All-32: NFL Power Rankings Heading Into Week 15

Are the Steelers for real, or will their inconsistent play cost them the playoffs?

Just three weeks remain in the NFL regular season. The contending teams for the playoffs seem pretty clear, but the final weeks will sort out the seeding and who has to stay home. Again, like last week, there's been some shifting in the playoff odds, especially after the Ravens-Dolphins game. With the loss, the Dolphins dropped from a 38.7 percent chance of making the playoffs to 13.5 percent.

And for the third week in a row, there's a new top team.

A weekly reminder, our power rankings aren’t subjective, they’re based off our nERD scores put together by people much smarter than me. For those unfamiliar, nERD is our calculation of how good a team really is, based on expected point differential against a league average team. If the team's nERD rating is 10, they would be expected to win by 10 points against a league-average opponent. All individually noted rankings are based off our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric.

Each week, we’ll list all 32 teams from worst to best with a more detailed breakdown of four different teams. The highlighted teams will rotate each week, which will lead to each team being featured two to three times during the course of the season.

The Race for the Number-One Draft Pick

32. Jacksonville Jaguars (nERD: -9.90, Record: 2-11, Last Week: 32)
31. Tennessee Titans (nERD: -9.64, 2-11, Last Week: 30)
30. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (nERD: -9.49, 2-11, Last Week: 29)
29. Oakland Raiders (nERD: -7.82, 2-11, Last Week: 31)
28. New York Jets (nERD: -6.62, 2-11, Last Week: 28)

Better Days Ahead. Maybe.

27. Washington Redskins (nERD: -4.61, 3-10, Last Week: 22)
26. Chicago Bears (nERD: -4.53, 5-8, Last Week: 27)
25. Minnesota Vikings (nERD: -3.00, 6-7, Last Week: 25)
24. New York Giants (nERD: -2.73, 4-9, Last Week: 24)
23. Cincinnati Bengals (nERD: -2.58, 8-4-1, Last Week: 20)
22. Cleveland Browns (nERD: -2.20, 7-6, Last Week: 23)

The Cleveland Browns are now playing for next year. With the loss to the Indianapolis Colts in Week 14, the Browns dropped to 7-6 while every other team in the division won — some more impressively than others — which leaves Cleveland with three teams to leapfrog with three games remaining to win the division. The Browns are also stuck at the bottom of a crowded wild-card race that, outside of the AFC North, features the 8-5 San Diego Chargers and the 7-6 Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins, Houston Texans and Kansas City Chiefs. Of that group, the Browns have the lowest playoff odds of just 6.5 percent.

That alone would be reason enough to make the switch to Johnny Manziel at quarterback this week. The Browns finally made the move with an announcement coming on Tuesday afternoon, but it’s a week too late to mean anything for 2014.

Over the past two weeks, there’s been enough articles worth reading on this site about the Manziel-Brian Hoyer debate that we don’t need to get into that here. Instead, let’s focus on how the Browns got to seven wins to begin with.

As the offense started to slow down through the midpoint of the season, especially with the lack of a run game after the injury to Alex Mack, Cleveland’s defense stepped up. The defense ranks 12th overall by Adjusted NEP and 4th against the pass. The Browns lead the league in interceptions with 19, two more than the next three teams on the list. Cleveland is also giving up the second-fewest adjusted net yards per attempt through the air this season.

Tashaun Gipson has been a ballhawk at safety with six interceptions, though he’s missed the past two games with a knee injury. After a slow start to the season, Joe Haden has started to play like the dominant corner many think he is, though he had an on-and-off day covering T.Y. Hilton on Sunday, forcing a fumble but also getting beat for a 42-yard touchdown. For a lot of the season, Buster Skrine has continued to be one of the more reliable defenders for the Browns, which has allowed rookie corner Justin Gilbert to ease his way into playing time this season.

For the Browns to be successful with Manziel for the remainder of the season, the team will likely look to the defense to lead the way. Cleveland didn't ask Hoyer to do much when running the offense, as he was one of five quarterbacks through Week 14 with at least 400 passes to drop back on fewer than half of the team’s offensive plays. The next three games will be an adjustment period for both Manziel and the Browns. Not allowing the team to fall behind is likely the ideal way to break Manziel into the lineup rather than force him to throw in order to catch up.

21. Carolina Panthers (nERD: -2.18, 4-8-1, Last Week: 26)
20. New Orleans Saints (nERD: -1.09, 5-8, Last Week: 14)
19. St. Louis Rams (nERD: -.92, 6-7, Last Week: 21)
18. San Francisco 49ers (nERD: -.68, 7-6, Last Week: 16)

Too Legit To Quit

17. San Diego Chargers (nERD: -.37, 8-5, Last Week: 18)
16. Atlanta Falcons (nERD: -.21, 5-8, Last Week: 19)

For the first time all season in these rankings, the Atlanta Falcons are ahead of the New Orleans Saints. Even as the Saints faltered to start the season, our numbers still looked at the team favorably, but there’s few ways to find solace in a 41-10 loss at home to the Carolina Panthers.

The Saints have found their way into a state of flux with decision making, as the team announced Tuesday night safety Kenny Vaccaro will be benched. That would leave the Saints with Pierre Warren, an undrafted free agent signed from Minnesota’s practice squad in October after spending training camp with the Saints, and possibly either Jamarca Sanford, who was released from Washington earlier this season, or former Toronto Argonaut Marcus Ball as the other starter at safety. If there was a time for the Falcons to pull ahead in the division, it’s now.

Our numbers suggest the Falcons will be able to do that with the highest playoff odds in the division. Atlanta has a 47.2 percent chance of winning the division, a 13.8 percent advantage over New Orleans. But there’s no definites when it comes to this year’s NFC South. As pointless as going down a schedule and predicting wins and losses is, it’s an even more futile exercise trying to predict anything that will happen with these teams.

New Orleans and Atlanta will play each other in the Superdome in Week 16, and that result can easily swing things around in the division. For the other two remaining games, Atlanta has home contests against the Steelers and Panthers, while New Orleans will play in Chicago and Tampa Bay. We project New Orleans to win 1.7 of those three games, while projecting Atlanta to win 1.6. The Falcons hold the advantage of a tiebreaker with the Saints with their head-to-head win and a superior division record.

Over the past few weeks, Atlanta has found its groove on offense and has turned into the high-scoring, bad-defense team many expected to start the season. The Falcons rank fifth on offense by Adjusted NEP and that has been needed to carry the defense, which ranks 31st. Matt Ryan is fifth overall in Passing NEP and Julio Jones is now ahead of Antonio Brown for the league lead in Reception NEP.

Atlanta’s loss to Green Bay on Monday night officially clinched a non-winning team as a division winner this season. But it also showed the Falcons could be able to hold their own in a shootout if that’s what a game comes down to. The NFC South has been the joke of the NFL this season, but the Falcons offense has turned into the least embarrassing thing about it. At this point, that’s the most we can ask for.

15. Dallas Cowboys (nERD: .96, 9-4, Last Week: 15)
14. Kansas City Chiefs (nERD: 1.40, 7-6, Last Week: 13)
13. Pittsburgh Steelers (nERD: 1.95, 8-5, Last Week: 17)

If you’ve looked at the Pittsburgh Steelers this season and wondered to yourself what’s going on with that team, it’s ok, because they have no idea, either. It’s hard to predict which Steelers team will be entering the Week 15 game in Atlanta because there hasn’t been one version of the team from Pittsburgh this season. They’re like a toy company that’s released different versions of the same toy for the holidays, and it’s up to the parents to make sure they get the right one for their child. In this case, the parent is Mike Tomlin and it’s unclear whether the kids are going to be happy on Christmas morning.

First there’s the "How Did This Happen?" Steelers. It looks just like the real thing, but is the cheapest version and breaks with no contact needed. Every time there’s a new piece on the floor, you just look down and wonder how that could have happened. This is the version of the Steelers that lost to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, our number-30 team, in Week 4, and the New York Jets, our number-28 team, in Week 10. The Bucs and Jets have won four total games this year, and two of those games came against Pittsburgh.

The next version up is "Action Hero Grip" Steelers. They put themselves in the same types of scenarios as "How Did This Happen?" Steelers, but do just enough to hang on for a win. This is the version that beat the Browns 30-27 in Week 1, squeaked out a 17-9 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 5 and held on for a three-point win over the Tennessee Titans in Week 11.

If you can find it, the premium model is "Dominating" Steelers, though it only appears when desperately needed. This version pops up against top-tier opponents, then goes away until the next big game on the schedule. We’ve seen it pop up in a 51-34 win over the Indianapolis Colts and a 43-23 win over the Baltimore Ravens. It also showed up this past week with a 42-21 win over the division-leading Cincinnati Bengals.

The sum of all these Steelers teams is one we currently have favored to win the division. We have Pittsburgh with a 38 percent chance of winning the AFC North, and a 60.5 percent chance of just making the playoffs. Though the Ravens have a better overall chance of making the playoffs, 66.5 percent, their odds of winning the division is currently 33.2 percent.

Pittsburgh currently ranks sixth offensively according to our metrics, with contributions from Ben Roethlisberger (fourth in Passing NEP), Le’Veon Bell (third for running backs in Rushing NEP) and Antonio Brown (second in Reception NEP). Our numbers see the Steelers as a slightly better version of the Falcons, as Pittsburgh’s defense ranks just 26th. With those two teams playing each other this weekend, the defense thats holds stronger will be improving its team’s playoff odds heading into the final weeks of the regular season.

Best of a Bunch

12. Philadelphia Eagles (nERD: 2.56, 9-4, Last Week: 9)
11. Buffalo Bills (nERD: 3.03, 7-6, Last Week: 12)
10. Miami Dolphins (nERD: 3.18, 7-6, Last Week: 5)
9. Houston Texans (nERD: 3.49, 7-6, Last Week: 10)
8. Arizona Cardinals (nERD: 3.65, 10-3, Last Week: 11)
7. Indianapolis Colts (nERD: 3.81, 9-4, Last Week: 7)
6. Detroit Lions (nERD: 5.13, 9-4, Last Week: 8)

Detroit was able to score 34 points against both Chicago and Tampa Bay over the past two weeks, temporarily putting questions about offensive performance aside. Putting up 30-plus points against the 30th- and 25th-best defenses only grants that temporary hold though. The Lions have made their way to 14th in Adjusted NEP on offense, but two games with a combined 15 points against the Arizona Cardinals and New England Patriots are still in the not-too-distant past.

Luckily of the Lions, over their three remaining games, which includes another shot at the Bears, the best ranked defense they will face will be the 18th-ranked Minnesota Vikings. The string of defenses could be just enough for the offense to figure out the most effective game plans on offense heading into the playoffs.

Much of what has been ailing the Lions on offense stems from the quarterback position. After a Week 1 win against the New York Giants where there seemed to be a noticeable change in Matthew Stafford's movement and mechanics, things have regressed back to their previous form. A lot of that can be attributed to the dissolving offensive line in front of him.

This season, Stafford has been getting the ball out to his receivers on shorter routes than he has in past seasons. His percentage of passes thrown deep, 20 percent, is his lowest for a season since 2011. However, Stafford’s sack percentage has ballooned from 3.8 and 3.5 percent over the past two seasons to 7.3 percent this year. Plays like a screen for Golden Tate have been added to try to combat this. But with pressure coming that often, even as the receivers’ routes are developing faster, Stafford has been reverting to his old throwing mechanics. Stafford is currently 11th in Passing NEP with a big gap between him and Tony Romo, who's 10th.

Detroit has still been able to dominate teams on defense, ranking as our second-best unit. The Lions have the best rushing defense in the league, with a bigger gap in NEP between them and the Eagles at number two than the Eagles and 13th-ranked Chargers.

The Lions have an 86.9 percent chance of making the playoffs heading into the final three weeks, but just a 35.4 percent chance of winning the division. The Packers sit a game ahead, though the Lions currently hold the head-to-head and division record tiebreaker with a Week 17 game between these two teams looming.

A Cut Above

5. Seattle Seahawks (nERD: 6.17, 9-4, Last Week: 4)
4. Baltimore Ravens (nERD: 6.24, 8-5, Last Week: 6)
3. Green Bay Packers (nERD: 6.98, 10-3, Last Week: 3)
2. Denver Broncos (nERD: 8.60, 10-3, Last Week: 1)
1. New England Patriots (nERD: 8.96, 10-3, Last Week: 2)