We’re through another week of football, and man, did we have some shocking outcomes. Starting with the three entertaining games on Saturday, and with some major upsets on Sunday, there was definitely cause for some major movement in these power rankings, especially within the middle tier. So, who’s trending up, and who’s trending down? Let’s rank every NFL team after 16 weeks, assigning them grades for their performances and highlighting a top performer.
#32: Miami Dolphins (Previous Rank: 32)
Result: Won 38-35 vs CIN
Top Performer: LB Sam Eguavoen
The Dolphins may still rank last in these rankings, as they have zero talent whatsoever, but one thing is for certain- they nailed their head coaching hire of Brian Flores, who has kept this team competitive all season long. He may have little help around him, but Ryan Fitzpatrick has found a way to thrive, and as a result, this is a very functional passing attack. Plus, it helps that Devante Parker has emerged as a true #1 receiver, while Isaiah Ford and Albert Wilson have also played better. Heck, even the offensive line has played better in recent weeks; obviously, more talent needs to be added to the offense, but still, perhaps they aren’t as depleted as we once anticipated. As for the defense, it’s been a struggle for them, but they have gotten production from unknown players, as in this game, linebacker Sam Eguaveon and interior defensive lineman Zach Sieler stepped up for them. Miami may be entering the beginning stages of their rebuilds, but with so much cap space and three first-round picks, they’ll be able to add impact talent, so what’s important is building a winning culture. That’s what Flores had done, so although they didn’t land a top-three pick, this season has to be seen as a success for the Dolphins.
#31: Jacksonville Jaguars (Previous Rank: 30)
Result: Lost 24-12 at ATL
Top Performer: S Jarrod Wilson
What do the Jaguars have working for them? They’re in salary cap crisis because of the investments they’ve made to try to win now, yet they’re easily one of the worst teams in the NFL. Their offense that was showing some promise in the middle of the season? They’ve been awful in recent weeks, as Gardner Minshew is showing why he was a sixth-round pick; he’s too limited to be considered anything more than a backup. Furthermore, while DJ Chark Jr. is a decent receiver, he’s essentially all they have to build on with their offense; offensive line, quarterback, and receiver are all critical needs. The issue is, it’s not as though their defense is any better; in fact, they’re the weaker unit. They actually did a reasonable job limiting Atlanta’s passing attack, as safety Jarrod Wilson and corner Tre Herndon played well, but still, their stars let them down. Cornerback AJ Bouye and edge rusher Yannik Ngakoue have been extremely inconsistent, which Jacksonville can’t afford given their lack of depth; their run defense and attempts at tackling are as poor as it gets. The Jaguars do have two first-round picks next year, but what difference does it make? This team essentially needs talent at every single position, and yet, doesn’t even have the resources to fill half of those holes. They’re heading towards a long, and painful rebuild; Tom Coughlin’s firing should be the start of a massive overhaul.
#30: Cincinnati Bengals (Previous Rank: 31)
Result: Lost 38-35 at MIA
Top Performer: CB Darius Phillips
After losing to the Dolphins, the Bengals have officially clinched the #1 pick in next year’s draft. That’s excellent news for the franchise, as they’ll be able to secure the franchise quarterback they’ve desperately needed in LSU’s Joe Burrow. Andy Dalton is a decent bridge quarterback, but he’s incapable of elevating the talent around him, and that’s been evident with Cincinnati’s offense this season. The offensive line has actually done well in pass protection recently, and the skill position player isn’t bad, but yet, they haven’t clicked; is that an inditement on Dalton or head coach Zac Taylor, who’s really underwhelmed in his first season. Defensively, edge rusher Carlos Dunlap has continued his magnificent season, but yet, they’re very weak outside of the defensive line; cornerback William Jackson III went from being a player on the rise to a major disappointment. It’s clear where the Bengals go from here, as they’ll move on from Dalton, draft Burrow, and add offensive line and defensive talent. It’ll certainly be a couple of years before they can compete, but if Burrow is the generational prospect he appears to be, then you never know. With the #1 pick secured, they’ll look to cap off their season with a win against the reeling Browns.
#29: Carolina Panthers (Previous Rank: 27)
Result: Lost 38-6 at IND
Top Performer: S Tre Boston
Halfway through the season, the Panthers were a fringe top-ten team in these rankings, and looked like a serious playoff contender. Well, they’ve engaged in a complete free fall, which truly bottomed out in their embarrassing loss in Indianapolis this past Sunday. Quarterback play has doomed Carolina all season long, but this time, it was third-round rookie Will Grier who was the culprit, as he struggled to complete any pass that wasn’t a checkdown. That pretty much summarizes Carolina’s offense, which completely runs through running back Christian McCaffrey, and is thus a serious problem. We don’t know the health status of Cam Newton, but regardless, the Panthers need to look to either draft a quarterback or sign a veteran this offseason. As far as the defense is concerned, it’s a little more complicated. Their key players, such as linebacker Luke Kuechly, are aging, and because of that, the unit as a whole is very slow. Heck, they actually did a fine job of neutralizing the Colts’ passing offense, but as per usual, they couldn’t stop the run to save their lives; they and the Jaguars have the worst run defenses that I’ve honestly ever seen. They’ll have a huge offseason ahead of them as they need to hire a coach and lead decision-maker, AND have to address Newton’s future. In other words, their final home game against the Saints can’t come soon enough.
#28: Washington Redskins (Previous Rank: 29)
Result: Lost 41-35 vs NYG
Top Performer: QBs Dwayne Haskins and Case Keenum
Unfortunately for the Redskins, Dwayne Haskins’ season is over after suffering a high ankle sprain in their loss to the Giants. Yet, it shouldn’t be all doom and gloom for Washington. After all, in his 35 snaps, Haskins was extremely impressive, and even when he went out, Case Keenum led an offense that scored 35 points; star rookie receiver Terry McLaurin being consistently spectacular is a major boost, and next season under Haskins and hopefully an offensive head coach, there should be optimism about Washington’s ability to score points in the future. Ironically, the defense is the primary concern, despite them having some big-name players: safety Landon Collins, first-round picks Jonathan Allen, Daron Payne, and Montez Sweat. They weren’t able to pressure Daniel Jones at all, and because of that, the rookie quarterback completely carved up their secondary. Heck, despite having a talented defensive line, they’ve also shown no ability to stop the run. The Redskins have major work to do on both sides of the ball, particularly the defense, but unlike teams like the Jaguars and Panthers, they at least have some hope. That’s more than I would have said a month or two ago, and considering this loss could land them the #2 pick that they can use on star edge rusher Chase Young; they’re finally making some progress, though it’d be very symbolic if they blew the chance to draft Young by beating the Cowboys next week.
#27: New York Giants (Previous Rank: 28)
Result: Won 41-35 at WSH
Top Performer: RB Saquon Barkley
Two weeks ago, the Giants appeared to be on their way to “earning” the second overall pick in next year’s draft. Now, they’ll be lucky to have a top-five pick. Perhaps we shouldn’t adopt a desolate tone though, considering that they’ve won two straight and got some encouraging performances from their building blocks. It all starts with the quarterback, as upon his return from an ankle injury, Daniel Jones had arguably the best game of his rookie season, which speaks to the upside that he clearly presents. Plus, he’s also supported well by the talent around him; running back Saquon Barkley is back to being the elite dual-threat he was last year, receivers Golden Tate and Sterling Shepard are sure-handed targets, and for all the criticism they receive, this actually a pretty capable offensive line. Depending on who the head coach is next year, there’s an actual cause for optimism with the offense, but unfortunately for New York, the same can definitely not be said about the defense. As per usual, they were effective in stopping the run, but of course, that didn’t matter, as their pass defense was once again a liability. Now that they won’t be able to select Chase Young, adding linebackers and defensive backs have to be the focus, as their inability to address those two positions has held the team back. As far as this season is concerned, considering they’ve compromised their draft position, they might as well try to spoil the Eagles’ division title with another promising performance by Jones.
#26: New York Jets (Previous Rank: 24)
Result: Won 16-10 vs PIT
Top Performer: S Marcus Maye
The Jets may have won their sixth game in Week 16, but it sure didn’t feel like it- they didn’t play well, and only really won because of Pittsburgh’s mistakes. They faced a very tough defense, but New York’s offense still disappointed greatly; Sam Darnold had one of his worst performances of the season, and honestly, no one outside of him stepped up. So it goes for a unit that has stagnated tremendously under head coach Adam Gase, whose misuse of his personnel is simply baffling. In fact, this win was a product of Gregg Williams’ ability to scare an inexperienced quarterback in Devlin Hodges, though credit should be given to the Jets’ pass coverage, especially safety Marcus Maye; the Florida product had an interception and a clutch pass breakup to seal the game. Despite their 6-9 record, New York still has the talent of a team with half those wins; general manager Joe Douglas will need to fill several holes, but it starts with helping Darnold take the next step in order for him to become a franchise quarterback. For now, though, they’ll try to end their season with a win in Buffalo.
#25: Cleveland Browns (Previous Rank: 22)
Result: Lost 31-15 vs BAL
Top Performer: LG Joel Bitonio
The Browns’ Super Bowl hype may have always been overblown, but still, they looked like a true playoff contender at the beginning of the season, given their surplus of talent. Well, they’ve officially been eliminated from the playoffs, and it couldn’t come in a more symbolic fashion. Despite the Ravens coming out flat and essentially trying to hand Cleveland the game in the first half, the Browns still couldn’t take advantage, and between Baker Mayfield’s interactions with fans and Odell Beckham Jr.’s heated exchange with head coach Freddie Kitchens, their dysfunction was further exposed. At this point, Kitchens has to be considered the worst play-caller in the league- the offense has no rhythm. They fail to execute the simplest of plays, and even worse, Baker Mayfield’s remarkable regression continued into this loss. Meanwhile, it’s hard to tell if their defense is trying anymore. Without superstar edge rusher Myles Garrett, whose year-long suspension is just another example of this team’s lack of discipline, they cannot generate any sort of pass rush if their life depended on it. Plus, they have the 31st ranked run defense, per Pro Football Focus, and it’s not as though their secondary is playing much better. The offensive line garners most of the blame, but the truth of the matter is: until the culture changes, this is a team that’ll continue to underperform and be the laughingstock of the NFL. Can the Browns at least beat the Bengals next week? Losing to a one-win team would be quite the way to cap off this season.
#24: Detroit Lions (Previous Rank: 23)
Result: Lost 27-17 at DEN
Top Performer: S Tavon Wilson
There is good news and bad news with the Lions’ Week 16 performance. The bad news is that by losing in Denver, they’ve extended their losing streak to eight games. The good news is that because of that, they now have a 3-11-1 record, which would currently give them the third overall pick in the draft. They definitely need such a high pick; they lack star talent. Considering that David Blough, an undrafted free agent, is starting under center for Detroit, the offense actually did fine against a pretty strong Broncos defense; receiver Kenny Golladay and guard Graham Glasnow continue to have excellent seasons. As for the defense, their problems persisted against a usually non-inspiring Broncos offense, which speaks to how weak of a unit they’ve become. Their run defense, which was supposed to be a strength. They couldn’t stop the run once again in Denver, and considering that’s where their investments have been made, they’re suffering in more critical areas, such as the pass rush; they had only ten pressures in this game and only touched quarterback Drew Lock one time. Right now, there’s no team that’s less exciting to analyze than the Lions, who have collapsed without Matthew Stafford. They’ll look to retool under Stafford this offseason with such a high pick, which almost certainly isn’t in jeopardy; the chances they beat the 12-3 Packers are very slim, to say the least.
#23: Oakland Raiders (Previous Rank: 25)
Result: Won 24-17 at LAC
Top Performer: LG Denzelle Good
In a very unexpected development, the Raiders’ playoff hopes are somehow still alive heading into the last week of the season. Considering their 7-8 record and their minus-105 point differential, that’s certainly not because of anything they’ve done; they’re a true bottom-ten team, and perhaps even worse when it comes to their overall roster talent. Still, they were able to pick up a victory against the Chargers, whom they were 7.5-point underdogs against. It was a pretty typical formula for them; Derek Carr didn’t take any chances and was essentially a game-manager, while DeAndre Washington and the ground attack was relied upon. It’s not a very sustainable formula, especially with their offensive line dealing with a lot of injuries, but nevertheless, it worked this week, as said front five exceeded expectations in run-blocking. It wasn’t as smooth-sailing for the defense, which continued to have issues defending the pass, but still, they completely neutralized Los Angeles’ two running backs, and also got solid performances from young pass rushers Maurice Hurst and Clelin Ferrell. The Raiders’ path to making the playoffs is as follows; Steelers lose to Ravens, Titans lose to Texans, Colts beat Jaguars, and they beat the Broncos. That’s entirely possible, as the scenario that may be in the most jeopardy is them winning in Denver. If they somehow do make the playoffs, it’ll be easily the most stunning development of the season, and will be a major boost as they move to Las Vegas.
#22: Arizona Cardinals (Previous Rank: 26)
Result: Won 27-13 at SEA
Top Performer: EDGE Chandler Jones
The Cardinals may not have a great record (5-9-1), but they’ve been very competitive throughout the season, and are a team that cannot be taken lightly. This week’s victim was the division-rival Seahawks, who Arizona completely dominated. It all starts with head coach Kliff Kingsbury, who has done a fabulous job with the offense. Even when Kyler Murray left this game with an injured hamstring, they didn’t look out of sync at all with Brett Hundley, who executed Kingsbury’s system exceptionally. Running back Kenyan Drake, whom the team acquired for a sixth-round pick, also looks to have found a home in Arizona, even if it comes at David Johnson’s expense; with some receiving talent and a revamped offensive line, this could be one of the league’s top offenses, especially if Murray continues to progress. Heck, even their defense, which has been amongst the league’s worst all season long, was amazing in this win. Star edge rusher Chandler Jones was an absolute menace, totaling eight pressures with four sacks, and he was supported by actual production from the secondary; safeties Budda Baker and Jalen Thompson were fantastic in this game, as were cornerbacks Byron Murphy and Patrick Peterson. The Cardinals may be a young team, which means they’re going through typical growing pains. However, they definitely could be a playoff team next season, as they have the culture needed for their players to progress properly. Whether it’s Murray or Hundley, they’ll try to beat another divisional foe when they take on the Rams in Week 17.
#21: Chicago Bears (Previous Rank: 19)
Result: Lost 26-3 vs KC
Top Performer: RT Cornelius Lucas
The Bears’ playoff hopes may have ended last week, but on Sunday Night Football, they had a chance to not only play for pride, but also set a tone for next season. Instead, they were demolished by the Chiefs in front of a national audience. If Mitchell Trubisky wanted the stories of him being picked ahead of Patrick Mahomes to end, the least he could’ve done is play well against him. Well, his 48.7 grade from Pro Football Focus would indicate that he did the opposite, though to be fair, the entire offense turned in a miserable performance. While we’re on the subject of disappointment, facing Kansas City’s offense is a daunting task, but surely the Bears could’ve fared better defensively, as their pass rush and secondary each struggled, and when that’s the case, you’re not going to keep up with Mahomes. Actually, this game was quite fitting for the Bears, who were destined to regress from their 12-4 season, but still have been exposed more than anyone could anticipate; they’re an average team at best, and with little resources to improve their team, they’re slowly heading towards being the Jaguars 2.0. Hopefully, for their sake, they can pick up a win in Minnesota to not be completely hopeless heading into the offseason.
#20: Denver Broncos (Previous Rank: 21)
Result: Won 27-17 vs DET
Top Performer: LT Garett Bolles
No matter who the Broncos have on their roster, they always feel destined to finish with six or seven wins, as their home-field advantage and consistent mediocrity are tough to rival. Well, they’re now 4-3 at home after beating the Lions, which was their sixth win of the season. That’s as close to average as it gets, but in a way, could Denver be turning a corner? Obviously, we shouldn’t crown Drew Lock a week after he had one of the worst performances of any quarterback, but he was incredibly efficient in this game, and at this point, he should be the team’s starting quarterback next season-his upside is tremendous. He’s also supported well, as young receivers Courtland Sutton, DaeSean Hamilton (assuming he continues to play better), and Tim Patrick are a decent receiving corps, while tight end Noah Fant and running back Phillip Lindsay are also ascending playmakers. To top it all off, the offensive line has been one of the league’s most underrated lines this season, as left tackle Garett Bolles and center Connor McGovern are building blocks, and once guard Ronald Leary and tackle Ja’Wuan James come back from injury, the offensive line is intact heading into next season. In fact, if Lock pans out, it may be the defense that’s the wildcard, and as long as Vic Fangio is calling the shots, that shouldn’t be an issue. They surprisingly had issues containing Detroit’s offense in this game, but they still have some solid veterans in edge rusher Von Miller, cornerback Chris Harris Jr. (if they bring him back), and defensive tackle Shelby Harris to complement some of their younger defensive players. I’m slowly talking my way into buying into this team as a serious playoff contender in 2020, but it’ll all be on the hands of Lock, who’ll look to finish his season strong against the Raiders.
#19: Los Angeles Chargers (Previous Rank: 15)
Result: Lost 24-17 vs OAK
Top Performer: S Derwin James
Last season, the Chargers won twelve games, and even reached the divisional round of the playoffs. They were expected to build upon that success heading into next season, as their roster was pretty much the same. Rather, they’ve collapsed in what has been a disastrous season, and the effects could be monumental. Defensively, Los Angeles hasn’t been the elite defense they were supposed to be, but at least there is hope for improvement; second-year safety Derwin James has continued to be a superstar upon returning from injury, cornerback Casey Haywayd Jr. remains an elite cornerback, and edge rusher Joey Bosa has had a marvelous season. However, regression from some other key players, such as nickel corner Desmond King II, as well as the inconsistency of edge rusher Melvin Ingram III, have really hurt them, and because of that, they’re incapable of elevating a subpar offense. Said offense shouldn’t have to be described like that, considering the skill position talent they have, but yet, here we are. Phillip Rivers clearly has hit a wall, and at this point, cannot be counted on as the team’s starting quarterback moving forward- his best games have all come against inferior competition. The fact that he couldn’t even turn in an above-average performance against a poor Raiders defense tells you all you need to know about what has been a roller-coaster season for the Chargers, who suddenly have a multitude of questions to answer this offseason before moving into a new stadium. They’ll wrap up their extremely regretful season in Kansas City.
#18: Pittsburgh Steelers (Previous Rank: 17)
Result: Lost 16-10 at NYJ
Top Performer: EDGE TJ Watt
As they’ve dealt with injuries at quarterback, wide receiver, and offensive line, the Steelers have accepted offensive incompetency, and have essentially adopted an ancient strategy: play good defense and make sure the offense doesn’t kill them. Well, for the second straight week, the offense killed them. Head coach Mike Tomlin really mismanaged the quarterbacks this week, as him putting Devlin Hodges on a short lease clearly destroyed the undrafted free agent’s confidence, and as a result, he cost them this game, and potentially the playoffs. Mason Rudolph was able to come in and lead Pittsburgh to ten points, but when he injured his shoulder, Hodges further sabotaged this game; the “Duck magic” has run out of Pittsburgh, which is symbolic of the Steelers’ postseason hopes detiorating. Don’t worry though, Steelers fans- your defense is still elite! Edge rusher TJ Watt had another incredible performance, and right now, with 79 pressures and a 91.7 pass-rushing grade, per Pro Football Focus, he’s easily the front-runner for Defensive Player of the Year. Also, linebackers Vince Williams and Mark Barron also were amazing in this game, as was nickel corner Mike Hilton. Yet, the issue with relying on defense is that it’s very hard for each player to sustain greatness, as this week, for example, cornerback Joe Haden, interior defensive lineman Cameron Heyward, and safety Minkah Fitzpatrick all struggled, so they couldn’t hold the Jets enough to win with their unsustainable formula. Perhaps I’m wrong, but this appears to be the end of the Steelers’ miracle season, but they shouldn’t feel dissapointed; not finishing with a losing record without Ben Roethlisberger says a lot about the overall roster talent that they possess, and the culture that’s in place, and if they get their quarterback back next season, they could definitely be a Super Bowl contender. At the moment though, they’re left praying for a win against the Ravens’ backups and a Titans loss.
#17: Indianapolis Colts (Previous Rank: 19)
Result: Won 38-6 vs CAR
Top Performer: CB Pierre Desir
After starting the season 5-2, the fact that the Colts are just 7-8 is certainly a little disenchanting. Yet, considering that their superstar quarterback (Andrew Luck) retired just a couple weeks before the season, and since then, they’ve dealt with more injuries, that record (and their plus-six point differential) is actually impressive. Jacoby Brissett continued his struggles, as he’s not capable of not even being a game manager, but around him, general manager Chris Ballard has built quite the collection of talent. For starters, this remains the best offensive line in the NFL, as even when superstar guard Quenton Nelson left with a concussion, they dominated upfront, which paved the way for an elite rushing attack. Many running backs could succeed behind this front five, but hey, it certainly doesn’t hurt that Marlon Mack, Nyheim Hines (two punt returns), and Jordan Wilkins form a formiddable running back trio; when healthy, TY Hitlon is a true #1 receiver, so all this offense needs, outside of quarterback, is a #2 receiver. After all, the defense had regressed in recent weeks, but under a smart defensive coordinator in Matt Eberflus, this is a very deep unit. It was encouraging to see cornerback Pierre Desir and linebacker Anthony Walker have dominant performances, as both have had their issues this season, and even better, top edge rusher Justin Houston and rookie cornerback Rock Ya-Sin were excellent in this game. Furthermore, with several upcoming draft picks and the most cap space in the NFL, Ballard has all the assets neccesary to improve the team in any fashion- come 2020, and this should be a true playoff contender capable of winning in multiple ways, not just with their current rigid formula. They’ll attempt to finish the season with a .500 record in Jacksonville this upcoming Sunday.
#16: Buffalo Bills (Previous Rank: 16)
Result: Lost 24-17 at NE
Top Performer: WR Cole Beasley
The Bills may not have the star-studded roster that would warrant a 10-5 record, as they’ve clearly benefited from a weak schedule, but they’re certainly no slouch; they’re constantly competitive with any team, which is a testament to the culture head coach Sean McDermott has built. They may have been clearly outplayed by a superior Patriots team, but somehow, they actually had a lead in the fourth quarter, which is something that they should be proud of. Josh Allen was unfazed by New England’s excellent pass defense, as his connection with slot receiver Cole Beasley was unstoppable; considering Allen will be facing this defense for years to come, his success in this game is definitely encouraging. As for the defense, they’ve been the strength of this team all season long, but their inability to step up to the task against quality offenses has been a major problem, and that’s what happened in this loss. Outside of the safety tandem of Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer, the unit as a whole struggled in all aspects, especially with their tackling, as they missed SIXTEEN tackles, which is simply absurd. If there’s been a major weakpoint of this McDermott-led defense during his tenure in Buffalo, it’s been run defense and tackling, with the latter being a more pressing concern. They’ll need to be more fundamentally strong if they want to win a road playoff game (likely against the Texans), but for now, they’ll play in what will almost certainly be their final home game of the season- they host the Jets.
#15: Atlanta Falcons (Previous Rank: 18)
Result: Won 24-12 vs JAX
Top Performer: DT Grady Jarrett
Are the Falcons officially back? They’ll obviously be watching the playoffs from home due to a inadequate 1-7 start, but they’ve flashed their potential throughout the season, and now, they’ve hit their stride- they’ve won three straight and five out of their last seven. The most impressive part of this team, unsurprisingly, is the offense, which is back to their explosive ways; Matt Ryan is thriving with better pass protection, and for the second straight week, Julio Jones looked like the future Hall of Fame receiver that he is. It was rougher for the defense, though they’re dealing with some critical injuries, but still, how great has interior defensive lineman Grady Jarrett been? For the season, he has a 90 overall grade, per Pro Football Focus, as he’s stout as a run defender AND as a pass rusher. He’s making a strong case as the league’s best interior defensive lineman, outside of Aaron Donald, and if he can be supported by an impact edge rusher, this could be a lethal pass rush. I don’t know what the future holds for head coach Dan Quinn, who probably should still be let go given the team’s lack of success over the past two seasons. However, it’s impossible to not give him credit for how hard the team has fought for him, and although they don’t have the resources to improve their roster, I could see them competiting for the playoffs next season. They’ll finish off their season with a road affair in Tampa Bay.
#14: Houston Texans (Previous Rank: 14)
Result: Won 23-20 at TB
Top Performer: S Justin Reid
The Texans are easily the AFC’s most volatile team, so when paired up with the incosistent Bucs, the football world has given an absolute treat. The problem is, the “better team” clearly didn’t win; because of turnover luck, Houston was able to scrape by with a victory. It wasn’t the defense that dissapointed, as we know that they’re a below-average unit. JJ Watt’s return will be huge for a pass rush that has been awful since he went down with an injury, and the secondary did play well versus Tampa’s explosive offense, but nevertheless, this a defense that needs the offense to carry them to victory. Unfortunately for the Texans, their offensive incosistency is plauging them. On some weeks, they’re as explosive as any unit in the league. However, on the other weeks, they can’t move the ball down the field at all. Deshaun Watson has reverted back to where he was last year, as he’s taking sacks and making poor decisions, and when receiver Will Fuller went down with an injury, no one could step up. If the offense’s success is that predicated on having a deep threat in the constantly injured Fuller, then the construction of it is was wrong from the beggining; they’ll need him when they take on the Bills in the first round of the playoffs. That is, unless they can beat the Titans and the Chiefs lose to the Chargers, and both seem unlikely.
#13: Dallas Cowboys (Previous Rank: 10)
Result: Lost 17-9 at PHI
Top Performer: RG Zack Martin
The Cowboys have had a very rocky season, but they had a prime opportunity: beat the Eagles, who were without several of their top players, and they’d clinch the NFC East title Instead, as they do in all big games, they fell flat in embarassing fashion. Whether it was due to his shoulder injury or not, Dak Prescott could not throw the ball down the field, and it doesn’t help that star receiver Amari Cooper was nowhere to found. As per usual, the offensive line was dominant, but regardless, it was wasted by poor strategy and execution. Meanwhile, the defense, which has flopped all season long, couldn’t even hold their own against an offense without their star right tackle nor any receiving talent. In this game, it was linebacker Jaylon Smith who was the main culprit; he’s had a very poor season after earning a four-year extension, and combined with Leighton Vander-Esch’s ongoing injury issues, Dallas no longer has the elite young linebacking group they once appeared to have. At this point, we’re just waiting for head coach Jason Garrett to be fired, as this talent has been as misused as it can be. There’s still an outside chance they make the playoffs though; they’ll need the Eagles to lose to the Giants and for them to beat the Redskins.
#12: Philadelphia Eagles (Previous Rank: 12)
Result: Won 17-9 vs DAL
Top Performer: TE Dallas Goedert
During the middle portion of the season, the Eagles really struggled to find any sort of offensive identity. It may have taken their entire receiving corps going down with injury, but finally, they’re back to their old ways. Because of they have two of the game’s top tight ends (Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert), they’ve essentially started running all of their plays out of two tight ends sets, which was worked out tremendous in both the passing and running game. After all, this offensive line is incredible, and to make matters even better, running back Myles Sanders is an excellent receiving option. Oh, and Carson Wentz has still had a solid season given the circumstances. However, this team is clearly held back by its defense, which can’t stop anyone. They may have only allowed nine points, but that says more about Dallas’ incompetency; they had more missed tackles (10) than total pressures (8), and have major problems with their secondary and run defense. Yet, all they have to do is beat the Giants in order to win the NFC East, and since they’ll be hosting a playoff game in that scenario, they could even win a playoff game. That’d be quite the turnaround, considering that they started off the month of December with the loss of Dolphins, of all teams.
#11: Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Previous Rank: 13)
Result: Lost 23-20 vs HOU
Top Performer: C Ryan Jensen
They won’t be participating in the playoffs this season, but still, I see no reason why they won’t be last season. It all happened in a very subtle fashion, yet there’s no way to ignore the truth- this is one of the better young rosters in the NFL. Tampa Bay’s defense, in particular, has been a weakness for years, but after utilizing several draft picks to fix it, defensive coordinator Todd Bowles has this defense firing on all cylinders. Cornebacks are probably the most valuable players on a defense, and in Sean Murphy-Bunting, Carlton Davis, and Jamel Dean, the Bucs have found their starting trio for the future. It gets even better from there, as Lavonte David and Devin White make up one of the best linebacking duos in the NFL, and in Vita Vea on the interior and Shaquil Barrett (who didn’t play great and is a free agent) on the egde, the pass rush could be a lot worse. An additional edge rusher and a safety are still needed, but come next season, I could see this being a top-ten defense, if they aren’t already there. Offensively, the pieces are all there for success, as this offensive line has been built tremendously, and the receiver duo of Chris Godwin and Mike Evans is fantastic. Heck, even though both of them are injured, this was still an explosive passing attack, which speaks to the job head coach Bruce Arians has done with this offense. Yet, if there’s any reason why I wouldn’t buy into this team, it’s Jameis Winston, whose play-to-play incosistency cannot be matched. I still believe that his upside is enough to warrant them taking a risk on him, especially with such a talented roster, but still, his 28 interceptions indicate the serious flaw that’s holding him back and caused the Bucs to lose this game; this will be a very incosistent team week-to-week. Still, if they can beat the Falcons in Week 17, they’ll avoid a losing record, which would be quite the turnaround after a 3-7 start.
#10: Los Angeles Rams (Previous Rank: 11)
Result: Lost 34-31 at SF
Top Performer: EDGE Dante Fowler Jr.
The Rams are clearly not the same team as last year, where they won 13 games and made the Super Bowl, but still, they have a lot of stars, which means that they can beat any team in the NFL. That was on display this past Saturday in San Francisco- Los Angeles arguably should’ve beaten a stacked 49ers team. With head coach Sean McVay dialing back the playbook, relying on play-action, zone-running, and rollouts, the Rams were able to neutralize the 49ers’ pass rush, and receiver Robert Woods and tight end Tyler Higbee eclipsed 100 receiving yards. Higbee’s production stands out in particular, as he was extended before the season, and finally, he’s realizing his potential; if they can somehow get better offensive line play, and McVay protects Jared Goff the way he did in this game, then this will still be a great offense. Yet, we can never be sure what version we’re getting with them, and the same goes for the defense. Aaron Donald and Dante Fowler Jr. led a pass rush that caused havoc all game long, while star cornerback Jalen Ramsey, as well as second-year cornerback Darious Williams, were fantastic. Yet, it didn’t matter, as not only is this a very thin unit, but some of their key players let them down: rookie safety Taylor Rapp blew a coverage that cost them the game, linebacker Cory Littleton was awful in coverage, and veteran safety Eric Weddle also had multiple lapses in coverage. This is simply an uneven team, and as I’ve stated several times, they don’t have the assets necessary to improve; in fact, they’ll only lose players. At the very least they can secure a winning record with a win against the Cardinals.
#9: Seattle Seahawks (Previous Rank: 8)
Result: Lost 27-13 vs ARI
Top Performer: S Bradley McDougald
The Seahawks have had a magical season, but there’s a reality that’s catching up to them- they aren’t that talented, as evidenced by their lackluster plus-12 point differential. This offense is so reliant on Russell Wilson to bail them out, but it’d be a lot easier if they didn’t run so much on early downs. Because they do that, they’re forcing Wilson to execute third and longs behind an awful offensive line, which now won’t have the services of left tackle Dwayne Brown (injury). Heck, even if they insist on having a run-first strategy, they’re so thin at running back that they had to bring in Marshawn Lynch; just open up the offense for Wilson, please Brian Schottenheimer? Considering they were without star edge rusher Jadeveon Clowney and cornerback Shaquill Griffen, this wasn’t a substandard performance by the Seahawks’ defense, though it is concerning that they could only muster nine total pressures- this defense is essentially relying on Clowney, linebacker Bobby Wagner, and Griffen. Honestly, this is a below-average team that’s 11-4 because they’ve won all their games by one score, thanks to luck and Wilson’s brilliance. However, they’re now going through traditional regression, and right now, I don’t have any faith that they can win the NFC West with a win against the 49ers.
#8: Tennessee Titans (Previous Rank: 7)
Result: Lost 38-28 vs NO
Top Performer: QB Ryan Tannehill
The Titans may have lost to the Saints this past Sunday, but not only did they not have to win this game (it had no impact on their playoff chances), they actually impressed. It all starts with Ryan Tannehill, who may still take too many sacks, but his accuracy has been so incredible, that it’s transformed this offense into one of the league’s most explosive units. They may have failed to keep up in this shootout, yet had it not been for a late fumble, they might have actually won this game; scoring as many points as possible will be their way to victory, as for some reason, this defense is struggling mightily. Yes, they’re without top corner Adoree’ Jackson, yet that doesn’t excuse the fact they had just nine total pressures, nor the fact that linebackers Javon Brown and Rashaan Evans were completely taken advantage of. Still, there is a lot of talent on this defense, and considering how terrific their offense is, they only have to be average at defending opposing offenses. If they win at Houston and make the playoffs, the entire AFC should certainly fear them, as they’re a true top-ten team.
#7: Minnesota Vikings (Previous Rank: 5)
Result: Lost 23-10 vs GB
Top Performer: S Anthony Harris
The Vikings are a very strong team, yet there’s always been a narrative surrounding them that they can’t get rid of- they’re incapable of winning a big game. Well, they came up short once again in a primetime game against the division-rival Packers, which gave them a harsh look at a tough reality: perhaps they haven’t covered up their flaws as well as they thought they did. It all starts with the offensive line, which was simply abused by the Packers’ pass rush. Rookie center Garrett Bradbury, who had a 0 grade in pass-blocking, according to Pro Football Focus, was the main liability in this game, though guard Pat Elflein was also terrible- the interior offensive line is a major problem. Plus, Kirk Cousins may handle pressure as poorly as any quarterback in the league, which makes them extremely vulnerable to any top-tier pass rushes. It’s sad that the offense couldn’t come through at all, as the defense had a standout performance. Yes, they struggled in run defense, but safeties Anthony Harris and Harrison Smith led their secondary to an incredible performance, and the defense as a whole didn’t miss a single tackle. When they don’t have to face elite pass rushes, this is an offense that can score 30 points combined with a defense that’s well-coached under head coach Mike Zimmer. The problem is, the NFC’s top two seeds right now, the 49ers and Packers, do have the pass rush to give them fits, and they’ll have to go the long way as the #6 seed; their game against the Bears in Week 17 has no implications whatsoever.
#6: Green Bay Packers (Previous Rank: 9)
Result: Won 23-10 at MIN
Top Performer: EDGE Za’Darius Smith
Do the Packers have a top-ten, or even a top-five defense? They rank as the 5th best defense in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus, on Monday Night Football, showcased their abilities to a national audience. The 49ers and Steelers get most of the love as having the top pass rushes, but don’t sleep on Green Bay’s pass rush; edge rusher Za’Darius Smith (nine pressures, four sacks) is making a strong case for Defensive Player of the Year, Kenny Clark has been a dominant interior rusher with 62 pressures, and although he’s been a minor disappointment this season, you could do a lot worse than Preston Smith as your #2 edge rusher. Plus, Jaire Alexander is a true #1 cornerback, Kevin King is inconsistent but has the talent to be an impact #2 corner, and although they didn’t play well in this game, the safety tandem of rookie Darnell Savage and Adrian Amos is one of the league’s best. Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine has done a great job reshaping the defense into a very aggressive unit this season, and overall, they complement the offense very well. Aaron Rodgers has been subjugated to a game manager, but he obviously has the talent to make any throw when needed, though it’s tough when outside of Davante Adams, their top two receivers are probably their running backs. Still, with Rodgers, a strong offensive line, and a good play-caller in Matt LeFleur, they can definitely score 30 points when needed. This is a very well-rounded team, and now that they’re a win against the Lions away from getting a first-round bye, perhaps they may even be Super Bowl-bound.
#5: New Orleans Saints (Previous Rank: 4)
Result: Won 38-28 at TEN
Top Performer: WR Michael Thomas
When they were down 14-0 in the first quarter, the Saints’ quest to get a first-round bye appeared to be over. Because of circumstances outside of their control, this win may not actually help them in that quest, but at the very least, it can be used as a time of growth. Playing in substandard conditions for the first time this season, Drew Brees and the offense got off to an incredibly slow start, as the 41-year-old quarterback unusually put the ball in harm’s ways and took a few too many sacks. Luckily for them though, their offensive line is fantastic in pass protection, and even better, they have the ability to force-feed Michael Thomas, the top receiver in the NFL. They showed why they need a bye in this game, as they’re so much better in controlled conditions (their home Superdome), but still, their 28 points scored in the second half perhaps can be a sign of things to come. Defensively, however, the same confidence cannot be shared. Linebacker Demario Davis and edge rusher Cameron Jordan are great, but those two are the only consistent players on this defense right now. Yes, versatile defensive back Chauncey Gardner-Johnson played well at safety, but the rest of the secondary was a disaster, and now, will need to hope that safety Marcus Williams didn’t suffer a serious injury- New Orleans is already too injured on defense. The Saints did a good job in this game scheming up pressure, but right now, their defense is a mess. Because of that, they’ll have to score 30+ points a game if they want to make a playoff run, and as we saw in the first half of this game, that’s not a sure thing. Though their chances at a first-round bye won’t be decided with their game in Carolina, hopefully, they can use that game to a) get their defense back on track and b) get their offense more accumulated to playing outdoors.
#4: Kansas City Chiefs (Previous Rank: 5)
Result: Won 26-3 at CHI
Top Performer: QB Patrick Mahomes
For most of this season, the Chiefs haven’t looked right on either side of the ball. However, that was due in large part to an extensive amount of injury, and finally, we are seeing a healthy version of this team. As we saw in their trouncing of the Bears on Sunday Night Football, that version is extremely dangerous, and even though they aren’t going to get a first-round bye, this is clearly a Super Bowl-caliber team. It all starts with the quarterback, as over the past two weeks, Patrick Mahomes has regained his MVP form, and once again, he was protected tremendously by the offensive line. They didn’t even need explosive plays from the likes of Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, Sammy Watkins, and others to score 26 points in Chicago; their combination of explosiveness and efficiency makes them, in my opinion, the best offense in the NFL. Their recent defensive success, meanwhile, may be slightly overblown by the media, as they didn’t grade out particularly well from Pro Football Focus, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t significantly improved on that side of the ball. The personnel may not be any better than it was last year, but new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo has done a great job scheming up success, and in rookie Juan Thornhill and Tyrann Mathieu, they have probably the league’s most athletic and versatile safety duos. Furthermore, adding veteran edge rusher Terrell Suggs will only benefit them generate more pressure and be better in run defense- it’s moves like that which can make a difference in the postseason. Right now, the Ravens and Patriots do not want to face this Chiefs team, who is clearly peaking at the proper time. They’ll finish off their regular season with a home date with the Chargers.
#3: New England Patriots (Previous Rank: 3)
Result: Won 24-17 vs BUF
Top Performer: QB Tom Brady
In the past month, the Patriots have had a below-average offense, which raised concerns about their ability to make another Super Bowl run. However, they’ve gone through similar rough patches in the past, and although it’s unlikely this is a sustainable solution, it appears they’ve turned the clocks back to last season- they utilized fewer receivers. New England clearly doesn’t have the depth at receiver to consistently run 11-personnel, so in this game against a strong Bills pass defense, they ran a lot of two running back sets, and even used linebacker Elandon Roberts as a fullback. Now, it’s worth noting that Buffalo’s defense does tend to struggle with tackling and facing power running teams, but nevertheless, this strategy won them a Super Bowl last year, so perhaps it could work this year- Tom Brady, after all, played one of his best games of the season. While a more conservative offensive strategy wouldn’t usually work, New England is in luck, as although they had their lapses in this game, their defense is still arguably the best in football. This was one of the front seven’s best games in pass rush and run defense, as defensive lineman Lawrence Guy and linebackers Kyle Van Noy and Dont’a Hightower all had solid games, and Bill Belichick was able to scheme up different looks to confuse Josh Allen. The fact that their safeties (Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung) were able to struggle so much in coverage – they didn’t have slot corner Jonathan Jones in this game – and they only allowed 17 points speaks to the overall depth of this unit, which will make them an extremely difficult team to beat in the playoffs. I still believe that this is a team capable of reaching their fourth straight Super Bowl, but at the moment, they need to avoid a stinker against the Dolphins in order to clinch a first-round bye.
#2: San Francisco 49ers (Previous Rank: 2)
Result: Won 34-31 vs LAR
Top Performer: LB Fred Warner
Will any 49er game not come down to the final seconds? San Francisco just engaged in their fourth straight game that came down to the final play, but luckily for them, they’re 2-2 in those games- they’ve developed tremendous perseverance. Down by multiple scores in the second quarter, they never lost their edge against the Rams, and as a result, had a pretty balanced performance. This wasn’t Jimmy Garoppolo’s best game, as he struggled with accuracy, but his play was certainly sufficient enough for the 49ers to constantly move the ball down the field; he’s supported excellently by the playmakers around him. Not only do the 49ers have arguably the most valuable non-quarterback in tight end George Kittle, but receivers Deebo Samuel and Emmanuel Sanders have been very reliable, and it doesn’t hurt that they possess are trio of explosive running backs. Oh, and Kyle Shanahan is arguably the best play-caller in the NFL- this offense will keep producing. Defensively, San Fransisco has clearly regressed, which isn’t surprising given the number of injuries they’ve suffered and the general variation of defensive success. Even if their pass rush isn’t the same due to their lessened defensive line depth, their pass coverage has proven to be excellent; cornerbacks Richard Sherman and K’Waun Williams (nickel corner) are great, and Fred Warner is emerging as one of the top linebackers in the NFL. The 49ers’ Super Bowl chances will be at stake in their upcoming battle in Seattle – they’re the #1 seed if they win – but even if they somehow lose and end up as the #5 seed, I would still consider them a favorite to win it all- they’re so well-rounded.
#1: Baltimore Ravens (Previous Rank: 1)
Result: Won 31-15 at CLE
Top Performer: LT Ronnie Stanley
The Ravens clearly came out flat in Cleveland, and didn’t actually score until there were less than two minutes left in the first half. However, they were able to flip a switch, and from there, outscored the Browns 31-9 on their way to a blowout victory. At this point, there isn’t enough credit that can be given to this offense. We know how fantastic Lamar Jackson is, and their trio of tight ends, running back Mark Ingram, and receiver Marquise Brown all garner a lot of attention. Yet, how about the offensive line, which has made their case as the best group in the NFL? Ronnie Stanley has to be considered the best pass-blocking left tackle, guard Marshal Yanda is consistently dominant, and even right tackle Orlando Brown Jr., a third-round pick from last year, has become a stalwart on the offensive line as well. This is a powerful offensive line with a “mean” identity, and honestly, they are who opposing defenses must fear. Regarding the defense, this was their worst performance in a while, as they only generated 11 pressures and didn’t get adequate production from cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Jimmy Smith. Still, safety Chuck Clark, who has been excellent in coverage, and cornerback Marlon Humphrey were able to step up, and as a result, they held the Browns in check enough to coast to an easy victory. Now, with the #1 seed locked up, the Ravens don’t have to play in a meaningful football until January, as their backups will play against the Steelers this week; they’ve done everything in their power this season to set themselves up for a Super Bowl title.