Week 4 is usually a good time to start truly evaluating teams. After all, we’re now a month into the season; we’re learning which teams are true contenders, and which are merely pretenders. Yet, with so many upsets occurring, there is still a lot of uncertainty and movement around the NFL. So, which teams are rising, and which teams are falling? Let’s investigate.
#32: Miami Dolphins (Previous Rank: 32)
Result: Lost 30-10 vs LAC
Top Performer: LB Raekwon McMillan
At this point, the entire football world is aware that the Dolphins are tanking in hopes of landing the top pick in the draft. Well, those aspirations were tested on Sunday; Miami was actually tied with the Chargers in the second quarter. From there, though, they allowed 20 easy unanswered points in what turned out to be another blowout loss. The loss isn’t the main concern with Miami. Rather, the issue is the lack of production they’re getting from young players they’ve invested in. Defensively, interior defensive lineman Christian Wilkins continues to show little promise as a pass rusher, linebacker Jerome Baker has been awful this season, and corner Xavien Howard continues to disappoint after becoming the highest-paid player at his position. On the other side of the ball, Josh Rosen may not have much help, but he’s certainly not proving to be the long-term answer at the position, and young offensive lineman Michael Deiter continues to struggle. Right now, the Dolphins are flawed in every aspect of the game, and lack the cornerstones necessary to exercise a quick rebuild; there’s no reason, outside of their three first-round picks, to anticipate the team being much better next season. On the bright side for Dolphins fans struggling with this tanking process, the team has their bye next week.
#31: Cincinnati Bengals (Previous Rank: 29)
Result: Lost 27-3 at PIT
Top Performer: CB William Jackson III
With multiple close road loses to the Seahawks and Bills, the Bengals appeared to have some hope; they were still competitive. All of that was completely squandered on Monday, where they were destroyed by a previously winless Steelers team. To be frank, it was a pathetic performance all-around. Quarterback Andy Dalton played terribly, and it doesn’t have that the offensive line was incapable of blocking Pittsburgh’s pass rush. The team has some playmakers in receivers Tyler Boyd and John Ross, as well as running back Joe Mixon, but between Dalton and this offensive line, they’re of no use, which is a shame because head coach Zac Taylor has showed some promise as a play-caller. Meanwhile, defensively, the Bengals couldn’t generate any sort of pressure, and they once again struggled to make open-field tackles. It’s a difficult time for the Bengals, who are in prime position to challenge the Dolphins for the #1 overall pick. However, they do have a legitimate shot of notching their first win of the year; they host the winless Cardinals.
#30: New York Giants (Previous Rank: 31)
Result: Won 24-3 vs WSH
Top Performer: CB Janoris Jenkins
All of a sudden, the Giants actually have a .500 record and are 2-0 in the Daniel Jones era. Yet, rather than overreacting to this small sample size, context needs to be added. New York, and Jones, in particular, did not play as well as the final score would indicate. The sixth overall pick showed some flashes, but he also threw two interceptions, and earned a modest 65 grade from Pro Football Focus. Plus, although the Giants were strong defensively, a lot of that came from the Redskins’ incompetence at quarterback. Case Keenum missed multiple would-be-touchdowns on blown coverages, and if he connected on even one of those, perhaps this game ends with a much different result. Instead, their secondary, which is still amongst the league’s worst, was able to take advantage of rookie Dwayne Haskins, who clearly was not ready to play. So yes, the Giants have won back-to-back games and have some momentum, but they’ve had so many breaks go their way, and until they are truly tested, they remain one of the worst non-tanking teams in the NFL. Still, a win against the Vikings next week look certainly change that.
#29: New York Jets (Previous Rank: 28)
Top Performer: N/A
Until Sam Darnold fully recovers from mononucleosis, the Jets could seriously have the worst offense in NFL history. Third-string quarterback Luke Falk is full of limitations, and as a result, this offense is essentially Le’Veon Bell or bust. Meanwhile, defensive coordinator Gregg Williams is being exposed for trying to be too aggressive with a very poor defense; this team is a mess right now. Even after their bye week, New York stands close to zero chance this season; they have a brutal schedule coming out, and that starts with a rough matchup at Philadelphia.
#28: Oakland Raiders (Previous Rank: 30)
Result: Won 31-24 at IND
Top Performer: C Rodney Hudson
The Raiders may lack talent on both sides of the ball, but give them credit, they’re very pesky. Head coach Jon Gruden has the team playing with a lot of energy, and as a result, they were able to pull off an upset victory in Indianapolis. Unlike most poorly put together teams, the Raiders are actually strong in the offensive trenches, which was evident this weekend. Derek Carr had a lot of protection, which allowed him to have another solid day through the air, while the team also was able to run the ball efficiently with rookie Josh Jacobs. However, the main surprise with Oakland’s performance was how the fared defensively. Yes, Jacoby Brissett isn’t a world-beater and star receiver TY Hilton didn’t play, but the Raiders got encouraging play from their secondary, especially corner Gareon Conley, and didn’t look incapable against the run, like they did last week. This isn’t a playoff contender by any means – Oakland would be lucky to win four to five games – but they are identifying some key players they can build around; for once, the Raiders look to have some sort of direction, which is definitely progress. Unfortunately for them, they have to travel to London to take on the fearsome Bears defense led by a familiar face: Khalil Mack.
#27: Washington Redskins (Previous Rank: 27)
Result: Lost 24-3 at NYG
Top Performer: CB Quinton Dunbar
The Redskins aren’t even the most talent-deficient team. In fact, one could argue that their overall talent could make them a five-win team. Yet, this is a very dysfunctional organization, and as a result, they’re in serious contention for the #1 overall pick. As mentioned earlier, Keenum was awful in this game, head coach Jay Gruden, likely sensing the hot seat he’s been on, put rookie Dwayne Haskins in the game. That didn’t go as planned; Haskins threw three interceptions and had a putrid 36.3 grade from Pro Football Focus. Who would’ve guessed that putting in a rookie quarterback that wasn’t ready into a game without your starting receiver, center, or right guard on the road would turn out to be a major failure? Maybe, if they weren’t in the middle of the silliest stand-off with star tackle Trent Williams, their offense wouldn’t be so stagnant? The defense actually played really well in this game, especially their defensive line, which they’ve invested in, and cornerback Quinton Dunbar proved to be a solid #2 corner with two terrific interceptions. Still, this team stands no chance with the way it’s currently run; Haskins should sit until the circumstances improve, and that’s definitely not this week, as they host the Patriots.
#26: Jacksonville Jaguars (Previous Rank: 25)
Result: Won 26-24 at DEN
Top Performer: WR DJ Chark Jr.
When they were 0-2 and corner Jalen Ramsey requested a trade, the Jaguars look finished. Now? They’re 2-2 and are in a four-way tie for first place in the AFC South. It wasn’t pretty, bad in a tough environment in Denver, Jacksonville was able to get a much-needed win. Quarterback Gardner Minshew wasn’t quite the sensation he had been, but a major reason for that was poor play from the offensive tackles, and he’s forming a tremendous connection with receiver DJ Chark Jr., who’s surprisingly emerged as their top receiver. Yes, Leonard Fournette ran for 225 yards, but it’s Jacksonville’s revived passing attack that’s the real story of this offense; how Minshew plays moving forward will dictate their success. Defensively, they did well in coverage despite not having Ramsey (back injury), despite their impressive pass rush surprisingly struggling. This isn’t a flashy team, but Mishnew gives them something they’ve lacked; competent quarterback play. Ramsey’s situation will determine this team’s overall playoff chances, but they certainly have a pulse, and could make a statement if they can win on the road this Sunday against the Panthers.
#25: Arizona Cardinals (Previous Rank: 24)
Result: Lost 27-10 vs SEA
Top Performer: CB Byron Murphy
Did the Cardinals blow their chance of getting a win when they simply tied the Lions in week one? Since that impressive fourth-quarter comeback versus Detroit, Arizona has regressed in every single game, and this week, their supposedly “innovative” offense hit rock-bottom. Kyler Murray hasn’t been the problem, but the passing game is the issue; Arizona lacks any sort of receiving talent and the play-calling is both conservative and predictable. I still have faith in head coach Kliff Kingsbury to adjust to the NFL overtime, but this is very concerning; Murray’s progression is in danger of being stunted. At least there’s some hope with the defense, as second-round rookie corner Byron Murphy played really well and the pass rush was tremendous. Still, there are significant issues with this team, and if this team doesn’t improve, general manager Steve Kiem may not be back next year. They do have a chance at a win next week against the winless Bengals, but even then, it is a rough game, which is always difficult for a rookie quarterback.
#24: Indianapolis Colts (Previous Rank: 22)
Result: Lost 31-24 vs OAK
Top Performer: G Quenton Nelson
The Colts were short-handed this past week due to several key injuries (WR TY Hilton, FS Malik Hooker, and LB Darius Leonard), but with a winnable home game on slate against the Raiders, 3-1 still looked like a certainty for them. Instead, they put themselves in a hole early, and was never able to recover. Running back Marlon Mack went down with an injury in this game, and without Hilton as well, no one was able to step up. Tight end Eric Ebron, in particular, had three drops just in the first half, and appears to have had a fluke season last year. Meanwhile, Jacoby Brissett is a decent game manager, but he’s not capable of elevating the play of those around him, and that definitely showed in this game. Plus, it doesn’t help that the defense had just SEVEN total pressures, while their cornerbacks were awful this week. This a very rough loss for the Colts, who may not be able to bounce back from it; after all, they travel to Kansas City this weekend.
#23: Pittsburgh Steelers (Previous Rank: 26)
Result: Won 27-3 vs CIN
Top Performer: DL Cameron Heyward
The Steelers looked finished after failing to capitalize on five 49ers turnovers in week three, but give credit where credit is due; they played a near-flawless game on Monday Night. Second-year quarterback Mason Rudolph was very conservative and relied on checkdowns, but he was efficient and was an effective game manager; he allowed running backs James Conner and Jaylen Samuels, behind their magnificent offensive line, to steal the show. This offense will need to open up in the future in order to get their receivers more involved in the future, but this game plan worked for this game, and that’s a testament to the surprise performance from the defense. Cameron Heyward, TJ Watt, Bud Dupree, Stephon Tuitt, and even nose tackle Javon Hargrave were all able to harass Andy Dalton, and there’s no reason to believe that can’t continue to be an elite pass rush group in the future. It was the play from their linebackers, though, that was the most encouraging. Mark Barron will continue to be inconsistent, but rookie Devin Bush finally showed promise, especially in coverage. If he can continue to improve, this defense could be strong enough to allow this team exceed expectations; after all, they’re only a game out of the division, and could make a statement next week with a home win against the rival Ravens.
#22: Baltimore Ravens (Previous Rank: 21)
Result: Lost 40-25 vs CLE
Top Performer: QB Lamar Jackson
Is the Ravens’ hype train officially dead? Many were quick to call this team a top-five team after they jumped to 2-0 with wins against the Dolphins and Cardinals, but after playing two games against teams that actually have a win this season, they’ve now fallen to 2-2. Though many are to blame for the team’s loss to the Browns, that definitely isn’t applicable to Lamar Jackson, who was actually rather impressive, albeit against a secondary without their top two corners. Still, Baltimore is one of the few remaining teams that rely on their rushing attack to win games, but facing a very strong defensive line, that didn’t happen, and running back Mark Ingram’s fumble really hurt this team. The major surprise, though, was how poor this defense played. Given their issues with 11-personnel, it was reasonable to expect some issues against the Browns’ passing game, but they allowed Nick Chubb to rush for 165 yards, three touchdowns, and 8.2 yards per carry, which is really surprising considering that if anything, this defense should be able to defend the run. Perhaps, my initial concerns with this team are finally being met; Jackson is fine, but the offense relies on the running game and good defense, which isn’t sustainable, especially since their defense doesn’t have as much talent as one would assume. They do have a chance to rebound against the rival Steelers next week, but at this point, who knows?
#21: Tampa Bay Buccanneers (Previous Rank: 23)
Result: Won 55-40 at LAR
Top Performer: WR Chris Godwin
The Bucs definitely have their faults, which were seen in their heartbreaking loss to the Giants last week. Yet, they have the upside that some playoff contenders can’t match, and that was demonstrated in their upset victory against the Rams this weekend. For his part, after a poor week one outing, Jameis Winston has been solid this season, as have the players he’s throwing to: Chris Godwin and Mike Evans. Godwin, especially, is having the breakout season many thought he’d have, and so has running back Ronald Jones. If the Bucs play well in the offensive trenches, like they did this week, their abundance of playmakers gives them the ceiling of a top-five offense, which they met this week. It’s the defense, though, that’ll be the deciding factor for them. Edge rusher Shaquil Barrett had another seven pressures and an interception, which adds to his case to wrap up the defensive player of the year award early this season. Yet, he didn’t have to be a one-man wrecking crew; they had a total 40 pressures, which is absurd, and they took away Los Angeles’ zone-running game. The Bucs can beat any team, and they proved that this week with this impressive win. Now, they’ll look to build upon it and take control of the division with a win in New Orleans this week.
#20: Denver Broncos (Previous Rank: 20)
Result: Lost 26-24 vs JAX
Top Performer: FS Justin Simmons
In a must-win scenario for the Broncos this past weekend, they failed, and as a result, are pretty much finished; they’re 0-4 and have a tough schedule coming up. However, it’s not as though they’re an awful team. They’ve been within one score of three of their losses, had the lead with less than a minute to go in two of them, and their only convincing loss was to the Packers in Green Bay. At the very least, they did manage to generate pressure this game (25 pressures, 5 sacks), but even then, second-year edge rusher Bradley Chubb is out for the season with a partially torn ACL. That’s a major concern for them, as without a top-tier pass rush, their defense won’t be the elite unit it’s supposed to be. Their secondary has really struggled this game, even with the pressure put on Gardner Minshew, and star corner Chris Harris Jr. is quietly putting together his worst season yet, with a coverage grade of just 63, per Pro Football Focus. It’s a shame that head coach Vic Fangio’s defense has been such a disappointment; the offense has actually been fine. Joe Flacco isn’t a game-changer, but he’s been the game manager they were looking for, while the receiver duo of Emmanuel Sanders and Courtland Sutton has been terrific. Sanders, in particular, is interesting, as considering this team continues to slide, he could be an attractive trade chip. For now, though, the Broncos are in the worst position a team can be in; they aren’t a bad team, but they’ve put themselves in too large of a hole to overcome, and will spend the rest of the year trying to fight out of it, when it looks like it was simply not meant to be. Speaking of tough situations, an 0-5 start is a serious possibility; they face the Chargers in week five.
#19: Houston Texans (Previous Rank: 18)
Result: Lost 16-10 vs CAR
Top Performer: LB Benardrick McKinney
We want them to be a contender so bad, that it feels like we consistently ignore the reality that the Texans are nothing more than a mediocre football team. They essentially rely on three stars – Deshaun Watson, DeAndre Hopkins, and JJ Watt – to make up for all their flaws, and one of them struggles, they’ll incapable of winning. That was the case against the Panthers on Sunday; both Watson and Hopkins struggled, which led to them losing in a game in which they forced THREE fumbles. At some point, the offense cannot rely on improvisation from Watson; either head coach Bill O’Brien needs to make adjustments, or the team needs to make a change at head coach or at least offensive play-caller. Defensively, the linebackers, especially Benardrick McKinney, and the pass rush remain strong, but the secondary remains a major concern, and it’s not exactly encouraging that second-round rookie Lonnie Johnson Jr. continues to be a liability. This is simply a very thin team, and because of that, they’ll be very volatile, but are guaranteed to be at beast an 8-8 or 9-7 team. They have a chance to rebound against the Falcons at home this week, but with this team, all that is guaranteed is uncertainty.
#18: Buffalo Bills (Previous Rank: 19)
Result: Lost 16-10 vs NE
Top Performer: S Micah Hyde
They may not have won, but in remaining competitive with the Patriots, the Bills definitely had some small moral victories. For starters, the defense completely neutralized Tom Brady and New England’s offense, which provides promise for the future. Head coach Sean McDermott deserves a lot of credit for what he’s done with the defense; it’s rare to see Brady play as poorly as he did in this game. The entire secondary, especially the safeties, was marvelous, and really set the tone for this unit despite the pass rush only generating 14 pressures. Furthermore, second-year linebacker Tremaine Edmunds continued his tremendous sophomore season, and if he can continue to play like this, this defense is easily a top-three unit. The offense, on the other hand, was a major disappointment. Expectations were high for quarterback Josh Allen heading into his second season, but he’s been awful outside of an outlier week two performance against the Giants, and he threw three awful interceptions this week; Allen now has a 3-6 TD-INT ratio, which certainly not ideal. Even worse, Allen suffered a concussion in the fourth quarter, and his backup, Matt Barkley, was pretty much as uninspiring as advertised. With a strong offensive line, a solid rushing attack, and some weapons, there is some actual talent on this offense, but one has to wonder if quarterback play will continue to limit this unit, and this team as a whole, for the rest of the season. Buffalo remains a very intriguing team with an elite defense, but with a difficult road game in Tennesee next week, they’ll need better production from whoever starts at quarterback if they want to win.
#17: Atlanta Falcons (Previous Rank: 12)
Result: Lost 24-10 vs TEN
Top Performer: LB De’Vondre Campbell
When Drew Brees went down with a torn thumb ligament, the Falcons looked to be in the driver’s seat to win the NFC South. Instead, while New Orleans has accumulated two straight upset wins, Atlanta has lost two winnable games. Let’s be honest, a team with this much talent doesn’t have any business losing to the Titans at home. Yet, this isn’t your ordinary team. As per usual, the offense was able to move the ball down the field, but couldn’t make the big play when needed. Despite receiving solid pass protection, Matt Ryan wasn’t the top-ten quarterback the team needs him to be, and it was a quiet day for what was supposed to be the best receiving corps in baseball. Meanwhile, the rushing attack, despite DeVonta Freeman being back, was non-existent once again; this remains an unorganized, one-dimensional offense. However, the major red flag with this team is the defense. Despite facing a generally poor passing attack, Atlanta allowed several big plays through the air, and if they don’t improve in that department in a hurry, they stand little chance on defense. There’s still a lot of talent on this team, but these are the types of games that the Falcons need to win, and now, they face a must-win situation in Houston.
#16: Seattle Seahawks (Previous Rank: 17)
Result: Won 27-10 at ARI
Top Performer: EDGE Jadeveon Clowney
Road division games are always more difficult than usual, but the Seahawks were still able to make easy work of the division-rival Cardinals, which they desperately needed after a disappointing home loss to the Saints last week. Edge rusher Jadeveon Clowney didn’t have a sack, but he did have five pressures and a pick-six; he was the versatile piece Seattle envisioned him being when they traded for him. He wasn’t the only player who played well on the defense this week; corners Shaquill Griffen and Tre Flowers played a major role in stopping Arizona’s air-raid offense, and the duo of Poona Ford and Quinton Jefferson on the interior of the defensive line was also fantastic. Meanwhile, despite quarterback Russell Wilson having a slight off day, the Seahawks were able to do enough offensively to feed off that defensive performance, and considering that they didn’t build this team to win blowouts, the fact that the offense was focused on controlling the time of possession in old-school fashion isn’t a shocker. I’m still not certain on this team’s ability to beat winning teams, but they were able to take care of business, and could really set themselves up well with a win at home against the Rams on Thursday Night Football.
#15: Tennesee Titans (Previous Rank: 16)
Result: Won 24-10 at ATL
Top Performer: WR AJ Brown
The Titans are the definition of an inconsistent team, and that showed in their impressive victory in Atlanta. Coming off of back-to-back losses to the Colts and Jaguars, it would’ve been easy for them to flop in a difficult road game, but instead, they played with a certain amount of toughness that the Falcons simply couldn’t match. As the case with most middle-tier/low-end starting quarterbacks, Marcus Mariota remains impossible to get a proper read on, bouncing back with a strong performance in which he connected constantly with receivers AJ Brown and Corey Davis. Brown, a second-round rookie, looks like the #1 receiver they’ve been looking for, and if he truly is, perhaps the ceiling of this offense is greater than we thought. Furthermore, the offensive line held their own, and gets tackle Taylor Lewan back this week, and this offense as a whole was more explosive than usual. That’s promising; this defense is extremely underrated. For the first time this season, the Titans got solid play from corners Adoree’ Jackson and Malcolm Butler, which helped them overcome a rough day from top corner Logan Ryan. Furthermore, the pass rush, as expected, did well, and overall, the defense as a whole looked fluid. With a home game against the Bills, who may have to start Matt Barkley, this team has a chance to take control of the division, but knowing their tendencies, it’s not a great idea to count on them to do so.
#14: Chicago Bears (Previous Rank: 13)
Result: Won 16-6 vs MIN
Top Performer: EDGE Khalil Mack
The Bears may have lost quarterback Mitch Trubisky to a shoulder injury early in this game, but that didn’t affect them; they dominated against the Vikings in a divisional game that they needed to win. Chase Daniel is a decent backup quarterback, but he exposed the true state of the Bears; they only need a game manager to win, and in that respect, the veteran may be the better option Trubisky. After all, there are a lot of weapons on this offense, including two dynamic running backs and three receivers, especially Allen Robinson, who proved once again to be a true #1 receiver. It was exciting to see this offense, behind a nice performance from the offensive line, function the way head coach Matt Nagy wants the unit to. Additionally, the defense remained without a doubt the league’s best, excelling in coverage while Khalil Mack continued to make his case as arguably the best defensive player in the entire league. This is the formula for the Bears to win games, and despite a mediocre start to the season, they’re 3-1 and are in a terrific position to make the playoffs and possibly win the NFC North. They’ll travel to London this weekend, but luckily for them, they have a very winnable game against the Raiders.
#13: Cleveland Browns (Previous Rank: 11)
Result: Won 40-25 at BAL
Top Performer: RB Nick Chubb
On Sunday, what fans had been trying to ignore came to fruition: the Browns are easily the best team in the AFC North. It wasn’t going to easy to win at Baltimore, but Cleveland was in control of this game from the beginning and took several steps forward in this game. One major progression was an improved offensive scheme from head coach Freddie Kitchens, who called much more plays from 12 personnel, which is where they excelled last season. As a result, they were able to run the football efficiently with Nick Chubb, which is something they couldn’t do through the first three weeks. That opened up the passing attack for Baker Mayfield, as they weren’t completely one-dimensional, and although Odell Beckham Jr. was very quiet, Jarvis Landry had a huge game. Mayfield still has issues staying in the pocket, but this change in offensive scheme will make the offense less predictable, and thus allow it to function more; the talent they have will finally be utilized properly. It wasn’t a great game for the defense, but still, the story of this game was the offense, and considering that Cleveland should be getting their top two cornerbacks this week, I’m not concerned. This was a win that the Browns need to build off of, but it’ll be arduous; they travel to San Francisco to take on the undefeated 49ers on Monday Night Football.
#12: Detroit Lions (Previous Rank: 14)
Result: Lost 34-30 vs KC
Top Performer: CB Justin Coleman
The Lions may not have won this weekend, but a case can be made they had the most impressive performance of week four. Without a doubt, Detroit outplayed the explosive Chiefs, and if a few breaks would’ve gone their way instead of Kansas City’s, they would’ve won this game with ease. Matt Stafford had another terrific performance, showing the aggressiveness and ability to make throws that few quarterbacks can make, which he lacked last year. Furthermore, receiver Kenny Golladay has become their receiver the team has been lacking since Calvin Johnson Jr. retired, and for the most part, the offensive line held their own in pass protection. It was never going to be easy to slow down the Chiefs offense, but they did their best. The pass rush wasn’t there, but all-around, the coverage was excellent, even without top corner Darius Slay; nickel corner Justin Coleman is living up to the four-year contract he signed with Detroit in free agency. Yes, this was a heartbreaking loss for the Lions, but this definitely was a moral victory; I’m more impressed with them now than I was before this game. They’ll have a chance to regroup as Slay gets healthy during their bye, which is huge since a trip to Green Bay awaits them in week six.
#11: Carolina Panthers (Previous Rank: 10)
Result: Won 16-10 at HOU
Top Performer: RB Christian McCaffrey
After putting themselves in a very tough predicament with back-to-back home losses to start the reason, the Panthers were going to need to win games on the road with backup quarterback Kyle Allen, which they’ve done two weeks in a row. In this win against the Texans, Carolina certainly wasn’t flashy, and made several mistakes, but they did enough to earn a victory. Allen, especially, was much worse this week than he was in the previous week, but as long as they have Christian McCaffrey, they’ll be fine, which is particuarly true since they also have playmakers at receiver in DJ Moore and Curtis Samuel, while the offensive line once again was solid in pass protection. It was the same story defensively, as there weren’t any noteworthy individual performances, but the pass rush still had 30 total pressures and the linebackers played well; head coach Ron Rivera schemed a intelligent gameplan to slow down the starpower on the Texans offense. This was a huge victory for Carolina that could honestly define their season; they’ll head back home now in a winnable game against the Jaguars.
#10: New Orleans Saints (Previous Rank: 16)
Result: Won 12-10 vs DAL
Top Performer: SS Vonn Bell
The Saints were supposed to done after losing Drew Brees for at least six games with a torn thumb ligament. After all, they had to travel to Seattle and host the very talented Cowboys; they looked like a shoo-in to be 1-3. Somehow, though, they’re 3-1? Without Brees, the offense wasn’t the same, but they weren’t terrible. As expected, Dallas’ elite linebackers limited Alvin Kamara, but quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and receiver Michael Thomas made enough plays to set them up for four field goals, though in the future, they’ll need to be more efficient in the red zone. The offensive line did struggle against Dallas’ strong front seven, but given their track record, this can be attributed to them getting used to Bridgewater or simply an “off week”; they aren’t a concern yet. The defense, however, stole the show in this game. Dak Prescott wasn’t under a lot of pressure, but the secondary, which is usually a weakness, was incredible; both Eli Apple and Marshon Lattimore played well, while the safety duo of Marcus Williams and Vonn Bell continued to be an underatted aspect of this unit. Meanwhile, the front seven also took away star running back Ezekiel Elliot, while the tackling was as sound as it could be. If the defense continues to play like this, there’s a lot to like about the Saints, though it’s worth noting that they aren’t exactly a consistent unit, and the offense is still a work in progress. It won’t get easier for the defense this week; they’ll host the Buccanneers and their dangerous offense in week five.
#9: Minnesota Vikings (Previous Rank: 9)
Result: Lost 16-6 at CHI
Top Performer: EDGE Danielle Hunter
The Vikings have the talent to be an elite team, but their inability to beat winning teams, especially on the road, continues to hold them back. That was evident in this game; Minnesota was unable to win at Chicago against their backup quarterback. At this point, most NFL fans are aware of Kirk Cousins’ awful record against winning teams, which continues to get worse. He deserves a lot of the blame for this loss; he missed open receivers and held onto the ball too long. This team can’t expect to run for 150+ yards every game, especially with their weak offensive line, and considering they have an elite receiver duo of Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs, it would behoove them to use him. It gets worse for the Vikings offense; first-round rookie center Garrett Bradbury is off to one of the worst starts for any center in recent history, and at some point, the team needs to either see improvement or make a change at the position; practically any lineman can play better than he currently is. It’s a shame the offense is so inconsistent; this defense continues to the dominant unit it was in 2017. Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen have been forces to be reckoned with on the edges, and the run defense remains elite without focusing on stopping it. At some point, the secondary, as well as linebacker Anthony Barr, need to play better, but this is a very talented defense that is arguably a top-five unit. The current issues with this are about the game plan rather than the players executing it, and assuming adjustments are made, I still have hope that this will be a playoff contender. They’re in prime position to move above .500 this week; they play the Giants on the road.
#8: Green Bay Packers (Previous Rank: 6)
Result: Lost 34-27 vs PHI
Top Performer: WR Davante Adams
With a Thursday Night Football matchup against the injured Eagles, the Packers had a chance to go to 4-0 and establish themselves as the class of the NFC. Not only were they not successful in doing so, but they proved to not be the extremely balanced roster that they appeared to be in the first three weeks. Aaron Rodgers did play well in this game, as did Davante Adams. However, once Adams got hurt, Rodgers essentially had to carry the offense; there aren’t any other receivers on this roster capable of creating seperation and being consistently reliable. Considering Adams is out with turf toe in week five, that’s a huge red flag; Green Bay needs to pursure receivers Emmanuel Sanders and AJ Green via trades. On defense, the Packers’ run defense was poor, but that’s not something to be worried about. What’s a larger concern, rather, is that their seemingly revamped secondary struggled, while they also only had 14 pressures. The Packers are still the best team in the NFC North, but they’re far from a flawless team; linebacker and receiver are huge problems. With a road matchup against the Cowboys this week, they’ll be in for a major challenge; this is a game that they’ll want back.
#7: Los Angeles Rams (Previous Rank: 4)
Result: Lost 55-40 vs TB
Top Performer: CB Marcus Peters
Speaking of teams who had a chance to go to 4-0, the Rams, as 9-point favorities, had an excellent opportunity to do so at home against the Bucs. Instead, they laid a major egg. Honestly, the final score of this game was a lot closer than it actually was; Tampa Bay blew them out. Quarterback Jared Goff continues to have a mediocre season, which is a problem, considering they just signed him to a contract extension worth $134 million. However, a bigger issue, and something that could hamper their entire season, is the putrid play of their offensive line. They currently rank as the league’s worst unit, according to Pro Football Focus, and put together a miserable performance in this game; they allowed 40 pressures and also couldn’t run-block whatsoever. Head coach Sean McVay needs to make adjustments to improve this offense; the league has caught onto his scheme, and there’s too much invested in this unit for them to continue to struggle. It’s not as though the defense was horrible – they were put in a lot of short fields – but the pass rush hasn’t been as strong as expected, and there were multiple blown coverages that cost them. Right now, the quality of this team is significantly lower than it was last year; if they don’t win in Seattle on Thursday Night Football, they’ll continue to fall down these rankings.
#6: San Francisco 49ers (Previous Rank: 8)
Top Performer: N/A
With multiple defensive players dealing with injuries, an early bye week was needed for the 49ers, although one could argue that their 3-0 record says otherwise. So far, we’ve seen a significantly improved offense; Jimmy Garrapolo has gotten better in every game, the rushing attack is doing well, and despite the loss of tackle Joe Staley, the offensive line is playing fine. Furthermore, their secondary has been fantastic, and the pass rush duo of Dee Ford and Nick Bosa has been as terrific as advertised. They haven’t had a super difficult schedule – they’ve played the Bengals and Steelers – but I’m buying into this team as a potential Super Bowl contender; Kyle Shanahan is one of the best offensive play-callers and head coaches in football, and this team should only continue to get better overtime. They have a huge matchup on Monday Night Football at home against the Browns; another win could put them in the driver’s seat in the NFC West.
#5: Los Angeles Chargers (Previous Rank: 5)
Result: Won 30-10 at MIA
Top Performer: QB Phillip Rivers
With so many injuries and a tough 1-2 start, the Chargers were in desperate need of a bye week. Well, they got one this week; they had the luxury of playing the Dolphins. It was closer in the first half than expected, but still, it was no surprise to see them win by three scores. Yes, it was against Miami, but Phillip Rivers was outstanding in this game, as the offensive line actually gave him some sort of pass protection in this game. Plus, although Melvin Gordon is back, Austin Ekeler continues to prove to be the superior option at running back; the idea of those two as a tandem is scary and potentially game-changing, even at a non-valuable position. Los Angeles’ defense was only able to managed 17 pressures and wasn’t spectacular in coverage, but they’re still very talented on that side of the ball; this is still a deep team capable of making a deep playoff push once some of their key players come back, and with the 0-4 Broncos up next, they have a chance to continue to succeed in survival mode.
#4: Dallas Cowboys (Previous Rank: 3)
Result: Lost 12-10 at NO
Top Performer: SS Jeff Heath
Have you heard this story before? An NFC team with a chance to advance to 4-0 against a team they’re expected to beat, yet failing to do so? The Cowboys fall right into that category, they scored just ten points against a Saints defense that previously looked terrible and lost to a team led by Teddy Bridgewater. Though the execution wasn’t great, Dallas ran a lot less play-action and was much more conservative on early downs, which was the opposite of what they had been doing with Kellen Moore as offensive coordinator. Hopefully, this isn’t a sign of things to come with Moore; in comfortable situations, his play-calling was tremendous, and now, he’ll have to make adjustments. Dak Prescott wasn’t terrible, but the offensive line did take a major step back, and notably, running back Ezekiel Elliot simply hurt this team in this game. Getting reciever Michael Gallup back will help, but if this is how the offense fares when they don’t play a losing football team, they’ll be in the same boat as last year. At the very least, the Cowboys continued to be elite defensively. The linebackers, Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith, limited Alvin Kamara, the safeties played well, and perhaps most importantly, Robert Quinn appears to be the #2 edge rusher opposite of Demarcus Lawrence that the team was lacking last season. This wasn’t a horrible loss, but it’s one that’ll sting, and also one that makes it tough to get a grasp on the true state of this team. How they do against the Packers, especially without tackle Tyron Smith, will be intriguing to see; this could be a true Super Bowl contender, but they also may be the “pretender” that they were last year.
#3: Kansas City Chiefs (Previous Rank: 2)
Result: Won 34-30 at DET
Top Performer: DT Chris Jones
The Chiefs may have won this week, but in a way, they’re another top-tier team that struggled this week. After all, luck played a major role in the road victory in Detroit; they needed two fumble recoveries at the goal line, a late game drive, and other breaks in order to win a game in which they were clearly outplayed. Many are quick to give Patrick Mahomes the MVP, but in reality, he still continues to make some mistakes and hasn’t been close to as dominant as last year, and it doesn’t help that Sammy Watkins and Mecole Hardman played badly despite the Lions not having their top corner in Darius Slay. Obviously, the offense will get better overtime; Tyreek Hill will eventually return from his shoulder injury and there’s so much talent for them not to be a top-three unit at worse. They’ll need to be, as the defense is still as substandard as it was last year. Chris Jones is a monster on the interior defensive line, but edge rusher Frank Clark has been a flat-out bust, and as a result, the pass rush hasn’t been what Kansas City has needed them to be. Considering that no cornerback on this roster is playing well at the moment, and linebacker Damien Wilson continues to see-saw from being an elite coverage linebacker to a liability, and this is a bottom-five defense, and until the offense plays better, this isn’t a top-two team in football. On the bright side, they’re still undefeated, and that will likely remain the case after this week; they host the Colts on Sunday Night Football.
#2: Philadelphia Eagles (Previous Rank: 7)
Result: Won 34-27 at GB
Top Performer: TE Zach Ertz
With a roster decimated by injuries and no momentum following two rough losses, it wouldn’t have been difficult to imagine the Eagles coming out flat in a tough primetime matchup in Green Bay. Rather than doing that, they answered the call, and as a result, have to be considered the best team in the NFC. Right now, my MVP vote would definitely go to Carson Wentz, who has been amazing this season despite issues with injuries and drops with the receiving corps, and this week, he put together another tremendous performance. Meanwhile, both tight ends (Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert) were fantastic, which allowed them to utlize more heavy packages to make up for their lack of tight end depth. Plus, it doesn’t hurt that the offensive line neutralized one of the best pass rushes in all of football. Once vertical threat DeSean Jackson comes back from injury, this offense could make its claim for being the league’s best, and that’s without mentioning the solid running back duo fo Miles Sanders and Jordan Howard, plus one of the best play-callers in head coach Doug Pederson. At some point, the defense will need to improve on the back-end, but for now, their ability to pressure the quarterback (Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham had a combined 19 pressures) will allow them to continue to complement the offense. Overall, this is a very deep team, and once they get healthier, and they’ll once again be the best team in the NFC. They do have a tough schedule coming up, but at least they have what looks to be as close to a easy win as possible; they host the Jets.
#1: New England Patriots (Previous Rank: 1)
Result: Won 16-10 at BUF
Top Performer: CB JC Jackson
For three weeks, the Patriots were as close to a flawless team as possible. Well, they showed their faults against the Bills, and still managed to win. Tom Brady was actually really bad in this game, and even with strong play from the offensive line, the offense honestly accomplished nothing in this game. Yet, the defense continues to be arguably the top unit in the NFL. The secondary, especially JC Jackson, was terrific, and as per usual, they forced turnovers (4 interceptions) with ease. They also finally established a pass rush (30 pressures), and had an answer for anything the Bills attempted offensively. The fact that the Patriots could get such a poor performance from Brady and still win against a solid team on the road is super impressive; this remains by far the top team in the NFL, and with an easy road matchup against the dysfunctional Redskins up next, they could remain undefeated through week five, and much longer.