Sports

NFL Power Rankings: The Packers Look Like the League’s Best Team … for Now

While there aren’t any truly elite teams in the NFL this year, the league’s top-tier units are more clearly separated from the rest of the bunch after Week 12. With an impressive 36-28 win over the Rams on Sunday, the Packers claim the top spot in my rankings for the first time all year. They’re trailed closely by the Cardinals, and the Buccaneers notched a big win over the Colts to move up to the no. 3 spot. Elsewhere, the Patriots, Chiefs, and Bills all seem to be rounding into form at just the right time. With 12 weeks down, here’s my updated Power Rankings.

The Top Shelf

1. Green Bay Packers (9-3)
2. Arizona Cardinals (9-2)
3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-3)
4. New England Patriots (8-4)
5. Kansas City Chiefs (7-4)
6. Buffalo Bills (7-4)

The Packers showed off their toughness against the Rams.

Green Bay is a beat-up team. Aaron Rodgers is dealing with a toe injury, and he’s playing behind an offensive line that’s missing David Bakhtiari and Elgton Jenkins (both have knee injuries). Aaron Jones is still working his way back to full health after missing time due to an MCL strain. And the defense is without key playmakers Za’Darius Smith and Jaire Alexander. The Packers could have crumbled against a tough opponent like the Rams, who were coming off their bye week and in desperate need of a win.

Only that didn’t happen. Perfectly comfortable in the typically chilly and windy late-season Green Bay weather, the Packers came out and handled their business on Sunday, beating the Rams 36-28. Rodgers looked little affected by the toe injury, completing 28 of 45 passes for 307 yards and two scores in the contest to go with his impressive first-quarter rushing score―a tone-setting play in which he beat superstar corner Jalen Ramsey to the edge. And Green Bay mitigated its offensive-line injury woes by implementing plenty of quick-hit passing concepts, with Rodgers averaging a 2.64-second time to throw in the game, seventh fastest among quarterbacks this week. Rodgers was still able to produce a handful of explosive plays in the game, including a 54-yard strike to Randall Cobb on a catch and run and a big 43-yard gain to Davante Adams on a slot fade. A mix of screens and deep shots in the passing game paired well with Green Bay’s grind-it-out rushing attack, which tallied 92 yards on 32 attempts. With Jones playing a complementary role as he slowly returns to action (10 carries for 23 yards), second-year running back AJ Dillon led the way, plowing forward for 69 yards on 20 totes.

Dillon, who is tied for 13th in the NFL (among those with 50 carries) in yards after contact per attempt (3.2) and 18th in forced missed tackles (23), is a walking football cliché, and I absolutely love him for it. Listed at 247 pounds and boasting a 97th percentile speed score (his weight-adjusted 40-time), Dillon is a runaway beer truck of a back with the Derrick Henry–like ability to get better the longer a game goes and the colder the weather gets. Green Bay’s vision for marrying Rodgers’s precision arm to Dillon’s tree-trunk legs came to life on Sunday, and the Packers played keepaway from the Rams for most of the game, dominating time of possession 39:40 to 20:20. It’s an old-school and time-honored strategy, and I’m getting excited to see how it will work as the calendar turns to December.

Green Bay has more than just a well-balanced offense going for it, though. The Packers’ defense has stepped up too, showing that it is capable of smothering good teams despite its injury predicament. Defensive lineman Rashan Gary has emerged as a force up front and notched another six QB pressures, a sack, and a forced fumble (which the Packers recovered) on 22 pass rushes on Sunday. And a pair of key free-agent additions have made their mark for the team this season, including veteran linebacker De’Vondre Campbell and cornerback Rasul Douglas, the latter of whom tallied four passes defensed and a pick-six against the Rams. L.A. quarterback Matthew Stafford was able to hit on a handful of deep shots in the game, but the Packers mostly held him (and the Sean McVay offense as a whole) in check, limiting the Rams to just 4-of-13 on third downs.

Crucially, this beleaguered Packers squad now has its chance to rest up and get healthier during its upcoming bye. And reinforcements could be coming soon, as the team hopes to get both Alexander and Smith back at some point down the stretch. Thanks to Sunday’s win, Green Bay is well positioned to make a run at the no. 1 seed in the NFC.

The Patriots are still the Patriots.

NFL franchises can be a bit like the Ship of Theseus. These teams keep the same names, mascots, and colors (for the most part) as the years go by, but as individual players, coaches, front office executives, and sometimes owners come and go, the question of whether it’s actually the same team can really throw you for a loop. Who and what am I rooting for? Why do I keep watching the Seahawks?! Gah!

Anyway, I don’t spend too much time pondering the philosophical quandaries of what a ship, a team, or even a person actually is, but I found myself thinking about all of this when I was watching New England slowly dismantle Tennessee in its 36-13 win on Sunday. Now, I know that some of the players from the old, Tom Brady–era Patriots ship still remain, and the team is obviously still captained by Bill Belichick. But it was striking that despite the turnover from the past few seasons, and despite taking Brady out of the equation, the Patriots just really look and feel like, well, the Patriots. They’re incredibly nimble, well coached, and disciplined. They’re balanced and physical. There’s a whole bunch of new faces on the roster—and by the way, they’re led by a new quarterback—but the DNA of the Patriots teams we know from the past two decades is still there. They’re still annoyingly good. They still feel inevitable.

All of that was at the front of my mind on Sunday, when, for approximately the one-millionth time during Belichick’s tenure, the Patriots played good, complementary football and won on the margins. On a day when the team’s typically strong run game couldn’t get rolling, rookie quarterback Mac Jones stepped up and delivered, completing 23 of 32 passes for 310 yards and two touchdowns. He wasn’t perfect (notably, he missed Hunter Henry for what should’ve been a touchdown), but he excelled on play-action and distributed the ball to his playmakers. Jones got a lot of help from veteran receiver Kendrick Bourne, whose two touchdowns were both the result of excellent individual effort. And both Jones’s and Bourne’s performances offered up another reminder for what defines the Patriots: their inexplicable ability to lean on basic, well-worn strategies and then execute them better than everyone else.

Prior to the game, Belichick responded to a reporter’s question about the team’s physical, balanced identity with a different definition of how he views his team. It sounded like something Ricky Bobby would say: “I’d like for our identity to be winning.” My first reaction to that was, well, that doesn’t really make sense. But the more I think about it, it actually does make sense. Goddamn it, it makes too much sense. The Patriots are really going to win the Super Bowl again, aren’t they?

The Contenders

7. Baltimore Ravens (8-3)
8. San Francisco 49ers (6-5)
9. Dallas Cowboys (7-4)
10. Los Angeles Rams (7-4)
11. Indianapolis Colts (6-6)
12. Cincinnati Bengals (7-4)
13. Tennessee Titans (8-4)

The Ravens defense stepped up in an ugly win.

The mark of a good team is the ability to overcome the variance that’s part of every NFL game. This sport is chaos: Sometimes weather is a factor; sometimes injuries happen; sometimes the referees fuck everything up; sometimes the ball bounces a certain way; sometimes good players perform poorly; and sometimes, let’s say, a quarterback feels like he’s going to literally poop his pants. With all that unpredictability, for a team to be successful, it’s critical that it be able to beat opponents in multiple ways.

That was important for the Ravens on Sunday, when Lamar Jackson and the team’s typically explosive offense pooped their pants, uh, figuratively. Jackson put together one of his worst statistical outings as a pro in the 16-10 win, tossing a career-high four interceptions, including three in a five-throw stretch in the second quarter. Lucky for Jackson, though, the story of the game was the way Baltimore was able to make the Browns offense somehow look worse. The Ravens came out with a simple primary goal: Shut down the Browns’ foundational run game. Cleveland clearly missed offensive tackle Jack Conklin, who left the game early with a knee injury, as Baltimore managed to hold Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt to a combined 36 yards on 15 carries. And the Ravens did that by keeping Cleveland from getting outside and creating chunk plays on the ground. As NFL Next Gen Stats points out, Cleveland came into the game with a league-high 1,407 yards on runs outside the tackles―and on Sunday, Baltimore held the Browns to just 27 yards on 11 of those runs. Cleveland’s 40 total rushing yards was a new low for the Kevin Stefanski era.

Critically, the Ravens stifled the Browns’ attempts to get anything going in the passing game, too. Baltimore’s defense held Baker Mayfield in check, limiting him to just 18-of-37 passing with 247 yards and a touchdown. They forced two fumbles in the game, recovering both. And they limited Cleveland to just 4-of-13 on third-down attempts. It was a dominant defensive performance, and that’s exactly what the Ravens needed if they were going to escape this game with a W. Now 8-3, the Ravens face a tough schedule to finish the year, drawing the Steelers twice, the Browns again, plus the Packers, Bengals, and Rams. Baltimore proved it can win ugly on Sunday, and I won’t be surprised if it’ll need that skill down the stretch.

Matthew Stafford is taking turns proving everyone right.

No matter what you thought of Stafford coming into this season, you have been right. At least for a while.

Over the Rams’ first eight games, Stafford made his hard-core believers look like geniuses: He quickly turned the Rams offense back into a buzz saw group, averaging 309.6 yards passing per game and 9.1 yards per attempt with 22 touchdowns and just four picks. The Rams went 7-1 in that stretch as Stafford proved critical in activating every part of the offense that had been dormant under Jared Goff: He was hitting his second, third, and fourth reads, he was making plays out of structure, he was pushing the ball vertically, and he was turning Cooper Kupp into the greatest receiver the league has ever seen. It was beautiful.

Then the past three games, including Sunday’s loss to the Packers, happened. Now the narrative is changing. With back-to-back-to-back bad performances, Stafford is basically a more expensive and older version of Goff, at least to his longtime detractors. The Rams are in the midst of a three-game losing streak, spurred at least partly by the pick-sixes Stafford has thrown in each of those losses. And his numbers in this cold stretch are definitely Goff-level abysmal: He’s dropped to just 279.7 yards a game passing in this stretch, averaging 6.6 yards per attempt, and has tossed just five touchdowns to go with five interceptions. Injuries aren’t helping (Robert Woods is out for the year with an ACL tear and Stafford himself has been banged up), but the Rams offense has legitimately fallen apart.

The Rams now find themselves at a turning point. Clearly, something needs to change on offense, and a matchup with the Jaguars next week presents a nice opportunity for a “get right” game. But past an easy Week 13 opponent, wholesale changes may be needed for L.A., and Stafford, to reverse course. That may mean a return to a more under-center and play-action-heavy approach. That may mean a shift toward a more physical, run-centric style. As Ringer colleague Ben Solak posited a couple of weeks ago, it might help if the Rams dusted off the Goff playbook, which was replete with run-action looks and more layup throws. It probably wouldn’t hurt if Sean McVay got more aggressive on fourth down (a failed fourth-down attempt this week might not help in that area). Whatever happens, it needs to happen fast.

The Muddled Middle

14. Los Angeles Chargers (6-5)
15. Cleveland Browns (6-6)
16. Minnesota Vikings (5-6)
17. Denver Broncos (6-5)
18. Miami Dolphins (5-7)
19. Las Vegas Raiders (6-5)
20. Washington Football Team (5-6)
21. Pittsburgh Steelers (5-5-1)
22. Philadelphia Eagles (5-7)
23. New Orleans Saints (5-6)
24. Carolina Panthers (5-7)
25. New York Giants (4-7)
26. Atlanta Falcons (5-6)
27. Chicago Bears (4-7)
28. Seattle Seahawks (3-8)

The Dolphins could make things interesting in the AFC.

One of the defining traits of this weird season is that every time I write off a team it suddenly starts playing well. That happened with the Colts. It happened with the 49ers. And it’s happening with the Dolphins now, too.

I’m not convinced the Dolphins have turned into a good team just yet, but they’ve definitely ascended to the frisky group in the wide-open AFC. Miami extended its win streak to four games on Sunday with a 33-10 drubbing of the Panthers, and the Dolphins are finally starting to look like the team many people believed they’d be coming into the year.

The defense has come on strong over the past month, and that was certainly the case as Miami held Cam Newton to an abysmal 5-for-21 passing line while intercepting him twice. The Dolphins are leaning hard on their playmaking versatility in the secondary, and with do-it-all safeties Eric Rowe and rookie Jevon Holland, stalwart corners Xavien Howard and Byron Jones, and situational contributors Nik Needham, Justin Coleman, and Noah Igbinoghene, they’ve have done a good job of mixing pre-snap and post-snap blitz looks to continually confuse opposing quarterbacks. And up front, the team’s talented pass-rush group is coming on strong. Emmanuel Ogbah picked up a sack and a pass defensed on Sunday, and rookie Jaelan Phillips grabbed three sacks and nine total pressures in just 27 snaps, according to NFL Next Gen Stats, generating pressure on 39.1 percent of his snaps.

Offensively, the Dolphins are coming along better, too. Quarterback Tua Tagovailoa has found his rhythm since returning from a rib injury, and he put together one of his most efficient outings in the win on Sunday. Tua completed 27 of 31 passes for 230 yards and one touchdown, distributing the football quickly in the team’s RPO-heavy attack. He’s leaned heavily on former Alabama teammate Jaylen Waddle, who caught nine of 10 targets for 137 yards and a score. And the team’s offensive line has made some marginal improvements during their win streak too.

With matchups against the Giants and Jets on tap (and those games sandwiching a Week 14 bye), the Dolphins are poised to make things interesting down the stretch. They’re not in playoff position now, but with the way they’re playing, a late-season Cinderella postseason run looks possible.

There’s Always Next Year

29. New York Jets (3-8)
30. Jacksonville Jaguars (2-9)
31. Houston Texans (2-9)
32. Detroit Lions (0-10-1)

Zach Wilson’s growing pains continue.

Not a whole lot has gone right for the Jets this year, but beating the Texans on Sunday is better than nothing. And while getting into the win column could offer a small reprieve for most of the team’s players and for head coach Robert Saleh, the team’s fans are probably more interested in seeing signs of development from rookie quarterback Zach Wilson. That wasn’t exactly the case in the 21-14 win.

Wilson finished the game a paltry 14-of-24 for 145 yards and a pick, a turnover that came on an out-of-structure shovel-pass attempt that bounced off running back Ty Johnson’s back and into Tavierre Thomas’s hands. That wasn’t an awful decision in the moment, just an unfortunate result as Johnson turned to block right before Wilson made the toss―but it was representative of a young quarterback who’s still trying to do too much. Wilson has spoken recently about learning from both Mike White and Joe Flacco to take layup throws, but through his first seven starts, nothing has looked easy. Wilson has plenty of time to figure things out, but it’s probably difficult for fans still scarred by the disastrous Sam Darnold era (and really [gestures broadly at this team’s quarterback history]) to practice patience.


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