Ezekiel Elliott on historic pace and leading Dallas Cowboys to unexpected glory: NFL Power Rankings

The Dallas Cowboys join the league’s elite after their impressive road win over the Green Bay Packers, and they can thank their incredible rookie duo.

Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott runs past Green Bay Packers linebacker Clay Matthews during on Sunday, October 16, 2016, in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Morry Gash / AP; The National illustration
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The New England Patriots are the first team in these rankings to hold on to the No 1 spot for the second straight week. Meanwhile, the Dallas Cowboys join the league's elite after their impressive road win over the Green Bay Packers, and they can thank their incredible rookie duo. Here are the Week 7 NFL Power Rankings.

1 New England Patriots (5-1, Last Week: No 1)

2 Minnesota Vikings (5-0, LW 2)

3 Dallas Cowboys (5-1, LW 9)

• Most of the talk has been about wonder-rookie Dak Prescott and the impending return of Tony Romo, and that is indeed a juicy storyline that could alter the Cowboys’ terrific season. But what fellow rookie Ezekiel Elliott is doing right now is special.

Drafting a running back with a high first-round pick has become passé in a league that increasingly sees the position as interchangeable. The Cowboys took Elliott at No 4 this year, and though he’s only the ninth top-five running back since 2000, not too many people batted an eye. The Cowboys slumped to such a high pick because of a poor defence and several key injuries, but were generally thought to have enough talent across the roster to afford adding a luxury piece like a potentially stud running back. And behind their behemoth offensive line, Elliott could pay the type of immediate dividends that would warrant such a high pick on a low-priority position.

So far, so good. Elliott leads the league with 703 yards rushing through six weeks. How did the other top-five running backs since the turn of the century do through their first six games, and how sustainable was it? Glad you asked:

As you can see, Elliott has far outpaced his predecessors this century. Only Jamal Lewis and LaDainian Tomlinson went on to have considerably great careers. Cadillac Williams fizzled out after winning Rookie of the Year, and the rest were generally disappointing early and often, given their lofty draft selections.

If Elliott keeps up this pace, Eric Dickerson’s rookie record of 1,808 yards in 1983 is in trouble. Romo’s and Dez Bryant’s potential returns could put an added emphasis on the passing game before then, but this running game should remain among the league’s best.

As we've said before, Jerry Jones and the Cowboys nailed this year's draft, even if they went against the grain to pick a running back so high.

*McFadden is technically the only other active player on this list, and he’s one of Elliott’s backups on the Cowboys. He’s been injured and isn’t scheduled to be activated until at least Week 8, if then.

** Yes, there were three running backs taken in the top five of the 2005 Draft. Times have changed.

4 Seattle Seahawks (4-1, LW 5)

5 Atlanta Falcons (4-2, LW 6)

6 Pittsburgh Steelers (4-2, LW 4)

7 Kansas City Chiefs (3-2, LW 11)

• Andy Reid is now 16-2 as a head coach following his team’s bye week. The Chiefs’ win in Oakland put the AFC West on notice that it’s a three-team race (four if the Chargers can keep holding on to fourth-quarter leads), and they’ve mostly played without Jamaal Charles and Justin Houston. If they can finally keep those guys fresh and healthy come play-off time, this team is as loaded as any other in the AFC.

8 Denver Broncos (4-2, LW 8)

9 Oakland Raiders (4-2, LW 7)

10 Buffalo Bills (4-2, LW 13)

• Sunday takeaways: Bills might finally be real contenders

11 Arizona Cardinals (3-3, LW 12)

12 Green Bay Packers (3-2, LW 3)

• Here’s our requisite “What’s wrong with Aaron Rodgers?” talking point.

The two-time MVP and NFL’s all-time leader in quarterback rating is now in the midst of a two-season decline. His yards-per-attempt are at a career-low 6.5 this year, which is close to last year’s 6.7. Before then, he had never been below 7.5 since taking over as the full-time starter in 2008. His completion percentage is barely hovering above 60 for the second straight year. Between 2008-14, it was 65.9.

We’re used to otherworldly numbers from Rodgers, enough to carry an otherwise mediocre Packers team to elite status. It could be the partnership with Mike McCarthy is stale, or it could be Rodgers has simply regressed at age 33 and this is his new norm. Regardless, it’s gotten to the point where we can’t just simply pen the Packers into the play-offs based solely on Rodgers’s presence.

13 Washington (4-2, LW 15)

14 Philadelphia Eagles (3-2, LW 10)

15 Detroit Lions (3-3, LW 19)

• Calvin Johnson is really lighting the world on fire. But on the field, his replacements have ensured Megatron isn't missed in Detroit.

New addition Marvin Jones was leading the league in receiving before a couple of down weeks, and Golden Tate finally got involved in the passing game in this week’s win over the Rams with 165 yards and a touchdown. Jones and Tate give Matthew Stafford an enviable pair of receivers, but running back has to be fixed before they’re really contenders in the NFC. The next three games are against winning teams: Washington, Houston and Minnesota.

Detroit’s three losses have all been one-score games, as have their three wins. If nothing else, they’re competitive, and there’s room for them in the play-offs if they can keep their passing game going and add a running threat.

16 New York Giants (3-3, LW 17)

17 Baltimore Ravens (3-3, LW 14)

18 San Diego Chargers (2-4, LW 28)

• That was a huge win over Denver to help wash out the taste of three straight heartbreaking losses. Road trips to Atlanta and Denver are daunting the next two weeks, but neither team should take the Chargers lightly. It’s not infeasible to imagine a play-off run led by Phillip Rivers and Melvin Gordon, who looks vastly improved in his second season. But the four losses have put them squarely behind the eight-ball in a really tough AFC West.

19 Houston Texans (4-2, LW 20)

20 Cincinnati Bengals (2-4, LW 16)

21 Los Angeles Rams (3-3, LW 18)

22 Tennessee Titans (3-3, LW 21)

• Could retread coach Mike Mularkey and the Titans actually win the AFC South?

The running game is one of the best in the league. Led by Demarco Murray, the Titans rush for 146.7 yards per game, third in the NFL. Football Outsiders' DVOA ratings had them as a middle-of-the road team overall with a top-ten defence last week, and that could go up after the Week 6 win over the Browns.

The first-place Texans are nothing special, and someone from the AFC South has to make the play-offs. It would have been ridiculous to think the Titans could be a play-off team before the year, but they’re in the thick of it. A trip to the play-offs for the first time since 2008 could go a long way in rejuvenating a staid franchise.

23 New Orleans Saints (2-3, LW 25)

24 Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-3, LW 24)

25 Jacksonville Jaguars (2-3, LW 22)

26 Miami Dolphins (2-4, LW 29)

27 Chicago Bears (1-5, LW 27)

28 Indianapolis Colts (2-4, LW 23)

• Of all the Week 6 games, none had higher play-off implications than the AFC South "showdown" between the Texans and Colts. Indianapolis lost, dropping them two down in the division and even further down in the Wild Card race.

It’s just as well that the Colts aren’t in the play-offs this season, so they can justifiably clean house and surround Andrew Luck with a better coach, general manager and talent all around. He’s a generational talent being wasted on a team with no signs of getting better.

29 San Francisco 49ers (1-5, LW 31)

30 Carolina Panthers (1-5, LW 26)

31 New York Jets (1-5, LW 30)

32 Cleveland Browns (0-6, LW 32)


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