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NFL Power Rankings: The Saints Are Great No Matter Who Plays Quarterback

The Taysom Hill experiment worked in New Orleans, at least for now. Plus: Derrick Henry is a walking cliché, the Dolphins have a quarterback hiccup, and the Browns are built to win ugly.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Patrick Mahomes seems to make it a goal to remind the world at least one time each week that he’s the best quarterback on the planet. That was again clear in Kansas City’s 35-31 win over the Raiders on Sunday, a game in which Mahomes’s inevitability as a playmaker—the absurdly easy-looking game-winning touchdown drive he engineered late in the game—helped the Chiefs hold on to the top spot in my rankings this week. Kansas City has some stiff competition in the still-undefeated Steelers, though, who moved to 10-0 by dispatching the Jaguars, 27-3. The Saints, meanwhile, proved that even without Drew Brees, they remain a force to be reckoned with in the NFC by easily beating a streaking Falcons team, 24-9. And the Colts (who mounted a come-from-behind win over the Packers), Titans (who also came from behind to knock off the Ravens), and Rams (who beat the Buccaneers) all got impressive wins over quality opponents to round out the top six this week, the elite echelon in the NFL through 11 weeks. Here are my updated NFL Power Rankings.

The Top Shelf

1. Kansas City Chiefs (9-1)
2. Pittsburgh Steelers (10-0)
3. New Orleans Saints (8-2)
4. Indianapolis Colts (7-3)
5. Tennessee Titans (7-3)
6. Los Angeles Rams (7-3)

The Taysom Hill experiment worked... at least for one week

Let’s go back a week, real quick: I was a bit hesitant to keep the Saints in the no. 3 spot on these rankings following their easy win over the 49ers, knowing that in all likelihood, New Orleans was going to be without starting quarterback Drew Brees (ribs, lung) for at least a handful of games. The big question coming into Sunday’s game against the Falcons wasn’t just whether the Saints could manage to stay afloat with their backup quarterback running the show, but rather: who actually was their backup quarterback? Most analysts (like me) seemed to assume that head coach Sean Payton would roll with Jameis Winston as the team’s primary starter while marginally expanding Taysom Hill’s Swiss Army knife-style role. As we found out on Sunday, though, the Saints gave Hill that shocking two-year, $21 million deal back in April for a reason: Payton pushed all his chips in this week on the always-controversial 30-year old utility player, and his gamble paid off big time―at least for one game.

The Saints drew up a relatively conventional gameplan for Hill (he carried the ball just two times for 6 yards in the first half, in fact) and the results were encouraging for the unproven passer. Hill finished the game an efficient 18 of 23 for 233 yards with zero touchdowns and zero picks, and while he did add some value as a rusher in the second half (finishing with 51 yards and two touchdowns on the ground, the first a two-yard score that came on a designed run near the goal line, and the second a 10-yard scramble to the pylon), the offense New Orleans ran primarily asked Hill to, well, play quarterback―not be some type of souped-up gadget player that many had imagined.

Payton did try to simplify Hill’s reads and give him open pass-catchers down the field, though. The Saints frequently played in heavy personnel packages (often with a sixth offensive lineman) and mixed in a ton of play-action passing looks, with Payton calling a play-action fake on 13 of Hill’s 30 dropbacks (a 43-percent rate that ranked second-highest among quarterbacks this week, per PFF). Hill averaged a not-too-shabby 16.8 yards per attempt on play-action, completing 9 of 10 attempts for 168 yards on those plays. And his two best throws of the day came in those situations, the first a 23-yard dart to Michael Thomas in the early second quarter:

And the second, a 16-yard toss to Thomas late in the same frame.

On both plays, Hill dropped back, eluded the rush, and kept his eyes downfield, extending the play long enough to allow Thomas to get deep enough in his route to separate at the second level. Hill, who leaned heavily on Thomas in the game (9 catches for 104 yards), finished with the sixth-highest passing grade among QBs this week, per Pro Football Focus, while ranking second in yards per attempt (10.1), second in completion rate (78.3), and seventh in passer rating (108.9). More generally, I thought Hill ran the offense about as well you’d hope any backup quarterback could, given the situation. Actually, probably better.

Of course, Hill was far from perfect. While he managed to throw for a few chunk plays in the intermediate area, the team’s deep-passing attack was all but non-existent. Hill’s 4.3 percent deep rate (just one attempt of 20-plus yards) was the lowest of any starting quarterback in Week 11. And that attempt was one of his worst throws of the day, a high-arching prayer that forced Emmanuel Sanders to stop and camp out under it like he was catching a punt (miraculously, he caught it). Hill also struggled in straight drop-back looks from behind center, completing just nine of 13 throws for 65 yards on non-play-action plays, an average of just 5.0 yards per attempt, per PFF. And he fumbled the ball away on one long designed run, too.

Overall, though, I think New Orleans Football’s Nick Underhill summed up Hill’s performance, and its implications, really well:

The Saints are going to have to keep adapting their offense in order to make things simple for Hill and keep defenders on their toes, something you’d hope to see teams do for just about any backup quarterback in the league. But Sunday’s win was a strong statement for the Saints, who showed they’re still going to be a tough out whether Brees is under center or not. With the defense playing an increasingly stingy brand of football and the Hill-led offense capable of moving the ball and scoring points, New Orleans looks ready to hold off all comers for the top seed in the NFC.

Derrick Henry remains a living, breathing football cliché. And I’m here for it.

In a season that’s been defined by a boom in high-octane passing offenses and seemingly non-stop feats of astounding quarterback play, the Titans’ offense might serve to satisfy those fans still looking to watch a good, old fashioned, punch-you-in-the-mouth run game at work. Tennessee’s one of a handful of teams that still makes the rushing attack the foundation of their offense, a tough, physical group whose 49-percent run rate this year ranks fifth-highest among all teams. Derrick Henry is, of course, the engine that powers that unit, a larger-than-life running back who racked up 133 yards on 28 carries in the Titans’ come-from-behind win over the Ravens on Sunday, a game punctuated by Henry’s walk-off, game-winning touchdown in overtime.

Henry showed once again on Sunday that smashmouth football is alive and well in the NFL, and he also embodied just about every cliché I could think of when it comes to big, bruising running backs and the value that many NFL coaches still place on that distinct style of player. Whether we’re talking about a guy who gets stronger as the game wears on, a player who helps his team impose its will on opponents, or who can administer body blows early on to set up the late-game knockout punch, Henry almost perfectly played that role for Tennessee on Sunday. Here’s another cliché that rang true, particularly in light of the way the game finished up: guys simply seem to get tired of trying to tackle the runaway beer truck back.

At the half, the fifth-year pro had notched just 37 yards on 13 carries, a paltry 2.8 yards per carry average, and the Titans trailed 14-10. By the end of the third quarter, Henry had managed just 44 yards on 18 totes, a measly 2.4 yards per carry rate, and the Titans trailed 21-13. But right in line with old-school football guy thinking, the 2- and 3-yard runs that Henry was producing in the first three frames started turning into chunk gains late in the game. A 24-yard scamper early in the fourth quarter helped set up a field goal that pulled Tennessee to within five points, and Henry’s 29-yard touchdown run in overtime sent the Ravens home with a loss.

Henry tallied 89 of his 133 yards in the fourth quarter and overtime periods, showing once again that he’s as good a closer as any back in the league. Now, all those run game clichés tend to minimize the impacts that quarterback Ryan Tannehill (who passed for 259 yards and two touchdowns with one pick) and pass-catchers like A.J. Brown (four catches, 62 yards, and a touchdown), Corey Davis (five catches, 113 yards), and Jonnu Smith (four catches, 20 yards, touchdown) had on the game―because there’s little reason to believe Tennessee would’ve been capable of mounting an 11-point second-half comeback without the big plays the team’s passing game created. But it’s the way in which the Titans marry that efficient aerial attack with a wear-you-down ground game that makes this team very tough to defend, not only in short spurts, but for a full four quarters―or more.

The Contenders

7. Buffalo Bills (7-3)
8. Green Bay Packers (7-3)
9. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-4)
10. Seattle Seahawks (7-3)
11. Arizona Cardinals (6-4)
12. Miami Dolphins (6-4)
13. Baltimore Ravens (6-4)
14. Cleveland Browns (7-3)
15. Las Vegas Raiders (6-4)

The Dolphins’ QB situation could get interesting down the stretch.

The Dolphins five-game win streak came to a close on Sunday with a 20-13 loss to the Broncos, a defeat whose blame falls pretty squarely on an underwhelming performance from the team’s offense. Led by rookie quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, that unit sputtered badly following a first-quarter touchdown drive, managing just one field goal on the next six possessions before Tagovailoa was benched early in the fourth quarter in favor of Ryan Fitzpatrick. The former Alabama star finished just over three quarters of play with 83 yards passing on 11 of 20 attempts, taking six sacks while struggling to decipher Vic Fangio’s hounding scheme. Fitzpatrick, for his part, was able to generate a little bit of a spark for the listless Dolphins, leading the offense on a field goal drive on his first series―but his interception in the end zone with 1:11 to go on the team’s next possession ended up being the final nail in the coffin for Miami’s comeback attempt.

Head coach Brian Flores was quick to point out after the game that Tua’s benching was both performance-related and temporary, making it clear that Tagovailoa will keep his job for the team’s matchup with the Jets in Week 12. But with the Dolphins occupying an interesting intersection as both a rebuilding club that needs to get their young quarterback valuable experience (especially late in games when facing adversity) and a playoff-contending team that may need to win most of their remaining games in order to sneak into the postseason, Flores is surely going to find himself with some tough decisions on how short of a leash to give his rookie quarterback down the stretch. If Tua is struggling in a given game―or if the team is down and needs to get into a hurry-up, two minute offense―will Flores treat Fitzpatrick like a situational reliever of sorts, a guy who can come in to provide spark when the team’s in a late-game, high-leverage situation? Or was this game simply a one-off example of a rookie quarterback struggling, and his coach sitting him down?

In any case, I’m looking forward to watching how this situation plays out. Both quarterbacks seemed to say all the right things after the game, for what that’s worth. Tagovailoa acknowledged that the offense was struggling when he was in the game, and that he understood the decision to make the change. Fitzgerald noted that the Dolphins are still Tua’s team―and that he’ll do whatever’s asked of him without creating controversy. Obviously, Tagovailoa could put the discussion to rest by playing lights-out both against the Jets and in key matchups with the Chiefs, Patriots, and Bills down the stretch, but there seems to be a chance we see Tagovailoa get the hook again as the Dolphins attempt to straddle the line between their long-term goals and short-term playoff hopes.

The Browns have gone through the bad-weather wringer. Now they look ready for winter.

The idea of “home field advantage” is a little funny from the perspective of the Browns, whose three-game homestand came to a close on Sunday with their third-straight weather-affected game―this time a cold, wet, and miserable win over the Eagles, 22-17. That recent three-game stretch for Cleveland felt a little bit like a winter version of the Lt. Dan vs. the storm scene in Forrest Gump, with the Browns having to battle not just their opponents, but also high winds, rain, and at times, sleet.

The good news is that Cleveland is built to win ugly, capable of dominating in the trenches with a strong offensive line and an aggressive, hounding defensive front. Over the past two weeks, the Browns have shown how well they’re built for late-season, cold-weather tilts. In a game that was delayed by high winds, the Browns held off the Texans in Week 10 in a sloppy, 10-7 victory, rushing for 231 yards on 41 attempts while limiting Deshaun Watson to just 153 net yards passing. And on Sunday, they won another sloppy, hard-fought victory over Philadelphia, again controlling the game with a sustaining, physical run game and pressure-generating front line.

Even without Myles Garrett (who’s on the COVID-19 list), Cleveland made life hell for Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz, who, under near constant pressure, posted one of the ugliest performances in, uh,… NFL history in the game.

And offensively, the Browns stuck to their winning formula: Making up for a handful of missed connections from Baker Mayfield to his receivers, Cleveland’s dynamic running back duo of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt carried the day, with Chubb rushing for 114 yards and Hunt finding paydirt late in the game with a hurdling leap into the end zone.

Granted, the Browns’ win came against a struggling Eagles team, but with a tenacious defensive line, a top-tier offensive line, and two physical runners who can create on their own and produce chunk plays on the ground, the Browns might have a collection of strengths that could make this team pretty hardy as the weather gets bad and the games get uglier down the stretch.

The Muddled Middle

16. Chicago Bears (5-5)
17. Carolina Panthers (4-7)
18. San Francisco 49ers (4-6)
19. Minnesota Vikings (4-6)
20. Denver Broncos (4-6)
21. New England Patriots (4-6)

The Vikings-Cowboys matchup was a pass-catching fireworks show.

From the Vikings perspective, the 31-28 loss to the Cowboys on Sunday was a momentum killer that all but seals their fate as a non-postseason team. From a fan of the game, fan of fun, and fan of high-level athletes doing absurd things point of view though, the Minnesota-Dallas tilt was a delight. From start to finish, the receivers from both teams put on a pass-catching clinic, with CeeDee Lamb getting the party started with an incredible, contorting grab in the end zone midway through the second quarter:

(The reverse angle is really cool, too).

Not to be outdone, Adam Thielen made this ridiculous one-handed grab in the back corner of the end zone early in the third.

(You should watch the sideline angle of this one, too, while you’re at it.)

And while rookie receiver Justin Jefferson couldn’t compete with the sheer degree of difficulty that Lamb and Thielen displayed on those two grabs, the 21-year-old receiver showed off his skill set in the game, grabbing this over-the-head sideline throw in the first quarter…

Before running this beautiful route (which ended in a touchdown) early in the fourth quarter.

All in all, the game was a fun cross-section of the incredibly talented receivers playing right now, with the 30-year-old Thielen representing the established old guard, with Lamb and Jefferson symbolizing the future.

There’s Always Next Year… Unless You’re in the NFC East

22. Atlanta Falcons (3-7)
23. New York Giants (3-7)
24. Philadelphia Eagles (3-6-1)
25. Los Angeles Chargers (3-7)
26. Detroit Lions (4-6)
27. Houston Texans (3-7)
28. Dallas Cowboys (3-7)
29. Washington Football Team (3-7)
30. Cincinnati Bengals (2-7-1)
31. Jacksonville Jaguars (1-9)
32. New York Jets (0-10)

Someone’s going to have to win the NFC East

Technically speaking, a team is going to win the NFC East. None of the four potential contenders are good teams, per se, or exciting, or particularly fun to watch. But one of them is destined to finish in first place, thereby earning the right to host a playoff game come January. If I had to guess right now, I’d pick the Giants (who were on bye), and Football Outsiders’ model has New York as slight favorites.

But after watching the Cowboys knock off the Vikings on the road on Sunday, a Dallas team that I’d mostly written off suddenly looks like a potential contender in the division again, particularly if Andy Dalton can continue to play efficient, mostly mistake-free ball. Dalton returned from a two-game absence (one game to a concussion, the other on the COVID list) to pass for 203 yards on 22 of 32 passing, tossing three touchdowns to one pick in the win. Both Amari Cooper and Lamb made plays in the passing game, and after reshuffling the offensive line (moving Zack Martin to right tackle), the run game found its footing, too, with Ezekiel Elliott breaking the 100-yard mark for the first time this year (carrying the ball for 103 yards on 21 totes, while adding two catches and a touchdown through the air).

And while picking apart a bad Vikings defense isn’t something to write home about, the Cowboys’ late-game schedule sets up well for them to make a move up the standings. Dallas gets Washington at home this week, travels to Baltimore to take on a slumping Ravens squad in Week 13, then draws the Bengals (in Cincy), the 49ers, and the Eagles before finishing the year with what could be a win-or-go-home finale against the Giants in New York. I’m not quite ready to count the Cowboys out.