Sports

NFL Power Rankings: Kyler Murray Is Back

The Week 13 NFL slate was relatively tame compared to some of the wacky results we’ve seen in the past month or two, and for the first time in what feels like forever, the top of this week’s rankings stayed mostly unchanged. Resting up on their bye, the Packers hold on to their top spot for at least one more week while the Cardinals and Buccaneers stick at no. 2 and 3, respectively, with both getting easy wins. The Patriots won a wild, windy matchup with the Bills on Monday Night Football to move into the no. 1 seed position in the AFC, while the Chiefs and Cowboys both took care of business to round out the top six of my elite-tier group. With 13 weeks in the books, here are my updated Power Rankings.

The Top Shelf

1. Green Bay Packers (9-3)
2. Arizona Cardinals (10-2)
3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-3)
4. New England Patriots (9-4)
5. Kansas City Chiefs (8-4)
6. Dallas Cowboys (8-4)

Kyler Murray is officially back.

Hype for the Cardinals has cooled some in the past month as superstar quarterback Kyler Murray and top-shelf receiver DeAndre Hopkins both convalesced from injuries. With backup Colt McCoy under center for the team’s past three games, Arizona’s quietly dominant defense (which came into Week 13 ranked no. 3 in Football Outsiders’ DVOA and is led by perpetually underrated pass rusher Chandler Jones) stepped up to shoulder more than its share of the burden, helping push Arizona to a 2-1 record in that stretch. Arizona not only survived the absence of its two best offensive players, it mostly thrived, notching a pair of wins over division rivals in the Seahawks and 49ers to strengthen its grip on the NFC West. Now both Murray and Hopkins are back―and that looks like bad news for the team’s conference challengers.

That was certainly the case in the Cardinals’ 33-22 win against the Bears on Sunday. The Arizona defense kept on keeping on, picking off Andy Dalton four times while creating unrelenting pressure up front. But critically, the offense picked up precisely where it’d left off before losing its two most important pieces, too, with Murray finding Hopkins on the team’s first possession for a 20-yard touchdown. The third-year quarterback showed few signs of rust in the easy win, completing 11 of 15 pass attempts for 123 yards and two touchdowns, and he chipped in with a few of his signature defense-demoralizing runs, scrambling for a touchdown late in the first quarter before finding pay dirt again in the fourth on a read-option keeper. He finished the game with 59 yards and those two scores on 10 carries. Things weren’t always pretty for Murray and the Arizona offense at a windy, rain-drenched Soldier Field, but there was no doubt that the dual-threat QB’s return injected some much-needed vitality to the team’s offense.

McCoy played his role well through the past three weeks, but Arizona’s offense becomes far more complicated to defend when Murray’s radio-controlled car–like speed is a factor. He boasts a rare skill at creating explosive plays with both his arm and his legs, and as we were reminded on Sunday, is one of the most dangerous red zone players in the league. Murray’s ability to change the math as a read-option runner and to extend plays as a scrambler when opponents bottle up the designed play―that’s what makes him irreplaceable in Kliff Kingsbury’s offense.

With the defense balling out and the offense returning to full strength, Arizona heads into the homestretch of the season looking like one of the most balanced and well-rounded teams in the NFL. They’ve been through injury-related adversity this year and have put together an impressive stretch of performances on the road, winning all seven of their away games this year by 10-plus points. There’s no real ceiling for what this group can do when all cylinders are firing.

The Contenders

7. Los Angeles Rams (8-4)
8. Buffalo Bills (7-5)
9. Indianapolis Colts (7-6)
10. Baltimore Ravens (8-4)
11. Los Angeles Chargers (7-5)
12. San Francisco 49ers (6-6)
13. Tennessee Titans (8-4)
14. Miami Dolphins (6-7)
15. Cincinnati Bengals (7-5)
16. Cleveland Browns (6-6)
17. Philadelphia Eagles (6-7)
18. Washington Football Team (6-6)
19. Pittsburgh Steelers (6-5-1)

Jonathan Taylor is playing on God Mode.

The Colts’ dominant 31-0 win over the Texans on Sunday was the product of a comprehensive team performance, a shutout victory in which the team executed to near perfection in all three phases. Now that I’ve got that obligatory disclaimer out of the way, holy shit, Jonathan Taylor is fucking awesome.

Look, I know I should probably be spending time talking about how the Indy defense held Houston to a measly nine first downs in the win. Or how the Colts limited the Texans to an atrocious 2.8 yards per play. I should probably note that Carson Wentz has continued to play mostly clean, mistake-free football and looks on track to actually resurrect what had looked to be a career in tatters. I should note that Michael Pittman Jr. is developing as one of the most exciting young no. 1 receivers in the NFL right now. But I mostly just want to talk about Taylor, who’s doing his best Derrick Henry impression this year (in his own style) en route to what could end up being a top-25 season for rushing yards, ever. In this version of the pass-happy NFL, that’s saying a lot.

Taylor racked up another 32 rushes for 143 yards and two touchdowns in the game, putting the second-year pro on track for 1,763 rushing yards and 21 rushing touchdowns on the year. With another 336 receiving yards under his belt and four more games to go, he could eclipse 2,000 yards from scrimmage before the season’s end. But it’s not just Taylor’s volume stats that stand out (and believe me, they do: Through 13 weeks, he’s posted an NFL-best 1,348 rushing yards, an NFL-best 16 rushing scores, an NFL-best 52 missed tackles forced, an NFL-best 885 yards after contact, and an NFL-best 39 rushes of 10-plus yards). What’s more impressive is that he’s clearly more than just a function of volume. Most of Taylor’s efficiency metrics are top notch, too: He ranks fourth in the NFL in yards after contact per attempt, per PFF (3.67), second in the NFL in breakaway run rate (37.6 percent), and first in rushing yards over expected per carry (1.53), per NFL Next Gen Stats. This dude is special.

Taylor mixes pure pile-pushing power with top-end sprinter speed and the graceful ability to slalom around defenders en route to the end zone. And while he’s certainly not the only reason the Colts look capable of punching above their weight in the fast-approaching playoffs, he does serve as one hell of a haymaker for that offense.

Washington is making things interesting in the NFC.

It looks like we can officially add the Washington Football Team to the pile of teams that looked all but dead at one point this season only to magically figure things out and work themselves into playoff contention (they join the 49ers, Dolphins, Colts, and Eagles, among a few others). Thanks to a gutsy 17-15 win over the Raiders on Sunday, Washington now owns a four-game win streak and is the current placeholder for the no. 6 seed in the NFC.

Washington’s big turnaround followed its Week 9 bye, and it’s somehow been both unsurprising and befuddling. On one hand, I came into the season thinking this team was going to be a whole lot better than the product it put out early on, particularly on defense, so the fact that it has started to hit its stride now at least somewhat confirms my priors. But I’d be lying if I said I had any inkling that this team’s midseason turnaround would happen despite the losses of star pass rushers Chase Young (ACL tear) and Montez Sweat (fractured jaw). Instead of leaning on the team’s two highly drafted edge defenders to stymie Derek Carr and the Raiders’ potent offense on Sunday, a mishmash of fill-ins helped pick up the slack at defensive end, with relative unknowns like Casey Toohill, James Smith-Williams, Daniel Wise, Bunmi Rotimi, and Shaka Toney all contributing. And the team’s back seven, which was missing linebacker/safety Landon Collins (foot injury), managed to make a few big plays of their own in the win, doing their part to hold Carr to 249 yards passing and no touchdowns through the air, for his second game this season without a passing score.

It was just the latest strong performance from a group that’s transformed into something competent despite starting the year looking like the league’s worst. After giving up a whopping 30 points per game in its first seven games this season, Washington’s defense has surrendered just 17.5 points per game in the team’s past four games. It’s blowing up at just the right time.

Offensively, Washington has rededicated itself to its rushing attack post-bye and that too seems to have paid immediate dividends. Running back Antonio Gibson is playing his best football over the past month and led the way again on Sunday (in JD McKissic’s absence) with 88 yards on 23 totes, chipping in another 23 yards and a touchdown in the passing game. The stress fracture in his shin no longer seems to be slowing him down. And with Gibson and the ground game providing the foundation, Taylor Heinicke has settled in and done enough to pull Washington to wins. The journeyman playmaker completed 23 of 30 passes for 196 yards on Sunday, throwing two touchdowns and one pick. He showed once again that he mixes just the right amount of out-of-structure magic with the patience and discipline of a game manager. The stats paint the picture of a quarterback who is content with spreading the ball out to his playmakers (he’s posted a 7.6 yard average depth of target through the past four weeks and he’s completed 77 percent of his passes in that stretch), and while he missed some open receivers on Sunday, he’s done enough to keep the chains moving.

It’s probably never going to be too pretty for this team, but Washington’s proved to be pretty scrappy in the past month―and that makes the team one to watch down the stretch. A matchup with the Cowboys next week will give Washington a chance to test its mettle.

The Muddled Middle

20. Minnesota Vikings (5-7)
21. Denver Broncos (6-6)
22. Las Vegas Raiders (6-6)
23. Seattle Seahawks (4-8)
24. New Orleans Saints (5-7)
25. Carolina Panthers (5-7)
26. Atlanta Falcons (5-7)

Russell Wilson looked like Russell Wilson again. Finally.

Despite getting a much-needed win over the 49ers on Sunday, the Seahawks’ odds at a postseason berth remain remote. But the offense’s performance this week could provide a glimmer of hope. Sure, a few untimely turnovers made that unit’s stat sheet look a whole lot worse than it could’ve (tight end Gerald Everett fumbled twice and bobbled a pass at the goal line that turned into a pick), but there were reasons to believe that both Russell Wilson, and the group at large, turned the corner from their perplexing collective midseason slump.

For the first time since returning to the field following finger surgery, Wilson threw the ball with consistent accuracy, finishing the game 30-of-37 for 231 yards with two touchdowns and a pick (that interception should’ve been his third touchdown; Everett also fumbled a shovel pass at the goal line that could’ve been a fourth). More importantly, Wilson was able to unlock a component of the Seahawks’ offense that had been shockingly absent in the past three weeks (and for much of the year): the short and intermediate quick game. Wilson peppered the middle of the field with precision strikes, completing 19 of 20 attempts for 145 yards and a touchdown on passes he released in fewer than 2.5 seconds.

Those plays helped the Seahawks move the chains and keep drives alive a little more effectively than they had in previous weeks, and for the first time all season, Seattle won the time of possession battle with its opponent. In short, the offense looked like it wasn’t completely broken. That’s no small victory.

Looking forward, Seattle has another chance to “get right” against the Texans next week. If Wilson can use that as a springboard for the team’s homestretch, the Seahawks could make a run at an unlikely playoff berth. At worst, though, a late-season surge could go a long way toward diminishing the odds of major offseason upheaval by convincing Wilson that Seattle is the place to be for the long haul.

There’s Always Next Year

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

Elijah Moore is a future star. Actually, he might already be one.

It’d be easy to dwell on the negatives when it comes to the Jets, as there are many. But right now, I’m interested in focusing on at least one shining positive: rookie receiver Elijah Moore. The former Ole Miss star got off to a slow start to the season thanks in part to a preseason leg injury, but the team’s unquestioned training camp standout has officially arrived. Scratch that, he’s more than arrived at this point; he looks like a future superstar in this league.

Moore caught another six passes for 77 yards and a score in the team’s 33-18 loss to the Eagles on Sunday, a stat line that could’ve been better had quarterback Zach Wilson not missed him on what should’ve been an easy touchdown early in the game. Moore has come alive in the team’s past six games, gradually earning a bigger role in the offense as the season’s gone on. Going back to Week 8, Moore ranks sixth in the NFL in receiving yards (459) and is tied for first in touchdowns (five) in that stretch. Moore has shown the ability to operate from both the outside and in the slot for the Jets, and crucially, he showed signs of some chemistry with Wilson on Sunday. The Jets have a long way to go in their rebuild, but Moore looks like a home run pick so far—a playmaker who the team can build around long term.


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