Sports

NFL Power Rankings, Week 18: Surging Packers re-enter top 10 …

Published: Jan 05, 2023 at 12:55 PM

The NFL Power Rankings exist as a fun spin on the usual way we measure teams in Our League.

“They’re the Power Rankings, not Power Standings,” I’m known to say (far too often and with more than a trace of smugness). The process becomes mechanical as the season rolls on: I make an initial order of 32 during Sunday Night Football, wake up Monday morning, watch the games I haven’t seen, write my little blurbs, finalize the order after Monday Night Football and send it off to our crack editors, who dress it up real pretty and blast it out to the world … then people get mad. It’s great.

It’s all meant to be fun, playful, hopefully somewhat informative and more than a little bit frivolous. None of it is in any way serious — a touch of mirth has always been my preferred mode of coverage of the National Football League.

On Monday night, I settled in on my couch for what had the potential to be the Game of the Year: Bills vs. Bengals — the No. 1 seed in the AFC potentially on the line. Privately, I had decided that this outcome would also likely determine a new No. 1 in the Power Rankings. Fun. Playful. Hopefully informative. Not at all serious.

And then the game started … and life got serious in a manner none of us could have ever imagined.

I, like everyone else, have spent the ensuing days closely following all of the updates coming out the University of Cincinnati Medical Center while sending positive thoughts to Bills safety Damar Hamlin. We’ll continue to do that, of course, even as Hamlin’s teammates in Buffaloand players across the league — prepare for another game this weekend. There’s no easy road forward here.

With that in mind, we share the latest edition of the NFL Power Rankings. Thank you for reading — even you angry little buggers on Twitter. For one week, perhaps we can tone down the discourse and instead funnel some positive thoughts to Damar Hamlin and the fight we need him to win.

Buffalo Bills

Previous rank: No. 3

Buffalo entered Monday night as a Super Bowl contender at the highest level. How the team proceeds from a competitive standpoint is a complete unknown as we move forward. What we do know is that this is a very tight locker room led by an excellent coach and leader in Sean McDermott. And Thursday morning’s update that Damar Hamlin “has shown remarkable improvement over the past 24 hours” and “appears to be neurologically intact” lifts the spirits of everyone following this harrowing incident.

Cincinnati Bengals

Previous rank: No. 4

The Bengals deserve much praise for how they’ve handled everything connected to Damar Hamlin and the awful events of Monday night at Paycor Stadium. The team was immediately supportive of the Bills, and we’ve seen the same thing from a city pulling for Hamlin and his ongoing recovery. Cincy was on fire with passion to knock off the Bills on Monday night — by Tuesday night, the skyline was bathed in Buffalo blue in a showing of unity. “It’s bigger than football,” Zac Taylor said in his first public comments on Wednesday. “I think Cincinnati and Buffalo are similar in that way and what the communities are about.”

Dallas Cowboys

Previous rank: No. 6

It was a take-care-of-business game for the Cowboys, who easily handled a short-handed Titans team resting multiple players in a Thursday Night Football snoozer. The only real competitive intrigue in the contest came via self-inflicted errors by Dak Prescott, who threw two interceptions and lost a fumble in a sloppy first half. Prescott and the rest of the offense cleaned it up from that point, coasting to the win in the team’s third game in 12 days. A victory over the Commanders in Week 18 coupled with an Eagles loss to the Giants would allow the Cowboys to steal the NFC East — along with, if you throw in a 49ers loss to the Cardinals, the conference’s No. 1 seed. It’s an unlikely scenario, but it still behooves Dallas to end the regular season playing good football.

Los Angeles Chargers

Previous rank: No. 8

It doesn’t feel like Austin Ekeler quite gets his due. Let’s try to rectify that a bit right here: Austin Ekeler is a do-it-all superstar, and the Chargers would be lost without him. The sixth-year running back scored two more touchdowns in Sunday’s 31-10 win over the Rams (giving him a league-high 18 total scores on the season) and also went over 100 receptions (becoming the only running back to reach the century mark so far this season). He is Los Angeles’ jack of all trades on offense and as consistent a performer as you’ll find in the sport right now. Fantasy owners shouldn’t be the only ones singing this man’s praises.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Previous rank: No. 9

The Jaguars kept the train rolling in the most efficient way possible, jumping out to an early lead over the lowly Texans before coasting to a 31-3 win ahead of Saturday night’s AFC South-deciding showdown with the Titans. It couldn’t have played out better for Doug Pederson, who was able to pull Trevor Lawrence and other key players from the lineup in the second half. A win over the free-falling Titans will give the Jaguars just the second AFC South title in franchise history. If they handle their business on Saturday night, the Jags profile as a potential underdog berserker in the AFC playoffs. One step at a time, of course.

Green Bay Packers

Previous rank: No. 12

The Packers are on the doorstep of the playoffs after their fourth consecutive win, and the team’s surge is not all about Aaron Rodgers. While the offense has found its footing during this run of success, it’s the sudden rise of the previously disappointing defense that has changed the feel of this team. Joe Barry’s side of the ball registered four turnovers in a blowout of the Vikings, one week after Green Bay picked off Tua Tagovailoa on three consecutive fourth-quarter possessions to seal a win on Christmas Day. A victory over the Lions on Sunday night punches Green Bay’s ticket to the playoffs for the fourth straight year under Matt LaFleur. It would be a remarkable achievement for a team that was once 3-6 and riding a five-game losing streak.

Detroit Lions

Previous rank: No. 11

The Lions dusted themselves off after a humbling loss to the Panthers and took out their frustrations on the poor Bears, who didn’t stand a chance in a 41-10 blowout at Ford Field. It was Detroit’s eighth game with 30-plus points this season, a franchise record. The explosive Lions rank fourth in scoring thanks in large part to big seasons from Jared Goff, Amon-Ra St. Brown, Jamaal Williams and an elite offensive line, but in order to punch their first postseason ticket since 2016, they still need a win on Sunday against the surging Packers and a Seahawks home loss to the Rams. With apologies to the 12s, I think it’s safe to say the general public is pulling for the underdog Lions to make the tourney.

Minnesota Vikings

Previous rank: No. 7

The Vikings are like The Alliance of Magicians headed by G.O.B. in Arrested Development, posing for a goofy group photo while holding a sign that reads “We Demand To Be Taken Seriously.” Twelve wins and a division title cannot be ignored, but it’s hard to credibly view the Vikes as Super Bowl contenders when their season is littered with gnarly blowout losses like the 41-17 takedown we witnessed on Sunday at Lambeau Field. Minnesota suffered meltdowns in every phase of the game and generally looked like the clearly inferior team despite the records of the parties involved. The doubts will follow this team into the postseason.

Baltimore Ravens

Previous rank: No. 10

The Ravens showed once again on Sunday night they do not close out teams at a championship level. This time it was the rival Steelers, who marched to the go-ahead touchdown in the final four minutes of the fourth quarter in a painful 16-13 loss for the home team at M&T Bank Stadium. The defeat underscores growing questions about how seriously this squad can be taken as a contender in the AFC. Late-game issues notwithstanding, the defense remains solid, but this offense is not good enough with Ty Huntley behind center. The uncertain status of Lamar Jackson (knee) hangs over this team like a dark storm cloud.

New York Giants

Previous rank: No. 14

The Giants are back in the playoffs for the first time since 2016 — disregard Danny Dimes and Co. at your own peril. Daniel Jones played his best game of the season in a blowout of the Colts, accounting for four total scores before exiting the game in the fourth quarter to chants of his name from the celebrating faithful at MetLife Stadium. “Hearing his name get chanted, it’s a beautiful thing,” Saquon Barkley said, per NorthJersey.com. “You can finally see he’s starting to get the respect that he earns.” Barkley has been the driver of the Giants’ offense for most of the season, but Jones’ growth under Coach of the Year candidate Brian Daboll has been a huge development for the franchise. Big Blue is in good hands.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Previous rank: No. 17

“Kenny F—— Pickett.” Apparently, those were the three words uttered by Mike Tomlin to Kenny Pickett seconds after the rookie quarterback led the Steelers on the second late go-ahead touchdown drive in as many weeks in a dramatic prime-time win over the rival Ravens. Pickett has made strides over the course of his first season and shows poise not usually seen from a young QB. It makes him a snug fit for a Pittsburgh team that — with its T.J. Watt-led defense and improving running game — needs a quarterback who can run the offense in a smart and efficient manner. It’s extremely promising to see Pickett already at this place in his development. And stunningly, given the 2-6 start to the season, the Steelers can still make the playoffs with a home win over the Browns and some outside help.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Previous rank: No. 20

At long last, Tom Brady and Mike Evans are back in business. After months of misfires and near misses, the two stars were locked in when it mattered most, connecting on three long touchdowns in a 30-24 win over the Panthers that clinched a second straight NFC South title for Tampa Bay. Evans couldn’t be covered by the Carolina secondary, finishing with 207 yards on the day and going over the 1,000-yard receiving mark for the ninth consecutive season. Brady and his alpha wideout are back in sync, making the Bucs a more compelling playoff entrant. “We’ve battled through a lot of tough things this year,” Brady said. “Happy to win the division. It’s always tough to do it. NFL games are tough to win, and we always figure out a way to keep them somehow exciting. I wish they wouldn’t be as exciting as we made them.”

New England Patriots

Previous rank: No. 18

Nobody really needs to see this particular Patriots team in the playoffs, but they might just get there to spite us. Led once again by a wildly opportunistic defense, the Pats remain in the playoff race after a 23-21 win over the Dolphins in Foxborough. Breakout safety Kyle Dugger had the biggest play of the game, a third-quarter pick-six that put New England ahead for good against its struggling AFC East rival. It was Dugger’s third touchdown of the season and the Pats’ seventh defensive score of the year. It’s not unfair to surmise that this would be an 11- or 12-loss Patriots team if not for the impeccably timed heroics of the non-Mac Jones side of the ball.

Carolina Panthers

Previous rank: No. 19

The Panthers had it all in front of them. Carolina was up 14-0 in the first quarter and 21-10 early in the fourth, but turnovers, combined with repeated coverage breakdowns around Mike Evans (three touchdowns, 207 yards receiving), were too much to overcome in a 30-24 loss to the Bucs. Tampa Bay wins another NFC South title, and Carolina is left to ponder how this game might have been different if star cornerback Jaycee Horn hadn’t been sidelined by wrist surgery. The Panthers will finish out the season with a matchup against the Saints — it’s a game that means very little in the standings but could have a big impact on ownership’s ultimate decision on interim coach Steve Wilks.

Las Vegas Raiders

Previous rank: No. 21

In the end, the Raiders delivered a season that was Vegas to the core: They ultimately lost, but everyone was entertained. Jarrett Stidham replaced Derek Carr in the starting lineup and delivered an extremely promising debut in an overtime defeat to the mighty 49ers, throwing for 365 yards and three touchdowns against the NFL’s best defense. Stidham looked completely at home in Josh McDaniels’ offense, and you can imagine the Raiders will think long and hard about giving the 26-year-old a shot at the starting job in 2023 if he can deliver a similar performance in Saturday’s finale against the Chiefs. This feels like a very real late-season “audition” for the QB.

Miami Dolphins

Previous rank: No. 13

The Dolphins’ 2022 season by result: W, W, W, L, L, L, W, W, W, W, W, L, L, L, L, L. The absurd symmetry is hard to look at for Miami fans, who got sucked in by this team twice before a five-game losing skid. The Fins can salvage their season and punch their playoff ticket with a home win over the similarly free-falling Jets on Sunday and a Patriots loss in Buffalo, but quarterback chaos continues to follow the team. Tua Tagovailoa (in the concussion protocol) is unlikely to be an option, and the availability of Teddy Bridgewater is in doubt after he suffered a finger injury Sunday. It is fair to wonder if seventh-round rookie Skylar Thompson is ready for this.

New York Jets

Previous rank: No. 15

“We feel like we blew the season.” Garrett Wilson spoke regretfully about Sunday’s 23-6 loss to the Seahawks, which eliminated the Jets from postseason contention, but the rookie wide receiver’s lament is applicable across a five-week stretch of misery for Gang Green, whose league-worst playoff drought has now extended to 12 years. The Jets were flat in all phases in Seattle, while Mike White‘s much-anticipated return to the lineup resulted in a season-worst performance. White is not the future at quarterback for the Jets, and neither is Zach Wilson — it places the star-crossed franchise in an all-too-familiar position as another postseason-less January begins. 

Washington Commanders

Previous rank: No. 16

The Commanders are going home after the Week 18 finale in large part because of continued instability at quarterback. Ron Rivera’s decision to turn to Carson Wentz backfired on Sunday, as Wentz threw three interceptions in a loss to the Browns that eliminated Washington from playoff contention. Rivera turned to Wentz because of Taylor Heinicke‘s inconsistency, and now he looks to rookie Sam Howell, who has yet to play a regular-season snap, to start Sunday. Depending on how the fifth-rounder plays in his debut, the Commanders might be best served by a reboot at the game’s most important position. It remains to be seen if Rivera will still be connected to the operation when that all-important QB decision is made — this could be an offseason of change at every major level of the organization.

New Orleans Saints

Previous rank: No. 23

Welcome back, Marshon Lattimore. The veteran cornerback was in the lineup for the first time since October and made the play of the game on Sunday, a pick-six of Gardner Minshew in the fourth quarter that clinched a 20-10 upset win over the Eagles at the Linc. It capped an excellent overall performance by the Saints, who will fall short of their goal to reach the playoffs but are playing their best football of the season. This is good news for Dennis Allen, who was seemingly on the hot seat when New Orleans hit its bye week at 4-9. The Saints can end their season on a four-game winning streak by getting past the Panthers on Sunday.

Cleveland Browns

Previous rank: No. 26

If the final weeks of the regular season are indeed just a platform for Deshaun Watson to find his game after nearly two years away from real live action, consider Sunday’s 24-10 win over the Commanders a big step in the right direction. Watson started slow but came on strong against Washington, leading Cleveland on three consecutive touchdown drives to take control of the game in the second half. Said Watson after the win: “That was definitely the potential of what the future can hold.” That was the idea the Browns had when they made the decision to get into business with the controversial quarterback.

Tennessee Titans

Previous rank: No. 24

The result of Thursday’s Week 17 matchup against the Cowboys counted about as much as a preseason game, so Tennessee used the prime-time contest to rest starters and get a look at Joshua Dobbs at quarterback. Dobbs delivered a more competitive effort than we’ve seen in limited action from Malik Willis and will make his second straight start in Week 18’s winner-take-all matchup against the Jaguars. It’s hard to imagine the Titans halting their late-season slide at this point — this is a roster in need of significant work in the offseason — but the NFL’s decision to schedule the game on Saturday night may give the team an advantage against a Jacksonville team on short rest.

Los Angeles Rams

Previous rank: No. 25

The good vibes of a Christmas Day blowout of the Broncos didn’t carry over to a lopsided loss to the playoff-bound Chargers on Sunday at SoFi Stadium, but the Rams have to be encouraged by the strong close from Cam Akers. The running back, whose time with the team seemed all but over in the weeks leading up to the trade deadline, rushed for 123 yards against the Bolts and has back-to-back 100-yard games heading into Sunday’s finale against the Seahawks. The Rams — who have now lost more games than any defending champion in the Super Bowl era — will take any positives they can find.

Atlanta Falcons

Previous rank: No. 28

The evaluation of Desmond Ridder continues. The rookie quarterback has yet to throw a touchdown pass in three starts, but he did secure his first win as a starter when Younghoe Koo booted a last-second field goal in Sunday’s 20-19 conquest over the Cardinals. Ridder was smart with the football and showed some good accuracy on deep balls, even if they didn’t end in completions. It remains likely that Atlanta will be active in the quarterback market this offseason, but Ridder can give the team something to think about if he can deliver a strong performance in the season finale against the Bucs.

Denver Broncos

Previous rank: No. 32

Perhaps it can be seen as an encouraging sign that two of Russell Wilson‘s best starts this season came against the mighty Chiefs, including a mostly solid effort in Sunday’s 27-24 loss at Arrowhead. Wilson threw a touchdown pass and ran for two scores; he also made a few head-scratching decisions under pressure, an ugly recurring trait during Denver’s hugely disappointing season. Credit to interim coach Jerry Rosburg for having the Broncos ready to play after the blowout loss to the Rams and subsequent firing of Nathaniel Hackett. Big changes are coming in Denver.

Chicago Bears

Previous rank: No. 29

There have been reasons for optimism around the Bears in the second half of the season — mostly due to the rise of Justin Fields — but Sunday’s pummeling at the hands of the rival Lions shows how far this team remains from relevance. Chicago got run out of the building at Ford Field, allowing over 500 yards in a 41-10 loss that keeps the Bears in the mix for the No. 1 overall pick in the 2023 NFL Draft. Fields went over 100 yards on the ground once again, but also had one of his worst passing days, completing just seven of 21 attempts for 75 yards while absorbing seven sacks from the league’s No. 32-ranked defense. Fields is ruled out for Chicago’s season finale against Minnesota due to a hip injury, so it’s backup Nathan Peterman getting the start.

Arizona Cardinals

Previous rank: No. 30

A cursed Cardinals season took one more step to its merciful conclusion with a 20-19 loss to the Falcons. Quarterback David Blough stepped into the lineup on short notice and performed admirably after Colt McCoy developed concussion symptoms late in the week. If the journeyman plays well in Sunday’s season finale against the Niners (good luck with that), he could give himself a chance to compete for a backup spot on the roster next summer. That may also depend on Kliff Kingsbury still being the head coach next summer — a very real question in the present moment.

Houston Texans

Previous rank: No. 27

After a commendable run of competitive December games, including a Week 16 win over the Titans, the Texans came down to Earth in a 31-3 loss to the Jaguars. Despite its league-worst record, much is on the line for Houston in Week 18: With a loss to the Colts, the Texans clinch the No. 1 overall pick in the 2023 NFL Draft. A win at Indy, coupled with a Bears loss to the Vikings, would move Chicago into the top spot. It also remains to be seen if Lovie Smith is coaching his last game with the team. If Houston brass does decide to move on, it will make it two coaches in two years who were given no real chance to build the program.

Indianapolis Colts

Previous rank: No. 31

One more to go. Arguably the most turbulent season in franchise history is nearly over after another lopsided loss, this time at the hands of the Giants at the Meadowlands. Nick Foles’ second start of the season was also his last, after he was sacked by Kayvon Thibodeaux and exited the game with an injured rib. On Monday, interim coach Jeff Saturday criticized Thibodeaux’s “tasteless” sack celebration as well as the offensive line for not immediately coming to the defense of its quarterback, who was in clear pain while Thibodeaux did his tacky snow-angel routine right next to him. The ugly storylines are on infinite scroll in Indy.

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