My preseason Super Bowl pick suffered its first loss of the season, both teams who played in last year's Super Bowl had to grind out wins and the Monday night game featured two of this season’s most intriguing new contenders. All of this threatened to throw this week’s power rankings into chaos. You may think that these results are chaotic. But I tried to stay true to how I feel about each team’s long-term success in the 2021 season, based on the information we have gathered so far.
1. Los Angeles Rams (3–1)
Last week: Loss vs. Arizona, 37-20
Next week: at Seattle (Thursday)
I’m bracing for the possibility that this pick might be controversial (and the fact that it was endorsed by noted staff contrarian Conor Orr only confirms this). I still think the Rams are the best team in the league. On Sunday, they looked a lot like a team that had won a big game a week ago (which, of course, they had). Matthew Stafford admitted he was a little off, and the defense left too many wide-open holes as the Rams amassed well over 400 yards of total offense. We didn’t expect the transition to a new QB and a new defensive coordinator to be entirely smooth, but the results of the first three weeks made us think it could be. This team has another big test ahead, with a trip to Seattle on a short week.
2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3–1)
Last week: Win at New England, 19-17
Next week: vs. Miami
The Buccaneers were flawed on Sunday night in New England. But even with an injury-ravaged secondary, and Rob Gronkowski and Jason Pierre-Paul back home in Tampa, they found a way to win on what was clearly an emotionally taxing night for Tom Brady despite his best efforts to make it seem otherwise. As Todd Bowles figures out how to scheme around deficiencies in the secondary, two of their next three opponents rank in the bottom three in the league in passing yards.
3. Green Bay Packers (3–1)
Last week: Win vs. Pittsburgh, 27-17
Next week: at Cincinnati
Green Bay’s Week 1 loss feels like a distant memory by this point and so does the offseason discord between the team and Aaron Rodgers. Though the starting QB did pad his GM credentials, should such fodder be needed this coming offseason, in targeting personal acquisition Randall Cobb for two TDs and four third-down conversions.
4. Kansas City Chiefs (2–2)
Last week: Win at Philadelphia, 42-30
Next week: vs. Buffalo
The Chiefs rebounded from a two-game losing streak with a feel-good win against Andy Reid’s former team. But the defensive struggles persist. The Chiefs rank next-to-last in the league in points allowed, yielding an average of 31.25 per game. That’s a hefty burden, even for an offense that has the ability to score with one flick of Patrick Mahomes’s wrist.
5. Arizona Cardinals (4–0)
Last week: Win at Los Angeles Rams, 37-20
Next week: vs. San Francisco
You could, and I imagine many of you will, make an argument for the Cardinals to be higher. My one reservation is they remind me a little bit of the hot start the 2020 Seahawks had, where so much was on Russell Wilson’s plate that it just wasn’t sustainable. The one difference, though, is that in addition to Kyler Murray’s Houdini-level playmaking, the Cardinals also have a solid defense that limited the Rams, who had been averaging more than 30 points per game, to their lowest point total of the season.
6. Los Angeles Chargers (3–1)
Last week: Win vs. Las Vegas, 28-14 (Monday)
Next week: vs. Cleveland
The Chargers aren’t just 3–1, they are 3–1 after playing a formidable early schedule, including games at Arrowhead and against the formerly undefeated Raiders. And they have seemed to gain strength as the season has gone on. That’s a good thing, because their schedule won’t let up, with the Browns next.
7. Buffalo Bills (3–1)
Last week: Win vs. Houston, 40-0
Next week: at Kansas City
Next week’s Sunday Night Football meeting between the Bills and Chiefs will be an instructive measuring stick for both sides. The Bills have already opened up a two-game lead in the AFC East, but they've had a soft early schedule.
8. Baltimore Ravens (3–1)
Last week: Win at Denver, 23-7
Next week: vs. Indianapolis (Monday)
I like that John Harbaugh made the decision to run one final play instead of kneeling out the clock so his team could keep alive its streak of 100-yard rushing games (43, tying the 1970s Steelers). One of the reasons the Ravens have had success with Lamar Jackson is that they’ve unapologetically gone all-in on an offensive identity that bucks the rest of the league. The 100-yard rushing streak is part of that identity, and because of that, Harbaugh knew it was important to keep it going.
9. Cleveland Browns (3–1)
Last week: Win at Minnesota, 14-7
Next week: at Los Angeles Chargers
The Browns won with an old-school style of play, with more runs than passes and a defense whose offseason additions have come together faster than many expected. But they may need more from Baker Mayfield to beat Justin Herbert and the Chargers next week.
10. Dallas Cowboys (3–1)
Last week: Win vs. Carolina, 36-28
Next week: vs. New York Giants
When Dallas hung with the defending champion Bucs in the season opener, we were, fairly so, wary of calling the loss a moral victory. But since then, the Cowboys have proved they're a team worthy of our praise. And unlike last year, when Dak Prescott was putting up massive passing numbers before his season-ending injury because he had to, this is a pretty balanced team that put together another convincing win against the previously undefeated Panthers.
11. Las Vegas Raiders (3–1)
Last week: Loss at Los Angeles Chargers, 28-14 (Monday)
Next week: vs. Chicago
The Raiders offense made effective halftime adjustments to roar back from a 21-0 deficit and pull within one touchdown. But the Chargers blew the game back open by scoring a TD after a Raiders missed FG, and Derwin James’s interception of Derek Carr was the final dagger. Still, this will be an entertaining race in what now looks like the best division in football.
12. Seattle Seahawks (2–2)
Last week: Win at San Francisco, 28-21
Next week: vs. Los Angeles Rams (Thursday)
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. This is the Seahawks, 2015 to the present. The halcyon days of the Legion of Boom fade further into the past, dissatisfaction mounting with every passing year. This week, though, they got a bit of a reprieve when the 49ers’ rookie QB was forced into his first regular duty before anyone planned.
13. San Francisco 49ers (2–2)
Last week: Loss vs. Seattle, 28-21
Next week: at Arizona
Kyle Shanahan set up a good situation for Trey Lance to have time to learn and develop behind Jimmy Garoppolo without pressure to play. But, part of the reason the 49ers drafted Lance was because Garoppolo has been injury-prone through his career. On Sunday, Garoppolo’s calf injury resulted in Lance being pushed into action before he was ready. That learning curve will have to be accelerated now depending on how long Garoppolo will be out.
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14. New Orleans Saints (2–2)
Last week: Loss vs. New York Giants, 27-21 (OT)
Next week: at Washington
Like the Packers, Week 1 also seems to be a distant memory for the Saints, in the opposite way. After throwing five TDs in the opener, Jameis Winson has only passed for three total scores in the three weeks since. And the Saints defense, which had been the team’s strength, collapsed in the fourth quarter and overtime.
15. Carolina Panthers (3–1)
Last week: Loss at Dallas, 36-28
Next: vs. Philadelphia
The Panthers’ previously top-ranked defense collapsed against the Cowboys, giving up a whopping 245 rushing yards after not allowing more than 50 in any of their first three games of the season. If the 3–0 start was a sign the Panthers are heading in the right direction, this game was a marker they are not there yet.
16. Denver Broncos (3–1)
Last week: Loss vs. Baltimore, 23-7
Next week: at Pittsburgh
Teddy Bridgewater’s steady veteran leadership was a big reason for the Broncos’ 3–0 start. But he was hit frequently behind a Denver offensive line with two spot starters, and left the game at halftime with a concussion. Depending on how Bridgewater’s recovery goes, Drew Lock could start next week against the Steelers.
17. Tennessee Titans (2–2)
Last week: Loss at New York Jets, 27-24 (OT)
Next week: at Jacksonville
One of the Titans’ strengths the past two seasons was their proficiency in the red zone, so it was notable that their offense scored touchdowns on only two of five trips to the red zone against the Jets. They were short-handed on offense, playing without receivers A.J. Brown and Julio Jones, and struggled to protect Ryan Tannehill. Next week against the Jags, though, presents a good opportunity to get back on track.
18. New England Patriots (1–3)
Last week: Loss vs. Tampa Bay, 19-17
Next week: at Houston
The Patriots are here because they are the best 1–3 team in football. It’s clear the rebuild is still underway, and that certain pundits (me) may have overestimated how quickly it would come together. But the way Mac Jones played on Sunday night certainly was a solid piece of evidence that the Patriots just may have gotten their QB pick right. It’s been interesting to watch how Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels have chosen to break in a rookie QB, which so far looks like they’re bringing him along at a measured pace. They’re playing the long game with him.
19. Pittsburgh Steelers (1–3)
Last week: Loss at Green Bay, 27-17
Next week: vs. Denver
The looks of frustration on the faces of Ben Roethlisberger and JuJu Smith-Schuster on the sideline during the loss said it all. There were two big missed connections between the two (which looked like missed throws by Roethlisberger, though each took responsibility for them), indicative of an offense that has been out of sync all season.
20. Indianapolis Colts (1–3)
Last week: Win at Miami, 27-17
Next week: at Baltimore (Monday)
OK, so Conor Orr’s wild prediction that the Colts would start 0–5, only to rally after a high-profile incident of seafood poisoning and make the playoffs, has fallen a little short of coming true. Sometimes even Orracles can be a little off. But the Colts did look like they were starting to pull things together, led by RB Jonathan Taylor. We’ll know just how much after their trip to Baltimore next week.
21. Minnesota Vikings (1–3)
Last week: Loss vs. Cleveland, 14-7
Next week: vs. Detroit
Mike Zimmer asserted after Minnesota’s third loss in four games that this is a good football team. They’ve looked like it at times, like in their win against Seattle and the game they should have won in Arizona. But they didn’t look much like it against the Browns.
22. Washington Football Team (2–2)
Last week: Win at Atlanta, 34-30
Next week: vs. New Orleans
The odds-defying touchdown throw Taylor Heinicke made to Terry McLaurin late in Washington’s thrilling win, along with his equally odds-defying road to being an NFL starter of course, are why he’s becoming something of a cult hero. But the team needs those moments because the defense, the lifeblood of last season’s playoff berth, continues to underperform.