The Week 9 NFL slate was a weird one. The Odell Beckham Jr.–less Browns demolished the Bengals, the Von Miller–less Broncos dominated the Cowboys, the Kyler Murray– and DeAndre Hopkins–less Cardinals dismantled the 49ers, and the Derrick Henry–less Titans beat the Rams. Elsewhere, the Falcons beat the Saints, the Giants knocked off the Raiders, and the Jaguars―who came into this week looking like one of the league’s most inept teams in almost every phase―beat the Bills. Sometimes all you can do is shrug.
As we push into the second half of the 2021 NFL season, this week’s outcomes bring a question to mind: Are there any truly elite teams? Arizona is currently making the best case, but the Buccaneers, Titans, and a handful of other squads look capable of knocking the Cardinals off their perch. Here’s my updated Power Rankings.
The Top Shelf
1. Arizona Cardinals (8-1)
2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-2)
3. Tennessee Titans (7-2)
4. Los Angeles Rams (7-2)
5. Green Bay Packers (7-2)
6. Baltimore Ravens (6-2)
7. Dallas Cowboys (6-2)
The Titans defense gave the Rams a taste of their own medicine.
The big story line for the Titans as they headed into their prime-time matchup with the Rams on Sunday was how the team’s offense would manage without running back Derrick Henry carrying the load. The Tennessee defense made sure that talking point was mostly irrelevant, at least for one week. Defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons did his best Aaron Donald impression in the 28-16 win, tallying three sacks to spearhead Tennessee’s simple strategy for victory: make life hell for quarterback Matthew Stafford.
Alongside fellow disruptors in Denico Autry (1.5 sacks, two pass deflections) and Harold Landry (0.5 sacks, three QB hits), Simmons consistently shot through gaps and pushed opposing offensive linemen right into Stafford’s lap, finishing with six QB pressures. That group’s consistent pressure in several high-leverage situations helped the team’s beleaguered secondary, which has been weakened by injuries (to key players like Kristian Fulton and Caleb Farley). Tennessee finished the game with a 28.3 percent pressure rate, according to Next Gen Stats, the highest rate L.A.’s offensive line has surrendered all year, and created a game-swinging play early in the second quarter. With the Rams facing a third-and-4 from their own 10-yard line, Simmons looped around on a stunt and right into Stafford’s lap; Stafford panicked, believing he was about to give up a safety, and threw an ill-advised prayer right to linebacker David Long, who returned the pick to the 2-yard line. Tennessee scored on the next play.
On the first play of the Rams’ subsequent drive, the Titans’ defensive backfield made its impact felt too. With L.A. facing a first-and-10 from its own 21-yard line, safety Kevin Byard baited Stafford into making a poor throw to the outside. Byard jumped into the passing lane and picked off his fifth pass this season, returning it for a touchdown. Those back-to-back takeaways turned the Titans’ 3-0 deficit into a 14-3 lead. They never looked back from there.
Tennessee may not have the deepest or most well-rounded defense in the league, but with Simmons, Landry, Autry, and Byard providing an outsize impact to the rest of the unit, this group has consistently been able to create the types of plays that swing games. Over the past five games, all wins, the Titans have 11 takeaways and 15 sacks, many of them coming in crucial moments―especially in wins over good teams in the Bills, Chiefs, Colts, and Rams.
Of course, those big plays did mask an otherwise subpar performance from the team’s offense on Sunday night. After jumping out to a big first-half lead, the Titans went to their typical ground-and-pound style, but saw a marked drop in efficiency on the ground sans Henry. The newly arrived Adrian Peterson carried the ball 10 times for 21 yards, and as a group the Titans managed 69 yards and two touchdowns on 26 totes―their fewest rushing yards in a win since 2012. In fact, Tennessee finished the game with just 194 yards total, and averaged a meager 3.5 yards per play. The Rams are a formidable opponent, sure, but if the Titans are going to hold on to the top spot in what’s now a completely wide-open AFC field, they’ll likely need a bit more from Ryan Tannehill and the team’s passing game over the second half of the year.
The Ravens offense continues to evolve.
Baltimore’s offense has undergone a dramatic shift this season. The Ravens have eschewed the typically heavy, run-first tack we’ve seen from that group over the past few years in favor of a higher-octane, pass-centric style. And with a uniquely talented quarterback like Lamar Jackson under center, this offense has flashed the potential to be more dangerous and prolific than ever. When everything is clicking, the Ravens are as much of a juggernaut as any offense in the league.
We got a glimpse of that ceiling in the team’s 31-25 win over the Colts back in Week 5, a game in which Jackson completed an absurd 37 of 43 passes for 442 yards and four touchdowns while adding 62 yards on the ground. And while Jackson has been a bit hot and cold as a passer this season (he posted a pair of relative clunkers through the air in weeks 6 and 7), he reminded everyone what this Baltimore offense is capable of in the team’s thrilling 34-31 overtime win over the Vikings on Sunday.
The Ravens got off to a slow start in that game and found themselves in a 17-3 second-quarter hole, but Jackson found his groove as the game wore on and led his team to the comeback win. He finished the game 27-of-41 for 266 yards with three touchdowns and two picks, adding 120 yards on the ground. He looked to his favorite target, Marquise Brown, over the final two frames and in overtime, with Brown registering 103 of his 116 receiving yards after the half. And he peppered in targets to rookie Rashod Bateman (five catches for 52 yards) and trusty tight end Mark Andrews (five catches, 44 yards) while finding Devin Duvernay, Patrick Ricard, and Devonta Freeman for touchdown grabs.
In the game, Baltimore meshed its Air Raid–inspired scheme with the ability to patiently matriculate the ball down the field. Jackson engineered four separate drives of 10-plus plays (including an 18-play, 82-yard drive in the fourth quarter) and showed his ability to move the chains with both his arm and his legs. The Ravens picked up a whopping 36 first downs (just four off the NFL record), compared to just 13 for the Vikings, and ran an absurd 89 plays. Those numbers manifested on the field late in the game, when Baltimore took advantage of a clearly gassed Minnesota defense.
Jackson continued to debunk the narrative that he’s ineffective when playing from behind. Granted, the Ravens have a concerning habit of starting slow and falling behind by multiple scores this season, but in the team’s increasingly effective passing offense (which has been bolstered by the team’s investments over the past few years in Brown, Andrews, and Bateman), Baltimore is proving to its opponents that no lead is safe. With the comeback victory, Jackson is now tied for the league lead in both game-winning drives (four) and fourth-quarter comebacks (four). He’s also helming an offense that ranks seventh in points per game (27.6) and, intriguingly, eighth in passing yards per game (266.3). The Ravens were dead last in that metric in 2020 (171.2). This is a new-look Baltimore offense, one capable of carrying this team to the postseason.
8. Buffalo Bills (5-3)
9. Kansas City Chiefs (5-4)
10. Los Angeles Chargers (5-3)
11. New Orleans Saints (5-3)
12. Cleveland Browns (5-4)
13. New England Patriots (5-4)
14. Pittsburgh Steelers (5-3)
15. Las Vegas Raiders (5-3)
16. Cincinnati Bengals (5-4)
17. Denver Broncos (5-4)
18. Indianapolis Colts (4-5)
The Patriots are quietly hanging around in the AFC.
It’s easy to pick out potential fatal flaws in almost every AFC contender. The Ravens defense has been decimated by injuries. The Steelers offense is inconsistent at best under Ben Roethlisberger. The Browns defense has been gashed by a few of the good offenses they’ve faced. The Chargers can’t stop the run and are a disaster on special teams. The Chiefs defense is a massive liability and now the offense can’t score points. And the Bills ... well, the Bills just lost to the Jags. The Patriots, meanwhile, seem content to continue flying under the radar, ready to step up when other teams start to crumble. New England isn’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but this team has what few other squads in the conference boast: balance in all three phases. And we saw that on Sunday when the Pats dispatched the Panthers, 24-6.
The New England defense was predictably stifling in the win, creating three takeaways (including an 88-yard pick-six by J.C. Jackson) from an increasingly hapless Carolina offense. That group now ranks fourth in points allowed this year (18.9 per game). The team’s highly ranked (per Football Outsiders’ DVOA) special teams units mostly did their jobs too. And the offense was effective behind the team’s dominant ground game, which gained 151 yards on 39 carries to control the clock and put the team in position to convert on third and fourth downs. It was a complete team win for the Patriots, in other words, and while New England isn’t going to wow anyone with the types of high-flying offenses Tom Brady helmed over the past two decades, they do look capable of winning ugly.
The Patriots’ most obvious vulnerability is the fact they’re helmed by a rookie starting quarterback, Mac Jones, who’s been steady and poised (and the most effective of all the rookie quarterbacks) in his game-manager role―but clearly is still learning on the job. It doesn’t help that Jones, who’s thrown 10 touchdowns and turned the ball over nine times in his nine starts (seven picks and two lost fumbles), lacks an elite corps of pass-catching weapons. But New England can continue to mitigate its rookie quarterback’s growing pains by running the hell out of the ball, something the Patriots are built to do with an explosive downhill runner in Damien Harris and a stout offensive line. And as they showed on Sunday, this group has the potential to get even more dynamic as the season rolls on.
Rookie running back Rhamondre Stevenson complemented Harris’s hard-charging, between-the-tackles style and put together a breakout performance by rushing for 62 yards on 10 carries while picking up another 44 yards on two catches against the Panthers. Stevenson has good size to go along with the burst and footwork to bounce runs to the outside or navigate tight spaces to pick up extra yards. Add in a surprisingly effective James White replacement in Brandon Bolden (who may see his role increase as both Stevenson and Harris go through concussion protocols this week), and the Patriots backfield has the talent to take pressure off of Jones’s shoulders down the stretch. That could be key for a team that’s surprisingly well positioned to make a run at the postseason. The Patriots have yet to notch a real statement win and face a tough four-game stretch over the next month (Cleveland, at Atlanta, Tennessee, and at Buffalo), but it’s getting harder to ignore the fact that they’ve won three straight games to move to 5-4 and are nipping at the heels of the division-leading Bills.
The Muddled Middle
19. Minnesota Vikings (3-5)
20. Seattle Seahawks (3-5)
21. Atlanta Falcons (4-4)
22. Carolina Panthers (4-5)
23. New York Giants (3-6)
24. Chicago Bears (3-6)
25. San Francisco 49ers (3-5)
26. Philadelphia Eagles (3-6)
The Falcons just refuse to go away.
Coming into Week 9, the Falcons held the ignominious honor of being the worst-ranked team in Football Outsiders DVOA. So there’s that. But with a 27-25 win over the Saints on Sunday, Atlanta thumbed its nose at DVOA and moved to 4-4, effectively thrusting itself back into the NFC playoff conversation. In fact, if the season ended today, the Falcons would make the postseason as the conference’s no. 7 seed.
Now, there’s obviously a long way to go in the season, and outside of Sunday’s quality win, the Falcons have feasted on bad teams (with wins coming over the Giants, Jets, and Dolphins). But with the way that quarterback Matt Ryan played this week, this team could be capable of making things interesting down the stretch. Even without top receiver Calvin Ridley (who’s stepped away from the game to focus on his mental health), Ryan completed 23 of 30 passes for 343 yards and two touchdowns, showing a new-found comfort in Arthur Smith’s scheme as he picked apart a good Saints defense (particularly on play-action, where he completed seven of eight passes for 111 yards and those two scores). He averaged 11.4 yards per attempt on the day and his best throw came in crunch time: a beautifully arched 64-yard completion down the sideline to Cordarrelle Patterson with 1:01 to go. That play put the Falcons into field goal range and set up the eventual game-winning field goal.
In classic Falcons fashion, they refused to make things easy on themselves, squandering an early 24-6 lead before storming back late for the win. Despite needlessly stressing their fans out, Atlanta notched its fourth win in six games, a stretch in which Ryan has started to show a better grasp of Smith’s offense. He’s thrown 13 touchdowns and three picks in those games, notching a 106.1 passer rating while averaging 282 yards per game and 7.7 yards per attempt. Patterson has emerged as one of the most dynamic playmakers in the NFL, full stop. And rookie tight end Kyle Pitts continues to show that he can be a field-tilting weapon in the Atlanta offense. The Falcons officially have my attention.
There’s Always Next Year
27. Washington Football Team (2-6)
28. Jacksonville Jaguars (2-6)
29. New York Jets (2-6)
30. Miami Dolphins (2-7)
31. Houston Texans (1-8)
32. Detroit Lions (0-8)
Josh Allen, the pass rusher, had himself a day.
The Jaguars achieved a rare double win on Sunday. They tallied an actual, real 9-6 win over the shockingly inept Bills, of course, and that had to have been fun for the players and fans. But for a team that’s 2-6 and nowhere near contention, Jacksonville got an even-more-meaningful moral victory, too: a breakout performance from a guy who looks like a future superstar named Josh Allen.
Allen, the Jaguars pass rusher, went absolutely bananas in the surprising win, filling up the stat sheet with five pressures, two tackles for a loss, one quarterback hit, one sack, one pick, and one fumble recovery. He was everywhere for the Jacksonville defense, providing the exact type of spark an overmatched team like the Jaguars needed to win.
That was a much-needed boost for a franchise that seemed to be going in the wrong direction since hiring Urban Meyer over the offseason. And outside of Trevor Lawrence, who’s had plenty of his own growing pains, there haven’t been a whole lot of things that generate hope for the future of this franchise this season. But Allen’s performance showed that he’s clearly on a path toward being a pillar for this nascent group. After grabbing 10.5 sacks in a promising rookie campaign in 2019, he lost half of his 2020 season to a knee injury. Now, Allen is healthy and ready to prove that he can be a piece this team can build around long term.