With just one week of play remaining in the 2021 NFL regular season, it’s time to break out some power rankings. Week 18 will determine who makes it to the playoffs in several cases, but there is a solid sense of who the real contenders are even without those final participants, while the bottom-dwelling teams have been mired in problems for some time by now.
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PFF has a page dedicated to Power Rankings powered by the thousands of data points collected throughout the season. It shows several interesting data points, along with team rankings, strength of schedule, Super Bowl odds and how much each starting quarterback is worth to the point spread. That page is unquestionably where the leveraged data should be sending you, but this power rankings list is what happens when you apply some gut feel to the data.
Super Bowl Contenders
Obviously, any team that makes the playoffs still has a Lombardi Trophy in its sights, but that goal is far more realistic for some than it is for others. Even in this chaotic season, it seems as though there is a smaller group of true contenders emerging.
The betting markets aren’t in love with Green Bay, but it’s hard to argue with how it has weathered setbacks this season. A season ago, this team made the NFC Championship game off the back of elite performances from its five most important players. This year, three of those five have been missing for almost the entire season, leaving Aaron Rodgers and Davante Adams to maintain standards.
Rodgers is climbing his way toward last year’s overall PFF grade and is now up to No. 4 overall among quarterbacks. If you take out his ugly Week 1 performance against the Saints, he jumps up to second behind Joe Burrow. Any team with that caliber of quarterback is going to be a contender.
Speaking of elite quarterbacks … we all know how good Patrick Mahomes is and can be, but he has not played up to his own high standards and ranks just 13th in overall PFF grade, having climbed that high only over the past few weeks.
The Chiefs' offense went through a funk early in the year and still has more turnovers than the average NFL team, but no other team scores touchdowns on a greater percentage of offensive drives. Kansas City’s offense may not be as good as previous years, but it’s back to being a problem for anybody, and its defense has been stingy against teams outside of the Bengals.
It remains to be seen what impact the loss of Antonio Brown will have on this offense — and it is potentially significant — but a Buccaneers team led by Tom Brady heading into the playoffs is unquestionably a contender. Even without Brown and Chris Godwin, they still have one of the game’s best offensive lines, Rob Gronkowski, Mike Evans and some speed to burn in their depth players. Tampa Bay's defense has been battling injuries all season, and its health on that side of the ball is a looming X-factor.
The Bills are one of the best teams in the NFL, but they don’t seem to match up stylistically well with several likely opponents in the postseason. New England and Indianapolis have each taken a win off them already, and while Buffalo got one back against the Patriots, the AFC playoffs are stuffed full of teams playing a physical brand of football.
Josh Allen’s numbers are down across the board, but he boasts the best PFF rushing grade among quarterbacks, has added 50 first downs on the ground and has six breakaway runs of 15 or more yards, the most of any non-running back this season.
The Cowboys remain in this top tier based on potential, but they have been wobbling lately and need Dak Prescott to be at his best for them to stay here. No defense has forced more turnovers, with Trevon Diggs alone accounting for 11. Micah Parsons gives them rare flexibility on that side of the ball, and he has been an impact playmaker at multiple positions in his rookie year.
Losing Michael Gallup is a blow, but Cedrick Wilson is an able deputy, and passes thrown his way this season have generated a 115.9 passer rating. Dallas also fields one of the best offensive lines in the game when everybody is healthy, giving the team an elite platform on offense.
The Bengals are red hot right now, riding back-to-back monster performances from Joe Burrow against Baltimore and Kansas City. Burrow averaged 11.4 yards per attempt in those two contests and is the No. 1 quarterback in PFF grades this season. Burrow to Ja’Marr Chase has been a phenomenal connection in their first season reunited since tearing up the college landscape on the way to a national championship.
But for all the sentiment that this offense is unstoppable, it was held to 15 points by Denver just a few weeks ago and ranks just 16th in successful play rate over the season. The Bengals are a deserved playoff team, but they might not have the gas to run the table.
The Cardinals are now entering a confusing realm where we’re not quite sure what they are. Their resume was as good as any team's in the NFL just a few weeks ago, especially considering they won two out of three games without Kyler Murray and DeAndre Hopkins in the lineup. Since then, Murray has made eight of his 12 turnover-worthy plays on the season, and they dropped three-straight games — two of which they were heavily favored in.
A win against Dallas on the road in Week 17 was impressive, though, so now we are left wondering which Arizona team we will see each week. Given the doubt, that puts them in this tier, but they certainly have the ability to win it all.
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The Titans' wins this season have been impressive, particularly given the team's injury issues, but they also have losses to the New York Jets and Houston Texans, two of the worst squads in the league. Tennessee ranks middle of the pack in a myriad of statistical categories, but they are all dragged down by the injuries they suffered to their most important players, several of which they expect to have back and firing in the playoffs.
The Titans are better than their stats this season, but are they as good as their playoff seeding would suggest?
The Matthew Stafford experiment is now yielding the kind of results that prove everybody right, regardless of their original opinion on the subject. If you were a believer in the upside, you can point to the Rams having one of the most explosive passing offenses in the league and his league-leading 126.8 passer rating in the fourth quarter. If you were a detractor, you can point to Stafford leading the league in pick-sixes, having a turnover-worthy play rate that ranks 27th in the league and holding an overall PFF grade in the same range as each of his seasons in Detroit.
Stafford certainly brings more upside to the Rams than Jared Goff, but he needs to string together consecutive elite games for them to win it all.
The Patriots are just a couple of weeks removed from looking like they were heading for the No. 1 seed in the AFC. Such is the chaos within that conference. Mac Jones has played well all season but put together three consecutive games of average or below-average PFF grades (not counting the first Buffalo game where he attempted just three passes). New England lost two of those three games and likely needs Jones to be at his best to beat the AFC's top teams.
The Patriots' defense allowing the lowest scoring drive percentage in the league will go a long way, but it won’t take them the distance without the offense doing its part.
Just when the Colts had sold people on their ability to be a real contender in the AFC, they lose a scrappy game against the Raiders. Carson Wentz averaged just 5.5 yards per attempt and made no big-time throws, and those numbers aren’t going to cut it if this team wants to go on a playoff run. Wentz has been efficient overall, but he is putting the ball in harm’s way too often down the stretch, with five of his 16 turnover-worthy plays coming in the past three weeks. In an ideal world, the Colts just need Wentz to steer the ship and add a couple of splash plays, but turnovers upend that equation.
The 49ers are a classic playoff spoiler. They are built to cause problems for any team in the NFL. Kyle Shanahan’s offense is related to many others throughout the NFL but is schematically unique thanks to playmakers Deebo Samuel, George Kittle, Brandon Aiyuk and Kyle Juszczyk. A dominant offensive line and a pass rush that has been on fire lately give them some very sound structures to work with.
Jimmy Garoppolo’s thumb injury and the potential within rookie Trey Lance adds a massive unknown element to the team that, to an extent, only makes them a bigger problem for opposing teams to prepare for.
It took them a while to get there, but once the Eagles realized they had the components to be a power running team, they have been marching their way to the postseason. Philadelphia led the league in yards before contact per attempt (1.9) and rank second only to Cleveland in explosive run rate (15.8%).
No team has more rushing first downs than their 155 this season, and Jalen Hurts has enough arm talent to make any throw off the back of play action. His inconsistency means the Eagles won’t always dominate the way they have the potential to, but that makes them the perfect spoiler team.
Justin Herbert did not regress in Year 2. In fact, he took his game to a new level. Herbert has the lowest turnover-worthy play rate in the league (1.8%), and it somehow drops when he’s pressured (just 1.0%). For the second straight season, he has been unusually good under pressure and in high-leverage situations, and the team has constructed an offensive line around him that puts him in fewer tough spots.
Only Tampa Bay and Dallas have offensive lines with a better pass-blocking efficiency metric than the Chargers this season. Their defense is too top-heavy, but with Brandon Staley as head coach, it has the potential to show up for big games.
Given what the Raiders have been through this season, it’s remarkable to see them still in a position to play spoiler. They already showed against Indianapolis they can ruin a playoff-bound team’s day, but it takes Derek Carr making plays almost single-handedly for it to happen. Carr has 38 big-time throws on the year, the third-most, but now those throws are being aimed at Hunter Renfrow and Zay Jones — capable receivers, but not the impact No. 1 receiving options he had to start the season.
The Raiders' offensive line is a concern, and the defense has tailed off, but Carr makes this team dangerous.
16. Baltimore Ravens
The Ravens are a better team than this ranking — when healthy — but few NFL squads have been as battered by injuries as them, starting in preseason when they lost their entire backfield in a matter of days. Quarterback Lamar Jackson has missed time. The entire secondary has been taken out. And late in the year, they were calling players up days before having to cover the best receivers in the NFL. It’s a testament to coaching and the players who remained that Baltimore is able to remain competitive.
17. Denver Broncos
Preseason evaluations deemed the Broncos as having a Super Bowl-caliber roster without a quarterback capable of taking them there. That may well still be the case, but there have been some issues on defense too. Nobody on the roster has more than 40 pressures this season, and as talented as the Broncos' offensive playmakers are, they haven’t dominated despite adequate play from quarterback Teddy Bridgewater.
Denver needs to go all-in for one of the marquee veterans potentially available this offseason.
The Saints are another team with playoff ability but without the quarterback to take them there. Jameis Winston over a full 17 games would have been interesting, but from the moment he went down, the unholy trinity of Trevor Siemian, Taysom Hill and Ian Book was never going to get it done. New Orleans' defense is legit — owning the league’s best successful play rate allowed (31.1%) — but an offense without a quarterback or any impact receivers simply doesn’t have the firepower to compete.
Ben Roethlisberger’s Monday night swan song at Heinz Field perfectly illustrated the Steelers this season. The results haven’t always been bad, but it has been painful to watch at times and success has come in excruciating ways. The team’s best players remain on defense, but whereas a year ago the Steelers led the NFL in pressure rate by a distance, they slot in at just 16th in 2021. The defense has only been able to suffocate opposing teams occasionally.
20. Miami Dolphins
The Dolphins forced their way back into playoff contention with a seven-game winning streak that came crashing down to earth last week against Tennessee. That winning run was against a sequence of bad quarterbacks and Lamar Jackson. Miami is good enough to get wins against bad opponents, but it owns the league’s worst offensive line and its quarterback is still a question mark. The Dolphins' line has surrendered 227 total pressures this season, the most in the NFL, despite being well protected by a quick release time and an RPO-heavy system.
21. Cleveland Browns
It’s impossible to ever know what this team might have looked like with a healthy Baker Mayfield all season. His performance over the season was poor (28th out of 39 quarterbacks in PFF grade), but he has played on a torn labrum and fracture in his left shoulder since Week 2. The Browns were clinging on to their playoff hopes until injuries and COVID-19 really threw them some curveballs late in the year, and that coincided with Mayfield’s worst play.
22. Seattle Seahawks
For the first time in years, the Seahawks got to evaluate their team without Russell Wilson carrying them like Atlas with the world on his shoulders. The results were alarming, with Seattle failing to make the playoffs for the first time since Wilson was drafted. The team's defense posted the 30th-ranked pressure rate and the 23rd-ranked passer rating allowed. The offensive line remains a problem, and if Wilson forces his way out in the offseason, there are few quality remaining pieces outside of the wide receiver position and Bobby Wagner.
Kirk Cousins currently ranks fifth in PFF WAR on the season, trailing only Tom Brady, Joe Burrow, Dak Prescott and Justin Herbert. Despite that, the team was only ever on the outside looking in at the playoffs, just trying to find itself on the right side of .500 all season. Minnesota’s defense isn’t what it used to be, ranking 19th in EPA per play allowed, and the offense doesn’t seem to have faith in Cousins to just air it out to Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen, though that is where its success comes from.
It’s a crossroads offseason for the Vikings, who need to spark a change from somewhere.
Taylor Heinicke earned the best PFF game grade of the entire playoffs last year when Washington went up against the champion Buccaneers. The Football Team couldn’t recapture the same magic this season, and the defense was lit up by a succession of quarterbacks better than the slate they faced in the regular season a year ago. Only the Jets allowed a higher passer rating to opposing quarterbacks than the 109.2 mark Washington gave up this season. Heinicke arguably underachieved a little, but the defense becoming a problem was the team’s biggest issue.
25. Atlanta Falcons
Atlanta found a pair of unique weapons in Kyle Pitts and Cordarrelle Patterson, giving it multiple players who cause matchup problems on every offensive snap, but it wasn’t enough to offset a defense lacking more than a few quality players and a quarterback who remains good but is no longer great. Matt Ryan sports a 75.2 overall PFF grade, his lowest since his sophomore season.
26. Chicago Bears
Somehow, this season feels worse for the Bears than their six wins ahead of Week 18 would suggest. The lows were extremely low, but there is optimism surrounding the most important player on the team: rookie Justin Fields. It wasn’t always pretty, but Fields ranks fifth in the league in big-time throw rate (6.1%) and obviously brings a lot of broken-play success with his athleticism. This was once an excellent roster in need of a quarterback. Now, it might be an excellent quarterback in need of a roster.
Hey, it’s draft season!
At one point, in a galaxy far, far away, the Panthers were 3-0 and riding high. The wheels fell off that wagon pretty quickly, and they finished the season with a farcical quarterback carousel. The three passers Carolina used this season (Sam Darnold, Cam Newton and P.J. Walker) earned PFF grades of 58.5, 53.1 and 52.0, respectively, and D.J. Moore led the NFL in the number of incomplete passes thrown his way that were quarterback errors (26).
Carolina’s defense is a solid unit, but its quarterback and offensive line situation is one of the worst in the game.
28. Detroit Lions
Perhaps unique among the bottom-dwelling teams, things are actually looking up for the Lions. The three games they didn’t lose all came in the second half of the season, with a win against the high-flying Arizona Cardinals being a highlight. The team has clearly kept fighting for head coach Dan Campbell, and the roster construction opened up opportunities for players like Amon-Ra St. Brown to emerge. He has 105 targets — the third-most among rookies — and 82 catches (second).
29. New York Giants
Early in the year, Daniel Jones was playing well and the Giants had some reasons for optimism. Injuries soon set in, and everything unraveled. Mike Glennon’s Week 17 performance was one of the single-worst offensive displays in decades, earning the lowest single-game quarterback grade (21.4) PFF has ever given. Offensive coordinator Jason Garrett was fired in-season and general manager Dave Gettleman is reportedly on the way out, so the Giants are rebuilding.
30. Houston Texans
The Texans had arguably the lowest expectations of any team in the NFL entering the year, and they have performed well relative to those. The team has four wins, including two against possible playoff teams. Rookie quarterback Davis Mills has flashed potential in a way some of the other first-year players at the position haven’t, but the team still has a long way to go to bridge the talent gap with the rest of the league.
31. New York Jets
Very little went according to plan for Robert Saleh in his first season in charge of the Jets. The biggest positive is that rookie quarterback Zach Wilson finally started to show signs of improvement in the past few weeks, making some of the big plays he was known for in college and, perhaps more importantly, speeding up his average time to throw and efficiency within the structure of the offense. Wilson’s average time to throw this season is 3.00 seconds, but that was down to just 2.65 seconds against Tampa Bay in Week 17.
The head coach hired to turn around a failing franchise was fired midseason after a flurry of disasters left ownership with no option. The generational talent the team selected at quarterback, Trevor Lawrence, has earned just the fifth-ranked PFF grade just among rookie passers this season and has just one PFF game grade above 70.0 since Week 6. Jacksonville lacks proven talent and answers at the most important positions.