Tuesday, November 17, 2009

NFL Week 10 Power Rankings

By Brad Oremland

Five Quick Hits

* Adrian Peterson's fumble problem reared its head again this week, with All Day losing the ball twice against Detroit. Peterson is a phenomenal talent, but 13 fumbles in the last season and a half is way too many. He needs to correct this.

* The Colts' margins of victory this season, in ascending order: 1, 2, 3, 4, 4, 17, 21, 22, and 36 points. More than half of their games have been decided by 4 or less. That's either pretty lucky or really clutch.

* We all make fun of kickers for their half-hearted tackle attempts, but this week Dallas punter Mat McBriar actually forced a fumble. Respect.

* If you have first-and-goal from the one-yard line, don't challenge looking for the touchdown. You'll probably score one anyway — in four tries, a pro team should be able to make a yard — with the added benefit of resting your defense, tiring your opponents', and saving a challenge, not to mention that you might lose your challenge. Under 50% of all challenges get reversed, so if you do throw the red flag, there's a good chance you end up with first-and-one anyway, but minus a challenge, a timeout, and two minutes of your life that you will never get back.

* For years, the incompetent Jeff Triplette and corrupt-seeming Walt Coleman have vied for the title of NFL's worst referee. Triplette, who this week overturned two debatable calls and twice tried to review unreviewable plays, edged ahead in Week 10.

***

It's rare that big sporting events live up to the hype. For the first few years of the Colts/Patriots rivalry, the series was one-sided in New England's favor. In recent years, though, the matchup has seldom disappointed: 27-20 Colts, 38-34 Colts, 24-20 Pats, 18-15 Colts, 35-34 Colts. Don't let that 4-1 record since 2006 fool you: the Colts don't own New England the way the Patriots dominated this series from 2001-04. That's four wins by a touchdown or less, two of them involving improbable comebacks.

Sunday night's contest not only lived up to the hype, it exceeded it. That was the game of the year. Yeah, I would have liked to see crisper defense from the Colts in the first half and from the Patriots in the fourth quarter. But those offenses performed at otherworldly levels, and no game all season was more intense or dramatic. Nights like Sunday are why the NFL is the most popular sports league in the United States.

Naturally, a lot of people are questioning Bill Belichick's decision to go for it on 4th-and-2 from his own 30-yard line. The Patriots didn't make the first down, and the Colts won the game, so obviously his decision didn't work out. But was it really such a bad idea? If you're a Colts fan, are you more worried about going 70 yards or about the Pats making the first down? I'd rather see them punt, and trust my offense to move the ball.

What are the chances of making the two yards? Are they really any lower than the chances of the Colts driving for a touchdown with two minutes and a timeout? This is what Peyton Manning does. I mean, if the ref spots the ball half a yard differently, the Pats run out the clock and win by 6. On those last two drives, New England's defense didn't look like it was up to stopping the Colts, and I'm not so sure Belichick didn't make the right decision.

Now, can we just drop this? It's awful that this debate is overshadowing a great game. We should be celebrating an awesome game, not dissecting a single play. I was impressed with both teams, and that's reflected in this week's rankings. Brackets show last week's rank.

1. Indianapolis Colts [2] — Broke out of their scoring slump (32 points in previous two games combined) by dropping 35 on the Patriots, who came into Week 10 with the second-ranked scoring defense in the NFL. Last season, I wondered if Peyton Manning might be the greatest comeback quarterback in history. I don't even think it's a question any more. He is.

2. New England Patriots [3] — Impressive in defeat. How do you stop this offense? Randy Moss is as dangerous at 32 as he was at 22, and leads the NFL in receiving yards. Prior to this week, no one had scored more than 23 points against Indianapolis this season. The Patriots had that many by halftime. Anyone who's mad that I jumped New England ahead of the Saints, we'll settle this thing in Week 12, when the Patriots travel to New Orleans.

3. New Orleans Saints [1] — Yeah, they're still undefeated, but there are cracks in the armor. The Rams, who are so bad that they have an outside shot at breaking the all-time record for worst point differential, scored a season-high 23 points against New Orleans, outgaining the Saints and winning time of possession. New Orleans' last five opponents have all scored at least 20 points, and run defense looks like a vulnerability, with opponents averaging 4.5 yards per attempt. Only four teams have allowed more rushing TDs this season than the Saints. The team is also dealing with multiple injuries in its defensive backfield.

4. Cincinnati Bengals [7] — Ever since the Bengals stopped being terrible (they were 19-61 from 1998-02), this has been an offense-oriented team, held back by its defense. This year, the defense is great (11th in yards allowed, second in points allowed), and the offense is statistically below-average (17th in yardage, 19th in scoring). Carson Palmer is having a good year, but not a great one (223 ypg, 88.1 passer rating), while both cornerbacks and whoever plays right defensive end (Antwan Odom and Jonathan Fanene) are performing like Pro Bowlers. The Bengals are 5-0 in their division, with the remaining contest at home against Cleveland.

5. Pittsburgh Steelers [4] — Troy Polamalu is hurt again, so maybe they should be lower than this. I'll give it a week and see how they look, but for now, I'm keeping the Steelers ahead of a Minnesota team they beat less than a month ago. Losing to Cincinnati is nothing to be ashamed of. Ben Roethlisberger is a good quarterback, but I hope this loss will quiet, at least temporarily, the assertion that he is a great one.

6. Minnesota Vikings [5] — Yawn. Another win over a terrible opponent. Almost half of Minnesota's games (4/9) have been against teams that are 1-8. If anything meaningful came out of the Vikings' win this week, it was the continued development of third-year wideout Sidney Rice, who leads the NFC with 786 receiving yards. Rice has over 100 yards in three of the last four games.

7. Arizona Cardinals [6] — DB Brian McFadden had a rough game this week, getting called for three major penalties: two pass interference and a facemask, 51 yards altogether. The Cardinals rank an alarming 30th in pass defense, but that's just because opponents throw against them a lot. They're actually above-average in opponents' passer rating (81.4, 15th). The Cardinals are usually winning, and have a good run defense, so even though their pass defense is fine, the opposition would rather take its chances in the air. Arizona has won five of its last six.

8. San Diego Chargers [14] — I gave them up for dead after the Week 6 home loss to Denver, but now the Chargers have won four in a row and the Broncos have lost three straight. Both teams are 6-3, and San Diego can take sole possession of first place in the AFC West with a win in Denver next week. Last week, I lamented that Baltimore RB Ray Rice is likely to miss the Pro Bowl despite his great performance this season. The same is true for Charger QB Philip Rivers. He's having a great season, but it will be tough to edge Manning, Tom Brady, and Matt Schaub. Rivers didn't even make the Pro Bowl last season, when he may have been the best quarterback in the whole league. Even Roethlisberger has a better chance, though he shouldn't.

9. Houston Texans [10] — Perceived as an all-offense team, but the defense has really come around. After giving up 86 points in the first three weeks (28.7 ppg), the Texans have allowed just 102 in the six games since (17.0 ppg). They now rank basically the same in points scored (14th) and allowed (15th). First-round draft pick Brian Cushing is a Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate, with 78 tackles, 8 pass deflections, 2 interceptions, 2 forced fumbles, 1.5 sacks, and a safety.

10. Dallas Cowboys [8] — I've been saying it since before the season began: the Cowboys are a frustratingly up-and-down team, with a few more ups than downs. They'll have games like this week's loss to Green Bay, but they've still won four of the last five and they lead the NFC East. More worrisome than the defeat, Dallas lost two starters this weekend: RT Marc Colombo for the year, and DB Ken Hamlin for at least three games.

11. Tennessee Titans [18] — I realize this is an unorthodox ranking for a 3-6 team. But I think it's clear at this point that the 3-0 Vince Young Titans, who average 35 points a game, are a different team than the 0-6 Kerry Collins Titans, who averaged 14. Since the bye, Tennessee has scored more than twice as many points (105) as its opponents (57).

12. Baltimore Ravens [12] — With apologies to the Patriots, let's give the "Poor Timeout Management" award of the week to Baltimore, which used all of its first-half timeouts 5:15 into the first quarter. I don't think I've ever seen that, and I lived in St. Louis during the Mike Martz era. This was an ugly win for the Ravens. The passing game was nowhere to be found, Steve Hauschka missed another short field goal, and Terrell Suggs injured his knee. I was impressed with punter Sam Koch (and his coverage team), who pinned Josh Cribbs to the sidelines without sacrificing distance, and landed four punts inside the 20 without any touchbacks.

13. Carolina Panthers [17] — Since starting 0-3, they've won four of the last six, including two against teams with winning records (Arizona and Atlanta). Jake Delhomme in the wins: 5 TD, 3 INT, 83.9 passer rating. Delhomme in the losses: 2 TD, 10 INT, 58.8 passer rating. He's gone three straight games without an interception, and the Panthers can win when he takes care of the ball.

14. Miami Dolphins [11] — Ronnie Brown injured an ankle and probably won't be available for Thursday's game in Carolina. The Dolphins have already played a terrible schedule, and it doesn't get any easier: four of the next five games are on the road, and the remaining home dates are against New England, Houston, and Pittsburgh.

15. Philadelphia Eagles [15] — On Sunday, Brian Westbrook suffered his second concussion of the season. I'm not a doctor, and I don't know anything about Westbrook's personal situation, but I think he should retire. Westbrook has had a lot of trouble staying healthy the last two years, and it's not worth sacrificing his future outside of football to test his skills as a 30-year-old running back. I've always like Westbrook, and he should be proud of what he's already accomplished. You don't play around with head injuries.

16. Green Bay Packers [20] — On the CBS pregame show, Charley Casserley said that 60% of Aaron Rodgers' sacks this year have been his fault, rather than his blockers'. Rodgers took another five sacks this week, giving him a double-digit edge (41-29) on Matt Cassel for the dubious league lead. But for the first time all season, I saw Rodgers looking to throw the ball away. He even got called for intentional grounding, which could be seen as a perverse step in the right direction.

17. Atlanta Falcons [13] — I realize I'm beating this to death, so I'm going to stop for a couple weeks after this, but Matt Ryan is just falling apart. He's had a passer rating under 70 in four of the last five games, and his season rating is 78.8, which ranks between Shaun Hill and Chad Henne. The Falcons are 2-3 during his slump, and would probably be winless if not for Michael Turner's heroics over the same period. Turner injured an ankle this week.

18. New York Giants [16] — This was a good weekend for the Giants, with both Dallas and Philadelphia losing. But if you look at the remaining schedule, it's hard to see New York winning enough games to recapture its division lead. In the next two weeks, they face the slumping Falcons and Broncos, followed by home games against the Cowboys and Eagles. I think the Giants need to win three of those four to have a realistic shot at the division title.

19. Denver Broncos [9] — Three straight double-digit losses. Since the bye, Denver has been outscored 85-34 by teams with a combined record of 14-13. Kyle Orton is likely to play in Week 11, and that's good news, but his inability to throw downfield has become a huge issue. Yeah, I know he had the two bombs to Brandon Marshall on Sunday. There was no one within 15 yards of the guy. Hunter Smith could have hit those.

20. San Francisco 49ers [23] — After a victory like Thursday night's, should Niners fans feel happy, or just relieved? When your team is +4 in interceptions, the game shouldn't come down to the last play. The offense struggled badly against a Chicago defense that had been awful. We all know Frank Gore can play, but the passing game is a huge question mark. Even the defense allowed Chicago to move the ball too easily. You're not going to get five interceptions every game.

21. Jacksonville Jaguars [25] — Can we please can the phony controversy about Maurice Jones-Drew kneeling to run the clock instead of scoring a touchdown? Look, I'm sorry he hurt your fantasy team. He's on mine, too. He's even on his own! Jones-Drew even apologized to his fantasy owners after the game. Let's just accept his apology and move on.

22. Seattle Seahawks [22] — Lost a penalty-filled game in Arizona, with both squads called for triple-digit penalty yards. The two teams combined for 20 fouls and 249 yards worth of flags. Justin Forsett played well (123 rush yards, TD) after Julius Jones left the game with an injury.

23. Washington Redskins [26] — Best offensive game of the season. Ladell Betts is nothing special as a backup or third-down specialist, but he always seems to play well as a featured back when Clinton Portis is hurt. Washington had a season-high 174 rushing yards on Sunday, losing yardage only once in 40 attempts. Jason Campbell has three straight games with a passer rating over 90, and all three against teams with winning records.

24. New York Jets [19] — In Week 2, they beat the Patriots. Stop laughing, I'm not kidding. This week, the Jets travel to New England for the rematch. The Pats have Wes Welker and Jerod Mayo back, whereas the Jets have lost Kris Jenkins and Leon Washington. The Patriots are 0-3 on the road, but 5-0 at home (they're 1-0 at neutral sites). The opening line for this game is Patriots by 10½. Just saying.

25. Chicago Bears [21] — Jay Cutler led the NFL in red zone interceptions last season (4). He leads the league in red zone interceptions this season, as well, with enough (5) that no one else is likely to catch him. No, Mr. Delhomme, that wasn't a challenge. Thursday was Cutler's third three-interception game of the 2009 season. His turnover problem seems to be a particular issue in big games and at the most critical moments. You know who Cutler reminds me of? Rex Grossman. Cutler's supporting cast in Denver was good enough to hide some of the problems, but now that he's in Chicago, he looks an awful lot like Bad Rex.

26. Buffalo Bills [24] — Second straight loss by more than 20 points, and the Terrell Owens Watch is on. Some analysts speculated this week that T.O. is intentionally acting out, trying to get the Bills to cut him. What does it say about Owens that this is even a possibility? Buffalo knew what it was getting into by signing Owens, and I have no sympathy.

27. Tampa Bay Buccaneers [27] — Two highest point totals of the season in the two games with Josh Freeman at quarterback, but Freeman had four fumbles this week (only one lost). Kellen Winslow Jr. had 7 catches for 102 yards against Miami. A good tight end is a young QB's best friend.

28. St. Louis Rams [30] — Respectable in their last two games, beating Detroit and scaring the undefeated Saints. Steven Jackson has 414 rushing yards in the last three games.

29. Kansas City Chiefs [29] — Won in Oakland for the seventh season in a row. That's the most consecutive wins any team has ever had against the Raiders in Oakland. What makes this particularly amazing is that the Chiefs are not any good. They're 47-58 over those seven seasons, including an embarrassing 8-33 the last three years. To be fair, the Raiders have won their last three games in Kansas City. This series has the opposite of home field advantage.

30. Oakland Raiders [28] — They're terrible. I don't want to talk about them, and you can't make me.

31. Detroit Lions [31] — Six straight losses since their win over Washington, but there's a huge opportunity next week, when the Browns travel to Detroit. I'll go ahead and call it right now: 13-13 tie. Come on, neither of these teams ever wins.

32. Cleveland Browns [32] — Cleveland's coaches obviously do not trust Brady Quinn. I don't think he can throw downfield, and I think the Browns know it. That's why they stayed with Derek Anderson despite his abysmal play, and that's why they didn't let Quinn throw anything but bubble screens on Monday night. What a pointless play. Even if they could complete it — and at 13-for-31, they usually couldn't — it wasn't going for any yardage. If you won't throw downfield, you might as well just run the ball. Cleveland's offense could not realistically be any worse.

The Browns' coaching staff deserves vehement criticism for its playcalling at the end of the game. Down 16-0 with :20 left, the game is over. Run it once and let the clock run out. Instead, they ran three plays, including one of those with the crazy laterals. Even if it scored, that's not a 16-point play. You still lose. It didn't score, but Cribbs, arguably the Browns' best player, was injured on the play, carted off the field, and taken to a hospital. Awesome job, Browns.

A Special Comment About Jon Gruden

Something needs to be said about this. If you think I'm just cranky and choose to stop reading now, that's fine, and I hope you enjoyed the rest of the column.

Several times Monday night, viewers heard Jon Gruden complain — and he sounded genuinely resentful — that Ron Jaworski always has statistics to back up his arguments. Gruden prefers truthiness to actual truth, and sometimes he simply makes things up:

* In Week 5, Gruden stated that Ricky Williams was "off to the best start of his career." Now, that's an opinion, so it can't technically be wrong. But it really is. Williams got off to a much better start in 2002. This is like saying that William Hung is a better singer than Paul McCartney. Fine, it's not factually incorrect. But you're wrong. I doubt Gruden would even defend the statement if you let him think about it. He just said it because it felt right at the time.

* In Week 6, Gruden called Jamal Williams "a six- or seven-time Pro Bowler." He's a three-time Pro Bowler. What inspires someone to just make something up like that?

* In Week 7, Gruden said that DeSean Jackson had been more explosive through the first six weeks of the season than anyone in NFL history. A little later, he claimed that Donovan McNabb throws the deep ball "as often and as well" as anyone in the league. Again, these are opinions. But they're crazy.

* This week, Gruden asserted that the Ravens led the NFL in turnover differential last year. Either he caught himself, or someone in the booth prodded him, and he then admitted that they might not have. They were third, +13. But Gruden was basically saying, if it's not true, it ought to be. Someone who twists events to fit what he already believes has no value as an analyst, because he's untrustworthy. This is the same reason that Trent Dilfer is so odious. Nothing is going to change what he believes, including being wrong.

I've written before that Gruden is a huge upgrade over Tony Kornheiser, and I still believe that, strongly. Not only is Gruden capable of actual analysis, he loves football. He gets excited during games, and I appreciate that. Kornheiser doesn't even like football, and he tried to change the subject when Jaworski and Mike Tirico were discussing a game. I'm grateful for the change. But it's upsetting that Gruden has such a casual disregard for the truth. What is wrong with someone who makes things up like that, who lies simply because he can? Why on earth does it bother him that Jaws mixes facts in with his opinions?

I suspect that someone at ESPN has already spoken to Gruden about his tendency to make up statistics, but this simply cannot continue. If you present a statistic to your audience, it needs to be true. If you're just voicing an opinion, it should be clearly presented as one, not masqueraded as fact.

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