Week Eight sees the Bucs visit the New Orleans Saints as home quarterback Jameis Winston prepares to face a team he led for five seasons before Tom Brady took centre stage in Tampa.
The Saints will be out for revenge against their NFC South foes after last season’s win-or-bust 30-20 loss to Bruce Arians’ men in the divisional round.
Both look on course for the post-season, but who else is in the playoff picture in the NFC? Below Nat Coombs runs through the power rankings as the Bucs continue their bid for successive Super Bowl titles.
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1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-1)
Most Super Bowl teams — winners and losers — regress in the following season, and at best stay roughly the same. Tampa Bay and Tom Brady are once again Buc-ing the trend (see what I did there?). Demonstrably stronger than last season, their only tangible weak link is their injury-hit secondary. Brady is quietly having an MVP-level season, and on the other side of the ball, as Mike Carlson eloquently outlined on my podcast this week, the consistent presence of Vita Vea this season is hugely significant.
2. Arizona Cardinals (7-0)
If the Bucs are the big-time rock and roll vets that keep on selling out stadiums, then the Cardinals are the edgier, of-the-moment artist, rolling with swagger and the fearlessness of youth. Arizona is Kendrick Lamar to Tampa Bay’s Rolling Stones. Improbably, given the start they’ve had, Kliff Kingsbury was under fire going into this season, but the Cards have found their groove. Kyler Murray is still maturing, presiding over a highly watchable pick up/yard ball style pro-offense with Rondale Moore, D-Hop and Co. But balance is there — Football Outsiders ranks their defense second in DVOA behind Buffalo, impressive against both the pass and rush, although disappointingly they may have lost the inspirational JJ Watt for the season.
3. Los Angeles Rams (6-1)
The first few chapters of the Matthew Stafford era must be everything Sean McVay had hoped, his new quarterback’s range and depth adding an expanse to an offense that had become frustratingly limited under previous incumbent Jared Goff. They lead the NFL by a significant margin in passing DVOA (as per Football Outsiders) and rank second overall in offense. Stafford and Cooper Kupp are the new Dre and Eminem; not the most obvious tag team on surface level but turning out to be the perfect fit. A defense that is weaker year-on-year, but still packs a punch, and a schedule that should see them roll conservatively to another 6 or 7 wins means they’re surely playoff-bound. They’re in the mix for the Number one seed if they can take down divisional rivals Arizona.
4. Dallas Cowboys (5-1)
Although the offensive line isn’t up to the calibre of vintage Cowboys units, it’s strong enough to let Dak Prescott (above) work his magic. The Zeke Elliot/Tony Pollard tag team has exceeded expectations, with the (many) experts who wrote off Elliott way too soon looking rather foolish. A receiving corp that offers range and variation, including CeeDee Lamb (who’s racked up nine Big Plays so far), the dependable Amari Cooper and the emerging Dalton Schultz, has flourished even without Michael Gallup. Defense was always the concern going into the season and the young unit has exceeded expectations, with some big-name playmakers, most notably Trevon Diggs, carrying a boom-or-bust swagger which could roll the right way in the deep waters of the playoffs.
5. Green Bay Packers (6-1)
Despite all the turbulence in the off-season, Aaron Rodgers is somewhat inevitably locked in the zone, racking up over 1700 yards already and a 15-3 TD/Int ratio. Much of this has been his downtown connection with Davante Adams, whose 744 total yards includes 8 catches of 25+ yards. But while much has been made of the dominance of Adams within the receiving core (all the other WRs and TEs on the roster have a combined yardage of 757), Rodgers is getting productivity from his supporting cast, with 12 of those 15 TDs coming from targets other than Adams. Aaron Jones is particularly prolific out of the backfield (186 yards, 4 TDs), as well as the 404 yards and 2 TDs he’s added on the ground — and this is all with a banged up line that’s been missing David Bakhtiari.
6. New Orleans Saints (4-2)
Jameis Winston is having a markedly improved year under Sean Payton, protecting the ball better than he’s ever done, flexing the deep ball that was latterly beyond the great Drew Brees, and letting Alvin Kamara be, well, Alvin Kamara. And that recipe is just fine, behind one of the best defenses in the NFL. As per Pro Football Focus, only the Buffalo Bills have allowed a touchdown drive less often than the Saints (14.9%). Their run in is a mixed bag — meeting the Bucs twice, the Bills, the Titans and the Cowboys, but that tough ask is offset by some easier landing spots including the Falcons (twice), the Jets and the Panthers. They should be able to piece together enough wins to make the post-season.
7. Minnesota Vikings (3-3)
A fast-improving defense, some big-time playmakers on offense, and a maligned QB whose value is steadily increasing when offset against struggling rookies and pedestrian journeymen. Minnesota may be the team we’ve all been sleeping on.
8. Chicago Bears (3-4)
The inside rail is there for the Bears, with two divisional matchups still to play against the Vikings. Those games may well decide where one of the NFC Wildcards goes, given how weak the East, South and West have been.
More on Squawka NFL
- Bucs vs Saints: Predictions and betting trends
- NFL division standings: 2021/22 season
- NFL 2021/22 schedule
9. Atlanta Falcons (3-3)
Somehow Atlanta is still in the playoff hunt, and credit to Matt Ryan for balling. Kyle Pitts is the superstar we expected — the Falcons are very watchable, if flawed.
10. Seattle Seahawks (2-5)
Can they keep in the hunt till Russell Wilson returns? Does it even matter given the strength of other teams in the NFC?
11. San Francisco 49ers (2-4)
In the space of a few weeks the disappointing 49ers have found themselves on the edge of significant flux. Is it time to blow up the season, bring in Trey Lance, and shake hands and walk away with Jimmy Garoppolo?
12. Washington Football Team (2-5)
Runners-up to San Francisco in the “didn’t expect to see them here” category, flashes of brilliance does not an NFL contender make. Big questions at the QB position going into next year.
13. Philadelphia Eagles (2-5)
As do Philly, because it doesn’t appear that Jalen Hurts is the answer. At least they’ve got the rest of the season to try and figure that out.
14. Carolina Panthers (3-4)
Completing the hat-trick of teams in successive order in the lower reaches of the power rankings that have QB issues — surely a coincidence! — the early promise of Sam Darnold has fizzled and with it the Panthers’ chances.
15. New York Giants (2-5)
Wait! Surely not? Another team that may well be making a change at QB in the off-season, though Daniel Jones will feel suitably aggrieved given how banged up his offense has been. I feel he could — and possibly should — be given one more chance next year, unless a major upgrade materialises.
16. Detroit Lions (0-7)
The Lions are gutsy and playing for Dan Campbell, but they were always going to be in trouble given how thin their roster is on both sides of the ball. As with Jones at the Giants, it may not be the craziest idea to stick with Goff for one more year as they try to rebuild.