There have been a stream of explosive offensive performances this season, including Ben Roethlisberger’s five-TD show on Sunday night and the Falcons’ dismantling of Carolina’s defense earlier in the day.
The top of this week’s Power Rankings, though, pay tribute to defense. That is what won last season’s Super Bowl, and it could be the ticket back to the championship again, if the teams currently atop the AFC and NFC are any indication.
Here’s how everyone stacks up a quarter of the way into the season:
1. Denver Broncos
2. Minnesota Vikings
Mike Zimmer is a Coach of the Year favorite, and Xavier Rhodes is starting to join the Defensive Player of the Year fray. But the likeliest hardware winner in Minnesota right now is GM Rick Spielman, who has to be an Executive of the Year frontrunner. His fingerprints are all over Minnesota’s roster, and the Sam Bradford trade is working like a charm.
3. New England Patriots
4. Philadelphia Eagles
If you see a shirtless man sprinting through downtown Detroit Sunday afternoon, kicking birds and screaming at passing cars, don’t worry. It’s just Jim Schwartz trying to one-up his carried-off-the-field celebration from his last visit to Motown as the Bills’ defensive coordinator in 2014.
5. Pittsburgh Steelers
6. Seattle Seahawks
You didn’t forget about Jimmy Graham, did you? The talented tight end hauled in six passes for 113 yards against the Jets, his second consecutive game topping the 100-yard mark. He hasn’t done that in back-to-back outings since early 2013. That season ended with Graham leading the league in TDs (16) and scoring his lone first-team All-Pro nod.
7. Green Bay Packers
Starting Sunday, the Packers will play three games in 12 days, all at home. A reminder before all that begins that Aaron Rodgers holds a career QB rating of 110.2 at Lambeau Field, with a QB:INT differential of 143 to 22. His historical QB rating also is higher in October (110.3) than any other month, so Rodgers might be on the verge of a hot streak.
8. Cincinnati Bengals
Mike Nugent is on pace to break the NFL single-season record for made field goals—David Akers holds the top spot with 44, and Nugent would reach 48 if he keeps up his current clip. Of course, that doesn’t speak well of the Bengals’ ability to score TDs. They have the league’s worst red-zone efficiency right now, turning just 30.8% of their trips into six points.
9. Dallas Cowboys
10. Oakland Raiders
Ten teams finished last season above .500 on the road—nine made the playoffs; the other, inexplicably, was the Bears. The Raiders just have to emerge victorious from two of their remaining five away games to reach that coveted five-win plateau. This team looks like it’s in the playoff race for the long haul.
11. Atlanta Falcons
Matt Ryan’s first four games served as quite the silencer for his numerous critics, including yours truly. Shy of leaving a horse’s head in my sheets, Godfather-style, there’s not much else Matty Ice could have done to this point to teach his lesson. If he keeps it going through Atlanta’s upcoming trips to Denver and Seattle, the Falcons will grab a stranglehold on the division.
12. Buffalo Bills
When he is healthy and engaged in an offense, LeSean McCoy is right up there with Le’Veon Bell and the NFL’s most exciting backs to watch. He runs in the open field like he’s slaloming down a ski hill, just darting side to side avoiding obstacles.
13. Kansas City Chiefs
Nothing like having to sit on a bye after a 29-point Sunday night loss. The Chiefs have been dreadful in their two road games this season (losses at Houston and Pittsburgh). They have two weeks to figure out how to pull it together before heading to Oakland on the 16th.
14. Houston Texans
15. Los Angeles Rams
Say you had an ex that, no matter how many times you asked, refused to try Thai food. And then when you run into her a few months later, she’s on a date at a Thai restaurant and tells you how much she loves the duck curry. However you would describe your feelings in that instance must be how St. Louis fans feel right now, watching Jeff Fisher’s Rams ascend the NFC West. “Why didn’t you just do that when we were together?!”
16. Baltimore Ravens
There are signs of this offense being outstanding in the near future: Terrance West expanding his role, Kenneth Dixon returning, the combined play of Steve Smith, Dennis Pitta and Mike Wallace in the passing attack. Given the Ravens’ nail-biting first four games, however, this team overall remains a riddle.
17. Carolina Panthers
18. Washington Redskins
Not surprisingly, the Falcons have scored at the highest rate this year, cashing in 54.5% of their possessions for points. Next up? Washington, at 52.5%. A dozen of those scores have been field goals (Dustin Hopkins is tied with Nugent at 12 makes), but the Redskins’ productivity has been low-key impressive.
19. New York Jets
Jets coach Todd Bowles was asked about the possibility of benching struggling QB Ryan Fitzpatrick. He responded, “Ryan’s fine,” and somehow the Internet did not take the opportunity to swap out that cartoon dog for Bowles in the “This is fine” meme.
20. Arizona Cardinals
Uh ... fellas? You awake over there? The turnover problem is getting a little out of control in the desert: seven in the NFC title game, five in the loss to Buffalo, another five against Los Angeles. If the Cardinals are forced to start Drew Stanton over an injured Carson Palmer on Thursday ... well, that should be a much more substantial drop-off than it might turn out to be, given how Palmer has played of late.
21. New York Giants
22. New Orleans Saints
Do the Saints deserve to be considered a middle-of-the-road team? Not based on the results. Check out the muck below them, though. Picking the 22nd-best team in the NFL is like having 20 tokens for a prize at Chuck E. Cheese. Do you want a pencil eraser or a pinwheel that’s going to break in five minutes?
23. San Diego Chargers
Arguing that the Chargers would be a playoff contender if they knew how to close games is true to an extent. But, you know, the fourth quarter is a rather critical portion of a football game. Until San Diego figures out how not to wilt like a rose in the microwave during those final 15 minutes, it’s doomed.
24. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
“I’m very concerned.” That’s what Tampa Bay coach Dirk Koetter had to say when asked about Jameis Winston’s recent play. Koetter added that Winston’s not regressing, but even a standstill is problematic since Koetter’s promotion from offensive coordinator came with the belief that he was the right guy to help Winston develop.
25. Miami Dolphins
26. Jacksonville Jaguars
With his team’s win over the Colts at Wembley Stadium, coach Gus Bradley now has more victories in London (two) than he does over NFC teams (one) during his tenure.
27. Indianapolis Colts
The Colts have a game this Sunday, which is noteworthy in itself—they are the first team to decline the NFL’s offered bye week after a London trip; they’ll sit out Week 10 instead. Unless “most passes dropped in a season” comes with a trophy, that’s probably all the history Indianapolis will make this year.
28. Tennessee Titans
The only AFC South team that Tennessee beat in either of the last two years was Jacksonville, so Sunday’s loss in Houston goes down as another missed opportunity. They raised Nissan Stadium in less time than it’s taking the Titans to get their rebuilding project off the ground.
29. Chicago Bears
Coach John Fox all but said that he won’t turn back to Jay Cutler when he’s healed, unless current starter Brian Hoyer flops in the meantime. The only way Fox could have sent a clearer message about Cutler’s future with the Bears is if he’d ended that press conference by handing Cutler a suitcase.
30. Detroit Lions
Is Jim Caldwell concerned about his job security at this point? We’ll let you know as someone reboots him and initiates his press conference sequence. If he’s not feeling the heat, he should be. The Lions have no discernible identity right now, and they’re spiraling toward another painful season.
31. Cleveland Browns
Not sure who and not sure when, but the Browns are going to hurt a hopeful team by stealing a victory or two this season. It might have happened Sunday were it not for The Great Fumble Caper. Granted, 1–15 or 2–14 doesn’t sound all that exciting, but it’s better than 0–16. Math!
32. San Francisco 49ers
[Ron Howard Arrested Development narrator voice] “He didn’t.”