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

A look at teams 32-17, now that the NFL season is halfway done.

Dallas Cowboys v Minnesota Vikings Photo by Stephen Maturen/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 half of the season opens up and entropy ravages it. This list also includes each team’s record, point differential, and DVOA.

Here’s Part One.

THE WORST

32.) Houston Texans—Record: 1-8. Point Differential: -130 (32). DVOA: -31.3% (30). Previously 27th.

The king has finally taken back its crown. After beating the Jaguars by 16 in Week One, Houston has lost seven in a row by a combined total of 146 points. Davis Mills was atrocious, making three throws that weren’t replicable. The same problems we saw at Stanford were still here in Houston. Lousy pocket presence, pinched urethra accuracy, slightly above average arm strength, middling athleticism, all with the ability to only make a handful of throws. Screen passes (barely!), quick outs, curls, comebacks, and slants. That’s it. Mills’ best trait in college was throwing the ball with touch down the sideline. Tim Kelly didn’t trust him enough to scheme these throws. As a result, Houston has a league worst offense. These are the highlights.

TyGOD Taylor returned last week and was rustier than belongings left behind in the Mojave Desert. Houston was unprepared for a high blitz defense despite saying they knew they were playing a high blitz defense. Despite the opponent, Houston debuted a brand new offensive line combination that, of course, failed and crushed Taylor and Houston’s entire offense. Taylor was fine without pressure; with it, he looked like Davis Mills. Crunched and helpless, somehow the Texans are even worse than I thought they were. At least we have games against the Jets and Jaguars left to provide us some utility.

The only good thing I can say about the Texans is they force turnovers. A fluky statistic that varies year to year. Lonnie Johnson Jr. caught the ones thrown to him. They have a high fumble recovery rate. Their defense can’t get stops because it’s an old unit, lacking true impact players and depth that gave up on their archaic scheme and have had to change their defense on the fly entirely. But hey, at least they can scoop the ball up.

One of the few things this franchise is good at is locking down the number one pick. Since they were handed it in 2002, they clinched it in 2005 and drafted Mario Williams. In 2014, they drafted Jadeveon Clowney, and now, here in 2021, when they finally have their first overall pick again, they will embrace tradition and lock it down again. Of course, this is a season that lacks a no doubt number one selection. It’s just the Texans’ luck.

The good news is they will be here again next year, and maybe the year after too.

31.) Detroit Lions—Record: 0-8. Point Differential: -110 (31). DVOA: -32.8% (32). Previously 29th.

The Lions are atrocious, they’re terrible, they’re the football equivalent of the turkey baster scene from Don’t Breathe. Jared Goff has received what he deserves in his Los Angeles after life. After being carried by Daddy reading the defenses for him at the line of scrimmage, taking the outside zone to the next level, and his receivers generating yards after the catch, Goff has been dragged to hell. There are no pineapples in these drinks. It’s the steel swill of malt liquor. His sandals have been turned into steel toed boots, and he doesn’t know what to do.

The highlight of this season was supposed to be their offensive line, but it has been injured. Frank Ragnow is out for the year. Taylor Decker hurt a finger, forcing Penei Sewell to shift from right to left tackle, and thrusting Matt Nelson in the spotlight. Jonah Jackson stepping up, along with D’Andre Swift turning into Reggie Bush, have been the best parts of the offense.

It’s a rebuild though. Goff’s contract was a prerequisite for balancing the money for the Matthew Stafford trade to happen. One first round pick for Stafford. The other for Goff’s contract. They are also having to spend this year playing through the atrocious contracts given out during the Matt Patricia era; ridiculous decisions to make the team big and tough to stop the run, to still be one of the worst run defenses in football.

It still isn’t completely terrible. Their Pythagorean win total is 1.6. They’re 0-3 in one score games. It took a 66 yard field goal after a 4th and 19 to conversion to lose to Baltimore. Kirk Cousins led a game winning drive against them. The highlight of the season are the three special teams plays they made to keep things close against Los Angeles.

They shouldn’t be 0-8. Go Loins.

30.) New York Jets—Record: 2-6. Point Differential: -107 (30). DVOA: -29.5% (29). Previously 31st.

Alijah Vera-Tucker (#75) has been my favorite offensive rookie to watch this year. The pass protection skills at left tackle have carried over to guard. He’s already a premier outside zone blocker, who can make every block in this scheme. He’ll be on Pro Fartball Focus top offensive linemen lists. They just need to get the lazy Mekhi Becton back to build out the left side of their offensive line.

Mike LaFleur hasn’t run the offense expected from the limbs he sprang from. It hasn’t been built around boots and play action that counter the outside zone. Zach Wilson has been wrecked playing from behind, against an invisible right side of the offensive line, playing the role of their daredevil, providing flashes instead of consistent competent quarterback play.

This is the worst defense by DVOA even though it doesn’t feel that way. Jonathan Franklin-Myers has made the leap. Quinnen Williams has proved last year isn’t a fluke, and he’s a front seven anchor. Folorunso Fatukasi has been lite version of 2013 Linval Joseph. Sheldon Rankins has shown pre-Achilles tear juice. Quincy Williams turns bodies into goop. The problem is they don’t have a defensive back younger than 25, with Marcus Maye being their only good one. The pieces are here. It’s something another offseason and the return of Carl Lawson could fix.

29) Jacksonville Jaguars—Record: 2-6. Point Differential: -77 (28). DVOA: -22.6% (27). Previously 32nd.

Trevor Lawrence hasn’t been the best rookie quarterback, but he’s had the highest highs. He’s national park sublime. Slants that fit between the flat and the hook. Deep curls to the sideline from the opposite hash. The propensity to hang in the pocket and deliver to play through the pass rush. Luscious locks. He’s been everything he was at Clemson.

This was the worst coached team in the league, that has gotten better. Urban Myer has been better at fondling Ohio women than running a NFL team, and working to build an offense that attacks an opponents weaknesses. It took the man a month to realize that, yes, James Robinson is great. Jamal Agnew is what we wanted Laviska Shenault to be this year. At least they finally found a tight end in Dan Arnold.

28.) Washington Football Team—Record: 2-6. Point Differential: -71 (26). DVOA: -15.7% (24). Previously 19th.

The league’s biggest disappointment has been Washington’s defense. Adding another year of roasting to their front, drafting Jamin Davis, signing Williams Jackson III hasn’t been enough. They’ve been a zone coverage team who don’t execute it well. The man match coverages have been especially atrocious. Kamren Curl has been sloshed out of position with the return of Landon Collins. All in all, they’ve gone from to 3rd in defensive DVOA at -18.3% to 30th at 13.4%.

It hasn’t been because of their front four, who have turned it on the past few weeks. Chase Young, Daron Payne, Montez Sweat, and Josh Allen, have combined for 13.5 sacks, 41 quarterback hits, 65 pressures, and 16 tackles for a loss. Last season they had a pressure rate of 25.9% tied ninth, and this year it is 26.3% which is tenth. Young has been the worst of the four, showcasing his chest, and getting latched on early in his pass rushes.

They’ve gotten everything they could want from Taylor Heinicke. If Washington had a top ten defense, Heinicke has been more than good enough to be a playoff caliber team. As we all know, he isn’t going to lead a team on his own. The thing that was supposed to be great hasn’t, so here we are. OUR Football team is now their football team.

27.) Miami Dolphins—Record: 2-7. Point Differential: -87 (29). DVOA: -23.0% (28). Previously 30th.

I kind of like Tu’a Tagovailoa. He’s a quirky, God I hate that word, quarterback. He’s the New Girl of NFL quarterbacks. The left hand makes him singular. He can throw slants, flats, swings, drags, posts, and the seam well and with precision. Miami has a pretty RPO game. Jaylen Waddle is the perfect quarterback for Tua. They Tunsiled themselves by trading a first for him, which maybe a top five pick, especially if Tua isn’t part of their long term plans. The problem are the five poor decisions he makes a game, the enormous hits he takes, and the injury problems. If it isn’t the hip, it’s the ribs, and if isn’t the ribs, then it’s the fingers. It’s terrible he only has one NFL caliber offensive lineman in front of him.

Losing him crushed their season, something expected, and the reason why you have to have a better backup than Jacoby Brissett, who is a bottom five quarterback unless he’s playing the Houston Texans. Like Washington, the defense has tanked them too. It’s the same high blitz defense, but they’ve had injury problems at cornerback. Byron Jones is hitting the wall, Xavien Howard has allowed six touchdowns, and their third first round pick in 2020 Noah Igbinoghene can’t find the field, to bridge the past to the present, and the present to the future. Despite their high blitz rate they can’t generate pressure because they can’t cover like they used to.

They made all the right decisions to stock pile picks and assets to rebuild. They knocked out their free agency a year ago. If they could do it again, I’m sure they would, they just might have picked the wrong players.

26.) Chicago Bears—Record: 3-6. Point Differential: -74 (27). DVOA: -15.9% (25). Previously 25th.

QB1. Infamous words for the addition of Andy Dalton, who was knocked out playing behind a crappy offensive line, and lacking skill players to create quick and easy throws. Justin Fields is leading an offense that has scored an average of 16.5 points a game in his starts. You’d think they’d use him as a runner more, but they don’t. You’d think the Chicago Bears would do a lot of things they don’t do. Fields having his best game of the year without Jim Nagy is perfect. Similar to Lawrence, the highs are mountainous peaks, and the lows are something you find after entering the portal to hell.

25.) Atlanta Falcons—Record: 4-4. Point Differential: -45 (25). DVOA: -32.7% (31). Previously 28th.

Arthur Smith being the architect to finally morph Coradarelle Patterson into a great player is something I’m disgusted with myself for missing. Patterson is a great cutback runner in the outside zone game, and follows his lead blockers perfectly. Who knew all those kick returns would pull off. He is also a wide receiver, with three games with a 100% catch rate, and is returning kicks for them as well. He does each and every single thing. He’s everything Arthur Smith wanted Jonnu Smith to be.

One of the strange developments of this season is Matt Ryan creating late into progressions. He dodges pass rushers, escapes from the pocket, and turns something into nothing. He’s 36 going on 23 this year.

I was hoping Smith’s absurd redzone touchdown rate would carry to Atlanta. They are 11th at 63%. They are the only team with a 100% scoring rate in the redzone though. It’s a process. I know next year will be different.

THE MEDIOCRE

24.) Carolina PanthersRecord: 4-5. Point Differential: -12 (22). DVOA: -19.2% (26). Previously 16th.

Carolina was too good for Teddy Bridgewater. Frustrated by him throwing short of the sticks, the inability to win close games, and dogged by a Christian McCaffrey injury, they moved him to Denver. Their big quarterback decision was to trade a second round pick for Sam Darnold. They signed Cameron Erving and Pat Elflein early in the offseason. We know what Darnold looks like playing behind an awful offensive line. The Panthers decided to replicate it, thinking if they did it, the same set of circumstances would turn out entirely different. They did not.

Similar to last year, the McCaffrey injury tanked their season. Gone was their source of easy offense. Darnold didn’t have a fail safe on every play. Holding onto the ball, cycling through reads, opening the door for disaster to strike. Occasional stinky wafts were there, carrying over from his time in New York. He’s entirely decomposed now. He’s rotten.

23.) New York Giants—Record: 3-6. Point Differential: -37 (24). DVOA: -12.0% (23). Previously 22nd.

The Giants have cornerback speed. They can run with vertical passing attacks, like the ones Kansas City and Las Vegas deploy. Running with vertical routes, picking off passes, creating interior pressure, with great safety play to pair with it, the defense has been pretty good. They beat Las Vegas with Daniel Jones throwing for less than 100 yards.

There could be some Ryan Tannehill possibility with Jones here. Like Tannehill, who was trapped in an Adam Gase suckhole, Jones is going through the same thing in New York. Joe Judge is a suspended cop relegated to desk duty. Stupid red arm braces. Contorted scowl. Jason Garrett, that’s coach Garrett to you, still doesn’t understand Jones’s best skill is his deep passing ability. He’s attempted only 40 passes over 15 yards, ranked 21st, despite starting every game in New York. 19 of them have been completed and he’s averaging 13.4 yards an attempt on these throws. The offensive line hasn’t allowed them to run the ball like they desire, and similar to Houston, and Miami, they’ve dumped resources into it without results.

Next year will be a new iteration of the Giants. Come on down Bill O’Brien. I heard he can be the general manager and the head coach. That’s both versatility and efficiency.

22.) Philadelphia Eagles—Record: 3-6. Point Differential: +9 (16). DVOA: 1.2% (18). Previously 20th.

Jalen Hurts loves the football. He hates getting rid of it. He can’t stand being away form it. He’s second in the NFL in average time to throw at 3.06 seconds. He’ll look and look and look and look, nothing, then look and look and look and look, still nothing, then look and look and look and look, then casually leave the pocket and pick up eight yards on the ground. The brain is a little slow. He’s a real see it and throw it quarterback. Anticipation is overrated anyways.

21.) San Francisco 49ers—Record: 3-5. Point Differential: -17 (23). DVOA: 13.0% (9). Previously 13th.

I never watched Trey Lance play a down of football at North Dakota State. I saw cute little Twitter clips of scintillating deep passes. Balls plopped in the right spot. A beautiful athlete. Reminiscing on Roger Griffin III’s rookie season in a Kyle Shanahan offense, I was ready for more of the same. Then I watched Lance play. My imagination was devastated. He runs right into tackles, he can’t run through anyone, he cowardly tuckers into contact, he can’t break a tackle. It’s depressing and terrible. I can’t take it.

I guess this is the sort of thing that happens when you sit out for a year.

We all hoped with better injury luck, and a hot new rookie quarterback, the 49ers would banish Jimmy Garapollo, no I will never learn how to spell it, and perk back up to Super Bowl contender. Instead they have to play him because the rookie isn’t an option, and they’ve suffered through injuries all over again.

20.) Indianapolis Colts—Record: 4-5. Point Differential: +32 (11). DVOA: 11.3% (10). Previously 26th.

Everyone wants to Tweet about football, and talk about football, and be right about football, but no one wants to watch football. You know you can, like, just watch football. After finding their way back to .500 Carson Wentz was resuscitated by the media. Box score sniffing. Highlight watching. He hadn’t thrown an interception in 100+ passes, despite throwing multiple dropped interceptions. Wentz wasn’t the problem; it was the coaching.

Indy tumbled back to where they belong against Tennessee. Wentz threw two terrible interceptions, showcasing his true form, like an enormous disgusting being out of antler powder. The nonsense turned down to a stop.

The statistics say one thing, but the truth is entirely different. They’ve beat crappy teams by big scoring margins. Miami by 10, Houston by 28, San Fransisco in the rain by 12 after recovering two fumbles and enormous defensive pass interference penalties, and New York (J) by 15. Beat bad teams by big margins and this is what happens. If you watch the Colts you know the truth.

19.) Pittsburgh Steelers—Record: 5-3. Point Differential: -8 (21). DVOA: 0.2% (19). Previously 24th.

I can’t believe this crappy Steelers team is going to make the postseason. They are the exact same team as last year, with the same problems, they’re just worse. At least their rag tag offensive line has come together, I love watching Kendrick Green block, and Najee Harris was worth a first round pick. He’s carried the run offense from terrible to acceptable.

Yes, the defense is still incredible. The front seven is murdersome. Somehow, after being in the league for fifteen years, Cameron Heyward is playing the best ball of his career. Watching them lose in some stupid way in the Wildcard Round is the only silver lining in a season where we can’t find a silver lining.

18.) Seattle Seahawks—Record: 3-5. Point Differential: +12 (15). DVOA: 9.1% (12). Previously 11th.

I’ve always liked Geno Smith. I felt bad when he got punched once upon a time. Watching the Smith v. Derek Carr coach’s film in 2014 was a moment that will always reside in me at the end of that torturous summer. I’m glad he’s been fine after backing up Russell Wilson for all these years. Seattle has lost two one score games, and pelted Jacksonville. The big downside are the number of sacks he’s taken. Wilson could have at least let him borrow his wand.

Wilson is back this week against Green Bay. Seattle has a chance to still make the postseason, especially with the stupid #7 seed. Damn I hate that. They also have games against Arizona, @Washington, San Francisco, @Houston, @Los Angeles (R), Chicago, Detroit, @Arizona. It’s the 13th toughest schedule by DVOA, but they have five winnable games.

17.) Minnesota Vikings—Record: 3-5. Point Differential: +3 (18). DVOA: 4.3% (13). Previously 18th.

It’s disgusting. I can’t believe I’m saying this. I want to cut my fingers off, and wrap my tongue around a hornets nest, until it’s enormous, purple, bloated and leaking, swelling up into my brain, until it loses enough oxygen to choke off the portion responsible for speech, so I can never talk again. Kirk Cousins is now underrated.

He has a completion percentage of 68.2%, has thrown 16 touchdowns to 2 interceptions, and is first in sack rate. He’s fifth in DVOA, and sixth in DYAR. The offensive line has come together. Their screen game is great. Aside from Dallas jumping gaps to control their boot game, they’ve had a killer play action attack. Like father, like son. It’s the season Minnesota has always wanted from Cousins.

Mike Zimmer is a warlock. It took a single season to switch the Vikings into a top ten pass defense. The fat bodies on the interior haven’t helped the run game as much as expected. Minnesota is a full moon for Everson Griffen and he’s back to being a werewolf, this time he’s chubbier. It’s going to drop off without Danielle Hunter.

Their downfall is they’re 2-5 in one score games. Their two wins in overtime. A clincher against Carolina, where Cousins hit K.J. Osborne down the sideline after Greg Joseph missed a game winning kick in overtime, and the other where Joseph actually made the game winner, requiring it because an Alexander Mattison fumble nearly gave the game away. Five losses all by one score.