All-32: NFL Power Rankings Heading Into Week 16

Are Cam Newton's undefeated Carolina Panthers the best team in the NFL?

Only two weeks remain in the NFL's regular season.

We are unbelievably close to the postseason -- and potentially to seeing Brandon Weeden as the starting quarterback of a team hosting a playoff game. These are exciting times.

However, there wasn't much change in these rankings this week because most teams played the way we expected, and the results for most games did as well. Most of the playoff spots seem pretty clear with the exception of the NFC East, the three-team race for the two AFC Wild Card spots and suddenly the AFC West -- which will get explored below.

Unlike many other rankings across the internet, these are not some subjective rankings by a writer -- trust me, those would be way worse. Instead we use nERD, which 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. Throughout the rankings we’ll also be using our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, which is used as part of the nERD score. NEP measures the value of each play on the field based on how an average team would be expected to score in each scenario using historical data.

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

32. San Francisco 49ers (nERD: -7.82, Record: 4-10, Last Week: 32)
31. Miami Dolphins (nERD: -7.62, Record: 5-9, Last Week: 31)

Maybe Miami isn’t exactly a team worth analyzing right now. It’s entirely possible. This is a bad team about to head into a major transition. The thing about the Dolphins, though, is that this is a bad team about to head into transition with a bunch of talent on the roster, which makes them much more interesting than the typical rebuilding team.

Think what you want about Ryan Tannehill -- he’s currently 32nd among the 42 quarterbacks with at least 100 drop backs in NEP per drop back -- but he’s still a young quarterback who can succeed with talent around him. Miami should continue to have that at the receiver position with Jarvis Landry, a healthy DeVante Parker and Rishard Matthews, who is fifth in Reception NEP per target among receivers with at least 40 targets this season.

Miami’s biggest offensive blunder this season was the usage of Lamar Miller. It would appear to be fixed one week, and then Miller would be more or less ignored altogether the next. Miller was the 14th most efficient running back with at least 30 carries in Rushing NEP per attempt, so it’s not as if he was being ignored because of production.

The defensive side of the ball hasn’t been much better even after high expectations during the offseason. Ndamukong Suh has done what he can and has played much better than perceived, but one player -- even one of the most dominant interior rushers -- can’t change a defense on his own. The Dolphins rank 29th in Adjusted NEP per play on defense this season.

There’s reason the head coach, offensive coordinator and defensive coordinator were fired during the season. 2015 was a waste, but the Dolphins could again be one of the more intriguing teams heading into 2016.

30. Baltimore Ravens (nERD: -6.39, Record: 4-10, Last Week: 29)
29. Chicago Bears (nERD: -6.32, Record: 5-9, Last Week: 25)
28. Jacksonville Jaguars (nERD: -6.12, Record: 5-9, Last Week: 30)
27. New Orleans Saints (nERD: -5.90, Record: 5-9, Last Week: 27)
26. Cleveland Browns (nERD: -5.72, Record: 3-11, Last Week: 26)
25. Indianapolis Colts (nERD: -5.54, Record: 6-8, Last Week: 22)
24. Dallas Cowboys (nERD: -5.33, Record: 4-10, Last Week: 28)
23. Detroit Lions (nERD: -4.60, Record: 5-9, Last Week: 23)
22. Tennessee Titans (nERD: -4.42, Record: 3-11, Last Week: 21)
21. San Diego Chargers (nERD: -4.22, Record: 4-10, Last Week: 24)

It’s really not fair what the San Diego Chargers have done to Philip Rivers this season. It wasn’t done on purpose -- no one will purposely put half of their team on injured reserve -- but that hasn’t made Rivers’ work environment any easier. Rivers has long been one of the most underrated quarterbacks in the NFL, but what he’s done this season has been pretty amazing.

Behind an offensive line on which seven players have played at least 30 percent of the snaps and with a receiving corps that has depleted by the week, Rivers still sits 11th in Passing NEP per drop back. It would be easy for Rivers to rack up counting stats because he leads the league in drop backs, thanks to a running game that ranks 32nd in Rushing NEP per play and a defense that ranks 31st.

The unfortunate part for San Diego is that this is the second year in a row these type of injuries have depleted the team. This year might have cast a wider net across the roster, but injuries across the offensive line were also a major problem for the Chargers last season.

Some blame can be placed on the injuries up front for the ineffectiveness of the running game, but much of it falls on rookie Melvin Gordon. A knock on Gordon heading into the draft was his lack of vision and patience, problems that have been magnified behind this line. Among the 42 running backs with 100 or more carries this season, Gordon ranks 40th in Rushing NEP per attempt. Only two other rookies, Matt Jones and Javorius Allen, have performed worse.

20. Philadelphia Eagles (nERD: -3.12, Record: 6-8, Last Week: 17)
19. Atlanta Falcons (nERD: -2.99, Record: 7-7, Last Week: 20)
18. Oakland Raiders (nERD: -2.98, Record: 6-8, Last Week: 19)
17. St. Louis Rams (nERD: -2.31, Record: 6-8, Last Week: 18)
16. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (nERD: -1.67, Record: 6-8, Last Week: 16)
15. Houston Texans (nERD: -0.51, Record: 7-7, Last Week: 15)
14. New York Giants (nERD: -0.03, Record: 6-8, Last Week: 14)
13. Washington Redskins (nERD: 0.21, Record: 7-7, Last Week: 13)

While the Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants had to play the firsts and second-ranked teams by nERD, all Washington had to do to grab control of the NFC East was defeat the Buffalo Bills. We’ve been high on the Bills for most of the season, but over the past few weeks, the Rex Ryan-led defense has collapsed. On Sunday, Washington took advantage.

Kirk Cousins should write a thank you card or two to the Ryan family after whatever contract he gets this offseason because his best highlights this season came again Rob’s Saints and Rex’s Bills. Cousins is currently eighth in Passing NEP per drop back because of, in part, those big games.

For as badly as head coach Jay Gruden handled the Robert Griffin III situation to start the season, he’s done a tremendous job creating a friendly offense for Cousins to succeed with mostly quick, half-field reads. Over the past few weeks, Cousins has done better limiting the mistakes in that type of system, which has give Washington’s offense an even bigger boost.

Heading into the game against the Saints, Cousins was throwing an interception on 2.9 percent of his attempts. Since that game, that rate has lowered to 1.1 percent. He hasn’t completely eliminated mistakes, and there are still some bad throws that could have easily been intercepted during that streak, but even if the improvement isn’t as big as those numbers indicate, some type of improvement is good.

Washington now heads into Week 16 with 68.6 percent odds to win the NFC East and two games coming against the Eagles and Cowboys. Even with the game against Philadelphia on the road, the Eagles’ defense has dropped off as of late -- now 14th in Adjusted NEP per play after sitting in the top five early in the year -- which could allow the now dangerous Washington offense to take advantage.

12. Minnesota Vikings (nERD: 0.83, Record: 9-5, Last Week: 12)
11. Buffalo Bills (nERD: 1.43, Record: 6-8, Last Week: 11)
10. Denver Broncos (nERD: 3.40, Record: 10-4, Last Week: 9)
9. Green Bay Packers (nERD: 3.48, Record: 10-4, Last Week: 10)
8. New York Jets (nERD: 4.13, Record: 9-5, Last Week: 8)
7. Kansas City Chiefs (nERD: 6.26, Record: 9-5, Last Week: 7)

There really hasn’t been a team with an easier path to the playoffs than the Kansas City Chiefs. Even Kansas City’s two toughest games during the current eight-game winning streak turned out much easier than they should have been. The Chiefs kicked off the streak against the Pittsburgh Steelers, who are now one of the best teams in the league. At that time, they were starting Landry Jones at quarterback. The Chiefs’ second meeting with Denver became Peyton Manning's implosion game after which he hasn’t played since due to injury.

That’s not to downplay what the Chiefs have done. Even against subpar competition, it’s still not easy to win eight straight games. But heading into the playoffs, we still don’t completely know what kind of team the Chiefs are right now or how good they could be. We might not even find out until the start of the playoffs because the Chiefs end the regular season against the Browns and Raiders.

Our numbers clearly like them, as the seventh-best team in the league. Much of that is due to a defense that is now third in Adjusted NEP per play, behind just Denver and Carolina. Even with the loss of Justin Houston, which could be for the remainder of the season, the Chiefs have kept pace on the defensive side of the ball with welcome play from players like Dee Ford and Marcus Peters.

The Chiefs haven’t just forced their way into the playoffs after a 1-5 start: they now have a legitimate shot at the AFC West title. Kansas City has a 91.7 percent chance of making the playoffs, but should they win out and Denver loses their final two games, the Chiefs would win the division. There’s now a 42 percent chance of that happening.

6. Cincinnati Bengals (nERD: 7.15, Record: 11-3, Last Week: 6)
5. New England Patriots (nERD: 9.31, Record: 12-2, Last Week: 4)
4. Pittsburgh Steelers (nERD: 9.39, Record: 9-5, Last Week: 5)
3. Seattle Seahawks (nERD: 9.81, Record: 9-5, Last Week: 3)
2. Carolina Panthers (nERD: 10.76, Record: 14-0, Last Week: 2)
1. Arizona Cardinals (nERD: 13.41, Record: 12-2, Last Week: 1)

At this point in the season, it appears there’s a nearly consensus opinion that Cam Newton should be named league MVP. This won’t be the space to get into Newton’s credentials, but it can allow us to review the case for Carson Palmer.

Palmer ranks first in Passing NEP, second in Passing NEP per play (difference in the third decimal behind Andy Dalton) and second in Success Rate (the percentage of plays resulting in positive NEP). The amazing thing about those numbers is the system Palmer plays under Bruce Arians does not lend itself to high success rates or efficiency. The Cardinals run a vertical-heavy offense, hoping for home run plays. To keep the baseball analogy going, Palmer has been able to coax plenty of doubles and triples out of this offense as well without selling out contact for power. Arizona has the best passing offense by Adjusted NEP per play, and that’s not possible without Palmer.

The quarterback isn’t the sole reason why the Cardinals are our top-ranked team for the 14th straight week, but that shouldn’t take anything away from what Palmer has added to the team this season. It would also be naive to believe Newton is the sole reason for Carolina’s 14-0 record.

If there’s a concern now for the Cardinals -- who remain our favorite for the Super Bowl with a 25.5 percent chance -- it’s the loss of Tyrann Mathieu on the defensive side of the ball. Matthieu was a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate with his work as a hybrid slot corner/safety. He was arguably the most important piece of a defense that ranks seventh in Adjusted NEP per play. The loss won’t completely derail the Cardinals or their defense, but the loss of such a unique piece may be difficult for the Cardinals to replace over the next few weeks.