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NFL Power Rankings: Buccaneers Continue to Outduel, Titans Making Noise

Despite a battered roster, Tampa Bay is finding ways to win, while the Titans nab a statement win over Buffalo. Plus, what to make of the bottom of the pack.

Editor’s note: If you don’t want an early plot point from Lost spoiled, stop reading now. In fact, you should stop reading now anyway because these are power rankings.

In Lost, early Season 2 or thereabouts, we meet Desmond, who lives in the island’s “hatch” and has to enter a specific series of numbers into a machine every 108 minutes under the belief that, should he fail to do so, the world will end. We wonder why he just accepts this as reality when there’s no tangible proof to suggest it’s true, but we also understand the conundrum he faces—it’s not a theory you’re comfortable testing because of the potential consequences.

That’s more than a little bit of what it feels like to write power rankings. No one has a good reason as to why we do them. But the fear is that if we stop doing them, literally every person who normally frequents our website will never do so again. Which is internet apocalypse, or something.

If that didn’t make you question why you’re here right now, then it’s already too late.

The first time I had to do Power Rankings last season was Oct. 14, at which point—objectively—the three best teams in football were the Chiefs, Packers and Bucs. Mathematically, no one will ever rank anything more powerfully than what I did that day. This was the headline:

Screen Shot 2021-10-14 at 3.51.49 PM

However, Tampa had just lost a short-week, poorly officiated, easily discounted road game in Chicago. So despite the undeniable accuracy of these rankings, my mentions were filled by a chorus of turd boys complaining that the Bucs can’t be top three because they had lost their most recent game. 

The only thing more intellectually bankrupt than “power ranking” teams in a league in which they literally decide the champion on the field every season ever is insisting that power ranking put disproportionate emphasis on a one-game sample size. And if what you wanted was rank order based on current win-loss record, then go to NFLstandingsdotcom.org/internet.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady (12) calls a play against the Philadelphia Eagles during the first quarter at Lincoln Financial Field.

Anyway, I’m sure there are some of you who get genuine enjoyment out of this exercise—sorry to yuck your yum. But here’s what I’ll do: In light of the even-steven nature of the NFL (as with most years, the difference between the ninth-best team and the 22nd-best team will probably come down to injuries), I marked “tiers” for each group. Let it not be said that I didn’t put thought and/or effort into this.


THE SUPER BOWL CONTENDERS

1. Los Angeles Rams (5—1)

Last week: Win at New York Giants, 38–11
Next week: vs. Detroit

The only blip on their record game on an off-day against a Cardinals team they’d beat four out of five times at SoFi. They have the best coach in the NFL, an MVP-caliber quarterback playing at an MVP level, and as long as Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey stay healthy they’ll remain the most well-rounded team in football.

2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5—1)

Last week: Win at Philadelphia, 28–22
Next week: vs. Chicago

They’re weathering the storm with a collection of XFL-caliber cornerbacks, but it’s looking more and more like this offense—now that they’ve handed over the coaching reins to Tom Brady—can outscore just about anyone if needed.

3. Kansas City Chiefs (3—3)

Last week: Win at Washington, 31–13
Next week: at Tennessee

Sunday in Washington felt like it will ultimately be a microcosm of the Chiefs’ season: A first half in which they repeatedly shot themselves in the butt with sloppy turnovers, then a second half where they cleaned that up and basically did whatever they wanted. The defense is a bit of a question mark—though it does take time to adjust to Steve Spagnuolo’s system. But the offense should get better play from the offensive line as the year goes on, and the turnover issues aren’t the result of players that can’t play or a system that doesn’t work. The self-inflicted mistakes should dry up, and they’ll be close to unbeatable again once they’re not giving it away three or four times every week.

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4. Baltimore Ravens (5—1)

Last week: Win vs. Los Angeles Chargers, 34–6
Next week: vs. Cincinnati

Watching your 2015 fantasy football backfield score touchdowns in 2021 is neat, but getting it done without Ronnie Stanley and Marcus Peters is far more impressive. Fill-in CB Anthony Averett was engulfed in flames two weeks ago and surely had the Chargers salivating at the chance to pick on him, but instead Averett was outstanding (with a little more help) and the defense dominated on Sunday. And the win over the Chargers—like the Week 2 win over the Chiefs—came on a short week off an overtime Monday nighter.

5. Green Bay Packers (5—1)

Last week: Win at Chicago, 24–14
Next week: vs. Washington

So far so good since the Jaire Alexander injury, though facing Chicago, where Matt Nagy has chosen to slow-play his young QB’s development, and then the Taylor Heinicke-led Football Team is something a shaky secondary can survive.

6. Buffalo Bills (4—2)

Last week: Loss at Tennessee 34–31
Next week: Bye

There's no shame in getting steamrolled by Derrick Henry—Monday night's loss came down to that, plus some red-zone issues for an offense that really should be better on a short field (four trips inside the Titans' 10 and only 14 points to show for it). And the quarterback slipping on a game-deciding fourth-and-inches sneak, that's also no good.

Arizona Cardinals wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins (10) celebrates with guard Max Garcia (73) after catching a touchdown pass during the first half against the Cleveland Browns at FirstEnergy Stadium.

7. Arizona Cardinals (6—0)

Last week: Win at Cleveland, 37–14
Next week: vs. Houston

You have to feel great about the defense as well as the individual play of Kyler Murray and DeAndre Hopkins. What’s worrisome is an offensive system that requires the quarterback to maintain an MVP level over 17 games. They’ve been great, but they’ve also been fortunate along the way. The Cardinals are converting a lot of third and very longs while also stopping opponents on fourth downs at an unsustainable rate (10 of 14 so far, league average usually hovers around 50%). They’ve recovered 18 of 23 fumbles (expected fumble recovery rate for any team is 50%). Between fourth-down defense and fumble recoveries they’re stealing two possessions per game so far. They’re the only team in football to have opposing kickers miss three attempts inside 50 yards, one of two teams to have opposing kickers miss four PATs, and are top 10 in offensive and defensive red-zone efficiency, typically a volatile stat unless you have a Derrick Henry on your roster. In many ways, it smells a bit like the 2020 edition—albeit with a better defense. But, mostly, they’re 6–0, which actually counts even more than their position in some guy’s power rankings.

8. Los Angeles Chargers (4—2)

Last week: Loss at Baltimore, 34–6
Next week: Bye

Considering what Justin Herbert and Brandon Staley had done through five games, I didn’t see a scenario where the Chargers were going to be thoroughly outplayed and outcoached by anyone. But that’s exactly what transpired in Baltimore on Sunday. For now, chalk it up to one of those days.

9. Cleveland Browns (3—3)

Last week: Loss vs. Arizona, 37–14
Next week: vs. Denver (Thursday)

I’d plant the Browns firmly in the top five if their offensive tackles were healthy (and Baker Mayfield looked a little more, I guess, rational, than he did on Sunday). They have the potential to be the most complete team in the AFC, but an off day for the front four against Arizona exposed some serious issues on the back end of this defense—the kinds of issues that crop up when you have a lot of changeover.

10. Dallas Cowboys (5—1)

Last week: Win at New England, 35–29 (OT)
Next week: Bye

There’s something to be said for a team that wins a game, on the road, on a day when a lot of things go horribly wrong (goal-line fumbles, penalties, failed fourth downs, etc.). The bigger worry regarding the Cowboys is that they won’t continue taking the ball away at this rate (14 through six games), and what happens to the defense when the takeaways dry up?


THE DARKHORSE CONTENDERS

11. San Francisco 49ers (2—3)

Last week: Bye
Next week: vs. Indianapolis

The defense is borderline dominant again (even while blitzing more with Josh Norman on the field!); the issue is the offense. The last time we saw the Niners, Trey Lance was not the superhero I believed he’d be in 2021 (he’s still going to be incredible long-term). They rolled out a limited playbook, and the offensive line had an awful time blocking in front of a more improvisational quarterback—though they still were a couple fourth-down conversions away from a win in Arizona anyway. They overcame a mediocre quarterback to make the Super Bowl in 2019, but as Split Enz once told me, history never repeats.

12. New Orleans Saints (3—2)

Last week: Bye
Next week: at Seattle (Monday)

Another team where you have to be all-in on the defense, but terrified at the quarterback situation. There’s been no semblance of consistency or, at many times, even competence for the Saints’ offense—Jameis Winston is, as feared, sometimes ineffective but more often erratic. Though maybe that changes once Michael Thomas returns. But probably not.

13. Minnesota Vikings (3—3)

Last week: Win at Carolina, 34–28 (OT)
Next week: Bye

I don’t know why they insist on being so conservative on offense, keeping games close that shouldn’t be close—maybe Mike Zimmer just needs to feel something again. But at this point, the Vikings are a coin flip on a weekly basis, and a few strategic tweaks from being a 10-win team.

14. Indianapolis Colts (2—4)

Last week: Win vs. Houston, 31–3
Next week: at San Francisco

They’ll get healthy again, and Carson Wentz will get more comfortable in this offense. And while the fact that he’s struggling to see the field is worrisome, the run game can carry them offensively. Basically, they’re a mortal lock to win the AFC South.


THEY COULD MAKE NOISE IN JANUARY

15. Cincinnati Bengals (4—2)

Last week: Win at Detroit, 34–11
Next week: at Baltimore

They haven’t taken out any world-beaters, but good teams beat bad teams, and the first six weeks of the season have proven that the Bengals are—at the very least—not one of the bad teams anymore. Joe Burrow is back on track to become a franchise quarterback, but more impressive is the continued emergence of Lou Anarumo’s defense, which continues to be more than the sum of its parts.

16. Tennessee Titans (4—2)

Last week: Win vs. Buffalo 34–31
Next week: vs. Kansas City

I love Derrick Henry as much as the next guy; no non-QB is more crucial to his offense's success. But this Titans defense is bad—bewilderingly, upsettingly bad considering they have All-Pro talents in Jeffery Simmons and Kevin Byard up the middle. They held up in the red zone on Monday night, but that's less a sign of quality play and more the sign of a fluke (like, for instance, when the opposing quarterback slips on fourth-and-inches to end the game). But maybe there's a path to improvement for that unit that I'm just not seeing. I don't see a lot of things.

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17. Pittsburgh Steelers (3—3)

Last week: Win vs. Seattle, 23–20 (OT)
Next week: Bye

The offensive line has played better (they were great in the win over Denver, probably pretty good in Sunday night’s win over Seattle but it’s tough to judge any offense against that crummy Seahawks defense), which has allowed Ben Roethlisberger to provide serviceable play the past two weeks. Offensively, they just have to figure out a way to do just enough to complement a defense that will dominate as long as they stay healthy.

18. Carolina Panthers (3—3)

Last week: Loss vs. Minnesota, 34–28 (OT)
Next week: at New York Giants

The sky is maybe possibly falling on Sam Darnold—he was dreadful in a Week 5 loss to the Eagles, but his performance in Sunday’s overtime loss to the Vikings is harder to grasp. He didn’t play well, but was also burned by a number of drops and put together an impressive 11-play, 96-yard drive in 87 seconds to put the game-tying eight points up at the end of regulation. The defense is probably a year away from being truly elite anyway, but the Panthers would have an interesting decision to make on Darnold should the first third of the season repeat itself two more times.

19. Chicago Bears (3—3)

Last week: Loss vs. Green Bay, 24–14
Next week: at Tampa Bay

Just like in 2018, it’s going to take this defense forcing multiple turnovers and dominating every week in order for the Bears to stay in the playoff hunt. It’s an organization that seems bizarrely uninterested in quality quarterback play.

20. Las Vegas Raiders (4—2)

Last week: Win at Denver, 34–24
Next week: vs. Philadelphia

So far, so good in the post-Gruden era, as the Raiders defense continues its revival under Gus Bradley and Derek Carr continues to provide the kind of big, downfield throws that weren’t a part of this offense for years.

21. New England Patriots (2—4)

Last week: Loss vs. Dallas, 35–29 (OT)
Next week: vs. N.Y. Jets

The defense is there, the offense is not, and the Patriots have now let two games slip out of their grasp in Foxboro. The season-opening loss to a truly atrocious Dolphins team will surely stick in their craw, but Sunday’s loss to Dallas was even more frustrating, as they were set up to beat a superior opponent through situational football and timely playmaking before a wild final three minutes unfolded.

22. Denver Broncos (3—4)

Last week: Loss vs. Las Vegas, 34–24
Next week: at Cleveland (Thursday)

Like Chicago, this is a team that needs the defense to stand on its head in order to win games—that’s not just stopping opponents, but taking the ball away in the process. They have forced one turnover over the course of their three-game losing streak.


GET ’EM NEXT YEAR

23. Seattle Seahawks (2—4)

Last week: Loss at Pittsburgh, 23–20 (OT)
Next week: vs. New Orleans (Monday)

This defense is high on unintentional comedy and low on competence, so while perhaps Pittsburgh on a Sunday night wasn’t the time to open up the offense for Geno Smith, Shane Waldron is going to have to give his quarterback a chance going forward.

24. New York Giants (1—5)

Last week: Loss vs. Los Angeles Rams, 38–11
Next week: vs. Carolina

An optimist could argue that the Giants feel a little bit like the 2020 Chargers—their young quarterback is emerging (even if the ceiling is not Justin Herbert’s) and yet they still can’t win games with a veteran supporting cast. Maybe if the coaching staff was a little more forward-thinking and a little less into cosplaying Leopold from The Simpsons.

25. Washington Football Team (2—4)

Last week: Loss vs. Kansas City, 31–13
Next week: at Green Bay

The quarterback thing is understandable, but the way that this defense has regressed is one of the most stunning developments of the 2021 season. It’s the most underachieving unit in the league.

26. Atlanta Falcons (2—3)

Last week: Bye
Next week: at Miami

I dunno, Matt Ryan seemed pretty pumped after that win over the Jets, and that’s pretty cool. If Kyle Pitts emerges, and if this defense grows into Dean Peas’s system, I could see the Falcons hanging around in contention for a playoff spot in early January.


NOTHING WRONG WITH MORAL VICTORIES

27. Philadelphia Eagles (2—4)

Last week: Loss vs. Tampa Bay, 28–22
Next week: at Las Vegas

It’s understandable that the Bucs wanted to specifically and repeatedly attack the boundary corners against Tampa—it’s a glaring weakness in a defense that is dominant up the middle. But at some point they have to put more on Jalen Hurts’s plate and give him a chance he can do it before they pull the plug and chase a new quarterback next offseason.

28. New York Jets (1—4)

Last week: Bye
Next week: at New England

The 2021 season was always going to be about small victories for the Jets, and the upcoming rematch with the Patriots should be a good measuring stick. After Zach Wilson was overwhelmed in his first go-around against Bill Belichick, he had two weeks to prepare for Round 2, and in the meantime the Texans had gotten the better of the Patriots with an inferior rookie quarterback.

29. Detroit Lions (0—6)

Last week: Loss vs. Cincinnati, 34–11
Next week: at Los Angeles Rams

The sad part for the Lions is that, while the Dolphins, Jaguars and Texans have each other to beat up on in the AFC, Detroit’s schedule contains only NFL-caliber opponents, leaving them more likely to go winless than their inferior counterparts. (The other sad part is that, even if they’ve seen enough of Jared Goff, what are they gonna do, turn it over to David Blough?)


AVERT YOUR EYES, CHILDREN

30. Miami Dolphins (1—5)

Last week: Loss vs. Jacksonville in London, 23–20
Next week: vs. Atlanta

Over the coming months, there will be lots of finger-pointing in the wake of the Dolphins literally throwing away an entire season to draft a quarterback they’ll more likely than not be moving on from after this season. Some fingers will point at Chris Grier, some at Brian Flores, some at their 14-person offensive coordinator committee, and some at Tua Tagovailoa himself. But those fingers should be pointing at the owner who encouraged that dopey plan.

31. Jacksonville Jaguars (1—5)

Last week: Win vs. Miami in London, 23–20
Next week: Bye

Congratulations to a group of players who have been forced to weather an absolute farce for more than a calendar year yet managed to rise above and come away with a win.

32. Houston Texans (1—5)

Last week: Loss at Indianapolis, 31–3
Next week: at Arizona

My 18-month-old has been dragging a deflated mylar balloon around the house for weeks, and I feel like that’s a pretty good metaphor for what it’s like to be a Texans fan right now.

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