The already-thin margins separating the NFL’s best teams got even narrower this week, leaving a tightly packed cluster of seven squads all fighting for the title as the league’s best team. With the top-ranked Ravens on a bye, the Chiefs inched closer to my no. 1 spot with a blowout win over the Broncos―a game in which Kansas City showed off its ability to win in a variety of ways, and overcame an uncharacteristically poor offensive outing (they went 0-for-8 on third down) with a pair of defensive and special teams touchdowns. Meanwhile, the well-rounded Steelers made a jump to the no. 3 spot with a win against the Titans—a victory that, combined with wacky loss by the Seahawks, leaves Pittsburgh as the league’s last unbeaten team. The Buccaneers and Packers both move up in the ranks after waltzing to easy wins on Sunday―and close losses by Seattle and Tennessee weren’t enough to push them out of my top tier … at least, not yet. With the Week 7 slate in the books, here’s my updated NFL Power Rankings.
The Top Shelf
1. Baltimore Ravens (5-1)
2. Kansas City Chiefs (6-1)
3. Pittsburgh Steelers (6-0)
4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-2)
5. Green Bay Packers (5-1)
6. Seattle Seahawks (5-1)
7. Tennessee Titans (5-1)
Reports of Tom Brady’s demise were greatly exaggerated.
It wasn’t too surprising to see Brady struggle during his first couple of weeks in Tampa Bay. The 43-year-old future Hall of Famer looked out of sorts at times in the team’s first two games (a loss to the Saints and a win over the Panthers), tossing three touchdowns to three picks while averaging just 6.4 yards per attempt and tallying a meager 79.3 passer rating in that stretch. But it seemed like many were quick to ascribe those struggles more to Brady’s age―the term “washed” got thrown around―and less to the other obvious culprit behind his early-season challenges: the fact Brady had just changed teams for the first time in two decades—and that he did so in a truncated, COVID-19-altered offseason.
Brady is still at risk of falling off the performance cliff that every NFL quarterback dreads late in their career (a massive drop in effectiveness that sometimes happens virtually overnight), but the way he’s played in the past five weeks suggests he simply needed some time to get his legs under him in Tampa Bay. The early-season struggles felt like a distant memory on Sunday: The former Patriot was absolutely dialed in during the Buccaneers’ 45-20 win against the Raiders, completing 33 of 45 passes for 369 yards and four touchdowns. Brady distributed the ball to nine different receivers and attacked all three levels of the field, showing off precise ball placement and plenty of zip on passes into tight coverage.
His 33-yard touchdown pass to Scotty Miller in the second quarter was an especially impressive throw―perhaps his best pass all year.
That play was a good representation of the value in chemistry between quarterbacks and their receivers. It was the type of throw that Brady had missed a few times earlier in the year, when it was clear he was still developing timing with his teammates. But on the touchdown to Miller, Brady looked perfectly in sync with the second-year pass catcher―while simultaneously proving he still has the arm strength and accuracy to make this offense fire on all cylinders. In his past five games, Brady has averaged 290.8 passing yards per game, thrown 15 touchdowns and just one interception, and is averaging 7.4 yards per attempt with a 111.1 passer rating. Not bad for a guy who’s playing in his 21st year in the league.
The Buccaneers’ offense might only get better as the year goes on. Brady should continue to develop chemistry with the versatile group of skill players that Tampa Bay has collected. He has Mike Evans and Miller stretching defenses deep; Chris Godwin is a force over the middle of the field; Rob Gronkowski is starting to look like the Gronk of old; rookie receiver Tyler Johnson has flashed high-end potential when given opportunities; and Ronald Jones II and Leonard Fournette have combined to give the team a solid one-two punch out of the backfield. With Antonio Brown set to join the team after Week 8, Brady’s talented offensive skill group is about to get that much deeper.
Brady also has probably the best defense in football at his back. That unit has gifted the Buccaneers’ ascending offense plenty of short fields, thanks to its dominant front line, elite linebacker duo (in Lavonte David and Devin White), and its ball-hawking secondary. Pair those two units up, and Tampa Bay looks like the most balanced team in the NFL through seven weeks.
The Seahawks’ defense could be the team’s undoing.
The Seahawks are the antithesis of a balanced squad. With Russell Wilson tossing bombs to DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett, Seattle boasts one of the most unstoppable, high-octane offenses in the NFL. But as we saw in their 37-34 overtime loss to the Cardinals on Sunday Night Football, the Seahawks’ defense brings a nearly equal inverse talent for giving up huge chunks of yards and points―and could prove to be the team’s Achilles heel.
That group provided very little resistance to Arizona’s Kyler Murray–led offense, surrendering 519 total yards and 31 first downs while squandering a 10-point fourth-quarter lead. Seattle has issues at all three levels of its defense, but the glaring problem in this game was a complete inability to get pressure on Murray, who dropped back to pass 48 times and was not hit or sacked once. In fact, Seattle managed just one―one!!―pressure on the night. For a little bit of context, the Chargers generated 32 pressures—32!!—in their 39-29 win over the Jaguars on Sunday, including a combined 15 from Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram alone.
Now, part of Seattle’s ineptness in that area was strategy based: The Seahawks came into the game with what seemed to be a goal of making Murray beat them with his arm; they mush-rushed on the outsides, sacrificing pressure in order to contain him in the pocket and limit the considerable damage he could do as a runner. The only problem, of course, is that Seattle’s back-end defense has been just as terrible as its pass rush (the Seahawks now rank 29th in the league in both sack rate and pressure rate, by the way), and Murray had no problem slicing up his opponent’s ham-handed attempts at coverage. Two plays from Arizona’s second-quarter scoring drive illustrated Seattle’s issues in both scheming and communication on the back end.
48 yards in 2 plays and this is how close the defenders were pic.twitter.com/8lHz38cSLU— Computer Cowboy (@benbbaldwin) October 26, 2020
Murray finished the game with 360 yards and three touchdowns through the air, and adding insult to injury, Seattle’s attempts at limiting what Kyler could do on the ground were mostly fruitless, too. The diminutive speedster added 67 yards and a touchdown on 14 rushes.
Seattle’s issues on defense have mostly been hidden by Wilson’s exploits as a passer. But on a night when the offense was less than perfect (Wilson uncharacteristically threw three interceptions), they leave the Seahawks with a very small margin for error. That’s an issue that could come back to bite this team if they don’t make any major moves to address their problems on defense at the upcoming trade deadline.
8. Los Angeles Rams (5-2)
9. Buffalo Bills (5-2)
10. Indianapolis Colts (4-2)
11. Cleveland Browns (5-2)
12. New Orleans Saints (4-2)
13. San Francisco 49ers (4-3)
14. Chicago Bears (5-2)
15. Arizona Cardinals (5-2)
Can Josh Allen work his way back into the MVP race?
The Bills were supposed to beat the Jets on Sunday, and, to their credit, they did, dispatching the NFL’s version of a JV squad, 18-10. But in what should’ve been a “get well” game for Buffalo after absorbing losses to the Titans and Chiefs, the team’s previously high-flying offense under Josh Allen left plenty to be desired in this one. The Bills, who went into halftime trailing 10-6 and didn’t take the lead until late in the third quarter, failed to find the end zone in the win, ultimately settling for six Tyler Bass field goals instead.
Allen’s underlying numbers certainly weren’t bad: He completed 30 of 43 passes for 307 yards while adding 61 yards on the ground, but it just wasn’t the aerial fireworks show that I expected from the third-year pro. The Bills seemed content to dink and dunk the Jets to death in this one; Allen peppered New York’s defense with short passes all game long, completing just two of his eight attempts more than 10 yards downfield. (He did find Gabriel Davis for what would have been a 22-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter, but the play was nullified by an illegal formation penalty.)
This rather punchless version of the Bills’ offense ultimately got the job done (thanks more to the defense, which held the Jets to 4 yards (!!) of offense in the second half), but against better opponents, Buffalo will need Allen to rediscover his early-season mojo.
In his first four games, Allen completed 71 percent of his passes for 1,326 yards (331.5 per game), with 12 touchdowns and one pick, averaging 9 yards per attempt while compiling a 122.7 passer rating. He was astoundingly accurate as a deep passer in those games, too, completing 11 of 16 attempts of 20-plus yards for 354 yards, two touchdowns, and one pick, per Pro Football Focus. Those numbers, along with the Bills’ 4-0 start, helped Allen shoot to the top of many early-season MVP watch lists.
But Allen has cooled off significantly in his past three games, completing 63.1 percent of his passes while throwing for 692 yards (just 230.7 per game) with four touchdowns to three interceptions in that stretch and averaging 6.2 yards per attempt while tallying an 81.4 passer rating. His deep passing, disappointingly, has fallen off a cliff, too: He’s completed just two of 10 attempts of 20-plus yards in the past three games, per PFF, with one touchdown and one pick for a 45.8 passer rating on those throws. Buffalo’s Week 8 matchup with the division-rival Patriots feels like a pivotal moment in Allen’s potential MVP campaign: Were Allen’s first four games a small-sample mirage, or can the Bills’ signal-caller right the ship and rediscover his early-season deep-ball prowess? I’m definitely hoping for the latter.
The Muddled Middle
16. Detroit Lions (3-3)
17. Miami Dolphins (3-3)
18. Carolina Panthers (3-4)
19. Las Vegas Raiders (3-3)
20. Los Angeles Chargers (2-4)
21. New England Patriots (2-4)
22. Philadelphia Eagles (2-4-1)
Justin Herbert keeps proving he’s the real deal.
Herbert is more impressive every week. The rookie quarterback, who was wildly overshadowed in the predraft process by bigger-name prospects like Joe Burrow and Tua Tagovailoa, has taken the Chargers’ starting job and never looked back. He’s producing jaw-dropping downfield bombs and gutsy open-field runs while exhibiting a veteran-like poise as the leader of a banged-up offensive group. The former Oregon Ducks star put together his most complete game as a pro on Sunday, grabbing his first win as a starter in the Chargers’ 39-29 victory against the Jaguars. Herbert carried L.A.’s offense, completing 27 of 43 passes for 347 yards, three touchdowns, and no picks while adding a team-high 66 yards as well as a score on nine rush attempts. (He also became the first QB in history to throw for 340-plus yards and three-plus touchdowns while adding 50-plus rushing yards and a rushing score with no turnovers in a single game.)
Herbert’s defining moment came late in the third quarter, less than a minute after the Jaguars had taken a 28-22 lead thanks to a 28-yard touchdown pass from Gardner Minshew to Chris Conley. On a first-and-10 from the Chargers’ 30-yard line, Herbert dropped back, and in the face of pressure, unloaded a perfectly placed rainbow to Jalen Guyton, who ran it the rest of the way for a 70-yard score.
Herbert answers with 70-yard TD bomb to Jalen Guyton for Chargers to tie the game 29-29.— SportsPac12 (@SportsPac12) October 25, 2020
Herbert’s connection with top receiver Keenan Allen remained rock-solid in this one (Allen caught 10 of 13 targets for 125 yards), but the rookie quarterback has continued to unlock the team’s lesser-known skill players. On Sunday, he connected with eight different pass catchers; he had a touchdown throw to Guyton and a pair to backup tight ends Donald Parham Jr. and Virgil Green. As Yahoo’s Matt Harmon notes, Herbert’s ability to elevate the players around him is an incredibly promising sign.
Fantasy managers hate it but Justin Herbert's ability to throw gorgeous TDs to guys further down the depth chart on a routine basis is the mark of a star-level QB and just one of the reasons it's hard to turn down the enthusiasm about this guy.— Matt Harmon (@MattHarmon_BYB) October 25, 2020
At 2-4, the Chargers find themselves on the outside looking in when it comes to playoff contention―Football Outsiders puts L.A.’s postseason odds at just 26.6 percent―but with Herbert under center, it’s tough to completely write off a second-half rally from L.A. Even if that’s not in the cards, Herbert is already looking like a franchise-changing player.
There’s Always Next Year
23. Minnesota Vikings (1-5)
24. Denver Broncos (2-4)
25. Cincinnati Bengals (1-5-1)
26. Washington Football Team (2-5)
27. Dallas Cowboys (2-5)
28. Houston Texans (1-6)
29. Atlanta Falcons (1-6)
30. Jacksonville Jaguars (1-6)
31. New York Giants (1-6)
32. New York Jets (0-7)
Adam Gase relinquished play-calling duties, and it helped! … For a little while.
Gase’s decision to hand over play-calling duties to offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains actually did seem to generate the slightest bit of energy for the Jets’ typically listless offense on Sunday, and New York probably put together its best half of football all year, carrying a 10-6 lead into halftime against the Bills. Darnold completed 11 of 15 passes for 116 yards and one pick in the first two frames, which was hardly an explosion of production—but a positive start nonetheless. The team also generated 82 yards on 18 rushes in the first half as well, with rookie La’Mical Perine providing a boost (10 rushes for 36 yards and a touchdown).
Naturally, New York completely imploded in the second half; the offense generated just 4 net yards of offense (including an incredible fourth quarter in which the team’s three drives netted negative-8 yards) to allow the Bills to take the lead and hold on for an 18-10 win. Still, at this point, every loss is actually a win for the Jets, who strengthened their bid for the first overall pick with the loss.