NFL Power Rankings Week 14: 1-32 poll, plus players who need to step it up in last month

ByNFL Nation ESPN logo
Sunday, December 12, 2021

We've reached the homestretch of the season, so every version of the NFL Power Rankings becomes more and more important. But the homestretch isn't just important for ranking teams; it's important for players in setting up the next part of their careers.

Whether you're a young guy trying to establish a legacy or a veteran trying to preserve what is already built, December is when reputations are made and maintained. On that note, we asked our NFL Nation writers to pick the one player on the teams they cover for whom the last month of the season is most important. As you'd expect, the quarterback position is well represented here -- from rookies trying to get a foothold (see the Big Apple) to veterans trying to close out in style (Pittsburgh Steelers fans can feel this) to current stars looking to reach that next level (such as the guy heading up America's Team) -- but there are non-quarterbacks who make the list, as well.

How we rank 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:13 |12 | 11 | 10 | 9 |8|7 | 6 | 5 | 4 |3 |2 |Preseason

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NE | NO | NYG | NYJ | PHI | PIT | SF


1. Arizona Cardinals (10-2)

Previous ranking: 2

Player who must step up: OL Josh Jones

The former third-round pick is the backup at both right guard and right tackle during a season in which he should have been starting at one or the other. If Jones doesn't prove himself over the rest of the campaign, there's a chance he might not be in the mix next year, especially with how well both RG Max Garcia and RT Kelvin Beachum have played. Considering how valuable quarterbackKyler Murray is, Jones needs to be as good as he possibly can to keep Murray healthy. -- Josh Weinfuss

2. Green Bay Packers (9-3)

Previous ranking: 1

Player who must step up: K Mason Crosby

Not all of the follies with the field goal unit have been Crosby's fault; he got a new holder right before the season opener and a new long-snapper nine games in. But ultimately it's on the kicker, and Crosby ranks tied for 35th in the league this season in field goal percentage (66.7%, 18-of-27). He went through a slump in 2012, and the Packers stuck with him. He responded with one of his best years in 2013. But at age 37 and with a $3.4 million salary and $4.735 million cap charge for next year, Crosby might need a strong finish to secure his future here. -- Rob Demovsky

3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-3)

Previous ranking: 3

Player who must step up: WR Breshad Perriman

This one might come as a surprise, given that Perriman was just called up from the practice squad. But the 2015 first-round draft pick out of UCF lined up as the Bucs' third wide receiver against the Falcons on Sunday, playing 83.3% of offensive snaps as compared to 13.2% for Tyler Johnson and 5.9% for Scotty Miller. With Antonio Brown out two more weeks due to his suspension and the uncertainty surrounding Brown's future with the Bucs, Perriman has a chance to resurrect his career after being cut twice already this year (by the Lions and Bears) and really help the Bucs in their push for another Super Bowl. -- Jenna Laine

4. New England Patriots (9-4)

Previous ranking: 5

Player who must step up: TE Jonnu Smith

Entering Monday night's game against the Bills, the big-money free-agent signing had totaled 25 catches for 259 yards and one touchdown. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels has referred to this as a foundational year for Smith and all newcomers. At the same time, when the team signed Smith to a four-year, $50 million contract in free agency -- with $31.25 million guaranteed -- it created a level of expectation that Smith is still striving to reach. -- Mike Reiss

5. Kansas City Chiefs (8-4)

Previous ranking:6

Player who must step up: WR Mecole Hardman

With Sammy Watkins moving on and the Chiefs in need of a second receiving threat, this was to be the season Hardman proved he could be trusted as an every-down receiver. It hasn't happened. While Hardman is third on the team in catches, he has few big plays, registering 10.1 yards per catch and just one touchdown. If Hardman doesn't make a move in what remains of the campaign, the Chiefs will be shopping for receiving help in the offseason. -- Adam Teicher

6. Baltimore Ravens (8-4)

Previous ranking: 4

Player who must step up: QB Lamar Jackson

Jackson wants to get his stock going back up heading into an offseason in which he could sign his big-money extension. He has lost two of his past three starts, struggling to produce with a 34.4 Total QBR (22nd in the NFL). In the past two weeks, he threw a career-high four interceptionsin one game and was sacked a career-high seven times in the other. Jackson will ultimately become one of the highest-paid players in the NFL. But a strong showing the rest of the way, especially in the postseason, would justify Jackson commanding $45 million a year like Patrick Mahomes. -- Jamison Hensley

7. Dallas Cowboys (8-4)

Previous ranking: 10

Player who must step up: QB Dak Prescott

It's not that Prescott has played poorly, but he has not been as effective as he was in the first seven games of the season, before suffering a calf strain against New England. In his past five games, he has seven touchdown passes and four interceptions. He would be helped by a better running game and protection that has not been as good lately, but this is why the Cowboys made a $160 million investment in Prescott in March. Dallas is in position to win the NFC East for the third time with Prescott, but for this team to again be seen as one of the best in the NFL, it needs more from him.-- Todd Archer

8. Buffalo Bills (7-5)

Previous ranking: 7

Player who must step up: QB Josh Allen

The Bills' ability to secure a top playoff seed and potentially make a Super Bowl relies on the whole team playing well, but the performance of Allendown the stretch will be vital. Turnovers have been an issue for Allen as of late -- seven interceptions and two fumbles in the past five games -- and while they are not all his fault, he needs to make better decisions with the football. Overall, Allen has had a solid season, but he and the offense need to take it to the next level to get where the Bills want to go. -- Alaina Getzenberg

9. Los Angeles Rams (8-4)

Previous ranking: 11

Player who must step up: WR Odell Beckham Jr.

Given the odd circumstances surrounding Beckham's release from the Browns -- which included a video his father shared of quarterback Baker Mayfield not throwing him the football -- the eighth-year wideout must prove that he not only still has big-play capabilities but that he can consistently contribute. Playing on a one-year, $1.25 deal that he signed last month, Beckham's productivity has gradually increased since his arrival in Los Angeles. In his second game with the Rams, he caught a 54-yard touchdown pass for his first receiving score in 10 games, and on Sunday he snagged a 1-yard touchdown pass, giving him TDs in back-to-back games for the first time since Weeks 16 and 17 of the 2019 season. -- Lindsey Thiry

10. Tennessee Titans (8-4)

Previous ranking: 8

Player who must step up: QB Ryan Tannehill

The Titans were one of the few teams that weren't driven by their quarterback when Derrick Henry was healthy. It's now Tannehill's job to elevate everyone else's game. That can be particularly hard given how Tennessee will be without star wide receivers A.J. Brown and Julio Jones for some stretch of time. But Tannehill has to find ways to connect with his remaining pass-catchers, especially in the red zone. Tannehill also is very capable of making plays with his legs inside the 20-yard line. Although a good amount of Tannehill's 13 interceptions isn't directly his fault, he has to find a way to avoid costly turnovers down the stretch and in the playoffs. -- Turron Davenport

11. Cincinnati Bengals (7-5)

Previous ranking: 9

Player who must step up: S Jessie Bates III

In November, Bates said his contract season hasn't been as good as he wanted it to be. After Pro Football Focus graded Bates as the NFL's top safety in 2020, Bates hasn't been able to carry that production into 2021. Some of that can be chalked up to the stalled contract negotiations that cast a cloud over Bates at the start of the season. While he has had some good moments, Bates still has plenty of work to do in order to prove he is worth being paid as one of the NFL's best safeties. Of course, the Bengals using the franchise tag on him for 2022 is the most likely scenario. But in addition to potentially making himself some extra money, he could boost a Cincinnati defense that is suddenly lacking some key players during the final month of the season. -- Ben Baby

12. Indianapolis Colts (7-6)

Previous ranking: 13

Player who must step up: QB Carson Wentz

No, Wentz isn't having a bad season. He has had a pretty solid one, in fact, with 22 touchdown passes and only five interceptions. But the first-year Colts quarterback has to take his game to an even higher level because they are far from a lock to make the playoffs this season. They're currently ninth in the AFC with four games remaining, which includes contests against New England, Arizona and Las Vegas. Now is the time for Wentzto show why the Colts acquired him from Philadelphia last offseason. "It's December; everything feels like a playoff game," Wentz recently said. -- Mike Wells

13. Los Angeles Chargers (7-5)

Previous ranking: 16

Player who must step up: RB Justin Jackson

Jackson was thought to be the No. 2 running back behind Austin Ekeler but missed two straight games with shoulder injuries and has yet to play more than 16% of offensive snaps in any contest. He had six carries for 15 yards against the Bengals. The Chargers are in great need for a solid No. 2 back, and Ekeler has the tools; but he can't get on the field. -- Shelley Smith

14. San Francisco 49ers (6-6)

Previous ranking: 12

Player who must step up: QB Jimmy Garoppolo

Garoppolo has played well recently (aside from a Week 13 dud versus Seattle), though it's no coincidence that the good performances have coincided with the resurgence of San Francisco's running game. Ideally for all involved, that would continue. But it's likely that the 49ers will find themselves in a meaningful game or two like that against Seattle in which the opposing defense will force Garoppolo to carry a heavier load. His ability to do that will not only play a big role in San Francisco's postseason hopesbut also in Garoppolo's future. A finishing flourish would only bolster his value as he heads toward an uncertain offseason. -- Nick Wagoner

15. Pittsburgh Steelers (6-5-1)

Previous ranking: 19

Player who must step up: QB Ben Roethlisberger

Roethlisberger is all but assured to be a future Hall of Famer, but he is very likely entering his last five regular-season games in a Steelers uniform. Roethlisberger isn't the gunslinger he used to be, but if he performs more like the quarterback who had two monster fourth quarters (against the Chargers and the Ravens), the Steelers could end his storied career with a playoff berth and a postseason run. But if he looks like the version of himself who threw two picks against the Bengals and couldn't put consistent zip on the ball, the Steelers' ceiling will be a .500 season -- an underwhelming finish for Big Ben.-- Brooke Pryor

16. Washington Football Team (6-6)

Previous ranking: 22

Player who must step up: QB Taylor Heinicke

He already has proved he belongs in the NFL, but questions remain about the level Heinicke can achieve. Even Washington views him as a high-quality backup or a low-end starter. Heinicke's future in the NFL is secure, but if he can lead Washington to a strong finish over the next five games -- say, a 4-1 mark -- it could elevate him in the eyes of others. He has been inconsistent, but he also has started only 13 games in the NFL. In the past four weeks, Heinicke owns the NFL's fifth-best Total QBR (65.4), and he has won over teammates. But he can win over many others with a big December. -- John Keim

17. Miami Dolphins (6-7)

Previous ranking: 21

Player who must step up: OL Liam Eichenberg

Eichenberg was one of the most highly touted offensive linemen in the 2021 rookie class, and while he has gained quite a bit of experience starting for the Dolphins this season, he has been the team's worst starterstatistically. Since Week 9, the beginning of Miami's win streak, Eichenberg owns a 71.4% pass block win rate -- which ranks 162nd out of 164 qualified linemen. His season-long win rate of 76% ranks dead last among 170 qualified players. He is better than he has played and is not in danger of losing his starting job, but a strong finish would be inspiring before the Dolphins enter an offseason loaded with cash and desperate for improvement. -- Marcel Louis-Jacques

18. Las Vegas Raiders (6-6)

Previous ranking: 14

Player who must step up: QB Derek Carr

Yeah, Carr entered the weekend leading the NFL in passing yards, and he is still on pace to throw for a career-best 5,189 yards. And he has had to deal with an unreal amount of off-the-field drama this season, let alone a rebuilt-on-the-fly offensive line. But with Carr, who has a career winning percentage of just .434, only having one year left on his contract, a decision on either extending the most polarizing player in Raiders franchise history or letting him play a lame-duck season while dangling a franchise tag for 2023 could be decided in these final five games. -- Paul Gutierrez

19. Cleveland Browns (6-6)

Previous ranking: 17

Player who must step up: QB Baker Mayfield

After quarterbacking the Browns in 2020 to their first playoff victory in 26 years, Mayfield has had a disappointing season to this point. He has been battling a torn labrum in his non-throwing left shoulder since Week 2, as well as injuries to his right knee and left foot. In part as a result, Mayfield ranks just 26th in QBR, one season after finishing in the top 10. The Browns are still in the hunt for a playoff spot. But they won't get there unless Mayfield rekindles the caliber of play he unleashed in 2020. -- Jake Trotter

20. Denver Broncos (6-6)

Previous ranking: 15

Player who must step up: QB Teddy Bridgewater

Look, the Broncos do Bridgewater no favors when they stick him in the shotgun, because they don't protect in it very well and he is already limping again with another leg injury this season. When he is under center and working play-action, the Broncos have pushed the ball down the field in the passing game. But beyond that, if this team is going to hang around in the playoff race, Bridgewater has to overcome any and all dilemmas and throw with the confidence he had before his first lower-body injury earlier this season. -- Jeff Legwold

21. Philadelphia Eagles (6-7)

Previous ranking: 23

Player who must step up: QB Jalen Hurts

It's not really Hurts vs. Gardner Minshew. It's Hurts vs. time. Hurts has four regular-season games left to convince the front office that instead of using their three first-round picks in April's draft to acquire a quarterback, they should use the resources to build around him. Hurts has had stretches this season when he has been among the most impactful quarterbacks in the game, but he has been inconsistent as a passer. If he can lead the Eagles to a postseason berth in coach Nick Sirianni's first year, it would make it all the more difficult for management to go in a different direction. -- Tim McManus

22. New Orleans Saints (5-7)

Previous ranking: 20

Player who must step up: QB Taysom Hill

This one's kind of obvious, isn't it. This could be Hill's last real chance to prove he should be considered as a legitimate QB option -- and it couldn't have started much worse than his four-interception game in Week 13. To ramp up the degree of difficulty, Hill also suffered a mallet finger injury on his throwing hand, and he is still dealing with a partially torn plantar fascia from Week 10. The good news? He could get vital reinforcements such as running back Alvin Kamara and offensive tackles Terron Armstead and Ryan Ramczyk back as early as this week. And expectations couldn't be lower for Hill -- so an unlikely playoff run could go a long way in boosting his reputation. -- Mike Triplett

23. Minnesota Vikings (5-7)

Previous ranking: 18

Player who must step up: LB Anthony Barr

A knee and subsequent hamstring injuries have limited the linebacker to playing in just six games this season, during which he has totaled 0.5 sacks and one interception, defended three passes and recorded 28 tackles. That comes on the heels of missing all but 1 games in 2020 due to a season-ending pectoral tear. The Vikings reworked Barr's contract in the offseason to make him a free agent in 2022 after paying him $9.4 million on a fully guaranteed one-year deal. Barr hasn't seen the field much over the past two seasons to justify another big payday. He'll need a strong showing in Minnesota's final five regular-season games to show he is capable of getting back to his Pro Bowl form. -- Courtney Cronin

24. Atlanta Falcons (5-7)

Previous ranking: 24

Player who must step up: WR Russell Gage

The production has started to show up more lately, including an 11-catch, 130-yard performance on Sunday. But Gageis in a contract year, and after the Falcons traded Julio Jones, it looked like Gage would be in position for a breakout season. That largely hasn't happened, as he dealt with an ankle injury and consistent inconsistency upon his return. But Gage has now been targeted seven or more times in each of the past three games, and he had his first 100-yard game on Sunday. For Atlanta to have any shot at the playoffs, it needs that production to continue. -- Michael Rothstein

25. Seattle Seahawks (4-8)

Previous ranking: 28

Player who must step up: RB Rashaad Penny

The fourth-year running back needs to prove he can stay healthy and that he can consistently produce when he gets his chances. He hasn't done either since the Seahawks drafted him 27th overall in 2018. And given that he has missed 30 of a possible 64 games (including playoffs) due to injuries over his career, Penny isn't playing for a big payday in free agency; he probably is playing just to get any sort of payday, and it will almost certainly be from another team. More performances like Sunday's will help. Penny played through a pulled hamstring he suffered two weeks ago and gained 62 yards on 11 touches. -- Brady Henderson

26. Carolina Panthers (5-7)

Previous ranking:

Player who must step up: QB Cam Newton

After a storybook beginning to his return to the Panthers, Newton fell flat with arguably the worst performance of his NFL career before the bye. The 32-year-old signal-caller is fighting to prove he deserves a job next season with the Panthers or another team. Do well over the final five games and Carolina could bring him back as the starter. Do poorly and it's hard to imagine any team giving him a chance. That Newton is still learning the system and that the Panthers fired offensive coordinator Joe Brady during the bye complicate the situation. Consistency will be key. -- David Newton

27. New York Giants (4-8)

Previous ranking: 26

Player who must step up: QB Daniel Jones

The problem here is that nobody knows if or whenJones will return from a neck injury. But it's Year 3 and there still doesn't seem to be a definitive answer as to whether he is the franchise quarterback. Internally, the Giants remain high on Jones, but even they need to see it more on the field. These final six weeks of working with a new playcaller were supposed to be an invaluable part of the evaluation process. Now ... who knows. -- Jordan Raanan

28. Chicago Bears (4-8)

Previous ranking: 27

Player who must step up: QB Justin Fields

The rookie is dealing with cracked ribs, so it remains to be seen if and/or when he can play again this season. But the Bears would surely like to get more of a look at him as they plan for next season. Whether there's a new coach and/or a new general manager, they still need to find out what kind of player they have. -- Rob Demovsky

29. New York Jets (3-9)

Previous ranking: 29

Player who must step up: QB Zach Wilson

The rookie's performance over the final five games will determine whether the Jets' season is an abject failure or a positive springboard into 2022. So far, the second overall pick has been a disappointment, with only six touchdown passes and 11 interceptions in eight starts, but he made progress in Sunday's loss to the Eagles. It was "by far" his best game in terms of playing within the structure of the offense, according to coach Robert Saleh. If Wilson can stack games like that, it will reinforce the Jets' belief that he is the right guy at the most important position. -- Rich Cimini

30. Detroit Lions (1-10-1)

Previous ranking: 32

Player who must step up: QB Jared Goff

Now that Goff has proved he can win a game without his former Los Angeles Rams coach Sean McVay, the Lions will be looking to play spoiler. During Sunday's walk-off victory against Minnesota, Goff snapped his 12-game winless streak, which was the longest by a quarterback drafted No. 1 overall since the common draft era began in 1967. The playoffs clearly aren't in the picture for the Lions. But if Goff can help Detroit finish the season with at least a few victories, maybe it can give first-year Lions coach Dan Campbell and the roster some confidence as the team continues to build for the future. -- Eric Woodyard

31. Jacksonville Jaguars (2-10)

Previous ranking: 30

Player who must step up: WR Laviska Shenault Jr.

This applies to a lot of guys (including QB Trevor Lawrence), but Shenault was supposed to be a breakout player in his second season. Instead, he isn't running routes correctly and hasn't been a consistent contributor. The Jaguars need to significantly upgrade at wide receiver, and Shenault has a month left to prove he should be part of that in 2022 and beyond -- or if he's just another guy they have to replace. Lawrence's development is at stake. -- Mike DiRocco

32. Houston Texans (2-10)

Previous ranking: 31

Player who must step up: QB Tyrod Taylor

Although it's a small sample size, Taylor got off to a good start before he injured his left hamstring in Week 2 against the Cleveland Browns. He has struggled in his return from injured reserve, and he was benched for rookie quarterback Davis Mills in Houston's Week 13 loss to the Colts. Taylor, who signed a one-year deal with the Texans, is playing for a chance to be on an NFL roster next season, but it remains to be seen if he'll get the opportunity to prove himself the rest of the way. After a blowout loss to the Colts, Texans coach David Culley wouldn't commit to Taylor keeping his starting job, saying, "When you don't score any points in the game, you evaluate everything." -- Sarah Barshop