Ranking a team’s relative power after one week of football is a lot like predicting the staying power of a band after listening to their first single. Who else here thought we might be inducting Chumbawamba into the Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame by now (there’s still time)?
The offseason allows an inordinate amount of time to game plan for a specific opponent, which often leads to some coaches’ magnum opuses. The Jaguars last year beating Philip Rivers and the Colts at home comes to mind. And so we’re left to decipher what is real and what is simply the product of some long-planned schematic curveball that isn’t sustainable. I am sure most of you will hate this list, but perhaps others might have seen and felt the opening week of games the way I did.
The Rams have the polish of a team headed to the Super Bowl. The 49ers are looking like a club that will shape shift dangerously once their rookie quarterback starts getting more snaps. Meanwhile, do we really expect the Packers to be bad? Do we expect the Cardinals’ pass rush to hold up over 17 games? Do we think Derrick Henry is toast, or will the Titans manage to not bury themselves in a four-score hole, thus rendering him somewhat useless?
This is for me to decide and for you to criticize on social media. But after attending my first football game since February 2020 and hearing a fan on the drive home say that the Giants should have activated David Sills V and started him over Kenny Golladay, I am ready for all of your thoughts as well. This is a marketplace of ideas, and I am prepared to live—and thrive—in this space again. No take is too bad, as long as you back it up with all your heart.
1. Los Angeles Rams (1–0)
Last week: Win vs. Chicago, 34–14
Next week: at Indianapolis
The NFL’s greatest matchup generating offense now has Matthew Stafford as its pilot. Sean McVay’s NFL fever dream has finally come to life, and while it was a somewhat muted drubbing of the middling Bears, Stafford’s ability to hit all corners of the field does not bode well for a league hoping to contain him. This is the best team in the league right now by a razor thin margin.
2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1–0)
Last week: Win vs. Dallas, 31–29
Next week: vs. Atlanta
For most of the game, Tom Brady was absolutely surgical, dissecting a poor but improved Cowboys defense on Thursday night. Obviously, the expectations for this team have only broadened given Bruce Arians’s schematic kowtow to the greatest player in NFL history. The addition of Gio Bernard gives the Bucs the James White–esque third down back they needed a year ago.
3. Kansas City Chiefs (1–0)
Last week: Win vs. Cleveland, 33–29
Next week: at Baltimore
Patrick Mahomes’s late touchdown to Tyreek Hill is the perfect encapsulation of why the Chiefs are still a favorite to win the AFC. You can play the team perfectly, scheme a game flawlessly and control the clock and the team can still abandon the outer limits of what we thought was athletically possible and blindside you with a gutting backyard football play in the fourth quarter. Until you find a Tyreek Hill to guard Tyreek Hill, you’d better hope a few balls bounce your way.
4. San Francisco 49ers (1–0)
Last week: Win at Detroit, 41–33
Next week: at Philadelphia
Too high? Just wait until the Trey Lance package begins to expand. I cannot overstate this point enough: Teams had a hard time as it was slowing down Kyle Shanahan’s offense when everyone was healthy and Jimmy Garoppolo was under center. Now, they’re prepping for two versions of the same offense each week.
5. Cleveland Browns (0–1)
Last week: Loss at Kansas City, 33–29
Next week: Houston
Losing on opening weekend doesn’t mean the Browns are not a top-five football team. While bounces of the ball often define a season, one botched punt snap should not overshadow the fact that this team is loaded and will win the AFC North. Baker Mayfield finished Week 1 at plus-15 in completion percentage over expectation, better than any passer in the NFL.
6. Green Bay Packers (0–1)
Last week: Loss at New Orleans, 38–3
Next week: vs. Detroit (Monday)
Losing on opening weekend doesn’t mean the Packers are not one of the obvious Super Bowl favorites out of the NFC. Green Bay tanks a few of these a year, where it becomes obvious that they’re faltering and Aaron Rodgers seems to fold down the wings for an afternoon. This is still a cherry-blossom-laden stroll to the NFC North crown.
7. Buffalo Bills (0–1)
Last week: Loss vs. Pittsburgh, 23–16
Next week: at Miami
Sense the pattern here? Losing on opening weekend doesn’t mean the Bills are not one of the obvious Super Bowl favorites out of the AFC. While falling to Pittsburgh was a bit of a surprise, the Steelers have the infrastructure to muddy the best of what Josh Allen does. This was always going to be a coin-toss game for Buffalo.
8. Seattle Seahawks (1–0)
Last week: Win at Indianapolis, 28–16
Next week: vs. Tennessee
The Shane Waldron era in Seattle is starting with promise. Overlaying some of the Rams’ best matchup concepts onto a receiving corps that contains DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett is good for business. The running game will take care of itself.
9. Denver Broncos (1–0)
Last week: Win at New York Giants, 27–13
Next week: at Jacksonville
Yes, it was the Giants. But hear me out: Vic Fangio will be coaching a top five defense at season’s end. This, combined with a coach who has developed a bit of an edge with his back against the wall, and some sound, ball-control football from Teddy Bridgewater is the recipe for a deep wildcard sleeper.
10. Baltimore Ravens (0–1)
Last week: Loss at Las Vegas, 33–27 (OT)
Next week: vs. Kansas City
A strange night for the threadbare Ravens, who saw a bit of their façade stripped away once the window dressing of their heavy-personnel offense was gone. Lamar Jackson was impressive as a pure pocket passer but could obviously not bolster himself with the running game when so much is predicated on an intimate RB-QB relationship, and all of Baltimore’s top backs are out of commission.
11. Pittsburgh Steelers (1–0)
Last week: Win at Buffalo, 23–16
Next week: vs. Las Vegas
This team will thrive as an underdog in 2021. Defenses will continue to debate how they should treat an aging Ben Roethlisberger and the Matt Canada effect will eventually juice Najee Harris and the running game.
12. New Orleans Saints (1–0)
Last week: Win vs. Green Bay, 38–3
Next week: at Carolina
Jameis Winston is the perfect Week 1 overreaction avatar. Three of his five touchdowns were either the product of a phenomenal receiver catch or a shovel pass. Sean Payton will have this team relevant, but we’d all be safe to pump the breaks on the idea that Drew Brees has been replaced. One can believe in Payton and the Saints’ roster without buying high on the quarterback.
13. Los Angeles Chargers (1–0)
Last week: Win at Washington, 20–16
Next week: vs. Dallas
A six-point win over the WFT looks better considering the strength of Ron Rivera’s defense. Justin Herbert is a wonderful quarterback, but the jury is still out on the offense sans Anthony Lynn, Shane Steichen and Pep Hamilton. Which, by the way: How did the Texans (Hamilton), Lions (Lynn) and Eagles (Steichen) look Week 1, with each team scoring more than 25 points?
14. Dallas Cowboys (0–1)
Last week: Loss at Tampa Bay, 31–29
Next week: at Los Angeles Chargers
Prediction time: Dallas will be a top-seven team at the end of Week 4. Overcoming its head coach’s ho-hum tendencies will be a herculean task, but the keys are truly in the hands of Dak Prescott and Kellen Moore, one of the most exciting young coach-and-quarterback tandems in the NFL. The running game, especially thanks to Moore’s willingness to tease the speed and versatility of Tony Pollard, will look different from years past but may end up being more effective.
15. Miami Dolphins (1–0)
Last week: Win at New England, 17–16
Next week: vs. Buffalo
A handful of untimely Patriots errors allowed the Dolphins to escape with a Week 1 victory. Tua Tagovailoa had the worst quarterback rating of any starter on a winning team from Sunday. Miami’s 3.4 completed air yards per passing attempt must balloon if we are to take Miami as seriously as the rest of the roster begs us to. Perhaps Josh McDaniels’s plan for Mac Jones can be somewhat instructive for the Dolphins and their young starter from Alabama.
16. New England Patriots (0–1)
Last week: Loss vs. Miami, 17–16
Next week: at New York Jets
Mac Jones finished with a CPOE better than that of Kyler Murray on Sunday. While he was similarly plodding like Tagovailoa, he avoided a costly turnover. The Patriots were able to scheme their two prized tight ends open even if the offensive game plan was on the conservative side. Christian Barmore could develop into Bill Belichick’s next great defensive tackle.
17. Arizona Cardinals (1–0)
Last week: Win at Tennessee, 38–13
Next week: vs. Minnesota
When dismissing the Cardinals this offseason in my all-273 projections, the one factor I admittedly did not weigh properly was how much better Kyler Murray would continue to get. The Air Raid in Kliff Kingsbury’s hands feels like it has its limitations, but Murray’s knowledge of the scheme can transcend that.
Chandler Jones’s otherworldly performance also brings to mind the fact that, while on the surface, it seems like depending on a pair of aging pass rushers is not an ideal long-term plan, it’s really working at the moment. Vance Joseph’s daunting fronts proved a difficult mismatch for the outside zone-heavy Titans.
18. Philadelphia Eagles (1–0)
Last week: Win at Atlanta, 32–6
Next week: vs. San Francisco
A spirited debut from Nick Sirianni & Co. Jalen Hurts, who, for one week, looked nothing like a soon-to-be-replaced bridge quarterback on a tanking football team. While the Falcons are, perhaps, more of a mess than we initially thought, Hurts was smooth and worked middle distance throws to all thirds like a seasoned professional. Philadelphia’s defensive front can still be a great equalizer for this club, which, thanks to a Ryan Fitzpatrick injury and a painfully milquetoast offering from Jason Garrett in New York, will end up being a bigger factor in the NFC East than initially expected.
19. Las Vegas Raiders (1–0)
Last week: Win vs. Baltimore, 33–27 (OT)
Next week: at Pittsburgh
Monday Night Football was a signature moment for Derek Carr, who, between some of the actual touchdowns had some of his best throws in big spots. The Raiders are probably not going much of anywhere, saddled with the Chiefs and Chargers in their division and the Broncos’ defense. They are still bizarrely coached and another one of their top draft picks nearly cost them the game. That said, credit where credit's due. They were going to be 24th on this list.
20. Indianapolis Colts (0–1)
Last week: Loss vs. Seattle, 28–16
Next week: vs. Los Angeles Rams
This was always going to be a buzz saw game for the Colts to walk into. The Seahawks changed to a Sean McVay–inspired offense and forced the Colts to play catch up with a somewhat banged-up Carson Wentz. The encouraging? Wentz seemed fearless and unhampered escaping the pocket early and still looks fluid and athletic. Frank Reich can still scheme open wide receivers with the best of them.
21. Tennessee Titans (0–1)
Last week: Loss vs. Arizona, 38–13
Next week: at Seattle
A bit of a puzzler in their opener, the Titans were battered by Arizona’s pass rush and showed the one true Achilles heel of their offensive system: It is not the best when trailing by double digits. The Titans were down by 17 points in the second quarter and a lot of their offensive momentum to that point came via the strength of some Derrick Henry-centric gadget plays. That said, Ryan Tannehill did show an ability to piece together a few sound offensive drives in a more conventional looking offense. Their pass rush is still nonexistent.
22. Chicago Bears (0–1)
Last week: Loss at Los Angeles Rams, 34–14
Next week: vs. Cincinnati
The Bears seem destined to free fall from this spot once the inevitable occurs. Still hellbent on keeping Justin Fields on the bench due to their porous offensive line, the team will eventually buckle to public pressure, ultimately placing a good but developing quarterback in choppy water. Fields can survive this season, but it will be far from idyllic.
23. Carolina Panthers (1–0)
Last week: Win vs. New York Jets, 19–14
Next week: vs. New Orleans
This is a team I wanted to dislike, simply because Sam Darnold did not seem like an upgrade over Teddy Bridgewater. He still may not. But the power of Panthers offensive coordinator Joe Brady may be overriding any of the roster deficiencies we’ve seen. Let’s get Carolina in a game against a team that isn’t the relegation-worthy Jets before making any definitive statements.
24. Minnesota Vikings (0–1)
Last week: Loss at Cincinnati, 27–24
Next week: at Arizona
This is still an efficient offense with stable quarterback play and excellent options at wide receiver. However, Sunday’s loss to the Bengals reminds us that a pass rush and a secondary are more essential than ever, and a lack of those can be easily exposed.
25. Detroit Lions (0–1)
Last week: Loss vs. San Francisco, 41–33
Next week: at Green Bay (Monday)
While it may not have been the way we expected, the Lions showed some foundational promise on Sunday against the 49ers. Jared Goff was hitting passes to all levels of the field. Anthony Lynn did a phenomenal job of scheming open the team’s best offensive weapons, like T.J. Hockenson. The running game lagged, but Detroit will end up a thorn in plenty of sides this year simply by virtue of being well-coached.
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26. Atlanta Falcons (0–1)
Last week: Loss vs. Philadelphia, 32–6
Next week: at Tampa Bay
Atlanta’s Week 1 performance was one of the more stunning developments of the early season. While we did not expect Arthur Smith to have the Falcons as an immediate factor in year one, especially in a division with the Buccaneers and Saints, it would seem beneficial to pair Matt Ryan with the offense he last visited the playoffs with. Alas, the running game was nonexistent, which is often a non-starter for outside zone offenses. Kyle Pitts had a paltry 1.6 yards of average separation per route run. The urgency to rid themselves of Julio Jones is a bit more of a head scratcher now.
27. Washington Football Team (0–1)
Last week: Loss vs. Los Angeles Chargers, 20–16
Next week: vs. New York Giants (Thursday)
This is purely a reflection of the quarterback injury. Ryan Fitzpatrick will miss nearly half the season, handing the ball off to Taylor Heinicke (and, perhaps, someday, hopefully Cam Newton). I think many of us were high on Ron Rivera and what the best of Fitzpatrick could lend this vicious defensive line.
28. Cincinnati Bengals (1–0)
Last week: Win vs. Minnesota, 27–24
Next week: at Chicago
Joe Burrow is, in a football sense, nothing short of heroic, coming back after his catastrophic knee injury behind an equally patchwork offensive line and dealing Minnesota an upset loss in the season opener. Burrow was clobbered again, sacked another five times and hit seven but Zac Taylor may be able to scrape something by offensively if the running game continues to hum. The long touchdown to Ja’Marr Chase not only dispelled the ridiculous notion that the draft’s best receiver forgot how to catch, but showed what the 2020 No. 1 pick could do from a clean pocket.
29. New York Jets (0–1)
Last week: Loss at Carolina, 19–14
Next week: vs. New England
The Jets were always going to have a difficult season, but the performance of recent free agent acquisitions like Corey Davis bode well for the future. This team should be solely focused on getting Zach Wilson out of 2021 without any kind of serious injury or developed tic from a constantly muddy pocket. Too many of the club’s passers were ruined through inept roster mismanagement. Joe Douglas feels like he’s cut from a different cloth, but time will tell. At the least, this is a punch-less offense that hangs with the ebbs and flows of a game. The Jets made this one close, which was more than you could say about them a year ago.
30. New York Giants (0–1)
Last week: Loss vs. Denver, 27–13
Next week: at Washington Football Team (Thursday)
Sunday’s opener against the Broncos was disappointing. A wealth of playmaking talent on that roster sits underneath the unbearable weight of a dying system. Jason Garrett has not been an effective play-caller in more than a decade, and the Giants’ insistence on pairing the young Joe Judge with a familiar, experienced face is going to end up a cinderblock dragging this roster down. Dave Gettleman has taken his fair share of criticism for the post-Eli Manning era, but Andrew Thomas is playing well. The defense is fine. Where does the blame actually lie?
31. Houston Texans (1–0)
Last week: Win vs. Jacksonville, 37–21
Next week: at Cleveland
The Texans feel a little like last year’s Jaguars, a team that won in somewhat stunning fashion during the season opener and coasted into the abyss from there. And while we can hope this isn’t true for the sake of Tyrod Taylor, a brilliant quarterback who has had some of the most horrific fortune in the NFL, this is also a chaotically run franchise full of expendable pieces that will look completely different after the trade deadline.
32. Jacksonville Jaguars (0–1)
Last week: Loss at Houston 37–21
Next week: vs. Denver
Most collegiate coaches who are unsuccessful at the NFL level are lumped together, but the much-lampooned Chip Kelly, for example, was never this ill-prepared for a season opener. The Jaguars were walloped by the worst team in football. Their offseason personnel strategy seemed to ignore many of the team’s foundational issues in pursuit of a lofty and ultimately difficult to accomplish vision. Urban Meyer’s top offensive lieutenants, Darrell Bevell and Brian Schottenheimer, both required generational defenses to see their core philosophies succeed. Jacksonville couldn’t slow the pick-heavy Texans.
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