If you’ve been watching the NFL for a long time, you could see the undefeated Pittsburgh Steelers loss coming – even to the lowly Washington Football Team.
You know, any given Monday night.
The Steelers had been getting by for weeks while Washington has shown improvement since Alex Smith took over at quarterback. Add in the fact that the Steelers have almost no running game, it was just a matter of time until a lesser opponent tripped them up. It is simply very difficult for NFL teams to get motivated for every game, and it certainly showed with Steelers receivers dropping passes all night against Washington.
So how good are the Steelers? As good as Ben Roethlisberger and its defense. Pittsburgh will most likely benefit from its loss in one way: It removes the pressure of the perfect season. Yes, this team remains capable of making it to the Super Bowl, but it also looks like a year in which the Steelers are darn good but missing the full list of ingredients to win it all.
As we head into the stretch run to the playoffs, our Manopause.com NFL Power Rankings are going to be a lot of fun. Lots of divisional showdowns — games in which neither team can afford a loss – and fierce battles for the seven playoff spots in each conference.
- Kansas City Chiefs (11-1) – The defending Super Bowl champs were helped by the Steelers loss, but Pittsburgh will be the No. 1 seed (and first-round bye) in the AFC if both teams win out because conference records will be the tiebreaker (no head to head game and the two are in different divisions). The Chiefs lost to an AFC team (Raiders) and the Steelers loss came against the NFC. But we’re not done yet. Does the first-round bye mean everything? No, but teams would love a week off in the postseason. That makes this week’s trip to Miami a showdown game, more for the Dolphins than the Chiefs.
- New Orleans Saints (10-2) – The Saints have become the betting favorite to win the Super Bowl, with the Chiefs pegged as the likely opponent. New Orleans has won nine straight games and the surprise is the defense leading the way. The Saints stuff the run and pressure opposing quarterbacks. Add in that future starting quarterback Taysom Hill has played well as Drew Brees heals and it looks like New Orleans has two quarterbacks who can make a difference. If Hill continues to develop as a passer, look out. I expect both QBs to play as soon as Brees returns, giving offensive wizard Sean Payton more new wrinkles to roll out in the postseason.
- Pittsburgh Steelers (11-1) – The loss to Washington was eye-opening mainly because the Steelers blew a 14-0 lead and could make nothing happen on the ground. You don’t see teams win the Super Bowl with the 29th-ranking run offense in a 32-team league. The defense is excellent and so is the future Hall of Fame quarterback. But this team requires Ben Roethlisberger to throw the ball too much to survive a postseason against elite opponents. You want a big game to watch this weekend? Pittsburgh at Buffalo is one of the best playoff previews going.
- Buffalo Bills (9-3) – Can we finally declare this team is for real? Sure, sort of. The dominating win over the 49ers was impressive, especially given San Francisco is fighting for its postseason lives. Josh Allen has emerged as one of the top QBs in the league and the offense is rolling. Still, there’s a sense the Bills need that signature win to get its playoff street cred and they’ll get their chance Sunday night when the Steelers roll in, stinging from their first loss. Could the Bills hand the Steelers two losses in a row? This will be a war.
- Green Bay Packers (9-3) – Aaron Rodgers is having an MVP season and the Packers have been the class of the NFC North all year. They’ve about locked up the division title and still have an excellent shot at the NFC’s top seed, mainly because the Packers were the last team to defeat the Saints (on Sept. 27), giving Green Bay the tiebreaker, while New Orleans still has to play the Chiefs next week, most likely without Brees. The Pack faces Detroit, Carolina, Tennessee and Chicago the rest of the way. Only Tennessee measures up and even that depends on which Titans team shows up.
- Los Angeles Rams (8-4) – If you asked me which team is most likely to win the NFC, I’d give a slight edge to the Saints. If you asked me which NFC team could knock them off, I’m going with the Rams. Why? LA has a top-notch defense capable of stopping the Saints and all the Rams need is for Jared Goff to effectively manage the offense. He’s been doing better than that, evidenced by his 351-yard passing effort that put LA back in first place. All year we’ve been wondering who will win this division. It won’t be preseason favorite San Francisco and I don’t think it will be Seattle. Don’t forget, the Rams were in the Super Bowl two years ago (yeah, I know why Saints fans) and this team is as good or better than that one.
- Cleveland Browns (9-3) – They got a win many thought they could not by going on the road to beat Tennessee, but they did it in true Browns fashion. After racing to a 38-7 halftime lead, Cleveland managed only a second-half field goal in holding on for a 41-35 win. Baker Mayfield is the starter everyone questions, but he has continued to play well, though he is not the first to light up a suspect Titans defense. The Browns are trending toward a wildcard berth, but it won’t be easy. They’ve got to play two teams also fighting for playoff slots in Baltimore and the NY Giants, and they close against the Steelers. On the other hand, it’s all there for the Browns.
- Seattle Seahawks (8-4) – We’ve known all year Seattle has defensive issues, but what has happened to the offense? Putting up 12 points in a surprising loss to the Giants should worry Seahawks fans, as all year they’ve lived on Russell Wilson simply outscoring the other team. New York rushed for 200 yards last week and sent Colt McCoy out there as the starting quarterback. Seattle is tied for the division lead, but it doesn’t feel like it. Luckily, they get the winless Jets this week, but that Dec. 27 meeting with the Rams could be for the division crown. Seattle is trending in the wrong direction.
- Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-5) – Keeping Tampa in the top 10 is a show of respect for Tom Brady, who might be the Bucs’ best offensive coordinator or might help choose the next one if the Bucs don’t make the playoffs. So if you’re wondering who is on the hot seat, it’s head coach Bruce Arians, not the quarterback with a $50 million contract. This week’s game against the Vikings is a true litmus test. Improved Minnesota, winners of five of their last six games, remains alive for a playoff berth and Tampa is one of the teams in their way. A win would give the Vikes a crucial tiebreaker. So if this is not an absolute must-win for Tampa, it’s close to it.
- Baltimore Ravens (7-5) – After a get-well game against the Cowboys, the Ravens have plenty of confidence. That seems to be the role Dallas is playing this year. Anyway, Baltimore looked like a team that knew it couldn’t afford another loss and I expect that’s what we’ll see this week against Cleveland. The Browns are two games ahead of Baltimore in the AFC North, but remember, the Ravens won the first meeting decisively. Believe it or not, a season sweep over Cleveland could set the stage for Baltimore to reach the postseason. Given all their COVID-19 problems, that would be an accomplishment. But know this: The Ravens at full strength remain dangerous.
- Miami Dolphins (8-4) – No matter what happens the rest of this season, the Dolphins franchise is trending up. Brian Flores is the leader they needed and he’s got a team with a stout defense and young talent on offense. So much attention on Tua Tagovaila, who has electrifying ability and may very well someday take this team to a Super Bowl. Doing it this year is a big ask, but it’s fun to watch him play because he gives the Dolphins a higher ceiling. Miami going up-tempo helps Tua mainly by limiting the defensive looks he’ll see, and while his timing in the pass game is not there yet, it’s coming. He’ll see Patrick Mahomes across the field this week, and we’ll all get how the franchise rookie compares.
- Tennessee Titans (8-4) – The defense is killing them, which is the kind of thing you can say after watching Cleveland’s Baker Mayfield throw four touchdown passes in a half. The Titans did make a stirring comeback behind Derrick Henry, and I’d take QB Ryan Tannehill over Mayfield, but with four games left this is not looking like the team that advanced to last year’s AFC Championship Game. Luckily, three of their final four games are against Jacksonville, Detroit and Houston. The fourth is a road test in Green Bay. The Titans should win their division.
- Indianapolis Colts (8-4) – You just never know with the Colts, which in many ways is also the story of Philip Rivers’ career. They can be explosive, they can implode. We saw all of that in their very fortunate win over Houston last week. While there is no shame in going to the wire to stop the talented DeShaun Watson, it was the kind of game that makes you wonder whether this team is good enough to make the playoffs in the rugged AFC. I’m going to say they end up not making it, which probably assures they will, but ultimately I see Indy coming in eighth or ninth, and there are only seven spots.
- Las Vegas Raiders (7-5) – The miracle win against the Jets isn’t really a miracle because it came against the Jets, but it’s amazing how close Las Vegas came to a humiliating blow to its playoff hopes. Yes, they’re still alive, but the division crown is going to the Chiefs and the Raiders are pretty much in a must-win scenario this week against the Colts, who are one game ahead in the wildcard race. It is a home game, if there is such a thing, and the Raiders probably are the better team. But this team was drilled two weeks ago by Atlanta and barely survived the Jets. We have questions. Call this the Inconsistency Bowl of the NFL.
- Minnesota Vikings (6-6) – If you’re wondering who the star is of a talented class of rookies in the NFL, so far it is Justin Jefferson, who went over 1,000 yards receiving in his first 12 games. Kirk Cousins seems to have emerged from his early-season slumber and with the Bears in a free-fall, the Vikings have a legitimate shot at the NFC’s final playoff berth. That makes this week’s game against Tampa Bay bigger than big, especially given Minnesota also travels to New Orleans in three weeks. The Vikings cannot afford a loss because 9-7 won’t land a wildcard slot, though it would make you champion of the NFC East.
- New England Patriots (6-6) – The 45-0 pasting of the Chargers was impressive, but New England’s problem is the big hole the Patriots are climbing out of. If they win out they’ll get to 10 wins, which might get the last spot in the AFC. But can the Pats win at the Rams, at the Dolphins and at home against Buffalo? They’ll likely lose one and that will knock them out.
- Arizona Cardinals (6-6) – The promising start has faded with losses in four of their last five, and it seems opposing defenses have figured out the Cardinals attack. Kyler Murray basically needs to have a spectacular game for Arizona to win games and that is hard to live up to over 16 games. The Cards absolutely need a win this week against the Giants to remain in serious contention. I told you that loss to Detroit in September would come back to haunt this team, though really, any loss to Detroit is haunting.
- San Francisco 49ers (5-7) – They are all but out of the divisional race and badly needed a compelling win last week against Buffalo. They didn’t get it as Josh Allen picked them to pieces. If they win out they’d have an outside shot, but it would take a lot of collapsing by other teams.
- New York Giants (5-7) – On the other hand, 5-7 in the NFC East is good for first place! Not only that, New York holds the tiebreaker over Washington, also 5-7, after sweeping the season series by a total of four points. Even so, don’t hand the crown to the Giants. They can lose to anyone, starting with the 49ers this week.
- Washington Football Team (5-7) – Ron Rivera and his Washington team needed something to build on and they got it with their upset of Pittsburgh on Monday night. It wasn’t a stunner because few things in the NFL are, and the fact is this team has played much better since settling on Alex Smith at quarterback. Smith’s return from his well-known leg injury is a great story, but only because he’s still a quality quarterback. Rivera has put together a solid defense led by Chase Young and Montez Sweet and this might actually be the best team in the NFC East. But they probably need to win three of their last four games and hope the Giants are no better than 2-2 to make the playoffs. It’s possible.
- Atlanta Falcons (4-8) – After losing twice to the Saints over the past three weeks, the Falcons have nothing to play for except the potential retention of interim coach Raheem Morris, who is well-liked by his players. It’s a shame to see QB Matt Ryan playing out the string and I still wonder how a team with Ryan and Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley as his receivers can’t score more points. The answer is those guys are injured a lot. My bet is Morris won’t be back and the Falcons will look for a fresh start.
- Carolina Panthers (4-8) – A lot of positives under first-year coach Matt Rhule even if the record doesn’t show it. Teddy Bridgewater is a solid quarterback, rookie offensive coordinator Joe Brady is a talent on the rise and the Panthers have a solid defensive nucleus. Could have a few more wins were it not for injuries, but this always was likely to be a rebuilding year.
- Denver Broncos (4-8) – Broncos fans are always focused on the quarterback but it is too soon to give up on Drew Lock. He’s shown growth this season and Vic Fangio knows how to put together an NFL defense. The Broncos showed that against the Chiefs, but Denver had better get it going in a division that features the Chiefs and the Raiders rising under Jon Gruden.
- Chicago Bears (5-7) – Mitchell Trubisky or Nick Foles? And the answer is … neither! Imagine this same team with Matt Ryan taking the snaps. Or Matthew Stafford. Or DeShaun Watson. See what I mean?
- Detroit Lions (5-7) – I always pull for interim coaches, and there are a lot of those in Detroit. It was nice to see Darrell Bevell pick up the win with that stellar comeback against the Bears. You know, I’ve always liked the Lions colors. Silver and Honolulu Blue. Something to build on.
- Los Angeles Chargers (3-9) – If Anthony Lynn has any hope of returning as coach next season, the Chargers need to show something against the Falcons, Raiders, Broncos and Chiefs. At least two of those games are winnable, but it could be the 45-0 pasting at the hands of the Patriots already has sealed Lynn’s fate.
- Houston Texans (4-8) – I give them credit for playing hard all season after a disastrous start, still believing they could win enough games to make the playoffs. That ended for sure with the loss last week to Indy. So now it’s time to figure out how to rebuild a team around DeShaun Watson and who should be the coach. And GM. Remember, Bill O’Brien held both jobs.
- Philadelphia Eagles (3-8-1) – Even though this team is only 1.5 games out of first place, it feels like they’re toast. They look like the team that can’t do anything right. Carson Wentz has been average to below average. Why not start Jalen Hurts against the Saints? The fans need a glimmer.
- Dallas Cowboys (3-9) – You know it has to grate on Jerry Jones to play in such a weak division and still have no chance at winning it. Safe to say at this point that Jason Garrett was doing a pretty good job coaching this team last year. Cowboys defense in need of major retooling.
- Cincinnati Bengals (3-9-1) – The gloom over the Bengals is all about the injury to Joe Burrow, who looked every bit the part of the No. 1 overall pick before suffering a serious knee injury. This year was always about rebuilding for the future, but next year is already in doubt given Burrow’s likely recovery timeline. Let’s hope he comes back strong because he has it all.
- Jacksonville Jaguars (1-11) – Sure, the Jags only have one win, but you know, with a few breaks they could have as many as three. Here’s the only number that matters: Jacksonville will pick no worse than No. 2 in the 2021 NFL Draft.
- New York Jets (0-12) – It sure looked like the Jets were going to lose the No. 1 overall pick next year when they took the lead over the Raiders with only 30 seconds to play. But as it turned out, Las Vegas only needed 20 seconds to seize victory and restore order to the universe. I wish I’d had been in Vegas to put a bet down on the Raiders on that final drive.
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