Back in June, I did the fruitless annual 1-to-32 ranking of the NFL teams. Not sure which pick outraged the masses most, but it was either ranking Tampa Bay fifth or New England 21st.
Looks like I was way off. Had the Bucs too low, and I might have had the Patriots too high.
With 12 teams at the halfway point (the Bucs and Giants will make that 14 tonight), I’ve re-stacked the board here. (You’ll never guess 32.) After the highest-scoring first seven weeks of any NFL season, I’m prioritizing defense at the top. “You know me—I like defense,” Bill Parcells told me the other day. “Hard to find these days. Defense usually wins in the playoffs.”
Listed in parentheses: My June ranking, team’s current record.
I. Best of the Best
1. Pittsburgh (10th, 7-0)
Only thing that worries me is Ben Roethlisberger making it through 19 games. I shouldn’t say “only thing.” Injuries and the tremendous depth at the top of the AFC are threats too. But for the Steelers to get to Roethlisberger’s fourth Super Bowl—and his first in 10 years—he and his surgically repaired elbow are going to have to stay whole, and his bulky 38-year-old body is going to have to stay out of harm’s way. This is quite possibly Ben’s last best chance to win a third ring, and to win the Steelers’ seventh. Why do I say that? Because it’s hard to go 7-0. The Steelers haven’t been 7-0 since 1978. They’ve got the team to win it all. That’s obvious by the last two weeks—playing pretty well but not great and still beating two of the top five teams in the conference. It’ll be a fascinating finish.
2. Tampa Bay (5th, 5-2)
Brady, explosive, 32 points a game, weaponry, Arians, Antonio, blah blah blah. Justifiably, there’s been so much talk about the efficient and explosive offense, but the Bucs are here because the defense is maturing at the perfect time. Hard to imagine this changing tonight at the 1-6 Giants—the Bucs and Steelers have the best defenses in the league headed into the second half (the Colts are great numerically but haven’t played a great offense yet), and you’re not going to play deep into January without being able to stonewall good teams on defense. Already stout against the run, Bucs GM Jason Licht fortified that by picking up nose man Steve McClendon from the Jets; Tampa’s allowing a league-low (by a lot) 3.0 yards per rush. Devin White and Lavonte David are two of the best linebackers in football, and the young secondary played one of the best games against Aaron Rodgers in recent years in the Week 6 rout of the Packers. “Nothing scares us,” cornerback Jamel Dean said. “We face Tom Brady in practice every day.” It’s still early, but I like my preseason NFC Super Bowl choice. (Don’t screw it up, Antonio.)
3. Kansas City (1st, 7-1)
Nerd-out with me on the schedule here. KC has the Panthers at home Sunday. Looks like a good chance to be 8-1 heading into the Week 10 bye. But then . . . next five games: at Las Vegas (lone KC loss this year), at Tampa Bay (could be hottest team in football then), Denver, at Miami (rising, ferocious defense), at New Orleans (could have healthy Michael Thomas). Now that’s tough. Imagine the Steelers and Chiefs meeting for the AFC title, both with 13 or more wins. Or 14. That really could happen.
4. Seattle (6th, 6-1)
Very telling game Sunday, the 37-27 win over the Niners, with some garbage points late for San Francisco. Telling, because the defense showed Legion of Boom signs; Bobby Wagner played his best game in a while. In the next couple of weeks (at Bills, at Rams), Seattle should add safety Jamal Adams, defensive end Carlos Dunlap (ex-Bengal acquired in trade) and run-stopper Snacks Harrison to the D. Those are all major pieces, and important ones, seeing that Seattle has allowed between 23 and 37 points in every game. Russ can cook, but he can’t rush the passer.
5. Baltimore (2nd, 5-2)
This was not a good week for the Ravens, even with the acquisition of a fine defensive end, Yannick Ngakoue, for minimal compensation (third and fifth-round picks). Left tackle Ronnie Stanley, the best man on Baltimore’s line, was lost for the season with an ankle injury. The Ravens lost to Pittsburgh, and quarterback Lamar Jackson was pretty bad, again, in another big game. Not that home field has been Baltimore’s friend, but now, barring Pittsburgh losing a two-game lead in the division with nine games to play, the Ravens could have to win three road games to make it to the Super Bowl. Very hard to do, especially when two of the road sites could be Kansas City and/or Pittsburgh. The good news is the Ravens, without Stanley, ran it well against a great run-defense team Sunday. The weekend takeaway: Lamar Jackson must be better, or the year will end in disappointment again.
6. Tennessee (7th, 5-2)
I trust the Titans to snap out of the two-game bummer. But if they don’t do it quick, they could face the same playoff minefield as in 2019—all road games in January. The Titans and Colts are tied atop the AFC South, and Philip Rivers has played better of late, so the South is no lock to be Tennessee’s. I’d still pick them, because I trust Ryan Tannehill/Derrick Henry more than Philip Rivers/Indy backfield, but it’s close.
II. Could Break Through
7. Green Bay (12th, 5-2)
Worrisome defense, though the Pack is probably good enough to win the NFC North even if the D keeps allowing 4.7 yards per rush and an opponent passer rating of 110. That, of course, would require Aaron Rodgers to put up 30 a game regularly. A third trip to San Francisco in 50 weeks should tell a lot about where the Packers. The first two didn’t go so well.
8. New Orleans (3rd, 5-2)
Squeaked by for four straight wins—by 6, 3, 3 and 3—without Michael Thomas. Dangerous to keep saying Thomas will fix all woes whenever he does return, but unless the Saints think they can run the table with three road playoff wins in January, they need the best receiver Drew Brees has had in his 15 Saints seasons to return fast. Like, this week. Saints at Bucs, Sunday.
9. Buffalo (13th, 6-2)
Kudos on finally lassoing the Patriots, though it wasn’t the kind of win over wounded New England that should make western New York breathe easy. The temptation is to say the Bills, with a 1.5-game lead on the weakish AFC East, are home free for their first division title in a quarter-century. I’d mostly agree, except for three things. One, the schedule. Buffalo’s next five games: Seattle, at Arizona, Chargers, at San Francisco, Pittsburgh. Two, Josh Allen. Legit MVP candidate in the first four weeks (31 points per game for Buffalo, 12-to-1 TD-to-interception rate, 70-percent passer), average dude the last four (19 points per game, 4-to-4 TD-to-pick ratio, 63-percent passer). Buffalo won shootouts in September, and now the Bills struggle to put away the Jets. If Allen doesn’t get right, the Bills might win their first playoff game since 1995, but they’d be hard-pressed to go further. Three, Miami’s coming.
10. Miami (19th, 4-3)
What a strange game, the 28-17 victory over the Rams in Tua Tagovailoa’s first start. You’d see the score and say that must have been a good opener for Tua. Uh, no. Miami was awful on offense, with eight first downs and 145 total yards. For now, it’s going to be Miami’s defense that leads the way. It has to be this way, until Tagovailoa starts playing the way he did as a force of nature at Alabama, or until Brian Flores decides Ryan Fitzpatrick is a steadier hand. Flores won’t hesitate to do what he has to do. Miami is higher than you might think they should be because of all these defensive guys—Wilkins, Van Ginkel, Baker, Ogbah—you don’t know well. “We’ve got an emphasis not just to get to the quarterback and get a sack,” said Jerome Baker, the third-year Ohio State linebacker, “but to create takeaways. You drop an interception around here, it’s a sin.” The Dolphins, with defense like they played Sunday, could make it very hard for Buffalo to win the East.
11. Arizona (18th, 5-2)
There are lots of exciting players in football. Kyler Murray edges Patrick Mahomes and Russell Wilson for number one. Doesn’t mean he’s the best player in football, because he’s way behind Wilson and Mahomes there. But he’s such a whirling dervish, a player who can make something big happen on any play. Problem I see with the Cardinals busting through to have a big January this year is the schedule. Not a lot of gimme weeks the rest of the way, starting with the first five out of the bye: Miami, Buffalo, at Seattle, at New England, Rams. Might be one year away.
12. L.A. Rams (16th, 5-3)
What a grind the first eight weeks have been—four East Coast 10 a.m. bodyclock games—but the Rams have come out of it well. Only one debacle, and that was Sunday at Miami, when the line couldn’t keep out the young and unstoppable Dolphins rush. I like the Rams, and I think if they protect Jared Goff, they can win any game they play.
13. Indianapolis (15th, 5-2)
The good Philip Rivers has shown up the last two weeks, and if he keeps showing up in the brutal stretch coming up—Baltimore, at Tennessee, Green Bay, Tennessee—then the Colts will give the Titans a great fight for the title of the AFC South.
III. On The Cusp
14. San Francisco (4th, 4-4)
Some years, it’s just not your year. This is a solid franchise with an excellent backbone of talent. Unfortunately, much of the talent is hurt. Imagine going to Seattle without Bosa and Sherman and Mostert and Samuel and Richburg and Ford, then losing Garoppolo and Kittle during the game. Now 2.5 games plus a tiebreaker out of first place, it’s going to be tough for the Niners to win the West, obviously—and it might be tough for them to make the playoffs with how good their own division is.
15. Chicago (17th, 5-2)
Sometimes, I’ve got to think Matt Nagy looks out at his offense—particularly the line and the quarterback—and just thinks, “How did this happen? I’m a smart guy. I soaked up every offense idea Andy Reid has in his head. What in the world is going on here?” Just goes to show that you’re not going anywhere in the NFL without a relatively consistent quarterback. The Bears just don’t have one.
16. Las Vegas (8th, 4-3)
Sleeper six or seven seed in the AFC, and that win Sunday was absolutely huge because it give the Raiders the tiebreaker over another three-loss AFC team, Cleveland.
17. Cleveland (24th, 5-3)
After 2.5 seasons, do the Browns really know if they have their quarterback of the future? Big question to answer in the second half of the season, and they should have some nice footing coming out of the bye, with Houston and Philly at home, then Jacksonville on the road. The Browns still have a great chance to be one of the three AFC wild cards.
IV. The Meh Group
18. Carolina (29th, 3-5)
Encouraging first year for Matt Rhule. He’s found that Teddy Bridgewater can play, and Robby Anderson can be part of a three-headed outstanding receiver group, and that the Panthers can win without Christian McCaffrey. Owner David Tepper has to feel good that he trumped the Giants and others by racing to overpay Rhule before he could hit the market and play the field. Smart business decision.
19. Minnesota (11th, 2-5)
Nice win in Green Bay, and that Dalvin sure can Cook. Seems crazy to say, but the rest of this year, in part, has to be spent seeing if Kirk Cousins should be the quarterback in 2021.
20. Cincinnati (27th, 2-5-1)
You’ve got a bunch of vets who don’t want to be in Cincinnati—surprise!—but anyone who does choose to hang around is going to be in for one wild ride. Joe Burrow, on pace for a 4,544-yard rookie passing season, has put up 30 or more points in four of eight games, and he’s scared of nothing. I’m actually optimistic about the Bengals if they could just build a respectable defense and not make it so good players and citizens like Carlos Dunlap want out so often.
21. L.A. Chargers (23th, 2-5)
Go ahead. Slap me around for putting the Chargers in the land of respectability. I know the games are not 29 and 36 minutes long in the NFL. But I’ve seen the Chargers, four games in a row, build 24-3, 16-0, 20-3 and 24-7 leads, then, obviously, blow them. But I think the Chargers will be a tough out the rest of the way as Justin Herbert learns more and more that turnovers in the NFL are death, and with a defense that I think can play better.
22. Philadelphia (15th, 3-4-1)
Did you know that in four starts this year, Mitchell Trubisky has turned it over three times, and that in eight starts, Carson Wentz has turned it over 16 times? Sixteen turnovers at midseason. It’s positively Jameis-like. The Eagles should win the worst division in recent history, and probably easily. But that won’t mean Doug Pederson and Howie Roseman will feel great about Wentz heading into 2021. No very good quarterback has regressed like Wentz has this year, and the Eagles won’t be a good team until they can fix what ails him.
23. New England (21st, 2-5)
It is cruel yet simplistic: Cam Newton is finding out exactly why Tom Brady wanted to end his career somewhere that respected offensive weaponry. Brady wasn’t a bum last year, when the offense went south, the same way Newton’s not a bum now with the worst set of offensive skill players in the NFL—excepting maybe the Jets. At least Jacksonville has D.J. Chark. Washington has Terry McLaurin. The Jets (well, there’s some competition here, honestly) have Jamison Crowder, but okay, that’s arguable. Newton’s turning it over too much, but it’s hard not to feel for him with a Toledo Mudhens group of receivers out there. The results are not good, after New England’s fourth straight loss. The Patriots’ team passer rating at midseason: 67.0. In 1991, the team passer rating was 69.7—with Hugh Millen and Tom Hodson the quarterbacks.
24. Detroit (26th, 3-4)
Who knows how this year will end, other than not in the playoffs, and with the Lions running their non-championship streak to 63 straight years. But giving up 41 to the Colts—a nice offensive team but not a powerhouse—means the Lions, with defensive coach Matt Patricia at the helm, are surrendering a desultory 29.4 points per game in the third year of his regime. That is not good, if you want there to a be fourth year of the regime.
25. Washington (31st, 2-5)
Tough team to figure. Very tough. The best element is the defensive front, by far. Washington has the kind of schedule coming out of the bye (Giants, at Lions, Bengals, at Cowboys), with one win over the Eagles and a week 17 game remaining, that could put them neck and neck with the Eagles for the division title. How crazy would this be on the afternoon of Jan. 9 for a wild-card matchup: NFC fifth seed New Orleans (12-4) at NFC fourth-seed Washington (6-10).
V. It’s Over, For Now
26. Denver (20th, 3-4)
The Broncos are 11 games under .500 since Peyton Manning walked out of the building, and barring a stunning turn, this will be their fifth straight non-playoff year for Denver. The Broncos’ long playoff history makes this fact really odd: Denver’s headed for its 10th year of the last 15 to be out of the playoffs. That’s worrisome enough. Drew Lock is not certain to be the quarterback of the future in Denver, and the Broncos could be in competition for the 2021 crop of QBs with a bunch of teams that could be in the quarterback market in April: New England, Washington, Minnesota, Jacksonville, and, of course, the Jets. At some point pretty soon, John Elway has to get his quarterback of the future or he’s not going to be picking the players anymore.
27. Atlanta (25th, 2-6)
The Falcons are 27-31 since the painful Super Bowl LI loss to New England and seem intent on bringing back Matt Ryan and Julio Jones (who will be 36 and 32 on opening day 2021) to be the centerpieces to the rebuild. Questionable thinking, but perhaps necessary because of their heavy cap hits. Will Raheem Morris (2-1 in his interim run) be part of it? Considering his last six tests this season—at New Orleans, Las Vegas, New Orleans, at the Chargers, Tampa Bay, at Kansas City, at Tampa Bay—I have my doubts.
28. Houston (22nd, 1-6)
No one thinks it’s particularly fair to fire—after four games—a coach who won four division titles in six years. But parting with Bill O’Brien had to happen; deep down, I bet part of him was relieved. What now? The franchise is in the pits, with no GM, significantly over the cap in 2021, and no first or second-round pick next April. But Deshaun Watson at age 25 is good bait to attract a good coach for a rebuild.
29. Dallas (9th, 2-6)
Well, let’s see. Heading into a crucial Week 8 Sunday-nighter at Philadelphia, the Dallas quarterback was the pride of James Madison University, Ben DiNucci; the starting tackles were Terence Steele and Cam Erving, and the top tight end was Dalton Schultz. The fans seem ready to run Mike McCarthy out of town. The defense is on track to be all-time worst in Cowboys history (16 TDs surrendered in seven games, 5.2 yards per carry by opposing backs). But at least Jerry Jones is doing his best Animal House Kevin Bacon. “All is well! All is well!”
30. N.Y. Giants (30th, 1-6)
Hand this to the Giants: They’re playing hard for Joe Judge—scoring margins of last four games: 8, 3, 1 and 1—and, particularly on defense, there’s some young talent to build around. But they’re 10-29 in the Dave Gettleman Era, with some major swings and misses, and for there to be more than nine games left in the Gettleman Era, New York will need a couple of signature wins against a tough slate down the stretch. You can’t be winning at a 25-percent clip, particularly with the Giants’ history of the last nine seasons. Remember that second Super Bowl win over the Patriots, in the 2011 season? That’s the last New York playoff victory. Thus John Mara’s impatience with his player acquisition.
31. Jacksonville (32nd, 1-6)
Shad Khan is the epitome of fair. But I don’t know how much sense it makes—with Atlanta and divisional rival Houston off to head starts in the 2021 coaching derby—to not make a coaching change before the end of the year. Doug Marrone has presided over a 12-27 disaster since having the Jags minutes from an AFC championship three years ago, and Green Bay, Pittsburgh, Tennessee and Baltimore await in the second half. Why delay the inevitable? Start the coaching search now.
VI. Alone. So Alone
32. New York Jets (28th, 0-8)
Reaction from a buddy who loves the Jets after the 35-9 loss in KC: “Could have been worse.” Find a game on the rest of the schedule the Jets should win. Check out this road slate in November and December: Chargers, Seattle, Rams, New England. Point is, the Jets are favorites for the first pick in the 2021 draft, and that’s going to put some heavy pressure on GM Joe Douglas. He’ll either have to stand squarely behind Sam Darnold entering year four in ’21 and try to get a bounty for the Trevor Lawrence pick. Or he’ll have to try to get more than 30 cents on the dollar for a tarnished Darnold, who does not deserve most of the tarnish. He has played valiantly most often, but Darnold’s mistakes and lack of field vision cannot be ignored either. Since Darnold was drafted in 2018, there are 28 quarterbacks with at least 20 starts; Darnold’s passer rating, 78.1, is 28th out of 28. Long-suffering Jets beat man Mark Cannizzaro entombed the Jets this way after they gave up 37 points at home to a practice-squad QB, Brett Rypien, on national TV in Week 4: “Someday, perhaps a long, long time from now, there will be a study — like one of those archaeological digs — examining the Jets and their perpetual propensity to tease and torture. With the emphasis on torture.”