In May, I ranked the teams 1 to 32. Today I do it again, noting where I had each team back in the spring, after teams were formed for the season. It was a fun exercise. Love the rankings? Hate ‘em? Let me know.
1. New England 4-0 (May ranking: 2). This likely isn’t Bill Belichick’s best Patriots team—yet—because they don’t have the offensive weapons they’ve had in many prior years. But the defense is so good it can afford to go without a top-three defensive piece in Dont’a Hightower and still have enough great contributors to shut down another foe. The D allowed its first touchdown of the season (one and only one). Cleveland, Kansas City and Dallas come to Foxboro in the next three months, and New England goes to Baltimore, Philadelphia and Houston; all six of those teams, with quarterbacks who can make plays with their feet, should be interesting tests for the impregnable Patriots.
2. Kansas City 4-0 (May ranking: 1). The Chiefs have had two gut-check wins in a row: 33-28 over Baltimore and 34-30 at Detroit. And though Patrick Mahomes wasn’t his best Sunday, he made enough plays to win, particularly on the late 79-yard drive that clinched the game. The Chiefs’ D is a worry, and they’ll probably have to score in the thirties to ensure winning January games. But that’s what Mahomes does. I figured out Sunday that Mahomes, in his first 23 NFL starts, has thrown for 1,431 more yards than Dan Marino in his first 23 starts. Sheesh. The Chiefs will be a tough out in January, either in Foxboro or Kansas City … or in south Florida, site of the Super Bowl.
3. Los Angeles Rams 3-1 (May ranking: 4). Anyone worried about Jared Goff? Six TD passes and seven picks in his last five games, and completing just 62 percent over that term, low for a Sean McVay offense. “The Rams have been forced to become a dropback football team—and they aren’t,” former QB Dan Orlovsky tweeted with the Rams down to Tampa 21-0 Sunday. “16 [Goff] isn’t seeing underneath coverage guys.” Kind of strange that Goff threw for 517 yards Sunday and didn’t play particularly well. His three interceptions led to 21 Tampa points. This game had such a bizarre feel—it’s hard to know what conclusions to draw from it. I’ve seen the Rams play too well too often to push them down too far; I just think McVay is smart enough to figure out how to fix Goff. Better hurry—Seattle and San Francisco are up in the next two weeks.
4. New Orleans 3-1. (May ranking: 6). Coach of the quarter: 1) Sean Payton, 2) Bill Belichick, 3) Sean McDermott, 4) Matt Patricia. Payton loses Drew Brees, gets drubbed by the nemesis Rams, and then, with Teddy Bridgewater playing serious minutes for the first time in four years, the Saints beat the previously unbeaten Seahawks in Seattle, then come home and beat the previously unbeaten Cowboys. I watched Brees and Payton in a long quarterback meeting last season the night before a game, and it is fair to say they completed each other’s sentences; they spoke in a code that mortal men will never understand. Payton doesn’t have the same relationship with Bridgewater, but the new QB doesn’t turn it over much and though his accuracy isn’t Brees-like, it’s good enough to make the offense go.
5. Dallas 3-1 (May ranking: 16). The loss at New Orleans doesn’t bother me much. It was a quicksand game for the offense, with nine possessions and only one gaining more than 35 yards, and Ezekiel Elliott the most pedestrian he’s looked all season. Too many pluses here in the first month to get overwhelmed with a road loss to a very good team. Also: Offensive coordinator Kellen Moore has been revelatory, adding an element of imagination to the Dallas play-calling that has brought out the best in Dak Prescott. After a month, the Cowboys have morphed from the only contender-type with a running back as the most valuable player to now Prescott and Zeke Elliott being equally important to the cause, or perhaps Prescott the more significant one.
6. Chicago 3-1 (May ranking: 9). Lots of good defenses in the league right now. New England, of course. The Saints and Dallas are good. The deepest defense might reside in Chicago. Standouts in Sunday’s pounding of the Vikings: Nick Kwiatkoski, Nick Williams, Roy Robertson-Harris, Prince Amukamara … and Khalil Mack. These will be interesting times in Chicago coming up, with Chase Daniel replacing Mitchell Trubisky (mercifully, perhaps) at quarterback. Seems crazy to consider, but for the reason I elucidated up top, the Bears could be better with Daniel, and not just for the short term. The NFC North will be one of the most fascinating division races in years, because any team can play a great game on any Sunday. Not good, great. And I count Chicago there, even with the unknown Daniel, because he knows this offense so well and has the deep trust of his head coach and play-caller.
7. San Francisco 3-0 (May ranking: 7). Play along with me here. Niners are a rested 3-0. You don’t really know what they are, because they’ve beaten three teams with a combined 2-8 record. In the next five weeks, they’ve got Cleveland at home, Rams and Washington on the road, Carolina at home, Arizona on the road. It’s possible, certainly, to come out of that stretch winning four of five. And then how interesting would the West be with San Francisco at 7-1 … and starting the second half of the season with three straight in Santa Clara? I mean, I’m just saying.
8. Philadelphia 2-2 (May ranking: 8). The Eagles are scoring enough (27.5 points per game), and Carson Wentz is healthy enough. He’s not what he was in mid-2017 … yet. What would concern me is a defense allowing 26 points and 386 yards per game, a defense with three sacks in four games. I don’t mean to harp on pushing the Eagles to trade for unhappy Jags cornerback Jalen Ramsey, but he’d really help this secondary right now, even though the pricetag probably makes GM Howie Roseman want to puke.
9. Green Bay 3-1 (May ranking: 14). The defense had given up 35 total points before Thursday night. Then the Eagles got 34. The Pack struggles to run. The best receiver by far, Davonte Adams, could miss some time with a turf toe now. The division is top-heavy; even if you discount Minnesota with its passing problems, the Bears and Lions can beat any team any week. I put my trust here in a renewed Aaron Rodgers—though no team in football has a tougher looming five weeks: at Dallas, Detroit, Oakland, at Kansas City, at the Chargers. Somehow, I think they’ll be standing at the end, playing in January.
10. Seattle 3-1 (May ranking: 13). Seattle’s not the dominant rushing team it was last year (4.8 per rush last year, 4.0 this year), and the receiver group is still a tick off with no Doug Baldwin. But Russell Wilson’s pretty good deodorant. He’s on his way to his top year in accuracy (72.9 percent) and rating (118.7), while learning his new targets. This is a compelling team, rebuilt on the fly all except at quarterback and linebacker, but I’ll be surprised even with a tough looming schedule (Rams, at Cleveland, Baltimore) if they don’t win 10 or 11 games.
11. Detroit 2-1-1 (May ranking: 27). The Lions’ last three weeks: Detroit 70, Chargers/Eagles/Chiefs 68. Imagine your opposing quarterbacks in this era of passer-rating-inflation have been Kyler Murray, Phillip Rivers, Carson Wentz and Patrick Mahomes, and you’ve held them to a composite (and stingy) 80.3 rating. They were a misguided Kerryon Johnson stretch-the-ball-for-the-goal-line dumb play from shocking the world Sunday. I don’t know if the Lions’ can play January football this season, because of their division and because, well, they’re the Lions, but I watched 75 percent of their game Sunday and they’re legit. With Matthew Stafford’s bum hip, it seems like a good time for the Detroit bye this week.
12. Buffalo 3-1 (May ranking: 23). The Bills were Rocky Balboa in the first “Rocky.” Tom Brady was Apollo Creed. Could have sworn I heard Brady whisper to Josh McDaniels, “Ain’t gonna be no rematch.” Kidding! Kidding! Brady will be fired up about the Week 16 meeting in Foxboro. But boy, did the Bills give Brady everything he could handle. Now where do the Bills stand? Crucial game at Tennessee on Sunday before their bye weekend, and who knows if Josh Allen will be ready to play, or if he’ll need a week off after the beating he took Sunday. Hard to trust Matt Barkley to win a big game after being in mothballs for so long. The Bills’ season could go many ways in the next three months. Could be a roller coaster.
13. Cleveland 2-2 (May ranking: 11). One thing we learned about the Browns: Nick Chubb can take over a game; I never knew that before Sunday. Baker Mayfield’s going to be a good NFL quarterback and he’s going to be the kind of leader teammates love, because he dares you to knock that chip off his shoulder. But he’s also going to need bailing out at times, as all good quarterbacks do. That’s what Chubb did Sunday, particularly on that jet-fueled 88-yard touchdown run. Imagine Chubb and Kareem Hunt in the same backfield, or Chubb in the backfield and Hunt split out or slotted the way the Chiefs used to do with him. If the Browns are hanging around by Thanksgiving, they could be great to watch and very hard to stop.
14. Baltimore 2-2 (May ranking: 12). I’m befuddled by the Ravens. Coming into Sunday, I thought they were one of the teams that could go into Kansas City or Foxboro in January and win, and it wouldn’t be a stunning upset. But then Cleveland, formerly shaky, rabbit-eared Cleveland, came to Crabcakeville and ran for 6.7 yards per rush, threw for 342 yards, and gained 530. A brutal loss, the kind of game that had to make the Ravens wonder who exactly they are. Maybe every team in the league is like this, even the good ones. Maybe every team has a monthly clunker. Pittsburgh and Cincinnati in the next two weeks should help Baltimore recover, but the Ravens aren’t winning many games playing the way they did Sunday.
15. Minnesota 2-2 (May ranking: 10). I could have put the Vikings 20th, which is shocking, because I simply do not trust the passing game. Kirk Cousins’ world is crumbling. Twenty games into what is very likely to be a three-year Vikings career—and might even be two—it’s clear he’s losing the confidence of the locker room. As Chad Graff of The Athletic reported Sunday night, this was Adam Thielen after he was pretty open in a crucial late moment at Soldier Field and Cousins overthrew him: “He made a great read of finding me open, and just didn’t complete the pass. It’s as simple as that. … At some point, you’re not going to be able to run the ball for 180 yards, even with the best running back in the NFL. That’s when you have to be able to throw the ball … You have to be able to hit the deep balls.” Can’t get much uglier in Minny, particularly with road games against Detroit, Kansas City and Dallas coming in the next six weeks.
16. Los Angeles Chargers 2-2 (May ranking: 5). Strange team. Injury-ravaged team. Tied 10-10 with Miami with five minutes left in the first quarter. Somehow, the Chargers have to build up some equity in the standings in the next three weeks (Denver, Pittsburgh, at Tennessee) so the death march of a month that follows that (at Chicago, Green Bay, at Oakland, Kansas City) will matter. I’ll always give them a chance with Phillip Rivers and a deep backfield, but the volume of injuries leaves them zero margin for error.
17. Indianapolis 2-2 (May ranking: 3). Guess what? I have absolutely no idea what team’s the best in the AFC South. Seriously: One could be four, four could be one, and I really couldn’t argue with you. The Colts pulled a no-show Sunday against the Raiders, allowing Oakland to run for 188 yards, dominate time of possession … and watching Jacoby Brissett pull his first true bonehead play of the year, the pick-six thrown right to Erik Harris. The Colts probably have had too many important people either retire (Luck) or get hurt (Leonard, Hilton) to be a real contender this year.
18. Houston 2-2 (May ranking: 15). I keep thinking they’re better than they play, but that’s the biggest lie in sports. The old philosopher Bill Parcells used to say six times a week: “You are what your record says you are.” They’re better on the offensive line this year, but not fixed. They struggle to be consistent on offense every year. And they’re 17-20 since opening day 2014, including a loss to Kyle Allen and the Carolina Panthers at home Sunday. Four of their next five are winnable, so all is not lost for the Texans—if they can protect Deshaun Watson.
19. Tampa Bay 2-2 (May ranking: 29). You figure out the Bucs. Lose at home to the Giants when they can’t make a chippy field goal, then score 55 points on a defense that had held foes to 16 points a game this year. They’re 0-2 at home, 2-0 on the road. Jameis Winston has a couple of big-league receivers in Chris Godwin and Mike Evans. I watched a lot of their beatdown of the Rams, and what impressed me, frankly, was Winston not blowing it after throwing the pick-six to narrow the lead to five points with eight minutes left. That’s new.
20. Jacksonville 2-2 (May ranking: 20). The Jags have to solve the Jalen Ramsey conundrum, or risk him wrecking a season that has hope because of Gardner Minshew, of all people. Tea leaves make it seem like the Jags are holding out for two first-round picks, which I’d never pay for a guy quite possibly destined to spend the rest of 2019 and all of 2020 (and no more) on his second NFL team. I get the impression he wants to be a free-agent in 2021, when the new CBA is negotiated and there could be riches to be had that we don’t know about now. If I’m Jacksonville GM Dave Caldwell, I’m taking a first-round pick and a good starting player, preferably a corner, for Ramsey and being done with him now.
21. Tennessee 2-2 (May ranking: 25). The most amazing stat (now that Denver isn’t sackless anymore) of the first quarter of the season is Marcus Mariota’s stat line: 62.2 percent accuracy (average), 7-0 TD-to-pick ratio (uh, really?), 7.8 yards per attempt (better than Brady and Rodgers), 106.2 passer rating (better than Brady and Rodgers). As you can see, Jameis Winston’s not the only 2015 very high pick trying to salvage his career with the team that drafted him. Very impressive performance at Atlanta on Sunday.
22. Oakland 2-2 (May ranking: 19). A couple of days before the Antonio Brown thing blew up, respected ESPN analyst Louis Riddick told me, “The Raiders are my surprise team of 2019. I can’t think of any team that has done more to improve since the end of last season.” Riddick was onto something, because GM Mike Mayock ignored the noise (drafting Clelin Ferrell fourth overall, for instance) to build for the future. At the very least, Derek Carr has had a good if unspectacular first quarter of the season, and Oakland has found three long-term offensive keepers to build around: running back Josh Jacobs, tight end Darren Waller and pricy but blot-out-the-sun left tackle Trent Brown. The win at Indy on Sunday at least gives the Raiders life for the next month or so, though I can’t imagine much better than 1-2 coming out of their remaining road slog (Chicago in London, at Green Bay, at Houston).
23. Carolina 2-2 (May ranking: 21). I wouldn’t be passing any major judgment on Cam Newton. Coming off shoulder surgery, he hurt his foot in late August and entered the season adjusting to a different style of football. So he played two games poorly. And now he’s out while his foot heals. It’s just wrong-headed to be thinking about life after Cam. Let the former MVP come back and play and see what he is. You don’t throw a 30-year-old stalwart player out after two bad games, and you also don’t make the definitive judgment that without his legs he can’t be a star quarterback. Kyle Allen is a compelling story and has shown in his 3-0 starting tenure with the Panthers that he deserves more than a passing mention. If nothing else, the Panthers are going to get a sense whether Allen can be a Foles-type presence and player for them while Newton heals.
24. New York Giants 2-2 (May ranking: 28). The news is good with Daniel Jones, certainly, and if the defense could be trusted, the Giants would be higher than 25. A rising quarterback means you’ve always got a chance, in every game. But my guess is the next five weeks will confirm the Giants are playing for a brighter 2020: Minnesota, at New England, Arizona, at Detroit, Dallas.
25. Atlanta 1-3 (May ranking: 17). Since noon on the February 2017 Pats-Falcons Super Bowl Sunday, Atlanta’s record is 19-20. In that fateful Super Bowl, the one with the blown 28-3 third-quarter lead by the Falcons, Atlanta started Julio Jones, Mahamed Sanu, Jake Matthews, Alex Mack, Matt Ryan and Devonta Freeman among its significant offensive starters. On defense, Grady Jarrett (who tormented Tom Brady all day), Vic Beasley, Deion Jones, De’Vondre Campbell and Ricardo Allen started. Those 11 key starters also started Sunday when Tennessee walked into the Mercedes Benz Dome in Atlanta and whipped the Falcons. A very bad loss. And the seat gets scalding for coach Dan Quinn. Arthur Blank didn’t pay Matt Ryan and Julio Jones a jillion dollars to be 1-3 … or to be absolutely mediocre in the past 39 games. Eleven of the, say, 14 or 15 most significant starters on a Super Bowl team are still playing today, and they are a .500 group. Some of that has to come down to coaching.
26. Pittsburgh 0-3 (May ranking: 18). This is the most un-Pittsburgh year I can ever remember, with more risks than the conservative Steelers ever take. Not only are the Steelers perilously close to being out of playoff contention by Oct. 1 (a loss to Cincinnati tonight would do it), but the tidal wave of draft-pick trades (four since April) is totally out of character for this team. The Steelers could be facing, say, a 5-11 finish with many holes to fill in 2020. As of today, they’ll have one draft pick in the top 100, after trading a first, a third and two fifth-round picks since April. With a record like that, the Steelers would pick around 40th overall, and not again till about 110. Dealing what could be a top 10 pick for Minkah Fitzpatrick will be fine if he has Jalen Ramsey-type impact. But it’s not going to look very good if Mason Rudolph tanks this fall and the Steelers enter next season with 38-year-old Ben Roethlisberger coming off elbow surgery and one lonely pick in the top 100, leaving them no ability to draft his legitimate heir … unless they want to mortgage the 2021 draft too.
27. Denver 0-4 (May ranking: 24). I’m still on board with the Vic Fangio hire. It was a smart, long-haul move to bring in a no-nonsense, respected adult in the room by John Elway. But the most stunning aspect of his early tenure is that in the first three games, the first 29 drives, his ace pass-rushers, Von Miller and Bradley Chubb, have zero sacks and three quarterback hits. By Thursday, Miller, normally affable, was so fed up with the local media’s questions (what did you expect?) about the disappearing pass-rush that he read a statement and refused to take questions. What I’ve noticed, particularly Week 1 at Oakland, is passers are focused on getting the ball out fast because they fear the impact of Miller and Chubb off the edge. And because the Broncos have most often been playing from behind, foes (especially Chicago in Week 2) have been living on the run. The pass rush was better Sunday in the 26-24 loss to the Jags. But the Broncos still are feeble, 0-8 since December and nothing they can count on.
28. Cincinnati 0-3 (May ranking: 30). The Bengals are who we thought they were, though two of the losses were late one-possession jobs. If I’m rookie coach Zac Taylor, I can see where the passing game will get better when A.J. Green comes back from an ankle injury in a few weeks; Tyler Boyd and the resurgent John Ross have been strong targets for Andy Dalton. But it’s the miserable running game, averaging just 2.4 yards per rush, that’s hamstringing this offense. Back in the day, Cincinnati always had a road-grading offensive line and a most often a top-10 NFL running game. No more.
29. Arizona 0-3-1 (May ranking: 31). Grade: incomplete. Kliff Kingsbury’s offense is still new to everyone on the team except Kyler Murray and maybe his long-term top target, Christian Kirk. To run this offense behind a feeble offensive line just exacerbates the time it will take for mastery of the offense.
30. Washington 0-4 (May ranking: 22). Three questions: What is the point of having Trent Williams on the roster? Who, exactly, wins by wasting a season of a 31-year-old tackle who’s missed 15 games in the last four years with injury, and when clearly Washington could have gotten a first-round pick on Labor Day weekend for him? Now the ransom-payer, Houston, doesn’t need a left tackle anymore. Bad decision by Bruce Allen and Doug Williams … When will the head coach walk the plank? Jay Gruden is 35-48-1, with zero playoff wins in his sixth year. No coach has a hotter seat … Does any team repel prime time more than this one? Last four Washington prime-time appearances: lost by 16, lost by 24, lost by 15, lost by 24. And by the way, the first game for Dwayne Haskins was a big-league dud. Franchise adrift.
31. New York Jets 0-3 (May ranking: 26). No team will be very good starting three quarterbacks in three games, none of whom has a résumé of sustained success. But any team will be bad behind an offensive line that will continue to hamstring this team. The Jets, through September, have no guard or tackle in the top 40 of their position ratings by PFF, and center Ryan Kalil, brought out of retirement to be an upgrade over Jonotthan Harrison, is the 31st-rated center out of 32. Even though Le’Veon Bell has come back to football as eager as when he was a Steelers rookie, it’s tough to run behind that line: Bell’s averaging just 2.9 yards per rush. All of this is one way of saying the Jets’ most important player in the next seven months is not a player. It’s GM Joe Douglas, stolen with a rich six-year contract from the Eagles in the offseason. He’s got a lot of holes to fill.
32. Miami 0-4 (May ranking: 32). Never thought I’d see a team this bad. The 2008 Lions, the first winless team of this century, lost by an average of 15.6 points a game. Another winless team of the last 50 years, the 1976 Bucs, lost by an average of 20.5 points a game. Dolphins’ average loss in September: 34.3 points. I keep hearing Brian Flores is still glad he took the job, and if you think this is the worst thing he’s been through in his hardscrabble life, think again. The Dolphins were at least competitive in the 20-10 loss to the Chargers on Sunday. But he’s got three months left to stand in front of his team and tell them why they should give their all every Sunday. No coach will have a tougher job than Flores—a stranger to everyone in that locker room eight months ago—in the season’s last 13 weeks.