The NFC dominates the elite tier of NFL teams after eight weeks of action. The Rams took back the top spot in my rankings with a blowout win over the Texans, and the Packers (who beat the Cardinals) and Cowboys (who knocked off the Vikings without Dak Prescott) are both close behind. Arizona and Tampa Bay remain top-notch teams despite tough losses this week, and the Bills round out the top six as my clear front-runners in an otherwise wide-open AFC field. With eight weeks in the books, here are my updated Power Rankings.
The Top Shelf
1. Los Angeles Rams (7-1)
2. Green Bay Packers (7-1)
3. Dallas Cowboys (6-1)
4. Arizona Cardinals (7-1)
5. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-2)
6. Buffalo Bills (5-2)
Matthew Stafford and Cooper Kupp keep doing ridiculous things.
The Rams’ 38-22 dismantling of the Texans on Sunday offered more confirmation of something that was already clear: Matthew Stafford is having exactly the type of league-shifting impact on the Rams offense that the team envisioned when it sent Jared Goff and multiple first-round picks to the Lions for the veteran passer in January. Stafford has unlocked all the previously dormant parts of Sean McVay’s scheme, opening up the vertical passing attack while boosting the efficacy of every potential target. The results have been breathtaking: L.A. is averaging 30.6 points per game this year, fifth best leaguewide and a full touchdown per game better than their 23.3 point-per-game average in 2020 (tied for 23rd). They’re averaging over 50 passing yards more per game (301.8) than they did last year (250.9). And Stafford has already connected on 22 passing touchdowns this season―which ranks second only to Tom Brady and has already eclipsed Goff’s total from last season (20). Stafford has made just about everything look easy in turning McVay’s offense back into the buzz saw it was in 2018 and 2019. He’s been the key to making an already-talented and well-coached unit one of the most dominant groups in the NFL.
Individually, receiver Cooper Kupp has been the biggest beneficiary of the Stafford trade. Kupp continued his torrid start on Sunday with another seven catches for 115 yards and a score in the win, pushing his season-long line to league bests in catches (63), yards (924), and touchdowns (10). This year, he’s doing what no other modern receiver has ever done: Kupp became the first player since the AFL-NFL merger to register 900-plus receiving yards and at least 10 touchdown catches through his team’s first eight games―and is on pace for 134 catches for 1,964 yards and 21 touchdowns.
Along with a well-balanced supporting cast (featuring Robert Woods, Tyler Higbee, and an ascending deep threat in Van Jefferson) and an electric run game behind Darrell Henderson Jr., the Rams offense continues to show that it packs enough firepower to carry this team to new heights. But crucially, the defense has been solid, too: Through eight weeks, L.A. ranks 10th in points allowed (21.0) and is tied for seventh in takeaways (13). They’ve boosted those numbers against some subpar to downright bad offenses over the past few weeks, sure, but with superstar pass rusher Von Miller now on his way to town (in a blockbuster trade announced Monday), the Rams have created a playmaking triumvirate on defense in Miller, Jalen Ramsey, and Aaron Donald. This group is heavy at the top, but looks built to manufacture takeaways by combining nonstop pressure up front and instinctive coverage in the back end. The Rams have gone all in on a Super Bowl in 2021, and it just might work.
7. Tennessee Titans (6-2)
8. Baltimore Ravens (5-2)
9. New Orleans Saints (5-2)
10. Las Vegas Raiders (5-2)
11. Kansas City Chiefs (4-4)
12. Cincinnati Bengals (5-3)
13. New England Patriots (4-4)
14. Los Angeles Chargers (4-3)
A.J. Brown has hit his stride for the Titans. Just in time.
The Titans offense had already begun to evolve in the past few games. And with superstar running back Derrick Henry expected to miss at least six games after having surgery on his broken foot, it’s going to change a whole lot more in the coming weeks.
Early in the year, Tennessee’s strategy was almost wholly centered on Henry, an understandable if one-dimensional tack that was influenced not just by Henry’s skill set but also by the team’s lack of pass-catching depth. That roster hole was put in the spotlight because of nagging injuries that slowed down both Julio Jones and A.J. Brown, with Brown in particular failing to live up to expectations in the early going as he battled knee, hamstring, and Chipotle-related ailments. With few other options at their disposal, the Titans leaned on Henry, and Henry produced, rushing at a record-setting pace on record-setting volume through six games.
But over the past two weeks, opposing teams have done more to clamp down on the Henry-led rushing attack while essentially begging Tennessee to beat them any other way. Fortunately for the Titans, Ryan Tannehill and the team’s passing game has obliged: In Tennessee’s 27-3 win over the Chiefs in Week 7, Tannehill completed a cool 21 of 27 pass attempts for 270 yards, a touchdown, and a pick as Kansas City held Henry to a palatable 86 yards on 29 carries. And in the Titans’ wild 34-31 overtime win over the Colts on Sunday, the passing attack again carried the day, with Tannehill completing 23 of 33 passes for 265 yards, three touchdowns, and two interceptions. With the Colts limiting Henry to just 68 yards on 28 rushes (in part due to that foot injury), the team needed its other key offensive stars to step up, and Brown did just that.
Fully healthy and apparently past his guacamole-induced, uh, illness, Brown turned 11 targets into 10 catches for 155 yards and a touchdown, including an incredible 57-yard catch-and-run score that required him to break a tackle and create about 40 of those yards himself. Combined with his eight-catch, 133-yard outing against the Chiefs, Brown’s performance on Sunday was confirmation that the field-tilting playmaker that we’d seen during the second half of last season is back, for real―and he returns at just the right time for Tennessee, which will have to alter its approach over the next few months.
Brown, not Henry, will be the linchpin of the Titans offense, and that unit may encounter some unfamiliar hurdles with its star running back out of the lineup. The team did sign veteran free agent Adrian Peterson on Monday, but it’s doubtful the 36-year-old will force defenses to crowd the box in the same way Henry can. That will change the complexion of Tennessee’s passing game: According to PFF’s Nathan Jahnke, Brown has feasted when opponents drop eight defenders in close to the line of scrimmage, racking up more yards than any other pass catcher (561) against those looks over the past two seasons. He’s also been far more efficient running routes against those stacked-box looks, averaging 4.28 yards per route run against eight men in the box and 2.18 yards per route run against seven or fewer in the box.
Of course, that’s a logical split; with more defenders dropping back into coverage, Brown’s efficiency naturally drops. I’d expect that, big picture, the Titans’ passing game could suffer a similar drop in efficiency. But that doesn’t mean Tennessee’s passing will be bad, particularly if head coach Mike Vrabel decides to increase passing volume. If he does, that could be huge for Brown, who is basically the wide receiver version of Henry: an indomitable force who breaks tackles and brings breakaway speed to turn what should be small gains into huge plays. It will be interesting to see how the Titans continue to evolve.
The Muddled Middle
15. Pittsburgh Steelers (4-3)
16. Cleveland Browns (4-4)
17. Minnesota Vikings (3-4)
18. Indianapolis Colts (3-5)
19. Carolina Panthers (4-4)
20. Denver Broncos (4-4)
21. Seattle Seahawks (3-5)
22. Atlanta Falcons (3-4)
23. San Francisco 49ers (3-4)
24. Chicago Bears (3-5)
25. Philadelphia Eagles (3-5)
Carson Wentz’s late-game mistakes felt familiar.
I was pretty skeptical of the Colts’ decision to trade for former Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz this offseason, at least for the price they paid (a 2021 third-round draft pick and a conditional 2022 second-round pick that could become a first if Wentz hits certain playing-time thresholds). Wentz had certainly played well during stretches in Philly, but those high points always came with lower lows, typically in the form of back-breaking fumbles or boneheaded picks. In his five seasons with the Eagles, Wentz tallied 113 passing touchdowns, but he also turned the ball over a total of 73 times, collecting 50 interceptions and 23 lost fumbles. Indianapolis head coach Frank Reich, who was Wentz’s offensive coordinator in Philly in 2016 and 2017, was putting a lot of faith in his ability to coach out Wentz’s propensity to give the ball to the other team in bunches, a gamble that I wouldn’t have been willing to make.
I have to admit, though, that Wentz’s performance during the Colts’ first seven games this year was starting to give me hope that Reich had figured out how to iron those issues out of Wentz’s game. Through seven weeks, he had completed 64 percent of his passes for 1,695 yards with 11 touchdowns and just one interception. He’d played mostly disciplined, controlled football, and while he’d lost three fumbles, he’d also ranked among the league’s elite in turnover-worthy play rate, just 1.5 percent, per Pro Football Focus (tied for third best). Basically, he’d done well to avoid the meltdown-type performances that marred his tenure in Philadelphia.
That stretch of (mostly) efficient play came to a very abrupt end in the team’s 34-31 overtime loss to the Titans on Sunday, though, a devastating defeat that was defined by a handful of atrocious late-game errors by Wentz. The first came late in the fourth quarter with the game tied 24-24. On a first-and-10 from the Colts’ own 8-yard line, Wentz dropped back on what was supposed to be a safe, conservative screen play that would get the ball out from the shadow of the team’s end zone. But when the play failed to develop as designed, instead of spiking the ball into the ground, Wentz backpedaled, then backpedaled some more, and quickly found himself in the end zone. As pressure arrived, he realized he was about to give up a safety, so he ran to his left, switched hands (yes, switched hands) and tried to throw the ball away with his left hand. It was easily intercepted and returned a few yards for a touchdown. It was truly one of the funniest plays I’ve ever seen:
Wentz, for his part, quickly bounced back, leading the offense on a five-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that sent the game into overtime. (Which is great!) But disaster struck again in OT: On the team’s second possession in the period, Wentz dropped back on a first-and-10 from the team’s own 27-yard line and threw a hopeless pass into triple coverage. It was easily picked, and a few plays later the Titans kicked the game-winning field goal.
The ending to that game was a microcosm of Wentz’s career. There was plenty to like about his performance, but the critical mistakes in those high-leverage situations were just too egregious to ignore. Wentz still has the opportunity to right the ship and prove to the team that he’s worth investing in long term, but after taking one big step forward during the first seven games of the season, he took a couple of huge steps back on Sunday.
Justin Fields and the Bears offense finally showed signs of life.
Things haven’t gone well for Fields this season, but a confluence of variables has made life hell for the rookie passer, at least most of the time. Matt Nagy’s at-times perplexing strategy has not paired well with the fact that Fields just isn’t operating quickly or decisively enough in the pocket, and it’s all been exacerbated by an offensive line that simply can’t protect him. Coming into the team’s matchup with the 49ers on Sunday, the numbers had borne all of those issues out: Fields had completed just 58 percent of his passes for 746 yards with two touchdowns and five interceptions in his five starts, and he hadn’t done a whole lot to mitigate those disastrous passing numbers by running the football, tallying just 106 yards on 23 rushes in that stretch. I’m almost always in favor of letting young quarterbacks play, gain experience, and take their lumps, but it had gotten so bad at times, particularly in the team’s losses to the Browns and Buccaneers, I started to wonder whether continuing to play him now would harm Fields’s long-term trajectory.
I put those thoughts aside after the team’s 33-22 loss to the 49ers, though, at least for one week. With Nagy away from the team due to COVID protocols, Fields put together what was easily his best game as a pro, completing 19 of 27 passes for 175 yards, one touchdown, and one pick while adding 10 rushes for 103 yards and a score. Fields wasn’t perfect, and his late fourth-quarter interception (which bounced off receiver Darnell Mooney’s hands) effectively ended the game, but he looked far more relaxed and in command behind center than he had all season. His touchdown pass was an absolute dime, a pinpoint throw he made across his body while running to his left.
This angle of the Justin Fields TD pass pic.twitter.com/qFon1ySJdL— Computer Cowboy (@benbbaldwin) October 31, 2021
And his rushing score was a thing of beauty: On a fourth-and-1 from the 49ers’ 22-yard line early in the fourth quarter, Fields ran to his right before doubling back to the left. After eluding a few defenders, he cut it upfield and scooted into the end zone.
Fields’s talent as a runner was on full display on that play, but for some reason the Bears have been reluctant to unleash that part of his game. Whether Fields’s lack of rushing production has been by design or the result of his own reluctance to bail from the pocket, Fields had been anything but a dual-threat quarterback … until Sunday. The question, of course, is whether this was a one-week blip, or a sign of things to come.
Some coaches would point to the fact that every quarterback must learn to play primarily from the pocket, and many would argue that the sooner a quarterback does that, the better. But I’d argue there’s a compromise that teams must embrace: quarterbacks do have to learn to play from the pocket, but their overall development will suffer if they’re prevented from using their mobility to stress defenses and create explosive plays. When Fields created on the ground on Sunday, it not only energized the offense and helped the team move the chains, but also seemed to help Fields get into a better rhythm and boost his confidence. In addition to Fields’s 22-yard touchdown run, he had two separate scrambles of 16 yards, another for 15 yards, and a big third-down conversion on a 9-yard run (the latter helped lead to a touchdown in the second quarter). Fields looked relaxed behind center for maybe the first time all year. He didn’t hesitate. He was decisive. And that felt like a massive silver lining for a team searching for reason for hope.
There’s Always Next Year
26. New York Giants (2-6)
27. Washington Football Team (2-6)
28. New York Jets (2-5)
29. Miami Dolphins (1-7)
30. Houston Texans (1-7)
31. Jacksonville Jaguars (1-6)
32. Detroit Lions (0-8)
Mike White somehow breathed life into the Jets offense.
Things haven’t gone smoothly for rookie quarterback Zach Wilson and the Jets offense this year, but I can’t say I expected that unit to beat up on a good Bengals defense with the second pick standing on the sideline. With Wilson nursing a knee injury, the Jets turned to White, a little-known backup, who quickly invigorated a stagnant unit in the team’s shocking 34-31 win over Cincinnati. White was incredibly impressive from start to finish, completing 37 of 45 passes for 405 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions. The 26-year-old joined Cam Newton as one of two quarterbacks ever to throw for 400-plus yards in their debut start, and he did so with a calm demeanor and workmanlike efficiency.
White’s 405 passing yards finished tops among all quarterbacks on Sunday, but paradoxically, his 4.2-yard average depth of target finished dead last. Instead of testing Cincy deep or throwing into tight windows downfield too much, White consistently dumped the ball off and took what the defense gave him. He distributed the ball to his playmakers and let them do the rest, and 63 percent of his total yards came after the catch. Running backs Michael Carter and Ty Johnson combined for 166 receiving yards and a touchdown, while Jamison Crowder was his favorite receiver, collecting eight catches for 84 yards. White certainly made a few big downfield throws, but he was most impressive for his poise and accuracy in attacking the underneath coverage.
So does White have a future as a starter? Head coach Robert Saleh has confirmed that White will get another chance this Thursday to showcase his skill set against the Colts. Past that, though, it’s far more likely that Wilson will take over again. And while Wilson has flashed high-level traits in pushing the ball deep and throwing from unconventional arm angles, one lesson he can take from watching White win is to take a few layups when they’re there, too.