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NFL Power Rankings: Packers Secure Top Spot, Titans Well Built

Green Bay is the most complete team right now, while Tennessee is a well coached team that emerged from its weak point.

Thank you all for coming to the power rankings this week. I’m going to kick off the column by first reiterating the news that you’ve all probably heard (via our podcast) or seen (via Twitter) that our wonderful colleague Jenny Vrentas is headed to The New York Times as a national sports investigative reporter. We’re all very happy for Jenny, who gave nearly a decade of her life to Sports Illustrated, helping us continue and, in many ways, expand on the magazine’s rich history and proud traditions.

We’ll get to a numerical list of the best teams in a second, but first I just wanted to list a small number of the many, many really cool stories my colleague wrote over the years. In addition to teaching us a lot about life (never taking “no” for an answer, never giving up, never letting “the way it is” remain the way it is simply because it’s the way it is), Jenny taught us a lot about football and I’d like to share some of those stories here. So many times, I’ll talk to fans and they’ll say I wonder what this process is like. Or whatever happened to that person? And, more often than not, I think “Well, Jenny did a story on that, you should just read it.”

What actually happens in a head coaching interview? The process is so much more complicated than meets the eye. To those of you who wonder why the hell your team hired Person X, this answers those questions with details that we had never read before.

How much did the Saints actually help the catholic church on its sex abuse crisis? One of a long list of stories Jenny did at SI that asked difficult questions and uncovered difficult answers. I’ll reread this once and a while still, amazed at how the whole issue unfolded.

• “The one thing I keep thinking about is, he’s about to get traded to another place,” Mary says. “What if he goes to Atlanta or California or anywhere else? He would have a whole new community of massage therapists to target.” Jenny led the way nationally with some brave reporting on Deshaun Watson, while so many others tried to make this story about trade value.

SI Sportsperson of the year 2019: Megan Rapinoe: Rapinoe is not a football player, but her brave public stances while on the world’s largest stage taught us all about fortitude and fearlessness after we, as a football community, let some similar efforts get shredded in the political discourse meat grinder. Jenny was the perfect person to interview Rapinoe here.

Now, onto the takes…

1. Green Bay Packers (13–3)

Last week: Win vs. Minnesota, 37–10
Next week: at Detroit

A team’s strength is ultimately in its ability to compensate for its weaknesses. In that way, I don’t see a more complete team than the Green Bay Packers right now. All is harmonious with Aaron Rodgers, they have three different position players on defense who, one could argue, are among the 5-10 best players at their position, and the Packers’ run game is finally built to sustain the team through a long, blustery winter.

2. Kansas City Chiefs (11–5)

Last week: Loss at Cincinnati, 34–31
Next week: at Denver (Saturday)

The Chiefs are banged up offensively and still don’t look reminiscent of the weakness-free club that stomped their way to a Super Bowl a few years ago. That said, they are still a collection of star players immensely familiar with one another and led by one of the greatest coaches in NFL history.

3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (12–4)

Last week: Win at New York Jets, 28–24
Next week: vs. Carolina 

Tom Brady proved Sunday what we all knew: they’re still quite good without Antonio Brown and can routinely dissect a defense at a moment’s notice. This secondary is depleted and beyond repair, giving up noticeably big plays to Zach Wilson and Braxton Berrios this past weekend, but I would never be surprised in Todd Bowles’ ability to figure it out.

4. Buffalo Bills (10–6)

Last week: Win vs. Atlanta, 29–15
Next week: vs. New York Jets 

This is what happens toward the end of a season that is so long; we tend to forget what happened at the beginning, and what these teams are capable of outside of the recency-bias plagued window we’re looking through. This is a team that scored 35 or more points five times this year. Josh Allen is still Josh Allen. The run defense can lick its wounds and recover in time for a playoff run.

5. Tennessee Titans (11–5)

Last week: Win vs. Miami, 34–3
Next week: at Houston

I’m still amazed at how well built and well coached this team is. Every franchise has a weak point, but the Titans emerged from a period without Derrick Henry still very much in contention for the No. 1 seed in the AFC.

6. Cincinnati Bengals (10–6)

Last week: Win vs. Kansas City, 34–31
Next week: at Cleveland

It may be recency bias, sure, but this team is rolling right now. Joe Burrow should not only be a comeback player of the year winner but an MVP frontrunner. Ja’Marr Chase is rookie of the year. Duke Tobin is executive of the year. And me? Dunce of the year for picking them to win three games.

7. Los Angeles Rams (12–4)

Last week: Win at Baltimore, 20–19
Next week: vs. San Francisco

The Rams need to develop some interior thickness and griminess in order to compete with the Packers and Buccaneers deep into January. I think Raheem Morris is talented enough to pull that kind of performance out of A’Shawn Robinson, Aaron Donald, Von Miller, Leonard Floyd and the rest.

8. Dallas Cowboys (11–5)

Last week: Loss vs. Arizona, 25–22
Next week: at Philadelphia (Saturday) 

A disappointing performance against the Cardinals this weekend, which followed a 50-plus point performance a week before. This team waltzed through an underwhelming NFC East this year, but it’s still fair to wonder if they possess the completeness to survive a long playoff run. Regardless, the future is bright. Mike McCarthy better hope that defensive coordinator Dan Quinn doesn’t leave for another head coaching job right away.

9. New England Patriots (10–6)

Last week: Win vs. Jacksonville, 50–10
Next week: at Miami 

What fun throttling the Jaguars seems to be. After talk of a rookie wall, Mac Jones throws three touchdowns and completes nearly 75% of his passes in a win over Jacksonville. If I am any opponent in the AFC, I am underestimating this group at my own risk. Bill Belichick still has the juice, and Jones is developing as a fine downfield passer.

10. Arizona Cardinals (11–5)

Last week: Win at Dallas, 25–22
Next week: vs. Seattle

The Cardinals are no stranger to late-season collapses but steadied themselves in a must-win game against the Dallas Cowboys. It’s difficult to get behind this offense consistently without DeAndre Hopkins, but Kyler Murray’s mobility and vision are great equalizers. Arizona is now good enough to squeak out imperfect performances, which they couldn’t do in the past.

Arizona Cardinals Antoine Wesley (85) and tight end Darrell Daniels (81) celebrate a touchdown in the second quarter.

11. Philadelphia Eagles (9–7)

Last week: Win at Washington, 20–16
Next week: vs. Dallas (Saturday)

Slowly becoming one of the most exciting teams in the league, the Eagles are shapeshifting offensively behind the versatile Jalen Hurts. One week, they are the Ravens. One week, they are the Colts. One week, they are the Patriots on Monday night in Buffalo (okay, maybe not that run heavy). Still, the No. 1 rushing offense in the league is opening up some fascinating doors for Nick Sirianni’s ballclub.

12. Indianapolis Colts (9–7)

Last week: Loss vs. Las Vegas, 23–20
Next week: at Jacksonville

A disappointing loss to the Raiders on Sunday doesn’t knock them out of the playoff picture … yet. Perhaps the inconsistencies could be attributed to a wild and strange week amid new COVID-19 protocols, which ensnared quarterback Carson Wentz for a majority of the week. I am heavily interested in what this stunt-crazy defense can do in the playoffs with nothing to lose.

13. San Francisco 49ers (9–7)

Last week: Win vs. Houston, 23–7
Next week: at Los Angeles Rams

The 49ers survived their game without Jimmy Garoppolo and seemed to gain some confidence in Trey Lance during the process. While it was not the dual quarterback system fever dream some of us had hoped for, the 49ers are still very good and capable of running over anyone at a moment’s notice. While they are missing some key pieces from their 2019 Super Bowl run, a downhill, outside zone system is the great equalizer.

14. Los Angeles Chargers (9–7)

Last week: Win vs. Denver, 34–13
Next week: at Las Vegas 

A win and in opportunity for Brandon Staley in his first year may come to define our confidence long term in the young head coach. Staley has been responsible for some of our favorite coaching moments this year, though his inability to patch up a thin rushing defense has left the Chargers vulnerable down the stretch.

15. Baltimore Ravens (8–8)

Last week: Loss vs. Los Angeles Rams, 20–19
Next week: vs. Pittsburgh

I still think their performances with Tyler Huntley this year should earn the Ravens an honorary trip to the playoffs for effort. John Harbaugh’s team never quit amid a tumultuous, injury-riddled 2021. There is still brightness on the horizon for Baltimore, albeit (likely) not this season. Roger Goodell, get at me about the “best effort” 15th playoff spot idea.

16. Las Vegas Raiders (9–7)

Last week: Win at Indianapolis, 23–20
Next week: vs. Los Angeles Chargers 

The development of their mid-range passing game late in the season has been a phenomenal credit to Derek Carr, Hunter Renfrow and offensive coordinator Greg Olson, who put their brains together in the post-Henry Ruggs, post-Darren Waller (for now) world. Getting the tight end back this week would be significant.

17. Miami Dolphins (8–8)

Last week: Loss at Tennessee, 34–3
Next week: vs. New England

Brian Flores’s team heads back to the loss column but not without showing some serious fortitude and ingenuity this year. Ultimately, they now know what they have in Tua Tagovailoa, what it will take to build even more aggressively around him, or how much easier it will be to pull the plug and go after an established starter.

18. New Orleans Saints (8–8)

Last week: Win vs. Carolina, 18–10
Next week: at Atlanta

The Saints will miss the playoffs, but not without an impressive run from Sean Payton. One has to wonder how the future Hall of Fame coach will approach an offseason with more questions than answers. How does he refresh? Where is he in line for a veteran quarterback? How does that inform his next few moves?

19. Pittsburgh Steelers (8-7-1)

Last week: Win vs. Cleveland, 26–14 (Monday)
Next week: at Baltimore

A good-enough performance to keep them fractionally alive for the playoffs. Sadly, this was the season most of us had expected. Ben Roethlisberger had some heroic moments, but ultimately played about as well as a person could expect out of a soon-to-be 40-year-old not comprised solely of avocado oil who has endured almost two decades of NFL beating. What do the Steelers look like a year from now?

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (7) greets fans after the game.

20. Cleveland Browns (7–9)

Last week: Loss at Pittsburgh, 26–14 (Monday)
Next week: vs. Cincinnati

A disappointing season overall in Cleveland, underlined by a nagging shoulder injury to Baker Mayfield that made him a clearly limited player in 2021. While his ultimate evaluation should be more complex than how he performed at 50% effectiveness, this offseason will be a fascinating one. The Browns could very well have a wandering eye on the QB market.

21. Denver Broncos (7–9)

Last week: Loss at Los Angeles Chargers, 34–13
Next week: vs. Kansas City (Saturday)

The Broncos played well considering they opted to pass on a firm quarterback decision this past offseason. While the plan was to hope Vic Fangio’s defense could catch fire and overcome replacement level play, Denver could not ultimately stand up to a hellish division. They will be viewed as a potential head coaching destination this offseason if they opt to make a change and a top landing spot for prospective quarterbacks hoping to land with a good offensive line and star studded defense.

22. Minnesota Vikings (7–9)

Last week: Loss at Green Bay, 37–10
Next week: vs. Chicago

Mike Zimmer’s consistent frustration is on full display. They are not close to the Green Bay Packers right now and must decide what they need to do to close that gap in the near future. Kirk Cousins operates well enough in their system, but if a high percentage QB, two elite wide receivers and a top five running back are not good enough to get you somewhere, what has to change

23. Atlanta Falcons (7–9)

Last week: Loss at Buffalo, 29–15
Next week: vs. New Orleans

As colleague Gary Gramling put it, this is just a not-all-that-fun-to-watch football team. The Falcons are fine. Fine! They are late-season Everybody Loves Raymond reruns. But there are just better options out there. I could compile a list of football guy platitudes to describe what they do reasonably well, but I am about as excited about this team’s long-term prospects as I am plain, unbuttered wheat toast for breakfast.

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24. Washington Football Team (6–10)

Last week: Loss vs. Philadelphia, 20–16
Next week: at New York Giants

This team vacillates from tough and scrappy to still somewhat dysfunctional. Credit Taylor Heinicke for a solid season, but Washington will need to emerge as a sleeping giant on the veteran quarterbacking market to command our attention next season.

25. Seattle Seahawks (6–10)

Last week: Win vs. Detroit, 51–29
Next week: at Arizona

Russell Wilson puts on a show in what could end up being his final curtain calls in Seattle. The Legion of Boom was gone a long time ago, and it feels peaceful to see the team headed toward a full reset. Pete Carroll’s culture creating ability is unmatched. Give him a chance to spend a treasure trove of Wilson trade draft picks and usher in the new blood.

26. Chicago Bears (6–10)

Last week: Win vs. New York Giants, 29–3
Next week: at Minnesota

The Matt Nagy Bears should, oddly, be remembered for playing hard through some obvious roster deficiencies. While there seems to be some urgent push to shove him out of town, this team was … never that great from a talent perspective and always seemed to be capable of creeping into the back end of the playoffs. The Justin Fields pick was always going to complicate—and expedite—decision making, unfortunately.

Chicago Bears nose tackle Khyiris Tonga (95) reacts after recovering a fumble against the New York Giants.

27. Carolina Panthers (5–11)

Last week: Loss at New Orleans, 18–10
Next week: at Tampa Bay 

Matt Rhule’s decision to cut ties with Joe Brady still feels strange, especially now that the Panthers are wilting on their way out of the 2021 season. A word of advice: If your best offensive player is a running back, you are no longer allowed to complain when the running back gets hurt. That happens to running backs. A lot. Good teams win anyway, just look at the No. 1 seed in the AFC right now.

28. New York Jets (4–12)

Last week: Loss vs. Tampa Bay, 28–24
Next week: at Buffalo

This team performed at expectation this year, which, when you consider the totality of their experiences in 2021, is pretty remarkable. Robert Saleh’s club beat the Titans, the Bengals and nearly held on to nip the Buccaneers. We said that their 2021 should be measured in an ability to hang tough. Minus some forgettable Patriots games, that seems to be the case.

29. Detroit Lions (2–13)

Last week: Loss at Seattle, 51–29
Next week: vs. Green Bay

Dan Campbell spent the year laying the groundwork for a post-Matt Patricia culture change. Did it work? Free agency will be the best indicator as to how his act ultimately plays out. I can say only personally that I enjoyed it, and bought it. It feels genuine. Campbell might be a ways away from catching the Packers, but he was also a few bounced balls away from third place in the division this year.

30. Houston Texans (4–12)

Last week: Loss at San Francisco, 23–7
Next week: vs. Tennessee 

David Culley outcoached expectations this year to the point where it would be wholly unfair for the Texans to part ways with him after the season. While it’s difficult to say there is something special brewing in Houston, we can acknowledge that this patchwork Texans team played much better than we thought.

31. New York Giants (4–12)

Last week: Loss at Chicago, 29–3
Next week: vs. Washington

Joe Judge’s strange post-game speech following the Bears game undermined what seemed to be a calm patch for the embattled second-year coach. The Giants wanted to run, but had no plan for a loaded box. This sums up the 2021 season about as well as one could expect. Jokes aside, I do think this staff deserves a mulligan year due to injury issues, with the understanding that expectations are sky high in 2022.

32. Jacksonville Jaguars (2–14)

Last week: Loss at New England, 50–10
Next week: vs. Indianapolis

The worst team in football, Jacksonville needs to get out of this season without any serious, lingering injuries. That is their only goal at this point. Bundle the whole crew in bubble wrap. 

More NFL Coverage:
Bengals and Titans Clinch Divisions As Playoff Field Takes Shape
How to Evaluate Trevor Lawrence's Disappointing Rookie Season
Burrow’s Bengals Win the North in Style, Cards Provide the D in Big D
Never Forget the Role the Buccaneers Played in Enabling Antonio Brown

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