Updated: Nov 17, 2022
All-Pro Reels, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
With the Philadelphia Eagles suffering their first loss of the season on Monday Night to the Washington Commanders, now’s a great opportunity to reflect on the NFL landscape. Certain teams have widely surpassed expectations (hello, Giants) and others stepped on the proverbial rake on the ground and smacked themselves silly (looking at you, Raiders). It’s been another strange, confusing, bizarre, curious, anxiety-inducing, hair-pulling NFL season - just the way we like it.
In this article, I’ve broken down the 32 teams into tiers to help explain the current state of the NFL. This is not intended to be a 1 - 32 list, and the teams in each grouping are put in alphabetical order. Without further ado, here is the NFL Mid-Season Tiers List!
Las Vegas Raiders
The horror, the horror… For the Texans and Raiders, this is the Heart of Darkness. If there was relegation in the NFL, I would vote these two teams out. Can we get working on this? At least we knew the Texans would be bad, but the Raiders? My goodness, there’s no more disappointing team in the league - maybe even in the last five years.
Functionally Disabled, but Entertaining
These are all bad teams, but at least they have potential/excuses. The Panthers bet on Baker Mayfield in the offseason, but it turns out that maybe the Browns had the right idea by letting him go. Bears quarterback Justin Fields has had a terrible start to his career, and many thought he might be broken for good, but over the last few weeks there have been many signs that perhaps he’s taken the next step. The Lions have had exceptional moments offensively, but they are hamstrung by a historically bad defense. Jaguars QB Trevor Lawrence, in many ways, is in a similar situation to Fields - underwhelming rookie season, poor supporting cast, moderate year two improvement, lots of work still to be done.
Put Them Out to Pasture
New Orleans Saints
These are the teams that should, in theory, be good. At least with the previous group, expectations weren’t super high - not in this case.
There were more than a few who thought the Broncos could win the AFC this year. The Saints were also a fun sleeper pick in the NFC. As for the Browns and Steelers, most expected them to be at the bottom of the AFC North, but they’d at least be hovering in the vicinity of .500. Each of these teams would have a case for being the most disappointing in the league if the Raiders didn’t exist.
Muddled, Middle-of-the-Pack NFC Teams
Los Angeles Rams
These teams all feel more or less the exact same. Tell me one difference between the Falcons and Commanders. Seriously. Try to find one difference. If they didn’t have different color jerseys and played at the same time in certain weeks, I’d assume they just shared players.
The Rams and Cardinals were supposed to be good, but injuries, ineffectiveness, and a general lack of urgency has put both of these teams in a massive hole (and here’s where I remind you that the Rams are defending champions!). None in this group is out of it, per se, but it’ll take some serious second-half magic to make a playoff run.
Playing Chess Instead of Checkers, when Everyone’s Actually Playing Backgammon
This team feels like it needs its own category. Has any team had a stranger season so far? There are several candidates, but not only have the Colts fired their head coach before Week 9, but they have also:
Been shut out by the Jacksonville freaking Jaguars
Beaten the current AFC top seeded Kansas City Chiefs
Tied with the Houston Texans
Seen their highly regarded offensive line disintegrate with almost no rational explanation
Benched quarterback Matt Ryan, who was acquired by trade in the offseason, for Sam Ehlinger, a second-year player that had not yet attempted a pass in his career, only to turn back to the 2016 MVP Ryan when they hired interim head coach Jeff Saturday
Speaking of Jeff Saturday, the Colts hired the former player and current TV analyst to be the interim head coach despite having ZERO previous coaching experience at the NFL level
And, most insane of all, they beat the Raiders - with Saturday being in the building for just a week
This is why we love the NFL. You could not, not in a thousand years, come up with a more batshit storyline than that.
The Old Guard in Unfamiliar Territory
Green Bay Packers
New England Patriots
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Are the Patriots the best fourth-place team in the NFL? Are the Bucs the worst division leader in the NFL? Did Aaron Rodgers successfully mind-meld with rookie receiver Christian Watson? Each of these teams has had ups and downs, but they could all be rounding into form down the stretch. Plus, how can you bet against Rodgers, Tom Brady or Bill Belichick?
Like the X-Files: I Want to Believe!
Los Angeles Chargers
New York Giants
New York Jets
These teams have played well through the first half of the season, but something about each one doesn’t feel sustainable. Maybe it's the fact that Jets QB Zach Wilson still looks prepubescent, maybe it's because RB Saquon Barkley is the only playmaker on the Giants roster, maybe it’s that the entire Seahawks operation feels like a masterclass in deception, or maybe it’s that Chargers players get injured like it’s going out of style. There’s a lot to like with each, especially the Geno Smith return-from-the-dead story, but none of these teams feel like Super Bowl contenders.
Division Leaders with Great Resumés, but Few Believers
Both teams are well-positioned at the top of their respective divisions. They’ve each had a strange route, with the Titans featuring a 41 - 7 beatdown at the hands of the Buffalo Bills, and the Dolphins suffering a three-game losing streak during which QB Tua Tagovailoa missed time with a concussion. Still, something feels missing.
Tua has played well, and he’s reaping the benefits of head coach Mike McDaniel’s wizardry and the speed of his two outside receivers, but the short track record and up-and-down defensive performances belies their undefeated record when Tua starts and finishes a game. The Titans, meanwhile, have withstood the loss of QB Ryan Tannehill, and running back Derrick Henry is the same brutalizing force he’s always been. At the same time, this Titans squad feels a lot like last year’s squad: one with a very defined, and limited, ceiling.
Needed Their Beauty Sleep
San Francisco 49ers
In terms of contenders, the Bengals and Niners are slumbering giants. It’s been a season filled with untimely injuries, perplexing coaching decisions, and baffling losses for both, but when you look closely, these two 5 - 4 teams might have some of the most talented rosters in the NFL.
The Bengals are still quarterbacked by Joe Burrow, and injured stars Ja’Marr Chase and D.J. Reader are still set to return. Now, with the bye week behind them, they could be primed for the stretch run coming off a 42 - 21 drubbing of the Panthers the week prior. As for the Niners, they’re coming off back-to-back wins over the two Los Angeles teams and look spirited after a lethargic start to the season. QB Jimmy Garoppolo is reliable as ever, and their trio of All Pro offensive weapons in Christian McCaffrey, Deebo Samuel, and George Kittle will make them a tough opponent for anyone.
It’s Not a Mountaintop, It’s More Like a Plateau
Kansas City Chiefs
These five teams are the cream of the crop in the NFL right now, though, if we’re being honest, it’s not exactly the harvest we predicted before the season. The Ravens have managed to rebound from some abysmal fourth-quarter debacles to stand alone at the top of the AFC North. Injuries to key offensive skill players continue to pile up, however, making superstar QB Lamar Jackson’s job even harder (and he already has maybe the hardest job in the NFL). The Bills remain one of the scariest teams in the NFL on paper, but late losses and troubling Josh Allen turnovers have given them some blemishes that won’t be easy to forget. The Chiefs, meanwhile, just continue to win, even if their loss to the Colts in Week 3 is still a head-scratcher.
In the NFC, the Eagles and Vikings stand alone at 8 - 1, but neither has inspired the same kind of confidence that the Bills or Chiefs has, despite the substantially better resumes. The Eagles barnstormed their way to 8 - 0, capitalizing on a less-than-stellar slate of opponents. You can only play the teams on your schedule, but a Monday Night loss to the Commanders reminds us that this team is great, no doubt, but perhaps not the titanic obstacle they appeared to be. As for the Vikings, this team looks to be having as much fun as anybody at the moment. Whether it’s Kirk Cousins dancing shirtless on an airplane, Justin Jefferson making miracle one-handed catches or the defense coming up with an impossible goal line turnover to save their bacon, the Vikings can do no wrong right now. Still, with the Viking's track record, it's hard to feel confident that they're championship material.
With eight more weeks of football to go, there’s plenty of time left for chaos. Heck, if the Eagles and Vikings lose the rest of their games, they’ll both finish with losing records (and this is actually possible because the Eagles and Vikings don’t play each other the rest of the season). Maybe Kenny Pickett’s hands grow three sizes and the Steelers become an offensive juggernaut. Maybe Kyler Murray actually decides to study, and the Cardinals take off. Maybe all of these teams fall off a cliff - who knows, who cares? At least we get to enjoy the wild ride.