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NFL Power Rankings: There’s the Buccaneers, Then There’s Everyone Else

Tampa Bay remains the class of the NFL—and it’s unclear who its biggest competition is

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The NFL’s Week 2 slate was a roller-coaster ride of emotions. Sunday got off to a rough start with an injury-riddled, mostly ugly lineup of morning games, but all four of the afternoon games produced exciting finishes before giving way to barn-burning fun on Sunday Night Football. All in all, another awesome week of football―and one that taught us a whole lot more about the quality of teams across the NFL. Here are my updated Power Rankings.

The Top Shelf

1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-0)
2. Los Angeles Rams (2-0)
3. Cleveland Browns (1-1)
4. Buffalo Bills (1-1)
5. Baltimore Ravens (1-1)
6. Kansas City Chiefs (1-1)

The Buccaneers are a thresher.

Putting together this week’s full rankings wasn’t easy … but deciding which team would get the top spot was. The Buccaneers are the class of the NFL, and there really isn’t a close no. 2. Tampa Bay won its 10th straight game going back to last season, knocking off the Falcons 48-25, and in doing so showed off the myriad ways in which this absurdly deep, balanced, and well-coached team can win.

Let’s start with the offense. Tampa Bay put up 30-plus points for the ninth straight time (again, going back to last season), an especially impressive feat considering no other team in the NFL has done that in more than two straight games. Tom Brady was surgical as a passer, completing 24 of 36 attempts for 276 yards with five touchdowns and no picks for a 129.2 passer rating. Brady spread the ball around in this game, reacquainting himself with Mike Evans on two scores, finding Rob Gronkowski for another two, and dealing to Chris Godwin for yet another. This passing game is so deep that I barely noticed Antonio Brown (one catch, 17 yards) was out there. With such a diverse range of playmakers at their disposal, head coach Bruce Arians and offensive play-caller Byron Leftwich can tailor their game plan week in and week out to best exploit defensive weaknesses. It also helps that Brady is a master at identifying mismatches and attacking them, as he did on the third-quarter isolation-route touchdown he threw to Evans, who was being marked by backup defensive back TJ Green (which, huh?).

Defensively, I’m guessing that Todd Bowles wasn’t thrilled that his group surrendered 25 points to the Falcons, who did manage to hang around and keep things interesting until late in the third quarter. But the Buccaneers defense made the types of plays it needed to in order to put the game away, picking Matt Ryan off twice in the fourth quarter. In all, Tampa Bay intercepted Ryan three times and held the Falcons to 2.8 yards per rush attempt.

Two weeks in, the Buccaneers don’t just look like the team we saw win the last Super Bowl. They look better.

The Ravens showed their mettle.

Heading into Sunday night’s prime-time matchup with the Chiefs, the Ravens had the look of a team on the verge of imminent collapse. Just about everything surrounding this squad over the past month-plus has been negative, whether it was Lamar Jackson’s stint on the COVID-19 list, the team’s unbelievable spate of injuries (Baltimore has 15 players on injured reserve, including would-be starters like Marcus Peters, JK Dobbins, Gus Edwards, Rashod Bateman, and Tyre Phillips), or their disappointing opening-week loss to the Raiders. That’s why Jackson’s first-possession pick-six to Chiefs safety Tyrann Mathieu could’ve been the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.

But, with much credit to the Ravens, no one panicked. In what felt like a microcosm for the start of this team’s season, Baltimore simply pressed on: Jackson shrugged off some early miscues to put together a signature performance, outdueling a fellow former MVP in Patrick Mahomes―emerging as the victor thanks to his wildly different but equally trilling dual-threat style. The ongoing battle between Mahomes’s Chiefs and Jackson’s Ravens is, as one astute rando in my mentions pointed out, consistently the best matchup in the NFL from both a competitive and aesthetic perspective. Mahomes is a transcendent talent without peer as a passer, a perfect tool to run Andy Reid’s wide-open spread offense; Jackson, meanwhile, is a unique talent as a runner, the irreplaceable foundation for Greg Roman’s explosive, whiplash-inducing offense.

The Ravens absorbed every punch the Chiefs threw at them and managed to keep punching back. Jackson created huge plays in both the passing game and in the rushing attack, finishing with 239 yards and one touchdown through the air to go with a team-high 107 yards and two scores on the ground. He made several clutch throws in this game, including a jump-pass touchdown to Marquise Brown in the third quarter, and the Chiefs seemed to have no answer for Jackson as a runner. Every time I looked up it seemed as if Jackson was ripping off a 10-plus-yard run right up the gut, or keeping the ball on a read-option look and beating a defender to the edge. And Football Perspective’s Chase Stuart points out that the actual context of Jackson’s 16 carries showed how incredibly impactful each one really was: In addition to the 12 “normal” rushes from Jackson, which went for a combined 103 yards and an average of 8.6 yards per rush clip, the fourth-year quarterback converted a 1-yard touchdown run, a 2-yard touchdown run, the game-sealing 2-yard rush on fourth-and-1 with 1:05 left in the game, and his final “rush” was a game-ending kneel down.

Jackson’s always been a better passer than the narratives imply, but the one thing I kept thinking watching this game on Sunday night was that he’s also an even better runner than he gets credit for. In an offensive scheme that’s designed around his strengths, Lamar has the ability to lead this flawed, injury-decimated Ravens team to big wins.

The Contenders

7. San Francisco 49ers (2-0)
8. Arizona Cardinals (2-0)
9. Las Vegas Raiders (2-0)
10. Tennessee Titans (1-1)
11. Seattle Seahawks (1-1)
12. Dallas Cowboys (1-1)
13. Denver Broncos (2-0)
14. Carolina Panthers (2-0)
15. New England Patriots (1-1)
16. Green Bay Packers (1-1)
17. Los Angeles Chargers (1-1)

The Raiders look like the dark horse team in the AFC.

Under Jon Gruden, the Raiders have managed to simultaneously represent both organizational dysfunction and offensive genius. Gruden’s tenure in Las Vegas/Oakland has been rocky, to say the least. He’s thus far produced zero winning seasons and he’s had a hand in a smorgasbord of head-scratching personnel moves. But it’s also hard to deny that the man can still scheme up a good Spider 2 Y Banana (among other things).

That was pretty clear on Sunday, when the Raiders dispatched the Steelers 26-17. Las Vegas racked up 425 yards of offense against the typically stingy Pittsburgh defense, reminding everyone that the Chiefs aren’t the only offense to fear in the AFC West. The Raiders, who finished 10th in points per game last year (27.1), now rank seventh in points per game through two games this season (29.5). And Derek Carr, who quietly passed for 4,103 yards in 2020, tossing 27 touchdowns and just nine picks while averaging 7.9 yards per attempt (which tied for fifth best among qualifying quarterbacks and matched the number Josh Allen put up) is on pace to smash all his career numbers. After completing 28 of 37 passes for 382 yards with two touchdowns and no picks in the win, Carr now sits in the no. 1 spot on the NFL’s passing-yards leaderboard (408.5 per game). He’s also eighth in yards per attempt (8.8) and 12th in passer rating (104.1). Most importantly, he’s led the Raiders to surprising wins over two good teams.

But it’s not just Carr’s numbers that are impressive. It’s the way he’s posting them that’s most encouraging. As we saw on Sunday, he’s attacking all three levels of the field and pushing the ball down the field aggressively.

NFL Next Gen Stats

The group of skill players developing around Carr makes the Raiders an intriguing offense to watch as the year goes on. Darren Waller remains one of the most dynamic mismatch-creating tight ends in the league. Henry Ruggs III, whom the team selected with the 12th pick in the draft last year, had the best game of his career this week, grabbing five catches for 113 yards and a touchdown―and, crucially, helped Carr stretch the field vertically. Second-year pass catcher Bryan Edwards is coming along as the team’s outside X-receiver, and Hunter Renfrow is becoming a reliable chains mover over the middle of the field. Even talented no. 2 tight end Foster Moreau got in on the fun on Sunday, catching a touchdown in the third quarter.

Defensively, the Raiders still have a ways to go. But they do have the type of hounding pass rush that could come in handy in the postseason (that group hit Ben Roethlisberger 10 times and sacked him twice). Third-year pro Maxx Crosby in particular has emerged as a big-time difference-maker, and through two games he leads the NFL with 19 pressures. It’s still early, but the arrow is pointing up for Gruden’s Raiders.

The Sam Darnold gamble is paying off … so far.

I’ll admit to being pretty dubious about the Panthers’ offseason quarterback plan, which included trading a second-rounder for Sam Darnold while passing on both Justin Fields and Mac Jones with the eighth pick in the draft (which they used on cornerback Jaycee Horn). But through two weeks, Darnold kinda, sorta, actually does look like a competent NFL quarterback. He certainly looks a whole lot different than the guy we saw during most of his first three seasons in New York. And the Panthers are 2-0.

In Carolina’s 26-7 win over the Saints on Sunday, Darnold completed 26 of 38 passes for 305 yards, two touchdowns, and a pick. He played calm and efficient football, and for the most part minimized the types of head-scratching decisions that defined his tenure with the Jets. As Ringer colleague Steven Ruiz wrote on Sunday, much of the credit for Darnold’s early-season success goes to offensive play-caller Joe Brady, who’s designed a scheme that doesn’t ask Darnold to do much heavy lifting as a passer. Mostly, he just gets the ball quickly to Christian McCaffrey, DJ Moore, and the rest of the team’s talented skill group, and lets them do their thing.

The Panthers seem to have made a pretty massive jump on defense too, which has certainly helped give Darnold favorable game scripts to work from. Carolina has spent exactly zero minutes playing from behind in its first two games. That surely won’t be the case all year, though, so I’ll be looking forward to how the fourth-year pro reacts when things aren’t going quite so smoothly for the Panthers.

The Muddled Middle

18. New Orleans Saints (1-1)
19. Pittsburgh Steelers (1-1)
20. Washington Football Team (1-1)
21. Philadelphia Eagles (1-1)
22. Miami Dolphins (1-1)
23. Chicago Bears (1-1)
24. Indianapolis Colts (0-2)
25. Houston Texans (1-1)

Ben Roethlisberger could cap the Steelers’ potential.

I suspect the Steelers are going to look like a Jekyll-and-Hyde team all year. They’ve got plenty of ways to overwhelm opponents, starting with a suffocating, stout defense that can give opposing quarterbacks fits. And Pittsburgh still boasts one of the deepest and most talented offensive skill groups in the NFL, giving that unit the ability to create big, game-swinging plays.

But predicting when either of those groups will show up could be a challenge. This week, we saw injuries severely stifle the Steelers’ defense. And offensively, the transition to new offensive coordinator Matt Canada’s scheme has been clunky, and there hasn’t been much of an indication thus far that Ben Roethlisberger is going to play much differently than he did in 2020. In other words … he’s still struggling to push the ball down the field. Roethlisberger completed 27 of 40 passes for 295 yards, a touchdown, and a pick in the team’s loss to the Raiders, and his performance stood in stark contrast to Carr’s, who, as noted above, forced the Steelers to defend every inch of the field. Looking at Roethlisberger’s passing chart, the 39-year-old veteran focused mainly on dumping passes off into the short area, completing just two of the eight passes he launched 20-plus yards downfield (and note that he didn’t attempt a pass 20-plus yards down the field in Week 1), throwing one pick on those attempts.

NFL Next Gen Stats

It’s not all Roethlisberger’s fault, of course. The offensive line has struggled mightily over the first two games and hasn’t given Big Ben many clean pockets to operate from. Those struggles leave the Steelers in a tough spot: Roethlisberger’s not getting any younger, and it’s not easy to fix an undermanned offensive line at this point in the season. The onus may fall on guys like JuJu Smith-Schuster, Chase Claypool, Diontae Johnson, and rookie Najee Harris to create more big plays on their own.

There’s Always Next Year

26. Minnesota Vikings (0-2)
27. Cincinnati Bengals (1-1)
28. Detroit Lions (0-2)
29. Atlanta Falcons (0-2)
30. New York Giants (0-2)
31. New York Jets (0-2)
32. Jacksonville Jaguars (0-2)

At the very least, I enjoy watching the Vikings offense.

The Vikings should have beaten the Cardinals, and they would have if kicker Greg Joseph hadn’t missed a 37-yarder with four seconds to go in the game. But after starting 0-2, Minnesota has dug itself into a deep hole.

We’ll find out whether Kirk Cousins and Co. can dig themselves out, but in the meantime I’m going to just enjoy watching this offense. The Vikings have apparently become appointment viewing for fans of offensive football: Cousins seems to turn into an All Pro–level quarterback when he’s faced with a big deficit, and the skill-player triumvirate of Adam Thielen, Justin Jefferson, and Dalvin Cook is always up for a big play or three.