We’re three weeks into this unique NFL season, and the gulf between the league’s haves and have-nots is starting to feel increasingly pronounced. That’s undoubtedly due in part to the COVID-19-altered offseason, which has created distinct advantages for teams with experienced quarterbacks, continuity at key offensive positions, and established coaching staffs. A few prime examples include the Packers’ increasingly unstoppable offense under Aaron Rodgers, the Seahawks’ surprisingly pass-heavy group under Russell Wilson, and the Bills’ newly efficient squad under Josh Allen.
It’s shaping up to be the year of the buzz saw offense. In an effort to produce a more watchable product following a truncated training camp and preseason period, the NFL directed its officials to stop just short of ignoring most offensive penalties, mandating that only “clear and obvious” infractions get flagged. That emphasis has created a historic scoring bonanza through three weeks and it’s no coincidence that most of the NFL’s best teams to this point feature highly efficient to downright explosive passing attacks (the Falcons are, uh, a special exception). With all that in mind, here’s my updated NFL Power Rankings following a wild Week 3.
The Top Shelf
1. Kansas City Chiefs (3-0)
2. Baltimore Ravens (2-1)
3. Seattle Seahawks (3-0)
4. Green Bay Packers (3-0)
5. Buffalo Bills (3-0)
6. Pittsburgh Steelers (3-0)
Patrick Mahomes reminds everyone who’s king.
The Chiefs’ dominant win against the Ravens on Monday Night Football strengthened my theory that we should probably ignore what happens during most regular-season divisional games. Those games are always, just … weird. I’ll admit to overreacting, ever so slightly, to the substandard performance put forth by Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs offense in their narrow overtime win against the Chargers last week. Mahomes was uncharacteristically inaccurate at times, and while he did hit a few big-time throws to help Kansas City escape with the win, he finished the game with a completion percentage 8.9 points below expectation―second worst among all QBs that week.
But Mahomes quickly smashed any fleeting doubts about whether he’s still in a class of his own as a passer on Monday night. The fourth-year pro carved up one of the best defenses in the league to the tune of 385 yards and five total touchdowns (four through the air, one on the ground) and showed off his full repertoire of throws. With high-arcing rainbows, tight-window darts, and an underhand “cornhole-type” scoop pass (that was a new one), Mahomes made everything look easy in the 34-20 win. The absolute comfort he showed on just about every play had to have been completely demoralizing for a proud Baltimore defense.
Mahomes is annoying to watch in the best way. Trying to see a frantic finish and he’s just skipping around, humming a song and moving the chains.
— Michael Kist (@MichaelKistNFL) September 29, 2020
And while it’s difficult to choose just one play that best represents his sterling performance, his 49-yard second-quarter touchdown throw to Mecole Hardman takes the cake for me. Prior to the snap, Mahomes saw that pressure would be coming from his right. He backpedaled to his left immediately after receiving the snap, knowing that he had to buy himself enough time for the routes to develop downfield. Then, with a blitzer bearing down and about to get home, Mahomes finally set his feet and uncorked a perfectly placed teardrop throw downfield, showing off his signature arm strength and touch on a dagger of a play.
That unorthodox double-digit-step dropback is quickly becoming one of Mahomes’s signature moves; it’s a perfect representation of the extraordinary style he plays with. It looked an awful lot like this game-breaking 44-yard throw to Tyreek Hill in the Super Bowl, a play that helped spark Kansas City’s fourth-quarter comeback. And it served as the perfect reminder that with Mahomes under center, the Chiefs are still the best team in the NFL.
The Steelers’ depth makes them dangerous.
Pittsburgh GM Kevin Colbert might go down as the greatest evaluator of the wide receiver position in the NFL’s history. At the very least, it’s clear he’s gifted at identifying playmakers who fit the team’s passing game under Ben Roethlisberger. With former Steelers stars like Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders, Mike Wallace, and Martavis Bryant already dotting Colbert’s evaluator’s résumé, the longtime GM has managed to repopulate Pittsburgh’s receiver depth chart in the past few seasons with a new generation of standouts in JuJu Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson, James Washington, and rookie newcomer Chase Claypool. And it shouldn’t be overlooked that Colbert has given the team quality options at every other offensive skill position, too. The Steelers’ running backs group ranks among the deepest in the league, with a three-down sustaining back in James Conner bolstered by a physical understudy in Benny Snell Jr., an explosive change of pace in rookie Anthony McFarland Jr., and the versatile utility man in Jaylen Samuels. Pittsburgh’s tight ends group boasts talent, too, with a pass-catching threat in Eric Ebron and blocking specialist in Vance McDonald.
That all-around depth showed up on Sunday in the team’s 28-21 win against the Broncos. For a more shallow club, losing a key playmaker would have dramatically altered the game plan and left backups scrambling to fill a role they’re either not comfortable with or not talented enough to play. But when Johnson (who came into the week as the team’s leading receiver) exited the game in the second quarter to be evaluated for a concussion, the rest of the Steelers’ skill players seamlessly filled the void. Pittsburgh leaned on the ground attack, and despite trailing for much of the first half, finished the game with 169 yards on 38 totes. Conner led the way with 109 yards and a touchdown, with McFarland adding 42 yards on six carries. Smith-Schuster was his typical dependable self, reeling in four of his five targets for 43 yards and a score. Washington did his part, reeling in five of seven targets for 36 yards. And Claypool showed again that he’s good for at least one big play a week, reeling in a 24-yard pass that essentially sealed the game for Pittsburgh. The team’s tight ends group, which was an afterthought in the first two games, even got involved in this one. Ebron grabbed five passes for 52 yards and a touchdown, and McDonald chipped in for 35 yards on three catches.
With so many options in both the passing and rushing attack, Pittsburgh didn’t ask Roethlisberger to do a whole lot. Big Ben finished the game 23 of 36 for 237 yards, two touchdowns, and no picks. He relied mostly on short throws in this one, with 19 of his 23 completions hitting his receivers within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. And while we’ll have to wait to find out whether that Saints-style passing attack ends up being the team’s long-term approach or just an easing-in period for a 38-year-old quarterback who missed 2019 with a season-ending elbow surgery, Pittsburgh showed on Sunday that they could execute that style efficiently if need be.
Three games a small sample, but Ben Roethlisberger’s 105.2 passer rating would be a career high if it played out over 16 games.
Not a bad return at all.
— Jeremy Fowler (@JFowlerESPN) September 28, 2020
It helped too that the Steelers boast one of the most dominant defensive fronts in football. It took that group a little bit of time to get going, but T.J. Watt and Co. finished the game with five sacks and 12 quarterback hits. Pittsburgh clamped down on Deshaun Watson and the Texans offense as the game went on and Houston’s four second-half possessions ended as thus: punt, punt, interception, punt. Thanks to a nice balance between its offensive and defensive units, the Steelers are 3-0 for the first time since 2010.
7. New England Patriots (2-1)
8. Los Angeles Rams (2-1)
9. Tennessee Titans (3-0)
10. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-1)
11. Chicago Bears (3-0)
12. Indianapolis Colts (2-1)
13. Arizona Cardinals (2-1)
14. San Francisco 49ers (2-1)
15. Dallas Cowboys (1-2)
The Bears occupy a strange spot in the NFC landscape.
Ladies and gentlemen, your three remaining undefeated NFC teams are the Seahawks, Packers, and … Bears. That’s a double-take-inducing tidbit for those who’ve watched Chicago play this year, as is the fact that the Bears stayed unbeaten by benching their starting quarterback.
Chicago’s early-season struggles on offense came to a head in the third quarter of their unlikely 30-26 win against the Falcons on Sunday, when quarterback Mitchell Trubisky threw one of the ugliest picks of his career. That turnover led to a Falcons’ field goal, a 26-10 deficit, and what might end up being a fateful decision from head coach Matt Nagy. Nagy pulled the plug on the disappointing former first-rounder and handed the keys of the offense to veteran Nick Foles.
The Foles era in Chicago didn’t exactly get off to an auspicious start―he tossed a pick of his own to end his first series at starter―but the former Super Bowl MVP quickly settled in to his normal role as offensive savior, tossing three fourth-quarter touchdowns to lead the Bears to an improbable comeback win. In the “he’s joking but also kind of not” vein of takes, Ringer colleague Rodger Sherman nailed it with this tweet:
smart move of the Bears to start the season with Nick Foles at #2 on the depth chart. Now they can play him the rest of the season and his Backup QB Powers will be activated
— Rodger Sherman (@rodger) September 27, 2020
Foles was less than perfect in his one and a half quarters of action, and he got lucky with a handful more passes that probably should’ve been picked, but it was undeniable that the former Eagles hero ignited a previously stagnant offense for the Bears. He completed 16 of 29 passes for 188 yards, including a few key conversions on third and fourth down late in the game.
With Foles now entrenched as the team’s starter, Chicago remains a flawed team. But because of the veteran quarterback’s aggressive nature and willingness to give the team’s top pass catchers a chance to make plays―as we saw on Sunday―the Bears now feel like a flawed team with a much higher ceiling.
The tattered husk of the 49ers produce a blowout win.
In the year of our lord 2020, a group of backups from San Francisco, starving and outnumbered, charged the fields at MetLife stadium. They fought like warrior poets. They fought like 49ers. And they won their freed—wait, I, uh, think I might be conflating the ending to Braveheart with the Niners’ 36-9 victory over the Giants on Sunday. But San Francisco’s refusal to throw in the towel after suffering so many crippling casualties did kind of conjure images of that Oscar-winning movie. (OK, maybe not.)
Anyway, look, I know the Giants are bad. But they’re also an NFL team with $143 million and change allocated to their active roster this year, and I don’t think we can just hand-wave away the way this injury-plagued 49ers squad completely controlled that game. With their starting quarterback (Jimmy Garoppolo), superstar tight end (George Kittle), top two running backs (Raheem Mostert and Tevin Coleman), and multiple receivers (Deebo Samuel, Jalen Hurd, and Richie James) all on the shelf, the Niners still put up 420 yards and 36 points and did not punt. And despite missing its best two pass rushers (Nick Bosa and Dee Ford), its future Hall of Fame cornerback (Richard Sherman), and a playmaking linebacker (Dre Greenlaw), San Francisco still held the Giants to nine points, keeping them out of the end zone altogether.
Before this game, I had all but written off the 49ers in the NFC. The injuries, I thought, were simply too big of a hurdle to overcome. But good teams blow out bad teams, and if the 49ers backups can make the case as a good team, that says a lot about what this squad can do when some of those starters return. San Francisco has to weather the storm for the next few weeks before Garoppolo, Kittle, Samuel, Sherman, Greenlaw, and a few others key players get back onto the field, but with a relatively winnable matchups with the Eagles and Dolphins on tap, this beat-up 49ers team has a chance to keep themselves in the race.
The Muddled Middle
16. New Orleans Saints (1-2)
17. Las Vegas Raiders (2-1)
18. Cleveland Browns (2-1)
19. Los Angeles Chargers (1-2)
20. Detroit Lions (1-2)
21. Houston Texans (0-3)
22. Miami Dolphins (1-2)
23. Jacksonville Jaguars (1-2)
24. Minnesota Vikings (0-3)
25. Atlanta Falcons (0-3)
Drew Brees’s arm isn’t the Saints’ only problem.
Much has been made of Brees’s increasingly apparent inability to push the ball downfield in the past two weeks, but the problems that the Saints have had on offense have overshadowed another troubling development during the two-game skid: The team’s typically stout defense has struggled to make stops, too. New Orleans has surrendered 71 points in its past two games, and going back to the start of the second quarter against the Raiders last week, that struggling group has allowed opponents to score on 12 of their past 15 offensive drives.
Injuries have played a part. Star pass rusher Marcus Davenport missed the first three weeks with an elbow injury and defensive tackle David Onyemata missed Sunday night’s game with a calf injury. But some of the key pieces of this group just haven’t performed as well as expected: Free-agent safety Malcolm Jenkins and star cornerback Marshon Lattimore have both struggled in coverage, and star edge rusher Cameron Jordan has zero sacks through three weeks. The Saints have also been far too grabby in coverage, with defenders combining to commit 10 pass interference penalties in just three games, surrendering 184 yards on those plays.
The Saints still have plenty of time to right the ship on both sides of the ball, but a lot must change for this team to be considered a serious contender in the NFC.
There’s Always Next Year
26. Denver Broncos (0-3)
27. Washington Football Team (1-2)
28. Carolina Panthers (1-2)
29. Philadelphia Eagles (0-2-1)
30. Cincinnati Bengals (0-2-1)
31. New York Giants (0-3)
NFC East futility
Let’s talk about the NFC East for a minute. I’ll start out by saying that the Cowboys are the clear favorites in this division and are almost surely better than their 1-2 record. As for the other three teams, well, they might actually be worse than their records. (Can you get worse than 0-3 after three games? I don’t know, but the Giants are making a case.) Washington’s defense has some talent, but the offense is a mess, and Dwayne Haskins’s prospects as a high-level starter look increasingly poor. And things are somehow even worse in Philly. The Eagles punted from their own 49-yard line with 19 seconds to go in overtime so they could secure a tie. It’s bleak.
32. New York Jets (0-3)
The Jets get their own category. It’s just not fair to the other teams to do it any other way.
This graph (created prior to Monday Night Football), which charts each team’s offensive and defensive EPA (expected points added) per play while excluding meaningless garbage-time situations, provides a good visual representation of just how much worse New York really is compared to literally every other team. Generally speaking, good teams inhabit the top right quadrant, and bad teams … well, just look at where the Jets are.
I especially enjoy how Ben Baldwin was forced to zoom out and adjust the frame to make sure New York even showed up on this graph. Things aren’t going well for Adam Gase, Sam Darnold, or the Jets right now, and it wouldn’t be surprising if major changes are in the works.