Tuesday, January 4, 2005

NFL Week 17 Power Rankings

By Brad Oremland

Five Quick Hits

* Top three announcers this season: Bill Maas, Troy Aikman, Sam Rosen.

* Dick Enberg had a whole week to prepare for Sunday's game, yet in the overtime alone, he managed to mispronounce players' names three different times.

* Super Bowl XXXIX: Steelers over Eagles.

* A lot of football fans will feel cheated if Atlanta or Green Bay makes it to the Super Bowl. For most of the 1980s the "real" Super Bowl was between Washington and the Giants, or San Francisco and Chicago. This year, it may be Pittsburgh and Indianapolis or New England and San Diego.

* Three cheers for Troy Brown and Wes Welker, players who came through when their teams needed them.

These are the final power rankings of the 2004 season, but I'll have a column with playoff analysis and predictions every Tuesday between now and the Pro Bowl. Thanks for reading, and I wish all of you a very merry 2005. Brackets show previous rank.

1. Pittsburgh Steelers [1] -- The fourth team in history to finish 15-1, and they did it in the AFC and against a tough schedule that included New England, Philadelphia, Buffalo, the Jets, and Baltimore twice. The Patriots and Colts are capable of such dominance that anything less than your own best could mean a loss, but for now, the Steelers are the best bet in the field of an AFC postseason that should be among the best ever.

2. New England Patriots [2] -- Assuming Indianapolis beats Denver, the Colts' visit to New England will probably be the most anticipated game of the postseason. Patriots/Colts has developed into perhaps the best non-division rivalry in the NFL, New England's dominance in the series notwithstanding. Even a Championship Game matchup against Pittsburgh — even the Super Bowl — wouldn't be more anticipated among football fans than a meeting between the NFL's two best clutch quarterbacks.

3. Indianapolis Colts [3] -- I play in one fantasy football league every year, with friends from college. I won this season, and I'd like to take this opportunity to thank Peyton Manning, Edgerrin James, Brandon Stokley, and Dallas Clark for their assistance. Every time the Colts ran a play, I scored points. Indianapolis will beat Denver in next Sunday's game at the RCA Dome. By about 10 points.

4. San Diego Chargers [5] -- You'll find my All-Pro selections at the end of this column. Running back was probably the hardest decision, in a year full of tough calls. Last season, I chose LaDainian Tomlinson, and it was an easy pick. This season, many candidates were worthy. Joining LT were, in alphabetical order, Shaun Alexander, Tiki Barber, Corey Dillon, Edgerrin James, and Curtis Martin. I didn't select Tomlinson this season, but I want readers to know that I appreciate the enormous contributions of all these players.

5. Philadelphia Eagles [4] -- I'm all for resting starters, but there's a difference between staying healthy and playing like losers. Where's the desire to win? Where's the confidence-boost for a team that has lost its impact player? Andy Reid has been badly outcoached in two consecutive postseasons, and I don't like the way he's handling the end of Philadelphia's season. He can prove me wrong, and I hope he does, but until then, the Eagles are 0-2 without Terrell Owens.

6. Atlanta Falcons [7] -- They've lost two in a row and now find themselves higher in the power rankings than they've been all season. Atlanta does not, I believe, face the same psychological pressures Philadelphia does. The Eagles waited a week too long to rest their starters: T.O. is injured, and sitting Brian Westbrook and Dorsey Levens won't bring him back. The Eagles got blown out by Cincinnati; even if your starters are sitting, a loss like that hurts. The Falcons gave their starters significant game time and played competitively against Seattle.

7. Buffalo Bills [6] -- The play we keep seeing is Ricardo Colclough's fourth-quarter sack of Drew Bledsoe, which resulted in a fumble returned for a touchdown by Pittsburgh's James Harrison. The fault lies entirely with Bledsoe, who has had a sack problem for years. Willis McGahee picked up the blitz correctly, blocking the inside man and giving his QB plenty of time to throw the ball before Colclough arrived. Bledsoe blew it, and it may have cost his team a playoff spot.

8. Carolina Panthers [9] -- Even in defeat, Muhsin Muhammad made some terrific plays. No receiver was hotter the second half of the season, and Muhammad finished the year with the NFL lead in receiving yards and receiving TDs. RB was the most difficult All-Pro position to pick because there were so many worthy choices, but leaving Muhammad off the list was the hardest individual choice I made.

9. New York Jets [8] -- I'm not a Peter King fan, but his take on the Jets is good enough that I can't put it any better: "What would you say if I told you this team was 4-5 over the last two months? You'd say: 'This team's not winning in San Diego on Saturday night.'"

10. Green Bay Packers [11] -- Rebounded from a 1-4 start to finish 10-6. The Packers, one of three NFC teams with a realistic shot at making the Super Bowl, are a microcosm of their conference. Green Bay went 1-3 against the AFC and 9-3 against the NFC. Minnesota gave the Pack all it could handle a couple weeks ago, and their playoff rematch could go either way, but I like Green Bay by 10.

11. New Orleans Saints [15] -- Won their last four, including three on the road, to salvage a disappointing season. New Orleans finished the year as the NFC's hottest team, and would have been a legitimate Super Bowl possibility if it had made the playoffs. With some help at offensive line and defensive backfield this offseason, the Saints could enter the 2005 season looking pretty good.

12. Baltimore Ravens [10] -- Some key members of the defense are getting old, but there's at least one more season in there, and a number of key contributors are still young. If Baltimore can find an offense between now and September, the Ravens could be a very, very good team in 2005.

13. Jacksonville Jaguars [13] -- Only team in the AFC not to score 30 points in a game this season. Chicago (5-11) and Detroit (6-10) were the only other teams that failed to do so. Think this team relied on its defense? To succeed with that recipe, though, you need a dominant defense, not just a good one. Jacksonville finished 11th in total defense and seventh in points allowed.

14. Kansas City Chiefs [12] -- From Week 12 on, the Chiefs didn't lose to anyone except San Diego. There were unreasonably high expectations for Kansas City entering the season, and 2004 shouldn't be considered too disappointing a season. If you overachieve one year, as KC did in 2003, you usually stutter the next.

15. Denver Broncos [18] -- Won three of their last four to sneak into the playoffs, and are more dangerous than most people probably give them credit for. Denver's success on offense this week gives the Broncos reason for optimism heading into next week's rematch in Indiana, but I think the Colts will be too much.

16. Cincinnati Bengals [16] -- Marvin Lewis and his staff deserve a lot of credit. Bringing Cincinnati back to 8-8 respectability, even playoff contention, last season was remarkable. Making it to .500 again this season is every bit as remarkable. For the first time in more than a decade, this team appears to be headed in the right direction.

17. Houston Texans [14] -- A chance to go .500 for the first time in franchise history, and no one except Domanick Davis showed up. Next year's AFC South won't be any easier than this year's, but it's time for Houston to show real progress next season.

18. Washington Redskins [20] -- Gregg Williams and Greg Blache, the masterminds behind the league's third-ranked defense, went above and beyond the word "excellent" this season. On the other side of the ball, highly-regarded offensive line guru Joe Bugel got nothing from an offensive line that looks pretty good on paper.

19. Seattle Seahawks [21] -- Can't be thrilled that their playoff draw is the Rams, who swept Seattle this season. The Seahawks probably are better, or should be, but neither team is as good as it should be. I'm picking the Rams by seven, but I'm not happy about it. It doesn't matter who wins, because I don't think either team can beat Philly or Atlanta.

20. Oakland Raiders [19] -- At two separate points this season, Oakland allowed more than 30 points in four consecutive games. The Raiders need help at almost every position.

21. St. Louis Rams [26] -- The offense is not what it once was. The Rams didn't top 30 points in regulation all season. St. Louis finished 19th in scoring offense and went 0-19 on third-down conversions of 15 yards or more. That said, major props to Torry Holt, who with his fifth consecutive 1,300-yard receiving season has now accomplished something no one else ever has. Holt would be successful anywhere.

22. Miami Dolphins [24] -- What a job Jim Bates has done. 1-8 before he took over as head coach, the Dolphins went 3-4 down the stretch, with -- get this -- no losses to teams without winning records.

23. Tampa Bay Buccaneers [17] -- Lost four in a row and five of their last six. The Bucs went 1-7 on the road. They're now 24-24 under Jon Gruden. The personnel isn't great, but it's good enough to finish better than 5-11 in the NFC. For two seasons in a row, Tampa has been puzzlingly bad.

24. Dallas Cowboys [23] -- Over the last seven weeks of the season, Julius Jones carried 192 times. That's 27.4 per game, which projects to 439 over the course of a whole season. The record is 410, by Jamal Anderson in 1998, and players with over 350 almost invariably get hurt or decline rapidly. Bill Parcells needs to be more careful with his star RB.

25. Arizona Cardinals [27] -- Finished 6-10, but Josh McCown went a respectable 6-7 as starter. Dennis Green seems to have little confidence in McCown, though, and it's tough to imagine that he's the long-term answer at quarterback. I could see Green being intrigued by someone like Alex Smith on draft day. Brad Johnson, who played for Green in Minnesota, is an interesting possibility via trade or free agency.

26. Minnesota Vikings [22] -- The potential is there, but the Vikings just play like losers. Their only win in the last five weeks was against Detroit, when the Lions missed a last-minute PAT that would have sent the game into overtime. Vikings center Matt Birk made the Pro Bowl, but I've seen Minnesota five times this season, and he didn't have one good game in the bunch.

27. New York Giants [28] -- The NFC East figures to be much tougher next season. Philadelphia will be good of course, and Joe Gibbs figures to have Washington playing much better than it did through the first half of 2004. Parcells will probably overhaul things for the better in Dallas, and if Julius Jones stays healthy, the Cowboys could return to the postseason. In New York, a healthy Michael Strahan and experienced Eli Manning could be enough to get the Giants to .500.

28. Tennessee Titans [30] -- Billy Volek has played well enough that I suspect he'll start for Tennessee next season if Steve McNair retires. The Titans will be much better next season. Offensive line is the primary concern this offseason.

29. Detroit Lions [25] -- Remember when Detroit was 2-0? 3-1? 4-2? 6-10 sounds so disappointing in that context. Even so, Detroit is -- for now -- my favorite to win the NFC North in 2005.

30. Cleveland Browns [31] -- Interim coach Terry Robiskie got his first win in five games as Cleveland's head coach. Robiskie is an offensive coach, but he had the support of players on both sides of the ball. Standout defensive end Kenard Lang said after the game, "Everybody wanted to win for him ... With Terry, we would run through a brick wall for him." Robiskie has little chance of being named the Browns' head coach next season, but whoever gets the job will have his work cut out for him.

31. Chicago Bears [29] -- Dominated the bottom of the NFL's offensive lists. Last in yards gained, last in points scored. It's hard to win without a quarterback or wide receivers.

32. San Francisco 49ers [32] -- King argues that if Matt Leinart declares for the draft (he will), the Niners should take him with the top pick, because Leinart is 24-1 as a starter at USC. San Francisco already has Ken Dorsey, who was 38-2 at Miami. This team has so many needs; you just take the best player.

Brad O.'s All-Pro Team

QB Peyton Manning, IND
RB Tiki Barber, NYG
FB Tony Richardson, KC
WR Marvin Harrison, IND
WR Terrell Owens, PHI
TE Tony Gonzalez, KC
C Kevin Mawae, NYJ
G Alan Faneca, PIT
G Brian Waters, KC
OT Willie Roaf, KC
OT Tarik Glenn, IND

DT Richard Seymour, NE
DT Cornelius Griffin, WAS
DE Julius Peppers, CAR
DE Aaron Schobel, BUF
OLB Takeo Spikes, BUF
OLB Willie McGinest, NE
ILB James Farrior, PIT
ILB Donnie Edwards, SD
CB Ronde Barber, TB
CB Chris McAlister, BAL
FS Brian Dawkins, PHI
SS Ed Reed, BAL

K Adam Vinatieri, NE
P Mike Scifres, SD
KR Dante Hall, KC

Off POY Manning
Def POY Reed
MVP Manning
Off Rookie Ben Roethlisberger, PIT
Def Rookie Jonathan Vilma, NYJ
Coach Bill Belichick, NE
Assistant Tom Moore, IND

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