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2021 NFL Power Rankings: A Little More Than Halfway Home (Part II)

A look at teams 16-1, now that the season is halfway through.

Philadelphia Eagles v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images

Traditional power rankings overreact to one HUGE WIN and one sad (!) loss. Rarely do they take in account the entire season. To give a more accurate representation of what’s going on, and where these teams currently stand, I will not equivocate or give into the yank of heartstrings the NFL season brings week to week.

Instead of living with such a short memory and being so myopic, here’s where I believe the NFL stands before the second quarter of the season opens up and entropy ravages it. This list also includes each team’s record, point differential, and DVOA.

You can read Part One here. Here’s Part II.

PLAYOFFS?

16.) Las Vegas Raiders—Record: 5-3. Point Differential: +7 (17). DVOA: -3.9% (21). Previously 23rd.

The hedonistic desert has spawned a football franchise similar to its environment. The occurrences off the field have dominated the close wins, defensive improvement to average, and MVP season Derek Carr have strung together like 777 to give them the NFC West lead. Jon Gruden lost his job for emails he wrote six years ago when he wasn’t employed by the team. The Raiders took a stray bullet from Washington’s investigation, whose results will never see our telephones, because of the billionaire it involves. Henry Ruggs III demolishing his car and taking someone else’s life with the BAC of a frat house party host is the biggest tragedy that has occurred this season.

Somehow Carr has carried them through it all. He’s emerged as the star saving this franchise. Leading the team by living a life that matches what he believes in, whose words are mocked by the sardonic and black hearted who take them as silly, or stupid, when these things combined with his touch passes down the sideline, and deep pass accuracy, have taken them to water in the ruination of this neon hellscape.

15.) New Orleans Saints—Record: 5-3. Point Differential: +46 (7). DVOA: 13.4% (8). Previously 10th.

I had been predicting the Saints to make an enormous December run. They would become the team you wouldn’t want to play against this postseason. Credit me, not Bill Simmons. Sean Payton placed Jamies Winston in a Drew Brees quick passing offense, forcing to win with his mind, stretching his brain to uncharted parts of his skull. It kind of worked. Winston’s interceptions, and sacks taken had been sliced down to a stump. Yet the things we love about Winston, absurd pocket hijinks, incredulous deep passes, hysterical mistakes, disappeared. Winston was out of water, but was guiding a ship that can sail itself.

December should have brought out the black hat and crossbones for Winston to unleash voodoo up on the NFC. Michael Thomas maybe back, creating easy first downs, allowing Marquez Callaway, Deonte Harris, Kenny Stills, and Tre’Quan Smith to work against lower rung cornerbacks and attack the deeper parts of the field, and Payton feeling more comfortable with Winston to do so, after being a model reformed citizen through three quarters of the season.

An ACL tear took this from us. The Saints are no longer a shadowy Super Bowl contender. Instead they are a team carried by a great offensive line, Alvin Kamara, and a still incredible defense, that will all be hampered by quarterback play. Tameis has turned into Hieman. What a shame.

14.) Kansas City Chiefs—Record: 5-4. Point Differential: -6 (20). DVOA: 1.8% (17). Previously 9th.

It’s unbelievable that there are thousands of people who have a career whose sole focus is writing, watching, and talking about football, and out of all of them, not one of them actually questioned the Chiefs offseason. Leave it to me, an esoteric figure in an esoteric corner of atrocious football play, to decipher the Chiefs stupid offseason.

Here’s the thing, offensive line play really doesn’t matter for a quarterback like Patrick Mahomes. He takes twelve yard dropbacks, he holds onto the ball forever, he ducks and runs up the pocket when pressure is coming, he outplays his line with arm strength alone. A slower, enormous left tackle like Orlando Brown, is a terrible fit for a quarterback who takes deep drop backs. Leaving him out in the open against speed rushes over and over again. Joe Thuney is great, but he isn’t that great. Trey Smith mashes, but has too many holding penalties. And Lucas Niang sucked until being replaced by Mike Remmers, who hasn’t changed at all.

They invested heavily into a portion of the team that doesn’t need heavy investment. There’s a slight marginal benefit here. Kansas City runs the ball well, but they don’t run it often, which is exactly what you expect when you have a terrible defense and a MVP quarterback. They have two receivers still. Travis Kelce hasn’t adjusted well to teams pressing him at the line of scrimmage and slamming crowbars into his torso. Tyreek Hill hasn’t been the same deep field threat, with corners focused on running with him, and teams playing two safeties high without blitzing. Mahomes is looking, can’t find anyone, playing in a style that opens himself to pressure, behind a line that can’t block for five seconds.

They’d have been better off finding an actual third receiving option, something they relied upon in Sammy Watkins during their Super Bowl run, or putting money back into the defense, who haven’t seen much contribution from anyone aside from Chris Jones. The Chiefs offensive line wasn’t as bad as it was made out to be last Super Bowl. They fell behind. They became one dimensional. Mahomes took twelve yard drop backs opening up the speed rush. Now, these weeks are similar, stuck on repeat. The difference this time is they can’t blame the offensive line.

13.) Denver BroncosRecord: 5-4. Point Differential: +34 (9). DVOA: -2.3% (20). Previously 17th.

TEDDY BRIDGEWATER HAS BEEN A TOP TEN QUARTERBACK THIS SEASON.

The haters and losers don’t want to admit it, but Teddy has been an electric deep passer. The nine routes down the sideline he’s thrown have been exquisite. He’s found holes in zone coverage, navigating around condensed pockets while playing behind a terrible right side of the offensive line, and has also thrown the corner route with touch, grace, and beauty. He’s 9th in DYAR, 11th in DVOA, 5th in EPA per play, tied 6th in air yards, and 3rd in completion percentage over expected. The only downside to his game is he throws short of the sticks on third downs. Other than that, he’s been everything we expected him to be back in 2014.

The defense has been a disappointment though. The cornerback play hasn’t matched the depths. Patrick Surtain II gives up too many easy first down completions on our routes. Kyle Fuller has given up too may deep passes. The linebacker play is slow. They have a bottom six pass rush.

Yet, they are still in it because of their quarterback, fun power rushing attack led by two backs that break a ton of tackles, and their electric skill players. They are like Washington, but better. They have gotten more than they could have ever asked for from their quarterback; it’s the defense that hasn’t met expectations, and has limited their record.

12.) Los Angeles Chargers—Record: 5-3. Point Differential: -2 (19). DVOA: 3.1% (16). Previously 5th.

Since no one will admit it, I guess I will, Brandon Staley and Joe Lombardi have made Justin Herbert boring. One of the NFL’s great deep passers a year ago, a transcendent supernova, who unleashed bombs no one has ever thought of making before, is now tied 27th in air yards at 7.4. He’s only attempted 46 passes over 15 yards, and he of course has been bonkers, completing half of them for 670 yards and 4 touchdowns to 0 interceptions.

This is what happens when you chase efficiency. Cold and calculated. An insatiable lust for first downs. The never ending desire to be ahead of the sticks. Calculating expected completion rates for the quicker gummier routes, and neglecting the things that make Herbert incredible, and this offense move a season ago. Yeah, the right side of their offensive line is hurt, but even playing behind a bottom five one a year ago, Herbert still made throws like this over again and often. Take me back.

Los Angeles is still good, but they have limited a quarterback who should be a MVP candidate to merely top ten. The team isn’t without flaws either. Brandon Staley’s two high cover four defense has carried to the different franchise in the same city flawlessly, even without Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey. The problem is, just as we expected, the run defense is awful. They are last in the NFL, worse than Kansas City, in run defense DVOA at 5.5%, they’re only team other than New York (J) with a positive run defense DVOA, and they’re last in yards per carried allowed at 5.0. Las Vegas is the only team who didn’t run for a 100 yards on them, New England, Dallas, and Baltimore, allowed their run game to carry them in their wins over Los Angeles though.

27 points doesn’t cut it. They have to start scoring 30+ if they’re going to make the postseason.

11.) New England Patriots—Record: 5-4. Point Differential: +60 (5). DVOA: 7.3% (13). Previously 21st.

Mac Jones has been the best rookie quarterback this year. Leave it to New England to do what New York (J), Jacksonville, and Chicago haven’t done, build an offense their quarterback can somewhat run successfully. New England as a top run blocking offensive line that can run every scheme imaginable. Power, counter, pin and pull, inside zone, mid zone, DUO, lead, outside zone, it’s all here. The offensive line is fully healthy so they can now run the ball 40 times for 200 yards.

Jones is like Alex Smith without the wheels. He’s intelligent with great short accuracy and a quick release. He picks and pops passes across the short part of the field. Look at it. It’s the plutonic ideal of Mac Jones football.

The Patriots have a top pass defense again too, with their run defense climbing from the league worst, to average, now that Davon Godchaux and Christian Baremore have woken up, like some reverse Jupiterian hibernation. They have the cornerback play to play cover one, and can blitz behind it. Matt Judon has crushed it in this defense with 9 sacks, 10 tackles for a loss, and 16 quarterback hits. The finger sniffing celebration has to stop.

10.) Cincinnati Bengals—Record: 5-4. Point Differential: +33 (10). DVOA: -8.5% (22). Previously 14th.

The Bengals have gone from NFL darlings, back to the same old Bengals, after back to back disastrous losses. They just looked tared against the Jets, after chasing around Lamar Jackson the week before, and were run over by Cleveland, jet setted by a Denzel Ward pick six.

Entering this season we all wanted to like the Bengals, but no one thought they were going to be good, and now, no one really knows if they are good. I’m still buying them.

Cincinatti having a great outside zone attack has been one of the surprises of the season. Their tackle play has been great with Jonah Williams playing up to his first tackle selected pedigree in 2019, and Riley Reiff stabilizing the right tackle position. Joe Burrow’s arm is wet paper, but he has brains, accuracy, thrives in a chaotic pocket, and a horde of skill players in Ja’marr Chase, Tyler Boyd, C.J. Uzomah, Joe Mixon, and Tee Higgins, that make up for it. As long as they don’t play empty sets they’re incredible. Some people should be put to jail for their Penei Sewell takes. Bring on forced government censorship where we actually nee it.

Aesthetically, Trey Hendrickson and Sam Hubbard are the league’s best edge rushing duo since Von Miller and Demarcus Ware. Long arms, no gloves, one wears sleeves no matter the temperature, and the other doesn’t. Their wide bendy edges rushes work because of the interior push garnered by Larry Ogunjobi, a Matt Weston favorite, and D.J. Reader. Their defensive backs hit. The young linebackers they’ve accumulated over the years have finally turned youth into tangible performance.

I still like Cincy, but the rest of the schedule is rough. Their easiest opponent is San Francisco. Their season will be defined like the rest of the division, how they perform against the AFC North.

9.) Baltimore Ravens—Record: 6-2. Point Differential: +26 (13). DVOA: 13.4% (7). Previously 7th.

Lamar Jackson can finally throw the ball down the sideline. Although it takes the receiver to be wide open, and often, Marqise Brown drops it anyways, he’s finally making the throws he used to wag out of bounds, or put out of reach. It’s Lamar’s best season as a passer. Despite losing Ben Cleveland, J.K. Dobbins, Gus Edwards, Marcus Peters, and Ronnie Stanley, the Ravens are still pulling out wins. Jackson has carried a cursed season into something purple and glorious and brutal. The Ravens are 4-1 in one score games, have comeback when down from behind, and are led by their passing game. It’s a strange world.

WE SHOULD BE CONTENDERS

8.) Cleveland Browns—Record: 5-4. Point Differential: +28 (12). DVOA: 17.7% (6). Previously 8th.

There isn’t a team better when the Browns are on. They are a system offense. Every step carefully choreographed, every note hit with precision, even the can of soup in the corner of the shot is vital. Touchdown drives masterfully crafted. Creativity is a sin. Like the universe, everything is intelligently designed.

Problems arise when distraction and adversity crack through. If the tight end doesn’t set three yards outside the tackle before leaking to the hash mark for the screen, interceptions occur, if Nick Chubb only gets three yards on 2nd and 9, instead of five, forcing third and long, get ready to punt. Baker Mayfield is a system quarterback in its purest form. When everything is executed exactly as it should he continuously manages scoring drives. When there’s pass pressure, long third down situations, or the team is behind, all of that changes.

Mayfield hasn’t shown himself worthy of a long term extension. He still hasn’t won the big one. When the Browns have relied on him in close games he still hasn’t delivered. The talent is here, it’s the quarterback, it’s chaos, that are pulling them back.

7.) Green Bay Packers—Record: 7-2. Point Differential: +19 (14). DVOA: 3.4% (15). Previously 12th.

Here’s my Aaron Rodgers take. He knew he was caught for not taking the shot, and rather than admit it, he did the most Rodgers thing imaginable, torch the entire ship and say everything he could to make the most people mad as possible. It was a COVID outrage bingo card. The same talking points the same people get mad about online. Look outside your window. It’s beautiful outside. Joe Rogan, Ivermectin, I sent my own personal research, cold calculating speaking tone, beanie indoors, blood clots, mRNA allergens, Doc Holliday shirt, representing a 36 year old man who died of a respiratory disease, as a 37 year old man in perfect shape who doesn’t feel that bad diagnosed with a respiratory disease. Everyone now hates Rodgers for what he said. He merely finger wagged them into it.

Rodgers is the entirety of the Green Bay Packers. The rest of the team is fine, it’s average, but Rodgers is the scintillating that puts them over the edge. They’re going to be screwed once its Jordan Love’s team and he leaves for Carolina.

6.) Tennessee Titans—Record: 7-2. Point Differential: +44 (9). DVOA: 4.5% (14). Previously 15th.

AFC Madness. The NFL is a copycat league, and the Titans have infected the rest of the AFC with their dadaist version of football. Trick plays, Adrian Peterson, play action, an offensive line that is great even when Kendall Lamm and David Quessenberry are starting at right tackle, close wins, quarterback zone read game, coordinators who learned from their mistakes immediately and have put together incredible gameplans after a terrible first month, two tone blue jean uniforms, gigantic radioactive racoon.

The difference now is the Titans have a great defense. Their front four pass rush of Jeffrey Simmons, Harold Landry, Denico Autry, and Bud Dupree, have been bone collectors. Putting quarterbacks on their back, forcing inerrant passes, and allowing Kevin Byard and others to pounce on the poorly thrown. During their five game win streak they have forced eleven turnovers, and have capitalized on what the defense has handed over.

It always felt like if anyone could carry the ball 400 times in a single season, fight off injuries at the running back position, it would be Derrick Henry. Death comes for us all. A jones fracture has taken Henry away until maybe the postseason. In a way, this makes the Titans more interesting. How important is a Hall of Fame running back? I’ve always wanted to see them run more spread and empty sets with Ryan Tannehill, who has played like a MVP caliber quarterback before. Now we’re going to get in it. And in another way, this may help the Titans in a long run, they’ll be more comfortable playing in this style, instead of lost, and confused, when they find themselves down to Buffalo with 9:17 left to play, and are forced throwing their way back.

5.) Dallas Cowboys—Record: 6-2. Point Differential: +49 (6). DVOA: 20.4% (5). Previously 4th.

The Cowboys have it all. Incredible pass catchers, tackle breaking running backs, line of scrimmage moving offensive line, MVP quarterback, big play cornerbacks, hard hitting defensive backs, deep pass rush, and ranging linebackers. I can’t wait to see how they blow it in the postseason.

4.) Tampa Bay Buccaneers—Record: 6-2. Point Differential: +77 (3). DVOA: 31.9% (3). Previously 3rd.

The Bucs are really good. There’s nothing else to say. It’s the same team as last year. They’re just really good.

3.) Los Angeles Rams—Record: 7-2. Point Differential: +65 (4). DVOA: 27.4% (3). Previously 6th.

Matthew Stafford has been the best quarterback in the NFL this year. His deep throws are incredible. He’s leading the NFL in expected yards added, and is top three in every major statistical category. We’ve always wondered what Sean McVay could do when he didn’t have to scheme every throw, and make everything as simple as possible for his quarterback. We’ve seen it now.

2.) Buffalo Bills—Record: 5-3. Point Differential: +117 (2). DVOA: 27.4% (4). Previously 1st.

The Bills needed to run the table during the weak part in their schedule. Josh Allen won the Josh Allen bowl, by picking up an interception, a sack, a quarterback hit, a fumble recovery, and two tackles for loss, against their backup offensive line, and his stumble on the goal line against Tennessee, was the straw that finished them off on Monday night. I still can’t believe the Titans stopped him not once, but twice on a quarterback sneak.

Now they have games against New York (J), Indianapolis, New Orleans, New England, Carolina, New England, Atlanta, and New York (J), with their sole tough game against Tampa Bay. Mistakes like last week, even with a backup offensive line, can’t happen. Buffalo should be able to clinch a one-seed, forcing quarterbacks to do what quarterbacks only like Allen can, throw through the howling winds of New York.

They still need Allen to play better. He’s been above average, but he hasn’t been MVP caliber. The good news is he’s about where he’s at last year statistically, before turning it on in the second half of the season.

1.) Arizona Cardinals—Record: 8-1. Point Differential: +122 (1). DVOA: 34.3% (1). Previously 2nd.

Kyler Murray is a shrink ray. Tiny and rapidly shuffling. Scrambling backwards to create space. Throwing a football that looks like it’s a size too big for him, through defenders, high and rising, to his trio of electric receivers. Kliff Kingsbury figured out how to run the air raid in the NFL, after running an offense last season that focused entirely on quick outs to DeAndre Hopkins, and Murray scrambles. They’re everything we thought they could be. We were just a year early.