Welcome back to The MMQB’s power rankings, where it’s my turn for the first time since after Week 8. What’s changed since I was last here? The Dolphins have gone 7–0, the Colts have gone 6–1 and more than 400 players have tested positive for COVID-19 in December alone.
Trying to rank teams is often a difficult, sometimes silly, exercise. This year it feels downright impossible. We have seen a few games moved (though not as many as last year) and we’ve seen teams play with a dozen or more players extracted from their roster. We’ve seen backups and understudies. We’ve seen assistant coaches in unfamiliar roles they haven’t prepared for.
The whole season has been full of surprising upsets hard-to-explain blowouts, and things have only felt more random the last month as teams have been hit at different levels.
So how am I supposed to rank the teams? By the results we’ve seen on the field? By the versions of them we expect to see in the playoffs? By the true talent level we’d expect if we allowed them some perfectly reasonable excuses? Probably a little of everything. There are no right answers, but I’ll do my best.
1. Kansas City Chiefs (11–4)
Last week: Win vs. Pittsburgh, 36–10
Next week: at Cincinnati
The Chiefs have been the best team in the league for the last four years now. We know all about their rocky start, and plenty of people have written about their defense’s turnaround during this eight-game winning streak. What else is left to say? With their talent and playoff experience, they’ll be my favorite heading into the postseason.
2. Green Bay Packers (12–3)
Last week: Win vs. Cleveland, 24–22 (Saturday)
Next week: vs. Minnesota
The Packers have the NFL’s best record and have won five in a row. I wouldn’t blame you if you wanted to put them No. 1, but I’m choosing to put them No. 2.
This is not totally related to the 2021 team, but I want to resurface this tweet I shared on Saturday when Aaron Rodgers passed Brett Favre in career touchdown passes as a Packer. I spent like 10 minutes on it, so it’s nice to have a place to share it.
The Packers have had a pretty charmed 30 years! Also there are some fun names on this chart.
3. Dallas Cowboys (11–4)
Last week: Win vs. Washington, 56–14
Next week: vs. Arizona
The Cowboys are still loaded on offense and now very scary on defense. They should not be afraid of anybody in the playoffs, even if they have to go on the road. I’ll be interested to see how many people pick them as their NFC Super Bowl team, and if the most popular team in the country tries to claim it’s been counted out.
4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (11–4)
Last week: Win at Carolina, 32–6
Next week: at New York Jets
I had been steadfast since before the season in my belief that the Bucs would be headed back to the Super Bowl. That feeling lasted right up until they lost Chris Godwin, Mike Evans, Leonard Fournette and Lavonte David in the same game. So I’m knocking them down a few pegs, but I do think it’s easier to learn to adapt when guys are missing than to figure it out on the fly in the middle of a game.
5. Los Angeles Rams (11–4)
Last week: Win at Minnesota, 30–23
Next week: at Baltimore
The Rams have righted the ship with four straight wins since their concerning three-game skid in November. They have overtaken the Cardinals for first place in the NFC West, but don’t feel like the powerhouse most people thought they were during their 7–1 start. Still it’s a team and coaching staff that I generally trust to know what they’re doing heading into the games that matter. Winning on a short week with that decimated offensive line is proof.
6. Indianapolis Colts (9–6)
Last week: Win at Arizona, 22–16 (Saturday)
Next week: vs. Las Vegas
I want to use this space to credit the incomparable Conor Orr. He predicted before the season that Indy would start 0–5 and then rally to reach the playoffs. The Colts started 0–3 and 1–4 (he was close!) and is now 9–6 and the certifiable “team no one wants to play going into the playoffs.” If anyone is surprised how this season is going, tell that person to read more Conor Orr.
7. Cincinnati Bengals (9–6)
Last week: Win vs. Baltimore, 41–21
Next week: vs. Kansas City
How many MVP awards do you think Joe Burrow will win in his career? I sent out a very scientific poll on Sunday, and one was the winning option (38.7%), beating out zero (37.8%) and more than one (23.5%). One would also be my choice—it’s hard to win more than with so many other talents in the league right. But he’s been a great watch this year, and it would be fun if the Bengals stay hot heading into the playoffs.
8. Buffalo Bills (9–6)
Last week: Win at New England, 33–21
Next week: vs. Atlanta
The Bills can breathe a sigh of relief (or puff their chests out, if they prefer). It’s a lot easier to shrug away the loss to the Patriots as the result of fluky conditions now that they’ve won the rematch, especially in the fashion they did it. It hasn’t been smooth sailing all year, but this team can beat anyone in the AFC, and all their opponents know it.
9. New England Patriots (9–6)
Last week: Loss vs. Buffalo, 33–21
Next week: vs. Jacksonville
Two straight losses have taken some shine off the Patriots’ season, after people were calling them the best team in the AFC for a bit. I don’t think they ever were, though of course it’s easier to say that now. Anyway, I’ll put them one spot below the Bills, whom they lost to this week, and one spot ahead of the Titans, whom they beat convincingly in late November.
10. Tennessee Titans (10–5)
Last week: Win vs. San Francisco, 20–17 (Thursday)
Next week: vs. Miami
I might be president of the A.J. Brown fan club (I am on record that he’ll lead the NFL in receiving touchdowns for the entire 2020s decade) so it was good to see him back on the field and dominating like he was Thursday against the 49ers. Mike Vrabel is right that people started writing Titans obituaries a bit early, but it’s fair to say that win was much needed. If Derrick Henry actually returned for the playoffs, it might be the single biggest story line of wild-card weekend.
11. Arizona Cardinals (10–5)
Last week: Loss vs. Indianapolis, 22–16 (Saturday)
Next week: at Dallas
The Cardinals have lost five of eight and, fair or unfair, people are more concerned about this downturn because of how last season ended. They have a massive opportunity to silence the critics against the Cowboys this week, or else all of the questions will persist heading into the playoffs.
12. Los Angeles Chargers (8–7)
Last week: Loss at Houston, 41–29Next week: vs. Denver
I think there’s a clear drop from the top 11 down to whatever tier it is that starts here. Losing to the Texans is just inexcusable for a team that’s serious about reaching the playoffs, let alone making a leap to the upper echelon of the AFC. But there are enough mediocre or struggling teams that I had to put the Chargers somewhere, and they are still right in the thick of the race.
13. San Francisco 49ers (8–7)
Last week: Loss at Tennessee, 20–17 (Thursday)
Next week: vs. Houston
News that Jimmy Garoppolo is hurt and Trey Lance may be starting suddenly makes 49ers vs. Texans a lot more interesting. But this ranking is based on what they’ve done with Jimmy G in there, and I thought San Francisco had separated itself form the morass fighting for the seven seed and staked its claim as a deserving No. 6. We’ll see if a situation that may benefit the franchise in the long term hurts them in the present.
14. Baltimore Ravens (8–7)
Last week: Loss at Cincinnati, 41–21
Next week: vs. Los Angeles Rams
Things have really unraveled for the Ravens, a team I had in the Super Bowl as recently as our MMQB midseason predictions. I think of them now like last year’s 49ers. I don’t think any less of them as a franchise, I just acknowledge there are too many injuries to overcome and look forward to being very high on them again next August.
15. Cleveland Browns (7–8)
Last week: Loss at Green Bay, 24–22 (Saturday)
Next week: at Pittsburgh (Monday)
Rooting for the Browns must be torturous, given the thin margins that have existed from top to bottom in the AFC North and the chances they’ve had to win close games that have fallen the wrong way. It has to feel like even more of a step back given what a joy ride last year seemed like.
16. Philadelphia Eagles (8–7)
Last week: Win vs. New York Giants, 34–10
Next week: at Washington
The Eagles have already exceeded my preseason expectations for them, and credit Nick Sirianni’s well-publicized pivot to the run game that coincided with the Eagles’ turning their season around. The path is clear for Philly to grab a wild card spot, and if it shakes out that way I think the Eagles can just be happy to be there.
17. Miami Dolphins (8–7)
Last week: Win at. New Orleans, 20–3 (Monday)
Next week: at Tennessee
Raise your hand if you expected the Dolphins to win seven games in a row when they started 1–7. Put your hand down, liar. The Dolphins have not beaten anyone good, but in a league with this many middling, struggling or depleted teams, they haven’t really had to. (To be fair, I though the Ravens were good when Miami caught them on a Thursday night.) This is a captivating ride that has taken Miami into playoff position, but we’ll know a lot more about them after they play the Titans and Patriots the next two weeks.
18. Las Vegas Raiders (8–7)
Last week: Win vs. Denver, 17–13
Next week: at Indianapolis
The Raiders got pummeled by the Chiefs (for a second time) in a loss that I assumed was the end of their season, and they responded with a pair of wins to stay in the hunt. They have been perfectly average, and need just one win for their second above .500 season since 2002.
19. Pittsburgh Steelers (7-7-1)
Last week: Loss at Kansas City, 36–10
Next week: vs. Cleveland (Monday)
The Steelers have been alternating wins and losses for a month now, and every time I’m ready to declare them dead they come back and win a game I didn’t see coming. That’s the NFL in 2021. That’s also a well-coached team with some talented veterans. Big Ben gets the Browns on Monday night and then a classic Ravens rivalry game I could see getting flexed into prime time to try to keep what could be the last season of his career alive.
20. Minnesota Vikings (7–8)
Last week: Loss vs. Los Angeles Rams, 30–23
Next week: at Green Bay
For several years now, the Vikings have been the league’s most unpredictable team—capable of beating anyone on any given day or choking and blowing a lead in stunning fashion. The only thing that’s changed is this year 15 to 20 other teams decided they’d follow the same blueprint. Let’s just stick them at No. 20 and admit they could beat the Packers to make Week 18 interesting.
21. New Orleans Saints (7–8)
Last week: Loss vs. Dolphins, 20–3 (Monday)
Next week: vs. Carolina
Copy and paste what I wrote about the Ravens, as this is another team that has just been devastated by injuries in a way that feels unfair. The difference here is New Orleans needs to find its long-term answer at quarterback to take advantage of the rest of the talent on its roster. But watching Ian Book just take shot after shot against the Dolphins did not feel like watching an actual Saints game.
22. Denver Broncos (7–8)
Last week: Loss at Las Vegas, 17–13
Next week: at Los Angeles Chargers
There are so many teams in the middle that are basically the same quality, and the Broncos may have gotten squeezed a bit here after losing two straight games with Drew Lock. It should not surprise anyone if they beat the Chargers this week, and you could even imagine their defense holding the Chiefs to a close one in Week 18. But that might be too little too late for an AFC also-ran.
23. Atlanta Falcons (7–8)
Last week: Win vs. Detroit, 20–16
Next week: at Buffalo
The Falcons have suffered their share of blowout losses this year, but have won enough close games to hang around. But this is another one of several pretenders that just doesn’t have enough good wins to scare anybody. I don’t blame them for bringing Matt Ryan back this year, but they’ll continue to face questions until they figure out what’s next.
Last week: Loss at Dallas, 56–14
Next week: vs. Philadelphia
Washington had actually won four straight games to get back to .500, but the team followed that up with three straight division losses and has now reached the “fighting teammates on the bench during games” portion of their season. Winning the worst division in football last year (with a losing record) may have elevated expectations higher than they should have been this year.
25. Chicago Bears (5–10)
Last week: Win at Seattle, 41–29
Next week: vs. New York Giants
It was nice of the Bears to give Matt Nagy one more season, but I think this is exactly the type of year a lot of people expected when the team decided to stay the course last offseason.
26. Seattle Seahawks (5–10)
Last week: Loss vs. Chicago, 25–24
Next week: vs. Detroit
If this really is the end for Pete Carroll and/or Russell Wilson in Seattle, it’s ending … well, in the way things often around the NFL. The Seahawks’ run of nine straight winning seasons, eight of them with double digits, is outshined because of what the Patriots did in the same time period, but it’s been an amazing run. Even the league’s most stable franchises have down years from time to time. We’ll see if that’s what this is in Seattle or if it’s the start of a longer struggle.
27. Carolina Panthers (5–10)
Last week: Loss vs. Tampa Bay, 32–6
Next week: at New Orleans
Matt Rhule is platooning quarterbacks, firing underlings and comparing himself to Jay-Z. Things have taken a turn since this team started the season 3–0.
28. Houston Texans (4–11)
Last week: Win vs. Los Angeles Chargers, 41–29
Next week: at San Francisco
Davis Mills is a real feel-good story, and it is interesting to think about how we’d consider his rookie season if he came into it with the same expectations as the first-round picks in his draft class. He spoke to our Albert Breer about it after beating the Chargers.
29. Detroit Lions (2-12-1)
Last week: Loss at Atlanta, 20–16
Next week: at Seahawks
The Lions are better than three other teams! At least in my book. They fought the whole season when they could’ve packed it in.
30. New York Giants (4–11)
Last week: Loss at Philadelphia, 34–10
Next week: at Chicago
If I was Gary Gramling, I would be a coward and say the Jets and Giants are tied. But I’m not, so I’ll declare the Giants are the slightly better New York team, I guess. (It’s fine, Gary will never see this.)
31. New York Jets (4–11)
Last week: Win vs. Jacksonville, 26–21
Next week: vs. Tampa Bay
It’s nice the Jets got one more win to feel good about before finishing out a very tough season with the Bucs and Bills.
32. Jacksonville Jaguars (2–13)
Last week: Loss at New York Jets, 26–21
Next week: at New England
Just a disastrous season all around in Jacksonville, and the embarrassing ending in a loss to the Jets makes it easy to put them last this week.
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