The New England Patriots are undeniably fantastic. They don’t have a ton of competition this season. Both statements can be true.
The NFC is deep. You can make a strong argument for multiple teams being the best in the conference. Good, quality teams will be left out of the playoffs in that conference. There are championship-level teams at the top and a lot of capable teams throughout.
The AFC might not have two good teams.
Week 8 provided more evidence that the Patriots might not even sweat in Foxborough this January on their way to another Super Bowl:
• The Buffalo Bills, the only AFC team other than the Patriots with fewer than two losses heading into Week 8, were blown out by a 3-4 Eagles team at home. Advanced metrics don’t love the Bills, and they didn’t look good on Sunday.
• The Kansas City Chiefs lost their third home game in a row. Yes, Patrick Mahomes was out. But the Chiefs have lost two home games with Mahomes, and their defense is still not great (while acknowledging their injuries on defense have made a big difference).
• The Baltimore Ravens ... well, we’ll see.
The Ravens have their shot in Week 9 to give Patriots haters some hope. They host the Patriots on Sunday night, coming off a bye. Baltimore has a mixed bag of results (beating a lot of bad teams and sometimes barely getting by them, getting blasted by the Browns at home, but coming off a very impressive road win at Seattle) and they present matchup issues. Lamar Jackson is unique and hard to stop. The Patriots have been phenomenal against conventional offenses, but this is a different challenge.
Here’s the scary thought: What if the Ravens get blown out? Then what?
A healthy Chiefs team is probably the best remaining candidate to beat the Patriots. Maybe it’s the Texans just because Deshaun Watson is insanely good and seems capable of anything. Aside from the old “any given Sunday” cliche, there’s no good reason to believe any other AFC team can come within 10 points of New England at home in the playoffs. Mahomes and Watson are the only reasons those teams even have a puncher’s chance.
And to be clear, the road to the Super Bowl is very likely to go through New England. The only scenario for a team other than the Patriots getting the No. 1 seed, outside of major injuries, starts with a Ravens win on Sunday. Baltimore would be just one loss behind New England with the tiebreaker. However, if the Patriots win they’d be up at least three games on every AFC team other than the Bills and Colts, who have two losses each. And nobody should believe the Colts or Bills are going to pass the Patriots.
Sometimes the AFC East’s incompetence outside of New England is overstated by fans who want to discount the Patriots’ dynasty. The AFC East’s bumbling isn’t the only reason the Patriots have been great, or even one of the top few reasons. But it does help. The Patriots haven’t had a serious challenger in the division for a long time.
The same might be true about the entire AFC this season. It doesn’t mean the Patriots aren’t great. Their defense could be historic, and their offense is good, too. But it’s also true that nobody else in the AFC looks very good. Maybe that changes with a Ravens upset in Week 9, or perhaps Mahomes or Watson can have a day for the ages against the Patriots in January.
We’re not even halfway through the season and anyone hoping to avoid the Patriots on Super Bowl Sunday this season should be running out of hope.
Here are the Power Rankings after Week 7 of the NFL season:
I can’t believe that defensive call near the end of the first half on Monday night. Leading 14-3, with Pittsburgh facing a third-and-20 with 26 seconds left, Miami called an all-out blitz. Behind that, their defensive backs played off. Diontae Johnson had one of the easiest 45-yard touchdowns ever, and that changed the entire game. It’s hard for a defensive call to be so bad that everyone can see it, and that was definitely one of them.
31. Cincinnati Bengals (0-8, LW: 31)
The Bengals will be interesting to watch before the trade deadline. They desperately need to move some of their veteran pieces for picks. A.J. Green comes to mind. But there has been little buzz about the Bengals making a move, and we probably shouldn’t expect them to do the smart thing.
30. Washington Redskins (1-7, LW: 30)
Perhaps Washington stalling on trading Trent Williams was some master stroke that drives up interest at the deadline. I’m just going to go with the Redskins being oblivious to that fact despite everyone else understanding it for months.
29. Atlanta Falcons (1-7, LW: 29)
Matt Schaub threw for 460 yards, which is kind of bonkers. And yet Atlanta scored only 20 points. I’ve never seen a team that is so good at piling up yards but at the same time so bad at scoring. And winning.
28. Denver Broncos (2-6, LW: 25)
Joe Flacco has a neck injury and won’t start this week. It was always confusing for the Broncos to waste a mid-round pick to “upgrade” from Case Keenum to Flacco, but Denver is about to look unsightly bad without Flacco.
27. New York Jets (1-6, LW: 28)
The game script was bad but still, nine carries for Le’Veon Bell? Also, if this team trades receiver Robby Anderson it has lost its mind. That’s the type of guy Sam Darnold needs as he develops. Adam Gase just needs to use him better.
26. New York Giants (2-6, LW: 27)
The Leonard Williams trade is another that’s hard to grasp from a big-picture standpoint. Williams’ contract is done after the season. The Giants could have just signed him then and not given up picks. It’s hard to justify moving a third- and fifth-round pick just to have an exclusive negotiating window with Williams. Though the Giants can recoup a compensatory pick if Williams signs elsewhere. We’ll see what comes next with Williams and the Giants.
25. Cleveland Browns (2-5, LW: 24)
Freddie Kitchens was a boom-or-bust hire. It wasn’t an outrageous decision at the time, but it was a risky one. Sometimes risky moves don’t work out. This one clearly isn’t working out, and it’s starting to feel like Kitchens has nine games to save himself from being one-and-done.
24. Arizona Cardinals (3-4-1, LW: 23)
The Cardinals have won some games, but they’re still miles behind the other three teams in the NFC West. They’re rebuilding. So why are they trading a draft pick for Kenyan Drake, whose contract expires after this season? How does that logically fit into their organizational philosophy?
23. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-5, LW: 22)
It’s entirely understandable why Bruce Arians isn’t happy that a quick whistle cost his team what should have been a touchdown. Maybe that leads to a win and the Bucs are 3-4 and not 2-5. That’s a huge difference.
22. Los Angeles Chargers (3-5, LW: 26)
For once, a close game went the Chargers’ way. That Tennessee loss in Week 7 is really hard now. They win that, they’re 4-4 and only a game behind the Chiefs in the AFC West.
21. Pittsburgh Steelers (3-4, LW: 21)
Mason Rudolph rebounded after a really bad start. But he still hasn’t looked like a future franchise quarterback, or an above-average starter, at any point. Minkah Fitzpatrick is a good player, but it still seems Pittsburgh will regret sending its first-round pick to Miami when 2020 should be a quarterback-heavy draft.
20. Oakland Raiders (3-4, LW: 17)
The Raiders battled, but Deshaun Watson was just a little too much. It happens. The Raiders looked a little out of gas at the end of a long road trip. We’ll see if they look rejuvenated during a three-game homestand that starts this week.
19. Tennessee Titans (4-4, LW: 20)
Ryan Tannehill wasn’t as good as he was in his first start, but still moved the Titans and made some plays. He’s clearly better than Marcus Mariota. Maybe he is working his way into the team’s 2020 plans.
18. Chicago Bears (3-4, LW: 15)
It did not take long for the shine to come off Matt Nagy, did it? This week brings another round of criticism, especially with his decision to settle for a 41-yard field goal with a well-documented shaky kicking situation. Vic Fangio was perhaps the best coordinator in the league last season. Maybe the NFL Coach of the Year Award went to the wrong guy? It’s too early to bury Nagy, but there are more questions about him now.
17. Detroit Lions (3-3-1, LW: 19)
The Lions threw on all 13 third downs Sunday, and Matthew Stafford was 12-of-13 for 200 yards on those plays (h/t to Kyle Meinke of MLive.com). Stafford also didn’t throw an incompletion after halftime. Stafford has a 105.3 passer rating, and he has never finished north of 100 over a full season in his career.
16. Jacksonville Jaguars (4-4, LW: 18)
Nick Bosa is getting a lot of attention and rightfully so, but fellow top-10 pick Josh Allen had two more sacks on Sunday. He has seven total, and at least one sack in four straight games. It’s not too early to wonder if the Raiders blew it passing on him with the fourth pick when everyone thought Allen would be Oakland’s selection.
15. Carolina Panthers (4-3, LW: 13)
That should end the Kyle Allen-Cam Newton debate. Allen will start again this weekend, according to head coach Ron Rivera, but that’s because Newton isn’t healthy. Allen’s job, until Newton is ready, is making sure Newton has a playoff contender to come back to. It won’t be easy in the deep NFC.
14. Philadelphia Eagles (4-4, LW: 16)
This is how the NFL goes: You can look horrible and finished one week, then get one big road win and the entire picture changes. The Eagles had a good road win over a Bills team that had lost to only the Patriots this season. The Cowboys have a tough remaining schedule. As cooked as the Eagles looked after that horrible loss at Dallas, they’re right back in the race.
13. Houston Texans (5-3, LW: 14)
J.J. Watt will be 31 next season and has finished three of the past four seasons on injured reserve. Watt is a generational talent but there will be plenty of questions about how he’ll bounce back and if he can stay healthy.
12. Los Angeles Rams (5-3, LW: 12)
Cooper Kupp has at least 100 yards in five games this season and had 220 on Sunday. He’s on pace for 116 catches, 1,584 yards and 10 touchdowns. And he’s coming off a torn ACL. Quite an amazing season.
11. Dallas Cowboys (4-3, LW: 11)
The Week 9 game Monday at the Giants is tricky. And it’s crucial, considering the tough games the Cowboys have after that. It wouldn’t be in their best interest to drop one of the rare games on their schedule in which they’ll be expected to easily win.
10. Kansas City Chiefs (5-3, LW: 7)
It’s not like the Chiefs want to lose games, but losing Sunday night wasn’t a big deal. The AFC West is putrid. There’s no worry there. There is some concern about not getting a first-round bye, but it’s not like anyone is good enough to run away with it.
9. Buffalo Bills (5-2, LW: 6)
Josh Allen had 169 yards on 34 attempts against an Eagles defense that has not been great against the pass. Allen ranks 26th of 28 quarterbacks with 200 attempts in Pro Football Focus’ grades, besting only Case Keenum and Mitchell Trubisky. Just a reminder that Allen hasn’t arrived quite yet.
8. Indianapolis Colts (5-2, LW: 10)
It wasn’t pretty, but the Colts had a letdown spot after a big win over the Texans and still escaped with another win over the Broncos. And with J.J. Watt’s season-ending injury, the Colts are the clear favorite in the AFC South.
7. Seattle Seahawks (6-2, LW: 9)
Assuming the Seahawks can beat the Buccaneers at home on Sunday, the Nov. 11 “Monday Night Football” matchup at the 49ers should be perhaps the best one ESPN will get this season.
6. Baltimore Ravens (5-2, LW: 8)
The Ravens had the bye week to get in some extra preparation for the Patriots. They’ll need a very good game plan to do any damage against the best defense in the NFL.
5. Minnesota Vikings (6-2, LW: 5)
Here’s where the line of true Super Bowl contenders seems to start (though an exception can be made for the Chiefs once everyone is healthy). The Vikings weren’t great last week against Washington, but didn’t need to be. Minnesota seems underrated because of skepticism over Kirk Cousins, which is justified. But this is a very good team.
4. Green Bay Packers (7-1, LW: 4)
It needs to be pointed out again that Aaron Rodgers has gotten hot without Davante Adams. No receiver stood out for the Packers on Sunday night and Jimmy Graham is a shell of his old self. Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Geronimo Allison combined for two catches and 11 yards and have mostly proven they’re not capable of stressing a defense. And yet, Rodgers has been brilliant two straight weeks. He’s back in the MVP conversation.
3. San Francisco 49ers (7-0, LW: 3)
The Emmanuel Sanders acquisition will help, and the Niners should still be asking around for more receiver help. They’re a Super Bowl contender. You don’t know when that window closes. Imagine how good this team could be with, say, A.J. Green?
2. New Orleans Saints (7-1, LW: 2)
The 49ers have been very good, but the Saints still deserve the top spot in the NFC. Especially since we saw Drew Brees come back and look like he never had thumb surgery. And the Saints could get injured running back Alvin Kamara following their bye.
1. New England Patriots (8-0, LW: 1)
Browns running back Nick Chubb had 131 yards on 20 carries. That’s about the first negative thing to be said about the Patriots’ defense halfway into their season. Presumably they’ll have the run defense fixed before facing the Ravens.
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