With nearly half of the teams having or at their bye week and the NFL hierarchy starting to cement itself, we are close to saying that we are officially at the midway point of the NFL season.
At this point, one conference has been dominant, illustrated by the fact that the top five spots in these rankings belong to teams from said conference. The NFC has shown its teeth throughout the season, with each of their divisions being represented at the top by teams that could be legitimate powerhouses come January. Unlike the AFC, which is shaping up to be a surprising playoff picture, the NFC is loaded with elite talent, making the postseason a potentially explosive affair.
Speaking of the AFC, there’s a quick question I want to ask. Did any of you have the Cincinnati Bengals not just in first place of the loaded AFC North at this point, but ahead of the likes of the Chiefs in any capacity? If you answered yes, you are either a terrible liar, a legitimate psychic, or someone who could have a lot of money waiting for them at the betting counter in the new year. It’s good to see surprise teams at this point of the season prove their legitimacy (hello, Arizona and Los Angeles Chargers), but it’s more surprising when the Bengals overcame serious scrutiny over their offseason decisions and organizational malaise over the last few years to become one of the surprise contenders this season. The glory of sports, man.
So how does the NFL stack up this time?
1. Arizona Cardinals (3): After two straight weeks of clicking on both sides of the ball and keeping their undefeated record intact, I’ll finally give the Cardinals their due and place them at the top of the rankings. After JJ Watt’s season-ending injury, however, Arizona could now be in play to bolster their pass rush at the trade deadline (November 2, for the curious).
2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2): The only worrisome thing from Tampa Bay’s clash with Chicago was having to negotiate with a fan for Tom Brady’s 600th regular-season touchdown ball (thank you, Mike Evans). If the Bucs can put together a similar effort against the only legitimate competition in their division in the Saints, you can basically lock the Buccaneers for at least one home playoff game.
3. Los Angeles Rams (6): The Rams have unsurprisingly gone through the weak stretch of their schedule, but the Lions were able to keep the game a lot closer than fans would have hoped for. The cupcake matches end after Houston, so any issues the Rams still have need to be solved soon for them to be able to catch Arizona for the NFC West crown.
4. Dallas Cowboys (8): The bye week couldn’t have come at a better time for the Cowboys, with Dak Prescott coming out of their last game injured and his Week 8 status still up in the air. They should still be fine with the amount of talent they have on the roster, but being without Dak for a game or two could knock them down a peg.
5. Green Bay Packers (7): Aaron Rodgers is still putting up big numbers to keep the Packers in the mix, but a few struggles against Washington still has me thinking this team is below the four above them in terms of sheer firepower. A game against Arizona where the Packers will be without their top three receivers and defensive coordinator might be a little unfair to judge them for, however.
6. Buffalo Bills (1): After being on cruise control for most of the season, Buffalo’s ambitions hit a snag against Tennessee last week. Hopefully, they come out of the bye week motivated to get the stench off of them, and it helps that the rest of their division doesn’t appear to have interest in chasing after them too hard.
7. Cincinnati Bengals (13): After soundly dominating their main AFC North competition in Baltimore, it’s time to finally admit that the Bengals have all the makings of a good team. Joe Burrow has completely changed the complexion of this franchise, and the decision to draft Ja’Marr Chase over Penei Sewell has paid off in a big way.
8. Los Angeles Chargers (4): The blowout loss to the Ravens was probably necessary for the Chargers to see the flaws on their roster, which they can use the deadline and an easier stretch of their schedule to work out. They used the past week to try and solve their special teams issues, but their big task is going to be how to fix a league-worst run defense that has been exposed the last couple of games?
9. Tennessee Titans (15): Even in a game where Derrick Henry wasn’t dominating defenses as per usual, Ryan Tannehill and the defense were able to pick up the slack and then some. They could virtually lock up the AFC South with a victory over Indianapolis this week, giving them the season to play with more consistency.
10. Baltimore Ravens (5): A week after crushing the Chargers, the Ravens were on the other side of a blowout against Cincinnati in what felt like a “changing of the guard” game. The depth issues that Baltimore’s suffered since the beginning of the season may be coming back to haunt them, which could necessitate coming away from the trade deadline with a couple new pieces in tow.
11. Cleveland Browns (9): Give credit to the Browns for coming away with a victory over Denver on the back of a third-string running back that was suiting up in the AAF just a few years ago (if you had to Google that, you’re proving how impressive this effort was). The field hospital’s worth of injuries isn’t going to make Cleveland’s run any easier, but this level of adversity would have tanked any of last decade’s Browns squads.
12. Las Vegas Raiders (14): Did the Raiders somehow get better with Jon Gruden out of the picture? Derek Carr didn’t need Darren Waller to put together a dominant performance against the Eagles, and they’ve managed to remain in great position to be the Chargers’ biggest competition in the AFC West, assuming it’s not the other way around…
13. New Orleans Saints (11): The defense showed that the Saints are a likely playoff team against Seattle, but the offense has the potential to cut any plans short. Alvin Kamara has been great but, if the rushing game isn’t going, Jameis Winston and the passing game might not be good enough to move the ball without help. How they counter that when Michael Thomas finally returns will be pivotal.
14. Kansas City Chiefs (10): The blowout loss to Buffalo was bad enough, but failing to score a single touchdown against the Titans as the defense continues to fall apart and NFL defensive coordinators appear to be figuring out Patrick Mahomes? It’s time to slam the panic button as Kansas City runs the risk of not only missing the Super Bowl, but missing the playoffs entirely.
15. San Francisco 49ers (12): The bomb cyclone that hit Santa Clara and forced San Francisco’s primetime game against the Colts to be played in heavy rainfall did no favors, but the 49ers are falling fast in the NFC West where the top two teams don’t appear to be slowing down. Kyle Shanahan’s job security can’t be particularly high at this point in time, and Trey Lance’s health is the only thing that should keep him out of the starting lineup at this point.
16. Minnesota Vikings (19): The Vikings came off their bye week with two straight wins, but a primetime matchup against the Cowboys, followed by games against the Ravens, Chargers, and Packers, will decide their fate come January. Kirk Cousins has never had any problems putting up numbers, but even a .500 record at this stretch could add a bit of significance behind the stats.
17. New England Patriots (22): After taking the Cowboys to the limit, the Patriots embraced one of their favorite pastimes and beat up the New York Jets. Dropping fifty-plus points was impressive, but they need a statement win to convince me or anybody else that they’re a serious playoff threat.
18. Indianapolis Colts (25): After starting the season 0-3, the Colts have fired off three victories in the last four games to put them back in the AFC playoff hunt. While Tennessee will look to put the division in their pocket, an Indianapolis victory this week suddenly keeps their AFC South hopes alive.
19. Pittsburgh Steelers (21): Najee Harris and the defense have been at least alright, but the offensive line and an aging Ben Roethlisberger means to keep expectations low on this team. Injury-riddled Cleveland could give the Steelers some momentum, but their next five games (Chargers, Bengals, Ravens, Vikings, Titans) could doom them to their first losing season in the Mike Tomlin era.
20. Carolina Panthers (16): An embarrassing loss to the Giants all but ends the Panthers’ optimism for this season, as they’ve only shown how important Christian McCaffrey is to the overall team. If Sam Darnold getting benched for PJ Walker doesn’t tell you that they’re willing to pull the plug on the former number 3 overall pick, being in on the Deshaun Watson trade rumors certainly will.
21. Denver Broncos (17): Losing to the Browns wouldn’t typically be a bad thing, but losing to a Browns team that was torn apart by injuries definitely is. The only way for the Broncos to move forward is to fire Vic Fangio and Pat Shurmur, while looking at which quarterback in the 2022 draft would fit their new offense’s designs.
22. Atlanta Falcons (26): I’m not overly convinced the Falcons are all that good, but finally establishing a connection to Kyle Pitts is paying dividends for the offense. A reeling Panthers team gives Atlanta a chance to not only be over .500 for the first time in the Arthur Smith era, but the first time since 2017.
23. Seattle Seahawks (18): A Monday night dud against New Orleans has Seattle 0-3 at home since 1992, and I’m not convinced that Geno Smith or this team is good enough to beat the Jaguars in Seattle either (I can’t believe I’m saying that unironically). Russell Wilson was covering up a lot of flaws with the Seahawks, and that alone could inspire sweeping organizational change to keep their superstar QB happy.
24. Chicago Bears (20): Justin Fields is slowly suffering the same fate as Mitch Trubisky did in Chicago, and games like the one against Tampa Bay aren’t helping build confidence. It’s clear that Matt Nagy and Ryan Pace need to go in favor of a regime that’s willing to build around their quarterback before his confidence is shattered.
25. New York Giants (28): Give credit to the Giants for soundly defeating the Panthers, topped off by Daniel Jones imitating Odell Beckham Jr. on a trick play. I’m not going to say this team is good, but they can definitely play the role of spoiler for some teams as they look for pieces to center their rebuild around (is Jones emerging as one of them?)
26. Philadelphia Eagles (23): After showing so much promise against Atlanta in Week 1, the Eagles are on the verge of a deadline fire sale by losing five of their last six. Even more alarming is that pundits are already trying to figure out who’s going to drop out from the Jalen Hurts-Nick Sirianni connection, assuming either one of them stays in Philadelphia at all.
27. Washington Football Team (24): Washington had all the makings of a huge upset over Green Bay to turn their season around, but a failure to finish on offense still led to a double-digit loss. The Taylor Heinicke story is a nice one, but it feels like a matter of time until it reaches its conclusion.
28. Jacksonville Jaguars (32): The losing streak is finally out of sight and out of mind, with Trevor Lawrence looking more like an NFL quarterback with each passing game. Catching Seattle without Russell Wilson might be a cause for momentum, but the stretch beyond that might dictate whether Urban Meyer’s first year in professional football is also his last.
29. New York Jets (29): Getting blown out by the Patriots was bad enough, but the offensive line finally letting Zach Wilson get injured puts an end to any reason to care about the Jets. If you seriously think Joe Flacco can be an answer, you’d be alone.
30. Miami Dolphins (27): Want to know how your season is over?; try breaking a 20-game losing streak and choking to the league’s most notorious choker in back-to-back weeks. The Deshaun Watson rumors are only getting louder but, with all of the problems that this team has, is it really any different or better than the one he’d be leaving?
31. Houston Texans (30): Losing to the Cardinals was expected, and the story now shifts to what Deshaun Watson might get for the Texans in the end. It seems like a saga that has ominously hovered over Houston since the offseason may finally be taken off their hands.
32. Detroit Lions (32): I really don’t want to bury this team, but is 0-17 watch officially a thing now? The only real winnable matchups I see are this week against the Eagles and Thanksgiving against the Bears; it’ll be gravely concerning if December comes and the Lions are still winless.