1. New England Patriots (6-2) | Last week: 1
Any talk of Bill Belichick and the Patriots getting rid of all-time great Tom Brady sometime soon was put to rest, as Jimmy Garoppolo was traded to the 49ers almost as late as possible, with his contract expiring after the season. Despite speculation, there was not much doubt New England would be going with Brady moving forward. He’s said he wants to play into his mid-40s, and the greatest ever is getting better as he gets older—not worse. Just this past Sunday, the 40-year-old launched a pass 70 yards in the air in another win over the Chargers, and doing stuff like that at this age just doesn’t happen by accident—Brady might be the most-committed athlete out there. The Patriots are wise not to doubt Brady and his methods, as they’ll always be Super Bowl favorites when he’s on the field.
2. Philadelphia Eagles (7-1) | Last week: 2
Perhaps the most surprising trade before the deadline was made by the Eagles, who acquired Jay Ajayi from the Dolphins for a fourth-round selection. Philadelphia already had a deep backfield, but now they suddenly have a near-1,300-yard rusher from last season to pair with LeGarrette Blount and the rest of the group. This is a move that should help big-time a potential playoff run, as it’s important to pound the rock and play good defense in January. In Week 8, it was a bit of a concern to see Carson Wentz get pressured so much by the 49ers, and I’m curious about how the offense performs against the Denver defense this Sunday.
3. Kansas City Chiefs (6-2) | Last week: 3
After a two-game skid, the Chiefs came back with a convincing win over the Broncos on Monday night. There was some consideration to putting them up to number one or number two in the rankings (they did beat both New England and Philadelphia), but for now, the Chiefs stay at number three. Alex Smith is probably my MVP pick at about the halfway mark in the season, and he’s on pace for 32 touchdowns and zero interceptions. Comical, considering the negative people that have no idea what they are talking about always claimed Smith wasn’t a good quarterback.
4. Minnesota Vikings (6-2) | Last week: 4
Sam Bradford is in the same class with Smith—an excellent quarterback that gets wrongly criticized despite going through a number of coordinators and coaches and still playing great football. But unfortunately, Bradford’s knee isn’t cooperating on a team that has Super Bowl aspirations. Case Keenum continues to do a good job in relief, and this quarterback situation is going to get very intriguing heading into the team’s bye week. Teddy Bridgewater, who I also believe is extremely underrated, might be activated soon; so it might be a race between Bradford and his health, as Bridgewater might take the job and not look back. If all three are healthy, Bradford probably offers the most upside, slightly, over Bridgewater.
5. Pittsburgh Steelers (6-2) | Last week: 5
Matthew Stafford and the Lions found some big holes in the Steelers defense on Sunday night, but Pittsburgh gave up no touchdowns and didn’t break despite giving up a ton of yardage. It was probably the type of performance that can give them a ton of confidence moving forward, but there’s concern about some of the better quarterbacks in the league being able to carve them up moving forward. Part of the reason the Steelers are never really closer to the top three is because I don’t see Tom Brady and the Patriots not lighting up their defense.
6. Atlanta Falcons (4-3) | Last week: 6
It was a close one, but the Falcons were able to end their three-game losing streak (all against the AFC East) and picked up a win over the Jets on Sunday. The offense appears to be headed in the right direction, but this week will be a huge test against Luke Kuechly and the Panthers. Atlanta completely blew out Carolina in both games last season, and doing it again might give them a lot of momentum heading into a tough stretch in the schedule.
7. Tennessee Titans (4-3) | Last week: 7
The bye week came just at the right time for the Titans, as it gave time for Marcus Mariota, DeMarco Murray, and others (including fifth-overall pick Corey Davis) to get healthy. If Mariota and Murray are both closer to 100%, the offense might become one of the league’s most explosive. On defense, it’ll be interesting to see how they perform against a physical Ravens team that’ll likely try to run the ball on them this Sunday.
8. New Orleans Saints (5-2) | Last week: 8
Make it five in a row for the Saints, as they are taking advantage of this three-out-of-four home stretch after their bye week. While they take on the Bucs in the Superdome, the Falcons and Panthers will be battling, meaning the Saints will have a chance to create some separation on a couple of NFC South teams over the weekend. There’s still a lot of season left, but this stretch by New Orleans shows why you shouldn’t always immediately get rid of a great coach after some subpar years.
9. Seattle Seahawks (5-2) | Last week: 10 (+1)
Russell Wilson again showed what a magician he is in Seattle’s thrilling win over the Texans, as he threw for 452 yards and four touchdowns without the presence of a running game. The addition of left tackle Duane Brown should help give Wilson more time in the pocket while also improving the running game. Seattle’s defense is the concern right now, though, as young guns Marcus Mariota and Deshaun Watson both lit them up this season.
10. Los Angeles Rams (5-2) | Last week: 11 (+1)
The Rams would’ve had a better bye week if the Texans were able to pull of the win against the Seahawks, but Sean McVay’s team is still in a good spot at 5-2. This week against the Giants, who are down top cornerback Janoris Jenkins (suspension), LA will look to keep their hot offense going and hit the 27-point mark for the seventh time this season.
11. Houston Texans (3-4) | Last week: 9 (-2)
Despite the loss in Seattle, it’s difficult not to be encouraged by rookie quarterback Deshaun Watson’s play. Watson shows uncommon poise for any quarterback—not just considering he’s a rookie—and his ball-handling ability on play-action fakes is helping set up big plays for the offense. The defense, particularly on the final touchdown given up to a wide-open Jimmy Graham down the middle of the field, is an obvious concern, and they’ll try to get right on that side of the ball this week against Indy.
12. Dallas Cowboys (4-3) | Last week: 12
Dak Prescott is the main reason the Cowboys remain this high in the power rankings, as the second-year quarterback could get on a roll here. Though he still has yet another appeal, it looks like the chances of Ezekiel Elliott pushing his six-game suspension back again aren’t good. And the Cowboys have a brutal schedule coming up, with games against Kansas City, Atlanta, and Philadelphia. The offensive line isn’t going anywhere though, and Alfred Morris (along with Darren McFadden and Rod Smith) are more than capable runners. Dallas’ defense needs to continue playing like it did over the last two games for them to remain NFC contenders.
13. Carolina Panthers (5-3) | Last week: 13
Luke Kuechly made a huge difference for Carolina in his return, racking up eight tackles, an interception, and a fumble recovery against the Bears. Safety Kurt Coleman’s return after missing nearly a month was also huge for the defense, and now they have a pivotal matchup with the Falcons, who did whatever they wanted on offense in their two games last season. The Panthers dealt receiver Kelvin Benjamin to the Bills for a third- and seventh-round draft pick, but the move was designed to spread the offense out more and give it more speed. We’ll see how it pans out throughout the rest of this season.
14. Jacksonville Jaguars (4-3) | Last week: 16 (+2)
Though they had a bye week, the Jaguars got stronger on one of the strongest areas of their team, adding defensive tackle Marcell Dareus from the Bills for a sixth-round pick. Dareus has had his issues, but he’s an All Pro that should help make “Sacksonville” even more fearful on defense. The Jags are looking to pick up their first win in Jacksonville this season when they face the Colts on Sunday.
15. Buffalo Bills (5-2) | Last week: 17 (+2)
The talk of the Bills “tanking” was obviously misguided, as they are now 5-2 and added to the weakest area of their team when they traded for former Panthers receiver Kelvin Benjamin. Quarterback Tyrod Taylor won’t be afraid to give the big receiver chances to make plays, and it seems like the two will be a good match on the field. Buffalo will try to force some more turnovers on Thursday against the Jets, as they are second in the NFL in interceptions and lead in forced fumbles and turnovers (tied with Baltimore).
16. Baltimore Ravens (4-4) | Last week: 20 (+4)
That was more like it. In a week where there wasn’t that much change in the power rankings, the Ravens made the biggest jump after their 40-0 win over the Dolphins last Thursday night. Baltimore is the only 4-4 team in the NFL (though some teams will be 4-4 after Week 9), and they have an opportunity to make a playoff push in the second half of their season. It’s good to hear Joe Flacco is feeling OK after his brutal hit last week against the Dolphins, and he should be out there this week against the Titans.
17. Miami Dolphins (4-3) | Last week: 15 (-2)
If there was a message to be sent to his players, Dolphins head coach Adam Gase sent it when he traded Jay Ajayi to the Eagles for a fourth-round pick. Though his numbers this season didn’t show it, Ajayi might’ve been the best player on offense. But he reportedly didn’t do what the coaches wanted from him consistently enough, and he also reportedly would be upset if he didn’t get the ball enough, even in wins. If true, it was probably a good move for Gase to set the standard of team coming first. Miami’s offense, which has been terrible at times this season, is getting revamped, and I just hope Gase is given time to see his changes through, as this situation reminds me of the Chip Kelly situation with the Eagles a couple years ago.
18. Detroit Lions (3-4) | Last week: 14 (-4)
The Lions were looking good after their 3-1 start that included a win at Minnesota against the NFC North competitor Vikings, but they’ve lost three-straight games and are now in third place in the division. In their Sunday night loss to the Steelers, Detroit had the third most yards in NFL history without scoring a touchdown—and a loss like that will leave a sour taste in your mouth for sure. It’s not a must-win this early, but it’d really hurt if the Lions can’t pick up a win over the Packers this Monday night.
19. Green Bay Packers (4-3) | Last week: 21 (+2)
The Monday nighter against the Lions is in Lambeau Field, so Green Bay has that—and the benefit of a bye week—going for them as they attempt to get to 5-3. Brett Hundley will look to have his coming out party in the final game of Week 9, as the Packers look to make it four straight against Matthew Stafford and Detroit.
20. Los Angeles Chargers (3-5) | Last week: 18 (-2)
They had a chance at the end, but the Chargers couldn’t quite pull out their fourth straight victory as they fell in Foxborough to the Patriots. The Chargers will now enter their bye week, giving Melvin Gordon a chance to get fully healthy for the final eight games of the season. NFL games are never easy, but the team might be favored in every game except the Week 15 matchup at Arrowhead with the Chiefs. Don’t be surprised if Philip Rivers takes his team on a run in the second half.
21. Oakland Raiders (3-5) | Last week: 19 (-2)
After their big win a couple Thursdays ago against the Chiefs, the Raiders failed to capitalize on the momentum and have now lost five of their last six. Again, you don’t want to look ahead in a one-week-at-a-time league, but the upcoming schedule does not look promising. Derek Carr and the guys around him need to get back to the consistency they showed more of last season if they are going to climb back up the AFC standings.
22. Denver Broncos (3-4) | Last week: 22
I was excited about Trevor Siemian early in the season, especially because I heard his comments during preseason when he talked about getting better with experience—it just sounded like he had the right mindset. But things have fallen off a bit in recent weeks, as he’s struggled mightily and is trying to do too much. We’ll see if Brock Osweiler, who was a key part of their Super Bowl team in 2015, can help right the ship on offense. A win over the 7-1 Eagles this Sunday would be huge.
23. Washington Redskins (3-4) | Last week: 23
The handshake between Redskins head coach Jay Gruden and quarterback Kirk Cousins at the end of their loss to the Cowboys, to me, showed Gruden understands what his quarterback is going through right now. After his great rapport with former receiver Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson, Cousins is dealing with almost a whole new supporting cast, and they are letting him down. After the Niners acquired Jimmy Garoppolo from the Patriots, the chances of Cousins staying with Washington probably went up a lot. But guys need to start emerging as playmakers for him, or they’re going to have to do something this offseason. If not, Cousins might want to look for somewhere else to play.
24. Chicago Bears (3-5) | Last week: 24
Considering the matchup with Drew Brees in the Superdome, the Bears played a fine game on Sunday. It was a one-possession game, but the Saints were in control. However, this is the type of game Mitchell Trubisky and the offense will learn to win as they get more experience. The defense is in place to make Chicago a contender again, now there just needs to be some patience and growth for the other side of the ball.
25. Cincinnati Bengals (3-5) | Last week: 27 (+2)
They’re going a little under the radar after their loss to the Steelers in CBS’s main late-afternoon game a couple weeks ago, but the Bengals are 3-1 in their last four games. The offensive line needs to do a better job of opening running lanes for their backs and protecting Andy Dalton, and this Sunday against the Jaguars will be an enormous test. Cincinnati’s defense will probably be out to show they are the better defense on the field, so watch out for them.
26. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-5) | Last week: 25 (-1)
Is a Hard Knocks curse forming? Probably not, but the Bucs are not coming close to the expectations of some entering the season. The defense, while battling injuries, is giving up the third-most passing yards per game, and their supposedly stingy front seven and front four is last in the NFL in sacks. Third-year quarterback Jameis Winston and his team have not taken the big leap forward yet.
27. Arizona Cardinals (3-3) | Last week: 26 (-1)
Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians essentially shut down any hope of David Johnson returning for a late-season playoff run, maybe because the writing is on the wall without starting quarterback Carson Palmer. It’d be one thing if the defense was playing as well as it has in year’s past, but they’ve been one of the worst in the NFL in recent weeks, and everyone on offense would have to step up in a big way to make up for it.
28. New York Jets (3-5) | Last week: 28
While they lost their third-straight game, it was another one-possession loss for the Jets. Head coach Todd Bowles continues to have his guys play hard, and a culture—with players like rookie safety Jamal Adams—looks like it’s being established. The teams are way different, but the Jets put up 37 in their Thursday night win over Buffalo early last season, and wacky things happen on Thursday nights.
29. Indianapolis Colts (2-6) | Last week: 29
Many expected the Colts to move one of their best players at the deadline, but I think they made the right decision to stand pat. Cornerback Vontae Davis and wide receiver T.Y. Hilton have shown they can be cornerstone players on their respective sides of the ball. Almost everyone should be available at the right price, but it’s unlikely teams were throwing around high draft picks when making trade offers. On the field, the Colts will look to at least try to limit Deshaun Watson and the Texans this week.
30. New York Giants (1-6) | Last week: 30
Odell Beckham’s politicking for a trade for LSU teammate Jarvis Landry from the Dolphins didn’t work out, but maybe it’ll happen this offseason if Landry hits the open market. The Giants continue to have control issues, as Janoris Jenkins became the second Giants cornerback to be suspended by the team this season. Though it’s not a good look seeing head coach Ben McAdoo seemingly lose his team, it is a good sign to see him take action and suspend the troublesome players.
31. San Francisco 49ers (0-8) | Last week: 31
Heading into last offseason, I wrote that Jimmy Garoppolo was the second quarterback I would have been trying to acquire (if available), only behind Deshaun Watson. The acquisition of Garoppolo was an absolute power move by the 49ers, and it’s potentially a move that has them set at the quarterback position for the next ten years.
32. Cleveland Browns (0-8) | Last week: 32
If the multiple reports are to be believed, it’s really mind-blowing that the Browns forgot to submit paperwork to make their trade for Bengals quarterback A.J. McCarron official. I really like McCarron (and should’ve had him in the linked article above), but the Browns reportedly offered more for him (a second and a third) than the Niners had to trade for Garoppolo. Perhaps Belichick would’ve never traded a good quarterback he likes to the team that fired him, but hopefully the Browns at least tried to make an offer for him.