The Week 12 slate was a weird one, but thanks to the Chiefs’ impressive win over the Buccaneers, the Steelers’ postponed matchup with the Ravens (which I’ll have to address next Tuesday), and the Saints’ easy victory against the quarterback-less Broncos, the top three teams in my rankings held steady from last week. The rest of the NFL’s elite tier, however, got a good shake-up: The Titans dominated the Colts to leap into the no. 4 spot while sending Indy tumbling down the ranks; the Bills knocked off the Chargers to jump up to no. 5; the Packers beat up on the hapless Bears on Sunday Night Football to rise to no. 6; and the Rams lost a tough one to the 49ers to fall out of the top group. Here are my updated NFL power rankings.
The Top Shelf
1. Kansas City Chiefs (10-1)
2. Pittsburgh Steelers (10-0)
3. New Orleans Saints (9-2)
4. Tennessee Titans (8-3)
5. Buffalo Bills (8-3)
6. Green Bay Packers (8-3)
The Titans jumped on the Colts early and never looked back.
The Titans tore through the Colts’ defensive unit pretty much from the opening whistle on Sunday, shredding a previously stingy, physical group that had come into the week ranked fifth in Football Outsiders’ DVOA. Led by the team’s big-play triumvirate in quarterback Ryan Tannehill, running back Derrick Henry, and receiver A.J. Brown, Tennessee took advantage of the Colts’ undermanned front (which was missing defensive tackle DeForest Buckner and pass rusher Denico Autry, both on the COVID-19 reserve list) to mount a furious first-half scoring spree.
The Titans worked quickly, grabbing touchdowns on five of their first six first-half possessions, and punting just once while producing scoring drives of 75 yards, 80 yards, 50 yards, 81 yards, and 44 yards, respectively. They mixed a bruising ground game powered by Henry (who went into the half with 140 yards and three touchdowns on 17 totes) with explosive pass plays down the field (headlined by Brown’s 69-yard catch-and-run touchdown late in the first quarter). And for a team whose defense has struggled to carry its own weight―Tennessee came into the game ranked 26th in defensive DVOA―I especially appreciated the Titans’ aggressive mind-set. Facing a fourth-and-4 from Indianapolis’s 38-yard line with 31 seconds to go in the first half, head coach Mike Vrabel kept his foot on the pedal, electing to go for it rather than play it safe, punt the ball away, and take a 28-14 lead into the intermission (he even sent the punt team out, called timeout, then decided to put the offense back out onto the field). His boldness was rewarded: Tannehill found Corey Davis over the middle of the field, a pickup of 37 yards that set the Titans up at the 1-yard line with 22 seconds to go.
That crucial conversion made it easy for Tannehill to punch it in on a read-option keeper on the next play, a touchdown that pushed the Titans’ halftime lead to 35-14 and their win probability to 93 percent. Dropping 35 first-half points on any team would be impressive, of course, but as Robert Mays noted on The Athletic Football Show, the Titans scored more points in two quarters than the Colts had allowed in any other game this year. And with that big early lead, Tennessee was able to coast for most of the second half, holding Indy off to eventually win 45-26.
In that showing and last week’s win against the Ravens, Tennessee has illustrated not only how dangerous this offense really can be when it’s firing on all cylinders―but also that it’s capable of executing different types of situations, whether that’s the build-an-early-lead-and-coast format we saw or Sunday or the come-from-behind style we saw last week when the Titans overcame an 11-point second-half deficit. In any case, Tennessee cemented itself among the league’s best offenses with its dominant performance in Indianapolis. The pieces are all there for a long postseason run: a trio of offensive stars in Tannehill, Henry, and Brown, a smart play-caller in Arthur Smith, and an aggressive head coach in Vrabel.
The Packers’ offense brought balance to a chaotic world.
Not to be outdone by the Titans, Green Bay put together its own offensive show in a lopsided win over the Bears on Sunday Night Football. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers barely seemed to break a sweat in picking apart what has been one of the league’s strongest defenses, completing 21 of 29 passes for 211 yards and four touchdowns in a 41-25 win. The Packers settled into effortless rhythm early in the game and produced touchdowns on five of their first six possessions (not counting a one-play “drive” that ran out the clock in the first half) with just about everything about the performance—the play-calling and the way the team distributed the ball—producing a satisfying, almost Zen-like feeling of balance.
Running backs Aaron Jones (17 carries for 90 yards) and Jamaal Williams (17 carries for 73 yards and a touchdown) neatly split reps to power the team’s efficient ground game, which totaled 182 yards and a score. Rodgers, meanwhile, divvied out his 211 passing yards to seven pass catchers, getting Davante Adams (six catches for 61 yards and a touchdown), Robert Tonyan (five for 67, one touchdown), Allen Lazard (four for 23 and a score), Equanimeous St. Brown (two for 39), Marcedes Lewis (two for 16 and a touchdown), and Jace Sternberger (one for five) involved in the fun. The Packers picked up 27 first downs in the game (plus one via penalty), grabbing 13 through the air and 14 on the ground. Schematically, the way the ground game meshed with the aerial attack kept the Bears’ defenders guessing; three of Rodgers’s four passing touchdowns came off of play-action.
Impressively, Green Bay managed all that despite losing center Corey Linsley in the first quarter to a knee sprain. Utility lineman Elgton Jenkins, who has now played at least 25 snaps at every position on the offensive line this year, per PFF, slid in and took up the mantle at the position, and the overall group looked no worse for the wear. In fact, the Packers’ offensive line allowed zero hits and zero sacks in the game. The “next man up” attitude was visible in the passing attack, too; when Lazard left the game after taking a big hit, St. Brown and others seamlessly filled the void.
The Packers’ convincing win boosts Rodgers’s MVP odds, strengthens the team’s grappling hold on the NFC North (they now lead Chicago by three games), and keeps them in the race for the overall no. 1 seed in the NFC (they trail only the Saints). The team’s defense has made strides as the season has gone on (and created three takeaways on Sunday), but it looks clear that Green Bay will go only as far as this offense can carry it. And, right now, it doesn’t look like there’s a ceiling for what that unit can achieve. The Packers are now averaging a league-best 31.7 points per game, and pending Monday Night Football and the still up-in-the-air Baltimore-Pittsburgh tilt, that unit ranks second in DVOA, behind only Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs.
7. Seattle Seahawks (8-3)
8. Indianapolis Colts (7-4)
9. Miami Dolphins (7-4)
10. Los Angeles Rams (7-4)
11. Cleveland Browns (8-3)
12. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-5)
13. Baltimore Ravens (6-4)
14. Arizona Cardinals (6-5)
Jared Goff needs to stop turning the ball over.
Some weeks, the Rams look like dark-horse Super Bowl contenders. That was true in the team’s back-to-back mid-November wins over the Seahawks and Buccaneers. Other weeks, they look like the fourth-best team in their own division. The latter was the case in L.A.’s 23-20 loss to the banged-up, Nick Mullens–led, last-place 49ers on Sunday.
The Rams’ mercurial performance is inexorably linked to quarterback Jared Goff’s uneven play. When Good Goff shows up, L.A. looks damn-near unbeatable. But when Bad Goff shows up, all bets are off. The Rams got the latter version this week, unfortunately, with the fifth-year signal-caller coughing up three turnovers in one of his uglier passing performances this year. Goff was mostly out of sorts from start to finish, completing just 19 of 31 attempts for 198 yards and two picks (one of which was returned for a touchdown by defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw) in the game. The Rams offense as a whole struggled to overcome its quarterback’s poor play, and with the run game mostly failing to find its footing, L.A. managed just two field goals on its first 11 offensive possessions.
That ineptitude put the Rams in a big hole, but the defense stepped up to help the team claw its way back into the game. Late in the third quarter, Aaron Donald stripped Raheem Mostert and the fumble was returned by Troy Hill for a score, cutting the 49ers’ lead to 17-13. Another defensive stop set up the Rams’ best offensive possession of the day, a three-play, 68-yard scoring drive in the early fourth quarter that was facilitated by a 61-yard run by rookie Cam Akers. Somehow, L.A. had managed to retake the lead, 20-17, with 14:22 to go in the game, and it looked like they were on their way to escaping with a win.
But the Goff-led Rams offense went back into its shell for the rest of the game, producing just 34 net yards on its next two fourth-quarter possessions. Those two duds kept the door open for the undermanned Niners, who capitalized on L.A.’s botched series: San Francisco kicker Robbie Gould hit a field goal midway through the quarter to tie the game up, then hit the walk-off field goal as the clock hit zero.
Rams head coach Sean McVay didn’t mince words after the loss, assigning much of the blame on Goff. “Our quarterback has got to take better care of the football,” said McVay, who typically deflects blame from individual players and speaks in generalities. He is, of course, correct: The highly paid passer has now turned the ball over 10 times in the past four weeks, tossing six interceptions while losing four fumbles in that stretch. L.A. can’t consistently win with that lack of ball security.
But while the Rams are like every other team in the league―at the mercy of their quarterback’s decision-making―few contenders seem to face such a wide range of potential outcomes when it comes to overall quarterback play. It seems impossible to predict the type of day Goff will have in any given week, and that’s especially frightening this late in the year, when every game―and really, every possession, matters.
Are the Buccaneers running out of time to fix things?
I’d put the Buccaneers into a similar bucket as the Rams: They’re a talented and well-coached squad whose volatile play makes them tough to predict. This at-times dominant, at-times disappointing Tampa Bay team lost for the third time in the past four games on Sunday, dropping a tough one to the Chiefs, 27-24. And despite hanging tough with the defending champs and making things interesting late, the loss reiterated many of the existing questions about the Tom Brady–led offense.
Brady, who finished the game 27-of-41 for 345 yards with three touchdowns and two picks, continued to struggle with getting onto the same page with his receivers, particularly early in the game. Those issues, which have cropped up all year, have led some to wonder whether head coach Bruce Arians is deploying the best style of offense―one that favors a bunch of deep shots―to fit his 43-year-old quarterback’s skill set. Arians, for his part, went with a simpler explanation for the team’s offensive inconsistencies after the game, and it’s one perspective I’m inclined to buy. “Everybody tried to hand us the Lombardi Trophy in August,” he said. “You just don’t throw guys out there with names. You have to practice. You have to learn to get in sync with each other. That takes time.”
God that’s boring, but, I mean, it also seems pretty true. I’d think it’s at least partially to blame, which leads me to my official take on the matter: There are a multitude of factors at play when it comes to Tampa Bay’s unpredictable play. The lack of practice reps that Brady got in his new offense prior to the season can’t be overlooked, and to me, represents the biggest sticking point in many of the team’s up-and-down performances. Any quarterback, even a six-time Super Bowl champ like Brady, needs some time to build chemistry and timing with a new group of pass catchers, and we’re seeing the effects of a truncated offseason at play. And sure, the offense could simplify things for Brady and incorporate more of the quick-hitting throws we saw in New England, but I doubt that’s the cure-all for the team’s offensive woes. Brady, who started the season red-hot as a deep-ball passer before cooling off significantly in the past month, was solid in that area this week against Kansas City, completing four of seven passes for 152 yards, one touchdown, and one pick on throws of 20-plus yards in the loss (he wasn’t helped out by a handful of bad drops by his receivers, either). Additionally, and this may be Occam’s razor, but Brady isn’t exactly a spring chicken anymore—and it may be time to accept that the dude will just miss some throws.
Put it all together, and the Buccaneers’ uneven play should come as no surprise. But while the excuses for missed throws and unpredictable play are all pretty valid, it leaves Tampa Bay with just about zero margin for error as we head into the home stretch of the season. The Buccaneers still look like a talented-enough team to make a run at the Super Bowl, but at 7-5, securing the top seed in the NFC at this point is all but impossible. That means that if Tampa Bay makes the playoffs, they will have to take the hard road to the big game and win three tough matchups against quality playoff teams―exactly the types of squads they’ve lost to in three of the past four weeks. Tampa Bay can cite just about any rationale they want for why things aren’t running smoothly, but time is running out for Arians, Brady, and the rest of the offensive group to find some solutions.
The Muddled Middle
15. San Francisco 49ers (5-6)
16. Las Vegas Raiders (6-5)
17. Minnesota Vikings (5-6)
18. New England Patriots (5-6)
19. Atlanta Falcons (4-7)
20. Chicago Bears (5-6)
Wait, are the Falcons good now?
A few of the teams in this category just feel better than their overall record, and the 49ers, Vikings, and Patriots are anything but easy outs at this point―even for some of the best teams in the league. I’m not quite ready to put the Falcons in that group just yet (they did get pretty easily handled by the Saints last week) but after looking like a contender to secure the top overall pick early on in the season, Atlanta is starting to play like a real, professional NFL team.
With a 43-6 win against the Raiders on Sunday, the Falcons have quietly gone 4-2 since firing Dan Quinn, an intriguing turnaround under interim head coach Raheem Morris that could have major implications for the long-term future of the franchise. Led by a vastly improved defense (which forced five turnovers and produced five sacks) and a banged-up, patched-together offense (which played without Julio Jones again this week), the Falcons keep finding ways to win―and Morris keeps building his case for the permanent head coach title in 2021.
But while Morris has the team playing up to (and perhaps beyond) their overall talent, I’m reluctant to crown this team as one of the feel-good stories of the season’s second half just yet. With a tough stretch-run schedule that features matchups with the Saints, Chargers, Buccaneers, Chiefs, and Buccaneers on tap, the Falcons will have to run the gauntlet against some very talented squads. If Morris can guide his team through that slate of opponents and produce more positives than negatives, he will make the club’s decision on its next head coach an easy one.
There’s Always Next Year … Unless You’re in the NFC East
21. Carolina Panthers (4-8)
22. New York Giants (4-7)
23. Denver Broncos (4-7)
24. Houston Texans (4-7)
25. Washington Football Team (4-7)
26. Philadelphia Eagles (3-7-1)
27. Los Angeles Chargers (3-8)
28. Detroit Lions (4-7)
29. Dallas Cowboys (3-8)
30. Cincinnati Bengals (2-8-1)
31. Jacksonville Jaguars (1-10)
32. New York Jets (0-11)
It’s one step forward, two steps back for the Giants. And the whole division, really.
Here’s the good news: With a 19-17 win over the Bengals on Sunday, this relatively hot Giants team (winners of three in a row!) moved into sole possession of first place in the NFC East. Here’s the bad news: They lost their quarterback for an indeterminate amount of time.
With Daniel Jones now battling a hamstring pull, an injury that could keep him out this week and beyond, the race to the top of the NFC East remains as muddled as ever. Colt McCoy is now under center, and it’s tough to imagine New York faring especially well with opponents like the Seahawks, Cardinals, Browns, and Ravens on tap. The Cowboys, meanwhile, looked like a team that was capable of heating up down the stretch … then promptly got destroyed by the Washington Football Team on Thanksgiving. And the Eagles remain, well, the Eagles.
An earlier version of this piece misclassified Elgton Jenkins as a backup. He is a starter.