Heading into week 5 and with a quarter of the season already in the books (!) there have been a couple of surprises. I predicted the Ravens to win the AFC, but they are 1-3 right now, the Falcons are two more wins away from their 2014 total and the Eagles right now are at the bottom of the NFC East standings. To find a way to figure out all this craziness, I decided to rank all 32 teams. But instead of ranking them only based on the record, I wanted to give my opinion on who I think has played the best and how they will play from here on out.
Two words: Aaron Rodgers.
I don’t think I have to say anything else, but for the sake of this segment I will. Once again Rodgers has proven he can make any receiver look good and always find the open guy, he has complete control over the field and the team, he creates plays by fooling the defense and with his feet. He takes advantage of the best offensive line he’s had since joining the Pack, Clay is the most versatile linebacker in the league and with better play up front and in the secondary they now have a playoff-calibre defense. Now I’m finished.
This one’s pretty similar. I was foolish to think the Patriots would go down as long as they have Brady and Belichick. After three weeks the offense averages 39.7 points a game and Tom averages 360 yards passing. The defensive backfield and especially the cornerback position looks much better than I expected them to, even though I still see areas this defense can still improve on. If the front seven plays at the level they’re capable of and Tom continues to build on his great start to the season, they’re on their way to another AFC Championship game.
There are probably a lot of people out there who think I’m overhyping Atlanta, but this Falcons team has something special about it. Okay, they have Julio Jones. He is clearly the best receiver in the league today and I already knew before the season that he would go off this year. I would also say the duo of him and Matt Ryan is the best in the NFL. The thing that has surprised me is how much of a beast Devonta Freeman would become. I liked him at FSU, but the way he plays right now is high above what I expected him to look like in 2015. And on the defensive side of the ball they might not have one of the scariest units, but they are 5th against the run, they create turnovers and Vic Beasley is turning into a terror off the edge right now.
The Denver D is playing at a level even above what I expected them to. The combination of Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware off the edge is the very best in the league, their tandem of cornerbacks is right behind Revis and Cromartie of the Jets and they got some of their young talented linebackers back, who were injured last year. As far as I’m concerned this is one of the top three defensive units in the league on a team, which made its mark with their explosiveness on offense for the last couple of years. When you look at that side of the ball, the question starts with the man in charge – Peyton Manning. He doesn’t look like he lacks the arm strength to push the ball down the field, but he doesn’t look like the Sheriff anymore. With him taking over this Gary Kubiak-designed offense and going out of the pistol more often, with D-Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders on the outside and if they can get the ground game going more consistently this team has a chance to be in the big game once again.
It may seem a little unfair to rank the Cardinals above two undefeated teams, but this is a team I’m keeping my eye very close on. To be honest – even though Carson Palmer played well when he was on the field last year, I didn’t think he would be able to overcome the ACL tear and play anywhere near the level he does right now. After a quarter of the season you could argue he has been of the top five signal callers in all of the NFL. Larry Fitzgerald seems to have taken a trip to the fountain of youth as well, while John Brown is in the making of a true offensive weapon. The trio of Chris Johnson, David Johnson and Andre Ellington (when he returns) makes up for one the most versatile in the league. Of course it helps when you get the O-line play in Arizona since I can remember. And I haven’t even talked about the defense, which features one of the elite cornerbacks in Patrick Peterson, who looks like he’s at 100% health again, maybe the best safety in football in Tyrann Mathieu, a very deep group on the defensive line led by superstar Calais Campbell and a couple of dynamic linebackers. This is a special group led by one of the best coaches in Bruce Arians.
Right now a lot of hype is building around this Bengals franchise and you have to respect the things they’ve done to this point. They destroyed an up-and-coming Raiders bunch in the Black Hole, then found a way to get out of Baltimore with a win mainly because of the spectacular play of A.J. Green and they got the job done at home against the Chargers and Chiefs. The defense is fueled by the play of Geno Atkins, who has returned to his 2012 form, and Andy Dalton has played so much better than he has at any point since coming to Cincy. Of course it helps having A.J. on the outside, the combination of Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard (who plays a huge role on this offense) in the backfield and one of the best offensive lines in front of him. I only have them at number six because I’m not sure if Dalton can continue to play at the level he has so far.
I don’t think any of you thought the Panthers would be unbeaten after four games and neither did I. They lost their number one receiver Kelvin Benjamin in the preseason, they have Michael Oher protecting the blind side, which he wasn’t honored to do since his third season with the Ravens, they are without either of their top two edge rushers from a year ago and yet they stand here without a loss. And that is the bottom line for this team – find a way to win games. Cam Newton is an MVP candidate at this point, Josh Norman probably is the frontrunner for defensive player of the year and they just added Jared Allen from Chicago, plus the get their man in the middle on defense back after Luke Kuechly hasn’t played since the season opener. I have them as the lowest-ranked unbeaten team because I’m not sure if Cam can continue to carry this offense by himself.
I can only repeat what many experts have said – there is no “Boom” in the Legion of Boom without Kam Chancellor. You could almost feel the energy everybody on this defense feeds off and he will set the tone from here on out. I believe the Seahawks will soon have the same defensive identity, which means making you earn every touch of the ball and then getting after you in obvious passing situations. On offense they need Marshawn Lynch to give them the Beastmode-swagger we’re used to, which will open up everything else as well. On Monday night Russell Wilson played a spectacular game before giving the ball away by putting it on the ground twice. If they can build an identity which features the Beast, Russell hitting big plays off of run-fakes and Jimmy Graham as a redzone-threat and bigger part of the offense in general, the Hawks can once again go on a championship run. But they’re certainly not there yet.
Bills Mafia looked like the real deal before getting handled pretty good by the Giants. The Buffalo D could still finish as the number one unit at the end of the year though, with four Pro Bowlers from last year on the defensive line, one of the best young duo of linebackers in Preston Brown and Nigel Bradham, one of the best tandem of corners in Stephon Gilmore and rookie Ronald Darby and one of my favorite players safety Aaron Williams, but they have to go out and prove that every single week. The magic of Tyrod Taylor has somewhat come off, but this is still a very capable guy and if he gets it going with the talented pass-catchers they have, plus if LeSean McCoy and rookie Karlos Williams can take pressure of his shoulders, the Bills still need to be the radar.
The Rams certainly didn’t think they’d lose to Washington and a Steelers team without Ben Roethlisberger, but when you beat the defending NFC champs and an unbeaten Cardinals squad, teams and I start noticing. They probably have the best combination of five defensive linemen, a steady leader in James Laurianaitis, a tackling machine named Alec Ogletree and a secondary that is coming together. On offense they seem to wake up and hit their stride. Nobody wants to have Tavon Austin with the football in his hands if he plays up to his potential, Nick Foles gets more and more used to the new offense and if Todd Gurley can do the things he’s shown us on Sunday this is a very scary team.
For Big Blue it seems like everything is starting to come together. Eli gets more confidence, OBJ is continuing his rise to stardom, they get other guys involved in the passing game and I really like the different styles of their running backs. Rashad Jennings hasn’t quite shown what he’s capable of, but Andre Williams consistently punishes would-be-tacklers and when Shane Vereen is on the field he instantly makes the offense more dynamic. But what has made the biggest difference has been the job Ereck Flowers has done as a left tackle and how much better the O-line was than what people thought. On defense Jon Beason is the key to keeping this defense together. The pass rush could still be upgraded (maybe JPP comes back any time soon?), but the secondary is a lot better than what their league-worst ranking indicates. To counter that, they are number one against the run.
Everybody thought the Jets would be better this year, but I don’t think many people thought they’d blow out the Colts 20-7 in week two. The defense is ranked first in points allowed and hasn’t shown any signs of getting away from that. Their front has gotten after it even without Sheldon Richardson, who will return for their next game, David Harris and Calvin Pryor control the middle on two levels and on the outside they have Revis and Cromartie shutting down opponents. Chris Ivory’s hard running is the key to the offense. Right now defenders are afraid of him coming at them and they need to play him first. This opens up one-on-ones for the beast of Brandon Marshall on the outside. Ryan Fitzpatrick hasn’t played very well, but he has done what it needs to win games, including getting Eric Decker involved as well.
This team is going as far as Matt Hasselbeck takes them. Wait … what?! Yeah, the 40 year-old has indeed played great, but this is still Andrew Luck’s team. Still, he can take some things Matt has done and put them in his game. By that I mean getting the ball out of his hands quickly when your offensive line struggles. Their veteran pickups Andre Johnson and Frank Gore finally got it going on Thursday and having Dwayne Allen back helps a lot. The defense is still a mess, but there are some bright spots – Vontae Davis is a true shutdown corner, Robert Mathis getting back to his usual disruptive form, the addition of Dwight Lowery paying off, the quick development of rookie defensive end Henry Anderson and the activeness of D’Qwell Jackson. After winning at Houston they control their own destiny in the AFC South.
If AP continues to dominate, it will open up everything else for this offense. They are loaded at the skill position and Teddy Bridgewater is beginning to find his groove. The defense is better than it’s been in years with Robison and Griffen creating havoc off the edge, rookie Eric Kendricks taking over the middle to complete an impressive linebacking corp, Harrison Smith playing as well as an safety right now and Xavier Rhodes building the confidence to line up on the opponent’s number one receiver on a weekly basis.
No doubt this has become an offensive-minded team. Le’Veon Bell to me still is the best running back in the league, Antonio Brown only ranks behind Julio, they have a solid offensive line even without Pouncey in the middle and they get deep threat Martavis Bryant back to open up the field a little more. Still, the loss of Big Ben really puts them in a tough spot. Now the defense has to step up and they have talent in the front seven to do so. The defensive line is coming together with Stephon Tuitt raising his game to another level in his sophomore year, Lawrence Timmons is still controlling the middle at a very high rate, Ryan Shazier next to him is a big play waiting to happen and their outside backers don’t play as well as they’re capable of yet. The backend is still a mess though.
The Bolts really have only won the two games they had to – the Lions (0-4) and Browns (1-3) and got beaten pretty good by the Vikings, but they came close against the undefeated Bengals. Philip Rivers is playing solid, but you can see he misses his favorite target Antonio Gates. Melvin Gordon isn’t used to running a mediocre offensive line, but he still is getting the job done and has the tools to go off at any point. The defense certainly has room for improvement, especially if Melvin Ingram takes another step and finally turns into the disruptive force I always envisioned him to be. This unit looks pretty good on paper.
No Dez, no Romo, no Murray, but everything else on this team has improved. Their offensive line probably is still the best overall unit in the NFL, Joseph Randle is beginning to look like a feature back and I really like what this defense has become. Getting Sean Lee back makes an enormous difference – he keeps everything together for them. Sure, the stats indicate this defense can’t stop the top offenses in the league, but their secondary looks the part and they get Rolando McClain and Greg Hardy back this Sunday. If rookie Randy Gregory can collapse the pocket on the other side of Hardy, opposing quarterbacks won’t want to face the Boys.
The Ravens had their worst start to the season in franchise history (0-3), but just won another try-hard battle against their division rivals in Pittsburgh. Hopefully this will get the team going, because they have all the pieces to beat anybody. Last Thursday they got their ground game going, which will be a huge factor for them going forward. With the status of their first-rounder Breshad Perriman still unclear they lack a true deep threat, but Steve Smith still having the energy of a 20-year-old certainly helps. The season-ending injury of Terrell Suggs hurts big-time, but they have dynamic linebackers, a D-line that has done a good job to replace Haloti Ngata and their secondary should be much better than what it’s looked like so far. Still, giving up 26 points per contest is unacceptable.
Close game against the Bengals. Much like when they faced the Broncos. As long as the offense goes through Jamaal Charles, they are fine. Escpecially if Alex Smith can get their improved passing corp involved and make it easier for their multi-purpose back. Justin Houston is still a terror off the edge and I love to see Eric Berry back on the field, but you don’t go to the playoffs when you give up the most points in the league.
The situation in Philly has explosion-potential if the Eagles don’t start to win games. The way they have used DeMarco Murray he has been a waste of money and the O-line has been a mess. Unfortunately you can’t build a good offensive line in the middle of the season. Sorry I have to tell you this, Chip! Their other big offseason addition cornerback Byron Maxwell also certainly hasn’t worked out the way the organization thought it would. This week’s matchup against the Saints will determine how their season develops from here on out.
Did anyone expect the Skins to be first in rushing yards per game without RG3 and fourth in rushing yards allowed? Me neither. I also didn’t think they’d beat the Rams or Eagles. But they did. The defense has taken a big step with the additions of Terrance Knighton in the middle, rookie Preston Smith, Chris Culliver on the outside and Dashon Goldson on the backend. With a wide-open NFC East the Redskins could easily be division champs, but being minus four in the turnover department won’t get it done.
It’s funny that the Raiders were a team everybody laughed about and the 49ers were thought of as a championship contender just a year ago, but that’s the way things have changed in the Bay Area. It all started when they drafted Khalil Mack before last season. He immediately became a big contributor and he’s already the best player on their team. In the second round of last year’s draft they got their franchise quarterback Derek Carr, who looks like a different guy this year, especially with help on the outside by guess who – their first-rounder this year Amari Cooper. The last two years of the draft have paid huge dividents for this franchise and they will continue to get better.
Marcus Mariota got off to a lightning-quick start by putting up a perfect passer rating and throwing for four TDs in just the first half on his first ever NFL game. After that the Titans kind of got back to earth that they are still not one of the most talented teams. They lost to the Browns and came up a two-point conversion short in their game against the Colts. If Mariota can continue to build on his Offensive Rookie of the Year season the Titans could make some noise though.
Losing second overall pick Dante Fowler for the year right away hurt badly. So did losing losing 51-17 to the Patriots. But this team is moving in the right direction. Blake Bortles has benefited from better protection and taken a step from last year. The combination of Allen Hurns and Allen Robinson might be the best WR-duo they’ve had since they had Keenan McCardell and Jimmy Smith. Defensively the secondary starts to look more like what Gus Bradley had in mind, but they need to score more than 15.5 yards a game.
After being by far the worst division in the NFL last year, the NFC South has two unbeaten teams and the Saints trail them by three wins – something they’re not used to. That Sunday night overtime win against the Cowboys was great – now you’ve got to build on the things you have – an aging but still very capable signal caller in Drew Brees, one of better running backs in Mark Ingram, a solid offensive line and some playmakers like rookie Stephone Anthony, Cam Jordan and Kenny Vaccaro on defense.
Everybody wrote the 49ers off after how many big names they lost in the preseason, but their big win in week one against the Vikings showed something different. From there on out their offense has looked dysfunctional with Kaepernick’s inaccuracy leading to a league-worst 12 points per game. Because of that, the defense has been put in a lot of difficult situations, but you got to give them credit after giving up just 17 points to the Packers.
I’m disappointed by this Texans team, especially the defense. But let’s start with the offensive side of the ball – you name Brian Hoyer your starter, but Ryan Mallett replaces him as soon as he gets injured. You say he’s your guy and then he needs a play off and you bench him again? What is going on? The defense is one of the most shakiest in the league. Opponents take J.J. Watt out of the game by double- and triple-teaming him on every single play and nobody else makes anything happen. If Arian Foster can be his former self, they stand behind one signal caller and some of the defensive players like Clowney, Cushing, Joseph and so on step up they still have a very slim chance in a division with only one team above .500.
I’m not old enough to have been part of the entire NFL history, but has there ever been a 0-4 team with this much talent? Yeah, they lost Ndamokung Suh in the offseason, but you’d think they would make something happen on offense with Stafford, Megatron, Tate and preseason hero Ameer Abdullah. Instead they rank dead-last in rushing yards while being outscored by an average of 7.5 points per contest. Still, I can’t rank them any lower based on their potential.
Let’s start by this – firing your head coach after just four weeks is never a good sign. The offense features Jarvis Landry, Lamar Miller and Ryan Tannehill and they score just over 16 points a game. This has a lot to do with bad offensive line play. On defense everybody expected them to be one of the top units in the league, but Ndamokung Suh hasn’t been able to make a big impact, everybody else seems to have lost a step and the way Brice McCain has been burned in recent weeks you wouldn’t think he’d make any steps at all.
Every year it’s the same – people say this is a different team and that they are on the way up, but then we all realise – those are still the Browns. They don’t have a consistent target in the passing game and they put up less than 90 yards rushing with three backs you could expect to go for a 1000 yards a season on different teams. On the other side they still struggle to stop the ground game even with the addition of big Danny Shelton. I’m just waiting for Johnny Football taking over at QB.
You only need one statistic to understand why I have the Bears ranked this low – on average they have given up 14.2 points more than they have scored. That’s crazy! Sure, they played three of my top ten teams before getting their first win of the season against the Raiders, but I don’t see them getting better from here on out as I think they are in a year of transition.
I was one of the few people to grade Mariota higher on my draft board than Famous Jameis and up to this point I feel pretty good about my prediction. Other than their win against the Brees-less Saints they weren’t really close in any game. They haven’t exactly been blown out in the other contests, but if this defense doesn’t step up and Winston doesn’t take more care of the football the Bucs are on their way to another number one pick in 2016.