Tuesday, November 1, 2011

NFL Week 8 Power Rankings

By Brad Oremland

Five Quick Hits

* Will somebody please take those rewindable clickers away from Phil Simms and Tony Dungy before they give someone a seizure?

* Congratulations to Tony LaRussa and the St. Louis Cardinals. It's refreshing to see a legend go out on top, and the Cardinals' late run this season was inspiring, the sort of thing sports fans still talk about decades later.

* Current TV commercials call Calvin Johnson and Brian Orakpo all-pros. Johnson has never been first-team (yet) and Orakpo has never even gotten a vote. The car commercial for Johnson is a little misleading, but the insurance ads with Orakpo are an outright lie.

* Through seven games, Sideshow Chad has 9 catches and no touchdowns. With that level of production, was it worth it to bring this guy into the locker room?

* Maybe this is unfair, but was anyone else alarmed to hear that Ben Roethlisberger wants to be a high school coach? Is it really a good idea for this guy to be back in a position where he's spending time around teenage cheerleaders?

***

I hate to be another writer who won't shut up about Ken Dorsey Tim Tebow, but I thought ESPN's Tom Jackson raised an interesting point on Monday. Jackson suggested that Denver's coaches knew Cade McNown Tim Tebow wasn't ready, and tried to protect him by putting him third on the depth chart. But there were too many Orton-haters, fans who never got over the trade of Baby Jay Cutler, and too many believers: "grass-is-greener" types who always want the backup, and Florida fans, and people who fall for that nonsense about athletes who possess a mystical ability to "just win games" despite their lack of actual talent. I have never, in my whole life, seen an athlete succeed when the crowd is chanting his backup's name, and Kyle Orton was set up for failure.

Few would want to admit it, but many Denver fans didn't want to see Orton succeed. They wanted to win with Tebow, and knew so little about football that they thought they could. To those fans, I say congratulations. You got your wish. You've made your bed, have fun sleeping in it. Sadly, there's a lot more Tebow Talk in the Denver summary, but for now, on to the power rankings. Brackets indicate previous rank.

1. Green Bay Packers [1] — Almost everyone, including me, has focused on Aaron Rodgers' phenomenal start to the season. But no player, no matter how talented, can win by himself when there are 22 men on the field. Greg Jennings has become an elite wide receiver, if he wasn't one already. Jordy Nelson and company are good, and Green Bay's deep receiving corps creates nightmares for opposing defensive coordinators, but Jennings would be a star anywhere. Except Denver. Or Jacksonville. Charles Woodson leads the NFL in interceptions; even at age 35, he's an asset to the secondary. Clay Matthews isn't playing at the level he did early last season, but he remains a dangerous playmaker on a defense that ranks among the top 10 in points allowed and tied for second in takeaways.

2. Pittsburgh Steelers [6] — This is obviously a resilient team, but how many injuries can they withstand? LaMarr Woodley left Sunday's game with a hamstring injury, and if he and James Harrison both miss next week's game against Baltimore, it could really be a problem. Woodley recorded his third straight multi-sack game this week, fourth if you count 1.5 as multi. Still on the topic of injuries ... maybe team doctors are so used to Hines Ward lying to them about concussions that they can't recognize one any more. In the fourth quarter, Ike Taylor took a shot to the head and lay motionless on the ground. The Steelers sent him back in a few plays later, calling it a stinger or a shoulder/neck injury. Also, is having Big Ben take sacks really the best way to run out the clock? I'm skeptical.

3. New England Patriots [2] — The Steelers outgained them 2:1 (427-213) and won time of possession by almost as much (39:22 - 20:38). In Tom Brady's first two games, he passed for 470 yards per game, with 7 TDs and a 128.0 passer rating. In Week 3, he tossed 4 interceptions, but still threw for 387 yards and 4 TDs. Since then, he's passing for 259 yds/gm and averaging under 2 TDs, with a rating of 95.4, which is good, but a little lower than Alex Smith's. New England's pass defense is a nightmare, and the running game isn't good enough to take advantage when defenses stack the deck against Brady. The Patriots right now remind me of the Colts in the mid-2000s.

4. San Francisco 49ers [5] — Lead the NFL in scoring defense, allowing just 15.3 points per game. They're also second in the NFL in turnover differential (+10), which helps explain why a one-dimensional offense that ranks 23rd in yards per game is averaging 26.7 points (8th-best). Frank Gore has been an elite RB basically since he entered the league, but his health and ability to stay on the field have become major question marks in recent years. If Gore gets hurt, the Niners basically have no offense, and they will plummet in these rankings. For now, though, The Inconvenient Truth has four straight games with at least 125 rushing yards and a touchdown. Alex Smith has done a good job of managing the game, and he seems to be a good fit for this team right now, but Gore is carrying the offense.

5. Baltimore Ravens [4] — Week 9 matchup in Pittsburgh is the game of the week, a rivalry game with major playoff implications. Anquan Boldin put on a show (145 yards) in the big comeback against his former team, as did (yawn) Ray Rice, who rushed for only 63 yards with a 3.5 average, but scored 3 TDs and caught 7 passes. We focus on the offensive stat guys, but Terrell Suggs is having a superb season. He's been the standout player on the league's top-ranked defense, including 4 tackles behind the line of scrimmage this weekend.

6. Buffalo Bills [8] — Won in Toronto for the first time in their four "home" appearances across the border. Fred Jackson gained 194 yards from scrimmage against Washington, putting him over 1,000 for the season and on pace to challenge Chris Johnson's single-season record (2,509). Buffalo's defense dominated in Week 8, holding Washington to 178 yards, 10 first downs, and no points. Standouts: George Wilson (8 solo tackles, INT), Marcell Dareus (2.5 sacks), Dwan Edwards (4 hits on John Beck).

7. Detroit Lions [9] — Calvin Johnson is 3rd in the NFL in receiving yards (804), but he has more touchdowns (11) than the top two guys combined (Steve Smith and Wes Welker, 10). In fact, Welker and Buffalo's Scott Chandler are the only players with even half as many TDs as Megatron.

8. Chicago Bears [7] — Bye this week, but check out the incredible wrongness of this ESPN claim about their former RB Thomas Jones. With about 4:00 remaining in the second quarter of Monday's game, ESPN showed a graphic (which they never corrected) that Jones, from 2005-09, became the "second player in NFL history" with five straight seasons of at least 1,000 rushing yards, the other being Steven Jackson. They forgot about:

Shaun Alexander (2001-05)
Tiki Barber (2002-06)
Tony Dorsett (1977-81)
Marshall Faulk (1997-01)
Eddie George (1996-2000)
Ahman Green (2000-04)
Rodney Hampton (1991-95)
Edgerrin James (2003-07)
O.J. Simpson (1972-76)
Jim Taylor (1960-64)
Jerome Bettis (1996-2001, six years)
Corey Dillon (1997-02, six years)
Franco Harris (1974-79, six years)
Walter Payton (1976-81, six years)
Ricky Watters (1995-2000, six years)
Eric Dickerson (1983-89, seven years)
Thurman Thomas (1989-96, eight years)
LaDainian Tomlinson (2001-08, eight years)
Curtis Martin (1995-2004, ten years)
Barry Sanders (1989-98, ten years)
Emmitt Smith (1991-01, eleven years)

That's 21 players. I assume they meant Jackson and Jones were the only active players with five consecutive 1,000-yard rushing seasons, not the only ones in history, but even that omits Tomlinson. Really pathetic work by their research department. That's a statistic you should know is wrong without even having to look it up. Jones' first two 1,000-yard campaigns, following his disappointing tenure in Arizona and Tampa Bay, both came with the Bears. The statistic was way off, but Jones truly is an accomplished and under-appreciated back.

9. New Orleans Saints [3] — Faced arguably the two worst teams in the NFL in consecutive weeks, with both games resulting in humiliation. The Saints embarrassed the Colts last week, and this week lost to the Rams. Drew Brees took 6 sacks and threw 2 INTs, his fourth multi-interception game of the season. The ground game wasn't any better, yielding 57 yards on 19 carries (3.0 avg), and the defense got shredded by Steven Jackson. New Orleans is undefeated at home (3-0), with a losing record on the road (2-3).

10. Houston Texans [10] — Arian Foster might be the best RB in the NFL, and I understand why Houston is feeding him the ball, but they're going to get this man killed. Since his return from injury, here are Foster's number of carries by game: 30, 22, 15, 25, 33. Several years ago, Jason Lisk identified 25 attempts as the approximate floor for what he termed Increased Risk Games, and Foster's hit 25 three times in five weeks. Now that Houston seems pretty safe in the AFC South, and Andre Johnson is due to return to the lineup, I'd like to see the team ease up on Foster's workload.

11. Kansas City Chiefs [15] — That fumbled snap, with 1:03 left and the Chargers in position for a chip-shot 32-yard field goal, may be Kansas City's version of the Miracle at the Meadowlands. I know it wasn't quite as dramatic, because KC still had to run a minute off the clock and win in overtime, but what an unbelievable turn of events. And what a brilliant game from Tamba Hali, whose 2 sacks don't begin to tell the story of his dominance on Monday night. The shocking finish made up for it, but Alberto Riveron's officiating crew took a lot of the fun out of this game.

12. New York Jets [11] — Average barely 300 yards per game, 29th in the NFL. They rank ahead of the Colts, Seahawks, and Jaguars, but behind the Browns, Broncos, and Rams. The Jets have a critical Week 9 game in Buffalo against the division-leading (!) Bills, followed by a home tilt against the Patriots.

13. Cincinnati Bengals [18] — They've allowed more than 20 points only once all season, to the Kyle Orton Broncos in Week 2. Unsung DB Reggie Nelson leads the team in tackles, with a sack, 2 forced fumbles, and a 75-yard INT return for a touchdown against Seattle. Is any team happier with its 2011 draft, right now, than the Bengals? Andy Dalton has been decent at QB, and surprisingly good for a rookie, while A.J. Green looks like a star. Green is already over 500 yards receiving, and he's tied for fourth in the NFL in receiving TDs (5).

14. San Diego Chargers [12] — Horrific game by left tackle Marcus McNeill, who was called for six penalties, including four false starts. The Chargers ended an amazing nine drives inside Kansas City's 35-yard line: INT, fumble, FG, missed FG, FG, FG, FG, TD, fumble. That's 1 TD, 4 FGs, a missed kick, and 3 turnovers. What's frustrating about the Chargers is that all of their weaknesses seem correctable. This is a team that should be great, but constantly comes up with new ways to lose important games.

Everyone has different definitions of overrated and underrated, but a simple way to look at teams over- or underachieving is to compare their yardage and scoring. San Diego ranks sixth in total offense, but 15th in scoring. They don't turn yards into points. The team ranks sixth in total defense, but 16th in points allowed. Obviously a lot of that is turnovers (-5), but it's troubling that a team out-gaining its opponents by an average of 91 yards a game has only outscored its opponents by 2 points, total. They out-gained the Chiefs by over 100.

15. Atlanta Falcons [14] — Michael Turner's job got a little harder this week, when the Falcons put fullback Ovie Mughelli on injured reserve. Atlanta has to love its immediate schedule: at the winless Colts in Week 9, then three straight home games. The Falcons always play better at home, so it's not crazy to think they could be 7-4 or 8-3 a month from now.

16. Philadelphia Eagles [20] — Left tackle Jason Peters returned from injury, and LeSean McCoy responded with a 185-yard, 2-TD romp over the visiting Cowboys. The Eagles did a great job of adapting their offense to Dallas' gameplan, and the defense played its best game of the season, limiting the Cowboys to 12 first downs. Philadelphia won time of possession by 24 minutes and out-gained Dallas by 228 yards, as Andy Reid improved to 13-0 following a bye.

17. Tampa Bay Buccaneers [17] — LeGarrette Blount may be back for their critical Week 9 game at New Orleans, but probably not at 100%. Backup Earnest Graham is out for the season with a torn Achilles. If anyone was going to reach out to Tiki Barber this season, it would have been Tampa, where his brother Ronde is a team captain and there's a need for healthy RBs. FOX's whole pre-game show is an hour-long attempt to be funny, but the winner this week was Jimmy Johnson. When Curt Menefee asked Johnson whether, with a gun to his head, he would rather sign Terrell Owens or Tiki, Jimmy answered, "Give me the bullet."

18. Oakland Raiders [16] — Still lead the NFL in penalties, even after their bye. It will be interesting to see how Carson Palmer does in silver and black after getting some more time to learn the offense and connect with his teammates. A friendly matchup, home against Denver, should help. With all the focus on their quarterbacking woes, the Broncos' miserable pass defense (107.2 rating allowed) has largely flown under the radar.

19. New York Giants [19] — Another unimpressive victory, but at least they conquered the Mystical Bye-Week-Curse. After going 3-9 the past two weeks, teams coming off a bye went 5-1 in Week 8, with only the Patriots losing. I'm sure you've heard this already, but the rest of the Giants' schedule is just murderous, beginning with consecutive road games in New England and San Francisco. The Giants are 5-2 right now, but I don't think they'll finish over .500. I'm betting on 8-8, but 7-9 wouldn't surprise me.

20. Dallas Cowboys [13] — Being an NFL head coach is a tough job, and plenty of guys struggle with it, but pressed to choose the worst, I might go with Jason Garrett. His play-calling is awful (Martzy, if I may coin a term) and his player management is not much better. I know the Cowboys had some key injuries on Sunday night, but there is too much talent on this team for it to perform so inconsistently. Norv Turner and Philip Rivers think Dallas is underachieving. The upcoming schedule is very soft, though, so it's not too late for the team to turn things around: three of the next four are at home, plus a winnable road game in Washington.

21. Minnesota Vikings [28] — I've always liked Donovan McNabb, but they look better with Christian Ponder. I'm sure there are still teams McNabb could help — the Toronto Argonauts, for instance. Seriously, a team like Jacksonville or Indianapolis would probably love to have McNabb right now. Heck, Washington fans probably want him back now that they've seen the alternatives. But his days as a player of any real importance are over.

22. Carolina Panthers [22] — As a rookie, Peyton Manning finished 3rd in the NFL in passing yards, but threw 28 interceptions. Cam Newton has shown great promise, and on Sunday he passed for 3 TDs and led the Panthers in rushing (53 yds), but he also lost 2 fumbles. Like Manning 13 years ago, he's making great plays and poor ones, and he's learning.

23. Tennessee Titans [21] — I'm tired of noting how poorly Chris Johnson plays, but this weekend he lost playing time to (and was outperformed by) backup Javon Ringer. Matt Hasselbeck had a nice game against Indy's terrible pass defense, and Rob Bironas connected on 50- and 51-yard field goals in a comfortable 27-10 victory. I'm curious what Hasselbeck's numbers would look like if he had anyone to throw to. No one has stepped up to fill the gap left by Kenny Britt's injury.

24. Jacksonville Jaguars [26] — Offense ranks last in both yards and points per game, but this defense is legit. It's true that poor offensive performance tends to artificially inflate defensive stats, because your opponents don't need to pass much or score a lot of points. But in the past three weeks, Jacksonville has contained the Steelers, Ravens, and Texans, losing two close games and winning an ugly defensive battle over Baltimore. In this year's weak AFC South, the Jags would probably be the favorite to win the division if they still had David Garrard.

Blaine Gabbert: 130.8 net yds/gm, 62.0 passer rating
Luke McCown: 111.5 net yds/gm, 29.3 passer rating
Garrard in 2010: 197.1 net yds/gm, 90.8 passer rating

25. Cleveland Browns [24] — Forget dwelling on negatives, let's look at the positive: special teams. Phil Dawson nailed a 52-yard field goal. Brad Maynard dropped four punts inside the 20, with no touchbacks and a 41.0 net. The coverage team did a great job containing San Francisco's Ted Ginn, and Josh Cribbs (who will always be a special-teamer to me) caught a 45-yard touchdown pass. I'd still like to see Cribbs more involved in the offense.

26. Arizona Cardinals [29] — Out-gained 405-207 in their near-upset of Baltimore, but they're moving in the right direction. Three of their seven losses are by a field goal or less, and that doesn't include the outright robbery when referee Jerome Boger bet on the Giants in Week 4 (31-27).

27. Washington Redskins [23] — Neither John Beck nor Rex Grossman inspires confidence, but missing two starting linemen, your best wide receiver, and now maybe tight end Fred Davis (ankle sprain), very few QBs would be successful. Of course, even fewer would get sacked 9 times by the Bills, who had 4 sacks in their first six games combined. Beck, in other words, got sacked 1,350% more often than the Bills' previous opponents. Most of those sacks were Beck's fault, but the offensive line and receiving corps are a train-wreck. Rookie LB Ryan Kerrigan is a bright spot; Washington has a good front seven.

28. Seattle Seahawks [27] — Head coach Pete Carroll admitted, "I was hoping to see that we could rest [Tarvaris Jackson] another week ... It just didn't feel like we were moving anywhere, so what I said to the fellas was, 'Let's put Tarvaris in, let's see what happens.'" Jackson went from getting some rest to 40 pass attempts, 2 sacks, and a rushing attempt. The change from Charlie Whitehurst didn't provide much spark, as Seattle was held below 14 points for the second week in a row. Only Jacksonville averages fewer yards per game.

29. Denver Broncos [25]Yahoo!'s Andy Behrens on Brad Smith Tim Tebow: "He was awful against Detroit, not even close to NFL starting standards as a passer. No timing, no touch, remarkably inaccurate and indecisive. Tebow was actually much worse than his final numbers indicate, and the stats weren't pretty." First half stats: 4-of-13, 37 yards, 3 sacks for -20 yards. Yep, 16 plays, 17 yards. Add the rushing if you like: 4 attempts, 15 yards. In case you prefer to avoid math, that's 20 plays for 32 yards. Dude, Chris Johnson thinks that's disappointing.

This season, 38 quarterbacks have started at least two games. Among those 38, Antwaan Randle El Tim Tebow ranks 37th in completion percentage (Blaine Gabbert), 36th in yards per attempt (Gabbert and A.J. Feeley), and dead-last in both sack percentage (14.6%) and passing yards per game (82.4). The latter figure is more than 50% behind 37th-place Gabbert, 2.5 standard deviations below the mean (229.1). To be fair, that counts the second half in Week 5 as a whole game — but it also doesn't include the sacks. JaMarcus Russell Tim Tebow has already lost almost twice as much sack yardage (85) as Kyle Orton (49) — his sack percentage with the same offensive line is nearly three times as high as Orton's.

I know he had a genuinely great college career, but someone with Jamelle Holieway Tim Tebow's skill set shouldn't even be on an NFL roster as a quarterback, much less the starter. He's a celebrity, not a pro QB. Yeah, sure, all he does is win games ... and lose them by 5 touchdowns.

30. St. Louis Rams [32] — Upset the Saints, largely on the strength of their pass rush (Chris Long had 3 sacks) and ground attack. Steven Jackson logged his first 100-yard rushing game of the season, breaking out for 159 and 2 TDs. It was Jackson's first 100-yarder since December 5, when he rushed for 102 in a win at Arizona. The Rams sacked Brees six times, doubling his previous season-high (3).

31. Miami Dolphins [30] — Gave up a double-digit lead for the second week in a row, and lost by a field goal or less for the third time this season. The Dolphins are dealing with significant injuries, and they're not as bad as their 0-7 record suggests, but they have got to start closing out some of these winnable games. Greg Gumbel praised Cameron Wake as someone "playing outstanding football," but I just don't see it. Wake makes one or two nice plays a game and disappears for the other 59 minutes.

32. Indianapolis Colts [31] — Collectively, opposing passers have a 111.2 rating against the Colts this year. Everyone knows how the offense has fallen apart without Peyton Manning, but don't underestimate how pathetic the defense is.

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