Each week, national NFL writer Mark Maske will provide his ranking of the league’s 32 teams based on his observations, while Fancy Stats blogger Neil Greenberg mines the numbers to generate a stats-centric power ranking of his own. Compare, contrast and sound off in the comments.
1. Cincinnati Bengals (3-0) | Previous Rank: 1
The Bengals’ lead in the AFC North was cut to a half-game during their bye week, with the Ravens’ victory over the Panthers. But the Bengals caught a break when the Steelers squandered a late lead and lost to the Buccaneers. So only one team, rather than two, is directly on their heels. They return from their bye with an intriguing game Sunday night at New England against what promises to be a desperate Patriots team following Monday night’s debacle.
2. Arizona Cardinals (3-0) | Previous Rank: 3
The Cardinals come back from their bye with a major test Sunday at Denver. Starting QB Carson Palmer didn’t make as much progress as hoped during the bye week, Coach Bruce Arians said Monday, so it remains unclear if Palmer will be ready to return this week after being sidelined for two games because of an ailing right shoulder related to a nerve issue. The Cardinals already have won two games with backup Drew Stanton starting in Palmer’s place. But whether they could beat the Broncos on the road with Stanton playing for Palmer would be a big question.
3. San Diego Chargers (3-1) | Previous Rank: 4
QB Philip Rivers is the league’s highest-rated passer, has nine TD passes and one interception and is establishing himself as a legitimate league MVP candidate. The Chargers must continue to take care of business against teams they should beat. They’ve done so against the Bills and Jaguars. The Jets, Raiders and Chiefs are up over the next three weeks.
4. Seattle Seahawks (2-1) | Previous Rank: 6
The defending champs return from their bye week needing to demonstrate that they can play at the same level on the road as at home. They will have three such opportunities in their next four games, beginning Monday night against the Redskins at FedEx Field. QB Russell Wilson should be looking forward to facing a Washington secondary that was exploited badly by Eli Manning and the Giants last Thursday night.
5. Denver Broncos (2-1) | Previous Rank: 7
The Broncos had their bye week to lick their wounds from their near-miss OT defeat at Seattle. They’d better come back recharged and ready to play well with a difficult home game Sunday against the unbeaten Cardinals.
6. Baltimore Ravens (3-1) | Previous Rank: 9
The Ravens have won three in a row following a season-opening loss to the Bengals and have managed to avoid paying attention to the Ray Rice controversy playing out all around them. WR Steve Smith and RB Justin Forsett have emerged as reliable contributors. But now comes a difficult stretch of the schedule as the Ravens play two straight and four of their next five games on the road.
7. Detroit Lions (3-1) | Previous Rank: 10
The Lions are ranked first in the league in total defense and are second in pass defense, sixth in rush defense and fourth in scoring defense. That’s a formula for success. The offense hasn’t run the ball well to this point. But QB Matthew Stafford is off to a good start and Golden Tate has emerged as an effective WR complement to Calvin Johnson. This is a good, balanced team that very well might be the NFC North’s best.
8. Indianapolis Colts (2-2) | Previous Rank: 11
QB Andrew Luck has thrown eight TD passes in the last two games and 13 for the season. That puts him on course for 52 TD passes this season, which would be three shy of Peyton Manning’s league record. The Colts have won two straight to even their record following a 0-2 start. But after beating the Jaguars and Titans, the Colts return to facing tougher competition this weekend by hosting the Ravens.
9. Green Bay Packers (2-2) | Previous Rank: 15
When Aaron Rodgers says to relax and not worry about a 1-2 start, perhaps people should listen. His four TD passes against the Bears were the biggest reason that the Packers made good, at least for now, on Rodgers’s pledge that they would be fine. Now there’s a quick turnaround for Thursday night’s game against the Vikings. If the run of lopsided Thursday night games league-wide continues, the Packers would seem to be better positioned to be on the winning side of that, with Minnesota having to deal with rookie QB Teddy Bridgewater’s ankle injury.
10. Dallas Cowboys (3-1) | Previous Rank: 16
Who saw this coming? The defense is playing reasonably well and QB Tony Romo is running around like a youngster, surgically repaired back and all. The Cowboys are perhaps the NFL’s most pleasant surprise through the first quarter of the season. Do they have staying power? That remains to be seen. A few things are clear: The offensive line is really good. And DeMarco Murray, operating behind that excellent line, can be a workhorse runner to make things easier for Romo.
11. San Francisco 49ers (2-2) | Previous Rank: 18
So the question now, apparently, is whether the 49ers players dislike Coach Jim Harbaugh or not. The answer, in the form of another question, is: Does it really matter? The issue is whether they play hard and play well for Harbaugh. They did so in his first three seasons with the team. They did so again in Sunday’s win over the Eagles, just when things again seemed to be unraveling for the Niners. It’s very clear already that this will be a soap opera of a season, but that doesn’t mean they can’t win amid all the melodrama.
12. Philadelphia Eagles (3-1) | Previous Rank: 2
The running game, which was so productive last season, has disappeared and the entire offense was bottled up by the 49ers defense Sunday. Even with the Cowboys’ surprisingly good start, the history of poor finishes in Dallas looms. That’s why I think the Eagles will be the team to beat in the NFC East. The Eagles get one starter on the offensive line back with Lane Johnson’s suspension over. If they can get that unit healthy and intact at some point this season, perhaps they can re-establish RB LeSean McCoy as the centerpiece of the offense.
13. Kansas City Chiefs (2-2) | Previous Rank: 21
Were the Chiefs that good Monday night or were the Patriots just that dreadful? It was difficult to tell at times and probably a combination of both. For now, it’s enough to say of the Chiefs that their season seems to have some possibilities again. Andy Reid secured his first coaching victory over Bill Belichick.
14. New York Giants (2-2) | Previous Rank: 20
The offense is starting to look like it should. QB Eli Manning is getting more comfortable with the new West Coast scheme; his passes are arriving on time and on target lately. TE Larry Donnell is emerging as a star. It appears the Giants and Cowboys will vie to see which might emerge as the leading challenger to the Eagles in the NFC East.
15. New England Patriots (2-2) | Previous Rank: 5
What if the team that was on display Monday night is who the Patriots really are this season? Maybe it wasn’t merely a bad performance. Maybe it’s a bad team. It will be interesting to find out. Coach Bill Belichick vowed that the Patriots will play better. QB Tom Brady said he knows the team won’t surrender on its season. This was thought to be a season in which Belichick and Brady would chase their fourth Super Bowl title in tandem. For now, it’s all about regaining their dignity and recapturing respectability.
16. Houston Texans (3-1) | Previous Rank: 22
The Texans are 3-1 but their victories are over the Redskins, Raiders and Bills. One of those teams, the Raiders, already has fired its coach and another, the Bills, already has benched its starting QB. So there remains room to wonder how good Houston really is. Still, there’s something to be said for beating those teams that you should beat. Few would have guessed that Sunday’s Texans-Cowboys matchup would be a Texas showdown of 3-1 teams.
17. Chicago Bears (2-2) | Previous Rank: 8
That wasn’t much of a performance against the Packers. And now the Bears must take to the road for two straight and four of the next five games, beginning Sunday at Carolina.
18. Minnesota Vikings (2-2) | Previous Rank: 28
Prized rookie QB Teddy Bridgewater was everything the Vikings hoped he would be as he beat the Falcons in his first NFL start. Bridgewater halted the team’s downward spiral and provided hope that this just might not be a lost season, even with the absence of RB Adrian Peterson and the controversy generated by his legal troubles. But the Vikings now must deal with Bridgewater’s ankle injury on a short work week and have Christian Ponder ready to play Thursday night against the Packers if Bridgewater is sidelined or severely limited.
19. Miami Dolphins (2-2) | Previous Rank: 25
The issue now is how much lasting damage was done to the relationship between Coach Joe Philbin and QB Ryan Tannehill by the awkward manner in which Philbin handled the QB situation last week in London. Tannehill played well and the Dolphins beat the Raiders easily. But that’s not saying much. It’s back to the U.S. and back to playing real competition now, at least after this weekend’s bye.
20. Atlanta Falcons (2-2) | Previous Rank: 13
It’s difficult to figure this team out, as the Falcons have alternated wins and losses so far this season. A victory is due this weekend against the Giants at the Meadowlands, at least if that pattern holds. But there’s no guarantee of that, with the Giants playing better and Atlanta’s offensive line in disarray after three starters left Sunday’s loss at Minnesota with injuries. The offensive line already was without left tackle Sam Baker after his preseason knee injury so the situation there is becoming quite dire. Against the Vikings, TE Levine Toilolo lined up at right tackle.
21. Carolina Panthers (2-2) | Previous Rank: 14
A 2-0 start has given way to two poor defensive performances in losses to the Steelers and Ravens. Both teams were able to run the ball right at the Carolina defense. And maybe, just maybe, the Panthers should have found a way to keep WR Steve Smith around.
22. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1-3) | Previous Rank: 31
There should be no thought whatsoever of going back to Josh McCown at QB if and when he’s healthy. The job should be Mike Glennon’s. That’s an easy decision, even if Coach Lovie Smith won’t say so. Glennon did enough last season as a rookie to have the starting job entering his second NFL season, even with the Buccaneers’ coaching change. McCown is nice to have around as a backup but he’s not a starter and never has been, even though he filled in capably for Jay Cutler last season in Chicago. The Buccaneers’ best chance to win, now and in the future, is with Glennon at QB.
23. Pittsburgh Steelers (2-2) | Previous Rank: 12
The loss to the Buccaneers was relatively inexcusable. Yes, Tampa played better with Glennon at QB. But the Steelers undid themselves with penalties, failed to run out the clock after a big defensive stop near the end of the game and gave Glennon and the Buccaneers a final chance, leading to the TD that beat Pittsburgh. The Steelers should be 3-1 and tied with the Ravens, right on the heels of the Bengals in the AFC North. Instead, their road to playoff contention is that much tougher. That’s a defeat to remember at season’s end if the Steelers narrowly miss the playoffs.
24. Buffalo Bills (2-2) | Previous Rank: 17
The switch from EJ Manuel to Kyle Orton at QB seems a bit oddly timed. Yes, the Bills have lost two straight games following a 2-0 start and yes, Manuel’s play has contributed to that. But he hasn’t played that badly overall with five TD passes, three interceptions and a passer rating of 80.3 this season. There are going to be ups and downs with a young QB, and anyone who thought the Bills were going to be better than 2-2 at this point probably had unrealistic expectations.
25. New Orleans Saints (1-3) | Previous Rank: 19
Things are bad. The offense couldn’t get much going in Sunday night’s loss at Dallas until it was too late. The defense couldn’t deal with the Cowboys’ offensive line or Dallas RB DeMarco Murray. Sean Payton made a questionable coaching decision with his fake-punt call once the Saints got back into the game. But even with all of that, the season is far from over. The Saints are only a game out of first place in the forgiving NFC South and three of their four games thus far have been played on the road. They’re a much, much better team at the Superdome.
26. St. Louis Rams (1-2) | Previous Rank: 24
The Rams had a bye week to stew over a squandered 21-0 lead in a 34-31 loss to the Cowboys in Week 3. The defense is ranked third in the NFL against the pass but 30th against the run. There’s little relief in sight with the Rams’ next eight games coming against the Eagles, 49ers, Seahawks, Chiefs, 49ers again, Cardinals, Broncos and Chargers.
27. Cleveland Browns (1-2) | Previous Rank: 27
This originally looked like the time when the Browns might make the switch to rookie Johnny Manziel at QB, with their bye three games into their season. But Brian Hoyer has kept the Browns in every game and probably has played well enough to keep the job, and a move to Manziel seems nowhere in sight at the moment. The Browns have some winnable games coming up with the Titans, Steelers, Jaguars, Raiders and Buccaneers on the schedule in the next five weeks.
28. Washington Redskins (1-3) | Previous Rank: 23
Welcome to NFL head coaching, Jay Gruden. The honeymoon is over after a 1-3 start. All you have to do now is beat the Seahawks and Cardinals to get back to .500, and do it with a secondary that seems unable to cover anyone following the season-ending injury to CB DeAngelo Hall. And welcome to being an NFL starting QB, Kirk Cousins. The fine performance against the Eagles is a rapidly fading memory now, thanks to the five-turnover eyesore against the Giants. It’s time to get some wins and make that 1-5 record as an NFL starter look a little better.
29. New York Jets (1-3) | Previous Rank: 26
It’s probably time to go to Michael Vick at QB. Geno Smith has seven turnovers in four games and the only thing more obscene than what he yelled at a fan as he exited the field Sunday was his play on that field earlier. Vick needs to be given a chance to see if he can turn this around and make this a winning team. If it doesn’t happen, then the Jets could go back to Smith and call it a rebuilding phase. It’s not working as is. That’s clear.
30. Tennessee Titans (1-3) | Previous Rank: 29
Coach Ken Whisenhunt now concedes that he perhaps overestimated the team he was inheriting, after saying initially that patience wasn’t necessary because the Titans were capable of winning immediately. What did he really expect? He had Jake Locker as his starting QB (Charlie Whitehurst filled in last weekend with Locker injured) and the Titans coming off five straight non-playoff seasons.
31. Jacksonville Jaguars (0-4) | Previous Rank: 32
The move to rookie QB Blake Bortles made the Jaguars more competitive, at least for a half, and keeps them relevant for the remainder of the season. Bortles’s development will be interesting to watch, particularly with such a poor team around him. The key is to make sure that nothing happens to affect his long-term prospects of being a top QB. The Jaguars probably catch the Steelers at a bad time this weekend. Pittsburgh won’t overlook anyone after its final-seconds loss to the Buccaneers.
32. Oakland Raiders (0-4) | Previous Rank: 30
The Raiders’ bye week began with Dennis Allen being fired Monday night as their coach. He had a record of 8-28 four games into his third season with the team. A Raiders offensive assistant from among Tony Sparano, Greg Olson and Al Saunders probably will take over. No matter who is coaching, the first order of business will be to address the QB situation, with rookie Derek Carr likely to be sidelined for a while with knee and ankle injuries. Matt McGloin finished Sunday’s loss to the Dolphins in London but Matt Schaub could get the starting nod now if he’s ready to rejoin the team following his recent absence.