We’re alive in strange times. On Tuesday night, we as a collective football world watched as the Baltimore Ravens and Dallas Cowboys kicked off on time just moments after Dez Bryant was red flagged with an inconclusive PCR test he took earlier in the day. That test was bounced to a nearby lab, digested and radioed over to the stadium in Baltimore where Bryant had been warming up, hugging his old friends and talking to people without a mask on. He was yanked immediately and tested for COVID-19. It came up positive.
I emailed a league spokesman after seeing a picture of a maskless Bryant hanging out with another Cowboys player who was wearing his mask improperly and asked how they knew the game was safe to play if something like this was happening moments before kickoff. Can we really, definitively know that the Cowboys player is not at risk for contracting a disease that has killed hundreds of thousands of American people? Can we be sure that this is not, say, the precursor to a superspreader event?
The league’s response? Well…yes, we can. The bands worn by players can interpret all sorts of data and takes into account the fact that this interaction was outdoors and apparently not lengthy enough to cause concern. In the time between Bryant’s positive test confirmation, the league says they were able to check the band for his on-field activities, check the band for his prior 48 hours’ worth of activities, pull interviews with close contacts and decide that, after all this, we could still kick off in time for an early dinner on the West Coast.
On one hand, our brains are trained to wonder what the hell we’re doing jumping through these flaming hoops just to complete a milquetoast matchup between two teams who are, at least for now, not even in the playoffs. On the other, part of me got the email and nodded. Oh that makes sense that this space-aged thing was created in a matter of weeks and exists, working perfectly. I trust it implicitly!
It’s the kind of mental gymnastics that have become somewhat commonplace during the pandemic; a cocktail of blind faith, self-indulgence and dark pragmatism we’re all somewhat complicit in the further down the road we get in the 2020 NFL season. Nothing is really grounded in a truth that feels foundational and rooted. And yet, by the seat of our pants we fly.
Anyway, on to power rankings…
1. Kansas City Chiefs (11–1)
Last week: Win vs. Denver 22–16
This week: at Miami
The number one passing offense in football, a top-10 rushing offense and a top-five defense. This team is complete, deep, well-coached and perpetually unbeatable. Nothing, not even holding the ball forever, apparently, can stop them.
2. Pittsburgh Steelers (11–1)
This week: Loss vs. Washington 23–17
This week: at Buffalo
If you lose to the Washington Football Team you officially get demoted in the power rankings. We’ve seen Pittsburgh limping for a few weeks now and for obvious stretches during their incredible undefeated start to the season. Now, it’s time to fix the cracks before the stretch run.
3. Buffalo Bills (9–3)
Last week: Win at San Francisco 34–24
This week: vs. Pittsburgh
Josh Allen’s bad throw percentage is half of what it was during his rookie season. Half. It was a good run for his offensive coordinator, Brian Daboll, in Buffalo. We’ll be seeing him with a headset on patrolling the sidelines as a head coach in 2021.
4. Green Bay Packers (9–3)
Last week: Win vs. Philadelphia 30–16
This week: at Detroit
The Packers are a top-three offense and only the Chiefs score on a higher percentage of their drives. Not bad for Matt LaFleur, a coach who has still, maddeningly, not gotten the shine he deserves after taking over a flat tire team and gutting the whole operation post Mike McCarthy.
5. New Orleans Saints (10–2)
Last week: Win at Atlanta 21–16
This week: at Philadelphia
Maybe the best defense in football right now. They’ve once again managed to keep a strong marathon pace without Drew Brees and will have him healthy and rested in time for another white knuckle trip to the playoffs. Is it one of the great modern football tragedies if this team only wins one Super Bowl?
6. Cleveland Browns (9–3)
Last week: Win at Tennessee 41–35
This week: vs. Baltimore (Monday)
It does not feel like a football season without the Browns committing some egregious administrative gaffe, or having one of their coaches quit, or bumbling in some other wave of intense incompetence. Yet it’s all very 2020. Deeper into the unknown.
7. Los Angeles Rams (8–4)
Last week: Win at Arizona 38–28
This week: vs. New England
Defensive coordinator Brandon Staley is a rising star. The Rams are balanced and have reached the eight-win mark despite being 17th in points scored. Imagine what this team will be once it rises above 24th in percentage of drives that end in a touchdown.
8. Seattle Seahawks (8–4)
Last week: Loss vs. New York Giants 17–12
This week: vs. New York Jets
This was the inevitable slump. Now, the onus is on Brian Schottenheimer, a coordinator known more for his stubbornness than his creativity, to break one of the most singularly talented players in the NFL out of the holding pattern.
9. Indianapolis Colts (8–4)
Last week: Win at Houston 26–20
This week: at Las Vegas
Winners of three out of their last four and with a favorable schedule here on out, the Colts can solidify some public confidence by hanging with the Steelers and drubbing an uneven club like the Raiders this weekend.
10. Tennessee Titans (8–4)
Last week: Loss vs. Cleveland 41–35
This week: at Jacksonville
The loss to Cleveland stings the ego, but this Titans team can put it on cruise control until season’s end and still feel pretty good about making the playoffs.
11. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7–5)
Last week: Bye
This week: vs. Minnesota
What becomes of this team following its bye week? With two games against the Falcons, one against Detroit and one against Minnesota remaining, this has the feel of an 11-win team hitting the playoffs in stride. If not? Hoo boy.
12. Miami Dolphins (8–4)
Last week: Win vs. Cincinnati 19–7
This week: vs. Kansas City
At this point, it might be a matter of when, not if Brian Flores starts separating from the pack to take home his coach of the year hardware.
13. Baltimore Ravens (7–5)
This week: Win vs. Dallas 34–17
This week: at Cleveland (Monday)
Despite a strong offseason on paper, the Ravens failed to evolve beyond their record-breaking offense from a year ago. They are not stagnant but they are also no longer on the cutting edge. They are upper middle tier at this moment.
14. New England Patriots (6–6)
Last week: Win at Los Angeles Chargers 45–0
This week: at Los Angeles Rams
Count them out at your own peril. I would put this team No. 1 on my list every time if I wasn’t 100% sure editor Mitch Golditch would change it behind my back and post it without my knowledge. END THE CENSORSHIP OF CONOR ORR! PATRIOTS FOREVER!
15. Arizona Cardinals (6–6)
Last week: Loss vs. Los Angeles Rams 38–28
This week: at New York Giants
Losers of three straight, the Cardinals now hit the NFC East portion of their schedule. That would seem like a welcome reprieve, except for the fact that no team is running through brick walls quite like the Giants right now.
16. Las Vegas Raiders (7–5)
Last week:Win at New York Jets 31–28
This week: vs. Indianapolis
It took the dumbest defensive play call in NFL history to save Jon Gruden from a loss to the winless Jets. Everything is fine and good in Las Vegas!
17. New York Giants (5–7)
Last week: Win at Seattle 17–12
This week: vs. Arizona
If defensive coordinator Patrick Graham can pull this off in back-to-back weeks, he becomes a household name firmly wedged into the head coaching conversation in 2020. Another unexpected bright spot on a coaching staff that some chuckled at heading into the year.
18. San Francisco 49ers (5–7)
Last week: Loss vs. Buffalo 34–24
This week: vs. Washington
We’re all just kind of waiting around until Kyle Shanahan gets his veteran quarterback muse this offseason, right? Meanwhile, they will be a thorn in the side of every opponent from here on out in 2020 based solely on how well-schemed their offense is.
19. Minnesota Vikings (6–6)
Last week: Win vs. Jacksonville 27–24 OT
This week: at Tampa Bay
Winners of five of their last six games, this matchup against Tampa Bay feels monumental. Can Kirk Cousins continue to let it rip against one of the most talented defenses in football?
20. Carolina Panthers (4–8)
Last week: Bye
This week: vs. Denver
Submitting my vote for most exciting 4–8 team in football. Carolina is well coached and, assuming it hits warp speed with a home run personnel head/GM hire this winter, could be downright dangerous in the near future.
21. Washington Football Team (5–7)
Last week: Win at Pittsburgh 23–17
This week: at San Francisco
It’s weird to describe this franchise as anything but callous and unlikable, however, when you bring in people like Ron Rivera and turn the offense over to Alex Smith, it’s hard not to crack a smile during this run. All of a sudden their Seattle matchup in a few weeks takes on a heightened significance.
22. Chicago Bears (5–7)
Last week: Loss vs. Detroit 34–30
This week: vs. Houston
As we noted, Chicago’s early run never felt sustainable. A good defense. A basement-dwelling offense that has run out of inspiration. Matt Nagy’s deep rolodex of play calls can only take this team so far.
23. Denver Broncos (4–8)
Last week: Loss at Kansas City 22–16
This week: at Carolina
Vic Fangio always seems to get a hard-fought performance out of this roster, but the Broncos need more help on offense and they need it now. Defensively, it’s a top-10 football team again.
24. Atlanta Falcons (4–8)
Last week: Loss vs. New Orleans 21–16
This week: at Los Angeles Chargers
Raheem Morris is doing a fine job with this team as they play out the string in Atlanta. Rookie AJ Terrell is one of the notable bright spots and has been handling the rookie rigors at corner quite well.
25. Houston Texans (4–8)
Last week: Loss vs. Indianapolis 26–20
This week: at Chicago
If I’m the Titans or the Colts, this is a team I don’t love lingering on my schedule as the season comes to a close. Deshaun Watson, despite being pressured at least once every four times he drops back to pass, might be having one of his best seasons in terms of pure passing and accuracy. This, without DeAndre Hopkins.
26. Philadelphia Eagles (3-8-1)
Last week: Loss at Green Bay 30–16
This week: vs. New Orleans
It’s Jalen Hurts time! Doug Pederson traded a comfortable near future with Carson Wentz for an end-of-season spark with Hurts. Will it pay off?
27. Detroit Lions (5–7)
Last week: Win at Chicago 34–30
This week: vs. Green Bay
Darrell Bevell won his debut and is riding the wave of good fortune that comes with not being Matt Patricia in the Lions’ locker room. Good for him. It will be interesting to see if they can knock off another team or two before the full regime change at season’s end.
28. Dallas Cowboys (3–9)
Last week: Loss at Baltimore 34–17
This week: at Cincinnati
Even without Dak Prescott this is one of the most disappointing rosters in the league. A team with a backup like Andy Dalton should be far more competitive and relevant, especially in an ugly division like the NFC East. Tuesday’s loss to the Ravens was another ho-hum affair.
29. Los Angeles Chargers (3–9)
Last week: Loss vs. New England 45–0
This week: vs. Atlanta
A hyper talented roster continues to underperform or take body blows on the injury front. At this point, they are a blank canvas looking for the next offensive guru to take a whack at the assembled stars.
30. Cincinnati Bengals (2-9-1)
Last week: Loss at Miami 19–7
This week: vs. Dallas
The Bengals are obviously overmatched in all of their final games. Can we learn something about Zac Taylor before season’s end that might lead to more confidence heading into 2021?
31. Jacksonville Jaguars (1–11)
Last week: Loss at Minnesota 27–24 OT
This week: vs. Tennessee
The team took a bold approach to its philosophy during the last big rebuild. What will the next version of the Jaguars look like? These last few games are valuable to figure out who might still be around.
32. New York Jets (0–12)
Last week: Loss vs. Las Vegas 31–28
This week: at Seattle
A horrendous team that will continue to invite on its comical public persona until it starts making sensible football decisions. When will that be?