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Sports Illustrated
Sports Illustrated
Conor Orr

Power Rankings: Bengals Bust Through Backdoor in Run for No. 1

Here’s an interesting thought experiment as we head into a new week of NFL football. Jeff Saturday’s Colts surrendered the biggest lead in modern league history to the Vikings on Saturday. My immediate reaction was that this should automatically disqualify him from the full-time gig, which owner Jim Irsay very much wants Saturday, an interim coach, to earn throughout the remainder of this season.

But after a few nights of (toddler-interrupted) sleep, I wondered if this mindset is part of the problem—if we somehow foist our collective impatience on ownership. To be clear, I think Saturday should climb the ladder like the rest of those in the profession and that Marcus Brady or Bubba Ventrone should currently be the head coach of the Colts (or, you know, Frank Reich). But should being on the opposite end of a historical gaffe cost Saturday a full-time job?

If you’re Irsay, the challenge should be to make a broader, more legitimate evaluation. Owners who really want to make something work can normally make something work by providing support and resources. Owners who want to look a certain way fire someone when the going gets tough.

We’re about to head into a coaching hiring and firing cycle where a handful of people could lose jobs because of a lack of said support and resources, because of someone else’s poor decision-making or because they were the coach during a game when something very public and embarrassing happened. (We’re also coming off a recent series of NFL owners’ meetings where the collective rich folk were warned about how much they’ve been spending on firing coaches and general managers before the conclusion of their contracts.)

My question is: Will Irsay have the internal fortitude to double down on Saturday? Or, will he use The Comeback as an excuse to bail on an experiment that has already drastically altered the career paths of dozens of people?

1. Philadelphia Eagles (13–1)

Last week: win at Chicago, 25–20

Next week: at Dallas

There is something quite beautiful about the fact that the Eagles have not played the Chiefs, Bengals, Bills or 49ers this season. While I am not saying they have had a soft schedule by any means, how they stack up against any potential Super Bowl or conference title-game opponent is still a bit of a mystery, which makes the second round of the postseason awfully fun. I’m assuming they will play it smart with Jalen Hurts and preserve his injured upper body for the postseason.

2. Cincinnati Bengals (10–4)

Last week: win at Tampa Bay, 34–23

Next week: at New England

There is just so much to love and appreciate about this Bengals team that we seemed to ignore over the first half of the season. Since Week 10, Cincinnati is posting the third-lowest opposing rush EPA per play in the NFL. The Bengals are gutting their AFC counterparts where it hurts.

Joe Burrow threw for four touchdowns and 200 yards in Cincinnati's 34-23 win at Tampa Bay. 

Chris O'Meara/AP

3. San Francisco 49ers (10–4)

Last week: win at Seattle, 21–13

Next week: vs. Washington

The 49ers looked as impenetrable as ever in a somewhat narrow win over the Seahawks. When they absolutely had to manufacture yardage on the ground to ice the game, they did. By the way, this team has not lost a game since before Halloween. Are we going to get an ugly Brock Purdy start out of the way before the playoffs? Does an ugly Brock Purdy start even exist in this offense?

4. Buffalo Bills (11–3)

Last week: win vs. Miami, 32–29

Next week: at Chicago

The most resilient team in the NFL, the Bills edged the division-rival Dolphins to remain in possession of the No. 1 seed and the first-round bye. Few teams need it as badly as the Bills do. The emergence of Dawson Knox into Josh Allen’s target share has to be causing double takes from defensive coordinators who already have enough to worry about.

5. Kansas City Chiefs (11–3)

Last week: win at Houston, 30–24

Next week: vs. Seattle

If either Isiah Pacheco or Kadarius Toney took off for the Chiefs, we’d be looking at an obvious Super Bowl favorite. While Pacheco has logged workhorse numbers since Nov. 15, he’s also lost a pair of fumbles, so one wonders whether Andy Reid may get scared to deploy him regularly in do-or-die games.

6. Dallas Cowboys (10–4)

Last week: loss at Jacksonville, 40–34

Next week: vs. Philadelphia

The Cowboys have had some late-game sloppiness this year, though a deflected pick-six isn’t the kind of play I’m using as any sort of telling referendum—it was actually quite a throw by Dak Prescott. For now, these power rankings illustrate pretty well where I feel Dallas lines up at the moment, as it is a cut below Philadelphia and a thin sliver behind San Francisco.

7. Minnesota Vikings (11–3)

Last week: win vs. Indianapolis, 39–36

Next week: vs. New York Giants

Good for the Vikings, who notched the largest comeback in NFL history. As I wrote at the time, I don’t care that it’s the Colts. This was still a professional football game. While I’m still not picking them to advance beyond the first round of the playoffs (opponent pending), I think this does a great deal for Minnesota’s collective psyche, so long as it’s not completely exhausted.

8. Los Angeles Chargers (8–6)

Last week: win vs. Tennessee, 17–14

Next week: at Indianapolis

While it’s impossible to let ourselves go and truly love this Chargers team with blind faith and support, they are inching their way toward a postseason berth, which means anything can happen. Justin Herbert was as nonchalant as ever picking up half the field to set up a game-winning score on Sunday.

9. Miami Dolphins (8–6)

Last week: loss at Buffalo, 32–29

Next week: vs. Green Bay

Whether it was the conditions in Buffalo or the conditions of their roster, we’re seeing a bit of a late-season transformation by the Dolphins’ offense. They are trying to show more physicality, and Raheem Mostert, even without his 67-yard run, was still gaining yards at a nice clip. Salvon Ahmed also put up more than seven yards a carry (during a game where almost everyone expected Miami to run).

10. Baltimore Ravens (9–5)

Last week: loss at Cleveland, 13-3

Next week: vs. Atlanta

There is nothing to be ashamed of when it comes to banking wins at the beginning of the season and then surviving: The Ravens have a 98% chance of making the playoffs, and they even have some wiggle room with a Steelers game looming. Hosting the Falcons at home should be a nice palate cleanser for the Ravens to get to 10 wins.

11. New York Giants (8-5-1)

Last week: win at Washington, 20–12

Next week: at Minnesota

A Kayvon Thibodeaux late-season surge changes the calculus for some of the Giants’ remaining opponents. Let’s be clear: He was always good, but if he is cresting into a must-double player consistently, the Giants have some talented supplementary rushers like Azeez Ojulari who could round their way into some version of individual stardom as well.

Giants DB Darnay Holmes helped seal Sunday's 20-12 win at Washington with a controversial PBU.

Nick Wass/AP

12. Detroit Lions (7–7)

Last week: win at New York Jets, 20–17

Next week: at Carolina

We hoped, we prayed, we begged and we got it: Potentially meaningful Lions football at the end of the season. Dan Campbell taking on the rest of the league, Royal Rumble style. This Jets win was a necessary one, showing Detroit that it could win on a day when the opposing offense is pulling one big play after another out of thin air.

13. Washington Commanders (7-6-1)

Last week: loss vs. New York Giants, 20–12

Next week: at San Francisco

The Commanders have every right to be salty the morning after their last-minute loss to the Giants, even if they remain inside the current playoff picture (along with the entirety of the NFC East, which is evidence of life’s rich pageant). The no-call on the pass into the end zone was far less egregious than the official’s not being clear with Terry McLaurin as to whether he was properly lined up.

14. Tennessee Titans (7–7)

Last week: loss at Los Angeles Chargers, 17–14

Next week: vs. Houston

We saw a gutsy performance by the Titans in a loss to the Chargers. They are managing to throw their weight around despite an offense that is primarily Derrick Henry– and tight-end-driven at this point. The bright side? Rookie fourth-round pick Chigoziem Okonkwo is an absolute wrecking ball.

15. New York Jets (7–7)

Last week: loss vs. Detroit, 20–17

Next week: vs. Jacksonville

While this is true of almost anyone, the dichotomy between Zach Wilson’s highlights and the totality of the performance on Sunday was really something. His footwork and confidence looked as good as I’ve seen, but the structured plays were lacking in more rapid decision-making. Still, his arm talent is undeniable. All of this can be simultaneously true: Wilson’s receivers helped him tremendously; he is a top-10 physical talent; he is still a year away from meaningfully contributing to the roster.

16. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6–8)

Last week: loss vs. Cincinnati, 34–23

Next week: at Arizona

The Buccaneers struggled to establish their high-volume rushing game, with Leonard Fournette and Rachaad White both having 10-plus carries apiece without yielding much (4.4 and 3.5, respectively) in terms of yards per carry. The Buccaneers sit at No. 16 in our power rankings because they are almost certainly going to limp into the playoffs as NFC South champs, but there is little confidence in what they can do once they arrive.

17. Seattle Seahawks (7–7)

Last week: loss vs. San Francisco, 21–13

Next week: at Kansas City

The Seahawks find themselves at No. 17 this week, because it’s difficult to draw a great deal of power when your season essentially hinges on traveling to Arrowhead to beat the Chiefs. All that said, Seattle gave a formidable effort against the juggernaut 49ers on Thursday night and proved it belonged in the same stadium (even if the last touchdown made it seem a bit closer than it actually was).

18. Jacksonville Jaguars (6–8)

Last week: win vs. Dallas, 40–34

Next week: at New York Jets

As I wrote on Sunday, this is currently the spiciest team in the NFL. Before it’s cool to love and deify Trevor Lawrence, we should enjoy the final stages of his rapid ascent like the last moments of a cool underground band before it goes completely mainstream and puts out a Christmas record.

19. Las Vegas Raiders (6–8)

Last week: win vs. New England, 30–24

Next week: at Pittsburgh

The Raiders clock in at No. 19 this week. Miraculous, game-ending play aside, they formulated a just-good-enough game plan against a Patriots team that removed Davante Adams from the equation and kept Josh Jacobs from being anything more than a pace-setter.

20. New England Patriots (7–7)

Last week: loss at Las Vegas, 30–24

Next week: vs. Cincinnati

There isn’t much to say after losing a game like that, but I will say this: We can’t really blame Bill Belichick for not telling Rhamondre Stevenson and Jakobi Meyers not to do that because, why would you have to tell a player not to do that? As podcast cohost Gary Gramling said on our Sunday show: “Does he also have to say ‘O.K., guys, don’t eat the football?’”

21. Pittsburgh Steelers (6–8)

Last week: win at Carolina, 24–16

Next week: vs. Las Vegas

The Steelers have a less than 1% chance of making the playoffs at this point, according to FiveThirtyEight. According to the Sports Illustrated power rankings, they have a 101% chance of being an absolute pain for the Ravens, Browns and Raiders who, to some degree, all have slightly or significantly more realistic hopes of reaching the tournament.

22. Green Bay Packers (5–8)

Last week: win vs. Los Angeles Rams, 24–12

Next week: at Miami

The Packers have now increased their playoff odds just slightly above the 10% mark, and while much of this has to do with the maturation of talent and relationships (and A.J. Dillon coming alive, save for when he’s matched up in the hole with Jalen Ramsey), it’s still a very long and complicated road to the postseason. All of that said, it’s better to have a 3/4-speed Packers team on the hunt than completely irrelevant.

Aaron Rodgers threw for 229 yards and one touchdown in Green Bay's 24-12 win vs. Los Angeles.

Morry Gash/AP

23. Cleveland Browns (6–8)

Last week: win vs. Baltimore, 13-3

Next week: vs. New Orleans

Over Deshaun Watson’s first three games, he has two touchdowns and two interceptions and is completing 60% of his passes. He seems to be improving and looking more comfortable each week. In that time, the Browns have scored 20 offensive points. We’ll see what happens when they face another starting-caliber opposing quarterback this season … oh wait … they willdo not.

24. Los Angeles Rams (4–10)

Last week: loss at Green Bay, 24–12

Next week: vs. Denver

The Packers played a borderline Belichickian game, simply doing their best to keep the ball away from the opposing offense. The strategy worked in the punishing cold, and, sadly, we had to live a week without a stunning Baker Mayfield comeback. How deprived are we?

25. Carolina Panthers (5–9)

Last week: loss vs. Pittsburgh, 24–16

Next week: vs. Detroit

Miraculously, the Panthers still have a one-in-four shot of making the playoffs, according to FiveThirtyEight. Failing to beat the Steelers doesn’t bode well for those chances, of course. Having 14 carries for 19 yards out of your two lead backs also doesn’t bode well for actual chances once in the playoffs, should they actually stun the football world and make it there.

26. Denver Broncos (4–10)

Last week: win vs. Arizona, 24–15

Next week: at Los Angeles Rams

Sans Russell Wilson, the Broncos took down a reeling Cardinals team (see below) and are working to spoil what is currently the No. 3 pick that they’re handing to the Seahawks. Wilson is playing on Christmas against the Rams: We’ll see if that helps them positively reframe the end of an ugly year.

27. Chicago Bears (3–11)

Last week: loss vs. Philadelphia, 25–20

Next week: vs. Buffalo

Justin Fields put on a feisty performance against the Eagles on Sunday, one blade of grass away from turning in another spectacular touchdown run. Matt Eberflus’s defense also picked Jalen Hurts twice, broke up six of his passes and sacked him once. This team will be tough to reckon with once it starts getting more scheme-specific fits on board.

28. New Orleans Saints (5–9)

Last week: win vs. Atlanta, 21–18

Next week: at Cleveland

The Saints have a neutral offense and a neutral defense at this point. In terms of impact, they are not winning games due to either but could pull out games by virtue of a few critical plays. With the Taysom Hill wild card, they are officially labeled playoff spoilers down the stretch for the still somewhat alive Browns and Panthers—but not much else.

29. Atlanta Falcons (5–9)

Last week: loss at New Orleans, 21–18

Next week: at Ravens

Tyler Allgeier had a monstrous day and was breaking tackles against a good defense with little rest. Rookie Desmond Ridder had a conservative, quick-game-focused plan in his debut start that taught us little outside of the fact that he is probably a few games away from telling us who he might be as an NFL quarterback.

30. Arizona Cardinals (4–10)

Last week: loss at Denver, 15–24

Next week: vs. Tampa Bay

The Cardinals are not in a healthy place organizationally. Great friend and former coworker Jonathan Jones of CBS reported on Sunday that the team is expected to part ways with GM Steve Keim, who is on a leave of absence for health reasons. This situation, be it with Kyler Murray’s recovery, Keim’s health situation or Kliff Kingsbury’s status, is about far more than football. Owner Michael Bidwill has some hard work ahead.

31. Indianapolis Colts (4-9-1)

Last week: loss at Minnesota, 39–36

Next week: vs. Los Angeles Chargers

Would another coach have stopped the bleeding at some point during this 33-point comeback? It’s hard to say. If we’re suggesting this was all on Saturday, we’re also suggesting that Dan Quinn has to solely wear the Falcons’ loss in Super Bowl LI to New England. Quinn could very well get a head coaching job this year.

32. Houston Texans (1-12-1)

Last week: loss vs. Kansas City, 30–24

Next week: at Tennessee

The Texans, now with Situational Jeff Driskel™ power. Let’s be honest, if we told you they would take the Chiefs and Cowboys to the brink in back-to-back weeks late in the season, wouldn’t you consider that a massive win?

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