The NFL season is approaching its halfway point, and the sample size we need to truly evaluate teams is large enough to where we can draw early conclusions about who is real and who is not.
This year, the league is not wide-open. Instead, a bunch of good teams crowd the top. Legitimate cases can be made for seven teams to win the Super Bowl. Below is the argument for each.
- Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs are mostly here out of respect. It would be cute and perhaps professional to give this spot to Seattle – whom the narrative has followed all year thanks to Russell Wilson’s undisputed MVP candidacy. But it would also be unwise to not give Patrick Mahomes and Kansas City their due. Mahomes is the most talented quarterback this game has seen, and the Chiefs are the reigning Super Bowl champions. They’re still ranked first in Football Outsiders’ offensive DVOA, despite seeming not nearly as dominant this season. They’re taking care of bad teams and winning against good ones. Their defense is still costing them at times, as evident in their 40-32 loss against the Raiders in Week 5. The Chiefs may not feel like they deserve to be here, but they do. Plus, Le’Veon Bell is still coming, which could make the best offense in football even better. Seattle’s reinvention is scary, but their defensive issues could plague them. Kansas City’s aren’t much better, but we’ve at least seen them be overcome in the past.
2. Seattle Seahawks
Seattle might be the easiest Super Bowl shoe-in out of any team on this list right now because of the odd Kansas City resistance. They’re most of the NFL media’s darling thanks to Wilson’s MVP-caliber season and the emergence of wide receiver D.K. Metcalf. Defense be damned, Seattle is dotting up secondaries by actually treating Wilson like the quarterback he is. Their lack of aggression over the years was justifiable until the arrival and ascension of Metcalf, who finally gave Wilson someone else to throw to aside from Tyler Lockett. The duo has made Wilson an unstoppable force, as the Seahawks have shied away from their run-heavy tendencies to completely unlock their quarterback and offense.
Their defense is concerning though. The newly-acquired Carlos Dunlap will look to help the Seahawks fill the void at pass-rusher, though one non-superstar’s impact could be limited. Their ranking of 28th in defensive DVOA is the reason they fall behind Kansas City in this power poll – the closest team on the DVOA list that is as good as the Seahawks are is the Packers, who rank 22nd. The teams that fall in between: Carolina, Cleveland, New England, Cincinnati and Atlanta – none of whom can seriously be called contenders right now. Seattle is getting by, but it’s reasonable to wonder how sustainable that is, whether the offense keeps up its torment or not.
3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Giving Tom Brady the best defense in the league by DVOA standards was a great idea for the Buccaneers and a bad idea for everyone else.
The reason Tampa Bay finds itself third behind Seattle and Kansas City lies in their sudden stutters in offensive production. A good New Orleans defense shut them down in Week 1, and the Bears rejuvenated group did so in Week 5. Those are both top 10 groups, but for an offense that probably should be the best in football given its overall talent, those games are a little concerning. Seattle and Kansas City haven’t had teams shut them truly down yet through Week 7.
Still, the Bucs have to be taken seriously. It’s extremely hard to bet against Brady for any reason, let alone when his roster (and most importantly, his weapons) are loaded. Antonio Brown should only add to it, unless he doesn’t for non-football reasons. Doubting Brady last year was reasonable – his ability to overcome a bad situation dissipated. But Tampa Bay has put him in the best possible situation in 2020, and it could wind up with Brady playing for an unprecedented seventh ring.
4. Green Bay Packers
Aaron Rodgers and Brady were similar last season. People claimed they were washed or weren’t as good as previously thought. Neither had a good supporting cast of receivers. Even though record indicated otherwise, they and their team’s performance was underwhelming.
Both have overcome it. For different reasons, Rodgers and Brady have put last season’s narrative to bed, and while Brady’s bunch is ranked ahead of Rodgers’, the Packers quarterback’s season might be more impressive.
That’s because there’s no real reason for Rodgers’ supposed improvement this year. It’s practically the same Green Bay team aside from it being Matt LeFluer and his offense’s second year, which allows everyone to be more comfortable in it. Aside from that, the Packers are running out the same weapons we complained about last year. Green Bay’s rookies in the backfield haven’t been game-changers. The defense still isn’t great, ranking 22nd in defensive DVOA thus far after finishing 15th last season.
There’s only two real answers: Rodgers and the rest of the receiving core becoming more comfortable in LeFluer’s system (Most notably Robert Tonyan, who’s becoming the latest Green Bay tight end to be a favorite target of Rodgers) or the drafting of Jordan Love lighting a fire under Rodgers’ rear. Both explanations are quite cliche and boring, but the shift of Rodgers looking washed to becoming a MVP candidate again lies in within one of them.
5. Baltimore Ravens
Is Baltimore being treated on this list how Kansas City is amongst most? Possibly. The Ravens, like the Chiefs, aren’t much different this year compared to last. It’s just because their newness and shock value has wore off. We know what to expect with Baltimore now.
And yet, we’re still sometimes let down.
The big game lack of success is real with the Ravens. It starts with Jackson’s rookie season and the playoff game against the Chargers – where Baltimore managed just seven points and couldn’t top San Diego’s 10. Jackson was reduced to a shell of himself and wasn’t able to affect the game in ways he typically does. The same issue occurred in last year’s playoffs against Tennessee, where the offense failed to kick into gear despite torching teams all season. And just this year, Kansas City asserted their dominance in Week 3 on Monday Night Football in a game where Jackson didn’t stand a chance matching the Chiefs’ offensive firepower.
Sunday stands as a big test for the Ravens. They face the 6-0 Steelers, who are forthcoming on this list. It’s almost a make or break game for the purposes of this list for each team. If Baltimore falls to the two toughest opponents on their schedule (KC and Pittsburgh), how can we take them seriously as contenders?
6. Tennessee Titans
Arguably the most unexpected team on this list, the Titans recently had a two-game stretch where they looked like serious Super Bowl contenders. They obliterated the Bills on that weird Tuesday night game in Week 5 and won in OT against the Texans – who had their best performance of the year – in back-to-back weeks before Pittsburgh’s defense shut them down in Week 7.
It’s possible we’re overrating Tennessee due to the shock value they’ve provided us since Ryan Tannehill took over at quarterback. Never before has Tannehill played as well as he has since being traded to the Titans, and the former Dolphins QB being anything better than average still feels a little off. There’s a case it shouldn’t be – the Titans have given Tannehill better weapons (and better coaching, too) than he ever had in Miami. Maybe this is just what QBs of Tannehill’s caliber need to succeed. An awesome running back (Derrick Henry) and at least two awesome pass-catchers (AJ Brown and Jonnu Smith) certainly helps.
Even after last week’s contest, Tennessee gets the nod over Pittsburgh because of a slightly harder schedule (in terms of opponents and because of COVID-19’s effect) and a more dynamic offense. The Steelers defense is the second-best in football per DVOA and that’s no statistical fluke. But Tennessee subsequently ranks third in offensive DVOA, and riding with an offense that is getting above-average QB play rather than just average is a bet worth making – even if it is Tannehill at the helm.
7. Pittsburgh Steelers
Pittsburgh’s deficiencies were covered above, but they absolutely need to be included in the short list of contenders thanks to a ferocious defense that was consistently let down by the other side of the ball last year.
Now, that’s not the case anymore, even though the Steelers rank 17th in offensive DVOA. But for Pittsburgh’s chances overall, the offense still remains a viable question mark.
Despite the emergence of rookie Chase Claypool as the latest dominant Steeler wide-out, Ben Roethlisberger is averaging just 6.8 yards per pass attempt this year, ranking 26th out of 32 eligible quarterbacks per ESPN.com. That’s not exactly ideal, considering that Claypool is just one of three legitimate receivers Roethlisberger has to throw to, with JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Washington also on the roster. He’s got everything he needs to make up for any age regression, and it still doesn’t seem to be enough.
That said, the Steelers are 6-0 and shouldn’t be taken lightly. The defense has proved it’s good enough to not just get the team to the average mark but well past it. Defenses like that don’t come around often, and that exact formula has worked many times before.