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NFL power rankings: Ravens prove they're still a contender, while Saints and Steelers take a tumble

C.J. Doon, The Baltimore Sun on

Published in Football

Each week of the NFL season, The Baltimore Sun will rank all 32 NFL teams. The rankings will take into account not just weekly performance, but how well each team measures up as Super Bowl contenders, regardless of win-loss record.

Here are the rankings after Week 2:

Super Bowl favorites

1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-0; No. 1 last week)

2. Kansas City Chiefs (1-1; No. 2)

Let’s first take a moment to acknowledge that quarterback Tom Brady leads the NFL with nine touchdown passes at age 44. He’s going to play until he’s 50, and will probably win at least two more Super Bowls. Aging is clearly not part of the TB12 method. The Bucs might not be as dominant on defense as their stacked roster suggests — the Falcons pulled within 28-25 with a second-half surge Sunday before Tampa Bay pulled away — but as long as Brady is playing this well, the defending champs are still the team to beat.

That brings us to Kansas City. A 36-35 loss in Baltimore showed that quarterback Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs are mortal, but if not for rookie Odafe Oweh’s hit on Mahomes that forced an interception, Kansas City might have gone up 42-24 late in the third quarter. That doesn’t excuse a poor performance from a defense that let the Ravens rush for 251 yards, but it’s not as if the Chiefs didn’t put themselves in a great position to win. It took a costly fumble by running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire in the final minute and a gutsy fourth-down conversion by quarterback Lamar Jackson to hand Kansas City its first September loss with Mahomes under center. This week’s matchup against the Chargers will show whether the Chiefs have real concerns or if this was just another speed bump on their way to a third straight AFC title.

Solid contenders

3. Los Angeles Rams (2-0; No. 3)

4. Buffalo Bills (1-1; No. 6)

5. Cleveland Browns (1-1; No. 8)

6. Baltimore Ravens (1-1; No. 9)

7. Green Bay Packers (1-1; No. 7)

8. Seattle Seahawks (1-1; No. 4)

It’s not hyperbole to say that the Ravens’ win over the Chiefs on Sunday night might have saved their season. Only 8% of NFL teams since 1990 have made the playoffs after starting 0-2, and the Ravens are dealing with a league-high 15 players on injured reserve. But behind a dominant rushing attack and an opportunistic defense, Baltimore showed it can still reach the heights of its 14-2 season in 2019 behind Jackson and coach John Harbaugh. That’s a scary thought for the rest of the AFC, especially as the Ravens get healthier.

The other two AFC teams that pose the biggest threat to the Chiefs, the Bills and Browns, both had nice bounce-back wins after disappointing openers. Josh Allen might not be the MVP-level quarterback he was in 2020, but playmakers on both sides of the ball should keep Buffalo in the mix as the clear favorite in the AFC East. Cleveland let Houston hang around Sunday, but the running game remains a weapon and quarterback Baker Mayfield is showing signs of improvement.

Meanwhile, the NFC West remains tough to predict. The Rams offense is much more potent with quarterback Matthew Stafford leading the way, but the defense might have taken a big step backwards with the loss of coordinator Brandon Staley and a few key pieces in the secondary. A matchup with the Bucs this weekend is an important measuring stick.

For Seattle, a blown 14-point lead in an overtime loss to the Titans raises more questions about the team’s ability to finish games, with the rushing attack limited to 3.0 yards per carry when you take out Alex Collins’ 25-yard run. Quarterback Russell Wilson is good enough to lead the Seahawks back to the playoffs, but they could be staring at another early exit if the defense doesn’t tighten up.

On Monday night, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers put a messy season opener behind him, throwing for 255 yards and four touchdowns in an easy win over the Lions. The Green Bay defense forced two turnovers but struggled to put any pressure on quarterback Jared Goff, raising concerns about how that unit measures up with the NFC’s top contenders.

Flawed contenders

9. Las Vegas Raiders (2-0; No. 17)

10. San Francisco 49ers (2-0; No. 11)

11. Denver Broncos (2-0; No. 14)

12. Arizona Cardinals (2-0; No. 12)

13. New Orleans Saints (1-1; No. 5)

Raiders coach Jon Gruden has been a punch-line for years thanks to some big swings and misses in the draft, but there’s no doubting his ability to get his team ready to play. A 2-0 start against Baltimore and Pittsburgh is impressive, especially with quarterback Derek Carr looking like a potential MVP candidate. What’s more, the defense might be able to keep Las Vegas competitive in what’s shaping up to be a brutal AFC West. There’s just the question of whether the Raiders can keep it up after a disappointing finish in 2020.

That same question applies to the Cardinals, who escaped with a win over the Vikings thanks to a missed 37-yard field goal in the final seconds. Quarterback Kyler Murray has been electric through two games, but Arizona is putting a lot on his shoulders. The defense needs to be better for the Cardinals to jump into the second tier of contenders.

Perhaps the most intriguing team to emerge through two weeks is the Broncos, who are riding steady play from quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and a ferocious defense to a 2-0 start. We know coach Vic Fangio has the pieces to build a dominant defense, but if the offense continues to move the ball efficiently behind Bridgewater and some talented playmakers, Denver might be a tough out in the wild-card round.

For the Saints, a bad game from enigmatic quarterback Jameis Winston was bound to happen. More concerning is the absence of nine starters because of injuries/suspension and eight assistant coaches because of COVID-19, all while the team is displaced because of Hurricane Ida. This week’s game at New England should tell us if New Orleans can hang around this season or if Week 1′s blowout win over the Packers was just a fluke.

Wild cards

 

14. Los Angeles Chargers (1-1; No. 13)

15. Dallas Cowboys (1-1; No. 15)

16. New England Patriots (1-1; No. 18)

17. Pittsburgh Steelers (1-1; No. 10)

18. Carolina Panthers (2-0; No. 21)

19. Washington Football Team (1-1; No. 19)

20. Tennessee Titans (1-1, No. 22)

21. Minnesota Vikings (0-2; No. 25)

22. Miami Dolphins (1-1; No. 16)

Justin Herbert looks like one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL in just his second year, and that automatically makes the Chargers a contender. What’s disappointing are the continued mistakes that seem to cost Los Angeles every season. On Sunday against Dallas, it was an end-zone interception by Herbert and 12 penalties, two of which cost the Chargers touchdowns and six that took away first downs. They have the talent to be a threat in the AFC if they can just find a way to not beat themselves.

That’s not to belittle what the Cowboys did Sunday. As long as quarterback Dak Prescott is healthy, the NFC East seems to be theirs for the taking. An encouraging performance from the defense, including a standout game from rookie Micah Parsons filling in at defensive end, should build confidence heading into a Monday night game against the Eagles.

Speaking of wild cards, what exactly do Washington and Carolina have in quarterbacks Taylor Heinicke and Sam Darnold, respectively? Heinicke, filling in for the injured Ryan Fitzpatrick, looked impressive in Washington’s come-from-behind win over the Giants on Thursday night, while Darnold has been more efficient in Carolina than he ever was with the Jets. These teams aren’t yet threatening the Bucs, Packers or Rams at the top of the NFC, but they’re worth monitoring if these young quarterbacks continue to improve.

Pittsburgh, on the other hand, feels like a known quantity. As long as the offense continues to rely on quick throws from Ben Roethlisberger, it’s going to be tough to move the ball efficiently down the field. There’s only so much a talented defense can do to prop up a sputtering offense that’s clearly still finding its footing under new coordinator Matt Canada.

A glimmer of hope

23. Philadelphia Eagles (1-1; No. 20)

24. Indianapolis Colts (0-2; No. 23)

25. Chicago Bears (1-1; No. 26)

26. Cincinnati Bengals (1-1; No. 24)

27. New York Giants (0-2; No. 27)

Outside of Indianapolis, which lost Carson Wentz to a pair of sprained ankles, there’s at least some optimism at the quarterback position among this group. Jalen Hurts has flashed his potential as a dual-threat in Philadelphia, Joe Burrow has already developed chemistry with first-round pick and former LSU teammate Ja’Marr Chase in Cincinnati, first-round pick Justin Fields might be taking over for the injured Andy Dalton in Chicago and Daniel Jones is Pro Football Focus’ sixth-highest graded quarterback through two weeks for the Giants. So far, none of those developments have been enough to produce many wins, but it’s at least something to hang on to this year and beyond.

The basement

28. Houston Texans (1-1; No. 30)

29. Atlanta Falcons (0-2; No. 28)

30. Detroit Lions (0-2; No. 32)

31. New York Jets (0-2; No. 29)

32. Jacksonville Jaguars (0-2; No. 31)

Jets rookie Zach Wilson’s four-interception day against the Patriots is cause for concern, but New England coach Bill Belichick has made it a habit of torturing rookie quarterbacks throughout his career. How Jets coach Robert Saleh handles his first-round pick’s struggles is going to determine how much progress he makes in Year 1 of this rebuild.

In Jacksonville, it can’t get much worse. In fact, the team tweeted a message to fans asking for patience after a rocky start under new coach Urban Meyer. That’s not going to make anyone feel better about rookie quarterback Trevor Lawrence’s growing pains or the porous offensive line that’s contributed to the No. 1 overall pick’s struggles. It’s going to be a long season for a coach and quarterback tandem that isn’t used to this much losing.

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