I’ve got five talent-packed and well-coached squads in the elite tier of NFL teams coming out of the Week 13 slate, the best of the best in what’s been a unique season. The Chiefs are still sitting at no. 1 following their 22-16 win over a plucky Broncos squad on Sunday Night Football, and the Saints move up to the no. 2 spot thanks to another strong performance from backup quarterback Taysom Hill in the team’s 21-16 win over the Falcons. The Steelers drop to no. 3 after coming up short against the surging Washington Football Team, 23-17. And the Bills (who beat the 49ers 34-24) and Packers (who toppled the Eagles 30-16) round out the top five on this list. With the stretch run of the season upon us, here’s this week’s updated NFL power rankings.
The Top Shelf
1. Kansas City Chiefs (11-1)
2. New Orleans Saints (10-2)
3. Pittsburgh Steelers (11-1)
4. Buffalo Bills (9-3)
5. Green Bay Packers (9-3)
Patrick Mahomes keeps doing Patrick Mahomes things.
I realize it’s become almost banal to celebrate the three or four absurdly difficult throws that Mahomes manages to pull out of his ass each and every week, but I’m going to keep reminding anyone who will listen that we’re witnessing the prime years of a quarterback who’s going to go down as one of the all-time best to play the game. Mahomes’s rare skill set was on full display in the Chiefs’ 22-16 win over the Broncos on Sunday Night Football, a game in which the MVP front-runner’s final stat line (318 yards, one touchdown) belied a far more jaw-dropping performance: As Ringer colleague Kaelen Jones pointed out after the game, Mahomes not only led Kansas City to a playoff-clinching 11th win on the year, but did it in his own signature style by sprinkling in a few requisite across-the-body jump-throws and sidearm tosses.
Steph Curry and Patrick Mahomes are the first dudes I can remember at the pro level *consistently* doing the exact thing you’re taught fundamentally *not* to do and always converting. That’s fun as hell— Kaelen Jones (@kaelenjones) December 7, 2020
These types of throws would make most quarterback coaches cringe, but Mahomes has a way of making them work time and time again. We saw one example of that late in the third quarter, when he found Travis Kelce for the go-ahead touchdown. After drawing the Broncos offsides, Mahomes stepped into the pocket to avoid the rush, shrugging off Anthony Chickillo (who had a good chunk of the throwing-shoulder section of Mahomes’s jersey) to generate enough torque to make a cross-body throw to his play-making tight end. Kelce did the rest, scampering in for the score.
Early in the fourth quarter, Mahomes got himself out of another jam, this time whipping a flat-footed, sidearm toss to Kelce to extend the team’s drive.
Later in the quarter, Mahomes did it again. Scrambling to his left, Mahomes saw Sammy Watkins come open out of the corner of his eye; he somehow managed to twist his torso and reset his feet enough to lob an accurate pass back toward the middle of the field, finding his receiver for a 17-yard gain. That play helped set up a Harrison Butker field goal to extend K.C.’s lead to 22-16 late in the game.
That pass to Watkins was a good example of the type of throws that teams have to coach out of overaggressive young passers (*cough* Sam Darnold *COUGH*). It also served as a subtle illustration of the traits that have helped Mahomes become the best passer on the planet: Not only is the 25-year-old capable of executing Andy Reid’s offense with precision throws from the pocket, but he’s unique in the way he blends elusiveness as a scrambler with the ability to see the entire field and make any type of off-platform throw that he needs to in order to get the ball to his intended target. Mahomes regularly does things that few quarterbacks have ever done, and I’m resolute in my goal to never stop appreciating the spectacle he puts on just about every week.
It’s because of Mahomes that the Chiefs have occupied the top spot in these rankings for five weeks straight. The playmaking signal-caller gives Kansas City a trump card that no other team has. No lead is safe against this squad―I doubt that many thought Denver’s four-point margin late in the third quarter would hold―and when he’s had to, Mahomes has shown that he can lead the Chiefs back from double-digit deficits without breaking a sweat (as he did in all three of the team’s postseason wins last year).
But while a win is a win in this league, it’s worth pointing out that the Chiefs have been playing with fire a bit over the past month. With their last four wins coming by a combined 13 points, Mahomes and Co. have let some inferior teams hang around far too long in what should be comfortable wins. On Sunday, a coaching error (a catch that was ruled incomplete should’ve been challenged) and a holding penalty wiped two would-be Tyreek Hill touchdowns, miscuses that helped the Drew Lock–led Broncos hang tough until the end―to the point where Denver had the opportunity to move down the field to win the game on their final possession. The Broncos ultimately came up short on that drive, but the victory should serve as another wake-up call for a Chiefs team that also struggled to put away the Bucs, Raiders, and Panthers in its last three games. As Kansas City fights for the top seed in the AFC down the stretch, Mahomes and Co. would do well to bury teams earlier in games. Because they can.
The Saints are 8-0 over the last two seasons with backup QBs under center.
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has set the bar high over the past two decades when it comes to adaptability in coaching; he’s a nimble strategist who consistently finds new ways to scheme up game plans that use the skill sets of his players. Saints head coach Sean Payton is doing his best to prove he’s not far behind in that category.
For the second straight year, Payton has managed to keep his offense rolling despite losing starter Drew Brees for an extended period of time. Last year, when Brees went down with a torn ligament in his thumb, the veteran coach installed a custom-fit system that helped Teddy Bridgewater lead New Orleans to a perfect 5-0 mark in relief. This season, Payton’s accomplished much of the same with Taysom Hill―who moved to 3-0 as the interim starter by leading the Saints to a 21-16 win over the Falcons―but he’s done it while leaning on an entirely different style.
Mixing quarterback-centered run schemes with heavy doses of play-action, Payton has tailored the team’s new-look scheme around Hill’s talents. In a win over the Broncos last week, that game plan produced an at-times ugly but ultimately competent offense, a group that did its job well enough to help the team earn a win. On Sunday, though, the Hill-led offense showed signs it may be coalescing into something more than just a Band-Aid. Hill played his best game as a pro against the Falcons’ recently stingy group, picking up a career-high 83 yards rushing on 14 carries while starting to look, for the first time, like a bona fide dropback passer in the win. He completed 27 of 37 passes for 232 yards and two touchdowns in the game, working the short and intermediate areas while attacking both the seams and the sidelines.
Hill’s talent as a runner gives the Saints’ temporary offense a solid floor. With read option and quarterback-power-type looks at their disposal, New Orleans is capable of moving the chains and playing a physical brand of football (similar to what we’re seeing Cam Newton do under Belichick, in fact). But if Hill can continue to drop back and make accurate throws down the field, even if it’s just on well-schemed looks like his touchdown pass to a wide-open Tre’Quan Smith on Sunday, this offense actually has a decently high ceiling. With Brees’s immediate future still up in the air (he’s eligible to come off the IR this week but still has to prove he can play through 11 broken ribs), Hill has done enough to show that he’s more than capable of keeping the ship afloat. And Payton’s proved yet again that he’s one of the savviest coaches in the game.
6. Cleveland Browns (9-3)
7. Indianapolis Colts (8-4)
8. Miami Dolphins (8-4)
9. Los Angeles Rams (8-4)
10. Tennessee Titans (8-4)
11. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-5)
12. Seattle Seahawks (8-4)
13. Baltimore Ravens (6-5)
The Browns offense is starting to catch fire.
For most of the season, the Browns have seemed content to win ugly on offense, leaning on a strong run game to overcome bad quarterback play (and a month of awful weather in Cleveland). Over the past two weeks, though, Cleveland’s shown that they’re more than just a ground-and-pound, wear-you-out-type team, and head coach Kevin Stefanski has started to slowly take the training wheels off of quarterback Baker Mayfield. Fresh off his 258-yard, two-touchdown passing performance in a win over the Jaguars, Mayfield put together the best game of his career on Sunday in Cleveland’s shocking 41-35 win over the Titans.
With Tennessee apparently determined to sell out and stop the Browns’ run game while forcing Mayfield to beat them, the third-year pro obliged, completing 20 of 25 passes for 290 yards and four touchdowns … in the first half alone. Leaning on an uncharacteristically pass-first strategy (after coming into the game with a 28th-ranked, 53 percent neutral situation pass rate, the Browns threw 63 percent of the time in those situations on Sunday, which would rank fourth over the full season), Mayfield guided Cleveland to a massive 28-7 first-half lead. He led the offense to points on the team’s first six drives, including five straight touchdowns after an opening possession field goal, and ultimately finished the game with 334 yards through the air and a 90 percent adjusted completion rate, per PFF.
One huge game won’t erase the concerns from a season of mostly terrible play from the former top pick, but it’s an encouraging development for a 9-3 Browns team that’s on the verge of clinching a postseason berth. If Mayfield can continue to lean on Jarvis Landry (eight catches, 62 yards, and a touchdown) and Rashard Higgins (six catches, 95 yards, one TD) and make smart decisions with the ball, Cleveland could quickly transform from what many consider a schedule-boosted pretender into a legit dark horse in the AFC.
And the Seahawks offense is slumping at the wrong time.
After we spent a good chunk of the season complaining about the Seahawks’ atrocious, wet paper bag of a defense, that group has seemed to come together in the past month, finding the right mix of scheme and personnel to manufacture a handful of quality performances in that stretch. Unfortunately for Seattle, though, the turning of the tide for that side of the ball has almost perfectly coincided with the collapse of the other: Through the first eight weeks of the season, Seattle looked like the best offense in the NFL, but the wheels have fallen off for the Russell Wilson–led unit in the past few games. That group reached its low point of the year in a 17-12 loss to the Giants on Sunday, producing a listless, often discombobulated performance that made the high-octane passing attack we saw early in the year feel like a distant, fading memory.
Wilson finished the game 27 of 43 for 263 yards, one touchdown, and a pick, and he coughed up a fumbled snap in the second quarter. The veteran quarterback, who’s accounted for seven touchdowns and nine turnovers in the past five games, struggled with the near-constant pressure New York was able to apply, losing a total of 47 yards on five sacks. The Seahawks were at a clear disadvantage in having to play fourth-string tackle Chad Wheeler at right tackle for most of the game (after losing third-stringer Jamarco Jones early in the game), but far too often, Wilson was to blame for Seattle’s struggles. The six-time Pro Bowler either passed up the easy dump-off or ran himself into trouble, and he never appeared to come up with an answer for the two-high shell the Giants threw at Seattle. When Wilson wasn’t making mistakes, his receivers were. DK Metcalf had one drop, Tyler Lockett had a pair of passes go off his hands, and Wilson’s interception came on a pass that went right through Chris Carson’s gloves.
It’s not immediately clear what the Seahawks can do to right the ship on offense, but it doesn’t seem like the high-flying group we saw earlier in the year is coming back any time soon. Pete Carroll lamented after the game that Seattle hadn’t run the ball enough, and with so many turnovers in the past few weeks, I fear that Wilson will retreat further into a conservative, protect-the-ball-at-all-costs approach down the stretch. In any case, the Seahawks need to get things figured out quickly, and a date with the New York Jets in Week 14 provides this group the opportunity.
The Muddled Middle
14. New England Patriots (6-6)
15. Minnesota Vikings (6-6)
16. Las Vegas Raiders (7-5)
17. Arizona Cardinals (6-6)
18. San Francisco 49ers (5-7)
19. New York Giants (5-7)
20. Washington Football Team (5-7)
21. Detroit Lions (5-7)
22. Chicago Bears (5-7)
Darrell Bevell took some jumper cables to the Lions’ franchise.
Look, I’m not going to say that I think the Lions’ 34-30 win against the Bears on Sunday suddenly makes them a playoff contender, but I’m also open to the idea that the the firing of Matt Patricia is a big enough addition by subtraction to give Detroit a second lease on life down the stretch. After preaching a message of playing with joy and enthusiasm to his players all week, interim head coach Darrell Bevell managed to get more fire out of this undermanned group than we’d seen all year. That was especially true for Bevell’s offense, which totaled a season-high 460 yards in the come-from-behind win. Quarterback Matt Stafford led the way, completing 27 of 42 attempts for 402 yards, three touchdowns, and a pick—netting his first 400-yard outing this year and the 10th in his career. And he did all that without go-to receiver Kenny Golladay, distributing the ball to Marvin Jones (eight catches for 116 yards and one touchdown) and T.J. Hockenson (seven catches and 84 yards) while getting the rest of the team’s role players involved, including Quintez Cephus (two catches, 63 yards, and one touchdown), Danny Amendola (three catches and 62 yards), Mohamed Sanu (two catches and 36 yards), and Jamal Agnew (two catches and 24 yards).
The Lions have a tough schedule down the stretch, with their final four matchups coming against the Packers, Titans, Buccaneers, and Vikings—all potential playoff squads. But all of a sudden, I’m pretty excited to see what this team can do―especially when they get Golladay and rookie running back D’Andre Swift back on the field. After designing game plans and calling plays for most of his career under defensive-minded coaches in Leslie Frazier, Pete Carroll, and Matt Patricia, Bevell has a real chance to put his stamp on this team. It should be fun to see how much things change in the next month in what amounts to a head-coaching interview for the longtime coordinator.
There’s Always Next Year
23. Carolina Panthers (4-8)
24. Atlanta Falcons (4-8)
25. Denver Broncos (4-8)
26. Houston Texans (4-8)
27. Philadelphia Eagles (3-8-1)
28. Los Angeles Chargers (3-9)
29. Dallas Cowboys (3-8)
30. Cincinnati Bengals (2-9-1)
31. Jacksonville Jaguars (1-11)
32. New York Jets (0-12)
Jalen Hurts gives us a reason to watch the Eagles.
With upset wins over the Steelers and Seahawks, respectively, the Washington Football Team and the Giants have emerged as the two clear front-runners in the NFC East. The Eagles, meanwhile, continued their slide down the standings with a 30-16 loss to the Packers―but have suddenly become one of the most interesting bad teams to watch down the stretch. Philly head coach Doug Pederson needed to provide a spark for his lethargic offense, so he sent Carson Wentz to the bench midway through the third quarter and turned the offense over to rookie quarterback Jalen Hurts.
The former Oklahoma star produced that boost, leading the Eagles on a nine-play, 73-yard touchdown drive on his second series to cut Green Bay’s lead to 23-10 early in the fourth quarter. A Jalen Reagor punt return score a few minutes later cut that lead down even more, and while Hurts was unable to lead Philly to the comeback win (Green Bay’s defense stiffened up to force a punt on the Eagles’ next possession, then intercepted Hurts on the team’s final drive), the difference between the Wentz-led offense and the one under Hurts was stark. After watching Wentz take three-plus sacks in 10 consecutive games (the longest such streak in the NFL in 22 years), Hurts’s ability to extend plays, get outside the pocket, and generally just avoid the Packers’ pass rush was key in getting Philly out of the hole.
Every Jalen Hurts dropback from Week 13: pic.twitter.com/l6Hwv0drcX— Jacob Gibbs (@jagibbs_23) December 7, 2020
Hurts finished the game 5-of-12 for 109 yards with one touchdown and one interception, adding 29 yards on five carries. That’s not exactly an eye-popping stat line, but it was enough to make the decision on which quarterback to start next week a difficult one for Pederson. The former Super Bowl–winning coach refused to commit to Wentz or Hurts for the team’s matchup with the Saints, but with a massive amount of money tied up in Wentz over the next few years, it’s a choice that could have long-lasting and critical consequences for the franchise.