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NFL Power Rankings: Ryan Tannehill Is Proving Last Year Was No Fluke

The Titans have rolled to an undefeated record, the Buccaneers defense clamped down on the Packers, and the Bears can’t possibly be for real, right?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Week 6 slate served as a good reminder that in the NFL, sometimes nothing makes any sense. The Broncos beat Cam Newton and the Patriots with six field goals, somehow overcoming Drew Lock’s putrid 189-yard, two-interception passing line in his return from a shoulder injury. Philip Rivers staved off calls for his benching by mounting a 21-point comeback effort in a win against the Bengals. Carson Wentz held off the Philly mob for at least one more week, albeit in a 30-28 loss, leading a ragtag group of backups to a 28-point second-half explosion against a strong Baltimore defense. Elsewhere, the seemingly impossible happened: Julio Jones actually found the end zone (twice!) in an impressive Falcons win over the Vikings. The 49ers, who looked completely lost in an embarrassing blowout loss to the Dolphins last week, dominated a good Rams team on Sunday Night Football. And with some help from an absolute dud of a performance by the Packers, the Bears moved into first place in the NFC North with another ugly win, this week against the red-hot Panthers.

With the dust starting to settle from the bizarre but fun Week 6 slate, here’s my updated NFL Power Rankings.

The Top Shelf

1. Kansas City Chiefs (5-1)
2. Baltimore Ravens (5-1)
3. Seattle Seahawks (5-0)
4. Pittsburgh Steelers (5-0)
5. Tennessee Titans (5-0)
6. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-2)
7. Green Bay Packers (4-1)
8. Buffalo Bills (4-2)

Defense is closing the gap on offense, at least for a few teams.

The NFL’s decision to dramatically alter the threshold for penalties this year has had an outsize effect on the style of football in the early goings. The league’s preseason mandate―which instructed officials to call only “clear and obvious” penalties―has helped produce a smoother, more exciting product in this extraordinary, COVID-19-altered season. Games have been unencumbered by the types of game-flow-slowing or big-play-erasing penalties we’d regularly see in a typical year. But by turning a blind eye toward anything but the most blatant penalties, the league (very intentionally) handed offenses a massive advantage over their defensive counterparts: With offensive holding calls a relative rarity, we’ve seen a historic explosion in scoring this year.

Coming into Week 6, it had begun to feel like there simply wasn’t any defense in the league equipped to slow down the league’s most unstoppable buzz-saw offenses―particularly the Aaron Rodgers–led Packers unit that averaged 38 points per game in its first four outings. The Buccaneers’ stout group quickly put an end to that thought, though, reminding everyone that defense still matters in 2020.

Despite the loss of star nose tackle Vita Vea (who went to the injured reserve with a leg fracture), Tampa Bay’s defense rallied on Sunday in a statement performance. The Bucs picked off Rodgers twice, on back-to-back possessions in the second quarter (Jamel Dean returned the first for a touchdown and Mike Edwards took the second down to the Packers’ 2-yard line), sparking a 38-0 run by Tampa Bay that erased the team’s early 10-point deficit and quickly turned the game into a blowout. The Buccaneers dominated the trenches, finishing with five sacks and 13 quarterback hits. Defensive coordinator Todd Bowles utilized an onslaught of well-timed and well-designed blitzes to make Rodgers uncomfortable in the pocket.

Tampa Bay got big plays from all three levels of its defense. The line set the tone by holding Green Bay’s explosive run game at bay. The team’s linebacker duo of Lavonte David and Devin White combined to rack up 18 tackles (including five for loss), four QB hits, and 2.5 sacks. And Tampa Bay’s young, ascending secondary continued to make big plays as well, helping to limit Rodgers to 160 yards and no touchdowns on 35 pass attempts. With a combination of talent and savvy scheming, Tampa Bay has proved it can create pressure week in and week out while consistently manufacturing takeaways. As ESPN’s Jeff Darlington points out, the Buccaneers joined the 2008 Steelers as the only two teams in the past 20 years to tally 20-plus sacks and 10-plus takeaways while surrendering fewer than 70 rushing yards per game in their first six games. That’s rare company, and an even more impressive feat considering they’re doing it all with one hand tied behind their backs thanks to the NFL’s rules shift.

The Buccaneers weren’t alone this week in reasserting the value of a strong defense. The Bears’ stout unit stymied the previously high-flying Panthers, sacking Teddy Bridgewater four times in a 23-16 win on the road. I’ll have more on them below. But first, let’s talk about the Steelers defense, which bounced back from a disappointing outing last week against the Eagles and absolutely shut down the red-hot Browns in a 38-7 win. Pittsburgh thwarted Cleveland’s typically dominant run game, holding Kareem Hunt and Co. to just 75 yards on 22 attempts. And they left Baker Mayfield (10-of-18 for 119 yards, one touchdown, and two picks) all out of sorts in the passing game, continually hitting him and moving him off his spot. Per Next Gen Stats, the Steelers pressured Mayfield on 11 of his 22 dropbacks, collecting four sacks and seven quarterback hits. Crucially, Pittsburgh held Cleveland to just 1-of-12 on third downs, a key point of emphasis for the team this week. Minkah Fitzpatrick’s first-quarter pick-six came on a third-and-3 from the Browns’ 28-yard line, by the way.

The only real negative from the game for Pittsburgh was the loss of linebacker Devin Bush, who suffered a season-ending ACL tear. How the Steelers adapt from the loss of a key player like Bush could define the rest of their season.

Ryan Tannehill continues to prove last year was no fluke.

It was logical to expect Tannehill to see some natural regression this season after his level in 12 games last year far exceeded the rest of his career. Many expected that the previously underwhelming veteran would turn back into a below-league-average pumpkin in 2020 as defenses adapted to Tennessee’s scheme and figured out new ways to slow him down.

Through five games, though, it sure doesn’t feel like the magic is wearing off of Tannehill any time soon. The 32-year-old quarterback went punch for punch with Deshaun Watson in the Titans’ wild 42-36 win in overtime on Sunday, completing 30 of 41 passes for 364 yards with four touchdowns. He wasn’t perfect, tossing an interception and losing a fumble on a sack, and he got plenty of help from Derrick Henry (212 yards and two touchdowns), but Tannehill once again proved that his numbers from 2019 were no aberration. He also showed that he’s more than just a game manager protected by Arthur Smith’s savvy play-action-heavy scheme, and threw with poise and accuracy on straight dropback plays. Tannehill finished 22-of-25 for 222 yards and three touchdowns on non-play-action passes on Sunday, including this jaw-dropping toss to tight end Anthony Firkser in the third quarter.

It’s getting harder and harder to come up with reasons Tannehill is anything but the real deal at this point in his career. The Titans signal-caller has posted elite marks in just about every conceivable quarterback stat since taking over for Marcus Mariota last season: Through five games this year, he’s completed 69.9 percent of his passes for 1,368 yards with 13 touchdowns and just two interceptions (on pace for a cool 4,378 yards, 42 touchdowns, and six interceptions this year). Dating back to last year, he has now started 15 regular-season games for Tennessee, tallying 3,966 yards, 40 touchdowns, and just seven picks while leading the Titans to a 12-3 record in those games. And looking deeper at advanced stats, pretty much everything you can find paints him as a truly elite passer: As The Athletic’s Ben Baldwin points out, Tannehill ranks second in completion percentage above expectation and second in expected points added per play since taking over as the starter for the Titans.

Tannehill is second among 48 qualifying quarterbacks in Pro Football Focus’s passing grade (93.3), first in passer rating (116), and first in yards per attempt (8.9) in that same stretch. He’s been incredibly efficient when it matters most in his 15 starts in Tennessee, too, completing 23 of 27 passes (a league-best 85.2 percent completion rate) with 19 touchdowns and one interception inside the 10-yard line―with zero sacks. He’s been clutch in high-leverage situations, as well. He has already presided over score-tying or game-winning drives in four of Tennessee’s five wins this season.

With Tannehill, Henry, receiver A.J. Brown, and ascending tight end Jonnu Smith, the Titans have constructed an offense that can keep pace with any other team in the league. We saw that Sunday, when Tannehill and Co. scored 30-plus for the fourth consecutive game, racked up a franchise record 601 yards of offense, and became the first team in NFL history with a 350-plus-yard passer and a 200-plus-yard rusher in the same game.

The Contenders

9. Indianapolis Colts (4-2)
10. Los Angeles Rams (4-2)
11. Cleveland Browns (4-2)
12. Chicago Bears (5-1)
13. Las Vegas Raiders (3-2)
14. New Orleans Saints (3-2)
15. Arizona Cardinals (4-2)
16. New England Patriots (2-3)

Are the Bears for real?

When it comes to the eye test, or just a general, nonscientific gut feel, Chicago is not your typical 5-1 team. I’ve not even once found myself thinking “the Bears are good” at any point during the first six weeks. Of course, that’s definitely more due to the team’s god-awful offense, which has effectively overshadowed an otherwise superb performance by the defense. Khalil Mack and Co. have had to carry a disproportionate amount of the load in Chicago this year, a familiar story that played out again Sunday in the Bears’ win against the Panthers.

With a combination of dominant play up front and a little bit of luck (D.J. Moore dropped a touchdown in the second quarter, and then later couldn’t come down with what could’ve been a game-changing play on a fourth-and-2 with two minutes to go), Chicago’s defense did just enough to outlast an upstart Carolina team. They sacked Teddy Bridgewater four times, hit him another six times, picked him off twice (one on the Panthers’ first drive, another on their last drive), and forced a Mike Davis fumble. With that strong performance, the Bears defense now ranks among the league’s best in pretty much every meaningful category.

That unit has very little margin for error, though―as evidenced by the team’s paltry plus-12 point differential on the year. The offense is, to put it kindly, a work in progress, and I think it’d suffice to say there were several moments during the game when I actually thought to myself that Matt Nagy might need to go back to Mitchell Trubisky. Yes, it got that bad.

For-now starter Nick Foles finished the game 23 of 39 for 198 yards, one touchdown, and one pick, and for every good throw he made, he seemed to heave up two absolute ducks. Chicago failed to jump-start its listless run game as well, averaging just 2.5 yards per carry on 25 totes. All that is a long way of saying that I do not enjoy watching the Bears’ offense, which, at one point in the first quarter, got a delay of game penalty on a third-and-goal from the Panthers’ 4-yard line … after coming out of their own timeout. That comedy of errors was mercifully salvaged when Foles threw a touchdown on the next play, but that series of plays felt a little like a microcosm for the team’s entire season: They probably don’t deserve to be 5-1, but they’re 5-1 nonetheless.

But while the Bears may be far from perfect, they’ve undoubtedly set themselves up well for a playoff run. As ESPN points out, 83 percent of 5-1 teams have gone on to make the playoffs since the league adopted a 12-team format (and the NFL expanded the playoff field to 14 this season). Football Outsiders, meanwhile, have the Bears with a 78 percent chance of making a postseason run. But Chicago certainly can’t rest on its laurels―and this team is about about to be tested with matchups against the Rams on the road, against the Saints at home, and then against the Titans on the road in the next three weeks. The results of those games should give us a better grasp on whether or not we need to be taking this Bears team a little more seriously.

The Muddled Middle

17. San Francisco 49ers (3-3)
18. Miami Dolphins (3-3)
19. Carolina Panthers (3-3)
20. Detroit Lions (2-3)
21. Dallas Cowboys (2-4)
22. Los Angeles Chargers (1-4)
23. Denver Broncos (2-3)

Don’t look now, but the Dolphins are fun!

The Dolphins were a nice story in 2019: a plucky bunch of underdogs who overcame a horrific start to coalesce into a middling team (in a good way) down the stretch. But I can’t say I remember ever actually looking forward to watching that group play. Things have changed this year, though, for what might be the most entertaining Dolphins-related product since Ace Ventura debuted in 1994 (OK, that’s not true, but it’s definitely how it feels). With Ryan Fitzpatrick playing his signature brand of Controlled YOLO Ball, head coach Brian Flores has his team starting to believe it can make some noise in the AFC East.

Miami had little trouble dispatching the lowly Jets on Sunday in a 24-0 win, which moved the Dolphins out in front of the Patriots in the divisional standings while improving the team’s playoff odds, per Football Outsiders, to 34.6 percent. Those odds still have Miami on the outside looking in, but this Dolphins team fits squarely into the feisty category for dark horse playoff squads. That’s not bad for a team that’s still in the early days of a full-teardown rebuild.

The Dolphins also produced arguably the best “man it’s dusty in here” moment on Sunday, when rookie quarterback Tua Tagovailoa got his first snaps as a pro in mop-up duty for Fitzpatrick. Tua is just short of a year removed from what was feared to be a potentially career-ending hip fracture, and he got a rousing standing ovation from the limited home crowd, and, charmingly, from Fitzpatrick himself. That moment felt like a good representation of why I find myself looking forward to tuning into Dolphins games on Sundays: They play hard, they play fast, they play physical, and it’s clear these Miami players share a strong bond. Oh, and by the way, they have the sixth-best point differential in the NFL (plus-47) after six weeks.

There’s Always Next Year

24. Minnesota Vikings (1-5)
25. Atlanta Falcons (1-5)
26. Philadelphia Eagles (1-4-1)
27. Cincinnati Bengals (1-4-1)
28. Houston Texans (1-5)
29. Jacksonville Jaguars (1-5)
30. New York Giants (1-5)
31. Washington Football Team (1-5)

Falcons and Giants escape the ranks of the winless.

It’s getting harder and harder to find nice things to say about the teams in this part of the rankings, but the Week 6 slate did offer some slight optimism for the Falcons, who finally got into the win column with a 40-23 blowout of the Vikings. With Raheem Morris as its new interim head coach, Atlanta picked off Kirk Cousins three times and rediscovered its mojo on offense. Quarterback Matt Ryan seemed happy to get a healthy Julio Jones back into action, too, and found the veteran pass catcher for touchdowns twice. It’s tough to say whether Atlanta turned the proverbial corner under Morris or simply beat up on a bad team in Minnesota, but this was definitely the type of offensive performance that could make the Falcons a tough out for opponents the rest of the year.

The Giants, meanwhile, had less to feel good about after they eked out a win against Washington, 20-19. There isn’t a lot to note from an unremarkable matchup between two bad teams, other than a general growing concern for quarterback Daniel Jones’s development. The sophomore passer put together yet another underwhelming performance, completing just 12 of 19 passes for 112 yards, one touchdown, and one interception in the win. Jones has now turned the ball over in 18 of his 19 career games and holds a career touchdowns-to-turnovers (picks plus fumbles lost) ratio of 27-to-32.

The Jets

32. New York Jets (0-6)

This play by Joe Flacco, a 28-yard loss on a third-and-4 early in the fourth quarter, is as good of a one-play representation of any team’s season I can think of.

The Jets are now the NFL’s only winless team and have a point differential of negative-110.