Wednesday, November 25, 2009

NFL Week 11 Power Rankings

By Brad Oremland

Five Quick Hits

* keeps getting worse. Now you have to go to 17 different pages to see the entire season schedule. It used to just be one. The league is deliberately making things harder for its users.

* Jon Gruden asked on Monday night whom Chris Johnson should be compared to. Isn't it obvious? Tony Dorsett.

* The Mighty MJD on Denver's QB situation: "[Chris] Simms was bad enough for [Josh] McDaniels to decide that it was worth risking the long-term health of his starting quarterback. I never understood why McDaniels didn't go back to Simms when it was clear that the game was decided, though." I didn't understand why, either.

* There's no such thing as a 17-point play. Rex Ryan called timeout with :05 left in the game, down 31-14. At best, that wastes everyone's time. At worst, someone gets hurt. Did Rex not hear about the end of the Cleveland game last week?

* The Cardinals are one of the oldest teams in the NFL, but they've been terrible for much of their history, so statistics like this keep popping up now that they're good: the team is 5-0 on the road for the first time since 1948, when the Chicago Cardinals made the NFL Championship Game.


We're just past midseason, and in last week's comments section, a small debate arose over what power rankings mean. With apologies to my regular readers, I'd like to explain how I view them, and why I think mine are the best NFL power rankings you'll find.

Some people feel that power rankings should basically just copy and paste the standings. I think that's pointless. If that's what you want, just look at the standings themselves. Maybe something like that makes sense in college football, where teams play radically different schedules and the postseason makes no sense, but in the NFL it's a waste of time.

My power rankings are designed to tell you who the best teams are right now. This column is for recreational purposes only, but if, hypothetically, you wanted to bet on games, my rankings would be a much better guide than, say, ESPN's. What this means is that I'm looking exclusively at recent results. Week 1 is ancient history. Those games before your star player got hurt? Different team. And a close loss to a good team, like Baltimore's heartbreaker against Indianapolis, is more impressive than a close win over a bad team, like Detroit's victory over the Browns. Nobody in their right mind thinks the Lions played better this weekend than the Ravens, and good power rankings should reflect that.

If this makes sense to you, I think you'll appreciate the rankings below. If it's not what you were looking for, almost every major sports website has the traditional rankings that I think are pointless. But really, save yourself some time and just go to the standings.

And now, on to the rankings themselves. Brackets show previous rank.

1. Indianapolis Colts [1] — This is amazing: their last four games have been decided by 1, 2, 3, and 4 points. That's interesting for the coincidence, but worrisome for the Colts. They've been held below 20 points in three of the last four weeks, and the defense is too reliant on big plays. Indianapolis ranks near the middle of the pack in yards allowed, but leads the NFL in points allowed because of good field position and timely turnovers. No matter how good your ballhawks are, there's a lot of luck involved in turnovers, and if you don't get them one week, that can cause problems. I'm mistrustful of "bend, don't break" defenses.

2. New Orleans Saints [3] — Fell behind 7-0, then went on a 38-0 run for an easy victory. The Saints have scored 48 touchdowns this season, 11 more than anyone else and about 5.5 times as many as the Raiders (9). This weekend was the sixth time in 2009 that New Orleans has scored at least 5 touchdowns in a game. New Orleans is one of three teams with a turnover differential of +10 or better. The unsung hero is defensive end Will Smith, who leads the team with 8.5 sacks, more than any two of his teammates combined. New Orleans can clinch the NFC South this week with a win and a Falcons loss.

3. New England Patriots [2] — Laurence Maroney had a breakout game, with 77 yards and 2 touchdowns, but he wasn't New England's best player this weekend. Tom Brady went 28-for-41 with 310 yards, a touchdown, and no turnovers, but he wasn't New England's best player this weekend. Leigh Bodden intercepted three passes and returned one of them for a touchdown, and even he probably wasn't New England's best player this weekend, because Wes Welker caught 15 passes for 192 yards. Welker leads the NFL in receptions despite missing 2½ games.

4. San Diego Chargers [8] — For the second season in a row, they've overcome a substantial deficit to pass Denver for the division lead. San Diego has won five in a row, including three straight against opponents with winning records. This seems kind of unfair, and I feel awful about it, but I'm not going to vote for Vincent Jackson for the Pro Bowl this year. He's having a great season, and he deserves to go. But my ballot is: Reggie Wayne, Andre Johnson, Randy Moss, and Welker. I think it's pretty obvious that those are the top four wide receivers in the AFC right now.

5. Minnesota Vikings [6] — They're still untested, with a laughable .360 strength of schedule, but I've been waiting all season for the Vikings to dominate an opponent, really put them away, and they finally did it this weekend. Minnesota has some tough opponents coming up soon, and those games should tell us more about this team heading into the postseason. In the meantime, can we dispense with the absurd idea that their quarterback is a legitimate MVP candidate? He's not even the most valuable player on his own team (Adrian Peterson and Jared Allen), and he's certainly not the best QB in the league (where would their respective teams be without Peyton Manning and Drew Brees?).

6. Cincinnati Bengals [4] — I'm prepared to chalk this up to a letdown game after they completed the season sweep of Pittsburgh. Bernard Scott played well, so I don't think this was about Cedric Benson's absence. The four turnovers probably had something to do with it. You have to think they'll bounce back, with the next two games at home, against Cleveland and Detroit.

7. Tennessee Titans [11] — Statistically, Vince Young didn't have a great game on Monday night: 116 yards, 84.7 passer rating, a turnover. He did pass for a touchdown and rush for 73 yards. Young was much more impressive than those numbers communicate. He seemed to make a play whenever he needed to, his decision-making was sound, his throws were accurate, and the threat he presents as a runner opened up opportunities in both the air and ground attacks. With Young on the bench, Donovan McNabb in the pocket, and Michael Vick in prison, we didn't see any truly dynamic running QBs last season, and Young reminded us this week why they create such headaches for opposing defenses.

8. Arizona Cardinals [7] — It sounds like Kurt Warner intends to play next week, despite "concussion-like" symptoms that caused him to miss the second half on Sunday. Concussions have been a big story in the NFL this season, but players and teams still aren't taking them seriously enough. Mixed martial arts has a higher safety standard in this area than the NFL does. If a UFC fighter gets a concussion, he'll land on medical suspension for at least 45 days, often longer. In the NFL, he's usually back after missing one or two weeks. As recently as two or three seasons ago, concussions weren't seen as a big deal. If a player got a concussion, I assumed he would be back in action the next weekend, and he usually was. The more research becomes available on this topic, the more clear it becomes how serious concussions are for the future health of the athletes involved. Players, teams, and the league need to do a better job of keeping players with head injuries out of dangerous situations. The Cardinals are going to win their division, and I think it would make a lot of sense for Matt Leinart to play in Week 12 while Warner gets his head right.

9. Pittsburgh Steelers [5] — They're 3-0 when Troy Polamalu plays the whole game, 3-4 when he doesn't — including uncharacteristic losses to Chicago and Kansas City in their first games without him. I don't think that's a coincidence, but I'm also not reading not a whole lot into this week's loss. Pittsburgh outplayed KC in most aspects of the game, out-gaining them almost 2:1, winning time of possession by 2:1, and making twice as many first downs. The Steelers lost because of turnovers and special teams. The latter is a recurring problem that needs to be fixed.

10. Dallas Cowboys [10] — Where has the offense gone? Dallas scored more than 30 points in four of its first seven games, but now has been held to 7 points in back-to-back weeks. Miles Austin's productivity has dried up now that defenses treat him as a go-to receiver, and Jason Witten is having the worst season of his career. Does any offensive coordinator in the league get less out of the talent in his lineup than Jason Garrett?

11. Philadelphia Eagles [15] — Another unimpressive victory. The Eagles have only looked really good once in the last six weeks, when they blasted the Giants 40-17 in Week 8. Their other games during that time have been losses or ugly wins. The offensive is explosive but inconsistent, and that's the main issue right now. There's nothing wrong with the defense that a few guys getting healthy won't fix.

12. Baltimore Ravens [12] — A decade's worth of tough losses crammed into one season. The Ravens are +66 in point differential this season, despite their 5-5 record. They've lost by 6, 3, 2, 10, and 2, to teams with a combined record of 40-10. It's hard to rank them any higher than this when they keep losing, and their last win (over Cleveland) was not impressive, but with an easier schedule — or just a few balls bouncing differently — the Ravens could have three or four more wins.

13. Houston Texans [9] — When your pass attack is as good as Houston's, it can be tempting to relegate the ground game to a formality, but running the ball has hidden benefits. It gives your defense time to rest and keeps the opponents' on the field. It sets up play-action to help your passing game. Even apart from that, it slows down opposing pass rushes and makes their defensive play-calls and gameplanning harder. It also significantly improves your ball control and chances of making first downs. Look at the best third-down conversion rates in the league. It's the Colts, who have been on top for most of the Peyton Manning era, and a bunch of teams with good running games. Look at the bottom: teams with bad offenses, plus the Eagles and Cardinals, who have good offenses but can't run. Houston needs to commit to Steve Slaton. The fumble-itis that got him benched was unacceptable, but he's a weapon, and the team is underperforming if he's not getting 20 touches a game.

14. Miami Dolphins [14] — Ronnie Brown will miss the remainder of the season, but Ricky Williams looks ready to step up in Brown's absence. Williams was the story on Thursday night, but Chad Henne is now 5-2 as starter, with the losses coming to the Patriots and Saints. No shame in that. Henne isn't Peyton Manning, but he's a good fit for this team right now, and there's every reason to believe he'll develop with time. It's too early for any kind of Henne bandwagon, but he's off to a promising start. The Dolphins should look for a receiver in the offseason to give him some weapons.

15. Green Bay Packers [16] — Aaron Rodgers and Alex Smith will always be connected by the 2005 draft. The 49ers chose Smith, and Rodgers unexpectedly fell to 23rd in the draft. Smith started a few games as a rookie, whereas Rodgers sat on the bench and didn't start a game until his fourth season. Obviously, they've developed in different environments, but it seems clear now that the Packers made the better choice. Green Bay lost two defensive starters in the win last weekend. They're really going to miss Al Harris.

16. New York Giants [18] — Their overtime win against Atlanta prompted an incredibly self-righteous and surprisingly ill-informed comment from Bob Costas. I personally don't think the NFL's overtime system is bad enough that it needs fixing, but it isn't perfect, and I understand the appeal of making a coin-flip less consequential. Rather than any of Costas' loony suggestions, here are two easy possibilities: move up the kickoff, or play a timed period instead of sudden death. Until 1994, when kickoffs were moved from the 35-yard line to the 30, the team that lost the coin toss actually had a better record in overtime than the team that won the toss. Wouldn't it make more sense to move the kickoff five yards than to eliminate special teams? Alternatively, instead of a bizarre "sudden death +1" scheme in which it's not sudden death if the coin-flip winner scores on its first possession (which Costas actually suggested), how about an 8-minute or 10-minute overtime period with no sudden death? Rather than partially scrap sudden death, just play an extra 2/3 of a quarter and see who's winning when time runs out. That's fair, and it doesn't require any radical rules changes or confusing and counter-intuitive overtime policies. There are simple solutions to this issue.

17. Carolina Panthers [13] — The reshuffled offensive line played pretty well on Thursday, but they obviously miss injured LT Jordan Gross. Jake Delhomme actually played reasonably well against Miami, but there needs to be more balance in the offense. The passing game has been a liability all year, and this team was successful last season by running when it could and throwing when it had to. DeAngelo Williams should get 15-20 carries every game.

18. Atlanta Falcons [17] — Defense is a huge issue. The Falcons rank 28th in yards allowed and have given up at least 4 touchdowns in four of the last five weeks. Atlanta also has homesickness. The team is 4-0 at home, 1-5 on the road.

19. Jacksonville Jaguars [21] — Regular readers know that I often forecast doom and gloom for running backs with heavy workloads. My recent concerns have centered around Cedric Benson and Michael Turner, both of whom got hurt in Week 10 and were unable to play this weekend. I mention this because Maurice Jones-Drew has three straight games with at least 24 carries and is only 3 attempts from tying his career-high. I know he's your best weapon, but you've got to think long-term about these things.

20. San Francisco 49ers [20] — Lost five of their last six. There's a pretty substantial gap between 19th and 20th this week. The Niners' offense put some nice things together in the second half against Green Bay, but the defense just got massacred. I don't understand letting Alex Smith throw 33 times when Frank Gore only gets 7 carries. This is an issue that affects not only the offense, but the defense, as well. The 49ers only made 11 first downs and had 18:21 time of possession, a 23-minute deficit. No defense can stay fresh when it's on the field that long.

21. Washington Redskins [23] — Injuries are part of the problem, but this team has had the same issues for most of the decade: the offense can't score and the defense doesn't generate turnovers. Washington is 29th in scoring, tied for last in interceptions, and -5 in turnover differential. Jason Campbell has done some good things the last few weeks, and he's not really any worse than the quarterbacks who preceded him in Washington, but this is never going to be an effective offense until it has a QB who can read defenses and throw downfield in ways that Campbell is not able to. Rebuilding the offensive line is a necessity, as well. On defense, part of the issue is scheme: this unit tries to keep everything in front of it, rather than gambling for interceptions or blitzing aggressively. Part of it is personnel. An elite cornerback would do wonders for this team, especially if Albert Haynesworth can stay healthy to draw double-teams and create opportunities for Andre Carter and Brian Orakpo.

22. New York Jets [24] — They've lost three in a row and six of the last seven. Everyone in the 20s is terrible, or they would rank lower than this. Rookie QB Mark Sanchez has become a real liability. The Jets aren't a serious playoff contender at this point, so it's not necessarily a bad idea for him to keep playing, but the coaches need to be aware of his confidence level, and if he starts to lose faith in himself, they might want to sit him a few games for his own good.

23. Chicago Bears [25] — Lost three in a row and five of the last six. Peanut Tillman kept them in the Sunday night game by forcing 3 fumbles, but the defense suffered several key breakdowns, and the offense was unable to mount sustained drives. This team misses its running game a great deal.

24. Kansas City Chiefs [29] — Two wins in a row, and three of their last five. They have the same record as Buffalo, Seattle, and Washington, though they're generally perceived not to be as good as those teams because their success is more recent. Matt Cassel now has twice as many TD passes as interceptions, and the team has played its best football without Larry Johnson. It would be helpful if Cassel threw the ball away rather than taking sacks.

25. Seattle Seahawks [22] — Not competitive in Week 11. The Seahawks were out-gained 2:1, lost time of possession by 25 minutes, converted only one third down, and were held to four rushing yards. This team is getting worse, not better, as the season continues.

26. Buffalo Bills [26] — I don't know what they accomplished by firing Dick Jauron now instead of in January, and other than making T.O. happy, I feel the same way about benching Trent Edwards for Ryan Fitzpatrick. Edwards hasn't played well this season, but no one else on that unit has, either, and unlike Fitzpatrick, Edwards has an upside.

27. Denver Broncos [19] — Obviously, this is an incredibly low rank for a 6-4 team. But has anyone played worse in the last month than Denver? I mean anyone, including the Browns. Since the bye, Denver has lost four straight games, all by double-digits, including a decisive loss to punchless Washington and three humiliating blowouts. Over that time, the Broncos have been outscored 117-37, against teams with a combined record of 21-19. During the same period, Cleveland has been outscored 115-46, against teams with a combined record of 17-23. I don't see much of a difference. This team seems to have totally fallen apart, and I think a reasonable argument could be made for ranking them even lower. Has anyone played worse in the last month?

28. Oakland Raiders [30] — How are we supposed to evaluate this team? They beat the Eagles and the Bengals, but lost to the Chiefs and looked like an FCS team in their games against the Giants and Jets. They probably deserve to be higher than this, but I need to see some consistency first. Oakland is last in the NFL in scoring.

29. St. Louis Rams [28] — They've played a tough schedule that includes teams with the three best records in the league (Colts, Saints, Vikings), plus the Cardinals, who are tied for fourth. They have a winnable game next week, at home against Seattle. The Seahawks won their first meeting this season, 28-0 in Week 1, and next week's game will give us an idea about how each team has changed in the meantime.

30. Tampa Bay Buccaneers [27] — This team used to be known for its defense. Only once this season have the Bucs held an opponent below 20 points (Week 4 vs. Washington). They have been outscored by 130 points this season, third-worst in the NFL.

31. Detroit Lions [31] — Dramatic last-second victory could be a sign that this team is moving in the right direction, getting beyond its culture of losing. Or it could mean that the Browns are just really bad. Detroit has allowed a disgraceful 110.3 passer rating to opposing QBs this season. Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson are battling injuries and may be unavailable for the team's annual Thanksgiving game.

32. Cleveland Browns [32] — When I'm feeling down after a tough loss, nothing cheers me up like a good poem. Here's a haiku I wrote for the Browns:

You lost to Detroit.
At least you scored in this game.
It sucks to be you.

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