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NFL Power Rankings, Week 15: Pittsburgh Steelers hit No. 1 spot

Clutch performances abounded in Week 14.

There was LeSean McCoy's scamper to bury the Colts in a morass of white cotton candy. The Jags' pass rush put Russell Wilson in a malaise trying to get the ball out with the game hanging in the balance. Brett Hundley rolled out the red carpet for his mentor with on-point throws late in Cleveland. Matt Prater was money in Tampa.Antonio Brown is always money. But my two favorite moments defined the unpredictability of this season, albeit in different ways ...

With his team trailing by a point to the top offense in the NFL -- and his team's potential league MVP having been done in for the season minutes earlier -- Chris Long might have delivered home-field for the Eagles. After a decade in the NFL trenches, the veteran pass rusher had Jared Goff in his sights. Feeling him move up in the pocket, Long made the extra effort of leaving his feet to lunge for the ball -- not easy, 50-some odd minutes deep into a game. Goff coughed it up, Philly recovered and went on to kick a go-ahead field goal. Long could have merely kept running toward Goff, yet something in him decided to sell out to reach the football -- the same extra something that causes a wide receiver to go up and get a ball rather than let it come to him.

Deonte Thompson, let go of by the Bears in October, did anything but let go of his opportunity Sunday. With the Bills tied in overtime, Joe Webb lobbed a ball down the right sideline (if you can call it that in the snow) in Thompson's direction. The former Bear lunged for the ball, then grasped it for dear life so it would not hit the ground when his body did and squirt out of his wet paws. Incredible. Buffalo's third-string QB chucked it to a guy picked up off the street, saving the Bills' playoff hopes.

Can't believe it either, man.

For more analysis on the Eagles, Bills and everyone else, see below. You'll notice that several losing teams did not move down this week. The league's pecking order is taking shape, as it usually does at this time of year. Your timely take is welcome: @HarrisonNFL is the place.

Let the dissension commence!

PROGRAMMING NOTE: For more in-depth analysis on the updated league pecking order, tune in to NFL Network every Tuesday night at 6 p.m. ET for the "NFL Power Rankings" show. Want to add YOUR voice? Provide your thoughts at the bottom of this page or tweet @HarrisonNFL, and your comments could be featured on air.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The lineup below reflects changes from our Week 14 Power Rankings.

The Steelers jump up into the top spot on the heels of another ridiculous three hours of football with the Ravens. The Pittsburgh offense took over late -- kinda like this new Antonio Brown-for-MVP discussion, which is late because, well, it's a topic I broached years ago. Back when everyone thought J.J. Watt was the top defensive player in football -- many felt he should've won the MVP in 2014 -- I believed Brown was the premier offensive player. In that '14 campaign, Brown led the NFL in catches and receiving yards while notching 13 touchdowns. OK, so Aaron Rodgers was a very deserving MVP winner that season -- I just wanted Brown to be in the discussion. And in 2015? Well, I thought the Steelers wideout deserved serious consideration for the hardware. I mean, dude posted over 1,800 yards receiving with Michael Vick and Landry Jones throwing him the ball for a solid chunk of the season. Brown's on pace for 1,857 yards this season. And while many tout Julio Jones as the most gifted player at the position, Brown has been the far more consistent and productive receiver. Oh, but nowwwww he's an MVP candidate. Got it.

Not the Patriots' night in Miami. Tom Brady was off. Three core players were out (and sorely missed). Hard for Brady to start feeling it on some of his throws when, too often, he felt the pass rush first. The left side of the line got beat repeatedly in the second half, with Ndamukong Suh pestering Brady from the inside and the edge rushers collapsing the pocket regularly. Also problematic: The absence of New England's own outside pass rush. Uh, that might be an issue vs. the Steelers' passing attack. P.S., Brandin Cooks still isn't open.

The Vikings remain in the No. 3 spot despite a tight road loss to the Panthers. Minnesota simply couldn't stop Cam Newton when it mattered. Actually, the Panthers QB posted putrid passing numbers, but those 62-yard runs kinda count, you know? All in all, Carolina put up 216 rushing yards on Mike Zimmer's defense. Still, I'm keeping the Vikings at No. 3 because that was their first loss since Oct. 1, and it came at the end of an extremely tough stretch where they played the Redskins on the road, returned home to face the Rams, then had three straight roadies against teams that currently boast winning records (Detroit, Atlanta and Carolina). So there you go, Minnesotans -- you happy? No fan base has complained about its team's ranking more than Vikes supporters, as evidenced by the YouTube comments of the "NFL Power Rankings" show. Honestly, at least half the section each week consists of Minnesota fans saying they're getting no respect and should be ranked higher. Well, in order to be No. 2, you gotta beat No. 8.

There will be those who think the Eagles should move down further, with Nick Foles taking over at quarterback in the wake of Carson Wentz's season-ending injury. Those same folks should consider that Foles has enjoyed success -- darn-near *historic* success -- as a starter before. Teams have gone all the way with their backup before, too. Everyone knows about Tom Brady and the 2001 Patriots, but that's certainly not the only example. The '71 Cowboys started the season with Craig Morton ... and ended it with Roger Staubach and a Lombardi Trophy. The next year, the perfect Dolphins went most of the regular season with Earl Morrall at quarterback. He started in the Divisional Round, as well, but not the Super Bowl. In 1980, the Raiders turned to journeyman Jim Plunkett after starter Dan Pastorini got hurt. They won it all -- vanquishing Philadelphia on Super Bowl Sunday, as a matter of fact. Doug Williams became the Super Bowl XXII MVP in January of 1988, despite starting just two regular-season games during the '87 campaign. Then there were the 1990 Giants, who hoisted the hardware with Jeff Hostetler filling in for Phil Simms. How about Kurt Warner, who only got the opportunity to start on what would become "The Greatest Show on Turf" because Trent Green went down in the 1999 preseason? Not to mention Trent Dilfer, who won the Super Bowl the next year by riding the Ravens' defense. While the Eagles might no longer be favorites, they're far from out of it. This was a really long blurb. Free football.

Tough loss for the Rams, as a play here or there would have altered the outcome at the L.A. Coliseum. Call it a missed opportunity for Sean McVay's group, who -- with the Vikings and Saints both losing -- could have made a push for home-field, especially with Nick Foles in for Carson Wentz over the last handful of drives on Sunday. Now Jared Goff and Co. must shake off the late missteps and refocus on the division. It's Seahawks week. A win in Seattle means the race is likely over, as the Rams would own a two-game lead, with the Seahawks going on the road to face the Cowboys (and a reinstated Ezekiel Elliott) the next week. Goff must have a hastier internal clock than he did against those pesky Eagles.

Alvin Kamara leaving the game early last Thursday night with a concussion changed everything. He's that important to what the Saints do. Does Drew Brees force that ball into the end zone if he has Kamara (who has been an absolute stud in the red zone) at his disposal? Is Deion Jones even in the deep middle with Kamara running wide? Was Mark Ingram less effective without his tandem-mate? Got into an argument with a few NFL Media colleagues the other day. My take: If Kamara were to pick up the pace statistically a little bit, he could be a dark-horse MVP candidate. They felt that New Orleans utilizing Ingram more was just as crucial to the Saints' resurgence. Nope.

The Jaguars might not be wowing everyone at this point, but they are as sturdy a top-10 team as any other. While the defense racks up sacks and turnovers and Leonard Fournette closes in on a 1,000-yard rookie campaign (he's only 77 yards shy with three games to go), the undercurrent of truth to this team's playoff narrative is the steadier hand of Blake Bortles. Don't look now, but the oft-critiqued quarterback (that's putting it rather nicely) has strung together a couple of quality starts in a row. Also, he's only tossed eight interceptions all season. The last time Bortles turned the ball over was Week 12 in Arizona, where he more than made up for that giveaway with two rushing touchdowns. That road loss was actually more on the defense.

Carolina took care of business against a quality team and inched closer to locking up a playoff spot. The NFC South title is obviously attainable, especially if Cam Newton keeps running like Randall Cunningham and the J-Stew/McCaffrey combo platter can average more than 5 yards per carry. (As talented as those running backs are, their yards-per-tote average has been in the toilet for most of the season.) Devin Funchess sure is handling the absence of Kelvin Benjamin OK, don't you think? Next up: hosting the Packers. Quite possibly with Aaron Rodgers under center. We'll see if there is another round of tablet tossing in that deal. Microsoft Surface, to be exact. Sponsors.

Philip Rivers was slinging it all over the ballpark for the better part of Sunday's game. That is, until the win over the Redskins got so out of hand that Anthony Lynn pulled his franchise quarterback in the fourth quarter. Even with the major slamming of the brakes on offense, Rivers departed eaaarrlllly, with more than 300 yards passing. More impressively, Rivers averaged 10.3 yards per throw. Media and statniks alike pay far too much attention to the "Cmp %" section on the stat line and not enough to the "Y/A." Rivers is hovering around 7.8 for his career, ranking fifth highest among active passers. More impressive: He's also led the NFL in that category three times. Tom Brady can't say that. Nor can Aaron Rodgers.

Sloppy game became a sloppy win, and that's A-okay for Atlanta. The Falcons desperately needed a W to stay ahead in the wild-card race -- at the least -- and to have any chance at the NFC South crown. While Deion Jones' performance was central to the win ( as predicted in the picks last week), Adrian Clayborn's fourth-quarter sack of Drew Brees was huge. Clayborn's clutch takedown was the consummate effort play, and might have been an integral piece to saving the season. What a season for that guy, right?

It's become increasingly clear that the Seahawks can't go on the road against quality teams and pull games out with a frantic push at the end, much less impose their will. They're too depleted on the back end, which Blake Bortles (of all people) shoved in their collective face on Sunday. Russell Wilson tried his darndest to pull yet another game out of his rear end, but being down 17 points with 10 minutes left was too steep a hill to climb for the NFL's best fourth-quarter player. That last-gasp pass attempt to Doug Baldwin -- you know, where Wilson was swarmed in about 2.3 seconds -- looked like a Jags jailbreak. Otherwise known in football circles as Seattle offensive-line play.

Well, that was one slick fourth-quarter from the Cowboys. Slick uni matchup, too -- although if Dallas would have donned the right pants, the game would've been the stuff of Landry-Parcells vintage. A few more quick thoughts:

 **A)** Get 
 Cole Beasley more involved. 
 Jason Witten holds, doesn't get thrown the ball, then delivers 
 the clutch play of the game. 
 Sean Lee is freaking incredible. 
 Alfred Morris is more effective than most realize -- well, except when it comes to staying in-bounds when it matters. 
 Dan Bailey was hitting some ducks out there. Flying saucers. Charlie Hough knuckleballs. Charlie Hough was so money, he didn't even know he was money, man. #Rangers 

No move for the Ravens, who hung with the Steelers for 60 minutes on Sunday, or at least 59:17. That last drive was rancid (can't use the right word to actually describe it). Yet, Baltimore showed it can manufacture more than a morsel of offense. Alex Collins was one heckuva independent contractor in the second half. Joe Flacco, on the other hand, is flummoxing. He's so cool that when your team's going against him, you don't know whether to be scared silly ... or relieved that he's clearly about to deliver a three-and-out drive-by. The fumble out of bounds -- with the abrupt ending it induced -- dotted what was such a frustrating loss for Ravens fans.

(UPDATE: Aaron Rodgers has been cleared to return, and NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported Tuesday that Rodgers will start Sunday at Carolina.)

Praise abounds for Brett Hundley following his fine rendering late on the road in Cleveland. Right when you start feeling bad for the Browns, you realize the Packers' win means Rodgers could be dropped back into the playoff race like a smooth Jager shot in a breezy cold beer ... Like Luke Skywalker's cameo in "Force Awakens" -- except not with a Michael McDonald beard. Maybe they were setting up the next movie. Rodgers' return is a gift for all football fans -- especially with Deshaun Watson and now Carson Wentz gone till 2018. If the Packers sneak in and No. 12 starts rocking, they can beat anyone.

Titans fans have been quite upset with yours truly of late for a perceived low ranking. They weren't much happier when your hack writer predicted Tennessee would lose in Arizona. While the record is still impressive -- something many readers pointed out when Tennessee won six of seven -- even the most nutso Tennessee fan with a Keith Bulluck alternate road jersey and Blaine Bishop bobblehead will tell you the team has been wildly inconsistent. Marcus Mariota's play has dipped, if not taken nosedive -- his late interception Sunday was the latest in a subpar anthology for the franchise leader. Not to mention, 159 passing yards on 31 attempts is unacceptable production. Give Mariota credit for putting that ball right on Delanie Walker during Tennessee's final offensive stanza, however. The Cards were playing kickball out there. That's OK: The Titans threw to a defensive back -- their own -- with the game on the line.

Playoffs are still the talk in Detroit for now. The Lions are conveniently ignored around the league, yet can still navigate their way toward January football, with two very winnable games on tap: vs. Chicago and at Cincinnati. Then the Packers come to town. Whether Aaron Rodgers will be on that bus is the key. Well, he'll be on it, but whether he's a cheerleader or trying to push the Pack into their own postseason slot is the question. Either way, Detroit could be 9-6 for the second year in a row, playing the Packers in a high-stakes Week 17 game for the second year in a row. ... And then 9-7 for the second year in a row.

A Win in a Winter Wonderland for the Bills. That was one of the most visually amazing football games I've ever seen. Coincidentally, or perhaps ironically, LeSean McCoy's touchdown in the foot-high powder looked so similar to a pair of scoring jaunts he authored while playing for the Eagles against the Lions in deep snow four years ago. Ironic, because then-rookie head coach Chip Kelly needed that win to push Philly into the postseason. First-year Bills head coach (and former Eagles defensive coordinator) Sean McDermott inched closer to pulling off the same feat in his initial run as front man in Buffalo with the OT win Sunday. Of course, Bills fans will tell you he darn near blew it by punting while in Indy territory. You know what really matters? That you see Deonte Thompson's crucial catch one more time.

Gut-check win -- that's what Sunday was. What a weird week in Kansas City. Andy Reid's future with the franchise was questioned. Reid suspended his best cover player for a matchup with an AFC West-rival quarterback who dissected the Chiefs' secondary earlier this year. Then former GM John Dorsey got the GM job in Cleveland, resurrecting more What went awry in Kansas City? talk. Nothing went wrong. Dorsey drafted solid players in the early/middle rounds, Reid and staff have coached them up, and the Chiefs are in the playoff scrum again.

Kirk Cousins can't do it by himself. While the Redskins are apparently still evaluating Cousins, perhaps they can pull out a compass, protractor and TI-81 graphing calculator and find that scant pass rush early in the game. You know, the same pass rush (pass deliberation?) that let Chargers QB Philip Rivers uncork a couple of let-me-double-clutch-and-take-a-javelin-step-before-I-uncork-the-hell-out-of-this-throw deep balls to Tyrell Williams and Keenan Allen on Sunday. The stat sheet said two sacks for Washington. That was misleading. As were a few throws by Cousins, who was trying to escape real pressure.

Garbage performance of the week? So many analysts thought the Raiders would not only win their game against the Chiefs, but make a playoff run. That includes @MJD, who was all over me on the "NFL Power Rankings" show about how Oakland would be the AFC West champs when it was all said and done. (As I am typing this blurb, that commercial is playing where the guy with a Raiders sweater sits at dinner with his slightly -- OK, much more than slightly -- more attractive partner and her family of Chiefs fans. Besides outkicking his coverage there, he probably could have made more plays on the K.C. secondary than Oakland's receivers.) Derek Carr should have made more plays downfield against that Chiefs defense. They've been getting torched with Marcus Peters, and he sat out Sunday's game. The season is on the line against the Cowboys this weekend.

Hat pulled low, arms folded, Adam Gase revealed little during the game Monday night. His team finally looked like the playoff outfit from a year ago, piecing together a complete game against the mighty Patriots on offense, defense and special teams. The ferocious hits from the latter could be heard all the way out of the stadium and through flat screens everywhere. Xavien Howard made Brandin Cooks disappear faster than Sean Payton. And as far as Kenyan Drake is concerned ... The stoic Gase didn't look like a man with buyer's, er, trader's remorse. Miami looked fantastic all the way around Monday night.

The Cardinals will be playing for .500 this Sunday in Washington. Isn't that shocking? Doesn't it feel like Arizona has suffered through a terrible season? Perhaps even more surprising is that the Cardinals own a better record than their opponent, the banged-up Redskins. Maybe the loss of David Johnson in Week 1 and the Cardinals' other early struggles (including QB Carson Palmer's broken arm) caused us to write off Bruce Arians' team. Look, Arizona isn't going anywhere -- as in, to the playoffs. The actual state isn't moving, either. Let's hope Arians, Larry Fitzgerald and a couple of other veterans also stay put beyond 2017. Who wouldn't like to see the venerable head coach, Hall of Fame wide receiver and veteran quarterback give it one more try? I heard Arians on the radio this week gushing over the players on injured reserve. Didn't sound like a man ready to hang up the beret.

Jimmy Garoppolo is now a local legend in San Francisco. He's 4-0 as a starter in the NFL. He surpassed 300 yards passing in the win over the Texans, making him the first 49ers quarterback to pull that off since John Brodie. So maybe that's an exaggeration -- but Garoppolo is the first Niners quarterback to do that since Brian Hoyer in Week 5. Maybe this flurry of wins (yes, two in a row counts as a flurry for this 49ers group) will result in San Francisco missing out on a top-five pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. Fine. Picking sixth or seventh ain't so bad when you aren't desperate for a quarterback. Just a thought.

Not sure where that showing in Cincinnati came from, but this Bears team continues to play for its embattled head coach. Heard much speculation about John Fox, whose 13-32 record in Chicago isn't bringing back memories of Mike Ditka, much less George Halas. Dave Wannstedt was destroyed for compiling a much better catalogue in the 1990s. But Fox's players compete. They didn't fold their tents up after the Eagles' electric-slid them in Week 12. And Chicago is building something with Mitchell Trubisky, Jordan Howard and that front seven.

Days after the emptiness of another late loss to the Steelers in front of the home crowd, the Bengals made up for it by not showing up for their fans on Sunday. What can you say about that performance? Cincinnati lost 33-7 to a Bears team that -- wait, Cincy was throttled by a 3-9 team that, until Sunday, hadn't scored 30 points in a game all season. Hadn't come close, really, other than in an overtime game in Baltimore. Andy Dalton averaged less than 5 yards per attempt, which is just this side of awful. Chicago owned the ball for over 38 minutes. The David Shula Bengals at their worst looked better than this.

Late loss for the Bucs, who are not only playing out the string but should be in full eval mode over the last three games. Look for rookie tight end O.J. Howard to get even more involved in the offense. Running back Peyton Barber, too, as Doug Martin has endured a massively frustrating year. The secondary as a whole will be addressed in the offseason, after Matthew Stafford became the latest quarterback to complete ball after ball (36, in fact). There's no quit in this Tampa team, however. Also worth noting: Heard coach Dirk Koetter on the radio this week reminding fans that Jameis Winston is only 23 years old. Expectations are a bit high in the NFL. Agreed.

After eight straight Denver losses, the Broncos' defense delivered on Sunday. Following three quarterback switches, Trevor Siemian did enough against the Jets to stay in the saddle for now. That included a quick start in the first quarter, in which Siemian and the offense took advantage of gracious field position, driving the ball into field-goal range. Siemian then made an absolutely ridiculous back-shoulder throw off the back foot ( Jay Cutler style) to Demaryius Thomas for a touchdown. Denver would climb into field-goal range yet again in the opening period, only to see Brandon McManus hook it from 29 yards out to start the second quarter. Well, maybe the botched kick was important -- it confirmed these guys were the Broncos after all, and not imposters.

The large drop stems from losing Josh McCown. The Jets played their worst game of the season against their worst opponent of the season. Odd. McCown has fared with the best of 'em, as you know from reading this space all year. He was not himself, going 6 of 12 for 46 yards and an interception before sustaining a hand injury. Which is really a shame, because it means the season is over for a veteran no one anticipated producing, well, quite this kind of year. McCown cares, and that's a huge reason this team been such a tough out. New York could only gain 100 yards of offense against a Broncos defense that played with the pride on Sunday that the Jets have all year. It will be up to Bryce Petty to raise that bar next week ... in New Orleans. Ugh.

Tough loss in conditions that brought back memories of "The Thing." Sorry, old Kurt Russell movie. (No, not "Tango and Cash.") That was not a money throw from Jacoby Brissett on that second-and-10 slant to T.Y. Hilton in overtime Sunday. The Colts had to have that play, as Hilton was wide open and the completion would have at least kickstarted a potential game-winning drive. Bills head coach Sean McDermott punted inside Indianapolis territory, mostly because he trusted his defense and the elements more than he feared the Colts' offense. Brissett could have made him pay. (Did you catch all that? Cash, money, pay ... You're welcome.) How about Adam Vinatieri -- the greatest worker in the snow since that kid in "The Shining" -- missing what would have been a late go-ahead field goal, not long after putting precisely the right English on an extra point try? #firstworldproblems

Not precisely sure what happened in Houston this past weekend with Tom Savage, but whoa, was it scary seeing him writhe on the NRG turf after that hit. Even scarier? Savage getting back into the game. T.J. Yates performed admirably in his stead against the 49ers: shades of the 2011 playoff stretch. Any person who would throw the Texans shade should check out DeAndre Hopkins' game tape. As my colleague @DanHanzus pointed out on Twitter, it doesn't matter if it's Yates, Brandon Weeden, Ryan Mallett, Ryan Fitzpatrick or P.J. Carlesimo -- Hopkins produces.

Ugly loss, but beautiful unis, man. The Eli Manning era resumed, sparking a sparkling one-game consecutive start streak. Manning was so-so on Sunday, although third-down drops on consecutive second-half drives didn't help. Nor did Evan Engram not getting the benefit of a PI call on another third down in the fourth quarter. The Giants hung in, but they simply don't have the personnel offensively to vault themselves out of the basement (or past the 50-yard line). Those unis, though. Reminded me of the first time the Bill Parcells Giants pasted the Cowboys, back in Week 2 of the 1984 season. It was a huge win for the Tuna, who got swept by Dallas during his frustrating 3-12-1 rookie season as head coach in the year prior. New York would go 9-7 in '84, make the playoffs, and take off from there. The rest, as they say, is history.

Guess it goes without saying that DeShone Kizer can't unload that ball in overtime. At least not like he did, with his pass looking more like a Roman candle than any ball Brian Sipe put up. Chris Spielman nailed it in on the broadcast, saying that Kizer simply panicked. The Packers caught Kizer's toss (punt?), and another loss was soon in the books. More significant than Kizer's blunder was another viable outing from the Browns' defense, which couldn't hold Brett Hundley down in the end but has overcome being kept on the field all season by a non-existent Browns offense. More -- much more -- significant: the hiring of John Dorsey, a football man, as GM. This signals a departure from Moneyball and a departure from meddling. Having recently watched Brad Pitt in track suits play Billy Beane in "Moneyball," I'm a fan of sabermetrics. That said, the Browns aren't the 2002 A's, and Bill James isn't walking through that door.

*Follow Elliot Harrison on Twitter @HarrisonNFL. And be sure to tune in to the "NFL Power Rankings" show on NFL Network every Tuesday night at 6 p.m. ET. *

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