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NFL Power Rankings: The Buccaneers Are Starting to Feel Inevitable

Tom Brady is back at it. Plus, the 49ers have an extraordinary collection of offensive playmakers and the Packers may have an Achilles heel.

AP Images/Ringer illustration

The cream continued to rise to the top in the NFL in Week 14, with the league’s upper-echelon squads further separating themselves from the rest of the pack. The Buccaneers jumped up into the top spot on my rankings with a big win over the Bills on Sunday, but the Packers (who beat the Bears) and Patriots (on bye) aren’t far behind. The increasingly hot Chiefs beat the Raiders to move up to no. 4 while the Rams knocked off the Cardinals in a wild NFC West bout on Monday Night Football. With 14 weeks in the books, here’s my updated Power Rankings.

The Top Shelf

1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (10-3)
2. Green Bay Packers (10-3)
3. New England Patriots (9-4)
4. Kansas City Chiefs (9-4)
5. Los Angeles Rams (9-4)
6. Arizona Cardinals (10-3)

Tom Brady and the Buccaneers feel inevitable again.

For every team, the NFL season is filled with twists and turns. Early in the year, the Buccaneers somehow looked like a more complete version of the team that had won it all last season, and as they raced out to a 6-1 record through the first seven weeks, it felt like an all-but lock that Tom Brady and Co. would be headed back to the Super Bowl. But a three-week slump in the middle of the season—a stretch in which Tampa Bay sandwiched their Week 9 bye with a pair of losses to New Orleans and Washington, respectively—dampened expectations. Injuries had begun to mount, the defense’s takeaways had started to dry up, and offensive turnovers were becoming a problem. This team suddenly looked shockingly mortal; just another squad in the league’s jumbled mess of parity.

But every good story arc needs conflict, and the 2021 Buccaneers weathered their storm and emerged on the other side unscathed. Tampa Bay’s 33-27 overtime win over Buffalo on Sunday wasn’t always pretty, I’ll admit―particularly a very rough second-half stretch when it allowed Buffalo to erase a 21-point deficit―but the Bucs reminded everyone why they should still be considered the team to beat this year. Tampa Bay still has its suffocating, game-changing pass-rush group, an elite collection of skill-player talent, and a top-notch linebacker duo. And most importantly, they’ve still got Brady, who, at 44 years old, remains the league’s most inescapable force. That was exceedingly clear when the Bills’ opening overtime drive went three-and-out and a familiar feeling of Brady-related inevitability took hold.

After missing his first opportunity to ice the game on the team’s final fourth-quarter possession, Brady did exactly what everyone in the stadium, everyone watching at home, and basically everyone on Earth (at some level of their subconscious) knew he’d do next. He guided the offense out from the shadow of its own end zone and out to near midfield, and on a crucial third-and-3 from the Tampa Bay 42-yard line, Brady hit Breshad Perriman in stride on a crossing route. Perriman, who became open thanks to a mesh-route concept over the middle of the field, did the rest, sprinting the rest of the 50-odd yards to pay dirt for a walk-off score.

It was a less-than-perfect win, but one that showcased the Buccaneers’ championship formula. On defense, the team’s injury-riddled group surrendered 466 yards but bowed up when it mattered most, limiting the Bills in many of the game’s highest leverage situations (holding Buffalo to just two of 13 on third downs and forcing a critical three-and-out on the Bills’ opening overtime possession). The fearsome pass-rush group generated three sacks and 11 quarterback hits thanks to an onslaught of blitzes. And on offense, past the whole “we have Tom Brady” thing, the team’s depth was once again a big factor. Chris Godwin stayed red-hot, catching 10 passes for 105 yards. Mike Evans stretched up to corral a highlight-reel touchdown, somehow securing the laser pass from Brady with the tippy-tops of his fingers. Rob Gronkowski did Gronk things, catching five passes for 62 yards. Leonard Fournette continued to emerge as a foundation back for the team, reeling off another 113 yards on 19 totes, including a 47-yard touchdown run in the first quarter. And the fact they got the game-winning score from a practice squad call-up in veteran Breshad Perriman only hammers home the point that this Tampa Bay team can simply beat opponents in too many ways.

Put it all together, and it’s as good of a time as any for all you non-Buccaneers fans to start preparing your heart for the inevitable.

Are not-so-special teams the Packers’ Achilles heel?

In a lot of ways, the Packers look like a team that’s built to dominate both late in the year and in the playoffs. Offensively, they’ve got the clichéd cold-weather running back in AJ Dillon, a 250-odd-pound battering bully who no one wants to tackle as the game wears on. They’ve got a lightning element to Dillon’s thunder in Aaron Jones, a slashing big-play creator and pass catcher who keeps defenses off balance. They’ve got an unstoppable route-running maestro in Davante Adams, who is a touchdown-spitting ATM from inside the 5-yard line. And, of course, they’ve got the defending MVP in Aaron Rodgers, who can slice and dice any defense while mitigating opposing pass-rush groups thanks to his peerless skills at manipulating defenses with the snap count. We saw all of that in action in Green Bay’s 45-30 win over the Bears on Sunday Night Football.

And defensively, Green Bay has shown off one of the best playoff trump cards a team can have: the combination of playmaking ball hawks in the back end to go with its pressure-creating front line. Cornerback Rasul Douglas, who was signed off the Cardinals practice squad early in the year, produced a pick-six in his second consecutive game on Sunday, jumping a Justin Fields pass near the sideline before returning it for a score in the second quarter. And the pass-rush group got after Fields from start to finish, pressuring the rookie on 19 of his 35 dropbacks (a 54 percent pressure rate). That group has created pressure on 39 percent of opponent dropbacks in the past month, easily tops in the NFL. With reinforcements in the form of Za’Darius Smith due to arrive soon, the Packers could have the makings of a dominant, takeaway-creating defense as we near January.

But as balanced as the Packers are in the two highest-profile phases of football, Green Bay’s potentially fatal flaw may be special teams. Those units came into the week ranked 30th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA and had a hilariously rough day at the office in the win against the Bears. In addition to giving up a 97-yard punt return to Chicago speedster Jakeem Grant, the Packers surrendered another 34-yard punt return from Grant and two 40-plus-yard kick returns from Khalil Herbert (40 and 42 yards). Mason Crosby, who actually hit every one of his field goal and PAT attempts for the first time since Week 8, made up for that lapse in inconsistency by booting a kickoff out of bounds. Add in a muffed punt by Amari Rodgers that was overturned by a questionable penalty on Chicago, a muffed kickoff by Malik Taylor, and a failed onside kick recovery late in the game, and Green Bay’s special teams group just about hit the bingo on different ways they could screw up in this game.

The team’s Keystone Cops act on special teams is a massive red flag, and injuries to key contributors (like Equanimeous St. Brown and Dominique Dafney) have only exacerbated the problem. But head coach Matt LaFleur noted on Monday that it’s “all hands on deck” for Green Bay’s flailing special teams units. Against bad teams like the Bears, execution on special teams can feel more like an annoyance than a potential Achilles heel. But in postseason battles between teams that look otherwise evenly matched, big plays on special teams―or more pointedly, huge flubs in that area―can often mean the difference between a win and a loss.

The Contenders

7. Dallas Cowboys (9-4)
8. Indianapolis Colts (7-6)
9. San Francisco 49ers (7-6)
10. Los Angeles Chargers (8-5)
11. Tennessee Titans (9-4)
12. Buffalo Bills (7-6)
13. Baltimore Ravens (8-5)

The 49ers have the most extraordinary group of offensive playmakers in the NFL.

The San Francisco offense is an absolute marvel. That’s not to say that I love watching quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, exactly (though he did put together a pretty solid performance in the team’s 26-23 overtime win against the Bengals on Sunday), but it’s pretty clear that the 49ers have assembled one of the most versatile and unique groups of skill-position players the NFL has ever seen―and they’re all getting healthy and hitting their respective strides at the right time.

The Niners’ season has dramatically changed course since George Kittle returned to the field in Week 9, and San Francisco has now won four out of its past six games to move squarely into playoff contention in the NFC. Kittle’s profound impact on the offense cannot be understated: He brings the ability to pancake a defender and spring a big run on one play; on another, he’ll leap up in the air and make a catch or rumble through five tackle attempts. Kittle made history in the team’s win on Sunday, reeling in 13 catches for 151 yards and a score to become the first tight end in NFL history to post back-to-back games with 150-plus receiving yards and at least one receiving score (he caught nine passes for 181 yards and two touchdowns in Week 13). Kittle has gone scorched earth on opposing defenses ever since his return from an early-season calf injury, and since Week 9, he’s scored six touchdowns and leads all tight ends with 530 receiving yards.

While Kittle is the elder statesman of the team’s playmaking triumvirate, he now splits responsibilities with the team’s other two rising stars in Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk. Samuel (eight rushes for 37 yards and a touchdown on Sunday, with one catch for 22 yards) has been the team’s rock on offense this year, and despite missing a game, he still ranks fifth in the NFL in total scrimmage yards (1,268). I’ve always loved to talk about positional versatility in the NFL, but most of the time that’s just in reference to a receiver who’s capable of taking a few snaps out of the backfield every once in a while, or a running back who can line up wide. Samuel is rare in the fact he’s actually, truly a hybrid running back and receiver: In addition to his 1,028 yards and five touchdowns through the air, he’s racked up another 240 yards and six scores on the ground. In fact, during his last four games, Samuel has done more on the ground than in the air, rushing 27 times for 218 yards and five touchdowns while catching just eight passes for 146 yards and a score. As the team deals with injuries in the backfield, he’s answered the call.

Completing the team’s offensive glow-up is Aiyuk, who’s worked his way out of Kyle Shanahan’s doghouse and back into our collective hearts over the past six weeks. Aiyuk isn’t quite as versatile as either Kittle and Deebo, but he does mix incredible yards-after-the-catch playmaking talent with burgeoning route-running prowess and the ability to make highlight-reel catches. The second-year pro, who caught six passes for 62 yards and the game-winning touchdown on Sunday, has been on an absolute tear since working his way back into the regular rotation. Since Week 9, Aiyuk is tied for 18th in the league in catches (28), ranks 13th in yards (408), and has scored three times. And he’s only getting better.

Together, that trio makes the 49ers offense incredibly difficult to both plan for and defend. Add in running back Elijah Mitchell and intriguing role player Jauan Jennings, and Shanahan has the weapons at his disposal to spread the ball around and keep defenses guessing. That makes things easier for Garoppolo and should continue to make the Niners a dangerous dark horse in the NFC.

The Muddled Middle

14. Miami Dolphins (6-7)
15. Cleveland Browns (7-6)
16. Cincinnati Bengals (7-6)
17. Denver Broncos (7-6)
18. Philadelphia Eagles (6-7)
19. Minnesota Vikings (6-7)
20. Seattle Seahawks (5-8)
21. Washington Football Team (6-7)
22. Pittsburgh Steelers (6-6-1)
23. New Orleans Saints (6-7)
24. Las Vegas Raiders (6-7)
25. Atlanta Falcons (6-7)

Can the Broncos make a run in the wide-open AFC?

The Broncos have been almost perfectly average for the most of the season, a prodigiously just-OK team that came into this week at 6-6 and ranked 17th in weighted DVOA―15th on offense and 20th on defense. Their 38-10 win over the hapless Lions does push them past the .500 mark, sure, but it probably shouldn’t change anyone’s opinion on them a whole lot, either. Still, with a whopping eight teams boasting either six or seven wins in the AFC right now, Denver is squarely in the playoff hunt. And, at least on paper, they have the profile of a team that could make things tough for opponents down the stretch.

On offense, Denver’s ground game is sizzling. Head coach Vic Fangio isn’t asking Teddy Bridgewater to do a whole lot, instead leaning on the team’s dynamic running back duo in Melvin Gordon and Javonte Williams. Williams, who rushed for 73 yards and a touchdown on Sunday (adding a touchdown catch), has emerged as one of the most exciting young backs in the league, a tackle-breaking machine who can also make plays in the passing game. And Gordon has shown that he’s still his reliable, playmaking self. The veteran back came back from a one-week absence to a hip injury to pile up 111 yards and two touchdowns on the ground. The performance of Gordon and Williams has effectively taken some pressure off of Bridgewater, who’s at his best when distributing the football to playmakers like Jerry Jeudy, Courtland Sutton, Tim Patrick, Noah Fant, and Albert Okwuegbunam. And crucially, that potentially dominant ground attack should help Denver better control the football and play keep-away from opponents, grinding clock and wearing down defenders. That strategy isn’t all that different from that of the Browns, one of the Broncos’ main competitors for the final playoff spot in the AFC. And by the way, Bridgewater’s numbers through his past seven games (and really all year) are about on par with that of Baker Mayfield.

Defensively, Denver has the pieces to create headaches for opposing quarterbacks down the stretch. Von Miller may be gone but a handful of young up-and-comers have emerged. With another two sacks on Sunday, defensive lineman Dre’Mont Jones has come on strong in the second half of the season. And rookie cornerback Patrick Surtain II (who has four picks this year) is quickly establishing himself as a future shutdown corner.

The Broncos need teams like the Colts or Bills to falter down the stretch, and they have a tough closing schedule (with matchups against the Bengals, Raiders, Chargers, and Chiefs). But being average doesn’t necessarily spell doom for Denver as we hit the homestretch of the season. With so much parity in the AFC, the Broncos still have a shot at a late-season run.


There’s Always Next Year

26. Chicago Bears (4-9)
27. Carolina Panthers (5-8)
28. New York Giants (4-9)
29. New York Jets (3-10)
30. Houston Texans (2-11)
31. Detroit Lions (1-11-1)
32. Jacksonville Jaguars (2-11)

The Giants are really bad at scoring touchdowns.

I’m not breaking any new ground when I say that the Giants are bad. But sometimes in the chaos of an NFL season, it’s easy to miss the context for just how bad a cellar-dwelling team like New York has been.

Despite heavy, heavy investments on the offensive side of the ball in the past few years―including top-10 picks on left tackle Andrew Thomas, quarterback Daniel Jones, and running back Saquon Barkley, along with first-round picks on tight end Evan Engram and receiver Kadarius Toney and a big-money investment in receiver Kenny Golladay―the Giants are tied for second to last in the NFL in total touchdowns through 13 games, with just 22 on the year. In fact, outside a garbage-time touchdown by Barkley late in the team’s 37-21 loss to the Chargers, the only other non-quarterbacks to find the end zone for New York in the past month have been tight end Chris Myarick, left tackle Andrew Thomas, and fullback Elijhaa Penny. That’s the whole list.

Now, I realize Jones has been hurt and the team is relying on backup quarterback Mike Glennon to run the show, but the team’s struggles on offense go back multiple years (only Washington, the Jets, and the Jaguars have scored fewer total touchdowns since the start of the 2018 season). Jason Garrett was an easy scapegoat, and firing him was the right decision, but if this team ever hopes to dig its way out of the hole they find themselves in this season, bigger changes, whether that’s at the general manager or head coach levels (or both) may be needed.