If the Week 11 NFL slate taught us one thing, it’s that league parity is as strong as ever this season. There are no longer any truly elite squads, and playoff races in both conferences look wide-open as we head into the final seven weeks.
The Titans’ streak of improbable wins came to an end against the lowly Texans on Sunday, sending last week’s no. 1 squad tumbling down the ranks, while the Cardinals regained their hold on the top spot with a win over Seahawks on the road. The Buccaneers also moved up with an easy win over the Giants on Monday Night Football, while the Chiefs, Patriots, and Colts all strengthened their positions with big wins this week. With 11 weeks in the books, here are my updated NFL Power Rankings.
The Top Shelf
1. Arizona Cardinals (9-2)
2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-3)
3. Green Bay Packers (8-3)
4. Kansas City Chiefs (7-4)
5. New England Patriots (7-4)
6. Dallas Cowboys (7-3)
7. Tennessee Titans (8-3)
8. Los Angeles Rams (7-3)
The Cardinals continued to show their grit.
The NFL season is a battle of attrition, and untimely injuries can derail the Super Bowl hopes of even highly talented squads. The Cardinals know that all too well, having been forced to weather the losses of both receiver DeAndre Hopkins (hamstring) and superstar quarterback Kyler Murray (ankle) in the past few weeks. But the mark of a well-coached and balanced team is its ability to stay afloat if and when that injury storm arrives, and Arizona has proved more than capable of battening down its hatches to ride that thing out.
In short, this Cardinals team is for real. And that was evident on Sunday in the team’s 23-13 win over a desperate Seahawks squad in Seattle, a victory that pushed Arizona to 2-1 sans Murray and Hopkins―and solidified the team’s grasp on the top spot in the NFC West.
Arizona’s offense is clearly less explosive under backup quarterback Colt McCoy, but head coach and play-caller Kliff Kingsbury dialed up a custom version of the playbook for the veteran signal-caller. Leaning on a dink-and-dunk approach, McCoy was able to patiently piece together multiple double-digit-play drives against the Seahawks defense, including separate clock-eating possessions of 16 plays, 13 plays, 14 plays, and 10 plays, respectively (three of which resulted in points). McCoy finished the game an efficient 35-of-44 for 328 yards with two touchdowns and zero picks, heavily targeting rookie receiver Rondale Moore (11 catches for 51 yards) and recent tight end addition Zach Ertz (eight catches for 88 yards and two touchdowns) in the short and intermediate areas. The Seahawks seemed to have few answers for Arizona’s dumbed-down offense, and crucially, McCoy executed in high-leverage situations. The Cardinals converted seven of 14 third-down tries and their only fourth-down attempt, and McCoy led the team to touchdowns on three of four red zone appearances. They held the ball for 40-plus minutes in the game.
The Cardinals defense, meanwhile, made the Seahawks look like the team that was missing its dynamic star quarterback and most dangerous pass-catching weapon. Arizona held Russell Wilson to just 14-of-26 passing for 207 yards with no touchdowns on the day, sacking Wilson four times (two from Chandler Jones, one from Isaiah Simmons, and another from Markus Golden) while limiting Seattle to just 266 total yards. They held Seattle to just 2-for-10 on third downs and shut down the team’s only fourth-down attempt. The Seahawks offense looked lost.
It wasn’t always pretty for the Cardinals in the past three weeks, and the team probably wishes it had performed better in last week’s 34-10 loss to the Panthers. But overall, Arizona did about as well as it could’ve hoped with both Murray and Hopkins on the sideline, and this team now heads into its bye with a commanding lead in the division and in excellent position for a run at the top seed in the conference.
9. Indianapolis Colts (6-5)
10. Baltimore Ravens (7-3)
11. Los Angeles Chargers (6-4)
12. Buffalo Bills (6-4)
13. San Francisco 49ers (5-5)
14. Cincinnati Bengals (6-4)
15. Minnesota Vikings (5-5)
The Colts are rounding into form.
I’ll admit to more or less writing the Colts off following the team’s 0-3 start to the season. In the early going, Indianapolis looked like an abject disaster and the team’s offseason trade for Carson Wentz was shaping up to be something worse. But to their credit, the Colts not only refused to implode following that extremely rough start, but have transformed into one of the most intriguing AFC contenders. With an impressive 41-15 statement win against the Bills on Sunday, the Colts moved to 6-5 on the season―and they’re suddenly threatening for a playoff spot.
Turnarounds like this typically center on a team’s quarterback, and Wentz has certainly had an impact on Indy’s recent success. The veteran passer has made a few high-profile miscues this season (namely, two awful turnovers in the team’s overtime loss to the Titans), but on the whole he’s done well to mitigate the types of game-swinging meltdowns that led to his departure from Philadelphia. Wentz has completed 63 percent of his passes for 2,484 passing yards with 18 touchdowns and just three interceptions this year, and crucially, he’s also shown more awareness and ball security in the pocket. After averaging 14 fumbles per 16 games across five seasons with the Eagles, Wentz has fumbled just six times this season, losing three. He’s developed a strong rapport with an ascending star in Michael Pittman Jr. (whose impressive sophomore-year numbers don’t include the many hidden yards he’s gained on pass-interference penalties drawn). And overall, he’s been a good complement to the team’s dominant ground game, similar to the way Ryan Tannehill has functioned in the Titans’ scheme through the past few years.
But as solidly as Wentz has performed this year, he can’t hold a candle to what running back Jonathan Taylor has done in the past eight weeks, a stretch in which the Colts have gone 6-2. The second-year back has ascended to superstardom while notching 100-plus scrimmage yards with at least one rushing touchdown in every one of those eight games, matching an NFL record held by both LaDainian Tomlinson (2006) and Lydell Mitchell (1975-76). He showed off a rare combination of power, elusiveness, and speed on Sunday, outdoing himself to the tune of 32 carries for 185 yards and four touchdowns with another 19 yards and a score through the air. He was a one-man wrecking crew that the Bills simply couldn’t stop. Taylor now leads the NFL in rushing yards (1,122) and rushing touchdowns (13).
Coupling that offense with a defense that’s proved adept at pressuring the quarterback and creating takeaways (with another three interceptions and a fumble recovery on Sunday, that unit now leads the NFL with 25 forced turnovers), the Colts have the look of a team that’s built to win late in the year. They’ll get a big test for that theory next week against the Buccaneers.
We can’t overlook the 49ers, either.
If the Colts are the sneakiest contender in the AFC, then the 49ers take the cake in the NFC. San Francisco reminds me of Indianapolis in a lot of ways, actually, starting with the fact that I wrote them off way too early in the year. I’m guessing I wasn’t the only one to count San Francisco out after its 2-4 start, but thanks to a 30-10 drubbing of the Jaguars on Sunday, this team has now won three out of its past four games and moved to 5-5, and it’s knocking on the door for the conference’s final playoff spots.
Another way the 49ers resemble the Colts is the way they’re built to bully opponents on the ground on offense. And as they’ve gotten healthier in the past few weeks, the team’s passing game has started to hit its stride, too. George Kittle has returned to the lineup after missing three games to a calf injury and has slotted right back into his role as one of the most versatile and valuable tight ends in the NFL. Whether he’s blocking a defensive player into oblivion on one play or running a route on another, Kittle is one of the best at exploiting opponent mismatches, and the 49ers seem to have made it a point to get him more opportunities to get into the end zone this year. With another four catches for 34 yards and a score on Sunday, Kittle has now found pay dirt in three games in a row.
Pairing Kittle with a guy like Deebo Samuel feels like a cheat code for the Niners’ offense. Samuel is another one of the league’s most versatile players, capable of drifting from receiver to running back and back to receiver seamlessly during a game. Against the Jaguars, the third-year receiver rushed for a team-high 79 yards and a score on eight carries. Samuel has already racked up 994 yards and five touchdowns receiving this year to go with another 137 yards and three scores on the ground.
If that wasn’t a dynamic enough duo for San Francisco, second-year receiver Brandon Aiyuk is coming on strong at just the right time, too. After starting the year in head coach Kyle Shanahan’s doghouse, Aiyuk has worked his way back into a full-time role in the team’s passing game, where he exploded for seven catches, 85 yards, and a score on Sunday.
With that talented trio of skill players shouldering the majority of the team’s playmaking load, veteran quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo has avoided the Wentz-like turnover spates that have plagued him in the past. In the team’s past four games, three of which were wins, Garoppolo has completed 70 percent of his passes for 1,006 yards with six touchdowns and just one pick. He’s averaged 9.2 yards per attempt in that stretch and tallied a 113.2 passer rating. He’s scored two rushing touchdowns, too. He hasn’t been perfect, and he missed a wide-open Jeff Wilson Jr. in the end zone on the team’s first drive, but Garoppolo is doing his part to keep this offense rolling.
When this 49ers offense really starts to click, it’s capable of setting a tone and controlling the game. San Francisco opened Sunday’s win with a demoralizing 20-play (!!), 87-yard drive that ate up 13-plus minutes of clock and put the team ahead 3-0. They never looked back from there. It was the same story last week when the Niners opened up against the Rams with a 18-play, 93-yard drive that chewed up 11 minutes of time and gave the team an early lead. Combined with an improved defense led by Nick Bosa (who upped his sack total to 10 on Sunday), the 49ers are quietly built to surprise down the stretch.
The Muddled Middle
16. Pittsburgh Steelers (5-4-1)
17. Cleveland Browns (6-5)
18. Philadelphia Eagles (5-6)
19. New Orleans Saints (5-5)
20. Washington Football Team (4-6)
21. Denver Broncos (5-5)
22. Carolina Panthers (5-6)
23. Las Vegas Raiders (5-5)
The Eagles are positioned to make a run.
It took them a few weeks to work it all out, but it’s safe to say that the Eagles have found their identity.
After starting the season as a primarily pass-first squad (and not having much success with it), Philly has morphed into one of the league’s most run-centric teams. With the recently returned Miles Sanders leading the way, the Eagles ground game beat up on a good Saints defense in a 40-29 win on Sunday, finishing the day with 242 rushing yards on a whopping 50 (!!) attempts.
Sanders finished with 94 yards on 16 totes, Jordan Howard chipped in 63 yards on 10 carries, and quarterback Jalen Hurts did his thing as both a designed runner and improvisational scrambler, racking up 69 yards and three touchdowns to go with 147 yards passing. Hurts continues to flash each game in his development as a passer, but the team’s transition to an offense designed around his extraordinary skills on the ground has changed the team’s season.
At 5-6, the Eagles remain on the periphery of the NFC playoff race (currently the no. 9 seed, just behind the Niners). But their recent resurgence has put them in a good spot for a late-season flourish. The Eagles’ remaining schedule offers an enticing amount of winnable games, with a matchup with the Jets and two games apiece against the Giants and Washington before they finish up at home against the Cowboys. Don’t be surprised if Philly sneaks into the playoffs as a wild-card team.
There’s Always Next Year
24. Seattle Seahawks (3-7)
25. Atlanta Falcons (4-6)
26. New York Giants (3-7)
27. Chicago Bears (3-7)
28. Miami Dolphins (4-7)
29. Houston Texans (2-8)
30. Jacksonville Jaguars (2-8)
31. New York Jets (2-8)
32. Detroit Lions (0-9-1)
Is this the beginning of the end of an era for the Seahawks?
The Seahawks’ postseason hopes took a massive, almost surely decisive hit with a disappointing loss to the Colt McCoy–led Cardinals on Sunday, and that gives fans of this team a real reason to start looking ahead to the 2022 season. The big question at the front of everyone’s minds, of course, is whether or not Russell Wilson will be the quarterback behind center.
Wilson is still under contract with the Seahawks through the 2023 season, but after listening to so many rumors and reports around his unhappiness last summer, it’s only natural to wonder whether he’ll look to force a trade this offseason. It’s fair to ask whether his relationship with Pete Carroll has run its course.
Some would say that Wilson is at his best in a balanced, Carroll-styled offense that is dedicated to running the ball. But Wilson has long lobbied for a much pass-happier approach―along with heavier investments in skill-player support―and may believe he’ll never get full buy-in with this team. Wilson has, after all, seen what Tom Brady has accomplished in Tampa Bay during the past two seasons, and I’m sure it’s not lost on him that Matthew Stafford forced a trade to a team that’s posted the third-highest neutral situation pass rate in the league this season (Tampa Bay is no. 1, by the way). In both Brady’s and Stafford’s cases, their respective teams have sunk massive resources into building support systems around their quarterback, and right or wrong, Wilson could seek the same.
It’s certainly not a given that major changes are coming to Seattle in 2022, but I’ve never been less sure that Wilson will be the Seahawks quarterback long term.