It’s all anybody really wants to know about the NFL: Who’s better than who?
All the analysis, previews, breakdowns and smack talk boil down to a simple hierarchy: If any two given teams played, who’d win? That’s what power rankings are all about, and I’m going to spend the rest of the year at The Comeback slotting all 32 teams exactly where they belong.
32. Los Angeles Rams
Expectations were low for the Los Angeles Rams — and somehow, they fell very, very short. Their season-opening performance was a complete and total capitulation to one of the presumed-worst teams in the league. That’s bad enough, but the only player who could potentially help them (rookie quarterback Jared Goff) is bolted down to the bench.
31. Cleveland Browns
The Browns are in Year Zero of a three-year plan — which apparently starts with letting every veteran free-agent walk, trading every draft pick for more draft picks next year and forcing whomever was left to run the “can you succeed with no help” gauntlet. RGIII, the one hope of semi-exciting football the Browns had, was placed on IR after getting completely outclassed by Carson Wentz (whom the Browns passed on after signing RGIII).
30. Buffalo Bills
The Bills’ make-football-great-again plan of putting “bullies” in the trenches and limiting unproven quarterback Tyrod Taylor to a handful of playmaking opportunities worked surprisingly well in 2015. The only thing more surprising was how mediocre Rex Ryan’s defense was, finishing 15th in scoring defense. The defense looked strong against the punchless Ravens in Week 1, but whatever was working about the offense doesn’t seem to be now. The only thing uglier than that Bills/Ravens game was losing it.
29. Tennessee Titans
Full credit to Dick LeBeau and his new-look Titans defense, taking advantage of the Vikings’ aerial limitations. On offense, though, the Titans couldn’t make much of anything happen. Unless and until Mike Mularkey is willing to get Marcus Mariota out of second gear, the Titans aren’t going anywhere.
28. San Diego Chargers
A surprisingly strong first-half performance by the Chargers defense against the Kansas City Chiefs turned into an epic collapse. As it turns out, Old Philip Rivers is Wise Philip Rivers, but Old Antonio Gates is just old. Keenan Allen’s ACL injury is a devastating blow, and Joey Bosa won’t be good enough fast enough to make this team any kind of contender.
Spike it, Vance!
— NFL (@NFL) September 13, 2016
27. San Francisco 49ers
I still think this team is “really” a few slots lower, but you have to give them credit for not ceding an inch to the Rams. It was a great defensive performance against a punchless team. We’ll see if that D can give them a puncher’s chance against real opposition.
26. Baltimore Ravens
Woof. The big plays from Mike Wallace and Breshaud Perriman were nice, but there will need to be a lot more of them if this team is going to get back to the top of the AFC North. Sure, it’s possible both the Bills and Ravens have top five defenses this year. It seems more likely, though, that both the Bills and Ravens have a lot of work to do on offense.
25. Minnesota Vikings
This is a good team, maybe even a great one. They have everything it takes to make the Super Bowl — except a quarterback. A kicker who can’t shake the yips is a death sentence on a team who could only drive for field goal attempts against the Tennessee Titans. Unless the Vikings are going to get two defensive TDs every week, they’re screwed.
— Audible Sports (@AudibleSports) September 11, 2016
24. Miami Dolphins
On the one hand, the Dolphins very nearly beat the Seahawks. That’s great! But a bunch of scrap-heap guys and broken-down Russell Wilson were never going to do much against Miami’s gold-plated Cadillac defense, and the Dolphins’ offense was useless against Seattle’s increasingly thin Legion of Boom.
23. Atlanta Falcons
Matt Ryan took care of the ball, and got Julio his. That’s progress…
… but everywhere else on the field, this looks like the worst team in a middling division.
22. Chicago Bears
One of the hardest teams to handicap proved why in Week 1. The Bears defense is improved, but not improved enough, and Jay Cutler taketh away at least as often as he giveth. If a John Fox Year 2 Jump is happening for the Bears, the Texans are even better than we thought.
— NFL (@NFL) September 11, 2016
21. Indianapolis Colts
If I were allowed to section off teams in an “I’m not sure yet” area, the Colts would be the first team I’d put there. Andrew Luck and company fell well behind the Lions, then ripped up the field to gain a late lead, only to surrender it again. The defense (especially while missing three of their top four defensive backs) is brutal. The offense can score points, for sure, but against a quality defense? When they’re not down by a few scores? We just don’t know.
20. Dallas Cowboys
Another tough one to judge. Dak Prescott kept it between the lines, but Ezekiel Elliott was supposed to be the Cowboys’ engine — and he was completely ineffective against the New York Giants’ defense. The Giants’ DL has been massively upgraded, yes, but it’s still probably not one of the league’s best units. Given how much money and draft capital has been sunk into the ground game, the Cowboys have to be able to run the ball if they’re going to compete.
… would easily have had the most disappointing opening game if not for the Rams. Unable to get anything going against a talent-depleted Pittsburgh back seven, Washington couldn’t score. On the other side of the ball, Pittsburgh was without basically anybody but Antonio Brown, and Brown lit them up. At this moment, this squad bears no resemblance to the one that won the NFC East last season.
Every throw from the rookie's NFL debut…
18. Philadelphia Eagles
Good news: Carson Wentz looked terrific, and the Eagles won handily. Bad news: It was against the Browns, so who knows.
17. Seattle Seahawks
The Seahawks took a step back last year, finishing three games behind the Arizona Cardinals and only surviving the Wild Card game by sheer luck. Lots of people penciled the ‘Hawks in at the top of their rankings for absolutely no reason at all, and it turns out losing Marshawn Lynch, Russell Okung and J.R. Sweezy left Seattle with very little talent on offense.
Russell Wilson is great, but hurt, and it looks like the Seahawks’ usual slow start is going to be even slower for even longer this year.
16. Kansas City Chiefs
Yes, the Chiefs staged a franchise-best 17-point fourth-quarter comeback to win their opener. But there’s no way a theoretical AFC title contender should have been down 17 at home to this edition of the Chargers. Dee Ford got a late-game coverage sack, but the Justin Houston-less pass rush was totally ineffective. They have to be better than they played in Week 1 to achieve their goals.
98-yard @Saints TD?!
15. New Orleans Saints
I’m putting the Saints and Raiders right next to each other in the rankings, because there wasn’t room for a sheet of paper in between them during their season-opening thriller. A wild and ridiculous game that was hard to wring any real meaning out of, both the Saints and Raiders had spots of brilliance (mostly related to the passing offense) and spots of awfulness (mostly related to the passing defense).
14. Oakland Raiders
See “New Orleans Saints.”
13. Jacksonville Jaguars
They say close only counts in horseshoes and nuclear warfare, but the Jaguars were just a few yards (and a terrible fourth-down play call) away from beating the Green Bay Packers. It wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows for the Jags; the new-look secondary was still picked apart by Aaron Rodgers & Co. But the outlook for the rest of the season is significantly sunnier after that performance.
— NFL (@NFL) September 11, 2016
12. New York Giants
The Giants’ victory over the Cowboys wasn’t poetry in motion. But the defense came up huge against the Cowboys running attack, and kept a lid on Dak Prescott and the passing game. That’s huge for a team whose completely ineffective defense cost them a potential division title last year.
11. Detroit Lions
This is much higher than many people have the Lions, but the Patrick Ewing theory about the Lions’ offense appears to be valid. Without Calvin Johnson, Matthew Stafford spread the ball around, moved the chains, ran up a huge lead on the Colts and then closed out a last-second comeback when the defense let the Colts back into the game. Going forward, the defense will be the question mark, but the Lions proved in Week 1 they can outscore anybody.
10. Houston Texans
J.J. Watt played. He didn’t do much against the Bears, but he played — and Brock Osweiler overcame an early pick to get the long ball going. If Will Fuller is as good of a wingman for DeAndre Hopkins as this game indicated, the Texans are going to be very hard to slow down.
Jameis Winston’s 4th TD of the day was a beauty. pic.twitter.com/4GLTAsPFjS
— The Sports Quotient (@SportsQuotient) September 11, 2016
9. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Jameis has made the jump. After a rough opening quarter, he played a spectacular three quarters of football — and the Bucs waxed the Falcons. With the balance they have on both sides of the ball, it’s hard not to see the Bucs as serious challengers in the NFC South.
8. Green Bay Packers
They got the result they needed against the feisty Jags — and it’s possible the final score made the game seem closer than it was. Jordy Nelson wasn’t dominant, but he did score, and Aaron Rodgers is still Aaron Rodgers.
7. New York Jets
The Jets were in control of much of their season opener against the Bengals, and the Bengals look like one of the strongest teams in the AFC. Matt Forte had an instant impact, and if it weren’t for AJ Green being faster than Darrelle Revis, the Jets would have come out on top. They may not win the AFC East, but they’re going to be right there in the AFC mix.
6. Carolina Panthers
I don’t want to overreact based on a missed field goal. That Trevor Siemian was able to play as well as he did against the Panthers, though, raises questions about the two rookies Carolina’s starting at cornerback. They won’t play many teams as physical on defense or talented at receiver, but the Panthers don’t get a free pass back up to the very tip-top of the league.
5. Arizona Cardinals
They’re still the most talented, best-balanced team in the NFL. They just didn’t come out of the gate strong against the best-coached team in football. If it weren’t for a missed field goal, they’d even have come away with the win… but they’d still be slotted right here in these rankings, because that field goal doesn’t change the 59 minutes of football before it.
4. Denver Broncos
There’s no denying the Broncos got away with some cheap hits on Cam Newton. But even on their best behavior, this is a defense that can smother just about any other team in the league. The question is, are other teams going to be able to smother the Broncos offense now that their limited game plan is on tape for all to see?
3. Cincinnati Bengals
This might seem irrationally high for a Bengals team that struggled to beat the Jets. But A) the Jets are pretty good, and B) Andy Dalton had a searing second half, proving the losses of Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu aren’t going to slow this team down at all. I’ll believe the Bengals win in the playoffs when I see it, but I’m surer they’ll make the playoffs than 29 other teams.
2. Pittsburgh Steelers
Holy wow, was that ever impressive. Without Le’Veon Bell, Martavis Bryant or Markus Wheaton, The Steelers blew the doors off a defending division champ. Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and DeAngelo Williams look so good it practically doesn’t matter who the other 19 guys are — or who they’re playing.
1. New England Patriots
All hail the king of football. Bill Belichick put on a master class on Sunday Night, going into Arizona without Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Dion Lewis, half his offensive line or Rob Ninkovich. He came out with sole possession of first place in the AFC East. The Pats should have no trouble going 3-1 or 4-0 without Brady, and no trouble cruising to another division title after that.