Sports

NFL Power Rankings: The Cardinals Are a Legit Super Bowl Contender

The cream continued to rise to the top in the NFL in Week 6, narrowing my list of the league’s elite teams to eight squads. The Cardinals climbed to the top of the pile thanks to a statement win over the Browns, but the gap separating Arizona from the likes of the Buccaneers, Rams, Ravens, Cowboys, Bills, and Packers remains as slim as can be. With six weeks in the books, here’s my updated Power Rankings.

The Top Shelf

1. Arizona Cardinals (6-0)
2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-1)
3. Los Angeles Rams (5-1)
4. Baltimore Ravens (5-1)
5. Dallas Cowboys (5-1)
6. Buffalo Bills (4-2)
7. Green Bay Packers (5-1)

It’s past time to take the Cardinals seriously.

If you’ve been harboring doubts about the legitimacy of the Cardinals’ red-hot start, now might be the time to finally let those thoughts go. It’s true that Arizona has torn through lower-quality opponents in Jacksonville and San Francisco, to name a couple. But after watching the Cardinals take down the top-notch Rams in Week 4 and another very tough opponent in the Browns on Sunday, it’s getting harder and harder to deny that this team is a real Super Bowl contender.

Arizona’s winning formula starts, of course, with quarterback Kyler Murray, who completed 20 of 30 passes for 229 yards and four touchdowns in the convincing 37-14 win. Murray did most of his damage with his arm (he rushed seven times for just 6 yards), spreading the ball out to his playmaking weapons while finding DeAndre Hopkins for two scores, A.J. Green on another, and Christian Kirk for yet another. Making Murray’s performance all that more impressive was the fact that he did all that without head coach and play-caller Kliff Kingsbury, who missed the game after a positive COVID-19 test. Assistant wide receivers coach Spencer Whipple (??) took up Kingsbury’s play-calling mantle, and Arizona’s offense just kept humming: The Cardinals scored on their first five possessions, punted just twice all game, and dropped 37 points on Cleveland’s defense (it was the fifth time in six games this year that they’ve posted 30-plus points).

Murray remains an irreplaceable linchpin in the team’s high-scoring offense (which comes out of Week 6 averaging 32.3 points per game, fourth best), but on the whole, this year’s group feels more balanced and robust than it’s been in previous seasons. Murray has an ungraded skill group to work with thanks to the addition of Green during the offseason, and the team has gotten reliable contributions from running backs James Conner and Chase Edmonds. The scary part, though, is that this unit could take an even bigger jump down the stretch: Veteran tight end Zach Ertz (whom the team traded for on Friday) should give Murray another reliable security blanket on third downs, and rookie playmaker Rondale Moore is only scratching the surface of what he could do with an expanded role. This Arizona offense has shown week in and week out that it can beat opponents in a wide variety of ways―and the Cardinals still have an ace or two up their sleeve.

Defensively, Arizona continues to outperform expectations, too. Despite missing Chandler Jones (reserve/COVID-19 list), the Cardinals tallied five sacks against Cleveland’s beat-up offensive line, notching six tackles for a loss, six quarterback hits, six pass knockdowns, a pick, and two forced fumbles (both recovered by Arizona) in the win. And crucially, that unit dominated the Browns in most high-leverage situations, holding Cleveland to 3-of-10 on third downs and just 1-of-4 on fourth-down tries. Put it all together, and the Cardinals look like the Real McCoy.

The Ravens are rounding into elite form.

Coming into their marquee matchup with a white-hot Chargers team this week, the Ravens had the look of an exciting yet deeply flawed club that had clawed its way to a 4-1 record thanks largely to the fact that Lamar Jackson is ridiculously awesome at football. To wit: Baltimore’s defense had ranked just 22nd in DVOA through five weeks, had surrendered an average of 389.6 yards per game (24th), and had collected just five takeaways (tied for 17th) in that stretch. That unit looked like a massive vulnerability that could hold Jackson and the rest of the team back, in other words, and I expected the Justin Herbert–led Chargers would cut through them like a hot knife through butter. That did not happen.

The Ravens defense bowed up and played with a newfound discipline, holding Herbert to just 22-of-39 passing for 195 yards with one touchdown and one pick. They did so with a combination of exotic pressure looks up front and some stout coverage in the back end. They sacked Herbert twice, hit him another four times, and knocked down seven passes to go with a DeShon Elliott interception. In all, Baltimore held Los Angeles to a paltry 3.9 yards per play and won on both third and fourth downs (holding the Chargers to 3-of-12 conversions on third down and 1-of-4 conversions on fourth downs).

Of course, the Ravens’ offense did its part too. With the Chargers lining up in two-high looks and essentially daring Baltimore to run the ball, Jackson and Co. did just that. Behind a three-headed running-back rotation of over-the-hill former stars in Devonta Freeman, Le’Veon Bell, and Latavius Murray, the Ravens rushed for a total of 187 yards on 38 totes with 51 yards from Jackson. And while Jackson was less than perfect through the air, completing 19 of 27 passes for 167 yards, one touchdown, and two picks, there were still encouraging signs that the Baltimore passing game is evolving. Rookie Rashod Bateman made his pro debut in the game, catching four passes for 29 yards. That might not sound like much, but all four receptions went for first downs, a perfect illustration of the chains-moving role Bateman figures to play going forward. Along with a touchdown-scoring, seam-stretching threat in Mark Andrews and a big-play creator in Marquise Brown, the Ravens’ investments at the pass-catcher positions seem to be paying off―and that group could help make Baltimore one of the most balanced and toughest-to-stop offenses in the NFL.

The Contenders

8. Los Angeles Chargers (4-2)
9. Kansas City Chiefs (3-3)
10. Cleveland Browns (3-3)
11. Cincinnati Bengals (4-2)
12. Tennessee Titans (4-2)
13. Las Vegas Raiders (4-2)
14. New Orleans Saints (3-2)
15. Minnesota Vikings (3-3)

The Raiders offense will be fine.

It was tough to predict exactly how the Raiders’ offense would perform this week following the resignation of former head coach and play-caller Jon Gruden, but early returns indicate that Derek Carr and Co. are going to be just fine under offensive coordinator Greg Olson. In fact, we might see an even more effective unit going forward if the team sticks with its game plan from the impressive win over the Broncos. Notably, Olson dialed up a massive increase in play-action passes in the 34-24 win over the Broncos.

I’m a big proponent of schematic deception, and while specific game situations can dictate whether or not play-action is appropriate (for instance, in third-and-long, when defenses know a pass is coming, it probably won’t make a big impact), I’ve never understood why teams aren’t more committed to simply making things harder on defenders. Play-action does just that; by faking a handoff, teams can pull second-level defenders out of position and potentially open up huge gaps in coverage, giving quarterbacks opportunities for big plays down the field or wide-open layups at the short and intermediate levels. We saw some of those effects on Sunday, when Carr completed five of eight passes for 60 yards on play-action passes, per Pro Football Focus. The boost in play-action rate wasn’t the only key to the Raiders’ win, but it could signal a shift in how Olson, Carr, and the Raiders look to attack opposing defenses.

The bottom line was that Carr looked completely comfortable in the team’s slightly tweaked scheme. The veteran quarterback finished the day an efficient 18 of 27 for 341 yards, two touchdowns, and no interceptions, finding speedster Henry Ruggs III for a huge 48-yard touchdown in the first quarter before connecting with Kenyan Drake on a 31-yard wheel-route touchdown just before the half. Olson’s smart play-calling mix worked like a charm against a quality defense, with Las Vegas gaining 426 yards on offense and averaged 8.2 yards per play. With interim head coach Rich Bisaccia at the helm, Gus Bradley in charge of the defense, and Olson calling the plays, the Raiders showed on Sunday that they’re still in the hunt in the AFC.

The Muddled Middle

16. Pittsburgh Steelers (3-3)
17. Chicago Bears (3-3)
18. Carolina Panthers (3-3)
19. Denver Broncos (3-3)
20. Seattle Seahawks (2-4)
21. San Francisco 49ers (2-3)
22. Philadelphia Eagles (2-4)
23. New England Patriots (2-4)
24. Atlanta Falcons (2-3)
25. Indianapolis Colts (2-4)
26. Washington Football Team (2-4)

The Panthers offense under Sam Darnold is cratering.

The Panthers’ season has been a case study in the dangers of overreacting to a small sample.

Through three weeks, Carolina was undefeated, having notched wins over the Jets, Saints, and Texans, and the early returns of the Sam Darnold trade were promising. I dare say, I had even allowed myself to start feeling optimistic about Darnold’s future again. The fourth-year quarterback hadn’t exactly been perfect, but he looked like he was making a huge jump in the Joe Brady–called offense, tallying a 68 percent completion rate with three touchdowns, one pick, a 99.0 passer rating and another three rushing touchdowns in that stretch. I know I fired off a few Adam Gase–themed tweets while watching Darnold’s supposed improvement. I was so young back then, so naive.

Over the last three weeks, the outlook in Carolina has changed dramatically. With a 34-28 loss to the Vikings on Sunday, the Panthers have now lost three straight―and perhaps more worrisome, Darnold has quickly turned back into the guy we saw in New York. He’s been jittery, indecisive, and at times reckless with the football, tossing six interceptions and just four touchdowns in those games. His performance against Minnesota, which started with a first-throw interception, stacks up with some of his worst games as a Jet. Through two quarters, Darnold had completed just 5 of 18 passes for 60 yards and a pick, and even after finding some footing late to help lead a comeback attempt, his final line (17-of-41 for 207 yards, one touchdown, one interception, and a 55.6 passer rating) was absolutely grim. It didn’t help, of course, that Carolina receivers dropped eight passes against Minnesota alone (per Pro Football Focus), but Darnold’s collapse over the last three weeks has left head coach Matt Rhule borderline apoplectic nonetheless. Rhule vowed on Monday that we’d see a “vastly” different offense from the Panthers going forward. “We’re going to redefine who we are,” said Rhule, “and we’re going to run the football and we’re going to protect our quarterback and we’re not going to turn the ball over anymore.”

That sounds like the right move, at least on the surface, and it’s clear that the Panthers can’t win with Darnold turning the ball over in bunches. But Carolina will have to dig deep to manufacture a ground game.

But Rhule’s plan could encounter a few problems: Rookie Chuba Hubbard has been a fine fill-in for superstar running back Christian McCaffrey, but he’s a clear downgrade in his ability to create yards after contact or manufacture his own production. That’s a problem for a team that came into Week 6 ranked 20th in rushing DVOA and whose offensive line ranks 24th in adjusted line yards. Shifting to a run-first approach could be easier said than done, so unless Darnold can snap himself out of this funk and get back to looking like the guy we saw early in the season, it’s hard to see the Panthers offense improving as the year goes on.

Carson Wentz is trying to make me a believer.

Speaking of possibly ill-advised offseason quarterback trades, let’s talk about Carson Wentz. Wentz’s season has followed a trajectory that’s almost a perfect inversion of Darnold’s, and after a slow start with the Colts, he’s started to hit his stride. The sixth-year veteran posted his third-straight quality game on Sunday, connecting on 11 of 20 passes for 223 yards and two touchdowns with no picks in Indianapolis’s 31-3 shellacking of Houston. In the past three weeks (in which Indy’s gone 2-1), Wentz has connected on 60 of 87 attempts for 853 yards with six touchdowns and zero interceptions, averaged 9.8 yards per attempt, and tallied a 123.4 passer rating. He’s taken just six sacks and lost just one fumble. He’s made some seriously impressive throws. He’s almost got me buying in.

But look, I’ve made the mistake of overreacting to small samples (see: Darnold, Sam), so I’ll refrain from making any sweeping judgments just yet. But with matchups against the 49ers, Titans, and Jets on tap, he’ll have a good opportunity to continue to strengthen his confidence―and even push the Colts back into the playoff hunt. If Wentz really has turned a corner in his reunion with head coach and play-caller Frank Reich, it could bring massive implications not only for the playoff picture in the AFC South, but the long-term future of the Colts franchise.

There’s Always Next Year

27. New York Giants (1-5)
28. Houston Texans (1-5)
29. Jacksonville Jaguars (1-5)
30. Miami Dolphins (1-5)
31. New York Jets (1-4)
32. Detroit Lions (0-6)

For the Giants, wholesale changes may be coming.

The Giants aren’t good, that much was clear in their blowout loss to the Rams on Sunday, a defeat that all but locks New York into another lost season. That’s got to be disappointing enough on its own, but for fans of the team, I imagine there must be the feeling that an already terrible team is somehow going in the wrong direction. Which is saying a lot for a franchise that is tied … with the Jets … for a league-low 19 wins dating back to the start of the 2017 season.

Apart from a few exciting Kadarius Toney plays here and there, there isn’t a whole lot for Giants fans to feel hopeful about these days (Toney got hurt after a few snaps and left the game this week, by the way). Daniel Jones has regressed after a hot start, Saquon Barkley’s hurt again, big-ticket free agent Kenny Golladay has yet to make a big impact (oh, and he’s also hurt), and the team’s defense, which outplayed expectations last year, has not impressed in 2021. And while injuries have certainly been a factor for New York this season, health affects every team in the NFL, and it’s becoming very apparent that the Giants just don’t have the talent, depth, or leadership to compete in the NFC. Again.

That reality should make the rest of the Giants’ season interesting, at least from a direction-of-the-franchise point of view. Co-owner John Mara said before the year that GM Dave Gettleman wasn’t on the hot seat, but said that tangible improvement was needed. “I want to see us make progress and become a winning team again,” he told reporters. “We’re overdue on that and we spent a lot of money in free agency. I think we’ve had a couple of really productive drafts. Now it’s time to prove it on the field.”

That proof has not materialized, and if New York continues on this course, Gettleman could be the first to go. It’s anyone’s guess as to whether the team will decide to move on from head coach Joe Judge, too, but the next few months will be crucial for everyone on this staff.



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