Each week of the NFL season, The Baltimore Sun will rank all 32 NFL teams. The rankings will take into account not just weekly performance, but how well each team measures up as Super Bowl contenders, regardless of win-loss record.
Here are the rankings after Week 4:
Super Bowl favorites
1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-1; No. 1 last week)
2. Kansas City Chiefs (2-2; No. 2)
3. Buffalo Bills (3-1; No. 4)
The defending conference champions took care of business this week, with Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady winning his return to New England, 19-17, and Patrick Mahomes guiding the Chiefs to a 42-30 win over the Eagles. Neither victory was convincing, with Tampa Bay struggling to find any offensive rhythm against a well-prepared Patriots defense and Kansas City allowing Jalen Hurts to throw for a career-high 387 yards.
It’s not time to panic yet, but the Chiefs’ defensive struggles might cost them the AFC West and a first-round bye, which makes Kansas City more vulnerable than ever with Mahomes under center. It’s time to worry about the Bucs defense, too, with a potentially severe injury to cornerback Carlton Davis depleting an already thin secondary. Newly signed veteran Richard Sherman was picked on Sunday night by Patriots rookie Mac Jones, and Pro Bowl safety Antoine Winfield Jr. left the game with a concussion. If Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo can’t work his late-season magic and the Bucs are without their top defensive backs Davis, Winfield and Jamel Dean for a significant amount of time, their place at the top of the rankings is in jeopardy.
Meanwhile, Buffalo dominated the Texans, 40-0, on Sunday to become just the third team since 1972 with two shutouts through four games. The other two teams, the 2000 Ravens and 1991 Washington, both went on to win the Super Bowl. A meeting with the Chiefs on Sunday night will tell us plenty about where those teams stand in the league’s hierarchy.
4. Arizona Cardinals (4-0; No. 12)
5. Baltimore Ravens (3-1; No. 6)
6. Cleveland Browns (3-1; No. 5)
7. Los Angeles Chargers (3-1; No. 9)
8. Los Angeles Rams (3-1; No. 3)
9. Green Bay Packers (3-1; No. 7)
10. Dallas Cowboys (3-1; No. 15)
Kyler Murray and the Cardinals remain the story of the season, rolling to a 37-20 victory over the Rams one week after Los Angeles took down Brady and the Bucs. Arizona is 4-0 for the first time since 2012 and has the inside track to win the NFC West for the first time since 2015. There’s still reason to doubt third-year coach Kliff Kingsbury, and the Cardinals face the toughest remaining schedule in the league, according to Football Outsiders. But as long as Murray is healthy, this team is a legitimate NFC contender.
The AFC pecking order is a bit more muddled. The Ravens made a big statement Sunday with a dominant 23-7 road win over the previously undefeated Broncos, with the defense rebounding from a shaky start to deliver a punishing performance. Lamar Jackson continues to show improvement as a deep passer, throwing for 300 yards for just the second time in his career. Were it not for a few costly drops last week by Marquise “Hollywood” Brown — who redeemed himself with 91 yards and a diving touchdown catch Sunday — Jackson’s stellar downfield passing numbers would be even better. Receivers Miles Boykin and Rashod Bateman could return for Monday night’s game against the Colts, too, which could drastically improve the passing game. This team could be a buzz saw if everything comes together.
The Browns and Chargers will have plenty to say about that. The Ravens don’t face Cleveland until after Thanksgiving, but Los Angeles will visit Baltimore in two weeks. That game could be a playoff preview, with Justin Herbert continuing his ascent into becoming a top-five quarterback. Baker Mayfield looks a year or two away from joining that conversation, with a couple of missed connections with Odell Beckham Jr. in the Browns’ 14-7 win over the Vikings raising more uncomfortable questions about the lack of chemistry between the quarterback and star receiver. The Cleveland defense, however, looks championship caliber behind Defensive Player of the Year front-runner Myles Garrett.
Keep an eye on Dallas, too. Dak Prescott is not showing any signs of rust after missing nearly the entire 2020 season with an ankle injury, throwing four touchdown passes against perhaps the league’s best defense in a 36-28 win over the Panthers. If he continues to play at an MVP level, and the Cowboys’ defensive improvement under new coordinator Dan Quinn is real, Dallas is more than capable of competing for the NFC title.
On the cusp of contention
11. Seattle Seahawks (2-2; No. 16)
12. Las Vegas Raiders (3-1; No. 9)
13. San Francisco 49ers (2-2; No. 13)
14. Carolina Panthers (3-1; No. 14)
Seattle remains a confounding team, but that’s been the story for coach Pete Carroll and quarterback Russell Wilson throughout their partnership. When Wilson is rolling, the Seahawks can hang with anyone. The problem is the defense, which entered Week 4 ranked 24th in efficiency, according to Football Outsiders, and probably won’t improve after allowing two touchdown passes by 49ers rookie Trey Lance in a 28-21 win.
Speaking of Lance, the 49ers are going to find out what they have in their No. 3 overall pick sooner or later, even if Jimmy Garoppolo isn’t expected to miss much time with a calf injury. If Lance can deliver on his promise as a passer while also taking coach Kyle Shanahan’s rushing attack to the next level, this team goes from fringe contender to one of the scariest in the entire league. That’s reason enough to bench Garoppolo at some point this season.
The Raiders won’t be making a quarterback change anytime soon, but coach Jon Gruden might want to after Monday night’s debacle, with Derek Carr averaging just 5.8 yards per attempt while getting sacked four times in a 28-14 loss to the Chargers. Carr looked like an MVP candidate through the first three weeks, but he might not be good enough to overcome a bad offensive line. That’s bad news for a team that’s looking to end a five-year playoff drought.
In a pivotal spot
15. New Orleans Saints (2-2; No. 10)
16. Denver Broncos (3-1; No. 11)
17. Cincinnati Bengals (3-1; No. 20)
18. New England Patriots (1-3; No. 19)
19. Tennessee Titans (2-2, No. 17)
20. Minnesota Vikings (1-3; No. 18)
21. Washington Football Team (2-2; No. 22)
22. Indianapolis Colts (1-3; No. 25)
23. Pittsburgh Steelers (1-3; No. 21)
The good: The Bengals are 3-1 and might have a top-15 quarterback in Joe Burrow. Mac Jones completed 19 straight passes against the Bucs, the longest streak by a rookie quarterback in the past 30 years, and the Patriots defense continued to impress. Taylor Heinicke might have what it takes to keep Washington’s season afloat while the defense figures it out.
The bad: The Titans might be without wide receiver A.J. Brown for a while and have major issues on offense under new coordinator Todd Downing. The Vikings can’t find a way to close out wins and are stuck in the middle with Kirk Cousins. The Colts placed All-Pro guard Quenton Nelson on injured reserve and quarterback Carson Wentz is dealing with a pair of ankle injuries.
The ugly: The Saints blew a 21-10 fourth-quarter lead and lost in overtime to the winless Giants. The Broncos lost quarterback Teddy Bridgewater to a concussion and only scored one touchdown against the Ravens. Ben Roethlisberger is costing the Steelers a chance to win each and every week.
It wouldn’t be shocking if a few of these teams found their way into the postseason, especially with the Titans and Colts battling for the top spot in what’s turning out to be a dreadful AFC South. There’s at least some hope for the Saints, Bengals, Broncos and Washington, who find themselves .500 or better four weeks into the season. The Patriots might be 1-3, but coach Bill Belichick has to be feeling good about his chances given his team’s performance Sunday night against the defending champs. Even the Vikings and Steelers have decisive victories over two playoff-caliber teams in the Seahawks and Bills, respectively.
The next few weeks will determine the trajectory of the season for these teams, who are at once candidates to rise to the cusp of contention or drop to the very bottom of the standings.
Not dead yet
24. Chicago Bears (2-2; No. 28)
25. Philadelphia Eagles (1-3; No. 24)
26. New York Giants (1-3; No. 29)
27. Miami Dolphins (1-3; No. 23)
Rookie quarterback Justin Fields and the Bears bounced back from one of the worst offensive performances in recent memory with a promising 24-14 win over the Lions, and the Giants finally got their first victory with a dramatic comeback over the Saints in overtime. New York has a long list of things to worry about — including Joe Judge’s aversion to going for it on fourth down in high-leverage moments — but Daniel Jones isn’t one of them. He’s been solid, and if the Giants end the season knowing he’s their quarterback franchise, that’s a success.
The same thinking applies for the Eagles and Dolphins, who have a pair of former Alabama stars leading their offenses. Quarterback Tua Tagovailoa’s injury might have sunk Miami’s season, with the Dolphins losing three straight after a season-opening win over the Patriots. Jalen Hurts has delivered some eye-popping stats in his first year as the full-time starter, but it hasn’t been enough to overcome a mediocre Eagles defense. It remains to be seen if either quarterback is the long-term answer, and that’s troubling.
Miami’s struggles are particularly disappointing, with the Dolphins expected to be competitive under coach Brian Flores this year after some big upgrades through the draft and free agency. If they find out they missed on Tagovailoa, the front office might not have the stomach to start another rebuild.
28. Atlanta Falcons (1-3; No. 26)
29. Detroit Lions (0-4; No. 27)
30. New York Jets (1-3; No. 31)
31. Houston Texans (1-3; No. 30)
32. Jacksonville Jaguars (0-4; No. 32)
After piling up the interceptions in the first three weeks of the season, rookie quarterbacks Trevor Lawerence and Zach Wilson showed why they were picked 1-2 in the draft. Lawrence was on the losing end Thursday night, but he was effective in leading Jacksonville to a 14-0 halftime lead over the Bengals. Wilson was even better, throwing for 297 yards and two touchdowns in a 27-24 overtime win over the Titans. Their progress is the only way to measure success for the Jaguars and Jets this season, and this week was a step in the right direction.
The same can’t be said of the Falcons, who are headed for another losing season with veteran Matt Ryan at quarterback. The defense is once again dreadful, surrendering two touchdowns in the final four minutes of Sunday’s 34-30 loss to Washington. Sorry, Londoners. Enjoy watching the Falcons and Jets this week.