For the most part, the NFL’s strongest teams continued to separate themselves from the weakest ones in Week 5, but one thing is becoming more and more clear as the season rolls along: There just aren’t any truly dominant squads this year. That was already apparent coming out of Week 4―just one team sat above the 30 percent mark in DVOA, per Football Outsiders, a rarity through the season’s first month―and this week’s slate of games only strengthened the theory. Despite dispatching the Bengals 27-3, the once-unstoppable Ravens offense we saw last year under MVP Lamar Jackson is still trying to find its groove, both on the ground and through the air. The Chiefs, meanwhile, lost to the Raiders at home—and dropped from the top spot in these power rankings. The defense-challenged Seahawks needed another improbable, heart-attack inducing drive to get past the Vikings. And the Steelers allowed the lowly, banged-up Eagles to hang around far too long in their 38-29 win. There are six teams in my top tier through five weeks, and a thin, almost-indistinguishable margin separates every club in the group.
Things are even more jumbled at the top thanks to the league’s COVID-related schedule changes. With the Bills and Titans set to square off on Tuesday night, I’ve simply assigned “incomplete” grades to both teams for this week and slotted them into their respective spots from last week. With all that in mind, here’s my (mostly) updated NFL Power Rankings following an intriguing Week 5 slate.
The Top Shelf
1. Baltimore Ravens (4-1)
2. Kansas City Chiefs (4-1)
3. Seattle Seahawks (5-0)
4. Green Bay Packers (4-0)
5. Buffalo Bills (4-0)
6. Pittsburgh Steelers (4-0)
Is the Chiefs’ superiority in the AFC West eroding?
Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs have exerted unchallenged control of their division over the past two seasons thanks in large part to the team’s dominant air attack. With Mahomes throwing to the likes of Travis Kelce, Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins, Mecole Hardman, and a host of various playmakers, Kansas City’s divisional rivals have struggled to keep pace with the Chiefs’ faster, far more explosive, and higher-scoring offensive units. Coming into Sunday’s matchup with the Raiders, Mahomes and Co. were carrying a 12-1 record against divisional opponents dating back to the start of 2018. It’s felt a little bit like the Chiefs have been flying F-15s while the rest of the division works with propeller-driven biplanes.
That disparity has been the obvious driving force for the arms race we’ve seen in the division. The Broncos have sunk resources into building a higher-octane offense that can compete with Kansas City over the past two drafts, most recently adding pass catchers in Jerry Jeudy and KJ Hamler with its top two picks in April. The Chargers went big in the draft as well, pushing its chips in on quarterback Justin Herbert with the sixth overall pick―a gamble that brings potential to change the power dynamics of the division for years. We saw glimpses of that in Herbert’s highly impressive first career start, a narrow overtime loss to Kansas City in Week 2.
The Raiders have maybe been the boldest of all in rebuilding their offensive arsenal under head coach Jon Gruden and GM Mike Mayock. The team took a Major League–level swing in this year’s draft by picking Alabama speed-merchant Henry Ruggs III with the 12th pick, a surprise choice with other highly ranked prospects like Jeudy and CeeDee Lamb both still on the board. Ruggs flashed some of his potential in Week 1, grabbing three passes for 55 yards, but a hamstring limited him in Week 2 and kept him off the field the following two games. Back in action on Sunday, though, Ruggs proved to be a major factor for Las Vegas, providing a defense-tilting option that Kansas City struggled to counter. The former Crimson Tide star caught two passes for 118 yards and a touchdown, showing how he could unlock the team’s deep-passing attack.
Derek Carr’s weekly deep ball rate — percentage of attempts 20-plus yards downfield. Weeks 1 and 5 the only games Henry Ruggs has been healthy for this year: pic.twitter.com/4QeLUsaS5w— John Daigle (@notJDaigle) October 12, 2020
After outscoring the Raiders 103-22 in the teams’ last three matchups, Kansas City’s high-flying offense took a back seat to Las Vegas on Sunday. The Raiders outpaced the Chiefs on both the ground (144 yards to 80 yards) and through the air (347 yards to 340 yards), getting plenty of help from its defense in the come-from-behind win. Kansas City mustered just three points on a six-possession stretch from the second quarter to the late fourth quarter, a dry spell that gave Las Vegas the window it needed to not only erase an 11-point second-quarter deficit, but to take a commanding 16-point lead late in the game.
The eight-point loss represents the worst defeat of Patrick Mahomes’s young NFL career. It’s hardly an indictment on the Chiefs’ Super Bowl hopes in 2020―on the contrary, they remain one of the best teams in the league―but this loss, combined with the underwhelming performance against the Chargers in Week 2, shows that the AFC West is no longer the cakewalk it used to be for Kansas City.
The Seahawks continue to thrive under pressure.
I was talking to my neighbor the other day, and he was telling me about the time he won a sweepstakes for the chance to fly a plane in a simulated dogfight. After a few hours of basic training, he hopped into the cockpit (along with a professional pilot who’d handle take-off and landing and any other midflight issues) and got to live out a Top Gun–style fantasy, spending a few hours engaged in simulated aerial combat, replete with barrel rolls, loops, and all that fun stuff. After landing, though, he was quickly struck with a splitting headache, nausea, and general lethargy―an onslaught, he later realized, that resulted from a severe adrenaline hangover. My immediate reaction to this story was a personal epiphany: Oh, so that’s why I always feel miserable after watching the Seahawks play.
Seattle has still never played a normal game, and it’s become abundantly clear that it’s less a coincidence and more a manifestation of Pete Carroll’s personality. The energetic 69-year-old is an adrenaline junky who’s established a rallying cry around the idea one can only win the game in the fourth quarter.
The Seahawks have certainly embraced that mantra, perhaps less by choice and more by the fact they’re built to produce edge-of-your-seat endings just about every week. The combination of an elite, high-scoring offense under Russell Wilson and a porous defense that selflessly helps its opponents to keep pace has meant just about every game this team has played this year has come down to the final play.
In Week 2, Seattle beat the Patriots 35-30 by stopping Cam Newton on a fourth-down run at goal line. In Week 3, the Seahawks beat the Cowboys 38-31 thanks to an end zone interception of Dak Prescott with six seconds to go. And on Sunday, Seattle won when Russell Wilson found DK Metcalf in the end zone on a fourth-and-the-ballgame play from the 6-yard line with 15 seconds to go—a play that was made possible only by another pair of fourth-down heroics, including a huge fourth-down conversion earlier in the drive and a crucial fourth-down stop by the defense on the previous series. The ending to every Seahawks game is a white-knuckle, cliffside drive through wind and sleet.
Skeptics―or even just people who believe in natural and inevitable regression―would say Seattle’s gotten lucky this year. They’d say that variance is coming for this team, whether we’re talking randomness in how the ball bounces, in how poorly its opponents have performed in key situations, or in any number of variables that have helped contribute to the Seahawks’ hot start. But others (most of them probably Seattle fans, players, or their families) might say that this team’s spent so much time playing in close games over the past few years that they’re actually most at ease in those moments. It’s at the end of close games that they become their truest selves. They’re the football version of Bane; they haven’t just adopted late-game chaos as their ally; they were born in it, molded by it.
I say all that a bit tongue-in-cheek, of course, but Carroll definitely wouldn’t. “It is so much freakin’ fun,” he told reporters after the game, referring to Seattle’s penchant for nail-biting finishes. He added more context, alluding to his belief in the power of psychological training: “I like to feel like I felt in that fourth quarter, when I was chilled about the whole thing, so that I can think clearly, operate well, function well for these guys and do whatever I can to contribute,” he said. The idea, as he put it, is “to expect that those situations can arise so that you’re comfortable with the moments.”
The experience that these guys have, it just fortifies why they believe. It just adds on, adds on, adds on to why they should keep hanging, and fighting tough, and outlasting people that we’re playing. When you finish, you’ve got to outlast the other guys. That’s what our guys understand… they’re developing a discipline based on the experience and the confidence they’re getting, because that’s all we’ve been doing the last five weeks now. It’s just going to make us that much stronger facing whatever the odds are, whatever the issues are down the road. It’s the process of building a mentality of a really successful team.
Carroll has long espoused the tenets of operating at peak performance in the face of intense pressure. He often references Timothy Gallwey’s book The Inner Game of Tennis, which expounds on the mental side of sports like quieting your mind, expelling all doubts, and playing in the absence of fear. Sports psychologist Michael Gervais, whose clients have included extreme-heights skydiver Felix Baumgartner and Olympic volleyball gold medalist Kerri Walsh, has long played a central consulting role with the team, teaching concepts like mindfulness and getting into a “flow state,” among others. Russell Wilson, for his part, employs a mental coach named Trevor Moawad, who teaches what he calls “neutral thinking and neutral behavior” with the aim to eliminate negative thoughts and actions. All of this stuff can come in handy, say, when you’ve got to move your team 94 yards down the field in under two minutes in the pouring rain.
Has the Seahawks’ experience in these types of extreme pressure situations helped Wilson engineer a league-best 30 game-winning drives since he came into the league in 2012, including the one he mounted on Sunday night? Are we seeing the results of years of psychological foundation-building by Carroll? Or is it all just variance? I lean toward the latter explanation, but I’m excited nonetheless to see how this team performs in Week 7 against the Cardinals, a game I’m certain will come down to the final play.
7. Los Angeles Rams (4-1)
8. Cleveland Browns (4-1)
9. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-2)
10. Tennessee Titans (3-0)
11. New England Patriots (2-2)
12. Indianapolis Colts (3-2)
13. Las Vegas Raiders (3-2)
14. New Orleans Saints (3-2)
15. Chicago Bears (4-1)
Are the Rams quietly back to their Super Bowl form?
The Seahawks’ flair for the dramatic has effectively overshadowed what’s been a nearly-as-impressive start from the Rams. Head coach Sean McVay has seemingly rediscovered his play-calling mojo after struggling to get anything going for large swaths of 2019, incorporating dizzying amounts of pre-snap motion, misdirection, and play-action into the team’s weekly game plan. When it’s really clicking, when the offensive line, running backs, quarterback, and receivers all perform in concert, Los Angeles’s offense is a beautiful thing.
Aesthetics aside, though, the bottom line is that McVay’s scheming has been working. Pending Tuesday’s game, the Rams head into Week 6 ranked 10th in points (136), third in yards (2,018), and tied for sixth in yards per play (6.2). Quarterback Jared Goff has gotten off to a hot start passing the ball, on track for career bests in completion percentage (71.7), yards per attempt (9.0), and passer rating (108.8). Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp rank among the best and most versatile receiver duos in the league. Tyler Higbee and Gerald Everett are both mismatch-creating route runners. And the team hasn’t skipped a beat in the ground game after releasing star running back Todd Gurley, leaning on a three-headed monster at the position with Malcolm Brown, Darrell Henderson, and Cam Akers trading off as the lead back from game to game. Crucially, the team’s offensive line―which really ties the Rams’ run game and passing attack together―has bounced back after a poor performance in 2019 and now ranks among the league’s best in both run- and pass-blocking win rate, per ESPN.
Los Angeles’s defense has held its own during the team’s first five games, as well. The Rams have given up just 18.0 points per game, third best pending the final games of the week, and are surrendering just 197.8 passing yards an outing (second best). With Aaron Donald disrupting just about every offensive play up front and Jalen Ramsey sitting back waiting to pick off throws in the secondary, L.A.’s defensive unit is off to an underrated start.
Of course, L.A. has been aided by the fact their schedule started out with four of five games against NFC East teams. Their lone loss, to Buffalo, was a back-and-forth affair that they could have won, though, and this team will face some tougher tests in the coming month. A Week 7 matchup with the Bears and a Week 10 tilt against the Seahawks should tell us just how “back” this Rams team really is.
The Muddled Middle
16. Arizona Cardinals (3-2)
17. Carolina Panthers (3-2)
18. Dallas Cowboys (2-3)
19. Miami Dolphins (2-3)
20. Detroit Lions (1-3)
21. Minnesota Vikings (1-4)
22. Los Angeles Chargers (1-4)
23. San Francisco 49ers (2-3)
The Panthers are the early favorites for Most Surprising Team.
The Panthers’ offseason, which featured a coaching overhaul and near-complete retooling of the defense, seemed to foreshadow a full-on rebuild year for the franchise. The offense would take time to jell, I thought, under new coach Matt Rhule, new offensive coordinator Joe Brady, and new quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. The defense would be terrible too, I thought, thanks to the offseason departures of Gerald McCoy, Vernon Butler, Mario Addison, Luke Kuechly, Bruce Irvin, and James Bradberry, among others.
Through two weeks, those preseason predictions seemed pretty safe. Carolina lost to the Raiders and Buccaneers, a slow start that seemed to be compounded by the loss of superstar running back Christian McCaffrey to a high ankle sprain. But the overlooked upstarts bounced back, winning their next three games (against the Chargers, Cardinals, and Falcons) to throw their name into the hat as a potential playoff team.
The team’s surprising 3-2 start comes on the back of an efficient offensive performance. That group has gotten some incredible production from its offseason free agency additions: Bridgewater has quickly taken control of Brady’s offense. He currently ranks fifth in the NFL in passing yards (1,460), tied for ninth in yards per attempt (8.2), with six touchdowns to three picks and a solid 101.3 passer rating. Free agent receiver Robby Anderson (36 catches for 489 yards and one touchdown) has been a revelation, the next in a long, long line of skill players who’ve thrived after escaping the clutches of Adam Gase’s coaching. And free agent running back Mike Davis has been arguably even more impressive as he’s filled in for McCaffrey over the past three games, tallying 219 yards and a touchdown on 45 carries while adding 22 receptions for 132 yards and two scores through the air. (For some context on that, over a 16-game season, that’d put Davis on pace for 1,168 yards and five touchdowns on the ground with 117 catches for 704 yards and another 11 scores through the air!)
The Panthers defense has not been quite as impressive, but there’s certainly some bright spots. Second-year defensive end Brian Burns has teamed up with rookie Yetur Gross-Matos to create plenty of pressure up front, and another rookie, Jeremy Chinn, is already looking like a versatile playmaker for this defense. First-rounder Derrick Brown overcame a slow start to the year but has flashed in moments, too, particularly in strong outings in Week 3 and Week 4. Altogether, Panthers fans have to feel good about the way the Rhule era has started in Carolina.
There’s Always Next Year
24. Philadelphia Eagles (1-3-1)
25. Cincinnati Bengals (1-3-1)
26. Houston Texans (1-4)
27. Jacksonville Jaguars (1-4)
28. Washington Football Team (1-4)
29. Atlanta Falcons (0-5)
30. Denver Broncos (1-3)
The Falcons hit the reset button.
Atlanta has a clean slate after firing both head coach Dan Quinn and GM Thomas Dimitroff on Sunday night, a move that was announced a few hours after the team’s 23-16 loss to the Panthers. These moves put the franchise at a major crossroads: Not only will the next regime bring the potential for massive shifts in philosophy and style at both the front office and on-field levels, but the new GM and head coach partnership will have major decisions to make when it comes to rebuilding.
Will the team try to do the delicate balancing act of rebuilding while trying to compete, holding on to high-priced, aging stars? Or will it cut bait and build from the ground up? Two major names immediately come to mind. The question of whether the team will look to deal away 35-year-old quarterback Matt Ryan isn’t going away anytime soon. The same could be said for 31-year-old receiver Julio Jones, who might be more inclined to latch on with a contender than languish in Atlanta while the team puts together a multiyear rebuilding plan.
For now, it looks like both Ryan and Julio will have to play out the season and wait and see what happens over the offseason. Falcons president Rich McKay has already noted the team won’t be looking to trade its most valuable assets until the new leadership has been installed. Until then, interim head coach Raheem Morris will try to make the best of what’s already a lost season. If he can get more from the underperforming Falcons squad to finish out the year, it could put him on the list of potential head coaching candidates heading into 2021.
The New York Teams
31. New York Giants (0-5)
32. New York Jets (0-5)
There isn’t a whole lot to update you on here, but it’s worth noting that the leaguewide count of head coaches fired before Adam Gase has now reached two.