A month into the NFL season, there’s no clear-cut best team. In fact, the list of franchises capable of staking their claim to that title keeps growing―and the margins separating the best of the best are as narrow as can be. That’s why this week, I’m putting a whopping 10 teams in my top tier—and that almost didn’t feel like enough. With the Week 4 slate in the books, let’s get to this week’s Power Rankings, which feature another big shakeup at the top.
The Top Shelf
1. Buffalo Bills (3-1)
2. Arizona Cardinals (4-0)
3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-1)
4. Los Angeles Rams (3-1)
5. Cleveland Browns (3-1)
6. Dallas Cowboys (3-1)
7. Los Angeles Chargers (3-1)
8. Baltimore Ravens (3-1)
9. Kansas City Chiefs (2-2)
10. Las Vegas Raiders (3-1)
The Bills are on an absolute heater.
A lot of fans may see this ranking and point out that over the past three weeks Buffalo has beaten teams in Miami, Washington, and Houston that have ranged from “below average” to “downright bad.” But the way in which Buffalo has so comprehensively and thoroughly dominated in those games … well, it’s simply not normal. The Bills have looked like they’re Alabama chopping down early-season FCS fodder over their past three games, and after dispatching the Davis Mills–led Texans on Sunday 40-0, have now outscored opponents a combined 118-to-21. Please read that a few times and revel in the ridiculousness.
Buffalo now carries a plus-90 point differential on its opponents this year, becoming one of just three teams this millennium to hit that mark through the first four weeks of the season (joining the 2007 and 2019 Patriots). With their uniquely dynamic quarterback, Josh Allen, at the helm, the Bills are tied for second in points scored (33.5). And the defense, which has already pitched two shutouts, is first in points allowed (11.0 per game). This is an incredibly balanced, talent-packed, and well-coached squad, and one that’s picked up where it left off last season. Going back to 2020, Buffalo has now won 11 of its past 13 games, including playoffs, accumulating a combined point differential of plus-212 points in that stretch. And they’ll get a chance to prove they deserve the top spot in Week 5, when they travel to Kansas City to take on the Chiefs in a rematch of last year’s AFC championship game.
The Cardinals made a statement against the Rams.
The Rams were my top-ranked team coming out of Week 3, but the Cardinals put an end to L.A.’s short-lived stint at no. 1. They did that with authority, too, racing out to an early lead before coasting to an easy 37-20 win, combining an effective mix of offensive haymakers and game-breaking plays on defense (including two takeaways, with one pick and one forced fumble).
The win served as an official notice to the league: The Cardinals have leveled up from the plucky, at-times electric, but ultimately inconsistent team we saw last year. That group started hot before fading in the second half of the season, losing six of its final nine games to finish 8-8. But this 2021 team, bolstered by upgrades on both sides of the ball and an apparent leap by third-year quarterback Kyler Murray, looks better prepared to avoid that type of collapse.
Murray, an early front-runner for MVP, is still doing the types of things we’d seen from him during his first two seasons, escaping impossible-looking predicaments in the pocket to elude pressure and make back-breaking throws downfield (like this one or this one). But crucially, he’s also upped his effectiveness as a deep passer, picking apart opposing secondaries each and every week. Murray was selective when it came to launching passes deep on Sunday, but did connect on two of three attempts for 66 yards, including a 41-yard touchdown strike to A.J. Green. That put Murray at 13-for-18 on passes of 20-plus yards on the season, per PFF, for a league-best 72.2 percent adjusted completion rate (which excludes throwaways and drops). While Murray has always had a big arm and a pretty deep ball, he connected on just 45.3 percent of his deep passes in 2020 and 44.6 percent in 2019.
Part of that improvement likely comes from the team’s upgrades at receiver this year. In addition to the steady contributions from DeAndre Hopkins, Murray’s been able to spread the ball around a whole lot more than we saw last year. Green has been a revelation in Arizona after an abysmal performance in 2020 for the Bengals, and through four games has caught 15 passes for a team-high 248 yards and two scores. Green’s addition has moved veteran Christian Kirk back into a primary slot role, where he’s given the team a much-needed vertical boost (something Larry Fitzgerald wasn’t doing in 2020). Kirk has 16 catches for 244 yards and a pair of scores. And rookie Rondale Moore (16 catches for 211 yards and two touchdowns) and tight end Maxx Williams (15 catches for 179 yards and one touchdown) have mixed in, too.
With more pass-catching playmakers in the fold, the true vision for Kliff Kingsbury’s Air Raid offense just may be finally coming to life. In a league that’s centered on creating mismatches and exploiting defensive weak links, the Cardinals have both the skill players and quarterback to attack almost any kind of scheme.
11. Green Bay Packers (3-1)
12. Carolina Panthers (3-1)
13. Denver Broncos (3-1)
14. Seattle Seahawks (2-2)
15. San Francisco 49ers (2-2)
16. Cincinnati Bengals (3-1)
The Panthers lost, but DJ Moore continued his ascension.
Panthers receiver DJ Moore has back-to-back 1,100-yard seasons under his belt but still feels like an overlooked talent in a league that’s flush with pass-catching stars. Maybe he just got lost in the shuffle between the NFL’s flashy newcomers, like DK Metcalf and Justin Jefferson, and its well-established veterans, like DeAndre Hopkins or Davante Adams, or maybe he just didn’t score enough touchdowns (his season high coming into the year was four). But through four weeks, Moore seems determined to remind us he’s one of the best receivers in the world.
The Panthers’ dynamic playmaker reeled in another eight passes for 113 yards and two touchdowns in Carolina’s 36-28 loss to the Cowboys, showing off the extraordinarily dynamic skill set that could help make him the league’s next true superstar pass catcher. Mixing route-running technique with catch-point toughness and running-back-like elusiveness after the catch, Moore has emerged as the unquestioned go-to guy in play-caller Joe Brady’s offense. New quarterback Sam Darnold has leaned heavily on Moore, who is tied for second in the NFL (along with Cooper Kupp and Tyreek Hill) with 30 catches through four games. And he’s racked up 398 yards (fourth) and already has three scores, putting him on pace to smash his previous career bests (1,193 yards, four touchdowns).
Whether he’s being used on a jet sweep, as a short or intermediate target on third downs (he’s tied for the NFL lead with 21 first downs), or as a field-stretching deep threat (he also leads the NFL with eight catches of 20-plus yards, per PFF), Moore continues to make big play after big play. Much of the credit for Darnold’s transformation this year in Carolina has gone to Brady, and his scheme has certainly played a big part in the veteran quarterback’s improvement. But we can’t discount how crucial of a role Moore has played, too.
The Seahawks remain a special kind of weird.
Look, football is unpredictable. Upsets happen all the time, injuries swing games, coaches make bad decisions, and dumb luck or the bounce of the ball can change the trajectory of the entire season. But in a league where the unexpected happens almost every week, the Seahawks are the kings of getting weird.
The ending to Seattle’s 28-21 win over the 49ers wasn’t especially wild, at least not compared to some of the team’s greatest hits from over the past decade. But the way in which Pete Carroll and Co. managed to beat the 49ers on the road felt perfectly on brand for a team that still has yet to play a normal game. After spending the first three weeks playing some of the most disjointed, uninspired football I’ve ever seen from a Carroll-coached group, Seattle’s defense bowed up, stifling the Kyle Shanahan–led offense for most of the game. And a week after allowing the Vikings to convert nine of 13 third downs, the Seahawks defense held the 49ers to just two of 14.
Seattle flipped the script on their typical path to victory, relying on the team’s talent-deficient and normally undisciplined defense to carry its high-powered, Russell Wilson–led offense. Wilson seemed to be playing in a fugue state for most of the first two quarters, and not in a good way, and Seattle’s offense punted on its first five possessions. But with the Seahawks defense holding the 49ers at bay, Wilson snapped out of his funk and got his group rolling. By mixing in some tempo and no-huddle looks, Wilson salvaged the rough start and led the offense to touchdowns on four out of the next five meaningful drives, giving Seattle an insurmountable second-half lead.
I’m not ready to say it was a turning-point win for the Seahawks, who clearly want to play a ball-control, grind-it-out style of football predicated on getting stops and avoiding turnovers. But it was certainly a good start for a Seattle defense that couldn’t stop anyone over the first three weeks. And it was a huge win for a team that faces a tough, quick-turnaround matchup against the Rams on Thursday Night Football.
The Muddled Middle
17. New England Patriots (1-3)
18. New Orleans Saints (2-2)
19. Washington Football Team (2-2)
20. Minnesota Vikings (1-3)
21. Chicago Bears (2-2)
22. Tennessee Titans (2-2)
23. Philadelphia Eagles (1-3)
24. Pittsburgh Steelers (1-3)
25. New York Giants (1-3)
The Bears’ play-caller swap pays dividends.
Football is a diabolically complex sport. The on-field schemes are controlled chaos. Every play brings a butterfly-effect impact on the teams involved and the league at large. And almost nothing is as obvious or simple as it seems―except, of course, the Bears’ decision to give play-calling duties back to Bill Lazor.
That’s exactly what head coach Matt Nagy did after designing and calling Justin Fields’s disastrous first pro start in Week 3, a quick-game-centric plan that bordered on outright self-sabotage. In Chicago’s 24-14 win over the Lions on Sunday, Lazor drew up a scheme that catered to Fields’s skill set. That meant a more logical mix of under-center plays, read-option looks, and deep-shot plays with heavy protection up front.
Add protection for Justin Fields and let him throw deep is the formula pic.twitter.com/PFtFUqxG77— Ted Nguyen (@FB_FilmAnalysis) October 4, 2021
Caveats around the strength of Chicago’s opponent aside, the shift in strategy worked. Fields finished an understated 11-for-17 for 209 yards, throwing one pick on a pass tipped at the line of scrimmage. But that stat line belied a strong performance; Fields led the offense on multiple scoring drives and connected on precision passes downfield. He finished 5-for-7 with 172 yards on throws that traveled 15 or more yards, connecting on four big-time throws (which Pro Football Focus grades at the highest end for both difficulty and value). And while it was just one game for the rookie quarterback, it represented a step in the right direction for both Fields and the Bears.
Fields lauded Lazor for his calming influence as a play-caller too, telling reporters how the veteran coordinator differed from his head coach. As Fields said, “You know, Bill, he’s up in the box, so his voice is always calm. That’s the one thing I like. It’s hard for [Nagy] to be calm if he has to focus on the defense, focus on special teams. [Lazor’s] voice is calm.”
Lazor’s track record as the team’s play-caller (over the final seven games of 2020) should’ve made him the easy choice to play that role to begin the year, but seeing the results on Sunday should make it tough for Nagy to take those duties back. As Fields works to develop in this diabolically complex, chaotic sport, the Bears have the opportunity to do something exceedingly uncomplicated.
There’s Always Next Year
26. Atlanta Falcons (1-3)
27. Miami Dolphins (1-3)
28. Indianapolis Colts (1-3)
29. Detroit Lions (0-4)
30. New York Jets (1-3)
31. Houston Texans (1-3)
32. Jacksonville Jaguars (0-4)
Zach Wilson breaks through.
Like Fields, Jets quarterback Zach Wilson got a nice little confidence booster on Sunday and a much-needed antidote to what had been a less-than-encouraging performance in his first three starts as a pro. In the team’s opening three losses, Wilson completed 55 percent of his passes with two touchdowns, seven picks, and a 51.6 passer rating. The first half of Sunday’s 27-24 win over the Titans didn’t go a whole lot better, and through two quarters, Wilson had completed just seven of 12 passes for 65 yards and a pick.
But something started to click for the team’s top draft pick, who lit it up in the final two frames and in overtime. Wilson connected on 14 of 22 passes for 232 yards, two touchdowns, and no picks in the second half and overtime, launching a handful of impressive throws along the way. For the first time as a pro, Wilson looked like the dynamic, playmaking signal-caller we saw at BYU last season. He rolled out to his right and uncorked a beauty of a pass deep down the field to Keelan Cole late in the third quarter, setting up a Jets go-ahead field goal. He made another signature out-of-structure play early in the fourth, finding Corey Davis in the end zone for another go-ahead score. And on a crucial third-and-2 in overtime, Wilson found Cole again with what might have been his best throw as a pro, lofting up a perfectly placed rainbow that moved the chains and set up the game-winning field goal.
Wilson still has a long way to go, but Jets fans had to have loved what they saw from their rookie franchise player on Sunday―and I’d guess that’s an even sweeter feeling than getting that overtime win.