Few things are more fluid than early-season standings and rankings in the NFL, and that was especially the case when the league resembled a backup quarterback convention in Week 3.
In all, Jimmy Clausen (Chicago Bears), Brandon Weeden (Dallas Cowboys), Luke McCown (New Orleans Saints) and Michael Vick (Pittsburgh Steelers) played Sunday because of various injuries to the starters. It makes evaluating the parity-filled league all the more difficult without a large 2014 sample size to fall back on.
However, there are some clear patterns that emerged in the first three weeks of action. The New England Patriots and Green Bay Packers look like football-playing machines at 3-0, the Seattle Seahawks are much more formidable with Kam Chancellor in the secondary, the NFC East is a mess, the Cincinnati Bengals could be for real and Cam Newton can win with almost any receivers.
With that in mind, here is a look at the updated power rankings heading into Week 4, as well as some intriguing teams to watch in the coming games.
|NFL Power Rankings|
|1||New England Patriots||3-0|
|2||Green Bay Packers||3-0|
|11||New York Jets||2-1|
|15||Kansas City Chiefs||1-2|
|18||St. Louis Rams||1-2|
|20||San Diego Chargers||1-2|
|22||New York Giants||1-2|
|23||Tampa Bay Buccaneers||1-2|
|30||San Francisco 49ers||1-2|
|31||New Orleans Saints||0-3|
Intriguing Teams to Watch
No. 4 Arizona Cardinals
The Arizona Cardinals are off to a 3-0 start, but it is the way they won the last two games that truly stands out.
They handled the San Francisco 49ers to the tune of 47-7 in Week 3 and the Chicago Bears by the score of 48-23 in Week 2. Sure, the 49ers and Bears aren’t anything close to contenders, but outcomes like that rarely happen in the NFL.
More impressively, Arizona was without running back Andre Ellington the past two weeks. The rushing attack didn’t miss a beat, though, and Chris Johnson notched 110 rushing yards against San Francisco. The team also combined for 115 rushing yards against the Bears, with Johnson accounting for 72.
According to head coach Bruce Arians, per Bob McManaman of AZCentral.com, Ellington could be back from his knee injury for Arizona’s Week 4 game against the St. Louis Rams, which will make the Cardinals all the more formidable.
It’s not just the rushing attack making noise in these blowout wins. Carson Palmer tallied four touchdown passes against the Bears and 311 passing yards against the 49ers. Larry Fitzgerald is revitalized after an injury-plagued 2014 (for him and the team’s quarterbacks) with a combined 246 receiving yards and five touchdown catches the past two weeks.
The defense is setting the tone on the other end and was seventh in the league in total defense as of Monday.
While much of the preseason focus in the NFC West centered on the Seattle Seahawks’ quest to reach the Super Bowl for the third straight year, the Cardinals are in the early driver’s seat with a well-balanced attack on both sides of the ball. It is their division to lose at this point.
No. 5 Carolina Panthers
The Carolina Panthers are also 3-0, and the record is a testament to their ability to fight through injuries.
Kelvin Benjamin tore his ACL before the season started, and Jerricho Cotchery hurt his ankle against the Houston Texans in Week 2 and did not play in Sunday’s 27-22 win over the New Orleans Saints.
What’s more, superstar linebacker Luke Kuechly missed the Saints game with a concussion, and defensive end Charles Johnson hurt his hamstring during the contest.
None of that matters with Newton under center. He tallied 315 passing yards, 33 rushing yards and three total touchdowns during Sunday’s victory and carried the offense on his back throughout the game. ESPN’s Michael Wilbon admired the quarterback’s ability to persevere despite the injuries around him:
ESPN pointed out the former Auburn Tiger joined some fairly impressive company with his showing:
Newton is throwing to a group of receivers that features Ted Ginn Jr., Fozzy Whittaker and Corey Brown, although the presence of veteran tight end Greg Olsen has been critical. Olsen notched 134 receiving yards and two touchdown catches against the Saints and provides a reliable safety valve for Newton on plenty of important passing downs.
As for the defense, it was once again strong and ranks in the top 10 in the league in total yardage allowed (as of Monday) even though Kuechly missed the most recent win. Once he returns, the unit will likely be among the NFL’s best once again.
With the Panthers and Atlanta Falcons both sitting at 3-0, it will probably take a winning record to capture the NFC South crown this season.
No. 9 Pittsburgh Steelers
The Pittsburgh Steelers outlasted the St. Louis Rams Sunday to the tune of 12-6, but they lost quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to a sprained MCL in the process. Now, veteran signal-caller Michael Vick must step up in his place.
Vick finished a solid 5-of-6 for 38 yards in place of Big Ben Sunday, but the offense took a safe approach with the backup under center. Coach Mike Tomlin suggested that could once again be the case moving forward, per ESPN.com: “This isn't his first rodeo. We're going to work in his comfort zone and bring the game to him and put us in position to win football games.”
Vick likely won’t dazzle those in the stadium in 2015 like he used to as a young playmaker for the Atlanta Falcons, but he did throw for more than 3,000 yards in 2010 and 2011. He can still move the chains with his legs if the pocket breaks down and should keep Pittsburgh afloat until its star quarterback returns.
Vick will also have wide receiver Antonio Brown and running back Le’Veon Bell to rely on in the coming weeks.
Bell found the end zone in his first game back from suspension Sunday, and Brown already has 436 receiving yards and two touchdown catches in his first three games. Brown is arguably the best receiver in the NFL at this point, and Vick will likely look to get him the ball in space and let the receiver do the rest.
What’s more, the Steelers defense looked the part during Sunday’s victory and held St. Louis to a mere 258 total yards.
If the defense continues to play like that and Bell and Brown carry the load on offense, the Steelers can keep pace with the red-hot Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC North even without a healthy Roethlisberger.