The Week 16 NFL slate felt a little bit like a four-day football bender, one that produced a seemingly nonstop string of big moments. With just one week to go, the postseason picture is coming into focus―and the league’s elite teams continue to separate themselves from the rest of the pack.
The Chiefs hold on to the top spot here by squeaking out a 17-14 win over the Falcons, a victory that secures Patrick Mahomes and Co. the no. 1 seed in the AFC and a critical first-round playoff bye. The Bills, meanwhile, hold steady at no. 2 with a 38-9 win over the Patriots. And the Packers remain at no. 3 with a dominant 40-14 blowout win against the Titans in snowy Green Bay. The Saints (who dispatched the Vikings 52-33), Ravens (who ran all over the Giants in a 27-13 win), Seahawks (who knocked off the Rams 20-9 to clinch the NFC West title), Steelers (who came from behind to beat the Colts 28-24), and Buccaneers (who annihilated the Lions 47-7) all jumped up. With the regular season’s final week upon us, here are my updated NFL Power Rankings.
The Top Shelf
1. Kansas City Chiefs (14-1)
2. Buffalo Bills (12-3)
3. Green Bay Packers (12-3)
4. New Orleans Saints (11-4)
5. Baltimore Ravens (10-5)
6. Seattle Seahawks (11-4)
7. Pittsburgh Steelers (12-3)
8. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (10-5)
The Aaron Rodgers–Davante Adams connection is absurd.
It was less of a revelation and more of a confirmation: In the Packers’ 40-14 victory over the Titans on Sunday Night Football, Rodgers and Adams cemented their status as the most unstoppable quarterback-receiver duo in the NFL. The mind-meld connection between the two is without rival in the league right now: It’s a relationship that combines Rodgers’s pinpoint accuracy and uncanny anticipation with Adams’s incredible route-running and catch-point prowess. The duo regularly makes most difficult, tricky plays look easy, even in the freezing temperatures and snow flurries we saw at Lambeau Field on Sunday.
A few examples that stood out: On Adams’s early second-quarter touchdown grab, Rodgers dropped back, hit his back foot, and let the pass go at almost the exact moment Adams was making his break toward the sideline. Rodgers showed trust and threw with perfect ball placement, and Adams ran a sublime route. The seventh-year receiver created just enough separation, and then he waited until the last second to show his hands (something trailing corners look for in order to disrupt the pass at the last second) and allowed the ball to float gently into his grasp. Even a noted fade-route hater like yours truly had to revel in the pure beauty of a perfectly executed play.
The Packers’ dynamic passing-game duo put the final nail in the Titans’ coffin with a similarly difficult (yet all-too-easy) completion late in the fourth quarter. On a third-and-10 from the Titans’ 42-yard line, Rodgers dropped back, looked the safety off to the right, and side-arm whipped a pass off his back foot down the sideline―dropping it into a bucket about 40 yards downfield to the only spot Adams could grab it.
Those two plays were just a smattering of the Packers’ near-perfect passing performance. In recent games, the Rodgers-Adams connection has been literally unguardable. Rodgers finished the game with as many touchdown passes as incompletions, completing 21 of 25 attempts for 231 yards, four scores, and a rare pick. That moved his full season line to a league-best 44 touchdowns to just five interceptions, improved his passer rating to an NFL-best 119.4, and pushed him in front of Patrick Mahomes in oddsmakers’ MVP odds. In any case, by just about any measure, the 37-year-old Rodgers has been the best quarterback in the NFL this year.
He’s gotten plenty of help from Adams, of course, who finished the outing catching 11 of 12 targets for 142 yards and three touchdowns. Going back to 2019, Adams has now grabbed a ridiculous 20 touchdowns in his past 16 games (regular and postseason)―the single-season record is 23, set by Randy Moss in 2007, by the way―and his numbers in 13 games this year rank right up there with some of the all-time best receiver performances. Here’s how Adams stacks up when compared to Moss’s record-setting year:
More importantly, the Rodgers-Adams connection has the Packers looking like runaway Super Bowl favorites in the NFC. Green Bay’s offense is playing on a higher plane than any other unit in the league, and the defense has come on strong in the past few weeks (and held Tennessee’s previously league-leading scoring offense in check all game).
The Buccaneers offense is fully operational.
There’s one group that might belong in the Packers’ tier. The Tom Brady–led Buccaneers’ offense got a nice little confidence boost against a down-and-out Detroit defense on Sunday, jumping all over the basically coachless Lions. The Buccaneers scored 34 unanswered first-half points in the blowout, prompting head coach Bruce Arians to sit Brady down for the start of the third quarter. As if that wasn’t humiliating enough for Detroit, backup quarterback Blaine Gabbert threw a 25-yard touchdown to Rob Gronkowski on his first pass in relief. That’s really all you need to know about how utterly dominant the Buccaneers were from start to finish.
Brady sliced and diced the Lions to the tune of 348 yards and four touchdowns in his two quarters of action, showcasing the breadth and depth of his talent. The 43-year-old signal-caller connected on touchdown passes with Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Rob Gronkowski, and Antonio Brown in the first two frames, which was a statement of sorts to the league that Tampa Bay is starting to click at just the right time. Looking at Brady’s past four quarters of action―including throwing out the second half of Sunday’s game and a slow start against Atlanta in Week 15―could give us an idea of the type of firepower this group will bring into the postseason.
In Tom Brady’s last 4 quarters, the #Bucs outscored their opponents 65-10 and he was 43-58 with 668 yards, 6 TDs and no INTs.
— Cork Gaines (@CorkGaines) December 27, 2020
The Buccaneers clinched a wild-card playoff spot with the win, and could secure the no. 5 seed with a victory against the Falcons next week, which would give them a first-round matchup with the winner of the NFC East. That’s clearly the path of least resistance in the conference, and gives Tampa Bay good reason to go for the gusto in their regular-season finale. I’ll be watching to see if Brady and Tampa Bay’s offense can keep things rolling against an improved Atlanta defense. If that group is indeed over some of its early-season struggles, as seemed so apparent on Sunday, the Buccaneers could be a force to be reckoned with come January.
The Seahawks’ defensive turnaround might be real.
The Seahawks’ season has been a story of two halves on both sides of the ball. Offensively, Seattle kicked off the year by unleashing a newly explosive, pass-happy scheme under Russell Wilson before switching to a more conservative offense when turnovers became a major issue. On defense, a unit that looked like one of the worst in the league’s history for most of its first eight games has performed an almost miraculous about-face in its past seven contests, transforming into not just a competent group, but into one of the league’s most stingy.
The turning point for that unit was the team’s Week 9 loss to the Bills, a 44-34 beatdown that saw Seattle surrender more points than it had in any other game in the Pete Carroll era. The Seahawks came out of that loss ranked last in yards allowed (455.8 yards per game) and 30th in points allowed (30.4 points per game), and there didn’t appear to be any easy answers for fixing what seemed to be a broken group. Yet Seattle’s defense has managed to bow up in the second half of the year, and has started to look a little closer to what we’re used to seeing from a Carroll-coached unit.
On the heels of a 20-9 win against the Rams on Sunday, Seattle now ranks first in points allowed (15.0) in the past seven weeks. They’re also tied for first in sacks (24) and third in yards allowed per game (302.1) in that stretch, in which they’ve held opponents to just 4.6 yards per play (third) while limiting opposing quarterbacks to a 78.3 passer rating (fifth). Part of that incredible turnaround is related to their schedule, and the Seahawks certainly capitalized on matchups with the Carson Wentz–led Eagles, the Colt McCoy–led Giants, and the Sam Darnold–led Jets. But Seattle also held the Jared Goff–led Rams in check, twice, and limited the damage from the Kyler Murray–led Cardinals group in the team’s 28-21 win in Week 11. Seahawks safety Jamal Adams called his defense the best in the NFL after the win against L.A., and while I won’t go so far as to agree with him, a seven-game sample is enough for me to say this unit is massively improved over the one we saw early in the season.
So what caused this unexpected turnaround? A variety of factors were likely involved, but primary among them is that it seemed to take Seattle about half a season to learn to properly utilize Adams, their new playmaking safety. Early on in the year, the Seahawks went with an extraordinarily blitz-heavy approach with the former Jet, which produced a handful of sacks but far too often put the team’s back-half coverage group in jeopardy. Adams remains a useful blitzer for Seattle (and he recently set the record for sacks from a defensive back), but defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. has dialed back the aggressiveness just a bit in the past few weeks and the Seahawks’ lack of predictability, particularly on third downs, is starting to pay off. Adams is still making plays all over the field, anyway.
Seattle is also getting major contributions from its stalwart linebackers Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright, as well as from a few other up-and-coming (or newly arrived) contributors. Cornerback D.J. Reed has been a boon to the group’s effectiveness, as has pass rusher Carlos Dunlap, defensive tackle Poona Ford, and rookie Alton Robinson, to name a few. Veteran defensive end Benson Mayowa has made his presence felt, too, and generated eight pressures on 24 pass rushes on Sunday, the most from any Seattle defender in a game in the past three seasons per NFL Next Gen Stats. As a team, the Seahawks pressured Jared Goff on 24 dropbacks, the most in Goff’s career and the Seahawks’ third most under Carroll. Seattle is getting more pressure with its front four, has seen improved coverage on the back end, and still has Adams as a joker blitz weapon at its disposal. The pieces are starting to come together, and this has been clear in the past seven weeks.
The Seahawks offense hasn’t looked nearly as impressive in the past month-plus, but Wilson continues to make big plays when needed. If Seattle can smooth out some of its issues on offense in their season finale against the Niners next week, the Seahawks could head into the postseason as one of the league’s more balanced squads. That’s not something I thought I’d be writing back in early November.
9. Indianapolis Colts (10-5)
10. Tennessee Titans (10-5)
11. Miami Dolphins (10-5)
12. Cleveland Browns (10-5)
13. Chicago Bears (8-7)
14. Los Angeles Rams (9-6)
The Rams have quarterback problems.
Jared Goff broke the thumb on his throwing hand in Sunday’s 20-9 loss to the Seahawks. I’ll get to that, and its implications, in a minute.
But first, let’s talk about how back-to-back losses to the Jets and Seahawks have shined a bright light on an issue that’s plagued the Rams over the past two seasons: Jared Goff just isn’t getting it done. The team’s highly paid starter has failed to rebound from a down year in 2019, registering new lows for his time under head coach Sean McVay in yards per attempt (7.2) and yards per completion (10.7). A quick glimpse at his passing charts from the past two games reveals a scheme that’s designed to hide its quarterback and rely on yards after the catch, with the vast majority of Goff’s attempts traveling fewer than 10 yards downfield.
Goff completed 24 of 43 attempts in the loss to Seattle, tossing zero touchdowns and a pick while battling nearly nonstop pressure. His performance under duress has been a problem all year―and really in every season since 2017. The fifth-year pro, who signed a four-year, $134 million extension back in September 2019, ranks 35th among 42 qualifying quarterbacks this year in passer rating under pressure (45.9), per Pro Football Focus, just below the recently benched Carson Wentz. He’s completed just 64 of 144 pass attempts in those situations while tossing four touchdowns to seven picks—the latter number tied for second most leaguewide. McVay has done his best to mitigate Goff’s inability to move or make plays out of structure (see above charts), but the highly regarded play-caller isn’t a magician, either―and no scheme is going to protect its quarterback from ever having to deal with pressure. That’s especially true when the Rams are playing from behind or in two-minute drill situations, when Goff can no longer use play-action fakes and the team’s run game as crutches to lean on.
The Goff problem isn’t going away anytime soon for the Rams, and it already feels like L.A. is quickly approaching something similar to what the Eagles are going through with Wentz. But that’s more of a long-term question that the franchise can take steps to address. In the meantime, Goff’s injured thumb―which will keep him out of Week 17 and possibly even longer―puts L.A. in a tough situation, particularly without a highly drafted and talented backup option like Philly seems to have with Jalen Hurts. Instead, the Rams will be turning to former AAF star John Wolford in their Week 17 matchup with the Cardinals―a game that could make or break L.A.’s playoff hopes (win and they’re in; lose and they could end up missing the postseason altogether).
It’s a less than ideal situation for the Rams, but as we’ve seen with Hurts in Philly, Wolford’s athleticism as a runner could pay some dividends for L.A.’s mostly listless offense. Wolford, who ran for 1,204 yards and 16 touchdowns in his final two seasons at Wake Forest and averaged 20 yards per game for the Arizona Hotshots in 2019, gives McVay some options in both the run game and on bootlegs. Past all the playoff implications, how Wolford does in McVay’s offense makes the Rams-Cardinals matchup next Sunday that much more interesting.
The Muddled Middle
15. Arizona Cardinals (8-7)
16. Dallas Cowboys (6-9)
17. New England Patriots (6-9)
18. Las Vegas Raiders (7-8)
19. Minnesota Vikings (6-9)
20. Washington Football Team (6-9)
21. San Francisco 49ers (6-9)
22. Los Angeles Chargers (6-9)
23. New York Giants (5-10)
The Cowboys are still alive, and are easily the most fun team in the NFC East.
The Cowboys overcame an early 14-3 deficit to come back and beat the Eagles 37-17 on Sunday, eliminating Philadelphia as playoff contenders while simultaneously cementing themselves as the most fun team left alive in the NFC East. Someone’s going to have to win this division, and if we’re going to be forced to watch one of its 7-9 clubs host a far superior team more deserving of home-field advantage in the wild-card round of the playoffs, the least the NFC East winner can be is just that: fun.
Washington, while stout on the front seven and ascending under Ron Rivera, is decidedly not fun, and it doesn’t make a difference whether Alex Smith or Taylor Heinicke starts under center. The Giants, incredibly, are even less fun than I imagined a Joe Judge coached team would be. But landing on the Cowboys here is more than just the process of elimination, because during its current three-game win streak, Dallas has shown both improvement on defense and managed to rediscover its groove on offense under Andy Dalton. Tony Pollard is fun. CeeDee Lamb is fun. Michael Gallup and Amari Cooper are fun. Even Ezekiel Elliott was fun again in the team’s win over the Eagles.
Unfortunately, at least for me, being fun is not yet an official NFL postseason tiebreaker, and if Washington wins its crucial matchup with Philly next week, the Football Team will be headed to the postseason. But if the Eagles can knock Washington off next week on Sunday Night Football, the winner of the Cowboys-Giants game set for earlier in the day will advance.
There’s Always Next Year
24. Carolina Panthers (5-10)
25. Philadelphia Eagles (4-10-1)
26. Atlanta Falcons (4-11)
27. Denver Broncos (5-10)
28. Detroit Lions (5-10)
29. Cincinnati Bengals (4-10-1)
30. New York Jets (2-13)
31. Houston Texans (4-11)
32. Jacksonville Jaguars (1-14)
The Jaguars locked up the first pick. Their rebuild could happen quickly.
With the Jets beating the Browns and Jacksonville getting blown out against the Bears, the Jaguars have officially locked up the first overall pick in the 2021 draft. The team still has to hire a new GM (and, potentially, a new scouting staff), but Jacksonville will almost certainly use that pick to select Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence, who’s been one of the most highly anticipated and much-hyped prospects of the last decade-plus since leading the Tigers to a national title in 2018 as a true freshman.
With the most important position in sports all but locked in for the immediate future, or at least until Lawrence proves otherwise, the Jaguars’ new brain trust (which will likely include a new head coach, too) will be free to focus on building a stronger, deeper roster around its new franchise passer. And few if any teams will have more spending power than Jacksoville has at its disposal. Let’s sum up: In addition to the top pick, the Jags have a second first-round pick from the Rams as part of the Jalen Ramsey deal. They also have two second-rounders—their own, plus the one they acquired from Minnesota in the Yannick Ngakoue deal—a third-rounder, two fourths, and three fifths. In all, Jacksonville’s slated to have 11 picks, and that’s just the draft. The team also has upwards of $77 million in estimated cap space in 2021, most in the NFL. That makes the Jags the big stack at the table and gives the team a stronger chance to land some of the most highly sought-after free agents. Maybe they’ll make a run at Buccaneers receiver Chris Godwin, or Lions pass catcher Kenny Golladay. They could look to add Steelers pass rusher Bud Dupree, or Ravens outside linebacker Matthew Judon. They could bolster their offensive line with a guy like Trent Williams or Brandon Scherff. Add Lawrence and a strong free agency class to a core nucleus of young talent in edge rusher Josh Allen, cornerback CJ Henderson, receivers DJ Chark and Laviska Shenault Jr., and running back James Robinson, among others, and this Jacksonville team could make some pretty big strides in 2021.