Sports

NFL Power Rankings: The Rams Take the No. 1 Spot

The NFL’s Week 3 slate threw the kitchen sink of football fun at us, featuring a bevy of big plays, a handful of barn-burning games, an overtime thriller, and a ridiculous, record-setting 66-yard game-winning field goal. With the dust settling from another wild weekend of action, it’s more apparent which teams are built to win it all this year―and which are not. Here are my updated power rankings.

The Top Shelf

1. Los Angeles Rams (3-0)
2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-1)
3. Buffalo Bills (2-1)
4. Cleveland Browns (2-1)
5. Las Vegas Raiders (3-0)
6. Los Angeles Chargers (2-1)

Yeah, I’m thinking Sean McVay is back.

During the Rams’ run of offensive dominance in 2017 and 2018, the joke used to go that if you stood close enough to Sean McVay, someone would offer you a head coaching job. McVay earned a reputation as the league’s preeminent offensive genius, and everyone wanted a piece of his schematic brilliance―a fact that helped former assistants Matt LaFleur and Zac Taylor land top NFL jobs. But after calling offenses that finished first and second in scoring in 2017 and 2018, respectively, McVay’s cachet as a schemer took a hit during the 2019 and 2020 seasons. Following the team’s Super Bowl loss to the Patriots, cracks started to appear in McVay’s offense, an issue that was magnified by the limits of quarterback Jared Goff. The Rams weren’t exactly bad during the past two years, but Goff’s inability to push the ball downfield or improvise under pressure contributed to the erosion of the team’s offensive supremacy. L.A. finished 11th in scoring in 2019 and 22nd last year. McVay and GM Les Snead apparently had enough of that nonsense and traded Goff to the Lions for a big-armed, aggressive passer in Matthew Stafford during the offseason. Early returns indicate this was a good decision.

Stafford lit up the stingy Buccaneers defense to the tune of 343 yards and four touchdowns in the Rams’ dominant 34-24 win on Sunday and again showed that he can unlock McVay’s passing game. That was particularly apparent in the Rams’ deep-passing attack: Stafford completed three of his five pass attempts of 20-plus yards against the Bucs, per PFF, including a 75-yard heave to DeSean Jackson for a touchdown in the third quarter. On the year, Stafford has now completed seven of 11 deep pass attempts with three touchdowns and no picks, averaging 29.2 yards per attempt and a league-best 146.8 passer rating on those throws. For context, Goff threw just three deep touchdowns in all of 2020, and was consistently one of the worst deep-ball throwers in the league (he completed just 13 of 43 deep attempts with three touchdowns and two picks for a 71.5 passer rating on throws of 20-plus yards). Defenses can no longer eliminate deep passes from McVay’s play-calling repertoire, and this has a profound effect on the overall effectiveness of the Rams offense.

That’s helped McVay get back to scheming guys open at a hilarious rate. Through three weeks, Stafford has completed 70 percent of his passes for 942 yards with nine touchdowns and one pick, is averaging 10.0 yards per attempt (second only to Russell Wilson), and has notched a 129.8 passer rating (also second to Wilson). And what’s scariest for the Rams’ upcoming opponents is that Stafford hasn’t had to work all that hard to post those numbers: He’s tallied the fifth-lowest rate (10.6 percent) of aggressive throws, a metric that measures the frequency that quarterbacks attempt passes into tight coverage, per NFL Next Gen Stats. Put another way, with Stafford stressing defenses vertically again, McVay is back to giving his quarterback wide-open receivers. The precocious play-caller sure seems determined to remind us that he’s still the league’s top offensive mind. Put that together with a playmaking defense, and the Rams look like the class of the league after three weeks.

The Bills are still a buzz saw.

I’ll admit that after watching the Bills struggle in a Week 1 loss to the Steelers, I began to worry that I’d been a bit overzealous in choosing Buffalo as my preseason Super Bowl pick. Josh Allen looked shaky in the opener; he was getting happy feet in the pocket too often, making poor decisions, and missing on easy throws to open receivers. But after watching the Allen-led Bills dismantle two quality defenses in the past two weeks, my faith in this team has been restored.

Allen looked exactly like the calm, poised, and uniquely dynamic quarterback we saw most of last season in Sunday’s 43-21 win over the Washington Football Team, finishing the game with 32-of-43 passing with 358 yards, four touchdowns, no picks, and another 9 yards and a score on the ground. He was nearly flawless in picking apart a talented Washington secondary, both operating from the pocket and getting outside and make plays out of structure. Buffalo’s defense looked great, too, and stifled the Taylor Heinicke–led offense for most of the game. That type of complete and dominant performance was exactly what we saw the week before, when the Bills demolished the Dolphins 35-0. Buffalo has outscored its past two opponents 78-21.

The Bills seem to be picking up where they left off at the end of the regular season in 2020 as an absolute juggernaut on both sides of the ball. From Week 12 on, Buffalo ran the table en route to the playoffs, outscoring opponents 229-110 through their final six games (they dispatched the Colts and Ravens in the wild-card and divisional rounds, too, respectively, before finally falling to the Chiefs in the AFC championship game). Completely one-sided, dominant performances like we saw from the Bills late last year and the past two games are relatively rare in a league that’s touted for its parity. If Buffalo can continue to fire on all cylinders on both sides of the ball, I expect we’ll see more of the same in the near future.

The Contenders

7. Green Bay Packers (2-1)
8. Baltimore Ravens (2-1)
9. Arizona Cardinals (3-0)
10. Kansas City Chiefs (1-2)
11. Denver Broncos (3-0)
12. Carolina Panthers (3-0)
13. Dallas Cowboys (2-1)
14. San Francisco 49ers (2-1)
15. New Orleans Saints (2-1)
16. Tennessee Titans (2-1)

The Packers are who I thought they’d be.

There’s a scene from Super Troopers when the foolhardy yet lovable titular patrolmen are testing out a new design for a bulletproof jockstrap-cup contraption. Mac, who shows up to the shooting range wearing nothing but the prototype metal cup, asks a colleague how his shooting had been that day. Thorny holds up his target sheet, which shows a tight grouping of bull’s-eye hits, and replies, “Dead-on all morning!” When Mac asks Thorny about one errant shot to the jugular area of the neck, Thorny confidently replies: “That little guy? I wouldn’t worry about that little guy.” That’s good enough for Mac, who subsequently allows Thorny to shoot him in the crotch.

Anyway, that scene kinda reminds me of Aaron Rodgers, and just the Packers in general, in 2021.

Green Bay looked like a terrible team in its Week 1 blowout loss to New Orleans, and I was a bit skeptical when Rodgers’s reaction was to remind everyone it was “just one game.” We saw a worryingly lackadaisical performance from the Rodgers-led offense in particular, and the natural reaction was to assume that the offseason drama surrounding the veteran passer was bleeding into the regular season. But the Packers have rebounded with back-to-back wins in the past two weeks, including their impressive come-from-behind victory against the 49ers on Sunday Night Football. And it’s becoming clear that the Packers’ stumble against the Saints will end up looking like an outlier performance. This is still a top contender in the NFC.

The most important variable, of course, is that Rodgers has recaptured his MVP form. That was obvious on Sunday night when he coolly led the offense down the field and into field goal range after getting the ball back down 28-27 with 37 seconds to go. Rodgers hit Davante Adams on a preposterous throw down the middle for 25 yards, layering the ball over a defender and softly into his receiver’s hands. Then three plays later, he hit Adams again for 17 more yards, setting up Mason Crosby’s game-winning 51-yard field goal. Rodgers finished 23 of 33 for 261 yards and two touchdowns on the night, producing a strong prime-time follow-up to his sterling four-touchdown performance in Week 2.

It’s a long season, and Green Bay will have to stay relatively healthy if it hopes to compete with the Rams and Buccaneers for conference supremacy. But with Rodgers back to looking like, well, Rodgers, I’m not too worried about that little guy―the team’s uncharacteristic Week 1 dud―anymore.

The Broncos made the right choice in starting Teddy Bridgewater.

It’s funny to think about the fact there was a competition between Bridgewater and Drew Lock during the preseason, and it’s even funnier to think that Lock was, until late in the process, considered the favorite to win the job. Because after beating out Lock and being named the starter, Bridgewater has come in and played like a Pro Bowl–caliber quarterback during the first three weeks of the season. Following his efficient 19-of-25 passing, 235-yard performance in the Broncos’ 26-0 drubbing of the Jets on Sunday, the veteran now ranks inside the top 10 this season in passing yards (827), yards per attempt (8.7), completion rate (76.8), and passer rating (116.4) to go with his four touchdowns and no picks. Bridgewater has been exactly what this talented Broncos team needs: a high-end ball-distributor who’s capable of making a big throw when the moment arises, but is savvy enough to protect the football and move the chains the rest of the time.

Those crunch-time situations have been few and far between for Denver this year, which has rarely trailed in easy wins over the Giants, Jaguars, and Jets, respectively. In fact, the Broncos, who boast a strong defense behind Von Miller and an efficient yet explosive offense under Bridgewater, have been so thoroughly dominant through three weeks that they head into Week 4 ranked second in Football Outsiders’ DVOA. Opponent adjustments will be coming for Denver starting next week, which should push them down those rankings, but the team’s perfect start is a credit to Bridgewater’s high-quality play. Now the challenge of staying consistent against tougher, better teams comes into play: With the Ravens, Steelers, Raiders, Browns, Washington, and Cowboys on the slate in the next six weeks, Bridgwater’s honeymoon phase with the team is over.

The Muddled Middle

17. Seattle Seahawks (1-2)
18. Cincinnati Bengals (2-1)
19. New England Patriots (1-2)
20. Minnesota Vikings (1-2)
21. Pittsburgh Steelers (1-2)
22. Washington Football Team (1-2)
23. Philadelphia Eagles (1-2)
24. Miami Dolphins (1-2)
25. Chicago Bears (1-2)
26. Atlanta Falcons (1-2)

Ja’Marr Chase is the real deal.

In retrospect, it probably shouldn’t be all that surprising that Chase has quickly put together one of the most promising three-week starts for any rookie receiver, ever. It wasn’t easy to ignore reports that he was struggling to separate in training camp, and it was tough to look past his four drops on five preseason targets. But Chase was the Bengals’ top pick and the fifth overall player taken in the draft because he was a historically good receiving prospect―a pass catcher who blended elite athleticism with extraordinary production from an early age―and it’s clear that he simply needed a little bit of time to shake off the rust that accumulated during his yearlong hiatus from the sport.

After hauling in another four catches for 65 yards and two touchdowns in the Bengals’ 24-10 win over the Steelers on Sunday, Chase joined a short list of just nine players (dating back to 1950) who’ve racked up 200-plus receiving yards and three-plus touchdowns in their first three career games. (Chase also had five catches for 101 yards and a touchdown in Week 1 and two catches for 54 yards and a score in Week 2.) More important than Chase’s pure stats, though, is the spark the rookie has provided as a big-play deep threat for Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow.

Burrow showed plenty of promise in his injury-shortened rookie season, but his deep passing was a major concern―especially considering it was one of his biggest strengths his final season at LSU. Burrow completed just nine of 48 deep attempts in 2020, throwing just one touchdown and one interception on those plays, per PFF. By picking Chase, Cincy clearly wanted to give Burrow some help in that area, and the duo’s ready-made chemistry from their time together in college has already provided a boost. Through three weeks, Burrow has connected on three touchdowns of 20-plus yards—all of them to Chase—for the second most in the NFL. The debate over whether the Bengals would’ve been better off picking Chase or offensive tackle Penei Sewell is sure to rage on (possibly for years), but it’s hard to deny that the first-year receiver is a positive force for the nascent Cincy offense.

There’s Always Next Year

27. Houston Texans (1-2)
28. Detroit Lions (0-3)
29. Indianapolis Colts (0-3)
30. New York Giants (0-3)
31. New York Jets (0-3)
32. Jacksonville Jaguars (0-3)

The two worst teams from last year … are still the two worst teams.

Dear Jaguars and Jets fans … I’m sorry you’ve got to go through this again. Better days are ahead for both Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson, but neither of the top two picks from last year’s draft have been good enough to drag their teams out of the cellar. Lawrence has flashed at moments, but he’s been far too undisciplined in throwing into double and triple coverage. Wilson has shown a few flashes too, but his decision-making continues to cause problems for the Jets. Both rookies play behind porous offensive lines, and the top two picks of the 2021 draft are tied for the league lead in interceptions (seven). At this rate, don’t be surprised if Jacksonville and New York are picking one-two again in 2022.


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