With three weeks of another NFL calendar completed, speculation season has unofficially begun. It’s early enough to make some broad pronouncements, the kind that should be written in pencil—Rams: really good; Chiefs: really shaky (and still really good); Packers: not dead, as predicted; Bucs: better on offense than when they won the title last year; Broncos: the early 2021 season’s biggest surprise; Seahawks: teetering on the edge of a rebuild; Steelers: end of an era?
Still, it’s premature to do anything other than look ahead and see how the next few months play out. Injuries will play a significant role in how the postseason takes shape; they always do. Teams with easier schedules will eventually meet tougher opposition. The Chiefs defense will play better (we think). It’s all speculation at this point, anyway.
Case in point: look closer at the five NFL teams that remain undefeated after three weeks. Anyone claiming they put together this exact list together before the season started is either incredibly high, incredibly lucky or not telling the truth. The unbeaten list on Tuesday morning reads: Rams, Cardinals and Panthers in the NFC … Raiders and Broncos in the AFC.
Nevertheless, history says the majority of the the remaining undefeated teams will make the playoffs. In fact, from 1990 through last season, of the 155 teams that began a season 3-0, a full 116 of them advanced to the postseason. Only two of those same 155 teams truly fell on their facemasks; both won twice the rest of the way. But as you’ll see in my first crack at the MMQB’s Power Rankings, 3-0 does not equate—for me, at least—to Super Bowl bound. In fact, other than the Rams, I believe the undefeated teams in the NFL have as much, or more, to prove than many of the defeated ones. It’s a long season, folks. But this is where we are after Week 3.
1: Los Angeles Rams (3-0)
Last week: Win vs. Tampa Bay, 34–24
Next week: vs. Arizona
First, a confession: I liked the Rams a lot heading into the season. I liked the addition of Matthew Stafford. I liked the health of Cooper Kupp. I liked the daring of general manager Les Snead, who went out and added elite corner Jalen Ramsey in 2019, allowing whoever coordinated the defense to pair Ramsey with Aaron Donald—putting two top-five, defensive talents in the entire league on the same unit. It’s working. These Rams are better than “like” worthy. They look deep. They look scary—on both offense and defense. I’m starting to agree with my colleague Jenny Vrentas, who tabbed the Rams to win the Super Bowl. After their decimating of Tom Brady and the Bucs, the choice to put L.A. first here is an easy one, maybe the easiest one of all 32 rankings. Big game next week, though.
2: Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-1)
Last week: Loss at Los Angeles Rams, 34–24
Next week: at New England
One game does not a season make. Just ask the 2020 Bucs, a team that started 3-1, stumbled to 7-5 and never lost again after Nov. 29. That streak came to an end last Sunday against the formidable Rams, as did Tampa Bay’s offensive streak of nine straight games of 30-plus points. Still, it’s the Bucs defense that needs to improve as the season rolls along in order for Brady to clinch another title repeat. The offense had carried Tampa—at least until its slow start against L.A.
3: Buffalo Bills (2-1)
Last week: Win vs. Washington, 43–21
Next week: vs. Houston
I considered placing the Bills lower in these rankings. I waffled a bunch on the fourth slot, and the fifth one, and even took a look at Buffalo at six. Here’s the thing, though: while the Bills start to the 2021 season hasn’t been without uneven stretches, they’re so loaded with talent, they can boast of such a complete and deep roster, that I believe they will end any lingering doubt—and quite soon. Yes, the offense was shaky in Week 1 against the Steelers. But look at what has happened for Josh Allen and company since: 35 points in Week 2 against the Dolphins (in a shutout); and another explosion this past Sunday against the football team that’s still waiting on a nickname in DC. Allen was typically spectacular against the WFT: 358 yards, four touchdowns, no sacks. I cannot recall another player in NFL history who moves quite like him; he’s part lumberjack, part cheetah, and that’s what makes him and Buffalo so difficult to defend. Add to that wideout Emmanuel Sanders (two touchdowns on Sunday) and an improved defense, and I like the Bills’ chances of playing deep into January. I also believe they will assert their full dominance soon.
4: Cleveland Browns (2-1)
Last week: Win vs. Chicago, 26–6
Next week: at Minnesota
The Browns played a mesmerizing football game last Sunday. They made the Bears look like pretenders and rendered talented rookie quarterback Justin Fields lost. As I watched the total decimation unfold, I wondered: do the Browns have the best, deepest, most complete roster in pro football? I’m not sure. Folks in L.A. (Rams), Tampa, Buffalo and other places would surely disagree. But Cleveland is deep, talented and getting healthier, as evidenced by its latest victory. Myles Garrett managed to pick up an incredible 4.5 sacks for the Browns, dropping Fields so often that Garrett must now be considered the frontrunner for NFL defensive player of the year. Cleveland notched nine sacks—nine!—as a team. But they also shut down the Bears passing game. And watched star wideout Odell Beckham Jr. return from last year’s ACL injury and catch five passes for 77 yards. And saw Kareem Hunt continue to work his way into more touches. I could argue that the Browns have the most elite pass rusher in the NFL, one of the league’s top quarterbacks, its best running game and plenty of skill in important places (offensive tackle, wide receiver, cornerback, safety). Now, I’m starting to wonder if the Browns shouldn’t be third on this list, or second.
5: Green Bay Packers (2-1)
Last week: Win at San Francisco, 30–28
Next week: vs. Pittsburgh
This idea that all the off-season frustration bomb lobbed toward Green Bay from Aaron Rodgers would somehow sink a Packers season—one where Rodgers, Davante Adams, Aaron Jones and so many other stars remained on the roster Rodgers seems to consistently find lacking—was never quite right. Rodgers was the NFL’s MVP last season. And, while it’s true he is older, 37 is relatively fountain-of-youth-y for an NFL quarterback these days. It was only a matter of time before Green Bay got rolling. And, if this is Rodgers’s last season in Wisconsin, as many expect, he should have yet another chance to win that elusive second title for his Cheeseheads. Also: don’t forget about that defense. Za’Darius Smith is still out, but Preston Smith, Kenny Clark and Rashan Gary registered a major collective impact in Sunday’s last-second victory over a very good team in San Francisco.
6: Baltimore Ravens (2-1)
Last week: Win at Detroit, 19–17
Next week: at Denver
This one is simpler for me than most: the Ravens have Lamar Jackson, one of the more uniquely talented players in NFL history. They’re stacked on defense. They’re getting healthier, after a rash of preseason and early-season injuries. And their kicker, one Justin Tucker, the Tom Brady of kickers, just cemented his future Hall of Fame bid with a 66-yard field-goal against the Lions, which set the mark for the longest triple in NFL history. It’s fair to question whether the Ravens are, outside of Jackson’s rare combination of gifts, dynamic enough on offense to win the Super Bowl. But getting first-round draft pick Rashod Bateman back soon should help with that. For now, I see Baltimore as a team both tied to its amazing quarterback and on the rise, bumpy win last Sunday notwithstanding. Worth noting: the Ravens would be undefeated, if not for a fluky loss to Las Vegas in OT. (And yet, that win over the Chiefs was pretty similar to the loss to the Raiders.) (But then it showcased Jackson’s brilliance.) (I will now stop arguing with myself.)
7: San Francisco 49ers (2-1)
Last week: Loss vs. Green Bay, 30–28
Next week: vs. Seattle
Ugly start to the season so far from San Francisco. But that’s not entirely unexpected, either. The 49ers endured a million injuries last season. Some of those players are gone; others, nursing their way back to full health. I thought Jimmy Garoppolo played far better in that loss to Green Bay that many of his critics did; he had a touchdown pass dropped in the first half, for instance, and kept the Niners ahead throughout, while battling never-ending pressure (Next Gen stats had him being pressured on 34.1 percent of his dropbacks, or almost double his combined percentage from the first two weeks. Still, for the team I chose to win the Super Bowl to remain in the playoff race, SF must navigate pro football’s most dangerous division, where all four teams could make the playoffs—and all four can hold varying degrees of realistic title aspirations. Which makes me wonder, same as it makes so many across football wonder: will Kyle Shanahan have to turn to Trey Lance in, at least, a more expansive role in the weeks ahead?
8: Kansas City Chiefs (1-2)
Last week: Loss vs. Los Angeles Chargers, 30–24
Next week: at Philadelphia
Imagine there will be some quibbling with this one. But my choice here speaks to the overall point I’m trying to make: that seasons are about way more than one game, or even three. Yes, the Chiefs defense looks shaky. Yes, teams that have lost the Super Bowl in recent years tend to have poor seasons the year after. But come on! The Chiefs lost a close game to Jackson and the Ravens. They lost another close game to the surging Chargers. In both games, they had more than a good chance to win late. I buy coordinator Steve Spagnuolo and believe he will improve that defense over the course of the season, same as he has in the Chiefs last two playoff runs. If he doesn’t, Kansas City’s floundering dynasty might be in trouble. If he does, well, two words complete the rest of the necessary answer: Patrick Mahomes. That’s why the Chiefs are eighth with two losses, ahead of all the undefeated teams but one.
9: Arizona Cardinals (3-0)
Last week: Win at Jacksonville, 31–19
Next week: at Los Angeles Rams
So far, the Cardinals are the most thrilling team in football. Key phrase: so far. That starts with Murray’s sublime season that continued against Jacksonville—316 passing yards, plus a rushing TD—but it’s more than that. Arizona is young, its roster is talented and the franchise appears—again, it’s early—to be ahead of schedule. The true strength of the Cardinals team will start to be revealed in the next two weeks, when they play the Rams and 49ers. Win both, and they’ll ascend much higher in the rankings. With Chandler Jones, J.J. Watt and company terrorizing opposing offenses, Arizona continuing its momentum is not that big of a stretch.
10: Las Vegas Raiders (3-0)
Last week: Win vs. Miami, 31–28 (OT)
Next week: at Los Angeles Chargers
Two years ago, when Vrentas and I wrote about the Raiders, there was much internal debate in our newsroom over how talented their roster was. We believed that the Raiders were better than our editors did, if not exactly primed, and the progress they have made in the two-plus seasons since tracks with our assessment of the franchise at that time and the maneuvering that has been done since. Already in 2021, Las Vegas has beaten two playoff teams from last year—in the span of six days, no less—won two games in OT and witnessed Derek Carr throw his way into early MVP consideration.
All of that despite what appeared to be a brutal slate when the schedule came out: Ravens, Steelers, Dolphins. In fact, Las Vegas became the first team in NFL history to beat three teams that had won at least 10 games the previous season. Next up: Chargers, then, a slightly less intimidating gauntlet featuring the Bears, Broncos and Eagles. If Carr can maintain his NFL-leading-passing-yards pace (1,203 yards so far), the Raiders could be—could be—7-0, 6-1 or 5-2 heading into their Week 8 bye. And yet, of three other teams in NFL history that won multiple overtime contests in the first three games of an NFL season, all three made the playoffs, which the Raiders have only done once since 2003. But none won an actual playoff game.
11: Los Angeles Chargers (3-1)
Last week: Win at Kansas City, 30–24
Next week: vs. Las Vegas
I could easily have made the case for the Chargers at 6, 7, 8, 9, or 10. Hebert would be the centerpiece of any such rationale. He reminds me so much of Mahomes: great arm, creative flair, some doubts lingering coming out of college, fiery start to a budding NFL career. But Herbert is also part of the reason I have the LAC just a touch lower than most do. He’s still a young quarterback, and he still plays on a developing team. Plus, there’s the schedule: Raiders, Browns, Ravens (away) and Patriots upcoming. I still believe the Chiefs will win the AFC West. But I also believe the Chargers will challenge them, starting this season, and that Hebert will be a major reason why. I’ll also look forward to years of Mahomes-Hebert shoot-outs, in much the same way I looked forward to Tom Brady’s decades of tough games with division rivals. Oh, wait … whoops …
12: Denver Broncos (3-0)
Last week: Win at New York Jets, 26–0
Next week: vs. Baltimore
The most surprising team that shouldn’t have been all that surprising in pro football is the unbeaten Broncos. Some writers tabbed them as a playoff team—raises hand—before the season started. But few imagined this. Suddenly, the Chiefs have quite a bit of company—and, in part, from a Denver team whose coach, Fangio, spent much of the preseason sitting in an office chair that most pundits described as underneath a roaring fire pit. It’s true that Denver’s three opponents so far this season—NY Giants, Jacksonville, NY Jets—have yet to snag a single win between them. But the Broncos haven’t just squeaked by those teams; they’ve soundly beaten them, including last week’s dominant shutout. That’s because of Bridgewater’s calming influence and underrated right arm. That’s because Von Miller looks to have returned to the pass-rushing perch he held a few years ago, as one of the league’s most dominant sack artists. The Broncos are well-built, and despite a tough upcoming slate—Baltimore, at Pittsburgh, Las Vegas, at Cleveland—should challenge for a playoff slot this season.
13: Dallas Cowboys (2-1)
Last week: Win vs. Philadelphia, 41–21
Next week: vs. Carolina
Don’t believe I’m out on a major limb here. But I saw Dak Prescott play in Tampa, and I watched him again against the Eagles on this Monday night. He looks, to me, like he’s fully recovered from the broken ankle he suffered last season, along with everything else we covered in our NFL Preview cover story. The Cowboys offense is as scary as I expected it to be, even as we’re seeing Tony Pollard take Ezekiel Elliott’s job in real time. And yet, the Cowboys D still would concern me if I were a member of their fanbase. Dan Quinn has made improvements. He will continue to. But the question with Dallas remains: is this a Super Bowl offense? Or a Super Bowl team? I’d lean toward the former, for now.
Watch NFL games online all season long with fuboTV: Start with a 7-day free trial!
14: Carolina Panthers (3-0)
Last week: Win at Houston, 24–9
Next week: at Dallas
The NFL team that most confounds me is Carolina, hence its drop to 14, despite the undefeated record. My puzzlement stems from a few factors. Like Sam Darnold, the quarterback the Panthers signed this off-season who had struggled in New York. Some of his less-than-ideal career start stemmed from the pressure of playing there specifically, under the brightest and most critical lights in sports. Mostly, though, I believe it was due to the lack of talent around him. I wrote about Darnold this past summer, in a story about Olympic surfer Kolohe Andino. One part—that two elite athletes became friends by bonding over impossibly high expectations, early failures and how they overcame them—resonated more with me early into this season. Beyond Darnold, Carolina is deeper than the Jets and more talented than the Jets. So it’s not surprising that Darnold’s new team appears vastly superior to his old one. Next week’s game against the Cowboys should help sort all this out.
15: Tennessee Titans (2-1)
Last week: Win vs. Indianapolis, 25–16
Next week: at New York Jets
Consider me among the legions who don’t understand which version of the Titans they’re seeing week-to-week. On one hand, I was among those that considered Tennessee a favorite in the AFC. They were an easy team to like. They have been in the playoffs the past few seasons; plus, they’re super talented, particularly on offense, and they add Julio freaking Jones. They have a top young (relative) coach in Mike Vrabel, who understands elite NFL defensive play. But then Arizona mollywhopped Tennessee in Week 1, while the Seahawks bludgeoned the Titans for the first half of their Week 2 meeting. I’m not sure what Vrabel told his team at halftime in Seattle, but I’m curious, because ever since, the Titans have more resembled the force they were expected to be. So, the question lingers: are they the mishap-laden team from the first three halves of the season? Or the dominant, confident one from the second three halves? Regardless, upcoming games against the NY Jets and Jacksonville should help build out the record. But we won’t know about the Titans for a while now.
16: Minnesota Vikings (1-2)
Last week: Win vs. Seattle, 30–17
Next week: vs. Cleveland
Here’s what I like about the Vikings: Kirk Cousins’ hot starts (we won’t argue, for today, about his vaccine stance), Minnesota’s offensive weaponry (Dalvin Cook, Justin Jefferson, Adam Thielen, etc.), and the amount of young talent on the roster. The victory over the Seahawks—a team that traditionally haunts the Vikings—was impressive. Their losses (to the Bengals and Cardinals) were both close. I could see the Vikings on the playoff fringe, and I believe health—for Cousins, Cook, Thielen and so many others—will be the driving factor.
17: Seattle Seahawks (1-2)
Last week: Loss at Minnesota, 30–17
Next week: at San Francisco
Look, there’s plenty of time for Seattle to right its teetering season. But there is plenty to be concerned with, too. For one, the Seahawks defense appears capable of putting together solid stretches but not much beyond that. Seattle’s roster contains some of the league’s best players—quarterback Russell Wilson, receiver D.K. Metcalf, linebacker Bobby Wagner—but while GM John Schneider and coach Pete Carroll should be commended, celebrated and made into statues for the run they’ve put together in Seattle, it’s hard to look at a position group in Seattle beyond quarterback and receiver and not see holes. Then there’s the strength of the aging Seahawks relative to their ridiculously strong division. I just don’t see it working out this season. But as the 12s—and Wilson himself—like to remind me, I’ve been wrong before. The key: new offensive coordinator Shane Waldron must keep his unit humming. Otherwise, the best-case scenario is close games every week with a shaky roster built out around the quarterback.
18: New Orleans Saints (2-1)
Last week: Win vs. New England, 28–13
Next week: at New York Giants
New Orleans is another team that could be higher. I believe that Jameis Winston will improve, particularly with his accuracy, under Sean Payton. I could see the Saints in the playoff mix. But I just don’t see enough overall firepower there.
19: Cincinnati Bengals (2-1)
Last week: Win at Pittsburgh, 24–10
Next week: vs. Jacksonville (Thursday)
If Cincy continues its rise, expect a swift jump up our rankings. I’m not buying it—yet. I buy Joe Burrow as a potential Pro Bowl quarterback. Joe Mixon appears to be fully healthy. And most NFL teams would be envious of the Bengals receivers, especially rookie wideout Ja’Marr Chase, whose preseason drop issues seem like they’re from another lifetime. But for all the compliment bouquets tossed at Cincy’s “improved” defense, let’s see how it goes when the Bengals aren’t playing the Vikings, the Bears and the significantly worsened/aging Steelers. Verdict: jury is still out, but the Bengals appear primed for the postseason—in future years.
20: Philadelphia Eagles (1-2)
Last week: Loss at Dallas, 41–21
Next week: vs. Kansas City
Philadelphia belongs in the group of teams that, on the right day, with the right plan, can topple better opponents. I’d place the Eagles near—and have, here—the Bengals, Steelers and Patriots, a cut below the true playoff contenders, unless something changes dramatically, soon. Dallas exposed Philly’s defensive weaknesses on Monday night. I like Jalen Hurts. But not enough to overcome their myriad deficiencies. I don’t see them competing with Dallas in the NFC East, a division that was pretty much decided in a blowout on Monday night. Up next: Chiefs, Panthers, Bucs, Raiders—gulp!
21: Pittsburgh Steelers (1-2)
Last week: Loss vs. Cincinnati, 24–10
Next week: at Green Bay
Pittsburgh still has plenty of solid players; even a few great ones. But the Steelers’ nature is polarizing—both in how they’re viewed in the NFL, and in how they have started this 2021 season. For example: big win over Buffalo spearheaded by the defense, close loss to improved Las Vegas squad, head-scratching defeat to Cincinnati in which Pittsburgh was thoroughly outplayed. I could still see Big Ben making one final run. But I expect football season in Steel City to look a lot like it has so far.
22: New England Patriots (1-2)
Last week: Loss at New Orleans, 28–13
Next week: vs. Tampa Bay
It’s not that surprising that New England has scuttled its way through life in the NFL after Tom Brady. After all, Brady can go to a new team, with elite wideouts and a stout defense, and attempt to win again, having not only reloaded but landing in a better situation. The team he left, even with Bill Belichick, must reconfigure—and must reconfigure despite having built around Brady, using draft picks and capital and cap space, for years. There’s a lot to like about rookie quarterback Mac Jones. There’s not a lot to like about the Pats’ playoff chances.
23: Indianapolis Colts (0-3)
Last week: Loss at Tennessee, 25–16
Next week: at Miami
For my money, Indianapolis is the most surprisingly bad team in football. That’s partly due to the injuries suffered by new quarterback Carson Wentz. And partly due to a schedule that featured Seattle, the LA Rams and Tennessee. But Indy, a supposed playoff hopeful, has looked anything but. Even then, talent remains and the schedule eases, with Miami and Houston in two of the next three games. I’m not ready to punt on the Colts yet. But I’m close.
24: Washington Football Team (1-2)
Last week: Loss at Buffalo, 43–21
Next week: at Atlanta
This one is simple for me. A team tabbed by most to win its division cannot lose its starting quarterback (Ryan Fitzpatrick), start an unproven cult hero (Taylor Heinicke) and not get the expected production from its talented defense (points allowed: 20, 29, 43) and expect to make the playoffs. I see the No Nicknames as trending downward from here, even though I’d love to write a movie script about Heinicke one day.
25: Miami Dolphins (1-2)
Last week: Loss at Las Vegas, 31–28 (OT)
Next week: vs. Indianapolis
If teams are what their record says they are—a favorite Bill Parcells cliché—then the Dolphins are … confusing? Instead of “haters gonna hate,” maybe it’s, “haters gonna make some good points?” Miami topped New England, was blown by Buffalo and nearly upended Las Vegas in a close defeat. They have talented players, like cornerback Xavien Howard, who we wrote about in September and who sealed that win in the opener. But they have a quarterback problem that started before Tua Tagovailoa injured his ribs. Tagovailoa is both talented and tough, but so far, if we’re being honest, he hasn’t looked like an elite NFL QB.
26: Chicago Bears (1-2)
Last week: Loss at Cleveland, 26–6
Next week: vs. Detroit
The criticism of Coach Matt Nagy reached an even higher level—previously believed to be a statistical improbability—after the Bears’ latest loss. It wasn’t so much that Chicago lost to a clearly superior team. It was more that Nagy, a supposed offensive savant, gave his talented young quarterback, Justin Fields, an unimaginative game-plan that left little chance for the Bears to succeed. Unless the offense changes, becoming more creative, more open, the record won’t shift upward, either. The schedule also doesn’t help: after a Detroit reprieve, there’s Las Vegas, Green Bay, Tampa Bay and San Francisco looming.
27: Atlanta Falcons (1-2)
Last week: Win at New York Giants, 17–14
Next week: vs. Washington
There’s some talent left in Atlanta but not enough for the Falcons to compete for a playoff spot in however many more seasons quarterback Matt Ryan plays. Coach Arthur Smith just Macgyver-ed a win over the Giants, and the next four games look semi-winnable—WFT, NYJ, Dolphins, Panthers—but the Falcons look more poised for an overhaul than a playoff push.
28: Detroit Lions (0-3)
Last week: Loss vs. Baltimore, 19–17
Next week: at Chicago
I honestly feel bad for Lions fans. Even when something cool is happening in front of them—think Calvin Johnson, Matthew Stafford or, now, the world’s most excitable coach in Dan Campbell—they just seemed destined to struggle. This year appears no exception.
29: New York Giants (0-3)
Last week: Loss vs. Atlanta, 17–14
Next week: at New Orleans
I thought the G-Men could build off last season’s late success. I was wrong. So far, we have seen a star wideout yelling at somebody (it sure looked like quarterback Daniel Jones, but the yeller, prized wideout Kenny Golladay, said it was OC Jason Garrett); undisciplined play, all over; calls for Garrett’s firing; a step-back on defense after last season unit played above expectation; and much more. At least star running back Saquon Barkley appears to be rounding into full health. Too bad he can’t play tackle, center, or guard.
30: New York Jets (0-3)
Last week: Loss at Denver, 26–0
Next week: vs. Tennessee
It seems logical that football fans in the Big Apple might wish that a global pandemic still kept them out of stadiums. The Jets don’t just look bad. They look hopeless.
31: Houston Texans (1-2)
Last week: Loss at Carolina, 24–9
Next week: at Buffalo
Let’s just say that the football team in Houston should be thankful that it won its opener. Problems abound. If anything, the Texans have played above expectation so far this season. Most in football don’t expect that to continue.
32: Jacksonville Jaguars (0-3)
Last week: Loss vs. Arizona, 31–19
Next week: at Cincinnati (Thursday)
I still see Trevor Lawrence as a generational talent, a quarterback who should eventually duel with Mahomes, Allen, Jackson and Herbert for NFL supremacy. I just hope the Jags don’t ruin Lawrence before he gets that chance. He needs help, everywhere.
More NFL Coverage:
Sports Illustrated may receive compensation for some links to products and services on this website.