Is the Power Rankings gap between Kansas City and the rest of the top five shrinking?
The Chiefs barely survived against the Falcons in Week 16, while the Bills, Packers, Saints and Ravens all romped in impressive fashion. K.C. might be in cruise control as it approaches its first-round bye, but the league’s other superpowers appear to be ramping up their game ahead of January.
Things are about to get very interesting. Happy New Year, everybody. To better times in 2021.
Previous rank: No. 1
It should be against the rules to be as good as the Chiefs are … and also get lucky. The football gods shined down on the sons from Kansas City on Sunday, pushing Younghoe Koo’s 39-yard field-goal attempt wide right in the final seconds of a 17-14 win over the Falcons. The victory clinched the No. 1 seed in the AFC for the defending champions, who also now have the option to rest their most important players in a meaningless Week 17 tilt against the Chargers. Should there be some concern that Patrick Mahomes and the offense struggled to put up points against a mediocre Falcons defense? Perhaps — though this feels like a team going through the motions as it waits for the bright lights of January football. Almost there.
Previous rank: No. 2
The Bills sent a message on Monday, walking into Gillette Stadium like they owned the place and strutting out with a 38-9 win over the helpless Patriots. This is the same Buffalo franchise that served as a relentless punching bag for New England during the Bill Belichick/Tom Brady reign of terror over the previous two decades. Those days are over now, and you can understand if the Bills saw Monday night as payback for 20 years of misery. Meanwhile, after another dominant performance by Josh Allen, is it time to put his name into the MVP conversation with Aaron Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes? If you don’t, you’re not paying close enough attention to the magic brewing in Western New York.
Previous rank: No. 3
Aaron Rodgers and Davante Adams have a cosmic connection that no other QB-WR tandem can touch. The two superstars hooked up for three more touchdowns in a 40-14 rout of the Titans that moved Green Bay one step closer to securing the No. 1 seed in the NFC. Rodgers has earned the third league MVP award that appears to be headed his way in a month, but Adams deserves more praise for being the best receiver Rodgers has ever had. On Sunday night, Adams became the third player in NFL history to have at least 100 receptions and 17 touchdown catches in a season. Incredible production that’s even more remarkable when you factor in the two full weeks Adams sat on the shelf with a hamstring injury.
Previous rank: No. 4
Alvin Kamara did more than win a million fantasy leagues on Christmas Day. He showed the world that the Saints don’t need Vintage Drew Brees to operate with championship-level explosiveness. Kamara tied a 91-year-old NFL record (shoutout to Ernie Nevers!) with six rushing touchdowns in a 52-33 win that clinched the Saints’ fourth consecutive NFC South title. Kamara has been masterful this season, piling up 21 touchdowns and nearly 1,700 scrimmage yards as the engine of the New Orleans offense. Say what you will about the 41-year-old Brees, but Kamara’s role is far more defined than what it was when Taysom Hill was behind center. The best version of this Saints attack is the one that keeps No. 41 front and center.
Previous rank: No. 5
The Ravens stayed scorching hot in a 27-13 win over the Giants that, combined with losses by the Browns and Colts, put Baltimore in control of its playoff destiny entering Sunday’s regular-season finale against the Bengals. The Ravens have been a different team during the four-game winning streak that revitalized their season: In that stretch, Baltimore became the fourth team in the Super Bowl era to score 140-plus points and gain 900-plus rushing yards in a four-game span. They’ve beaten their opponents in that period by an average of 15.5 points. They look pretty much exactly like the 14-2 berserker team that rampaged its way to the AFC’s No. 1 seed a year ago. This is not good news for the rest of the AFC.
Previous rank: No. 7
The Seahawks are NFC West champions because their defense figured it out. Seattle allowed 29.6 points per game through Week 10 and was surrendering yardage at a historic rate. Those days are long gone now; the Seahawks have allowed a league-low 13.7 points per game in the weeks since. What was once a crippling team weakness has become an unlikely strength. After Sunday’s 20-9 win over the Rams, Jamal Adams — victory cigar in hand — said the Seahawks have the best defense in football. That’s not true, but you can forgive Jamal for his excitement — the narrative around this ‘Hawks team has totally shifted. Seattle will enter the playoffs as a balanced, dangerous outfit.
Previous rank: No. 11
The Steelers looked cooked. The Colts were piling up points while Pittsburgh’s offense remained trapped in a comatose state. The mighty Steelers, who began the month with dreams of a perfect season, were staring down a collapse of historic proportions. But then Ben Roethlisberger hit Diontae Johnson with a beautifully placed deep-strike TD on Pittsburgh’s second possession of the third quarter, a play that seemed to snap Pittsburgh out of its existential funk. Big Ben threw for two more scores, and the Pittsburgh defense returned to form in a 28-24 comeback win that clinched the AFC North. The Steelers still can’t run the football, and concerns will linger about the one-dimensional nature of the offense, but Sunday’s comeback was vital in terms of exorcising the demons that had crept into the house.
Previous rank: No. 12
Tom Brady was a man possessed against the Lions, piling up 348 yards and four passing scores in just two quarters before giving way to Blaine Gabbert in a 47-7 win over the Lions. A week after they were shut out by the Falcons in the first half, the Bucs set a franchise record with 34 points in the first two quarters against a Detroit defense that has already started its offseason. The victory punched a playoff ticket for the Bucs, who had the second-longest postseason drought in the NFL entering this season. The Tom Brady Experiment is already a success. The question now becomes how far the G.O.A.T. can take the NFL’s most unpredictable team.
Previous rank: No. 6
All the Browns needed to do to end the longest postseason drought in the NFL was beat the 1-13 Jets on Sunday. They failed in that task, and now they face the prospect of missing the playoffs entirely if things don’t go their way in Week 17. Baker Mayfield fumbled three times in the loss, the final miscue coming on the game-deciding fourth-and-short QB sneak deep in Jets territory. After the game, Mayfield took the blame for the loss on a day Cleveland was without its top four wide receivers due to COVID-19 protocols. A tough situation, no doubt, but there won’t be any excuses if Cleveland can’t beat a Steelers team that could be resting its starters in the regular-season finale. The Browns have made too much progress to see this season end with the bitter disappointment of another dark January.
Previous rank: No. 8
Outclassed. That’s a fair way to describe the Titans after a 40-14 loss to the Packers on Sunday night at snowy Lambeau. Tennessee was outgained, 448-260, and Green Bay scored touchdowns on its first three drives of the game en route to the easy win. Derrick Henry was held under 100 yards, imperiling his quest to become the eighth 2,000-yard rusher in league history, while Ryan Tannehill threw two interceptions in the face of a consistent Packers pass rush. This qualified as a total team loss, but it’s the porous defense that continues to profile as Tennessee’s fatal flaw. Ugly stuff, but hope remains: a win on the road on Sunday in Houston, and the Titans will be crowned AFC South champions.
Previous rank: No. 9
Indianapolis could have taken control of the AFC South on Sunday. Instead, Frank Reich’s team blew a 17-point lead to the Steelers and now finds itself in the position of needing outside help to reach the postseason. It was a killer turn of events for the Colts, who looked like an AFC superpower against Pittsburgh before everything fell apart in the second half. The collapse came on both sides of the ball: Ben Roethlisberger went up and down the field on Indy’s D in the final two quarters, while Philip Rivers and the offense succumbed to constant pressure from Pittsburgh’s front seven. Missing the playoffs would represent abject failure for this Colts team.
Previous rank: No. 13
’Twas Peak Fitzmagic. Ryan Fitzpatrick replaced an ineffective Tua Tagovailoa and led the Dolphins to a 26-25 win over the Raiders that will go down as one of the most unlikely victories in team history. After the game, Brain Flores told reporters he’ll stick with his rookie QB as the starter for Sunday’s win-and-in Week 17 matchup against the Bills. Of course, there’s a script in place now: Tua is the starter, but Fitzpatrick is the relief pitcher who can take it home. “I don’t want to put any labels on it,” Flores said of his unconventional two-man QB rotation. You can make a strong case that Fitzpatrick has done more than enough to regain the starting job, but Flores has pulled the right levers all year. Let’s see if he does it again.
Previous rank: No. 10
The Rams slipped deeper into their offensive funk in Sunday’s 20-9 loss to the Seahawks, then found out that a fractured thumb will sideline Jared Goff for Sunday’s win-and-in Week 17 matchup against the Cardinals. Frustrated Rams fans might view Goff’s absence as a blessing in disguise: The fifth-year quarterback has gone from up-and-down performer to liability in Sean McVay’s offense this season. Of course, those same Rams fans might change their tune after watching John Wolford take snaps on Sunday. That’s the same John Wolford whose last competitive action came with the Arizona Hotshots of the Alliance of American Football.
Previous rank: No. 14
Kyler Murray and the Cardinals were stymied by the 49ers’ defense in a 20-12 loss that — after a Bears win in Jacksonville — left Arizona outside the NFC playoff picture entering Week 17. Both sides of the ball played their part in the loss: C.J. Beathard — the Niners’ third-string quarterback — lit up the Cardinals defense for three touchdowns, while running back Jeff Wilson Jr. gained a career-high 183 yards on the ground. The game ended with more bad news, as Murray suffered a leg injury in the final seconds. On Monday, Kliff Kingsbury sounded like a coach who knows he might not have his best player in the most important game of the year.
Previous rank: No. 16
Call it a Christmas miracle: The Bears control their own destiny in the NFC playoff race after a 41-17 win over the Jaguars, Chicago’s third consecutive victory after a six-game losing streak that seemed to end their season. The Bears have scored 30-plus points in four consecutive games, the first time they’ve managed that feat since 1965. Stunning stuff, but now a dose of reality: The last three offensive explosions have come against some of the worst defenses in football. Are the Mitchell Trubisky-led Bears a playoff contender worth respecting … or is this the 5-1 start all over again, a mirage that gives way to a cold truth when the competition improves? Speaking of improved competition, the Packers come to town this Sunday.
Previous rank: No. 17
Everyone loves a nice kicker redemption tale. Michael Badgley has missed more kicks than anyone in football this season, but the “Money Badger” was perfect on all four of his field-goal attempts on Sunday, including the go-ahead 37-yarder in the final minute of a 19-16 win over the Broncos. The Chargers did more than win their third straight game — they made history. Justin Herbert bumped Baker Mayfield out of the record books with his 28th touchdown pass of the season, the most ever by a rookie quarterback. Herbert represents hope in Los Angeles. It might not be long before he’s the biggest star in town.
Previous rank: No. 15
It is Ron Rivera’s show in Washington. We’ve known that for some time, but Rivera’s clout in the organization has never been more apparent following the release of quarterback Dwayne Haskins, the 15th overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft. Dumping a first-round pick after less than two seasons is almost unheard of, but Rivera wasn’t in the building when Haskins was drafted, and Haskins didn’t do near enough to engender faith or patience from Rivera in their limited time together. Remarkably, this drama all plays out while Washington preps for a Week 17 matchup against the Eagles that could decide the NFC East in their favor. No matter what happens on Sunday night, Rivera will be leading the search for a new quarterback this offseason.
Previous rank: No. 22
The Cowboys will enter the final week of the regular season with a chance to win the NFC East. It’s a testament to the righteous power of hope, even in the dark corner of professional football known as the NFC East. Sunday’s 37-17 win over the Eagles was another reminder of how smart Dallas was to sign Andy Dalton as an insurance policy this offseason. Dalton threw for 377 yards and three touchdowns against Philly, a performance that showed how explosive this offense remains when a competent passer is getting the ball to the playmakers. Michael Gallup has returned from the abyss to become a 1b option with Amari Cooper, while CeeDee Lamb continues to flash superstar ability in his rookie season. The Cowboys aren’t good … but they may be good enough to host a playoff game in January.
Previous rank: No. 18
For the second time in as many weeks, the Raiders ripped defeat from the jaws of victory in front of a national prime-time audience. The latest stumble could be traced back to conservative play-calling, a missed PAT and a hideous defensive breakdown in the final seconds of a 26-25 loss to Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Dolphins at Allegiant Stadium. The Raiders — who were officially eliminated from postseason contention with the loss — are one cover-zero Hail Mary miracle against the Jets away from entering Week 17 on a six-game losing streak. Yep, it’s another December implosion for the Silver and Black, and Jon Gruden is deserving of the scrutiny heading his way this offseason. Of course, that 10-year contract means he has little to worry about, other than bad press.
Previous rank: No. 23
Younghoe Koo missed the 39-yard field goal attempt that ended the hopes of an upset win in Arrowhead on Sunday, but this is not the year to pile on the kicker. Koo has been brilliant all season — and besides, the game is never on Koo’s shoulders if Falcons CB A.J. Terrell comes down with a gift-wrapped interception that directly preceded the Chiefs’ go-ahead touchdown in the final minutes. When Kansas City’s all-world quarterback gives you an opportunity, you can’t let it slip away. Said Raheem Morris: “We talked about Patrick Mahomes potentially throwing you a few, and when he throws them up there in the air, you’ve gotta come down with them.” The Falcons have seven losses in one-possession games.
Previous rank: No. 26
The 49ers and Cardinals played for nearly 3.5 hours on Saturday. We estimate roughly two hours of the telecast featured shots of Robert Saleh celebrating excelsior play by his defense in a 20-12 win over Arizona. “Best DC in the league,” San Francisco linebacker Fred Warner said afterward. “I love that guy. I know he’s going to be a great head coach one day soon.” Saleh earned high praise when the Niners reached the Super Bowl last season, but his résumé is even more sterling for what he’s done with a defense in 2020 that’s been absolutely ravaged by injuries on every level. Saleh has proven his bona fides, and he’s telegenic, to boot. This man will get one of the big chairs in January … book it.
Previous rank: No. 27
Matt Rhule said Monday that Christian McCaffrey is unlikely to be active in Sunday’s finale against the Saints, which means the Panthers will finish their season having played 13 of 16 games without their best player. When you factor that in, Carolina’s 5-10 record doesn’t seem so bad. In fact, this team feels like it’s on the right track, with Rhule on the sidelines. That Saints matchup could be important for Teddy Bridgewater. The veteran passer has experienced an up-and-down first season in Charlotte, but a strong finale against New Orleans’ high-ranked defense would give the Carolina brain trust something to think about in the offseason.
Previous rank: No. 20
A lost season hit its nadir in a spotlight game on Christmas Day. The Vikings surrendered 52 points and six touchdowns to Alvin Kamara in a blowout loss that officially eliminated Minnesota from postseason contention. After the game, Mike Zimmer chose not to mince words: “Yeah, this is a bad defense,” Zimmer said. “Worst one I’ve ever had.” The 52 points were the most allowed by the Vikings since 1963, while the 583 total yards by the Saints represented the most yielded to any opponent in the history of the franchise. You can probably guess where the Vikes will be putting their focus this offseason.
Previous rank: No. 24
You know you’ve had a bad campaign in 2020 when you get eliminated from NFC East contention before the final week of the season. Philly’s defense got its doors blown off by Andy Dalton and the Cowboys in a 37-17 loss that ended any hopes of a fourth straight postseason for the Eagles. The game changed when defensive tackle Fletcher Cox exited with a neck stinger in the first half. After that, Dallas’ elite young pass catchers had a field day against an undermanned Philly defense that surrendered more than 500 yards and four touchdowns. The Jalen Hurts-led offense wasn’t blameless: The Eagles scored just three points in the last 50 minutes of this game, after scoring 14 points in the first 10.
Previous rank: No. 19
The Giants can still take the NFC East on Sunday with a win over the Cowboys paired with a Washington loss to the Eagles, but there’s a distinct possibility we’ve already seen the best of New York this season. The Giants were outclassed in a 27-13 loss to the Ravens, the third consecutive defeat for Joe Judge’s team. The offense has been the primary culprit for Big Blue’s fade: New York’s attack hasn’t cleared 20 points in a game since the middle of November. Daniel Jones’ ankle and hamstring injuries have played a role in that funk — he’s simply not the same player without his ability to make things happen with his legs. Maybe rest him for the playoffs? (I kid … kind of.)
Previous rank: No. 21
Monday night was depressing theater for Patriots fans who aren’t used to this kind of thing. The Bills came into Foxborough and laid a 38-9 whipping on the home team, an embarrassing defeat that clinched New England’s first losing season since 2000. It’s also the first time in 20 years that an AFC East team swept the Pats in their home-and-home. The tables have most definitely turned, and now Bill Belichick is left to ponder what’s next. That starts at the quarterback position. Cam Newton struggled yet again before being being replaced by Jarrett Stidham in the third quarter, and it would make sense for Stidham to start the Week 17 finale against the Jets. What used to be playoff time is now evaluation time.
Previous rank: No. 25
The Broncos showed fight in battling back from a 13-0 halftime deficit in Sunday’s narrow loss to the Chargers, but maddening mistakes continue to be a trademark of this offense. Drew Lock threw two interceptions, extending his turnover streak to a league-worst 11 straight games, while rookie wideout Jerry Jeudy finished with five dropped passes. One came in the end zone, another had the chance to go for a game-winning score in the final minute. Jeudy has been the most targeted receiver on the Broncos this season, but those opportunities haven’t translated into results for the second wideout taken in the 2020 NFL Draft. Jeudy is a gem that needs polish.
Previous rank: No. 28
J.J. Watt has had enough. “If you can’t come in and put work in in the building, go out to the practice field and work hard, do your lifts and do what you’re supposed to do, you should not be here.” That was just part of the impassioned rant by the future Hall of Famer after another ugly Texans loss in a season Watt said has been the most difficult of his 10-year career. Watt’s frustration speaks to a culture issue inside the Houston facility, and it will be on the next head coach and general manager to correct it. Will Watt be part of that future in Houston? He’s a today player on a tomorrow team, but removing his leadership from the building could set the Texans back even further.
Previous rank: No. 30
Ladies and gentlemen, the Bengals have done it. For the first time in more than two years, Cincinnati’s NFL franchise has won a road game in the regular season. Before Sunday’s 37-31 conquest over the Texans in Houston, the Bengals hadn’t triumphed on the road since Week 4 of the 2018 season. It marked the sixth-longest road winless streak in the Super Bowl era and the longest since the Browns went winless in 25 straight road games from 2015 to ’18. It also marks the first road win in the coaching tenure of Zac Taylor, who — we should add — is also riding his first two-game winning streak. It’s nice to see some sunshine slip through the clouds in the post-Joe Burrow era of this 2020 season.
Previous rank: No. 31
The No. 1 overall pick was all but lost, so why not win another football game? That’s exactly what the Jets did in their latest upset — a 23-16 conquest over the Browns at the Meadowlands. Consider it something of a revenge game against Baker Mayfield, the quarterback who famously toppled the Jets in prime time in his NFL debut back in 2018. Mayfield fumbled three times on Sunday, including back-to-back fumbles that ended Cleveland’s final two possessions. Sam Darnold, the QB taken two spots after Mayfield in the 2018 draft, threw two touchdown passes in what could be the final home start of his star-crossed Jets career. Huge decisions loom for GM Joe Douglas and the Jets’ brain trust in the coming weeks and months.
Previous rank: No. 29
The Lions end another lost season looking like one of the worst teams in football. The Bucs came to Ford Field on Saturday and rolled up 34 unanswered points in the first half en route to a 47-7 win that was every bit as grisly as the final score indicates. Yes, Detroit was without multiple coaches due to COVID-19 protocols, and Matthew Stafford’s ankle injury on the team’s second possession removed any semblance of drama from the proceedings, but this felt like an NFL squad playing against an Arena Football Team owned by Bon Jovi. Instead of digging any further into this depressing performance, we’ll offer up a Random Fun Fact: The 2020 Lions are the second team in NFL history to have three different coaches function as head coach during the season. Nice … versatility?
Previous rank: No. 32
The No. 1 overall pick is in the bag, which is the first win the Jags have had to celebrate in months. The week-long “quarterback competition” that ended with Mike Glennon starting over Gardner Minshew stretched the bounds of decency, but if Sunday’s 41-17 loss to the Bears brings an elite QB solution to Duval for the next 15 years, can you really blame the Jags for their approach? Jacksonville is riding a 14-game losing streak and has lost 10 or more games nine times in the past 10 years. This is a team screaming out for a savior. Jacksonville might just get one.
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