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.
The Patriots didn’t play Sunday while on their bye week but still had a productive weekend. Their closest challengers in the AFC East, the Bills and Dolphins, both lost. The Bengals and Steelers lost to fall further behind in the race for the AFC’s No. 1 playoff seed. The Patriots beat the Broncos in their final game before their bye but face a difficult post-bye schedule with a game this Sunday night at Indianapolis, followed by matchups with the Lions and Packers.
2. Detroit Lions (7-2) | Previous Rank: 3
With the injury to Cardinals QB Carson Palmer, the question becomes: Are the Lions the NFC’s best team? They’ve won four straight and six of seven games, and QB Matthew Stafford calmly directed the game-winning drive Sunday against the Dolphins. They’re the first NFL team since the 1994 Giants to score the winning points inside the final two minutes of regulation in three straight games. They play Sunday at Arizona in a game that could be telling as to whether they’re ready to assert conference supremacy.
3. Denver Broncos (7-2) | Previous Rank: 4
Someone was going to pay for QB Peyton Manning’s self-professed stinky performance in a loss at New England the previous week, and it happened to be the Raiders who were in front of Manning as he threw five TD passes Sunday. The Broncos play at St. Louis this weekend in a surprisingly dangerous game, given the way the Rams have played lately against good NFC West competition.
4. Arizona Cardinals (8-1) | Previous Rank: 1
The Cardinals have the NFL’s best record and are 8-1 for the third time in franchise history, and the first time since 1948. But QB Carson Palmer’s torn left ACL, confirmed Monday by tests, changes everything for them and the teams chasing them. Yes, they won two of the three games started earlier this season by backup QB Drew Stanton. But Stanton is a backup for a reason. The Cardinals say they’re confident they can win a Super Bowl with Stanton at QB. That’s what they should say. But believing that and actually going out and doing it are two very different things. This is still a very good, playoff-caliber team. But it’s not quite the team it was before losing Palmer.
5. Indianapolis Colts (6-3) | Previous Rank: 7
The Colts return from their bye week to begin a three-game homestand. It starts with a significant matchup Sunday night with the Patriots, and a win for the Colts keeps them in the running for the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs. Things get a bit easier for the Colts after that, with games against the Jaguars and Redskins to follow.
6. Philadelphia Eagles (7-2) | Previous Rank: 8
Mark Sanchez played well and put up big numbers Monday night in his first start at QB in place of the injured Nick Foles, just as some thought he would. He received the bulk of the attention, and rightfully so. But the lopsided victory over the Panthers was just as much about the defense and the special teams continuing to produce TDs on returns at a dizzying rate. If that continues, the Eagles won’t have to ask too much of their QB and Sanchez can feel like it’s his first two seasons with the Jets all over again.
7. Kansas City Chiefs (6-3) | Previous Rank: 9
They’ve won four games in a row and they’re right on the heels of the Broncos in the AFC West. Winning Sunday in Buffalo was a nice accomplishment. They’re at home this weekend but with a tough opponent, in the rejuvenated Seahawks, coming to town.
8. Seattle Seahawks (6-3) | Previous Rank: 10
They haven’t always looked like defending Super Bowl champs this season. But no one said it would be easy. And the Seahawks have regrouped with three straight wins. Their biggest games of the season remain in front of them, with two games each against the Cardinals and 49ers in the next six weeks. First comes a difficult road game Sunday at Kansas City.
9. Cleveland Browns (6-3) | Previous Rank: 13
First-place Cleveland Browns? The words don’t exactly roll off the tongue. It’s almost like they’re not supposed to go together. But that’s exactly what the Browns are, and WR Josh Gordon’s reduced 10-game suspension ends soon. Now QB Brian Hoyer and the Browns must demonstrate they can deal with prosperity. Things can get more complicated when expectations are ratcheted up a few notches.
10. Green Bay Packers (6-3) | Previous Rank: 14
Aaron Rodgers’s hamstring looked fine Sunday night against the Bears. Of course, facing Chicago at this point barely counts. But six TD passes in the first half alone, no matter the competition, is unreal. Things should be far tougher when the Packers host the Eagles this Sunday in a matchup of top NFC contenders.
11. Dallas Cowboys (7-3) | Previous Rank: 15
Going all the way to London for a near-certain victory over the Jaguars seems like a lot of trouble for nothing. But the Cowboys aren’t complaining. They needed a win and didn’t seem to mind how far they had to go to get one. They apparently didn’t even bother to enforce a curfew. The Cowboys dismissed a report by the league-owned NFL Network that 20 players missed curfew Friday night by saying there wasn’t a strict curfew in effect that night. QB Tony Romo’s back seemed fine Sunday but there’s a lot of season left, and Romo must last for the Cowboys to have a chance to be one of the final NFC teams still standing at the end.
12. Baltimore Ravens (6-4) | Previous Rank: 16
The Ravens objected to CBS airing Coach John Harbaugh’s comment to his players in the postgame locker room Sunday about the Steelers getting their (butt) kicked by the Jets. But so what? It was true and it was only mildly objectionable. It’s not like the Ravens-Steelers rivalry can become much more intense than it already was. Sunday’s win over the Titans represented merely beating a team the Ravens should have beaten. It’s nothing to get overly excited about. But as Harbaugh so eloquently pointed out, it’s more than the Steelers managed.
13. San Francisco 49ers (5-4) | Previous Rank: 19
QB Colin Kaepernick’s fourth-and-10 completion Sunday to WR Michael Crabtree kept the season alive and led to Sunday’s OT triumph in the Superdome. Some reinforcements are on the way. Aldon Smith’s suspension is over. But fellow LB Patrick Willis is headed for toe surgery and the IR list, and it remains unclear when NaVorro Bowman might play. It has been a turbulent and maddeningly inconsistent season. But anyone who has counted out the 49ers could be in for a surprise.
14. Pittsburgh Steelers (6-4) | Previous Rank: 5
Blaming everything on Justin Bieber was amusing. But losing to the Jets? Really? The Buccaneers and Jets are 2-0 against the Steelers this season and 1-16 vs. the rest of the NFL. It’s simply unacceptable for a contending team to have two losses like that, and the Steelers have no one but themselves to fault.
15. Buffalo Bills (5-4) | Previous Rank: 6
The loss at home Sunday to the Chiefs was harmful to the Bills’ playoff chances. Losing to another contender in the crowded AFC wild-card chase practically counts double. But sulking is not allowed with a trip to Miami on tap for a key Thursday night game. Playing meaningful games, even in only mid-November, is a step up from where the Bills have been in recent years.
16. Cincinnati Bengals (5-3-1) | Previous Rank: 11
The loss Thursday night at home to the Browns was an eyesore, and QB Andy Dalton’s passer rating of 2.0 in the game was particularly unsightly. The Bengals take the road for the next three games but play three currently sub-.500 opponents in the Saints, Texans and Buccaneers.
17. Miami Dolphins (5-4) | Previous Rank: 12
They lost a tough game Sunday at Detroit and lost T Branden Albert to a season-ending knee injury. That was a devastating double dose of bad news. Albert had helped to stabilize the offensive line after being signed in the offseason as a free agent. But there is no time for the Dolphins to pout. They host the Bills on Thursday night in what could be considered a virtual elimination game in the crowded AFC playoff race.
18. San Diego Chargers (5-4) | Previous Rank: 18
Their bye week is done, and did the Chargers ever need it with three straight losses following a 5-1 start. They should be rested and refreshed mentally, and they have a chance to get things righted with consecutive home games against the Raiders and Rams.
19. New Orleans Saints (4-5) | Previous Rank: 17
Jimmy Graham can claim all he wants that he didn’t push off on his would-be game-winning TD catch at the end of regulation in Sunday’s OT loss to the 49ers that was negated by an offensive pass interference penalty called on him. He did. It was a good call. The Saints lost and fell below .500. But this is the NFC South. It doesn’t matter. They’re still a first-place team.
20. Minnesota Vikings (4-5) | Previous Rank: 20
The focus lately has been on RB Adrian Peterson’s playing status, but that situation probably won’t be resolved until next week at the earliest. In the meantime, the Vikings have a chance to get back to .500 with a victory Sunday at Chicago. That would be a decent accomplishment in a season spent with a new head coach, a rookie QB and a Peterson-less offense.
21. Houston Texans (4-5) | Previous Rank: 22
They’re not really a factor in the AFC South race or the wild-card chase at this point. Their 3-1 start is a fading memory, with four losses in their last five games. But hovering around .500 is a major upgrade from going 2-14 last season, and they have a chance to spoil the Browns’ first-place party with Sunday’s visit to Cleveland.
22. Atlanta Falcons (3-6) | Previous Rank: 27
In most divisions, a 3-6 record and one win in the last six games gets you a long, dismal remainder of the season playing for pride and next year’s jobs. In the NFC South, it puts you one game out of first place. Can the division voluntarily give up its automatic spot in the playoffs? Is that allowed?
23. St. Louis Rams (3-6) | Previous Rank: 21
The Rams are showing they will be a factor in the NFC West race even if they won’t exactly be in it themselves. They beat the Seahawks and 49ers in recent weeks and pushed the Cardinals to the limit Sunday before surrendering a fourth-quarter lead and losing. They’re done facing the Niners this season but have rematches with the Cardinals and Seahawks in December.
24. Carolina Panthers (3-6-1) | Previous Rank: 23
The Panthers began Monday night’s loss at Philadelphia with two turnovers on their first two possessions, and their performance didn’t get much better from there. QB Cam Newton doesn’t look like the same player he was last season. But it’s difficult to judge, with the team he has playing around him.
25. New York Giants (3-6) | Previous Rank: 24
The Giants’ downward spiral has led to speculation that Coach Tom Coughlin could be nudged toward retirement following the season. But Coughlin has done his best work with the Giants when everyone was ready to give up on him and the team. It will be interesting to see if that pattern continues, even if the payoff doesn’t come this season.
26. Washington Redskins (3-6) | Previous Rank: 26
The Redskins returned from their bye week with Coach Jay Gruden talking about the team being only a few plays from being 7-2 instead of 3-6. It might be true, and maybe it makes the Redskins feel better about themselves to think that. But that’s just how the NFL is. Outcomes of games generally hinge on a few plays here and there, and losing teams like this one consistently fail to make those plays.
27. New York Jets (2-8) | Previous Rank: 31
Beating the Steelers was nice. But it’s still a long, long way from making this season approach anything resembling respectability. There perhaps is some merit to the notion that the Jets might have played better if they’d switched to Michael Vick at QB sooner. But Vick has had trouble staying healthy and playing consistently well in recent years, and he faltered when given earlier chances this season. It’s difficult to say the QB situation was mishandled too badly, given that the Jets were trying to give Geno Smith every chance to succeed.
28. Tennessee Titans (2-7) | Previous Rank: 28
The switch to rookie QB Zach Mettenberger hasn’t helped anything. Now comes a Monday night game at home against the Steelers. If the Titans think they’re going to be overlooked, with the Steelers having already lost to the Buccaneers and Jets, they’d better think again.
29. Chicago Bears (3-6) | Previous Rank: 25
Marc Trestman has joined the list of NFL head coaches with tenuous job security. The performance in the first half Sunday night in Green Bay, in which the Bears permitted six TD passes by Packers QB Aaron Rodgers, came after Chicago had two weeks to get ready for the game. The Bears have yielded 106 points in their last two games. The issues go beyond the head coach, of course. But the way of the NFL is that the coach ultimately is held responsible.
30. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1-8) | Previous Rank: 29
Does it really matter if Josh McCown or Mike Glennon plays QB? This is just a bad team in a season going nowhere. But Lovie Smith is a good coach with a proven track record of winning. He’ll get it figured out. It just won’t be this season.
31. Jacksonville Jaguars (1-9) | Previous Rank: 30
The NFL says it wants to cultivate the London market. And yet it keeps sending the Jaguars there to play.
32. Oakland Raiders (0-9) | Previous Rank: 32
Is San Antonio sure it really wants this team? Perhaps stadium-lease negotiations with any city should include a provision that the Raiders actually get a victory each season.
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