The 3rd quarter NFL power rankings

If every NFL team played a single-elimination tournament, who would win? We rank them down from 32 to 1 …

December brings more football than ever, with college bowl games galore and the FCS playoffs, but the NFL remains the king. We are officially exactly three-fourths of the way through the 2018 NFL season, with each team having played 12 games so far. That means four left for each team in a fight to the finish, and there’s a lot more on the line than just your fantasy playoffs. The Saints and Rams are dueling for the NFC 1-seed, four teams are fighting for AFC positioning, and every Wild Card race is up for grabs.

We did it at the quarter season and again at the midpoint, so it only felt fair to go back to the tournament edition power rankings one more time. What if you took every NFL team as they stand right now today and put them in a massive 32-team neutral-site single-elimination tournament? Who would win it all? What teams wouldn’t even make it out of the first round?

I simulated 15 such tournaments for you, then compiled the totals into a 32-team power rankings. The top three teams are just as you’d expect, but what order are they in? Every team outside of them is matchup prone, and at least half the league is just plain bad. As the weather turns colder and injuries pile up, the offenses are beginning to fade and the defenses are rising to the top. So which teams are the true contenders as we head into the final month?

See you next season

32. Washington Redskins (previous ranking: 18)
31. Arizona Cardinals (29)
30. Oakland Raiders (31)
29. Cincinnati Bengals (13)

These four beat no one but each other in my simulations. The bottom has dropped out for the Redskins and Bengals, who have just seen too many injuries. Alex Smith and Andy Dalton may be the definition of replacement level, but even replacement level is valuable in the NFL. Mark Sanchez and Jeff Driskel are code for season over. The season never even started for the Cards or Raiders.

The AFC East remains awful

28. New York Jets (28)
27. Buffalo Bills (32)
26. Detroit Lions (23)
25. San Francisco 49ers (30)
24. Miami Dolphins (26)

It’s tough for the Patriots not to pile up wins when this is the sort of competition you’re facing all year. New England’s had the best record in the division every single season since Tom Brady take the reins, but that’s at least in part because there’s never really been a contender. Maybe Sam Darnold and Josh Allen can change that soon enough, or maybe Brady will just keep winning the division into his late 40s.

The Bills ranked dead last in both of my previous polls, but credit where it’s due. The defense is really good, and Josh Allen can run. They might be the second best team in the division right now. Respect to the 49ers, too. They’ve had just as many injuries as the Bengals and Redskins but continue to fight and stay in most games. They’ll be a threat next year.

The treadmill of mediocrity

23. Jacksonville Jaguars (17)
22. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (24)
21. New York Giants (27)
20. Tennessee Titans (20)
19. Denver Broncos (25)
18. Atlanta Falcons (16)

No team has fallen harder than the Jacksonville Jaguars. They opened the year at #5 in my quarter-season rankings before falling to 17 at the midpoint and out of it completely now. Only their defense showing up against the Colts saved them from what would have probably been a bottom five ranking. What does this team do now? They can’t afford to keep the defense together, and the offense is an outdated ineffective run game featuring Leonard 3.4nette. I said preseason that the Jags had a better shot of finishing last in the division than first. I was right.

Is Jameis Winston the best quarterback in Bucs history? A sad question with an even sadder answer. Winston became the all-time Tampa TD leader Sunday with 81, aka twice what Patrick Mahomes has in three-fourths of a season. He passed Josh Freeman for the TD record, and he ranks behind only Vinny Testaverde in passing yardage. The worst part is Jameis has probably earned another season in Tampa both for him and coach Dirk Koetter, so the treadmill of mediocrity continues. So too for the Giants, who continue to play hard with 10 one-score games. Looks like we’ll add yet another chapter next season in the Book of Eli.

Denver or Tennessee might make the AFC playoffs, thanks to defense and scheduling. The Broncos are more interesting. They’ve won three in a row and feature a terrific defense and one of the year’s best stories in undrafted rookie RB Philip Lindsay, who looks certain to join a list of four NFL players to run for 1000 yards as an undrafted rookie, averaging over 6 yards per carry. Denver feels like a poor man’s 2017 Vikings, which is all you can hope for with Case Keenum.

Atlanta’s defense never had a chance with all their injuries, but it’s the offense that remains disappointing. They haven’t scored 20 points in a month and shouldn’t be this inept. The Falcons run game is gone. Could Mike Smith be next?

One player alone does not make a football team

17. Green Bay Packers (9)
16. Carolina Panthers (11)
15. Philadelphia Eagles (4)
14. Indianapolis Colts (22)
13. Seattle Seahawks (10)

These teams have one thing in common: a top-12 quarterback. Too bad their rosters don’t have much else in their favor. Turns out a good QB alone isn’t enough in 2018. Each team made the Elite Eight in one of my simulations — just once in 15 — and any of them could theoretically make a run. That’s the upside of having a star QB in a knockout tournament. But against a quality team, each quarterback is fighting an uphill battle.

I’m finally out on the Eagles. I kept them at #4 in my first two rankings believing they’d come together, but I don’t see it. The defense is more banged up than ever, and the season is only alive is because they’ve gotten lucky against Washington and New York the last two weeks. They face three real opponents in the Cowboys, Rams, and Texans now and need two of three. I don’t see it. They need to get healthy this offseason, but they also need to get Carson Wentz some real offensive skill weapons.

The Packers are officially done, and frankly, I’m not sure how they ranked this high. Good night, sweet Mike McCarthy. The Panthers look done, too. Their four-game losing streak means they probably have to win three of four to make the playoffs. With two Saints games left plus a trip to Cleveland, that looks unlikely. After years of Riverboat Ron luck, Carolina is 2–5 in one-score games this year. They’re not great, but they’re not bad either — just unlucky.

The Seahawks are the most dangerous team in this tier. They have the best defense by far. Too bad OC Brian Schottenheimer is stuck in the past. Seattle leads the league in rush attempts by a wide margin, and Russell Wilson can’t keep posting insane efficiency numbers forever on a league-fewest pass attempts. The Seahawks host the Vikings Monday. The winner has the inside track for the NFC 5-seed and an opening playoff game against the NFC East.

Crazy what a quality defense can get you …

12. Dallas Cowboys (21)
11. Minnesota Vikings (7)

Well this was unexpected. I didn’t think I was in on Dallas, but they won 14 of 15 first round games in my simulations. It’s hard to ignore what that defense just did to the Saints, and it’s getting harder and harder to ignore the Cowboys. Four straight one-score wins plus some Washington injuries mean Dallas can essentially clinch the division at home this week against the defending champs from Philly.

If I’m being honest, I’d probably move my Vikings down a few slots. It feels like they belong with teams like the Panthers and Eagles, 2017 teams that just don’t have it this year. Minnesota can’t get everything going at once. The defense finally has its act together, but the offense still sputters against any semblance of a real D. Minnesota has yet to play a complete all-around game. This Monday night in Seattle may be their last chance. Pull it all together and the Vikings could suddenly control their destiny for the 3-seed and a home playoff game. I’ll believe it when I see it.

Not exactly the company Bill Belichick wanted …

10. Cleveland Browns (19)
9. New England Patriots (3)
8. Baltimore Ravens (14)

Holy unexpected three-team tier.

I just don’t buy the Patriots this year. Gronk looks done, and Brady may not be far behind. I ranked him #13 in my quarterbacks list a week ago. The New England attack scares no one these days. It’s all dink-and-dunk YAC attack. I think Belichick knows this team isn’t a real threat. He’s content to let Brady dump it off to his backs and slots and let them get whatever yards they can, let his defense compete, and let the opponent beat itself. That might work against the AFC East — and with three such games left, another first-round bye is in sight — but I don’t buy it against a suddenly talented AFC when the opponents get real in January. New England didn’t even make an Elite Eight until my seventh simulation. When they faced a real team, unless there was a serious coaching advantage, I just couldn’t talk myself into them.

But I certainly never expected them to have this company. Are the Browns a top 10 team? Certainly not. But if the season reset right now, are they playing well enough on both sides of the ball to make a run behind Baker Mayfield and Nick Chubb? This team is headed in the right direction. And it might be the more favorable job opening right now than Green Bay, too.

Baltimore Ravens: top eight team. Wow. My simulation Ravens won 14 of 15 first round games, then 8 of 14 in the next round. They even made a couple Final Fours. No team in the NFL is more matchup dependent as the Ravens are playing football straight out of the 70s. They average 37 minutes of possession under Lamar Jackson as they run, run, and run some more. I’m not convinced it can work over a whole season, but with so many teams zigging toward pass defense in 2018, Baltimore zagged to the run. Just one problem: the Ravens still have to visit the Chiefs and Chargers, plus those aforementioned Browns in the finale. Cleveland might have a chance to put an exclamation mark on its season by knocking its nemesis out of the playoffs.

Good enough to make a Super Bowl

7. Chicago Bears (12)
6. Houston Texans (15)
5. Pittsburgh Steelers (5)

Only eight teams made it to one of my simulated Super Bowls — the Patriots and the teams from here on out.

Houston started 0–3 but is on a nine-game winning streak, thanks in part to the fact that they haven’t played a team that has a winning record since the Patriots in Week 1. That may be their only winning opponent all season, but that loss could be costly in tiebreaker scenarios. Still, I’m starting to believe in these Texans. I picked them as the most likely 0–2 team to make the playoffs but they hadn’t impressed me until recently. Houston is a top-five rushing team in offense and defense, and that sort of thing ages well this time of year.

Chicago lost the trappiest trap game against the Giants, but don’t count them out from going on the road Sunday night to beat the Rams. This is the one nasty 2018 defense, and I still think they’ll give the Rams or Saints one heck of a scare (or more) in the NFC semis.

Pittsburgh is Pittsburgh. They look awful against the dregs, but they always show up against the big dogs. Watch: they’ll struggle against the Raiders this week but look like Super Bowl contenders against the Pats or Chargers. The Steelers are the league’s most schizophrenic team. If things click at the right time, they’re still as good as anyone.

A tier of their own

4. Los Angeles Chargers (8)

Maybe everyone will finally take note of the Chargers after a shocking Sunday night comeback, but I still think folks are selling them short. Philip Rivers is playing at an MVP level, and the defense is balling. Joey Bosa and rookie do-everything defender Derwin James can change a game in a hurry. L.A. can beat anyone, and they actually won one of my Super Bowls. Unfortunately, the Chargers’ one-point November loss to Denver may doom them. That loss cost them just about every conceivable division and conference tiebreaker. They could win in Kansas City next week, go 13–3, and still be a Wild Card. They lose a tiebreaker with the Chiefs, Texans, or Pats, so they need a lot of help to move up in the playoff order. They’ll have to do this the hard way.

The three co-favorites

3. New Orleans Saints (6)
2. Kansas City Chiefs (2)
1. Los Angeles Rams (1)

I’ve had the same top two teams in the same order in all three rankings, but this time they’re almost equal, and the Saints are right there with the Rams and Chiefs, finally earning my respect at the top of the pecking order.

Which team is best? I honestly have no idea. It was a coin flip every time two of these three teams met. I think the Chiefs are the Super Bowl favorites, if only because the other two have to play each other just to get there. Kansas City has lost twice all season, both by three after a flurry of mistakes, and they scored 91 points in those two games. I think we’re still underestimating what this Patrick Mahomes offense can do when it absolutely has to.

With the Saints and Rams, it’s probably pick the home team, so advantage L.A. after the shocking New Orleans loss in Dallas. These three teams won 14 of my 15 Super Bowls — 5 for the Saints and Rams, 4 for the Chiefs. It would be a stunner if at least one of them isn’t playing for the Lombardi in February. If it’s two of them, bring on the fireworks.

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