Tuesday, October 31, 2006

NFL Week 8 Power Rankings

By Brad Oremland

Five Quick Hits

* Last week, Matt Bryant nailed a 62-yard game-winning field goal. This week, he made a 43-yarder in extremely strong wind. Bryant deserves serious Pro Bowl consideration.

* Dear Tom Brady and Reggie Wayne, thank you for saving my fantasy team this week.

* Dear everyone, please stop making Wally Pipp references. They're not clever, and Damon Huard is not Lou Gehrig.

* Mat McBriar is not going to break Sammy Baugh's single-season record for punting average.

* Mike Scifres leads the NFL in net punting average by more than two yards, and he has a 12:1 ratio of kicks downed inside the 20 to touchbacks. That's more impressive than McBriar's 50-yard gross average.

***

Longtime readers know how closely I follow the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and I finally have an opportunity to address this year's nominees. I have mixed feelings about the Seniors candidates, Gene Hickerson and Charlie Sanders. I've thought for years that Hickerson deserves to be in, and he has my full support — a terrific choice. Sanders, however, is a puzzling selection, and I don't think I'd vote for him.

Among the regular nominees, here are my choices for the 25 candidates to advance to the semi-finalist stage. These are personal choices, not predictions. Terrell Davis, Thurman Thomas, Herschel Walker, Michael Irvin, Art Monk, Todd Christensen, Dermontti Dawson, Russ Grimm, Joe Jacoby, Bob Kuechenberg, Bruce Matthews, Randall McDaniel, Gary Zimmerman, Chris Doleman, Randy Gradishar, Kevin Greene, Derrick Thomas, Steve Atwater, LeRoy Butler, Kenny Easley, Lester Hayes, Roger Wehrli, Don Coryell, Clark Shaughnessy, Paul Tagliabue.

There are other guys on the list whom I like and would probably support in the future, but that's my list this year. On to the power rankings, with brackets showing last week's rank.

1. Chicago Bears [1] — Pulled things back after the first half in attempt not to show up the 49ers any more than was necessary, but their 24-0 first quarter had Chicago on pace for a 96-0 victory. The Bears led 41-0 at the end of the second and third quarters, and I believe they could have won by 60 if they'd chosen to.

2. Indianapolis Colts [2] — Broke Denver's 13-game home winning streak with yet another last-minute, game-winning drive orchestrated by Peyton Manning. There can be no question at this point that Manning is the NFL's most clutch regular-season QB. The team's Achilles' heel is run defense: the Colts have allowed the most rushing yards in the league, including an atrocious 5.4 average.

3. New England Patriots [4] — Both teams came out throwing on Monday night, but Tom Brady had an exceptional game (372 yards, 4 TDs), and Brad Johnson got benched in the fourth quarter (185 yards, 3 INTs). This definitely builds the drama for Indy's visit to New England in Week 9. Every year, it's the marquee game of the regular season, and as long as both teams keep winning division titles, we'll keep seeing it.

4. Denver Broncos [3] — The offense finally showed some life, and other teams won't be able to exploit Darrent Williams the way Indianapolis did with Manning and Wayne. Denver has done a good job playing mistake-free football, with only one turnover per game since Week 1, and a league-best 200 penalty yards.

5. New York Giants [6] — The wind helped, but what a job by their defense. After allowing 92 points in their first three games, the Giants have given up only 32 in the four games since, a difference of more than 22 points per game. While the bulk of the credit should go to the defense, part of the improvement is the more consistent play of Eli Manning, who has cut down on turnovers, and a major drop in the team's number of penalties.

6. San Diego Chargers [7] — Shawne Merriman had three sacks against St. Louis, and the Chargers could be in real trouble when his suspension starts. Keep an eye on running back LaDainian Tomlinson, though. He could turn out to be pretty good.

7. Baltimore Ravens [11] — Held the Saints without a rushing first down, limiting Deuce McAllister to 11 yards on five carries, and humiliating Reggie Bush. The Ravens didn't produce offensive fireworks in New Orleans, but they did limit mistakes, with only one turnover, and none by Steve McNair, who got an early confidence-boost with a QB draw for a touchdown.

8. Atlanta Falcons [15] — Two weeks ago, Michael Vick had never thrown for more than two TDs in an NFL game. Now he's done it twice, with seven touchdown passes in his last two games. Vick also continues to make plays with his feet, and figures to be near 1,000 rushing yards at the end of the season, if he stays healthy.

9. New Orleans Saints [5] — Better than they looked against Baltimore. The Saints hurt themselves with mistakes, including four Drew Brees turnovers. Sometimes good teams have bad games, and that's what happened on Sunday. Rookie WR Marques Colston, at this point in the season, is an easy choice for Offensive Rookie of the Year.

10. Cincinnati Bengals [8] — Last year, the defense thrived on turnovers, averaging nearly three per game and leading the league in both takeaways and net turnovers. In recent weeks, that's dried up. The Bengals have only two takeaways in their last four games, and that's why a 3-0 start has slipped to 4-3.

11. Kansas City Chiefs [18] — Dominated Seattle in a way the score doesn't show. Kansas City had 30 first downs, 500 yards of offense, and over 42 minutes of possession. Trent Green will be available soon, but the coaches should stick with Damon Huard. You don't bench the hot hand.

12. Minnesota Vikings [9] — Where does Tony Kornheiser get off trying to discredit the entire instant replay system based on an upheld challenge? That means the result — wrong though it was — is the same as if no replay system existed. The same. Kornheiser also claimed that if the Cardinals had beaten the Bears in Week 6, it would have been the biggest win in franchise history. The Cardinals have existed for over 80 years, and in that time they've won an NFL Championship Game, an upset victory over Dallas in the 1998 playoffs, and a game in which Ernie Nevers alone scored 40 points. Kornheiser thinks those take second fiddle to a non-division regular-season game when the Cardinals aren't a contender?

13. Carolina Panthers [13] — Only managed 204 yards of total offense on Sunday night, with a 16-minute gap in time of possession and three fourth-quarter turnovers. Steve Smith was reckless as a punt returner, fielding one kick at his own two-yard-line, and fumbling another he should have let bounce. Julius Peppers, who was on fire during Carolina's winning streak, has gone sackless in the last two games.

14. Philadelphia Eagles [10] — Three losses in a row, and their offensive output continues to drop. Strong wind and a stout Jacksonville defense account for some of that, but the Eagles can't just rely on Donovan McNabb to blast opposing defenses away every week. I didn't see this game, but it looks like the Jaguar offense killed Philadelphia on the line, gaining 200 rushing yards and holding Jeremiah Trotter to two tackles.

15. Seattle Seahawks [12] — Lots of problems, but the most glaring is the offensive line. Last year, it was among the best in the NFL. This season, there's no running game and only three teams are giving up more sack yardage per game. Shaun Alexander's injury is part of that, but he wasn't exactly tearing things up before he got hurt. The Seahawks really miss Steve Hutchinson.

16. Dallas Cowboys [20] — I like what John Madden had to say about Carolina's frantic last-minute drive: "In this situation it's silly to run plays. I mean, what are you going to do? Do you have a play that scores 20 points?" The Cowboys wore Carolina down, and turned a close game into a rout. Given up for dead after last week's demoralizing loss to the Giants, Dallas looks like a playoff contender again.

17. Jacksonville Jaguars [19] — There's room for debate as to whether Byron Leftwich or David Garrard is the better quarterback, so with Leftwich hurting — even a little — it makes sense for Garrard to play. Jack Del Río played Garrard in Week 8, and the Jags beat Philadelphia. With a similar situation in Pittsburgh, Bill Cowher played a shaky Ben Roethlisberger, and for the second time this season, it cost him big-time.

18. Tampa Bay Buccaneers [16] — Call me crazy, but passing 48 times in storm-force winds seems unwise. Bruce Gradkowski completed under half his passes and averaged less than three yards per attempt, with no completions thrown more than 10 yards downfield. Tampa's wide receivers dropped the balls that made it near them, and the team's two leading receivers were running backs.

19. St. Louis Rams [17] — They ought to be lower than this, padding their record with close wins against bad teams. There are more of those coming — that's the NFC West for you — but the Rams could easily lose their next three games in a row.

20. Green Bay Packers [22] — Had 16 rushing first downs against Arizona, compared to only seven third downs all game, with both Ahman Green and Vernand Morency gaining over 100 yards on the ground. The defense, meanwhile, held Matt Leinart to an 0-for-6 start, with no completions in the first quarter. Defensive end Aaron Kampman sacked Leinart twice and is tied with Merriman for the league lead (8.5).

21. Pittsburgh Steelers [14] — Have to go 8-1 down the stretch to have a realistic shot at the playoffs. But as long we're being realistic, they're not going 8-1.

22. Washington Redskins [23] — Joe Gibbs is a legend in Washington, and rightfully so, but he's doing a disservice to his fans there by sticking with Mark Brunell at quarterback. Brunell is a shadow of his former self, unable to throw downfield or get velocity on his passes, and the team's talented receivers are being wasted. If Jason Campbell isn't ready, Todd Collins should get a chance to justify Al Saunders' faith in him.

23. New York Jets [21] — There's no middle ground for Chad Pennington. In five games this season, he's recorded a passer rating over 90. In the other two, he's been below 30, with five interceptions and no touchdowns. It's hard to win when your quarterback performs the way Pennington did against Cleveland.

24. Buffalo Bills [24] — With more and more teams going to running back by committee (RBBC), the Bills are sticking by Willis McGahee. If we define RBBC as no player with more than 2/3 of the team's handoffs to running backs, 12 of the NFL's 32 teams use RBBC this season, and several other teams — Dallas, Denver, and San Diego among them — are close. In Buffalo, McGahee has 150 carries, Anthony Thomas has 11, and no other running back has any.

25. Houston Texans [25] — Dominated the Titans statistically, but were -5 in turnovers and lost by a touchdown. I apologize to Houston fans for jinxing David Carr last week. Mario Williams got a sack for the second game in a row, and looks like he may be starting to get comfortable at the NFL level.

26. Tennessee Titans [26] — Vince Young is 2-2 as starter, but he's only averaging 116.5 passing yards per game, and that's not a viable recipe for success in the NFL. Young is completing under half his passes, has only three touchdown throws, and has a passer rating of 60.5. He's a leader, and his passing will improve with time, but good teams shouldn't be scared of Young's Titans right now.

27. Cleveland Browns [28] — Head coach Romeo Crennel defeated his former assistant, Eric Mangini. It was evident during the postgame handshake that both men are very fat. Crennel has always been big, but I swear Mangini has gained about five pounds a week since becoming head coach of the Jets.

28. Oakland Raiders [32] — They had 98 yards of total offense, five pass completions, and one third-down conversion. Four of their nine first downs came from penalties. They had a 10-minute deficit in time of possession. Andrew Walter had more sacks than completions. And they won. Truth is much, much stranger than fiction.

29. Detroit Lions [27] — Opponents have completed 70.8% of their passes against Detroit this year. Last week, I pointed a finger at offensive coordinator Mike Martz for some of the Lions' defensive woes, but the problem clearly includes Detroit's defensive philosophy and personnel.

30. Miami Dolphins [29] — I looked for something positive to say about the Dolphins, and here's what I came up with: they're not getting blown out. Miami is 1-6, but hasn't lost by more than 11 points all season.

31. San Francisco 49ers [31] — Despite its problems against the Bears, there's some reason for optimism about a young offense led by Alex Smith and Frank Gore. The same cannot be said of the defense.

32. Arizona Cardinals [30] — The best move in Week 8 was to fire your offensive coordinator — unless you're the Cardinals. The Ravens and Browns took their offenses in different directions and came away with upset wins, but Arizona's offense continues to go nowhere, and Leinart seems to have regressed since the departure of Keith Rowen.

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