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NFL Power Rankings: The Steelers Defense Shuts Down the Reigning MVP

Pittsburgh is the league’s last unbeaten team, thanks to a defensive unit that can bend without breaking. Plus: DK Metcalf stakes his claim as a top wide receiver, the Colts show they shouldn’t be forgotten, and the Patriots are legitimately bad.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Week 8 NFL slate was a fun one, and a handful of wild finishes helped throw the top of the league’s power structure for a loop. The unbeaten Steelers toppled last week’s top-ranked Ravens squad in a huge divisional win, catapulting Pittsburgh up into the no. 1 spot on my rankings while knocking Baltimore down a couple of pegs. The Chiefs rode a five-touchdown performance from Patrick Mahomes to hold on to the no. 2 spot with an easy win over the hapless Jets. And victories by the Buccaneers, Seahawks, and Bills―along with ugly losses by both the Packers and Titans―helped to round out a group of six teams that make up the NFL’s elite echelon. With another wacky week in the books, here are my updated NFL Power Rankings.

The Top Shelf

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

The Steelers’ defense bowed up when it needed to.

It wasn’t always pretty for the Pittsburgh defense in the team’s hard-fought 28-24 win against Baltimore, with that unit surrendering 457 yards―including a season-worst 265 rushing yards. But in what’s becoming a reliable trend for this tough, physical group, the Steelers stiffened up in the game’s key high-leverage situations, creating the types of game-changing turnovers and clutch plays that Pittsburgh needed to outlast a very strong divisional opponent.

The Steelers defense got things started on the right foot on Sunday when backup linebacker Robert Spillane (who’s helping to fill in for the injured Devin Bush) jumped a Lamar Jackson pass over the middle, intercepting the ball and returning it 33 yards for a score.

That pick-six was the first of four crucial turnovers forced by Pittsburgh’s defense. Pass rusher Bud Dupree notched a sack-fumble for a takeaway later in the first quarter; rookie linebacker Alex Highsmith dropped back and picked Jackson off in the third quarter; and safety Minkah Fitzpatrick forced a Jackson fumble on a designed run on fourth-and-3 at the Steelers’ 8-yard line just before the two-minute warning in the fourth quarter (linebacker Robert Spillane recovered the football). That takeaway helped preserve Pittsburgh’s tenuous 28-24 lead―and when the Ravens got the ball back with one last shot at regaining the edge, it was Fitzpatrick again who broke up Jackson’s last-ditch toss into the end zone as time expired to cement the win.

The Steelers’ typically stout run defense got gashed in this game and the team is still having issues on third-down situations (the Ravens went 8-of-15 on third downs), but Pittsburgh got contributions from both its depth players (like Highsmith and Spillane) and its stars in the win. Defensive Player of the Year candidate T.J. Watt padded his statistical résumé on Sunday with another sack (to give him 6.5 on the year) and added five QB hits and five tackles. Dupree notched a sack and a forced fumble. Stephon Tuitt was his normal dominant self, tallying a pair of sacks, three tackles for a loss, and three quarterback hits. And while Fitzpatrick has thus far had an up-and-down season, he came up big for the team on Sunday, making two game-changing fourth-quarter plays.

The Steelers’ defense is a well-coached, hard-nosed group that went into the week ranked no. 2 in Football Outsiders’ DVOA and comes out of it tied for fourth in takeaways (13) and sixth in points allowed (20.3 per game). That unit leaned on a bend-don’t-break style against the Ravens, but with talent at all three levels and some reinforcements from linebacker Avery Williamson (whom the team acquired in a trade late Sunday night), Pittsburgh is capable of stifling opponents on the ground and through the air. The Steelers defense is the foundation of the team’s incredible 7-0 start―and makes the team a Super Bowl favorite.

The DK Metcalf Show is much-see TV.

After a quiet Week 7 outing (a two-catch, 23-yard performance against the Cardinals), Metcalf exploded back to life in Seattle’s 37-27 victory against the 49ers on Sunday. The 6-foot-4, 229-pound receiver reminded everyone that he’s one of the league’s most physically dominant, athletically spectacular playmakers, hauling in 12 of 15 targets for 161 yards and two touchdowns in the win. His first score came in the opening quarter, a 46-yard catch-and-run in which he simply accelerated away from every defender who tried to track him down. His ability to hit the nitrous oxide boosters and turn the corner past a handful of defenders was jaw-dropping.

Metcalf’s second score was quite a bit less flashy, but still impressive—a hesitation slant route on which he used his massive frame and unmatched strength to wall off a defender and reel in a dart from Russell Wilson.

Along with college teammate A.J. Brown (who caught four passes for 24 yards and a score for the Titans on Sunday), Metcalf is the headliner for the NFL’s new generation of larger-than-life superstar receivers. To put him in the same category as guys like Julio Jones, Davante Adams, or DeAndre Hopkins might feel a little bit premature, but there’s little reason to deny that the second-year Seahawk has already become one of the league’s best pass catchers. He’s certainly one of the most dangerous, anyway, particularly when paired up with Wilson, an MVP candidate.

With seven games under his belt, Metcalf ranks fourth in the NFL in receiving yards (680), second in yards per reception (18.9), and is tied for first in touchdowns (seven). Backing up a bit to include his impressive rookie season, Metcalf’s 14 career touchdowns through 23 career games ranks tied for 14th among all receivers since the merger. His numbers stack up well with some of the all-time greats at the position, too.

Playing opposite Tyler Lockett, Metcalf completes as formidable of a one-two punch as any receiving group in the league. We saw last week what happens if a defense decides to focus too much on one of Seattle’s top-notch receivers—Arizona shadowed Metcalf for most of the game with Patrick Peterson, so the Seahawks fed Lockett instead to the tune of 15 receptions for 200 yards and three touchdowns. This week, it was Metcalf’s turn. Next week, we may see Wilson feed both of his top guys. With Wilson under center, Lockett and Metcalf running deep, and a newfound, aggressive pass-first philosophy, Seattle can go punch for punch with any team in the league. Through eight weeks, they rank first in the NFL in points per game (34.3).

The team’s defense, on the other hand, has been its Achilles’ heel. But there were a few signs for optimism in the win against 49ers: For starters, the Seahawks were surprisingly able to generate some pressure with the help of an aggressive blitzing plan, which helped limit Jimmy Garappolo to just 84 yards passing through the first three quarters. Backup Nick Mullens was able to jump-start the team’s offense in the final frame, but by then Seattle had mostly put the game out of reach. The Seahawks should get some reinforcements on defense in the next couple of weeks, too. With safety Jamal Adams (recovering from a groin injury), defensive end Carlos Dunlap (acquired in a trade with the Bengals last week) and defensive tackle Damon Harrison (signed in free agency) all set to potentially hit the field in Week 9, Pete Carroll’s hitherto atrocious group has a chance to carry some more of the weight in the second half of the season.

The Contenders

7. Indianapolis Colts (5-2)
8. New Orleans Saints (5-2)
9. Green Bay Packers (5-2)
10. Tennessee Titans (5-2)
11. Arizona Cardinals (5-2)
12. Los Angeles Rams (5-3)

The Colts seem to find new offensive contributors every week.

The Colts have been buoyed all year by their top-tier defense, a group that came into the week ranked fourth in DVOA. And while that unit should continue to make up the backbone of the team’s run at the postseason, Indy’s offense showed signs of life in the 41-21 win against the Lions. Philip Rivers stamped out any lingering calls for his benching, completing 23 of 33 passes for 262 yards and three touchdowns in the team’s blowout victory―his second quality performance in a row.

Crucially, Rivers seemed unfazed working with a rotating cast of pass catchers for the Colts. After both T.Y. Hilton and Ashton Dulin exited the game with injuries, Rivers was left with the rookie Michael Pittman Jr. (who was activated off the injured reserve last week), Zach Pascal, and Marcus Johnson as his main receiving threats downfield. In typical Rivers fashion, though, he leaned on the team’s tight ends (Jack Doyle, Mo Alie-Cox, and Trey Burton all caught passes) and running backs (Jonathan Taylor and Jordan Wilkins both caught passes out of the backfield, and Nyheim Hines reeled in two receiving touchdowns), and distributed the ball to 11 different pass catchers in the game.

On the ground, head coach and play-caller Frank Reich went with a hot-hand strategy, turning to Wilkins this week to carry a heavier than normal load (Taylor was also reportedly dealing with an ankle injury). The third-string (sometimes fourth-string) back was impressive in the lead role, though, carrying the ball 20 times for 89 yards and a score. Hines was just as dynamic as a pass catcher, making the most of his three targets by turning them into two scores (his twirling backflip celebration after the second was maybe the most impressive moment of the game, full stop).

No one will confuse the Colts offense with any of the high-octane passing attacks in the top of the NFL’s ranks this season, but as Indianapolis showed on Sunday, a methodical, balanced approach can still be enough to manufacture points (the team ranks 10th in points per game, with 28.3). Injuries have left the Colts with a dearth of big-time offensive stars at the moment, but Reich has managed to find creative ways to get different skill players involved. Hell, Burton has even scored a pair of touchdowns in the past two games on wildcat runs near the goal line. That ingenuity will pay dividends in the next month with Indy set to face off against the Ravens, Packers, and Titans (twice).

The Muddled Middle

13. Miami Dolphins (4-3)
14. Las Vegas Raiders (4-3)
15. Cleveland Browns (5-3)
16. San Francisco 49ers (4-4)
17. Chicago Bears (5-3)
18. Detroit Lions (3-4)
19. Philadelphia Eagles (3-4-1)
20. Carolina Panthers (3-5)
21. Minnesota Vikings (2-5)
22. Denver Broncos (3-4)

The Dolphins are frisky—and they might be a playoff team.

The Dolphins’ defensive and special teams units overshadowed rookie quarterback Tua Tagovailoa in his first start as a pro: Both groups scored first-half touchdowns to help push the team to a commanding 28-7 second-quarter lead. Miami coasted from there, requiring little from Tua, who finished the game 12 of 22 for 93 yards, a touchdown, and a lost fumble.

Tagovailoa’s time to shine will come, but for now, the Dolphins seem content to lean on head coach Brian Flores’s well-schemed and disciplined defense, which now leads the NFL in points allowed per game (just 18.6) after the 28-17 win over the Rams. That group jumped all over Jared Goff and the L.A. offense from the get-go, manufacturing four first-half takeaways―including an interception by defensive tackle Christian Wilkins, a sack-fumble by Emmanuel Ogbah that was returned 78 yards for a score, another pick by Eric Rowe, and another sack-fumble by Shaq Lawson. In addition to helping Miami take a big first-half lead (three takeaways led to Dolphins touchdowns), those four takeaways were a good cross section for how the team has slowly rebuilt its defense from the ground up. Wilkins was the team’s first pick during the Flores era, the 13th overall selection of the 2019 draft; Rowe was one of Flores and Co.’s first free-agent signings; and both Ogbah and Lawson were free-agent additions from this past offseason. Oh, and receiver Jakeem Grant, who earned a four-year extension in August 2019, returned a second-quarter punt 88 yards for a touchdown.

Miami’s defense pressured Goff on 21 of his 63 dropbacks, a 33 percent rate that tied the mark for the highest rate he’s seen this season. After having little trouble with a very good Bears defense the week prior, Goff struggled to decipher the coverages that Flores and defensive coordinator Josh Boyer threw at him, finishing 35 of 61 (57 percent) for 355 yards, one touchdown, and two interceptions on the day.

The win pushed Miami to 4-3 and improved their playoff odds to 37.5 percent, per Football Outsiders, or 19.7 percentage points higher last week. The Dolphins will have to stay hot to earn a spot in the postseason, but they have the makings of a team that no one will want to face if they manage to sneak in―especially if offensive coordinator Chan Gailey can get Tua rolling in the next few weeks.

There’s Always Next Year

23. Los Angeles Chargers (2-5)
24. New England Patriots (2-5)
25. Cincinnati Bengals (2-5-1)
26. Atlanta Falcons (2-6)
27. Washington Football Team (2-5)
28. Dallas Cowboys (2-6)
29. Houston Texans (1-6)
30. Jacksonville Jaguars (1-6)
31. New York Giants (1-7)

The Patriots find themselves in unfamiliar territory.

For the first time in what feels like forever, discussions about the end of the two-decades-long Patriots dynasty no longer feel overwrought or premature. The combination of a lack of effective cap space, COVID-19 opt-outs, a general deficiency in roster depth, and in-season injuries has rendered New England an afterthought team in not just in the AFC at large, but even in their own division. At 2-5, the Patriots find themselves losers of four consecutive games, 3.5 games behind the AFC East–leading Bills, and two games behind the Dolphins. Bill Belichick seems to be publicly coming to grips with the reality that the Patriots are a rebuilding team. And it’s gotten to the point that New England might be willing to have an all-out fire sale in the run-up to Tuesday afternoon’s trade deadline. According to Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer, the Patriots have told other teams they’d listen to offers “on almost anyone,” including superstar corner Stephon Gilmore.

Of course, anything is possible—it is 2020, after all—but from the outside looking in, there’s little reason for optimism that New England has what it takes, on either side of the ball, to right the ship. What New England does ahead of 4 p.m. ET’s trade deadline will speak volumes about how the team views its chances for a miraculous postseason rally.

The Jets

32. New York Jets (0-8)

Week 8 update: Adam Gase is still, beyond all reason, the Jets’ head coach.