quarterback Peyton Manning, but the team had jumped to a 7-2 record thanks more to its defense than passing attack. This remained true in Week 11, when the Broncos traveled to Chicago with Brock Osweiler under center. Denver won, again, moving to 8-2 and proving that it remains one of the league’s best teams.
6. Cincinnati Bengals (LW: 5) – Record: 8-2
At what point do the Cincinnati Bengals begin to panic? For the entire season, the Bengals have put to bed the theory that they are ready to collapse. With back-to-back losses, however, the grumblings are beginning to gain momentum. In reality, Cincinnati likely had two ill-timed losses against a Texans team beginning to heat up and the now 8-2 Cardinals on the road. If the skid continues, concerns will grow, but not yet.
7. Minnesota Vikings (LW: 4) – Record: 7-3
It was nice while it lasted. The Minnesota Vikings entered Week 11 on a five-game winning streak and leading the NFC North. They left with a home loss that places them a tiebreaker behind the Packers. What’s more indicting for Minnesota is that its defense — previously second-best in points allowed — gave up a season-high 30 points. Make no mistake, the Vikings are still every bit deserving of a playoff spot — as of right now — but they have work to do before supplanting the incumbent division champion Packers.
8. Pittsburgh Steelers (LW: 9) – Record: 6-4
Sitting idle in Week 11, the Pittsburgh Steelers were handed two gifts — time for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to regain his health and a Bengals loss that leaves the Steelers a mere two games out of first place. It is dangerous to look past a road game in Seattle in Week 12, but it is equally difficult to not imagine the imminent showdown between Cincinnati and Pittsburgh in Week 14.
9. Atlanta Falcons (LW: 8) – Record: 6-4
Are the Atlanta Falcons really on the verge of falling out of the playoff picture, altogether? After a perfect 5-0 start, the Falcons have now lost four of their last five games and suddenly look as beatable as their 2014 counterparts. At 6-4, Atlanta is still a solid team, but it is possible that they fell harder than they should have due to their fast start.
10. Seattle Seahawks (LW: 11) – Record: 5-5
If the Seattle Seahawks deserve credit for one thing, it’s how they have handled weaker teams in critical situations. Of the team’s five losses, only one has been at the hands of an opponent with a losing record, while the combing winning percentage of all five teams that beat Seattle is an astounding .755. With that, the Seahawks may simply be suffering from an incredibly difficult schedule, while taking care of those teams they should beat.
11. New York Giants (LW: 13) – Record: 5-5
In a season that has been highlighted by last-minute heartbreaks and missed opportunities, the New York Giants pulled off a rare victory in their Week 11 bye. Both the Redskins and Eagles lost their respective games and, while Dallas improved to 3-7, there was no resistance to New York’s sole possession of first place in the NFC East. With one game apiece remaining against the Redskins and Eagles, the Giants should hold the fate of the division in their hands.
12. Kansas City Chiefs (LW: 16) – Record: 5-5
The Kansas City Chiefs were a Bears’ two-point conversion away from making the AFC West race that much more interesting. As Kansas City improved to 5-5 on the year with a Week 11 massacre of the Chargers, the Broncos had just finished holding off the Bears in Chicago. With that, the surging Chiefs remain three-games behind Denver in the standings. As unlikely as it is for Kansas City to erase its 1-5 start and make a play in the division, it is worth noting that the Chiefs have now rattled off four consecutive wins. It cannot be overlooked how streaky the team is, especially with a top-ten scoring offense and defense.
13. Buffalo Bills (LW: 10) – Record: 5-5
The Buffalo Bills are the perfect example of a team that plays well enough to give any team a hard time while still having too many flaws to win enough key games. With a loss in New England in Week 11, the Bills saw a quick end to their semi-hot streak and fall back to the pack at 5-5. With only one division and two conference games remaining on the schedule, the Bills are suddenly at risk of falling out of the AFC playoff picture.
14. Houston Texans (LW: 19) – Record: 5-5
In a week where the two AFC South co-leaders were hosting teams with winning records, both the Indianapolis Colts and Houston Texans earned victories. For Houston, Week 11’s home win against the Jets marks the team’s fourth victory in its last five games. In addition, Houston’s strength has routinely come from the defensive side of the ball, and it appears to be coming into form at the right time — the Texans have allowed more than 20 points only once in their last five games.
15. Indianapolis Colts (LW: 15) – Record: 5-5
For more than half the season, it looked like the AFC South would be won by a team with a losing record. Each at 5-5, the Indianapolis Colts and Houston Texans are tied for the division lead, both led to victories in Week 11 via a backup quarterback. For the Colts, the dropoff at the quarterback position from the injured Andrew Luck to Matt Hasselbeck appeared to be massive, but the team has now won all three games that Hasselbeck started. What’s more impressive is that the defense — formerly a glaring weakness — held Atlanta’s top-ten offense to 21 points, marking the fourth consecutive game that an opponent has not reached 30 points.
16. New York Jets (LW: 12) – Record: 5-5
In a tale of two seasons, the New York Jets have now had stretches of games that equated to records of 4-1 and 1-4. The obvious assumption is that the team falls somewhere in the middle, but the reality might be more dire for the Jets. Of the team’s five wins, only the Colts — at 5-5 — have a non-losing record. With the fifth-best defense in yards allowed, New York is generally capable of remaining in games, but its inconsistency has resulted in too many losses.
17. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (LW: 22) – Record: 5-5
Don’t look now, but the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have won three of their last four games, improved to 5-5, and are a single game out of a playoff spot. The once mistake-prone Buccaneers appear to have made strides in protecting the football — Tampa Bay averaged 2.5 giveaways-per-game in its first four games, yet 1.2 in its last six — and the team’s offense has followed suit. The Buccaneers might be a sneaky squad getting hot at the right time.
18. Oakland Raiders (LW: 14) – Record: 4-6
So ends the hope of 2015 being the season where the Oakland Raiders put it all together. Of course, with six games remaining on the schedule, nothing is officially decided, but the formerly 4-3 Raiders have now lost three consecutive games and find themselves two games out of an even record, let alone an entry into the playoff picture. Oakland arguably has the best talent of any team it has fielded in over a decade, but it looks like more of the same for a franchise that hasn’t had a winning season since 2002.
19. St. Louis Rams (LW: 17) – Record: 4-6
Same old St. Louis Rams. Previously 4-3 and making strides to erase a streak of eight consecutive losing seasons, the Rams have now lost three consecutive games to fall completely out of the NFC West race. Still with a top-ten defense, the Rams have the opportunity to recover and make a push for a Wild Card berth, but, with uncertainty at the quarterback position, the team will need stellar play from all other areas.
20. Washington Redskins (LW: 18) – Record: 4-6
In what would have been an earth-shattering upset, the Washington Redskins ran into a freight train in Week 11 when traveling to Carolina to face the now 10-0 Panthers. The Redskins were subsequently dismantled in Carolina, but the loss may be inconsequential for a 4-6 team that had been playing better prior to its most recent loss. With four NFC East games remaining — including next week’s showdown with the division-leading Giants — and only one game to make up in the standings, a rebound by Washington could vault them into a playoff position.
21. Miami Dolphins (LW: 20) – Record: 4-6
Once again, the Miami Dolphins are thrust back towards the bottom of the barrel, as three losses in their last four games account for further proof that 2015 was a lost season. Even at their best, the Dolphins did little more than hover around mediocrity. Now that they are clearly struggling, the warts are becoming more prevalent than ever.
22. Philadelphia Eagles (LW: 21) – Record: 4-6
In the end, 2015 will likely be a failed experiment for the Philadelphia Eagles. Led by first-time NFL head coach Chip Kelly — who was given the opportunity to revamp the franchise to his liking in this, his third season — the moves have failed to materialize in victories. With three losses in their last four games, the Eagles have now fallen to 4-6 on the year, yet remain afloat in the average NFC East, trailing the Giants by a single game. With that, Philadelphia still has an opportunity to save the season.
23. Dallas Cowboys (LW: 31) – Record: 3-7
Of course, it is easy to point to the return of quarterback Tony Romo as the reason why the Dallas Cowboys would end their seven-game losing streak. Indeed, Romo was a large contributing factor to the team’s Week 11 win, but more for his presence than his actual performance. In essence, the Cowboys have not had their best offensive weapons on the field at the same time for nearly the entire season, and the team has clearly suffered. Perhaps this might be the start of an upswing.
24. New Orleans Saints (LW: 24) – Record: 4-6
While the Panthers run away and hide with the NFC South, the New Orleans Saints are left in dire straits in the NFC playoff picture. Likely to be eliminated from contention in the coming weeks, how the team plays in its return to action following a Week 11 bye should be telling. If the Saints can’t use a two-week preparation time to advance the state of the franchise, it won’t be happening, at all.
25. Jacksonville Jaguars (LW: 25) – Record: 4-6
Indeed, the Jacksonville Jaguars are now officially in contention for the AFC South with a win over the Titans in Week 11, but their fate is obviously more related to the terrible state of the division than anything else. Even with back-to-back wins, Jacksonville has been completely underwhelming, and the weaknesses of the team — coaching, passing defense, rushing offense — are difficult to overlook. At least, the Jaguars still have a chance to make something of 2015.
26. Detroit Lions (LW: 26) – Record: 3-7
Finally, the Detroit Lions are getting some breaks. After losing their first five games, the Lions have found a way to limit their mistakes and land back-to-back victories. At 3-7, Detroit is realistically out of any playoff conversation, but it may not be a ‘free win’ for any opponent looking to make quick work of the Lions.
27. Chicago Bears (LW: 23) – Record: 4-6
The Chicago Bears had taken strides to erase their 0-3 start by winning four of their previous six games heading into Week 11. What had originally looked like an impossible mountain to climb — that is, facing the Denver Broncos — quickly became more reasonable as the Broncos turned to their backup quarterback. It hardly mattered. Chicago is getting better, and it is nowhere near as horrible as the 0-3 team that started the season, but it isn’t ready to ascend the ranks, yet.
28. Baltimore Ravens (LW: 29) – Record: 3-7
For a team that has continued to slip, the Baltimore Ravens finally took one step forward. Only to take three backwards. As the Ravens finally earned their third win of the season against a scuffling Rams team in Week 11, they lose starting quarterback Joe Flacco and starting running back Justin Forsett to season-ending injuries. As the Ravens were going absolutely nowhere in 2015, the losses do nothing to the remainder of 2015. They are, however, a set of crushing blows for a franchise that appears to be on the verge of rebuilding.
29. San Francisco 49ers (LW: 27) – Record: 3-7
At this point, the backend of the San Francisco 49ers’ schedule has basically turned into an audition. With the league’s worst offense in both points and yards, the 49ers are a sputtering mess at the bottom of the pile. With only two opponents left on the schedule that should be comfortably entranced in a playoff rate, even the opportunities for San Francisco to play the role of ‘spoiler’ are slim.
30. Tennessee Titans (LW: 28) – Record: 2-8
The Tennessee Titans should finally be able to put 2015 behind them. Amazingly still in the race for a division title entering Week 11, a loss in Jacksonville likely sealed the team’s fate. As it has been all year, the growth of rookie quarterback Marcus Mariota remains the most important aspect of the season, and the expectation is that he uses the final six games as on-the-fly training for the future.
31. San Diego Chargers (LW: 30) – Record: 2-8
If the San Diego Chargers could not stop their five-game losing streak against a division opponent, at home, coming off a bye week, what will it take? The reality is that it doesn’t matter, as the Chargers are a loss or Broncos win away from being officially eliminated from the AFC West. With eight losses, it is basically a guarantee that their season is over, anyway, and the remainder of their year will be nothing more than a requirement.
32. Cleveland Browns (LW: 32) – Record: 2-8
Mercifully, the football-watching world was not subjected to following the Cleveland Browns in Week 11. The same usual mess that many have grown to expect from Cleveland has delivered in droves, and, with five consecutive losses, it hardly seems like a turnaround is in the future. For now, the Browns need to determine which of their current players will be best suited to remain with the franchise in the coming years.