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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.

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.