NFL Week 17 Power Rankings

Five Quick Hits

* Best announcers this season: Mike Tirico and Sam Rosen. I don't like any of the analysts, but I guess Ron Jaworski wasn't terrible.

* Unusual sanity in this year's Pro Bowl selections. The wrong punters are going, but what else is new? Almost all of these guys are deserving.

* The Jets led the NFL in yards allowed, points allowed, and rushing. Fine, they can't throw. They can't be taken lightly.

* Matt Schaub led the NFL in passing yards this season. If you could trade a pair of second-round picks for a top-10 quarterback, is there ever a time you wouldn't?

* Super Bowl XLIV: San Diego Chargers over Dallas Cowboys.

***

"It's one thing to take a whippin'. It's another to embarrass yourself." So said Cris Collinsworth on Sunday night, and it's that philosophy that's driving my wild card playoff predictions. Since the 2002 realignment, six playoff teams have lost their regular season finale by at least 20 points. Only one of those six (the 2004 Philadelphia Eagles) won a playoff game. Is it different when you're basically playing the B team? I don't think it is. If you accept losing one game, it's hard to make yourself win the next one. Look at the Colts' repeated postseason failures after resting players. Do I think the Cowboys, Jets, and Packers will steamroll their opponents the same way they did in Week 17? Of course not. But I do think they're all likely to win.

Since these are the last rankings of the season, please remember these are intended to evaluate end-of-season power and don't necessarily reflect a team's accomplishments over the entire season. Brackets show last week's rank. Please check back tomorrow for my all-pro team and end-of-season awards.

1. San Diego Chargers [1] — This team is not invincible. It has a weak running game and the defense is middle-of-the-pack. What make this team exceptional are its passing game and special teams. The offensive line and wide receivers are plenty good, as is Darren Sproles, but this team's success is first and foremost about Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates. Rivers is as good as any quarterback in the league right now, and Gates is borderline uncoverable. The Chargers also have the best special teams in the league, with Nate Kaeding, Mike Scifres, and Kassim Osgood all at or near the top of their respective positions. Sproles is a dangerous returner, too.

2. Dallas Cowboys [5] — Just last week, I wrote that "Dallas probably isn't balanced or consistent enough to make a Super Bowl run," and this week I picked them to make the Super Bowl anyway. Can the Cowboys really win three straight against good opponents? They swept Philadelphia this season, and I believe they'll make it 3-0 when the Eagles return to Dallas on Saturday. I have little faith in the Vikings, and I think the Cowboys' passing attack will create problems for Minnesota. I don't think the Saints will win a game, I don't think the Cardinals can win in Dallas, and I don't think the Packers are battle-tested in big games to win an NFC Championship on the road. Am I confident in all of this? No, but it's the direction I'm going.

3. Green Bay Packers [4] — Since realignment, teams that win their final regular season game by at least 14 are 17-7 in their playoff openers. The Packers outscored opponents by 164 points this season (second only to New Orleans, +169) and have won 7 of their last 8 games. If I'm Green Bay, I'm pulling for the Cowboys to beat Philadelphia, which would send the winner of Green Bay/Arizona to New Orleans. The Saints are slumping, and the Vikings gave Green Bay problems this year.

4. Baltimore Ravens [8] — Pass defense isn't a weakness any more. It was early in the season, with the Ravens getting horrendous play from their cornerbacks in particular. They finished third in the NFL in both points and yards allowed, eighth in pass defense, and sixth in opponents' passer rating. Unfortunately, Baltimore's offense has withered while its defense has thrived. Joe Flacco has thrown for under 200 yards in three of the last five games, and this team won't be able to score if it can't run effectively. I think the Ravens can beat New England if Ed Reed is healthy, but even if he plays, I suspect it won't be at 100%.

5. Philadelphia Eagles [2] — Defense is slumping at the wrong time. They allowed 19.6 ppg in the first 12 games, 25.5 since. Six of their last eight opponents have scored at least 20. Philadelphia averaged 29.5 points against teams other than Dallas, and just 8.0 against the Cowboys. The Eagles rely on big plays, so when an opponent shuts down DeSean Jackson and doesn't turn the ball over, Philly struggles. Missing center Jamaal Jackson is a big deal when Jay Ratliff lines up over his replacement. Dallas by a touchdown.

6. Arizona Cardinals [6] — This year's Cardinals are better than last year's, and they're a dangerous opponent in the playoffs, but Green Bay is a terrible matchup, especially if Anquan Boldin doesn't play. The Packers are an okay running team, but they're a great passing team, and Arizona struggles to defend the pass. The Packers also have great pass defense (68.8 passer rating allowed), and the Cardinals can't run the ball. Green Bay by 7.

7. Tennessee Titans [7] — Overcame their 0-6 start to finish 8-8. Chris Johnson is a phenomenal talent, the best running back in the league. This year he rushed for over 2,000 yards and became the first player ever with over 2,500 yards from scrimmage in a season. LenDale White isn't nearly the same kind of player, but I hope the Titans will work White into the game occasionally so CJ can get some rest. This franchise has historically cut short the careers of its most promising runners (Earl Campbell and Eddie George) by overworking them. It would be a shame if the same happens to Johnson.

8. Indianapolis Colts [3] — "You play to win the game. Hello? You play to win the game. You don't play it to just play it. That's the great thing about sports. You play to win. And I don't care if you don't have any wins, you go play to win. When you start telling me it doesn't matter, then retire. Get out. 'Cause it matters ... this whole conversation bothers me."

9. Pittsburgh Steelers [10] — Done in by injuries. Everyone knows about Troy Polamalu, but the team also lost standout DE Aaron Smith, who went on injured reserve after five games. Guards Chris Kemoeatu and Darnell Stapleton, both of whom started in last year's Super Bowl, played a combined 12 games this season. Missing the postseason may turn out to be a blessing in disguise, allowing this team to get totally healthy in preparation for another deep postseason run in 2010.

10. Houston Texans [11] — Secured the first winning season in franchise history and continue to make progress as an organization. Losing Alex Gibbs and/or Kyle Shanahan — the team's top offensive assistants — would be a major blow, but is a distinct possibility if Mike Shanahan returns to coaching. Houston won its last four games in a row.

11. Carolina Panthers [12] — How a team with Steve Smith finished 27th in passing offense is one of the great mysteries of our time. The surprising extension given to Jake Delhomme last offseason looks worse than ever after the team's success with Matt Moore. Carolina finished as one of the hottest teams in the league, winning three in a row and outscoring its opponents 90-26. Jonathan Stewart ran for over 100 yards in all three games, and partners with DeAngelo Williams to give the Panthers the top RB duo in the NFL heading into next season.

12. New England Patriots [9] — They went 0-3 without Wes Welker, but 8-0 at home. Tom Brady reportedly has a broken finger and three broken ribs, though Bill Belichick has denied this rather forcefully. These aren't the unbeatable Pats of 2003-04, but I think there's enough magic left for a home win over the Ravens, who were 3-5 on the road on this season. Pats by a field goal.

13. Minnesota Vikings [16] — Reclaimed some momentum entering the postseason. In fact, they flat-out ran up the score. Up 34-0 with 6:18 remaining in the third quarter, Minnesota went for it on 4th-and-goal. They made it, increasing the lead to 41-0. That's cold. Adrian Peterson led the league in touchdowns this season (18).

14. New Orleans Saints [15] — Maybe they can get things sorted out during the bye. In the last five games, the Saints went 2-3, didn't hold any opponents under 20 points, and tallied their three lowest point totals of the season. Their last good game was November 30th. Can they recapture momentum a month and a half later? Injuries were part of the problem, but getting a couple guys healthy may not be enough for New Orleans to hold off the dangerous NFC wild card winners.

15. Atlanta Falcons [19] — Closed the season with three straight victories. Against a much tougher schedule than they faced last year, the Falcons gritted through and finished with a winning record. In the offseason, I'd like to see them add a defensive playmaker: a guy who will get 10 sacks, someone who returns interceptions for touchdowns. John Abraham is getting old, and Brent Grimes showed promise, but needs help.

16. New York Jets [20] — Routed the Bengals. I know Cincinnati didn't care about winning, but they didn't want to get humiliated on national television. The starters played the first half, and were out-gained 250 yards to 7. Time of possession was 24:50-5:10. First downs were 16-1, with Cincinnati's on a 5-yard illegal contact penalty. Giants Stadium will be razed this offseason, and the Bengals finished 0-11 there. David Harris sprained an ankle in the win, and would be a major loss if he can't play next weekend.

17. Miami Dolphins [13] — Played one of the hardest schedules in the league, with 12 games against opponents at or above .500. This is a young team with a lot of promising players, and upgrades at a few key positions could make it a contender next season. Backup QB Pat White, who suffered a scary-looking injury on Sunday, has been released from the hospital and should be okay. Classy move by CBS to cover the injury instead of going to commercial. They even stopped scrolling scores, just focusing on the gravity of the situation.

18. San Francisco 49ers [21] — Finished 8-8 and made real progress this year. The heart of this team is its young defense, and tight end Vernon Davis emerged as a major weapon on offense. That said, the Niners were one of only six teams to average under 300 yards per game this season, and they need an explosive downfield threat in the passing game. San Francisco won three of its last four.

19. Cincinnati Bengals [18] — I don't see how they can beat the Jets. Vegas has them as a favorite, which worries me. I'm still picking New York. Cincinnati's starters got pushed around on Sunday night, and they were dominated on the line. I know the Bengals had injuries, and I know they weren't showing everything. That kind of line play isn't something you can turn on and off. Everyone knows what the Jets are going to do; it's a question of whether you can stop the run and whether you can score on them. I'm not convinced that Cincinnati can do either. Jets by 6. The Bengals haven't won a playoff game since the 1990 season.

20. Cleveland Browns [22] — The Browns were terrible last season. They were terrible this year, too. The difference is that this time Cleveland ended on a four-game winning streak. How many teams have a longer winning streak right now? One, the Chargers. You'd have a hard time convincing me that Eric Mangini doesn't deserve a second year. It's easy enough to fire him then if he has another crappy season, Mr. Holmgren. Right now, I don't see how you can argue that this team isn't moving in the right direction.

21. Chicago Bears [25] — Progress in some areas, regression in others. Let's start with the good: Chicago's pass defense improved this year. It netted fewer interceptions, but made up for that with more sacks and many fewer yards allowed. The bad was a running game that most weeks went nowhere. This team planned to build around Matt Forte after last year's success, and neither Forte nor his blockers satisfied expectations. In between was new QB Jay Cutler. He easily led the NFL in interceptions and cost the Bears a couple of games pretty much single-handedly. But he also opened a new dimension to the offense — deep passing — and played better at the end of the season. If confidence was an issue, feeling like he had to prove himself to the Chicago fans, that's something he can work out of.

22. New York Giants [17] — Suffered two really embarrassing losses to close out the season, going down by a combined 85-16 in the final two weeks. First-year defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan was fired after the Giants allowed 427 points, third-worst in the NFL. In 2008, the team allowed just 294 points, fifth-best.

23. Tampa Bay Buccaneers [23] — I didn't think Raheem Morris was a particularly wise hire as head coach, and the team did not play well under his direction this year. But it's unreasonable to expect immediate success from any new coach, and if he was worth giving a chance to one year ago, he deserves another season or two to prove that. Bill Walsh went 2-14 as a rookie head coach. Chuck Noll was 1-13. Bill Parcells finished his first season 3-12-1. Okay, Morris is probably the next Jim Zorn, not the next Chuck Noll. He deserves another year.

24. Oakland Raiders [27] — Reports indicate that owner Al Davis plans to fire Tom Cable just one year after he was promoted to full-time head coach. The team tied for its best record since 2002, and Cable has the best winning percentage (a ghastly .321) of the last four Raider HCs. How is this team ever going to be successful if it changes coaches every season?

25. Denver Broncos [14] — Are we going to start talking about the Broncos in December like we did about the Cowboys the last couple of years? They haven't had a winning record in December since 2005! Snark aside, that was quite the collapse after 6-0 and 8-4. This team has serious issues on run defense and in its passing game. Losing Brandon Marshall may be inevitable at this point, but that would be a huge setback. He's a talented kid.

26. Kansas City Chiefs [31] — Ranked one spot behind a team they just beat by 20 points. I hate doing that. Here's the thing: I didn't really know what to do with Denver, KC, Oakland, and Washington. The Chiefs and Raiders both beat Denver in the last three weeks. Washington beat them, too, though that was forever ago. Washington also crushed the Raiders last month. But Washington bombed in its last three games, while Denver played tough against some good teams and finished with about twice as many wins as the other three. It's a tough call, I think, but at this point in the rankings, 24-27, how much do we really care?

27. Washington Redskins [26] — Jim Zorn wasn't much of a head coach, but he handled an awful situation with grace and class this year. There is a clear good guy (Zorn) and bad guy (Daniel Snyder) in the way Zorn's job status was handled. Mike Shanahan appears to be a lock as Zorn's successor. Maybe I'm the only one, but I don't think Shanahan is a good hire. He won two Super Bowls, but that was over a decade ago. Why not hire Tom Flores while you're at it? How successful is Shanahan going to be without John Elway, Terrell Davis, Rod Smith, Ed McCaffrey, Shannon Sharpe, and the best offensive line in the league? Not very, I suspect.

28. Buffalo Bills [28] — They've already fired interim head coach Perry Fewell, who went 3-4 after Dick Jauron was fired in midseason. With Bill Cowher reportedly uninterested in the job, the Bills should probably try to retain Fewell at least as defensive coordinator. Buffalo's pass defense was exceptional this season, the one strength this team could build around going forward. I'd like to see Trent Edwards get another chance as quarterback next season, with a real offensive line and a pass-catching tight end acquired through the draft or free agency. The problem wasn't Edwards (who had a better passer rating than Ryan Fitzpatrick), it was his help.

29. Seattle Seahawks [29] — Seven teams were outscored by over 100 points this season: Seattle (-110), Cleveland (-130), Kansas City (-130), Tampa Bay (-156), Oakland (-182), Detroit (-232), and St. Louis (-261). The Seahawks will have the sixth selection in next year's draft, their second straight year in the top 10. Seattle lost its last four games in a row.

30. Jacksonville Jaguars [24] — Closed the season with four consecutive defeats. Their defensive line, the heart of a unit that led the team to playoff performances in '05 and '07, is awful. Jacksonville finished last in the league in sacks, by a wide margin. If the Jags collected an extra sack every game, they still would have finished 29th. That needs to be addressed.

31. Detroit Lions [30] — The defense remains terrible. At least they won a game this year. Matthew Stafford, Kevin Smith, and Calvin Johnson all have a future if the Lions can put some blockers around them.

32. St. Louis Rams [32] — Worst teams of the decade:

10) 2001 Carolina Panthers, 1-15, -157 points
9) 2002 Cincinnati Bengals, 2-14, -177
8) 2003 Arizona Cardinals, 4-12, -227
7) 2004 San Francisco 49ers, 2-14, -193
6) 2000 Arizona Cardinals, 3-13, -233
5) 2009 Detroit Lions, 2-14, -232
4) 2000 Cleveland Browns, 3-13, -258
3) 2008 St. Louis Rams, 2-14, -233
2) 2008 Detroit Lions, 0-16, -249
1) 2009 St. Louis Rams, 1-15, -261

Yeah, I know, the Rams won a game. They played an easier schedule. Last year's Lions were frequently competitive, and this year's Rams seldom were. They lost by an average of 27-11. They had a terrible defense, and one of the worst offenses in history. The 2009 Rams were the worst team of the '00s.

Comments and Conversation

January 6, 2010

Anthony Brancato:

It of course will never happen, but the Eagles should start Kevin Kolb at QB on Saturday.

McNabb is a gutless piece of garbage.

I see the Eagles losing by a lot more than a touchdown (and quite possibly getting shut out again) - and this will carry over into next season, when I will be genuinely suprised if the Eagles don’t reprise this year’s Tennessee Titans.

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