Minnesota humbled Buffalo, then beat out the rest of the league’s best for No. 1.
Here’s something I was thinking about Monday morning while catching up on the games I didn’t see Sunday. Colts head coach Jeff Saturday told former boss Peter King he thinks his victory is an important step for other players hoping to transition into the coaching world.
“I hope that many other former players will get opportunities like I’m getting,” he said. “I was at ESPN when Aaron Boone was there and then two days later he’s the manager of the Yankees. And basketball, right? I’ve watched all these guys get these opportunities.”
A few weeks ago, Saturday was in the ESPN studio. Other players, like longtime NFL tight end Greg Olsen, or former Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez, or Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma, have widespread access to the facility. They get to interview the players and coaches. They get to “bump into” folks. They get a more intimate look at the operation, which is theoretically supposed to improve their commentary but almost always indoctrinates them into whatever talking points the team wants to get across on the broadcast.
But at what point do coaches view this as a threat? The NFL is an incredibly paranoid place. Now, do you have to be wondering what your owner is watching on television—or whom? Do you have to look at a former player walking through the doors to do Thursday Night Football and think I’m not telling you jack? Sure, you’re not scared of Joe Buck getting a head coaching job, but if I’m Kliff Kingsbury next week, is there a little part of me during the whole pre-prime-time game process where I’m wondering who is at practice and why? If I’m Kevin Stefanski and a few games with Deshaun Watson go south, do I freak out a little if Dan Orlovsky starts drawing up something on NFL Live that he thinks could work better?
How does that change the balance of power? Outside of the obvious solution, which is that we should all stop watching TV and looking at our phones, I don’t have an answer.
When it comes to Saturday, in particular, I have no idea how it turns out, but here is my guess: I spoke with one veteran football coach who is (somewhat) out of the business the other day, and he made a point about what’s missing in the game. A certain level of precision. Institutional knowledge that flashes at different points on Sundays. The kind of clinical, Bill Belichick, John Harbaugh, Andy Reid stuff that makes us go, “Holy crap, I can’t believe he thought of that.”
Right now, it’s popular to be a recently retired player or a coach attached to Sean McVay or Kyle Shanahan. And in this period of football, we’ll slowly drift a little further away from the Belichick and Harbaugh model and emphasize other aspects of the profession. Then, some team will hire a hardened old ball coach and have success, and the market will tilt back the other way. How long does it take? That depends on how long folks like Saturday keep winning.
1. Minnesota Vikings (8–1)
Last week: win at Buffalo, 33–30
Next week: vs. Dallas
To be considered the best, one must beat the best. The Vikings did so, with their lone, blowout loss to the Eagles standing as their only negative on the season. We can attribute this rise to many things, but, most importantly, the Vikings are capitalizing on the moments when luck reveals itself to them and says, “Here, take it.”
2. Buffalo Bills (6–3)
Last week: loss vs. Minnesota, 33–30
Next week: vs. Cleveland
For a while, the Bills were the only good team in the NFL. We held them to an impossible standard, which made totally normal regular-season losses into significant narrative-forming issues. I think we can stop doing that. The world isn’t collapsing—just like we shouldn’t think the world is collapsing when the Eagles inevitably lose two of their final four games. We are not in the 1970s anymore. A team isn’t going undefeated.
3. Philadelphia Eagles (8–1)
Last week: loss vs. Washington, 32–21
Next week: at Indianapolis
This is going to be a massive blessing in disguise for the Eagles, who, yes, lose a football game but now avoid all the additional stressors that come from a legitimate run at an undefeated season. They also seem to have gotten all of their strangely timed fumbles out of the way. They turned the ball over more times against the Commanders than they did all season previously.
4. Kansas City Chiefs (7–2)
Last week: win vs. Jacksonville, 27–17
Next week: at Los Angeles Chargers
Patrick Mahomes leads the league in yards, touchdowns and explosive plays of 20 yards or more. This is starting to feel like one of those seasons where they roll to the Super Bowl and everyone is going to ask themselves, “How the hell didn’t we see this coming all along?”
5. San Francisco 49ers (5–4)
Last week: win vs. Los Angeles Chargers, 22–16
Next week: at Arizona
Even in a game where Christian McCaffrey was more impactful as a moving chess piece, the 49ers showed they belong in the Super Bowl conversation. Jimmy Garoppolo can throw the wrong route on a bad play that shouldn’t have been called against that coverage, and it doesn’t matter. The skill position players are so good, so explosive that they can make it look brilliant.
6. Baltimore Ravens (6–3)
Last week: BYE
Next week: vs. Carolina
The Ravens cruise into their bye week fourth in points scored, fifth in passing touchdowns and second in rushing yards. One could make a fair argument that they have the deepest roster in all of football. When Jason Pierre-Paul is just a “whenever” rotational pass rusher, life is pretty good.
7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5–5)
Last week: win vs. Seattle, 21–16
Next week: BYE
Rachaad White is rolling, the Buccaneers’ passing game looks suddenly dangerous and many of the schematic mismatches they’ve been setting up are now causing defenses problems. We’re not saying the Buccaneers are Super Bowl contenders (yet), but we are saying they’ll win this division comfortably.
8. Dallas Cowboys (6–3)
Last week: loss at Green Bay, 31–28
Next week: at Minnesota
Dallas can look so good and so vulnerable in the same game. We saw as much in Green Bay. With the Giants and Vikings coming up, we’ll see them veer onto the road of legitimate Super Bowl contention or one of early-round losses and disappointment.
9. Miami Dolphins (7–3)
Last week: win vs. Cleveland, 39–17
Next week: BYE
Tua Tagovailoa leads the league in QB rating. And while QB rating isn’t what we’d traditionally use to evaluate the entirety of a skill set, it’s absolutely stunning what happens when a coaching staff decides a player is not limited.
10. Tennessee Titans (6–3)
Last week: win vs. Denver, 17–10
Next week: at Green Bay
I feel like if you gave Mike Vrabel six junior varsity high school players, a pack of beagles and a retired high school geometry teacher, he’d be able to squeeze seven wins out of them. Hell, who are we kidding, he’d probably make the playoffs.
11. New York Giants (7–2)
Last week: win vs. Houston, 24–16
Next week: vs. Detroit
I think the Giants may end up being this year’s version of the Bengals—a team that is perfectly suited, within the context of current roster and schematic trends, to make a run. They have a durable ground game and are excellent at creating opportunities within 5–10 yards of the line of scrimmage.
12. Green Bay Packers (4–6)
Last week: win vs. Dallas, 31–28
Next week: vs. Tennessee
The Christian Watson three-touchdown performance was an exorcism of sorts. By the end of the game, he was double-teamed. The Packers haven’t had that kind of receiver threat all year. Now they have something for teams to be concerned about. Next stop: getting AJ Dillon rolling.
13. Cincinnati Bengals (5–4)
Last week: BYE
Next week: at Pittsburgh
Quietly, the Bengals are the fifth most efficient passing offense in football, with a drop-back success rate of more than 50%. Dismiss or forget about Joe Burrow at your own peril. This Steelers game is a big one and puts the Bengals at more than a 50% shot of making the playoffs.
14. New York Jets (6–3)
Last week: BYE
Next week: at New England
Good owners aren’t concerned with optics. A win is a win; a loss is a loss. But I would imagine there would be something special about a victory over the Patriots in New England this week. Robert Saleh has already done some heavy lifting, but a season split with their most hated rival would be significant.
15. Los Angeles Chargers (5–4)
Last week: loss at San Francisco, 22–16
Next week: vs. Kansas City
One of the best quarterbacks in the league is being constantly subjected to ineffective first-down runs. Having Justin Herbert with a CPOE + EPA composite lower than Andy Dalton is an absolute sin.
16. Seattle Seahawks (6–4)
Last week: loss at Tampa Bay, 21–16
Next week: BYE
Is the magic running out on this season? Unlikely. The Seahawks had a horrendous body-clock game in Germany and ran into a Buccaneers team finally figuring themselves out. Geno Smith wears the hell out of that wristband.
17. New England Patriots (5–4)
Last week: BYE
Next week: vs New York Jets
There is a winnable stretch of road games against the Cardinals and Raiders looming. If New England continues its recent run of success against Zach Wilson specifically, they will be 6–4, fully muddying the AFC East picture even further.
18. Los Angeles Rams (3–6)
Last week: loss vs. Arizona, 27–17
Next week: at New Orleans
The Cooper Kupp injury news, I think, likely ends their season. This offense is un-runnable without him, and the running game, which is already on life support, suffers further. There is no margin for error as it is.
19. Atlanta Falcons (4–6)
Last week: loss at Carolina, 25–15
Next week: vs. Chicago
It looks like we will not see Desmond Ridder anytime soon. Good for Arthur Smith, who is remaining in playoff contention by making some unpopular decisions, and sticking up for his guys. He deserves to see the Falcons to a point where they get a stable solution at quarterback.
20. Washington Commanders (5–5)
Last week: win at Philadelphia, 32–21
Next week: at Houston
This is a version of the Commanders I’d watch every week. Stout defensively and rugged offensively, using some of the Eagles’ own philosophy against them. On Monday night they managed to generate chunk plays, in addition to playing some aesthetically pleasing ball-control offense that completely kept the Duke out of Jalen Hurts’s hands.
21. Indianapolis Colts (4-5-1)
Last week: win at Las Vegas, 25–20
Next week: vs. Philadelphia
Jeff Saturday was praised for his high energy at practice this week. He becomes a real coach more than a month in, when that wears off and people see you for who you are under the most stressful moments. Still, this could have gone far worse than it did.
22. Detroit Lions (3–6)
Last week: win at Chicago, 31–30
Next week: at New York Giants
The Lions are now winners of two straight. Sticking it to the Giants, who are winning games in similarly gritty fashion, would bring Dan Campbell’s team full circle, from forgettable Hard Knocks sideshow to missile looking to upend everyone’s dream season.
23. Chicago Bears (3–7)
Last week: loss vs. Detroit, 31–30
Next week: at Atlanta
So, we saw the Bears’ limitations Sunday when the Lions played them in man coverage and spied Justin Fields, daring him to make a few plays that would get the Bears into field goal range. But who cares? They are an awesome watch, like a less-reigned-in Ravens.
24. Denver Broncos (3–6)
Last week: loss at Tennessee, 17–10
Next week: vs. Las Vegas
While I still think this Broncos team is going to turn it around eventually, they’re running out of time to be relevant in 2022. This is a weird season, right? The Rams are dead last in the NFL in EPA per play. But, I think Denver’s receivers eventually acclimating to Wilson’s preferences will yield some explosive plays.
25. Jacksonville Jaguars (3–7)
Last week: loss at Kansas City, 27–17
Next week: BYE
Davante Adams and Travis Kelce lead the league in receiving touchdowns. Tied for second? Christian Kirk. And, he’s got a catch percentage 10% lower than his season total last year. I think he could end up as a top-five receiver in 2022, which would alter a lot of perceptions we had about the signing going in.
26. Cleveland Browns (3–6)
Last week: loss at Miami, 39–17
Next week: at Buffalo
The Browns came off their bye week and received a healthy thumping by the Dolphins. I’m just here to remind everyone that the entire Browns roster, offensive line, generational pass rusher, etc., will be a year older by the time anything Deshaun Watson can do will matter.
27. Arizona Cardinals (4–6)
Last week: win at Los Angeles Rams, 27–17
Next week: vs. San Francisco
The Cardinals beat the Rams in one of the most low-wattage showdowns between backup quarterbacks we’ve seen this season. However, it is worth noting that Kliff Kingsbury & Co. have gotten Colt McCoy to play some good football over the years.
28. Pittsburgh Steelers (3–6)
Last week: win vs. New Orleans, 20–10
Next week: vs. Cincinnati
Here’s a bold prediction I’ll just leave on the table and walk away from: The Steelers are going to finish the season at .500 or better. The schedule softens up now—a time I would have projected a switch to Kenny Pickett. But Pickett is now better for having survived the brutal games.
29. New Orleans Saints (3–7)
Last week: loss at Pittsburgh, 20–10
Next week: vs. Los Angeles Rams
The Saints are vacillating between Andy Dalton and Jameis Winston as if it’s going to make a difference in the long term. This team is so far from potential contention at this point, it makes you wonder why they hung up on folks calling about Alvin Kamara at the trade deadline.
30. Las Vegas Raiders (2–7)
Last week: loss vs. Indianapolis, 25–20
Next week: at Denver
Was I too hard on Josh McDaniels yesterday? Maybe. But I think you have to wonder: Who goes down with this ship? If it’s the coach, what happens to the quarterback? If it’s the quarterback, what happens to the wide receiver he’s best friends with that you spent all that draft equity on? If it’s no one, how does McDaniels erase this from their consciousness?
31. Carolina Panthers (3–7)
Last week: win vs Atlanta, 25–15
Next week: at Baltimore
We’re on to Baker Mayfield (again) in Carolina. At this point, we’ll see whether he can somehow play himself into a fringe starter role in 2023, although the prospects seem unlikely at the moment.
32. Houston Texans (1-7-1)
Last week: loss at New York Giants, 24–16
Next week: vs. Washington
The Texans stripped one of their few veteran players of the captaincy before Sunday’s game, which should give an indication as to where they are emotionally and cohesively. Honestly, if a team is operating in this pedantic space this deep into the season, it’s indicative of larger problems.
More NFL Coverage:
• The Justin Jefferson Plays You Saw—and the One You Didn’t
• It’s Unforgivable That Josh McDaniels’s Raiders Lost to Jeff Saturday’s Colts
• Don’t Forget About Justin Jefferson, Tyreek Hill in the MVP Race
• Dear Bears: Sorry About Saying Justin Fields Should Demand a Trade
• Midseason Mock Draft: Three Quarterbacks in the Top Five Picks