Thanksgiving is synonymous with football, but that connection is about more than holiday turkey bowls and the annual Lions snoozefest that knocks you out way before the tryptophan sets in. An NFL executive recently told me that you don’t really know what type of team you have until turkey day. This is the time of year when teams crystallize into the final version they’ll be for a given season. Which makes this the perfect time to deliver the three-quarter-season NFL power rankings.
32. Cincinnati Bengals (0-11)
I’ll just put it this way: On this week’s episode of The Ringer NFL Show, a listener asked us whether there’s anything positive to say about the 2019 Bengals.
The answer is no.
31. Washington Redskins (2-9)
Washington managed to beat a Jeff Driskel–led Lions team on Sunday, which is about as impressive a feat as it sounds. The most notable thing that actually took place for Washington that day was when Dwayne Haskins missed the final kneel-down because he was taking selfies with fans behind Washington’s bench. Personally, I see no issue with that. People are paying less money for a ticket to FedEx Field these days than you’d have to shell out to see the Charlie’s Angels reboot. At this point, they should be letting paying customers stand on the sideline in uniform.
30. New York Giants (2-9)
Even when the Giants struggled in recent years, they at least had Saquon Barkley or Odell Beckham Jr. to bring a dash of excitement now and again. But with Barkley banged up this season, there just hasn’t been much to enjoy about this Giants team. Daniel Jones had some promising early moments, but he continues to put the ball on the ground way too often. All that’s left for Giants fans is the hope that better days are ahead in 2020. General manager Dave Gettleman can essentially clear the decks on the team’s cap this offseason if he so chooses, but there’s little reason to think he’s the guy to successfully navigate $80 million in cap space. This is someone who traded a 2020 third-round pick (and a 2021 fifth-round pick) to the Jets last month for Leonard Williams—and he’s set to hit free agency after the season. Gettleman has assured everyone that he has a plan. I’d love to find out what it is.
29. Miami Dolphins (2-9)
Even the best-laid plans, etc., etc. Miami’s Fish Tank seemed like a sound strategy heading into this season for a franchise that badly needed a jump-start. General manager Chris Grier did a strong job accumulating assets and getting this team ready for a smart rebuild. But that vision has taken a hit over the past month. Miami has been playing almost too well lately, and though that bodes well for the team’s short-term future under coach Brian Flores, it may slow down the franchise’s ideal timeline. Cincinnati is now a virtual lock to earn the first pick in the 2020 draft. The Bengals will likely take the top available quarterback, and given Tua Tagovailoa’s uncertain health status, the right guy may not be available for Miami in the first round. Still, this team has a lot of draft capital over the next two years and a clean salary-cap slate. The train is at least headed in the right direction, which is more than you can say about some of the other teams at the bottom of this list.
28. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-7)
Before hiring Bruce Arians as their head coach this offseason, the Bucs were a team with no discernible vision heading nowhere fast. Now … they’re still a team with no discernible vision heading nowhere fast. It’s time to put an end to the Jameis Winston era, blow up the roster, and start from scratch. Thankfully, that shouldn’t take too much work. The Bucs could have upward of $100 million in cap space next spring without making a single cut, and several of their second-contract players have no guaranteed money remaining on their deals. Tampa Bay could conceivably walk into free agency with a roster of Mike Evans, left tackle Donovan Smith, linebacker Lavonte David, center Ryan Jensen, and nothing else but players on rookie contracts (including budding stars Chris Godwin and Vita Vea). That’s not the worst starting point for a team in desperate need of reshaping.
27. Denver Broncos (3-8)
The Broncos’ future is a total mystery at this point. Denver’s quarterback situation is one of the biggest messes in the league: Drew Lock hasn’t played at all this year, making his rookie season a total bust; Joe Flacco will count for $13.6 million in dead money if he’s cut this offseason. John Elway has shown no signs that he should be the guy to make the decision about the team’s direction at QB. And the uncertainty surrounding Denver’s ownership situation may prevent the franchise from replacing Elway this offseason. It’s hard to figure out what the Broncos even are right now. Courtland Sutton has been excellent in his second season! I guess that’s a good thing?
26. Atlanta Falcons (3-8)
I wrote about Dan Quinn’s future and the Falcons’ (shockingly) expensive 2020 roster last month. Atlanta managed to win a couple of games since then, but the concern about the team’s outlook remains the same.
25. Jacksonville Jaguars (4-7)
During the height of Minshew Mania, it felt like the Jags might at least be entertaining this season. But those days are over. Jacksonville has been blown out the past two weeks with Nick Foles back in the lineup. The blame for those lopsided losses goes mostly to the defense for allowing 75 combined points to Jacoby Brissett and Ryan Tannehill, but regardless of who’s at fault, the fun is over in Jacksonville. There could be some serious changes this offseason for a team that already flipped Jalen Ramsey to the Rams for two first-round picks.
24. New York Jets (4-7)
Man, did the Jets need this winning streak. Things looked bleak for this team during Sam Darnold’s interception-filled October, but the Jets have won three games in a row, and their dismantling of the Raiders on Sunday was one of the most impressive beatdowns of the season. (Right up there with the ass-kicking the Jets gave the Cowboys last month. This team is weird.) Even though the Jets will fall short of the postseason this season, it was crucial for Darnold to show some promising signs for the future. And he’s done that in the past month. Jamal Adams has also emerged as one of the coolest defensive players in football. He’s tallied 6.5 sacks in the Jets’ past four games, and he looks like the best pass-rushing defensive back in the NFL. After trading Leonard Williams and losing C.J. Mosley to injury, this defense is better than it has any right to be.
23. Detroit Lions (3-7-1)
As currently constructed, the Lions probably deserve to be lower on this list, but I don’t want to knock them too much for the way they’ve played without Matthew Stafford. Detroit’s offense looked genuinely explosive with Stafford pushing the ball downfield earlier this season, but this group has looked lost with Jeff Driskel under center. Whatever flashes this passing game showed early on, though, don’t make up for the defense’s lack of progress. After spending significant money on free agents like Justin Coleman and Trey Flowers, this unit was supposed to be better than 24th in defensive DVOA.
22. Arizona Cardinals (3-7-1)
A year after finishing with a historically terrible offense, Arizona currently ranks eighth in DVOA. Eighth! Kyler Murray has looked like the real deal in his rookie season, and head coach Kliff Kingsbury has built an interesting offense with plenty of cool wrinkles. Considering the state of this team last season, those encouraging signs alone make this year a relative success. Plus, Kingsbury has also corrected course on his maddeningly conservative fourth-down decision-making from early in the season. Progress is a good thing!
21. Carolina Panthers (5-6)
It’s not all that surprising that Carolina’s offense has stumbled at times with Cam Newton injured and backup quarterback Kyle Allen starting. The Panthers’ defensive struggles, on the other hand, were harder to see coming. Carolina was blasted by opposing offenses in recent weeks. And another lackluster season will create plenty of uncertainty this offseason. With only one year remaining on his contract, Newton’s future remains murky. Ron Rivera’s job may be in jeopardy with a second consecutive losing season in play. Owner David Tepper already put his imprint on the franchise during the past year by beefing up the team’s analytics department, and it’s possible that he could finish off his reboot by making changes at the highest levels of the organization.
20. Los Angeles Chargers (4-7)
Is this the end of the Philip Rivers era in Southern California? That will be the biggest question for the Chargers this offseason as the team prepares to move into its new stadium. Rivers is in the final year of his deal, and the Chargers offense has cratered in the past couple of weeks. The organization could look to snag a quarterback in the first round of the draft as a way to stir up interest in the franchise, but it’s also feasible that the Spanos family could coax Rivers back for one more season while the front office uses its resources to stock the roster. The Chargers still have plenty of talented pieces on both sides of the ball (including Keenan Allen, Joey Bosa, Melvin Ingram, Casey Hayward, and Derwin James, who’s set to return from injured reserve this week), but the offensive line issues have to be addressed this offseason.
19. Chicago Bears (5-6)
Khalil Mack and the Bears defense terrorized the Giants last week, which was a welcome sight for a unit that’s had trouble carrying Chicago’s dormant offense. Mitchell Trubisky showed some signs of life as well, but that’s not saying much. The offense has looked out of sorts the entire season as both Trubisky and head coach Matt Nagy have failed to make much progress in their second season together. There’s no way around it: For a team that came into 2019 harboring Super Bowl aspirations, this season has been a massive letdown.
18. Pittsburgh Steelers (6-5)
So maybe Mason Rudolph won’t end up being Ben Roethlisberger’s successor in Pittsburgh after all. Rudolph was benched last week in favor of Duck Hodges, which is … a sentence. Turning to Hodges was a last-ditch effort to save a lifeless Pittsburgh offense, but the truth is that any hope the Steelers have to make the playoffs rests with their defense. That group has been fantastic thanks to its terrifying defensive front and solid secondary play led by in-season acquisition Minkah Fitzpatrick. Pittsburgh has a promising young core and should be a serious contender in the AFC next season if Ben Roethlisberger can get healthy. But at this point, the stagnant offense could keep the Steelers out of the playoffs.
17. Los Angeles Rams (6-5)
It’s hard for a football team to get more thoroughly dominated than the Rams did on Monday night. Their defense had absolutely no answer for Lamar Jackson (though to be fair, no team really has this season), and the offense managed just 221 yards despite trailing by at least four scores for most of the second half. The hope for Rams fans now is that this season is only a speed bump in the Sean McVay–Jared Goff partnership—but that rationalization feels more delusional by the week. The Rams offense currently ranks 22nd in DVOA and seems to be headed in the wrong direction. For a team that just handed its quarterback $110 million guaranteed and traded away its next two first-round picks for Jalen Ramsey, this season has been a worst-case scenario.
16. Cleveland Browns (5-6)
Cleveland has benefited from a paper-thin schedule in recent weeks, but this team has also taken tangible steps to correct some of its deficiencies. Baker Mayfield’s completion percentage is 13.2 percentage points higher with play-action this year—by far the largest gap in the NFL—and in the past month, Cleveland has used play fakes on a league-high 40 percent of dropbacks. This offense is in a better rhythm with Mayfield leaning on RPOs and getting the ball out quickly, and head coach Freddie Kitchens has fully tapped into that strength. The Browns have also used two running backs on 18 percent of their plays in their past four games, including some unique two-back, three-receiver sets that put the team’s best skill-position players on the field together. Cleveland was stuck in a rut for the first half of the year, but credit to Kitchens and his staff for trying to find creative solutions to get this offense back on track.
15. Tennessee Titans (6-5)
Turning to Ryan Tannehill has saved the Titans’ season. The offense has found an entirely different identity with Tannehill running the show and he blends plenty of handoffs to sledgehammer back Derrick Henry and complementary play-action throws. That combination has put the Titans in position to make a push for a wild-card spot. Tannehill is playing the best football of his career during this make-or-break opportunity in Tennessee, and he could be in line for a sizable payday (from the Titans or another QB-needy franchise) when he hits free agency this offseason.
14. Oakland Raiders (6-5)
The Raiders were ambushed by the Jets on Sunday in a game that could have put them in the driver’s seat in the AFC wild-card race. But that performance doesn’t feel like an indicator of what’s to come. A series of head-scratching drops on accurate throws and some bad third-down miscues doomed an Oakland offense that has been significantly better than expected this season thanks to a resurgent Derek Carr, a vastly improved line, and the stellar play of rookie running back Josh Jacobs. The more concerning area for the Raiders is their defense, which was shredded by Sam Darnold and seems to be headed in the wrong direction. This unit will need an injection of talent this offseason to take the next step in the AFC.
13. Philadelphia Eagles (5-6)
Considering the way Philadelphia’s offense has played recently, the no. 13 spot honestly might be too high. But the Eagles defense has found its footing with cornerbacks Jalen Mills and Ronald Darby back in the lineup, and the absence of right tackle Lane Johnson was at least partially to blame for Carson Wentz’s brutal outing against the Seahawks on Sunday. Philly may not be the contender I expected them to be coming into the season, but this offense is still much better than it has looked in the past two weeks. With DeSean Jackson on injured reserve and Alshon Jeffery still banged up, the Eagles’ receiving corps may be a lost cause in 2019—but there are brighter days on the horizon.
12. Indianapolis Colts (6-5)
This could have been the season from hell for the Colts. After losing Andrew Luck to retirement and dealing with injuries to key players like T.Y. Hilton, Malik Hooker, and Darius Leonard, it would have been easy for Frank Reich’s team to fold up shop and regroup for 2020. But Indy is still in the playoff hunt despite two devastating losses earlier this month with backup quarterback Brian Hoyer at the helm. With Jacoby Brissett in the lineup, this is a feisty group that knows how to rely on its running game and play-action throws. Losing running back Marlon Mack to a broken hand is another tough blow, but he should be back in the lineup as soon as Week 14.
11. Buffalo Bills (8-3)
It’s tough to figure out exactly how good the Bills are. Buffalo has a talented and well-coached defense that’s still among the league’s best, and Josh Allen has taken considerable strides in his second season. But of Buffalo’s eight wins, seven have come against the Bengals, Dolphins (twice), Jets, Giants, Redskins, and Broncos. Even the Bills’ win against the Titans came before Ryan Tannehill took over at as Tennessee’s quarterback. Buffalo’s defense was shellacked earlier this month by a Philly offense that’s since fallen off a cliff, and the Bills struggled to get anything going against the Browns in Week 10. We should learn a lot more about Buffalo during the next month in games against the Cowboys, Ravens, the Steelers defense, and Patriots. No matter how that stretch turns out, though, this is a Buffalo team that’s outperformed expectations and is almost a lock to earn a wild-card bid.
10. Houston Texans (7-4)
Houston’s win against the Colts last Thursday gave the Texans a massive boost in the AFC South race, and if they get into the playoffs, the prospect of facing Deshaun Watson, DeAndre Hopkins, and Will Fuller should frighten any opposing defensive coordinator. The Texans’ passing game can reach a different level with Fuller in the fold, and after missing four games with a serious hamstring pull, he looked to be back at full speed against Indy. Houston’s defense is still a legitimate concern with J.J. Watt out of the lineup and so many questions remaining about the secondary, but this ranking is a nod to their offensive potential.
9. Dallas Cowboys (6-5)
As I wrote on Monday, there’s just no way this Dallas team should be this frustrating. The Cowboys have an embarrassment of talent on offense and a quarterback who has played at an MVP level for most of the season. Dallas is currently ranked second in offensive DVOA, and that group’s ceiling would still make the Cowboys a dangerous playoff proposition if they wind up winning the NFC East. It’s probably time for Dallas to move on from head coach Jason Garrett, but I still wouldn’t want to see Dak Prescott and Amari Cooper in January.
8. Green Bay Packers (8-3)
Green Bay’s offense was obliterated by the Niners on Sunday night. After the game, Richard Sherman said that despite being a primarily zone-coverage team, San Francisco played mostly man against the Packers. At this point, there’s no reason for any defense—let alone the league’s best—to fear Green Bay’s pass catchers. Aside from Davante Adams, none of the Packers receivers are capable of creating much separation, and Aaron Rodgers has looked off in two of Green Bay’s past three games. If right tackle Bryan Bulaga misses significant time with his current knee injury, it would be devastating for a Packers team without much offensive line depth. But if Bulaga can return quickly, Green Bay can still lean on running back Aaron Jones and the team’s talent up front—on both offense and defense—as it tries to take home the NFC North title.
7. Minnesota Vikings (8-3)
When Kirk Cousins went red hot in October, some wondered when the wheels would fall off like they have with Cousins in years past. That crash hasn’t happened. Cousins has continued his excellent play during the past month, and with Stefon Diggs and Dalvin Cook putting up monster numbers, Minnesota has a trio of stars on offense. That trio could turn into a quartet down the stretch as Adam Thielen seems set to return from injury this week. There are still legitimate questions about the Vikings’ secondary—cornerback Xavier Rhodes continues to languish—but head coach Mike Zimmer’s unit still has plenty of talent with the likes of Harrison Smith, Danielle Hunter, Everson Griffen, Eric Kendricks, and Anthony Harris all playing at a high level. This Vikings team is a very real threat in the NFC.
6. Seattle Seahawks (9-2)
Russell Wilson alone is enough to make the Seahawks a threat in the NFC. Wilson has been one of the best players in the league for years, but he’s somehow leveled up this season. If Lamar Jackson weren’t burning defenses to the ground, Wilson would be the clear MVP favorite. With Wilson slinging laser beams to Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf, Seattle has developed arguably the most efficient and explosive passing game in football. The Seahawks defense is more of a question mark, but general manager John Schneider has done an excellent job reinforcing that unit since the start of training camp. Jadeveon Clowney has been an agent of chaos since getting traded to Seattle for the low, low price of a third-round pick, and after coming over from the Lions in a deadline deal last month, safety Quandre Diggs has solidified the back end of the secondary.
5. Kansas City Chiefs (7-4)
I put the Chiefs this high on the list mostly out of deference for Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes. Kansas City has had an uneven season while dealing with injuries to Mahomes and other key members of the offense, but Reid’s team is getting healthy at just the right time. Coming out of the Week 12 bye, the offensive line should be fully intact for the first time all season. Mahomes’s pass catchers are healthy. And though the Chiefs haven’t been quite the planet-exploding force they were in 2018, this unit still has more potential than any other passing offense in the league. The defense may still struggle against the run, but this unit isn’t the disaster it was last season.
4. New Orleans Saints (9-2)
The Saints have the most complete roster in the NFL, and if stalwart left tackle Terron Armstead can quickly bounce back from the ankle injury he suffered on Sunday, the vast majority of the starting lineup should be healthy to start the home stretch. One of the league’s top offensive lines hasn’t missed a beat with rookie center Erik McCoy starting this season. Michael Thomas is playing at a staggeringly high level, and Jared Cook has recently shown what he can do with Drew Brees dropping him dimes in the red zone. Throw in one of the best pass-rushing front fours in the league and a talented secondary, and New Orleans has all the makings of a Super Bowl champion.
3. San Francisco 49ers (10-1)
The Niners defense may be the most surprising unit in football. It was reasonable to assume that the pass rush would get a lift from offseason acquisitions Nick Bosa and Dee Ford, but the secondary looks transformed despite using many of the same players it had in 2018. The offense has been less reliable, but Jimmy Garoppolo’s recent stumbles have largely come with tight end George Kittle out of the lineup. Kittle has emerged as one of the most valuable nonquarterbacks in the NFL this season. His abilities as both a blocker and receiver allow the Niners to deploy disguises from heavy formations, and with Kyle Shanahan dialing up plays, San Francisco has more than enough talent on that side of the ball to give teams fits.
2. New England Patriots (10-1)
New England’s offense isn’t nearly as explosive as it’s been in past years, but the defense is potent enough to put Bill Belichick’s team on the short list of Super Bowl favorites. The way the Patriots play man coverage—with sticky corners Stephon Gilmore and J.C. Jackson shadowing receivers, and safety Devin McCourty roaming the back end—makes this unit a threat to take the ball away any time it’s in the air. This is the best defense of the Belichick era.
1. Baltimore Ravens (9-2)
Lamar Jackson is the most exhilarating player in football. Jackson makes professional defenders look absolutely hapless in ways that I’ve never seen before from a running quarterback, and his progress as a passer has been incredible. Following Monday night’s drubbing of the Rams, L.A. defensive back Eric Weddle told reporters “We got our faces peeled off.” Anyone who watched that game would say that’s pretty accurate. All the moving parts and consistent misdirection have made this unit virtually impossible to defend. It’s the perfect offense for Baltimore’s personnel, and they are destroying people with it. Plus, trading for Marcus Peters gave an already talented secondary its final piece. The Ravens are the most intimidating challenge in the NFL right now.