Each week, national NFL writer Mark Maske will provide his ranking of the league’s 32 teams. This week, it’s tough to pick against the Kansas City Chiefs, who look like a machine on offense. Elsewhere, the Packers, Cowboys and Titans make strong moves upward.
The NFL’s best and most balanced team at this point, ranking ahead of the Falcons on style points. Alex Smith, league MVP candidate? Really? Yes, really. Rookie RB Kareem Hunt and WR Tyreek Hill continue to provide big plays on offense and the defense intercepted Philip Rivers three times and sacked him twice in Sunday’s triumph over the Chargers. Kansas City is the best of AFC West’s trio of contenders.
2. Atlanta Falcons (3-0) | Last Week’s Rank: 2
Things were far from perfect Sunday in Detroit, as QB Matt Ryan threw three interceptions and the Falcons needed an overturned TD in the final seconds plus a 10-second clock runoff to hold on. A win is a win. But this one almost should count as half a loss.
3. New England Patriots (2-1) | Last Week’s Rank: 4
The defense is becoming a problem but QB Tom Brady and the offense clicked again Sunday and the Patriots escaped with the narrow win over the Texans. Over the past two games, Brady has completed 55 of 74 passes for 825 yards with eight TDs and no interceptions.
4. Green Bay Packers (2-1) | Last Week’s Rank: 12
The offense has been beset by injuries, so needing OT to beat the winless Bengals at home can be forgiven. QB Aaron Rodgers was sacked six times but managed to throw three TDs. The main issue is when — or if — the Packers will have their offensive lineup back intact.
5. Pittsburgh Steelers (2-1) | Last Week’s Rank: 1
Losing in Chicago is alarming for a team with such lofty ambitions. The offense has been unable to generate big plays. The Steelers need a far better showing Sunday in Baltimore because the winner emerges as the early favorite in the AFC North.
6. Dallas Cowboys (2-1) | Last Week’s Rank: 13
The offense was balanced Monday night in Arizona. The Cowboys ran the ball effectively with RB Ezekiel Elliott and got some big plays from QB Dak Prescott. The pass rush, led by DeMarcus Lawrence, was formidable. Elliott is ensured of playing one more game — this coming Sunday against the Rams — before a federal appeals court hears oral arguments Monday on the NFL’s request for a stay of the injunction keeping his suspension on hold.
7. Tennessee Titans (2-1) | Last Week’s Rank: 15
The opening loss to the Raiders has been followed by victories over the Jaguars and Seahawks in which the Titans totaled 70 points. This is a promising team that can run the ball effectively and has put good talent on offense around young franchise QB Marcus Mariota. The Titans probably are not ready to be on even footing with the true AFC heavyweights. But they certainly are capable of winning the lightweight AFC South.
8. Philadelphia Eagles (2-1) | Last Week’s Rank: 17
The Eagles just held on against the Giants thanks to the 61-yard FG by rookie kicker Jake Elliott as time expired. That was the good. The bad was the defense crumbling late, and failing on an inexplicable fourth-and-eight gamble by Coach Doug Pederson near midfield in the first half. It was a completely misguided decision that would have been even more glaring in a loss.
9. Detroit Lions (2-1) | Last Week’s Rank: 8
The Lions appear to have staying power as a top NFC contender. They were every bit as good as the Falcons on Sunday, losing by only the thinnest of margins via the instant replay review that negated their would-be winning TD.
10. Washington Redskins (2-1) | Last Week’s Rank: 18
The Redskins were nearly perfect against a good opponent in a nationally televised game. That’s about as surprising as it gets. QB Kirk Cousins was superb. The defense was even better. There’s no time to gloat because things will be tougher Monday night when they go on the road to Kansas City to face an even better team in the Chiefs.
11. Jacksonville Jaguars (2-1) | Last Week’s Rank: 21
Week 1: The Jaguars might be for real. Week 2: So much for the Jaguars being for real. Week 3: The Jaguars, once again, might be for real. When anyone figures this team out, let everyone else know.
12. Los Angeles Rams (2-1) | Last Week’s Rank: 22
Coach Sean McVay already is working wonders with Jared Goff, who looks like a franchise QB-in-the-making three games into his second season. Goff was not capable last season of a performance like he gave in Thursday night’s surprisingly captivating victory over the Niners. Maybe the Rams are legitimate. Maybe they’re not. But the continued development of Goff under McVay’s tutelage would be enough to make this season highly productive, regardless of the final record.
13. Minnesota Vikings (2-1) | Last Week’s Rank: 23
Case Keenum? Who knew? Maybe there’s no big rush for Sam Bradford to return, after all.
14. Oakland Raiders (2-1) | Last Week’s Rank: 5
The Raiders were dreadful Sunday night at FedEx Field. That dampens the excitement about their 2-0 start. This is still a good team, but there won’t be that much margin for error in the difficult AFC West.
15. Baltimore Ravens (2-1) | Last Week’s Rank: 6
The Ravens traveled all the way to London to play like that? Why bother? At least they have an immediate chance to redeem themselves in a big way with the Steelers coming to Baltimore on Sunday.
16. Buffalo Bills (2-1) | Last Week’s Rank: 25
The Bills are not a great team. It will be a huge upset if they remain relevant by late in the season. But it certainly does appear that Coach Sean McDermott will get the most out of what they have.
17. Denver Broncos (2-1) | Last Week’s Rank: 7
That’s why it was unwise to get carried away about QB Trevor Siemian’s performance against the Cowboys in Week 2. He was back to looking like a former seventh-round draft pick with his two-interception performance in the loss to the Bills.
18. Carolina Panthers (2-1) | Last Week’s Rank: 9
Cam Newton is really struggling as a passer right now. It’s probably to be expected, given his lack of activity leading up to Opening Day as he returned from shoulder surgery. But not being able to move the ball at will and score a ton of points against that New Orleans defense is startling.
19. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1-1) | Last Week’s Rank: 10
The Bucs had better learn how to live with a little prosperity and follow one good performance with another. This up-and-down existence is not good enough any longer. It’s time for QB Jameis Winston to become more consistent in his third season.
20. Seattle Seahawks (1-2) | Last Week’s Rank: 11
QB Russell Wilson did his part Sunday in Nashville but the defense failed to get it done. The Seahawks don’t appear to belong in the conversation about the NFC’s top teams. They do not even seem to be the NFC West’s best team, although there’s still plenty of time for them to remedy that divisional issue.
21. Houston Texans (1-2) | Last Week’s Rank: 14
The near miss of a loss in Foxborough, Mass., is forgivable and the Texans have found their QB. Deshaun Watson can play. So does Coach Bill O’Brien deserve credit for going to Watson after the first half of the opening game, or blame for not making him the starter entering the season? It was obvious all along that Watson should have been the choice. That’s not second-guessing. It was said here at the time.
22. New York Giants (0-3) | Last Week’s Rank: 19
The offense finally came to life in the fourth quarter at Philadelphia but it wasn’t enough to keep the Giants from falling to 0-3. The best and worst of WR Odell Beckham Jr. were on display in the final quarter against the Eagles. He had two TD catches, one of them spectacular. He also had an illegal celebration penalty that was completely immature. He is a great player. But he still doesn’t understand the responsibility that comes with his on-field greatness.
23. New Orleans Saints (1-2) | Last Week’s Rank: 27
So the Saints are not unspeakably bad. Their win at Carolina proves that. But that’s still a ways from being good.
24. Indianapolis Colts (1-2) | Last Week’s Rank: 28
Jacoby Brissett looked very good at QB and the Colts actually won. Alas, they can’t play the Browns every week.
25. Chicago Bears (1-2) | Last Week’s Rank: 29
The Bears revved up the running game in their OT triumph over the Steelers but still didn’t get much production from QB Mike Glennon. It still feels like just a matter of time until rookie Mitchell Trubisky takes over, doesn’t it?
26. New York Jets (1-2) | Last Week’s Rank: 32
The plan to tank the season veered off course with the win over the Dolphins.
27. Miami Dolphins (1-1) | Last Week’s Rank: 16
So much for the narrative of Jay Cutler coming out of retirement to save the Dolphins’ season. If he can’t beat the Jets, perhaps he should head back to the broadcast booth.
28. Arizona Cardinals (1-2) | Last Week’s Rank: 20
The Cardinals couldn’t protect Carson Palmer and couldn’t stop the Dallas offense Monday night. Their victory came against the Colts and it certainly does not appear that they are capable of beating the NFC’s better teams, with losses to the Lions and Cowboys by double-digit margins.
29. Los Angeles Chargers (0-3) | Last Week’s Rank: 24
No, the Chargers can’t go back to San Diego. And would San Diego even want them back at this point?
30. Cincinnati Bengals (0-3) | Last Week’s Rank: 26
The blame didn’t rest with QB Andy Dalton against the Packers. Even so, Coach Marvin Lewis might have to consider going with backup AJ McCarron at some point if the losing continues. Some teams would be happy to have McCarron as a starter. LB Vontaze Burfict returns from his three-game suspension this week. But is it already too late?
31. San Francisco 49ers (0-3) | Last Week’s Rank: 30
The 49ers can’t win. But they were extremely entertaining and competitive Thursday night against the Rams. That will have to be enough in Year 1 of Coach Kyle Shanahan’s reign.
32. Cleveland Browns (0-3) | Last Week’s Rank: 31
It was a Sunday on which plenty of supposedly good teams lost and plenty of supposedly bad teams won. But the Browns were still the Browns. Their inevitable defeats maintain a sense of order in an otherwise chaotic football universe.
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