1. San Francisco 49ers (4-1, ESPN #3)
It’s understandable that ESPN has chosen to rank the NFL’s two unbeaten teams (Houston and Atlanta) at the top of their power rankings, but the 49ers’ one loss came when they, along with the rest of the nation, were understandably surprised to discover that there is a professional football team in Minnesota (the now 4-1 Vikings). And their most recent two wins (34-0 over the Jets and 45-3 over the Bills) have impressed me much more than the Texans’ (38-14 over the Titans and 23-17 over those same Jets) or Falcons’ (30-28 over Carolina and 24-17 over Washington.) Moreover, at +81, San Francisco sports the best point differential in the league. And while both Atlanta and Houston seem to have an alarming tendency to “play down” to their competition, San Francisco just hasn’t looked remotely challenged by inferior teams, which is the mark of a well-coached, disciplined squad, and in my mind is a big part of what makes them the class of the NFL at the moment.
2. Houston Texans (5-0, ESPN #1)
It’s controversial to say this considering almost everyone else has them at #1, but I actually hesitated to put them this high, especially in light of the Cushing injury. Still, the Texans were a healthy quarterback away from probably being the AFC’s Super Bowl representative last year, and they have a healthy quarterback this year. Add in their unbeaten record and +76 point differential (third best in the league behind San Francisco and Chicago) and it’s easy to overlook a lot of potential problems.
3. New England Patriots (3-2, ESPN #5)
4. New York Giants (3-2, ESPN #7)
I decided to explain these two at the same time because the reason you’re scratching your head right now is that I have two 3-2 teams ranked ahead of five 4-1 teams and one 5-0 team. What last year’s Super Bowl opponents have in common this year are prolific rushing attacks and arguably the two best quarterbacks on the planet. Both teams have stumbled more than once this season, but with the sort of production they’re capable of, they can be downright dominant.
5. Chicago Bears (4-1, ESPN #6)
The last time the Bears defense was playing like this they ended up in the Super Bowl. And Matt Forte, Jay Cutler, and Brandon Marshall are a much better combination than Thomas Jones, Rex Grossman, and Mushin Muhammad.
One of the lost storylines this season has been Devin Hester’s evolution as a wide receiver. While having the threat of Marshall likely has a great deal to do with it, Devin Hester has managed to be incredibly wide open and make some truly incredible plays.
6. Baltimore Ravens (4-1, ESPN #4)
Yeah, their field goal kicking contest with Kansas City was inexplicably awful, but this is a very talented team with something to prove.
7. Atlanta Falcons (5-0, ESPN #2)
I originally slotted them in at #5, figuring I’d wait to move them down in the rankings until they inevitably faltered and it became widely acceptable to do so, but I’m going to stick to my guns. Let’s be real here for a second. Their only impressive win was at San Diego, which is difficult to count given San Diego’s well-earned reputation of awful Septembers. And Michael Turner has inexplicably disappeared, making this the most one-dimensional offense that’s appeared on this list so far.
After watching their narrow victory over Washington, I’m genuinely surprised by how much credit Matt Ryan is getting for the Falcons’ performance so far this season. His offensive line was giving him all day, and he has so many weapons to work with. Is he an excellent quarterback? Absofreakinglutely! Is it understandable that he’s running away with the MVP race right now? Yes. Is he one of the league’s top five quarterbacks? I really don’t think so.
8. San Diego Chargers (3-2, ESPN #14)
9. Denver Broncos (2-3, ESPN #17)
I’ll be able to move San Diego down and Denver up after Peyton Manning beats the Chargers on Monday Night.
10. Minnesota Vikings (4-1, ESPN #8)
Christian Ponder’s tendency to throw the ball to the other guys is alarming, but you really have to love the turnaround happening in Minnesota.
11. Green Bay Packers (2-3, ESPN #12)
This team is dramatically better than its record shows.
12. Wasington Redskins (2-3, ESPN #21)
Losing RG3 for any length of time hurts, but Mike Shanahan is absolutely going to win Super Bowls with this team. It might take a few years, but it’s going to happen and it’s going to be awesome.
13. Arizona Cardinals (4-1, ESPN #9)
St. Louis dramatically exposed how phony their record is.
14. Dallas Cowboys (2-2, ESPN #13)
They might sneak into the playoffs and then get soundly beaten by a superior team after generating weeks of media hype. It’s been a couple years since the last time that happened, right? Because I think there’s an NFL rule that it has to happen once ever few years.
15. Pittsburgh Steelers (2-2, ESPN #10)
No matter how poorly they play they always seem to find a way to sneak into the playoffs, but I’m just genuinely not impressed any more.
16. Philadelphia Eagles (3-2, ESPN #11)
The Eagles’ ability to “win ugly” is almost a bigger part of Philadelphia’s identity than cheesesteak, but it’s hard to imagine them keeping it up. It’s really mystifying that this team can’t do more with all the pieces they have.
17. New Orleans Saints (1-4, ESPN #24)
Has there ever been a more dangerous 1-4 team in the history of pro football? I have them ranked higher than several teams with better records because there is much more upside here.
18. Cincinnati Bengals (3-2, ESPN #15)
Difficult to figure this team out, it really feels like they could go either way.
19. Seattle Seahawks (3-2, ESPN #16)
They should be 2-3 and are quietly having a quarterback controversy no one wants to talk about.
20. Indianapolis Colts (2-2, ESPN #22)
Andrew Luck will not face Peyton Manning this year unless he can somehow sneak the Colts into the playoffs, but we did see Manning’s two heir apparents (Andrew Luck as Indianapolis’s quarterback and Aaron Rodgers as the league’s best quarterback whose playing style is eerily similar) meet last Sunday, and Luck shocked everyone by coming out on top.
21. Miami Dolphins (2-3, ESPN #19)
When your ceiling is being a losing team that can beat winning teams now and then, you’re pretty much stuck in no-man’s land.
22. St. Louis Rams (3-2, ESPN #18)
They’ve shown they can pull off an upset or two, but that offense is just… offensive.
23. Detroit Lions (1-3, ESPN #20)
I knew the Lions were soft, but I didn’t see them having this bad of a season.
24. Carolina Panthers (1-4, ESPN #26)
Cam Newton is having the infamous sophomore slump most quarterbacks seem to go through. It’d be nice to see him bounce back.
25. New York Jets (2-3, ESPN #25)
The Tebow Trade absolutely destroyed any chance this team had of contending. What were they thinking?
26. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1-3, ESPN #23)
There’s really no upside to this team that I can think of.
27. Oakland Raiders (1-3, ESPN #29)
Any time you can package several drafts worth of picks for a washed up Carson Palmer, you have to do it.
28. Jacksonville Jaguars (1-4, ESPN #31)
Why do I have them ranked so much higher than ESPN does? By now you’re getting tired of me using the word “upside,” but any time you have Maurice Jones-Drew at running back and a steadily improving young quarterback, you have it.
Okay, they also have plenty of downside. But just read about the rest of these teams and feel free to let me know which one I should move up.
29. Tennessee Titans (1-4, ESPN #28)
2007 record: 10-6.
2008 record: 13-3.
2009 record: 8-8.
2010 record: 6-10.
2011 record: 9-7.
2012 record: 1-4.
In case you were wondering why every Titans fan you know has a “what the hell is going on?” look during almost every snap of every game.
30. Buffalo Bills (2-3, ESPN #27)
The Bills’ two victories came against arguably the league’s two worst teams (35-17 over Kansas City and 24-14 over Cleveland), their losses have not been pretty (52-28 to New England, 45-3 to San Francisco, and 48-28 to… the Jets!!! The freaking Jets!!!)
31. Kansas City Chiefs (1-4, ESPN #30)
If anyone who was cheering for Matt Cassel’s injury is reading this, I would like to cordially invite you to go away immediately. You are not welcome here.
32. Cleveland Browns (0-5, ESPN #32)
You look at their schedule and try to figure out when the march toward the NFL’s second ever 0-16 record could end, and then realize it’s a pretty silly thing to do because there’s no one on the schedule they “should” beat.
That being said, 0-11 should happen without much drama, then then they get their best shots at avoiding infamy in back-to-back weeks (at Oakland in Week 13 and at home against Kansas City in Week 14.) And to add insult to injury, their final game of the regular season (which could be 0-16) is against arch rival Pittsburgh.