Tuesday, December 14, 2010
NFL Week 14 Power Rankings
Five Quick Hits
* Here's how the 4-9 Arizona Cardinals win the NFC West and make the playoffs. They win all their remaining games and finish 7-9. The 49ers lose at San Diego. The Rams and Seahawks lose both of their next two, then tie in Week 17.
* I assume you've all seen the video of the Metrodome roof collapsing, but if not, or if you just want another look, click here.
* On top of everything else they're doing right, the Patriots set an NFL record by going five straight games without a turnover.
* Remember when Philip Rivers was going to break Dan Marino's single-season passing record? He'd have to average 406 yards over the last three weeks to make it. Peyton Manning needs 352.
* Finally, a moment of silence for Aaron Rodgers fantasy owners. He's carried you all season, and now his second concussion probably got you eliminated from the playoffs. Please bow your heads for these valiant pretend-teams, gone too early.
The Jets have suspended and fined — but not fired — Sal Alosi. If you somehow missed it, during the Dolphins game, Miami gunner Nolan Carroll was running down a punt when Alosi, the Jets' head strength and conditioning coach, stuck out his knee. Carroll went down, and although he was not seriously injured, that is revolting behavior with no place in the game. In this year of publicized fines, it's the dirtiest thing I've seen in the NFL all season, someone not involved in a play attacking someone who's concentrating on the game. It's cowardly, like hitting someone from behind. Alosi released a statement after the game which read, in part, "My conduct was inexcusable and unsportsmanlike and does not reflect what this organization stands for." That much is correct. The organization should have proven it by terminating Alosi's contract.
Alosi didn't get away with a slap on the wrist. He's been suspended without pay for the rest of the season, including playoffs, and fined $25,000. That's chump change for many players, but it's a lot for an assistant coach. Firing him actually might have been kinder.
On to the Week 14 power rankings, brackets show last week's rank.
1. New England Patriots  — Partying like it's 2007. In the last two weeks, the Patriots have beaten the 9-4 Jets and Bears by an average score of 41-5. This week's game could have been worse: it was 36-0 with 25 minutes left. Deion Branch had another big game, 8 catches for 151 yards and a touchdown. The answer to this question is probably no, but should Branch's success make us re-evaluate Randy Moss at all? No one doubts his brilliance as a young player in Minnesota, but after three years of injuries and diminished output, Moss resurrected his career playing opposite Wes Welker and catching bombs from Tom Brady. Would Branch have done the same thing, or close to it, if he'd still been in New England? How much is the player, and how much is the system and the supporting cast?
2. Atlanta Falcons  — If the Patriots weren't playing at such a ridiculous level, I think people would be really impressed with the Falcons right now. They're doing everything they're supposed to, beating good teams and destroying bad ones. Facing the league's worst offense, John Abraham and Kroy Biermann had 2 sacks each. That triples Biermann's season total, but it gives Abraham his sixth career season of double-digit sacks. That ties him with Dwight Freeney, Julius Peppers, and Jason Taylor for most among active players. Abraham, like his team, tends to slip under the radar a little. Everyone knows they're good, but not quite how good.
3. Philadelphia Eagles  — Lost MLB Stew Bradley, probably for the year, with a dislocated elbow, but they got a key divisional win and proved they can win even when Michael Vick looks mortal. Quintin Mikell and Ernie Sims had impressive games for the defense. The Eagles are 5-1 since the bye and lead the NFL in yards per game (402.8). Is DeSean Jackson a 12-year-old? He's clearly got talent, but he acts like a child, consistently. Did you stay up for his post-game interview with Andrea Kremer? Very strange, a little disturbing.
4. Pittsburgh Steelers  — Four straight wins and another great game from the defense. The offense, though, is poor. In the last three weeks, Pittsburgh has scored a total of two touchdowns on offense. That's facing one good defense (Baltimore) and two awful ones (Cincinnati ranks 24th and the Bills are dead last). The Steelers have put together a nice offensive game here and there, but the offense has never really gotten in synch, and that has to change if the team is going to make a postseason run. Everyone is talking about Troy Polamalu, but LaMarr Woodley had 2 sacks and an interception return for a touchdown this weekend.
5. Baltimore Ravens  — How good is the defense, really? Baltimore ranks 10th in yards allowed, fourth in points allowed. That's very good. But the Ravens are 12th in yards per carry allowed (4.1), tied for 20th in sacks (24), and tied for 28th in takeaways (17). The MNF announcers several times referred to Ray Lewis and Ed Reed as the most significant members of the unit, like we're still in 2006. Haloti Ngata and Terrell Suggs are the best players on the Baltimore defense this season. I like the way the team has used Ray Rice the last few weeks. He's their best offensive player.
6. New Orleans Saints  — If I hear one more person insist that the Saints are flying under the radar, I am just going to go berserk. I swear these people think we are children, and there's some weird conspiracy to have every single television station give us the same message. The Saints ... are ... flying ... under the radar. Wash, rinse, repeat. The Saints aren't getting as much hype as the Patriots and Eagles because they are not as good as the Patriots or Eagles. They have played better following a three-week stretch in which they lost to both Arizona and Cleveland, however, and their first-round playoff game could be a rematch of a contest they just won 31-13. New Orleans had 13:01 time of possession in the first quarter, and Malcolm Jenkins intercepted two passes, including one for a 96-yard touchdown return.
7. Green Bay Packers  — Sometimes a player's value is best revealed by his absence. We all knew Aaron Rodgers was a good quarterback. But when the Packers lost him with an injury, Green Bay scored a season-low 3 points against one of the worst defenses in the NFL. Maybe Rodgers is even more valuable than we thought. Same thing for Matt Cassel in Kansas City. Sure, we knew he was having a nice season. But man, the Chiefs just fell apart without him. My policy in these rankings is to evaluate teams based on their strength right now, and without Rodgers, Green Bay is not a top-10 team. This was his second concussion of the season, and I can't imagine he's going to play in Week 15, but I do suspect he'll be back for Week 16, and to avoid a rollercoaster in the rankings, I've assigned the Packers a modest drop this week. Cullen Jenkins also missed this week's game, and now reportedly could be out for the season.
8. San Diego Chargers  — The Chiefs and Chargers have been playing each other since 1960, when they were the Dallas Texans and Los Angeles Chargers. In 102 meetings, this was San Diego's largest-ever margin of victory and its first regular-season shutout of the Chiefs. KC has used backup QBs before; the Chargers came out on fire for a game they absolutely had to win, and destroyed an important rival in all phases of the game. San Diego had five times as many first downs (25-5), a 359-yard advantage, and more than twice as much time of possession. On its good days, this is a powerhouse team.
9. New York Giants  — Winners of three in a row, including two straight blowouts, but Eli Manning has entered his annual cold-weather swoon. This is like clockwork. Every year, Eli Manning plays well in September and October, and people announce with tremendous authority that he has turned the corner and is one of the great QBs in the NFL, sometimes even asserting that he is better than Peyton and sliced bread. Then November rolls around, and Eli turns into Mark Sanchez. This isn't just about weather: Tom Brady plays outdoors, in conditions just as bad, and his passer rating in December (92.8) is the same as in September (93.1). Eli's per-game averages, by month:
In a 2010 context, Eli is Kyle Orton the first two months (87.5 rating) and Carson Palmer the last two (78.1).
10. Chicago Bears  — Embarrassing loss at home should be a reality check for a team with dreams of playing in the Super Bowl. I just don't know how a team can succeed with such inconsistent play from the offense, ranked 30th in yards per game. In Chicago's nine wins, Jay Cutler has 16 TDs and 5 INTs (106.5 rating); in the losses, 1 TD and 7 picks (52.6). Matt Forte in wins: 74 rush yards per game, 4.6 per carry. Forte in losses: 26 per game, 2.6 per rush. Chicago's passing game is better now than it was in the '06 Super Bowl season, but the run game is weaker and the defense is less dominant. Plus, in '06, the NFC just didn't have very good teams. I don't think the '06 Bears would get past this year's Falcons or Eagles. They might not get past this year's Bears. The collapse of the Metrodome roof may help Chicago win the NFC North, as next week's game is likely to be played either (1) outside Minnesota or (2) outdoors, either of which would minimize — if not totally negate — the Vikings' homefield advantage.
11. Jacksonville Jaguars  — Somebody has to be 11th. Am I happy it's a team with no wide receivers and no defense? I am not. But the Jags are playing well enough to win, and they certainly get full marks for resilience and exciting finishes. This weekend marked the fifth time in the last six games that Jacksonville made up a double-digit point deficit. Week 15 is the most important game of the season; a win at Indianapolis would guarantee the Jags their first division title since the 1999 AFC Central.
12. Dallas Cowboys  — Allowed at least 30 points for the third game in a row and the seventh time this season. All year, I've been crying for a balance between the run and pass, but it appears the only passes that have been eliminated are to the wide receivers. Jason Witten and Felix Jones are more involved than ever, while explosive players like Miles Austin, Roy Williams, and Dez Bryant (even before his injury) seem to have become after-thoughts with Jon Kitna under center. Since 2006, the Cowboys are 39-22 (.639) with Tony Romo and 6-9 (.400) without him. Kitna has played well for a backup — I'm sure the Cardinals or Panthers would love to have him — but he's still a backup.
13. Oakland Raiders  — They lost, and their playoff hopes are gone. But let's talk a little about the year Darren McFadden is having. In just 11 games, he has 993 rushing yards, with a 5.2 average, plus 437 receiving yards and a total of 10 touchdowns. His highlights from the Jacksonville game reminded me of Bo Jackson. Prior to this season, McFadden had 856 career rushing yards, with a 4.4 average as a rookie and 3.4 in 2009.
14. Indianapolis Colts  — Road win over a division opponent, and you never take those for granted, but how encouraging is a 2-point victory over a team that's now lost six in a row? Allowing 31 points against New England is nothing to be ashamed about. Giving up 36 to the Chargers and 38 to the Cowboys was kind of a fluke with those interception returns. But now the Colts have allowed at least 28 points in four straight games, and I shudder to think what Maurice Jones-Drew will do to their run defense in Week 15.
15. Tampa Bay Buccaneers  — Remain at 15th, even though they won and the teams I had 11th-14th all lost, for two reasons. One is injury. The already-decimated defense lost two more starters this weekend, most notably rookie DT Gerald McCoy, who tore his biceps. The other reason is that Tampa's victory this weekend was far from impressive, arguably lucky or flukey.
16. Kansas City Chiefs  — Obviously not the same team without Matt Cassel (see Green Bay comment for more). Brodie Croyle is now 0-10 as a starter in the NFL.
17. Miami Dolphins  — Win over the Jets didn't elevate their 31st-ranked scoring offense. Miami has scored only 20 touchdowns this year. The Panthers have 15, and everyone else has at least 25. That means the 30th-best offense has 25% more TDs than the Dolphins. On Sunday, Chad Henne had as many sacks as completions (5). Miami finished with 131 yards and 6 first downs, but the defense did its job, and punter Brandon Fields had a sensational game. He punted 10 times, with the following net yardage: 45, 47, 38, 46, 62, 52, 58, 56, 46, 56. That's a net average — measuring where the other offense takes over rather than where the ball is caught — of 50.6 yards. And that 38-yarder? Downed at the 10-yard line. Great game by Fields. The league average for net yardage this season is 37.8.
18. New York Jets  — They did this last year, too. After a hot start, the Jets appeared to drop out of the playoff picture before rebounding to reach the AFC Championship Game. Will this year's team sneak into the playoffs and make a postseason run like that, too? There's no real reason to think so, other than that they did it last year. The offense has been putrid the last two weeks. Even good players and teams have slumps once in a while — look at Peyton Manning — but I think the good games were a lucky hot streak rather than this being an unlucky cold streak. Yes, the Jets are better than they've shown the past two games. They're not a good offense. It is plausible that New York could miss the playoffs, but I think it is extremely unlikely. They'll get in. Damien Woody will miss the rest of the regular season, and possibly the playoffs.
19. San Francisco 49ers  — Intercepted Matt Hasselbeck four times in a crucial divisional win. I'm surprised Brian Westbrook isn't getting more touches. Obviously the coaches like Anthony Dixon, and maybe they're concerned about Westbrook's durability, but he's an explosive player, and if I'm the Niners, I want the ball in his hands.
20. Houston Texans  — Was that the game of the year? It wasn't the prettiest game, even sloppy at times, but it was exciting. Houston outgained the Ravens 489-253, but lost on turnovers, special teams, penalties, and red zone play. The Texans are 1-6 since the bye. There will be a lot of talk, over the coming weeks, about Gary Kubiak's job security. I don't believe Kubiak is a great head coach, but I do think he's in the top 32, probably the top 24. I'd keep him.
21. Minnesota Vikings  — What would the score have been in Minnesota? The collapse of the Metrodome roof changed a Sunday home game into a Monday road game. Were the Giants going to outclass them regardless? Would the home crowd and a more familiar field have made a difference? Did the uncertainty and change of plans mess with their heads? The Vikings got routed in Week 14. Good games in the loss: Kevin Williams and Chris Kluwe.
22. Buffalo Bills  — Started 0-8, 3-2 since. The Bills scored more points in Week 11 against Cincinnati (49) than in the previous three games combined (43) or the following three games combined (also 43). Buffalo has been held below 20 in six of the last seven games, but the defense has picked up to keep them competitive. The Bills forced 5 fumbles this weekend, recovering 2.
23. Cleveland Browns  — Last week, I wrote that Seneca Wallace should be starting ahead of Jake Delhomme. This is obvious to me, like saying that carrots are healthier than marshmallows. Everywhere he's been, Wallace has outplayed the white QBs who started ahead of him. Four times, Wallace has thrown at least 100 passes in a season. In those four seasons, his passer rating is 83.7. The combined rating of Matt Hasselbeck (2006, '08, '09) and Delhomme ('10) is 71.0, and Wallace is higher in each individual season. Delhomme has played in five games this season, and been terrible in four of them. There's no excuse for a team with Peyton Hillis to have the 29th-ranked offense in the league.
24. St. Louis Rams  — Look, I know he's going to win the vote in a runaway, but Sam Bradford cannot be the Offensive Rookie of the Year. He can't. The Rams are 6-7, but if they played anything resembling a real schedule they'd probably be about 3-10, even though the defense is about average. This team has a very bad offense, ranking 25th in yardage and 26th in scoring. Bradford ranks 22nd in passer rating. That's good enough to be a starting QB — we need 32 — but it's below average. I realize quarterback is a uniquely important and challenging position, so maybe we'll say that's equivalent to being solidly average at another position. But in what universe is Bradford having a better season than LeGarrette Blount (667 yds, 4.5 avg, 5 TD), Chris Ivory (683 yds, 5.3 avg, 5 TD), Mike Williams (52 rec, 784 yds, 7 TD), and all of the rookie linemen who have secured starting jobs this season? It's mindless quarterback hype. Yeah, Bradford has had his moments, and certainly he could have a future at the position. Right now he has a lower passer rating than Alex Smith, and he's averaging 6.1 yards per attempt, lower than everyone except fellow rookie Jimmy Clausen.
25. Detroit Lions  — Broke a 19-game losing streak against the NFC North, winning a division game for the first time since 2007. It was also Detroit's first win all season in a game decided by less than 12 points. The Lions are not precisely a bad team; they could give a better fight to a top opponent than the Rams or 49ers could. But games like this, where the Lions do what they need to and close out a winnable game, are just too few and far between. As Andy Behrens wrote, "Drew Stanton's special brand of awful was just slightly better than Matt Flynn's brand of awful on Sunday."
26. Seattle Seahawks  — Lost by more than two touchdowns for the seventh time this season. Hey, remember when Matt Hasselbeck was good? That was three years ago. He's not good enough to start any more.
27. Washington Redskins  — Three straight losses, and five of the last six. Washington blew innumerable opportunities to win this week, including (but not limited to) two missed field goals from under 40 yards and a bad snap on an extra point that would have sent the game to overtime. Why not go for two there? Your offense is playing well, and your kicking has been terrible all game. Forget overtime, a two-point conversion wins it. This team can't get out of its own way.
28. Tennessee Titans  — A couple weeks ago, I voted for Marc Mariani as the AFC's Pro Bowl kick returner. On Thursday, Mariani fumbled a kickoff return and fair caught two of three punts, at least one of them returnable. For the season, Mariani has fair caught 40% of his punt returns and fumbled three times. If I was voting again, I would probably choose Brad Smith (NYJ).
29. Arizona Cardinals  — Jay Feely rushed for a touchdown and kicked field goals of 55, 49, 48, 36, and 23 yards, scoring a total of 25 points in the 43-13 victory over the Broncos. Tim Hightower also had a good game (148 yards, 2 TDs), and rookie QB John Skelton (15/37, 146 yards) didn't screw anything up too badly.
30. Denver Broncos  — One of three teams to fire its head coach during the 2010 season. Those three teams all lost this weekend. Maybe firing your coach during the season isn't a magic cure for losing!
31. Cincinnati Bengals  — Ten losses in a row. These players need to be more accountable to each other. If ownership had half a clue, it would cut ties with guys like Sideshow Chad and bring in some veteran leadership to get this functioning as a team again.
32. Carolina Panthers  — The only interesting thing about this team, I think, is how remarkably bad it is. Last year, I named the 2001 Panthers the 10th-worst team of the decade. That group went 1-15, got outscored by 157 points, and got George Seifert fired. I think this year's Panthers are worse. They're 1-12, -153 in point differential, with an outside shot at -200, and almost certainly will get John Fox fired.