Drew Brees and the Saints are off to a promising 3-1 start after Sunday's win in the Meadowlands (Julio Cortez/AP)

Each week, national NFL writer Mark Maske ranks the league’s 32 teams. This week, there are no changes at the top but the L.A. Rams and Kansas City Chiefs are closely pursued by a pair of contenders, one from each conference — the Jacksonville Jaguars and New Orleans Saints. Elsewhere, the Cincinnati Bengals find themselves among the top 10 thanks to a dramatic comeback win in Atlanta and the New England Patriots bounce back after a decisive division win over the Miami Dolphins.

1. Los Angeles Rams (4-0) | Last Week’s Rank: 1

The Rams’ offense was spectacular in Thursday night’s win over the Vikings and QB Jared Goff vaulted himself into the league MVP conversation, if only the Chiefs' Patrick Mahomes falters just a little bit at some point. The absence of injured CB Aqib Talib is an issue, but the defense has some margin for error if the offense continues to perform this way.

2. Kansas City Chiefs (4-0) | Last Week’s Rank: 2

Nothing was easy for Mahomes and the Chiefs on Monday night in Denver. That made what the second-year QB accomplished in pulling out the comeback victory all the more impressive.

3. Jacksonville Jaguars (3-1) | Last Week’s Rank: 4

The Jaguars made it look easy against the Jets and reestablished themselves as a team to beat in the AFC. Their game this Sunday at Kansas City could determine which is THE team to beat in the conference.

4. New Orleans Saints (3-1) | Last Week’s Rank: 5

The Saints won Sunday at the Meadowlands with QB Drew Brees throwing for a modest 217 yards and no TDs. The defense and running game led the way, getting back to last season’s balance and versatility.

5. Carolina Panthers (2-1) | Last Week’s Rank: 6

The Panthers find themselves chasing the Saints in the NFC South as they return from their bye. They need to take advantage of the struggling Giants in Sunday’s home game, in which just-signed safety Eric Reid makes his Carolina debut.

6. Cincinnati Bengals (3-1) | Last Week’s Rank: 10

The Bengals found a way against the Falcons, and their Week 2 victory over the Ravens has them in early control of the AFC North. But the loss of TE Tyler Eifert thanks to his difficult-to-watch leg injury is a major setback for the Cincinnati offense.

7. Baltimore Ravens (3-1) | Last Week’s Rank: 8

The very good versions of QB Joe Flacco and the Ravens were on display Sunday night in Pittsburgh. The Ravens have played extremely well except for their dud against the Bengals. But no one should get too carried away yet. The disappointments of the past few seasons mean that this positive start should be viewed with some healthy skepticism.

8. New England Patriots (2-2) | Last Week’s Rank: 11

Things are looking up for the Patriots after they responded to their latest September crisis with Sunday’s lopsided triumph over the Dolphins. Josh Gordon made his Patriots debut in that game and fellow WR Julian Edelman returns this week from his suspension. Now comes a quick turnaround for Thursday night’s meeting with the Colts before a Sunday night matchup 10 days later with the Chiefs.

9. Chicago Bears (3-1) | Last Week’s Rank: 12

When they hired Matt Nagy as their coach, the Bears hoped he could do for Mitchell Trubisky what Sean McVay has done in L.A. for Goff. Suddenly, after Trubisky’s six-TD performance Sunday, that seems feasible. It has been clear since the Khalil Mack trade: the Bears are for real.


Mitchell Trubisky leaves the field after his standout performance Sunday against the Buccaneers (Nam Y. Huh/AP)

10. Green Bay Packers (2-1-1) | Last Week’s Rank: 14

The Packers bounced back from their bad performance against the Redskins and made the Bills return to resembling the league’s worst team.

11. Tennessee Titans (3-1) | Last Week’s Rank: 17

Coach Mike Vrabel showed Colts Coach Frank Reich how to play to win and have it turn out well. It was somewhat curious that the Titans made a coaching change after a playoff season. But Vrabel appears, at least so far, to be a very capable NFL head coach who could help this team take the next step.

12. Philadelphia Eagles (2-2) | Last Week’s Rank: 3

The champs are sputtering after Sunday’s OT defeat in Nashville. The return of QB Carson Wentz hasn’t gotten the Eagles out of their malaise. The rematch of the NFC title game comes this Sunday against the Vikings in Philadelphia in what was supposed to be an early-season meeting of NFC heavyweights. Instead, it could be a survival test to determine which team has the better chance to turn around its season.

13. Minnesota Vikings (1-2-1) | Last Week’s Rank: 9

QB Kirk Cousins has committed some ill-advised turnovers. But for the most part, he’s living up to the enormous expectations created by his hefty contract, with 10 TD passes and two interceptions through four games. The concern in Minnesota is mostly about a struggling defense a year after ranking first in the league in points and yards allowed.

14. Washington Redskins (2-1) | Last Week’s Rank: 13

The Redskins emerge from their bye week in first place in the NFC East. That’s a positive for a franchise that hasn’t had too much to feel good about in recent years. But the early bye might not be too helpful. And the game Monday night in New Orleans is a difficult test against a Saints team playing well.

15. Miami Dolphins (3-1) | Last Week’s Rank: 7

Never make too much of one game. But in this case, it’s tough to avoid believing the Dolphins might have been exposed as AFC East pretenders rather than contenders on Sunday in Foxborough, Mass.

16. Los Angeles Chargers (2-2) | Last Week’s Rank: 19

The Chargers are hanging in there. But they really, really need standout pass rusher Joey Bosa back from his foot injury to give their defense a boost.

17. Seattle Seahawks (2-2) | Last Week’s Rank: 23

Earl Thomas’s broken leg brings the “Legion of Boom” days to an official end for. It was sad to see it conclude amid such acrimony when Thomas directed an obscene gesture at the Seahawks’ bench as he was being taken from the field on a cart. But as Coach Pete Carroll said, Thomas deserves “a little slack” on that one.

18. Dallas Cowboys (2-2) | Last Week’s Rank: 26

The Dallas offense showed some signs of being functional and, even with their early-season issues, the Cowboys are only a half-game out of first place in the NFC East.

19. Denver Broncos (2-2) | Last Week’s Rank: 15

The Broncos did just about everything right Monday night against Mahomes. He’s simply too good.

20. Pittsburgh Steelers (1-2-1) | Last Week’s Rank: 16

ESPN’s report that Le’Veon Bell plans to report to the Steelers in Week 7 should be only mildly encouraging from the team’s perspective. The Steelers need Bell back sooner, which was evident during Sunday night’s loss to the Ravens. The Steelers’ season is unraveling right now. Ideally, they’d work something out to coax him back sooner.

21. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-2) | Last Week’s Rank: 18

The quarterbacking demise of Ryan Fitzpatrick was predictable and swift. The Bucs turn back to Jameis Winston but first have their bye week to get him ready.

22. Atlanta Falcons (1-3) | Last Week’s Rank: 20

How in the world did the Falcons allow A.J. Green to get so open on the Bengals’ game-winning TD Sunday? Matt Ryan is putting up good numbers and the Falcons are close to being a good team. But close isn’t good enough. In the NFL, you are what your record says you are.

23. Houston Texans (1-3) | Last Week’s Rank: 30

The Texans did what they could to stay out of the win column by squandering a big lead against the Colts. But they couldn’t help but get a victory when the Colts’ fourth-down gamble in OT went awry.

24. Oakland Raiders (1-3) | Last Week’s Rank: 31

Four games into Jon Gruden’s return to coaching, it actually was a bit of a surprise that his team somehow pulled out a win at home against the Browns. What does that say?

25. Cleveland Browns (1-2-1) | Last Week’s Rank: 21

Yes, the instant-replay reversal on the first-down spot was debatable at best and downright wrong at worst. And yes, that cost the Browns a victory in Oakland and an almost-unthinkable two-game winning streak. But the Browns shouldn’t have allowed it to come to that. On the positive side, rookie QB Baker Mayfield reinforced that he’s the real thing, despite some mistakes.

26. New York Giants (1-3) | Last Week’s Rank: 22

That’s three times in four games that the Giants have failed to reach 20 points. It’s beginning to feel a lot like last season, and the mood in their locker room was appropriately glum following Sunday’s loss to the Saints.

27. Detroit Lions (1-3) | Last Week’s Rank: 24

It should not ever be forgotten. Matt Patricia inherited a team that went 9-7 last season. So far, the first-year head coach has been able to beat only his former employer.

28. Buffalo Bills (1-3) | Last Week’s Rank: 25

The Bills’ 2018 highlight video might end up consisting solely of the first half at Minnesota last week, when they outscored the Vikings, 27-0. Other than that, Buffalo has been outscored this season, 106-23.

29. Indianapolis Colts (1-3) | Last Week’s Rank: 27

There’s no complaint here about Frank Reich playing to win in OT against the Texans. It just didn’t work out. In the bigger picture, the go-for-broke approach by the first-year head coach probably helped him in his own locker room.

30. New York Jets (1-3) | Last Week’s Rank: 28

Speculation is beginning to swirl about Coach Todd Bowles’s job security. It seems doubtful that the Jets would make an in-season coaching change. But if Bowles doesn’t turn things around, it stands to reason that the franchise could go in a different direction in the offseason and bring in an offensive-minded head coach to oversee the development of QB Sam Darnold.

31. San Francisco 49ers (1-3) | Last Week’s Rank: 29

C.J. Beathard wasn’t terrible in his first start since taking over for the injured Jimmy Garoppolo. But he wasn’t good enough to inspire much confidence that the Garoppolo-less Niners will be anything but an afterthought.

32. Arizona Cardinals (0-4) | Last Week’s Rank: 32

Rookie QB Josh Rosen was decent in his first NFL start. The Cardinals need to just stick with him and live with his mistakes because this is a truly lost season.

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