Who is the Best Team in the NFL?

The Saints absolutely pulverized the Buccaneers 38-3 on Sunday Night Football. It was a complete and total domination in all facets of the game. The Saints picked Tom Brady off 3 times, held Tampa to 1-9 on third down, possessed the ball for 40 minutes to Tampa’s 20, outgained Tampa in total yards 420 to 194, and held Tampa as a team to 8 yards rushing on 5 attempts.

Brady had little time to throw all night, and the Bucs defense seems completely ineffective at stopping the Saints’ quick-trigger offense. The Saints get the ball out so quickly on offense that it almost completely neutralized Tampa’s pass rush.

So now we have yet another team that was previously thought to be elite now giving us reason to second guess them. In fact, almost all of the top teams in the league this year have had ugly losses:

  • The Saints have lost to the Raiders and the Packers, with the Packers game being not particularly close despite the final score being 37-30. The Saints’ defense looked great against Tampa, but it had not been anything special in the prior 7 games.
  • Not only did the Bucs get beaten convincingly by the Saints last night, they also lost to the Saints by double-digits in week 1. While that loss was at the time chalked up to the Bucs not yet having figured things out with Brady as the QB, this most recent loss to the Saints cannot be excused. It appears the Saints have the Bucs’ number and will represent a major obstacle for Tampa come playoff time.
  • The Packers, despite crushing the 49ers this past Thursday, just came off a 28-22 loss to the Vikings. They were also slaughtered by the Buccaneers 38-10 in week 6. Basically the Saints did to the Bucs last night what the Bucs did to the Packers in week 6.
  • The Chiefs lost to the Raiders 40-32 in week 5. They also just narrowly escaped with a 33-31 win in Carolina today. Although Carolina is an underrated team, it was a little concerning that the Chiefs could not put them away.
  • The Titans lost to the Bengals in week 8. They also lost to the Steelers the week prior.
  • The Steelers, despite being undefeated, just nearly lost to the lowly Cowboys on the road.
  • The Ravens got smashed by the Chiefs back in week 3. They also just lost to the Steelers in week 8.
  • The Cardinals just lost to the Dolphins at home, although the Dolphins, now at 5-3 might actually be a lot better than people think.
  • The Seahawks just got beaten convincingly by the Bills. However, it was a long road trip for Seattle and they generally don’t play well when they have to travel cross-country.
  • The Bills lost to both the Chiefs and Titans, with the Titans loss being an absolute beatdown.

On the one hand, every Super Bowl contender is flawed and there’s a lot of parity in the league. It seems like no one has really separated themselves from the pack.

On the other hand, you have to give the Steelers credit for being the only undefeated team left. True, they haven’t exactly been dominant this season, having won several close games against clearly inferior teams (the Cowboys in week 9, the Texans in week 3, the Broncos in week 2). They have a tendency to play down to their competition. But they’ve also beaten Baltimore, Cleveland and Tennessee this year.

I think you have to give the Steelers the nod as the top team in the league given that they are the only one that has yet to lose. Here’s my top-10 power rankings:

  1. Steelers– Quality wins: Ravens (week 8, 28-24), Titans (week 7, 27-24) Browns (week 6, 38-7). If the Chiefs played the Steelers tomorrow I think I would lean Chiefs. So why do I have the Steelers ahead of them? Because they haven’t lost. Their “let-down game” against Dallas they ended up winning. On paper I think the Chiefs are better than everyone else, but they haven’t fully showed it on the field this year. Which means I think the Steelers are more than capable of beating the Chiefs. The Steelers have been inconsistent at times, too, but the difference with them is they’ve managed to win every game. They have a veteran QB who can sling it, they have a great coach, they have a great defense and they have weapons for days at wide receiver. They feel like a more complete team than anyone else. The only thing I’d nitpick with them is that while I like James Conner, he’s kind of a plodder and isn’t really that explosive. If they had a guy like a Nyheim Hines, Jerick McKinnon, Tevin Coleman, Tarik Cohen or a Giovani Bernard I think that would take this offense to another level.
  2. Chiefs– Quality wins: Ravens (week 3, 34-20), Bills (week 6, 26-17). There are no questions at all about their passing offense. Patrick Mahomes is probably the best QB in the league, although Russell Wilson, Aaron Rodgers are both in the conversation. They have a Hall of Fame coach in Andy Reid, weapons for days on offense and a defense that’s coming around and led by a proven great defensive coordinator, Steve Spagnuolo. Their run game, though, seems to have regressed as the season has gone on. While Clyde Edwards-Helaire looked good early on, it became clear that they didn’t trust him to be The Guy when they signed Le’Veon Bell. Now their run game appears to have suffered in recent weeks. The Panthers held them to just 30 rushing yards, and the Panthers are not a great run defense. This could be a problem come playoff time, as Damien Williams was an essential piece to their Super Bowl run. But of all the teams in the top 10, the Chiefs remain the team I’m worried the least about.
  3. Packers– Quality wins: Saints (week 3, 37-30). The Packers are a team that I believe in even despite the fact that they only have one quality win. They’ve beaten up on some bad teams this year and got manhandled by the Bucs in week 6, but when you have Aaron Rodgers on your team all the worries that you might have don’t seem as significant. He’s leading the league in both QBR and QB rating this year and has thrown 24 TDs against just 2 picks, both of them coming in the Bucs game. Davante Adams looks like the best wide receiver in the league, Aaron Jones is a beast at running back, and while their defense isn’t elite this year, it’s definitely improved from last season. They rank in the top half of the league in basically every defensive category: against the rush, against the pass, points-per-game and yards per game. It remains to be seen if they can hold up against an elite rushing offense, and it’s concerning that Dalvin Cook just ran for 206 yards against them, but the Vikings aren’t going to make the playoffs this season and there’s only one NFC contender that ranks in the top 5 in rushing–the Cardinals who rank 2nd. If the Packers can avoid the Cardinals in the playoffs then they should be able to overcome their lackluster run defense and make a run at a Super Bowl.
  4. Saints– Quality wins: Buccaneers twice (week 1, 34-23 & week 9, 38-3). I don’t want to overreact to the big win over Tampa by ranking them too highly. But the Saints clearly have the Bucs’ number and may have just given the rest of the league the blueprint on how to beat them. The Saints’ only two wins by more than one possession have both come against the Bucs, however. The rest of their wins were all one-possession games, and they’ve been taken to OT twice, once by the Chargers and the other time by the Bears. Plus, I can’t put the Saints ahead of the Packers given that the Packers beat the Saints in week 3. But they’ve got two elite offensive weapons (Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas), plus an x-factor in Taysom Hill that nobody has figured out how to stop. Sean Payton is one of the best playcallers in the league and on top of that they have one of the smartest, most experienced QBs to ever play in Drew Brees. The combo of those two give them a brainpower edge over basically every team in the league. The defense hasn’t been great all season but looked great against Tampa. People are concerned about Brees’ arm but the Saints have clearly figured out how to incorporate his limitations into their game plan and win games consistently.
  5. Ravens– Quality wins: Browns (week 1, 38-6), Colts (week 9, 24-10). The defense is great and have the #1 rushing attack in the league, but Lamar Jackson’s arm is this team’s biggest concern. They’re definitely a great team but I have my doubts about their ability to win playoff games against elite QBs. I just don’t know if Lamar can win high scoring games with his arm come playoff time. Let’s put it this way: even though 41-year-old Drew Brees’ arm looks shot, I still have more confidence in the Saints’ ability to win shootouts than I do the Ravens’. All that said, I think they have the ability to beat any team in the AFC other than Kansas City. Their game against the Steelers could’ve gone either way.
  6. Bills– Quality wins: Seahawks (week 9, 44-34), Rams (week 3, 35-32), Raiders (week 4, 30-23). Josh Allen continues to take steps toward being an elite QB, and out-dueling Russell Wilson in a shootout is a big moment in his young career. Yes, the Seahawks defense is garbage, but you can’t really get much better than what Allen did on Sunday: 31/38 passing for 415 yards and a 138 QB rating. He was sacked 7 times, which is concerning, but it didn’t seem to matter to him. The Bills have a decent but not great run game and largely abandoned it against Seattle given how bad Seattle’s pass coverage is, and their defense has been disappointing thus far. But this is still a dangerous team. Josh Allen looks like a baby Ben Roethlisberger only more athletic. Next week they have a big game against the Cardinals, and they play the Steelers on December 13, which will really tell us a lot about this team one way or another. I think I believe in the Bills, but I still need to see a little more from them.
  7. Buccaneers– Quality wins: Packers (week 6, 38-10), Raiders (week 7, 45-20). I really don’t know what happened last night. They looked terrible in all facets of the game. A couple weeks ago they looked like the most complete team in the league and then they added AB, which in theory should have made them head and shoulders better than anybody else. Whether the Saints just have their number or they weren’t prepared, who knows. I’ve got to ding them somewhat for losing so badly, but I’m going to give them another chance. Their next three games upcoming are at Panthers, then vs. Rams, vs. Chiefs. We will know who this Bucs team is by the end of November.
  8. Seahawks– Quality wins: none. The win over the Patriots seemed impressive back in week 2, but now it’s pretty clear the Patriots are a bad team. The Seahawks have an elite offense, but due to their weak defense they have found themselves struggling to put away bad and mediocre teams. You could consider their week 4 win over Miami a “quality win” given that Miami is now 5-3, but I did not for two reasons: I still don’t know if Miami is actually good (even though they did beat the Cardinals and Rams in consecutive weeks), and I think Miami is a different team now than they were early in the season. Despite the Seahawks’ elite offense, they have lost against the two best teams they played, Buffalo and Arizona. Their defense is a liability, allowing the most yards per game in the league and 28.4 points per game. In my view this caps their upside and prevents them from being considered a truly elite team. However, if this team manages to win 12 games or more, Russell Wilson will win the MVP. He has absolutely carried that team this season. They would be terrible without him. But the bottom line is, they have to upgrade that defense. They will not win the Super Bowl unless they do. I think it’s possible the Pete Carroll fires defensive coordinator Ken Norton and replaces him with Dan Quinn, who was recently fired as head coach of the Falcons. Quinn was the Seahawks defensive coordinator in 2013 & 2014 during the infamous “Legion of Boom” era. They made the Super Bowl both seasons Quinn was running the defense, so Quinn has a proven track record. I’m sure Carroll trusts him, and it’s clear that things are not working out with the current status quo. It’s getting late in the season, though.
  9. Titans– Quality wins: Bills (week 4, 42-16). Interestingly enough, their one win of more than one possession this year was against the Bills, the best team Tennessee has beaten this year. Every other win for them has been a one-score win. However, in fairness I must add that though the score of this week’s win over the Bears was 24-17, the game was not that close. Tennessee was in control all game long. I feel like I can trust Ryan Tannehill given that we now have a large sample size of him in Tennessee, and he’s been not just good but arguably great. Derrick Henry is Derrick Henry, and they have a great coach in Mike Vrabel. But their defense concerns me. They nearly rallied from a 24-7 halftime deficit to beat the Steelers in week 7, so that’s encouraging, but then they turned around and lost 31-20 to the Bengals the next week. Maybe it was an emtional let-down game, I don’t know, but I just don’t fully trust this team yet. They play the Ravens in two weeks and we’ll know who they are after that.
  10. Cardinals– Quality wins: Seahawks (week 6, 37-34 OT). They lead the league in yards-per-game on offense, are second in the league in rushing, and have arguably the league’s most dangerous player in Kyler Murray. I don’t love their defense, and they’ve lost to the Lions, Panthers and Dolphins, three teams they should have beaten. I think the potential is there on offense, no doubt. But they strike me as a team that still doesn’t fully know how to win games. They make a lot of young-team mistakes, and it’s clear that Kliff Kingsbury is still figuring out NFL coaching after spending over a decade coaching in college. They’re too inconsistent to really be considered a Super Bowl threat this year, and I don’t trust them to beat the Bills this weekend at home. But the future is bright.

Just missed the cut

At 5-3, I think I’m ready to declare the Las Vegas Raiders a good team. They’re not in the top 10, but I would put them just outside of it. They have three quality wins: 34-24 over the Saints in week 2, 40-32 over the Chiefs in week 5, and 16-6 over the Browns in week 8. It’s odd because when you look at the Raiders’ roster, you don’t see a lot of Pro Bowlers. No one would consider their QB Derek Carr to be elite or maybe even in the top-half in the league. Their offense ranks 11th in yards per game and 12th in points per game, and their defense has not been great at all, ranking 24th in points allowed and 20th in yards allowed per game.

They have been blown out by the Patriots (week 3, 36-20) and the Bucs (week 7, 45-20), two games which give me pause on putting too much faith in them.

And yet they have beaten both the Chiefs and the Saints. They also played the Bills tough in week 4, losing 30-23 at home. They have a favorable schedule going forward, too; their remaining games are vs. Broncos, vs. Chiefs, at Falcons, at Jets, vs. Colts, vs. Chargers, vs. Dolphins, at Broncos. The mark of a good team is their ability to reliably beat inferior teams, and while I don’t know if I have enough confidence in the Raiders to win all of those winnable games, they should be favored in at least 5 of their remaining 8 games. That would put them on pace to win 10 games this season and make the playoffs.

Again, while it’s hard to see how, exactly, this team is good given that they aren’t elite on either offense or defense, along with their lack of elite talent on the roster, somehow it’s working for them. I think Jon Gruden has done a great coaching job this season with both smart play-calling and in building a strong team culture which enables the whole to be greater than the sum of the parts. It’s the only real explanation for why they’re 5-3 right now.

They can’t win the Super Bowl this season. I just don’t think they have the talent or the consistency to be able to win four playoff games. But if they keep drafting well (which they have during the Gruden-Mayock era) and keep building a winning culture, this team could make a real run at a Super Bowl next season or the one after.

Are the Colts an elite team? I just don’t know if they’re for real. They are 5-3 right now and have lost to the two best teams they’ve played thus far, the Ravens this week and the Browns in week 6. I consider the Browns in the same category as the Colts. I just don’t know if the Colts are actually good or if they’ve just beaten up on bad teams. Their 5 wins this season come over the Vikings, Jets, Bears, Bengals and Lions. Plus they have that bad week 1 loss to the Jaguars. I know their defense is ranked very high, but couldn’t that be a product of their easy schedule? They let up 32 points to Cleveland and 27 points to Cincinnati, which are probably the two best offenses they’ve faced.

And this week against the Ravens, they could not get anything going on offense. I have a lot of doubts about their ability to score points on good defenses like Baltimore. Their wide receivers, tight ends and running backs just seem mediocre. And we all know about Philip Rivers’ propensity to throw picks late in games.

I see the Colts as a better version of the Bears: great defense, but an unreliable offense which if it cannot sustain drives, could cause the defense to get worn out and send the whole team into a death spiral during games.

The Rams are 5-3 and a team I want to put right outside the top 10, possibly even in the top 10. But they haven’t played the Seahawks or the Cardinals yet. I just haven’t seen enough consistency from this team. Four of their five wins have come over the woefully bad NFC East (Cowboys, Eagles, Giants and Washington Football Team) and their 5th win came over the Bears, who are completely inept on offense. The Rams offense was dominated by the Dolphins defense in week 8, and they lost pretty convincingly to the 49ers in week 7. The Rams should have had a win over the Bills in week 3 but a bad PI call at the end gave the Bills a second chance to win, which they capitalized on. I just haven’t seen enough out of the Rams to trust them. I still don’t believe in their QB Jared Goff. However, they have two of the top defensive players in the league, Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey. They have a very tough remaining schedule with the Seahawks twice, the Cardinals twice and the Bucs in their remaining 8 games. We’ll see, but I have my doubts.

The Bears started 5-1 and had an impressive win over the Bucs, but now they’re 5-4 and their offense hasn’t been able to do a thing lately. Yes, they have played the Rams, Saints and Titans in consecutive weeks, but other than the Saints game, which went to OT, they were not competitive in those games. They still have to play the Packers twice in their remaining 7 games, but other than that they should be able to win at least 8-9 games when all is said and done this season. The Bears are clearly a team trending downward, and their 60+ year search for a QB continues. Unfortunately for them they have already won too many games to put themselves in contention for Trevor Lawrence or Justin Fields. They’re in football doldrums right now: unable to win a Super Bowl but too good to get a great QB in the draft. Taking Mitch Trubisky #2 overall in 2017 will haunt this franchise for a long time.

The Dolphins, on the other hand, are a team trending up. They’re in second place in the AFC East but have the best point differential in their division at +31. That’s actually better than the Bills, who are only +9 on the season. Their point differential is the same as the Seahawks, believe it or not. They were 3-3 when they benched Ryan Fitzpatrick, now they’ve won 2 straight since switching to Tua at QB, and are on a 4 game winning streak overall. They’re clearly a different team than they were at the beginning of the year, when they started 1-3. They’ve beaten the Rams and the Cardinals in consecutive weeks and also have a dominant win over the 49ers.

They’re kind of like the Raiders in that they don’t have a lot of elite talent on the roster and they’re not great on either offense or defense, yet they somehow win games. Like the Raiders, I think this is also a product of great coaching by Brian Flores and the strong organizational culture he’s instilled. Most Belichick coaching disciples fizzle out when they get the chance to become head coaches, but Flores appears to be an exception at least thus far. He may be one of the few to actually replicate The Patriot Way in another organization.

It remains to be seen whether Tua is the future at QB for them. He hasn’t looked as good as Burrow or Herbert but he definitely looks capable. He’s mobile, nimble, accurate, has good pocket awareness and seems like a real leader. Against the Cardinals he made a couple of impressive throws–the kind of throws that make you excited about a guy’s future upside. I worry a bit about his size because while he can run, he doesn’t have elite-level Lamar Jackson/Kyler Murray speed. But his arm looks really good–I’d say probably better than Lamar’s already.

After starting last season 0-7 and looking like the worst team in the league, the Dolphins have gone 10-7 since under Flores. It seems like their rebuild is ahead of schedule and the future looks bright as long as they can continue drafting well. It all hinges on whether Tua becomes a great QB. They’re not contenders this season but they could certainly make a run at the playoffs.

The Browns were on bye this week but sit at 5-3. They’ve been demolished by both the Steelers and the Ravens, and lost ugly to the Raiders at home in week 8. Prior to the Raiders loss, people were wondering if perhaps Baker Mayfield was better without Odell Beckham, who is now out for the season with a torn ACL. But then he went just 12/25 for 122 yards against Vegas and the Browns lost 16-6. Cleveland managed just 47 total offensive plays to the Raiders’ 71, and were outgained 309-223. It was a sloppy game all around and neither Mayfield or Derek Carr could get anything going through the air, likely due to the strong winds and generally terrible weather. The difference was the Browns were outrushed by the Raiders 209-101, and Vegas controlled the clock by an almost 2:1 ratio.

Though it was an ugly loss, the Browns look better this season than they have in a very long time. New head coach Kevin Stefanski appears to be the long-awaited answer for a franchise that has gone through 7 head coaches in the past 10 years (8 if you included Gregg Williams when he filled in as the interim coach when Hue Jackson was fired mid-season in 2018). Stefanski not being wedded to Baker Mayfield has turned out to be a good thing because he can assess him for what he is, rather than what the people who drafted him hoped he would be. Stefanski has turned the Browns into a run-first team and played to the team’s strengths: its offensive line and two-headed running back monster of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. The Browns should get Chubb back for week 10 and get their running game back on track.

Their best win thus far is a 32-23 home victory over the Colts, but otherwise they’ve largely beaten up on bad teams like the Bengals (twice), the WFT and the Cowboys. Fortunately their next three games are vs. Texans, vs. Eagles and at Jaguars–all very winnable games. In their final five games they go to Tennessee, which is a tall order for them, then host the Ravens, then an extended road trip to NY to face the Giants and Jets in consecutive weeks, and then they finish with Pittsburgh. The easy guess would be to say the Browns should finish 10-6, but I don’t know if I trust them to win the games they are supposed to win. I definitely don’t trust them against top-tier teams like Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Tennessee, but winning any of those three games would be a huge boost to them going forward. This is a young team with a first-year head coach and it appears they’re finally trending in the right direction. This is not the year for them, especially because they play in the toughest division in the league.

But if they can make the playoffs and steal a win against either Pittsburgh, Balitmore or Tennessee then I think you consider this season a huge success for them. I know it’s setting the bar low because technically every team that doesn’t win the Super Bowl should consider the season a failure, but given the Browns’ history, I will make an exception. The Browns haven’t made the playoffs since 2002, by far the longest active streak in the league (the next-longest is the Bucs, who haven’t made it since 2007 but likely will end that streak this year). The third-longest drought is the Jets, whose last playoff game was the 2010 AFC Championship game. After the Browns, Bucs and Jets, though, the longest active playoff drought is 4 seasons. It just goes to show you how uniquely bad the Browns have been.

The Browns have as many playoff wins over the past 30 years as they have winless seasons (1), and that lone playoff win happened when Bill Belichick was their head coach back in 1994. Yeah. Getting to the playoffs this year would be a major step forward for that organization. They still have to build a winning culture before they even think about competing for a Super Bowl. I don’t want to pencil the Browns into the playoffs just yet because they could always revert to their normal Cleveland ways and implode spectacularly in the second half of the season, but they have a great shot at it this year. It feels like they’re finally heading in the right direction.

Octavian

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