Isn’t it kind of weird that three-time Pro Bowler Mercury Morris is more famous for drinking champagne than for being a star running back now? One can only hope he’s landed some lucrative endorsement opportunities out of this.
Yes, the Steelers were knocked from their perch as the NFL’s last unbeaten team on Monday, sending members of the 1972 Dolphins into their latest bubbly celebration. Pittsburgh was taken out by the Washington Football Team, which is tied for the best record in a division that doesn’t seem like such an embarrassment anymore. Well, half the division, anyway.
As for those Steelers: For months, fans of the Black and Gold told me I was foolish (that’s a sanitized version of their criticism) for not installing their team atop the Power Rankings. Something tells me those same fans won’t be thrilled with where the Steelers slot in this week.
Let’s get to it.
Previous rank: No. 1
You could almost hear the disappointment in Al and Cris’ voices on Sunday Night Football: NBC slated the Chiefs in prime time to lay their latest prodigious whipping on an opponent — in this case, the Denver Broncos — but instead, viewers were treated to a more muted affair in Kansas City’s 22-16 win. Credit the Broncos’ stubborn defense for refusing to play the role of cannon fodder, and just be thankful you’re not the Chiefs’ upstairs replay guy who has to explain to Andy Reid why he wasn’t told to challenge the ruled incompletion on what would have been a touchdown catch by Tyreek Hill in the second quarter. The Chiefs clinched their sixth consecutive postseason appearance (tying a franchise record) and are one Raiders loss away from their fifth straight AFC West title. These guys are good.
Previous rank: No. 3
Start No. 3 brought definitive progress for Taysom Hill. The gadget-player-turned-starting-quarterback connected on two touchdown passes (his first TD throws since his BYU days) and added 83 yards on the ground in a 21-16 win over the Falcons that clinched yet another playoff berth for New Orleans. Hill was especially impressive on third down: He went 11-for-13 for 114 yards with a TD and 128.8 passer rating in those pivotal situations. He did it by climbing in the pocket, going through his progressions and driving throws to intermediate targets. It was positively Breesian at points. Drew Brees, by the way, could be ready to return for this Sunday’s game in Philadelphia. Decisions, decisions for Sean Payton.
Previous rank: No. 2
The Steelers weren’t impressive when they grinded out a win over the Lamar-less Ravens last Wednesday, but you were tempted to give them a pass, considering the circumstances that surrounded that thrice-delayed affair. But on Monday night? There were no excuses after the Steelers blew a 14-point lead in a 23-17 loss to Washington, a setback that ended the dream of a perfect season in Pittsburgh. The Steelers came undone on both sides of the ball in the second half, looking like a team that felt the pressure that comes with taking an undefeated record into December. Perhaps the loss will free Pittsburgh of the kind of tightness that was on display in this odd stretch of this weird season. A Week 14 matchup against the surging Bills will bring more disappointment — and probably some panic — if the Steelers don’t clean up their act.
Previous rank: No. 4
The Packers were in cruise control on Sunday against the Eagles. Aaron Rodgers threw three touchdown passes (making him the fastest ever to 400 career TDs), Davante Adams made a couple more trips to the end zone, Aaron Jones put the game away with a gorgeous 77-yard score, and the Green Bay defense harassed poor Carson Wentz all the way to the bench in a 30-16 win. Back to Rodgers: With four weeks to play in the regular season, we give the 37-year-old the slight edge over Patrick Mahomes in the NFL MVP race. That’s quite remarkable when you remember that Rodgers was widely viewed as a star in decline when this season began. Don’t believe me? Go check where he went in your fantasy draft. I’ll wait.
Previous rank: No. 7
Buffalo looked like a team ready to raise its ceiling on Monday night. Out front was Josh Allen, who played the best game of his pro career in a 34-24 win over the 49ers. Allen carved up Robert Saleh’s defense for 375 yards while becoming the first quarterback in franchise history to complete 80 percent of his passes with four touchdowns in one game. Allen looked completely at ease in the pocket, playing like a quarterback who was seeing everything unfold in front of him in slow motion. Allen threw scoring passes to Cole Beasley, Dawson Knox, Isaiah McKenzie and Gabriel Davis, commanding an offense that didn’t send punter Corey Bojorquez onto the field until the 3:44 mark of the fourth quarter. Bojorquez’s subsequent punt traveled 68 yards, because that’s the kind of night it was for the AFC East leaders.
Previous rank: No. 8
“I responded exactly how I expected to.” Jared Goff sounded like a vindicated man after his 351-yard, two-touchdown, zero turnover performance in a win over the Cardinals on Sunday moved the Rams back into first place in the NFC West. Goff’s three-turnover meltdown against the 49ers in Week 12 prompted a public admonishment from Sean McVay. His showing against the Cardinals was the best possible response from the veteran passer. The Rams are the reverse of the Seahawks: With a dominant defense, they just need their offense to be average or a little better to thrive. If Goff stays in this groove, the Rams can beat anybody in the NFC.
Previous rank: No. 5
The Seahawks suffered a serious glitch in the matrix on Sunday. The undermanned Giants came to town as heavy underdogs and flew out of Seattle with a stunning 17-12 win. The loss dropped the Seahawks back into a first-place tie with the Rams (who currently hold the head-to-head tiebreaker) in the NFC West and welcomed questions about what exactly happened to the once-unstoppable “Let Russ Cook” offense. Russell Wilson didn’t get much help from his offensive line, but he also bore some responsibility for five Giants sacks. The defense, so improved in recent weeks, allowed nearly 200 rushing yards to a New York offense that hasn’t had Saquon Barkley for months. Did we mention Colt McCoy started this game for the Giants? Or that Alfred Morris scored (twice)? Simply put, it was one of the ugliest days of the Pete Carroll era.
Previous rank: No. 13
It’s time to start believing in the Cleveland Browns. Baker Mayfield threw four touchdown passes — all of them in a flawless first half — in a 41-35 win over the Titans that announced Cleveland as a legitimate player in the AFC. Could the Browns have done a better job closing out a game that was 38-7 at halftime? Sure … but that’s a minor quibble for an organization that has put the misery of the previous decade firmly in its rearview. Mayfield is a fascinating figure as we head down the stretch of this bizarre season. When he is playing with confidence, he can shred defenses with precision strikes, both short and long. He’s not always that guy, but if he ever put together an extended hot streak, the Browns would become the proverbial Team Nobody Wants To Play™.
Previous rank: No. 12
Uh-oh. Are the Ravens back? Lamar Jackson torched an opponent with his arm and legs, and Baltimore rushed for 294 yards in a performance that evoked memories of the team’s dominant 14-2 run of 2019. Yes, the pathetic Cowboys defense has been making other teams look good all season, but this felt like an important game for a Ravens squad that needed a shot of optimism in what had been a six-week stretch of frustration. A huge prime-time showdown with Cleveland looms — and you get the feeling the Browns will be forced to tangle with a hyper-confident Ravens team that’s ready for takeoff.
Previous rank: No. 9
The relationship between the quarterback and head coach will remain a storyline down the stretch. Bruce Arians hasn’t made any excuses for Tom Brady when the offense has struggled, and Arians and offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich haven’t always tailored the game plan to what made Brady a legend in New England. If there is a schism between Brady and Arians, it could lead to Arians’ exit. After all, it’s Brady who got the two-year, $50 million deal this spring, and the front office would likely side with the G.O.A.T. if a decision had to be made. But let’s not get ahead ourselves: The Bucs can still make the playoffs, and they have a favorable remaining schedule. Brady has the weapons; Arians possesses the know-how. The pair has four games to get this thing turned around.
Previous rank: No. 10
“That was a little bit of serendipity … a little bit of good fortune.” That’s how CBS color man Rich Gannon described the ending of Sunday’s game for the Colts, and the former MVP wasn’t wrong. The Texans were at the Colts’ 2-yard line when Deshaun Watson couldn’t handle a bad snap, leading to a game-sealing Colts recovery in a 26-20 win. The victory, paired with a Titans loss to the Browns, moves Indy back into a first-place tie in the AFC South with four games to play. The Colts are a tough team to figure out: The ups and downs that marked Sunday’s win felt like a microcosm of the entire season to date. The offense is particularly unknowable — Philip Rivers and Co. put up 24 points by halftime before being shut out in the second half.
Previous rank: No. 6
The Titans did extensive cosmetic work in the second half, but Sunday’s 41-35 shellacking at the hands of the Browns exposed all the ills of Mike Vrabel’s defense. You can take every level of the beleaguered unit to task for Cleveland’s 38-point first half, but the absence of a pass rush against Baker Mayfield was particularly glaring. General manager Jon Robinson had two big swings and misses in his attempt to improve this area in the offseason — Jadeveon Clowney is parked on IR with zero sacks while Vic Beasley is already ancient history — and the players who remain have been unable to pick up the slack. If an up-and-down passer like Mayfield can make the Titans look this bad, what would Patrick Mahomes do to them in the playoffs?
Previous rank: No. 11
Miracles exist, even in the wretched year of 2020. Seconds away from the season-crushing humiliation of a loss to the winless New York Jets, Derek Carr dropped back and found Henry Ruggs all alone for a 46-yard touchdown, the deciding score for the Raiders in a stunning 31-28 win at the Meadowlands. Carr’s touchdown throw came one play after the quarterback missed an open Nelson Agholor on another deep strike. All Carr had to do was hit one, however, and as a result, the Raiders remain a player in the AFC playoff hunt. A huge Week 14 showdown with the 8-4 Colts will have massive implications for both teams.
Previous rank: No. 15
Things were looking rough for the Dolphins and Tua Tagovailoa at halftime against Cincinnati on Sunday, but a switch was flipped when Brian Flores’ team exited the locker room. Tua — making his return after missing one week with a thumb issue — went 13-of-16 for 167 yards and a touchdown in the third quarter as Miami took control. The defense handled the rest, piling up six sacks and two takeaways against a poor Bengals offense in a 19-7 win. One of those turnovers was forced by Xavien Howard, who collected his league-best eighth interception before being ejected for fighting with Cincinnati wide receiver Tyler Boyd late in the first half. A measuring-stick game awaits against the mighty Chiefs on Sunday.
Previous rank: No. 14
The Cardinals’ dream of winning the NFC West died on Sunday — now it’s on Kliff Kingsbury and Co. to figure out a way to keep this once-promising season from circling the drain. Kyler Murray was bottled up once again, this time by Aaron Donald and the Rams’ defense, and the Cardinals continue to show they cannot win when they don’t get a special performance from their second-year quarterback. To that point, remove one Hail Murray from the equation, and Arizona is riding a five-game losing streak right now. “We kind of hit a wall as far as offensively,” Murray said of the team’s performance in recent weeks. Week 14’s matchup with the surging Giants is a virtual must-win.
Previous rank: No. 16
It wasn’t pretty, but Sunday’s 27-24 overtime win over the Jaguars slid the Vikings into the seventh and final NFC playoff spot with four weeks to play. Not bad for a team that was left for dead at 1-5 in October. The Vikes did a nice job fattening up on the soft portion of their schedule, but their level of play will have to improve significantly ahead of Sunday’s matchup against a rested Buccaneers team. They’ll also need more of the same from Justin Jefferson, who on Sunday became the fifth rookie to reach 1,000 yards receiving in his first 12 games. Jefferson’s meteoric rise to star status gives the Vikings a playmaker core that rivals that of any team in football.
Previous rank: No. 17
The Patriots’ offense with Cam Newton behind center isn’t going to dazzle you. It consists mostly of interior runs, QB options and the occasional 7-yard lawn dart from Cam to one of his workmanlike receivers. But the New England attack doesn’t need to be aesthetically pleasing when everything else is humming. On Sunday, Bill Belichick’s defense flummoxed super rookie Justin Herbert, while New England special teams put on a clinic in a 45-0 shellacking of the Chargers. The Patriots have won four of five to put themselves back on the radar in the AFC playoff picture. Newton is having a strange year: He has just five passing touchdowns all season, but has 11 rushing scores, including six in the last six weeks. Whatever works.
Previous rank: No. 24
Entering the season, the Giants’ defense was supposed to be the team’s Achilles’ heel. With four weeks to play, the unit has revealed itself to be New York’s greatest strength. The D had its finest moment on Sunday in Seattle, frustrating Russell Wilson and Co. in a 17-12 win that kept New York atop the NFC East. The players deserve much credit, as does head coach Joe Judge and the rest of his staff. But let’s give Dave Gettleman his due here, as well. The embattled GM made deft free-agent pickups like Logan Ryan, James Bradberry and Blake Martinez, and he pulled the trigger on trades that netted Leonard Williams and Jabrill Peppers. Each of these veterans has been an impact contributor, and they all played their role in Sunday’s huge upset. Arrow up in the Meadowlands.
Washington Football Team
Previous rank: No. 25
Washington knocked off the previously undefeated Steelers at Heinz Field on Monday, a complete team effort that should make people reconsider how much they really want to mock the NFC East at this point of the season. Both Washington and the Giants are surging, but only Ron Rivera’s team can say it wiped out a 14-point deficit on the road to defeat the NFL’s last unbeaten team. Montez Sweat and Chase Young caused havoc all game long in the trenches, while Alex Smith added another page-turning chapter to his epic comeback tale. Smith made a host of money throws during Washington’s stunning second-half surge, coolly leading Washington up and down the field against Pittsburgh’s top-ranked scoring defense. Believe in The Football Team.
Previous rank: No. 19
Kyle Shanahan said the 49ers’ county-mandated migration to Arizona had “absolutely nothing, zero, to do” with his team’s flat performance in a 34-24 loss to the Bills. It’s what you expect most coaches to say, but we tend to believe him, based on how Buffalo just looked like the far better team on Monday night. Coordinator Robert Saleh has been rightfully praised for coaching up a San Francisco defense decimated by injuries and COVID-19 designations, but the Niners had absolutely no answers for Josh Allen. The Bills quarterback picked apart Saleh’s defense, setting the stage for an Allen v. Nick Mullens shootout that had no chance of being competitive. At 5-7, the Niners likely need to win out and get help to defend their NFC title in January.
Previous rank: No. 18
The Falcons racked up five turnovers and five sacks during a romp of the Raiders in Week 12, but Raheem Morris didn’t get the same performance against the Saints this past Sunday. Atlanta made Taysom Hill look like a fully functional quarterback in a two-touchdown day for the erstwhile gadget guy. Hill shredded the Falcons on third down in the first half, completing eight of nine passes for 92 yards and a TD. This was the same Hill who threw for 78 yards total in Denver. Atlanta’s offense, meanwhile, was held out of the end zone in the first three quarters and was stopped on downs with a chance to take the lead in the final minutes. The biggest positive might be that the Saints won’t show up on the schedule again.
Previous rank: No. 21
The low snap was fired at Deshaun Watson’s shins. The quarterback said after the game that he should have corralled the ball, but he could not, and the Colts pounced on it for a crushing turnover inside the Indy 10-yard line. It was the deciding play in a 26-20 loss that extinguished Houston’s slim playoff hopes. Watson ended the game on the bench with a towel draped over his head. Complete dejection. “This s— hurts,” he said. “I’m tired of losing. Being so close over the years, it’s just tough. It’s tough.” Watson should be proud of his season — it’s one of the best we’ve ever seen from a quarterback on a losing team.
Previous rank: No. 22
The Panthers hit their Week 13 bye short on wins, but still feeling like an organization that is laying the foundation for a better tomorrow. A key pillar on defense is unquestionably safety Jeremy Chinn, who last week was named Defensive Rookie of the Month, the second consecutive month he’s earned that honor. That should all but lock up Defensive Rookie of the Year honors for the second-round pick, who has recorded 87 total tackles, an interception, five passes defensed, a forced fumble and two fumble returns for touchdowns. Those two scores came on successive plays from scrimmage in Week 12’s one-point loss to the Vikings. He plays a different position, but the Panthers have found a playmaking successor to Luke Kuechly on their defense.
Previous rank: No. 23
The Broncos’ defense delivered a gritty performance against the Chiefs on Sunday night, holding the mighty Patrick Mahomes to a single touchdown pass and just 22 points at Arrowhead. It was an impressive showing that should have put Denver in line for a huge upset, but the Broncos’ offense continues to be a pop-gun operation, even when it’s not Kendall Hinton behind center. Drew Lock threw interceptions on Denver’s first and last possessions of the night and was only OK in the drives in between. It was another subpar effort that should have the Broncos thinking long and hard about whether Lock should even be in the team’s QB1 conversation in 2021.
Previous rank: No. 20
We reached rock bottom in the Anthony Lynn era with Sunday’s 45-0 destruction at the hands of the Patriots. The Chargers struggled in all phases, but special teams delivered a dud for the ages. Los Angeles missed a 46-yard field-goal attempt, surrendered a 70-yard punt return for a touchdown and allowed a blocked field-goal try to be returned for a score … all in the first half. The Patriots added a 61-yard punt return in the fourth quarter, as well. By one measurement, it was the worst special teams game of the last 20 years. All of this reflects poorly on Lynn, who has seen his chances to return next season decrease by the week.
Previous rank: No. 29
Who knows what the future holds for Matthew Stafford and the Lions? For now, Detroit fans should enjoy their star quarterback, who passed for over 400 yards in leading the Lions to a 34-30 comeback victory over the Bears on Sunday. After the win, Stafford handed the game ball to interim coach Darrell Bevell, victorious in his first outing as Matt Patricia’s replacement. “My emotions right now, I can’t even think straight,” Bevell said. “I’m just trying to wrap my head around this whole thing, what just happened.” A feel-good moment for the Lions in a period in team history that hasn’t had enough of them.
Previous rank: No. 26
“I just don’t know … where this organization … there’s just so many things that have to be addressed this offseason,” Troy Aikman said as the FOX broadcast went to commercial late in Dallas’ 34-17 loss to the Ravens on Tuesday night. Minutes earlier, the Cowboys-legend-turned-color-man had questioned the effort of the defense on a J.K. Dobbins touchdown run that doubled as a matador routine by the Dallas defensive line. Ravens offensive lineman Orlando Brown underlined that point by repeatedly yelling “Easy money!” into an end-zone camera during the TD celebration. It all felt like a low point for the Cowboys, who gave up 294 yards on the ground and appear destined to spend the rest of December playing out the string of another deeply disappointing year.
Previous rank: No. 27
Doug Pederson had no choice. Carson Wentz was laboring once again, and the Eagles were going nowhere in a flat performance against the Packers. So Pederson pulled the trigger on the move he never wanted to make — replacing Wentz with rookie Jalen Hurts in the second half of an eventual 30-16 loss. On Tuesday, the coach confirmed what most suspected: Hurts will officially replace Wentz as starting quarterback on Sunday against the Saints. It marks the completion of a stunning fall from grace for Wentz, who entered his fifth pro season as the team’s locked-and-loaded franchise cornerstone under center. Welcome to the great unknown in Philadelphia.
Previous rank: No. 28
Matt Nagy told reporters on Monday he hasn’t “had any of those discussions” with ownership about his job status, but there’s no doubt he’s feeling the heat now. The Bears have followed a 5-1 start with six consecutive losses, the most recent setback being a grisly 34-30 loss to the Lions on Sunday that badly diminished the team’s playoff chances. A late fumble by Mitch Trubisky was a killer, but whatever happened to the Chicago defense that was supposed to anchor this team? Matthew Stafford passed for more than 400 yards as Detroit wiped out a double-digit deficit in the fourth quarter. A miracle finish might be the only thing that saves this regime from the wrecking ball come January.
Previous rank: No. 30
If Zac Taylor is to have a third season on the sideline in Cincinnati, he’d better hope decision-makers somehow missed Sunday’s 19-7 defeat to the Dolphins. The Bengals were an undisciplined mess during their seventh loss in the past eight weeks. Offensive struggles are to be expected with Brandon Allen starting in place of the injured Joe Burrow at quarterback, but this was a sloppy effort that doesn’t reflect well on the coaching staff. Cincinnati actually took a 7-6 lead into halftime, but the Bengals were badly outplayed from that point on, falling to 1-5 this season in games in which they have led after two quarters. It’s reasonable to think Taylor could be entering the season’s final four weeks on the hot seat.
Previous rank: No. 31
The Jaguars have perfected the art of almost winning. They’ve lost four of their past five games by four points or less, the latest a 27-24 overtime defeat to the Vikings. We imagine this to be a deeply frustrating team trait for the coaching staff, but it’s also keeping Jacksonville alive and well in the “race” for the No. 1 overall pick in April’s draft. In fact, the Jags would be sitting in the driver’s seat of the Trevor Lawrence Sweepstakes right now if not for Gregg Williams’ blitz tendencies. Meanwhile, Gardner Minshew is begging to return to the starting lineup. The problem may be that Doug Marrone never did come down with a case of Minshewmania.