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NFL Power Rankings, Week 16: Packers rise again; Broncos fall

Consistency at the top -- that is the theme of the Week 16 Power Rankings.

That's a good thing, right? After all, shouldn't we know who the premier teams in the NFL are after 15 weeks of play? The Panthers survived, with their Superman saving the day when needed. The Cardinals showed their No. 2 rating is more than earned. The Patriotscrushed the Titans. The Steelers' aerial show did the same to the Broncos' Orange Crush 2.0. And the Seahawks, well, let's just say nobody wants to play them right now.

Oh, yeah -- and then there's red-hot K.C. My question: What was the better show, "The Jeffersons" or "What's Happening!!"?

Well, what's going down in the NFL right now is that final playoff push. My guess is that only one team from the top 12 below will not be part of the postseason dozen come January. We'll see. Feel free to share your thoughts on any team: @HarrisonNFL is the place.

Let the dissension commence!

NOTE: The lineup below reflects changes from our Dec. 15 Power Rankings.

PAST: Week 15 | 14 | 13 | 12 | 11 | 10 | 9 | 8 | 7 | 6 | 5 | 4 | 3 | 2 | 1 | Preseason

Scare in New Jersey for the undefeated Panthers -- but it wasn't nearly scary enough to knock the best team in pro football from the top perch in these rankings. I took a lot of grief for picking against Carolina, most of it coming the moment Graham Gano's clinching kick sailed through. Hey, but a win is a win, with Cam Newton providing key throws to Greg Olsen and Ted Ginn Jr. before dashing off a 10-yard scamper to set up Gano. That's premium football.

Now, on to important matters. Here is my MVP ballot after 15 weeks of action:

Arizona clinched the NFC West with Sunday's blowout win over the Eagles, adding to what might be the team's best season of the modern era. No Cardinals group has ever started 12-2. In case you were wondering: Up until this point, the greatest team in franchise history was the 1948 outfit, which went 11-1 before losing to the Eagles in the NFL Championship Game at Shibe Park in Philadelphia. (So, uh, consider Sunday night's result revenge! Of sorts.) Losing Honey Badger sure hurts, though.

Relatively easy win for the Patriots, who are guaranteed of being at least the AFC's No. 2 seed. Now that Rob Gronkowski is back, New England might be as tough an out as the Panthers. Give it to James White, too -- he's come out of nowhere to make plays all over the field, like he's trying to prove ex-Wisconsin running backs can succeed in the NFL, Ron Dayne and Montee Ball ( and Melvin Gordon?) aside. Of course, the knock on former Badger ball carriers has been about running the football, not catching it. White notched seven receptions for 71 yards and a touchdown Sunday. Not bad for a guy taken toward the end of the fourth round.

The Russell Wilson show rolls on. Maybe he won't receive any MVP votes, but if there were such an award for the second half of the season alone, here's your guy. Now, if there were an award for "Most Ridiculous Stat Posted by a Player Nobody Thought was That Good," your guy would be Doug Baldwin, who has scored 10 touchdowns over the past four games on just -- here's the kicker -- 21 catches. He only has one 100-yard game during this incredible stretch. So much for the Seahawks' wide receivers being the weak link.

Somebody woke up the Steelers in the second half Sunday. The offense got going, putting up three touchdowns while continually beating the Broncos' single coverage. Antonio Brown was a one-man wrecking crew, posting a ridiculous 16 catches for 189 yards and two touchdowns. With all the attention paid to Odell Beckham Jr. as of late -- an inordinate amount of attention -- the need to dispense a hot sports opinion fresh out of the oven was overwhelming. Will post again, just because:

Big win for the Packers, who took one step closer to the NFC North crown, in the rematch of Super Bowl II. I'm sure a game from nearly 48 years ago was on Davante Adams' mind when that ball slipped through his hands in the end zone. In fact, several balls slipped through receivers' hands in the end zone. On his 30-yard touchdown catch, it looked like James Jones was doing everything he could to juggle a perfect pass. Even fullbacks got into the act, as John Kuhn dropped an important screen pass late in the game. Aaron Rodgers must be ready to pull his hair out. Ted Ginn Jr. has been more sure-handed than Green Bay's wide receivers this year. OK ... maybe that's going too far.

Wouldn't it be something else if the Chiefs caught the Broncos in the AFC West? It's possible. Since the two division rivals split their games this season, the next tiebreaker is divisional record. Kansas City is 4-1 in the West, a game better than Denver, with one more divisional contest to play (against the Raiders in Week 17). If Andy Reid's guys win out, all they would need is for the Broncos to falter versus either the Bengals or the Chargers, and a postseason home game is theirs. If that were to happen, the most likely opponent would be ... you guessed it: Denver.

So much for the concern about AJ McCarron ... at least, when Cincy causes four turnovers. We'll see if the Bengals deserve to be higher when they face the Broncos on Monday night. Part of the issue with moving Cincy back up (after dropping them from the top five following Andy Dalton's thumb injury in Week 14) is that three of the teams sitting just above -- the Seahawks, Steelers and Chiefs -- are playing as well as anyone in the league. Still, the Bengals' defensive performance in San Francisco was impressive, as almost half of the 49ers' yardage came in garbage time.

Would hate to be in the film room reviewing coverage from the second half of Sunday's loss. The Broncos let the Steelers' wide receivers run around like kids at a public swimming pool at Heinz Field, turning what seemed, late in the first half, like an almost certain victory into Denver's second straight loss. At 10-4, and with AJ McCarron and Co. coming to town on Monday, the Broncos are still in prime position to secure a first-round bye. But if they're not careful, they could wind up without both the bye and a home playoff date. Kansas City is one game back in the AFC West standings, with the tiebreakers in the Chiefs' favor. Considering Kansas City finishes against the Browns and Raiders at home, the Broncos had better win out.

The deal down in Dallas was much tighter than many league observers expected, but the Jets put themselves in position to win as a team, then delivered. The defense held the fort. Ryan Fitzpatrick tossed a few beauties (especially the deep skinny post to Brandon Marshall), then the special teams came through. Fans might panic, but the Cowboys' defense is much more competitive than people realize. Kudos to Eric Decker, who has 10 tuds on the season. Most consistent WR duo, Decker and Marshall are. #footballYoda

Big ups to Teddy Bridgewater, who put together maybe the top game of his young career Sunday versus the Bears. In a win that the Vikings sorely needed, the sophomore quarterback was nearly perfect, going 17 for 20 for 231 yards, four touchdowns and zero picks. Throw in a sweet rushing touchdown and a 154.4 passer rating, and you have one of Sunday's best performances by a non-elite quarterback.

If this were "Scooby Doo," I'd be waiting for Shaggy, in his ragged green shirt and dog-turd-brown pants, to unzip the mask on the head of " Kirk Cousins" and unveil Sonny Jurgensen. "And I would have gotten away with it, too, if it weren't for you meddling kids!" Not sure what's happened to the current Redskins quarterback, but he's playing some of the best football this team has seen from the position in 25 years -- if you take away Robert Griffin III's stretch in 2012, you must go back to Mark Rypien in 1991 slinging it to Art Monk, Gary Clark and Ricky Sanders to find a run similar to what Cousins is enjoying. Where's Ricky Sanders?

It's happened to pro football's elite -- everyone in that class. Joe Montana endured stinker games (see: 1985 playoffs). Dan Marino, too (see: 1999). John Elway had a whole slew of them his first three years in the league. So while Derek Carr was not on top of his game Sunday -- being off on several throws, including two interceptions -- realize this: He's only in his second pro season. The Raiders' young quarterback has ascended the ranks much more hastily than many league observers would've envisioned, thus creating surprise when we see him struggle. Next up: Chargers.

Another case of *the almosts* in a season full of them for the New York Giants. Tom Coughlin needed his players to capitalize on the Panthers' mistakes, but it was his two biggest hot dogs -- Odell Beckham Jr. and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie -- who hurt the team most. The latter, who started celebrating a pick-six at the 40-yard line against the Cowboys in October, dropped the easiest one he'll ever see. It was one of the biggest moments in the game, just behind Beckham's drop of a sure touchdown pass. The most significant development overall was obviously the star receiver concerning himself with cheap shots on Josh Norman instead of just playing ball, taking his head out of the game while getting flagged multiple times -- and earning a one-game suspension.

The giant upset was there for the taking. Instead, the Giants' fans and players are just plain upset.

The season is essentially over in Buffalo, as the Bills have been eliminated from the playoffs. All Rex Ryan's bunch can hope to do at this point is play spoiler against the Cowboys and Jets. Dallas has, of course, also been eliminated from playoff contention, but Buffalo can still set an unofficial record of ruining a fourth Cowboys quarterback's season. As for the Jets, Rex would like nothing more than to prevent his former team from securing that sixth playoff spot come Week 17. As we said on "NFL GameDay Blitz" on Sunday, how unusual it is that Ryan made the correct decision at quarterback -- and yet, Buffalo will go .500 at best.

Huge character win for Bill O'Brien and the Houston Texans on Sunday. Remember these few things before we clean the palette from Week 15:

 **a)** Everyone thought the 
 Texans were headed to 5-11 in early October. 
 **b)** Those same 
 *everyones* thought defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel should get canned. 
 Brandon Weeden was out there leading O'Brien's team to victory. That is madness. 
 **d)** Oh yeah, and Houston had never won in Indianapolis in 13 tries before Sunday. Nope, not even Sage Rosenfels delivered there. 

The Eagles hung around for nearly a full half ... but then David Johnson decided to truck everyone and Sam Bradford engaged in some classic chuck-and-duck. Don't fret, however, as the NFC East is jussssst crummy enough for Philly to slide right back into first place. If the Eagles beat Washington at home on Sunday, they'll be in first place by virtue of the division-record tiebreaker. That's IF Philadelphia can contain Kirk Cousins. Imagine reading that last line in July.

Nice win last Thursday -- and nice wiggle, Tavon Austin. Received approximately a billion tweets in response to this tweet: The Rams play well just long enough for people to say "look out for them next year." In fact, if you check the deleted scenes in "Back to the Future II," you'll see a newspaper headline that says " Rams finish 7-9." OK, maybe not, but who wants to guess right now that they finish 7-9 next year? Feel for the fans of St. Louis, who deserve better. Perhaps this is an old-school perspective, but I felt the Cardinals should've never left. (I'll have more on this, in this very piece, next week.)

Thought the way Jameis Winston competed last Thursday night revealed why he was the No. 1 overall choice. Sure, the interception to Trumaine Johnson was ugly. But only half as ugly as all his receivers' drops -- and a third as ugly as those uniforms. Most fans on my Twitter seemed to agree, but would love to hear your take ( @HarrisonNFL). Didn't hear from any Tampa Bay fans, probably because they drowned themselves in Jack & Cokes after that loss. Just bathed in them, no drinking.

Hooray for the Falcons, who were threatening to become the worst 5-0 team in league history. As putrid as the second half of the season has been in Atlanta, believe it or not, the Falcons could still sneak into the postseason. At 7-7, they would need to win out with the Vikings and Seahawks losing out. Atlanta faces the Panthers and Saints. Both games are at home, but a sweep certainly won't be easy. Yet, if Carolina suffers a letdown like it did in the fourth quarter against the Giants, you never know ... (Well, maybe you do, but let us create some drama here. Please and thank you.)

Wasn't that soooo Lions? One week after looking inept in St. Louis, the offense exploded in New Orleans. Then Detroit did everything to almost blow it in the second half. The running backs enjoyed their best game of the season, but couldn't do it without fumbling. Calvin Johnson, meanwhile, was invisible all game with a single catch ... then, almost on cue, caught the onside kick.

Fun comeback by the Saints on Monday night.

[Thinking ... Thinking ... What do I type next? ... The defense? Well, that's a sore spot. ... Rob Ryan? He's killing Wahoo's fish tacos somewhere. ...]

Here's what I got: People are quick to speculate on a certain head coach moving on after this season. Remember, that same guy took this franchise to the NFC Championship Game one year after a hurricane devastated New Orleans, and secured a Lombardi Trophy for an organization that didn't go to the postseason for its first 20 years of existence. In Bryant Gumbel voice: Moving along ...

All the promise of three weeks ago has crumbled, with successive losses to the 49ers, Redskins and Vikings. Each defeat has gotten progressively worse, congruent with the increased quality of the opponent. The trend also reflects the notion that the Bears were succeeding with smoke and mirrors, making big plays at the end of games that could've gone either way. While Jay Cutler might be the poster child for the losing, the pass defense has done more harm than the passer over the past three weeks. First, there was Blaine Gabbert's home run ball to Torrey Smith. Then Kirk Cousins put on his best road performance (and earned his only road win) of the season. This past Sunday, Teddy Bridgewater fell a few pitches short of a perfect game with a 154.4 passer rating. This just in: Gabbert, Cousins and Bridgewater are not exactly a murderer's row of QBs.

Every time Blake Bortles appears as though he is taking the next step as a quarterback, a sequence like that seen at the end of the first half Sunday comes to pass. Pass is precisely what Bortles did, not to an open Marcedes Lewis, but right into the hands of Kemal Ishmael. To his credit, the Jags quarterback made the touchdown-saving tackle. Unfortunately, what could've been 14-10, Atlanta, became 17-3, Atlanta. Bortles' 14 picks in 539 pass attempts could hardly be construed as a sign of careless play, but not sure any QB has thrown as many soul-crushing interceptions. They seem to come at the worst times. #Bortleing

Alright, who's got Woodhead? You? ... No, man, you! ... Reshad, you got him? ... No, I have Gates. ... Who has Javontee Herndon? ... Who's Javontee Herndon?!? Alright, who's got Woodhead?

[Touchdown. And ... scene.]

 Sunday's loss in San Diego might have been the ugliest of the season, the exact opposite of what 
 the Dolphins did to the Texans early in Dan Campbell's interim tenure. At least 
 Ryan Tannehill got fired up down 23-7 with a few minutes to play in the fourth quarter. 

The magic might have run out on Matt Hasselbeck this season. With the loss to the Texans, the Colts have a serious uphill battle to win the division. The wild card is certainly out. Hasselbeck's day (17 of 30 for 147 yards, one TD and one INT) was far from sexy, but the running game was flat-out grotesque. (Again.) The Colts haven't run for 100 yards as a team since Week 9. At this point, it might be smarter to sit Andrew Luck for the rest of the year. Why risk your franchise quarterback on any level?

The Browns kept it interesting for a while ... before sleeping in Seattle during the second half.

The absolute dearth of offense from midway through the first quarter until early in the fourth -- during which Cleveland gained all of 65 yards -- certainly didn't help. The Seahawks' penchant for keeping the ball only left Johnny Manziel with seven offensive possessions to get anything going. If you didn't see the highlights, he didn't get anything going. #spoileralert

Ownership is taking a lot of heat in the Bay Area, and until this team can turn it around, that is precisely where the heat will sit. GM Trent Baalke is also hearing the noise. Still, no matter what fans think of the front office, the offense simply cannot turn the ball over four times. Blaine Gabbert was a first-round draft pick. Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith have enjoyed much success in the league. There are some pieces in place to be more competitive than what we saw on Sunday. Meanwhile, another drop for Vance McDonald. And the Beat(s) goes on.

If you are a regular reader of this space (you know, like you saw in last week's entry), then you are aware of how I feel about Danny Woodhead. How often does a running back score four touchdowns with only 10 yards rushing? Well, three came in the passing game. Philip Rivers was out there dealing Sunday. Happy for the Chargers, who scored their first touchdown since Week 12, and their first rushing touchdown since Week 1.

Fun to see Kellen Moore play. Not fun to see another close loss, although you wonder how many fans are salivating over the potential of a very high draft choice. It's been so long since the Cowboys had a top-five pick that even Michael Irvin admitted he might be torn in the postgame. Knowing Irv, I think he wanted the 'Boys to win. But given the existing nucleus of talent in Big D, and hoping that Tony Romo can stay upright, Dallas could get a top-five pick and bounce back in a major way next season. Something like the 12-4 they posted in 2014.

Maybe the one-score losses were a bit more fun. Those unis, though ... if Dijon mustard and baby puke had a kid, it would be the Ravens' pants. But tell you what: That Kamar Aiken has made plays for this team. The 2015 Ravens obviously are going nowhere, but Aiken is certainly a piece that Ozzie Newsome and company can build upon. That's all we got.

Marcus Mariota has been lost for the season in a lost season for the Titans. Certainly doesn't help this team's watchability over the final fortnight ... But let's dig for a silver lining in the No. 32 slot! Very quietly, Delanie Walker has enjoyed a very productive season. Maybe nobody cares, but 76 catches for 935 yards and six touchdowns is legit. There aren't that many 1,000-yard tight ends in NFL history, but Walker is about to become one of them. In fact, I looked it up: Only 18 true TEs have accomplished the feat. Stay positive, Titans fans.

Follow Elliot Harrison on Twitter @HarrisonNFL.

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