Despite losing key contributors, Tennessee just ripped off five wins in a row against 2020 playoff teams. Plus: The Cowboys look like a force, Patrick Mahomes is returning to form, and Cam Newton is back.
The Week 10 NFL slate was another strange one, sending the top of my Power Rankings into upheaval once again. The Titans leapfrogged last week’s two top teams in the Cardinals and Buccaneers and landed in the no. 1 spot thanks to a gritty 23-21 victory over the Saints (their sixth consecutive win). The Packers, Cowboys, and Bills all won, too, though―and that leaves Tennessee with just a narrow lead over the other six elite-tier teams. With 10 weeks down, here’s my updated NFL Power Rankings.
The Top Shelf
1. Tennessee Titans (8-2)
2. Arizona Cardinals (8-2)
3. Green Bay Packers (8-2)
4. Dallas Cowboys (7-2)
5. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-3)
6. Buffalo Bills (6-3)
7. Los Angeles Rams (7-3)
I’m not sure the Titans can be killed.
Watching the Titans beat the Saints on Sunday reminded me of a scene from the movie The Nice Guys. After falling off the roof of a hotel and somehow landing unscathed after a series of improbable near-death escapes, Holland March (Ryan Gosling) turns to Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) and blurts out an epiphany: “I think I’m invincible. It’s the only thing that makes sense. I don’t think I can die!”
The Titans are starting to have those unkillable vibes. It’s the only thing that makes sense. For starters, Tennessee doesn’t exactly look invincible, at least on paper: This team came into its matchup with the Saints a banged-up group, missing superstar running back Derrick Henry (on injured reserve with a foot injury), playmaking receiver Julio Jones (on injured reserve with a hamstring injury), and a handful of key players in the secondary (including former early picks in Kristian Fulton and Caleb Farley). This team entered this week ranked 13th in Football Outsiders’ weighted DVOA (which factors recent performance more heavily). And the Titans are still trying to find their footing on offense after losing Henry. Even in victory on Sunday, Tennessee’s offense gained just 264 yards, averaged 4.6 yards per play, and went three of 12 on third downs, collecting six drives total that netted fewer than 20 yards, including four 3-and-outs (not counting the final game-sealing kneel-downs). It was ugly at times.
But despite all those caveats, the Titans won. That’s been the case a lot lately: While they may not be the league’s most complete or balanced group, they’re undeniably the hottest team right now, by a lot. The current holders of the NFL’s longest win streak (six), Tennessee has now knocked over five 2020 playoff squads in a row in the Bills, Chiefs, Colts, Rams, and Saints, a group of teams whose collective record through 10 weeks is 29-19. The Titans aren’t beating up on bad teams and artificially boosting their record, they’re grinding out wins against quality opponents. They’re dominating in the trenches. And yeah, they’ve gotten lucky in moments along the way, like when the Saints missed two crucial extra points in the game that the Titans won, 23-21. But the Titans have shown, again and again, that they can go toe-to-toe with some of the league’s best.
The Titans have emerged from that gauntlet of strong teams in an incredible position for the stretch run of the season. Holders of the current no. 1 seed in the AFC, Tennessee has a light schedule on deck, with two games against the Texans and matchups with the Jaguars and Dolphins on its schedule. Plus, they have their bye in Week 13. Their only true tests in the next few months look like a Week 12 tilt against the Patriots, a Week 15 game in Pittsburgh, and a Week 16 matchup with the possibly frisky 49ers. That second-half slate gives Tennessee plenty of time and a little more breathing room to get right on offense, find their new identity sans Henry, and lay the groundwork for what could be a deep playoff run.
The Cowboys bounced back in a big way.
It’s always best to avoid overreacting to a one-week sample, but the Cowboys’ loss to the Broncos in Week 9 was ugly enough to sow at least a little bit of doubt in the validity of this team’s otherwise strong season thus far. But with Dallas’s 43-3 win over the Falcons on Sunday, doubt got taken behind the woodshed and put down.
Dak Prescott and Co. were just about perfect in the utterly dominant win, easily moving the ball against a hapless Atlanta defense. Prescott rebounded from his worst performance of the year, completing 24 of 31 attempts for 296 yards and two touchdowns, most of which came in the first half. He was decisive and accurate in picking apart the blitz after struggling in both areas the week prior. The ground game ran roughshod on the Falcons, picking up 114 yards and three scores on 37 totes. The Cowboys more than doubled the Falcons’ offensive yardage (431 to 214) in the game. And they executed flawlessly in most of the game’s high-leverage situations, going three for three on fourth downs while converting all five red zone trips into touchdowns. Meanwhile, Dallas’s defense had an answer for just about everything Atlanta tried. That unit held the previously red-hot Matt Ryan to just nine completions on 21 attempts for 117 yards and two picks. Atlanta went one for 11 on third down.
Coming into the game, the Falcons had won four of six games and managed to eke their way back into the playoff picture (they were, for one week, the NFC’s no. 7 seed). Dallas illustrated the vast gulf in quality between the haves and have nots in the conference, though, with the win. And the Cowboys proved again that they’ve got the formula to make a real run at the Super Bowl, combining a well-balanced and complete offense with an ascending, ball-hawking defense. An intriguing Week 11 matchup with the resurgent Chiefs awaits.
8. New England Patriots (6-4)
9. Kansas City Chiefs (6-4)
10. Baltimore Ravens (6-3)
11. Indianapolis Colts (5-5)
12. Los Angeles Chargers (5-4)
13. New Orleans Saints (5-4)
14. Pittsburgh Steelers (5-3-1)
15. Cleveland Browns (5-5)
There’s the Patrick Mahomes we know and love.
Welcome back, Mr. Mahomes. After weathering the worst five-game stretch of his career—a period in which he completed just 61 percent of his passes with six touchdowns and six picks while averaging 6.0 yards per attempt with a 75.2 passer rating—Mahomes posted a truly vintage stat line in Kansas City’s 41-14 beatdown of Las Vegas on Sunday Night Football. The fifth-year quarterback completed 35 of 50 attempts for 406 yards with five touchdowns and no picks, calmly distributing the ball to his favorite targets in Travis Kelce (eight catches, 119 yards) and Tyreek Hill (seven catches, 83 yards, and two touchdowns) while sprinkling in some looks to Darrell Williams (nine catches, 101 yards, and one touchdown), Byron Pringle (four catches, 46 yards, and one touchdown), and even rookie tight end Noah Gray (who caught a 1-yard score late in the game). Mahomes looked like, well, Mahomes, and that had to come as a massive relief to both Chiefs fans and fantasy managers alike. But the big question coming out of the game is whether the old Mahomes is back for good.
On one hand, it’s easy to, uh, pick holes in the Raiders’ defensive game plan. After watching Chiefs’ opponents through the past month-plus stifle Mahomes with heavy doses of two-high looks that combat his deep-passing aggressiveness, Las Vegas played primarily in its standard Cover-3 looks. That strategy did not prove successful. But Mahomes’s big day was the product of more than just a good matchup.
He looked calmer and more comfortable in the pocket on Sunday than he has in weeks and mostly avoided unnecessary scrambling and freelancing. It was clear he prioritized timing and rhythm in the passing game, something that’s been conspicuously absent during his slump, and he consistently dropped back, hit his back foot, and found the open man in the short and intermediate areas. He was content to matriculate the ball down the field, leading Kansas City on five separate scoring drives of eight or more plays. He avoided throwing ill-advised bombs into tight coverage when they weren’t there. He took care of the football. And crucially, for the first time in ages, Mahomes looked like he was having fun. That could prove big for the Chiefs down the stretch.
Only time will tell whether Mahomes has really solved the two-high, no-blitz blueprint that teams have adopted this season, and he faces a tough test next week against the surging Cowboys. But it won’t be too surprising if we look back at this Week 10 game as the tipping point for Mahomes’s uncharacteristically sloppy and ineffective performance through the past five weeks. In any case, the Chiefs are 6-4, back in first place in the AFC West, and well positioned to make a run at a wild-card bye. Oh, and by the way, their defense is playing better lately, too.
The Muddled Middle
16. Cincinnati Bengals (5-4)
17. Minnesota Vikings (4-5)
18. Las Vegas Raiders (5-4)
19. San Francisco 49ers (4-5)
20. Carolina Panthers (5-5)
21. Denver Broncos (5-5)
22. Philadelphia Eagles (4-6)
23. Washington Football Team (3-6)
24. Seattle Seahawks (3-6)
25. Atlanta Falcons (4-5)
26. New York Giants (3-6)
27. Chicago Bears (3-6)
Cam Newton is already making the Panthers interesting.
It didn’t take Newton long to make his presence felt on his reunion tour in Carolina. Just days after signing with the Panthers, Newton came in for a few specially designed (and no doubt familiar) red-zone plays, rushing for a touchdown on the team’s first drive before throwing for one on their second. Newton played only nine snaps in the Panthers’ 34-10 win over the Kyler Murray–less Cardinals (P.J. Walker was the team’s starter and logged most of the plays), but he sure looked capable of providing the exact type of boost this free-falling Carolina offense needs down the stretch.
Newton is slated to start going forward and he brings some much-needed experience to the spot, but the former MVP will need to prove he can stay healthy after struggling with injuries the past few seasons. With Christian McCaffrey rounding back into form, and with a talented trio of receivers in DJ Moore, Robby Anderson, and Terrace Marshall Jr. to throw to, Newton won’t be asked to do too much in the passing game apart from take care of the football, spread it out to his playmakers, and help this group finish in the red zone (three things Sam Darnold proved incapable of doing over the team’s last five games). Newton’s dynamic skill set close to the goal line should prove especially beneficial; few players in the league’s history make it tougher on defenses inside the 10-yard line, and Newton’s ability to play the role of both traditional drop-back passer and goal-line fullback makes this group that much harder to defend.
At 5-5, the Panthers are the NFC’s no. 7 seed. They boast a young, up-and-coming defense and a plethora of exciting offensive skill-players. Now Newton has the chance to be the missing piece this team needs to become something more than a pretender.
The Eagles offense has transformed.
After mostly ignoring its run game during its first seven games of the year (outside of Jalen Hurts scramble plays, anyway), Philly’s emerged with a brand-new smashmouth identity over the last three weeks―and that style could be here to stay. The Eagles posted a ridiculous 236 yards and four touchdowns on the ground in a 44-6 win over the Lions in Week 8, and followed that up with another 176 yards and two scores on the ground in a narrow loss to the Chargers last week. Then, on Sunday, Philly showed that neither of those two games were matchup-specific outliers, galloping to 214 rushing yards on 40 totes in a dominant 30-13 win over the Broncos on Sunday.
Philly split the workload between its two main backs in the win, with Jordan Howard (12 carries, 83 yards) leading the way and Boston Scott providing a speedy change of pace option (11 carries, 81 yards). Hurts did his typical thing too, mixing scrambles and read-option looks en route to 14 carries for 53 yards of his own. The team’s success on the ground helped open things up down the field for Hurts, who finished an efficient 16-of-23 for 178 yards with two touchdowns and a pick, a stat line that would’ve been better if not for a bad end zone drop by Quez Watkins just before the half. All in all, the Eagles dominated time of possession (34:58 to 25:02), mostly took care of the football, and executed on third down (converting on six of 13 tries).
This style of offense makes so much more sense for an offense helmed by a young quarterback like Hurts, who can function as a force multiplier for his team’s run game because of his ability to pick up chunk yards with his legs. Critically, the balanced tack has effectively taken pressure off of Hurts to carry the team with his arm, which would’ve been a tall order for any second-year quarterback with a shallow receiving corps outside DeVonta Smith (who finished with four catches for 66 yards and two touchdowns). The proof has been in the pudding the last three weeks: As The Athletic’s Sheil Kapadia points out, the Eagles rank first in Expected Points Added (EPA) per drive and actual points per drive (3.23) over the last three weeks, and they rank second in points per game in that stretch (28.0).
The Eagles sit at 4-6, still outside the NFC playoff picture. But with continued strong play from this offense, Philly could make a run down the stretch. They’ve got a tough matchup with New Orleans next week, but from Week 12 on, they draw matchups against the Jets, the Giants twice, and the Washington Football Team twice before finishing up their year against the Cowboys. There’s plenty of winnable games in there, and it won’t be a huge surprise if the Eagles emerge as a dark-horse playoff team.
There’s Always Next Year
28. Miami Dolphins (3-7)
29. Jacksonville Jaguars (2-7)
30. New York Jets (2-7)
31. Detroit Lions (0-8-1)
32. Houston Texans (1-8)
Is the Mike White Era already over?
White’s dud of a performance could give New York a potential easy out on what seemed to be developing into a sticky situation: They can now turn back to rookie top-pick Zach Wilson, who has struggled outside of a few flashy throws this year, without angering the fan base or creating a controversy in the media or locker room. They can just get back to developing a guy they picked to become the franchise cornerstone.
Or, the Jets could get wacky. It’s not totally clear whether Wilson’s completely healthy after suffering a knee injury in Week 7; if he’s not, the team may opt to stick with White for another game―and potentially reopen Pandora’s box. In any case, the team’s been mum, and White’s Cinderella run might not be over yet. I’ll be looking forward to seeing how this situation plays out for the Jets.