With each passing week of the 2020 NFL season, the Chiefs further establish themselves as the clear No. 1 team in the AFC. We don't have near the same clarity over in the NFC.
The Saints saw their nine-game winning streak go up in smoke on Sunday, while the Packers, Rams and Seahawks all delivered impressive wins. The conference is wide open, and that's before you factor in intriguing squads on the pretender/contender fence like the Bucs, Cardinals, even the Washington Football Team.
The NFL regular season is like a prestige television show and we are fast approaching the finale. Find your favorite spot on the couch and enjoy.
Previous rank: No. 1
This ain't The Last Dance in Kansas City, but sometimes the Chiefs feel like Michael Jordan's Bulls teams of the late 1990s. They're so talented, so superior to the vast majority of their opponents, that they almost need a challenge to present itself before they can turn it on. On Sunday, they fell behind the Dolphins 10-0 before scoring the next 30 points to take control of the game. After the Chiefs temporarily took their foot off the accelerator and allowed the Dolphins back into it, they simply turned it back on again, closing out another win with an unstoppable Mahomes-to-Tyreek conversion on fourth down. The victory, paired with another Steelers loss, puts Kansas City in the AFC driver's seat with three games to play.
Previous rank: No. 4
Matt LaFleur deserves more love. The 41-year-old never comes up in conversations about the best young coaches in football, but who can argue with the results through nearly two seasons? Under LaFleur, the Packers are now 23-6 in the regular season, with back-to-back NFC North titles. Legacies in Green Bay are built in January and February, of course, but LaFleur has this team humming. A key to his success has been his positive working relationship with Aaron Rodgers, who is putting together one of the finest seasons of his Hall of Fame career. Rodgers added four more touchdowns to his ledger in Sunday's 31-24 win over the Lions, shouting "I love gold!" after a 6-yard scoring scamper put Green Bay ahead for good in the third quarter. Good vibes all around, even if Rodgers is quoting the worst of the Austin Powers movies.
Previous rank: No. 2
It was a damaging Sunday for the Saints, who saw their nine-game winning streak come to an end and now find themselves behind the Packers in the race for the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs. Taysom Hill was up and down in his first loss as starting quarterback, and New Orleans' defense -- so dominant in recent weeks -- had trouble with Eagles rookie Jalen Hurts, who threw a touchdown pass and eclipsed 100 yards rushing. Here's a wild stat: The Saints entered Sunday having not allowed a 100-yard rusher in 55 games (including playoffs), a record in the Super Bowl era. They allowed two Eagles to hit the century mark -- Hurts and running back Miles Sanders. The Saints will have a better chance against the Chiefs on Sunday if Drew Brees is indeed back on the field.
Previous rank: No. 5
The Bills are peaking at the right time. Six days after Josh Allen played like a superstar in a convincing victory over the 49ers, the Bills put together their most complete game of the season to date in an impressive 26-15 win over the Steelers. The two teams danced around each other like a pair of heavyweights in the early going, but once Buffalo landed the first big overhand right -- a pick-six by Taron Johnson -- the much-anticipated showdown between two AFC favorites turned into a beatdown by the pugilists from Western New York. Allen was excellent again, Stefon Diggs couldn't be covered, and the revitalized Buffalo defense put the clamps on Pittsburgh's short passing game. At 10-3, the Bills are on the verge of their first AFC East title since 1995. This team is capable of winning much more than its division.
Previous rank: No. 3
The Steelers are in a certified funk. Pittsburgh has followed 11 consecutive wins to start the season with back-to-back losses, the latest a convincing 26-15 setback against the Bills on Sunday Night Football. The national audience watched the Steelers' short passing game implode as Buffalo's defense sat on routes and smothered Pittsburgh's talented collection of wide receivers. The Steelers' defense played well in the first half, but eventually faded as Josh Allen and Stefon Diggs worked impeccably to exploit soft spots in the zone. With an absentee running game and a nearly non-existent vertical attack, the Steelers have become rote and predictable on offense. Can they adjust on the fly? Is this version of Big Ben up for that challenge? The Steelers' season may depend on it.
Previous rank: No. 6
We already knew the Rams' defense was one of the best in football. Is it good enough to make Los Angeles a favorite in the NFC? Coordinator Brandon Staley's unit authored another dominant performance on Thursday night, piling up six sacks and its third defensive score in as many weeks in a 24-3 rout of the Patriots. Linebacker Kenny Young's 79-yard pick-six swung the game in L.A.'s favor for good, and a Sunday layup against the winless Jets will have the Rams set up well for a titanic Week 16 matchup with the Seahawks. Beat Seattle again, and the Rams could have the NFC West locked up before a snap is played in Week 17.
Previous rank: No. 7
The Seahawks had a grand old time at the expense of the lowly Jets, dominating the NFL's only winless team on both sides of the ball in a 40-3 win. Russell Wilson played a game of catch with his receivers, who ran like gazelles through wide-open spaces. On defense, Jamal Adams made history against his old team, setting the NFL sack record for defensive backs (he's up to 8.5). About the only thing the defense didn't do well was catch the ball -- Adams was unable to pull in a ball fired right into his chest, one of three would-be picks by Sam Darnold that landed harmlessly on the turf. The Seahawks remain tied with the Rams atop the NFC West, with a challenging Week 15 tilt against the Washington Football Team up next.
Previous rank: No. 9
“And here comes Lamar Jackson!” It was a call by ESPN’s Steve Levy that will go down in Monday Night Football history. Jackson emerged from the locker room just in time to save the day -- and possibly the season -- for the Ravens in a 47-42 win over the Browns in Cleveland. That is what an MVP does. Jackson’s heroics provided cover for a Ravens defense that imploded in the final quarter, and Justin Tucker reaffirmed his status as the greatest kicker alive with his 55-yard game-winner in the final seconds. The Ravens are suddenly alive and well in the AFC playoff race, and Jackson looks like a man on a mission … as long as he can get those mysterious cramps under control.
Previous rank: No. 8
The Browns have nothing to be ashamed of after coming up agonizingly short in one of the greatest prime-time games in NFL history. Led by an electric Baker Mayfield, Cleveland relentlessly attacked -- and eventually broke -- a Baltimore defense that had no answers. Unfortunately for the Browns, their own defense was flummoxed by reigning MVP Lamar Jackson, who set an MNF QB rushing record and made a series of monster throws upon returning from the locker room after experiencing cramps. The loss likely ends any quiet thoughts Kevin Stefanski’s team had about catching the scuffling Steelers in the AFC North, but the Browns profile as an extremely difficult opponent come playoff time.
Previous rank: No. 11
The Colts put it all together against the Raiders on Sunday. Philip Rivers and T.Y. Hilton made beautiful music, Jonathan Taylor busted the game open with big plays, and the defense made life unpleasant for Derek Carr in a 44-27 win. The victory puts the Raiders' postseason hopes on life support while keeping Indianapolis in prime position for a playoff spot, either as AFC South champion or as a wild-card entry. Back to Taylor: The rookie has gone through growing pains this season, but he's looked like a different player since coming off the reserve/COVID-19 list. He adds essential balance to an offense, and his presence as a playmaker makes Rivers a far more effective quarterback. If Taylor keeps this up, you can make the argument that Indy is the most well-rounded team in the AFC.
Previous rank: No. 12
Derrick Henry is simply incredible. The running back couldn't be contained against the Jaguars, rushing for 215 yards and two touchdowns in a 31-10 win. It marked Henry's fourth career game of 200-plus rushing yards and at least two touchdowns, breaking an NFL record previously shared with -- wait for it -- Jim Brown, LaDainian Tomlinson and Barry Sanders. Yes, Henry is an all-time talent, and if he averages 156 yards per game over the final three weeks, he'll be the eighth player in NFL history to join the 2,000-yard rushing club. Do you really doubt he can pull it off? It's King Henry Szn.
Previous rank: No. 10
Things started ominously. Dalvin Cook was running over Tampa Bay's defensive front, and Tom Brady airmailed passes to Rob Gronkowski and Chris Godwin. But the Bucs found their sea legs and got a few breaks along the way in a 26-14 win over the Vikings that has potentially huge playoff implications for both teams. Ronald Jones provided some balance to an offense that remains a work in progress, and Brady's 48-yard touchdown strike to Scotty Miller (remember him?) seemed to shake any lingering tightness out of Tampa Bay exiting the bye week. The Bucs can put a stranglehold on a playoff spot with a win on Sunday in Atlanta.
Previous rank: No. 15
The Cardinals really had their way with the Giants on Sunday. With less than nine minutes to play in the third quarter, Arizona had built a 20-0 lead over New York, running 30 plays in Giants territory before Big Blue had crossed into Cardinals territory once. The defensive star was linebacker Haason Reddick, who had five of Arizona's eight sacks in the game. "This is the first time I've ever had a game like this where everything was just working for me," Reddick said. "I hit on all cylinders." The win, combined with a Vikings loss to the Bucs, moves the Cardinals back into the seventh and final playoff position in the NFC.
Previous rank: No. 14
The Dolphins remain a work in progress on offense, but this defense is ready to go. On Sunday, Miami intercepted Patrick Mahomes three times -- becoming only the second team to manage that feat against the great QB -- and harassed Mahomes into a fumble and a 30-yard sack. Mahomes still did his damage, because the Chiefs quarterback is not a player who can be completely shut down, but Miami showed it was up to the challenge in a 33-27 loss. Tua Tagovailoa enjoyed his first 300-yard passing game, keeping Miami competitive in the second half despite losing DeVante Parker (leg) and Mike Gesicki (shoulder) to injuries. At 8-5, the Dolphins can inch closer to a playoff spot with a win over the Patriots on Sunday. The added perk of essentially ending New England's season should provide further motivation.
Previous rank: No. 19
Chase Young is transforming into the dominant player Washington thought it was getting when it selected the Ohio State All-American with the second overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. In Sunday's 23-15 win over the 49ers, Young became the fifth player since 2000 to record a sack, force a fumble, recover a fumble, record a defensive touchdown and have two passes defensed in one game. Washington's defensive front is loaded with talented players, but no one jumps out quite like Young, a born playmaker who possesses a rare combination of size and speed. The win, coupled with a Giants loss to the Cardinals, puts Washington all alone atop the NFC East with three games to play. Young looms as an X-factor.
Previous rank: No. 13
It's happening again. To a man, the Raiders said this team was nothing like the 2019 squad that followed a promising start with a December collapse. And yet, here we are. The Raiders have lost three of four, sandwiching Week 13's gift win over the Jets with a pair of grim blowouts in which they've surrendered 40-plus points. We know the alarm bells are blaring at Raiders headquarters, because Jon Gruden fired defensive coordinator Paul Guenther after Vegas surrendered 456 yards to the Colts and managed a single QB hit on Philip Rivers in Sunday's 44-27 loss. At 7-6, the Raiders still have a path to the playoffs if they can win out and get some help, but none of that feels remotely feasible right now. The USS Gruden is going down.
Previous rank: No. 16
The Curse Of The Viking Kicker is more powerful than any man who tries to break it. The latest victim was Dan Bailey, who missed all four of his attempts (one PAT, three field goals) in a damaging 26-14 loss to the Buccaneers. Bailey's meltdown was just one element of a deeply frustrating game for Minnesota, which dominated on the ground in the first quarter but was undone by ill-timed penalties and the aforementioned special teams collapse. The Vikes outgained the Bucs in total yardage and held the ball for nearly 40 minutes of game time, yet now find themselves on the outside looking in with three weeks to go in the NFC wild-card race.
Previous rank: No. 17
Bill Belichick said after Thursday night's 24-3 loss to the Rams that Cam Newton will remain his starting quarterback, but that really doesn't matter much anymore. The 6-7 Patriots aren't talented enough to hang in the AFC playoff race, and Newton -- for all his qualities as a hard worker and strong locker-room presence -- simply is no longer the same player he once was. When he signed with the Patriots, Newton appeared to be a bridge quarterback with upside for something much more. After 12 starts by the QB, the Cam era looks increasingly like a one-and-done proposition in New England. What comes next for the former MVP is anyone's guess.
Previous rank: No. 18
Daniel Jones played hurt on Sunday, and it looked like it. The Giants quarterback threw for just 127 yards and didn't have a single rushing attempt in a 26-7 loss to the Cardinals that dropped New York out of first place in the NFC East. An ailing Jones limped to the sideline at the end of the game, and it's fair to wonder if a compromised version of the second-year quarterback will be Joe Judge's best option on Sunday night against the Browns. Whoever is playing quarterback for Big Blue, the offensive line needs to be far better than it was against Arizona. Jones and Colt McCoy were sacked eight times in the loss, five of them coming on a career day from Haason Reddick. If the Giants don't find a way to take a step forward on offense, their season has already peaked.
Previous rank: No. 24
How could you not love the play call by Broncos offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur, who dialed up a deep shot to KJ Hamler to ice Sunday's 32-27 win over the Panthers? Running the ball to burn clock served as the logical strategy, but the Broncos instead put their faith in Drew Lock, who responded with his fourth touchdown pass of the day. It was a dream opportunity for Lock, a born gunslinger who lives to throw deep. Lock's second season has been a disappointment on balance, but a hot finish can only help in what will be another offseason of scrutiny at the quarterback position in Denver.
Previous rank: No. 20
The 49ers' adopted home confines in Arizona have been anything but friendly. San Francisco dropped to 0-2 at State Farm Stadium after a 23-15 loss to Washington that crippled the team's playoff hopes. The latest setback falls on an offense that couldn't make enough impact plays and was unable to avoid catastrophic turnovers. Nick Mullens lost a fumble late in the first half that was returned for a 47-yard touchdown by Chase Young. Mullens coughed up six more points in the second half when he threw a pick-six to Kamren Curl. The Niners are up to 25 turnovers this season (second-most in the NFL), and they became just the third team to lose a game this season when not allowing a scrimmage touchdown. One of those years.
Previous rank: No. 25
Let's not talk about the latest clock-management meltdown. Seriously. The final seconds of the first half against the Falcons was cringe TV of the highest order, and there's nothing left to be said about how this Chargers team handles these situations under Anthony Lynn. Instead, let's focus on the positives in the final minute of the game: Michael Davis intercepted Matt Ryan to give the Bolts life. Justin Herbert threw a beautiful pass to Tyron Johnson to put the Chargers in scoring range. And Michael Badgley nailed a 43-yarder as time expired to beat the Falcons, 20-17. Three impact plays, executed with precision, nary a soul-crushing gaffe to be found. Just a normal team doing normal things to win a game. It was weird.
Previous rank: No. 21
The Falcons and Chargers deserved each other on Sunday. Just two sub-.500 squads throwing off-target haymakers in an empty stadium. The teams combined for three interceptions in the final four possessions, playing a bizarre game of hot potato with an official NFL football. The last pick, which came on a poor throw from Matt Ryan, led to the Chargers' game-winning field goal as time expired. Ryan threw three interceptions in the second half; it was his first three-pick game since Week 2 of last season. The Falcons' offense never looks quite the same without Julio Jones, who missed another week with a hamstring issue. Given the circumstances of the season, you don't imagine Jones will be rushed back into action.
Previous rank: No. 27
Mike McCarthy had to feel a sense of relief after Sunday's 30-7 win over the Bengals. Five days earlier, the Cowboys looked like a team that had quit on its coach in a blowout loss to the Ravens. It was the type of grim affair, in front of a national audience, that can serve as a tipping point for frustrated owners. But Dallas bounced back, and on Monday, Cowboys executive VP Stephen Jones was definitive in his stance on McCarthy, saying there "will be absolutely no change" at head coach. Sunday also served as a nice moment for Andy Dalton, who threw two touchdown passes in an easy win over his former team. Dalton is no game-changer, but he's brought a floor and some stability to the Cowboys on offense.
Previous rank: No. 28
Doug Pederson turned to Jalen Hurts believing the rookie quarterback could spark an Eagles offense that had flatlined under Carson Wentz. The gamble paid off in a 24-21 upset win over the Saints. Hurts threw a pretty touchdown pass to Alshon Jeffery and rushed for 106 yards against a stout New Orleans defense. Miles Sanders also crossed the century mark in a 246-yard rushing effort for Philly, the team's biggest day on the ground in six years. On Monday, Pederson made it official, announcing that Hurts would remain in the starting lineup for a Week 15 matchup against the Cardinals. The Eagles' 4-8-1 record is grisly, but they aren't out of the NFC East race yet. Hurts represents hope.
Previous rank: No. 29
Bears fans have no sense of humor left to spare on the subject of Mitchell Trubisky, so we hope you held off on your mocking commentary after Trubisky outplayed draft-mate Deshaun Watson in Chicago’s 36-7 win over the Texans on Sunday. Nothing is ever going to change the franchise-altering events of April 27, 2017, but we imagine the last two weeks have been purifying for Trubisky, a man who still aspires to have a successful NFL career even if he knows he’ll never fully escape the towering shadows cast by his draftmates. The Bears are headed toward changes, potentially sweeping changes, and Trubisky is essentially in the midst of a month-long audition for the rest of football. So far, so good.
Previous rank: No. 23
Teddy Bridgewater delivered an uneven performance in a 32-27 loss to the Broncos, and it remains unclear with three weeks remaining in the season if the Panthers have their long-term option installed under center. Bridgewater has mixed high and low moments in Carolina; in his defense, he’s played virtually the entire season without superstar running back Christian McCaffrey, who missed yet another week due to a quad issue. With the 4-9 Panthers headed toward a top 10-pick in the draft, the organization approaches a fork in the road: Ride with Bridgewater and build around the veteran -- or draft a QB and start over at the game’s most important position. Hmmmm ...
Previous rank: No. 26
The Lions hung close against a loaded Packers team on Sunday, but they lost the game and possibly Matthew Stafford after the quarterback exited with a rib injury in the fourth quarter. Stafford shined in last week’s dramatic win over the Bears and played another solid game against Green Bay -- the timing of his latest injury has to be supremely frustrating for interim head coach/offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell. The defense struggled to hold Aaron Rodgers in check on Sunday, and the unit will have an equally challenging test of a different kind this week against the Titans and perpetual downhill running back Derrick Henry. At 5-8, the Lions will finish at .500 or below for the third straight season. Change is coming.
Previous rank: No. 22
The Texans are a hot mess right now. The offense, even with Deshaun Watson under center, is severely limited by the wave of injuries (and a suspension) that have sanded away the playmakers. The defense is even worse off. On Sunday, the unit was lit by up by Mitchell Trubisky of all people in a 36-7 loss to the Bears. After the game, J.J. Watt lamented how Houston was “not competitive.” Even more troubling, the Texans won’t have the draft resources to import top-tier talent to the defense this spring. It puts the organization -- one currently operating with an interim head coach and without a GM -- in a tricky situation. Where do you start when you have a superstar quarterback and almost nothing else?
Previous rank: No. 30
This season cannot end soon enough for the Bengals. The latest setback, a 30-7 loss to the Cowboys, feels like another part of a long and painful epilogue in the wake of Joe Burrow’s crushing knee injury back in Week 11. Cincinnati’s inability to protect Burrow led to the premature end of his season, and the issues up front have continued with Brandon Allen under center. Allen takes a beating every week; he’s been forced to give way to third-stringer Ryan Finley in back-to-back games due to injuries. Few teams have as clear an offseason directive as the Bengals: Fix the offensive line or leave yourself open to catastrophic consequences. Well, further catastrophic consequences.
Previous rank: No. 31
Derrick Henry ran over and through the Jaguars’ porous defense in Jacksonville's 31-10 loss, which extended the team's losing streak to 12 games. No surprise there. More surprising was the fact that Mike Glennon was continuing to start over Gardner Minshew, but that’s no longer the case. Doug Marrone announced Monday that Minshew will get his starting job back ahead of Sunday’s matchup against the Ravens. If nothing else, Marrone has helped the incoming regime sort out its quarterback room. Rookie Jake Luton didn’t look like he could play in a three-game audition. Glennon was as mediocre as ever in his limited run. And so we come full circle back to Minshew, the QB responsible for Jacksonville’s lone victory this season.
Previous rank: No. 32
The Jets got their heart ripped out by the Raiders in Week 13. Perhaps it stands to reason then that they played like a team without a pulse in Sunday’s 40-3 loss to the Seahawks. Russell Wilson picked apart interim coordinator Frank Bush’s defense like the six-time Pro Bowler was playing against the scout team, tossing four touchdown passes to barely covered receivers before being lifted late in the third quarter. The Jets' offense matched the defense in ineptitude, managing three points against the league’s 31st-ranked defense entering Sunday. Sergio Castillo didn’t exactly stoke his team’s competitive spirits with three missed field goals in the second quarter. (UPDATE: The Jets released Castillo on Tuesday.) The fate of becoming the NFL’s third 0-16 team is starting to feel less like a possibility and more like destiny.