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NFL Power Rankings: The Cowboys Are Looking Like a Legit Super Bowl Contender

Dallas is peaking at the right time on both offense and defense. Plus: Josh Allen put together a masterful performance and the Bengals’ young core of playmakers makes them a playoff dark horse.

AP Images/Ringer illustration

With the playoffs just over the horizon, the Chiefs have moved into the no. 1 spot on my power rankings for the first time all year. Kansas City put together a complete and wholly dominant win over the Steelers on Sunday, clinching its sixth straight AFC West title on the shoulders of another strong defensive performance and an increasingly back-to-normal Patrick Mahomes. The Packers aren’t far behind, though, following their victory over the Browns, and the Buccaneers and Cowboys both took care of business this week with blowout wins over their own. The Rams (who beat the Vikings), Colts (who knocked off the Cardinals), and Bills (who overpowered the Patriots) round out the NFL’s elite tier of teams―with slimmer-than-ever margins between the whole lot. With 16 weeks in the books, here are my updated power rankings.

The Top Shelf

1. Kansas City Chiefs (11-4)
2. Green Bay Packers (12-3)
3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (11-4)
4. Dallas Cowboys (11-4)
5. Los Angeles Rams (11-4)
6. Indianapolis Colts (9-6)
7. Buffalo Bills (9-6)

The Cowboys offense came back to life.

Dallas put an emphatic end to its offensive slump on Sunday, jumping out to a massive early lead before coasting to an easy 56-14 win over Washington. Dak Prescott looked all the way back from the calf injury that had hobbled him for the past two months. He dissected the Football Team’s hapless (albeit injury- and COVID-depleted) defense, spreading the ball out among all the team’s talented playmakers. He got Amari Cooper (seven receptions for 85 yards and a score) involved early and often, gave CeeDee Lamb (four catches, 66 yards) and Dalton Schultz (eight catches, 82 yards, and a score) their requisite looks, and connected with Ezekiel Elliott for a score. He even got offensive tackle Terence Steele in on the action―the cherry on top that helped Prescott notch an oddity of a record as the first quarterback in league history to throw a touchdown to a receiver, a running back, a tight end, and an offensive lineman in the same game. That tidbit shows how Prescott seemed to do whatever he wanted in the win, a 330-yard, four-touchdown performance (with almost all of that coming in the first two quarters) that marked the end to his recent struggles.

That showcase comes as a massive relief to Cowboys fans. After returning from a calf injury in Week 9, Prescott struggled to replicate his early-season line: He threw 16 touchdowns and four interceptions in his first six games (while averaging 302 passing yards per game and 8.4 yards per attempt), but had combined to throw just nine touchdowns and six interceptions in his seven starts post-injury (dropping to 255 passing yards per game and 6.5 yards per attempt). On Sunday, though, Prescott looked like a man who’d exorcized his demons (or maybe just felt fully healthy for the first time in months) as he gleefully pushed the ball downfield. That newfound verve could bode very well for a Cowboys squad that’s starting to fire on all cylinders as postseason approaches.

Dallas’s defense has quickly emerged as one of the NFL’s best over the past few months, and that group did its thing again on Sunday: Trevon Diggs got another pick, his league-best 11th; DeMarcus Lawrence produced a ridiculously athletic pick-six; and playmaking rookie Micah Parsons notched another sack, his 13th on the year. Combine that unit with an offense that seems to have re-captured its mojo, and the Cowboys are looking more and more like a legit Super Bowl squad.

Josh Allen put together a masterful performance.

The chips were stacked against Allen in the Bills’ pivotal matchup with the Patriots in Foxborough on Sunday, with the talented fourth-year passer down two of his top pass catching targets in Cole Beasley and Gabriel Davis (both of whom went to the COVID list last week). But Allen rose to the occasion and then some against a tough New England defense, producing one of his best games as a pro in the critical 33-21 win. Allen put the team on his back, completing 30 of 47 passes for 314 yards and three touchdowns while adding a team-high 64 yards on the ground. And those numbers don’t even really do his performance justice; watching the end-zone view of a few of his toughest throws helps to give you a better idea of just how dialed in he was on Sunday.

Allen led the Bills offense to 428 total yards in the game and took zero sacks, helping Buffalo convert three out of four crucial fourth-down attempts. He did get away with what could’ve been an interception on the team’s pivotal fourth-quarter drive (Patriots corner J.C. Jackson dropped it), but immediately bounced back to ice the game. With the Bills leading 26-21, Allen finished off the 13-play, 75-yard scoring drive, making a handful of audacious plays along the way―including a ballsy fourth-down naked bootleg run and an off-script shovel pass touchdown to Dawson Knox that put the game away.

With the win, Buffalo moved back into the top spot in the AFC East. The Bills have a strong defense. They’ve shown they have some much-needed depth on offense, too: Devin Singletary (12 rushes, 39 yards, one touchdown) has come on strong over the past few weeks; Knox (two catches, 11 yards, one touchdown) has been a factor in the red zone; and Isaiah McKenzie (11 catches for 125 yards, one touchdown) picked up the slack with Davis and Beasley out. If Allen can keep playing like he did on Sunday, he makes the Bills one of the most fearsome squads in a wide-open AFC playoff field.

The Contenders

8. Cincinnati Bengals (9-6)
9. Tennessee Titans (10-5)
10. New England Patriots (9-6)
11. Arizona Cardinals (10-5)
12. San Francisco 49ers (8-7)
13. Miami Dolphins (8-7)
14. Philadelphia Eagles (8-7)
15. Los Angeles Chargers (8-7)
16. Baltimore Ravens (8-7)

The Bengals’ young core gives them a chance.

The typically run-heavy Cincinnati offense took a pass-happy tack in the team’s 41-21 win over the Ravens on Sunday, with second-year quarterback Joe Burrow eviscerating a banged-up Baltimore secondary to the tune of 525 yards with four touchdowns and no picks. Burrow spread the love between Tee Higgins (12 catches, 194 yards, two touchdowns), Ja’Marr Chase (seven catches, 125 yards), Tyler Boyd (three catches, 85 yards, one touchdown), and Joe Mixon (six catches, 70 yards, one touchdown), among a few others, and nothing the Ravens could do defensively seemed to faze Burrow.

That’s been par for the course for Burrow over the past five weeks, a stretch in which he ranks tops among all qualifying NFL passers in yards (1,520), yards per attempt (9.2), big-time throws (15), and big-time throw rate (8.5 percent). Burrow’s been magnificent in his ability to navigate the pocket, strafe, and climb up away from pressure to deliver lasers downfield, and he’s played like a wily veteran over the past month-plus. In short, the dude has been feeling it.

Higgins’s big day at the office put him at 1,029 yards on the season, just a little behind Chase, who is up to 1,163 yards as a rookie. Together, they’re the first teammate duo in league history to both post 1,000 receiving yards in the same season before either turns 23. With the 25-year-old Burrow at the helm and throwing to Higgins and Chase, this team has perhaps the league’s best young offensive nucleus―a group that’s set up to dominate in the passing game for years to come.

Of course, with the playoffs just around the corner, Burrow, Higgins, Chase, Mixon, and the rest of Cincy’s offensive foundation surely have their minds on the short term. The Bengals have a few holes (like their offensive line), and they’ve been a hot-and-cold team from week to week this season (it’s tough to forget they lost to the Jets, and they rank 26th in DVOA variance on offense). But when everything is clicking, particularly on offense―like we saw on Sunday―they’re capable of being a buzz saw. That makes them an interesting dark horse down the stretch.

The Muddled Middle

17. Las Vegas Raiders (8-7)
18. Pittsburgh Steelers (7-7-1)
19. Cleveland Browns (7-8)
20. Minnesota Vikings (7-8)
21. New Orleans Saints (7-8)
22. Denver Broncos (7-8)
23. Atlanta Falcons (7-8)
24. Washington Football Team (6-9)

The Steelers offense needs an overhaul.

Ben Roethlisberger’s swan song is getting harder and harder on the ears.

If we’re feeling generous, Big Ben has produced a handful of aggressively average outings this year. But on the whole, the Pittsburgh offense has been a giant anchor holding the team’s talented defense down. The offense struggled mightily again in the team’s blowout loss to the Chiefs on Sunday, with Roethlisberger posting an atrocious 159-yard, one-touchdown, and one-interception line in defeat. The veteran mustered an average depth of target of 5.7 yards while averaging a paltry 4.5 yards per attempt, leaning again on a soul-crushing dink-and-dunk strategy that’s best visualized by this passing chart from Sunday.

The Steelers offense has zero vertical passing element. The running game has been just about as bad at creating explosive plays. Rookie back Najee Harris has been a versatile foundational piece for the team’s ground attack this year, but if he’s been lacking in one area it’s his ability to create big plays. Harris has just six rushes of 15-plus yards this year on 269 attempts, according to PFF, and with just 12.4 percent of his yards coming on those big runs, he ranks 50th among 62 qualifying backs this year. For context, Seahawks running back Rashaad Penny has six rushes of 15-plus yards this season … on 71 attempts.

Pittsburgh simply cannot manufacture enough explosive plays. The Steelers have netted 39 explosive pass plays (20-plus yards) on 574 attempts, a 6.8 percent rate that ranks 28th in the NFL. The team’s 10 percent explosive run rate (runs of 10-plus yards) ranks 25th. That’s awful, particularly for a team with as much skill-player talent as Pittsburgh. There’s plenty of blame to go around. Roethlisberger is almost surely going to ride off into the sunset this offseason, but the team must set out to fix its leaky offensive line, get its talented group of receivers more looks deep down the field, and maybe find a lightning element to pair with Harris on the ground. Whether they stick with offensive coordinator Matt Canada beyond 2021 or not, the Steelers’ no. 1 priority for 2022 should be to create more chunk plays.

There’s Always Next Year

25. Chicago Bears (5-10)
26. Seattle Seahawks (5-10)
27. New York Jets (4-11)
28. Houston Texans (4-11)
29. Carolina Panthers (5-10)
30. Detroit Lions (2-12-1)
31. New York Giants (4-11)
32. Jacksonville Jaguars (2-13)

The Panthers’ offseason should be interesting.

The Panthers’ season is a real-life version of that unfinished horse drawing meme: After starting the year 3-0 on the back of a seemingly rehabilitated Sam Darnold and the team’s exciting, ascending defense, Carolina has imploded and gone 2-10 since.

The Panthers have hilariously bungled their quarterback succession plan under second-year coach Matt Rhule, moving from Cam Newton to Teddy Bridgewater to Darnold to P.J. Walker and back to Newton over the past two seasons. After making offensive coordinator Joe Brady the scapegoat for the team’s struggles on offense, firing him midseason, Rhule has now somehow come to the conclusion (along with new OC Jeff Nixon) that a committee approach to the QB situation is the way to go. That comedy of errors will put Rhule, who is now 10-21 since taking over at the start of 2020, under the microscope for team owner David Tepper. And while there’s still plenty of things to be hopeful about if you’re a Panthers fan―like the fact that the defense is a young, high-upside group and the offense is chock-full of talented skill players―the team’s pronounced lack of realized potential this year could be another reason Tepper decides to clean house and start anew. Rhule expressed confidence in the foundation he’s laying in Carolina this week, but there’s plenty of reason to be skeptical after the results of the past two years. The Panthers are a team I’ll be watching closely as the offseason approaches.