NFL Power Rankings Week 15: 1-32 poll, plus offense, defense and special teams rankings

ByNFL Nation via ESPN logo
Tuesday, December 14, 2021
ESPN

We decided to go beyond the typical numbers in this week's NFL Power Rankings, using ESPN's Football Power Index to tell the story of each team. So, the reporters evaluated the offense, defense and special teams FPI rankings of the squads they cover to explain why the teams are where they are in the standings.

Some reporters got to talk about fun things, such as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' high-powered offense led by the GOAT and the New England Patriots' stingy defense led by coaching guru Bill Belichick. Other things weren't nearly as fun to discuss, such as the Houston Texans' sputtering offense, the New York Jets' leaky defense and most things Lions and Jaguars. Even others tried to make sense of how the FPI rankings haven't yet translated into what they suggest, such as the Buffalo Bills' unimpressive 7-6 recorddespite every unit ranking in the top seven. It's a lot, but trust us, it'll make sense at the end.

How we determine our Power Rankings: Our power panel -- a group of more than 80 writers, editors and TV personalities -- evaluates how teams stack up throughout the season.

Previous rankings:14 | 13 |12 | 11 | 10 | 9 |8|7 | 6 | 5 | 4 |3 |2 |Preseason

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1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (10-3)

Previous ranking: 3

Offense: 1

Defense: 8

Special teams: 26

The Bucs' averages of 31.54 points and 410.15 yards per game are the best in the NFL, so their top ranking is warranted, while their defense -- decimated by injuries through much of the season -- is starting to get healthy at the right time. They're still giving up 22.85 points per game, which is 19th in the league, but it's on par with where they were at this time last year (22.6 through Week 14 in 2020). Their rating isn't great in special teams. Their 81% field goal rate is only 20th in the league, and opponent kick return yardage is 27.54 yards -- third worst in the NFL -- but they've done well in punt coverage, ranking ninth. These numbers are fair. -- Jenna Laine

2. Arizona Cardinals (10-3)

Previous ranking: 1

Offense:6

Defense: 3

Special teams: 12

The Cardinals are among the best teams in football for a reason, and it's not just because their offense is a high-powered, high-octane machine. Their defense is just as good -- or better, according to these numbers. The big concern the rest of the season and into the playoffs could be their special teams, which, according to these rankings, are middle of the pack. But the offense and defense are both good enough to mask any special teams deficiencies. -- Josh Weinfuss

3. Green Bay Packers (10-3)

Previous ranking: 2

Offense: 2

Defense: 16

Special teams: 30

The offense is dominant, the defense has been serviceable and the special teams are a disaster. Sunday's win over the Bears was a microcosm of the Packers' season and these rankings: Green Bay gave up a 97-yard punt return for a touchdown in the first half and allowed Chicago to recover an onside kick in the fourth quarter, yet the Packers scored 45 points and returned an interception for a score. If thePackers don't get the third part fixed, though, it could ruin their season. -- Rob Demovsky

4. Kansas City Chiefs (9-4)

Previous ranking:5

Offense: 3

Defense: 15

Special teams: 11

It's been an uneven season for the Chiefs on both sides of the ball, so it's difficult to put their rankings into perspective. Other than their two recent games against the Raiders, it's been a long time since the offense felt like it was top 3 in the league. At the same time, it feels like the defense, which has allowed 12 points per game over the past six, is better than middle of the pack. After a win over Las Vegas in whichthey were dominant on offense and defense, the Chiefs appear to be in a good place for the stretch run. -- Adam Teicher

5. New England Patriots (9-4)

Previous ranking: 4

Offense: 16

Defense: 1

Special teams: 3

Bill Belichick often talks about playing complementary football, with the three phases of the game weaved together to help produce wins. The FPI numbers show how the Patriots have mostly done that, with strong defense and special teams aiding an offense that has brought rookie quarterback Mac Jones along masterfully as he learns on the job. -- Mike Reiss

6. Dallas Cowboys (9-4)

Previous ranking: 7

Offense: 11

Defense: 7

Special teams: 9

Who would've thought the defense would be the strong point of this team? Nobody would have said that at the beginning of the season. The hope was the Cowboys would finish in the top half of the league, which would be a huge improvement over 2020. Being just good enough would've made them a contender, but now the defense is enjoying its strongest season in recent years, and the offense is scuffling. To be a real contender in January, however, the offense has to get back to putting up points, and that means big plays, which have been cut way back in recent weeks.-- Todd Archer

7. Tennessee Titans (9-4)

Previous ranking: 10

Offense: 15

Defense: 13

Special teams: 25

The FPI ratings on offense and defense are a result of significant players missing time due to injury. After losing running back Derrick Henry, Tennessee started to effectively run the football with a committee approach. The passing game should get a boost as wide receiver Julio Jones continues to get healthy and with the eventual return of A.J. Brown. The defense generated four turnovers and seemed to be reenergized after the bye week. Getting linebackerBud Dupree back eventually will help further its improvement. Special teams have been mediocre. But a healthy Titans team will be in a good position to make a postseason push. -- Turron Davenport

8. Los Angeles Rams (9-4)

Previous ranking: 9

Offense:5

Defense:5

Special teams: 28

The numbers make sense. But what doesn't add up this season for the Rams is their inconsistency. At times, Matthew Stafford and the offense are unstoppable, with the 13th-year quarterback using his arm to create explosive plays across the field. But he also was susceptible to multiple turnovers in three consecutive losses. The defense has been able to get stops when needed, but it also allowed the 49ers and Packers to stay on the field too long. And special teams? Well, they've been a problem all season, and the low ranking reflects it. -- Lindsey Thiry

9. Buffalo Bills (7-6)

Previous ranking: 8

Offense: 7

Defense: 2

Special teams: 1

The Bills' numbers reflect a frustrating trend for a team that has performed well in all three phases at various times of the season but has fallen just short in too many games, especially on the defensive side of the ball. The special teams ranking stands out here, as it reflects an impressive season from place-kicker Tyler Bass and why the team likes punter Matt Haack. These ratings show a team that should have a better record than 7-6 but is 0-5 in one-score games this year. -- Alaina Getzenberg

10. Baltimore Ravens (8-5)

Previous ranking: 6

Offense: 17

Defense: 14

Special teams: 2

The Ravens lead the AFC North with a middle-of-the-pack offense and defense because both sides have carried them at times this season. The lack of consistency is the result of the Ravens losing seven starters to season-ending injuries. The defense has been the Ravens' strongest unit over the past month. If Lamar Jackson (ankle) and the offense can get back on track, Baltimore can reach the playoffs for a fourth straight year. -- Jamison Hensley

11. San Francisco 49ers (7-6)

Previous ranking: 14

Offense: 8

Defense: 17

Special teams: 29

The numbers bear out pretty much exactly what the 49ers have been this season: a middling team capable of beating or losing to, well, anybody. The Niners have been at their best when the offense is able to control the ball and the clock and the defense comes up with timely takeaways or red zone stops. But special teams also have played a significant role in at least two losses, and though that unit was much improved against the Bengals in Week 14, continued improvement will be needed to elevate the Niners beyond what looks like a limited ceiling at the moment. -- Nick Wagoner

12. Los Angeles Chargers (8-5)

Previous ranking: 13

Offense: 4

Defense: 25

Special teams: 32

The Chargers' offense is as good as Justin Herbert's arm, which is pretty good, as evidenced by a beautiful 59-yard TD pass to Jalen Guyton in Sunday's win. Herbert is a star, Austin Ekeler has stepped up his game and the Chargers are capable of beating anyone when they're clicking. However, the defense is lacking at times and needs to get more consistent if the Chargers are serious about making a run in the playoffs. The special teams are better than their last-place ranking but so-so at best. -- Shelley Smith

13. Indianapolis Colts (7-6)

Previous ranking: 12

Offense:9

Defense: 20

Special teams: 14

It's no surprise that the Colts are ranked in the top 10 offensively, especially with MVP contenderJonathan Taylor at running back. The true test over the season's stretch run will be on the defensive side of the ball, because the Colts will be tested by the Patriots, Cardinals and Raiders in their next three contests. The Patriots and Cardinals are on top of their respective divisions, while the Raiders are trying to remain in the playoff hunt in the AFC. -- Mike Wells

14. Cincinnati Bengals (7-6)

Previous ranking: 11

Offense: 20

Defense: 11

Special teams: 7

This confirms Cincinnati's offense as the team's worst overall unit. The Bengals have struggled to either start games well, maintain a level of consistency or a combination of both. Cincinnati's offensive line ranks next to last in pass block win rate, according to NFL Next Gen, and the Bengals often seem caught between establishing the zone running scheme and airing it out with quarterbackJoe Burrow. The defense has been very solid under third-year coordinator Lou Anarumo, and Darrin Simmons' special teams have been pretty strong, with the exception of two muffed punt returns in Sunday's loss to the 49ers. -- Ben Baby

15. Cleveland Browns (7-6)

Previous ranking: 19

Offense: 13

Defense: 23

Special teams: 24

Whatever the FPI rankings, Cleveland's defense is beginning to hit its stride just in time to make a playoff push. The Browns intercepted Lamar Jackson four times two weeks ago then scored a defensive touchdown against the Ravens on Sunday on Myles Garrett's strip and score. The problem is, the Browns' offense continues to scuffle. If Kevin Stefanski can get the offense going again, especially the ground game, the Browns could become a tough out in the playoffs. -- Jake Trotter

16. Pittsburgh Steelers (6-6-1)

Previous ranking: 15

Offense: 26

Defense: 10

Special teams: 16

It's hard to translate the FPI ratings, because it's hard to fully explain the 2021 Steelers. For the better part of three quarters Thursday night, they looked like a team ranked 26th in offense and defense. But in the fourth quarter, they played like they were in the top 10 in both. That's not the first time that's happened this season. The offense looks stilted and stagnant until it goes no-huddle, and the defense hasn't been able to stop anyone on the ground for a full four quarters. Special teams has been responsible for game-changing plays, courtesy of Miles Killebrew and Chris Boswell, but rookie punter Pressley Harvin III has been inconsistent. So, like the ratings, the Steelers are also all over the place.-- Brooke Pryor

17. Denver Broncos (7-6)

Previous ranking: 20

Offense: 19

Defense: 9

Special teams: 18

For the most part, the Broncos have still played good enough defense to be a playoff teamdespite a pile of injuries; the losses to Las Vegas, Cleveland and Philadelphia would be the exceptions. Offensively, theBroncos have run hot and cold, depending on their willingness to stick to what they do best: run the ball and push the issue downfield in the passing game out of play-action. The special teams units have largely surrendered more big plays than they've made. If the Broncos can maintain defensive consistency, be who they are on offense more often and keep the special teams from ruining a potentially good thing, they might just hang around in the AFC playoff race until the end. -- Jeff Legwold

18. Miami Dolphins (6-7)

Previous ranking: 17

Offense: 22

Defense: 12

Special teams: 21

The fact that Miami's defensive FPI rating is only 0.5 is truly a testament to how poorly it played in the first eight weeks of the season. The defense has carried the Dolphins to five consecutive wins since Week 9 and is currently playing like an elite unit. Offensively, the Dolphins have relied on big plays and efficient play from Tua Tagovailoa, but they have not yet shown the ability to win a shootout. Miami needs to win out to have any hope of making the playoffs, but with its defense playing at this level, anything is possible. -- Marcel Louis-Jacques

19. Washington Football Team (6-7)

Previous ranking: 16

Offense: 21

Defense: 18

Special teams: 23

These numbers reflect the first-half struggles en route to a 2-6 record. The defense, which was supposed to be the team's bedrock, stunk for most of that period -- last in points and 29th in yards. But in the past six games, Washington's defense ranks fourth in yards and eighth in points allowed. The special teams have been hurt by having five kicks or extra points blocked, though overall, they've been solid. The offensive ranking is indicative of the struggles. Washington has lost key players to injury (most notably quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and tight end Logan Thomas), and potential playmaker Curtis Samuel missed eight games with a groin injury and has yet to have the desired impact. -- John Keim

20. Philadelphia Eagles (6-7)

Previous ranking: 21

Offense: 18

Defense: 19

Special teams: 17

The Eagles are the top rushing team in the NFL (averaging 160 yards per game) but are third worst in passing (196 YPG), which helps explain why they're near the middle of the pack. They rank 12th in points per game (25.9) and have been solid overall since coach Nick Sirianni switched to a more ground-based attack in Week 8. The defense has been trending in the right direction, as well, benefitting from the strong play of corner Darius Slay, who has three touchdown returns (one interception, two fumbles) on the season. The Eagles have limited opponents to 17 points per game over the past four weeks, an encouraging sign as they hit the home stretch, with three of their final four games coming against Washington (20.5 PPG) and the Giants (17.8 PPG). While it's fair to rate the special teams as average, kicker Jake Elliott (22-of-24, 92% success rate) has been lights out. -- Tim McManus

21. Minnesota Vikings (6-7)

Previous ranking: 23

Offense: 10

Defense: 26

Special teams: 20

Minnesota has played in 10 consecutive one-score games, which is reflected in its defensive FPI rating. The Vikings have been beaten four times on their opponent's final drive, and they nearly allowed the largest comeback in NFL regular-season history by almost squandering a 29-point lead against Pittsburgh. The offense has been a top-10 unit in large part due to Kirk Cousins' league-best TD-interception ratio (27-5) and the production it has seen from Justin Jefferson after Week 10. The Vikings' struggles to put together a complete game on offense and defense (along with some ups and downs in the kicking game) have them on the outside looking in at the playoffs entering their final four games. -- Courtney Cronin

22. New Orleans Saints (6-7)

Previous ranking: 22

Offense: 24

Defense: 4

Special teams: 8

This has been a bizarre season as compared to so many past campaigns in Drew Brees' prime, when the offense was dominant and the defense held the Saints back. But these numbers make perfect sense in a season in which they've been without their QB1, WR1, RB1, TE1 and OT1 and OT2 for long stretches. The good news is that the Saints should be about as healthy as they have been all season on both offense and defense down the stretch -- which could keep their faint playoff hopes alive. -- Mike Triplett

23. Las Vegas Raiders (6-7)

Previous ranking: 18

Offense: 14

Defense: 29

Special teams: 22

As Bill Parcells once famously said, "You are what your record says you are." And when it comes to these FPI figures ... exactly. The offense, in general, and quarterback Derek Carr, in particular, are middle of the pack. The defense is improved, yes, but is still a bottom-feeder. Perhaps the most damning figure here is for the special teams, what with interim head coach Rich Bisaccia one of the more respected special teams coaches in the NFL. But at the end of the day, it's about wins and losses, yes? And to paraphrase another Hall of Famer in Al Davis: Just compete, baby! -- Paul Gutierrez

24. Atlanta Falcons (6-7)

Previous ranking: 24

Offense: 23

Defense: 27

Special teams: 27

None of these ratings is surprising if you've watched the way the Falcons have performed this season. Most of their wins have been one-possession games -- including Sunday against Carolina -- while their losses have been blowouts. Atlanta is one of two teams (hello, Jets) with none of the three phases of football rated in the top 20. At No. 27 overall, the Falcons are the lowest-rated team in contention for the playoffs. So, what does this say about the Falcons? They are performing well as a group and are being well-coached despite each side of the ball having its struggles. -- Michael Rothstein

25. Seattle Seahawks (5-8)

Previous ranking: 25

Offense: 12

Defense: 21

Special teams: 5

The No. 12 ranking for the Seahawks' offense is a little better than you might expect given how up and down that group has been while dealing withRussell Wilson'sfinger injury and the absence of their best running back, Chris Carson, for most of the year. They struggled in two ofGeno Smith's three starts and in the first three games of Wilson's return, but the Seahawks have hit their stride over the past two. More surprising is how their defense is that low despite allowing the fifth-fewest points in the NFL. Most of their success has come against lesser quarterbacks, with Aaron Rodgers as the biggest exception. They held rookie Davis Mills and the Texans to 13 points on Sunday, but Seattle will get a tougher test this week against Matthew Stafford and the Rams. -- Brady Henderson

26. Carolina Panthers (5-8)

Previous ranking: 26

Offense: 30

Defense:6

Special teams: 10

The offensive rating sums up just where this team went south and what will prevent it from being successful the remainder of the season. Sunday's loss to Atlanta was a microcosm of the year in that quarterbacks Cam Newton and P.J. Walker combined for two interceptions and a lost fumble that led to 13 of Atlanta's points. Coach Matt Rhule called Newton's two turnovers "catastrophic,'' and there's been a lot of that since a 3-0 start with Sam Darnold. The offensive numbers do not lie. -- David Newton

27. New York Giants (4-9)

Previous ranking: 27

Offense: 25

Defense: 22

Special teams: 15

Yep, looks about right. The Giants aren't really good at anything, but at least it will net them a top-10 draft pick. They are scoring 17.8 points per game, they can't run consistently and their passing game hasn't been good with everybody (including quarterback Daniel Jones and wide receivers Kenny Golladay, Sterling Shepard and Kadarius Toney) in and out of the lineup. The defense can't handle good quarterbacks without a real pass rush. It's hardly a surprise that their best unit is their special teams. Joe Judge was, after all, a special teams coach. This is how you end up with a losing record for the fifth consecutive season. -- Jordan Raanan

28. Chicago Bears (4-9)

Previous ranking: 28

Offense: 28

Defense: 24

Special teams: 6

The lack of talent surrounding Justin Fields -- from the offensive line to the receivers -- is why Chicago's offense ranks 29th in scoring, 31st in yards and dead last in passing. Fields' rookie season puts his development into question and points to where the Bears need to focus their efforts in the draft to support him. It's obvious Chicago's window to win with its defense has all but closed, and the once-vaunted unit has been marred with injuries, fromKhalil Mack toDanny Trevathan. But hey, at least the Bears' return teams have kept things exciting. In a Week 14 loss, Jakeem Grant Sr.had a 97-yard punt return for a touchdown -- the first such return for a score in the NFL this season. -- Courtney Cronin

29. New York Jets (3-10)

Previous ranking: 29

Offense: 27

Defense: 32

Special teams: 31

There's no hope for the present, only the future -- meaning 2022 and beyond. The defense is historically poor, with expansion-level talent. It won't improve until the Jets invest high draft choices on that side of the ball. Whatever talent they have on offense is injured; WRs Elijah Moore and Corey Davis and RB Michael Carter are on IR. It will be tough sledding for QB Zach Wilson over the final four games. -- Rich Cimini

30. Jacksonville Jaguars (2-11)

Previous ranking: 31

Offense: 31

Defense: 28

Special teams: 13

The offense has been a mess since the team's bye week, and the defense has had to be perfect to even give the Jaguars a chance to win. That happened once -- a 9-6 upset of Buffalo, in which the offense managed just three field goals -- but the defense doesn't have the personnel to play at that high of a level every week. QB Trevor Lawrence hasn't played well, but he hasn't been helped by his pass-catchers (24 drops is the second most in the NFL) or RB James Robinson's lengthy benching for fumbling. Since beating Miami 23-20 in London to snap a 20-game losing streak, the Jaguars are averaging just 9.1 points over their past seven games. -- Mike DiRocco

31. Detroit Lions (1-11-1)

Previous ranking: 30

Offense: 29

Defense: 31

Special teams: 4

The Lions presently have the highest chance to receive the first pick in the 2022 NFL draft. With the current roster in place, even at its best, this team might have been able to achieve a five-win campaign, and that's being generous. But season-ending injuries to key guys such as cornerback Jeff Okudah, center Frank Ragnow and linebacker Romeo Okwarahelp explain the poor ratings on offense and defense. The final four games of the season could be rough for the Lions as they try to rebuild for the future under first-year coach Dan Campbell. -- Eric Woodyard

32. Houston Texans (2-11)

Previous ranking: 32

Offense: 32

Defense: 30

Special teams: 19

The Texans changed quarterbacks -- replacing Tyrod Taylor with Davis Mills -- but it didn't do much to help a struggling offense that the FPI says is last in the NFL. Houston's defense has some playmakers, but it has been gashed all season. The Texans' special teams unit has been a brighter spot, including kickerKa'imi Fairbairn, whomade a 61-yard field goal in Sunday's loss to the Seahawks. -- Sarah Barshop

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