In the most unconventional NFL season in history, the league managed to get through its first three weeks of the regular season almost unscathed. That quickly turned when COVID-19 predictably infiltrated some of the league’s clubs. First, it was the Tennessee Titans, whose situation turned rampant, eventually forcing the NFL to play schedule-altering dominoes with ramifications weeks down the line. Then, Cam Newton, and later, Stephon Gilmore, marked the NFL’s first two star-studded, in-season cases of the year.
Since then, a few other cases have risen among a few teams, with both players and staff testing positive. Today, the Colts shut down their facility due to several positive cases. Yesterday, the Falcons shut down their facilities for the same reason.
Pandemic protocol and overall handling of the virus aside, the league has been able to successfully alter their schedule thus far — at least for them — but that will become increasingly difficult moving forward.
Now, without further ado, here is my extended look at each of the league’s top 16 teams (in my opinion) after five weeks, in power rankings form.
THE BETTER HALF
1. Pittsburgh Steelers (4-0) (Last week: 4).
Let it be known that the Steelers are the best team in the NFL after five weeks, and that they will do damage in January’s AFC postseason field.
Pittsburgh has the NFL’s best defense — no, not statistically, at the moment, but they are the best defensive unit in football going forward — equipped with stars at all three levels, and several other solid complimentary players helping to form a cohesive unit.
Cameron Heyward has enjoyed a stellar twilight to his career as a big-bodied presence in the interior of the team’s Nickel 2-4-5 scheme. Playing next to nose-tackle type defenders like Stephon Tuitt and Tyson Alualu, Heyward helps occupy offensive lineman up front for the likes of Devin Bush at off-ball linebacker, and the terrorizing EDGE combo of T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree on the outside.
Watt, who rightly finished second in defensive player of the year voting last season, is the top-ranked EDGE defender (92.4 grade) by Pro Football Focus thus far. He’s continued his mastery as both a pass rusher and run stuffer, while also helping out in coverage.
Then there’s the secondary, which has solid players in cornerbacks Steven Nelson and Mike Hilton (slot) as well as safety Terrell Edmunds. But it’s safety Minkah Fitzpatrick who is the best in the backend. The former Miami Dolphin has been brilliant as a safety and nickel back in the Steelers’ scheme.
But we knew they’d have one of the NFL’s best defenses. Last season, Pittsburgh went 9-7 and nearly made the playoffs despite inept play from QBs Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges. All credit goes to Mike Tomlin, his coaching staff, and the defense there.
Now, Ben Roethlisberger, 38, has returned looking more slender and energized than he has since his early years, helping to lead an offensive unit that has a top-tier offensive line and yet another up-and-coming wide receiver group.
The Steelers are simply the kings of pro football when it comes to scouting, drafting and developing wide receivers. From first-round talents such as Plaxico Burress and Santonio Holmes, to mid and late-round receivers like Hines Ward, Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh continuously breeds top-end wide receivers.
Chase Claypool, the Steelers’ second-round pick last Spring, looks like their next great pass catcher. The 6-foot-4, 230 pound looks like a receiver in a tight end’s body. Claypool scored four touchdowns versus the Eagles on Sunday, with a penalty negating a possible fifth score.
He joins JuJu Smith-Schuster, Dionte Johnson, Eric Ebron and James Conner as the team’s leading men in the skill position slots. If Claypool is the real deal as an X-type receiver — and it appears he is — the Steelers have enough fire power on offense to compliment their defense in matchups against some of the AFC’s best teams — Kansas City, Baltimore, Tennessee, etc.
And on top of that, they have a two-time Super Bowl-winning QB to lead them, giving them a sense of comfort that teams like the Titans, Bills, and even Ravens don’t have come January. The point is, Pittsburgh can hold their own with the Chiefs.
With a brutal three-game schedule ahead (vs Browns, at Titans, at Ravens), it’s tough to imagine Pittsburgh staying undefeated, meaning some will right them off, especially if they drop two of three, but this will be an awakening from the NFL public when Pittsburgh gets an increase in TV exposure with these upcoming games. Soon enough, the Steelers will have more than just a few analysts buzzing, they’ll be known as a top tier team by the public and casual fans, too.
2. Green Bay Packers (4-0) (Last week: 2).
Aaron Rodgers has been terrific, and is squarely in second place in the way-too-early-MVP race behind Russell Wilson. It looks like they’ll get Davante Adams back this week, which is big news because their game in Tampa Bay may turn into a shootout. These are the games the Packers will have to steal if they are to get the NFC’s No. 1 seed.
3. Kansas City Chiefs (4-1) (Last week: 1). Whether it be their offensive performances in wins over the Chargers and Patriots, or last week’s defensive meltdown versus the Raiders, the Chiefs have had a sluggish start to the season by their standards. But we know they’ll be fine come playoff time, with their beatdown of the Ravens in Baltimore as proof of their always-burgeoning, tangible potential.
Now, they add Le’Veon Bell to compliment rookie Clyde Edwards-Helaire in the backfield. The rookie back has been a wonderful addition, and should remain a top option, but it’s easy to imagine Bell with a few 20-plus carry games in January in cold weather games versus tough AFC defenses. Although Bell may not regain his Pittsburgh form, he is definitely one of the NFL’s top 10 running backs, even now. He’s just one more weapon that opposing defenses will have to game plan for when facing KC.
4. Seattle Seahawks (5-0) (Last week: 3). Russell Wilson is the league’s top story through five weeks. The Seahawks continue to play in extraordinarily weird and exciting contests, and they continue to pull them out. The Vikings were Seattle’s latest victim, when Wilson drove the Seahawks 94 yards in the final two minutes, converting two fourth downs to D.K. Metcalf in the process, to stun Minnesota on a game-winning touchdown pass.
The aforementioned Metcalf is in line to become the next super-specimen at the X-receiver position, joining the likes of Randy Moss, Calvin Johnson, Julio Jones and others before him. Then there’s Tyler Lockett in the slot and a rushing attack that’s averaging 4.9 yards per carry thus far.
But their success lies with Wilson, an MVP-frontrunner who will need to continue his pace to offset the Seahawks’ sneaky-bad defense, which may eventually be their undoing.
5. Baltimore Ravens (4-1) (Last week: 6).
The Ravens beat up the bad teams every time. That’s a sign of a good team. But to be great, they’ll need to beat the good or great teams more often than not. Now that Pittsburgh is once again a real threat in the AFC, all eyes will be on Steelers-Ravens in Week 8, an AFC North heavyweight battle that begins a tougher stretch of games for Baltimore. Until then, let’s see how many mediocre teams the Ravens can power through before their next big game.
6. Tennessee Titans (4-0) (Last week: 7).
That was a helluva win for the Titans after all that has happened with them over the past few weeks. They barely even got to practice, yet came out hot and destroyed the Bills. Mike Vrabel is a solid coach who you can always trust will have his team emotionally ready.
7. Buffalo Bills (4-1) (Last week: 5).
That was a train wreck loss for Josh Allen and the Bills, but on a Tuesday night game on the road versus the undefeated Titans, some is forgiven. Buffalo returns home to play the Chiefs in a few days in another weird time slot during dinner time on Monday. We should judge the Bills more off of this upcoming game than the one that transpired on Tuesday.
8. New Orleans Saints (3-2) (Last week: 8).
The Saints haven’t looked right yet, and as long as Michael Thomas remains out (this time because of disciplinary issues), that likely won’t change. But Thomas will return, the offense will get rolling despite Drew Brees’ diminished arm strength, and the defense will at least get a smidge better, because there is too much talent for them not to. Hold judgement on these Saints for a few more weeks.
9. Los Angeles Rams (4-1) (Last week: 11).
Sean McVay’s club has fallen under the radar thus far as a tough 4-1 bunch. A silly 4th-down pass interference call in Buffalo a few weeks ago negated a miraculous 28-3 comeback that would have the Rams sitting at 5-0 right now.
Salary cap malpractice aside, the Rams have done an OK job of navigating around some of their bad contracts over the last few years (Todd Gurley, etc.) to boast a team with superstars Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey on defense, and a solid offense ripe with underrated contributors picked outside of the first round. Their running back-by-committee approach isn’t sexy, but it has been effective, paving the way for Jared Goff to recapture success on bootlegs and play-action passing looks.
The 2020 rookie wide receiver class already looks like one of the best we’ve ever seen, and that’s without many talking about Van Jefferson, who should be a key piece for the Rams for years to come.
10. New England Patriots (2-2) (Last week: 9).
The Patriots are a work in progress, as we’ve only seen Cam Newton at the helm for three weeks, and the defense is still navigating through their somewhat-new personnel in the front seven. Bill Belichick usually gets his defense going after four to six games to start the season, and that can be expected again this year. They still have the NFL’s best secondary (we saw them in action versus Mahomes and the Chiefs) and up front, guys like Deatrich Wise Jr. and Chase Winovich appear to be making the jump to solid players.
11. Cleveland Browns (4-1) (Last week: 13).
Baker Mayfield, Odell Beckham Jr. and the passing game still seems a bit off, but no one is questioning the rushing attack, which has been near unstoppable thus far. The combo of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt will continue to bludgeon most defenses as the season progresses, and Myles Garrett has fully evolved into a superstar on defense. They have the talent, but will need to continue to execute.
12. Indianapolis Colts (3-2) (Last week: 10).
The Colts remain solid on defense and in the trenches overall, with their top-flight offensive line. But as expected, Phillip Rivers continues the trend of inconsistent quarterback play that has plagued the team over the last few years when Andrew Luck was out, or now, retired. They will be firmly in the mix for an AFC Wild Card spot, but they will likely be looking elsewhere at QB in 2021.
13. Chicago Bears (4-1) (Last week: 16).
Like the Rams, the Bears are a pretty quiet 4-1. Even Nick Foles stepping in to win two of three for Chicago, the offense still struggles. To be fair to Foles, his first two Chicago stars have come against the Colts and Bucs, two of the NFL’s top defenses, but can anyone see them turning into a 30-plus scoring team consistently when they need to be? I actually can’t rule it out, since I like the fit of Foles in Matt Nagy’s offense. Still, it seems unlikely.
14. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-2) (Last week: 12).
Last week’s loss in Chicago was rough. Tom Brady deserves blame, but not as much as Bruce Arians, who can’t seem to bottle up the Buccaneers’ penalty problem. It’s the discipline instilled in his teammates that Brady likely misses the most from the Patriots. What he enjoys in Tampa is a superb pass-catching cast that has yet to see Mike Evans and Chris Godwin healthy and on the field at the same time. They can shut up a few critics with a home win over Green Bay on Sunday. I think they get it done.
15. Las Vegas Raiders (3-2) (Last week: NR).
Jon Gruden’s patience with Derek Carr, and successful scouting of offensive talent (Josh Jacobs, Henry Ruggs, Hunter Renfrow, Darren Waller) not only has the Raiders in the mix with a underrated and effective offense but also signals what could be an improbable victory in the Khalil Mack trade. Maybe not, but either way, it’s hard to question Gruden now.
16. Carolina Panthers (3-2) (Last week: NR).
The Panthers have won three straight, which is a testament to new head coach Matt Rhule and Teddy Bridgewater. Without Christian McCaffrey at running back, the team refused to shy away from their ground attack, placing their trust in Mike Davis, and when they do throw the ball, D.J. Moore and Robby Anderson form an underrated receiver duo. They are predictably bad on defense but are much better than we all thought there with young players such as Brian Burns and others showing potential. They are probably not a playoff team, but they also aren’t a team primed to pick in the Top 5 of this upcoming draft, either. There’s hope for the future in Carolina.
Next up: Dallas, Arizona, Miami, San Francisco, L.A. Chargers