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NFL Power Rankings: The Packers Offense Doesn’t Need Receivers to Roll

Plus: The Colts defense looks legit, and the Browns are a surprising 3-1

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Many of us have lost all sense of linear time in the past six months or so, but it may surprise you to hear that we’ve reached the quarter mark of the 2020 NFL season. It’s been an eventful first four weeks; the month was defined by the league’s historic offensive explosion, the rash of significant injuries, and the strange, tinny sound of mostly empty stadiums (and poorly orchestrated fake crowd noise). Week 4 also brought about the NFL’s first COVID-19-related game postponements: The Patriots and Chiefs shifted their previously scheduled Sunday matchup to Monday night after Cam Newton tested positive for the virus, and the Titans and Steelers were forced to delay their scheduled matchup to Week 7 due to 18 positive tests among players and staff in Tennessee.

Despite the worrying number of positive tests in the past few days, and the implications for the season at large, the show mostly went on for the NFL over the weekend. And one quarter into the season, the hierarchy of the league’s teams is becoming more clear. Here’s my updated NFL Power Rankings following an action-packed Week 4 slate.

The Top Shelf

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

Down its top two receivers, Green Bay just continues to roll.

There was plenty of media hand-wringing over the offseason about the almost comical lack of attention the Packers gave their passing game in 2020 (and yeah, my hands were among those wrung). The team did make some investments in its future, grabbing quarterback Jordan Love and running back AJ Dillon with its first two picks in the draft, but after struggling with a lack of depth at the receiver position in 2019, Green Bay did basically nothing to bolster that unit―which looked like a major vulnerability before the start of the season.

The team’s apparent indifference to its receiver depth chart was anything but a problem over the first three weeks, though: Aaron Rodgers quickly rediscovered his MVP-caliber form, leading the Packers to a 3-0 start while helming an offense that averaged over 40 points per game. But despite the team’s red-hot start, the receiver issues returned heading into Week 4: Rodgers’s budding no. 2 receiver, Allen Lazard, was placed on the injured reserve Saturday with a core muscle injury, and superstar pass catcher Davante Adams was a late scratch for the game because of the hamstring injury he suffered in Week 2. When the dust settled from those two developments, Green Bay marched into its matchup with the Falcons on Monday Night Football with a wafer-thin group of receivers headlined by the likes of Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Darrius Shepherd, and Malik Taylor.

The banged-up Packers offense barely missed a beat. Rodgers played in vintage form again in the 30-15 win, completing 27 of 33 passes for 327 yards and four touchdowns (for a nearly perfect 147.5 passer rating). Head coach Matt LaFleur drew up a savvy game plan too, mitigating the lack of receiver depth by heavily featuring the team’s tight end and running back groups.

All together, Aaron Jones, Jamaal Williams, Robert Tonyan, and Tyler Ervin combined for 20 catches, 241 yards, and four touchdowns, with Tonyan emerging as the unlikely hero of the group. The third-year tight end has emerged as one of Rodgers’s favorite red zone targets this year; on Monday, he reeled in six passes for 98 yards and three touchdowns. (By the way, Tonyan now leads all tight ends in touchdown catches this year, with five.)

And, look—it’s definitely notable that Atlanta’s defense ranks among the league’s worst, but good teams should dominate bad teams, and that’s exactly what Green Bay did on Monday night. It’s getting clearer and clearer that the Packers are the real deal this year. Despite all the offseason narratives around the team’s free agency and draft decisions, Green Bay is 4-0, Rodgers is playing better than he has in years, and LaFleur is quickly establishing himself as one of the sharpest young coaches in the NFL.

The Contenders

7. Indianapolis Colts (3-1)
8. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-1)
9. Los Angeles Rams (3-1)
10. Tennessee Titans (3-0)
11. New England Patriots (2-2)
12. New Orleans Saints (2-2)
13. Cleveland Browns (3-1)

The Colts’ offseason gamble is paying off.

There’s always risk attached to blockbuster trades, a fact that was surely in front of mind for Colts GM Chris Ballard when he sent the team’s first-round pick (13th overall) to the 49ers back in March for defensive tackle DeForest Buckner. Scheme fit, personality fit, cap considerations, and the risk of buying high on a player are always variables that affect the long-term outcomes of these deals, and there’s a long list of big-name trades that have quickly gone south for the acquiring teams. Making the trade even more dicey for the Colts was the fact the team had to quickly turn around and hand Buckner a top-of-market deal—a four-year, $84 million pact that made the 26-year-old the second-highest-paid interior defender (in average annual value) behind only Aaron Donald. To say that Indianapolis was banking on Buckner being a game-wrecking force in the middle of its defense would probably be an understatement.

It’s still too early to make any lasting declarations, but through four games, the Buckner trade is looking like a master stroke by Ballard. The former 49er showed up early and often for Indianapolis in the team’s 19-11 win against the Bears on Sunday, and his official stat line of three quarterback hits and one batted pass fails to properly account for his impact. Whether he was pushing the pocket back into Nick Foles’s lap, slicing through the line to move the veteran quarterback off his spot, or stuffing a run, Buckner facilitated a dominant day from the Indianapolis defense. With incredible length and preternatural quickness, Buckner is capitalizing on his rare skill set for an interior defensive lineman. As teammate Justin Houston put it after the game, “I’ve never played with someone as big and as elusive as he is ... he moves like he’s 180 pounds. Never seen someone that size be able to do that in person.”

Prior to Monday’s two games, Buckner was PFF’s second-ranked interior defender on the year; he ranked fourth among interior defensive linemen in pressures (15), with six QB hits (tied for second) and seven hurries (tied for 10th). He’s been dominant against the run, too, with 10 stops (tackles that constitute a “failure” for the offense) in four games—tied for fourth among interior DL. He makes players around him better, too. With Buckner creating so many problems on the interior, Houston has stepped up on the edge. The longtime veteran tallied one sack and two quarterback hits in Sunday’s win, moving his season total to 3.5 sacks and five QB hits (a 14-sack, 20-QB-hit pace for the year). The Colts have also been helped by the offseason signing of veteran corner Xavier Rhodes, who’s taken to the team’s primarily zone-based scheme.

Coming into this week, the Colts boasted the top-ranked defense per DVOA thanks in part to their unsustainable rate of interceptions (six). Against Chicago, though, Indy showed it could dominate the game in other ways, playing disciplined and physical from start to finish. They eventually goaded Foles into a pick late in the game, by the way, further padding their turnover stats, but they had the game well within hand by that point. In a season that’s thus far heavily favored teams with high-octane offenses, Indianapolis is one of the few teams that can win with defense.

The Browns run all over the Cowboys.

If you hadn’t seen the game and I told you that Cleveland just got done dropping 49 points on the hapless Cowboys defense in a barn-burning win, you’d probably assume Baker Mayfield had sliced ’em and diced ’em with something like 400 yards and five touchdowns. You would, of course, be wrong.

Mayfield did play well enough, and he continued to settle into the role of game manager for the smashmouth Browns, finishing a modest 19-of-30 for 165 yards and two touchdowns. Instead, it was the team’s physical, explosive ground attack that did much of the heavy lifting against Dallas, helping Cleveland become the first team to gain more than 300 rushing yards in a single game in two years. The Browns totaled 307 rushing yards on 40 carries in the win―their highest total since 2009―and they did so despite losing starter Nick Chubb to a sprained MCL late in the first quarter.

Behind an offensive line that Establish the Run’s line-play expert Brandon Thorn ranked as the no. 5 unit coming into the week, Kareem Hunt (11 rushes, 71 yards, and two TDs) and D’Ernest Johnson (13 rushes and 95 yards) picked up the slack after Chubb’s (six rushes and 43 yards) departure. Hunt and Johnson benefited from excellent blocking, but both created plenty on their own, too: Hunt broke three tackles and averaged 5.1 yards after contact per attempt, per PFF, third best among running backs with at least five carries this week. And Johnson wasn’t far behind, breaking two tackles of his own while averaging 4.6 yards after contact per rush (sixth). Cleveland’s ground game even got a boost from receiver Odell Beckham Jr., who took an end around 50 yards for a score late in the fourth quarter (a play that ended up being the final nail in the coffin for Dallas). Collectively, the Browns averaged an absurd 0.47 expected points added on designed runs, per PFF, best for any team in a game this season.

Sunday’s performance should serve as the model for the type of game plan head coach and play-caller Kevin Stefanski wants to employ with the Browns’ new-look offense. Cleveland controlled the clock and moved the chains with an unrelenting rushing attack; sprinkled in a few deep shots, including a reverse-pass touchdown from Jarvis Landry to Beckham; and, crucially, didn’t ask Mayfield to put the offense on his shoulders. The Browns showed that they can still swing a few haymakers when defenses lower their guard, but the ground game is going to be the foundation upon which everything is built, even with Chubb on the sideline in the next six weeks or so.

The Muddled Middle

14. Arizona Cardinals (2-2)
15. San Francisco 49ers (2-2)
16. Chicago Bears (3-1)
17. Las Vegas Raiders (2-2)
18. Minnesota Vikings (1-3)
19. Dallas Cowboys (1-3)
20. Philadelphia Eagles (1-2-1)
21. Detroit Lions (1-3)
22. Carolina Panthers (2-2)
23. Los Angeles Chargers (1-3)

The Vikings’ offense is hitting its stride.

Minnesota dug itself into a pretty deep hole with an 0-3 start, but the team’s offensive explosion in the past two weeks should provide a glimmer of hope to Vikings faithful that contention is still a possibility. After posting 464 yards and 30 points in a loss to the Titans last week, the Kirk Cousins–led unit fired on all cylinders again in Minnesota’s 31-23 win against Houston on Sunday, getting 100-plus-yard performances from each of its top two receivers and its running back for the first time in almost 20 years. Dalvin Cook (27 carries for 130 yards and two touchdowns) and Adam Thielen (eight catches for 114 yards and one touchdown) led the way, and were bolstered by another scintillating outing from first-round rookie pass catcher Justin Jefferson, who reeled in four passes for 103 yards. That trio helped the Vikings outlast a desperate comeback bid by the Texans―and could give Cousins the type of playmaking nucleus the veteran quarterback needs to truly thrive.

Cook is the foundation for offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak’s run-centric philosophy. He’s an elusive, shifty runner who consistently gets more yards than what’s blocked for him (which is important with this shaky Vikings offensive line). The newly paid runner racked up a ridiculous 10 missed tackles forced on the day, per Pro Football Focus, which was tops among all backs this week (pending Monday night’s games). Thielen, meanwhile, is as reliable as ever, a technical route runner who still boasts the speed to take the top off a defense. He’s Cousins’s go-to guy in key situations, and currently ranks as PFF’s no. 2 graded receiver. Oh, and as for no. 1?

Jefferson is certainly not a one-to-one replacement for Stefon Diggs, but his emergence in the past two weeks has opened up the Vikings passing game, giving opposing defenses another dangerous receiver to worry about while helping take the focus off of Thielen alone. But crucially, the team has utilized more deception in its scheming, too, upping the frequency of presnap motion and finding a groove in the play-action passing attack. As ESPN’s Courtney Cronin points out, Cousins went a cool 9-of-11 for 180 yards and a touchdown on play-action passes against the Texans on Sunday, a massive improvement compared to the team’s previous three games combined (8-of-16). It’s pretty clear: The Vikings put together a blueprint for how to claw their way back into contention on Sunday.

Minnesota still has some holes; there’s no way around it. The team’s offensive line is an issue, Cousins can be erratic at times, and the defense has struggled―though, with the latter, you could probably say the same for something like 29 or 30 teams through the season’s first four weeks. But in the year of the buzz saw offense, the Vikings showed on Sunday that they just might have the talent to claw their way back into the playoff race in the NFC. Next up, the Seahawks’ wet paper bag of a pass defense.

There’s Always Next Year

24. Cincinnati Bengals (1-2-1)
25. Jacksonville Jaguars (1-3)
26. Houston Texans (0-4)
27. Atlanta Falcons (0-4)
28. Miami Dolphins (1-3)
29. Washington Football Team (1-3)
30. Denver Broncos (1-3)

The Texans’ last-straw loss

If the Vikings’ win has the potential to act as a catalyst for change this year, the Texans’ loss just might be the turning point for the franchise’s direction in the next decade. Houston owner Cal McNair had apparently seen enough following the team’s demoralizing 31-23 loss, and announced Monday that he’d fired Bill O’Brien as the team’s head coach and GM.

It was an obvious, if somewhat curiously timed move for a Texans team that had ridden a league-high $249 million payroll to a 0-4 start. That underwhelming on-field performance was the straw that broke the camel’s back for McNair, at least in O’Brien’s capacity as a head coach, which included an impressive track record of overcoming obstacles and getting the most out of his team going back to 2014. O’Brien’s, uh, troubles as the team’s GM, though, would have made any amount of coaching prowess irrelevant over the long term.

Now, the team finds itself at a crossroads. With O’Brien gone, Romeo Crennel reportedly steps into the role of interim head coach. But the team has a relatively blank slate to work with, both on the front office and coaching fronts―which, by the way, should absolutely be separate going forward. The good news is the team doesn’t have to marry an existing GM with a new coach, or vice versa. The replacements they find for each position will need to work hand in hand to rebuild a roster O’Brien spent the past few years stripping of depth and talent. Unfortunately, the new leadership won’t benefit from first- or second-round picks in 2021; both of the Texans’ top two picks belong to Miami.

Still, it’s hard to look at this Texans move as anything but a positive for the team’s long-term prospects, and the prospects of Deshaun Watson, who deserves to be surrounded with a strong supporting cast.

The New York Teams

31. New York Giants (0-4)
32. New York Jets (0-4)

There’s not a lot to say here, other than it’s hilarious to me that Adam Gase was not the first head coach fired this season.

An earlier version of this piece omitted the Detroit Lions.