Weird stuff happens every week in the NFL—the Rams and Steelers both proved that by losing to the Jets and Bengals, respectively—but with the postseason just a few weeks away, the league’s elite echelon is starting to become a little more clear. The Chiefs hold on to the top spot in these rankings for the seventh straight week with a 32-29 win over the Saints, a gritty performance that keeps Kansas City in control of their own destiny in the quest for the top seed in the AFC. The Bills stick at no. 2 with a win over the Broncos, the Packers stay at no. 3 with a win over the Panthers, and the Saints sit at no. 4 following their loss to Kansas City. The Colts (who held off the Texans 27-20) and Titans (who demolished the Lions 46-25) round out the top six. With the postseason just a few weeks away, here’s my updated NFL Power Rankings.
The Top Shelf
1. Kansas City Chiefs (13-1)
2. Buffalo Bills (11-3)
3. Green Bay Packers (11-3)
4. New Orleans Saints (10-4)
5. Indianapolis Colts (10-4)
6. Tennessee Titans (10-4)
The Chiefs keep finding ways to win
The Chiefs’ offense ran into a formidable foe on Sunday in the swarming Saints defense, and for big chunks of the game, Patrick Mahomes struggled to get his team into its normal rhythm. New Orleans stymied Kansas City’s deep passing attack for much of the contest, deploying two-high looks in coverage while generating pressure with their front four―a game plan that took advantage of the Chiefs’ cobbled-together offensive line (which had just two regular starters played in their normal position in this game). The Saints finished with 11 quarterback hits, including four sacks, and pressured Mahomes on 24 drop backs, per Pro Football Focus, most of any team this week and good for a 44 percent pressure rate―the highest pressure rate the Chiefs have surrendered all year.
For a while, it seemed as if the Saints’ savvy defensive plan would work. The Chiefs punted on five of their first seven possessions and, at one point early in the third quarter, trailed the Saints 15-14. But Kansas City adjusted at halftime to focus more on the quick passing game and the rushing attack, and Mahomes rallied the offense in the final two frames to will his team to another big win. Under near-constant pressure in the pocket, Mahomes turned to doing Mahomesian things outside of it, running for three first downs in the game while completing 7-for-12 passes for 63 yards and two touchdowns on scrambles or rollouts, per PFF.
His best throw of the game was also the one that put the Chiefs back in front for good. On a second-and-goal from the 5-yard line midway through the third quarter, Mahomes sprinted to his left, double-clutched, and, finding no one open, threw the ball away. At least, that’s what it looked like he was doing; in actuality, he was leading Mecole Hardman to a point at the back corner of the end zone that only Hardman could reach.
That play put Kansas City back out in front and worked well to represent one of the keys to the Chiefs’ hard-fought victory: their red zone execution. Despite all their uncharacteristic hiccups in both protecting Mahomes and creating chunk plays, K.C. converted four of their five red zone trips into touchdowns. And at the end of the day, despite all the trouble New Orleans gave them, and despite averaging just 4.5 yards per play, the Chiefs still put 32 points on the board.
Combined with a defensive effort that made things sufficiently difficult for Drew Brees in his return to action, the less-than-beautiful offensive performance helped propel Kansas City to victory, the latest in a growing series of gritty, one-score wins (their sixth in a row). It wasn’t always pretty, and the Chiefs are playing with fire in close game after close game, but Kansas City is proving week in and week out that they’re built to outlast opponents and finish out games. At 13-1, Kansas City is in the driver’s seat for the AFC’s no. 1 seed and that ever-important first-round bye.
Philip Rivers is holding off Father Time
The Philip Rivers era in Indianapolis got off to an uneven start. Transitioning from longtime Chargers stalwart to veteran bridge QB with the Colts, Rivers appeared to have taken a plunge off the performance cliff at times early this season. He looked washed up, to put it another way; in his first five games he threw four touchdowns to five picks while tallying an 89.4 passer rating. Following the team’s 33-23 loss to the Browns in Week 5, calls from fans for the team to bench the 39-year-old seemed to reach a crescendo. Head coach Frank Reich smartly (as it’s turned out) stood strong against the pressure.
Sorry to disappointment the 'Bench Philip Rivers' crowd, but coach Frank Reich said there has NOT been any consideration to bench Rivers.— Mike Wells (@MikeWellsNFL) October 12, 2020
"No. Philip is our quarterback."
Fast forward to present day, and it’s probably safe to say that Rivers has made most of those fans change their tune. The longtime vet has played clean, mostly mistake-free ball over his last nine games while leading the Colts to a 7-2 record in that stretch. Rivers came up big for Indianapolis in its 27-20 win over Houston on Sunday, completing 22 of 28 passes for 228 yards and two touchdowns―an efficient performance that he capped with a 41-yard dagger to T.Y. Hilton with just over two minutes to go in the game. With the game knotted at 20-20, Indianapolis faced a second-and-20 from the Houston 44-yard line; Rivers dropped back and launched this perfectly placed bomb right into the teeth of the Texans defense.
That play set the Colts up at Houston’s 3-yard line. Rivers found Zach Pascal for the go-ahead touchdown two plays later, giving the Colts a 27-20 lead that ended up making the difference in the game. Indy’s offense certainly got some help from the team’s defense and special teams units—the story of the 2020 Colts, above all, has been its balance in all three phases—but it was clear again on Sunday that Rivers is playing the type of ball that could make this Indianpolis team dangerous in the postseason. He’s not flashy, he no longer has a big arm, and he’s definitely not going to make anyone miss with his legs, but Rivers’s passing numbers over the past two months or so rival those of the best young quarterbacks in the game.
Over his last nine games—seven of which have been Colts wins—Rivers is tied for seventh in the NFL in touchdown passes with 18, matching Deshaun Watson, Justin Herbert, Kyler Murray, and Russell Wilson. He’s tossed just four picks in that stretch. He ranks eighth in passing yards (2,508, ahead of, for instance, Josh Allen) and is ninth in yards per attempt (7.65), eighth in passer rating (103.6), and 10th in completion rate (67.7). He’s fifth in EPA per play in that period (.28). By just about every metric, Rivers has been a top-10 quarterback. It’s no wonder Reich spent the run-up to the Texans matchup talking about how Rivers may not be playing his final season in the league. “The way he’s playing right now ... if he wants, he has multiple years of good football ahead of him,” Reich said.
We’ll see how everything goes down the stretch, but it’s looking like Rivers’s early-season struggles had more to do with the challenges of changing teams in the midst of a global pandemic that prompted the NFL to cancel the preseason and most offseason activities. With Rivers playing well, Hilton finding some chemistry with him, and rookie running back Jonathan Taylor starting to really find his footing, the Colts offense is clicking at the right time.
7. Baltimore Ravens (9-5)
8. Cleveland Browns (10-4)
9. Seattle Seahawks (10-4)
10. Pittsburgh Steelers (11-3)
11. Miami Dolphins (9-5)
12. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-5)
13. Los Angeles Rams (9-5)
14. Arizona Cardinals (8-6)
15. Chicago Bears (7-7)
16. Washington Football Team (6-8)
Lamar Jackson and the Ravens are getting their groove back
Let’s get the big caveat out of the way: Yes, the Ravens have beaten up on a couple of bad teams during their current three-game winning streak, and no, victories over the Cowboys and Jaguars aren’t enough to turn this team back into Super Bowl favorites. But in a league where just getting hot at the right time can sometimes be enough, Baltimore’s new-found swagger, particularly on the offensive side of the ball, could pay dividends down the stretch.
That confidence was nowhere to be found for most of the month of November, when the Ravens lost three out of four games and mostly looked lost on offense. The struggles started with reigning MVP Lamar Jackson, who couldn’t seem to get onto the same page with top wideout Marquise Brown and whose accuracy came and went at key moments in games. Jackson notched a paltry 85.2 passer rating in November, throwing just five touchdowns and four picks in the team’s four games. And he wasn’t all that effective (by his standards) on the ground either, gaining 229 yards and one touchdown in that stretch.
But after returning from a Week 12 absence on the COVID-19 list, Jackson has helped turn this Baltimore offense into something more closely resembling the unstoppable buzzsaw we saw in 2019. Over the past three weeks, the Ravens beat the Cowboys, Browns, and the Jaguars (a 40-14 romp on Sunday), averaging an NFL-best 40.3 points per game. Jackson has returned to his MVP-caliber form, completing 71.4 percent of his passes for 513 yards, six touchdowns, and two picks in those games while averaging 9.16 yards per attempt and tallying a 120.6 passer rating. He’s added 253 yards and four scores on the ground. And maybe most importantly, he seems to have resurrected that unmistakable pep-in-his-step kind of a guy who knows he can juke the socks off just about any defender on the field. He’s picking up explosive plays with his feet. He’s finding Brown downfield for big gains. And he looks like he’s having fun again. (It doesn’t hurt either that he’s getting a little bit of help from J.K. Dobbins, Gus Edwards, and even veteran Dez Bryant, who scored his first touchdown since 2017 in the win on Sunday.)
The Ravens’ hounding, dominant defense never went anywhere, and that group is still playing at a high level. But for this team to clinch a playoff spot―and perhaps even emerge as a real Super Bowl contender―they’re going to need Jackson to keep playing like he has over the past three games. They’re going to need him to keep having fun.
Bill Lazor has the Bears’ offense rolling
The bar is set quite a bit lower for the Bears than it is for the Ravens, but I’m just going to say it: Chicago’s offense has been pretty good over the past three weeks, too. With the team’s 33-27 win over the Vikings on Sunday, the Bears have now scored 30-plus points in three straight games, the first time they’ve achieved that feat in seven years. Seven years!
Chicago’s fortuitous slate of bad defenses (the Lions, Texans, and Vikings) has certainly played a part in their recent offensive surge, but it seems clear that offensive coordinator Bill Lazor has the Bears discovering an identity on that side of the ball. Lazor, who took over play-calling from head coach Matt Nagy in Week 10, has managed to boost the team’s previously ineffective ground game using a mix of pre-snap motion and post-snap misdirection. He’s paired that new-found oomph in the rushing attack with an all-out blitz of play-action: Over the last three weeks, Mitchell Trubisky has used a play-fake on a league-high 45.1 percent of his drop backs, throwing for 369 yards and two touchdowns while averaging 8.8 yards per attempt on those plays. The result has been a beautiful marriage of David Montgomery runs with Trubisky roll-out throws. As head coach Matt Nagy put it after the game, “It’s all working in sync right now.”
In Sunday’s win, Trubisky bounced back from an opening-possession three-and-out to lead the team on six straight scoring drives (not including a one-play drive to finish out the second quarter). He finished an efficient 15-of-21 for 202 yards, one touchdown, and one interception, adding 34 yards on eight carries. And despite throwing what could’ve been a disastrous late fourth-quarter pick (the type of play that defined his first three seasons in the league), the fourth-year pro has made a fairly strong statement over the past three games: He’s completed 73.9 percent of his passes for 736 yards and five touchdowns against one pick in that stretch, averaging 8.36 yards per attempt while tallying a 112.7 passer rating. His marked improvement in the Lazor-coordinated scheme may make the Bears a dark horse playoff squad down the stretch, but more importantly, it could have implications for 2021. Nagy, Lazor, and the team’s coaching staff might be buying themselves another year on the job. And Trubisky might be playing himself into a shorter-term, midlevel deal with the team next year. It’s more likely with every game this team wins.
In any case, things finally seem to be coming into place for a group that had been among the most difficult to watch all year. Montgomery is running all over opponents; rookie pass-catchers Cole Kmet and Darnell Mooney are getting involved; and for the first time in, well, ever, Allen Robinson is getting some competent QB play.
The Muddled Middle
17. New England Patriots (6-8)
18. Minnesota Vikings (6-8)
19. Las Vegas Raiders (7-7)
20. Philadelphia Eagles (4-9-1)
21. New York Giants (5-9)
22. Detroit Lions (5-9)
23. Los Angeles Chargers (5-9)
Jalen Hurts is building his résumé
The Eagles’ tough 33-26 loss to the Cardinals on Sunday makes Philly a long-shot for the playoffs, but there was plenty of reason for optimism around this team after watching Jalen Hurts put together another strong performance. Starting his second game over the recently benched Carson Wentz, Hurts again proved dangerous on the ground, picking up 63 yards and a score on the ground. But he got the opportunity to loosen up his throwing arm a little bit more this week, too, completing 24 of 44 pass attempts for 338 yards, three touchdowns, and zero picks in the loss. He nearly threw a fourth touchdown on the team’s failed final drive, hitting tight end Dallas Goedert in the end zone for what could’ve been the game-tying score. Goedert just couldn’t quite reel it in.
While we’re still a long way from crowning Hurts as the official quarterback of the future for Philadelphia, it’s tough to not be intrigued with what the second-round rookie has done for the team’s previously stagnant offense.
Jalen Hurts throws for 338 and rushes for 63.— Sheil Kapadia (@SheilKapadia) December 21, 2020
Three other QBs who have had a game with those totals this season: Kyler Murray, Russell Wilson, Justin Herbert.
Hard not to overreact to 2 games and wonder what this Eagles season might've looked like if he got a shot earlier.
Hurts’s running talent has opened things up for the Eagles’ ground game, and he’s also shown the ability to give the team’s aerial attack some much-needed teeth as well. As any good coach would do with an inexperienced young passer, Doug Pederson (along with passing game coordinator Press Taylor, run game coordinator Jeff Stoutland, and offensive assistant Rich Scangarello) has designed a game plan around the throws Hurts is most comfortable making. So far, that’s meant mostly stuff toward the sidelines, and a bunch of screens:
Still, for the second straight game, I came away incredibly impressed with Hurts’s calm demeanor and poise in the pocket. When it comes to some of the technical requirements of the position, like diagnosing defenses and knowing where to go with the ball, Hurts remains a work in progress. But for the less tangible stuff―the ability to remain composed, keep an even keel, and exude confidence for his teammates—Hurts already looks like a seasoned pro.
There’s Always Next Year
24. San Francisco 49ers (5-9)
25. Carolina Panthers (4-10)
26. Houston Texans (4-10)
27. Dallas Cowboys (5-9)
28. Denver Broncos (5-9)
29. Atlanta Falcons (4-10)
30. Cincinnati Bengals (3-10-1)
31. New York Jets (1-13)
32. Jacksonville Jaguars (1-13)
The Jaguars took the lead in the race for Trevor Lawrence
Putting on my fantasy football analyst cap for a second, I admit that I’ve spent most of the last month or so imagining not only what Trevor Lawrence could for my future fantasy squads, but what type of impact he’d bring for the Jets’ main skill players. Could the Clemson star unlock the team’s offense and turn Jamison Crowder, Denzel Mims, and Chris Herndon into fantasy stars? Well, we may never know now, because with the Jets’ improbable win over the Rams on Sunday, the Jaguars took the lead in the race for the first overall pick.
Assuming Jacksonville loses out and holds on to the top pick, New York’s victory could not only bring a massive shift to the NFL’s overall power structure, but could have a major impact on fantasy football as well. Instead of looking at big 2021 breakouts for Crowder, Mims, and other undervalued Jets’ players, I’m excited to see what Lawrence could do with a deeper and more-talented offensive core with the Jaguars. Pretty quickly, guys like DJ Chark, Laviska Shenault Jr., and even under-the-radar talents like Collin Johnson could see a massive boost in the fantasy realm. We’ve seen what rookie quarterbacks like Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert can do for their respective team’s skill players this season, and I’m already looking forward to what Lawrence can do in Jacksonville next year.