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NFL power rankings, Week 7: Ravens tumble, Bengals and Titans rise in jumbled AFC

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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 7:

The top contenders

1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-1; No. 1 last week)

2. Arizona Cardinals (7-0; No. 2)

3. Buffalo Bills (4-2; No. 4)

4. Dallas Cowboys (5-1; No. 5)

5. Los Angeles Rams (6-1; No. 6)

6. Green Bay Packers (6-1; No. 7)

It was a tidy week for the league’s top teams. The Bucs dominated the hapless Bears, 38-3, as Tom Brady threw four more touchdown passes to extend his league-leading total to 21. The Cardinals got three touchdown passes from Kyler Murray, including one to recently acquired tight end Zach Ertz, in a 31-5 rout of the Texans. Matthew Stafford made coach Sean McVay and the Rams look smart after the Jared Goff trade with three touchdown passes in a 28-19 win over Goff and the Lions. Aaron Rodgers threw three touchdown passes of his own in the Packers’ 24-10 win over Washington, spreading the ball around to seven receivers instead of relying on Davante Adams.

What’s the common thread that ties these teams together? Great quarterback play. The Cowboys’ Dak Prescott and the Bills’ Josh Allen, who enjoyed their bye weeks, have already inserted themselves into the Most Valuable Player conversation. Murray has been especially great, securing the second-highest passing grade in the league, according to Pro Football Focus.

In case you didn’t notice, nearly all of the league’s elite teams reside in the NFC. The AFC is a muddled mess at the top, thanks to the stunning decline of the Chiefs and the emergence of some exciting, yet unproven contenders. That brings us to one of the most surprising results of the week, which calls into question the Super Bowl hopes of one of the conference’s best teams.

On the cusp of contention

7. Baltimore Ravens (5-2; No. 3)

8. Cincinnati Bengals (5-2; No. 12)

9. Tennessee Titans (5-2, No. 11)

10. Los Angeles Chargers (4-2; No. 8)

11. Las Vegas Raiders (5-2; No. 14)

The Ravens’ 41-17 loss to the Bengals isn’t a knock-out blow by any means, rather a stiff shot to the jaw that leaves Baltimore stumbling heading into its bye week. The Ravens couldn’t handle the Bengals’ passing attack Sunday, as Joe Burrow threw for a career-high 416 yards and receiver Ja’Marr Chase racked up 201 yards, giving him the most receiving yards by a rookie through seven weeks in NFL history. Lamar Jackson wasn’t his usual self, as Cincinnati’s athletic defense pressured him on nearly half of his drop-backs and covered well downfield.

The Ravens are still a threat to emerge in the AFC when playing at their best, but more injuries along the offensive line, this time to starting right tackle Patrick Mekari, have severely depleted their once-unstoppable rushing attack. The Ravens need Jackson to play at an MVP level to not only mask their weaknesses on offense, but cover for a defense that has allowed a franchise-worst 2,073 passing yards over its first seven games. Sunday’s loss showed that the Ravens’ old reliables might not even be enough to cut it in the AFC North anymore.

While Baltimore is slipping, the Titans and Raiders are showing they shouldn’t be overlooked when handicapping the AFC race. Tennessee dominated Kansas City, 27-3, on Sunday, with Derrick Henry throwing more touchdown passes than Patrick Mahomes. A Titans defense that struggled mightily early in the season held the Chiefs to their lowest scoring output with Mahomes at quarterback, picking up four sacks and an interception. FiveThirtyEight only gives Kansas City a 43% chance of making the playoffs, and that might be generous given their issues on both sides of the ball.

The Raiders, meanwhile, continue to thrive after the resignation of coach Jon Gruden. Las Vegas rolled to a 33-22 win over the Eagles behind a nearly perfect day from Derek Carr, who completed more than 90% of his passes on 30 or more attempts (31-for-34 for 323 yards, two touchdowns and one interception) for the second time in his career.

With the Chiefs and Ravens failing to reach their previous heights, it’s time to consider the Bengals, Titans and Raiders as more than just plucky contenders. Behind Buffalo, it’s a wide-open race in the AFC.

The wild cards

12. Cleveland Browns (4-3; No. 10)

13. New Orleans Saints (4-2; No. 13)

14. Kansas City Chiefs (3-4; No. 9)

15. Indianapolis Colts (3-4; No. 20)

16. Pittsburgh Steelers (3-3; No. 15)

17. Minnesota Vikings (3-3; No. 16)

18. New England Patriots (3-4; No. 19)

19. Atlanta Falcons (3-3; No. 25)

After seven weeks, the Browns remain an enigma. With starting quarterback Baker Mayfield severely limited by an injury to his non-throwing shoulder, backup Case Keenum came in and looked steady in a 17-14 win over the Broncos on Thursday night. Keenum’s ceiling might be lower than Mayfield’s, but he should be able to keep Cleveland’s ground-based attack moving under coach Kevin Stefanski. If the defense can get healthier and play up to its potential, that might be enough for the Browns to remain a playoff contender in the AFC.

The Colts could be a playoff contender, too, after Monday night’s 30-18 win over the 49ers. Indianapolis has won three of its past four games thanks to improved play from quarterback Carson Wentz, who has thrown just one interception through seven weeks after leading the league with 15 picks in 12 games last season in Philadelphia. The Patriots have shaken off some early struggles to get back into the mix, too, rolling to a 54-13 win over the Jets on Sunday. The defense remains one of the league’s best, so week-to-week improvement from rookie quarterback Mac Jones might keep New England in the playoff conversation for quite awhile.

Atlanta, meanwhile, might finally be hitting its stride under new coach Arthur Smith. In a 30-28 win over the Dolphins on Sunday, rookie tight end Kyle Pitts exploded for 163 receiving yards, giving Matt Ryan the valuable weapon he’s sorely needed since the offseason trade of Julio Jones.

Fading fast

20. Chicago Bears (3-4; No. 18)

21. Carolina Panthers (3-4; No. 21)

22. Denver Broncos (3-4; No. 22)

23. Seattle Seahawks (2-5; No. 23)

24. San Francisco 49ers (2-4; No. 17)

25. Washington Football Team (2-5; No. 26)

All the optimism about Justin Fields’ rookie season has seemingly evaporated after the first-round pick threw three interceptions in the Bears’ embarrassing 38-3 loss to the Buccaneers on Sunday. Coach Matt Nagy’s seat only grows warmer, with the offense struggling to move the ball effectively through the air or on the ground. If Chicago can’t show any improvement behind its franchise quarterback in the coming weeks, it’s hard to see this regime coming back again next season.

The Panthers might be facing similar tough questions about their leadership after yet another rough performance by quarterback Sam Darnold, who was benched in favor of P.J. Walker in Sunday’s 25-3 loss to the Giants. Four straight losses have called into question the wisdom of the trade for Darnold, who isn’t consistent enough to be a franchise quarterback. Whether that leads to Carolina looking toward the draft, free agency or a trade for Deshaun Watson to upgrade at the position remains to be seen, but it’s clear the Panthers aren’t a playoff team with the former first-round pick under center.

For the Seahawks, 49ers and Washington, there are just too many questions at quarterback to have any hope of playoff contention in a loaded NFC. Unless Russell Wilson, Jimmy Garoppolo and Ryan Fitzpatrick can be healthy and/or effective relatively soon, it’s hard to see a path forward for these teams.

The basement

26. New York Giants (2-5; No. 29)

27. Philadelphia Eagles (2-5; No. 24)

28. Detroit Lions (0-7; No. 30)

29. Houston Texans (1-6; No. 28)

30. Miami Dolphins (1-6; No. 27)

31. New York Jets (1-5; No. 30)

32. Jacksonville Jaguars (1-5; No. 32)

Say what you want about Dan Campbell’s 0-7 record, but the Lions coach has kept his team competitive nearly every week. Detroit had a legitimate chance to take down the Rams on Sunday before a back-breaking interception by Goff late in the game. Campbell isn’t interested in moral victories, but the team’s play is at least somewhat encouraging in the first year of what should be a long rebuild.

The Dolphins won’t be afforded that kind of sympathy, however. A 30-28 loss to the Falcons puts them at 1-6, a far cry from what the team expected after a 10-6 season under coach Brian Flores. Rumors continue to swirl about the team’s interest in a trade for Watson, which shows just how desperate they are for an answer at quarterback given Tua Tagovailoa’s struggles.

©2021 Baltimore Sun. Visit baltimoresun.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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Atlanta lights up Timberwolves from deep as Minnesota drops third straight

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Atlanta lights up Timberwolves from deep as Minnesota drops third straight

The Timberwolves seem to have a clear matchup problem — elite shooting teams light them up from deep.

Much like Charlotte did last week, Atlanta chowed down on a feast of open triples Monday at Target Center, going 25 for 49 from 3-point range en route to a 121-110 victory.

Minnesota’s lone lead of the game was 2-0.

The Hornets and Hawks entered Monday as the League’s top-two 3-point shooting teams.

The loss was the Wolves’ third straight as they struggle to navigate the most difficult portion of their schedule to date. It doesn’t get any easier Wednesday, when Utah comes to town.

The Jazz currently rank sixth in 3-point shooting percentage.

Minnesota has given up a bevy of wide-open 3-point attempts all season — often to the opponent’s third, fourth and fifth offensive options — as a product of the team’s aggressive, fly-around defense.

The Wolves are always scrambling and recovering, so enough ball movement generally leads to an open triple. But opponents haven’t been able to connect on those open looks for most of the season.

Teams like Atlanta (13-12) almost always will. The Hawks’ lineups always feature four or five shooters. Eight different Atlanta players hit triples Monday. Timothé Luwawu-Cabarrot hit seven. Former Wolves center Gorgui Dieng went 3 for 4 from deep. Jaden McDaniels said the Wolves didn’t do a good enough job closing out hard and running shooters off the 3-point line.

“It’s just something we come in with and we know they shoot the three ball tremendously well. If we do a great job of defending the three and making it at least difficult on them, they’re not going to shoot 51 percent from three, giving ourselves a better chance,” Karl-Anthony Towns said. “Even if we get them to shoot 40 percent today, we’re talking about a whole different game and a whole different postgame (press conference). It wasn’t the offense for us that was the problem. It was the defense tonight, which was the flip in the narrative we have of us.”

Some of Atlanta’s offensive success came in transition, but the Hawks also had plenty of success from deep in the half-court sets. Atlanta shot just 15 for 41 from inside the arc, but that doesn’t matter when you’re lighting it up from deep.

Timberwolves coach Chris Finch said the Wolves didn’t possess their usual urgency to contest shots.

“A lot of them were just short closeouts or not getting out to guys who we didn’t think could shoot the ball,” Finch said. “When I look at the tape, in terms of our scheme, I was pretty happy. I didn’t think we were being picked apart in the initial. It’s just that we didn’t keep moving around.”

Hawks star guard Trae Young posted 29 points, 11 assists and seven rebounds. Clint Capela had nine points, 16 rebounds, four blocks and four assists.

Minnesota (11-13) shot well from deep, as well — a welcomed change from the norm this season. The Wolves shot 43 percent from three. Malik Beasley went 6 for 13 on triple tries en route to 24 points. Anthony Edwards had 20 points and seven assists, but shot just 6 for 19 from the floor, while Towns finished with 31 points and 16 rebounds.

Minnesota was without D’Angelo Russell, Jaylen Nowell and Patrick Beverley. It’s been short-handed in each of its three losses, but Finch noted other guys simply have to step up more than they did Monday.

“There’s no margin for error for our team no matter what you’re talking about — rotation, effort or defense or shooting. We just don’t have much margin for error,” Finch said. “That’s why we’ve got to play basically full throttle and get back to guarding people. When we do that we have a chance.”

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Registration for annual Stillwater art and science festival for students accepted until Dec. 23

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Registration for annual Stillwater art and science festival for students accepted until Dec. 23

The Partnership Plan is scheduled to hold its annual DaVinci Fest on Jan. 22, celebrating science and art in the St. Croix Valley.

Students in fourth through 12th grades who live within the boundaries of the Stillwater Area Public Schools, regardless of where they attend school, can submit projects in science, art, upcycling and film. Top students who participate in the science fair will be eligible to go on to further competitions.

Registration is open until Dec. 23 and information can be found at partnershipplan.org/davincifest.

The DaVinci Fest is hosted by the Partnership Plan, the non-profit educational fund for Stillwater Area Public Schools. The Jan. 22 festival will be held at Stillwater Area High School. Admission is free and face masks will be required.

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Desperation drives thousands of Afghans a day across borders

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Desperation drives thousands of Afghans a day across borders

HERAT, Afghanistan — Over the course of an hour on a recent night, the bus waiting in the Herat station filled with passengers. Mostly young men, they had no luggage, just the clothes on their backs, maybe a bag with some bread and water for the long road ahead of them.

That road is leading them to Iran.

Every day, multiple buses rumble out of Afghanistan’s western city of Herat, carrying hundreds of people to the border. There they disembark, connect with their smugglers and trek for days, sometimes crammed into pickup trucks bumping through wastelands, sometimes on foot through treacherous mountains in the darkness, eluding guards and thieves.

Once in Iran, most will stay there to look for work. But a few hope to go farther.

“We’re going to get to Europe,” said Haroun, a 20-year-old sitting in the bus next to his friend Fuad. Back in their village there is no work. “We have no choice, the economy here is a wreck. Even if it means our death on the way, we accept that.”

Afghans are streaming across the border into Iran in accelerating numbers, driven by desperation. Since the Taliban takeover in mid-August, Afghanistan’s economic collapse has accelerated, robbing millions of work and leaving them unable to feed their families. In the past three months, more than 300,000 people have crossed illegally into Iran, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council, and more are coming at the rate of 4,000 to 5,000 a day.

The European Union is now bracing for a potential swell in Afghans trying to reach its shores at a time when EU nations are determined to lock down against migrants in general.

So far, a post-Taliban surge of Afghan migrants to Europe hasn’t materialized. Afghan entries into the EU have “remained mostly stable,” according to an EU weekly migration report from Nov. 21. The report noted that some Afghans who arrived in Italy from Turkey in November told authorities they had fled their country after the Taliban takeover.

But a significant portion of migrants likely intend to stay in Iran, which is struggling to shut its doors. It already hosts more than 3 million Afghans who fled their homeland during the past decades of turmoil.

Iran is stepping up deportations, sending 20,000 or 30,000 Afghans back every week. This year, Iran deported more than 1.1 million Afghans as of Nov. 21 — 30% higher than the total in all of 2020, according to the International Organization for Migration. Those deported often try again, over and over.

In Afghanistan, the exodus has emptied some villages of their men. In Jar-e Sawz, a village north of Herat visited by The Associated Press, an elderly man was the only male left after all the younger men left.

One smuggler in Herat — a woman involved in the business for two decades — said that before the Taliban takeover, she was transporting 50 or 60 people a week into Iran, almost all single men. Since the August takeover, she moves around 300 people a week, including women and children.

“The country is destroyed so people have to leave,” she said, speaking on condition she not be named because of her work. “I feel like I’m doing the right thing. If some poor person asks me, I can’t refuse them. I ask God to help me help them.”

She charges the equivalent of almost $400 per person, but only about $16 up front, with the rest paid after the migrant finds work. The pay-later system is common in Herat, a sign that there are so many migrants, smugglers can accept some risk that some will be unable to pay. Along the way, smugglers pass out bribes to Taliban, Pakistani and Iranian border guards to turn a blind eye, she said.

Everyone going gives the same reason.

“There is nothing here. There is no work and our families are hungry,” said Naib, a 20-year-old who was pausing with a group of migrants one night in a desolate area within sight of the Iranian border outside Herat. “We go crawling if we have to. There is no other choice.”

Afghanistan was already one of the poorest countries in the world before the Taliban takeover, and the economy has deteriorated the past year, worsened by the coronavirus pandemic and a punishing drought since late 2020.

When the Taliban came to power on Aug. 15, the main artery keeping Afghanistan’s economy alive — international donor funds — was severed. With the Taliban government unable to pay salaries, hundreds of thousands of state employees found themselves with no livelihoods. With funding for projects gone, many jobs vanished across the labor market.

Farid Ahmed, a 22-year-old in Herat, used to go to a main square each day to be hired by building contractors for a day’s work. Previously, he found work most days. “Now we wait all day and no one comes to hire us,” he said.

So last month, he took his wife and their two young daughters — ages 8 months and 2 years — across the border. From a relative already there, he heard that a Tehran weaving factory had jobs for him and his wife.

The crossing was a nightmare, he said. They had to walk for three hours in the darkness with several hundred other people across the border. In the cold and darkness, his daughters were crying. Once in Iran, they were almost immediately caught by police and deported.

Back home, nothing has changed. He goes to the square every day but finds no work, he said. So he will try taking his family again. “After winter,” he said. “It’s too cold now for the children to cross.”

Herat, Afghanistan’s third largest city, is a main hub for Afghans from other parts of the country making their way to Iran.

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