It’s that time of year when the everyone just expects Wind to be No. 1 and the hydroelectric bandwagon is going strong. But meanwhile, everyone is sleeping on geothermal—they’re coming up around 90TWh annually!
1. Kansas City Chiefs (14–1)
Last week: Win vs. Atlanta 17–14
Next week: vs. Los Angeles Chargers
I’ve seen a lot of Harlem Globetrotters games over my lifetime, and Kansas City Chiefs games have taken on a similar vibe minus buckets of confetti. No matter what happens in the first 58 minutes, victory seems like a foregone conclusion.
2. Green Bay Packers (12–3)
Last week: Win vs. Tennessee 40–14
Next week: at Chicago
Sunday night was a reminder of why home field matters for the Packers. The Titans are theoretically built to win in winter weather, but there’s something to be said for the players who have repeatedly donned the extra-large studs on their soles and actually gone out there and moved in snow. I’d call Packers-Saints a coin flip on a neutral field, but there’s no doubt the Packers have a significant edge on every opponent coming into Lambeau this January.
3. New Orleans Saints (11–4)
Last week: Win vs. Minnesota 52–33
Next week: at Carolina
How about a little credit for this defense, which essentially played a game-and-a-half's worth of snaps against the Chiefs, then five days later had to go back out against a physical Vikings offense (that also happened to end their season last January). And if you already did give them a little credit, well . . . never mind then.
4. Buffalo Bills (12–3)
Last week: Win at New England 38–9
Next week: vs. Miami
Some say they had already clinched the AFC East, but it really took that pantsing of the Patriots in Foxboro, before a national audience, to really make it official.
5. Baltimore Ravens (10–5)
Last week: Win vs. New York Giants 27–13
Next week: at Cincinnati
Their midseason slump was the result of bad luck in the red zone and a rash of injuries; the answers were always there for the Ravens offense, even if it doesn’t return to 2019 levels. Considering the defense is, if healthy, top five, this is the wild-card team no one wants to play in January.
6. Pittsburgh Steelers (12–3)
Last week: Win vs. Indianapolis 28–24
Next week: at Cleveland
It wasn’t exactly vintage Ben Roethlisberger, but seeing the quarterback (and his play callers) a willingness to let him throw downfield and even get knocked down by opposing players was the most encouraging thing this offense has shown in, literally, months. It was so encouraging that we’ll overlook their complete inability to run the ball. As for January, if you were creating the definitive ranking of current defenses that could pull a 2015 Broncos and single-handedly carry a team to a Super Bowl title, you should start with the Steelers. (Though, really, you should find something better to do with your free time than make such a list: read a book, interact with a loved one, make the definitive ranking of all-time Adult Swim shows, etc.)
7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (10–5)
Last week: Win at Detroit 47–7
Next week: vs. Atlanta
Nobody’s going to give you a trophy for hanging 47 on the Lions. Or, if they did, it would be a very sad trophy, like a statuette of Calvin Johnson with a look of disappointment on his face. So while Tampa Bay’s offense has looked much better over the past six quarters, we’ll see what happens in the postseason when it has to hang in against teams with things like pass rushers. That said, if the offense can do this against quality opponents, the Bucs are right there with the Packers and Saints as the NFC’s most complete teams.
8. Seattle Seahawks (11–4)
Last week: Win vs. Los Angeles Rams 20–9
Next week: at San Francisco
Has the defense raised its level from “atrocious” to “serviceable,” or was it simply the result of playing a string of bad opponents (which very much includes a porous Rams offensive line on Sunday)? That will determine whether the Seahawks will win games in January now that they’ve reverted to their classic, conservative offensive game plan and an overall approach that is, in short, keep it close until Russ can win it.
9. Indianapolis Colts (10–5)
Last week: Loss at Pittsburgh 28–24
Next week: vs. Jacksonville
The come-from-ahead nature of the loss was frustrating, but there’s no shame in a road loss to Pittsburgh on the week Roethlisberger finally started connecting on downfield throws. Theoretically, the Colts’ defense and run game should travel well in the playoffs.
10. Los Angeles Rams (9–6)
Last week: Loss at Seattle 20–9
Next week: vs. Arizona
We probably shouldn’t have been surprised when Jared Goff’s yards per attempt dropped more than a full yard after the Andrew Whitworth injury—Goff has always been at his worst when protection is shaky, such as right now or early last season while they shuffled up front. We probably also shouldn’t be surprised if this offense fails to do much of anything with backup John Wolford under center in Week 17. Considering how well the defense travels, the best-case scenario is that they survive Week 17, get into the tournament and get both Goff and Whitworth back for the wild-card round—don’t forget that this team has road wins in Arizona and Tampa Bay, and it was within a fourth-down pass interference call of winning at Buffalo.
11. Tennessee Titans (10–5)
Last week: Loss at Green Bay 40–14
Next week: at Houston
Despite the dud at Lambeau, you love the fact that they got repeat performances from Ryan Tannehill and Derrick Henry this season. But you hate the fact that this defense doesn’t seem likely to hold up against anyone in January.
12. Miami Dolphins (10–5)
Last week: Win at Las Vegas 26–25
Next week: at Buffalo
I’d start Ryan Fitzpatrick in Buffalo next week, but I’ve also yet to get called in to interview for a single head-coaching vacancy. Yet. I worry not just for the short-term outcome (Miami will need to score points in January), but that Tua Tagovailoa is developing into an excruciatingly conservative decision-maker—it’s easier to rein in an aggressive young quarterback than properly recalibrate the risk assessment of an overly cautious one. (Though I also understand why cautious quarterbacks tend to appeal to defensive head coaches.)
13. Cleveland Browns (10–5)
Last week: Loss at New York Jets 23–16
Next week: vs. Pittsburgh
Every time I believe I’m done addressing the absurdity of the Browns being forced to play on Sunday, I find that I’m not nearly done addressing it. Losing an entire position group to COVID protocols is not comparable to losing guys to a rash of injuries. Unless it’s a freak injury during a late-week practice, coaching staffs know who is injured and the probability of whether they’ll be able to suit up for the game, and can therefore prepare accordingly during the week. Suddenly losing an entire position group 48 hours before kickoff is an impossible circumstance to deal with. The league office ignoring that fact seems to, at least, show an ignorance for how its coaches and players operate.
We don’t know the specifics of the Browns’ situation—it seemed to stem from linebacker B.J. Goodson’s positive test combined with contact tracing—but the league’s stubborn reaction suggests there is fault to be placed, as if Goodson’s positive stemmed from accepting a dare to lick every doorknob across Northeast Ohio as his teammates cheered him on. The NFL is asking a lot of its players to stage a season in the midst of a raging pandemic. Park Avenue could at least abandon its usual closed-minded and unnecessarily punitive default stance in a year that demands unprecedented flexibility from everyone involved.
Anyway, the Browns have rightfully earned a spot in the postseason. If they don’t get in as a direct result of the farce that was staged in East Rutherford on Sunday, their players and fanbase would be right to unleash a level of vitriol approximately 14 times as severe as whatever Patriots fans were complaining about most recently.
14. San Francisco 49ers (6–9)
Last week: Win at Arizona 20–12
Next week: vs. Seattle
What Robert Saleh did to the Cardinals’ healthy, high-pedigree offense on Saturday, with his unit of second-stringers, was a reminder that he’s not just the fortunate recipient of Nick Bosa.
15. Los Angeles Chargers (6–9)
Last week: Win vs. Denver 19–16
Next week: at Kansas City
They’ve won three straight, with their lone dud of the season being that special-teams-fueled meltdown against the Patriots. You can play the what-if game with lots of teams, but a missed game-winner in New Orleans, last-play-of-the-game losses in Denver and to Vegas … Anthony Lynn might not survive the season, but he should. He’s made it work with a patchwork coaching staff and rookie quarterback.
16. Las Vegas Raiders (7–8)
Last week: Loss vs. Miami 26–25
Next week: at Denver
Jon Gruden bears some of the blame on these defensive meltdowns with the Raiders—that’s the head coach’s responsibility too—but investing in talent rather than character (Clelin Ferrell and Johnathan Abram are nice complementary players but simply not first-round talents), on that side of the ball could make a world of difference in 2021.
17. Chicago Bears (8–7)
Last week: Win at Jacksonville 41–17
Next week: vs. Green Bay
Huge bummer that the Seahawks' win gave the Packers something to play against Chicago on Sunday. The Bears’ three-game winning streak has come thanks in part to games against Houston and Jacksonville, so let’s not go nuts, but it’s been a nice coda to Mitchell Trubisky’s Chicago tenure and—should they get into the tournament—this defense can make things interesting.
18. Arizona Cardinals (8–7)
Last week: Loss vs. San Francisco 20–12
Next week: at Los Angeles Rams
Considering the talent level, and considering the fact they’ve been relatively healthy all season, it’s tough to find a unit that underachieved more than the Cardinals' offense in 2020. The Hail Murray plus an injury to their Week 17 opponent’s quarterback might ultimately be what gets them into the playoffs, but less than two years after pulling the plug on a first-year head coach this franchise once again has some soul searching to do.
19. Minnesota Vikings (6–9)
Last week: Loss at New Orleans 52–33
Next week: at Detroit
After losing all their cornerbacks it was going to be a trying year for this defense, but losing Danielle Hunter for the season, Anthony Barr for all but two games and Erick Kendricks for the past month is the kind of thing that results in opponents dropping 52 on you on Christmas night.
20. New England Patriots (6–9)
Last week: Loss vs. Buffalo 38–9
Next week: vs. New York Jets
It took until about midway through the second quarter Monday night to get my first call from an angry Patriots fan friend. But I won't tell you the contents of that conversation, because this is not going to become an off-brand Bill Simmons column.
21. Carolina Panthers (5–10)
Last week: Win at Washington 20–13
Next week: vs. New Orleans
This team has been a nightmare for tank enthusiasts and a joy for fans who like when their favorite team plays well: a 2–14 type roster that has already won five while also being competitive in Green Bay, Kansas City and New Orleans. On this day, five weeks after Thanksgiving, Panthers fans have something to be thankful for.
22. Dallas Cowboys (6–9)
Last week: Win vs. Philadelphia 37–17
Next week: at New York Giants
After all that, Mike McCarthy’s analytics calculator says all they have to do is win as field-goal favorites in East Rutherford and have the quarterback-less Football Team lose in Philly. I’m not sure I trust this defense against anyone except for maybe a hobbled Daniel Jones–led Giants team.
23. Atlanta Falcons (4–11)
Last week: Loss at Kansas City 17–14
Next week: at Tampa Bay
The Falcons’ four-game losing streak guarantees they’ll go down as one of the season’s most disappointing teams, not a late-bloomer primed for big things like last year’s pyritic finish. The question is whether Matt Ryan becomes part of their offseason reset.
24. New York Giants (5–10)
Last week: Loss at Baltimore 27–13
Next week: vs. Dallas
The bad news is that Daniel Jones is clearly not 100% and the overachieving defense has slid back the past couple weeks. The good news is that it’s prime time for Joe Judge special teams chicanery in Sunday’s must-win finale against the Cowboys.
25. Denver Broncos (5–10)
Last week: Loss at Los Angeles Chargers 19–16
Next week: vs. Las Vegas
I’m all for bringing Vic Fangio back for the sake of having some continuity in Denver. The problem is that the Broncos enter 2021 without a clear answer at quarterback for the sixth consecutive season.
26. Philadelphia Eagles (4-10-1)
Last week: Loss at Dallas 37–17
Next week: vs. Washington
Sunday was a reminder that while you were fixated on the quarterback position and offensive issues, the Eagles are saddled with an aging pass rush and lack of capable cornerbacks.
27. Washington Football Team (6–9)
Last week: Loss vs. Carolina 20–13
Next week: at Philadelphia
Only Dan Snyder’s organization could spend a first-round pick on a quarterback that, in two seasons, had two different coaching staffs who didn’t want him. The team that didn’t bother to give itself a name now enters Week 17 with no serviceable quarterback but a chance to win the division that no one deserves to win. There’s a metaphor in there somewhere. A metaphor for something crappy.
28. New York Jets (2–13)
Last week: Win vs. Cleveland 23–16
Next week: at New England
This is the season for spoilers, so good on the Jets for knocking potentially playoff-bound opponents into postseason limbo each of the last two weeks.
29. Cincinnati Bengals (4-10-1)
Last week: Win at Houston 37–31
Next week: vs. Baltimore
Anyone who once claimed that Joe Burrow hopping on one leg would still outperform the other Bengals quarterbacks is eating their words after Brandon Allen carved up the Texans for 371 yards, capturing the hearts of Cin City.
30. Houston Texans (4–11)
Last week: Loss vs. Cincinnati 37–31
Next week: vs. Tennessee
How can a team with Deshaun Watson on one side of the ball and J.J. Watt on the other end up this embarrassingly ba—oh, that’s how. Well, the good news is that TV keeps showing shots of the owner watching the games—or at least appearing to watch the games—so he knows what’s going on. Probably.
31. Detroit Lions (5–10)
Last week: Loss vs. Tampa Bay 47–7
Next week: vs. Minnesota
This is the “without Matthew Stafford” ranking. With Stafford, they’re about a dozen spots higher.
32. Jacksonville Jaguars (1–14)
Last week: Loss vs. Chicago 41–17
Next week: at Indianapolis
This is the “most desirable GM opening in the NFL” mostly because of Trevor Lawrence, but also in part because apparently no one cares how they operate down there. Way back in 2017, the Jaguars were a couple of blown calls away from playing in the Super Bowl; the front office responded by systematically alienating every young star on the team, leaving them with a nucleus of Myles Jack and a bunch of lottery tickets that at this point don’t look promising. Had this been done in, say, Chicago or Pittsburgh or Baltimore or, really, 31 other markets, the fan base would have stormed the team facility. Or at least sent some nasty tweets.