I usually like to do my power rankings after the first four weeks, where I feel like I have a beat on who these teams are, and then with about four games left, because I can already look ahead to potential playoff implications and how I think these squads could perform down the stretch. At this point of the season the records of all these teams are pretty indicative of where they stack up against each other, but that makes it even more crucial to compare teams with the same records, because not all schedules are built the same and not all teams are as good or bad as they seem like on paper. For the purpose of this edition I wanted to focus on the teams in the actual playoff race, so the criteria for me to analyze them more exclusively was to have at least five wins on the record, because I think you have to be at least 9-7 in both conferences to earn a Wild Card spot. With that being said, here are my power rankings heading into a crucial week 14:
1. Los Angeles Rams (11-1)
The Rams are back at the one spot! When I did my power rankings after the first quarter of the season they were an easy choice as one of the only two 4-0 teams and now I have to put them at the top once again as the only one-loss team in the league. They are not blowing teams out the way they were earlier this year, but they have scored 29 or more in six straight games and they have won big matchup against the Seahawks and Chiefs before winning in Detroit last Sunday. Todd Gurley is heating back up after they underutilized him against New Orleans and Kansas City and they need to keep him as the focal point of that offense. However, I also think Jared Goff has really grown in his second season under Sean McVay, making big-time throws down the field and going tit-for-tat with guys like Patrick Mahomes and Russell Wilson. The loss of Cooper Kupp was huge for them, because he was the volume pass-catcher for them and a security blanket out of the slot, but they have made their 11 personnel work with Josh Reynolds in the lineup and they have gotten their tight-ends a little more involved in the passing attack. I have talked about it a lot, but McVay’s ability to give a defense one look and run so many different plays off it that all look similar is incredible. That’s why his offense is so hard to defend and doesn’t just die out like some of those gimmicky groups. To be honest, the defense has not nearly been as good as many expected them to be with all those additions in the offseason, but they clearly have the best defensive and probably overall player in football on that unit. Aaron Donald has been absolutely ridiculous after a rather slow start through the first three weeks. He has recorded at least two sacks in six different games and he comes up with them, plus often times strips the ball loose, in the biggest moments. The Rams also got Aquib Talib back, who could make them look more like they did at the start of the year, because he makes things easier for all the other cover-guys on that unit. I trust this offense, the defense should get better under Wade Phillips’ guidance and their special teams are among the best in the league. With that being said, I want them to get that number one seed, because otherwise they will probably have to travel to my number two team’s place, where they lost their only game.
2. New Orleans Saints (10-2)
This is a crucial point of the Saints season. They were riding high, winning their last ten following their season-opening loss to Tampa Bay, but they just got punched in the mouth by the Cowboys. You saw that you CAN guard Mike if you match him physically at the line of scrimmage instead of letting him operate in space. Byron Jones, who is having a phenomenal season, and to some degree Chidobe Awuzie got in his face from the get-go and New Orleans needed to look for a second and third option. All those touchdowns to undrafted free agents are cool, but the Saints’ only guy capable of being a serious number two is rookie Tre’Quan Smith and you’d like him to be a deep threat primarily. The thing that gets this New Orleans offense going is the physical O-line and that duo of Ingram and Kamara presenting inside and outside threats in the running game. When they don’t control the time of possession and opponents can play tight man-coverage on Thomas they are not nearly the same team. With that being said, I trust in Sean Payton’s play-calling to put the attack back on track, by putting Thomas in stacks, finding a way to put the ball in the hands of his running backs and creating easy completions for Drew Brees. After all, a lot of his stats are in large part due to the scheming Payton to during the week. That’s also why I don’t have him as my MVP, despite several tight-window completions with pin-point accuracy on him part. As far as the defense goes, they clearly have a major concern at the number two corner spot, looking at how Eli Apple got roasted on Thursday Night. Yet, their D-line with Cam Jordan, Sheldon Rankings, rookie Marcus Davenport and others is real, Demario Davis is having a career year and Marshon Lattimore is starting to look like the reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year again. With all that being said, this unit feeds off their offense controlling the clock and them being able to get after the passer, as they have the number one rushing defense and allow a league-low 3.5 yards a carry. The Saints are as complete a team as there is in the league not named the Rams, but they just took a big hit – how will they respond?
3. Kansas City Chiefs (10-2)
As efficient as Drew Brees has been through the first twelve weeks, I never thought he was the MVP of the league. To me that clearly is Patrick Mahomes. He already has 41(!) touchdowns through the air and I don’t believe there is any other guy in the NFL that scares defenses more of breaking their neck by going over the top on every single play than this guy. The connection of him and Tyreek Hill is something that keeps defensive coordinators up at night because nobody runs as fast as the Cheetah and Mahomes is maybe the only guy who can hit him in stride at that speed. I have said several times that I think Travis Kelce is the best tight-end in football and he had another monster game Sunday. Add a former top-five pick in Sammy Watkins, a combine star in Chris Conley and some other guys to the mix and you have the most prolific aerial attack in football. Obviously the loss of Kareem Hunt hurts them on the field, but Spencer Ware came off a season with almost 1300 scrimmage yards before he got hurt in last year’s preseason. Andy Reid has done a phenomenal job creating confusion with constant movement and setting up easy yardage based off Mahomes’ threat of going deep. So let’s get to the obvious part – the defense. When you allow 33 points to a 2-10 Raiders team and let them creep back into the game despite Mahomes just shredding their defense it’s bad. Other than Kendall Fuller and to some degree Steven Nelson, when he can line up in the slot, I don’t trust a single defensive back on this team. The Chiefs are dead-last in passing yards allowed and the only teams giving up more points than them are the Falcons missing three starters, the Bucs who have allowed a average QB rating of 139.3 to Trubisky, Dalton and Eli, two 2-10 teams in the Raiders and 49ers and the Bengals, who are on pace to breaking all kinds of records – the bad ones. I just don’t see a plan in their game-planning, but rather they just dial up different coverages on a play-by-play basis, and their run fits are off. With all that being sad, here are two reasons for hope – the trio of Dee Ford, Justin Houston and Chris Jones can get after the passer as well as any three-piece in the league when they get up early and their emotional leader Eric Berry practiced for the first time in over 100 days last week. If they hold on to that number one seed with Reid continuing to come up with new wrinkles and the defense stepping up a little with Berry in the line-up, it will be tough to keep up with the Chiefs at Arrowhead.
4. New England Patriots (9-3)
Same old, same old for these guys. With all that chatter about the decline of the Patriots, people have overlooked the fact that they are back to pace for a first-round bye in the playoffs and they are one slip-up by the Chiefs away from the AFC going through Gillette Stadium – and we now what that usually looks like. Bill Belichick’s defense still notoriously takes away the number one option of the opposition, displayed by Adam Thielen’s five catches for 28 yards on Sunday. As simple as it sounds, teams want to get the ball into the hands of their top playmaker and when opponents don’t allow them to, they simply struggle to find alternatives for the most part. Outside of stalwarts like Devin McCourty and Dont’a Hightower, the two players who have really stood out for the Pats have been Trey Flowers and Stephon Gillmore. Flowers has been by far their most productive pass rusher and while New England likes to roll coverage towards number one receivers a lot, Gillmore excels at shutting down twos, as he did with Stefon Diggs. When you look at this team, they will always be in the bottom third in terms of giveaways and penalties surrendered, but what’s interesting about them has been their offensive approach this season. While they still like to spread defenses out with empty sets, diagnose coverages and pick them apart with underneath throws to some degree still, they have truly gone back to being a power running team. At a time where scoring is at an all-time high and everybody wants to light up the skies, the Patriots use James Develin in an actual fullback role far more than any other team. Versus Minnesota they started off testing the Vikings’ edges with jet sweeps and once they got the attention they wanted, they started pounding it inside with rookie Sony Michel. You add to that one of the top three screen games in the league and you basically take the ball out of the hands of the winningest quarterback in NFL history and you still beat people up. When I watched that game on Sunday, I felt like you could put any back-up QB in that lineup and they still would have won. I don’t want to be disrespectful in any way here, because with the game on the line there might be nobody I’d want under center more than Brady, but it just shows you how well these guys function in that system.
5. Los Angeles Chargers (9-3)
What a huge win for the Chargers at Heinz Field! One of the craziest stats I have maybe ever seen was that the Steelers were 220-0-2 when leading by 14+ points at home before Sunday night. That is incredible, but what was even more stunning to me was the fact that it was a team, that had let us down several times in recent years in those big moments, that would end that streak. Keenan Allen is borderline uncoverable, because he is pretty much untouchable off the line with his unique releases and he made Joe Haden looked foolish time and time again. Philip Rivers is on the edge of the MVP conversation and I think we haven’t nearly talked about him enough. Even though Melvin Gordon is out right, him and Austin Ekeler form the best duo of running backs in the league to me and while Gordon is out, Justin Jackson will do an outstanding job filling in. And I’m not just saying this based on what I saw on Sunday, I had him as a top 100 draft prospect and I thought there was no more rock-solid back available. The offensive line has improved heavily this year and they are doing it without having to invest too much into it. That receiving crew is as complete as it gets and they are the only team not named the Rams that is top 10 in passing and rushing yards. Defensively, they worry me a little down the middle without Corey Liuget and Denzel Perryman. Those two were their top guys in terms of stopping the run, but the return of Joey Bosa to go along with Melvin Ingram is scar. Cornerback Trevor Williams has been dealing with an ankle injury all year long and not only has he lost his starting job, he has not seen the field in the last four weeks. That number two corner spot is their weakness with Casey Hayward on the opposite side and Desmond King in the slot. However, let me tell you one thing – rookie safety Derwin James is special. I had the Florida State product as a top five prospect, but he fell all the way to the Chargers at 17th overall. He can take on and shed blockers in the run game, cover bigger bodies one-on-one, blitz off the edge and the Chargers even ask him to cover deep because he is their best guy at it. This team is definitely pointing in the right direction and ironically enough, they just won a game with a late-second kick.
6. Houston Texans (9-3)
Nine straight? I’m not sure if anybody even dreamed of the Texans going on a run like this after their 0-3 start to the season, but these guys are as hot as any team in the league. However, I want to keep this in perspective a little. That streak includes one-score affairs against struggling teams and the only squad over .500 was the Redskins, who they beat by two despite losing Alex Smith for most of the second half. An argument can be made that their most impressive win came on Sunday versus the Browns. With all that being said, in no way do I want to take any credit away from Houston – they have it going right now. After a slow start to his second season, Deshaun Watson’s numbers might be even better than they were in that magical half of his rookie season. He has been outstanding for stretches, delivering absolute dimes down the field and picking up crucial first downs with his legs. But he is not the only one getting it done on the ground for the Texans. Lamar Miller has looked as good as he ever has in that blue jersey, displaying excellent vision and burst en route to averaging five yards a clip. DeAndre Hopkins seems to make one spectacular catch every single week and he has a strong argument for being the game’s best wideout at the moment. They are still working Demaryius Thomas into the mix, rookie Keke Coutee has had some strong appearances and they have three viable options to work in multiple tight-end sets, especially in the red-zone. What really has me excited however, is this Texans defense. J.J. Watt is as close as he has been to that three-time Defensive Player of the Year status, Jadeveon Clowney is the game’s premiere f-the-play-up defender, Whitney Mercilus is showing some flashes and they have big bodies on the interior. Zach Cunningham just had an incredible pick-six and Benardrick McKinney is one of the more underrated linebackers in the league. Jonathan Joseph and Kareem Jackson are the old dogs in this secondary to go with an amazing draft pick in Justin Reid and an even better free agent acquisition in Tyrann Mathieu, who both show up everywhere on the field. I have not seen this group perform together in the postseason and they have faced a rather easy schedule, but they have all the talent in the world to make some noise in the postseason.
7. Chicago Bears (8-4)
Let’s be very clear here – that team we just saw lose 30-27 in overtime to the Giants is not what the Bears really are. They had one slip-up without their starting quarterback and they faced two ridiculous athletes in Saquon Barkley and Odell Beckham Jr. making crazy plays. Chicago’s defense is still fourth in total yards and points allowed. We all see Khalil Mack running through the chests of offensive tackles and doing superhuman stuff, but it’s time to talk about Akiem Hicks as one of the most disruptive defensive linemen in football and their front-seven with those two dynamic linebackers running sideline-to-sideline. However the most important piece to this unit is free safety Eddie Jackson. His ability to control everything in-between the numbers on the deep level with his range is what allows that pass rush to get home and those corners to be as aggressive as they are. It is no mistake that Kyle Fuller, Prince Amukamara and Bryce Callahan are all having career years. They can be so aggressive at jumping routes and baiting quarterbacks, because they trust in Jackson to make up for when they do make mistakes. The perimeter corners like to shade to the outside, because they are not afraid of letting receivers release inside with the linebackers getting width in their drops and Jackson breaking on deeper routes over the middle. Offensively it might sound weird, but the Bears are now fifth in the league, scoring 28.7 points a game. Matty Nagy has transformed this attack, by using a variety of formations and motions to keep defenses off balance. They have a great receiving crew, with Allen Robinson bringing and a ton of speed around him, and maybe the most dangerous player in space, when you look at Tarik Cohen, who had a ridiculous 12 catches for 156 yards at the Meadowlands. Mitch Trubisky might not quite have a full grasp of this playbook yet, but his ability to make people miss and creating big plays with his feet when things break down is dangerous and what they have missed these last two weeks without him. I believe as we are entering December, Nagy will start getting Jordan Howard more involved as that big running back on inside zone plays, that will help them control the clock and keep the defense fresh. If they hold opponents to 20 points or under, the Bears have a very good chance of beating those elite teams in the league.
8. Pittsburgh Steelers (7-4-1)
Those were two bad losses for the Steelers these last two weeks. At Mile High they picked up eight more first downs outgained the Broncos by over 200 yards, but four inopportune turnovers, including two inside Denver’s two-yard line cost them that game. And now at home versus the Chargers, where I already mentioned that ridiculous record when leading by at 14+ points, they kind of imploded with bad penalties and other silly mistakes. I don’t feel that much worse about Pittsburgh than I did two weeks ago, especially since that loss to the Broncos was really fluky, but they can pretty much forget a first round bye now and when they have to travel to Kansas City or New England, I just don’t trust them. Antonio Brown finally exploded on Sunday, Juju Schmith-Schuster was over 1000 yards after last week already, James Conner ran strong again versus the Chargers before he was forced to exit the game and even though Vance McDonald’s numbers don’t jump off the screen, his ability to catch simple hook and out-routes and then drag defenders for a couple of yards to pick up first downs is a very valuable asset. I’m sick of Big Ben’s post-game comments and diva attitude, but he is still one of the best quarterbacks of that generation. The offensive line might be the best in the league and you saw that when the Chargers couldn’t even touch Ben in the first half. However, Roethlisberger already leads the league in pass attempts and they basically have a two-to-one ratio in terms of pass-to-run. That’s not a recipe to win in December and January. The Steelers defense has improved immensely from the start of the season, but their guys in the secondary still can’t match up with the better receiving groups in the league. I already mentioned how Keenan Allen ran circles around Joe Haden on Sunday and none of their cover-guys have really gotten the job done. I remember early on in the season how Patrick Mahomes shredded them for six touchdowns and even though their pass rush has really picked up since then, now leading the league with 41 sacks, I don’t think they could keep that KC offense under 30 points. They turn the ball over too much with Ben at the fore-front through his comments about “not caring about interceptions), they don’t take the ball away, giving them a minus eight in the turnover department, they commit unnecessary penalties and there is always drama in Pittsburgh. Their offense can go toe-to-toe with just about anybody and the defense is definitely not what they were at the beginning of the season, but there’s a chance the Steelers don’t even win the division with Baltimore just half a game behind them.
9. Dallas Cowboys (7-5)
This Cowboys defense is for real. They are deep on the defensive line with Demarcus Lawrence leading the charge, they have two incredible young linebackers, who have a lot of size and can flat out run and they have long, physical corners on the perimeter. Dallas doesn’t try to fool anybody with creative coverages or exotic blitz-packages. They come out in a single-high safety alignment for the majority of their snaps, rush their four guys up front and play cover-three or man behind it. They clearly were in the heads of those Saints offensive players last Thursday night. Chidobe Awuzie and Byron Jones basically took Michael Thomas out of the game, they pushed the interior of the offensive line backwards which is tough for Drew Brees to deal with at around six feet and their linebackers Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith made life hell for those Saints running backs inside as well as on the edges. That defense has been balling out for pretty much the entire season, surrendering more than 20 points just four times all season, but they need that offense to play complimentary football. The Cowboys are definitely limited offensively with Dak Prescott and the passing attack. Yet, Since they acquired Amari Cooper as that go-to guy, their number two and three receivers have had a much easier time creating separation from those lesser defensive backs. With that being said, this offense still runs through Zeke and the rushing attack. Dallas wants to control the clock by letting their workhorse touch the ball 25-30 times a game and rest their defense in the process. Having Cooper on the outside forces defenses to take a defender further away from the box and create equal numbers once again, plus when they run bootlegs off that inside zone action, he is an excellent target on those comeback routes to go with crossers on different levels, where you create easy high-to-low reads for Prescott. The third-year quarterback has also come through with huge third down runs in recent weeks to decide games, but his ball security inside the pocket with just one hand on it has been dreadful. Dallas clearly has to win a certain way – by controlling the flow of the game with their ground game and forcing you to defeat a lot of tight man-to-man coverage It’s obvious that they are playing with a completely different energy than they did at the start of the season and they have now won three straight, giving a full game advantage in the NFC East, as they are waiting for the Eagles to come to town, who have a way more difficult road ahead.
10. Seattle Seahawks (7-5)
If there is one team I was completely wrong about heading into this season, it would be the Seahawks. I thought they would be in a rebuilding or retooling year and I saw some serious weaknesses on their team. Most importantly, I didn’t believe in their offensive line and at the start of the season they looked the way I expected them to. People got beat one-on-one constantly, they failed to communicate and pass on assignments against different stunts and even Russell Wilson was to blame for some of the sacks he took by not getting the ball out on time. The biggest reason for their improvement has been the re-emergence of a punishing rushing attack, Since their 0-2 start against the Broncos and Bears, the Seahawks are averaging 166.7 rushing yards per game and even with that start, they are clearly the number one team in terms of yardage on the ground. Chris Carson runs as hard as anybody else in the league, rookie Rashaad Penny threatens defenses to take it to the edge more and Mike Davis is another tough runner, who has been productive in all different spots. Russell Wilson coming off play-action and having time to set his feet before letting it fly is a very dangerous sighting. Establishing the ru has taken pressure off those offensive linemen, because it slows down the opposing pass rushers and they are just not in that many true dropback situations. Plus when those safeties start sucking up against the run, it creates downfield opportunities for guys like Tyler Lockett, leading to twelve plays of 40+ yards through the air already. Defensively they are a completely different team compared to those Legion of Boom days. Their entire secondary is gone (with Earl Thomas on IR) and they don’t have Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril rushing the passer. However, they kept that defensive scheme and found new guys to plug into it, while Bobby Wagner has become the key piece to that unit. Over the last three years combined I think it has been a two-man race for the title of best middle linebacker in the game between Wagner and Carolina’s Luke Kuechly – and I would give the Seahawks LB the nod. Shaquill Griffin fits in perfectly as that long corner to play press-bail, their young safety tandem has been a very pleasant surprise, Jarran Reed is proving people wrong that thought he was a pure run stuffer coming out of Alabama and whenever you look at who gets to the quarterback in those big moments, Frank Clark shows up. Plus I think they have the most versatile punter in the league already.
11. Baltimore Ravens (7-5)
When you put on the tape and watch Baltimore play, the first thing that jumps off the screen is just how big they are. It was particularly noticeable when you compared them to a Falcons team that is primarily built on speed and lacks some size as it is. It might have only been a ten-point game when you look at the box score, but I felt like the Ravens pushed around a much smaller Atlanta squad all afternoon. They ran the ball a grand total of 49 times and picked up 25 first downs on offense, while holding Matt Ryan and company to 56 yards on offense prior to that one offensive touchdown they had late. The only other score came off a Vic Beasley fumble recovery to the house when Lamar Jackson didn’t protect the ball well enough. These guys just aren’t afraid to line up 11 versus 11 and try to beat you down. Let’s get to the rookie – I know Lamar is definitely not perfect. There are some exchange problems on those zone read plays, his feet get to narrow at times and he would rather move around to create clear openings instead of anticipating throws from the pocket, but boy is that dude exciting. The Ravens offense with Joe Flacco under center had its moments and he definitely gives you more of a downfield passing threat, but the offense and the entire team seems to have so much more juice when Jackson is out there making plays. Obviously there is a lot to learn still, but Lamar’s ability to extend plays, move linebackers out of the way by shifting to one side before coming back behind them and the way he can create first downs with his legs time and time again is what this team need. They are built on pushing people around in the run game and now extending drives with Jackson’s ability to create on third downs. That’s what works best to complement their defense. Baltimore’s D is now first in total yards and points allowed. They might not have one elite defensive linemen, but they are all big to control the point of attack and they can shrink the pocket from all sides. C.J. Mosley is what keeps this unit together, as we have seen in his absence in the past, and Eric Weddle controls the back-end for them. However what I think sets them apart is the fact that they trust four of their cornerbacks to match up against opposing receivers one-on-one and say “beat us”.
12. Minnesota Vikings (6-5-1)
So the Vikings schedule looks like this – win, tie, loss, loss, win, win, win, loss, win, loss, win, loss. They once had three consecutive wins over the Eagles, Cardinals and Jets (who are a combined 12-24 right now), but other than that they have been really up and down. While I think Kirk Cousins has received some unfair criticism, I can’t deny that he has struggled in some of their biggest games. Yet, what I’m really getting sick of is Mike Zimmer telling me every week how they need to establish the run more. Well, why don’t you just run it more often? Over the last three weeks, Minnesota has run the ball just 46 times – three less carries than the aforementioned Ravens had last Sunday alone. The worst part is that they were averaging 7.3 yards a carry in their most recent loss to the Patriots. I understand that some situations don’t allow you to hand the ball off and you need to put it in the air, but you have a special talent in Dalvin Cook at the running back position and an offensive line that has struggled mightily in pass protection for large stretches. I know that you can’t simply say that the play-calling needs to revolve more around the ground game, but it’s almost like the Vikings feel forced to make Kirk Cousins the focal point of their offense because of all the money they gave him in the offseason, even though their backs were averaging just under 150 yards from scrimmage last season, despite having Cook for just four games. They need to commit more to sticking with the run game and find creative ways to put the ball in the hands of their most dynamic weapon, especially if those two fantastic receivers can’t get it going. Cousins should not throw the ball 41 times a game. Defensively, they have gotten back on track a little after early struggles. They are first in third down percentage allowed, they are second in the red-zone, eight in sacks and the only teams they have allowed 30 points to were the Rams and Saints. I think Mike Zimmer’s scheme has shown some flaws due to simplicity, but even though the Pats took it to them, they without a doubt have the NFL’s best front-four, a physical group of cover-guys, the most complete safety in football and they are the most effective blitzing team in the league with how they don’t give anything away. The division is still in reach for them, as the Bears face the Rams this weekend and they host Chicago in the season finale.
13. Indianapolis Colts (6-6)
I love how aggressive Frank Reich has been on fourth downs, but the Colts didn’t understand the situation quite well enough on Sunday. They were facing an offense that had just fired their coordinator and benched their quarterback for Cody Kessler. When you can get points you take them, because they won’t put up that many themselves. Indianapolis was stopped once inside the one when both teams were scoreless early in the second quarter and then they went for it with about three minutes left in the game despite being well into field goal range. Had they made those two field goals, the game would have been tied at six and they would have put their fortunes in the hands of a backup QB. With all that being said, I look at this game more like a pride win for Jacksonville than a really bad loss by the Colts. Of course getting shut out sucks, especially after I was praising the offense with that retooled O-line and Andrew Luck a week ago, but this is still a dangerous group. You can find more about that in my article from a week ago (LINK!!), but basically the Colts now have a generational signal-caller back, who know finally benefits from pocket integrity and a creative play-caller. They are a few weapons away from being really explosive. Defensively, they have also taken a big step already, now ranking middle of the pack in Matt Eberflus’ first year as defensive coordinator. They have a multitude of bodies on the defensive line, I love their young linebackers – which at this point I should mention once again, include my Defensive Rookie of the Year in Darius Leonard – and a prototype free safety to run that single-high scheme in Malik Hooker. So while this team is pretty young and unexperienced, they have guys at the most crucial spots and excellent coaching. Baltimore seems to be locked into that number six seed and Denver has been putting together a bit of a run here, but I’m not writing off the Colts quite yet. They will have to prevail in two divisional road games, with the Texans being on the schedule for this week, and beat two NFC East teams at their place, but I wouldn’t say that they don’t have a chance in any of those matchups.
14. Denver Broncos (6-6)
I said before the season started that people should look out for this Broncos squad because of how much they reminded me of that Super Bowl team back in 2015/16 and I had them a game outside a Wild Card spot. They looked dead for a while after three straight losses to the Ravens, Chiefs and Jets, but they have now won three straight, including the Chargers and Broncos. Denver is dangerous because they have the personnel to match up against just about any group of receivers and they have a ferocious pass rush. Bradley Chubb has been brought into the team’s circle of tradition for edge rushers, with Von Miller taking him under his wing the way DeMarcus Ware did with a young Von. Chubb is already technically refined beyond his years and how he converts speed to power, to along with Miller coming off the opposing end as that fastball. The Broncos rush defense totals aren’t very good because of how badly they started the year, but over their last six games they have allowed just 83 a game, which would rank second only behind the Saints over the course of the season. Like a couple of other teams I already mentioned – Denver is limited offensively. Philip Lindsay has been one of the best backs in the entire league and in terms of pure top-end speed maybe the fastest overall. I loved him at Colorado and he headlined my impact performers among undrafted free agents, but not even I could have seen him be fourth in the NFL in terms of rushing yards at this point of the season, especially considering the Broncos invested a third-round pick in Royce Freeman already. I liked Denver’s decision to trade Demaryius Thomas because he looked slow and to be frank, uninterested. I was really high on Courtland Sutton coming into the draft to be that big-bodied receiver and is he is perfect complement to a still super-dynamic Emmanuel Sanders. Losing their top two tight-ends really hurts, but this offense goes through the rushing attack and big third down conversions. That’s how you can win with Case Keenum under center, because I think it is clear now that he is not the type of guy who will just toss it all over the field. He can be really clutch on third downs and when he needs to lead his troops down the field, but you want to limit opportunities for mistakes.
(Update: Emmanuel Sanders is headed to IR with a torn achilles tendon)
15. Carolina Panthers (6-6)
Wow. How can you go 6-2 and look like a real contender, but then you lose four in a row? Getting blown out by the Steelers on the road happens, but they should have absolutely won at least two of their last three. Riverboat Ron decided to go for two to win the game versus Detroit with about a minute left and the play was there, but Cam simply missed his receiver. They held the league’s number one rushing attack of the Seahawks to 75 yards on 28 carries, while gashing those guys for 220 with one less attempt themselves. They dominated the game for large stretches, but let Seattle hang around and in the end it came down to them making plays when they really needed them while the Panthers didn’t. And then there was this huge letdown game versus the Buccaneers, who they once were up 35-7 against in their first matchup, but then had Cam throw this one away with four picks and they handed them over 100 yards in penalties. Newton is still on pace for his best season in terms of quarterback rating and completion percentage by an enormous margin, sitting at 69.5 percent. He has looked very comfortable in all but two games, especially with D.J. Moore and Curtis Samuel emerging as dynamic weapons. Yet, what really gets this offense going is Christian McCaffrey. That dude does it all for Carolina. CMac is averaging 5.3 yards a carry and he is on pace for over 100 catches. That’s almost as insane as those people who thought he wouldn’t be able to run in-between the tackles. With Greg Olsen back on IR once again Cam loses his favorite target. Defensively that 50-burger the Steelers put up against them definitely influences their point average, but they have not been a shutdown defense at any point of the season since their season-opener. Outside of that week win one over the Cowboys, the Panthers have only held one team under 20 points all season. Their pass rush hasn’t gotten home lately until Sunday, their takeaway numbers have stalled recently and their corners have gotten exposed a couple of times in man-coverage. At 6-6 the Panthers are definitely still alive in the Wildcard hunt, but they have already lost the tiebreaker to Seattle and they just need to wake back up after that slump.
16. Philadelphia Eagles (6-6)
The Super Bowl champs have themselves in deep trouble. There is so much going wrong for the Eagles this season – the run game took a huge dip compared to last season, the pass protection has been mediocre and their secondary is decimated right now. On Monday night they were without three of their top four cornerbacks. Their offense has lacked creativity for large stretches, which was a big concern for me and why I had them finishing this season with a 9-7 record. I think the loss of Frank Reich has really hurt them in the running game, not having him draw up schemes and without that rushing threat, their play-action game is not as big a factor as it was a year ago. They don’t have these deep shots to receivers running open and overall they lack a speed element without Torrey Smith and Mike Wallace still working on coming back. Defensively their numbers are at least average, but they don’t have the speed on the perimeter to play as much man-coverage as Jim Schwartz wants them to and they don’t get to the passer late in games. What they still do pretty well is clogging up lanes in the running game, but with that lack of speed in the secondary you get those 90-yard runs by a 33-year old Adrian Peterson once a running back finds some room. Philadelphia is a team that is built to play with the lead, where they can eat up clock and pin their ears back as pass rushers, and they just haven’t been ahead too much all year long. With all that being said, the Eagles have a chance to take first place with a big win on the road versus the Cowboys this Sunday. With trips to the L.A. Coliseum, hosting a red-hot Texans squad and to a lesser degree a meeting at Washington ahead on the schedule, this is a must-win for Philly and they can probably only gave away one of those other games. My logic says they are done, but they are now back in that underdog mentality and as long as they have Carson Wentz at the helm, I can’t quite count them out. After all I had him as my league MVP before he went down last year and now with Golden Tate starting to show signs the Eagles’ third-down conversion percentage will rise again, Wentz will keep drives alive, they are starting to run the ball downhill more and we have all seen them overcome major injuries a year ago.
17. Tennessee Titans (6-6)
What do I make of this Titans squad? They win against the Texans without their starting quarterback and make a heroic comeback versus the Eagles, but then lose to the Bills and then get shut out 21-0 by the Ravens. They win a huge Monday Night game in Dallas and dominate the Patriots at home, but then follow that up with consecutive losses by at least three scores in divisional road games. They just had another crazy comeback win versus the Jets, but should Gang Green have even been in that game? I expected this Titans offense to really step up this year with Matt LaFleur’s play-calling. I thought they had the perfect personnel for that zone rushing attack with a strong O-line, a one-cut specialist in Derrick Henry who can keep defenders away from him on the edge with those long arms and a quarterback who is a true threat on bootlegs away from it to keep edge defenders home. However, Henry is averaging just 3.7 yards per carry and Dion Lewis actually has been on the field for 30 percent more of the offensive snaps. Marcus Mariota dealt with a hand injury early on and he has struggled with pocket presence in some games, but he has also looked very dynamic in others. It’s just the inconsistency and inability to stand in the pocket while going through progressions that have held him back from taking the next step this season. The bright side for this offense has been the development of Corey Davis. I know he has disappeared in a couple games, but I looked at him as a number one receiver coming into last year’s draft and he looks like one now. Defensively, I think they have a really bright future. Jurrell Casey has been a perennially underrated force on the interior, Harold Landry was the most natural edge-bender in the draft for me, Jayon Brown has been tremendous in his second year as that fast-flowing linebacker and Kevin Byard brings them that attitude and ball-hawking on the back-end. I’m a big fan of Dean Pees’ school of defensive scheming, which uses multiple fronts, pressure looks and coverage disguises, while really game-planning specifically for the offenses they are facing. What is holding them back are their corners, as Malcolm Butler has been one of the truly disappointing offseason acquisitions and Adoree Jackson just can’t seem to trust technique over his athleticism. However, Tennessee’s special teams have been excellent this season, highlighted by a bonkers 38.4 yards per kick return, and they just find a way to win games.
18. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-7)
I kind of already wrote the Bucs off completely in my head and I still think some crazy stuff would have to happen, including them winning over the Saints this weekend, for them to go anywhere, but they still have a chance to make it as a Cinderella wildcard. The Bucs’ back and forth with their quarterbacks has been a story all season long. Ryan Fitzpatrick started the season off smoking hot, but got benched after one bad half. Jameis Winston then repaid them with a couple of picks in that second half and was immediately named the starter again. While they won one game versus the Browns, who hurt themselves several times, Jameis turned the ball over eight times through their next three games and Tampa Bay made a switch under center once again, as Fitzy almost brought them back against Cincinnati. Of course once he got the starting gig back, he was too careless with the ball and was benched again mid-game two weeks later. Since then Jameis has held the job and after almost pulling off a comeback over the Giants, he has won them their last two games. After all that quarterback controversy, you would think that the Bucs are a two- or three-win team at this point, but they still have hope at 5-7. What’s even crazier is the fact that they have the league’s number one passing and total offense. DeSean Jackson has re-stablished himself as one of the premiere deep threats in the league, Mike Evans is already well over 1000 yards with 17 per catch on the season, O.J. Howard looked like a special talent before he got hurt but Cameron Brate was always one of Jameis’ favorite targets, plus Adam Humphries and Chris Godwin already have over 600 yards respectively. While they are eight in the NFL with about 63 percent pass play share and none of their backs have really emerged, I would still call this a somewhat balanced offense with how they spread the ball around through the air and they are number one overall in third down conversion percentage. So why are they only tenth in points per game? Well, they have turned the ball over a total of 30(!) times – the highest mark in the league by five – and most of that yardage has been picked up in garbage time or when they ultimately came up short in comeback attempts. It doesn’t help that their defense had just eight takeaways all season before last Sunday. Outside of a few standouts like Jason Pierre-Paul and Lavonte David this defense has been atrocious. They are allowing just under 30 points a contest and they are second only to the Raiders in terms of yards and points allowed per play. But hey, if they win out they still have sshot.
19. Miami Dolphins (6-6)
Talk about having teams written off. After blowout losses to the Patriots, Texans and Packers this team never felt like a serious contender and that’s also why I have them at the bottom of teams in the playoff hunt. However, they have been right there in the hunt for pretty much all season. Last week was the first time they were below .500 and after that divisional win over the Bills they are right back at neutral status. I like the Dolphins defense better than what the rankings indicate and how they are perceived by the general public. I know their tun defense has been atrocious lately, but they are third in the league in total takeaways and they are also third in first half points allowed. That’s in large part due to some poor quarterback play on their part and the resulting time that this unit has to stay on the field, as Miami is also third-last behind the Bengals and Cardinals in time of possession. I think back to the Phins holding their first three opponents to 20 points or under before getting blown out in New England. But when I recall that game, that was far more on the part of their own offense. That unit picked up two first down until that final touchdown drive and turned the ball over a couple of times. The defense actually held the Pats to a field goal, intercepted a pass from Brady and forced a punt to start that game, but then a fumble around their own 20 set up New England for a touchdown and that’s when that defense started to get tired defending long drives. Once Brock Osweiler took over for the injured Ryan Tannehill the team was kind of up and down, but also pulled off a crazy overtime comeback against the Bears and won a 13-6 slugfest against the Jets, where they intercepted rookie Sam Darnold four times. Tannehill has been back in the starting lineup these last two weeks and he has looked as good he ever has. Still, their offense is a little weird. A 35-year old Frank Gore leads them in rushing even though they have a special talent in Kenyan Drake at the position, no receiver has cracked 50 catches and a guy who has touched the ball just 24 times leads the team in touchdowns (Kenny Stills with five). I love some of their defensive personnel when you look at those edge rushers and two excellent young DBs in Xavien Howard and rookie Minkah Fitzpatrick, but I want to see them win a big time. A rematch with their arch-nemesis Patriots, who they have given trouble at home several times, seems like the perfect opportunity.
20. Green Bay Packers (4-7-1)
When I first started this list, the Packers being at this spot was a big reason I wanted to stop my broader analyses here, because this team doesn’t deserve to be discussed that much after losing to an Arizona team from the desert travelling to freezing Lambeau Field. It was time for a change at head coach, no matter how successful Mike McCarthy has been for them in the past, because to be frank, I’m sick of his uncreative Westcoast offense and disinterest to run the ball more. I hope they keep Mike Pettine as their DC and take pressure of number 12 with easier completions thanks to scheme.
21. Cleveland Browns (4-7-1)
Man, would those Browns fans have gone crazy if the team ended the Texans’ eight-game winning streak and made it three straight for themselves. They would have also been just half a game below .500 and I would have talked more about how they are freakishly talented. Unfortunately it never really was a game and they are out of the playoff race now. Still, there is so much stuff to be excited about. Baker Mayfield is the real deal and he just had one bad game, the interior O-line is special, so is Nick Chubb and the defense has studs at every level. They’ll be in the hunt these next few years.
22. New York Giants (4-8)
I’m starting to have a really bad feeling about this. If the Giants really stick with Eli Manning for next season, they have learned nothing. He is not the solution now, much less in the future. You have two extremely special skill players in Odell and Saquon, an excellent slot receiver in Sterling Shephard and a really athletic tight-end in Even Engram. Plus even though the O-line struggled mightily to start the year, they have really picked it up and every quarterback should be successful with those pieces around him. The defense is what I’m more concerned about, but they have a couple key pieces like Olivier Vernon and Landon Collins, if they allowed him to play like he did two years ago for god’s sake.
23. Detroit Lions (4-8)
This has been a weird season for the Lions. They started with an embarrassing loss to the Jets, then they get that huge win over the Patriots where their head coach just came from, they beat the Packers at home, but after a win at Miami they lose three straight by multiple scores and now they sit at 4-8. You can tell that Stafford hasn’t felt comfortable in this more compact offense that plays more situational football instead of spreading things out and putting the ball in the quarterback’s hands. It was ridiculous how long it took them to figure out that Kerryon Johnson is so much better than anybody else they have out of the backfield and the defense has starting playing only recently.
24. Washington Redskins (6-6)
What a let-down season it has been for Washington. First they lose their phenomenal rookie running back in Derrius Guice in preseason, then they get Adrian Peterson and he is running through defenses, then their two starting guards and their top deep threat go on IR, Alex Smith has that horrific knee injury and now Colt McCoy is out as well. I love the defensive personnel and Greg Manusky’s philosophy, but when Mark Sanchez starts at quarterback for you, your season is over. They are mathematically still well alive and I should talk more about them here, but it’s too rough because I had high hopes for the ‘Skins this season.
25. Buffalo Bills (4-8)
The Bills on the other hand have been somewhat of a pleasant surprise. You might wonder why I would say that after a playoff appearance last season, but I really thought they wouldn’t win more than four games and they still have another four to improve on that mark. Offensively they have been dreadful without Josh Allen in the line-up, but at least they finally gave up on the Nathan Peterman experiment. All but one of their wins have come with the rookie starting games and he has looked like Cam Newton running around at times. More importantly however, would the offense be at least average, Buffalo’s defense would absolutely be one of the top units in the league.
26. Atlanta Falcons (4-8)
The Falcons are another team that has just been raddled by injuries. They lost running back Devonta Freeman and their two starting safeties for the year, plus their dynamic middle linebacker Deion Jones only just returned on Sunday, where he was mismatch anyway against that big Ravens front. Offensively they were putting up huge numbers early on and Matt Ryan balled out, but the defense just couldn’t stop anybody. They showed perseverance, winning three in a row after a 1-5 start, but that loss to the Browns, when one of their players even said they overlooked them, kind of sealed it, as they haven’t won since.
27. Jacksonville Jaguars (4-8)
I don’t think there is a more disappointing team in the 2018 NFL season than these Jaguars. They were so dominant on defense and punished people with Leonard Fournette as their human sledgehammer last season on their way to the AFC Championship game. That’s why that performance of the defense in a 6-0 victory over the Colts felt so good to see, even though I had just talked about how bright Indy’s future was a couple of days prior. The Jags have finally seen that they need a change under center, but that contract with Bortles will hurt them. If they can get a top-half guy at quarterback, I think they still have the championship-calibre defense to support him
28. Arizona Cardinals (3-9)
When the Cardinals look back at their season this win over the Packers is what will get them excited for the future. Josh Rosen is definitely not perfect, but he has shown traits to be a franchise quarterback as he is learning. Christian Kirk has looked like an electric deep threat and return specialist before he went on IR this week. David Johnson might have been running against a brick wall at times, but he is under contract until 2022. The defense is much better than the numbers would bear out. Steve Wilks is excellent at dropping defenders into spots that take away the staples of opposing passing attacks and they have some ballers in Chandler Jones, Robert Nkemdiche, Budda Baker and of course Patrick Peterson.
29. Cincinnati Bengals (5-7)
It is kind of painful to watch the Bengals play. Can you remember that they once were 4-1? It seems like an eternity since they played a really good game. Their defense has already set records for four- and five-game stretches in terms of yards allowed and they are now dead-last in almost every single category. Offensively, they are now without their starting quarterback and star receiver in A.J. Green. Joe Mixon has been a bright spot, because he looks like a true dual-threat at the RB position, but the O-line couldn’t sustain that improvement that they showed early on. At least you should finally get rid of Marvin Lewis Cincinnati! Oh wait, don’t tell me they are seriously considering Hue Jackson?
30. New York Jets (3-9)
How can your team be 3-9, but your wins came by 31 at Detroit, 18 over Denver and eight versus the Colts? Sam Darnold looked like the real deal early on and I still believe in the kid, because I know he is made of the right stuff and he won’t let this experience bring him down. He has had some very bright moments, but of course he has been way too careless with the ball at times as well. What is obvious is how poor this roster truly still. They got some receivers, but nobody really jumps out to you. The O-line hasn’t given their quarterbacks a lot of time. The defense has some pieces in Leonard Williams, Darron Lee and Jamal Adams, who is already one of the elite safeties in the game, but they have gone through injuries and just haven’t brought it on a weekly basis.
31. San Francisco 49ers (2-10)
The 49ers’ season basically ended in week three, when Jimmy Garoppolo went down with a torn ACL. I never thought they would be able to challenge the Rams for the NFC West, but Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch are putting together a crew in the Bay Area. They definitely still need some pieces on both sides of the ball, but here are the two bright spots from either one – George Kittle has been the most productive tight-end outside the Travis Kelce/Zach Ertz stratosphere, Matt Breida is averaging 5.6 yards a carry in Shanahan’s zone run game, DeForest Buckner has become one of the game’s most disruptive 3-techniques in the league and Fred Warner’s play has softened the blow of having to give up another gifted young linebacker.
32. Oakland Raiders (2-10)
Boy, Raiders fans better hope that Jon Gruden and the front office get three amazing players in the first round of April’s draft. Khalil Mack has pretty much been Aaron Donald’s only competition in the race for Defensive Player of the Year and Amari Cooper has completely turned the Cowboys around as a true number one receiver. Early on quarterback Derek Carr looked like another guy, who might be shipped off, but he has not thrown an interception in seven weeks now and he just shredded the Chiefs defense. I don’t nearly see him in the same light I did when he was an MVP candidate two years ago, but Gruden wants to build his offense around a physical rushing attack anyway. Defensively they allow over 30 points a game and with just ten sacks they only have about half of what the next-closest team has. I know it’s hard to find good pass rushers, Jon.