Published: Nov 07, 2023 at 09:58 AM
This time of year, it’s not just about winning games but also who you beat.
We Power Rankings junkies really have to dig between the numbers and parse out what the records mean. 5-4 teams aren’t automatically better than 4-5 teams, after all. Point differential matters. Recent games are weighed more heavily. But like the NCAA tournament selection committee, I really like teams that beat good teams.
What to do, then, with the 6-3 Dolphins and 5-3 Cowboys? There was a moment this season where you could have envisioned a Miami-Dallas Super Bowl pairing; the unstoppable force vs. the immovable object, they might have said. But the SB VI rematch will look less and less viable until the Cowboys and Dolphins beat a quality team. Are wins over the Jets and Chargers quality victories for Dallas? That’s debatable. Miami hasn’t beaten a team with a winning record. Both of them have stomped lesser teams. How impressive is that? It counts for something, but what?
These are the big questions we pondered this week while cooking up a fresh batch o’ rankings.
Philadelphia remains the class of the NFC — and, for now, the league. Sunday’s nail-biter win might have paved the road to the No. 1 seed in the conference and the bye that comes with it, but it also highlighted the luck factor. Dak Prescott sliced up the Eagles’ embattled secondary. Luke Schoonmaker‘s fourth-down catch in the fourth quarter was inches from being a touchdown. Dallas scored on the subsequent drive, but Prescott’s foot was out of bounds by about the same distance on a two-point conversion attempt. Philly fumbled three times and recovered the ball each time, including when D’Andre Swift coughed it up with a minute left. It felt like Dallas outplayed the Eagles over the course of 60 minutes, but Philly finished more effectively than the Cowboys — an area where the Eagles have been better than Dallas all season. Perhaps that intangible skill is the their superpower.
Much of the buzz around this team surrounds Lamar Jackson, and there’s little mystery as to why. But the defense deserves heaps of praise, too. Baltimore now leads the NFL in points allowed (13.8 points per game), ranks second in yards per game allowed (262.6) and is third in sack percentage (9.4%). Any time you can rack up four sacks and hold a quality opponent to six first downs and three points, you’ve dominated. The Ravens gave up 24 points to Arizona in Week 8 (with all but seven of those points coming in the final seven minutes) but have allowed only 45 points combined in the other five games since Week 3. Now they have back-to-back home games against the Browns and Bengals. Ladies and gentlemen, the AFC North race is officially on. Baltimore looks really tough to beat now.
Sunday provided proof that Patrick Mahomes and Travis Kelce don’t need to have their greatest games for the Chiefs to have a chance to win. This defense will give up some rushing yards and has snagged just five interceptions, but those are about the only bad things you can say about this unit. The 2019 and 2021 defenses finished seventh and eighth in the NFL, respectively, in points allowed. This year’s group is better than both of those units — it might even be good enough to carry this team in some of the tougher games left on the schedule. I’m not sure there’s a better group of tackling defensive backs in this league right now. You might catch a pass against the Chiefs, but good luck getting much YAC after that. They swarm.
After a 1-2 start, the Jags reeled off five straight wins in five different stadiums, handling extensive travel, injuries and a short week extremely well. Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne are having terrific seasons, Doug Pederson is coaching his tail off, and the defense leads the NFL in takeaways per game. That’s the good news. But the Jaguars better have rested up during their Week 9 bye, because the schedule down the stretch is a whale. They have games left against the 49ers, Texans, Bengals, Browns and Ravens, plus two vs. the Titans, who always seem to play Jacksonville tough and have been better with Will Levis at QB. The Jags remain major favorites to win the AFC South, but this slate is going to be a heck of a challenge.
The Week 9 bye allowed for some unnecessary navel gazing, especially for a team that hasn’t won its division in 30 years. But seriously, look at the Lions’ remaining schedule: Five of the nine games are on the road, but only four games left are against teams currently over .500. Two of those games are against the Vikings, who no longer have Kirk Cousins. One is at New Orleans, where the Saints are 2-2 after struggling in a win over Chicago. The Lions also face the 2-7 Bears twice, plus the 3-5 Broncos. Detroit capturing the NFC North isn’t a fait accompli, but it’s getting there. Jahmyr Gibbs breaking out in their last game was a massive development, as he and the soon-to-return David Montgomery could be very important come playoff time.
Falling to the Bills, Eagles and Chiefs — all outside of Miami — brings no shame, but it’s true that the Dolphins haven’t beaten a quality team yet. That said, the loss to Kansas City in Germany wasn’t a lost cause; the defense arguably played its best game, and the rushing attack showed signs of life despite the absence of De’Von Achane. Jalen Ramsey now has two games with this team under his belt, and the Week 9 returns of CB Xavien Howard and S Jevon Holland helped Miami hold the Chiefs to 67 second-half yards and Travis Kelce to his lowest receiving output in a game since 2018. If the offense can regain its firepower after the bye, the Dolphins will have a chance to change the can’t-beat-a-good-team narrative down the stretch. Currently, five of their eight remaining games are against opponents who are .500 or better.
The Week 9 bye provided a soft landing after a three-game losing streak, and it also helped give me some perspective on this team. The sky isn’t falling, I suspect. Even taking into account all the issues that cropped up over the past month, there is still a path for the 49ers to get to the Super Bowl. Brock Purdy was playing at an MVP level before his three-game struggles, and with the eventual returns of Deebo Samuel and Trent Williams (who each missed the past two contests), Purdy can return to that level. The defense, which has struggled to pressure or cover consistently of late, also has help arriving in the form of trade acquisition Chase Young. The schedule remains thorny, but six of the Niners’ remaining nine games come against teams currently below them on this list.
A few inches here, a foot out of bounds there, a fumble taking an unlucky bounce … The Cowboys cruelly lost a game they absolutely could have — and probably should have — won in Philadelphia, and I just couldn’t kill them for that. But should I? The question is whether you think coming up just short on some of these critical plays is a chronic issue or not. The Week 3 loss to Arizona screams YES, with all the red-zone failures. Sunday qualifies as further evidence there’s a problem. Yet, the ‘Boys have shown the ability to bludgeon so-so teams and outplayed the Chargers in crunch time. It’s unclear. I’m not bailing on Dallas now — not after the defense clamped down late and Dak Prescott made some big plays. But I am worried in the long run.
Joe Burrow is not only back, he’s now in the MVP race. His early-season struggles and calf injury are distant memories now, as he showed in the 24-18 win over Buffalo that the Bengals can win without big nights from Ja’Marr Chase and Joe Mixon, both of whom had been significant producers in Cincinnati’s recent turnaround. Tee Higgins also has reasserted himself after a string of forgettable performances, and the tight ends made a surprisingly sizable contribution — another sign the team has added offensive dimensions. The Bengals’ defense really held firm after allowing the first-drive TD. This is a dangerous club now, even if the remaining schedule really is a murderers’ row. I think it’ll only make them stronger in the long run.
The Browns had five scoring marches against Arizona, but the starting field positions on the TD drives were the Arizona 49-yard line, the Arizona 11 and the Cleveland 44. That final drive featured a 49-yard dime from Deshaun Watson to Amari Cooper; earlier, they connected for 59. Those two passes represented nearly half of Watson’s passing yards Sunday, but they’re the plays that provide hope this air attack can elevate, with the playoffs now clearly in sight. The AFC North is an absolute bear, with every team two-plus games over .500 and each possessing a good defense. The Browns know their passing game will be put to the test these next two weeks (at Baltimore, vs. Steelers). It’s as good a time as any to prove they can throw to win.
You can convince yourself that Sunday’s loss was simply a Bengals problem; it was clear last season Cincinnati had an edge against this Bills team, and perhaps that edge just carried over. But Buffalo is now 5-4, and the offense has arguably had as many issues as the defense, at least relative to expectation. The Bills put together an impressive 85-yard TD drive on their first possession, then gained just 108 yards in their next six drives. The offensive line wasn’t really an issue. The offensive personnel appears to be in decent shape. But the up-tempo pace and some of the four-wide formations they seemingly flourished with against Tampa were nowhere to be found against the Bengals. Can they secure five more victories somewhere against a really tough remaining schedule?
Things looked fine for a bit in Baltimore, and then the avalanche hit. The Ravens even gave the Seahawks two fumbles in the first half, but Seattle scored zero points off the turnovers, with Geno Smith fumbling the second possession right back to Baltimore. It’s getting harder to look past Smith’s scuffles, as he’s now logged eight turnovers in his past four starts. It’s certainly not all on him; his offensive line struggled, and Seattle’s defense produced plenty of face-palm plays, jumping offsides on fourth-and-1 and missing umpteen tackles. But to me, Smith’s cold snap cracks the door on a discussion of whether Pete Carroll might have to consider going to Drew Lock at some point. We’re not there yet — the next two are winnable. However, a daunting 49ers–Cowboys–49ers–Eagles cluster awaits between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
The Saints continued one impressive streak and ended one bad one in Sunday’s victory. Thanks to five Bears turnovers (three in the fourth quarter), New Orleans has now forced at least one turnover in each game this season. The Saints also ended a three-game turnover skid on offense, logging a clean sheet vs. Chicago. There just seems to be something missing with this team, given that it won the turnover battle 5-0 (5-1, if you count turnovers on downs) and still had to hang on late to win. The run defense struggled for a second week in a row and now faces swashbuckling Joshua Dobbs at Minnesota before the bye. Offensively, the Saints still seem to lack a true identity, but they’ve leaned in harder on the Taysom Hill package lately. Is this enough to take the NFC South? Maybe, but they still feel middling.
The Steelers are 12-5 over the past calendar year but have only outscored opponents by nine points in that span. The point differential this season along is minus-30. Pittsburgh’s 5-3 record paints a picture of a very good coach (Mike Tomlin) massaging enough games to keep the team close and win some late. But in order to make any postseason noise, this offense must awaken prior to the fourth quarter. The Steelers are being out-rushed by more than 40 yards per game and out-passed by more than 50, and the offense’s early-game sputtering is a big reason why. There’s hope, with the emergence of Jaylen Warren, Broderick Jones and Diontae Johnson, plus the expected return of Pat Freiermuth, but everything ultimately rests on Kenny Pickett and Matt Canada improving down the stretch.
I regret not having the foresight to have claimed Bucs-Texans for our “What We Learned” assignments, so I missed it live. Watching the TV replay put me all in my feelings. Sunday had to be surreal for Texans fans, seeing C.J. Stroud shatter rookie passing marks, while the beloved Dare Ogunbowale earned his own unique place in history as a kicker. Sure, the Texans tripped over the garden hose at Carolina in Week 8, but this season already has been a massive, revitalizing success. Houston can make a legitimate stab at the postseason, with most remaining games looking like true toss-ups. Whether they get in or not, the Texans are big winners, because they have Stroud, Will Anderson Jr., Tank Dell and other members of a young, emerging nucleus of talent. To think, many thought losing the No. 1 pick in Week 18 last season was disastrous. The Texans are doing just fine for themselves, thank you very much.
Forget for a moment that the Chargers roundly struggled to move the ball against a good Jets defense, having even more trouble than they experienced against the Cowboys. But when the special teams can deliver a punt-return TD and two field goals, and the defense can keep the opponent out of the end zone all game, well, all is forgiven for now. The Bolts at least were opportunistic offensively, turning three turnovers into 10 points and taking advantage of some short fields. But other than that, this puppy was all on a defense that has taken its share of beatings this season. This time, the unit delivered the punishment across the board. Even on a night when Justin Herbert couldn’t get much going, Los Angeles controlled the game from start to finish.
There’s just not much positive spin you can put on the Jets’ offensive performance Monday against a Chargers defense which hadn’t looked that good since it faced a since-fired coach (Josh McDaniels) and a fourth-round rookie making his first start (Aidan O’Connell). Zach Wilson had been trending in a relatively positive direction, but this game stunted that. There were impressive flashes here and there, but two early fumbles and a host of missed throws cost the Jets dearly in a home game that you have to figure they felt confident about winning coming in. But if Breece Hall or Garrett Wilson aren’t creating magic, this offense has very little hope these days, especially when it allows eight sacks.
Sunday’s win over the Panthers was a big performance for the defense, regardless of the opponent. A week after the Saints — the Saints! — shredded the Colts for 511 yards and 38 points, the defense cranked up the pass rush and turned in its first three-pick game of the season. Kenny Moore II‘s two house calls gave one of the league’s more underrated players some shine, and they provided the difference in the victory. I didn’t realize how much Indianapolis’ offense struggled offensively until I rewatched the game. The line looked shaky, and the Colts finished with four straight punts, not crossing midfield in the second half until the final kneeldowns. Indy has winnable games on the slate, but that kind of offensive execution isn’t going to cut it.
The Falcons have lost five of seven games, seemingly adrift in search of an offensive identity. It’s tough when switching between quarterbacks. Taylor Heinicke will get at least one more chance after his up-and-down start against the Vikings, with coach Arthur Smith saying Monday the position would be reassessed going into the Week 11 bye. Heinecke’s interception tilted the game in Minnesota’s favor, part of a tough second half (6-for-15 passing) for the veteran QB. The Falcons moved the ball but settled for four field goals early. Bijan Robinson is apparently a part-time back now, sharing time with Tyler Allgeier. And the defense allowed 31 points to Jaren Hall and Joshua Dobbs. Their road to the playoffs could end up hinging on the two remaining games against the Saints, a team that has had Atlanta’s number for years now.
Just as the Bucs’ passing game got cooking downfield vs. Houston on Sunday, their defense, which is typically very good, was flambéed. That this happened against the best rookie quarterback in the NFL will be of little solace for a Tampa team that lost its third straight one-score game and can’t seem to get all three units flowing simultaneously. Tampa played all two- and three-deep looks and tried to force C.J. Stroud to check down. Instead, Stroud carved up the Bucs’ zones relentlessly. The pass rush got home a few times, but Stroud seemed unfazed by it. So many good things came out of this game — including quality outings from Baker Mayfield, Rachaad White and Cade Otton — but the defense just had a bad day at the office.
Will Levis deserved more praise than shame for last Thursday’s loss to the Steelers. Levis’ inaccurate throws late, along with some missed opportunities prior to that, hurt the Titans’ chances of winning. But he mostly outplayed counterpart Kenny Pickett despite having only a few days to prepare for his second NFL start. If Levis can continue displaying starter-caliber traits and impressive consistency, he’ll have the inside track as the de facto 2024 QB1. The Titans are projected to be flush with salary-cap space; having a second-round QB under center would be more appealing than shopping for a veteran or drafting another prospect. As long as Mike Vrabel is coaching and Tennessee isn’t mathematically eliminated, this team will keep fighting, and the added pressure of a tough remaining schedule can only help clarify Levis’ evaluation.
Green Bay took baby steps on offense in the win over the Rams, as the run game was strong, and some of the Packers’ young playmakers got in on the fun a bit. Jordan Love not turning the ball over was another clear positive. Still, there’s only so much enthusiasm Green Bay can take away from this game, which featured too many empty possessions, including a missed field-goal try, two fumbles and a three-and-out (moving backward) after turning the Rams over on downs near midfield. There were also too many offensive penalties, mostly the result of apparent mental errors. The execution was not at all gorgeous, and it was a bit too close a game against a backup QB. The schedule stiffens significantly, so cleaning those errors up is essential.
Two wins before the Week 9 bye have changed the Broncos’ vector dramatically, and that’s thanks largely to the defense. Yes, the same unit that was humiliated by the Dolphins. The same group that gave up 28 and 31 points to the Bears and Jets, respectively. Since then, though, Denver allowed the Chiefs to score 28 points in eight quarters and held the Packers to 17 in four. There have been personnel changes in the secondary and up front, with Fabian Moreau, Ja’Quan McMillian, Jonathon Cooper and Nik Bonitto thriving in expanded roles, and multiple injured players returning after missing the toughest stretches of the season. Could the Broncos go to Buffalo and give a suddenly struggling Bills team some fits next Monday? You can’t rule it out.
The Raiders deserved some good fortune after the Josh McDaniels situation. Sunday was a solid day for Aidan O’Connell, the quarterback McDaniels apparently didn’t want to use, and I’m interested in seeing more of him. The overall vibe of the Raiders just seemed much better. Even with some poor run tackling, Las Vegas played well defensively, didn’t turn the ball over on offense and didn’t allow a sack (while posting eight itself). Hard to top that in terms of a positive debut for interim coach Antonio Pierce. Coaching changes can sometimes spur immediate results (just ask the Raiders, who lost to the Jeff Saturday-led Colts in his debut last year) before the momentum peters out. Or sometimes, a Rich Bisaccia or Steve Wilks can lead a sustained, inspired effort. The Raiders are not buried at 4-5.
Any talk of replacing Sam Howell has rightly dissipated, as he’s now strung together two more impressive games, on top of the ones he stacked earlier in the year. Who knows how the rest of the season will go? Either way, he should be considered the guy from here on out. Even though Howell is good for at least one regrettable play per game, he’s shown the kind of composure and dual-threat ability at least a dozen other teams (including the Patriots, whom he vanquished Sunday) would love to have at the QB position right now. The Commanders’ defense also deserves a back pat for turning in a strong team effort after losing its two top pass rushers. Credit to the replacements. There wasn’t a massive drop-off in Washington’s first game without Montez Sweat and Chase Young.
If Matthew Stafford misses more time, it’s hard to see a path for this team pulling itself out its three-game skid after the Week 10 bye. The good news is that they’ll have additional time to potentially try adding to the QB room. Brett Rypien has completed less than half his passes and averaged 4.5 yards per attempt in two relief appearances for Stafford. He also lost a big fumble early in Sunday’s loss to the Packers. It’s hard to sustain drives with that kind of QB production in an offense predicated on getting the ball to Cooper Kupp and Puka Nacua downfield. Both were quieted by a young Green Bay secondary. Credit the Rams’ plucky but undermanned defense for keeping the game close on the road, but the team’s limitations without a healthy No. 9 are just too glaring right now.
If Sunday was the last we’ll be seeing of Tyson Bagent for a minute, it was a tough way to go out. Any honest Bears fan would say that Bagent had acquitted himself quite well prior to the loss to the Saints, and really, that narrative held up for three quarters against New Orleans, too. That’s how quickly things can change. Bagent’s three fourth-quarter turnovers — all committed while the Bears were within one score — ended any chance of a road comeback. Justin Fields might have a chance to play when Chicago hosts the Panthers on Thursday Night Football. You want to see as much of Fields as possible going forward, with his future possibly hitting a fork in the road this offseason. At 2-7, that should be the whole focus of the backstretch.
Bill Belichick having to answer near-weekly questions about his job status will never not be weird for me. The Patriots’ ship sailed so straightly for so long, the fact that it’s been adrift for a few years now has just been so strange. There’s little mystery to New England’s troubles, with quarterback Mac Jones being a talent-dependent game manager on a mostly talent-bereft team. The weaknesses are not just at the skill positions, but that’s part of it. And thanks to the Patriots’ gross rash of injuries on defense, that group is a very un-Belichickian shell of itself. The whole thing feels unstable and untenable. Even with the news last month of Belichick’s offseason extension, nothing about his future in New England feels certain. That probably applies to Jones, too.
With Daniel Jones‘ ACL tear coming in a loss to a team led by an interim head coach and rookie QB, the Giants’ nightmare season has darkened even further than might have seemed possible. With Jones out indefinitely and Tyrod Taylor on injured reserve, Tommy DeVito overcame some rough early moments to put forward a respectable effort, and the run blocking helped spring Saquon Barkley to his best rushing average (5.6) of the season. But it’s tough to summon too much excitement, with injuries crushing any hope of offensive growth and the reality of a high draft pick incoming. Sunday felt like the first time you could fairly have a conversation about the future under center, with Jones’ long-term health clouding the picture and some tempting QB prospects possibly being within reach come April.
In the span of a week, the narrative around Bryce Young has flipped again. The Week 8 win over the Texans (and OROY favorite C.J. Stroud) was a big accomplishment, and it was Young’s personal high-water mark. But everything that happened in the loss to Indianapolis on Sunday seemingly undercut that, to the point where some of us are again debating whether Young was the right pick at No. 1 overall. It didn’t help that Stroud had a career game Sunday, but this was more about Young’s struggles. The Panthers scored 13 points, and Young gave up 14 on two pick-sixes. On 43 dropbacks, Carolina netted 137 pass yards. On 28 runs, the Panthers gained 138. Now is the problem clear? The Young debate can’t realistically be settled for a few years, but losing a potential top-five pick in 2024 adds some salt and vinegar to Carolina’s wounds.
Jonathan Gannon, who has had his team ready to play most weeks, looked helpless at the sight of Clayton Tune being overwhelmed by Cleveland’s defense. Help is on the way with Kyler Murray, who could have up to eight games — with the next three indoors — to prove himself as the 2024 starter, assuming he’s cleared to play soon. Winning and losing is less material, given the 1-8 start; having Murray run Drew Petzing’s offense extensively will be important for the long term. But there’s a catch: Petzing must find a way to scheme up better blocking. Arizona’s O-line was completely dominated against Cleveland, and Murray must stay healthy.