The elite tier of NFL teams pulled further away from the rest of the pack in Week 5, but there’s still little that separates the nine squads in that group. Fresh off a dominant win over the Chiefs, the Bills hold on to their no. 1 spot for another week, but they’ve got the Cardinals, Buccaneers, Cowboys, and a handful of other squads nipping at their heels. With five weeks in the books, here are my updated Power Rankings.
The Top Shelf
1. Buffalo Bills (4-1)
2. Arizona Cardinals (5-0)
3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-1)
4. Los Angeles Rams (4-1)
5. Dallas Cowboys (4-1)
6. Los Angeles Chargers (4-1)
7. Cleveland Browns (3-2)
8. Baltimore Ravens (4-1)
9. Green Bay Packers (4-1)
Tom Brady continues to defy logic.
It’s tough to overstate how good Brady has been this year. It’s gotten to the point where the typical caveats about how he’s 44 years old no longer even apply. He’s not playing well for a guy his age or setting new standards for quarterbacks over 40; he’s actually just one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL right now, full stop. Against all odds, and, like, established peer-reviewed scientific knowledge, Brady is playing some of the best football of his career.
That was apparent during the Buccaneers’ 45-17 dismantling of the Dolphins, a game in which the future Hall of Famer calmly completed 30 of 41 passes for 411 yards and five touchdowns with no picks. His highlight throw, at least for me, was the dagger he threw off his back foot to Antonio Brown early in the second quarter, a perfectly placed ball that led Brown downfield and helped spring a breakaway 62-yard touchdown.
Brady is absolutely thriving under pressure this year. In complete control of where the ball needs to go and when it needs to get there. pic.twitter.com/Hhyd7aQ9LA— Jon Ledyard (@LedyardNFLDraft) October 11, 2021
That play broke a 10-10 tie, opened the floodgates for Tampa Bay, and did well to represent what’s been a surprisingly explosive offense under Brady this year. As the Steelers and Falcons work to mitigate the limitations around the rapidly declining arm strength of Ben Roethlisberger and Matt Ryan, respectively, Brady’s still capable of slinging frozen ropes to the intermediate and deep parts of the field. Through five weeks, Brady’s average depth of target sits at 9.7 yards per pass, tied for sixth highest leaguewide, per PFF.
Brady leads the NFL in both passing attempts (225) and yards (1,767) and ranks second only to Patrick Mahomes in touchdown passes (15). He’s thrown just two picks, has notched a 108.5 passer rating (fifth), and is averaging 8.2 adjusted net yards per pass attempt (also fifth). He’s no. 1 in the NFL in Pro Football Focus’s passing grade (92.2) and no. 1 among quarterbacks in Football Outsiders’ DYAR metric, which measures total value.
Brady’s sterling performance has been more than enough to make up for the struggles we’ve seen from Tampa Bay’s injury-riddled secondary, and the GOAT should continue to make the Buccaneers a favorite in what looks like a very competitive NFC.
The Cowboys are winning with balance.
The Cowboys’ passing game under offensive coordinator Kellen Moore has been tough to stop this year, and that unit put together another strong performance in the team’s 44-20 win over the Giants on Sunday. Dak Prescott completed 22 of 32 passes for 302 yards with three touchdowns and one pick in the victory, finding CeeDee Lamb and Amari Cooper for scores while sprinkling in targets for tight end Dalton Schultz and running back Tony Pollard, among others. On the year, the veteran quarterback has now notched 13 touchdowns and just three picks and is averaging 274 yards a game and 8.3 yards per attempt. His passer rating of 116.9 ranks second only to Russell Wilson.
But Prescott’s performance hasn’t been too surprising; the way the Cowboys are winning games has been. Coming into the season, I expected more of what we saw last year from this Dallas team, which is to say I thought it’d be up to Dak to carry the Cowboys. But that hasn’t been the case for this 4-1 squad, which is beating opponents with a balanced approach and getting major contributions from both sides of the ball.
Behind a slimmed-down Ezekiel Elliott and a more heavily utilized Tony Pollard, the Cowboys’ dormant run game―which finished middle of the pack in 2020 in both yards and touchdowns―has come back to life. With another 201 yards and a touchdown on the ground on Sunday, Dallas now ranks second in the NFL in rushing yards per game (172.8) and is tied for second in rushing yards per carry (5.3). And crucially, the team’s defense is starting to carry its own weight, too. Thanks to a second-year leap from cornerback Trevon Diggs (who has notched six interceptions) and the instant-impact play of rookie Micah Parsons (who has collected 2.5 sacks, three tackles for loss, and 10 QB hits), the Cowboys defense has been surprisingly dynamic. New defensive coordinator Dan Quinn’s group has tallied 12 takeaways so far, good for second in the league. And after surrendering 29.6 points per game in 2020, that group’s bottom line has improved to just 23.4 per game this season.
The Cowboys still look capable of competing in the track-meet style games that we saw them play in 2020. But this Dallas team no longer has to survive on that high-wire act, a factor that makes this team a legit challenger in the conference.
10. Kansas City Chiefs (2-3)
11. Cincinnati Bengals (3-2)
12. Chicago Bears (3-2)
13. New Orleans Saints (3-2)
14. Carolina Panthers (3-2)
15. Denver Broncos (3-2)
The Chiefs offense has zero margin for error.
The Chiefs’ 38-20 loss to the Bills on Sunday Night Football confirmed something that was becoming clear even before the game kicked off: The team’s porous defense is a huge problem. Buffalo quarterback Josh Allen sliced up Kansas City’s frequently confused unit, finishing the game with 315 yards and three touchdowns through the air with another 59 yards and a score on the ground. With alarming frequency, Allen found wide-open receivers and ran through the defense untouched―a pattern that’s emerged for that unit in just about every game this season. The Bills have a buzzsaw offense, but as Get Up ESPN’s Paul Hembekides notes, Kansas City seems determined to turn every team it faces into the Greatest Show on Turf: The Chiefs are allowing 7.1 yards per play, which is slightly more than what the Kurt Warner–led Rams offense averaged (7.0) in its record-setting season in 2000. Incredibly, the Kansas City defense has allowed a touchdown on 41.7 percent of opponents’ drives, which is easily the worst rate in the NFL.
The Chiefs’ inability to slow opposing offenses down puts pressure on the offense to play near-perfect football. They haven’t done that. Mahomes remains the league’s most dangerous passer, but he seems to be pressing more this season than he has in the past. Mahomes has thrown a league-best 16 touchdowns through five games, yes, but he has also tossed six picks—the same number of interceptions he threw in all of the 2020 season—with two more coming against the Bills on Sunday. Mahomes isn’t alone in the blame, though. One of his interceptions against Buffalo, a third-quarter pick-six, bounced right through Tyreek Hill’s hands to a waiting defender. And ball security has become a general problem for the rest of the team’s skill players. Kansas City is tied for the league lead in turnovers (11), with a combined five lost fumbles exacerbating Mahomes’s early-season problem with throwing the ball to the wrong team. For context, at this time last year, the 4-1 Chiefs had committed just three turnovers.
Ultimately, the Chiefs still have Andy Reid designing and calling plays. They’ve still got Mahomes behind center and they’ve still got Travis Kelce and Hill running routes. And all of that together means they’re still capable of beating anyone on any given Sunday. But unless the defense improves as the year goes on, even marginally, Kansas City will have to get back to being damn-near perfect on offense if it hopes to compete in the AFC.
The Saints keep MacGyvering wins.
The Saints have been all over the place this year. They looked dominant under new-look Jameis Winston in their Week 1 blowout of the Packers, and then promptly fell back to earth in a Week 2 blowout loss to the Panthers. They bounced back with a nice win over the Patriots in Week 3, only to lose a clunker to the Giants in Week 4. True to the pattern, they got back into the win column on Sunday with a 33-22 victory over Washington. And that’s a long way of saying that I’m finding it harder and harder to figure out whether or not this New Orleans team is good.
I think I lean “yes.” Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that I don’t think we’ve seen this team’s ceiling. Thanks to a rash of injuries and suspensions, New Orleans has been forced to use the football equivalents of paperclips, chewing gum, and rubber bands to MacGyver themselves some wins, getting out of jams with a combination of solid, takeaway-creating defense and a conservative, ball-control style on offense. That has meant turning the famously erratic Winston into a game manager. It’s meant sprinkling in some Taysom Hill plays, a few Deonte Harris deep balls, a handful of Marquez Callaway contested catches, receiver turned tight end Juwan Johnson in the red zone, and utilityman Ty Montgomery everywhere in between. And it’s meant relying on Alvin Kamara to do Alvin Kamara things.
On Sunday, we saw many of those variables at play. The defense tallied two takeaways, both picks of Taylor Heinicke, and played the field position game well by repeatedly pinning Washington deep in its own end. Offensively, we saw the main cast of characters play their parts, but this time, Sean Payton was forced to let Winston loose a bit. With Washington selling out to stop the Saints’ run game, Winston attempted a season-high 30 passes, throwing for 279 yards with four touchdowns and just one pick. Harris made the most of his lone target, catching a 72-yard pass for a touchdown. Callaway caught two of his own scores, including a Hail Mary pass into the end zone just before the half. And Kamara was his typical dynamic self, tallying 71 yards and a score on the ground and another 51 yards and a touchdown through the air. It wasn’t exactly pretty, but it was enough.
That’s been this team’s calling card this year, but better, more beautiful days may be ahead. With the Saints heading into their bye week, a bevy of reinforcements are getting closer to a return: Michael Thomas is due to come off the injured reserve soon, and he could provide a massive boost to the team’s anemic passing game. Receiver Tre’Quan Smith (hamstring) could provide a spark when he gets back as well, and tight end Nick Vannett (knee) is set to return, too. The defense should get a nice bump when defensive end Marcus Davenport (pectoral) and cornerback Ken Crawley (hamstring) get back on the field, and defensive tackle David Onyemata will be eligible to return after serving his six-game suspension for a violation of the NFL’s performance-enhancing drug policy. The Saints have gotten to 3-2 with a little old-fashioned ingenuity and some duct tape, but Payton and Co. should have better tools to work with going forward.
The Muddled Middle
16. Las Vegas Raiders (3-2)
17. Tennessee Titans (3-2)
18. Seattle Seahawks (2-3)
19. Pittsburgh Steelers (2-3)
20. San Francisco 49ers (2-3)
21. Minnesota Vikings (2-3)
22. Philadelphia Eagles (2-3)
23. New England Patriots (2-3)
24. Atlanta Falcons (2-3)
25. Washington Football Team (2-3)
Derrick Henry is a joy to watch.
There wasn’t a whole lot to glean from the Titans’ easy 37-19 win over the lowly Jaguars, but one thing kept flashing through my mind as I watched Derrick Henry churn through the Jacksonville defense: We may never see another player do what Henry’s doing for this Tennessee offense ever again. In a league that is geared toward passing and full of teams that increasingly use a running-back-by-committee approach, Henry is on pace to shatter volume records at the position. And in an era dominated by quarterbacks, a larger-than-life running back is still the engine that powers the Titans offense. I know it’s a cliché; that’s the point.
With another 29 carries for 130 yards and three touchdowns on Sunday, the sixth-year pro has now totaled 640 yards and seven touchdowns on 142 carries this year. He’s on pace for 483 carries this season, which would obliterate Larry Johnson’s NFL record of 416, set in 2006. He’s on pace for 2,176 yards, which would eclipse Eric Dickerson’s NFL record of 2,105. Henry will be getting an extra game this year to do all that, sure, but I almost don’t care: What he’s doing is truly incredible. And besides, even if he doesn’t set league records this year, Henry’s already cemented himself as one of the all-time greats.
Derrick Henry's breakout as a player came in Week 14, 2018 against the Jaguars when he scored 4 TD.— Field Yates (@FieldYates) October 11, 2021
Over the last 40 games, he now has 4,792 rushing yards and 40 rushing TD.
That's the most rushing yards by any player in a 40-game span in NFL history, per @EliasSports.
I doubt there will ever be another running back like Henry, and I’m just glad I get to watch him in his prime.
There’s Always Next Year
26. Houston Texans (1-4)
27. New York Giants (1-4)
28. Miami Dolphins (1-4)
29. Indianapolis Colts (1-4)
30. Detroit Lions (0-5)
31. New York Jets (1-4)
32. Jacksonville Jaguars (0-5)
The Dolphins might be the NFL’s most disappointing team.
I remember listening to an interview with Seahawks GM John Schneider a few years ago when he pointed out that the league pushes teams to 8-8. There are 17 games now, so he’d have to slightly amend that comment, but the point remains: Whether we’re talking about the draft or the league’s scheduling rubric, injury luck, weather, or the simple bounce of the ball, parity reigns in the NFL. And the Dolphins, more than most teams, are feeling the pain that parity can bring.
After winning 10 games in 2020, Miami looked like a franchise on the rise. With a hounding defense, an ascending offense behind second-year pro Tua Tagovailoa, and a bevy of promising new rookies set to hit the field, some considered the Dolphins a dark horse in the AFC. That vision may have to wait a year. Tagovailoa’s hurt. The defense has badly regressed. The rookie class is still coming on. And a team that looked like one of the best-coached squads in the league last year has been undisciplined. The Dolphins have a league-worst point differential of negative-75. At least they’ve got a confidence-boosting opportunity against the Jaguars in Week 6.