Each week, national NFL writer Mark Maske will provide his ranking of the league’s 32 teams. This week, the Patriots, fresh off a nail-biter of a win over the Chargers, hit their bye week having won four straight but ready to make changes, as the trade of backup QB Jimmy Garoppolo makes clear. The Philadelphia Eagles remain the class of the NFC and stay where they were, as does the rest of the top 10, with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Seattle Seahawks and Los Angeles Rams rounding out the top five.
1. New England Patriots (6-2) | Last Week’s Rank: 1
Trading backup QB Jimmy Garoppolo means the Patriots can no longer lose Tom Brady and still have any Super Bowl hopes. Is there another deal to come before Tuesday’s trade deadline? The victories are coming with the expected regularity now, with the Patriots on a four-game winning streak. But the injuries, most recently to LB Dont’a Hightower and WR Chris Hogan, have created needs for help in the pass rush and at receiver. A bit more depth at tight end wouldn’t hurt, either.
2. Philadelphia Eagles (7-1) | Last Week’s Rank: 2
Prevailing at home against the winless Niners was not exactly a major accomplishment. But beating the teams you should beat is part of the equation for being good in the NFL. It’s no longer early in the season and it must be acknowledged at this point: The Eagles are the NFC’s Super Bowl front-runner.
3. Pittsburgh Steelers (6-2) | Last Week’s Rank: 3
Rookie WR JuJu Smith-Schuster appears to be the real deal. Perhaps the Steelers should just accommodate Martavis Bryant’s request to move on and spare themselves any further headaches.
4. Seattle Seahawks (5-2) | Last Week’s Rank: 4
The defense had few answers for rookie sensation Deshaun Watson and the Texans on Sunday, but the Russell Wilson-led offense pulled out the win in a wonderfully entertaining game. If the Seattle offense looks anything like that the rest of the season, watch out. Trading for Duane Brown, the three-time Pro Bowl left tackle from the Texans, means the Seahawks have upped the ante in their pursuit of the Eagles for NFC supremacy.
5. Los Angeles Rams (5-2) | Last Week’s Rank: 5
It’s back to work for the Rams, who come out of the bye attempting to remain one of the league’s most surprising success stories. The post-bye portion of their schedule begins with a game they should win Sunday against the Giants at the Meadowlands.
6. Minnesota Vikings (6-2) | Last Week’s Rank: 6
Case Keenum continues to thrive as the fill-in starter at QB. A poor first half against the Browns in London gave way to an impressive second half, and there’s no reason to believe that the Aaron Rodgers-less Packers or anyone else in the NFC North will be able to keep pace with the Vikings the rest of the way.
7. Kansas City Chiefs (6-2) | Last Week’s Rank: 7
The Chiefs regrouped with Monday night’s victory at home over the Broncos after two straight losses. They go to Dallas on Sunday and face the Cowboys in what could be the first game of RB Ezekiel Elliott’s suspension.
8. New Orleans Saints (5-2) | Last Week’s Rank: 8
Is it time to conclude that the Saints are the team to beat in the NFC South? They have five straight wins since starting 0-2 and the defense continues to inch closer toward respectability. Plus, there rarely are any concerns about the offense as long as Coach Sean Payton and QB Drew Brees are around.
9. Buffalo Bills (5-2) | Last Week’s Rank: 9
The Bills took advantage of the Raiders’ mistakes Sunday. Now they have a quick turnaround for Thursday night’s key divisional game against the Jets at the Meadowlands. Buffalo has a chance to all but end the competitive portion of the Jets’ season and establish itself as the primary challenger to the Patriots in the surprisingly competitive AFC East.
10. Jacksonville Jaguars (4-3) | Last Week’s Rank: 10
The Jaguars’ next five opponents following their bye are the Bengals, Chargers, Browns, Cardinals and Colts. There are no gimmes for a team with a recent history like Jacksonville’s. But the Jaguars have a chance to be contenders, and they must thrive during this stretch of games.
11. Dallas Cowboys (4-3) | Last Week’s Rank: 14
The Cowboys could play their next six games without RB Ezekiel Elliott after Monday night’s court ruling involving his suspension. If it stands and Elliott’s suspension goes into effect, the Cowboys would turn to Alfred Morris and Darren McFadden at RB.
12. Carolina Panthers (5-3) | Last Week’s Rank: 19
They didn’t exactly get all of QB Cam Newton’s recent issues resolved or get the offense completely back on track Sunday at Tampa. But the Panthers did emerge with a victory, so they won’t complain too much. The return of injured TE Greg Olsen to the practice field this week could set the stage for him to be back in the lineup in late November.
13. Atlanta Falcons (4-3) | Last Week’s Rank: 23
The Falcons overcame deficits of 7-0, 10-7 and 17-10 to beat the Jets, meaning that they found a team even less capable of holding a lead than they are.
14. Baltimore Ravens (4-4) | Last Week’s Rank: 27
If only the Ravens could play the Dolphins every week, they’d be pretty good.
15. Tennessee Titans (4-3) | Last Week’s Rank: 15
QB Marcus Mariota’s hamstring injury is said to be fully healed as the Titans return from their bye week. If that indeed is the case, his restored mobility could be a major boost to the Tennessee offense.
16. Houston Texans (3-4) | Last Week’s Rank: 12
The performance in Seattle was spirited and probably better than anyone should have expected following the controversy over the comments made by owner Robert McNair. Watson was superb yet again. But the McNair controversy isn’t resolved and isn’t going away. The Texans must continue to deal with it. And the offensive play-calling at the end of Sunday’s defeat didn’t do Watson or his teammates any favors.
17. Cincinnati Bengals (3-4) | Last Week’s Rank: 25
The Bengals still can put their season back together. But they’ll have to do so facing a difficult stretch with three straight road games at Jacksonville, Tennessee and Denver.
18. Washington Redskins (3-4) | Last Week’s Rank: 13
Injuries are not an excuse in the NFL but they cannot be ignored, either. The Redskins’ depleted offensive line was in shambles Sunday and they basically had no chance against the Cowboys. The Redskins can be a decent team if they can get that offensive line back intact but it’s unclear if or when that might happen.
19. Miami Dolphins (4-3) | Last Week’s Rank: 11
The performance Thursday night in Baltimore was about as ugly as it gets. Those contending that the Dolphins would be better off with Matt Moore at QB instead of Jay Cutler can just stop it. The Dolphins need Cutler’s cracked ribs to heal and they need him back in the lineup. Cutler is far from perfect. But he was Coach Adam Gase’s choice to be the starter at QB after Ryan Tannehill’s injury, and Gase knows what he’s doing.
20. Green Bay Packers (4-3) | Last Week’s Rank: 24
Coach Mike McCarthy had a bye week to find a way for fill-in QB Brett Hundley to play better. If there is not an improved performance by Hundley and the offense Monday night against the Lions, it will reflect on McCarthy as well as on Hundley.
21. Chicago Bears (3-5) | Last Week’s Rank: 16
The Bears are 2-2 since turning to rookie Mitchell Trubisky as the starter at QB, and Trubisky is averaging a modest 128 passing yards per game. No one ever said it was going to be easy. But things are still better than they were before Trubisky took over.
22. Los Angeles Chargers (3-5) | Last Week’s Rank: 17
The Chargers are in the middle of playing two straight road games. Has anyone in L.A. noticed?
23. Oakland Raiders (3-5) | Last Week’s Rank: 18
It’s just not going to happen this season for the Raiders, is it? The uplifting victory over the Chiefs in that memorable Thursday night game should have been a catalyst toward bigger and better things. Instead, even with a long rest, Oakland went to Buffalo and gave a mistake-filled performance in Sunday’s lopsided defeat.
24. Arizona Cardinals (3-4) | Last Week’s Rank: 26
It’s time to watch Drew Stanton take over at QB. The sense of anticipation is less than overwhelming, huh?
25. Denver Broncos (3-4) | Last Week’s Rank: 20
Trevor Siemian is not the answer at QB and the season is slipping away from the Broncos.
26. Detroit Lions (3-4) | Last Week’s Rank: 21
The Lions’ season is coming unraveled quickly thanks to three straight losses. The loser of Monday night’s game against the Packers at Lambeau Field will have a very difficult time climbing back into playoff contention.
27. New York Jets (3-5) | Last Week’s Rank: 22
Maybe the Jets should have tanked the season, after all.
28. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-5) | Last Week’s Rank: 28
Few are talking about the Buccaneers being among the NFL’s most disappointing teams, but they certainly belong on that list. They were supposed to be honest-to-goodness contenders. They’re not even close.
29. New York Giants (1-6) | Last Week’s Rank: 29
The Giants will return from their bye week and play the remainder of their season because, well, NFL rules pretty much require that. But is there anything that can actually be accomplished? At this point, it’s all about what the future will hold for GM Jerry Reese, Coach Ben McAdoo and QB Eli Manning.
30. Indianapolis Colts (2-6) | Last Week’s Rank: 30
Injured QB Andrew Luck will go another week without practicing due to his ailing shoulder, and it seems increasingly inevitable that Luck will remain on the shelf until 2018. These are not enjoyable times for anyone in this organization, and many within the league now regard it as a matter of when, not if, the team and Coach Chuck Pagano will part ways.
31. San Francisco 49ers (0-8) | Last Week’s Rank: 31
The trade for QB Jimmy Garoppolo was a terrific deal for the Niners. They get Garoppolo for a second-round pick in 2018 and no longer have to worry about trying to pry Kirk Cousins from the Redskins or taking a risk on a QB in the draft. Rooke C.J. Beathard looks capable of being a dependable backup. The 49ers could be set at QB. This season is a lost cause but the future suddenly looks considerably more promising.
32. Cleveland Browns (0-8) | Last Week’s Rank: 32
Shouldn’t the Browns get credit for a half-win after leading at halftime Sunday against the Vikings in London? It will be interesting to see whether Cleveland made a bigger mistake by passing up Carson Wentz or Deshaun Watson. Both appear to be stunningly major, course-of-the-franchise-altering blunders.
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