The best teams in the NFL with six weeks left in the season, the teams I think have the best chance to get to SoFi Stadium for Super Bowl 56 on Feb. 13:
1. Green Bay Packers (9-3)
The Packers do the most the best. Aaron Rodgers is the bright, shiny object, but the defense is what’s different in Green Bay, and I say that after two distinctly different two-week stretches. Green Bay gave up 13 points, total, to Patrick Mahomes and Russell Wilson, then 62 points, total, to Kirk Cousins and Matthew Stafford. Odd, of course, but this defense is giving up 20.2 points per game over the first 12 games, and that’s a winning formula when you’ve got Rodgers, Davante Adams and two good running backs.
Three very notable things to me about this team. One: The Packers are winning without their two best defenders, edge player Za’Darius Smith and cornerback Jaire Alexander, who are injured. Two: they’re winning, in part, because of the depth built by embattled GM Brian Gutekunst and rookie defensive coordinator Joe Barry. Three: linebacker De’Vondre Campbell, a free-agent who generated zero buzz in the off-season, has become the nerve center of the league’s seventh-ranked D.
“Talk about an off-season pickup that was absolutely critical,” LaFleur told me Sunday night. “That might be the biggest one. He’s an eraser. He never misses tackles. We made him like the centerpiece of our defense, calling the defense. He’s Batman for us, and he really embraces that role.”
The Packers have the bye this week to heal up, and to consider options on Rodgers’ broken pinky toe. After the 36-28 win Sunday, Rodgers said he would consider options that included surgery and decide today what to do. (Amazing that he ran in the first touchdown of the day Sunday against the Rams, deking Jalen Ramsey in the process. “On a play that was a designed handoff,” LaFleur said. “He just saw everyone go in the direction of the run, so he decided to keep it. I was like, Uh oh. But he gave Jalen a dead leg or something and was able to get in.”)
The slate: After this week’s bye, Green Bay has Chicago at home, at Baltimore, Cleveland and Minnesota at home, then at Detroit. Good race with Arizona for the number one seed.
2. Arizona Cardinals (9-2)
The Cards were 7-0, lost to Green Bay at home, then, without Kyler Murray, went 2-1 pre-bye with the great play of Colt McCoy outclassing the Niners and Seahawks on the road. Crucial play by the Cards without their two best offensive players—Murray and DeAndre Hopkins. Still, they’re 10th offensively and fifth defensively, bolstered by a pass-rush. They’ve outscored foes by 108 points, but their Achilles has been run defense.
The slate: at Chicago, Rams at home, at Detroit, Indianapolis at home, at Dallas, Seattle at home. That’s a tougher road than Green Bay, and because of the Packers’ 24-21 Week-8 win in Glendale, Arizona will have to beat Green Bay outright in overall record to win a head-to-head homefield race.
3. New England Patriots (8-4)
The Pats are one of four teams with the last bye weekend, Dec. 12. It’s shaping up to be great for them. They get an extra day this week prior to next Monday’s game at Buffalo, then the bye, then a Saturday night game with Indy, then another extra day to prep for the Buffalo rematch. There are four AFC teams that could be here—Pats, Bills, KC, Ravens—and I picked New England because of the last six weeks. Not just six wins, but six wins by an average of 25.3 points per game. It’s almost Patriots 2007 version, a rout a week.
I put the Patriots here because Mac Jones shows no sign of the games being too good for him. And because the defensive depth is better than any AFC peer. That depth was helped significantly by the addition of Matthew Judon in free agency. He has 11.5 of the team’s 30 sacks, and has been the perfect puzzle piece for Bill Belichick.
“What was your meeting with Bill Belichick like in free agency?” I asked Judon on Sunday, after New England routed the Titans 36-13.
“I didn’t have one,” he said. “I just signed.”
“No meeting with Bill, at all?” I said.
“Naw,” he said. “I thought free agency would be like ‘Let’s Make a Deal,” but we went through that legal tampering period, I had a couple ideas where I might go, and then I was working out on the day the deals could get done, and I heard nothing. Then we had the offer and I had to decide and boom, it was done.”
Judon’s rush ability has been helped by the depth along the line, plus a secondary that doesn’t miss 2019 Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore. When I mentioned the Patriots now have the Bills twice in 21 days and was he thinking about that, Judon said, “Hell naw. We got a one-game mentality around here. All we care about’s this week.”
The slate: at Buffalo (Monday), bye, at Indianapolis (Saturday), Buffalo and Jacksonville at home, at Miami.
4. Buffalo Bills (7-4)
Truly a mystifying team. It nags at me that the Bills get shredded by 26 at home to a 6-6 team and four days later beat a team playing for its playoff life by 25. It nags at me that Josh Allen has forced more throws in 11 games this year than he did in 16 games last year. It nags at me that in nut-cutting time, Buffalo is 3-3 in the last six games, including a three-point loss at Jacksonville. But Buffalo’s an explosive team with an 18-point win at Kansas City, and with two wins over Miami by a combined 50 points. The Bills also have perhaps the most impressive single defensive stat in football right now. They’re holding opposing quarterbacks to a composite passer rating of 62.8, with eight TDs surrendered and 16 interceptions. That is one pesky pass defense.
The slate: New England (Monday), at Tampa Bay, Carolina, at New England, Atlanta and the Jets at home.
5. Kansas City Chiefs (7-4)
KC’s 4-0 since Halloween, giving up just 12 points a game (two games were against Daniel Jones and Jordan Love) while defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo got some of his key pieces healthy and playing at their traditional levels (Chris Jones, Tyrann Mathieu, Frank Clark). Because this isn’t the steamrolling Kansas City offense anymore—the team is lacking one explosive threat, and it’s showing up in Patrick Mahomes’ play. Mahomes in 2019 and 2020 combined: 11 interceptions. Mahomes in 11 games this year: 11 interceptions. But when I asked him a couple of weeks ago if he ever thought to himself, Man, what’s wrong?, he said no, he hasn’t. That’s the benefit of having a confident playmaker and leader. I just think Mahomes will figure a way to win even if he doesn’t have the same tools.
The slate: Coming off a bye … Denver and Vegas at home, at the Chargers, Pittsburgh at home, at Cincinnati, at Denver. Sneaky tough schedule.
6. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-3)
Bad loss to the Saints, bad loss to WFT, easy win over the Giants, impressive win at Indy after training by 10 at halftime. I like the veterans on the Bucs, and not just Tom Brady.
“At halftime,” running back Leonard Fournette told me after Bucs 38, Colts 31, “I told Tom, ‘This game will end with either me or you winning it. This sh–‘s gonna end with one of us doing it.’ ”
Let’s see: 31-31, 2:41 left. Bucs ball, first-and-15 at their 31-yard line. The 6-0, 228-pound Fournette, physical, off left tackle for 11. Brady to Cameron Brate for six, then Brady to Fournette, a swing pass out of the backfield to the right for 13. Fournette busting behind the right side for eight. Chris Godwin on an end run for three. Then, from the Colts’ 28, Fournette over left tackle, with Chris Godwin his personal protector downfield knocking away a DB, for a 28-yard touchdown.
This was the fourth pick in the 2017 draft. Fournette had two 1,000-yard seasons in Jacksonville, and had a 222-yard rushing day in Denver in 2019, then was a surprising cut by Doug Marrone at the end of camp in 2020. With three rushing TDs and a fourth in the air, Sunday was Fournette’s shining moment in the NFL. He carried the Bucs to a win over a good team on the road after trailing by 10, and he pep-talked the team at halftime. Fournette won a Super Bowl ring in Tampa last year, but he became a championship running back with that four-TD performance Sunday in Indiana.
“A year ago, I was cut from the Jaguars,” he said from Indianapolis. “I remember it like it was yesterday. I reported at 6:30 in the morning, was told the coach wanted to see me, and he cut me. I was in shock. Never saw it coming. Teammates crying. Coaches shocked. But adversity hits you, and how are you gonna respond. What are you gonna do? I was still upset about it when Tampa picked me up. But I thank the Bucs for giving me a chance. On a day like today, I thank the coaches for believing in me and giving me all these chances.”
Fournette’s going to get more of those chances. A power-back with that offense could make it lethal, and it might be needed with a defense that’s been more attackable this year than last.
The slate: at Atlanta, Buffalo and New Orleans at home, at Carolina and the Jets, Carolina at home.
7. Baltimore Ravens (8-3)
Something about the Ravens doesn’t feel right. The defense felt right Sunday night, even though the Browns looked incredibly flawed, in a 16-10 Ravens win. But the carelessness of Lamar Jackson, who had his first four-interception game as an NFL player Sunday night, is going end up putting so much pressure on the defense if it keeps up. They could really use the spare parts in the running game to pick up the quarterback. One of the more surprising things about the Ravens being five games over .500 entering December: Opposing quarterbacks have a 17-to-5 TD-to-pick ratio; Jackson’s is 15-to-13. Eventually, on a throwing team, that’s going to catch up with you.
But the Ravens have to hope it’s a blip for Jackson. They’ve shown the ability to coach and manage around some difficult circumstances, and they may have to again this year.
The slate: at Pittsburgh and Cleveland, Green Bay at home, at Cincinnati, Rams and Pittsburgh at home.
8. Dallas Cowboys (7-4)
Lost three of four, and there are things to worry about, such as an overmatched and grabby secondary. I put my faith here in Dak Prescott, a reliable run game, and the most impressive rookie in football. When I see 6-3, 246-pound Micah Parsons chase down a quarterback from behind, visions of Lawrence Taylor dance in my head. Parsons has miles to go before he’s in the same league with Taylor, of course, but Parsons with Randy Gregory and DeMarcus Lawrence—they could all be on the field together soon if Lawrence and Gregory heal on schedule from injuries—would be a brutal trio to stop for any offensive front, particularly a battered one as the regular season winds down.
The slate: at New Orleans (Thursday), at WFT, at the Giants, Washington and Arizona at home, at Philadelphia.
9. Los Angeles Rams (7-4)
Can the Rams survive the worst special-teams in football (muffing punts, slumping Johnny Hekker) and a suddenly careless Matthew Stafford and a defense that’s gone from first in the league last year to mid-pack and allowed 32 points a game the last three weeks? Stay tuned. This is too good a team to be scoring 16, 10 and 28 in the biggest games of the year. There’s no shame in losing to the best team in the league on the road, with Aaron Rodgers pulling the trigger. But the last great team they beat this year is the only great team they beat this year: 34-24 over Tampa Bay two months ago.
The slate: Jacksonville at home, at Arizona, Seattle at home, at Minnesota and Baltimore, San Francisco at home. The Rams are looking very much like the fifth or sixth seed, barring an Arizona collapse.
10. Tennessee Titans (8-4)
No team needs its bye more than the Titans this week. Their top three weapons (Derrick Henry, A.J. Brown, Julio Jones) missed the 36-13 loss at New England on Sunday, and it’s unsure when the receivers will be back—and if Derrick Henry will be back at all this year after foot surgery. Without weapons, Ryan Tannehill has been pretty mortal, putting up 26 points in the past two weeks combined against Houston and the Pats. Still a tough team, but if A.J. Brown isn’t back by mid-December, the Titans are in trouble.
The slate: After the bye, Jacksonville at home, at Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Miami at home, at Houston. Titans should be able to hang onto the AFC South crown, because they’ve swept second-place Indy and have a two-game lead with the tiebreaker edge.