After ranking all 32 NFL teams before the season, we’ve periodically checked in to see where each club stands. From the preseason through the halfway point, the Rams sat atop the rankings, but entering this week it looked like there’d be someone new in the top spot. Then Thursday night happened. Here’s how all the franchises stack up at the three-quarter mark of the 2018 campaign.
32. Oakland Raiders (2-9)
As a surrealist comedy act, the Jon Gruden era in Oakland has been a rousing success. As the start of an NFL regime, however, it’s been an unqualified disaster. The Raiders not only lack any discernible talent, they don’t even seem to give a shit anymore.
31. Arizona Cardinals (2-9)
The Cards have a lot of soul-searching and talent-searching to do this offseason. Arizona’s offense, led by a rotating cast of offensive coordinators, has been a trainwreck in head coach Steve Wilks’s first season. The Cardinals’ no. 1 priority this offseason should be finding a play-caller and a supporting cast that can further Josh Rosen’s development.
30. San Francisco 49ers (2-9)
San Francisco’s season was over the moment Jimmy Garoppolo tore his ACL in Week 3, but it shouldn’t have gotten this badly. Sure, injuries have ravaged the Niners entire offense, and Kyle Shanahan, one of the best play-callers in the league, was defanged as a result. But the other side of the ball has been just as ineffective, and that’s because of the poor personnel decisions John Lynch has made during in his tenure. In 2017, Lynch selected linebacker Reuben Foster in the first round of the draft. Foster was largely ineffective in his second season, and he was released last week following his latest domestic violence arrest. Fellow 2017 first-rounder Solomon Thomas has failed to blossom in this system. And the team has nothing resembling a reliable edge rusher. Outside of signing Richard Sherman, who’s enjoying a vintage season in San Francisco, it’s been nothing but swings and misses for coordinator Robert Saleh’s defense.
29. Detroit Lions (4-7)
In a shocking turn of events, hiring a defensive-minded head coach that was never really that good at coordinating defenses hasn’t improved the Lions on that side of the ball. Yet again, Detroit ranks near the bottom of the league in defensive DVOA (30th) and points allowed (24th), and much like the Niners, the Lions have failed to develop much in-house talent. (Although rookie defensive tackle Da’Shawn Hand has been a pleasant surprise.) Defensive end Ziggy Ansah may walk in free agency at the end of the season, and if he does, the Lions will be left without any real edge presence.
A struggling defense would be easier to stomach if the offense was tearing it up, but once again, Matthew Stafford’s unit has been a tantalizing letdown. A group that has this much invested in the offensive line (with first-round picks at left tackle and left guard, and expensive free agents, including the oft-injured T.J. Lang) and features playmakers like Marvin Jones Jr., Kerryon Johnson, and Kenny Golladay just shouldn’t be this mediocre.
28. New York Jets (3-8)
At this point, there’s nothing left for the Jets to do but move on from Todd Bowles. The organization should focus this offseason on doing everything in its power to surround Sam Darnold with an offensive-minded staff hell-bent on helping him improve. When you trade three second-round picks for the right to draft a QB, nothing else matters unless that quarterback succeeds.
27. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-7)
Welcome to the least interesting, most interception-plagued quarterback controversy the NFL has ever seen. Watching the Bucs flip back and forth between a 36-year-old journeyman who can’t stop throwing the ball to the other team and a former no. 1 overall pick who can’t stop throwing the ball to the other team is like watching the staff of the Titanic rearrange the deck chairs as the iceberg approaches. Tampa Bay needs to fully rebuild of this offense, and it seems more and more likely that that will include moving on from Jameis Winston.
26. Buffalo Bills (4-7)
The Bills defense is just good, full stop. The fact that head coach Sean McDermott has won four games with this offense is an absolute miracle, but that’s how good this defensive unit really is. Edge rushers Lorenzo Alexander and Jerry Hughes have been fantastic, and the secondary, led by cornerback TreDavious White, is an especially complete group. The question for Buffalo is how quickly it can turn around one of the most talent-deficient offenses the league has ever seen. It’s not as if the Bills didn’t do this to themselves. They traded away Cordy Glenn and traded for Kelvin Benjamin. They let Robert Woods walk and dealt Sammy Watkins to the Chiefs. And the top-10 pick that they traded a king’s ransom for has struggled as a result.
25. New York Giants (3-8)
If the Giants bring back Eli Manning as their starting quarterback next season, it would be the funniest thing that’s ever happened in the history of sports. Let me channel my new Ringer colleague Vince Carter for a second: It’s over. It’s time for the Giants to move on and find a young quarterback. Until that happens, the organization’s toiling will never stop.
24. Washington Redskins (6-5)
The Redskins were playing an ugly brand of football with Alex Smith under center. Now, Smith will miss the rest of the season with a gruesome leg injury, and the team is saddled with backup Colt McCoy for the remainder of the year. Washington also faces the unfortunate reality of having to pay Smith every dollar of what remains from his $74 million guaranteed over the next two seasons; that’s a huge chunk of money to shell out for a “game-manager” quarterback who’s not all that great at game managing. This organization faces a murky and daunting future.
23. Miami Dolphins (5-6)
And while we’re on the subject of organizations in strange holding patterns, let’s chat about the Dolphins. They’re 5-6, have no discernible identity, possess a lame duck quarterback, and lack anything resembling a young star on offense. Miami would be on the hook for more than $13 million in dead money next season if the team cuts Ryan Tannehill, but the Dolphins may still be in play for a rookie quarterback this offseason. Head coach Adam Gase is a fine play-caller who would be a hot commodity if Miami decided to move on this offseason, but this Dolphins regime has hit a dead end.
22. Cincinnati Bengals (5-6)
Throw the Bengals into that same “teams that could move on from their coach and quarterback this offseason” category. Andy Dalton has no guaranteed money remaining on his deal after 2018, and Cincinnati could use the occasion of firing Marvin Lewis to also hit the reset button at quarterback. Dalton is a perfectly fine passer who would get a new job within about two hours of being let go, but the Bengals are running in place right now. The defense has completely collapsed over the past month, and without A.J. Green and Tyler Eifert, the offense hasn’t been able to offset the damage.
21. Tennessee Titans (5-6)
In terms of week-to-week fluctuations, Tennessee might be the strangest team in the league. The Titans can route the Patriots one week only to be blown out by the Colts a week later. Their quarterback can complete his first 19 passes in a game yet still trail by 17 points. The first year of head coach Mike Vrabel’s career has had its bright spots—especially on defense, where Tennessee has some exciting young building blocks (even if the small fortune it handed out in free agency to Logan Ryan and Malcolm Butler hasn’t worked out like general manager Jon Robinson would have hoped). The no. 1 priority this offseason is determining what the future may hold for Marcus Mariota. He’ll almost certainly get another crack at the starting job next fall in what will be his second season under coordinator Matt LaFleur, but the clock is ticking for Mariota to solidify his long-term opportunities with the franchise.
20. Atlanta Falcons (4-7)
The Falcons were sabotaged by rash of injuries on defense this year, which was particularly disheartening since this was one of Atlanta’s last chances to take advantage of its dirt-cheap rookie contracts. Defensive tackle Grady Jarrett will be a free agent this offseason, and the Falcons would do well to re-sign him. Tevin Coleman will also hit the open market, but he’s almost sure to leave town given the money Atlanta has invested in Devonta Freeman’s contract. Next season will be the final year of linebacker Deion Jones’s rookie deal; after Atlanta’s defense fell apart without him this season, his value has never been higher.
Matt Ryan and the offense have quietly put together a phenomenal season, with Ryan putting up some of the best numbers of his career. The front office has sunk a ton of money into that side of the ball, and most of those players (outside of Coleman and guard Andy Levitre) are set to return next year. Now it’s a matter of finding some defensive line talent this offseason and hoping that the return of Jones and safeties Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen can bolster the pass defense.
19. Philadelphia Eagles (5-6)
It’s been an all-time let-down year for Philly following its magical Super Bowl run. Everything about this Eagles’ season points to just how difficult it is to sustain success in the NFL. Crucial position groups like the team’s offensive line and secondary have taken steps back, in part due to injury. The brain trust of coaching talent on offense was dismantled, as former coordinator Frank Reich and former quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo have gone on to elevated roles elsewhere. Even the most loaded NFL rosters can be fragile, and the Eagles have proven that this season.
18. Jacksonville Jaguars (3-8)
At least the Eagles won a Super Bowl before having their season from hell. For the Jags, a single fairy-tale appearance in the AFC Championship Game is all they have to show for their championship window. The decision to fully commit to Blake Bortles and tie the franchise to him financially through 2019 — without bringing in a single viable backup to challenge him — might have been the worst choice any team made this offseason. Now, the Jags have league’s most expensive roster heading into next season, and they’re on the hook for $16.5 million in dead money if (or really, when) they move on from Bortles. It’s unclear where the team goes from here. A quarterback like Andy Dalton would be attractive if the Bengals do decide to let him go, but therein lies the problem: Because Jacksonville will be on the hook to pay Bortles at least $10 million (up to $6.5 million of his dead money hit can be offset if he signs elsewhere), it would be difficult to pay the sticker price for a veteran quarterback — even a reasonably priced one like Dalton. The Jags’ best hope is that they wind up with a high-enough pick that they’re in range for a cheap rookie QB in the first round.
17. Cleveland Browns (4-6-1)
Don’t look now, but the Browns are fun! And all it took to get here was firing a head coach that never should have been brought back in the first place. Under new offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens, Baker Mayfield has been on an absolute tear with seven touchdowns and no interceptions over his previous two games. Cleveland has plenty of roster talent; the issue was whether the Browns would ever find a staff that could make the most of it. This two-game stretch has provided a glimpse of what this team could be in the coming years with Mayfield and a quality play-caller running the show.
16. Baltimore Ravens (6-5)
It’s tough to know what to make of the Ravens. They’re undeniably intriguing with Lamar Jackson at QB, but it’s unclear what the offense’s ceiling is with such an inexperienced — if thrilling — passer under center. The Ravens might be the most entertaining no. 6 seed option in the AFC, and Jackson’s progress will be worth monitoring for the rest of the season. But this year is more about planning for the future than making any type of postseason run.
15. Green Bay Packers (4-6-1)
There’s not much left to say about this team that hasn’t already been said. This organization is in limbo right now as it (likely) prepares for the post–Mike McCarthy era. I’ll hold off on the “Aaron Rodgers is actually part of the problem” take that seems to be making the rounds right now. Remember when Justin Verlander looked totally washed up in Detroit as he trudged through a series of miserable seasons, and then the moment he was traded to the Astros, he turned back into one of the best pitchers in baseball? Rodgers has carried this franchise for most of the past decade, and it’s been clear since the start of this season that his patience is wearing thin. If Green Bay brings in an elite play-caller and reshapes the offense, I have little doubt that Rodgers will be just fine.
14. Denver Broncos (5-6)
Coming off back-to-back wins over the Chargers and Steelers, the Broncos look like they could actually make a push for the AFC’s final playoff spot. Case Keenum’s play has been significantly better over the past month, and, in a lot of ways, he’s started to resemble the quarterback he was in Minnesota last season — he’s extending plays in the pocket, launching some big-time throws, and generally avoiding the turnovers that haunted him early in the season. With Emmanuel Sanders and rookie revelation Phillip Lindsay, the Broncos offense has some pop, and there are still enough key pieces on the defense to create headaches for opposing offenses. Denver has a relatively easy schedule down the stretch, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Broncos catch either the Ravens or Colts in the AFC wild-card race.
13. Carolina Panthers (6-5)
Over the first half of the season, the Panthers rejuvenated offense had this team looking like a true contender in the NFC. But after three straight losses, Carolina sits at 6-5 and is heading in the wrong direction. The offense is still capable of putting up points—as we saw last week in the team’s 30-27 loss to the Seahawks—but the Panthers’ biggest problem right now is that the defense just can’t stop anybody. Injuries in the secondary have forced backups into elevated roles, and the front four have struggled to get pressure. Despite a drastically elevated blitz rate from previous defenses under Ron Rivera, the Panthers rank just 23rd in adjusted sack rate. Cam Newton and his collection of young talent make the Panthers dangerous in any given week, but their issues on defense will doom them in the end.
12. Indianapolis Colts (6-5)
When Indy started 1-5, this season looked like another lost year as the team continued its rebuild under general manager Chris Ballard and first-year coach Frank Reich. But now, the Colts have collected five-straight wins and are absolutely rolling. Reich’s offense has unlocked Andrew Luck, who’s thrown at least three touchdown passes in a ridiculous eight-straight games. The two areas where the Colts needed to improve the most in the post–Ryan Grigson era — the offensive line and the middle part of their defense — both got massive infusions of talent this offseason with Quenton Nelson and Darius Leonard, respectively. The Colts still have some work to do if they want to climb into the league’s upper echelon, and with a projected $124 million in cap space for 2019 and an extra second-round pick that figures to be in the mid-30s, they’ll have the resources to do it. But it isn’t quite time to look ahead to next season in Indy. With Luck playing this well, the Colts could be a scary team to face in the playoffs if they manage to land the no. 6 seed.
11. Seattle Seahawks (6-5)
The same can be said of Russell Wilson and the Seahawks. Football is just more fun when Luck and Wilson are firing missiles all over the field and leading high-powered offenses. Right now, due to some improvements to the offensive line, a revived running game, and a play-action-heavy deep-passing game, Seattle’s offense is playing at a level not seen since Wilson’s lights-out run to close the 2015 season. Similar to Luck and the Colts, Wilson would be a formidable opponent for any team in the wild-card round.
10. Minnesota Vikings (6-4-1)
The Vikings’ flaws are still glaring, especially along the offensive line, but even a reduced version of this Minnesota team is dangerous. After a puzzling start to the season, Mike Zimmer’s defense is back. The Vikings have stifled their previous three opponents, and they’re also the only team to actually give Drew Brees any problems this season. Having Dalvin Cook back to create some big plays as a receiver out of the backfield will help this offense find its form, especially considering how little time Kirk Cousins has had to throw the ball for much of the season. Minnesota may not be the juggernaut some expected coming into the year, but this team firmly has the upper hand in the NFC’s wild-card hunt.
9. Dallas Cowboys (7-5)
Well, that was one hell of a win. The Cowboys defense deserves plenty of credit for Thursday’s 13-10 victory over the Saints. Its lockdown effort against Drew Brees and the Saints offense, which had looked borderline unstoppable before this week, was the best performance by any group on that side of the ball all season. Dallas’s front four got after Brees in a way few pass rushers do, with DeMarcus Lawrence leading the way. First-round pick Leighton Vander Esch looks like the future centerpiece of this defense, and, paired with Jaylon Smith in the middle, the Cowboys could have the most athletic pair of off-ball linebackers in the league.
On offense, Dak Prescott and the passing game have taken a significant step forward with wide receiver Amari Cooper in the lineup. When analysts were evaluating the team’s trade for Cooper in October, many failed to account for the rule that necessitates that every player who leaves Jon Gruden’s Raiders suddenly becomes a dominant force. Cooper lit up Washington’s defense on Thanksgiving, and that deal appears to have altered Dallas’s season. With a fearsome defense and a rejuvenated offense, the Cowboys could throw a wrench in the NFC playoff picture.
8. Houston Texans (8-3)
Houston seemed dead in the water following its 0-3 start, but after rattling off eight straight wins, the Texans look like a lock to win the AFC South. Outside of a routine outing in Washington, Deshaun Watson has been on fire as of late, and when he’s at his best, the Texans’ pass protection woes are easier to ignore. Watson’s ability to dart around in the pocket, extend plays, and find big chunks of yardage downfield makes Houston’s offense frightening on every single drop back. Paired with a defense led by a healthy J.J. Watt and a stacked front four, the Texans have a notably high ceiling. The best version of this team could present real problems to just about any opponent in the AFC.
7. New England Patriots (8-3)
It’s tough to know exactly what to think about the Patriots. Yes, they’ve looked underwhelming as of late, but it still feels like they’ll inevitably find their way to another AFC title by the end of the season. Last week’s win over the Jets showed just how more firepower New England has when Rob Gronkowski is making plays down the field. If the Patriots can get more from Gronk down the stretch, this offense could easily find another gear.
6. Pittsburgh Steelers (7-3-1)
Goodness, are the Steelers frustrating. Pittsburgh followed up its blowout Week 10 win over the Panthers with a horrendous outing against the Jags (which the Steelers only won thanks to Jacksonville’s offensive incompetence) and a loss to the Broncos that featured plenty of big plays but just as many back-breaking mistakes. The combination of the Steelers’ pass-catching talent and one of the league’s best offensive lines makes this offense intriguing every week. Their outlook is almost entirely dependent on which Ben Roethlisberger shows up over the final month of the season.
5. Chicago Bears (8-3)
It pains me to do this, but at a certain point, I have to acknowledge that the Bears are just good. Chicago’s defense is clearly the best unit in the league, and it’s the sort of group that can actually be relevant going up against high-flying, modern NFL offenses. The Bears feast on game-swinging plays, and they’re stacked with guys who can make them. Eddie Jackson’s run of defensive touchdowns may seem fluky, but some players just have a knack for sniffing out the ball — Ed Reed, for example, returned seven interceptions for touchdowns over the course of his career. When you’re constantly around the ball and jumping routes from a mile away, it’s easier to fend off regression. Khalil Mack also seems to be good for one monster play each game. If the Bears can stay healthy on defense, their fate in the NFC playoff race will be determined by how this offense fares when Mitchell Trubisky returns. If Trubisky can avoid some of the maddening decision-making that plagued him early in the year, head coach Matt Nagy’s scheme and the Bears’ talented collection of pass catchers will be enough to make this group potent against the middling defenses at the top of the NFC.
4. Los Angeles Chargers (8-3)
This Chargers team is finally playing to its talent level. Philip Rivers has been fantastic all season, and this passing attack has torched defenses all year. Losing Melvin Gordon for a few weeks will be tough, especially with a game against the Steelers looming on Sunday, but Austin Ekeler should serve as a capable replacement. The best news for L.A. is that Joey Bosa is back and has the Chargers defense rounding into form. This group currently ranks sixth in pass defense DVOA, and they should be even better with Bosa terrorizing opposing quarterbacks. The Chargers are for real, and they deserve mention alongside the best teams in the league.
3. New Orleans Saints (10-2)
One lackluster performance shouldn’t sour anyone on the Saints’ Super Bowl hopes. During a season when the Rams and Chiefs can score 28 points in their sleep, though, a 10-point clunker was enough to knock New Orleans from the top spot. Brees and this offense may have stalled against a solid Dallas defense, but he’s still assembling one of the best seasons a quarterback has ever had. He’s completing 75.5 percent of his passes while averaging 9.7 adjusted yards per attempt. That shouldn’t even be possible, but here we are. Losing left tackle Terron Armstead to a pectoral injury allowed the Cowboys pass rush to put more heat on Brees than any other team has this season. Yet historically, no QB in the league is better at mitigating pressure. The Saints offense will be just fine, and their defense continues to excel after a brutal start to the season.
2. Kansas City Chiefs (9-2)
What’s left to say about the Chiefs offense, really? With Patrick Mahomes II at quarterback, this group looks like it was sent from the future. If you showed tape of the 2018 Chiefs to a team from the 1970s, they’d ask how aliens learned to play football. This offense is Andy Reid’s masterpiece, and it’s been years in the making. The Chiefs leaky defense could still be their undoing in the end, but the pass rush — led by Dee Ford, Chris Jones, and a revitalized Justin Houston — gives this group a chance to affect the game at any moment. There have also been reports that the Chiefs will be getting Eric Berry back at some point the next couple weeks, which should bolster their struggling secondary.
1. Los Angeles Rams (10-1)
It’s amazing how similar the Chiefs’ and Rams’ profiles are at this stage. They both have world-destroying offenses led by great young quarterbacks and virtuoso play-callers. Both of their defenses depend on star pass rushers to make game-changing plays. And both teams are getting a huge boosts to their defensive backfields for the home stretch. The Rams have sorely missed Aqib Talib since he went down with an ankle injury earlier this year, and his return will be a boon for a pass defense that’s been shredded for much of the year. If Talib can give this unit even a slight lift, it could go a long way in determining whether the Rams truly are the team to beat. Because Sean McVay’s offense isn’t going anywhere.