The two best teams in the NFL stood pat in my rankings this week, with the top-ranked Chiefs holding on to the pole position during their bye and the Steelers sticking strong at no. 2 with a dominant win over the Bengals. But for the rest of the NFL’s top tier, Week 10 provided plenty of upheaval: The Saints, who face plenty of uncertainty with Drew Brees reportedly set to miss time to a ribs injury, nonetheless jumped up to the no. 3 spot thanks to an easy 27-13 win against the 49ers; the Packers moved up slightly by holding off a plucky Jaguars squad, 24-20; and the Buccaneers took a big leap back into the top five with a nice bounce-back win over the Panthers, 46-23.
The list of teams that look like legitimate contenders, meanwhile, continued to expand over the weekend. The Browns and Raiders stand out in that category, with both squads improving to 6-3 thanks to victories against the Texans and Broncos, respectively. And with the NFL playoffs rapidly approaching, the race for the seven postseason spots in each conference is really starting to heat up. Here are my updated NFL power rankings.
The Top Shelf
1. Kansas City Chiefs (8-1)
2. Pittsburgh Steelers (9-0)
3. New Orleans Saints (7-2)
4. Green Bay Packers (7-2)
5. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-3)
The Steelers left no doubt in their win over the Bengals.
There’s no taking away from Pittsburgh’s impressive undefeated run so far this year, but the Steelers have had their fair share of ugly wins along the way. That was certainly the case last week, when Ben Roethlisberger and Co. squeaked out a 24-19 win against the hapless, Garrett Gilbert–led Cowboys. There was a growing concern that the Steelers were making a habit of playing down to their opponents (a belief fostered by narrow-ish wins over the Giants, Broncos, Texans, Eagles, and Cowboys). That type of competitive malaise can make even the most talented teams susceptible to trap games—like the Steelers’ matchup with the last-place Bengals on Sunday. But to Pittsburgh’s credit, this team looked every bit like a Super Bowl favorite in what ended up being a good old-fashioned beatdown of a clearly inferior opponent.
Despite Roethlisberger missing the whole week of practice in COVID-19-related isolation (he was deemed a close contact to someone who tested positive to the virus, but he tested negative all week), the well-rested Roethlisberger led the way with one of his best performances of the season, completing 27 of 46 passes for 333 yards with four touchdowns and no picks in the 36-10 victory. The veteran signal-caller eschewed the dink-and-dunk approach he’s taken for much of the season and attacked all three levels of the field, particularly in the first half, when he loosened up his arm for a few well-aimed lasers downfield—including this perfectly placed bomb to Diontae Johnson late in the first quarter.
Spreading the ball around to his top three targets in Johnson (six catches, 116 yards, and one touchdown), JuJu Smith-Schuster (nine catches, 77 yards, and one touchdown) and rookie Chase Claypool (four catches, 56 yards, and two touchdowns), Roethlisberger got into a groove with plenty of empty-set looks that spread the Bengals’ defense thin and gave him easy outlets to avoid Cincy’s pass rush. He wasn’t sacked in the game, and he played calmly at the helm of the team’s offense from start to finish.
On the other side of the ball, the Steelers’ top-tier defensive front carried its weight in the blowout win, notching four sacks and nine quarterback hits on rookie quarterback Joe Burrow, who finished a disappointing 21-of-40 for 213 yards and a touchdown. Pittsburgh held Cincy to 0-for-13 on third downs and reversed what’s been one of the major points of concern for an otherwise strong defensive group. And the Steelers never let the Bengals generate even the faintest amount of hope for a second-half comeback, forcing punts on the Bengals’ first five second-half possessions before finally allowing a token field goal late in the game. At the end of the day, any win is a win, but Pittsburgh’s fans surely appreciated the lack of late-game drama in this one.
I don’t want off the Buccaneers’ roller coaster ride.
The Buccaneers have been as much of an enigma as any team this year. It’s been difficult to get a grasp on just how good this Tom Brady–led team really is―or whether they’re any good at all. As The Draft Network’s Trevor Sikkema summed up on Sunday:
Bucs hyperbolic season reactions— Trevor Sikkema (@TampaBayTre) November 15, 2020
Wk 1: team's trash
Wk 2: team's good
Wk 3: playoff bound
Wk 4: too close, frauds
Wk 5: team will never be good
Wk 6: best team in NFL
Wk 7: best team in NFL history
Wk 8: should've lost, frauds
Wk 9: blow it all up
Wk 10: best offense in football
Really, we don’t have to look much further than the Jekyll and Hyde performance from the Buccaneers in the past two weeks. After absorbing a 38-3 shellacking at the hands of the division-rival Saints last Sunday, one could’ve rationally come to the conclusion that Tampa Bay, well, sucks. The Buccaneers looked overmatched in just about every way imaginable in that loss: Drew Brees and Co. ran roughshod on what we thought had been a strong defense, and the Saints’ defensive group picked Brady off three times while holding the Bucs to a grand total of 8 yards on the ground. Tampa Bay couldn’t do anything in what could’ve been a demoralizing, season-defining loss.
But Brady and the Bucs demonstrated some intestinal fortitude on Sunday, shrugging off last week’s failure by dominating the Panthers in a 46-23 win. Beating a sub-.500 team like Carolina doesn’t exactly count as a “statement” win, but in the context of Tampa Bay’s most recent loss, it comes close. Brady flushed last week’s performance down the toilet, completing 28 of 39 passes for 341 yards and three touchdowns in the win. He illustrated the unmatched depth that Tampa Bay boasts in its pass-catching corps, distributing the ball to Antonio Brown (seven catches, 69 yards), Chris Godwin (six catches, 92 yards), Mike Evans (six catches, 77 yards, and one touchdown), Cameron Brate (three catches, 31 yards, and one touchdown), Rob Gronkowski (two catches, 51 yards, and one touchdown), and a handful of others. And with the help of an offensive line shake-up (A.Q. Shipley took over at center and Ryan Jensen moved to left guard), running back Ronald Jones bounced back from an early-game fumble to finish with 192 yards and a touchdown on 23 carries, including a 98-yard touchdown scamper in the third quarter.
Defensively, Tampa Bay did its best to prove that last week’s dud against the Saints was an outlier. Todd Bowles’s group did get off to a shaky start against Carolina, allowing Panthers QB Teddy Bridgewater to complete 14 of 17 passes for 111 yards and two touchdowns in the first two quarters. But the Buccaneers made the necessary halftime adjustments to clamp down on Carolina the rest of the way, allowing just 35 net yards total in the final two frames. The Panthers, who boast one of the most innovative and exciting offenses, mustered just one touchdown on six second-half drives, ending the other five with a pair of punts, two turnovers on downs, and one interception. It was about as dominant a second-half performance as the Saints handed the Buccaneers last week.
Tampa Bay remains tough to predict, and we may get a clearer picture of just how dangerous the Buccaneers can be by how they perform in the next two weeks against the Rams and Chiefs. But for now, what’s clear is that few teams can compete with the Buccaneers’ overall level of talent. Tampa Bay has Tom Brady under center and is both well coached and well stocked with difference-makers and stars on both sides of the ball.
6. Arizona Cardinals (6-3)
7. Buffalo Bills (7-3)
8. Miami Dolphins (6-3)
9. Baltimore Ravens (6-3)
10. Indianapolis Colts (6-3)
11. Los Angeles Rams (6-3)
12. Tennessee Titans (6-3)
13. Seattle Seahawks (6-3)
14. Las Vegas Raiders (6-3)
15. Cleveland Browns (6-3)
Kyler Murray. That’s it. That’s the headline.
NFL fans and media spend a lot of time arguing about the league’s MVP race: They go deep on how the award should be defined while keeping a running tally on all the front-runners’ current stats and odds. Oh, and just to provide a little update on that, Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes (plus-175) is the current leader in the clubhouse over at FanDuel, with Seahawks QB Russell Wilson (plus-250) and Packers QB Aaron Rodgers (plus-300) rounding out the top three.
But while Murray remains a distant fourth on that list (plus-900)—despite his miraculous Hail Mary game-winning throw to DeAndre Hopkins on Sunday—he is, for me, the runaway leader in this year’s competition for most exciting football player on the planet. Murray is, in a unique way, a conglomeration of all the MVP favorites in front of him, boasting Mahomes-like playmaking prowess in out-of-structure situations with the pinpoint deep-ball accuracy of Rodgers and the Houdini-like escapability of Russell Wilson. (He’s also got that “holy crap this guy looks way too small to be playing quarterback in the NFL” thing that Wilson brings, but he looks way, way smaller than Wilson.) Murray also has some of reigning MVP Lamar Jackson’s turbo-boosted home run hitting speed in the open field.
Put it all together and it gives you an appointment-viewing football player. I don’t care what other games are on, what the playoff implications are, or what superstar matchups are featured on other channels—if the Cardinals are on TV, I’m watching the Cardinals. I’m watching the Cardinals because Murray is the most fun player in the league, and also because every time he runs I can’t help but hear the sound of a motor running in my head.
I was laughing when you mentioned it and I can’t stop laughing now pic.twitter.com/100sDZnzW8— Jack Eureka (@blakeistaco) November 15, 2020
As Murray proved on Sunday, though, he’s more than just an exciting, must-watch quarterback. Alongside DeAndre Hopkins and playing in Kliff Kingsbury’s offensive system, Murray makes Arizona one of the most intriguing dark-horse contenders in the NFC. The Cardinals can throw the ball all over the field with Murray behind center, but the second-year pro also brings a force-multiplying talent as a runner that makes this offense incredibly difficult to defend. In some cases, Murray becomes a catch-22 for opposing defenses: If a defense is too aggressive rushing off the edges, he can do damage with his legs. But if a defense keeps him in the pocket and contains him there, he’s just as liable to pick them apart with his arm. Murray, who’s thrown 17 touchdowns this season while adding 10 rushing scores on the ground, has been the ultimate spark plug for the Cardinals franchise, and following the team’s 32-30 win against the Bills on Sunday, he has Arizona seated atop the NFC West.
The Seahawks defense is still an issue, but the offense is struggling now too.
It’s important to preface this section with the fact that even after losing to the Rams 23-16 on Sunday, the Seahawks remain first in the NFL in scoring (32.2 points per game) under quarterback Russell Wilson, who still leads the NFL in touchdown passes (28). Now, with that said, Seattle’s offense, uh, might be broken.
After enjoying the ecstatic and newfound heights that the Let Russ Cook movement helped produce in the first five weeks of the season, the Seahawks’ near-perfect passing attack has gone off the rails in the past month or so. There’s a multitude of factors at play with that about-face, from injuries to opponents to your garden-variety variance to everything in between, but at the end of the day, Wilson has simply struggled to perform at his level from earlier this season. After throwing 19 touchdowns to three picks in the team’s first five games (notching a 129.8 passer rating while averaging 8.9 yards per attempt), Wilson has turned the ball over a whopping 10 times during Seattle’s last four games, tossing nine touchdowns to seven interceptions in that stretch while losing three fumbles. Pair those grim numbers with what’s shaping up to be one of the worst defenses in the history of football, and it’s no surprise that Seattle has lost three out of its past four games―and its hold on the top spot in the NFC West.
The bad news for Seattle is that it isn’t clear how the defense can turn things around. The much-anticipated return of safety Jamal Adams from a groin injury and the addition of defensive end Carlos Dunlap (acquired in a trade with Cincinnati) haven’t righted the ship; in fact, the Seahawks defense seems to be getting worse in the past few weeks. The good news, though, is that Wilson’s turnover spate from the last month is an extreme outlier for what we’ve seen through most of his career (Wilson currently ranks sixth all time on the NFL’s list of best career interception rates).
The smart money should be on Wilson cleaning up his act in that department, and getting back to protecting the football like he’s done throughout his career. But to help him there, the Seahawks need to make some adjustments for the second half of the season. Seattle has recently struggled to protect Wilson from opponents’ pressure schemes, which makes the quick passing game an area of concern. The Seahawks seem to have gotten away from some of the misdirection looks they featured more heavily earlier in the year (using heavy presnap motion and plenty of play-action), as well, and could use an infusion of new tweaks that keep defenses guessing.
But while the passing explosion we’ve seen from the Seahawks this year has represented an exhilarating sea change for both Wilson and the franchise, it wouldn’t be a big surprise either to see Pete Carroll rein in the team’s offense a little bit, put the restrictor plates back on Wilson on early downs (Seattle is among the most pass-heavy teams on early downs), and go back to something closer to the conservative approach they’ve favored in the past few years. For a coach whose offensive philosophy has centered on protecting the football, Wilson’s turnovers may be a more glaring problem to Carroll than the fact his defense can’t stop anybody. Carroll said as much on Monday, addressing the team’s turnovers: “That’s what leads to the problems, and it always has, always will.” Is Carroll foreshadowing a new-look Seahawks going forward? We’ll see.
The Muddled Middle
16. Minnesota Vikings (4-5)
17. Chicago Bears (5-5)
18. New England Patriots (4-5)
19. San Francisco 49ers (4-6)
20. Detroit Lions (4-5)
21. Atlanta Falcons (3-6)
22. Philadelphia Eagles (3-5-1)
23. Carolina Panthers (3-7)
24. New York Giants (3-7)
Who will win the NFC East?
It’d be easy to sit here and continue mocking the teams in the NFC East for their collective ineptitude, but at this point that’s like beating a dead horse. Instead, I’m resolved to start thinking more positively: The fact of the matter is, one of the teams in this division will go to the postseason, and it benefits us all as fans if one of those teams actually manages to get hot down the stretch.
The 2010-11 Seahawks offer a glimpse at what a stouthearted (but underwhelming) squad that backs into the playoffs can do. That season, the 7-9 Seahawks did the unthinkable, beating the Saints thanks to a Marshawn Lynch–created Beast Quake. So which of these teams will play that role in the 2020 playoffs? Well, odds still favor the Eagles in the division, despite their 27-17 loss to the Giants this week, and if Philly can continue to get healthier and return more of their core offensive players, they have the look of a team that’s still capable of pulling some postseason heroics out of their collective asses. But New York made a strong claim for that mantle on Sunday (yes, I will just call this the “Team Most Capable of Pulling Some Weird Playoff Win Out of Their Asses” award), dispatching the Eagles thanks to another uncharacteristically clean performance from quarterback Daniel Jones. The second-year quarterback notched his second consecutive turnover-free game this week, which is another big step for a talented passer whose biggest issue thus far has been a distressing, nay, alarming lack of ball security.
But as we’ve seen in short bursts during Jones’s young career, when the former first-rounder gets hot, he’s capable of putting up impressive numbers, both through the air and on the ground (we saw that in Week 16 last year, when Jones threw for 352 yards and five touchdowns in a 41-35 win against Washington). The Giants head into their bye winners of two games in a row, and they have a winnable matchup with the Bengals in Week 12. If New York can win that one, plus steal a game or two down the stretch (including a Week 17 matchup with the Cowboys), Jones and Co. could find themselves hosting a wild-card round game come January. And I have decided to be excited about the possibilities that would bring.
There’s Always Next Year
25. Los Angeles Chargers (2-7)
26. Denver Broncos (3-6)
27. Cincinnati Bengals (2-6-1)
28. Houston Texans (2-7)
29. Washington Football Team (2-7)
30. Dallas Cowboys (2-7)
31. Jacksonville Jaguars (1-8)
32. New York Jets (0-9)
Drew Lock is increasingly looking like another John Elway whiff.
I hope Lock develops into a franchise quarterback for the Broncos. He’s an exciting player with a big arm and a YOLO mentality who dances after touchdowns and always seems to be having fun on the field. But despite a strong finish as a rookie and the team’s offseason additions on offense (most notably Jerry Jeudy), Lock hasn’t taken anything resembling the step the team had hoped for in seven starts this season. The second-year pro has led Denver to a 2-5 record in those games and, like Jones, has struggled badly with ball security. And also, well, with pretty much everything else.
Drew Lock’s numbers:— Zac Stevens (@ZacStevensDNVR) November 16, 2020
55% completion — worst in NFL
213.9 passing yards per game — 26th in NFL
7 passing TDs — 28th in NFL
10 INTs — 2nd most in NFL
66.5 passer rating — 2nd worst in NFL
39.7 QBR — 3rd worst in NFL
Unfortunately for Lock, the Broncos’ schedule doesn’t get much easier: It features the seventh-toughest slate of pass defenses down the stretch, per Sharp Football Stats. Following a Week 11 matchup with the Dolphins, the Broncos host the Saints in Week 12, travel to Kansas City to take on the Chiefs in Week 13, and get the Panthers in Week 14 before finishing out the season with a game against the Bills and a pair of divisional tilts against the Chargers and Raiders. It won’t be easy, but that grueling stretch of games could represent Lock’s last chance to prove to the team he’s the guy for 2021.