The Pittsburgh Steelers have been climbing all year in the Manopause NFL Power Rankings. Over the next few weeks, they’ve got a chance to prove they are the top challenger to the Kansas City Chiefs to win the Super Bowl.
The Steelers are 6-0 and the last undefeated team standing in this NFL season. It has taken great play and some luck: The Titans mercurial kicker Stephen Gostkowski missed a routine field goal last week that would’ve forced overtime.
And let’s get real: Pittsburgh has been beating up on the very worst teams in the NFL. Wins over the Giants, Bengals, Texans, Eagles and Broncos all count, but those teams are currently a combined 7-25-1. And I’m not so sure Pittsburgh is better than Tennessee despite last week’s 3-point win.
It has certainly helped the Steelers to have the entire NFC East on its schedule, a division that could be won by a team with 6 or 7 wins. And really, there are only four teams left on the Steelers schedule that currently hold winning records. Not saying the Steelers aren’t worthy, but their slate is soft. They play the Ravens twice the rest of the season and the next-best opponent is …. Cleveland?
- Kansas City Chiefs (5-1) – Don’t be fooled into thinking it’s the Patrick Mahomes Show in Kansas City. This is a complete team, with an aggressive defense and perhaps the best rookie runner in the league in Clyde Edwards-Helaire, who runs angry and mean. The Chiefs hung 40 on Denver with Mahomes throwing one TD pass. This is a team built for the postseason and you get the feeling that the Chiefs are just getting the regular season out of the way. Look for a Mahomes explosion against the hapless and hopeless Jets this week.
- Pittsburgh Steelers (6-0) – Won last week despite blowing a big lead and three picks by Ben Roethlisberger. This is a solid team. Is it a team that should go undefeated? No. Is it the best team in the NFL? Also no. If there is a concern about Pittsburgh, it’s that the Steelers won’t face too many excellent teams before the playoffs. Half of their games are against the Browns, Bengals and the NFC East. This week’s showdown with the division favorite Ravens – the first of two — is a real test.
- Baltimore Ravens (5-1) – Weird that the Ravens are getting overlooked ever since losing to the Chiefs, but Baltimore is gearing up for a Super Bowl run – the impetus for the trade of two draft picks to Minnesota for Pro Bowl defensive end Yannick Ngakoue. The Ravens already own the stingiest defense in the NFL and have piled up 22 sacks. Ngakoue makes the Ravens even more fierce just as Baltimore enters a stretch of opponents with veteran quarterbacks. There’s nothing wrong with this team, they’re just not getting talked about. Yet.
- Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-2) – Tom Brady will get plenty of credit if Tampa makes it to the Super Bowl this season, but he’s not the only key move made by the Bucs. This week’s signing of troubled but talented Antonio Brown could be huge – he immediately becomes the top receiver on this team. Brady, meanwhile, is actually playing better than some thought he might once he was away from the Patriots. His 369-yard, four touchdown demolition of the Raiders is not even surprising. The defense is excellent and even Rob Gronkowski is enjoying a revival. This week the Bucs get a Monday night matchup with the stumbling, bumbling Giants. Is Tampa the NFC’s most complete team? Looking that way.
- Green Bay Packers (5-1) – Shook off the loss to the Bucs two weeks ago with a rout of the Texans. Davante Adams is back from injury and back in the flow with 13 catches for 196 yards last week and he’ll be a factor once the playoffs roll around. The Packers have some issues on defense, but they also have Aaron Rodgers. With the weapons he has, Green Bay is a good bet to make it to the NFC Championship Game and you just know Rodgers would love to get another shot at Brady and the Bucs.
- Tennessee Titans (5-1) – Nearly pushed the Steelers to overtime after falling behind by 20 points in the third quarter, but the Titans defense couldn’t stop the Steelers on third down. That kept the league’s best power running back, Derrick Henry, on the sideline and thwarted the ball-control offense Tennessee loves to run. Gostkowski is a concern – the Titans need a reliable kicker because their style of play seems to put them in a lot of close games. Not likely to need him against the Bengals.
- Seattle Seahawks (5-1) – Whichever team is leading the NFC West has to be listed among the contenders. For now, that’s Seattle. The divisional battles are brutal and you can’t win them all – Seattle’s offense finally failed when it mattered against Arizona in a 37-34 loss. Seattle lives and dies by Russell Wilson and is going to need to shore up its defense to make a Super Bowl push. Way too porous if you’re giving up 500 yards to the Cardinals.
- Los Angeles Rams (5-2) – Took care of business against the overrated Chicago Bears, who could do nothing against the LA defense. The Rams are right there in the NFC West and Jared Goff is no wide-eyed rookie. This week LA is part of one of the NFL’s marquee matchups – at Miami where they’ll face the debut of Dolphins rookie QB Tua Tagovailoa. It will be interesting to see what the Rams throw at Tua, and you can bet the Rams are going to bring the heat.
- New Orleans Saints (4-2) – There are likely few non-Saints fans who believe New Orleans is the best team in the NFC South and that’s only going to motivate Drew Brees and Sean Payton. The Saints beat Tampa Bay in Brady’s first game as a Buccaneer, but there is no doubt Tampa will be favored in the rematch on the Bucs’ home field in two weeks. In the meantime, Brees looked great in beating a competitive Carolina team despite both of New Orleans’ starting receivers missing the game. Instead of Michael Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, Brees was throwing to Marquez Callaway, who you can bet will see more playing time after his fill-in performances.
- Buffalo Bills (5-2) – It was nice to break the two-game losing streak but managing only six field goals in an 18-10 win against the New York Jets is nothing to celebrate. The Bills defense returned to form and really won this game and now Buffalo entertains the suddenly reeling New England Patriots, who have not been the same since Cam Newton returned from his COVID-19 absence. It would be foolish to assume Buffalo will roll over New England, even at home, because the Patriots are going to fight like their season is on the line.
- Arizona Cardinals (5-2) – Got the biggest win of Kyler Murray’s young NFL career with an incredible comeback to beat Seattle. Arizona trailed by 10 with less than seven minutes to play but the defense finally stopped Russell Wilson after he rolled up 300 yards of offense in the first half alone. It was a game Arizona had to have and they got it, keeping the Cards in the playoff chase in a division where potentially three of four teams could make the postseason.
- San Francisco 49ers (4-3) – Consecutive, convincing wins over the Rams and Patriots have the 49ers back on track and they definitely will control their own destiny with the tough schedule they face. This week the Niners travel to Seattle to face a Seahawks team stinging from its collapse against Arizona. It won’t be easy … for Seattle. The 49ers have the vastly superior defense and a healed Jimmy Garoppolo. A win this week in my mind makes San Fran the favorite – just like they were in the preseason – in the NFL’s best division.
- Indianapolis Colts (4-2) – As Philip Rivers goes, so go the Colts. Indy has a solid defense, certainly good enough to make the postseason, and when Rivers is on the Colts are tough to beat. He’s a little bit like Detroit’s Matthew Stafford in that regard – feast or famine – so it’s fitting those two clubs meet in a crossroads game on Sunday. One team will emerge headed in the right direction.
- Cleveland Browns (5-2) – You have to give the Browns credit for winning five games to this point. Credit also to Baker Mayfield, possibly the most maligned starting quarterback on a team that currently holds a winning record. Mayfield completed 22 of his final 23 pass attempts – the incompletion was a spike to stop the clock – to help the Browns to a comeback win over the Bengals. He even overcame the loss of superstar receiver Odell Beckham Jr., out for the year after tearing an ACL. Yet there was Mayfield firing a 24-yard game-winning strike to another young receiver, Donovan Peoples-Jones, a rookie out of Michigan.
- Las Vegas Raiders (3-3) – Jon Gruden’s club is a tough one to read. Looked great in beating the Chiefs and Saints, looked lost and confused against the Patriots and Bucs. This is what makes the NFL so great. Evenly matched teams searching for their identity end up meeting on the field. The Raiders go into Cleveland as the underdog, mainly due to the Browns aggressive defense. But this game will come down to Mayfield vs Derek Carr. Who’s better?
- Chicago Bears (5-2) – Defense wins championships? The Bears better hope so. The question is whether a defense can win a championship with little to no offense. Bears QB Nick Foles has won a Super Bowl and he’s better than benched Mitchell Trubisky, but the Chicago offense is painful to watch – the Bears have few difference makers and could do nothing against the Rams. They’ll find easier sledding against the Saints’ suspect defense but it would be hard to bet on the Bears outscoring Brees and company.
- Miami Dolphins (3-3) – The promotion of Tua Tagovaila to starting quarterback might seem strange for a team on a two-game win streak, but this is a sign of two things: The Dolphins believe they can win now and they believe Tua gives them a higher upside than effective but limited Ryan Fitzpatrick. Miami is not making it easy on the talented rookie – he’ll face a tough Rams defense in his debut. But the Dolphins believe they can make the playoffs and if they do, they think Tua has the potential to go deeper. They’re right on both counts, maybe.
- Carolina Panthers (3-4) – Had the Saints right where they wanted them with a depleted New Orleans offense and Teddy Bridgewater on a potential game-winning drive, or at least a field goal to force overtime. Then Bridgewater took a horrendous sack and that field goal attempt was suddenly from 65 yards – and Joey Slye’s kick was dead center and a few feet short. Teams that aren’t quite good enough don’t get the breaks. So it is unlikely this is the year for Carolina, but they get Christian McCaffrey back soon and Bridgewater has shown the Panthers can build around him.
- Los Angeles Chargers (2-4) – Justin Herbert continues to improve rapidly with career highs last week in passing (347 yards) and rushing (66 yards). Okay, that was against Jacksonville. But the rifle-armed rookie is a legitimate weapon who looks every bit the franchise quarterback. Look for him to have a field day against Denver this week. Can the Chargers make a run at a playoff berth in 2020? That push would start with a division win over the Broncos.
- New England Patriots (2-4) – Is anyone still wondering whether Tom Brady meant more to the Patriots than Bill Belichick did to Brady? Case closed. Brady is playing like a G.O.A.T. and his successor in New England, Cam Newton, is going out to dinner and getting COVID-19. Belichick is standing by Newton because he has to – Newton is so much more talented than his backups that the Pats have to leave him out there. Newton needs to improve pronto, especially with a trip to meet division leader Buffalo this weekend. By the way, this is exactly the kind of game Belichick often finds a way to win.
- Detroit Lions (3-3) – I thought it was unlikely that the Lions could beat Jacksonville and Atlanta in consecutive weeks, even though both are bad teams, simply because the Lions find a way to lose to bad teams. But they ran into a squad even better at it, the Atlanta Falcons, who gift-wrapped a victory for Detroit. The Colts won’t be as accommodating, but nevertheless a Detroit victory actually moves the Lions into the wildcard chase. Emphasis on chase.
- Philadelphia Eagles (2-4-1) – Now that’s a sparkling record for a division leader, huh? And for those keeping track, the combined record of the NFC East currently stands at 7-20-1. The Eagles have the best overall team and the division’s best quarterback in Carson Wentz, and they probably only need 7 wins to take the crown – and host a home playoff game. Meanwhile, one of the four solid teams in the NFC West won’t even get in the playoffs. Foul!
- Houston Texans (1-6) – Their record is horrible, they’ve blown games they should’ve won and they’ve already fired their coach/GM. The Texans have the talent to be competitive, led by a very good quarterback in DeShaun Watson. They just cannot put it all together. Close losses to the Saints and Titans look encouraging until you realize the Texans are going to notch respectable losses week after week. It’s what they do.
- Denver Broncos (2-4) – They’re 1-1 since Drew Lock returned. He looked good in the win and completely frazzled in the loss to the Chiefs. Lock is going to get the rest of this season to show what he can do. Denver is not going to make the playoffs, but the Broncos need to see enough out of Lock to make him a lock as their starter. No pressure. It’s only Hall of Famer John Elway making that evaluation.
- Atlanta Falcons (1-6) – All the Falcons had to do to put away Detroit was not score and run out the clock. Instead, Todd Gurley mistakenly went into the end zone, the Lions got the ball back with 1:04 and Matthew Stafford marched Detroit to the game-winning score. It was a sequence that seems to define Atlanta’s franchise – they look like they could be good, but they’re not. Even in Super Bowls. And all of a sudden, Matt Ryan is 35 years old and probably not the future.
- Minnesota Vikings (1-5) – No surer sign of a team giving up than the trade of their best defensive player, Yannick Ngakoue, to the Ravens. The next questions will be how the Vikings feel about quarterback Kirk Cousins, a second-tier talent who has most likely landed his last massive contract, and coach Mike Zimmer, a defensive specialist who may be on another coaching staff in 2021.
- Cincinnati Bengals (1-5-1) – Joe Burrow is having an outstanding rookie season despite being under pressure every game, and taking plenty of hits, and the Bengals play hard before losing. Could have pulled it off against Cleveland, who they lost to twice by a total of 8 points. Now they get the Titans coming off a loss. Hide Joe, hide!
- Washington Football Team (2-5) – Things I didn’t expect to be writing this week: “Washington, coming off a rout of the Cowboys….’’ The WFT (note the similarity to WTF?) might be the second-best team in the NFC East, and by that I mean Washington is one of the worst teams in the NFL. But they have a real coach in Ron Rivera and his choice to go with Kyle Allen over Dwayne Haskins at quarterback is looking like the right call. Not a surprise if this team knocks off a few contenders down the stretch.
- New York Giants (1-6) – There are a lot of questions and it remains unknown whether Daniel Jones is one of the answers. Maybe he can pick up a few pointers while watching Tom Brady and the Buccaneers offense this weekend. Sometimes in these apparent one-sided matchups the underdog steps up and pulls off a stunning upset. Not this time.
- Dallas Cowboys (2-5) – It says a lot when three teams from the same division occupy spots 28-30 in the power rankings. It says even more that one of them is Dallas, a team some thought might make a run at the NFC title this year. That talk seems like ancient history, before Dak Prescott went down and Andy Dalton showed that he also can’t win games all by himself. Dallas is a disaster on both sides of the ball. Somewhere, Jason Garrett is feeling pretty good about his tenure as Cowboys coach.
- Jacksonville Jaguars (1-6) – Take your pick Trevor Lawrence: Jacksonville or the Jets? Those are the two favorites to land the overall No. 1 draft choice and my prediction is one of them will take Clemson’s Lawrence and the other will select Justin Fields out of Ohio State, who may not rate too far behind Lawrence. So take heart Jacksonville fans. The Gardner Minshew era is coming to a close, one draft pick or another.
- New York Jets (0-7) – Sam Darnold should be happy. The Jets are most certainly going to give up on him if they have the first pick and will draft Lawrence if they decide he is a once-a-decade talent. Darnold should hope so. He has the talent to start in the NFL and as soon as he leaves the Jets, look for him to start winning games. That’s what happens to former Jets players.
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