Each week, national NFL writer Mark Maske will provide his ranking of the league’s 32 teams. This week, the Eagles, winners of four straight and alone atop the NFC East at 5-1, make a richly deserved jump to the top of the class. Things grow slightly more uncertain after that, with the Patriots bouncing back on the heels of their second straight win and the Steelers regaining their footing after a victory over the Chiefs, who maintain a place in the top 5 even after their first loss of the season.
1. Philadelphia Eagles (5-1) | Last Week’s Rank: 3
Will the Eagles be the NFL’s best team at season’s end? Probably not. But they are making progress and they have earned the top spot after an impressive triumph Thursday night at Carolina. Second-year QB Carson Wentz is getting better all the time while utilizing the help he has around him on a bolstered offense. The defense is pretty solid. Another major test looms Monday night with the Redskins coming to Lincoln Financial Field.
2. New England Patriots (4-2) | Last Week’s Rank: 6
There was every reason to believe that the Patriots would be back to being the Patriots and the Jets would be back to being the Jets on Sunday at the Meadowlands. And that happened … sort of. The Patriots won to move into first place in the AFC East. But it was a far-from-convincing victory, and it signals that there’s at least a chance this division will remain competitive all season.
3. Pittsburgh Steelers (4-2) | Last Week’s Rank: 14
So QB Ben Roethlisberger isn’t done after all. The Steelers followed their dismal showing against the Jaguars by handing the Chiefs their first loss of the season. At their best, the Steelers remain among the NFL’s most productive offenses and best teams. But can Coach Mike Tomlin find a way to get his team to be at its best more consistently? Or are these Steelers convinced they’ll be able to flip that switch for the postseason?
4. Kansas City Chiefs (5-1) | Last Week’s Rank: 1
The Chiefs simply cannot beat the Steelers. Accept that and move on. They remain among the league’s very best teams. Kansas City simply must find a way to avoid Pittsburgh during the AFC playoffs. QB Alex Smith was not exactly bad against the Steelers. But he was not as sharp as he’s been virtually all season, either.
5. Seattle Seahawks (3-2) | Last Week’s Rank: 7
The Seahawks return from their bye week to play an interesting game against the Giants on Sunday at the Meadowlands. The Giants’ season suddenly doesn’t seem quite as done as it did before their victory at Denver, and the Seahawks must make a cross-country trip to play. If they take the game lightly, it could cost them.
6. Los Angeles Rams (4-2) | Last Week’s Rank: 10
The Rams are a first-place team after six games and still way ahead of any realistic rebuilding schedule under first-year coach Sean McVay after the triumph over the Jaguars. They probably aren’t the team to beat in the NFC West, not after losing to the Seahawks a couple weeks ago. But they show no signs at this point of disappearing from the race.
7. Minnesota Vikings (4-2) | Last Week’s Rank: 16
The hit by Anthony Barr that may have ended Aaron Rodgers’s season wasn’t dirty and it wasn’t illegal. But could it have been avoided? Perhaps. Did Barr drive Rodgers’s shoulder unnecessarily into the turf? Maybe. It’s likely that the Packers will remember that.
8. Carolina Panthers (4-2) | Last Week’s Rank: 5
Well, Cam Newton had been playing like an MVP again before the clunker in Thursday night’s home loss to the Eagles. But that’s going to happen sometimes. The Panthers should stick to the plan of relying on Newton as a pocket passer and not putting his well-being in jeopardy with too many dashes from the pocket.
9. Denver Broncos (3-2) | Last Week’s Rank: 4
The Giants were going to win a game eventually. But if the Broncos aspire to be one of the league’s top teams, that loss simply cannot happen on their home field in a prime-time game. The defense could not stop the Giants’ running game and QB Trevor Siemian made a costly gaffe with a pick-six.
10. Washington Redskins (3-2) | Last Week’s Rank: 17
It was more interesting than it needed to be against the 49ers. But the Redskins now have beaten both of their former offensive coordinators turned head coaches, the Rams’ McVay and the Niners’ Kyle Shanahan, and there is every reason to believe that they will be the primary challenger to the Eagles in the NFC East.
11. Houston Texans (3-3) | Last Week’s Rank: 20
The once-superb defense has been decimated by injuries, so the offense will have to lead the way if the Texans are going to contend. That’s fine against the Browns, and rookie QB Deshaun Watson has been excellent. But there surely will be some down days for Watson during the developmental process, and there probably isn’t enough around him at this point to overcome that, against even reasonably good competition.
12. New Orleans Saints (3-2) | Last Week’s Rank: 23
The defense has found a way to contribute — by generating turnovers and scoring TDs — and the big win over the Lions means that the Saints can dream about being in the NFC playoff chase. Whether those dreams are realistic remains to be seen.
13. Cincinnati Bengals (2-3) | Last Week’s Rank: 13
No one needs to worry about Coach Marvin Lewis’s job security or QB Andy Dalton’s worthiness to be the starter, at least for now. The Bengals’ season has renewed possibilities as they return from their bye.
14. Buffalo Bills (3-2) | Last Week’s Rank: 15
The Bills had a week off to try to digest their pre-bye loss to the Bengals. They return to face the Buccaneers at an opportune time, with Jameis Winston plagued by a shoulder injury.
15. New York Jets (3-3) | Last Week’s Rank: 18
The NFL on Monday defended its replay reversal of Austin Seferian-Jenkins’s TD-turned-fumble, but its case remains unconvincing. It was baffling even to former NFL officiating czars Mike Pereira and Dean Blandino. That’s not saying the Jets would have beaten the Patriots if the TD call had stood, as it probably should have. But they would have had a chance.
16. Green Bay Packers (4-2) | Last Week’s Rank: 2
While Tom Brady is the league’s biggest star and the league’s greatest-ever QB, Aaron Rodgers is probably the NFL’s most indispensable player. And now the Packers have lost him, quite possibly for the season. They don’t have a backup like Jimmy Garoppolo to step in, as the Patriots would have minus Brady. Coach Mike McCarthy is pledging to go with Brett Hundley as the starter, squelching talk that Colin Kaepernick or Tony Romo could get a call. But it’s difficult to imagine the Packers being a factor in the NFC’s Super Bowl chase with the untested Hundley at QB.
17. Jacksonville Jaguars (3-3) | Last Week’s Rank: 12
Are the Jaguars philosophically opposed to a two-game winning streak?
18. Miami Dolphins (3-2) | Last Week’s Rank: 22
Just when it seems like the appropriate time to give up on Jay Cutler and go with Matt Moore at QB, something happens like the improbable comeback in Atlanta. The Dolphins are on the heels of the Patriots in the tighter-than-expected AFC East, and any game within the division is going to be meaningful for the foreseeable future.
19. Atlanta Falcons (3-2) | Last Week’s Rank: 8
The Falcons melted down and turned a big lead into a deflating loss against the Dolphins, and now Atlanta has to travel to New England for a Super Bowl rematch against the Patriots on Sunday night. Think the Falcons might face a few questions this week about their inability to play from ahead?
20. Detroit Lions (3-3) | Last Week’s Rank: 9
The Lions are coming unglued and that mammoth contract handed out to QB Matthew Stafford suddenly doesn’t look quite as prudent after he handed turnovers and TDs to the Saints on Sunday. Stafford must regroup and carry the Lions out of this.
21. Arizona Cardinals (3-3) | Last Week’s Rank: 28
So Adrian Peterson does have something left, after all. That was evident right away in his first game for the Cardinals after never being on display in New Orleans before he was traded. Yes, Peterson was right and the skeptics (including this one) were wrong. Will it continue? Who knows. But the glimpses of the Adrian Peterson of old (rather than of an old Adrian Peterson) were unexpected and worth savoring.
22. Chicago Bears (2-4) | Last Week’s Rank: 29
The Bears got their first win with Mitchell Trubisky at QB in his second NFL start. They did it by not relying on him too heavily to be the focal point of the offense. That’s always a useful approach while a rookie QB learns on the job. But it won’t be possible every week for these Bears.
23. Baltimore Ravens (3-3) | Last Week’s Rank: 11
Maybe it’s time to accept that this is simply a mediocre team that isn’t likely to develop into anything more formidable. A third straight non-playoff season would raise more questions among outsiders about Coach John Harbaugh and QB Joe Flacco, but the Ravens are patient and seem fully committed to both.
24. Dallas Cowboys (2-3) | Last Week’s Rank: 24
The Cowboys return from their bye for a busy week in which RB Ezekiel Elliott’s immediate playing status must be clarified and players must find out whether owner Jerry Jones’s stand-or-else mandate for the national anthem will mesh with what the league figures out at the owners’ meetings Tuesday and Wednesday. Oh yeah, there also is a football game to be played Sunday at San Francisco.
25. Tennessee Titans (3-3) | Last Week’s Rank: 26
The running game didn’t really get revved up Monday night until Derrick Henry’s 72-yard TD romp in the closing moments, and QB Marcus Mariota wasn’t moving around all that well. But Mariota had a productive night throwing the ball, especially in the second half, and the Titans finally found a way to beat the Colts after losing to them 11 straight times.
26. Los Angeles Chargers (2-4) | Last Week’s Rank: 27
Two straight wins have things looking better. What could be next? A few actual Chargers fans in L.A.? Nah, let’s not get carried away.
27. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-3) | Last Week’s Rank: 19
The defense made both Adrian Peterson and Carson Palmer look rejuvenated for the Cardinals, and the shoulder injury to QB Jameis Winston put Ryan Fitzpatrick at least temporarily in charge of the offense. Not exactly a good day for the Buccaneers.
28. New York Giants (1-5) | Last Week’s Rank: 30
So, of course, with Odell Beckham Jr. done for the season and the Giants practically out of WRs, that’s when the offense springs to life and the team gets into the win column. Could it all have been as simple as Coach Ben McAdoo handing his offensive play-calling duties to coordinator Mike Sullivan?
29. Oakland Raiders (2-4) | Last Week’s Rank: 25
Even QB Derek Carr’s quick return from his back injury could not stop the Raiders’ downward spiral. This could get very ugly, very quickly if a lame-duck franchise cannot put a winning team on the field. Thursday night’s game against the Chiefs becomes very important for the Raiders as they try to gather themselves.
30. Indianapolis Colts (2-4) | Last Week’s Rank: 21
Jacoby Brissett hasn’t been terrible while filling in at QB. But he isn’t making anyone forget that the Colts really, really need Andrew Luck.
31. San Francisco 49ers (0-6) | Last Week’s Rank: 31
The Niners lost another game Sunday. But they may have found an interesting QB prospect in C.J. Beathard, as the grandson of former Redskins GM Bobby Beathard had some good moments at FedEx Field. There’s no reason not to stick with him.
32. Cleveland Browns (0-6) | Last Week’s Rank: 32
Is there a lower ranking available? Okay, Kevin Hogan has had his chance, right? Time to move on to the next option at QB? The Browns got a firsthand look Sunday at one of the star-in-the-making QBs they passed over, Houston’s Deshaun Watson. Have they seen enough now to actually make a concerted effort this offseason to land an honest-to-goodness franchise QB? Or do their “Moneyball, NFL Style” tactics say to keep avoiding that at all costs?
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