Back in 2015 while working for NFL Network, I picked against the Carolina Panthers in the opening week of our Around The NFL Podcast prognostication competition as a shot at my then editor, David Ely, a loyal Panthers fan and Cam Newton enthusiast.
He noticed, and so week after week, I picked against them again and again; to lose to the Jaguars, the Texans, the Saints, the Buccaneers … and if you’ll remember correctly, they didn’t do a whole bunch of losing that season. That team didn’t register a loss until Week 16 in a game against the Falcons.
By then, other Panthers fans noticed too. Message board threads revealed I had a “punchable face” (which I confirmed with best friends from high school) for sticking with the bit for so long. In retaliation, I finally picked Carolina to win the Super Bowl, and secured my status as the ultimate mush. I still feel somewhat responsible for Newton not diving for that fumble.
The reason I bring this story up is because I royally screwed up a prognostication again, but this time in earnest. I picked the Cardinals to go 6–11 this year, but I learned from my time with Panther Nation (Panther Nation?) that it’s best to meet these things head on before they get out of control. Fans want their chance to puff out their collective chests when they were right and we were wrong. That’s why I want to devote the top of this week’s Power Rankings to a Cardinals fan, who will let me have it. I saw the signings of A.J. Green and JJ Watt as a desperate GM flailing. I thought the Air Raid would slow in effectiveness once the NFL got a longer look at it, instead of correctly guessing that Kyler Murray’s increased knowledge would diversify a system that site adjusts most of its routes. And so on, and so on …
Here is a brief conversation with Luke Stevens (@HeySteveofAZ), who reposted my 6–11 prediction following Arizona’s win over the Texans on Sunday. This is a small snippet of our exchange, edited for clarity. Join me in congratulating Luke and all Cardinals fans for having by far the most enjoyable first half of the season so far …
Sports Illustrated: One of my biggest mistakes was overlooking the signings of JJ Watt and A.J. Green, dismissing them as a desperation move. What were your thoughts when it happened?
One, I don’t see how you can see the signing of JJ Watt as a red flag. When he became available, the talk was how he was going to push the Bills, Pittsburgh, Green Bay, etc. into Super Bowl contention with what he could do. Turns out the Cardinals came, so now what? Why does his signing with the Cardinals not instill the same confidence?
As a fan, those two additions were huge for added talent and depth in each of those position groups. JJ and CJ55, yes I couldn’t wait to see it. A.J. Green with DHop and Kirk inside with the addition of Rondale Moore ... and now Ertz. Can you find a more talented group? Another key piece you’re missing that complements your wide receivers is the addition of Rodney Hudson and provides additional time for Kyler and a pocket for him to set up into. The addition of A.J. Green was a legit outside receiver and a threat paired with complementary pieces. I wouldn’t go as far as to say I was ecstatic, but I would say excited to see what it would mean on the field and its potential.
SI: What were your expectations at the outset of this season? Were you afraid of Matt Stafford, Trey Lance, etc.?
I was not really concerned about the addition of Trey Lance, he was a rookie. If you take a look at the Stafford addition from Cardinals perspective, Jared Goff was consistently, nearly perfect when playing the Cardinals. So, in terms of the Stafford addition, his addition wouldn’t really change anything. What you have to look at is the roster moves of the Cardinals. One specific moment you could look into this is in 2020's game one against the San Francisco 49ers. The 49ers were a Super Bowl favorite and heavily favored to win in Week one and they were 100% healthy. In the game it could’ve been put out of reach with the 49ers going for it on fourth down early in the first or second quarter. If you take a look at that specific play you’ll see the Cardinals make a stand and the momentum of the game completely changed.
If you’re asking about how rosters are built last year as a fan, I knew what our defense of line was in in terms of starting caliber players. The narrative was always Kyler Murray was injured and the Cardinals came up short but, in reality, the roster was not deep enough at the defensive line position to make a push.
SI: How far can this team go?
A neighbor of mine and I like to joke that we don’t talk about it. This season the Cardinals are built just a little bit different from everyone else. This year I’m more interested in savoring each week’s challenges before looking onto the next. It’s been a long time since we’ve been this fun to watch. 2019 and 2020 I was hopeful we would be in games and winning, but this year it’s our game to lose whether we’re favored or not.
Without further ado, here come the power rankings…
1. Arizona Cardinals (7–0)
Last week: Win vs. Houston, 31–5
Next week: vs. Green Bay (Thursday)
We’re left with no choice. We’ve been pretending the Cardinals are not as good as their fans thought they were all season, and while the Packers game could ultimately shine a light on how good the Cardinals are, they’ve already clubbed the Rams, Titans and Browns. Kyler Murray is charting a course to his first (of multiple?) MVP season.
2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6–1)
Last week: Win vs Chicago, 38–3
Next week: at New Orleans
The methodical nature with which the Buccaneers are dismantling opponents is scary, even if they have a few sleepwalking afternoons every now and then. While the Bears have been a punching bag for several defenses this year during the Justin Fields era, what we saw on Sunday was a coordinator and a defensive core that is ready for another Super Bowl run despite a rash of injuries.
3. Los Angeles Rams (6–1)
Last week: Win vs. Detroit, 28–19
Next week: at Houston
L.A. is third in offensive DVOA and fourth in defensive DVOA, making them one of the most statistically sound and across-the-board dominant teams. While they remain a favorite of mine to reach the Super Bowl, the loss against Arizona lingers.
4. Green Bay Packers (6–1)
Last week: Win vs. Washington, 24–10
Next week: at Arizona (Thursday
Aaron Rodgers admitted it has not been beautiful following their win over Washington and that it was on the coaches to make it so. That said, their offense is running at marathon pace right now and doesn’t need to burn itself out just yet.
5. Buffalo Bills (4–2)
Last week: Bye
Next week: vs. Miami
Here’s a not-so-bold prediction: The Bills, barring any catastrophic injuries, will hold down the No. 1 spot on our power rankings over the remaining five weeks of the season. Their remaining schedule is a little more than a game of tiddlywinks and they blew through the toughest portion of their season with the league’s most efficient offense.
6. Baltimore Ravens (5–2)
Last week: Loss vs. Cincinnati, 41–17
Next week: Bye
I’m going to avoid the shoe being hurled at me by Bengals fans, but I would take the Ravens again head-to-head. Lamar Jackson, all things considered, is mounting an MVP-worthy season full of herculean performances, even if the fantasy football ledger doesn’t agree. Once Baltimore finds their footing on the health front, they will be dangerous.
7. Dallas Cowboys (5–1)
Last week: ByeNext week: at Minnesota
The Cowboys sailed into a perfectly-timed bye, and while it’s difficult to ask for Dak Prescott to continue this streak—he currently possesses the highest success rate of any quarterback in the NFL on a play-by-play basis—this was the kind of torrid stretch he was on a year ago before his injury.
8. Cincinnati Bengals (5–2)
Last week: Win at Baltimore, 41–17
Next week: at New York Jets
Okay, Cincinnati. You have our attention. Beating the Ravens by almost 30 points, while watching Joe Burrow carve up a beautifully schemed defense by air mailing passes to his first-round wide receiver opened our eyes. The Jets and vulnerable Browns are next before the bye week, which means life for Bengals fans gets interesting for the first time since the Ochocinco era.
9. Los Angeles Chargers (4–2)
Last week: ByeNext week: vs. New England
The loss to the Ravens lingers, but I wouldn’t bet against Brandon Staley after a week of self scouting. This is especially true given the Chargers’ soft schedule from here on out, which features just two teams—the Raiders and the Bengals—with winning records. Even if you toss the Chiefs into the mix, this isn’t anything to flinch at.
10. Kansas City Chiefs (3–4)
Last week: Loss at Tennessee, 27–3
Next week: vs. New York Giants
The Chiefs are struggling; they need to get healthy, they need to diversify their target share, they need to run the ball and they need some kind of defensive revival meeting. They are a long way from the bye, which means they’ll have to figure all this out on the fly.
11. Tennessee Titans (5–2)
Last week: Win vs. Kansas City, 27–3
Next week: at Indianapolis
I wouldn’t want to touch Mike Vrabel’s team after that loss to the Jets. Ryan Tannehill remains as efficient as ever and this defense has come alive, with signature victories over the Bills and Chiefs in back to back weeks.
12. Cleveland Browns (4–3)
Last week: Win vs. Denver, 17–14 (Thursday)
Next week: vs. Pittsburgh
These are lean times in Cleveland, where the team’s seemingly endless depth has been purged and legitimate questions about Baker Mayfield’s future continue to percolate. The Browns need a block-and-tackle 21–14 victory where they outrush their opponent 2-to-1 and Mayfield has to get the ball out on every third step to get their groove back.
13. Las Vegas Raiders (5–2)
Last week: Win vs. Philadelphia, 33–22
Next week: Bye
Post-Gruden life has been smooth (strange, right?) and Derek Carr continues to mount one of his finest seasons yet. He is one of the league leaders in air yards and is in sniffing distance of a top 10 season at the position.
14. New Orleans Saints (4–2)
Last week: Win at Seattle, 13–10 (Monday)
Next week: vs. Tampa Bay
Not even Sean Payton can avoid lengthy stints on the Jameis-Coaster. There are going to be some incredibly strange Saints games this year, with Monday night serving as another example. That said, I’m not signing up to play them in a Wild Card game on a night where anything can happen.
15. Minnesota Vikings (3–3)
Last week: Bye
Next week: vs. Dallas
Their post-bye slate is absolutely brutal and could ultimately define the Cousins-Zimmer era in Minnesota. Sitting at 3–3 right now, the Vikings get Dallas on Halloween, the Ravens and Chargers on the road and the Packers at home. Winning half of those games should earn both an extension.
16. New England Patriots (3–4)
Last week: Win vs. New York Jets, 54–13
Next week: at Los Angeles Chargers
While the Patriots are beating up on their inferior opponents like certain BCS schools trying to make their way back into the tournament, I predicted a week ago that they were a club on the rise. I still believe it. Mac Jones has been the best rookie QB so far by a mile.
17. Pittsburgh Steelers (3–3)
Last week: Bye
Next week: at Cleveland
The Steelers are among a handful of teams that are capable of beating the best team in football each week, or losing to the worst team in football each week. While their loss to the Bengals can certainly be framed in a different light now, the bye week needs to produce more than a half-strength Ben Roethlisberger to change our overall outlook.
18. Detroit Lions (0–7)
Last week: Loss at Los Angeles Rams, 28–19
Next week: vs. Philadelphia
How can you put a winless team No. 18 in the power rankings? Define power for me. If I’m a player, I’m calling my agent and telling him or her to get me on a plane to Michigan so I can bite some kneecaps. Onside kicks, wildly honest press conferences, an egalitarian brotherhood. That’s power. Dan Campbell for the win.
19. Atlanta Falcons (3–3)
Last week: Win at Miami, 30–28
Next week: vs. Carolina
Arthur Smith has stolen a handful of victories in his first season and seems good enough to beat the teams he should be beating so far. While it’s unlikely he’ll get man coverage for Kyle Pitts like he did against Miami for the remainder of the season, he’s smart enough to take advantage of it when good matchups arise.
20. Chicago Bears (3–4)
Last week: Loss at Tampa Bay, 38–3
Next week: vs. San Francisco
Something seems off in Chicago. Justin Fields doesn’t look happy. Matt Nagy looks defensive. Both of them seem to be passive aggressively tattling on one another after each loss. I mentioned a few weeks ago that rookie QB trade requests shouldn’t be weird. I stand by that opinion.
21. Seattle Seahawks (2–5)
Last week: Loss vs. Saints, 13–10 (Monday)
Next week: vs. Jacksonville
Their defense has played surprisingly well over the last two weeks, but without Russell Wilson, this is a franchise adrift. Instructive times for Seattle’s ownership group that must immediately contend with Wilson’s not-so covert desires to explore other franchises before his retirement.
22. San Francisco 49ers (2–4)
Last week: Loss vs. Indianapolis, 30–18
Next week: at Chicago
While I will be the last person to jump off the Kyle Shanahan bandwagon, it is getting a little roomier in here. The 49ers cannot continue to blame their relative mediocrity (Super Bowl season aside) on injuries. At some point the acquisition process, the depth and the utilization all need to come into question.
23. Indianapolis Colts (3–4)
Last week: Win at San Francisco, 30–18
Next week: vs. Tennessee
The Colts are digging themselves out of an early-season funk and have set the stage for an early, division-shaping game against the Titans on Halloween. Over the last four weeks, Carson Wentz has thrown eight touchdowns (rushed for another) and no interceptions, with an average quarterback rating nearing 120. Could he finish the season as a top-15 quarterback, allowing the Colts to finally pause their frantic, post-Luck-ian search?
24. Carolina Panthers (3–4)
Last week: Loss at New York Giants, 25–3
Next week: at Atlanta
Sam Darnold’s descent has been a troubling update for the Panthers, who are now floating in purgatory after a hot start. While Matt Rhule’s team deserves credit for trying to stay aggressive and take advantage of their early success, one has to wonder if their ultimate decision—getting rid of Teddy Bridgewater, leaving them between a rock and a hard place with Darnold and a prospective Deshaun Watson deal—will pan out in their favor.
25. Denver Broncos (1–6)
Last week: Loss at Cleveland, 17–14 (Thursday)
Next week: vs. Washington Football
I bought low on Vic Fangio’s crew this year and thought the defense alone would be enough to plow them through some tough games, similar to the way Fangio lifted the Bears during Matt Nagy’s early years. Now, though, Denver isn’t in the top 20 in defensive DVOA and is struggling to match their talent pool on paper.
26. Washington Football Team (2–5)
Last week: Loss at Green Bay, 24–10
Next week: at Broncos
Their defense has been atrocious and wholly disappointing. Even with the enjoyably plucky Taylor Heinicke under center, this team should be far better than they are. Under no circumstances should Washington go into a week in the middle of this season dead last in points surrendered.
27. New York Giants (2–5)
Last week: Win vs. Panthers, 25–3
Next week: at Kansas City (Monday)
The Giants are digging themselves out of a hole, which means more up downs and push-ups for Joe Judge. Give the former Patriots coach credit for this: He’s not backing down from his whole milieu, and hoping that he can continue to smash square pegs into round holes. Can the Giants steal a few more games once they get healthy, legitimizing a third year?
28. Philadelphia Eagles (2–5)
Last week: Loss at Las Vegas, 33–22
Next week: at Detroit
The Eagles are lucky that Carson Wentz isn’t playing that much better than Jalen Hurts. In my favorite QB rankings composite, they’re 19th and 23rd, respectively, while running a version of the same scheme, which is a fair comparison. Their three first-round picks looked more tantalizing when it appeared they could command the board and take the No. 1 quarterback. But now that no No. 1 quarterback seems to exist, one hopes they get Hurts the pieces he needs to succeed.
29. New York Jets (1–5)
Last week: Loss at New England, 54–13
Next week: vs. Cincinnati
While I think we all would have liked to see a little more fight from the Jets against New England in that 41-point loss, it’s important to remember how threadbare Robert Saleh’s crew is right now, not to mention down the No. 2 overall pick in the draft now.
30. Miami Dolphins (1–6)
Last week: Loss vs. Atlanta, 30–28
Next week: at Buffalo
Tua Tagovailoa seems to be progressing at the rate of a rookie quarterback, just on a slower, Mitch Trubisky-plus kind of schedule. I think the Dolphins need to reimagine his mid-range accuracy into something that isn’t forced, tight-window RPO throws. If they can end the season not trading for Deshaun Watson and becoming somewhat confident that Tagovailoa is the guy moving forward, that’s a win for Brian Flores and Co. and should earn them another season.
31. Houston Texans (1–6)
Last week: Loss at Arizona. 31–5
Next week: vs. Los Angeles Rams
The Texans have played hard in spots this year, which continues to be the one thing we can say about them. Despite having the second-worst offense in the league, their defense makes it possible to steal one more victory and not end up with the No. 1 pick.
32. Jacksonville Jaguars (1–5)
Last week: Bye
Next week: at Seattle
One London victory against a falling-apart Dolphins team doesn’t change the outlook for Urban Meyer’s club much. Trevor Lawrence isn’t playing half as well as Mac Jones. That alone makes Meyer a man walking the plank.
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