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NFL Midseason Power Rankings: The Patriots, 49ers, and Their Historic Defenses Reign

It’s no surprise that New England has held its place atop the AFC, but the NFC race is heating up. Can the new-look Packers and Drew Brees–led Saints give San Francisco a run for its money?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It’s no surprise that the Patriots have been the NFL’s best team over the first half of the season—but that’s pretty much the only aspect of this year that’s been easy to predict. Through eight weeks, the Saints have been dominant without Drew Brees. The Chiefs have been forced to get by without Patrick Mahomes. And the Packers look like a different team under Matt LaFleur. At the midway point of the season, let’s see where all 32 teams stack up.

32. Washington Redskins (1-7)

It doesn’t matter that Washington beat the Dolphins earlier this season. This is the most moribund franchise in the NFL. If I could put the Redskins lower than no. 32 on this list, I would. I wrote a more fleshed out screed against team president Bruce Allen and owner Dan Snyder two weeks ago, and somehow, they’ve provided even more material in the time since it was published. After publicly stating for months that Washington wasn’t going to deal Trent Williams, Allen reversed course and did listen to offers for his All-Pro left tackle. This news was leaked hours before the trade deadline, which definitely seems like a sound bargaining strategy. Williams didn’t end up being traded after all, and he reported to the team this week but has refused to practice. On Thursday, Williams revealed that he’d undergone treatment for a rare form of cancer earlier this year, which the team’s doctors had failed to recognize. The entire situation is a mess.

I’m not sure I can remember an NFL franchise that’s been this shameless in showing its fans that it has no interest in trying to build a real football team.

31. Miami Dolphins (0-7)

In about two hours on Tuesday, the Dolphins got a fifth-round pick from the Rams in exchange for taking on Aqib Talib’s contract, and they put Xavien Howard on IR, even though there was no structural damage to the cornerback’s MCL or ACL. This is bottoming out done right, folks. It’s beautiful.

30. Cincinnati Bengals (0-8)

Cincinnati benched Andy Dalton earlier this week, as if he were the real problem here. The Bengals are almost completely devoid of talent on both sides of the ball, they employ a first-year head coach who’s been unable to elevate what little talent the roster does have, and they follow one of the most outdated team-building plans in football. Other than that, everything is great. At this point, the Bengals’ future is all about who they select with the top-three pick they’re almost certain to receive next spring. Everything until then—including the play of rookie quarterback Ryan Finley—is likely just filler.

29. New York Jets (1-6)

The Jets are dead last in offensive DVOA … in a season when the Dolphins are actively trying to lose. It’d be easy to blame the struggling offense on Sam Darnold’s extended mono-related absence, but plenty of teams have been forced to get by with backup quarterbacks this season. Adam Gase was sold as an offensive guru when he was hired as the team’s head coach in January, but even with Darnold in the lineup, this group looks rudderless.

28. Atlanta Falcons (1-7)

The Dan Quinn era has likely run its course in Atlanta. When Quinn took over as the team’s defensive play-caller ahead of the season, that unit was supposed to take a step forward. Instead, the pass defense has gotten worse. For a team that’s projected to be over the cap in 2020 and is built to win right now, it’s been a nightmare season.

27. New York Giants (2-6)

This season is all about Daniel Jones’s development, which makes his monster performance against the Lions last week (322 yards and four touchdowns on 28-of-41 passing) an encouraging sign. With their primary pass catchers all under contract for the foreseeable future and the offensive line (relatively) improved, the Giants have the infrastructure in place to provide a reasonably hospitable environment for Jones. The same optimism doesn’t apply to the defense, though. General manager Dave Gettleman tried to rectify things at the deadline by trading a third-round pick in 2020 and a fifth-round pick in 2021 to the Jets for defensive lineman Leonard Williams, but that was a curious move considering Williams will be a free agent this spring. Trading a third-round pick for an interior lineman just to sign him to a long-term contract would be the most Dave Gettleman move in history.

26. Arizona Cardinals (3-5-1)

The Kliff Kingsbury–Kyler Murray partnership has promise, and that makes the 2019 Cardinals at least somewhat of a success story. Arizona still lacks high-end talent on defense and needs a serious overhaul to its offensive line and pass-catching corps, but so far, Murray looks like he was certainly worth the no. 1 pick.

25. Denver Broncos (2-6)

Denver’s offense has been a mess with a statuesque Joe Flacco playing behind a pair of below-average offensive tackles, and this group isn’t likely to get much better now that Brandon Allen is taking over under center following Flacco’s neck injury. It would make sense for Denver to activate second-round pick Drew Lock from injured reserve at some point this season to get their supposed QB of the future some experience, but general manager John Elway has given no indication that will happen anytime soon. Denver’s recent history of muddled quarterback situations may not be as dysfunctional as Washington’s, but it’s not far off.

24. Tennessee Titans (4-4)

By benching starting quarterback Marcus Mariota in Week 7, the Titans essentially declared that the former no. 2 pick won’t be a part of their long-term future. Tennessee’s offense has looked moderately better with Ryan Tannehill under center, but the former Dolphins starter likely isn’t the answer either. The Titans have been stuck in neutral for years despite having a decent amount of talent on both sides of the ball. How general manager Jon Robinson chooses to find his next quarterback will be the question of the offseason.

23. Pittsburgh Steelers (3-4)

Pittsburgh may have three W’s, but two of those have come over the winless Bengals and Dolphins. The Steelers have more elite pieces than any other bad team (T.J. Watt, Cam Heyward, JuJu Smith-Schuster, a solid offensive line, and a couple of underrated corners), but third-rate quarterback play and a top-heavy roster have held this team back. We’ll see what happens when Ben Roethlisberger (possibly) returns in 2020 from his injured elbow, but it’s starting to feel like Pittsburgh’s window to compete has closed.

22. Cleveland Browns (2-5)

After a deluge of preseason hype about this team, the first half of the season has gone about as badly as anyone could have imagined. The offense has taken a severe step back in the second year of the Freddie Kitchens–Baker Mayfield partnership, the offensive line continues to struggle, and the defense has regressed under first-year coordinator Steve Wilks. Staring up at the Ravens in the AFC North, with the Bills and multiple AFC South teams vying for the conference’s two wild-card spots, this is starting to look like a lost season for a team that many picked to make the playoffs. The sheer amount of talent on this roster may have the Browns’ brass taking a serious look at Kitchens’s future this offseason.

21. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-5)

With the Bucs’ playoff hopes gone, recently extended general manager Jason Licht and head coach Bruce Arians are now tasked with figuring out what the hell Tampa Bay will do this offseason. The Bucs have the guts of a solid team. Mike Evans and Chris Godwin make up arguably the top receiver duo in the league right now. The offensive line is a steady group in need of a new right tackle. The secondary needs an overhaul (for what seems like the fifth straight season), but coordinator Todd Bowles is a quality defensive play-caller and should be able to get new players up and running quickly. Tampa Bay could also come in to the offseason with close to $100 million in cap space if the front office makes a few logical cuts. The most pressing question, though, is what Licht will do with Jameis Winston. The former no. 1 overall pick is set to hit free agency this spring, and at this point, there’s no reason to believe that his tendency to turn the ball over and torpedo this offense is going away anytime soon.

20. Chicago Bears (3-4)

Sigh. Chicago’s honeymoon with Mitchell Trubisky is officially over. The former no. 2 pick has failed to progress in his second year with head coach Matt Nagy, and the Bears offense has cratered as a result. General manager Ryan Pace will have to decide this spring whether to pick up Trubisky’s fifth-year option, and at this point, doing so would be hard to rationalize. Enough of Chicago’s roster will still be intact next year for this team to compete if it gets better quarterback play, but after coming in to the season harboring Super Bowl hopes, Bears fans are in a bad, bad place right now.

19. Los Angeles Chargers (3-5)

Anytime a team fires its offensive coordinator before Halloween, things probably aren’t going well. But letting Ken Whisenhunt go won’t solve the Chargers’ problems. The offensive line is in tatters, even after the return of left tackle Russell Okung. Injuries have decimated the back end of a once-dominant pass defense. The Chargers still aren’t completely out of the playoff hunt, and there’s plenty of talent lining this roster. But Anthony Lynn’s team is no longer in a position to push the elite teams in the AFC.

18. Oakland Raiders (3-4)

The Raiders defense is a serious problem, but Oakland’s offense has been a pleasant surprise in its second season under Jon Gruden. After a horrid 2018, the offensive line is actually playing pretty well! Second-year left tackle Kolton Miller is one of the most improved players in the NFL; high-priced free agent acquisition Trent Brown has been great at right tackle; and Rodney Hudson remains of the best centers in the league. Better play up front and the addition of excellent rookie running back Josh Jacobs have given Oakland one of the league’s most efficient running games, and Derek Carr has looked like a different quarterback this season, even without many pass-catching weapons. The Raiders’ roster still has some notable holes (especially at wide receiver and, well, every position on defense), but this team has shown real progress—plus Oakland has multiple first-round picks to restock the roster.

17. Buffalo Bills (5-2)

The defense has fallen off after a blazing-hot start, but I still believe in the talent Buffalo has on that side of the ball. The Bills will need that unit to carry them if they want to sneak into the playoffs, because this offense is still a work in progress. Josh Allen has made strides with his intermediate and short-area ball placement, but Buffalo’s deep-passing game is broken. The Bills have a soft schedule during the next month, though—including matchups against Washington and Miami—and they could sneak into the playoffs at 10-6 before getting throttled by a top-tier team on wild-card weekend.

16. Jacksonville Jaguars (4-4)

As Ringer colleague Kevin Clark and I discussed on Thursday’s Ringer NFL Show podcast, the Jags are one of the strangest teams of this NFL season. That’s mostly a product of rookie quarterback Gardner Minshew II adding a new dimension to Jacksonville’s passing game, but the emergence of second-year receiver DJ Chark has also been a surprising wrinkle. The Jags offense is … fun? And that’s just not a development that many saw coming. Pair that passing game with a dominant defensive front four that includes Calais Campbell, Yannick Ngakoue, and breakout rookie Josh Allen, and the Jags have a ceiling that few teams in the NFL’s middle class can match.

15. Detroit Lions (3-3-1)

At 31 years old, Matthew Stafford is playing the best football of his career. He’s been lights out the past two weeks, including a toe-to-toe battle with the scorching Kirk Cousins in Detroit’s Week 7 loss to the Vikings. The Lions currently rank fifth (!) in passing DVOA, but Detroit’s offense has been held back by its misguided commitment to a lackluster running game (one that won’t be getting any better with Kerryon Johnson on IR). With its excellent QB play, middling defense, and confounding love of a struggling ground game, this year’s Lions feel strangely similar to the 2018 Seahawks. Which is fitting, considering Detroit employs former Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, and stellar slot cornerback Justin Coleman came over from Seattle as a free agent this spring.

14. Carolina Panthers (4-3)

The Panthers ran into a buzz saw last weekend in San Francisco, but this is still one of the most complete rosters in the NFL. Carolina’s pass defense—led by one of the league’s best pass rushes—has been fantastic, and Christian McCaffrey has carried the offense as both a runner and a receiver. Backup quarterback Kyle Allen has performed admirably in relief of the injured Cam Newton, but Carolina has a defined ceiling with him at the helm. Head coach Ron Rivera may look back on this loaded roster at the end of the season and wonder what might have been.

13. Indianapolis Colts (5-2)

Head coach Frank Reich has held this team together with Scotch tape and paper clips. Andrew Luck’s retirement alone would have been enough to ruin the Colts’ season, but Indy has also dealt with injuries to starters like Darius Leonard, Malik Hooker, and T.Y. Hilton. Reich has ridden the league’s most dominant offensive line, running back Marlon Mack, and a play-action-based passing attack that’s aided quarterback Jacoby Brissett. The Colts have overcome more obstacles this season than most franchises could dream of, and they’re in position for an unlikely playoff berth.

12. Houston Texans (5-3)

J.J. Watt’s season-ending pectoral injury is a crushing blow to a defense that was already reeling, but Deshaun Watson is playing well enough to make this team a legitimate contender for a first-round bye. Will Fuller’s hamstring injury robs Houston’s passing game of a dynamic option that helps unlock DeAndre Hopkins, but the Texans still have more than enough juice to keep pace in any shootout.

11. Philadelphia Eagles (4-4)

The Eagles are maddening. Philly’s secondary had a bounceback game against the Bills, but they’ll continue to struggle against more potent passing attacks. Even so, the Eagles’ performance last week is a reminder of just how dangerous Doug Pederson’s guys can be. The offensive line is still among the best in the NFL, and Pederson seems to be figuring out how to use his dual-threat backfield of Miles Sanders and Jordan Howard. Fletcher Cox and the rest of the pass rush are still capable of taking over entire games. And quarterback Carson Wentz could welcome DeSean Jackson back into the fold this week, which would be a huge boon for the passing game. Despite the slow start, Philly has hung around for just long enough to potentially make some noise in the NFC playoff picture.

10. Los Angeles Rams (5-3)

The Rams have had a difficult time overcoming their porous offensive line, but the passing game has shown life in recent weeks. Much of that is due to Cooper Kupp, who is on pace for more than 100 catches, 1,500 yards, and 10 touchdowns this season. If he can get there, it’d go down as one of the best receiving seasons in NFL history—and the guy is coming off a torn ACL. But if this team is going to sneak into the playoffs, it’ll be on the strength of its defense. Cornerback Troy Hill has played so well that Marcus Peters became expendable, and Jalen Ramsey, who the team acquired at the trade deadline, should settle into this system soon enough. It’s been a trying season for Sean McVay’s group, but the Rams have managed to stay alive long enough to possibly make a postseason run.

9. Seattle Seahawks (6-2)

It’s been a rough year for Seattle’s defense, and Pete Carroll’s conservative decision-making has burned the Seahawks multiple times. But Russell Wilson has been so good that it’s barely mattered. Wilson leads the NFL with 22 big-time throws, according to Pro Football Focus. He’s averaging 9.9 air yards per attempt and is somehow still completing a ridiculous 68.4 percent of his passes. He’s been the best player in the league through half the season, and it’s made the Seahawks a contender in the NFC.

8. Baltimore Ravens (5-2)

Lamar Jackson is putting together a season unlike any other in NFL history. No quarterback has ever thrown for 3,000 yards while rushing for 1,000. Jackson is on pace for more than 3,700 yards passing and 1,300 yards rushing. He’s arguably the most dangerous ball carrier in the league, which is terrifying considering he’s also made huge strides as a passer in his second season. He’s a one-of-a-kind challenge for any defensive coordinator, and so far, no one has been able to truly solve him. It helps that Baltimore’s offense is full of complementary pieces, both up front and in the pass-catching corps. Playmaking tight end Mark Andrews is a perfect fit in this scheme as a field-stretcher up the seam; rookie speedster Marquise Brown currently ranks 16th in the league in yards per route run; and Ronnie Stanley has been the best pass-protecting left tackle in the league.

7. Dallas Cowboys (4-3)

Some might say a three-loss team doesn’t belong ahead of the Seahawks or Ravens, but when things have been clicking for the Cowboys, they’ve just been that good. Dallas ranks first in offensive DVOA, and Dak Prescott is playing the best football of his career. The Cowboys have dealt with injuries to Tyron Smith, La’el Collins, and Michael Gallup, but now all three are back in the lineup and we should expect more scorching performances from first-year coordinator Kellen Moore’s group. The defense has fallen off a bit from where it was a season ago, but the newly acquired Michael Bennett should provide a boost to the interior pass rush that passing game coordinator Kris Richard’s unit has been missing.

6. Minnesota Vikings (6-2)

Kirk Cousins has basically played perfect football over the past month. He has completed 78.5 percent of his passes with 10 touchdowns and a single interception over the Vikings’ past four games, while averaging an absurd 12.2 adjusted yards per attempt. Minnesota’s offense has settled into a groove in its first full season under offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski, deftly blending a dominant running game with a play-action-heavy passing attack. Dalvin Cook has been unstoppable on the ground, and he’s added a ton of value as a receiver. If the offense continues to play at even close to this level, Mike Zimmer’s team will be a full-blown contender. Because while some pieces of the defense have struggled (notably cornerback Xavier Rhodes), this is still one of the best units in football led by a fantastic defensive coaching staff.

5. Kansas City Chiefs (5-3)

The Chiefs almost need an asterisk next to their ranking. Kansas City is buying time until Patrick Mahomes comes back from his knee injury, but in a watered-down AFC West, that shouldn’t be a problem. Even up against tougher competition like the excellent Packers defense his team faced last week, Andy Reid has proved that he can still devise a high-powered offense with backup QB Matt Moore at the controls. Moore used play-action on 43.6 percent of his dropbacks—the second-highest rate of any QB in Week 8—and averaged 3.9 more yards per attempt on those throws than traditional dropback passes. Reid also used a dizzying array of motions and creative route combinations to put Green Bay’s defense in a bind. When Mahomes is the field making his patented no-look and holy shit throws, it’s easy to forget just how brilliant Reid really is. If Mahomes returns sooner rather than later, the Chiefs will still be the favorite to secure the no. 2 seed in the AFC.

4. Green Bay Packers (7-1)

Head coach Matt LaFleur has unlocked Aaron Jones in the passing game, which could serve as the offense’s “Happy learned how to putt” moment. Running backs were rarely a part of the passing game under former coach Mike McCarthy, but with Davante Adams sidelined with a turf toe injury, Jones has become arguably the most important pass-catching weapon in this offense. With half a season in LaFleur’s scheme, Aaron Rodgers has started to look like Aaron Rodgers again, and Green Bay’s defense has been excellent with Za’Darius and Preston Smith terrorizing quarterbacks. The Packers are in serious contention for home-field advantage in the NFC playoffs, and absolutely no one wants to play at Lambeau Field when the cold sets in.

3. New Orleans Saints (7-1)

Sean Payton’s team might have something to say about that, though. This season has been Payton’s masterpiece. Without Drew Brees for five and a half games, New Orleans went 5-1 with backup QB Teddy Bridgewater under center, and the Saints’ decision to retain him this spring now looks like one of the most brilliant moves of the offseason. Bridgewater was especially excellent over his last three games, completing 67.6 percent of his passes while averaging 8.6 adjusted yards per attempt. New Orleans didn’t simply manage to stay afloat with Brees on the bench. This team thrived. And since Brees returned to the lineup last Sunday against Arizona, New Orleans looks like the most complete team in the NFC.

2. San Francisco 49ers (8-0)

The Niners’ vaunted defense had a few rough moments against the Cardinals on Thursday night, but Jimmy Garoppolo’s brilliance still pushed San Francisco past a feisty Arizona team. Head coach Kyle Shanahan remains one of the game’s premier offensive minds. San Francisco’s running game and its array of screen passes are arguably the most creative in the league, and the passing game should only get better with recently acquired Emmanuel Sanders in the lineup. Combine that with a defense led by Defensive Player of the Year candidate Nick Bosa, and you get one frightening team. There’s nothing fluky about the Niners’ undefeated start.

1. New England Patriots (8-0)

What else is there to say? Just as New England’s offense started to decline, Bill Belichick has managed to build the best statistical defense that the NFL has ever seen. The Patriots’ ability to send extra rushers after the quarterback while playing sticky man coverage behind those blitzes has made this group a nightmare to deal with. The Pats have easily the best secondary in football, and former Browns cast-off Jamie Collins has been one of the top defensive players in the league this season. No matter what an offense chooses to throw at them, the Patriots are going to have an answer. New England is once again the favorite to win it all.