1. New England Patriots (6-2) | Last week: 1
After their bye week, the Patriots return to face one of their toughest opponents over the years. Tom Brady is 3-7 in his career at Denver (including playoffs), so the bye might’ve come at the right time for some extra preparation against a defense with a lot of great players on it. With the Chiefs looking vulnerable as of late and the Patriots having a lot of success against the Steelers, New England is the clear AFC favorite right now.
2. Philadelphia Eagles (8-1) | Last week: 2
I thought the Broncos might have been a tough test for the Eagles offensively, but Philadelphia did whatever they wanted both on the ground and through the air in a blowout victory. Carson Wentz leads the NFL in touchdown passes, and they have one of the deepest running back rotations in the league. Now at 8-1, the Eagles enter their bye week and their confidence can’t be much higher.
3. Minnesota Vikings (6-2) | Last week: 4 (+1)
Minnesota’s bye week gave them more time to get healthy, particularly at the quarterback position with Teddy Bridgewater. Bridgewater is now activated to the 53-man roster, but it’s expected to be Case Keenum as the starter for now while the team is rolling. Unfortunately, Sam Bradford’s knee hasn’t been able to get to the point where he can play, and he had a knee scope that has sent him to Injured Reserve. Bradford probably gives the Vikings the best shot at winning the whole thing, given his comfortability with offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur and the elite level of play he’s shown when he’s been on the field for the Vikings—so this is just an unfortunate situation all around. However, Keenum has been playing well, and Bridgewater is extremely underrated. I think both, particularly Bridgewater (who loved coming out of Louisville and thought he was an easy top-five pick), could lead the Vikings deep in the playoffs—it’d be quite the story if Bridgewater came back and took them all the way.
4. Pittsburgh Steelers (6-2) | Last week: 5 (+1)
Over the bye week, 20-year-old rookie receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster got his drivers license. He and his team will look to keep the good times going as the face the Colts this Sunday—a team they destroyed in November of last year. Antonio Brown had three touchdowns in that one, and Le’Veon Bell added another on the ground in the convincing win; and Pittsburgh also blew out Indy in 2014 and 2015, so it’s safe to say they’re confident heading into Week 10.
5. Kansas City Chiefs (6-3) | Last week: 3 (-2)
The Chiefs were off to a scorching start to the season, but they’ve lost three of their last four and are now in a battle for their division after it looked like it was going to be locked up quickly. Kansas City’s issue might be the running game, as teams have limited Kareem Hunt to 47.8 rushing yards per game the last four games after he averaged 121.8 per game in the first five games. Alex Smith is still playing like an MVP, despite throwing his first interception of the season versus Dallas, but the running game needs to get going for the Chiefs to be that elite offense we saw early in the year. A strong running game would also take pressure off the defense.
6. Tennessee Titans (5-3) | Last week: 7 (+1)
Baltimore did a nice job of limiting the Titans on the ground on Sunday, but Marcus Mariota and the offense did enough while the defense played very well in a three-point victory that didn’t seem as close as the score indicated. Safety Kevin Byard now has a mind-blowing five interceptions in his last two games, and he said it feels like he’s in a zone, comparing it to when your NBA 2K character gets red/hot when you start making a lot of shots in the video game. I don’t know where these guys think of this stuff, but it sounds like an excellent analogy from one of the league’s hottest players.
7. New Orleans Saints (6-2) | Last week: 8 (+1)
They aren’t putting up spectacular passing numbers this season (Drew Brees isn’t on pace to hit 30 touchdown passes, which would be the first time that happens in ten years), but the Saints are playing very well on defense while running the ball with Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara. Already with a win over the Panthers, and with the Falcons struggling, New Orleans is the favorite in the NFC South. It’ll be interesting to see how they play against a tough Bills defense this Sunday.
8. Los Angeles Rams (6-2) | Last week: 10 (+2)
Their losses are by seven and six points, and they’ve pretty much completely dominated everyone else this season. The Rams are giving up under 20 points per game while scoring a league-high 32.8 points per game, which would be tenth in NFL history, and they probably won’t slow down that much. LA has a confident second-year quarterback in Jared Goff, perhaps the league’s best runner in Todd Gurley, one of the league’s best group of receivers, a much-improved offensive line, and perhaps the league’s best defensive coordinator coaching a talented unit.
9. Dallas Cowboys (5-3) | Last week: 12 (+3)
The Ezekiel Elliott saga continues, and it’s possible a final answer for his 2017 status will be revealed before this Sunday against the Falcons. If he is out, second-year quarterback Dak Prescott, in my opinion, has shown he can still win a lot of games without Zeke in the backfield. Dallas’ defense is very clearly better with linebacker Sean Lee on the field, but it feels like they might have some trouble with Atlanta’s offense on Sunday. We’ll see, but a 6-3 record heading into a Week 11 showdown with the 8-1 Eagles would be huge.
10. Carolina Panthers (6-3) | Last week: 13 (+3)
Carolina’s first game without Kelvin Benjamin went well, as it seemed to spread the offense out more and allow other guys more room to make plays. Christian McCaffrey was given a season-high in carries (15) against the Falcons, and he showed he can do damage between the tackles when given enough opportunities. The entire narrative about McCaffrey being a gadget player that isn’t a running back is flat-out wrong.
11. Atlanta Falcons (4-4) | Last week: 6 (-5)
Julio Jones shockingly dropped a wide-open would-be touchdown on a deep ball in the fourth quarter against the Panthers in what was a big difference in the three-point game. It’s probably something we’ll never see from Jones again, and the All-Pro receiver will likely come out this week and have a monster game versus Dallas. In Jones’ only two matchups with the Cowboys, he caught five passes for 129 yards and 12 passes for 164 yards and two touchdowns. He should be somewhere in that range as the Falcons look to start the second half of their season with a win.
12. Seattle Seahawks (5-3) | Last week: 9 (-3)
Sometimes, teams just play well defensively against the Seahawks, and it’s probably because Russell Wilson scrambles around so much because of his offensive line. One of his two interceptions against the Redskins came on a scramble where he threw and ill-advised pass to the other side of the field right to linebacker Will Compton, who was dropped in coverage. If Seattle gets offense, defense, and special teams to play great, they can beat anyone in any game, but inconsistencies are an obvious concern.
13. Jacksonville Jaguars (5-3) | Last week: 14 (+1)
The turnaround for the Jaguars continues with Tom Coughlin and Doug Marrone in charge, and their fifth win of the season came without Leonard Fournette. I commend Jacksonville for taking charge and not allowing their talented rookie back to bend the rules—it sets a standard that all players must follow, and we saw Coughlin kind of allow Odell Beckham Jr. to get out of control during the end of his tenure with the Giants. The Jags roster is strong enough that they can get by while sitting perhaps their best player.
14. Detroit Lions (4-4) | Last week: 18 (+4)
Matthew Stafford might’ve had his best game of the season while completing nearly 80% of his passes for 361 yards and a couple of touchdowns to Marvin Jones Jr. against the Packers, and it was a needed victory for the Lions. Now at .500 in a crowded NFC entering the second half of the season, the Lions have these final eight games to get to the playoffs for the second year in a row.
15. Buffalo Bills (5-3) | Last week: 15
Thursday night games are sometimes whacky, and against the Jets, the Bills defense didn’t look anything like they have for most of the season. Buffalo struggled to make tackles as the Jets hung 34 points on them to prevent a 6-2 start. It’s safe to say head coach Sean McDermott will have his guys ready to play this week against the Saints, but it certainly won’t be an easy win against perhaps the league’s hottest team.
16. Washington Redskins (4-4) | Last week: 23 (+7)
There are no must-win games this early in the seaon, but the Redskins’ win over the Seahawks in Seattle might’ve turned around their season. Kirk Cousins showed extreme toughness throughout the game, taking big hits while delivering strikes to his receivers to keep drives going—and I would like to see if Washington improves offensively as the receivers gain more chemistry with Cousins. However, guys have had trouble staying healthy and staying consistent, which is part of why the Redskins are at .500 and far behind the Eagles in the NFC East race.
17. Los Angeles Chargers (3-5) | Last week: 20 (+3)
The bye week came at the right time for the Chargers, as they face what has been by far the league’s best pass defense when they face the Jaguars this Sunday. Philip Rivers is the type of quarterback that might end up hanging 350 yards in the tough matchup, and it’d be huge as the Chargers head into their second half of the year. Look for running back Melvin Gordon, who had the bye to get healthier while being banged up all season, to get a sizeable workload against a Jacksonville team that’s much weaker against the run than against the pass.
18. Oakland Raiders (4-5) | Last week: 21 (+3)
Conspiracy theories aren’t really my thing, but the rumors about the Raiders offensive line not blocking well for quarterback Derek Carr are compelling. While watching that Sunday night game against the Redskins in which Carr got hurt, I remember thinking about how poorly the Raiders normally stout offensive line was playing. At the time, I thought maybe they were too concerned about the Anthem protests, but if they did indeed not go all-out to protect their quarterback it’s a major problem. Oakland has a bye this week, so perhaps it’ll die down by the time they play again.
19. Baltimore Ravens (4-5) | Last week: 16 (-3)
A loss to the Titans dropped them to 4-5, but the Ravens are a team to look out for over the last several weeks of the regular season. The bye week will allow them to regroup and get things right, and they might be favored in their final seven games aside from the Week 14 matchup with the Steelers—which could be the biggest of the season for Baltimore. The Ravens haven’t been among the AFC’s elite for a few years, but they aren’t a franchise to bet against.
20. Miami Dolphins (4-4) | Last week: 17 (-3)
Jay Cutler looked excellent in Miami’s loss to the Raiders, so that was a major positive to take from the game despite the 4-4 record. Third-year receiver DeVante Parker returning had a big impact on the offense, as the monster receiver’s presence on the outside makes things easier for everyone else. And Kenyan Drake (aside from his fumble, which he bounced back from) and Damien Williams looked really good in their first game without Jay Ajayi in the backfield. This Monday night against Carolina will be tough, but a win would give the Dolphins a ton of momentum down the stretch.
21. Chicago Bears (3-5) | Last week: 24 (+3)
The bye week for the Bears gave rookie quarterback Mitchell Trubisky some more time to study and get comfortable with the offense, and offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains might’ve thought up some plays and designs to improve on that side of the ball. Defensively, Chicago’s unit should keep them in almost every game, and they’ll look to get back in the NFC North race with back-to-back matchups versus Green Bay and Detroit.
22. Arizona Cardinals (4-4) | Last week: 27 (+5)
It has been enjoyable watching Bruce Arians allow 32-year-old Adrian Peterson to try and put the offense on his back to help keep the team in it while dealing with injuries. If the defense can get back near the elite level it’s been at in the past, the Cardinals might be able to save the season and compete for at least a wild card spot in a balanced NFC. Again, there are no must-wins this early, but Thursday night against Seattle could decide how Arizona’s second half of the season goes.
23. New York Jets (4-5) | Last week: 28 (+5)
Todd Bowles better be back in 2018 for the Jets, as he’s already gotten as many wins as many expected coming into the season and his team is playing hard every week. If the Jets keep it up, Bowles will be in consideration for Coach of the Year, even if his team doesn’t make the playoffs. No one is talking about it, but quarterback Josh McCown is playing some really good football right now and was a great choice to add to the team in the offseason.
24. Green Bay Packers (4-4) | Last week: 19 (-5)
Green Bay lost its third straight game including two in a row at Lambeau, but there are some positives to take from the end of their Monday night loss to the Lions. Brett Hundley looked more comfortable when going to the no-huddle offense late in the game, and he just looked more comfortable overall as the game progressed. Remember, he hasn’t been playing much over his first three years in the NFL, and players typically get better with more experience.
25. Denver Broncos (3-5) | Last week: 22 (-3)
Vance Joseph’s first year as Denver’s head coach is not going well after a good start, as it looked like the Broncos basically stopped playing hard in the beating they took from the Eagles. A defense with the talent Denver has shouldn’t give up 51 points in a game, and the defensive-minded Joseph will need to get things turned around quick with the Patriots coming to town this Sunday night.
26. Houston Texans (3-5) | Last week: 11 (-15)
After losing Deshaun Watson to an ACL tear and falling to the Colts, the Texans have by far the biggest drop in the power rankings. Watson has quickly become one of the most important players in the NFL for his team, as his poise and ability to create is something that cannot be replaced. Tom Savage should do a fine job for Houston, but it’ll be difficult to make the playoffs with the injury-plagued defense not carrying them like they did for much of last year.
27. Cincinnati Bengals (3-6) | Last week: 25 (-2)
Seeing the normally mild-mannered A.J. Green do what he did to Jalen Ramsey was a surprise, but I would think Ramsey deserved it for Green to beat him up like that. Thankfully, he avoided a suspension and will be on the field this week against the Titans as the Bengals look to bounce back and get on a roll. Rookie Joe Mixon taking over as a near-workhorse in the backfield should lead to some highlight-reel plays, and it could spark the Bengals moving forward.
28. Indianapolis Colts (3-6) | Last week: 29 (+1)
T.Y. Hilton continued his dominance of the Texans, as the Colts picked up their second win of the season behind his 175 yards and two touchdowns, including a smart play to get up and run for a score after not getting touched on a dive over a defender. Jacoby Brissett will have these final seven games to get a lot of great experience and be even more ready to go in the event of another Andrew Luck injury.
29. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-6) | Last week: 26 (-3)
The Buccaneers are simply self-destructing, as Jameis Winston and Mike Evans—two of their best players—acted like idiots in their loss to the Saints on Sunday. Evans got a one game suspension for his cheapshot on corner Marshon Lattimore between plays after Winston poked him in the helmet while injured on the sidelines. You simply cannot have anyone, but particularly your team leaders, doing stuff like that. Winston is now out for at least the next couple of weeks as he rehabs his shoulder, and this season might already be over just halfway through for Tampa Bay.
30. New York Giants (1-7) | Last week: 30
There isn’t much good to say about the Giants right now, and as the weeks go by it seems more likely that head coach Ben McAdoo will not be back with the team next season. Eli Manning could also be nearing the end with the Giants, as the team is very likely going to have a high draft pick that could be used on a quarterback. They probably want to see what third-round rookie Davis Webb can do—or even Geno Smith in this offense—but it’d be a shame to see Manning benched.
31. San Francisco 49ers (0-9) | Last week: 31
The best opportunity for the 49ers to get a win might come this Sunday against the Giants, but Jimmy Garoppolo is still not expected to start for the team yet. However, rookie C.J. Beathard has shown some admirable toughness since he’s taken over as the starter, and it’s getting noticed. Garoppolo is the future, but it’s not problem at all to have Beathard get a few more starts to groom him as a potentially excellent backup for next season and beyond.
32. Cleveland Browns (0-8) | Last week: 32
The Browns didn’t suffer a loss this week, as it was their bye, and they now have eight week to try and avoid a loss on the field while avoiding an 0-16 record. Getting former All-Pro receiver Josh Gordon back on the field as early as Week 13 could be some major reinforcement to make it happen. On the field, there’s no question about Gordon’s ability—so we’ll see if he can avoid trouble and actually get on the field again.